Titleless - Portia Elan

While visiting Seattle for the AWP Conference, Pinch journal staffers came across some particularly inspiring Sasquatch-themed writing. In the name of all you misunderstood Sasquatches out there, we thought we'd see what turned up with a prompt for new work pertaining to the phenomenon of large, hairy, bipedal humanoids. This titleless entry from Portia Elan is one of two winning pieces selected by the editors. Keep believing! 

 

I made it out of clay first; not clay but dirt, the wet dirt we used as face paint over our cheeks, shaped into mud pies and then threw, sun-baked, against the wooden fence while the trains came by; that’s a lie though, not what I made it out of; I made it out of heart, entire, although that too could be made out of dirt, the heart that slings itself through the forest, heart that calls like a monkey, ruffles its silver fur, does not know its own height, which is great, which is astonishing; I made it and it was an it, because I gave it nothing between its legs, until it spoke, because it was made out of heart, and told me that it was a she: You made me to suffer, she said; which I did not know until she said it, and then I did know; It would have been better if you’d made me out of dirt, she said; if I had made her out of dirt, in that first rain she could have gone back, could have re-leased; but I used my heart and so she was indelible, in her being, although constantly shifting, so that those who saw her once never saw her exactly the same way again, which made her a thing of mystery, of myth, and searchers began to spend their days, at first only their days, and then their nights, binoculars pressed to their eyes, hoping for a glimpse — a small vision — of the creature they had seen before; and though what they saw each time was different on the outside, what they felt was the same: that they needed, that they wanted, that the creature darting through the mountains around them was that last missing piece, she was the obvious answer to a question they had been told not to ask when they were small, because they asked it over and over, without relief; why; they lost sleep; they could not stop looking for her, and when she came to see me, she was very tired from running; she wanted to come back into me; she said please; and I was afraid that the searchers would start to come looking for me, but she was my heart, my heart made of dirt, made of low and ugly, made of silver fur, taking up too much space, and so I said her, Yes.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Portia Elan is a high school library assistant on the West Coast. Her chapbook To Yield Like Water & Nothing Else is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems can be found in Ninth Letter, Elimae, Cloud Rodeo, ILK and Toad.

Homecoming - Michael Marberry

– Tuscaloosa, Alabama

At the Archibald & Woodrow’s,
     the smoker yawns its pork parts
over a low flame – the dank air
     as heavy as a lead refrigerator.

Thin, vinegar-sauce tang calls us
     to our seats like somnambulists.
Our fever-dreams are burnt ends,
     collard greens, sliced white bread.

The city where we met is ruined.
     Funnel clouds emptied the fields
of memory. But the waitress still
     flirts for tips, dotes on an oddity:

how I lather coleslaw on my BBQ.
     Her pink-black lacquered nails tap
the table’s woodtop. She is brown.
     She is gorgeous like a Greek battle.

She does not acknowledge sorrow,
     our grief. I think that we love her.
And the ribs are still tender, the tea
     so sugar-sweet no spoon can stir it.

 

ABOUT THE POEM:

The epigraph of this poem establishes the location. I lived in Tuscaloosa from 2007-2010. And even though I grew up in the South and was familiar with the region’s traditions, eccentricities, oddities, etc., Tuscaloosa surprised and charmed me nonetheless. It is a place with both a very proud and very terrible history — the mecca of college football (ROLL TIDE!) and the place where Governor Wallace attempted to block Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at the university. To me, Tuscaloosa seemed like a microcosm of the best and worst of the South. I made many friends there.

I was living in Columbus, Ohio on April 27, 2011 when an enormous tornado rampaged through Tuscaloosa and so many other surrounding communities. I’d visited Tuscaloosa only a few weeks earlier and, in the subsequent days, was horrified (like everyone else) to see the pictures of destruction. As it turns out, the next time that I would visit Tuscaloosa was purely accidental and, coincidentally, on April 28, 2012 — nearly a year to the day of the tornado. Seeing the aftermath firsthand, even a year later, was troubling: the rubble of homes and businesses, the splintered and missing trees, a still-littered lake. The absence of these things meant you could see much further into the distance now than you could before, nearly across the entire town, from the interstate exit. It was as if the horizon line had been stretched out before you. Other parts of Tuscaloosa looked exactly the same as when I’d left, like nothing had happened.

The first thing I did when I returned to Tuscaloosa was eat at my favorite barbecue joint, Archibald & Woodrow’s, which is little more than a bedroom-sized room covered in wood-paneling and sports memorabilia. It was the dead-time between lunch and dinner; I ordered a pulled-pork sandwich and sides for about $6.00. There were maybe two other customers, and the waitress was very kind. It seemed strange to be in a place that felt familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. All of that makes it into the poem, I think. If the poem has a theme, maybe it’s that you can’t go home again. Or maybe you can. I’d like to think that a sub-theme is that “Tuscaloosa Runs This.” The epigraph is also a sort of dedication.

 

ABOUT THE POET:

Michael Marberry is Poetry Editor of The Journal. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana ReviewThird CoastGuernica,LinebreakPassages NorthHarpur Palate, and elsewhere.

The Lake - Michael Martin Shea

It was the summer the lake froze two feet thick & the streets were covered in frost. We were on the shore in our bathing suits, ready for vacation, but it never came. What we couldn’t understand made us angry—some of us threw rocks & tables at the ice, hoping to crack it, while others spent whole mornings just screaming at the sun. We began to attract national attention for our predicament.Why not just go somewhere else? they said. We didn’t have an answer, but still we walked down to the lake each morning, hoping to hear a splash. Nothing. Frozen shut. Then one day, a baby appeared in the ice, followed by another. No one could think of any missing children, but soon the lake was littered with infants. We sent teams with pick-axes onto the lake to save them, but the ice wouldn’t budge. The babies waved at us from under the frozen sheet. Some of them were crying. Many looked hungry. We didn’t know what to do. We pleaded with the lake to give us the children, but it wouldn’t listen to reason. We formed a mob. We blamed the women. We rounded them up & hung their bodies from the pines but we still didn’t have what we wanted. In the morning, many of the other men, realizing what they’d done, took off their clothes & lay face-down in the snow. Those of us who were left began to adopt the ice-babies, leaving flowers on the lake & giving them names we whispered to each other in the parking lots. They were all we had. We took them mashed pears, mashed peas, cows’ milk. We poured it on the lake, where it froze, forming opaque puddles that looked like mirrors. But of course we couldn’t see ourselves.

 

ABOUT THE POEM:

One of the strangest features of our society is the level of engagement we have with objects we’ve never actually experienced. Take war, for example—an object or idea that’s so pervasive in our culture, from blockbuster movies to the constant stream of news media even down to the war metaphors we use to describe football games. But so few of us have actually experienced war. The effects of war, sure, but not the actual object. What I think this creates is a disembodiment of the object: you forget certain features of it because you don’t have any direct access to it—and when you do come into contact with it, the difference between your conception of it and its actual reality can be really jarring.

In a small way, this happened to me back in January while visiting some friends in Wisconsin. I realized one day while I was there that I was looking at a frozen lake for the first time. Ever. Of course, I’d seen frozen lakes in movies and I knew all the cultural ideas about frozen lakes—mostly that they break apart the second you stepped onto the very center of the ice. But it didn’t exist to me as a real landscape—as a place where people could build igloos and go camping, for example. So I decided to explore this idea of a place that’s both intimately familiar and totally foreign. What would happen if the familiar object changed in some slight way? Bad things, apparently.


ABOUT THE POET:

shea.jpg

Michael Martin Shea is an MFA candidate and Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming inIndiana Review, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, New Orleans Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Best New Poets 2012 anthology. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where he edits Yalobusha Review.

The Hummingbird Wives - Spencer Hyde

Two years ago I bought a book of commandments owned by one of my nine great grandmothers. Yes, nine. That same year—in fact the same week I bought the book—I watched a soccer match on TV and listened to announcers interview the players following the game. The lead striker was asked about the tattoo on his wrist. He held up his wrist and pointed to two intertwined Ruby-throated hummingbirds. They mate for life, he said. Only one person, he said. He hugged his longtime girlfriend. Just like us.

He wasn’t correct. Hummingbirds actually live a somewhat harem-like lifestyle. However, the idea stuck with me. I found that many animals mate for life, among them the great albatross that covers great distances in long and soaring arcs, yet always returns to its one and only mate.

The book I purchased is a religious one filled with counsel from the heavens, from the gods, from the prophets of old. My particular copy cost thousands because this book has become something of a collector’s item in my church. This one was notably special to me because inscribed on the front is the name Marinda Johnson.

My third great grandfather is Orson Hyde, and he had a number of wives, just like those beautiful hummingbirds—the Magenta-throated windstar, the White-bellied mountain gem, the Bronze-tailed plumeleteer.

Marinda was one of those wives. Her name is scrolled in beautiful gilt-embedded gold cursive across the front of the book in the bottom right-hand corner. The first time I opened it I saw that there were numerous markings in the book, all in red pencil. The markings cut deep into the old leaflet pages, the weight of Marinda’s veined, snowy hands sinking into the pencil and page, weighted down by her obsession with certain passages. I imagine her hands so heavy that at times they almost dropped through the book, through the table, and through the oak floor below.

That’s what I imagine, anyway. Because the only thing underlined in this book has to do with commandments that speak specifically of each man having only one wife. One man for one woman. A commandment the albatross understands. Every passage that speaks of mating—of marriage, of love, of the bond between two people and only two people—is underlined heavily. In some places it is clear that the passage has been underlined twice, or even three times, the page likely to tear with too-quick a turn.

I imagine my grandmother waking to the sound of Violet-tailed sylphs whirring next to her window, dancing in U-shaped patterns for attention, flying backwards and dipping and swaying and vanishing behind the trees. I imagine her attending to daily chores, but never alone. Always seeing other faces, those that share equal time with her husband, those that tend to similar chores, those other hummingbirds who think themselves the most precious, the most loved, the most treasured.

And I imagine Marinda thinking she is more open and honest with Orson than any of the others, and he with her; that when they lie awake and talk of the tomatoes in the garden or their Sunday walks or the ache in her lower back, Orson listens and thinks about how to leave all the others for Marinda, for her curved lower back that aches sometimes, for her thin wrists and long hair, for her and her alone. I imagine those ideas haunted her.

And those pages now haunt me. Every day.

I look at my beautiful wife and my two boys and wonder. I sit with the weighty book of commandments in my hands and trace Marinda’s name with my fingers, and feel those red pencil lines sinking through the pages into my skin, into my bones, curling around my vessels and shooting through my body with the anxiety of all those hummingbirds of my church’s past.

My son often cries when I take one of his toys—his football, his boxcars, or his pirate sword—and offer it to his younger brother. You have to share, Mac, I say. And he always responds the same way: Why dad?

I imagine my great, great, great grandmother kneeling each night on the knotted oak floor, elbows pressed against the bed, her hands folded in prayer with the moon spilling long waves of quiet light onto the book of commandments on her bedside table; I imagine her doing this and asking her god—her father in heaven—the same question.

 

ABOUT THE STORY: It just so happened that the same week I saw this soccer game I found the Book of Commandments for sale, the same book that (quite serendipitously) belonged to my great, great, great grandmother Marinda Johnson. I remember being impressed by the soccer player when I first heard that post-game interview. I thought, Wow, this guy is ready to spend forever with this gal. Then I got curious about the tattoo. Anyway, I found out that hummingbirds don’t mate for life, and that got me curious about the animals (like the albatross) that do mate for life.I was excited to have something that belonged to someone in my family so long ago. The book is filled with her pencil marks, and I flipped through it the day I got it just to see what she underlined—Where was her focus? What passages moved her? I saw her heavy marks under verses about marriage, and I felt my chest heavy with confusion and curiosity and love for my grandmother. She was Orson’s first wife. The other wives came along later, and stole time and memories from her. That’s the way I saw it, anyway, and it was quite hard to deal with. So how did I deal with it? Just like I deal with everything else that breaks my heart or causes me confusion: I started writing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Spencer Hyde’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Sweet: A Literary Confection among others. He edits fiction for elsewhere magazine. He currently lives and writes in Utah.

Searching for Us - Philip Levine

The Pinch Journal is proud to present the following poem by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Levine (1928 -2015) as a tribute to his work and his memory.

Originally published in the Spring 1987 issue of The Memphis State ReviewSearching for Us by Philip Levine is a poignant glance at the universal images that make up a family's memories.

 

Two ten-inch phonograph records, Bluebirds

going white, that won't give up their music.

My uncle's perfect clothbound book

that opened the secret of electric growth.

My mother's gap-toothed tortoise combs.

Her opera glasses. Her black and white

artistic snapshots taken on the August '36

return trip on the Normandy. She titled

this one "Sunset at Sea" and claimed

it was only a shadow of what took place

in color. My father's Victoria Cross

that he brought back from an automobile parts

convention. His white gold pocket watch,

a Howard, that runs and stops and runs

to keep his time. His naturalization papers

claiming he was born in 1898

in Poland, without a mention of his years

at war. My brother's grade school drawings

of Spitfires and ME 109's,

his "Withdrawl from Dunkirk," the beach

crisscrossed with small black lines 

that could be abandoned arms or the arms

of boys hugging the earth. A white flower.

Two dusty maple leaves. A blank postcard

without a stamp. My stillborn sister's

wish to mother a child, to breathe

the stained air that blows in at dusk

from the parking lots, to walk with us

on Sunday afternoons. Your finger prints

on the final application for release.

A bitten fountain pen, a dry stamp pad.

Two clear drops of fluid that catch

and hold the artificial light, that glow

with their own light when that's gone,

as eyes in stories are said to do.

Now in the dark they could be you,

they could be me, they could be anyone. 

 

 

 

Elegy to Be Exhaled at Dusk - Chen Chen

I am an elegy to be exhaled at dusk. I am an elegy to be written on a late

October leaf. An elegy to be blown

 

from its tree by a late October wind. To be stomped on & through

by passersby old & young

 

& dead & unborn. To be crinkled & crushed into tiny brown-

orange pieces. & then

 

collected, painstakingly, no, painfully, piece by piece, & assembled like

a puzzle or collage or

 

Egyptian god, but always incomplete, always a few bits & limbs

missing. An elegy to be

 

misplaced, stuffed away in the attic’s memory, & only brought out again

once every occupant of the house has

 

ceased. Yes, I am an elegy properly architectured by ruin. An elegy that has

experienced crows & lake effect

 

snow, an elegy that has seen Ukrainian snow falling on the forehead

of Paul Celan, Paul Celan’s mother,

 

the German tongue, the tangled tongues of all your literary

& literal ancestors—but more

 

than that, an elegy that has felt light, the early morning light falling

on your lovely someone’s

 

loveable bare feet as he walks across the wood floor to sit by the window,

by the plants, with a cup of jasmine

 

& a book he will barely open but love to hold the weight of

in his lap. I am,

 

my friend, an elegy that has taken into account, into heart & October wind,

the weight of someone’s soft

 

hair-covered head in someone else’s warm, welcoming lap.

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Chen Chen's work appears/is forthcoming in Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, [PANK], Fogged Clarity, Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, among other places. He has received fellowships from Kundiman, Tent: Creative Writing, and the Saltonstall Foundation. He is a University Fellow in Syracuse University's MFA program and serves as Poetry Editor for Salt Hill.

Birthday Boy - K Vish

THE STORY:

Your mother hides your birthday presents because she says the way you’ve been acting lately you don’t deserve any of them so obviously you go rummaging in cupboards and unearth a shoebox full of photographs of your parents before they had you and you see that they were real party animals back then my oh my isn’t this delicious fodder for revenge and even blackmail if you threaten to show the photographs to your grandparents but then as you keep shuffling through them they get worse and you wish you’d never seen for example your parents naked among other naked bodies or your mother with white dust around her nostrils or other things so much worse than stealing cookies or smoking a cigarette every now and then which is really the biggest secret you have from them and it makes you feel inadequate and threatened and lost so you get on a train that’s headed out of the city singing slow ballads to your disco heartbeat to slow it down but of course there’s no slowing down now the train is only getting faster and you wonder if you should pull the chain and grind the wheels to a halt and go back home but your parents probably stripped off all their clothes and started screwing the moment you stepped out the door so you think of all the things you can do to piss them off for their betrayal and you think the best revenge is to live a good life but your parents wouldn’t mind that they never wished you harm but they never wished you bon voyage either come to think of it they never wished you anything and you look at your phone to see if they left you any pleading messages and they haven’t but your phone is ringing and you answer the call and it is your wife telling you that you ought to have got down three stops ago when are you coming home Ananth it’s been three years already and your children need a father and you ask her if she means unborn children and she says no they’re here they’re born and living and climbing all over me Ananth they’re a bunch of wild monkeys I need your help I need you to come back so you say you will and consider getting down at the next stop but you don’t recognize the name of the station so you think you had better not because you wouldn’t know how to get back so you stay on the train and hope it slows down but secretly you hope it goes faster because you can feel something catching up with it and you lie down in your berth and close your eyes because you feel so damn tired and your bones are in a constant State of Ache and there is a tapping on your shoulder and you open your eyes and it is your grandson the one with the tattoo of a third eye on his forehead but otherwise quite a decent obedient fellow and he says dammit Thatha I couldn’t stand it anymore I had to run away and he pulls out his phone to show you pictures of the family he ran away from and there are your children all naked in a heap upon a mountain of powders and needles their genitalia entangled in inscrutable ways what has the world come to Ananth we can’t go living our lives in trains while the world goes on outside and your grandson says I love them Thatha I love each and every one of my one hundred parents but just look what they are up to is this any environment to raise a child in I’m sure you were a much better parent than this and the train slows to a halt and everyone gets off because it will go no further.

 

ABOUT THE STORY:

“Birthday Boy” came out of a spasm of writing with which I attempted to break through one of the numerous dead ends I encountered in the process of writing my novel. It is both fitting and a self-inflicted curse that my protagonist’s name, Ananth, means “without end.” My novel remains unfinished, and finishing it strikes me increasingly as such a monumental feat that I refuse to believe that anyone is capable of writing a novel. This is why I refuse to read novels, out of sheer disbelief.

In some ways, “Birthday Boy” is that novel I am failing to write, encapsulated in a single sentence, unpunctuated for fear of taking a breath too long, lest I forget what I was in the middle of saying.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

KVish_Pic



K Vish is from Chennai, India and South Bend, Indiana, where the University of Notre Dame grants him an MFA in the near future. He has written works for children such as two picture books involving monkeys and short stories in anthologies with titles like The Moustache Maharishi. Find him at fikshvish.wordpress.com.

The Drowned Maidens Club - Jaclyn Dwyer

Jamie and I are blowing bubbles at the bottom of Lake Wallenpaupack and popping them like smoke rings. Jamie’s cross-legged in an old tire that’s stretched and cracked to accommodate her. I settle into the ground and rest my back against the part of her thigh that squeezes over the rubber. She’s been here longer than I have. A perpetual sinker and discouraged Accident, Jamie knows she’ll probably never leave. Our President, Ms. Shannon teases her, says Jamie’s stubborn, but also weighted down by mounds of heavy muscle leftover from her tennis days, before Jamie toppled out of a booze cruise eight beers in and drowned like the rest of us.

