Table of Contents
Making Birds, by James O’Dea
I Was Giving Them Away, by Rachel Stock-Lignitz
Crushed, by Mark Seymour
Sea Water, by Herb Bursch
Rain Suite, by Joseph Sicheneder
Staff Microwave, by Amy Conger
Now What?, by Nic Custer
Man-Boy, by Amy Conger
Solipsism, by Kaleigh Rodgerson
Song of Breaking, by James O’Dea
Honey Bees, by Erik Potere
That picture?, by Jennifer Onufry
An Uprising, by Rachel Stock-Lignitz
Agitate, by Rebekah Mikkelson
The Window on the Border, by Hiba Dlewati
Christopher Bulliner is currently a student at UM-Flint. He plans to graduate in 2014 with a degree in Visual Communications. He enjoys sailing, water skiing, and tinkering with just about anything.
Herb Bursch is a graduate student in the English MA program. He is a former banker who specialized in retail service delivery systems and bank operations. He recently recieved a teacher certification in English and Psychology and is currently substitute teaching.
“Only describe, don’t explain.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Staff Microwave & Man-Boy
Amy Conger’s name has several anagrams including “come angry,” “go cry mean,” and “my core nag.” Don’t you think that’s interesting? “Crayon gem” and “racy gnome” are others…
Megan Cousins is a Psychology major at UM-Flint. She enjoys reading, creative writing, and photography.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17
Nic Custer is a poet, playwright, journalist and performer. A Flint native, he recently served as Flint’s fourth-ward Artist in Residence for an NEA “Our Town” grant to creatively engage residents in the city’s master planning process. He is news editor for East Village Magazine, a local non-profit community news magazine. Custer graduated with high honors earning a Bachelors of Arts degree in Anthropology from UM-Flint.
The Window on the Border
Hiba Dlewati is a Communications senior at UM-Flint who dislikes labels,
mayonnaise and punctual people. Poet, writer and aspiring journalist, she always has a suitcase in her room. Obsessions: travel and Turkish coffee.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”–Rumi
Glen Canyon Dam & Marching On
Bruce Edwards is an adjunct instructor in Photography at Mott Community College. After 30 years as a staff photographer at the Flint Journal he took a departure from journalism and is now pursuing fine art/landscape images. His work can also be found through his Facebook photography page and at his website bruceedwardsphotograpy.com.
Gilford A. Goodrow
Gilford A. Goodrow received his BFA from UM-Flint (Vis-Com/Photography) in May 2013. Life revolves around his family (pets included), music and photography. He is currently preparing to exhibit some of his work at The Greater Flint Arts Council in July, 2014. Please visit his website at: www.gilgart.com
Under Harsh Light & A New Year’s Resolution (or False Starts)
Camisha Heller is a senior at UM-Flint. She loves to write, but spends much of her free time enjoying art in a multitude of mediums—that is to say she procrastinates from writing by watching movies, playing video games and reading way too much.
Kitties in Wonderland
Yujin Kang is a graduate student studying English Language and Literature with a concentration in Literature. Although she is studying literature, she has been involved in fine arts since the early years of her childhood. Along with reading and painting, her hobbies include cooking, photography, and playing flute and piccolo.
The Watcher & Jellyfish
Helen Lund is a Visual Communications major with a dual concentration in Photography and Graphic Design. She has a passion for all forms of art. Design has become an integral part of her life. Her friends and family are avid supporters of all she does.
Thomas Mann is an undergraduate Philosophy and History major. He has never loved anyone but himself and is certainly not expecting to start now. His personal hobbies include pouting and looking martyred. And no, he is not, and to his knowledge never has been, the recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, you’re looking for someone else.
Rebekah Mikkelson is an alumna of UM-Flint. She currently resides in Flint where she works as an artist and educator.
Antiquated Charm & Floret
Hannah Mitchell is currently a Graphic Design student studying at Mott Community College. Her biggest passions are drawing and learning about history.
Making Birds & Song of Breaking
James O’Dea is a graduating senior studying Philosophy and Creative Writing. Michigan is his main source of inspiration, and he is grateful for the Flint community’s continued support.
“It takes a heap of sense to write good nonsense.” – Mark Twain.
Jennifer Onufry can no longer claim to be an English major because she graduated and is now living in what she and others call “the real world.” She likes to travel and scribble down quotes on post-it notes, often simultaneously. She loves to write but hates writing biographies. Once she had plum-colored hair.
Erik Potere is a senior at UM-Flint, studying English with a specialization in
Writing. He enjoys hot tea, running, and playing with words.
My Proulx is an English major & Visual Communications minor inspired by absolutely everything. Though often compared to Daria Morgendorffer, My is dedicated to making life more bearable for those around her. In the words of Buckaroo Bonsai: “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Kaleigh Rodgerson is an honors freshman student at UM-Flint, majoring in
English. She has a few dozen partly-finished stories on her laptop and a few hundred more waiting to be written.
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” – Ray Bradbury.
Zach Scott is a junior at UM-Flint currently pursuing degrees in Computer Science and English. He spends most of his time trying to avoid the stereotypes of both majors while obviously succumbing to them.
Crushed & Junior’s Triumph
Mark Seymour is a senior studying Language and Fine Arts Education. He moonlights as a musician, visual artist, and epiphanionic writer. And yes, he just made up that word. He hopes to one day teach and keep alive the gifts of creativity, sarcasm, and irony.
“So it goes.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
Joe Sicheneder is an urban education major at UM-Flint. He has been working as a student-teacher in Detroit schools for almost a year and a half, and finds it fulfilling and challenging. Previously Joe had found himself lost without a path in the world. He is happy to have found his path again.
An Uprising & I Was Giving Them Away
Rachel Stock-Lignitz is a student at UM-Flint. She still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but is pursuing degrees in History and Creative Writing. She is married to her best friend, George. They hike, bike, and watch absurd amounts of baseball.
Dallas Woodward is a Mathematics major with an interest in creative writing. An unpublished novelist since the tender age of eight (a fact that his wife of twelve years continues to dangle over his head), he continues to churn out ideas in constant pursuit of that one proposal that will carry his dream to the next stage.
“Make birds not birdcages,”*
he tells us, knowing
our words only contain
that which we trap within them;
He wants things that fly.
So I find the life inside me
that pecks behind my skin
asking to be born.
I write its beak,
a part that pierces,
designed to extract
what squirms below.
I pattern feathered phrases
to seduce, to hide behind,
making letters look larger than they really are.
Meticulously, I tune its throat,
to insure its song is sung in key,
and I play with weight –
Too heavy won’t make it
off the page. Then, I train it
to build nests
inside the heads
to weave with synapse strands
a bed for new hatchlings,
before I set it free
and worry on forever
if I forgot to give it wings.
* From Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness
Table of Contents
I Was Giving Them Away
by Rachel Stock-Lignitz
I wish I didn’t
the kind of opinions
I was willing
Like it matters
if I tell a friend of a friend
at a bar
how I feel about gun control
vaccines or health.
these people don’t usually ask.
But there I am,
stuck somewhere between
and some inane opinion.
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by Mark Seymour
She was a supple shoot.
Sprung from crisp
Skinny, and wistfully stunning.
The way leather and denim
Are beautiful to cowboys.
She sparkled through the dust.
For five days
In a scorching August sun,
I was hers.
Safe to say,
She was never mine.
I was a thorn
In the back of her saddle.
Warm and trembling.
Some years later,
A pick-up truck,
Rusted and red, diffused
The scent of hot tires,
Burning the evening air.
Grains of shattered glass
Dispersed in the twilight,
Settled on a field of hay.
A dusting of frost
Too early for autumn.
Like most childhood crushes,
Though not all,
Quite so literally.
Some years more
I sat silently,
Ear bent by a lonesome,
Shuffling through the years.
The portrait of a girl
Hung above us,
Sparkling through the dust.
He spoke of relationships
Like old fence lines.
Broken and mended,
Mended then forgotten.
He missed his daughter.
And for so brief an encounter,
As was ours,
So did I.
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by Herb Bursch
Frothy cold white caps,
salty, puckering and marinating
my white skin.
Cold green waters
salty, seeking to fill
Cold, too cold to shiver,
salty, freezing and slowing
his beating heart.
So cold, she can’t think,
brine filled brain – slowing
Who would think
this sea was
A fisherman and his love floundering in the sea.
And I know
I surely know
their hearts –
and their exhaustion
by cold immersion.
I cling to the sand,
of being sucked back to sea.
