A River Is Waiting

A river can be wide and deep. So true, but all rivers have a starting point. Outside the lines, a mumbled counting of the ripples. Four? They say we are the diminishing returns of water. Just becoming narrow, tapered, sharp, the end of a tool, end of the line, end of one particular direction across from the bridge, just standing on the other side. My shoes are soaked.

Some rivers can be thousands of miles long. Some rivers are songs. A song is calling you. Slowly. Your phone keeps ringing. A feeling of having already experienced the present situation. A feeling of having already experienced everything. A feeling. A sound. A ringing. A river. Moments before. They keep pulling your name against the rope of the sunken bell tower. Just because? And only slightly distracted by a turtle on a log.

Still, somebody wants to talk to you. You think?

You think between the ringing, the splashing, the ringing, the streaming, a creek, a brook, something to dream on.

Ring. Ring. Ring. Splash. Ring. Ring. Ring. Again. However, rivers must carry and distribute very important salts and nutrients to support plant and animal life.

You know this. Go. Walk to where the water begins its flow.

The end of a river is called its mouth. This is a place for speaking things. Sometimes eating. You must look up. Greet the sky. Are you shallow enough of a person to wade across? I hope so. The other end of the river is calling out your name.

A flowing body learns to dance. The source of some things too. Sometimes dreaming learns to stand, but mostly water.

Ribbons like to fish and dance. Wiggling your toes to attract skipping. Out from rainfall, snowmelt, mountains.

Out from the bubbles that come from the ground. A river is waiting.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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The Walls Are Starting to Shift

Along the sliding scales of cornerstones and sometimes functioning relationships, you pass along some weight back to another leg of recurring voyages. And in truth, all the ships are spent. This adaptation, dream, pioneer, sometimes functioning relationship, is everyone, as everyone is twirling introductions while walking backwards in circles. Triangles are right out, apparently.

Just the usual, ordinary, everyday greetings, salutations, some say “hello hello”, nods to signal gesture indication, acknowledgement. Mondays are included too for the price of a well-built wall or moat. I acknowledge you. Recognize, smile at, respect, ignore. The building blocks of human interaction. With our powers combined, we could build a human pyramid scheme. Not that we’d want to, right? Right.

Because we come into being already reckoned with, because life seems to be this really huge storm cloud out of fake candy and blazing foundations of kicking something off, because something is off. Something is off the wall. Really. Look around, for you aren’t in some possibly familiar-sounding home location here. Even the sky is blue and the sun is always way too bright to look at.

So you head indoors to notice things. And you stop actively ignoring the warning signs. You notice things. You stop actively ignoring the warning signs. Oh, shit.

The walls are starting to shift. The foundations of a once-spent youth, exposed to history and socks. Step carefully. Beware of memories. And maybe if you walk carefully or fall forward, perhaps you are drowsy or already asleep, will you discover passages to rooms once thought forever lost to time and space? Or maybe all the exits are betraying us, leaving us alone with only walls and sides. Shut in, shut down, shut up, they say? But maybe in that hopeless space, you’ll play the waiting game, waiting just waiting for the big reveal when castle walls reveal time and space were here all along, sipping tea in the maze room next to the candy pagoda.

When a body of opinion must recognize the facts of importance and quality, enters the world. For you have begun to acknowledge this genius of walls. As generally acknowledged as the world’s finest relationship coach. Kid, you’ll move mountains, sometimes walls.

But, have you noticed that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to open and close all the doors and windows in your possibly familiar-sounding home location? This may not seem significant or a real problem, but it’s actually a sign. And like most prophecies we can figure out what it means later, after the end of relevance and preparation. It is easy to make predictions, because someone, somewhere, sometimes randomly, might be right.

Shaking hands with foundations, the cracked open time capsule reveals a note that I apparently once understood. There are questions now. Vertical brick or stone? Concrete? The ghosts of ourselves are concreted upon the surface of the physical manifestations of both time and space. Inquiring minds might want to know.

When am I the structure that encloses or divides an area of land, by sea, by air, by myself? A garden wall? Barrier? Partition? Room divider? Enclosure? Screen? Panel? Diviner? Separator? Piracy? Privacy? Potatoes?

Write all answers on the walls in red ink only please. Circle all adjectives. Be strong.

This is better than an answer key. We can start to pull away from the window frames. Nothing much to see outside, but words have meanings. Walls have heights. To climb. Not that everyone is always looking for an answer, but various parts of your foundation may sink a little bit deeper into the ground.

You sink a little bit deeper into the ground. It might be spiritual. It might be beautiful. It might just be. So soft. You sink a little bit deeper into the ground.

Something on the other side that is not a wall. I could stay. To move or not to move, or to cause to move from one place to another, is not the only question, especially over small distances.

We sometimes find ourselves, but when we don’t, we are surrounded by a sea of walls. These walls will ask for nothing. Time is time. They shift the weight back and forth. Such outstandingly beautiful garden walls. Always moving, never gone. Walls. Watching the roses grow.

A sea of walls, a wall of seas, a seawall, a wall of walls, roses. Walls, walls, potatoes, walls, potato walls, potatoes. Garden walls, shiny walls, shifting walls, walls.

Walls, walls, walls, potato walls, roses, walls, roses.

The walls are shifting. The times are changing. The tides are waving. The rocks are behaving. The ground is shaking. The paths are wavering. And there is writing on the walls.

Someday we will read them all together, on the other side.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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Some Strings Attached

I feel like all the answers. Strange numbers jumping up and down. This is not a bad way to be living with again. Oh, I might describe them out of paintings from across some time.

A brush of sounds, sometimes thunderous, sometimes actual thunder, sometimes more powerful than magic, stretched over it, flown in the wind at the end of a long string of days, but they’re very whimsical and fun. Like dancing though a falling sky.

The storm is contained right outside. A violent disturbance of the atmosphere in the room. Everyone keeps clapping to some song. With strong winds and unusual rain, thunder, mayhem, lightning, or snow, the forecast is, I don’t know, try looking out the window?

You see darkness. There is something out there. Whirling in the fake moonlight. Those shoes once met a dancer on a bridge. What if this apocalypse was made with glitter?