When she reaches into my face and pokes her finger into my bubbles, her hand accidentally brushes my cheek. She feels like memory, like that anxious moment right before you slice a cake, and my whole body shivers. Jamie doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” or even acknowledge that she’s touched me except to retract her arm and turn her body to face Ms. Shannon. She’s shaking the old school bell, whose rusted clapper dropped out years ago, to call the meeting to order.

“Before we start, let’s all welcome our newest Innocent,” she says.

Everyone looks at me, still clapping, as Ms. Shannon continues, “The focus of today’s meeting is floating. You have to think of yourself as light and buoyant. Your body is a hot air balloon. Your lungs are an internal raft lifting you upward. Arch your back and imagine a thin cord tethering your heart to the surface.”

I heard that one girl ascended like the Virgin Mary just last week, rising in a gushing plume, her night gown billowing like the pulsing body of a jellyfish. Before her, another went, clawing upward on a rope only she seemed to see. The rest of us look up to these girls because they’re the success stories we’re meant to become.

But it’s not enough to learn to float. Floating doesn’t get you where you want to be. You have to swim too. The shape of the lake is a giant bowl. There are no shallows. The Wallenpaupack is sixty feet at the deepest point, which doesn’t sound like much, but it feels much farther when you’re swimming up and not over, fighting the pressure like a kitten running with a strip of masking tape across its back.

Ms. Shannon asks for volunteers to share their progress for the week, and when no one raises a hand, she hooks my elbow and tries to lift me up. She tows me a few feet before I anchor my foot in a tangle of weeds. “I don’t have any progress to share,” I protest. Ms. Shannon squeezes my cheeks between her fingers and thumb and explains loud enough for everyone to hear that Jamie Grove is here because she wants to be. “But you’re different,” she says.

Some of us drowned. Some of us were drowned. That’s the difference she means.

*

The Wallenpaupack is manmade. Philadelphia Power and Light flooded the valley and drowned the city of Wilsonville with water from the dam. The churches, homes, even the post office are still down here. The only thing the electric company moved were the graves. The town saw its first crane the day the movers loaded caskets onto a flatbed, stacked them like alphabet blocks and drove them up the hill. The Wilsonvillagers were so excited, everyone took pictures to document the movement of the dead. SCUBA divers used to come down to photograph the underwater city, but the sunlight can’t penetrate the pollution well enough to make it worth it. Pictures look like they’re taken through sooty New York windows. So it’s just us, swathed in a morning fog that rolls in with the current and lifts when the ashy debris settles on the bottom of the lake.

Ms. Shannon puts her fist into the small of my back and begins to push, and my body rises until I feel the water getting lighter, and there is as much beneath me as there is above.

“Good job,” Ms. Shannon praises after she takes her hand away, and I sway back to the bottom.

I plop down on a clot of grass, and Jamie lays her head in my lap. “Good job, goody good,” she mimes.

I go to smack her in the arm and say, “Hey quit it, bad-y bad,” to try to show her that I don’t mind her teasing and I can do it too, but my hand only catches the water in front of me. Everything I say sounds stupid.

I weed algae from her hair. Her body is so heavy. Every part of her feels like rock. I think this is what a friend is, something heavy and secure, but I’m not sure. There were girls in dance class and girls in neighboring desks whose last names began with letters that were alphabetically close to mine, but the phone never rang for me. My living room floor was never clotted with pillows and sleeping bags arranged to fit like Tetris blocks between sofas. I saw the covers torn off magazines and taped inside binders and the lipstick rubbed off on the bus ride home. I bought the magazines and make up, but still nothing happened. It never occurred to me that I should be the one to pick up the phone.

My fingers stroke Jamie’s forehead. Her skin is raised like a sheet of button candy where tiny pimples sprouted underneath her sweatband. She even lets me push back her bangs and smooth her eyebrows. Jamie swings her body around and stretches her feet across my lap. Jamie isn’t pretty or anything, but she tries, and her eyes don’t squint when she looks at me like they do with everyone else, which makes me feel special. Her arms are as thick as my legs.  In my dreams, I sometimes imagine Jamie lifting me and hurtling my body toward the surface in one swift whoosh. I grab a stone to scrape the beard of zebra mussels that have been growing around the half-moon of her heel. I file her foot until it’s polished smooth as the rock I’m sitting on.

Her parents let her get a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her ankle when she turned sixteen, but Jamie only ever made the Trials. I trace the blue, yellow, and black colored circles with my finger until Jamie brushes my hand away.

“You know I was on the dance team,” I say.

“Dance isn’t a sport,” she says.

“We performed the pregame show at an Eagles game.”

“Still doesn’t make it a sport.”

“My dad took me to the US Open once.”

“Yeah, who’d you see?” she says, her voice lilting.

“I can’t remember,” I’ve finally got something to say, but all those players in white flouncy skirts and matching bloomers looked the same. There were those sisters everybody knows, but I can’t think of their names. “Justin Timberlake and Anna Wintour were there.”

“Who?” Jamie asks. I don’t explain.

*

No one talks about what got us here, but we all seem to know. Frankie went skating late in the season, slipped through, and got trapped beneath the ice. Jamie thought her life jacket was too puffy and made her look fat. Veronica’s mother never took her children to the Y for lessons, so when the canoe tipped, it was a straight shot down. Diana is a Storm Girl, swept under by a current in the ’55 flood. Ms. Shannon is an Intentional and seems to like it here more than the rest of us. She knotted an old boat motor to her ankles, kicked it off the edge of a dock, and dove in after it. The Baby was just a baby, but she’s the only other Innocent. She’s like a beach ball everyone tosses around. When it’s my turn to hold her, I imagine her buoyant belly held inches under the surface, the slight resistance pushing against her mother’s palm.

I rub red clay onto The Baby’s toenails and sing the nursery rhyme about the piggies, but I can’t remember which one ran away and which one cried and what they bought at the market. So I make it up: “This little piggy wore pink lipstick. This little piggy wore white tennis skirts.”

“Good. Start her young,” Jamie says.

Jamie takes The Baby and bounces her soft and controlled, like a ball right before the serve.

“A-girl-has-to-always-look-her-best,” Jamie says beating The Baby against her thighs in a steady rhythm. “It’s not my fault orange isn’t my color. I mean, tell me who looks good in orange? Right Baby? Who? Who?”

When The Baby doesn’t respond, Jamie throws her palms up and says, “Exactly my point.” The Baby’s hair flutters like the thin fingers of an urchin as she drifts back to Jamie’s lap.

Jamie flips out of the old tire, which sends the loose bottom coughing. She spreads across an algal plume. Ms. Shannon balances The Baby on one hip and holds Diana’s head in her free hand, cupping the soft curve of her skull, “Lean back. That’s it.”

Jamie scrawls her name in the clay with her index finger, dragging her nails through the silt. She erases with her palm, and scribbles again.

Ms. Shannon tosses The Baby upward and catches her each time the baby’s plump body returns. The Baby giggles like it’s a game, but it’s not for some of the others. Diana leaps with all her might, springing from bent knees and crying each time her body sinks into the soft clay.

Diana gets frustrated, wipes her nose and blubbers, “I wanna go home.” So Ms. Shannon has to pull her aside and re-explain, “Getting out of here is not going home. You can’t go home. You realize that?”

Diana’s been here so long all her people are gone. No one would claim her even if she was found. There were witnesses when Jamie went under, and The Baby’s mother confessed. But me, I slipped away miles from here when a stranger hooked his elbow in mine, and a girl who looked exactly like me pushed me into his van. No one will ever come for me down here.

I arch my back so high, only my toes are touching the bottom. When I kick them up, my body starts to slowly rise before it falls like an unfolded sheet of paper.

Ms. Shannon squeezes my cheeks between her palms and says, “Excellent job!”

After Diana calms down, she manages a ten-second float on her own. Her eyes are closed and her hands are spread flat across her stomach. “I feel so skinny when I’m floating!” she exclaims.

“That’s it, Di.” Ms. Shannon cheers as she bounces The Baby on her hip and babbles in baby talk, “Isn’t Di a good fwoater? Yes, she is. Why, yes, she is.”

Jamie rolls her eyes and attempts the same move, just to prove that she can do it too, but she can’t get up. Her hair spreads across mud. I think maybe she just needs a little extra help, but no one’s big enough to lift her. She’d need two of us to balance her, but Jamie’s too proud to ask.

The Baby’s lips spread in a wide toothless smile.

“What are you smiling at?” Jamie says to her. “You can’t do it either.”

“You want me to spot you? Come on,” I say, trying to be nice enough for both of us.

“I don’t need your help. I am a nationally ranked singles player,” she blurts. Jamie combs her bangs forward with her fingers, pulling the edges of the hairs to even them out in a straight line across her forehead. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” I say. I understand that it’s easier not to try then it is to fail and wish there was a club for Drowned Girls Trying to Find Girl Time where I could report progress like this.

*

I give up my practice for the night to sit by Jamie and sift tiny pebbles through my hands. The Baby crawls over, and I pull her onto my lap.

“You be the Daddy and I be the Mommy,” I say to Jamie.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“It was just a joke,” I murmur, even though it wasn’t.

The Baby’s head bobbles like the end of a fishing line when I bounce her on my lap. Ms. Shannon says, “Oh, how special. I wish I had a photo of this, both Innocents together.” Jamie pulls The Baby away from me and she starts to cry.

“You have to keep bouncing her,” I say.

Jamie hands The Baby back.

She resents the distinction between the Innocents and Accidents. Accident implies fault on the part of the drowned, a lapse in judgment or element of complicity. She sees herself as innocent as me. “I mean, what were you doing at Target that day? Didn’t your mother teach you not to talk to strangers? Where were your parents? Everyone knows these things happen when girls like you are alone.”

“What do you mean ‘girls like me’?” She doesn’t say dumb, naïve, but I know that’s what she’s thinking.

“Girls who don’t have street smarts. You know?”

I don’t know, but I could explain, “There was a girl there. The girl looked just like me. She could have been my friend. How was I supposed to know?” I could say, “My sister was busy that day,” and that “I’m glad I went alone. If she was with me, it might have happened to both of us and she’d be down here too.” But when Jamie asks, she’s not really asking. She’s just mad that Ms. Shannon strokes my nose the way you’d pet a horse and says that girls like Jamie are like the all-crust end of white bread you keep reaching over and eventually throw away.

Ms. Shannon tells me to get to work again, “I don’t want you stuck down here. You’re better than this.” She doesn’t say anything to Jamie, even though she’s sitting right next to me.

For Ms. Shannon, “better,” means I didn’t get drunk every Friday night, so drunk that when I flung my shirt up for the boys I flung my body out of the boat.  But, if after I fell from a boat of eighteen people, no one dove in after me, I might be sad. I might be jealous too.

*

After practice, Jamie and I lie flat on our backs to watch the jellyfish migrate. They transverse the lake every night searching for food, their four tentacles shimmering like a cloud of mutilated stars, each one missing radius. Each jelly is no bigger than a quarter so they look more like snowflakes than stars. Last night I saw Cassiopeia’s chair, and the night before Orion, missing a belt buckle, shimmied across the water like an epileptic Elvis.

Jamie reaches her finger up and waves it around, “That’s a dinosaur,” she says. “You see it? Right there. Quick before it disappears.”

It’s coming close to me, and I’m afraid I might get stung, so I squinch my eyes shut and say, “I see it,” even though I see nothing but a blur of light through my eyelid skin.

“Open your eyes,” she says, wiping her palm over my face like someone sweeping closed the eyelids of the newly dead but in the opposite direction, “It’s not going to hurt you. They’re so small, they don’t even sting.”

I hold my eyes open so wide I feel like a surprised cartoon. She finds a treehouse, a minivan, and a boxer. I inch closer to Jamie until our elbows are touching. I claim to see them all without asking if the boxer is a person or a dog, and then I grab her hand. Touching her feels like dancing used to. Her skin is hot. It’s the first warm thing I’ve felt since I’ve been down here.

We sleep in an empty church each night, but I’d pray even if we slept in a public school. I pray for my parents to find me or give up looking. I pray to my sister to find a girl to take my place. I pray for the man who took me to never take another, and for the girl with him to find a way away from him. I pray to Adjutor, patron saint of swimmers, boaters, and drowners, instead of praying for myself:

Dear Adjutor,

God grant me the serenity to swim

Turn my feet to flippers and fins

Let my lungs lift me to the littoral zone

For someone to find me floating.

Amen.

Jamie says prayer is bullshit, but I pray for her, too, for her bullshit and for her bloated body to find its way to someone she loves.

Diana locks herself in the confessional at night while Jamie and I sprawl on pews near the altar, whose marble slab is so heavy I think it’s the anchor of the entire city and if it could surface, everything, including us, would float up with it. Ms. Shannon tells us the pine bench is good for our spines, like the cradleboards of Iroquois babies, and will help us master floating. It just feels like camping. Instead of counting sheep, I count Jamie’s bubbles streaming upward, translucent links in a chain.

“Seventeen. Eighteen, Nineteen,” I whisper.

I can hear Jamie scratching the pew. Jamie’s been working a knot in the wood for several nights now. Jamie breaks through the pine and presses her eye to the hole.

“Look, I took an outie and made it an innie. Look. Hey, look,” she says, “Man if there were a hole in that boat, I wouldn’t be the only one stuck down here.”

I look until her eye is gone.

I wish I had someone to bury secrets in, someone to build and arsenal of understanding guarded by passwords and pinky promises, but I don’t understand why she wished her friends had drifted down here with her. Maybe that’s the difference between Accidents and Innocents. Accidents are girls who’ll kiss the boy whose name they saw you doodle in your notebook just so they can have someone to kiss.

*

Jamie’s running late and lays her portable make up case on my pew because there’s no space on hers. A sliver of mirror, an antique camera missing a lens, and tiny shells are lined up like a row of broken jewelry.

“Don’t touch my things,” she says. When I think she’s not looking, I run my finger across the raised zipper of the case like I did her forehead. I kneel beside the pew and push my lips together then press them against the smooth plastic until a tiny bubble squeezes out, and I feel a smack against my cheek. “What were you doing, freak? Were you licking it? I said ‘don’t touch.’”

Diana asks if I’m alright.

“I’m fine,” I say. I try to see my face in the stained glass windows, but Joseph’s feet are too small and Mary’s habit is too high, and the swaddling cloth of the manger is too white.

*

The Baby went in the night, so Ms. Shannon skips the silent bell and convenes our meeting by asking Diana to read from How It Works: A Sinker’s Guide to Swimming. When Diana gets to the part about staying in the here and now, accepting your own powerlessness, and letting the water lift you up, I stop listening and twirl divots into the clay. I spin and spin until I don’t know which way is up.

Diana asks me for a spotter, so I cup my hand between her shoulder blades. She can still only float when someone’s holding her. She’s like a child who needs a reassuring palm against its back to fall asleep. I picture The Baby’s body rising toward her mother’s hand, like the center of a peach glowing bright red everywhere the pit has touched.

I ignore Jamie who grinds her fist in one of the holes I’ve spiraled like  she’s a boxer fitting a new glove.

There’s dirt under the nail of my big toe. When I bend down to scrape it out with a rusted fishhook, Ms. Shannon holds her arms out. I think she’s asking me for a hug, but I don’t want to give it to her. Ms. Shannon is the kind of mother that might hold her baby underwater just to keep it small and hers, so I keep digging at my nails with the fishhook.

*

That night in the pew I tell Jamie, “That was mean. You shouldn’t hit other people. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”

Jamie pokes her eye through the knot. “You don’t know mean. You love everyone so much, I bet you didn’t even try to get away.”

“I did so.”

“Did you run?”

“I couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.”

“See I told you,” she says.

“There was nowhere to go.”

“Admit it, you could have tried harder.”

“I could have tried harder.” I say.

I try to find the perfect moment, the one where I should have run. Was it before he washed me in bleach until I smelled like a bathroom? After I was in the van, we stopped at a really long light at a five-point intersection. Maybe it wasn’t that long, it just felt long, but I didn’t ever try the door. How do I even know it was locked?

I run my fingers over the scabbed patches of my skin that feel like coral in an abandoned tank then turn my back to her. Jamie calls my name and says she’s sorry, but her apology is a cheap carnival prize that won’t survive the car ride home.

*

I decide to keep ignoring Jamie. I watch Jamie outline her eyes in black, as if they aren’t otherwise there. I don’t look to see whose name she writes in the bottom and don’t notice when her tire becomes a gaping eye socket. Eventually, Jamie will come back. I sit on her tire and wait. It’s possible that Jamie returned to the church, and she’s taking a nap in the pew. She’s a lazy girl. She doesn’t really practice at practice, so why would she stay just to sit here when she could be sitting somewhere else?

“Sitting isn’t swimming,” Ms. Shannon scolds.

“Have you seen Jamie?”

“You have to want to learn to swim,” she says, “Jamie Grove doesn’t want to learn.”

When Ms. Shannon frowns at me, she looks so pathetic, I tell her I’ll try harder and ask her to spot me. I push against her hand between my shoulder blades and feel my pelvis lift. My legs are heavier than I expect them to be.

“Lean back on me,” Ms. Shannon says, “to pull them up.”

I feel like I’m about to topple backwards but it works.  The first time she lets her hand slip from my body, I don’t even notice it’s gone. I can leap eight feet up and hover horizontal like David Copperfield’s assistant. The water is so clear, I can see the moon shimmering in wavy stripes of a tiered Jell-o mold.

I try to move up, but I’m climbing a Stairmaster. Ms. Shannon says, “You’re more of a stomper than a kicker. Keep your knees straight. Like this.”

I rub my legs close together like a cricket calling to a mate. The skin inside my legs tickles, but I’m ascending, inch by inch.

“That’s it! You’ll be swimming before you know it,” Ms. Shannon says. She strokes my nose and smiles, “I’m so proud of you.”

The takeoff is a grand plié into a squat jump. Floating is the first half of a back bend. Kicking feels like split leaps. Rolling over is a pirouette turned on its side.  I translate all the swim maneuvers into dance moves and practice over and over so I can show it to Jamie.

When I get back to the church, I’ll tell her, “Hey, Jamie, a thousand people saw me that day. There was the guy pushing a train of shopping carts who was so close, when the girl’s ponytail swooshed, it almost whipped him in the face. There was a lady in sunglasses who watched the girl shove me into the back of the man’s van but didn’t get off the phone. None of them did anything, either. What was I supposed to do?” I’d tell her, “I saw that girl coming toward me, and I didn’t move. I wanted her to speak to me. I waited for the ‘Hello.’” I’d say, “See, Jamie, I’m an Accident. Just like you.”

But Jamie isn’t in her pew or anywhere else in the church.

Curled on the hardwood pew with only my own bubbles to count, I stay awake all night, waiting for a finger to push through a knot in the wood.

*

There is nothing emptier than waking up when someone who was there every morning before is just not there anymore. I tell myself that Jamie’s pulling a prank to get back at me. She’d do that. Friends do that. I convince myself that Jamie is teaching me something about the way girls are, and I forgive her.

I head to the meeting, calling, “Jamie? Jamie!”

Shorn beer cans glimmer like oversized coins. I feel like my body has been laced to whiskers and ask myself: What kind of girl are you that even Jamie Grove can’t stand to be around you?