Table of Contents
by Joseph Sicheneder
Drops dance in the soft fresh air
And melt underground
black ominous godheads
thunderous sparks twist and coil
roaring moaning shouting
the world is drowning in the flood
the world is drowning in the night
tendrils like a lover’s caress
almost barely felt diamonds
float upon invisible waves
shadows loom out of gray
to only be replaced with
in the realm beyond their opaque borders strange
creatures prowl and lie in wait
you can feel them reaching out to touch you
if you try
feel the sigh of contentment
drifting off to sleep
In the city: arid, acrid odor of sweat
dry and dusty downtown
lying languidly, lazy
the world is drained and tired
but hark, on the horizon a spark
flushing ‘neath a gunmetal grey loomer
a welcoming shadow
fat heavy drops offer life to the ground
and its inhabitants
life leaps forth again
as the cool relief embrace of night
coils around the waking world
and the colors, oh god, the colors
they saturate the world again
more than they were, ever
before they begin to fade again
it reeks of life, of renewal, of awakening!
Little feet above
Leap from leaves to eaves to ground
And splash the puddles
the sky sweats
so hot it stings
gas before it hits the ground
cracking for want of water
The dividing line
a vertical firmament
two worlds, or rather
Sweet muddy rivers
Awaken sleeping brethren
Flow together now
a thick blanket
whether to leave
or shed its weight
lightly or en masse
horizontal lines of shearing water
cut the world into linear pieces
and i see you separated
pieces of you floating separate
but part of an undying whole
then rendered asunder, you were gone
melted in between the slits in the world
like a shadow melts into the night
Table of Contents
by Amy Conger
flatulent bread pockets
of fake meat
and fraud cheese
fog up the glass
caked on brown and orange
spectral smorgasbord amalgamation
burnt bubbly cacophony
your dizzy food getting
warmer and warped
hugged by some sort of
kissed by a rolling diffusion
Table of Contents
by Nic Custer
A few years further in
the script of “Living”
and besides black outs and blinking, it’s all
French scenes to me, one continuous
moment never fully
ending with a pause
just a change in characters
like a change in t-shirts,
all the same size and fit
just fronting different images.
With every short-term
dream achieved, 2 more pop-up
germinated by possibility
bloomed out of my
and the cosmic Spring
that energizes me.
The only real way to measure
a life like any other play
is to wait until after the last bow has been
taken. I want the sum of my
accomplishments divided by
my age when I die times the number
of people I convince that
it’s not hopeless and
there can be a better world
to be the true count of my
time in this one. Either my work
will speak or I’ll stillborn as a whisper
on the bookshelf. My unrecorded
last words, some dumb cliché.
Table of Contents
by Amy Conger
You cannot tell me that you are not drunk
snarling with a clip in your tongue, red-faced,
veiny-eyed, sweaty-lipped, stumbling hunk
of a man-boy. In neat rest I was cased
when you blasted in all hot-damn slopped-up,
and not in our bridal bed will you pass-
out to the couch in your plastered make-up
to pillow your face and cover your ass
snore through my breakfast; spit on the carpet
whine for care until I sorb your skullache
How unmannered can you possibly get?
How grand of a mess do you stand to make?
Hammerheaded thoughtlessness you can’t see
that you are not drunk, you cannot tell me
Table of Contents
by Kaleigh Rodgerson
I feel the roll of bones under skin, the sifting
Of acids, the tug
Of stomach and mind and soul.
That I am, though the How
Escapes the mind, and when grasped
Signifies the end of Thought.
Them speak, those Other forms,
Vague and multitudinous,
Screaming without Sound.
In the quiet recesses of the mind, Sing
In a voice I hear alone, but Their thoughts
But, looking at a sea of blunted
Strangers, whose bodies click along
Without direction –
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Song of Breaking
by James O’Dea
Having eaten them, the wooded
lakeside was mine to get lost
in. On the paths and in multi–colored
piles of fallen maple leaves, I knew
tripping was more than wandering
around high, that these feelings
have a mysterious way of feeling
so profound inside the woods.
Before too long I ceased wandering,
my ego replaced with a long–lost
sweetness of old epiphanies made new.
Ideas illumed like exiled stars, preaching color
to the wilderness. Flashing not color
but bits of breathtaking feeling,
like fireflies in my mind, renewing
innocent appreciation for the wood–
pecker’s staccato and fear of a lost
dog whose loose brownness wandered
out of the forest’s mouth. I wondered
if it was real and watched cigarettes spill colors,
split in streams of blues and yellows, lost
before in the sober grey. And suddenly, a feeling
like hope, but stronger, like I knew
more than I could ever say, like these woods
were bigger than branches and roots, wood
pillars raised like champions of child-like wonder.
Kites danced to finger–plucked strings,
waltzing in the wind, above clearings clothed in colors
of November and boys and girls gripping threads, feeling
tugs between their fingers, fearing the loss
of flight. Meanwhile, I assured the buried acorns, The sky’s not lost
forever. You are destined to be part of the woods’
reaching fingertips. I understood the painful feeling
of longing for the canopies, absently wandering,
waiting around for growth, waiting for the colors
to change again. Again. Many things I thought I knew
were broken by the woods that day, lost
in colors of renewed perception, in wonder and wondering.
Lost in all the silly feelings – a human simply being.
Table of Contents
by Erik Potere
Lady Summer is blanketed in a quilt of many colors.
I’ve witnessed the first stitches,
amber and ruby leaves
weaving across the forest floor.
I’ve never found the good in goodbyes,
but I know when we part, she is somewhere
nestled under my breastplate,
ripening for another visit.
I close my blinds
on these early Autumn nights,
yet Summer’s glimmer shines through.
I still see her face at the
back of my eyelids,
the soft, subtle curve of her cheeks,
draped in rosebud hair.
When we first met,
I was saturated with nervousness;
Her demeanor was a drastic change
from the mellow rains of Spring or
the bitter winds of the Winter solstice
which I had grown accustomed to.
Quickly, I grew to love everything she offered,
especially the way she floated alongside me
on the seeds of dandelions.
Although, when I let her warmth in,
my tongue went dry and my toes shook.
But she still listened to me,
absorbing the stories of where I have been
and who I am with patience.
With soft eyes,
she gazed upon me, beaming
a smile that curled up in the corners
of her lips like the petals of petunias.
We took a walk,
plucking flowers of different sizes.
The project was to press and dry them to
preserve their precious shapes.
So, we pressed flowers and we pressed palms.
She traced the lines in my hands
like drawing lines in sand.
Her fingertips lingered there a while,
It felt like a thousand tiny
bumblebees performing a ballet
along the surface of my skin.
My heart beats double-time.
I try to count the thumps
when my lady of Summer is around
but always lose count.
Because she lets loose butterflies
in my stomach and honey bees
that buzz around in my veins.
The hives block my arteries
and I struggle to pump this viscous blood.
These bees are always busy working.
They make trips back and forth
out of my heart, eager to collect
the pollen from her lips.
Table of Contents
by Jennifer Onufry
that was three years ago when he was happy
and less comfortable with his giant horse teeth,
but grinned more than he does now.
now it’s two years after the girl he was grinning at dumped him
now he’s more reserved and he smokes more than he used to.
now he’s an artist and girls think he’s beautiful and mysterious
when really he’s only drawing the same girl over and over
using different colors to keep her around,
taking her with him to all his art shows
selling her off again and again the way only artists can.
now it’s been a year since he moved to the other side of the state
and no one there knows he has horse teeth not even the cameras,
and though he moved away to start over without her
he knows exactly who it is he’s drawing
even if he’s forgotten what her voice sounds like.
in that picture he thought he was special
but now it’s been a week since he met a guy just like himself,
with a broken heart and a room full of what he claims is art
and last week he was not impressed
listening to the same story he’s been telling
as his promising career circles the sink drain,
as pictures of him and her become more and more collectable,
as his happy horse teeth sink further and further
into his coffee and cigarette mouth.
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by Rachel Stock-Lignitz
little poems growing
in my belly.
they are coming for me.
Too long have they been
shoved down and
now they are
They are festering
with a collective
flip over the four
of my emotions
with effortless ease.
the store fronts of my ego.
Listen! the crash.
Rushing in like
They rob me blind.
(the police force of my emotions)
lobs rubber bullets
Not even their Tasers
manage to hold back the masses.
I am watching my little neglected poems set the city
of my body on
The way things are going,
it will take
to quell this
Too many young
Not enough work.
Table of Contents
by Rebekah Mikkelson
we are tossed to the floor
or inside cracked plastic
an agitating cycle
the tattered and stained
will be thrown
into the machine
to scald spin
dry and wrinkle
until we are left to hang
Table of Contents
by Zachary Scott
Sunday was a day of restlessness. My throat ached with nervous tension as I sat, hands against my pants to dry the sweat. On these days, I tried to sit still despite my anxiety, like I was posing for a portrait at all times, focusing on some invisible camera lens.
Sometimes I’d picture one of those family photographers, the kind at department stores with cheap sweaters and yellow teeth. Behind the camera she’s holding up a teddy bear or adjusting my arms as I stand leaning against a column made of Greek plastic. It was a good way to waste time as my father went through his morning routine—every Sunday shaving his face, then his head, quickly and neatly, before spending ages with aftershave and lotion ensuring that each wrinkle and scar, each little fold of fat, was at its best.