Just because it’s characteristic doesn’t mean you really have to run. Go tell Chicken Little that the sky is falling. I am looking for something.

Bubbles above and bubbles below. Do you even remember why you dived down this deep? Like all the swirly dark space between your lines of thought, a passing octopus apparently wants to know.

In this mind space, you are outer space. Drifting through a thought race. Who will be the first to truly know. I call not it. Also, no takebacks. The bass player is base. No skipping out of bounds.

Don’t worry. This game is rigged. The answer key is made of feelings, and we all have feelings, I think. Somedays?

I think therefore I win. I win before I think. Apparently the trophy store was out of trophies, guns, and love. Maybe things might work out after all. Especially the little things. And kites.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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Melting

When the refrigerator door is a revolving barrier, try boosting your decor with this one interior stylish door as the framework for cupboards of storage.

If you can’t fit a source of help and encouragement into the furnishing and decoration of a room of things, try ornamentation. You’re hanging out with the low fruits as measured in hours and minutes past midnight or noon again. It would be a waste.

Outside, the lighting is starting to glow. You roll your eyeballs through the elegant and traditional. Back in the old county all the young people were introduced to time.

The indefinite continued progress of existence is eyeing your ice cream. Signature moments just waiting for something to happen. Stressed out about space travel. The greatest hits of all time and space. Apparently I draw a lot of eyeballs.

Confused by my own creations. Paper meets ink. Delighted to mystify. So many shapes keep looking at me in some ways I don’t quite understand.

Just a prototype of an abduction oven, misappropriated for teleportation, in some fluid state of panic and despair. Nobody reads the warning labels and kidnappers are never really held accountable for loose lips. Or, to lose yourself out on hope as the moon falls in love with another shooting star. Reach for the mayonnaise.

More movements of limbs by sunrise, including the bones. Large bodies of seawater parts away from the center of the body. Can you tell from one part to another? The complete loss or absence of hope is something to be concerned about.

A very large or substantial amount of something is said, shouted, notarized. Sorry, but I’m not really listening in the status quo. The last thing I ever heard about was flesh and organs. Tell me later?

The main section of a car or aircraft is filled with smoke. It isn’t easy being green. Maybe shoot for yellow? Or you could shoot for the moon. Cue explosion. Lovely, here’s your certificate for getting involved in a love triangle including but not limited to, one shooting star. Three more minutes. Maybe you can frame it on your wall.

You reach for a book on your bookshelf, but you realize that your hand reveals it was a tangerine all along. Why wasn’t it a tangerine while on the bookshelf? Do you even like tangerines? If two more books turn out to be tangerines, I guess I’ll juggle them.

Your ice cream is starting to melt. Maybe this is how we tell time now. We’ll tell our children about the year of the melted ice cream. A generation of storytelling. A particular point in time or space. Unfolding asparagus and peas with melted butter. To make or become more tender or loving while having become liquefied by the overheating of the universe. Rendered in clarity. Get the message, get the picture, have an aha moment, please. Just eat your ice cream.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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Super Fun

I had a conversation with your faces. When the turning of the seasons lose control. Weather maps and tangled kites, lost strings. You try to make the marionette out of broken glass. By the sea, your thoughts are drowned in distant waves. Some wave hello. Some wave goodbye.

The architect of building words asks, are we having this conversation?

You love that I can turn any conversation into a different story. Turn, turn, turn. You have a secret to tell.

Conversations into pumpkins. Carved up perfectly. The perfect day.

I love you. I that you. You that love. You that love the concept of time, greet polite words to say so. You say so.

Like magic. Some complicated waves or a borrowed wand. You can smell the salt in the air. Then suddenly, as if by magic, somewhere there’s a face to learn about.

You move in a circular direction so that we are in a different position in relation to our surroundings, dreams, and magic wands. Start doing something.

Remake the summoning of the architect. Waiting in suspense for the reinvention of the spinning wheel. Time transformed into talking bars of soap. And sure, maybe tradition insists on gold, but people need to keep their hands clean. Free from dirt, marks, or stains, we lift off. Floating together four feet off the ground. Drifting towards the limits of society.

The sounds are right, and the sky is somewhat blue today. As time is above suspicion, we are above conditions, points, experience. Also the ground.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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Superhero

In addition to the fundamental moves of shoving matches and hair pulling, all noise must get back to electrical, the development goals of diversifying pipelines will be served with connections, racks and lockers necessary to meet current standards of what is convenient to patients and provides adequate parking.

Stubborn qualities, containing both a real and an imaginary part. I play the names of a new complex of hotel renovations. This just in, you are thinking about a phone call.

By improving the sidewalk on circulation, the services now in four separate buildings are shown how to meet the mechanical, plumbing, and structural failures of any struggling action plan. When you stand at the center of the world, try not to look down. Because, what are you really thinking about?

Nobody believes in you, kid, because you aren’t the first person pronoun to try to conquer the world while distracted by other thoughts. It can’t be done. Get focused or go home. Go home or go big. Get big by making us get small. Call now to get your free copy of an experimental shrink ray from your local hardware store.

The medical staff is very magical and is being waved around by an ogre in the parking lot. All along the site’s business hours of 8:00 a.m. to death we part, we require no off-site connections for utilities. So many generations of electrical, mechanical, plumbing, structural, love at the city most adopted by economic envelope goals. You kick, we score. As we, and the occupancy of the complex of similar buildings or facilities on the same side of the proposed mighty action plan. The following is not a list of the office buildings that will haunt your dreams for the next seven years.

A bag of rocks, sandpaper envelopes, glass cannon news, dominoes knocked over, rooks, pawns, pairs, apples, shoes, the news, skyblue, the roar of a lion, the shriek of an arrow, some sand from a playground, your eyes as we sing, the start of a sentence, the end of the line, mayonnaise, ketchup, jupiter, mars.

To overcome great obstacles such as physicians and nurse practitioners, the project site plans to include substantial payments levied on the import, export, manufacture, and sale of goods owned by the city. The city will provide. As we, and the occupancy of the complex in the distance will grow to meet the growing demands of the public. You cry out for the local employment opportunities corner of the economic development. Building bridges, building buildings, building love. The project would also create a new right turn-only driveway of reinforced material living space. A related group of the emotionally insignificant.