I’m the girl who never saw it coming, not the paneled van or the muscled arm. I never saw his face. I was afraid to really look at him. I wanted to be able to say, “I didn’t see anything,” only the cold splash of my own wake and the bobbing hull of a boat whose name was half burnt off by the sun Litt— M— Sunsh—.  I’m the girl who hated seeing my face blinking on the TV those few days before he dunked me, the still image of my class photo, the Fourth of July picnic with the rest of my family cropped out, each one stretched to fit the screen. I bet Jamie would have faked her own abduction just for the attention. I wonder if she fell into the river on purpose, like she was trying to lure some boy in after her, and he just didn’t feel like getting wet that night.

I flop into her tire and wait for the meeting to begin.

“You’re in my spot,” she says.

“Where were you?” I ask. I get out of her tire, but she doesn’t get in it.

“What do you care?”

Jamie’s eyes are framed in dark pencil lines. She’s standing with her fingers splayed over her thighs, the spiked heels of her boots sinking into the mud trying to find a way to feel good about herself, but even her shoes can’t lift her up.

“You don’t have to be so mean, Jamie.”

“Christ, you’re still harping on that? Get over yourself. You think anything I do has anything to do with you or anyone else?”

“Jamie – ”

“Jamie? Jamie?” she mimes. “God, you’re pathetic.”

I try to maneuver around Jamie, but she keeps stepping into my path.

“Oh, now you want to leave? Where do you think you’re going to go?” she asks.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t need one, but Jamie does. She wants to know she’ll win the match before she agrees to play.

I still half expect Ms. Shannon or Diana or even Saint Adjutor to show up like a superhero swooping in to pull me from the grasp of the enemy and fly me to safety. I’m waiting for it, as I waited all those days in that room, but no one was there and no one’s coming now.

I’ll be waiting forever if I wait for Jamie Grove to change, and I realize that forgiveness isn’t a feeling. It’s my sister on TV pleading, “We just want to know you’re okay.” It’s a gurgling baby still reaching for its mother’s face. It’s a deep squat into a lunge.

The silky bottom seems to be pushing me away as much as my soles are sinking in. When I start to move, the suction of my feet pulling free erupts in loud kisses that stir the bottom where I was standing. The water is a starry nebula radiating outward from my body as if everything is about to break apart. Bubbles rise, rush into each other, and then disappear as a hurried applause crashes around me in splintering waves of sound.

 

ABOUT THE STORY:

I am obsessed with crime shows. Every night before bed I fall asleep to Law & Order, the streaming dun-dun of a heartbeat soothing me to sleep. I find it comforting knowing that whatever horribleness has opened the show will be resolved at the end, the bad guys caught and punished, the victims redeemed. After exhausting the episodes, I moved on to other crime shows, real-life crime dramas like Dateline and 48 Hours and docudramas on the ID Network. The trouble with these true crime shows is that when a person goes missing, she isn’t always found. Unlike the familiar comfort of the Law & Order chime, I felt very unsettled watching these shows. I wanted to know where the missing girl was, what happened to the missing boy. Who took them? Did they run away? Were they on an Alaskan adventure to find themselves like Christopher McCandless? Will they ever come back?

For my own closure, I began to imagine a place where all those missing girls were, a kind of purgatory where they were just hanging out with each other until their bodies were found. As I dreamed about this place, I started to wish this place into being, so I wrote it into existence like a kid gluing horns on ponies so he can live in a world with unicorns. Most of the characters came to me as selves independent from the crimes that ended them in the lake. I wanted to separate the self from the crime that had been committed against that self or body and avoid labeling passive victims as the “girl who had that thing done to her” while at the same time call attention to this problem by creating the hierarchy system of Innocents, Accidents, and Intentionals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jaclyn Dwyer earned an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where she received the Sparks Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary magazines including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, andWitness. She is currently enrolled in Florida State’s PhD program in Creative Writing, where she is a recipient of a Kingsbury Fellowship. Her website is www.jaclyndwyer.com

 “The Drowned Maidens Club” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Pinch.

 

Pythagorean Identity - Alisha Karabinus

THE STORY:

In our slanted downtown apartment, Boyfriend and I sit crooked in bed, calculus book open in my lap, and x slicing between us. His voice flows endless down the slope of a curve. This is the arbitrary point, he says, and I answer: they all areListen, he tells me,you need this to pass. But despite the charge that comes with fear of failure, it is the concepts that pass me. I remind him: in high school, I almost failed trig. I remember: I ignored triangles, drew poems, translated T. S. Eliot into teenage angst. My So-Called Wasteland. I only remember sine and cosine, that tan is tangent.

Tangent: like mentioning poetry during a math lesson.

I tell him, I only know words, not lettersWe’ll switch gears, he says. A new chapter, The Pythagorean Identity. He tells me: an identity is a mathematical factLook at the equations. He says: They’re synonyms. I understand sameness, but I want to say: nothing is identical, though oneness is the root of identity. One is the same, a linguistic fact. The book says: Verify the identity. Like it’s all so simple. Like it’s just that easy.

He explains variables, sketching, patient, and my mind wanders. We have been at this before, in a classroom, before he was Boyfriend, when he was just a boy, his face thinner, his lean arms strings of muscle. I remember his hands, oddly fat and pink. I remember graph paper, the mothball smell of books. The strand of hair I braided and re-braided after I stopped listening. The way later we stopped speaking altogether. The way we spent two years fumbling back toward one another. In some ways, we are the same now as we were then. In others, not. We have become something new here, together, where he is me and I am him. I want to tell him, but I don’t think he’ll hear.

Listen, he says again, and I tell him: I am. For the first time, I am. But what I hear is not what he says. Words fail. We don’t always speak the same language. He speaks math and I hear words. Everything is translated. But this time I want to tell him I understand. Calculus is the study of change and I know identity shifts. He tells me: this is the line between trig and calculusIt’s all derivative, and I think of cells dividing, of the new skin we have grown since yesterday, and say: so are we. I touch his arm, the smooth plane of his cheek. It’s all new, and not. It’s all him. I see it, I tell him. We are the domain of a variable.

 

ABOUT THE STORY:

I wrote “Pythagorean Identity” when my husband gave me an impromptu calculus lesson one night as we sat in the bedroom. I couldn’t follow more than the most basic concepts, but enjoyed the language, the music of it, the way a word means one thing in math and one thing elsewhere, like derivative and especially identity. The question of identity  is such a big thing. Can we answer it with math? With language? With introspection? I don’t know. All I can do is try to write my way deeper and deeper into questions.

Just as the language of mathematics is layered with words that have so many connections, this piece, for me, is striated with the deeply personal. Though my husband and I have only been married three years, our relationship spirals back almost two decades, and so much of it has been anchored in language, in the exchange of words. So much of that has fed into the forging of my own identity, and after our lesson, I felt compelled to pour as much of that as I could into this little story, where I could roll back time and and write younger, slanted versions of us, a story that might nudge me ever closer to answers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alisha Karabinus is co-founder and executive editor of Revolution House magazine and an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University, where she is also the managing editor of Sycamore Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Baltimore ReviewSoutheast ReviewPassages North and PANK. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her husband and children.

“Pythagorean Identity” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Pinch.

I, Ester - Shannon Sweetnam

Allow me to start from the moment I, Ester, arrived – a slippery jumble of flesh and soft cries – so to explain why I packed up and moved to the other side of the country, choosing to abandon Mother and the unborn child.

Before my birth, when her contractions grew strong, Mother headed to Father’s burial place on the outskirts of town, telling not a soul where she was headed but carrying fresh bread and a sharp knife wrapped in cotton rags. This I know because it is recorded in the spirals, the color of deer hides, college-ruled.

As I aged, I found myself more and more at odds with these hand-written records and what I took for so long to be truth. A better daughter would find a way to trust Mother’s words and intentions, yet a better daughter I was not. My disbelief came upon me so fast I wasn’t sure it was real. I was reminded of the way a snake might sneak across our trail when out riding, slither so quickly past under cover of rotting leaves that the mare’s startled reaction came a quarter mile later, when the blur she’d barely missed with her front hooves registered in the recesses of her brain. The fact was that I had turned wary of the path Mother’d chosen for me. By sixteen, I began questioning her tight control of my comings and goings, to wonder at her reclusiveness, her strange beliefs, and the tight confines she kept me in. I was growing up, and my coming of age was like a train rushing toward me which I couldn’t stop.

Let Father be the first to see his daughter, Ester. Ester, Father. Father, Ester. A “how do” all around before Mother wrapped me in the clean rag she’d pulled aside for me and carried me home. This is the story of my birth. It is the story I grew up with, which I retold it to countless people who took it as I did for truth, or at least put on a good show in front of me. The problem is children are true believers, and if I’d been born at Micheaux Women’s Hospital and come out fully attired, I’d put the fact in my pocket and run with it. The train rushed toward me, shattering the graveside birth, destroying the story of my existence, and turning my world into a muddle of scattered cardboard jigsaw pieces.

I did not inherit Mother’s auburn hair, but Father’s, which mother claims to have been dirt brown. Mother and I hardly resemble each other, except to be both tall of stature, with the square jaws and prominent brows of many who live in this area. Our shoulders are wide, not sloping like those of so many women, and there is enough meat upon us to be considered farm-worthy. We have the strength and agility to catch a flustered chicken and wring its neck without getting clawed, to chop firewood and do a man’s work in whatever weather happens along.

Mother wasn’t born deaf. She lost her hearing when an ear infection went untended. Her parents waited weeks to fetch the doctor, who arrived at the house, his black bag brimming with penicillin, but his words faltering during the ear canal inspection. Only a few months later, Mother lost her ability to speak too.

During all our time together, Mother and I lived outside town in the valley, where we could spy the church’s steeple from the second floor, just above the stand of hickories bordering our field. Our neighbor’s sheep lay to the east and north while our own field and chicken coops lay southward. The neighboring farmer tended a handful of black sheep, and a great mess of creamy ones, while the dog that helped tend them, he was a shaggy mix of both colors. If the wind was right, you could smell that dog a mile before you could see his shaggy, patched face, a smell I grew to love as it brought with it licks and rubs and tail waggings like you wouldn’t believe, even when my pockets were empty.

Our house had two stories and a good five rooms, not including the root cellar. We had a small barn, besides, where we stabled our mare and parked the wagon. We were not well-off enough to own a car, but well enough to get by.

On Saturday mornings, I wore a starched dress and my good hat to town. Riding in, I passed the sprawling graveyard cordoned off by its iron fence. As I neared, the full leaves of the trees pulled away, and the church’s white cross appeared on the horizon. I sold eggs at the market and bought weekly provisions with the little money they fetched. I was not allowed to go to town for pleasure like the other girls. Nor was I permitted to attend movies in the theater I passed on my way to the bakery, where Paul had me in charge of baguettes and croquinolles and sometimes had me prepare the milk breads before I ran to school.

But I am pulling ahead of myself. Other things happened before I began at the bakery. One was that, after the death of their two sons in the war, our neighbors moved, taking their sheep and their friendly, malodorous dog with them. This happened late in the summer of my sixteenth year. Soon after, Monsieur Small settled into the vacant house. I am speaking of the nearest house that was not so large as our own. This new neighbor was injured from the First War which occurred I suppose at good decade past, when I was but young. The war had been far away and I knew little about it. Small was middle-aged, a few years younger than Mother, and having befriended us, he dined with us often, bringing hoppin john or molasses candy which he made his own self. He had been as family to us since he arrived, and Mother spent great time wondering about his intentions. I thought at first she was keen on him and so she was, but that’s not the whole story.

Small was an expert signer because his own mother had been deaf as a stone. My friend Marie-Rose said things like this weren’t coincidence but God’s indelible hand. This new neighbor was the only human being within two dozen country miles able to speak to Mother. At dinner, we signed even when Mother left the table. She was so busy talking, she rarely ate, and her food gelled on her plate, the gravy transformed into a viscous speckled glob edged in pig fat. I had to get up again and again to stoke the firestove and percolate coffee. On the evenings Small visited, I brushed Mother’s hair and braided it myself before he was due to arrive. I rubbed in sesame oil and dabbed her neck with vanilla extract I’d brought home from work. There was no fixing my own hair as Mother preferred I keep it short and unadorned, cut straight at the bottom edge of my ear, so that my whole head resembled a burnt acorn and envy burned through me at the site of ribbons in my classmates’ long hair.

During that last year at home with Mother, I enjoyed getting up early to bake. At first I complained of a belly ache and begged to be let be. I couldn’t fathom why Mother couldn’t have taken the job herself – all it took was a pair of strong hands and the ability to follow simple instructions, something I had the nerve to mention one night at dinner. I endured several hard lashes before letting loose a scream, and Small, upon hearing me across our connecting yard, ran over to investigate, grabbing hold of the leather whip and flinging it to the plank floor. Mother neither cooked me anything nor allowed me in the kitchen for three days. She locked the cellar and kept the key on a string around her thick neck. The fourth day with nothing to eat, I left early for work, a half dozen hard boiled eggs stuffed one after the other into my mouth and a wide slice of bread gripped tightly in my fist as I ran. The train was coming. I felt its rush of wind in my face, the passengers whispering for me to grow my hair long, to sneak out and attend Friday night dances or go to the movies with Marie-Rose. The train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it.

Paul confided there was something wrong with Mother, besides her deafness, though he didn’t specify further. He was the first one to tell me to my face it was highly unlikely anyone in that graveyard had any relation to me at all. You’re a smart girl, Ester. Gisa tried to shush him but he wouldn’t have it. You’re old enough to know your own history. It doesn’t make you any less. But to many people, it does, and I told him so. What exactly is my history? I demanded. He merely shrugged.

Paul’s wife, Gisa, helped at the bakery, mostly by ordering Paul around. I wear the pants, he always told me, and I laughed when I heard him say it, so he said it over again every morning to please me. Remember Ester, when you get married, it’s the man that wears the pants.

Gisa said with a voice like mine I should sing in the choir with Marie-Rose. Mother always shrugged and rolled her eyes when anyone brought up something God-related, but I was of a different mind about Him. Marie-Rose had told me the good He brought, including our neighbor Small. Yet Mother more than once threatened me when I set about hitching the mare up to the wagon on a Sunday morning.

It was clear that Small had intentions toward Mother. I knew plain well she snuck into his bed during the day when I was at school. Late that autumn, Small told me in confidence that she was expecting and confided also his great affection for Mother. He said she slept with him only on the promise that he would settle down with me at the end of the day, and he’d taken it for a joke, something to liven up their relations, but she had persisted in her demand, and he stood, flat-footed and dumbstruck, in a fluster of worry. And what, pray tell, was I to do about it? I spit on the ground before him lifting my strong arms to the sky before I stormed off.

Around this same time, in the late autumn of my sixteenth year, I became all suddenly acquainted with Henry. Marie-Rose and I’d been walking home from school when we came upon him. He had hurt himself, I figured in the war, since there was a war, not the first war I spoke about earlier, but a second one. He’d fought, been injured, and now limped listlessly along on crutches, his shoulders hunched against the cold. The conductor had thought him too ill to travel further and sent him off the train with a slip of paper with the address of the veteran’s hospital, which the wind had lifted from his curled fist. When we came upon the soldier, he was limping slowly in the wrong direction, his ruddy face bruised and swollen, with no one about to ask about where he should be setting his feet. The street, you understand, was quiet that time of day. There had been not a car to flag in the while we stood with him, so I fled to hitch up the mare while Marie-Rose took keep of the soldier.

We were making good progress toward the hospital when we past home and Mother ran out of Small’s house, still buttoning her blouse, her shawl half off her shoulder. She bid me stop, and I did. She took Henry to rest in my room, slipping off his shirt and pants, wrapping him in my blanket, and sending me to heat water. By evening, we could not get him out of bed. He smiled at me but it was hard to tell if he could even see, his one eye swollen and the other sort of slanted about from a deep cut in his brow. Very sweetly, Henry asked if he couldn’t touch my face. Mother read his lips and her temper flared. I left without a word, went to the kitchen to bake croquinolles and fry sausage for dinner.

That night I slept on the kitchen floor until I heard Mother’s soft, rhythmic snore. I returned to the bed with the injured soldier. Our first snow had fallen earlier that week, and the cold had lingered. A thin layer of ice ferns spread upon the lower half of the paned windows. My breath hung in loose white clouds before me, the fire stove no match for the drafty farmhouse. Henry woke when I entered the bed and threw a bare arm around me. He smiled and said my name. Ester. I kissed him upon the mouth, tenderly, so as not to hurt him, and he moaned and I moaned back, and when he shushed me I reminded him there was no one to hear us except the chickens out back so he screamed my name as loud as anyone had ever done and I almost burst my side for laughing.

Henry stayed with us a fortnight, growing strong enough to come to the table for dinner. Small and I both had the same idea about this man, whom I’d so quickly fallen in love with. He was smart and kind and a ticket out of the mess I was in if I could get him to take me back with him to the other side of the country. Mother grew disagreeable during this time, because we all spoke without signing and talked over each other and she couldn’t read all the lips at once. Besides, she was with child, tired and annoyed to begin with, so many evenings she just got up in a tizzy and left the table.

Though she had to have been at least two months pregnant, Mother hadn’t spoken to me of the child, and I wondered what she planned on doing with it. One night, at the table with Henry and Small, as I left to stoke the fire stove, it occurred to me she planned to put the young one in my own care. She expected Small and I to register to marry around the time the infant was due, soon after I graduated, and for now, we were playing along like we would. I think at first Small had thought he could still entice Mother to marry him instead, but their relations had soured on his end, and he was only protecting me now. I explained to him that there would be threats she planned on seeing through to drown the child or smother it if I did not agree to take it for my own, and he saw that this indeed could be true. And the jigsaw pieces of my past scattered even farther apart and the train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it. I could do nothing.

After seeing the way he smiled at me, Mother would have sent Henry off to the war hospital after that first evening, but Small gave me a gold locket to appease her, and I kept my distance from the soldier when she was around. I heard from Marie at school that the veteran’s hospital was crowded and full of disease, though it wasn’t long before a high fever caught hold of Henry and there was no other option but to send him to the long, low building on the edge of town. I took him in the wagon, where he lay prostrate, wrapped in my blanket, his breathing shallow and his face burning. The old mare trotted quickly, shaking her head in annoyance, her gait stiff and gimpy, her ears back as far as they could go without being disconnected entirely from her head. The few sheep we passed huddled with their back ends against the gale. The wind stung my face and my eyes teared so that I gave up trying to see and closed them altogether. I trusted the mare to keep on path, wondering if she, too, might be blinded by the weather and was relying on me to navigate as she lurched unevenly forward.

As we pulled up to the hospital, Henry asked me to promise to return with him on the train to the other side of the country. I felt for the first time in my life disrobed of all fear, and worried only for the fate of my crotchety girl, whom Mother would leave locked in her stall if I left, ignoring her soft whinnies, until they lessened and ceased.