I sat there for ages, sometimes examining the sweaty handprint I left on my khakis. There wasn’t much to look at anyways. The apartment was furnished with beige carpet framed by chalky, off-white walls; an old couch, sagging in the middle like a dying horse, its upholstery like the skin of a corpse covered in veins of blue-grey plaid; a window, the only source of light, covered in a thick cataract of dust and grime.
A small end table, to the left of my chair, held two picture frames. Both still displayed their cheesy stock photos—black and white wedding photos of attractive people, a four year old with a daisy, some dogs. Sometimes, when I pretended to pose for pictures, I imagined being one of those models—my fake family photos at a Kmart, a bunch of strangers taking me home and setting me on their nightstands before replacing me with their own photos. I told guests that these stock photos were pictures of my grandparents or a sister that died in a car accident, but the truth was that we never had the time or money for real photos.
“Ready?” my father called, his sober, cold tone cutting through my nerves. He walked slowly down the stairs, fingers working at his shirt buttons with each step. From below, shadows cut harsh lines into his face, making him look even older. His furrowed brow and dark, sunken eyes reminded me of pictures I had seen of Easter Island—his features were carved like ancient stone. Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes widened as he gestured at me to hurry. I said nothing and scurried out the front door.
“Remember what I said?” he asked me, his head bent to the side as he pulled out in reverse. I had been looking down at my seat belt, running my hands across each little strip of nylon. He would give me this speech every time we drove out there—just hearing the question made me tense up. A slight, rigid nod was all I could give.
“We don’t talk about anything—anything—negative at all, right? Don’t tell her about your grades, or what happened between your mother and I. Don’t mention the drinking thing either, alright?” His eyes stared straight forward as he asked all this, the words being spat out sideways with a subtle aggression.
“God—I mean it!” he growled. I swallowed as I sunk even deeper into the car seat.
The long drive took us past countless stretches of sun-bleached grass that seemed to blaze in the overwhelming heat. Old, leather-skinned men stood watering their small, sad plots, their bent and twisted spines imitating the curve of their garden hoses. Each man turned to watch us drive by as if skeptical of any threat to his weary routine. Aging women sat in lawn chairs wearing faded t-shirts that only rounded and mocked their exaggerated proportions. Every man and woman seemed unashamed of their awful sweat, sweat that pooled on their foreheads and darkened their clothing.
Every street, every neighborhood became more nondescript and lifeless and even the road faded into a well-worn, neglected strip of dirt that rumbled and spit out clouds of dust at every turn. Picket fences gave way to ancient barbed wire that writhed and tumbled against the landscape, its wild path fixed only by posts holding metal plaques, their faces corroded and darkened. This is hell, I thought.
Finally, I saw the street sign—John Wayne Blvd. Although it had once been paved, it had fallen into disrepair, cracks in the blacktop giving way to pits and caverns. The road seemed to curve endlessly in a series of concentric circles—this must have been a pretty popular suburb at one time, or some sort of failed building project, I thought. Only the jagged edges of old foundations, their stones and bricks like giant jawbones baring their teeth, left any sign of the place’s history.
Sitting at the center of the winding road was my grandparents’ house. It was the only home for miles. The place stood almost as an artifact, its worn and neglected siding, perfectly square sides, and comically slanted roof like a parody of 1950s architecture. Even the home’s lawn seemed ashamed as it receded from the road, now a thin patch that surround the foundation. Despite its decline, my grandfather mowed the lawn every week. As if appealing to some sort of religious ritual, he would awake every Sunday morning at 5 am and care for it, sometimes spreading out compost, raking, even aerating the sad little plot. He would often tell me about his entire routine, how he would apply fertilizer just before it rained to ensure proper growth, how he often seeded with a certain variety of grass from Kentucky, and how his watering soaked in below the “root zone.” If you had seen this lawn, though, you would swear he had not appeased any deity with his efforts—it continued to shrink and turn yellow. I always pictured young children of the ‘50s running and playing around its perimeter in school clothes or rehearsing duck-and-cover drills—in fact, the place housed a little cellar, built by the previous owner, as a sort of homemade fallout shelter. Now my grandparents used it to store preserves.
My father parked the car and led the way into the house. “Afternoon!” he called out, although he hardly expected a response. The whole place was dark and silent—I moved through the long hallway by memory only, tracing my father’s determined motions behind him.
Sitting in the living room, facing away from us as we walked in, was my grandmother. What little light filtered in through the nearby window bathed her head in a sickly glow. Dust and hair streamed through the wedge of light—she never dusted anymore. A mass of frizzy white hair surrounded her head like an aura. She looked almost like a saint who had fallen from grace, I thought. Slight moans of pain came at odd intervals, wavering and swaying in a ghostly pitch and dying out as soon as they came. Although she looked away, I knew the expression she held—eyes closed, face contorted in pain, skin sagging and billowing as if only held up by countless lines and wrinkles. On the wall above her was a cheap print of a Kinkade piece in a gaudy frame.
“How are you, Grandma?” I asked, sitting down on a well-worn sofa. As I said this, my father crossed the room without a word and left through the back door, his pace quick and determined, to have a cigarette.
“Grandma? How are you doing?” I asked once more.
Her face was covered in beads of sweat, as if merely existing troubled her greatly. She seemed completely unaffected by my presence, leaving me to sit quietly and wipe my hands on my khakis. My eyes darted nervously, occasionally studying her face for any sign of change. After a long, awkward silence, her eyelids began to quiver as they lifted.
“T-tele. . . television, p-please” she said, her voice nothing more than a quiet wail.
I nodded and picked up the remote. The tiny old television set came to life with a neon flash as her favorite program played with volume so quiet the words were nothing more than a mechanical whir or hum.
She displayed a pathetic, weak smile that looked more like a muscle spasm than anything else as she stared at the screen. There was no way she would say much more than she already had, I thought, holding the remote in my lap, my whole body stiff with an awkward tension. We sat in complete silence, both as still as possible, not changing postures even during commercials. Only my neck moved as I checked the clock every five minutes. We must have sat through four, five, maybe six episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond this way.
Finally, I heard a distant rumble. My grandfather thundered up the basement stairs and stood before us wearing an old t-shirt and faded jeans. He hadn’t dressed-up for months, not since we stopped going to church every week.
“Well howdy Johnathan!” he called out smiling.
His friendly, warm disposition was unique in my family. In fact, his face still bore a youthful glow—only the dark, matte black stains of soot and oil marked his skin. When he wasn’t working on the lawn, he would spend hours in the basement working on old rifles he had picked up at pawn shops and gun shows. I would often follow him to his work bench some Sundays and watch as he polished each weapon vigorously, forcing an old rag into every ridge and opening. He would often joke that he was cleaning the things of his fingerprints, just in case—then he would give a laugh like a yelping dog. With nothing to illuminate him but a single overhead light bulb, his work seemed sinister and exciting, even a little dark.
“How have things been, buddy?”
My gaze moved slowly from him to the sullen figure of my grandmother in her chair by the window. Her posture was weak and pathetic, as if somebody had tossed her into that old chair carelessly, leaving her to die.
“Well, Dad keeps telling me my grades could be better I guess. And it doesn’t really help that he fights every night with my mom about his drinking or whatever.”
My grandfather’s face remained constant, unwavering. His smile stayed fixed on his face despite his now furrowed brow—I watched as my grandmother closed her eyes once more and began letting out even weaker, quieter wails that echoed through the dark hallways.
“How about croquet?” my grandfather asked.
As we stepped outside, my father threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped it out with a flurry of sparks. He quickly joined me at the first stake as my grandfather searched through the tiny, grass-stained shed for a bag of mallets.
“How was she doing?” my father asked.
“Fine,” I replied, shrugging in annoyance, “why don’t you see for yourself?”
My question was simply met with a gruff, abrupt scoff. Eventually, my grandfather ambled over and joined us, spilling the contents of the bag on the ground. As we stood there, mallets in hand, I imagined the department store photographer again, having us pose and smile—I tried to stand as properly as I could as I gazed off at some unseen lens. Our photos would be taken in black and white and used to fill picture frames in department stores. Any lowly shopper could stroll through the aisle and see us there, my father’s sagging, pudgy face betraying his artificial smile, my grandfather assuming some stiff, militaristic pose, and me with my collar buttoned to the top, sweat stains still on my khakis. The well-meaning photographer would take shot after shot, readjusting her focus, having us turn this way and that, before frowning and politely telling us we could leave.
Just then, I noticed a tiny brown mass scurrying through the blades of grass. It was a young mole, its oversized hands and protruding nose looking comically human. I watched it as it crawled over hills and roots, seeming lost and dazed in the white glare of the yard.
“Check this guy out!” I yelled, pointing my mallet at the creature.
My grandfather shot his gaze toward the ground and dashed over with exaggerated, almost desperate movements.
Pushing me aside, he raised the mallet so high above him that it eclipsed the sun and glinted in the heat. His entire body was rigid and tense—every muscle pulsed with a primal rhythm as his face turned blood red.