The wagon driver stops at an unmarked crosswalk. So we all get out and have a picnic in front of a related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partly a complex of hotels. After lunch we all cross over a river of pipelines and algae on a footbridge between the real and the imaginary. Freshly built unicorns are waiting for parking permits on the other side. Whose side are you on? Ask around a billboard maybe.

Some estimates were badly defeated along the extensive associated bottom lands. A living organism that feeds on organic matter. Your principal income from all four seasons, agriculture, timber, related fish, unrelated fish. You could be anywhere.

Existing sidewalks are present along the troubled paths of our destruction. Grand employment, shopping and service development in order to reduce the California Building Code and provide 170 non-retail jobs. All of the cost of building a new poem is offset by water.

The proposed idea is to create more magic. Can we do that? We need to take advantage of the shade trees to be planted throughout the not-to-be-addressed address of the building’s maintenance problems. After all, if you have parsed that, please call to action to the city hall that will provide a shower of lost geese and children’s quests. Something about an epic adventure in under ten minutes to greatly improve the accessibility of civic living plants up to 50 stories high, as the medical providers of economic downtime, sulking in the corner with the hat, you need to find the very center of the residents and take back the heart. Friendly dragons guard where the giants sleep. The crater beyond the crust of the world’s largest slice of sourdough bread.

Approximately along the western boundary. Tall towers, made as if by right, as is currently available to the community. You could point out the magic, but that doesn’t stop the world from turning. Everyone has noses and your roses aren’t about to smell themselves. Save the roses, smell the world!

You stand locked in an elevator listening to yourself talk about poetry. Hark, here comes the hammer of the giant striker you were hoping might turn out to have been painted in the colorful and numbered shape of bright pink lipstick.

Materials raise production in the stands. As recommended by the project, the project would require a lot-line not proposed to seek certification. The halls of fallen halls and medical office buildings, primarily support shrubs and shrubbery and ground cover. In addition, the buildings were originally constructed out of medical services in the site plan provided in what water demands of landscaping.

The site said the text to win would be removed. Landscaped health is now imported to manage stormwater such as the main strategies in the action plan were to build a building out of sticks and straw. Please try to change the multicolored buildings that make up the world into pumpkins. A greater construct out of a state-of-the-art facility for job security sales for jobs and revenue. This is the wall. General orders would be required to tell us what to do about everything. Greater elevations might become the necessary indicators. The building swayed into the realm of recycled or reused medical staff material. Objectives are subjective, sometimes walls.

The process or business of constructing something is to construct and upgrade the existing buildings to meet one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Helping the city attain the fundamental objective of the city’s objectives, as noted above, objectives are subjective.

Access to the site would generally be the same. Why must we be as specific for each component of the approximately five components that would also be constructed to the specifications of the great and wonderful? Grab your magician’s hat and let’s locate a beacon signal on the main arterial highway over waterfalls.

With a roof and walls, maybe a house, a store, a factory. The buildings have experienced a variety of urban areas, thereby assisting the city in an increase of stormwater around most medical office building draft nights. We snatch up tourists in large butterfly nets, then let them soar.

All that is golden must reduce the city’s ongoing energy and building costs. So go, be a part or element of the larger whole, of importance, of significance. Soar like caught tourists in our butterfly nets. And when the magic strikes, be ready. The city has an action plan, you.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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Stylized Representation of a Star

Trouble is your raindrops. Your shadow is the sky. Loud noises dancing just below your eyes, but I have never dreamed of dancing with a steady hand. Your nose can smell the onions as the music seems to play. The blinking lights and butterflies. Or are we almost? As things are too close to your face, what if we remain? The stars connecting us. Just what we are.

But what is almost? The vague and imprecise descriptions of an envelope transparent to our frame of displayed minds? Just passing strangers into food for thought, for certainty, for love. So many faces turn about to be the gears. Uncertain that you’ll stay another butterfly. We are together to alter the relation between the great invention and the articles of butterflies. As we stand under the live band, somehow we just don’t know.

What is love? The machine learning against a brave new world. Appliances can be deceptive to the regalia of our odds and ends. Pressed up against your elbows and the edge of the world.

Hidden from the speed of the driven parts. Whenever there is empty space and people dancing. Out beyond the blobs of implements. Will you look out past your trouble, into noise? Extended hearings. The chopping sounds. Live bird sounds. The cries of onions breathing extermination on the kitchen cutting boards. Live music. Live action. You say imprecise is silence. You stay imprecise. Your heart of silence in the places in-between. Bits and pieces of the material world.

Sparkling delight is moments away from joy. The great machine is hungry, once again. Slabs of time are lowered into the boiling room in search of poetry. All they’ll ever find there is our hope, our dreams, our love. But I have never dreamed of dancing.

You toss the salt into the moment just beyond, before, unknown. To begin with balance, everything believes in what is beautiful. The whirring about faces of true dancers in a field of lost butterflies. The breath of fresh air as you walk out of a room. The things behind a river of trouble. A form that has learned how to sign an ocean full of waves. A low, continuous, regular sound. A motion of ceiling fans. A machine out of bird wings. The appliance of science or the process of bringing about something new.

You point out that nobody likes to talk about the status quo, that shaking is the rhythm of the ground, that shower curtains are unbalanced by a chance of rain. Just scrambling through a passing chance as sometimes rain. I sing into the distant waters, looking in a pace between the sights. You listen to the very sound of water. After all the humming stops. A piece of equipment designed to perform a specific task.

Your hands keep shaking all the waves beyond today. New waves from all the shorelines pass your names about. I would not have seen this by myself. Was it all the last result of living space? Your eyes take in the world and I fear.

Time and your performance walk along the ocean’s spray. So successfully entered as a statement of our times. Never looking up into the sky. You find the smell of birds circling over waterfalls. Tourists out of cardboard sheets. The boxes left behind to eat the rain. No furnishings in overlooks. A call from the machine. We are everywhere.

And when it rains Please Don’t Fish signs on your musical notes, or when you lose yourself beyond the walls. When everything is suddenly nothing. An equilibrium of equal toes. Nothing is more important than your hands. Nothing is the absence of all magnitude. Nothing is the words we speak.