Throughout autumn, the weather remained unseasonably frigid. Trees shed their leaves early and fierce winds broke limbs and uprooted dozens of trees so that many roads were for a long while impassable. Snow fell often and hard. Small visited more and more, speaking only with his hands, every now and then reassuring Mother of our agreement with her plan by pecking me on the cheek or bending his head into mine as he watched me perform equations at the kitchen table. Both Small and Marie-Rose found time to visit Henry, report to me his progress, and slip me notes which I kept hidden in my desk at school. Henry’s health improved. Small reviewed the train schedules and purchased a suitcase for me which he snuck in his cellar, while Mother, like usual, kept watch of my comings and goings. Only once was I able to sneak away to visit the veteran’s hospital, leaving school on the pretense of running an errand for the headmaster. I scrambled through the snowy fields toward Henry only to find visiting hours cancelled due to influenza. At home, I pretended to have forgotten the solider entirely. I brushed Mother’s hair at night without the usual sense of resentment, knowing my situation would soon improve. There was a train coming down the tracks and I was to hop on it.

Two weeks after Henry went into the hospital, I turned seventeen. I had a small party after school at the bakery with Small, Paul, Marie-Rose and Gisa, which Mother reluctantly allowed. How I had wished Henry could have been there! How I missed the roughness of his beard and the green flecks in his somber eyes, the way he opened his mouth upon my sex before he took me, the way he scrawled my name with his fingers upon my chest, Ester, Ester, Ester.

The day after my birthday, in homeroom, Marie-Rose leapt upon me, and while in her arms, told me of my betrothed’s death, which she’d discovered in the morning’s paper. She held my hand under our shared desk much of the day, but still could not stop crying, as if her own heart had been broken and not mine. I lent her my handkerchief and wiped my own nose upon the inside of my sleeve, while I stared at the blackboard, unable to hear anything coming out of Miss Faget’s mouth.

At home, I tended the chickens and stretched out all the chores I could think to do until it was too dark to see even a wall in front of me, until my hands were raw from scrubbing and hammering and splitting wood. I ignored Mother when she came outdoors. Once I entered the house, she set about heating water. I soaked my hands, avoiding her eyes. It was so quiet I could hear Henry’s watch count the time. He’d fastened it directly on my wrist when I dropped him off at the hospital. Surprisingly, Mother had let me keep it. It was in lieu of an engagement ring, which he had planned to purchase for me the minute we set foot off the train at the other end of the country. It’d never had a watch before, and it was hard to get used to the constant ticking, and only looking down at your own arm to discover the exact to-the-minute time.

The evening of the day I learned of Henry’s death I wound the timepiece before going to bed the same as always, tucking my watch-laden wrist underneath my pillow where the ticking boomed in my ear. I didn’t know what would happen to me now. I turned my head to smell the pillowcase. I hadn’t washed it since Henry lay upon it, but his scent was gone.

I slept fitfully, wondering what was to become of me. There was a train was rushing toward me and I felt as if I had two choices. I could run in front of it or hop on, but I couldn’t stay here in this farmhouse with my pregnant mother, watching her belly grow and fate close in upon me. I took the rosary beads Marie-Rose lent me and looped them around my fingers until they were so tangled I had to cut the string. I didn’t know the rosary or I would have said it. It seemed like the right thing to do. I wished we had had a phone so I could speak with Marie-Rose, but there weren’t phone lines that far from town. So instead, I stood in the front hall, staring out into the darkness and working to remember Henry asleep in my bed, his face bruised and cut but peaceful as a little boy’s. I felt my own tired face, crumpled with worry, my eyes like eggs cracked open, and I curled myself into a ball on the parlor sofa and fell asleep just as the head rooster began scratching in the yard, raising his voice sunward.

That last year at school the teacher had convinced me to apply to a college for women. She said I was bright enough I could become a teacher myself or even a professor or mathematician. She said the college was far off on the other side of the country. You’ll live in a heated building with other girls where you mustn’t worry about cooking or washing up, she explained, where on the weekends, men in suits to take you to dinner at restaurants with tablecloths and white candles. She explained that the girl’s dormitory was of brick and stone and well-heated, and that a house mother prepared the food each evening, a warm meal with meat, vegetables, bread, dessert, and even a little wine. Most amazing to me was that water would run hot from the tap and that there were libraries taller than the church’s spire filled with books. She told me a scholarship might well come through, as few girls from this far away apply, and she was right as rain about that.

When it was time to leave, she took the mare, knowing the horse sound and well-trained, though often ill tempered and a bit sassy. Small hitched up his own wagon and sent me off on the pretense of going to town to shop for things we needed for the wedding. There, in the station, he squeezed my hand hard and tears ran down both of our faces.

My name is Ester and I was born in a graveyard in front of the grave of a pauper unable to afford a carved headstone. My name is Ester and maybe I was born in a hospital. Maybe I was stolen from gypsies living on the town’s outskirts, or tossed on the side of the road by the woman who bore me because she was not able to care for me. Perhaps Mother stole me under a gibbous moon, using only a rope ladder to reach my open window and lead me away. As much as I once loved and believed in the woman who raised me and set about making up my past in a series of spiral notebooks, college ruled, I would never put anything past her.

After I left for college, I sent Mother a letter by post, providing my address and basic information. I wrote not a word of apology at leaving her alone, her child due any moment. It has been a year now and I have not heard back. I wonder if I will ever see her again. Perhaps she is relieved I have taken flight and is happy for me in her own way. Whatever happened to the baby I can’t allow myself to wonder. Even Small has not written, and I figure that he, too, has gotten up and gone.

Time alters all things, something I am reminded of when I realize how long it has been since I have used my hands to speak, or when the train blows noisily just north of campus and gets me to remembering that first step I took onto the platform into this new life, or when I close my eyes and am awakened by the loud tick of Henry’s timepiece, proof of my short love affair, proof that I, Ester, eighteen years of age, am alive. I am here, breathing and bursting into a new existence. And that is all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural EnvironmentsCrab Orchard Review, Dominion Review, and Georgetown Review. More stories are forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine and NANO FictionShe is winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and two Illinois Arts Council grants.

Bogue Falaya - Gabrielle Hovendon

In those days, we were childless. We were attuned to our bodies’ inner mechanisms, and we knew we were empty cabinets, longcase clocks without cogs or gears. Everywhere we looked we saw ourselves: in hollow drumskins, in hurricane lamps and ladles, in beetle carcasses picked clean by ants

For years we had known our husbands, their clumsy and urgent bodies, the way they loosed themselves in thick breathless floods inside us. They came to us with smells of motor oil and coins on their hands, or they came with breath stinking of beer, or they smelled of other men’s cologne and slipped out of bed afterward to wash themselves. They took their pleasure in serving maids or in shacks along the delta, or they flipped us over like rag dolls, or they bound our wrists with silk cords and took us up against our great-grandmother’s table in the foyer.

            And still we remained empty. No quickening, no swelling, no children. It was 1907, and we were not mothers.

            Our husbands invited physicians into our homes and conferred with them behind closed doors. The doctors inserted clumsy steel instruments and incised us with scalpels. With thick fingers they applied pork grease and boric acid and instructed us to lie with our hips propped on pillows. They diagnosed excessive pleasure, moral dissipation, or irregular living; they dosed us with castor oil and brewer’s yeast. And when all their cures failed, when our husbands despaired of ever carrying on the family name, when we were bruised and trembling and still barren, we went up the bayou to be cured.

 

Like everyone, I came by water. At dawn I stood at the docks with their stink of fish and rust and waited for my husband to appear, beg me to come home. He did not.

            The chauffeur had brought me to the harbor, but I had insisted on carrying the valise myself, and already my arms were aching. I had packed only my oldest dresses, the ones I had worn before I married Henry, and a good luck charm from our maid Cora. I was leaving behind anything that would remind me of my husband.

            A man named Alcee was waiting to help me into a small wooden motorboat, and for a single moment I hesitated. Henry and I hadn’t passed a restful night, and his words were still with me. Imogen, this is lunacy. I wish you would listen to the doctor. And then, desperately, won’t you even miss me?

            I reached for Alcee’s hand and stepped into space. When I was seated, he started the motor and the boat lurched to life with a comfortable shiver. We pulled away from the dock, and my heart quickened at the sight of the open water. In six months I’d come back to my husband, and everything between us would be mended.

            That day we traveled across Pontchartrain, past Saint Catherine and the Rigolets, past Maurepas and up the brackish Tchefuncta to where it narrowed into the Bogue Falaya. I hadn’t eaten since dawn, but there was nowhere to stop for food and we had many hours ahead of us. Occasionally Alcee broke the silence to point out duckweed and water hyacinth and naiad. When it grew dark, he lit a lamp that served as a beacon for black flies and mosquitoes.

            We spoke little. There was little to say.

            It was well after nightfall when we docked. Alcee helped me out of the rowboat, his hands hard and lumpy as tree roots. Watch your step Miz Imogen. Careful now. He led me across the muddy yard to an ancient and enormous plantation house where a woman waited to lead me to my room. In the dark it was impossible to distinguish anything about the grounds, but the entrance hall was tidy and glowed with kerosene light.

            We ascended a flight of stairs and turned down a long corridor. I asked the woman how many people lived here, but she held a finger to her lips. Behind all the doors, women like or unlike me were sleeping.

            My room had pink wallpaper and tall windows. There was an oil painting above the bed and a washbasin decorated with roses. I saw immediately that Henry had paid for the best, and my stomach tightened. Even here, a full day upriver, he had found a way to reach me.

            The woman took her leave, closing the door behind her. I placed my hand low over my abdomen, that place where resided those things worth secrets, and then I blew out the candle and got into bed. I lay awake watching the ceiling, listening to the moths tangling in the curtains. Six months, I thought, and I did not sleep for hours.

 

We came to live in this house on the edge of the cypress swamp, a half dozen miles from the nearest town and a full forty miles from society. The property was receding into the water, and every year the swamp claimed a few more feet of land. There were places where the path became tangled with creepers, places where the ground forgot its firmness and where the soil turned to liquid beneath a woman’s feet.

            The women who ran the home were healers, Acadian traiteurs with unknown pasts. When they left the room, we exchanged what little we knew about them. They hailed from a defunct convent; they had been nurses in the Spanish-American War; they were distant relatives of each other and their great-grandfather had built the plantation home back when Farragut was blockading the city delta. Privately, we called them Sister-with-the-Long-Nose, Sister-Who-Wears-a-Blue-Rosary, Sister-Who-Never-Stops-Smiling.

            For a steep price they ministered to us. They mixed concoctions of mare’s milk and rabbit blood and linden flowers; they anointed the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet with cypress ash. They gave us bee pollen to wear in vials around our necks like crumbs of gold. They prayed to saints old and unfamiliar, and they cast pigeon bones, and they burned dark candles and consulted stars. They prepared us to receive children.

 

In the morning I smoothed out my dress, splashed water on my face, and went downstairs for breakfast. Nearly two dozen women were already seated in the dining room. I sat down next to one, a woman with tiny diamond earrings, and introduced myself.

            Josephine, she replied. From Royal Street.

            Another woman leaned over.

            Your husband is Henry Delahoussaye?

            A frisson ran through the room. I nodded and dropped my eyes to the table. Of course they would have heard of Henry. He was the wealthiest man on St. Charles Avenue, famous grandson of a famous general. His family’s shipping empire extended from Baltimore to Bermuda.

            At the table, the women were quiet. There was a rustling of muslin and an uncomfortable clearing of throats. They would have heard about Henry’s cold wife, too, the woman with the new money and the unhappy eyes. They would have heard of her beauty and of her childlessness.

            I did not imagine they would pity such a wife.

            When their chatter resumed I kept my eyes fixed on my plate. Be friendly, Henry would have told me – did tell me, every time we hosted a gala and I stood in the corner regarding my own gloves, talking to no one. He didn’t know I was watching him watch the other wives, the ones with children. He didn’t know I saw him wondering what those women were doing differently, saw him longing for a whole house of tiny Delahoussayes to carry on his name. The depth of his desire was crushing, was something hot and furred and prickly at the back of my throat.

            So I shrank from Henry’s hand on my arm, and I kept my crucial secret from everyone but Cora, and when he suspected nothing I withdrew further from the one person I wished most to confide in.

 

At first we were anxious. We bit our nails, jiggled our legs, and combed our fingers incessantly through our hair. We tapped rhythms on tabletops, aimless beats of waiting, waiting, waiting. Here we had no husbands to serve or households to oversee. Our isolation settled around us like a fine layer of dust, disturbed only by the occasional put-put-put of Alcee’s rowboat and the arrival of new women.

            When the stillness became too much to bear we gathered our skirts and fled toward the cypress, across the cut lawn and into the swampy thickets of ferns and wax myrtle that bordered the water. No one bid us come back, but our scalps prickled before we’d taken a hundred steps. We felt as if we were being watched, and rumors abounded: of boat-people who lived deep in the cypress, of lawless upcountry Cajun who drank all day and cast unwanted children from their wombs and their boats with potions and sculling oars.

            We returned to the home, spooked by the sound of the cranes and the fat, dark spiders that clung to all the trees. Confinement was more comfortable than this wildness, and soon we stopped leaving the house altogether. We knitted and we stitched samplers and we sat for hours on the long shadowed porch, mosquitos ferrying our thin blood from woman to woman. Guarding against malaria and yellow fever, the traiteurs burned sage along the perimeter of the house and smeared calamine on our bites.

 

In a room at the back of the house, I lay naked beneath a thin muslin sheet. The traiteurs stood above me, their hands outstretched, not yet touching me. They closed their eyes and chanted prayers to St. Philomena and St. Collette, their lips moving in unison. They lit dark candles to the spirits of the cypress forest and blessed me with water from an aspergillum.

            When they finished praying, they pressed their hands along my collarbone, across the smoothness of my stomach, between my legs. Their touch was not unpleasant, but it reminded me of Henry’s hands and I shivered. When they were finished, they had me sit up and drink a tea of bloodroot, wild ginger, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

            The tea tasted like metal, and I made a face. The first traiteur laughed, but the second frowned.

            You are not like the other women, she said. You are here to be cured of something different.

            A chill washed over me. The first traiteur saw my expression and shook her head.

            It is no matter, she said, kindness in her eyes. This is a safe place. It’s only that you may not find the thing you need here.

            When the traiteurs left the room, I fell back onto the sofa. I let the muslin puddle over my ribs and hips and I stared at the ceiling. They had known with their fingertips and their prayers, known somehow about my arrangement with Cora. How every Sunday she would go to the outskirts of the city and come back with herbs wrapped neatly in twists of cloth and paper. How another maid might have threatened to tell my husband, might have said Miss Imogen you oughtn’t be doing this, but Cora had known me since I was little, and she had eight children of her own. While Henry made his weekly visit to his mother, I brewed the black and muddy tea and she burned the receipts in the stove.

            Slippery elm, sixty cents.

            Blue cohosh, thirty cents.

            Pennyroyal, powdered, forty-five cents.

            And month after month, the relief of blood.

 

Privately, each knew she was the one most deserving of a son or daughter. We compared the indignities we had suffered at the hands of our physicians, trying to outdo each other. We compared our families, the mothers-in-law who likened us to the daughters already on their second or third child and the fathers-in-law who pinched our bottoms. The spinster aunts who cornered us in the larder, breaths sweet with sherry, and bemoaned the fate of childless women. Each of us was convinced she had suffered the most.

            We competed in our treatments as well. When the traiteurs recommended more milk in our diets, we asked for second and third glasses. We said hundreds of Hail Mary’s on our knees; we massaged our skin with mandrake oil and the blood of black chickens. It was rumored that Hattie had sent for her mother’s ruby ring and drunk the stone powdered in water.

            Sometimes we gossiped. Minnie eats candied violets. Ida goes for days without a corset, how on earth does she expect her organs to stay in place? Florence perfumes herself with rose oil, which everyone knows is for unmarried women. Little wonder about her, then. Little wonder that one’s barren.

 

That evening, I left the house and crossed the long yard to the river. I stood on the dock and looked out at the trees, the overcup oak and bitter pecan and buttonbush. All along the water were little ripples where fish broke the surface to eat insects. Upstream lay unknown territory, the pale gray strangeness of the cypress and the stilt houses of the Cajun. I saw that Alcee’s boat was gone and there were no others at the dock. I had been soothed by the sight of that rusting, empty boat, its insides bare of everything but a motor and bilge water.

            I felt a cool amazement to be standing here at all. When a mutual acquaintance had whispered the name of the bayou home to me, I’d scoffed. The last thing I wanted was help conceiving. But the more I thought about it, the more I’d realized what a gift it would be. Three years ago we’d received a crystal chandelier and a silver service as wedding gifts, but they were hardly the equal of this house. For a half year, there would be no foul smelling teas. No meeting Henry’s eyes and swallowing hard. No pushing clumsy hands from my hips at night, hating him, loving him, hating myself.

            Because I knew the nightmare of babies. I saw how they came out clutching pieces of your heart and your brain and how they never returned them. I saw my sisters and my friends reduced to turtledoves, unable to carry on a conversation without cooing.

            A cloud of flies swarmed my head and I allowed a daydream to overtake me. The curve of the river faded and I saw myself giving birth to a tiny flock of birds. They would rise around me, a thousand wings beating my skin, their tiny feathers drawing blood. They would lift me into the air and carry me north into a place without compromise or disappointment.

            The sun was sinking. I was about to return to the house when I heard a giggle across the river. I squinted at the opposite bank, my heart speeding and fluttering. Two small faces peered out from the sedges. Dark eyes, foxlike pointed jaws. There was another giggle, then a splash, and the faces disappeared.

            Hello? I called. Is someone out there? But there was only silence.

 

When we first felt the signs, we did not allow ourselves to hope. We were nauseated, and we drank ginger water. We were tired, and we stayed in bed till noon. We had eaten spoiled meat, or the swamp air had affected our dispositions, or we had been stricken with a blood fever.

            But our symptoms continued. It had been months since we left our husbands, and yet our nipples wept yellow milk, our abdomens distended, our breasts grew so sore we couldn’t stand the weight of cotton shifts. We cried with no provocation. We felt quick fluttering movements low in our bodies. We intuited the transformation of pelvis to cradle.

            Those to whom the symptoms did not appear whispered slut in the halls and refused to pass the fruit compote at supper. But soon nearly everyone’s bleeding had ceased. Soon nearly all of us were with child.

            At night the curtains grew heavy with water and dripped our exhaled breath onto the floor. Our dreams roamed the house, permeated by the ebb and flow of the river. They congregated in the halls and pooled in shadows along the porch and returned to us with visions of each other’s babies. In the hours before dawn we saw them, tiny and translucent and pink and gold. One curled a tiny fist. One pursed its lips as if it had just been told a secret. Twins squirmed constantly in their bag of waters. Each was impossibly small and flawless.

 

Something was happening in the house, but I didn’t know what. All week the women sat on the porch, straight and severe as needles, and wrote long letters to their husbands and friends. There was a faint sweet scent around them – desperation and vomit. Their languor had vanished and they looked like startled rabbits in the moment before they begin running.

            Josephine seemed calmer than the rest, and she could occasionally be persuaded to take walks with me. She slipped her arm through mine and led us around the edge of the property, from the river in front to the deep tangles of vegetation in back. We came so close to the trees that we could reach out and touch their beards of Spanish moss. She would not tell me about what was happening in the house, though, and I had to be content with other gossip.

