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.

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.

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.