For words might never be okay. The tapping of our images with gentle nudges, shapely elbows, shoulder pads. Some would have us believe in the very emotional, but a storm blows over what is mine. As articles of butterflies must turn the world into cheese.

Great bathtubs balance on the spinning of our talking points. Your legs keep kicking soap bubbles into shins. When we are alone when the water runs out, the stars shine through our fingertips. Unlock the vaults of heaven and Galileo’s skies. A galaxy of living names. The sun, the moon, the stars.

Sizes weigh heavy as we cry. The papers change direction as you hold tossed troubles to the fruits of love. We had no idea, but do you recall being wistful, maybe love? Tempered by the great machine. You are becoming what the ancients saw.

Our time grinds the over-ripened marching bands of memory into the fog of lines. Just working out beyond the brightest star. A liquid feeling perched on branches of dampened frequency. You look away from the advancing storm to see the dancing flames we left behind, but nothing should dampen our enthusiasm, because we are so small.

What is less than normal or usual, insignificant, unimportant? These are our lives. An even distribution of our weight enabling ourselves to remain upright and steady. An apparatus for weighing, especially one with a central pivot, beam, and a pair of scales. From symmetry to butterflies. You must reach for the stars.

A gift of acceptance out of cards. A kind of mourning for the butterflies. Your shower thoughts were never really in ballet. Letting your hair get tangled up in something new. A low hum of the ordinary crosses over you. The changing of the ghosts. The howling of the gears. The onions of the faces. A ring to disappear.

Simply put, the tables flip. Clicking noises from the great machine of time. Pulling levers not to halt your summersaults. No, I want to find a moment out of time. But I have never dreamed of dancing. Maybe butterflies. Very, extremely, singularly, peculiar. A new song, written especially for your great extent. But some things are too close to your face, what if we remain? The stars above, connecting us. Just what we are. Mainly, mostly, Butterflies.

Elan Radousky lives in California. When he isn’t reading, writing, eating, sleeping, or playing the xylophone, he can sometimes be found outside attempting to finally master five club juggling. He doesn’t actually play the xylophone, but he has on occasion dabbled at playing the xaphoon. His favorite color is blue, and he probably doesn’t know any secrets about you.

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My Venice

                        *

From my train window seat
I see the blue sparkling water.
Is there any better welcome

from the city floating on the sea?
The sea rocks streets, calle, bridges,
squares, gardens, the little islands

of the shining lagoon.
I can explore its veins
on the vaporetto, on a gondola,

on the narrowest boat
to cross the Canal Grande
for a few cents. And look there,

a piazza where people call
from behind wooden stalls
to sell local groceries: radicchio

di Treviso, carrots, cauliflowers
berries and all sort of nuts,
apples and colourful arance.

Old women soon join;
their trollies packed.
There is no high tide today.

                        *

I used to go home on the first train back
but not leave the station
if the city was flooded.

If the tide was not too high,
I ventured out onto wooden catwalks
left in the middle of the main streets.

The calle were gloomy and chilly
but buzzing with people.
Merchants and shoppers greeted me,

while brushing water from doorsteps
or houses, moving furniture around.
Venice, glutted with water, still sparkled.

                        *

The city wears its special gown
and jewellery at this time of year.
It’s February, my birthday month,

and winter is almost gone.
Waves of tourists arrive fluttering
for the carnevale.

It starts with the Flight of the Angel,
who offers homage to the Doge.
Masked people walk up and down bridges:

Arlecchino arm in arm with Pulcinella,
couples wearing Barocco brocade.
Men show off their jackets with lace hems,

matching double-breasted jackets and trousers.
A long wig and huge hat. They stop
for photos. The women stand

at their side, gently bending their heads.
Their brocade corsets show their décolletage,
the huge skirts impede their walk.

The pilgrimage leads to Piazza San Marco,
whirlpool of the whole city;
stones embraced by the sea.

Chiara Salomoni is Italian and lives in London. Some of her English poems appear on Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution website and on The Blue Nib’s digital platform. Her translation of Silvio Ramat’s poem was given an Honorable Mention in the Stephen Spender Prize in 2014. In 2015 she read from her translations of Andrea Zanzotto at the Poetry Library in London. One of her translations of Zanzotto and her homage were published in Poem in 2018. One of her children’s poems was included in a poetry illustration display at the Royal Marsden Hospital in collaboration with Sutton High School at the beginning of 2020. Her translations of three poems by Corrado Govoni appear on The Blue Nib’s digital platform. She is a member of the Tideway Poets.

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Vantablack Mindset

quarantine is the real-life Hotel California, i can’t
unthink it. you know, that Eagles song? even
American Horror Story had an entire season about it,
with Lady Gaga. time and time, again. i’m found,
trapped inside the same desolate house that i’ve been
forced to call a sanctuary. purgatory. i’ve learned to
love the small things though. peaches that don’t
ripen fast. hearing the highway from my bedroom.
the reflection that paints on a window’s canvas. the
koi fish haven’t jumped out of the pond as of yet.
the puzzle i finished wasn’t missing a piece. it’s all
calm, then i remember that i have about two rolls of
toilet paper in stock. not sure where i’m going to find
any more of that. i guess there’s always leaves. i still
think if i had to i’ll trade my gold chain for some.
screw being in an apocalypse, i still need to wipe my
ass. i’d rather spend it on food, or something like a
hobby. rewind, not to mention, i’m still pretty salty
that i have a period because i know it’s God’s way of
punishing me for being gay. like what? why? maybe
it’s his kind way of welcoming me into the seventh
hell. after all, that is what this place is right? i took
an online test and the results told me that’s where i’ll
end up. it’s probably more fun being a Satanist,
anyways. except i faint from blood, so if there are
those ritual things, like what I saw in that movie
Hereditary, i’m out. but, i could kick it with the devil
for a while. he seems a lot like the general boy that
my friend’s fiend for. honestly, he probably smokes
weed, too. in that case, we would definitely be
homies. i mean as long as he listens to good music.
yeah, God created the plant, but if Satan is a fallen
angel, then God created him too. apparently cool
kids are hypocrites.

Emma Scintu is a writer finishing her undergrad at The University of Iowa. She was awarded a scholarship at the New York State Summer Writers Institute and attended the residency. While she has never been published before, she is an Editor-in-Chief for Quarantine Magazine, based in Iowa City.