With brutal force, he brought the mallet down upon the creature, stopping only to steady himself for another blow. The blunt hammer made a terrible sound which still makes me swallow uneasily when I hear the cracking of knuckles or the splitting of firewood. His mallet, now soaked in dark, glabrous blood, swung again and again, each time landing with a more muffled whack, each time scattering the sun’s rays as it swung above him.
Finally, he hunched over to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his brow as he leaned against the bloody mallet. After a few breaths, he picked up the corpse by its tail and swung it at the shed, smearing the rust-colored blood on its aluminum siding.
“That . . . that thing was tearing up my lawn,” he explained in between labored breathing.
He dragged a hand across his forehead, leaving tiny red streaks that mixed with his sweat and ran down every wrinkle.
“Well? Clean it up will ya?” he shouted, glaring at my father in anger. “Jesus, just clean it up! Your mother would kill me if she saw that I killed a dumb mole!”
At this, my father grabbed an old rag and bucket from the shed and went to work. Suddenly, I realized I had been holding my breath—my heart beat with an uneasy rhythm as I stared forward, not focusing on anything in particular. “I’ll be right back,” I said, turning toward the house.
Inside, I headed for the bathroom. As I passed my grandmother, her moans now reduced to painful whispers, I noticed once more the painting that hung above her. A badly weathered dirt road spilled across the landscape, surrounding a barn that sat unashamed, its many planks jagged and falling at odd angles. Near the middle of the road sat a farmer, his wide straw hat casting black shadows across his face. The figure rode a rusted tractor with his hand at the wheel, paying little attention to the dog that played at the oversized tires or the proud rooster as it waddled through the empty landscape.
Near the center of the painting, I could see the fragmented reflection of my grandfather in the yard, his head bent over as he polished the mallet, neck still tense with anger. From that angle, he seemed to recede into the summer sunset, his whole body reduced to a single, faraway point on the horizon amidst the laughable simplicity and honest, rustic charm.
“Isn’t it—isn’t it nice?” I heard in a voice that trembled. My grandmother had opened her eyes, allowing her to stare at me as I examined the portrait.
“It’s—it’s called Summer’s Heritage. Isn’t it . . . a nice little picture? ” she asked once more.
I said nothing in return—instead my eyes remained fixed on the reflection of my grandfather, now wiping his hands clean on a dirty old rag.
Table of Contents
A New Year’s Resolution [or False Starts]
by Camisha Heller
You are driving down the freeway through giant flakes of snow. They coat your car and the windshield wipers work double time to clear the white mess. A brand new gym bag sits in the passenger seat, filled with everything a girl needs to keep her new year’s resolution. A sports bra and shirt made of some material that whisks away sweat. Yoga pants made of the same. Hopefully you have remembered your gym shoes. In a cruel twist of fate the governor has ordered everyone off the roads in preparation for the impending snow storm. You are told this by the officer who pulls you over. He tells you to go home, the gym is closed anyways. You should watch the news more often.
You are driving down the freeway, doing 55 mph, though the speed limit is 70. It should not take this long to get to the gym, but the semi in front of you is moving at a snail’s pace, the way semis do. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel and make a split-second decision. You swoop into the left lane. Another truck appears behind you. He won’t stop in time. He hits you and your tiny car goes flying into the median. And there you are dead at 25. Or you jerk the wheel right and get caught under the rear tires of the first semi. The result’s the same.
You are driving down a road. You decided to take a shortcut to the gym this time. Your gas hand is a notch above E and you are lost. The GPS is silent. On the screen is a blinking exclamation point in place of the car. You restart it again. Up flashes a warning about not operating the device while driving, then it’s back to the blinking error symbol. You curse the device and rip it from the dashboard mount, but stop short of throwing it out the window. With one eye on the road and one hand on the wheel, you replace the GPS, plug it back into the cigarette lighter. Just in case it decides to work itself out. Five minutes pass and you are even more lost. You restart the GPS yet again and drive into a ditch for your troubles.
You don’t drive. You don’t even make it out of the garage. Instead, you slam your hand in the car door and break three fingers, and spend the night in the ER.
You are driving when you see a hitch hiker. She looks nice enough.
You drive. Flat tire.
On January first you drive to the gym. The car ride is uneventful.
You get to the gym and make it all the way across the parking without tripping, falling, breaking a leg. Yet when you get inside, your membership has expired or doesn’t exist. “We have no record of you in our system.” But you know, you know, ten dollars have been taken from your account every month for the past twelve months. You show him your bank statement. “There is nothing I can do. Call the 800 number.” They close at five. It’s seven. You have to call tomorrow. What about today? “You can sign up for a new membership.” You leave defeated.
You get to the gym and meet a cute guy. You flirt with him for twenty minutes before he tells you point-blank: he’s gay. You leave defeated and embarrassed, you didn’t even break a sweat.
You get to the gym. There is a fight, the bad mixture of testosterone and more testosterone. A big guy and a small guy, both muscle-bound. Noses are broken, blood is spilled. The bigger guy will have bruises in the morning, from those fractured ribs. The small guy dodges nearly every punch. Nearly. Remember the nose? The police arrive, and break it up. It throws off your workout. You leave disappointed.
You get to the gym, no gym shoes.
On January first you drive to the gym. The car ride is uneventful. At the gym, you run a whole mile; maybe you are not as out of shape as you thought you were. You lift weights and do crunches.
After that first day you continue going to the gym. You work hard, get fit.
One day while working out, you have a sudden realization, you are in shape. You get into running. 5k then 10k races. They are for charity, kids with cancer, mom’s without breasts, families without homes. “You should run a marathon.” This advice comes from your new boyfriend or your new best friend. Your old friends dumped you out of jealously. It’s okay you didn’t like them much anyways and these new ones share your interests. You run a marathon.
One day while working out you spot a guy watching you intently. You are unsure what his intent is. And that’s the day you are discovered. You just act in commercials, but how many of your friends can say they are on television? You are seen in twenty million homes.
One day while working out you meet a very rich and very hot guy. Love at first sight.
One day you are skinny.
One day you are sexy.
One day you are strong.
On January first you drive to the gym. The car ride is uneventful. At the gym, you run a whole mile; maybe you are not as out of shape as you thought you were. You lift weights and do crunches. Then life gets busy. You can’t make it for a week. When you do go you are tired, you half-ass the workout, jog half a mile, stretch and never make it to the weights. You miss another month. Another and another. Sometime in September you resolve to get back into exercising. Next year.
Table of Contents
Under Harsh Light
by Camisha Heller
The wall reminded her of purple puke, like someone had gotten sick off of too many grape Now and Laters. Purple with a chunky red and green undertones. When had it gotten that color? This was her bedroom. Why were walls changing colors overnight? It had to be the lighting. Last night when she stumbled in half drunk, she hadn’t noticed. But now, with curtains drawn and the lights on, it was all she could see. Someone had put in one of those new eco-friendly lightbulbs. The odd lighting had that effect.
It must have been Naomi. She had been on this new environmental kick when Nina left a few months ago. Everything was energy efficient or organic, no animal testing, ever. She no longer ate meat. She should have seen it then—the change. On a basic metabolic level they could no longer connect, even if they shared the same DNA. Naomi and Nina Renner, identical in every way—but not now. Now one of them was a murderer. Nina wanted to believe Naomi had good reason for doing what she did, but looking at the room: How well did she know her?
The lights were not the only alterations Naomi had made to the room. The beds had been moved a few inches to the left. Circular indentations in the carpet marked their old positions. It shrunk her side of the room, giving Naomi extra space in front of the window, probably to do yoga or something. The dresser had been cleared of all beauty products. The digital photo frame had been unplugged, and when Nina turned it on it flashed pictures of people she didn’t know.
Nina turned the frame off and sat on the empty dresser. Staring at the pockmarked carpet. She considered moving the beds back to their old positions. Before she could reach a decision, the doorbell and the phone rang simultaneously. She wished she had stayed in bed, at least then she would have had an excuse not to answer.
Nina was halfway down the stairs when her mother yelled: “Don’t answer that!” Nina stopped on the stairway. Downstairs a man was peaking in through the window by the door, where the curtain hung lopsided and wide open.
“He already sees me. What do I do?” Nina yelled over her shoulder. Mrs. Renner stormed out of her room and down the stairs, her red night gown flying out behind her like demonic flames. She yanked the curtains shut and slammed the still ringing phone on the receiver. Then she paced the living room, straightening things, a cushion, a lamp, a pile of unopened mail. Nina tiptoed through the living room toward the kitchen. The doorbell rang and Mrs. Renner turned to the source of the infernal noise, nostrils flaring.
“If you’re going to be staying here, you could try to help out,” Mrs. Renner said.
“I am trying.”
Mrs. Renner folded her arms. To Nina she looked more like a pouting child than a lecturing parent.
“How exactly are you trying?”
Nina didn’t answer. She had her own questions.