            While our skirt hems grew dark with mud, we exchanged stories about the oddest women, about Lily stealing lumps of dough from the windowsill and eating them raw, about Hattie cradling balls of yarn when she thought no one was looking. When I mentioned the children I had seen on my second night, Josephine said she once saw a little girl swimming across the river in the dead of night. It was the strangest dream, she said, but I could imagine even odder visions, eels with glass skin and caves full of moon-colored fish. We watched cranes stalk through the marsh grass with their backward knees, and I was glad of the company.

            But soon even Josephine retreated to her room and I was left alone. I spent the afternoons lying on the floor in the parlor, tracing patterns in the dust while sunshine fell in long bars across my skin. There were alligators in the river and a toad bug in my washbasin, and something marvelous was happening to everyone but me.

 

We watched for small signs of lunacy. We laid out buttons to see if they moved or multiplied in the night. We pricked our fingers with sewing needles to make sure we could still feel pain.

            The first traiteur to find out was the woman with the blue rosary. She bent over Dora, beads clicking faintly at her hip, and felt a fluttering beneath her fingers.

            Wide eyes. A slow, brimming smile. It was true. We were pregnant.

            The traiteurs were ecstatic. The word miracle hung on their lips. The air in the house was thick with prayers and burnt offerings and a joy so fierce it nearly suffocated us.

            The weather grew hotter. Days dripped by. All along the swollen river, nature was bursting. In the undergrowth, birds fought with sharp, primeval cries. Small hooved creatures scurried and swam at the edge of the swamp. Inside the home, spiders the size of playing cards clung to the ceilings.

            Our bodies were bursting as well. Our hair grew glossy and fell to our waist, our skin shone, our areolas grew to the size of saucers. Our stomachs became streaked with tiny white lightning as if we were gestating thunderstorms.

            At last we emerged from our rooms, proud and unashamed. We were radiant.

 

Summer crashed down on the bayou. The last sweetness of spring burned off, and the house was full of women praying, women beaming, women holding their rounded bellies like relics. It was astounding, and sickening, and I found myself hard pressed to carry on conversation with them.

            The traiteurs were beside themselves to explain what was happening. They asked why I was not pregnant like the rest, why I was the only one still empty, hollow, flat. I told them I didn’t know, but secretly I was pleased. I held at bay the painful twisting part of me that missed Henry, and I told myself that when the six months were over he would be so glad to see me that he would not ask for a child again.

            I allowed myself to believe this until the day his letter arrived.

            Dear Imogen, I hope this letter finds you well. Since your departure I have kept busy reviewing accounts at the office. There is a man who wishes to transport diamonds from the far reaches of Africa, I daresay he is somewhat mad.

            I regret the words spoken in anger before you left. Please return quickly to your husband who misses you dearly. I see no need for you to remain in that horrible place a minute longer, as Dr. Hamilton has some new treatments and he is confident in their efficacy.

            The weather here has been warm but not intolerable. I think of you often and hope for your return daily. Yours, Henry.

            I read it through three times at the edge of the dock. Turtles sunned themselves on the opposite shore. I imagined Henry sitting in our cool mansion and composing the letter at his desk. I imagined Dr. Hamilton with his hairy ears and cold, dry hands.

            I tore up the letter and threw the pieces in the water.

            Dear Henry there is an ache in my chest whenever I think of you. Dear Henry why can’t you let me tell you the truth? Dear Henry, listen carefully. I do not want to bear your children even when I close my eyes and think of nothing else.

            Night came. I would have lain awake for hours but for a strange noise that rose from the yard. I took my wrap from the chair and hurried down to the porch.

            In the dark moonlight, I watched a pair of dirty feet descend from the bottom of the pigeonnier. A child emerged, followed by another. They carried a pair of plump little birds each, and they ran laughing across the yard and into the cypress.

            From the porch I listened to them splash through the water and mud. I could smell the pure and decaying scent of the swamp, hear the quiet thirring of its frogs and night hunters. Bats crossed darkly above me.

            Dear Henry, I don’t know what to do.

 

Exhaustion: thick and heavy, lead, stone.

            We were growing quickly, a week for every month. Our stomachs swelled and swelled and swelled. The babies pressed on us painfully from within, keeping us awake long past dark. We abandoned our whalebone corsets and stays, our dainty shoes and our elaborate hairstyles. We bathed only the parts of our bodies we could reach. We were so tired we could barely talk.

            We grew hungry and we inhabited our hunger like monsters. We compared cravings, whispered the foods we wanted and the crimes we would commit for a bite of them, salt and honey and cabbage. We ate everything we could find, bluegill and catfish and okra and onions and carrots and roast birds from the pigeonnier at the edge of the yard. We hoarded bread and cheese, licked marmalade from our fingers. We sucked on sugarcane we wheedled from Alcee and drank milk by the pint. We ate eggs, dozens of eggs, scooping them from the pan before they were fully cooked and burning ourselves. We ate and ate and somehow we were never filled.

            From time to time we envied the rich barren girl her figure, though we pitied her for everything else. Slender, yes, but what awful sin must she have committed to be the only one not touched by this miracle? We speculated, and we slept, and our bodies grew.

            We did not write to our husbands. We had transcended words. Our bodies hummed a quiet beesong, exuded honeysuckle-scent, became smooth and hard as varnished casks. When we walked from room to room, we swayed. The whole world was amniotic, waiting.

 

Days passed, and I did not see the children again. When I asked the traiteurs if any locals lived nearby, one gave me a concerned look and brought me cool cloths soaked in witch hazel. Another, though, spoke of Cajun spirits, of milk spoiling too quickly, women waking with their hair cut or braided, things going missing and turning up inside armchair cushions or wheels of cheese.

            I contemplated sending to Henry for opera glasses, the better to peer into the underbrush, but I could not explain – to him or myself – why I wanted them. I thought of broaching the subject again with Josephine, too, but she had taken to tatting bonnets and humming lullabies under her breath.

            Instead, I wrote to Cora, filling the fronts and backs of four pages. I told her about the other women and about the children I had seen in the yard. Is this what you feel when you look at your daughters? I wrote. Awe at their very existence? Cora was born in a pig slaughtering town and grew up in air that smelled of blood, and she swore so often that my mother once threatened to whip her tongue with a willow twig. I knew she would speak her mind.

            That same afternoon, I found myself wandering the yard again. Lately the afternoon heat was like a thick wall you had to push through to move anywhere, and I was sweating by the time I reached the pigeonnier. There was a little trapdoor for the traiteurs to collect eggs, and the grass between the stilts was white with droppings.

            When I was sure no one from the house was watching, I lay on the ground in the shade of the pigeonnier and breathed the ammonia smell of the birds. This was what I knew: I wanted my marriage to survive and not in the way my parents’ had, everything cool, civil, please pass the sole almondine. I wanted my husband to snake an arm around my waist and look at me the way he did when we were courting. I wanted him to stop making me turn away.

            Birds cooing in the afternoon heat, and clear high giggles in the underbrush.

 

We awoke to groaning. Labor had come on Anthea quickly, and we ran to her. She was lying on her bed, the sheets soaked, her eyes wide and glassy.

            Two traiteurs pushed past into the room. For heavens sake go back to your rooms everyone.

            But we ignored them, jostling for a sight of the baby. We were noticing everything with a crystalline precision: the smell of hot blood, the clear glass of a kerosene lamp, the way her body clenched in waves of pain. We wanted to preserve these details and dissect them later, looking for knowledge about our own labors.

            There was a lazy somersaulting low in our bellies. Anthea began pushing and an answering tightness gripped our own bodies. She pushed and pushed and her muscles united all through her body to become the push and outside a wind raised through the trees. There was a great sighing in the room. A thin line of blood trickled onto the sheets.

            We released our breath. There was no child to see. There was nothing at all.

 

I slept poorly. One of the women had gone into labor, and her screaming must have permeated my sleep. I dreamed I was pregnant with horses, foals thrumming through my blood, whole herds of them, and appaloosas with dusty coats, and ferocious black stallions, and a filly with a perfect white star on her nose. Then the image shifted and I dreamed I was gestating shoals of fish, chittering raccoons, crocodiles that rose through my skin in a slow, wicked buoyancy. I woke sweating and feverish.

            The next morning, the traiteur with the kind eyes summoned me to the drawing room. She had a frown on her face and a letter in her hand.

            Imogen, your husband wants you to come home, she said. He wrote us regarding a letter you sent, something about the other women’s condition. He said it was clear the treatments were not working and you should return to the city immediately.

            I stared at the traiteur. My letter to Cora. Henry had seen what I wrote.

            I need more time, I began, but the traiteur shook her head.

            I’m sorry, she said. He’ll be here Friday.

            When the traiteur left the drawing room, I went down to the dock. I watched a piece of driftwood fret in the current and considered how I had spent an entire marriage saying yes. Yes I will marry you. Yes I will be a dutiful wife. Yes I will come home.

            The night before I’d come to the bayou, Henry tried one last time. I rolled away from him in bed, but he turned me back and pinned my shoulders and began. I had never fought him before, but that night I bit and kicked and thrashed until he couldn’t finish. Finally he tucked himself away, fuming.

            That swamp voodoo isn’t what you need, he said. It’s a goddamn muzzle. But in the morning he’d gone out and come back with a vase of forget-me-nots.

            Four days. I would see him in four days. I felt as if I was breathing through a pound of cheesecloth, as if someone was cranking my insides through a clothes wringer. I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know if I had anything to say at all.

            A sound came upriver, but I ignored it. I picked at the hem of my dress, tore the threads into nothingness. Four days.

            The sound came again. A peeling rowboat was nosing around the bend. Two small faces peered over the bow. Silent, watching.

            I met their eyes, and then I knew. Some deeper force was driving my body, parting my lips and forming the words between my teeth:

            Take me with you.

 

One by one we were diagnosed. Hysterical pregnancies. Figments of our imaginations. No real children in our wombs.

            But we had abandoned the capacity for disappointment. Whatever bayou strangeness had impregnated us, it left no room for doubt. After Anthea, none of us went into labor, but none of us lost our shapes. We were static, glowing, still pregnant.

            In time some of us returned to our husbands, but nearly a dozen of us stayed. Other women came and went, and in time we settled into ourselves and forgot everything we had known before pregnancy.

            We would be mothers to greatness. We would give birth to extraordinary humans, kings and queens and holy vagabonds. There would be violence and sweetness in their aspect, and they would remake our lives with unimaginable force. Some days we could barely contain our excitement. They were coming. Any day now, our children were coming.

 

Except for the sound of the motor, the world was quiet. I sat in the boat with the children, knees tucked to my chest. The older one, a boy, was shirtless and silent. Beside him, the girl held a trap baited with flossy white fish bones. In the bottom of the boat lay a tangle of fishing nets, stones, dried flowers, a dead crappie with flies picking at its eyes.

            Inside the cypress, it was a different world. The light filtering down through the tops of the trees reminded me of ice, cold and clear and fragile. We were traveling on a slow current, slipping through the water as easily as a snake, and from time to time the bow bumped gently into the flared bases of trees. Occasionally we passed a listing houseboat, its sides gray and faded and hung all over with moss.

            Between the trunks, the water was overlain with a green scum so thick it looked like grass. I imagined stepping over the edge of the boat and walking across the swamp. I imagined that the spars and hulls of the half-submerged boats were the ribs and shells of water monsters, and I imagined my poor husband traveling forty miles up the bayou to an empty bedroom.

            I did not ask where we were going. I did not speak at all.

            Instead I studied the children. We could be in the boat for days, and I wanted to know them. I wanted to know childhood, all raw and ragged and full of possibility. This was the way they all began, after all, these people who loved and hated you and sank into your body and stroked your forehead when you had a fever, these people who once contained all possible iterations of themselves.

            The boy spit over the side of the boat. The girl toyed with the fish bones. Soon I would need to brush back my hair and smooth my dress and prepare to meet the unknown I had chosen. But first, just for one atavistic moment, I prayed for a part of me to survive, to outlive the rest, winding on and on in gray forests, marching through time, slipping upstream or downstream or floating perfectly still among the dark inscrutable branches.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Gabrielle Hovendon teaches English in Galicia, Spain. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Southwest Review, Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, Ninth Letter, and Tin House’s Open Bar. She is currently at work on a novel about two nineteenth-century mathematicians.

 

 

Superman Dam Fool - Randal O'Wain

1.

My mother and I were driving downtown so that I could re-enroll in Junior High after an arrest and suspension. It was a humid Memphis spring, and two men leaned against the sidewall of a liquor store sharing a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Painted on the wall behind them, the words SUPERMAN DAM FOOL covered the length of brickwork, each letter composed uncertainly as if by a different hand. Drawn next to the words was a stick figure—a smiling circle sitting atop a legless, armless bar, but it wore no cape. DC Comics had just killed Superman. Every comic seller in the city sold his demise. Rows of bloodied Ss filled the racks.

I have no idea how long the graffiti had been up, or if it was in response to the death of Superman, but at the time I wondered. In fact, I wonder still. For what reason was Superman foolish?

2.

In third grade, I told Ashley Pettigrew that I knew how to cuss without getting in trouble. “Dam it,” I said. My feet barely scraped the dirt as I hung from the monkey bars. “That is spelled d-a-m-n,” Ashley told me. “Dam is spelled d-a-m. So you’re not really cussing.”

3.

The thing about aging is that I now welcome tallying my failures, humiliations and shame. It elicits the same pleasure as cleaning house after a busy month, or painting a room instead of bleaching out scuffmarks. But it’s the ambiguity within morality, the difference between guilt and innocence that eludes me. I have a working knowledge of foolishness.

4.

The Superman issues leading up to his death ended with a bleak panel of a creature sheathed in what looked like a hazmat suit banging chained paws against a steel container buried deep in the earth: DOOMSDAY IS COMING! Once freed, popping up somewhere in the Middle West, Doomsday extended his hand for a yellow canary to land. He crushed the bird. The caption, "BLORCH," hovered next to his fist in blood-red letters—"HAH ... HA HA HAAA."

5.

Did the graffitist believe Superman was a fool because he used his powers to fight evil instead of, say, vacationing in the Bahamas? It is true that Superman would never have had to wait in transportation lines, and if he wanted he could have easily won Mr. Universe pageants, or literally picked up any woman, or man, he desired. What’s the use of morality when you are a superior being? 

photo by Fontaine Pearson

6.

In kindergarten, I sold my soul to the devil after I’d been punished, sent out into the hall, for using my hand to make fart sounds under my arm during naptime. Right when giggles subsided I’d let another one rip only to bring on a fresh bout of laughter. I’d never been so popular. According to my older brother, Chris, the devil granted wishes. I can’t remember what I wished for, but a desire to be beyond punishment lingers in my memory.

7.

Chris knew all about the devil because at ten years old he was a Satanist. He’d been converted, he said, when he found the Satanic Bible glowing on a corner shelf in his elementary school library. I was plump with wishes. But when I told Chris that I’d asked the devil to kidnap our little sister after she’d left my Big Wheel out front and it was stolen, he said, “Take it back. Satan’s evil.”

8.

On the day of my arrest and suspension from Junior High, I’d just come back from a six-week long sick leave—pneumonia, mono, glandular infection—when the vice-principal found a razor blade in my wallet. The real principal had just been arrested for embezzlement, and the vice-principal had been temporarily promoted. Finals neared and to make up for the time I lost while sick, I’d obtained a hall pass to study in the library instead of attending English. Along the way I ran into a kid I knew because he sold off his Ritalin prescription during lunchtime, and after that the two of us ran into the interim-principal. My friend didn’t have a hall pass, and our persons were searched for drugs or weapons. The interim-principal told us he was cracking down on school violence. Two different students had been stabbed with pencils that year alone. During his tenure, each morning, the homeroom bell was withheld for ten minutes while long yellow buses unloaded teenagers who lived full-time at the county juvenile penitentiary. At day’s end, the buses idled, waiting for the non-incarcerated students to leave campus.

9.

Superman fought Doomsday all across the plains. But furious with primal rage, uttering pre-verbal caws, grunts and growls, the subterranean creature matched Superman’s prowess. “He wants destruction and death,” Superman told Lois Lane while barreling the creature through a brick wall with his powerful heat vision. “I have to be every bit as ferocious and unrelenting as he is.”

To which Lois, dressed in a skirt, high heels, and business blazer with especially geometric shoulder pads, cried, “But…you can’t.”

10.

Not only could Superman fly, but he also had x-ray vision, superhuman strength, superhuman speed, and he never aged nor suffered any lasting wounds. The Man of Steel. But Clark Kent, the reporter persona that Superman used to closet his true identity, was just a normal guy. Not only normal, but socially inept, clumsy, and in many ways invisible, especially to Lois Lane. 

11.

I spent the first year of my life with steel between my legs. A rod held my feet apart and bound my ankles. “Realignment,” the doctor told my mother. My leg joints and hip sockets were incompatible. Later I wore braces with hard plastic-covered springs that held together leather straps and connected to brown corrective shoes.

12.

During recess, when the other boys played soccer, I wandered the outer-corridors of the school, the springs of my braces creaking in the coolest, smaller alcoves. Children were forbidden to leave the playground, and my kindergarten teacher repeatedly had to search me out. One day she handed me a rusted coffee can full of water and a brush. “Here,” she said. “Color the bricks.” With a few strokes of water, the rust colored bricks shined crimson and new. I looked up, paintbrush dripping droplets in the dust, just as two boys whose names I’ve forgotten but whose white sneakers I still recall ran all the way from girls who jumped rope by the front door to the swing set at the far end of the lot.

By the time I graduated kindergarten, I had become a master brick painter. Smiley faces were the hardest because I needed to move quickly in order to paint all the parts before the first wet brick dried. But my favorite thing to paint were arrows that dead-ended into bushes or walls as if I had access to secret corridors the other children would never know. Sometimes I hid across from the water-painted arrows and waited, hoping someone would see that I’d vanished.

photo by Fontaine Pearson

13.

A month before he was killed, Superman was set to marry Lois Lane. Superman had lived outside the bounds of time. Each conquest, each adventure had no past, nor future. If Superman were to marry Lois then this would force him into the realm of mortality, the temporal flux of events ultimately normalizing Superman, and killing Clark Kent.

14.

Inside the Velcro pouch of my wallet, the interim-principal found a rusted roofing blade. Unlike a normal razor blade, this one hooked inward at the top and bottom. My wallet was red with a rainbow and unicorn. I’d found the blade in the woods when my family went camping two summers before and pocketed it so I could make a weapon for my favorite GI Joe, Shipwreck. But Shipwreck had long since been stored in the attic. The cop who escorted me off campus in handcuffs believed my story. “Used to make weapons for my toys,” he said. “Even had an stick with a razor blade taped to it, like yours, that my He-Man carried around.”

15.

While smashing up a Lex-Mart, Doomsday was distracted by a commercial that advertised pro wrestling at the Metropolis Arena. A wrestler yelled, “WHERE ARE YOU GONNA GO?” and as if awakened to some greater purpose Doomsday repeated, "'MHH-TRR-PLSS?'" In the city, Doomsday raged against skyscrapers, shopping plazas, media stations, and Superman. If Kent is Superman’s alter ego, then Doomsday is the Id that Superman must restrain, re-bury deep below the surface. During a fight that takes place early in the issue, Superman literally attempts to muscle the creature back into the earth: "'I DON'T KNOW WHAT HOLE YOU CRAWLED OUT OF—BUT I'M SENDING YOU BACK!" And in the end, Superman and Doomsday miraculously serve simultaneous blows that leave them both dead in the rubble, as if one could never have survived without the other.