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Una tavoletta di cera / A Wax Tablet

Original by Franca Mancinelli

Uno sguardo dall’alto ricongiunge tutti quelli che sono divisi
Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Lo sciame di minuscoli insetti è rientrato in un’ansa dell’aria. Resta un allarme quietato, una scossa nel profondo delle cellule. Ho risalito le scale sulle mie gambe e sono tornata in reparto. A quest’ora è quasi deserto. Due infermieri, prima di sparire di nuovo in riunione, mi sorridono. Mezz’ora prima ero distesa sul pavimento, bianca come le piastrelle. Poi le gambe che mi vengono alzate, gli occhi che tornano ad aprirsi, un laccio che mi stringe il braccio: ancora troppo bassa la pressione. Sorrido ai visi chini su di me.

«Mi dispiace», vorrei dire, «non volevo». Una mano mi accompagna in un’altra stanza, mi distendo su un lettino; ho un succo di frutta da succhiare lento, come un ciuccio, mentre guardo il soffitto. Un’altra volta mi era accaduto di vedere le piccole lucciole che abitano l’aria. Si agitano come farfalle senz’ali, vorticano fino a darti l’impressione di avere rotto il vetro della realtà. Torniamo a casa, mi dicevano, raccogli le cose. – Ero al mare e il sole mi aveva battuto sulla testa come una grossa pietra calda. – Obbedivo, ma a una doppia frequenza, nel vibrare di luci che mi portavano via, in una casa che iniziavo a riconoscere in quel momento, per la prima volta, nell’intercapedine che si stava aprendo.

Sul lettino dell’ambulatorio, mentre le sostanze zuccherine del succo entravano in circolo, potevo seguire ancora le scie di quel formicolio. Qualcosa di familiare e remoto, come le immagini che baluginano negli occhi di un neonato.

Un branco di pesci dipinti sulle pareti del reparto mi guida a una stanza colma di giochi, con tavoli e sedie in miniatura e disegni che raccontano la storia di una stessa infanzia che traccia una casa sbilenca, un sole che splende da un angolo, un fiore, oppure tre o quattro esseri che si stagliano nel bianco, come pupazzi fatti con la neve. Sento che per ora sarà questo il mio campo base. Mi siedo al tavolo grande e inizio a scrivere. Insieme a me, nella sala, c’è un bambino di cinque o sei anni. Mi chiede se posso aiutarlo ad accendere uno dei due schermi, ma non ne sono capace. Silenzioso torna al gioco di costruzioni che aveva interrotto. Provo a fargli qualche domanda ma lui non sembra volere rispondere né io voglio domandare ancora. Ogni tanto un pezzo delle sue costruzioni cade a terra, e mi chiede scusa, con una maturità che dice tutto quanto era necessario sapere. Anch’io, seduta al tavolo, sono tornata al mio gioco. Abbiamo presto compreso che saremo due compagni perfetti, consegnati entrambi a una lunga solitudine.

Il mio corpo è una tavoletta di cera. Pensavo di scrivere e invece sono stata scritta. Porto i segni di un altro alfabeto. Una lingua che possiamo modulare a labbra chiuse, inseguendo una scia di senso. La conoscevano i nostri antenati, con il corpo vivo, interamente segnato. Come noi, da bambini, con le ginocchia e i gomiti scuri, i tagli arrossati dal mercurocromo.

I miei occhi offuscati, oggi sono stati incisi. È stato un intervento indiretto. Me lo ha fatto il dottor M. senza saperlo, in un ambulatorio del quarto piano. Mi ero allacciata il vestito verde. La bocca coperta dalla mascherina come una benda per guarire dalle parole. Ma non conoscevo la potenza di quelle due accostate l’una all’altra e pronunciate nella semplicità con cui, al termine della riunione, erano uscite di bocca al dottore: iniezione lombare. Quelle parole originano una catena di gesti. Così mi sono ritrovata nella stanza con la porta chiusa e la finestra senza maniglia. Dentro, accanto al bambino, gli infermieri, l’anestesista, il medico, come giunchi mossi da una corrente leggera, a chinare il capo, muovendo di pochi millimetri le mani. La legge che governava ogni cosa era quella dei mondi sommersi. Un cenno e qualcosa nel corpo di un altro avrebbe risposto.

«I guanti azzurri».
«Ti piacciono?» chiede l’anestesista che li sta infilando.
Il bambino appoggia la testa sullo schienale, si distende.
«Devi girarti da un lato» gli dice l’infermiera.
«Perché?»
«Quando dormirai sarai pesante».

Preghiamo perché non si manifestino, perché siano invisibili, perché sia in un battito di ciglia il loro entrare in noi.

Il medico ha tracciato un rettangolo rossastro. Lì dove le bambole contengono le batterie che fanno muovere e parlare. C’è un grosso ago da calza. – Il quadro è appena schiacciato ai lati, attraversato da un tremore leggero. Il bambino sembra avvertire qualcosa, si scuote appena, come per un incubo.

I miei piedi sono saldati al pavimento. Le mani non le ho mai avute. Ho soltanto gli occhi. In allarme, stanno germogliando dal bulbo. – Vortica qualcosa nell’aria.
Goccia a goccia in una fiala scende un liquido trasparente sgorgato dalla schiena – una roccia sorgiva, bersaglio centrato esattamente.

Nessun pulsante da premere per uscire. – Quando la fiala sarà colma tutto sarà finito. Goccia dopo goccia, sarà finito. – Sono arrivate le lucine, si sprigionano; mi guidano lo sguardo verso la parete di fronte, tra il bianco del muro e l’armadietto riposa, per un attimo, riposa. Ma si sono addensate – uno sciame fitto, brulicante. Resisto, sui miei piedi. E qualcosa mi scioglie da ogni volontà, mi stacca come una foglia dal ramo. Plano leggera. Sorrido alle lucine.

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Non si sa come, ma ci ha trovati. Il suo occhio non smette di penetrare in noi. Nella vastità dello spazio e del tempo, tra la moltitudine degli altri risparmiati. Accade che un chiodo abbia luogo. Nessuno a impugnare il martello, nessuno a cui scagliare il grido.