“Have you even been to see her?” Nina asked.
Mrs. Renner went back to straightening things—things that were already straightened: cushion, lamps, unopened mail. Nina waited.
“No,” Mrs. Renner said finally.
“Are you going to?”
This answer came quicker. “No.” Mrs. Renner’s eyes scanned the room, falling everywhere but on her daughter. The walls in this room also suffered from the white lights. Candy apple green turned to pea soup, like the exorcist. Nina glared at her mother for a second, not that she noticed.
“Did she change every lightbulb in the house?” Nina asked when it seemed her mother would avoid her gaze forever.
Mrs. Renner looked around like she had just noticed the monstrous color of the room.
“I suppose she did.”
“I don’t like it,” Nina said. Then she headed for the kitchen.
“I’m cooking breakfast,” Mrs. Renner yelled from the living room.
Nina grabbed a bowl and filled it with cereal, then dug around the refrigerator. She pulled out a jug of milk. Without opening it she could feel chunks moving around inside. She shoved it back into the refrigerator.
A few minutes passed and Mrs. Renner entered the kitchen.
“The milk is expired,” Nina said, scooping up dry cereal and shoveling it into her mouth.
“I said I was cooking breakfast.”
“I wanted cereal.” Crumbs stuck to every surface in her mouth. She sat down her bowl and got a glass. She turned on the faucet, in a few minutes the water would run ice cold. She stared out the window over the sink and waited.
Mrs. Renner sat down at the empty table. Without anything to clean she played with her wedding band, twisting it round and round on her finger.
“Don’t not eat on my account,” Nina said. She tested the water then filled her glass. The world outside telescoped in the glass and churned with the water. So it wasn’t until she had finished her water that she saw the movement in the bushes lining the driveway. A man stumbled from the bushes and the glass slipped from her fingers, shattering in the sink.
She yanked the blinds together before he could take aim with his oversized camera.
“What happened?” Mrs. Renner cried.
“Nothing, it’s that reporter.”
“Vultures,” Mrs. Renner was up and pacing. “Can they not give us one shred of privacy? I can’t even leave the house.”
“You can, you just choose not to,” Nina mumbled. Mrs. Renner didn’t hear, and continued her rant.
“And that glass. I liked that glass.”
“You have three more just like it, Mom.”
Nina picked glass from the sink and deposited them in her bowl of cereal. She suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore. Piece by piece the fragments fell in. The smaller pieces stuck to her fingers. The larger pieces reflected Naomi’s face. Nina smiled and her sister smiled back.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Renner said, coming up behind her. Her mother took the bowl of cereal and glass and dumped it all into the sink and turned on the water. The mixture swirled down the drain. Mrs. Renner watched with folded arms, as if daring it to come back up. On top of it all, she poured the chunky milk.
Mrs. Renner flipped the switch to the garbage disposal and in that moment Nina saw shards of glass and cereal fly out and embed in her eye and skin, the mess of blood, the frantic call to 911 and inexplicably the newspaper headlines. Even in the face of death or grave bodily injury she worried about what the papers would say. Killer’s twin killed in freak accident. That’s how her sister would find out, by newspaper headline. Maybe Naomi’s lawyer would tell her first. No, Nina decided, Naomi would know, she would feel it.
Thankfully the glass, the cereal and the chunky milk were all swallowed whole by the disposal. With fried nerves she sat down at the table, while her mother cleared the rest of the glass. Nina’s thoughts lingered on Naomi. What was she doing right now? Was she scared? Had she reverted back to her old self or was she still the new Naomi?
Mrs. Renner began preparing a breakfast of eggs and bacon. While the bacon fried she brought Nina another glass of water.
“Do you know what that witch next door said to me yesterday? She says ‘You know, Amy, you should leave the house more. Forget these reporters; you’ve got to live your life.’ Then she says: ‘There’s always one bad twin.’ Can you believe that?”
Nina stayed silent, sipping her water and for a while the only sound in the room was the crackle of bacon grease.
“You know there were these one twins,” Nina said after a while, “one brother killed someone and then the other killed like four people.”
“Why would you say something like that?” Mrs. Renner said.
Nina shrugged. “I’m just saying. She only killed one person, and I haven’t killed anybody.”
“We don’t know she did anything.”
The room lapsed back into the empty sound of frying bacon and then frying eggs. At the last minute Mrs. Renner put on water and made instant oatmeal. Nina ate the eggs and bacon. She hated oatmeal. It didn’t help that the walls were the same tan shade of the oatmeal and the lightbulbs were having the same peculiar effect they were having in the rest of the house.
Mrs. Renner didn’t eat. She made up her plate and sat for a while.
“I went to see her yesterday,” Nina said.
Mrs. Renner stared at her daughter and Nina stared at the bowl of oatmeal, creating valleys and mountains with her spoon. When Mrs. Renner’s shock wore off she disappeared upstairs, a door slamming in her wake.
Nina dumped her oatmeal down the garbage disposal. Then she set out to find real lightbulbs, ones that didn’t make the walls look like puke.
Table of Contents
by Dallas Woodward
No one remembers the sun in Corma. Every now and then you’ll get an old tyke down at the tavern or some ancient washerwoman who claims she saw it once when she was younger. But the story deviates so much from person to person it’s hard to tell the liars from the honest counterfeiters who probably ripped the stories off their dying grandparents decades ago. Others claim they saw it while traveling afar. Afar where? Where else is there since the Shroud descended from Azure and choked the world in darkness? There’s nothing out there but the dark water. No land, no hope.
And certainly no sun.
But people still tell the stories, and somehow they always find fools to listen. Any story with the sun is a good one, especially if it has a happy ending. People like happy endings almost as much as the sun, and are just as likely to see one in their lifetime as the other. The Rookers tell us we shouldn’t wish so hard for things we can’t have, that our energy is better suited for the refineries, or the mines. But people don’t listen. People can still dream. The Shroud took our sun and the Rookers took our hope, but our dreams are still ours.
We live in Corma. Everyone lives in Corma. If you know someone who doesn’t live in Corma, either you’re a liar or they are. Almost as bad as someone who claims they saw the sun. Because if you don’t live in Corma, where did you come from? Is the sun there? What are your people like? Are they happy? Are they alive? If they’re alive then they’re from Corma, because everyone comes from Corma. The Rookers call that logic. I can’t say I understand logic, but apparently it has a lot to do with the sun.
The sun? That makes no sense. There is no sun. Everyone knows that. Everyone who lives in Corma, anyway.
And everyone lives in Corma.
It’s cold here. In Corma, I mean. Very cold. It’s cold in other places, too—you can thank the Shroud for that—but no one talks about them. If you do—and I’m not saying you should—make sure you’re alone. People around here like to tell stories, and they always find fools to listen. Or don’t you remember that part? Actually, you’re better off just talking about the cold here in Corma. It’s all the same cold, isn’t it? I wouldn’t know. That sounds a lot like logic. The same logic the Rookers say governs the world. The same logic they don’t teach us. Do you know logic? I hope so. You know about the sun, at least. And Corma.
But then, everyone knows about Corma. Where else is there?
What else. The cold. Yes, I think I mentioned the cold. It’s always cold in Corma. And dark. We call that night. Sometimes the day comes—there’s less and less of that all the time, it seems—but that’s a lie. It’s always been night. Whether there’s light or not makes no difference. Sometimes I wish the light could be forever, but that’s stupid. If we didn’t have night, where would the day go? It would all burn up, and then we’d be trapped in the dark. And when the dark comes, the cold gets worse. That’s logic. I suppose I lied to you before when I said I didn’t understand much logic, because that’s three things I know now. I know about the dark and the cold, and the sun, and I know about Corma.
Because everyone lives in Corma.
But do we really? Not about Corma—everyone knows we live in Corma, the Rookers say so—but do we really live? We don’t talk about life in Corma. Or death. Or much about anything, really. We do talk about the sun, but not where the Rookers can hear. And we talk about the Rookers too, but only when they’re listening, and then only about what they want us to say. Because more than anything—more than books or laws or even logic—the Rookers love to listen. But you knew all that already. It’s practically logic. The dark brings cold, everyone lives in Corma, and there is no sun. Simple. Logical.
But don’t say any of that out loud. The Rookers will hear you, and they don’t like when people talk about that sort of thing. They think logic belongs to them, and them alone. We all know there’s no sun, but don’t say that. Never talk about the sun. Pretend you don’t even know the word. If they ask you, just look dumb and scratch your head. But not every time. That would look suspicious, and the Rookers like to watch, too.
The Rookers watch, and the Rookers listen. Do they smell? They’d have to, after all the time they spend in the Rookeries, tending to the Divine. That’s what they call the birds. The little black ones that eat and shit and scream at you if you get too close. Stupid things. I hate them. I don’t know what they’re called, but the Rookers call them the Divine, and they say that’s logic. I don’t know about logic, but I know everyone lives in Corma, and the Rookers say that’s enough. The birds are Divine, the Rookers listen, the dark brings cold, everyone lives in Corma, and there is no sun.