16.

Perhaps I’m misreading the graffiti and “Dam” literally refers to damming a river, or some other procession. If I drove to the liquor store late one night and painted a comma between Superman and Dam and added an S to Fool, it would then read: “Superman, Dam Fools!”—a command, or a plea.

17.

Once, while having a conversation with a friend about literature, I was told the reason I didn’t like Virginia Woolf was because I did not try hard enough, to which I replied, “Perhaps you try too hard.” And when I actually read Woolf for the first time, years later, it was her diaries I loved most.

18.

“I enjoy epicurean ways of society; sipping and then shutting my eyes to taste. I enjoy almost everything,” Woolf wrote on February 27th 1926. “Yet I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say, ‘This is it?’”

photo by Fontaine Pearson

19.

Sometime after selling my soul, my brother and I found a hurt puppy in the road. Because we fought over whose room the puppy would sleep in, my mother set up a box in the hallway. In the night, after everyone went to sleep, I snuck out and cuddled the sleeping dog. It was sometime later that a ghost, a man in a suit and tie, appeared at the end of the hall and walked toward me. Because I’d rescinded my deal with the devil I anticipated this arrival, and oddly, I felt relieved.

20.

When my braces were finally removed, the summer between my first and second year of elementary school, I was given a pair corrective shoes that looked deceptively like basketball sneakers. Climbing from the car, back at the house, my mother told me to take a run. I’d never been able to run. “I’m going around the block,” I said. It was strange, running, not like flying at all. My left leg was stiff in the hip socket, and the sneakers felt bulky on my feet. At the corner of my street, I tripped on the toe of my new shoes and scraped my knee on the sidewalk. “Pussy!” the neighborhood bully, Zachariah, yelled from his porch. I stood, ran faster than I had before and once I was safely distanced from Zach I yelled, “Asshole!”

21.

Superman didn’t really die. He came back a year later, in an issue called, “The Reign of Superman.”  But he’d changed. Superman was more suspicious than before, protected.

Doomsday was also revived, and his origin revealed. 250,000 years ago, one of Superman’s countrymen had forced subjects into extremely hostile environments and then cloned the tissue of those that survived. Eventually, Doomsday grew superior and killed everything on the planet, including Superman’s ancestor.  

22.

While searching my friend’s bag, the interim-principal stuck his finger on a safety pin holding down a Nirvana patch. It bled a little, and he yelled for the nurse—“God knows! Now I’ve got to get checked for AIDS.”

“I don’t have AIDS,” the kid said. “Why would I have AIDS?” he asked, and began to cry.

23.

Sometimes I imagine that the graffitist’s Superman does not refer to the comic hero, but to a friend of the artist. Perhaps Superman-the-friend had died in some shameful way and the graffiti is an epitaph of sorts. Or maybe Superman-the-friend liked to get drunk on fortified wine and act a damn fool. Maybe he liked to run down busy streets, naked, and singing, “IwantmybabybackbabybackbabybackbabybackIwantmybabybackbabybackbabybackbaby—”

24.

The year after I was arrested, in the eighth grade, I lied to the interim-principal and told him that another boy had pulled a gun on me. I wanted to transfer out. The gun was real, but it had only been threatened—“When you ain’t looking,” the boy who jumped me in the bathroom had said. I was laid out in the urinal with a bloodied nose. “Pop.” He held two fingers together and pressed them against my forehead. I knew him from the year before. When he skipped me in the lunch line, I choked him. Back in the seventh grade, my friends and I had learned that people beat you up less when you acted crazy.

One friend chose to bang his head against the wooden desk until it bled. This worked for a while, but when I was out of school, sick with every flu known to the teenage immune system, a group of boys cornered him in the stairwell and ripped out every facial piercing he had: three eyebrow rings, two nostril rings, and three lip rings. They even managed to tear his earlobe ripping out a plug. He was the first to dropout of school. Now, he’s a model.  When I asked him why the others jumped him, he scoffed. “I forgot,” he said. “Does it matter?”

25.

I recently ran across a thought experiment where the author wished to trace cognitive imagery the mind creates when something is remembered. He wanted to draw the image he held in his mind. The thought experiment went like this:

I am sitting with a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I imagine Superman flying through the air. I can even, it seems, locate my image in the center of the blank sheet of paper. It occurs to me to try to (as it were) trace the image. That is, I try to trace a picture of Superman by going around the edges of the projected image with the pen. But the project is a dismal failure. The puzzle then is how such a failure is possible.

photo by Fontaine Pearson

26.

“The truth is,” Woolf wrote in 1926, “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle, at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent’s Park, and the soul slips in.”

27.

Later in the post-resurrection series, Superman relishes beating up villains instead of trying to avoid it. When he is forced to kill a cyborg-imposter of himself, he does so by ramming his fist into his robotic doppelganger’s stomach, lifting him in the air, and through a simple spasm of arm muscle he shatters his likeness into a million little pieces.

28.

After watching Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, I became an expert black belt. Unlike Macchio, I didn’t need a Mr. Miyagi or lessons because my fleece karate outfit came with the belt already attached. Chris had one too, but he chose to sleep in his rather than wear it to school. I preferred real-life heroism to super powers.

29.

A low brick wall ran in serpentine fashion along the front of our elementary school. Once, at the end of the day, I found Chris caught up in a fight. A boy, bigger than him, threw pinecones at Chris’ face as he lay on the ground, hiding his head with his arms. Neither my brother nor the bully saw me as I stood up on the brick wall. And neither boy saw when I jumped, kicking the bully in the back with both feet. I didn’t anticipate the pain that came when I landed on my hip, and I tried hard not to whimper. The bully lay in front of me, screaming, running his fingers all along his spine as if he meant to fling away fire ants. Chris raised his head from the ground and saw the bully, and then he saw me. “You’re such an asshole,” he said.

At home, after mom put peroxide on the cut above Chris’ eye, I took off my karate outfit and stuffed it in the back of the closet. The image of the bully’s distorted face projected in my mind’s eye, as vivid as a dream even though my eyes were open, even though I was awake.

30.

After the invented gun, I was transferred to a different Junior High, one that was difficult to get into because it was in an affluent part of town. There were no metal detectors like at my previous school, and students ate lunch outside. I was unprepared academically, and so was put in remedial classes that took place in trailers at a far edge of the track and field. But I never went. I was there on scholarship, and told frequently by teachers that my tenure was a trial. Chris, who had stopped being a Satanist at thirteen when he became a Baptist, was a senior in high school and had dropped Christianity for marijuana. He picked me up every morning after my mother dropped me off at school. We often smoked weed from a bong in his friend’s basement.

Sometimes we’d pick up my friend who had dropped out the year before. Hardly any scars were visible from the fight, except for one earlobe that buckled under where the flesh refused. My friend was a long way off from becoming a model, and instead, at fifteen, he worked construction with his father.

31.

I wanted to learn. When the transfer went through, I anticipated changing my study habits, maybe working as a reporter for the school newspaper. But I’d learned different life skills at the previous middle school. I’d learned to strike first before an actual gun was pulled or before I too was cornered in the stairwell. I resented my new peers because they did not know anything about where I’d been, because they could not.

The last day I attended public school, I got into a fight with a kid who’d been checking me all semester. Dogwoods bloomed just outside the stairwell window where we fought. He called me an “Opey Taylor Donald Duck cluck-cluck looking like a raggedy old junked up Vanilla Ice turkey neck donkey tooth mother fucker.” I threw the first punch. But he landed at least five fists to my temple before pushing me down a flight of stairs. I managed to make it outside, to the grass, before I passed out.

32.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time,” begins the famous Woolf quote. “It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

33.

Eventually Superman killed Doomsday. Using The Wayfarer’s time traveling bracelet, Superman teleported the monster to the very end of time, as the galaxy was collapsing in on itself, and he tossed the creature into the deadly crush. With Doomsday buried in the universe’s collapse, Superman returned to the pages without time, back to where events occurred without cycle or chronology. His death nearly forgotten but for the hesitant mistrust that became a part of The Man of Steel’s character from then on. But I imagine it was safe in those pages and that Superman was protected from any regret, or blame and I suppose Superman would be foolish not to choose this form of timelessness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis, Tennessee whose work appears, or is forthcoming, in Guernica MagazineThe Oxford AmericanBooth Journal, CrazyhorseRedivider, and Hobart: another literary journal, among others. He now lives in Iowa City where he is an MFA candidate in Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. 

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER:

Memphis based, Fontaine Pearson focuses on street and landscape photography with some architectural and portraiture work. Her camera is a meditative tool informed by her incubation in comparative religion studies, mental illness and empathy for life on the margins of society. She can be contacted by email at temprdglas@gmail.com, on LinkedIn and Facebook.

My Murderer's Futon - Sarah Viren

Winner Of The 2014 Pinch Literary Award In Nonfiction - Also Appearing In Issue 35.1 Spring 2015

The futon was cheaply made. The faux-brass knobs accenting its armrests were loose, and its lacquered wood finish had begun to chip away. Its metal ribcage pushed through a thin white futon mattress, kneading my back while I slept at night. In the morning, I would wake to the slightest stench of mildew from the cushioning by my head. Lying there, I wondered if he, too, had been bothered by the smell.             

Beside the futon, I kept his alarm clock. It was made of white plastic and had a black face framing red blinking numbers. In the kitchen were his table and chairs. They were a pale wood, likely a maple. I assumed he must have used them every once and a while. Maybe just as I would, alone in the morning, pouring myself cereal, staring at the wall molding. 
          
The TV, I am certain he used, flipping through channels until he found his favorite, the stock show. That was what was on the morning the killing took place, at least if you rely on court testimony. In my apartment it sat above his VCR on a metal rack from Bed Bath & Beyond that my mother had bought for me when she came to visit and was worried that I had nothing of my own in my new place. She had also bought a Target standing lamp, but it was his white lamp that I plugged in near the front door. When I got home at night after work and flipped the switch, it was his light that exposed my home to me.

*****

Robert Durst is not a murderer, legally speaking. He is a billion-dollar real estate heir who in 2000 went missing from his New York apartment. He arrived in Galveston some time later disguised, albeit poorly, as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. Rather than talk, they say, he would write down messages on a piece of paper. He rented a studio apartment from a tall German named Klaus and lived quietly on the island for almost a year.            

Then one September afternoon in 2001, a father and son were fishing in Galveston Bay when they happened upon the dismembered torso of a man in a garbage bag. In those same waters, police later found five black plastic bags containing a .22-caliber automatic pistol, the plastic cover for a bow saw, and two human arms and legs wrapped in old copies of the Galveston County Daily News. The newspapers had Durst’s address on the mailing label. Nine days later, Durst was arrested for the murder of his 61-year-old neighbor, Morris Black. 

Police claimed Durst had been living in Galveston, Texas, disguised as a woman, while hiding out from officers in California who wanted to question him about another murder: the shooting of his best friend Susan Berman on Christmas Eve of 2000. Before she was killed, Berman had been about to talk to police regarding the mysterious disappearance of Durst’s wife, Kathie, 23 years earlier. But today Durst cannot be called a murderer. In fact my calling his futon a murderer’s futon is quite possibly slander, at least if we are speaking legally. Still, that is what I called it. My murderer’s futon.

                                                                                                                    ***** 

I moved to Galveston from Florida in 2003, three years after Durst had arrived. Galveston is an island south of Houston that was once nicknamed the Wall Street of the South, though these days it’s better known as one of three things: a cheap beach resort, the name of a Glen Campbell song, or the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history. On a September day in 1900, a Category 4 hurricane rose from the ocean and smothered thirty miles of roads, houses, and shops that were Galveston Island. When the hurricane’s waves retreated, it left close to 8,000 dead bodies and flat lands where mansions once held stay. The island never regained its charm. And that feeling of misplaced regality, a hint of death, was still palpable when I moved there. A friend of mine, a poet, came to visit me once and said she could taste ghosts in the air. Sensible people said nonsensical things like this all the time in Galveston.     
     
I moved there for the job. After graduating from college, I had decided that all I really wanted was to be a newspaper reporter. My first try was with a weekly paper on a small island in Florida, a place where everyone drove golf carts and “the news” often meant covering dog shows and performances by retired Whiffenpoffs singers. When an editor at the Galveston County Daily News, a friend of a photographer I knew in Florida, called with a job offer with his paper, I said yes without hesitation, quit my Florida island job, sold all my things, and moved alone to start a new life in Galveston. 
           
I found my apartment through a classifieds ad listed by a tall German named Klaus. It was a one-bedroom shotgun that hung from the side of a renovated Victorian house a few blocks from the historic downtown. Two blocks away was a bed and breakfast run by a former Playboy bunny. Ten blocks south of that, you hit the Seawall and beyond that the beach. In the mornings, prostitutes walked the ocean line offering what one Houston weekly had called “a blow job on the way to work.” In the evenings it was Segways and packs of fat families. The rest of the island was filled with empty cotton sheds and port piers, strip malls and T-shirt shops, renovated lofts, new swanky restaurants, and too many abandoned beach houses. 
                                                                                                        

                                                                                                                     *****

When I met Klaus, what I noticed first was how perfectly square his jaw was and how tightly knotted the red handkerchief was around his head. He always wore that handkerchief and that, together with his tool belt, gave him the look of a pirate moonlighting as a carpenter, which was not altogether inappropriate. The other thing Galveston was known for was as a hideout in the early 1800s for a French pirate named Jean Lafitte. 
         
Klaus was close to fifty and had owned a chain of beauty shops in Houston before selling them and investing that money in Galveston real estate, which everyone said was about to boom. In 2000, he rented one of his apartments to a deaf woman named Dorothy Ciner. It was several miles from the one he would rent to me three years later. But after the arrest, after police confiscated all of Robert Durst’s belongings, after they ripped up the floorboards in his rented apartment and drilled through the walls looking for evidence, they gave Durst’s confiscated furniture to Klaus, and Klaus moved it to an extra garage a few blocks from the apartment I decided to rent from him.            

“Don’t worry, he didn’t live in your apartment,” Klaus assured me in his thick German accent after he told me the story.                    We were standing in the doorway of that storage garage, our eyes adjusting to the darkness. After I had signed the lease, I mentioned that I had no furniture. Klaus said he could give me some for free—as long as I didn’t mind who its previous owner was. I said I didn’t. He nodded and led me over to that garage a few blocks away. Behind us the autumn sun played with a pair of live oaks, checkering the grass with shadows. I could make out the shape of a pale kitchen table in the corner of the garage. It supported a TV, a VCR, and a Time Warner cable box. In the darkness, the contours of a futon slowly came into focus. It sat upright—almost rapt—facing the stacked electronics.       

 “Are you sure he won’t mind,” I asked Klaus, suddenly hesitant. Durst’s murder trial was underway in the county courthouse a few blocks away from where we were standing. He had been charged with first-degree murder, but was claiming self-defense. I imagined Durst on the witness stand and it seemed wrong, suddenly, to take his belongings without his permission. Later, people who learned about my furniture would tell me that taking Durst’s things was wrong for other reasons. How could you? they would ask, mouths agape. He was a murderer! But I’ve never been sentimental or superstitious. More than disgusted or scared by the furniture, I was curious. But at the same time, I didn’t want to feel like I was stealing from someone—murderer or not.             

“He is going to have a lot of bigger things to worry about if he ever gets out,” Klaus assured me. “Besides, he owes me lots of money, Robert Durst.”  

Then looking over at the futon, he added: “You think you can relax on that, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. Without answering, I walked over and picked up one end and, together, we loaded the futon into Klaus’s baby-blue Suburban. In three trips between the garage and my apartment, we moved the remainder of Robert Durst’s belongings into my new home. 

                                                                                                                 *****

I knew very little about Robert Durst before I began sleeping on his futon. I learned more through Google searches and by reading the articles about his trial that ran almost every day in my first few weeks in Galveston. He is the grandson of Joseph Durst, a Jewish immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian region who, according to legend, arrived in America with three dollars sewn in his coat lapel and later made millions buying up property in New York City. The Durst Organization is now a billion-dollar legacy that oversees more than 9.5 million square feet of real estate in Manhattan. They own large swathes of Times Square and won the bid to develop the One World Trade Center. 
           
Durst was born in 1943, a year after my father. At age seven, he says he watched his mother’s deadly fall—some say suicide—from the roof of the family’s Scarsdale home. In the following years, Durst grew into something of a rich-kid rebel, hobnobbing at Studio 54 and trying scream therapy with John Lennon. After college, he ran a health food store called “All Good Things” in Vermont with his first wife, Kathie. A 2010 fictionalization of his life staring Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as his wife uses that same name.         

Things began to change for Durst in January of 1982, when Kathie disappeared. Some of her friends blamed Durst. They said the two hadn’t been getting along, that he pulled her hair and sometimes hit her. Kathie had been finishing her medical degree at the time and was often absent. Durst was controlling of her time. But he said he was innocent. He plastered $15,000 reward posters with her picture across New York City. Later, when he started adopting other people’s identities, he sometimes used his wife’s name. Other names he used included Diana Winn. And Morris Black.            

Dorothy Ciner was the name of an old high school classmate in Scarsdale. When Durst became her, he donned a blonde wig and glasses taped together at the front. He is a slight man with fine features and in some cases pulled his disguise off. Other times not. When asked to describe Dorothy Ciner in court, Klaus said, “She looked like a middle-aged woman with a flat chest. I felt sorry for the poor thing.” 

                                                                                                                   *****

A week after I moved to Galveston, I was given the police beat. This assignment meant covering crime in four small towns just north of the island. It also meant picking up the phone every day and calling four gruff-voiced, overweight men in brown suits with badges, all of whom went only by “chief” and periodically asked me, “Hey, whatever happened to Scott, anyway?” Scott, my cop beat predecessor, had been promoted to covering the Durst trial full-time. He liked pro wrestling. He called hit-and-run deaths of 13-year-olds on Schwinn bicycles “juvenile autopeds.” The police chiefs missed him. 
         
The most obese of these men presided over a town split in half by an old farm road. His police department was the size of two doublewides. We met in person for the first time when I was writing a story about a change to local gun laws. The town’s council had outlawed shooting guns within city limits. I stopped by his office to get his opinion on the new restriction. 
           
“Take a seat, he’ll come get you,” the woman behind a scratched Plexiglas window in the police station’s waiting room told me. I paced the narrow corridor, looked at the safety information tacked to wood-paneled walls. The intermittent crackle of the police radio interrupted chatter between the front desk woman and a dispatcher. 
           
“Sarah,” the chief finally wheezed, opening the main waiting room door with a swoosh. The safety pamphlets flapped. He took my outstretched hand in his well-padded one. It was a quick shake with no accompanying slap on the back. I wondered what kind of greeting Scott got.  
           
Compared to the rest of the station, the chief’s office was sprawling. Everything—walls, carpet, furniture—was a deep, earthy brown. A massive oak desk anchored all this and, after gesturing me toward a chair, the Chief leaned back in his leather chair with a contented sigh. Having the desk between us clearly put him at ease.
           