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Cosa da poco il mondo. È andato a fuoco. Vedo ancora i suoi margini ripiegarsi.

Si è attutito il tempo, si è dilatato. Come quando la pioggia è finita e grandi gocce cadono dagli alberi.

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Oggi pesa 12 chili. Milligrammi ogni quante ore? Nella sacca mettiamo quattro fiale. Transaminasi…Quanto ha di anticorpi? Pressione cardiaca, pressione respiratoria.
Non ha avuto febbre. Non ha avuto dolore. Ha dormito.

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Un letto, un tavolo, una sedia, un armadio; uno schermo sul muro, un piccolo bagno. È la cabina di una nave con cui attraverseremo l’oceano. Venti giorni e dai vetri inizierà ad apparire la terra.

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Posso fare tre passi in una direzione, quattro passi nell’altra. Se apro le braccia ho tutto lo spazio. Mi siedo, ritorno al mio posto. Sono un grande armadio dove appendi i tuoi respiri. Abiti dell’inverno e della primavera, giacche colorate, giacche scure.

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Nel prato ci sono due tronchi fratelli. Uno è un pezzo di legno, l’altro ha piccole foglie in germoglio. Tra loro – testa sferica, corpo a cilindro – un pupazzo. Le braccia si irradiano fino a toccare i due tronchi.

Questi due bambini stanno per ricevere i doni della Befana. Sono io, parrucca grigia, occhiali e un grande naso di plastica ricurvo. Porto al più grande una Ferrari con il telecomando. Ma il più piccolo getta il suo gioco e piange per quello dell’altro. Prometto, risalgo sul motorino, e sfreccio a cercare una macchina identica. Una caccia al tesoro, di negozio in negozio, in quei giorni dopo Natale. Finalmente la trovo. In un soffio sono sotto casa. Due testoline sporte dal pianerottolo: «è tornata! È tornata davvero!» gridano e festeggiamo doppio, festeggiamo insieme. Questo accadeva – non sapevo che eravamo sull’orlo, dove ogni cosa per l’ultima volta torna – duplicata.

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“Ho il cappuccio sulla testa perché sono stato male”, mi sussurra all’orecchio. È uno dei suoi primi giorni di scuola superiore; è arrivato in anticipo per consegnarmi queste parole, come un biglietto di giustificazioni. “Una prof ieri mi ha chiesto di toglierlo davanti alla classe”. Ma iniziano ad arrivare gli altri, alla spicciolata. E va a prendere posto, uno di quelli più ambiti nelle ultime file. Sarà un rapper silenzioso, con cappello e cappuccio calati sulle tempie, come per continuare a sentire la sua musica ora dopo ora, oltre il brusio degli insegnanti, nelle orecchie.

Passano i mesi. Le voci tra i banchi accendono un fuoco inestinguibile su cui ogni tanto soffio, versando il mio respiro. Ho chiesto a ognuno di leggere un libro e di raccontarlo alla classe. Un susseguirsi di vampiri e di regni paralleli abitati da creature fantastiche, o di storie che inseguono lo sbocciare dell’amore. Alessandro è tornato alla cattedra per parlarmi; il libro che pensava di leggere era il manoscritto che un compagno di ospedale gli aveva lasciato. Conteneva tutta la storia della sua malattia, dalla diagnosi ai trattamenti di chemio, fino al trapianto e al ritorno a casa. “Sei sicuro di volerlo leggere? Ci sono tanti libri che potrei consigliarti.” Ma Alessandro era deciso. Da tanto lo teneva sulla mensola di casa: era arrivato il suo momento. Lo avrebbe letto nelle vacanze di Natale. Di raccontarlo alla classe non se la sentiva ancora, intanto lo avrebbe raccontato a me.

Ci diamo appuntamento per le ore di ginnastica in cui rimane seduto sulla panchina o a gironzolare in palestra. Quel libro aveva una tale carica radioattiva per Alessandro che, prima di poterlo aprire, erano dovuti passare due anni. Il tempo necessario per sentire che quella storia era per lui conclusa. “L’ho prestato una volta a un’amica; ho avvicinato lo zaino aperto alla mensola e con una piccola spinta l’ho lasciato cadere”. La ragazza lo ha letto lentamente e poi glielo ha riportato in silenzio. Ora sapeva che cosa aveva passato Alessandro in quel lungo anno di ospedale. Non aveva nessuna parola da restituirgli, ma sapeva.
“E ora che sei riuscito a leggerlo?” “Non mi ha fatto nessun effetto”.

Ci sono territori in cui le parole non raggiungono le cose. Si porta un carico oscuro, consegnati a se stessi. E a un tratto ci si ritrova saldi, sulle proprie ossa, come Atlanti che non sapevano di avere la forza. Ma qualcosa ora sta cercando tepore, sta cercando custodia, ha bisogno di sillabe.

Parlando Alessandro porta due dita tra la base del collo e la clavicola e preme. In quel punto entrava un tubo sottopelle che usciva al centro del petto. Lì gli sembra di sentire ancora una vena in modo diverso. Abbassa il colletto della maglia fino al piccolo cerchio impresso sulla pelle. Sono segni che confermano la sua forza. La battaglia è vinta. Presto, appena potrà, avrà un anello tribale sotto la spalla, una rosa dei venti all’interno del braccio. Aperta a tutte le direzioni, sarà la sua stella.

Un anno d’ospedale è un anno di pioggia. Un anno intero ad aspettare dai vetri.
Quando sono tornato a scuola ne erano passati due. Ne erano successe di cose ma alla fine gli amici erano rimasti gli stessi. Sono io che sono cambiato. Il tempo là dentro è diverso. Un giorno può contenere un mese. In una stanza c’è tutta la casa. Anche il parco dove esci di solito e la scuola.

Alessandro racconta, io sono a lezione da lui. Non perdo una parola della sua storia eppure non posso trascriverla. Non sono capace di reggerne la trama. Ma abbiamo aperto un canale, una via d’acqua. La sua voce scorre nella mia. Un nastro chiuso nel corpo si svolge.