Huh. I guess I know a lot more about logic than I let on, don’t I?
I take it from your silence you’re probably confused. I’ll admit, it’s a lot to take in. Don’t be afraid if you don’t understand all at once. I know I didn’t. Logic’s confusing that way. It’s better if you take it in steps. Start with the cold. Everyone understands cold. How many toes do you have? I have six. Four on the one foot, two on the other. Impressed? I knew a friend with eight, but he died a long time ago. I think he was eaten by pot-sogs. You know about pot-sogs, don’t you? They’re all over the… no, I’m getting distracted. Don’t think about that. Think about the cold. Think about the cold, and all the fingers and toes it’s taken from us over the years. And once you’ve done that, think about the sun. Or don’t. There is no sun, so when you think about it, what’s there to think about? More logic, I guess.
Logic. We talk a lot about logic, but what is it really? Most people say it’s just a word the Rookers use to control us. Maybe that’s true, but I think there’s more to it than just that. There has to be, doesn’t there? They say logic is the truth, and without logic there’s nothing. But if logic is a lie, then who’s to say any of what the Rookers tell us is true? What if the birds aren’t Divine? What if nights are pointless, and we really can have light forever?
And so long as we’re being crazy, what if there really is a sun? It’s crazy, I know, but what if the liars and the storytellers have been right all along, and it’s everyone else that’s crazy? Scary, isn’t it? Thank the Lady that’s not the truth of things. Logic says so. The birds are Divine, the Rookers are listening, the dark brings the cold, everyone lives in Corma, and there is no sun.
Only… that’s not true, is it? No, the sun is real, and I’ve seen it. Just the once, but once is more than enough. Does that make me old? Only the old talk about the sun. Or am I liar, like the rest of them? I’d ask a Rooker if that was logic, but then I’d be talking about the sun. And there is no sun. Everyone knows that. There is no sun, everyone lives in Corma, the night…
No, I’m doing it again. Reciting what they want me to know and not what I really know. Because the sun is real, and not everyone lives in Corma, and the birds are certainly not Divine. But the Rookers do listen, and the Rookers do watch. They’ll take me away, like they do all the people who talk about the sun. I’ve seen them do it: the old men in the taverns and the washerwomen and the people who say they’ve traveled far away, to the places that aren’t Corma. The Rookers took them, and I never spared a thought for them ever again. People talk about the sun, and the Rookers take them away. More logic? I don’t think I understand logic. I can’t say I ever did.
But I do know one thing. If it’s logic to say the sun isn’t real, when my own eyes have told me otherwise, then it’s logic that’s the liar, not me. That makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s practically logic. You could even say I’m using logic against logic. Mine against theirs. But if their logic is the truth, what does that make mine? Does that make me the greatest liar of all? If that’s true, then maybe I shouldn’t listen to myself anymore. But then, who will? Certainly no one else.
Except… would you? If I talk, will you listen? I’ll have to be quiet, in case the Rookers are listening. Because the Rookers are listening. The Rookers listen, and the night brings cold, but the birds are not divine, and not everyone lives in Corma.
And the sun is real. Say what you will about logic, but I have the story to prove it. All I need is someone to listen.
Table of Contents
The Window on the Border
by Hiba Dlewati
Her body curved perfectly, framing the slope of the mountain beyond the window. The pink straps of her hospital gown were still untied, and the red scar on her back gaped up at us, bold and unforgiving.
“You know, if you would stay here till nightfall, you would be able to see the shelling. Sometimes it’s so intense, it lights up the sky,” she said, turning back to face us, her finger still pointing at the mountain.
Her mother nodded in agreement, her varicose legs peeking out from underneath her black traditional dress, almost touching the floor but not quite. She was perched on the edge of the hospital cot with three of the other women, squeezing together to make some room for us. “It all turns orange,” the mother added, nodding and shaking her head simultaneously.
Her comment caught me off guard and I didn’t realize I was still staring out the window until my colleague tapped me on my shoulder. Back to work.
There were three of us. A journalist, a public health worker and me. The liaison. I had discovered, by chance really, that my lifelong ability to listen to words in one language and speak them in another could get me places. And here I was, at the Turkish Syrian border, interpreting interviews for a famous journalist from New York. Fate works in funny ways. The interviews had more or less taken a routine. Go in, introduce ourselves, listen to their stories and then start asking the questions. Hope they would tell us the whole story.
No one really likes to talk about rape. Especially not conservative Arab families who have just fled their homes because of a war. So we called it “women’s experiences” during the war, and during that week in the south of Turkey we moved around, tracking activists, aid workers, refugees and health facilities to talk about “women’s experiences during the conflict.” My job was to not just translate the words exchanged during the interviews, but to try to ease the tension too as we got closer to asking the difficult questions. I shared more than just a language
and the olive color of my skin with the Syrian refugees. I had been a prisoner of the same regime that made them refugees, and like some of the women we were looking for, I too had the “woman’s experience.”
The tiny but immaculately clean hospital room was tucked away in a small rehabilitation center on the road between two Turkish border towns. Isolated and discreet, it offered its inhabitants the dignified struggle back to health in sanctuary.
It was ridiculous to start off asking questions about sexual violence in the area when the woman was obviously extremely injured herself, so we asked about that first.
The woman’s story was long but her face rarely changed. Her deep dark eyes remained sad, but her mouth constantly offered a small but genuine smile, occasionally accompanied with a little prayer praising and thanking God.
They were villagers, but like most villagers they had moved to the poorer parts of the city years ago. When their neighborhood morphed into a frontline between the regime and the rebels, the family packed their bags and moved back to their ancestral village, where they hoped things would be safer.
It was, at first. Their village was in a rebel-held, or “liberated,” area and the family was finally spared the constant risk of gunfire and checkpoints. Almost as soon as it was liberated however, the regime started to shell the village indiscriminately, killing more civilians than rebels. Some days were better and some days were worse, and the family stayed, praying that one day the better days would remain.
One day the balance shattered, and the worst happened. The protective shield of prayers and tears that had always seemed to keep the shells far from the family’s home vanished. A wall came crashing down as the bombs rained from the heavens, and the family’s youngest began her trip to the heavens.
Her name was Ayah. She was nine years old, and the wall and the shrapnel crushed the life out of her immediately. I watched with disbelief as the woman in the pink hospital gown told me the story of how her youngest child had died, with that same unchanging, otherworldly expression.
Ayah had had blue eyes and curly hair. It seemed that she looked like most of the children whose pictures made it to the Syria fundraising posters: blue-eyes, olive skin and curly dirty blonde hair. I’d never known there were so many blue-eyed children in Syria before the revolution. Or maybe it was a marketing ploy to “humanize” Syrians by making them less Arab, more white. At this point, who knew?
I listened to her describe her child to me using present verb tenses, only to punctuate her sentences with, “But she’s gone now…they took her away from me.”
Finally, as an afterthought, the woman remembered her own wounds.
“And that’s how I got this,” she said, pointing at her spine. “The wall fell down on me too, but I lived.” She said the last few words with regret.
After burying Ayah, the family had rushed to Turkey, the closest bordering country, to get surgical support for Ayah’s mother, as the village doctor didn’t have the technology help her. Thanks to the rehabilitation center and its team, she might be able to walk again.
“And I’m still here.”
Her husband and children had returned to their village in Syria after failing to find work in Turkey. When we asked why, if she wasn’t afraid the village would be bombed again, the woman’s answer was simple. “Better than the refugee camps,” she said, her sisters and mother nodding their agreement unanimously.
It was our turn to start speaking. The moment we asked about sexual violence, the room tensed up. One of the sisters turned the volume of the TV up. I hadn’t even noticed it was there before. Another sister replied quickly that yes, there was sexual violence, definitely, but not in their village. Actually, not even in their province. They’d heard about it on TV, but didn’t really know of any particular stories. The woman in the hospital gown eyed us quizzically.
I told them a little about my background, how I hadn’t spent my whole life in America. How I’d actually been inside Syria, and been imprisoned twice. I mentioned my own woman’s experience.
They gasped, generations of fear of shame and honor etched onto their faces. Did they rape me, the, oldest woman asked.
“No auntie. Just groped and threatened me,” I smiled.
Thank God. They exhaled in relief and smiled back.
The woman in the hospital gown finally spoke up again. She was looking at me now.
“We actually do know some stories,” she said.
Several documented stories of kidnap, rape and sexual harassment in their village later, we were finally done. I was grateful none of the stories were about their family in particular. If there were such thing as metrics in suffering, they had suffered off the charts.
The health worker was going through her notes when the journalist noticed the TV in the corner was still on. A shaky camera navigated through war-torn streets and rubble. What was this channel, she asked. It was a channel run by the village’s local media team, and the women watched it to keep up with the latest news back home. A shell fell near the cameraman, rattling the screen. We looked away.