“Chief, I heard about the shooting ban passed by city council and was wondering what you think. Have you had any problems in the past with people firing off guns around town?”   
           
He didn’t meet my eye.            

“Yeah, they did pass that, didn’t they,” he said. He blinked and picked up a coffee mug. Without drinking, he replaced the cup on some folded papers and then mumbled something about duck hunters and people protecting their property. I nodded and wrote.            

“Do you know anyone,” I paused. “Anyone I could talk to about this, a homeowner or hunter that maybe was upset by the change?”           

The chief could sense my hesitancy, my lack of experience, my gender. He shook his head.            

“What’s going on with that murderer you got down there?” he said instead.          

He was talking about Durst, of course. All the chiefs asked about him. It was their favorite subject. They would press me for the latest on the trial and then opine on the correct sentencing “that New Yorker” should face.            

“How anyone could have taken him for a woman I don’t know,” he mused. “Did you ever see a picture of him all dressed up?” Then he laughed, or wheezed, and waited for my response.           

Like most of the police officers I’d met, the chief was more fascinated by Durst having dressed in drag than by his alleged crime. It was both exotic and terrifying. It simultaneously confirmed their prejudices and freaked them out, which I think they secretly liked. But for me, Durst’s redeeming quality was the fact that he had cross-dressed. It made him an outsider, which was something I understood. As a journalist but, also, as a woman, and—though I told none of the chiefs—as a lesbian living and working in a place where local politicians still remained in the closet, where a church just up the road held a conference to “help” gays turn straight, where a sweet old lady I opened the door for at a voting booth once told me proudly she had come to cast a ballot in favor of the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. All this, coupled with the fact that I slept on Durst’s futon, ate at his kitchen table, watched his TV, meant that I found myself taking his side, in small ways, in brief moments like this one, where someone like the Chief was asking me to stand with him and call Durst a freak. 
           
In my silence, the Chief picked up his coffee mug. Part of your job as a reporter is to make yourself likeable. Likable people get information from people like the Chief. But I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t come to the rescue of Robert Durst, but I couldn’t mock him. “Yep,” I finally said. “He sure is the talk.” The Chief took a sip of his coffee. I pulled out my pen again. The desk between us was vast. 

                                                                                                                   *****

Those first few months I knew no one in Galveston, and so on weekends or after work I would spend hours on the futon, reading, sleeping, or writing. To get out of the house, I walked down to the port and paid five bucks to watch The Great Storm, a twenty-minute documentary film about the hurricane that played every hour on the hour except on Thursdays. The theatre was in an old brick building above a seafood restaurant called Willie G’s. In the gift shop they sold coffee table books of photos from Galveston before the storm and pirate doll keychains of Jean Lafitte. 
           
What I loved about watching The Great Storm was the sense of inevitability. Just as in Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm, written from the perspective of the weatherman who failed to predict the hurricane’s approach, the film impresses the hubris of Galveston in those pre-hurricane years. It opens with sepia-toned photos of a broad-boulevarded city lined with mansions and then a booming voice, imitating one of the city’s founding fathers, reads a quote: “Galveston, with a population of 40,000, is the most important seaport in Texas and nothing can retard its commercial prosperity.” Similarly boastful quotes follow one after the other, lauding Galveston’s once “fine buildings,” its former grand opera house, its “system of electric street cars,” its beach that is the “finest in the world,” and its future that “cannot easily be foretold”—all to the sound of piano music and chipper chatter meant to represent the thousands of wealthy tourists who would travel to the city in the late 1800s, staying in its massive Beach Hotel that faced the open waterfront. Following such jubilance was always a deep silence. A darkening of the screen. The tapping of Morse code keys. And then the mounting sounds of a storm whirling. 
           
I probably watched the island be destroyed half a dozen times in my first few months in Galveston. Meanwhile Robert Durst slept on a cot in the county jail four blocks away. His trial lasted seven weeks and Scott reported each day on the proceedings. A psychiatrist testified that Durst had Asperger’s syndrome and explained that this is why he so often reacted coldly to the tragedies around him. The defense argued that he was a sociopath. Klaus testified. So did the man who had found Morris Black’s body in bags in the Galveston Bay. 
         
Near the end, Durst took the stand. He explained his difficult upbringing to the jury and said that, after his wife’s disappearance, he had started smoking too much pot, drinking too much and developed bulimia. He said that he moved to Galveston because he did “not want to be Robert Durst anymore.” In Galveston, he rented an apartment from Klaus for $300 a month and became friends with his neighbor Morris Black, a man known for his violent temper. They watched TV together and went target shooting on Pelican Island. They both liked bourbon. But then Black started firing off Durst’s gun inside his apartment and using a spare key to get inside and watch Durst’s TV—now my TV—without his permission. One morning, after walking the Seawall until 6 a.m., Durst said he came home to find Black in his house watching his TV. He went for his gun, he said. But Morris Black already had it. They struggled over it and, at some point, it went off, shooting Black in the head. 
           
Durst said he didn’t remember much of the dismembering. He bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it while he sawed. He said he didn’t go to the police because he knew they wouldn’t believe him: “I kept going over the situation in my mind. Morris was shot in the face with my gun, in my apartment, and I had rented this apartment disguised as a woman.”
           
On Durst’s last day on the stand, the prosecution pressed him to remember more details, and eventually he admitted that he could recall one part: “I remember like I was looking down on something and I was swimming in blood and I kept spitting up and spitting up and I don’t know what is real and I don’t know what is not real,” he said. I can’t help but notice his use of the present tense. 
         
Less than a week later, the jury found Durst not guilty. Durst’s eyes widened when the verdict was read. He hugged each of his six-member legal team. Afterwards jurors said they weren’t convinced the killing was premeditated. The case against Durst had been weakened by one fact: no one ever found Black’s head.
           
“Did he take the head? You’ll never make us believe otherwise. Yeah, we think he took the head, because it was evidence of a murder,” Galveston District Attorney Kirk Sistrunk later told Dateline. Without Black’s head there was no way to tell how close Durst had been when he shot his neighbor, at what angle, or from what direction. In other words, there was no way to know if we should believe his story of self-defense or not. 

                                                                                                                  *****

Journalists are supposed to uncover the truth. In those early days of working at newspapers, this is how I thought of my profession. Putting yourself in charge of uncovering the truth, though, can also feel like an unraveling. It always seems to be there but isn’t. Every time I interviewed a local politician. Every time I called one of those police chiefs. Every time I came home and recognized Durst’s thing among mine and thought without really thinking that I knew a secret about him, something that would change the course of the trial and, later, after he was found not-guilty, something that would change the course of his life, that would reveal who he really was and what had really happened to him when he lived among all the furniture I later took as my own.          

I’ve read about women who become obsessed with killers. After Scott Peterson was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, he got numerous marriage proposals in jail from women he had never met. Groupies of Ted Bundy attended his trial, giggling when he looked their way and smiled. Even John Wayne Gacy, who was gay, got jail-house love letters from female fans. My infatuation with Robert Durst was different. I was not in love with him, but I did feel like I understood him. I didn’t see him as many likely did: in a pool of blood and a tight-fitting dress. Instead I imagined him as he might have been in Galveston before the killing, numb from the pot he habitually smoked, depressed, and alone. I pictured him at the end of his day, dragging himself up the steps to his apartment, dress tugging against his prickly legs, a scarf covering his bob-wigged head. Was he tired of pretending? Was he crazy with reality?         

After the acquittal police held Durst ten months longer on bond jumping and tampering with evidence charges—the evidence being Black’s body. During that time he was locked up in the county jail just blocks from where I lived. His lawyer said he kept a photo of his wife Kathie on the bedside table. I never saw him in person, but I sometimes thought, in that mid-afternoon musing sort of way, that I might pay him a visit.           

“Hello, I have your furniture,” I would say, as if he had been wondering and worrying about his futon and TV for the last three years. Or perhaps he would seek me out, rushing to find his belongings after being let out of jail. I would be sweeping the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon and hear the knock on the door.         

“I’m here for my furniture,” Durst would say, his features frozen like they were on the TV screen. These fantasies were almost crisp in their simplicity, like Durst and I were long-time business partners, always aware that we had one last transaction to settle before going our separate ways. Our eventual meeting seemed inevitable.
 

                                                                                                                  *****

Nearly a year after I moved to Galveston, local authorities reached a plea deal with Durst on his outstanding charges. He was released, and transferred by the FBI to a Pennsylvania jail for sentencing on a separate concealed weapons charge. Slowly the talk about him around Galveston began to fade. I was moved from the police beat to covering city hall. I met new friends and purchased a mattress and box spring—moving Durst’s futon to the living room, where I kept it upright and accented it with green throw pillows and an apple blanket my mother had made for me six years earlier. I still took naps on Durst’s futon for some time after that. Throwing down a book or the last part of a magazine article, I would turn on to my belly, push my elbow against the crux of the futon mattress, and dig my way into afternoon sleep. Almost without fail, when I woke ten or twenty minutes later, I would be lost for a moment. Nose mashed against white cushioning, my mind would touch fleetingly on a slip of a life not quite mine: like that moment when you turn the last page of a good novel and flip back again quickly, just to make sure it really came to an end.             

One morning around this time I was eating oatmeal at Durst’s kitchen table when I noticed that it was extendable. Peering underneath, looking for the latches, I pushed the two leaves apart and suddenly saw something dark along the twin edges. There were small, almost black stains, like dried drips of some liquid that had fallen between the table’s center crack. Immediately, I thought of dried blood. I pushed the leaves wider apart and peered between them, brushing my finger lightly across the stains. I considered calling the police or someone at the newspaper. I imagined that this blood would be the clue that would unravel everything. What I meant by everything, though, I had no idea. Standing there, short of breath, I felt so close to a moment that was not my own. But then I looked closer at the table, and I realized the stains were not blood but mildew. Galveston is old and wet and mold grows everywhere. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Viren is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in the Colorado Review, Fourth Genre, Diagram, and The New Inquiry, among others. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about murder stories. 

Pins and Needles - Janet Buttenwieser

Before the trip to the fertility clinic, the sperm sample given, the anesthesia 
administered, the eggs retrieved with a twelve-inch flexible needle, eggs and sperm 
mixed together in the lab to form several high-quality embryos, there is the cat fight.
The Husband runs out the back door, no time to retrieve the spray bottle set 
aside for such occasions, to break up the fight. There are shouts and yowls. The 
battle ranges over uneven territory: across the muddy side yard, through the gate, 
ending in the front garden. The Husband returns to the living room with The Cat, 
both of them bitten and bloody. The Wife tends to The Cat while The Husband goes 
into the bathroom to clean his hand. 

Years from now, they will remodel their bathroom, use a bottle of liquid 
impregnator to seal the river rock floor. Guess we should’ve tried that first The Wife 
will say. Saved ourselves some trouble. The Husband cups one hand under the other, 
careful not to spatter blood on the floor. He rinses his wound under the faucet, 
punctures showing between his thumb and forefinger as the pink water spirals 
towards the drain. It’s his right hand, the important one for his performance in the 
clinic room with the lock on the door and the porn magazines. When they return 
home from the procedure, The Wife will doze on the couch while The Husband takes 
The Cat to the vet to get a shot.

The Husband and The Wife know about shots. The previous month they brought 
a large box home, special-ordered from the pharmacy. Inside, dozens of needles and 
bottles of medicine. Two hundred individually wrapped alcohol wipes. A sharps 
container. Most needles go in The Wife’s thigh. Another shot, one of thick oil, gets 
injected into her butt muscle. In the morning, The Husband warms the oil by 
tucking it into the waistband of his boxers while he shaves. 

The Wife learns to do the shots in the thigh herself: sitting on the edge of their 
bed at home, in the bathroom stall at an author reception in a Chicago hotel. It 
becomes normal, this shot-giving, the trips to the lab for blood draws, the phone 
conversations with the nurse about hormone levels and dosage adjustments. 
Mornings before work, she performs the routine: validate the parking garage 
ticket at the front desk. Enter the dimly-lit ultrasound room. Clothes off, gown on, 
open in the back. Jelly on the wand, the wand inserted by the kind or peppy or 
indifferent nurse. The Wife’s reproductive system displayed on the screen, the 
doctor measuring follicles, pleased with her progress.

She’s willing to become a pincushion, a science experiment, for the sake of the 
children. She trades caffeine and exercise for acupuncture, meditation, Yoga for 
Fertility. Western and Eastern medical treatments mix together in her body, 
whether in conflict or harmony she cannot tell. They charge it all on their credit 
card, earning one mile for every vial of hormones injected. They dream of a free 
flight to San Diego, to take the kids to the zoo. Instead, they drive to the rainforest 
when the treatments don’t work, hike under cloud-swollen skies.

The day of the cat fight, The Wife puts fresh food and water into bowls she places 
on the kitchen floor. She settles The Cat in the armchair, a worn blanket tucked into 
the cushion underneath his body. She knocks on the bathroom door. It’s time to go. 
The Husband finds a band-aid in the cabinet; The Wife smoothes it over his hand. 
She wants to say something to comfort The Husband, something to capture the 
absurdity of the whole experience – the hormones, the clinic visits, the time and 
energy and money poured into this event. The Husband’s wound won’t scar; the cat 
fight will seem funny in hindsight. But not yet. She looks at The Husband, and The 
Husband looks at her.

“Just what I needed to put me in the mood,” he says. She laughs, and he does too. 
Tiny laughs of solidarity, of endurance. They will laugh this way often in the coming 
months, in the house, in the pharmacy, in the car on trips to the clinic. Sometimes, 
though, they’ll drive in silence, the stereo on, wishing they were on their way 
somewhere, anywhere, else."

 

ABOUT THE PIECE:

The creation of this piece came while I was writing a book-length memoir. I decided to write a short essay on a different topic in order to give myself a break. In thinking about when in the long timeline of doing fertility treatments to set the piece, the cat fight came immediately to mind. The entire process was stressful, and at times all of the contortions we went through felt like they bordered on the ridiculous. The moment of the cat fight embodied the tension and absurdity of the whole experience. The 3rd person point of view felt like a good way to universalize the experience and ended up being a fun element of crafting the piece.

Something I love about the short form is how you can get to the heart of an experience in such a small amount of time and space. I am still working on that book-length memoir, and I still interrupt that project to write short pieces – palate cleansers between courses that feel very satisfying to create.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Janet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in several places, including Under the SunPotomac Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest. She has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Visit her at janetbuttenwieser.com

At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry - Angela Woodward

About the essay and audio:

Field recording: street parade, Batuan, Bali, Indonesia Feb 26, 2014

In early 2014 I had the good fortune to spend a month in Bali as artist in residence at the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts. I was there to work on a novel about monkeys, or so my proposal said. However, in the utter splendor of Bali Purnati, I got little writing done. This was a shock to me, as I’d been angling for two years for this chance to get away, and assumed a lovely fairytale would gush out of me as soon as I opened the lap top. The heat, the animals, the bird song, the perfumed air, the sound of the gamelan (the traditional Balinese instrumental ensemble) rehearsing every evening from the temple across the way, all made such a powerful impression on me that there was little I could add to it in terms of my own invention. It seemed better to spend my time simply watching and listening. My essay “At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry” tries to recreate my experience of sensory overload, as puppet after puppet filled the display cases, and the mysterious black light paintings remained beyond my understanding. The music of the gamelan accompanied me everywhere I went. On one of my last days in Bali, the village turned out for a big celebration, and paraded down the alley beneath my balcony. This was like a gamelan marching band, with mobile instruments slung over the necks of the players. You can hear in the background kids talking and birds singing, the birds seeming in rhythm to the percussion. This is a tiny sliver of the music of Bali, and my essay in its hesitations and gushing flow conveys just a fragment of the wonder of my time there.

 

“At the Setia Darma Museum of Masks and Puppetry” 

 

Caption 1 - In ancient culture as a symbol for the goodness to against the evil.

Ongoing nausea even three weeks after my return. Got so sick of my own company. Every time I looked up, a little golden bird flitted by, or an azure butterfly landed on my foot. After not having heard from him for all that time, a short note, a kind of affirming prayer. Very little to put in the journal, she wrote, as the days are all the same. Across the river, white herons followed the farmer around, lifting and flapping down again as he moved along the row.

 

Caption 2 - Barong Sai usually performance at Chainess New Year.

Carried such vast sums with me, it ran into the millions. I was overcome with anxiety at what I was spending, despite knowing the rows of zeroes meant nothing. The sales girls reacted with alarm at the large denomination notes they struggled to make change for, though I had seen three customers come and go before me, surely they had it in the till, it was only their little pantomime of panic, what was due that piece of paper, no matter whose hand it was in. Suddenly, across the street, a flotilla of gray-haired women began setting down flowers, as if something holy existed behind the parked racks of motorcycles, or something in the motor bikes’ vicinity needed to be cleansed. The rain continued to hold everyone else still beneath their awnings. The taxi men occasionally flicked up their signs, but without making the eye contact that for her had been so precious.

 

 Caption 3 - This figure describe a widow from Girah village, when King Erlangga ruled the country she spread disasters to the people, because she felt hearth ace to the king who canceled married her daughter.

The problem, as I saw it, was the lack of antagonist. She vomited in the middle of the night, and then immediately had to clean it up with the napkins she’d filched from various restaurants, because the ants showed up instantly, an immense train of them chugging across the floor straight for the disgusting mess, more and more showing up, grim black avenue wriggling with purpose, to carry away the bounty of her effluence. A small note from him came as a kind of affirming prayer.

 

Caption 4 - Thereby Penasar dancer (narrator character) must have good vowel, adequate knowledge like knowledge of chronicle or history, philosophy, religion, and others related to social control.