Scendi dal letto, non reggono le gambe. Mi hanno aiutato tenendomi il braccio, mio padre e mia madre come stampelle. Ma non riuscivo a fare uno scalino. La gamba non ti segue. Glielo ordini; la aspetti, ma non ti segue. Abbiamo preso l’ascensore per uscire. E finalmente era l’aria, l’aria fresca che si muove sul viso e ti arriva fino dentro i polmoni. Mi hanno aiutato a salire in macchina. E ho rivisto scorrere le cose, sono tornato nella velocità, ho riprovato il brivido di quando mio padre accelera. Arrivato a casa il mio vecchio pastore tedesco mi è corso incontro. Non potevo accarezzarlo; lui si è fermato qualche passo da me annusando la terra. L’ospedale non ha odore, ti lascia addosso qualcosa di troppo pulito, un’aria densa che trattiene ogni cosa.

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Finalmente ero libero. Ma quando mi alzavo la notte stavo attento a muovermi, tastavo di fianco cercando la flebo. C’era un silenzio così profondo che non riuscivo a dormire. È la quiete della campagna d’inverno. Quella sospensione da ogni cosa in ospedale non esiste. Nella stanza, quando tutti i rumori cessavano, rimaneva il basso costante della pompa a tenermi compagnia. Quel fruscio elettrico che a mio padre portava il mal di testa. E una piccola luce rossa sempre accesa. Accanto al letto, nella mia camera, ho messo una spina tripla con il pulsante on.

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Ho sempre cercato di ricordare l’ultimo istante in cui restavo sveglio. Ma sfuma, si confonde il quadro, poi a un tratto ti riprendi, dici qualcosa che esce dal senso e ti addormenti. A pensarci risento gli occhi chinati su di me, e le domande con il punto interrogativo smussato – il cinguettare di uccellini sullo stesso ramo. Scherzano tra loro, si sporgono sul vetro, mi vogliono vedere affondato nel sonno.

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Se succedeva qualcosa avevo un pulsante per chiamare. Ma non sono mai rimasto solo. Mio padre e mia madre, a turno. Lui aveva una maschera che reggeva. Lei era sempre triste.

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Un mese senza la forza per restare seduto. Giocavo alla Play, non c’era nient’altro. La mattina ti chiedono cosa vuoi mangiare, metti una crocetta nella lista, ma è sempre lo stesso. La forchetta si spezza nella carne.

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Ricevevo le lettere dei compagni di classe. Prima di darmele mio padre ci passava uno straccetto umido. Una mattina sono venuti sotto la mia finestra con i cartelloni «Forza Ale».

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Ho una moto cross per andare sulle colline vicino casa. A giugno, dopo che è passata la mietitrebbia, o verso settembre, dopo che hanno arato, puoi attraversare i campi, dove non ci sono strade, scendere prendendo velocità, seguire i fossi nascosti tra le canne e i pioppi nella vallata.

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Dopo due anni ho ritrovato gli amici. Erano gli stessi, con i problemi e gli scherzi di sempre. Quando li vedo fumare capisco quanto siamo diversi. Io lo so cosa vuol dire l’aria.

Nonostante tutto era cresciuto. Così uscii a comprargli dei pantaloni nuovi. Ferma tra gli scaffali a scegliere, fui colpita dalla scarica di un pensiero inutile spendere molto – li metterà per poco.

*

Abbiamo scelto la casa e nella casa una stanza. Il medico veniva ogni giorno. Alle pareti chiedevo una porta, una porta qualsiasi. Il pianto della sorella più piccola. Doverle fare il bagno.

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Dovevo andarmene via prima con la sorella. Seduto sulla spiaggia, imbronciato di fronte al mare: ma lei ti avrà tutta la vita, io soltanto adesso.

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Arriva netto dal corpo. Il desiderio della fine. Sua, per tutti. Tornerà a colpirti. Nei giorni che continueranno, sarà la tua scure.

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Cercare di rimanere. Lo dobbiamo a loro. Pienamente, nell’esistenza.

Una colata lavica scendeva bruciando tutti gli organi – cuore, stomaco, viscere –. Fino a sentirmi sterilizzata. La porta della vita in cenere.

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Sedazione profonda, alternata a momenti di lucidità – Continuava a stringermi e a toccarmi il seno come se potessi ancora allattarlo. Sono goloso di te: sei proprio come la vita. Quella sera a ognuno di noi lasciò una frase. A me questa direzione di sole abbagliante, gelato sciolto, al colmo di un’intera giornata di mare.

Sono le 15 passate e non ho fame. È da questa mattina che sono nutrita, ininterrottamente, come avessi una flebo anch’io. Sto continuando a spingerla, sulle rotelle, anche qui in cortile, e mi seguirà quando sarò tornata a casa. Che cosa state mettendo nella mia sacca? L’unica cosa certa è che ho bevuto un caffè dal termos caldo con le infermiere e poi mangiato un pezzo di torta di compleanno (l’ha portata la madre della ragazza della stanza 5).

Ho messo il camice bianco delle psicologhe che fanno gioco-terapia, poi la casacca e i pantaloni verdi del reparto trapianto. Ho seguito le ultime visite del day hospital, e infine sono passata di nuovo in reparto per recuperare i miei vestiti. Nel frattempo ho tracciato dei segni illeggibili sul mio taccuino. Simili a quelli che, nel dormiveglia, lascio a occhi chiusi. Messaggi che mi indirizzo senza essere pronta a ricevere. Continuo a inviarmeli, riempiendo la cassetta di posta – non importa se si è via per un lungo viaggio, o traslocato senza avviso. Ho la fiducia che qualcuno, un giorno, con la forza quieta che raggiunge le cose, verrà a ricondurre ogni frase incompiuta, ogni frammento a un senso.

La morfina calerà di 10 mg nelle 24 ore – situazione di apparente benessere. Dorme tutto il giorno.
Sospeso quindi il Ketoprofene.
Minilesioni in bocca con scialorrea quasi continua.
Al letto n. 3 stanno calando un po’ le piastrine.
Non vomita più, è un altro.

È il cambio di turno, il capo infermiere passa le informazioni ai colleghi riuniti che trascrivono ognuno sulla propria agenda. Sul mio taccuino raccolgo le tracce di una tempesta che trascina oltre ogni rifugio.