It was time to go. We still had to drive out to the next town and meet some activists there, before turning around and driving back to our hotel in the first town. Last day of the trip and still plenty more to do.
We thanked the women and got up to leave. I broke my promise to myself to not get emotional and hugged them goodbye, two kisses on each cheek. I tried to suppress the knowledge, the emotion, the constricting thing in my chest that kept telling me I would never see them again.
We walked down the steps of the hospital and found our “fixer” outside, sharing a smoke with the hospital manager. He was the guy who would make sure we met the right people at the right time, hence earning the title, “fixer.” Although our fixer was a self-proclaimed agnostic, anti-nationalist and nihilist, he was still a Syrian man and had been more than happy to leave our side when we entered the women’s wing. This trip is the most upsetting one I’ve been on, he’d
told us repeatedly on our drives back and forth. Rape. He would say the word and shake his head angrily.
We thanked the hospital manager, a tanned man in a red muscle shirt who looked more like a kick boxer than a doctor. Our fixer called our driver, but I found myself moving far away from the car. I walked across the parking lot until I was finally at the edge of the road, and no more of the hospital’s bleached structure obstructed my view.
The mountain stared back at me, despondently. I stared at the white blocks I could make out at the mountain’s base. Were they village houses? Were they rubble? How could Syria be so close and so far? How could it be so abstract when I could actually see it?
I took out my camera and started taking pictures. I stared through the lens and soon I stopped seeing the far off olive trees, white blocks and mountain side. I saw my old room. I saw the cobblestones and colorful antique shops of the old market and the Belgian waffle store next to my uncle’s shop. I saw my late grandfather and the historic graveyard he rested in with generations of Damascenes. I saw my friends and all the peaceful protests we’d been to, raising our hands, raising flowers and posters for freedom, meeting bullets. I saw the grey concrete walls of my prison cell and the course brown blankets. I saw the blood on the floor. I saw the thousands of headlines and pictures of slaughtered children, again and again. I saw the summerhouse “farm” my father had slaved away to buy, saving money for his retirement on a mountain filled with olive trees that looked a lot like this one.
I saw Sam’s face when we got arrested together, his warm auburn beard and sorrowful brown eyes. I saw his smile as we watched pigeons in a city square, his laugh at my poor driving skills. I wondered where he was now. They had taken him again…months ago.
I stopped snapping pictures. I didn’t know how many I’d taken. More than enough, probably. Then again I was terrible at photography. Someone was calling my name. Still in a daze, I looked over my shoulder. Our fixer was walking towards me, Ray Ban’s glinting in the sun.
“Yallah, we gotta go,” he called out across the parking lot.
I took one more picture. I looked through the lens and saw an orange sky.
Table of Contents
by Thomas Mann
I am aroused quite suddenly by a rolling crack of thunder—like a wave—before the deafening clap, which frightens me so.
The bath has turned cold, the soup of bubbles now tepid white islands floating in the yellowing water, the drips still clicking in the water from the faucet. The sound from my little radio I keep near for news reports—before the classical music starts—is now barely more than a faint crackle. The wire has slipped from the pole and the reception is dead. Strange thing is, I realize, is that it isn’t raining at all outside, nor has it in at least the past several hours or days. Yet the noise of thunder still echoes. I wonder about the rain frequently these days. How often it comes, how hard it falls, what it drags away.
I move my attention to myself. My breasts hang low on each side of my chest, coming to a final rest near my armpits, a double-u sagging embarrassingly, flipping outward near the end. Conveniently enough, I have regarded it as a permanent stamp of myself, my own initials carved (though, not of marble but of jelly) heavily over my heart. “Walter Williams.”
I am old yet have grown older lately. Those parts of my body that I had never known to ache do so regularly. A short time ago I began to see my skin change colors in splotches, once around the lower half of my arm, then on my calf, then, most recently, I saw one beneath my thinning grey hair—I picked and poked at these spots, thinking at first they were scars or scabs, then cancer spots. I rushed to have them looked at. What is worse—they are liver spots, the mark of the condemned man! But this body, like the great ships sailing amidst rough seas, does not break.
It is late evening. I close my eyes again, for they have grown heavy. And I am immediately attuned to the crickets—how richly that orchestra harmonizes outside the window (crescendo, diminuendo, crescendo!). The fog rests gently above the long sheets of flat farmland before it dissipates into the forest, tenderly placing small dewdrops atop the long blades of grass, which dip and sway in the breeze. The breeze. The breeze, and the sound of the stream tripping over small pockets of rocks, long ago made smooth by erosion, soothes me. And, of course, how could I mention it last? The blood orange sun dips below all of these miracles of nature, sneaks through the trees and the fog, pierces through the glass of the window, and ends its journey suddenly on the wall behind me.
And yet in all this detail I imagine myself lying here now, yes, the old man in the bath, face nearly submerged, thin knees affixed to thin legs bent above the water, while fat breasts sag pathetically. (“How fat the old man got with age,” “How did he manage to fit himself into that tub?”) An image flashes before me: a director selects an arial view for this scene (he chooses it to be a death scene)—black and white, panning slowly from the head, slunk low to the shoulders, immobile, inflated with post-mortem alchemy, to the feet. Misshapen, toes pointed together, overgrown and discolored toenails curl like the twisted branches of a dead tree. One does not expect to die so violently and suddenly, or otherwise complete personal hygiene would be the precaution for the medics. It is only polite to do so, I think. But enough of that—this is not the suicide scene, but the phantom imagination of a director, for I have only just dreamt of thunder. Though my heart races, I awoke peacefully in the stale water.
I wonder if some unfortunate soul would have found me had I not jolted to consciousness. Would they think my death a case of a delirious and stupid ancient man accidently drowning long after the prime of life? Or, rather, that of a resourceful and respectable one who thoughtfully removed himself from the earthly realm after he had lost the long predestined battle with decrepitude?
I see the sunlight again as it pierces through the window and into my eyes. It has just sunken beneath a tree branch and, for now, hangs in the universe in a precarious spot between earth and leaves. Our own lives, too, I recall someone saying, are placed like a toy bird balanced on the tip of a finger, between urine and feces. (But I am copying—who said that?)
How far those little photon assassins have traveled to simply blind this poor old man. Other beams, by journey’s end, have splashed the leaves of the trees with energy for growth; they have waved a mournful goodbye to the chirping birds wailing against a Goddess they believe dies daily for eternity. Or perhaps, as I recall, it is the light that shines upon the face of a beautiful young woman sitting in a Parisian café.
I saw her there on holiday, smoking a cigarette which she held between two fingers. It was barely midday. I was some distance away, across the street at a fruit stand. She flicked the ashes off of her cigarette into an empty teacup and peered over her sunglasses at her company, mouth agate, eyebrows raised so her forehead wrinkled into shallow caverns. She had round blue eyes, hair that fell in loose ebony curls below her shoulders, and lips that looked big enough to kiss from here. My gaze was so affixed on her that I had barely noticed the tower of oranges under my arm which, after a swift swoop of the hand to close my own open mouth, were sent tumbling down to the sidewalk.
I hoped to God she didn’t look across the street, at this bumbling, bent-over fool struggling to gather the bruised oranges, which continued to fall mercilessly. With several stacks of oranges balanced in my arms, I stole a glance at her. Against all my fortunes, her friend had continued to distract her—what an ally this pale, squat, plain-looking woman was. She shook her head vigorously, one arm akimbo and the other bent upwards, palm held toward the sky like she was coming to the climax of a joke long in the making. I sighed a breath of relief, stacked the oranges on the cart, and thought how curious it was that such beauty could be found in a place like this. No—the city itself was beautiful, too, but the Rembrandts and the Van Goghs and the Da Vincis were hidden away inside ancient museums with stuffy, acrid air. That is, strictly forbidden from the cobblestone streets or the punishing (though pleasant) sunlight, or the smell of flowers, fruit, bread, and wine.
And yet, there she stood, her round cherub face pale against he sunlight, a statue of Venus carved for my own. Dare I go over to her and humiliate myself? (Yes! Hurry, you fool!) I ran across the road, for she had moved inside in order to pay and leave. I walked some short distance away from the café and hid in the shade of a patterned awning. A few minutes passed and I worried that I had missed her, or guessed her coordinates and travel destination incorrectly. But after another moment, like Cleopatra emerging boat-bound, rowed by her slaves through clear Egyptian water into the arms of Antony, she, too emerged from the café. I felt a hot sensation within me—it was the sudden and encouraging realization that she had no wedding ring on her finger. There! There straight before me in plain sight was a naked finger. Had I a holy temple, it would be that finger to which I sacrificed. A deity of deities.
How stupidly and blankly I stared that I did not notice them passing me, walking swiftly and deftly downhill, calling for a taxi in (what I had to imagine were) fake French accents.
But providence, sweet providence, had been with me, for from a finger on her right hand, a silver ring had fallen with a light clang when silver met concrete. I rushed to pick it up, calling “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” after her.