After having gone through all the buildings, peering in the back rooms at the wolves and sailors locked behind mildewed plexiglas, the muscular thighs of the go-go girls, the devils and monkeys, the princesses only slightly less made up than the go-go girls and their expressions a tiny bit more demure, the plaid skirts and brocade robes and leather jackets and Parisian gowns of the populace puppets, the hero puppets, the royal puppets, the animal puppets, the animal spirit puppets, the foolish puppets and the wise counselor puppets and the devil puppets and the king puppets and the scorned queen puppets and the old lady puppets and the Barack Obama puppet and the Sukarno puppet and the dancing boy puppets and the ogre puppets and the witch puppets and the courtesan puppets and the crab puppets and the crafty farmer puppets and the lazy girl puppets and the bartender puppets and the villainous banker puppets and the Chinese shopkeeper puppets and the holy man puppets and the recluse saint puppets and the dog puppets and the snake puppets and the green-skinned man puppets and the chorus girl puppets and the fisherman puppets and the mask maker puppets and the man on the street puppets and the  mothers with children puppets and the dragon puppets and the bearded man puppets and the mustached man puppets and the svelte singer puppets and the assassin puppets and the hippie puppets and the rat puppets and the Turkish soldier puppets and the leering puppets and the purely in profile puppets and the vampire puppets and the Michael Jackson puppet and the detective puppets and the stewardess puppets and the great balls of trash puppets, she started to go through the museum all over again. At this point, the guide came up and asked, “You finish?” She explained that there was a lot to take in, and she would start over, at which point the guide made clear with a few words that she would show her the last building, down there, with the two dimension. “Paintings?” It seemed so. The guide brought her in, then pulled the door shut behind her. “You like to see in yellow light, then in blue light,” she said. The stretched canvases, all about six feet by eight feet, hung on the walls and from the ceiling of the drafty barn, all similarly roiled with inked figures of demons and princesses, kings, devils, wise counselors, fools, wicked crones, chariot drivers, possibly all illustrating stages of a story of the abduction of the loved one just as the king was about to make her his. The spirit world and the underworld conspired to thwart the king’s plans, as the woman in question had been pledged to someone else and could never love the king. However, the nonhumans interfered only to mess with the king, who had shot through the eye a holy stag that was actually one of them in disguise, cavorting through the woods one afternoon purely for the pleasure of feeling hooves sink into the rich forest loam, and did not expect to be maimed by the royal huntsman. The feelings of the bride for another man had been used only as an excuse for these wreckers to turn upside down the bridal party. “What are they?” she asked. “Love story,” the guide said. She pointed to one closest, and showed her that every line that made up the cartoonish outlines of the figures was actually composed of very small letters, words in an ancient language the guide could not read. The script told the story of the embattled marriage, while the figures declaimed them. “Who made these?” she asked. The guide either did not know the name of the artist or did not understand the question. She did not know either how long ago they were made, how long the process took, who had collected them, how they came to be at the mask and puppet museum, or more likely she did know these facts but did not understand the questions or could not express the answers adequately in a foreign language developed principally for commerce. When at last she signaled that she’d seen enough, as her senses could take in little more of the ubiquitous red and black and blue demons and kings and princesses and chariots and old women and soldiers and huntsmen and brothers and deadly trees and poisoned banquets and mysterious clouds and disdainful deities, the guide asked if she would like to see them again in the blue light. Whereon she turned off one switch and toggled the other. The panels now appeared completely different, as glow-in-the-dark images in technicolor Victorian sentimentality, such as Snow White eating the apple, Cinderella pointing her toe into the waiting slipper, Juliet leaning over the balcony and calling down to Romeo, these scenes in the blue light completely obliterating the seemingly ancient ink drawings that had been there a moment ago. Again, “who made these, when, how, with what?” None of these could be answered. Bible and Disney stories. Grimm and Shakespeare. By the door, Cleopatra offered her hand to Antony. She and the guide discussed Egypt to no avail, each pronouncing it differently, and probably seeing in their heads not only different alphabets and different maps, but different afternoons and different ensuing evenings. 

 

Caption 5 - In ancient culture as a symbol for the goodness to against the evil.

Having come to no conclusion about what she had witnessed, she climbed up the steps to the small palisade, where her driver and all the other drivers were resting and chatting.

 

Caption 6 - Wrapped in the happy situation; the romantic, the dynamic, and the dialectic come together with the sound of the kendang (traditional drum) and others percussion.

A slightly seasick wobbliness between fear and affection. Finally really quiet, just a few bugs and roosters. That felt like more of the current direction. One bird repeating a five-note call, three notes and a descending couplet. The roosters and dogs start in waves, from far away coming nearer, then it dies down and starts again. Then a lot of noise, and just before six the gamelan and a monotonous low buzzing that could be a bullfrog, could be the priest.

About the author:

Angela Woodward is the author of the fiction collection The Human Mind and the novel End of the Fire Cult, both from Ravenna Press. Her work has appeared recently in Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Caketrain, and Artifice. She was artist in residence at the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts in Bali, Indonesia, in February 2014.

So I Dated a Bigfoot Hunter - Megan Kerns

High school is often a lonesome place for people with strange and interesting ideas about the world, and so it was for me, and for Henry. When I was fifteen, I wanted to study literature and become a writer; Henry wanted to study biology and find evidence of Bigfoot. Henry’s braided cowboy hats and leather duster jackets had already caught my attention. Just two years earlier, my devotion to Bruce Campbell’s Western steampunk character on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. had given me an appetite for men in bolo ties and high heels.  He thought I looked like Dana Skully from The X-Files.

It took months, but finally Henry asked me out on a Bigfoot-hunting date.  I wanted to know what, exactly, one did when looking for a creature that might not exist–but I also wanted to be alone with Henry.  If I was too young to think about love, I certainly was old enough to consider desire. I wanted to be admired, pursued, studied by him. Like Sasquatch, only sexy.

Not long after that, Henry picked me up and we headed for Salt Fork State Park, Ohio, to meet other serious Bigfoot hunters. As it turned out, I was a terrible Bigfoot hunter. I began to wheeze as we hiked up the steep hillsides. My shorts began to ride up indelicately; I amended my stomping to a demure waddle. When I glanced behind me, Henry’s gaze was chastely downcast. The group delved into long discussions of recent reported sightings; stories of jokers in gorilla suits; the questionable reliability of audio clips. Occasionally, one of the team stopped, cupped his hands to his mouth, and uttered a long, haunting bellow that echoed across the countryside. We all would freeze, and listen.

Then we got lost. The trip was a bust, with zero Sasquatch sightings; it took us hours to get out of the woods. Back to Henry’s house, we ate potato salad and charred hot dogs. We sat next to a bonfire in silence, occasionally poking at the glowing logs and scratching our mosquito bites. Finally, my date looked tenderly at me over the snapping orange flames, and then slowly lifted a sweet vidalia onion to his mouth. Henry bit into the onion like an apple, producing a satisfying crunch. I looked steadily back at him. Henry took a few more bites, then gently set the onion on a log.  He looked away.

“Frailty, thy name is woman,” he whispered.

“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” I said, because I could quote Shakespeare, too.

And then he kissed me. Forget the onion; I did. I remember instead the way his hands cupped my face; the surprise of his kiss; the way he pulled me close. I remember thinking, in that instant, that we were both such misunderstood creatures. That we were both howling into the wilderness, waiting for someone to recognize the sound of our voices.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Megan Kerns was raised in small town in east Tennessee and rural Ohio. She is currently an MFA candidate in nonfiction at The Ohio State University.

Ways We Pace Ourselves - Andrew Johnson

“Adopt the pace of nature: Her secret is patience.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

My eighteen-month-old son, Annen, adores his mama and wakes from his afternoon nap with nimble anticipation of her arriving home from work, tossing her purse on the couch, and crouching in heels to hoist him up for a hug. He can’t wait for this moment. Every day he wakes, toddles toward the front door, puts on a pout and says, “Mama? Mama?”

“Annen, Mama is still at work,” I say, “but she’ll be home in about an hour. Let’s be patient.”

It takes a while, but I think he is grasping what I mean. For several weeks he wakes up and begins mumbling his new mantra: “Mama wook, Mama, ah wuh.”

Then comes the week following Daylight Saving Time. The loss of one hour tosses Annen’s internal clock into chaos, causing him to snooze later into the afternoon and closer to when Kristen arrives. Awesome, I think. This makes afternoon duties of stay-at-home fatherhood way easier. When he wakes up I gladly tell him Mama is on her way from work and she will be home in just a fewminutes!

“Mama wook, mama ah wuh.”

“No no, minutes. It is shorter than an hour. Much shorter. Minutes.”

“Mama wook, mama, minih?”

“Yep, any minute now, she will walk through the door. Minutes!

“Mama minih!”

He gets it. He is content. He’s learning how to build his expectations around the passage of time, I think. This is patience.

*

As a child I looked to my father as my model for patience, especially on Sunday mornings. He would wake early to read the newspaper by himself, then wake me, my three sisters, and my mom two hours before church began. He fixed breakfast for us then returned to his paper while the rest of us showered and dressed for church. My mom spent most of that time helping us, making sure our clothes were ironed and matching, brushing my sisters’ hair, only saving a few final minutes to get herself ready. Dad sat in his chair reading, looking up every five minutes to give us the countdown to departure: “We’re leaving in 15 minutes.” “We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” “Five minutes, we’re out the door.” “Time to go.” And finally, standing up and putting down his paper, my father, the piously punctual, said, “I’ll see you there.”

Dad would walk out the door and drive his truck to church, arriving on time and saving five extra seats in the balcony. We’d arrive late in the minivan, straggle in and find our seats, avoiding eye contact with everyone around. This happened regularly. I used to think my parents preferred church services from the balcony, the expansive view of the congregation. But eventually I learned the truth: no one notices a large family arriving fifteen minutes late to church if they are hiding in the balcony—no one, that is, except for the other large and tardy families occupying the balcony like a monkey house in a zoo.

I hated being late, hated the embarrassment, hated sensing the judging eyes from the pastor in the pulpit, or worse, from Mrs. Potter seated at the organ. I made a pact with myself and scrawled it on the back of the prayer card in the balcony. When I’m grown up, I wrote, I’m never Ever going to be Late to Anything. I couldn’t wait to grow up, to drive, to arrive five minutes early everywhere I went, just to prove that I could.

*

I still hate being late. Twenty years later I’ve become my father’s son, always dressed and ready to go, whatever the destination, anxious to arrive on time, unforgiving of my child and wife when they take too long. But when it comes to my ability to be punctual, there’s a key difference between my birth family and my chosen family: we own only one car. “If you are so worried about being on time,” my wife says softly as I flail my arms at the front door, “you better start running.”

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for Kristen to get home so we could all leave again to meet some friends for a 6:15 dinner reservation. I had the diaper bag packed, the boy in clean clothes, most of the lights shut off, and everything else I could think of to help us leave as soon as she arrived. She walked in the door at 6:07, which gave us eight minutes to make a ten-minute drive and arrive on time.

“I think we can make it,” I said. “Ready?”

“I’m ready,” she said, “but I’d like to change clothes before we go.”

Of course. “All right. Okay. I’ll take the bag and stroller to the car, so you just need to bring Annen and then we can go, okay?”

She picked up Annen, gave him a hug. “Yeah, we’ll be out there soon.”

I walked out the door, loaded the bag and stroller in the trunk, and calmly sat in the humming car. Calmly sat. Sat calmly. That lasted at least four minutes before I turned off the car and raged back toward the house, wondering what the hell was taking so long. I walked in and looked around the house. I found them in the nursery, Annen sitting on Kristen’s lap, Kristen wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and no shoes, both of them laughing and singing and enjoying each other. I stood in the doorway watching them, suddenly aware of this distance between where they were and where my mind was.

*

 Letting go of my desire for punctuality is not the same as mastering patience. This much I’ve tried to understand. Yet the clock keeps ticking, and time never takes a day off. Like most kids, I learned to tell time in second grade, learned what the big and little hands mean, learned that sometimes one means five and 12 means 60. I learned to watch the clock on the classroom wall, counting down the minutes until recess, lunch, afternoon recess, dismissal. I learned to put my body, my full being, in sync with the rate of movement of those big and little hands.

Surely Emerson had something else in mind other than the passing of time and unhealthy addictions to punctuality. I can’t quite put a finger on the pulse of what he meant, but fatherhood is forcing me to come to better terms with my relation to time.

*

Annen’s newfound patience waiting for Kristen works for several days until this one Tuesday when she doesn’t show up on time. She calls during his nap and says she needs to finish a project before coming home, so go ahead and have dinner without her. Around 6:00, Annen wakes up cowlicked, crawls on the couch to watch out the window and chants, “Mama minih! Mama minih!”

“Sorry bud,” I say, “but mama won’t be home for a few hours.”

“Mama minih!”

Hours… Patience, remember?”

“Mama wook, mama minih!”

After a few more attempts, I give up trying to explain what is unexplainable to a developing mind, a mind that depends on consistency and repetition to make sense of the world. He pouts, I apologize, and I leave him alone looking out the window, hoping he might figure this out by himself while I continue fixing dinner.

*

Before the sun came up on my fourth birthday, Dad woke me up, helped me into my coat and winter boots, and put me in the passenger seat of his truck. A brown paper bag with my name on it rested between his seat and mine, and he told me to go ahead, open it. I don’t remember what was inside, some small gift he picked up on his way from work the day before. What I do remember is his annual ritual on my birthdays: wake me up way before sunrise, load me into the car, and take me to a special birthday breakfast at McDonald’s.

Every day of the week he’d be gone to work before I woke, so those early morning birthday breakfasts were special partly because I knew he was taking time out of his normal routine to be with me on my birthday, and it made me feel loved.

Until I turned twelve. The excitement of small gifts and birthday breakfasts had worn off, and for some reason, a strange sadness started to creep in every November when my birthday came around again. That morning after breakfast, sitting in his truck as he drove me to school, I started crying without knowing the reason. When he asked what was wrong, all I could manage to mumble through the tears were some words about my birthday just not feeling special like it used to. He nodded and said nothing. Then finally, he said, “I know it’s hard, but it changes as you grow up. Soon it won’t bother you as much, I promise.” I calmed down, wiped away the tears, stepped out of the car, and walked into school.

*

It bothers me to no end that patience, like all virtues, takes time to cultivate. So, to pass the time, I read and hope to learn something. I read about Galileo. After abandoning his plan to become a priest, he began studying tides. He thought tides ebbed and flowed because the rotating Earth sloshed the seas about as it orbited the sun. Although his theory proved false—he couldn’t account for why high tide occurred twice a day, and refused to consider that the moon had anything to do with tide—he continued to work out his understanding of the rotations and orbit of our Earth.

Pulsing motions fascinated Galileo, and he turned his attention to the uses of pendulums. Galileo had a friend—his name, no joke, was Santorio Santorio—who found a way to use a pendulum to measure pulse and named his invention the pulsilogium, the first machine used in medical practice. Santorio took science to new extremes: to learn about perspiration, he began systematically and regularly weighing himself, weighing everything he ate and drank, even weighing his own urine and feces. He was among the earliest scientists to argue a mechanistic view of nature, suggesting that the human body worked like a clock. Nature, he argued, could be reduced, studied, and understood completely—we only lacked methodology.

*

Last summer, Kristen, Annen, and I spent a week hiking Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, Colorado. In our cabin one morning, preparing for the day’s hike, Annen took three wonky steps—his first attempt at walking. He was nearly one year old and had been crawling everywhere for months, showing no interest in becoming a biped. Now he proved ready. On the hike that day, we occasionally unstrapped him from my back and set him on the ground. He wobbled, walked a step or two, then tumbled into the dry Colorado dust.

A pine beetle epidemic had swept from Canada to Texas the summer before, killing half the trees in the park. The landscape of the forest was gray-brown instead of green, dead trees fallen everywhere like pick-up sticks. Occasionally we heard a distant crack as another tree fell. A ranger along the trail said the forest had its natural cycle: every 100 years or so, either fire or disease took down the mature trees, allowing the younger ones on the forest floor to thrive. The fallen trees decomposed back into the ground. The ranger showed us a picture from 1915 of Teddy Roosevelt standing in the forest, declaring it under protection by making it a national park. Around the turn of the century, wildfires destroyed the park, and in the picture the landscape looked similar to how it appeared to us now.

Four miles up the trail the next afternoon, the three of us stood staring at one of the fallen pines. The sunlight slanted through the few living trees and onto the moist forest floor, landing on this pine, the heat causing it to give off steam. We watched and witnessed its decomposing, its passing on, and I tried to listen for what this forest might tell me about the pace of nature. Annen walked into the slant of light and lifted his arm to grab at the dust particles, glimmering like the falling snow that covers the mountains every winter.

*

During her pregnancy with Annen, Kristen regularly read out loud from her copy of the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, telling me about the latest changes happening in her body. For me, pregnancy was a crash-course in paying attention to small and subtle changes. Sperm and egg join together to form a one-celled self. A zygote. In a month, the zygote forms three layers and has everything in place to grow a human child, but is still no larger than a thyme seed. At some point on the 22nd day of pregnancy, our baby’s heart would begin to beat. Skin still translucent, stretched tight around his pin-point body, bone and muscle not yet formed, but suddenly an impossibly small heart in the middle of this mess would thump.

*

Standing in the kitchen, I hear Annen’s gloomy murmurs for his mama, a few sobs, then the sudden sound of Velcro ripping. That would be his diaper coming off. I turn the corner into the living room, and he runs at me hoisting the diaper in the air as if it were a scalped head. “Dypuh! Uffff,” he says with a defiant scowl. In some cultures, tearing your clothing is common when mourning, so perhaps this is just Annen’s way of dealing with his loss of understanding. I thought I had taught him how to wait, but he had simply latched on to a system of tracking time, and when that system failed, he had to act out. So he grabbed at his tiny hips until his fingers hooked the flaps and ripped the diaper off.

I go back to cooking. I’ll put a new diaper on him as soon as the water starts to boil and the pasta is in. A thud comes from the living room, then another thud, and I suddenly have a vision of Annen falling off the edge of the couch, or worse, busting out the front door and standing on our front porch crying for mama without a diaper and my bad parenting on full display for all the neighbors. I run into the room and find him still inside, naked as a newborn except for his feet. He has dragged my hiking boots to the doorway and now stands in them, his chest leaning against the door, a yellow stream running down the white door panels and pooling on the floor, and his Kewpie forehead banging against the door in rhythm with his melancholy chant: “Mama minih…” Thud… “Mama minih… ” Thud

*

A friend of mine recently noticed her heart beating irregularly and she began to worry. The added stress accelerated her pulse, which made it beat more irregularly. She saw a doctor, learned the word palpitation, quit drinking coffee and soda, quit smoking cigarettes, but her heart continued to beat irregularly on occasion. I told her it was all in her head, and it turned out, in a way, that I was right: the human heart receives electrical messages from the vagus nerve in the brain, telling the heart how often to beat. My friend’s average heart rate is 80 beats per minute, sending blood racing through 90,000 miles of circulatory system, completing the full circuit before the 80th beat. A palpitation is arrhythmic; a healthy heart keeps a steady beat.

Perhaps it is here where I can find traces of nature’s pace, in the heartbeat feeding brackish red fluid through my body. The salty flavor of blood, Joseph Campbell suggests, is the salt-same taste of the silent, primordial seas out of which we have spent the last hundreds of millions of centuries evolving. We can taste the pace of life by licking our own wounds and discover that our bodies pulse like the tides.

 

ABOUT THE ESSAY:

I tend to live in my head. I’m drawn to the exploration of ideas. So, in one sense, this essay began as intellectual curiosity. What is patience? How does culture influence our experience of time? What does nature’s pace have to do with my daily life? The first draft was even more fragmented, regularly shifting between ideas, scenes, quotes, facts, and reflections. I was aiming for an essay along the lines of what Samuel Johnson called “a loose sally of the mind.”

But if I’m being honest, this essay really began when I became a father, which is when I realized that no amount of thinking about patience would actually make me a more patient father and husband. When I wrote the first draft of this essay, my son was eighteen months old. It was primarily an exploration of patience with a few cute anecdotes thrown in for the sake of keeping it somewhat grounded in narrative. But as I continued to revise the essay over the following year, the daily experiences raising a son challenged me to rethink how pace, patience, and punctuality influence my relationships and daily life, and challenged me to see how impatient I actually am. The revision process helped me bring Emerson’s words down from their lofty place in the clouds and a bit closer to my everyday experiences and choices of fatherhood. Gradually the essay shifted more toward narrative, became more personal than I anticipated, and ended up in a place that is hopefully more tentative and less declarative about the prospect of learning patience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Andrew Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His work has appeared in New Letters. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife and two sons.

“The Ways We Pace Ourselves” also appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The Pinch.