She turned around and I nearly lost my lunch from all conceivable exits. I recalled some time ago I had seen another beauty from afar, alas however, I only judged her from behind—long dark hair, curved body, the whole bit. But by the time I had caught a glimpse of her front side up close (after pulling a very similar trick to this one), I realized with horror that she was a bearded man—though I still cannot retract in honesty my previous physical descriptions. To my relief, perhaps even to my surprise, she appeared even more flawless standing directly in front of me.
I looked into her eyes and quivered and hesitated. I unfurled the ring from my grip—never once thinking that she may not speak English.
I shall reserve the suspense, for I had guessed right that their French was only illusory and indeed a rather bad effort. She gasped, her face widening with a grin, and said—in a surprising English accent, perhaps even a soft Irish—that the ring was an heirloom, passed down generationally on her mother’s side. Never forgive herself for losing it, not that she would have to. Her mother would surely ring her neck.
I felt as if I had shattered into a thousand pieces and lain broken on the ground. My breathing was heavy, and I am certain dark sweat spots had appeared under my armpits. I explained to her my peculiar situation—that I couldn’t think of any words to say, that my insides felt as if they were engulfed in flames, and that there was a constant cracking noise coming from inside my ears. She said something under her breath about the symptoms of a madman. I think I laughed a little. Then I apologized, perhaps once, perhaps ten times, and asked for her name.
She spoke lightly and lowered her voice. “It’s Marilynn.” Then she hesitated, sighed, and asked for a pen.
I could have had a stroke then and there.
Her friend looked at me and rolled her eyes. Marilynn handed me a small piece of paper with a number on it. I didn’t even bother to ask—perhaps even jokingly—if it were authentic. The note trembled in my hands and she gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Au revoir,” she said, the words echoing. She turned and departed shouting for a taxi in worse French still.
And how clearly I still heard her voice shouting back at me as I stared at the note in my hand, long after the taxi had driven them away. Her voice is carved in my mind and I hear it as if she is saying it to me in this very room, clearer perhaps even than the soft fingertips tapping at the door to the left of the tub.
“Walter,” she whispers, her soft English accent grown fragile. “You’ve been in that bath quite a while, and I wondered if you were alright.”
I lift my hands out of the water. Pruned beyond repair.
I hesitate for a moment. “Quite all right, darling, though I’m afraid I’ve finally become that wrinkled old raisin.”
She does not say anything but laughs in response. She had told me once that, in my old age, I had appropriated the sourness of a grape and the body of a raisin—but that she had kept the wine all to herself.
I think for a moment of my memory and lift my voice: “Say, do you recall that summer in Paris, when we first met?”
I hear her laugh again. Differently this time, though, like a guttural snort signifying the stupidity of the question. “Of course I do. You were a wreck. Covered in sweat after running across the road to meet us outside the café. And to think how we laughed when you knocked off all those oranges!” Her voice echoes from behind the door.
I smile, though I had never known that she had seen me drop the oranges in the street.
She turns the knob, which shakes from the unsteadiness of her hand and opens the door slightly. She takes only a small step in and I hear the sound of the plastic bottoms of her slippers as they click against the tile. I look over but cannot see her. “Why do you ask?”
I ignore her question not maliciously, but to offer my own. “Will you tell me why you said yes?”
She hesitates for a long while and I hear her draw in a deep breath. I imagine her looking down, lips pursed, digging one fingernail underneath another and flicking away some dry skin. Finally, she speaks, her head shaking. Quietly and slowly, like a whisper.
“I still don’t know.”
She closes the door and I hear her footsteps walk away—down the hallway, and then the creak of the stairs. After a few moments I can smell her perfume. It lingers and dances around me and then, like mist, is gone.
And then it comes to me like the crashing waves of the ocean. Eternally and boundless it returns. How feeble and how utterly low I feel realizing again that my darling Marilynn is dead, now two months to the day, turned to dust and diluted in water to again become stars or diamonds or oceans. I sit and revel in my cold stew.
I am in a sudden, desperate need of a piss. Or perhaps I have to do that other hopelessly desperate function of the body which ancient ones like myself suddenly find that they no longer fully control. That is, until quite late one evening when one discovers that the feeling one cannot reach the lavatory in time truly signifies one must invest in adult-sized diapers. The phrase is this: A possibility once is a necessity forever, but I cannot remember who said it.
So I raise myself up timidly. I notice while water is running off my nipples into the tub that, to my relief at the sound of extra rustling water, that my urge to piss was indeed only that. I curse at myself as I lift one leg out of the tub, like a fat jockey mounting a horse, and curse again when my other foot glides out from beneath me. I manage—barely—to collect myself and hoist my other leg out of the tub. The water drips off my body and on to the tile floor. I imagine that each drop is the long lost love of another, each small drop creating one larger—like two little matching souls forming one united. Is that Plato, or is that bullshit? Sometimes, one runs a damn fine line between the two. Then I laugh as I see a third droplet enter a previously enjoined couplet and think about the willingness of the partners to accept a third. After a moment they are together forever.
I look in the mirror. I need to shave—have needed to for days, weeks even. I hadn’t noticed before, but the corners of my mouth, down to the droop of my chin had a noticeable downward curve as its natural resting place. My face is not ugly, but rather interesting. That is, interesting – the way people say interesting with a slight but noticeable exaggeration used to soften the blow when they want to tell you that you are foul but do not have the decency to tell say so outright. Though, somehow the blow lands harder, and the lesions reopen and bleed through the scar tissue. I admit that I know this from experience.
We are made from almost nothing, I think, and engineered to withstand harsh and difficult wounds. Yet scars somehow never disappear completely. How curious it is, to have such thoughts at this stage of life.
I open the mirror and remove my shaving kit. It is a small blue box with edges worn thin. I open the box and fumble with the instruments. The cream spreads like a blizzard. I cut myself below my lip which bubbles crimson and stains the cream a light pink hue.
Finally I bring my hands onto my face and clean it with water. Out of the corner of my eye, barely caught by the mirror, I see the reflection of a dress, the loose little folds wrinkling and waving like a curtain over an open window. I look over and take a step toward the next room, whose light shines through the unlit hallway. I wonder if she is trying to get me to follow.
I return and look again in the mirror.
And I have the most sensational feeling of clarity.
I draw a breath and recall a moment more than two months ago. I sat beside Marilynn in the hospital. The faint but steady drip of liquid and the electronic beep of the heart monitor can be heard, over and over like the waves of the sea. It must have been the last conversation we had. I held her soft hands in mine. Her breathing became slow and labored and she had tears in her eyes that made a light clicking sound at every blink.
Finally she said to me, her voice low and ossified and brittle, “Be at peace.”
I have imagined since then the sentence she meant to finish before she slipped into unconsciousness, “Be at peace…” pause, “with yourself.” I have sometimes felt the satisfaction of hearing those words pass her lips. I have said them over and over in my head and I do so now, standing before my own reflection under this dim yellow light, deep shadows appearing between my nose and cheekbones and in the hollows of my eyes. Be at peace with yourself. I have often wondered what peace might look like, its manifestation; the way it would feel absent a time of war. But I have so frequently been at war I am afraid I would not recognize its opposite.
I open my eyes and look at the light until presently it becomes the only thing I can see. The room has become dark, and the light retreats, shrinking smaller and smaller as if it is flying away as stars move through space—it becomes only a glimmer in an infinite universe of blackness. I have seen this before, many times, perhaps only as a dream. But for the first time I wonder whether it is worth the fatigue to once again traipse across the sea to grasp the glimmer of light, or perhaps this time it is better and truer to retreat under the blanket of eternity.
I am standing silently beside my bed. In my right hand I hold a revolver, which I have retrieved from my dresser. It is loaded, though it was not me who loaded it—I haven’t the slightest clue how. It is curiously heavy for such a small thing, perhaps the heaviest thing I have ever held.
I wonder what those poor people will think when they find me, and how long it will take them to do so. I worry what I might smell like when they reach my body—perhaps it will be the smell that gives me away. I worry, too, about how I will look here, laying on the bed, if my arms will flail out wide, or if I will be unrecognizable except for dental records. And I think about the uncontrollable loss of the bowels. I worry, finally, about the bloated body, expanded with gasses and stiffened and disgusting. I wonder what they will think of me: as a man, as meat, as an angel or a devil—though perhaps my words will gain a certain amount of profundity after I am unable to speak or write any more.
I only hope they don’t say I did it from a broken heart or for love, or some romantic bullshit like that. I quickly write something down—but it isn’t for them. It’s for you, Marilynn. Mostly words I wish I had time to say or something to make you laugh. I fold the paper, put it in a small yellow-stained envelope, which I have retrieved from my dresser, then seal it, and stuff it in my breast pocket.
I lay on your side of the bed which is hard and cold. I open my mouth and insert the revolver. The metal clangs between my teeth and I softly recoil.
In the very last moments, before my vision blurs and I am returned under the shroud, I see a flash and hear the crack of thunder.