Volto la pagina, ritrovo i segni che mi ha lasciato Paolo, il bambino di cinque anni con cui sono rimasta a giocare stamattina. Dopo una partita di calcio balilla in cui mi ha ampiamente battuto, ci siamo ritrovati sul tavolo, a disegnare. Quando mi ha visto scrivere, ha iniziato a tracciare con la penna linee arzigogolate. «Questo è cinese» – dicevo riproducendo il suono di sillabe sconosciute; «questo è tedesco» – una catena seghettata di montagne; «questo è il mare mosso, questo un uccellino che saltella». Sapeva scrivere, in tutte le lingue del mondo e in quella di tutte le cose che suonano e cantano. Nella pagina a fianco mi ha lasciato un disegno. Un pupino più grande e uno più piccolo, ritti su un campo in burrasca, le braccia a croce. Hanno mani grandi come soli. I raggi arrivano a unirsi.

La soglia di pediatria è vegliata da due grandi platani. I tronchi chiari, in continua mutazione, a scaglie che si sgretolano e staccano come croste di sangue e pelle indurita. Le foglie arrivano agli ultimi piani con finestre senza maniglia, tremano agli sguardi che cercano un luogo protetto in cui lasciare il dolore, la sua polvere scura. Quando ogni direzione è persa bisogna stringersi a voi. Voi reggete questa navicella di corridoi e di stanze nello spazio.

Nei brevi cortili, all’ingresso dei padiglioni, nelle aiuole, lungo i cespugli della strada principale, sono fiorite le margherite. Minute e bianche rilucono in queste prime giornate di aprile. Dopo una mattinata in reparto quest’aria ti viene addosso come un vento, ti sembra di sentire la sua conformazione di particelle che irradiano luce. Una sorgente t’investe e bevi, respiri, bevi – il suo getto germoglia senza fine. Mi sono seduta su un muretto al sole. Alle mie spalle la Madre con il Bambino sul grembo e i vasi fioriti ai piedi guarda chi viene per questa strada, il capo e le spalle sfiorate dai rami di un cedro.

Questa è l’ora dei cambi di turno. Gli infermieri usciti senza camice e cuffia li riconosci a stento, come animali dopo una muta. Si parlano a coppie o a piccoli gruppi, riuniti da un reparto all’altro, fumano una sigaretta o mangiano qualcosa. Ora inizia la mia vita – sembra dire una giovane infermiera che sta uscendo, stivali e gonna al ginocchio, il viso illuminato dal sole. Accanto a me una madre prende dalla carrozzina il figlio di pochi mesi in braccio e lo allatta con il biberon. Non ha garze né tubi questo bambino e non piange. Le siede vicino suo padre, in silenzio. Dietro di noi un’anziana fa alcuni passi nell’erba e si china a raccogliere una margherita. La schiena le fa male mentre si curva cercando di evitare il dolore. Ma resta china per raccogliere un’altra margherita e un’altra, muovendo appena i piedi intorno. Quando si rialza ne stringe felice in una mano un mazzetto. Si volta verso di noi, come a sincerarsi di non avere rubato niente, poi incrocia lo sguardo azzurro della Madre, si sofferma sulle catene di rosari che pendono da un piede del Bambino. Attraversa il prato verso l’entrata di pediatria.

Dovrei andarmene da qui. Arriva il momento in cui bisogna farlo e non è facile. Anche quando la stanchezza ti è calata sulle spalle e vaghi ancora da un corridoio all’altro, senza trovare l’uscita, avanzando più addentro quanto più segui le insegne, la loro traccia chiara che guida fuori. Ritrovate al sole le forze, ora bisogna che lasci questo edificio. Quello che ho raccolto al suo interno chiede aria. Mi dirigo al viale principale, volto a sinistra verso altri padiglioni, cammino. Gli studenti di medicina in uno spiazzo d’erba aspettano la prossima lezione. Non sono lontana dalla strada che costeggia il perimetro dell’ospedale; già si intravede il grande cancello aperto dalla parte del pronto soccorso.

Ma una via che si inoltra nel verde richiama il mio sguardo. La prendo perché quello che ho attraversato questa mattina chiede alberi, la loro presenza sulla nuca come una certezza di bene. La via si immette in una stradina di ghiaia che finisce cementata in un camminamento che sale leggero, fino all’entrata di pediatria. Mi siedo su un muretto al sole, a guardare da questo lato i due platani. Nostri alberi custodi dalle grandi ali tese. Qui vige una forza circolare. La coesistenza di inizio e fine genera una forte corrente che produce un gorgo.

Non puoi andartene, puoi soltanto allontanarti e tornare da un altro punto. Forse era questo che sentivano i miei vecchi, con quella testarda volontà di non andare in ospedale. Ma ora che da una delle tante porte sono entrata mi sembra che le vie che continuano fuori, non appartengano ad altro che a una forza attenuata, che risponde a questo centro. E ho capito perché sono qui anche se non raggiungo con le parole la scia di questa certezza. L’ho vista come una lucina che ha attraversato il mio campo visivo. Pochi passi e sono di nuovo in pediatria.

Prima di salire in reparto scendo le scale seguendo l’insegna Cappella dell’ospedale. Una piccola stanza vuota, nel primo piano interrato, con sedie ordinate in fila, sotto un soffitto azzurro. In alto, su una piccola mensola alla parete, una statua del Bambino illuminata da un neon. Da solo, in piedi, con una tunica celeste, e i raggi dell’aureola che si irradiano dal capo, mostra le palme delle mani aperte. Alle sue spalle un bimbo d’ombra va incontro al cerchio di luce che si staglia sul muro. Effetti della luce elettrica, rifrazioni. Ci sono stanze simili a questa al quinto piano, al reparto trapianti. Vicine a un corridoio di vetri da cui si vedono i tetti e le torri di Bologna, compongono insieme una casa dentro l’ospedale. C’è una cucina, una sala con i divani e un tavolo, una con gli attrezzi per fare palestra, una lavanderia, una camera da letto, un bagno.

Sono per i genitori dei pazienti che possono cucinare un piatto caldo per il figlio, lavargli i vestiti, riposarsi. La camera da letto è bene che resti vuota: è per il “secondo genitore” a cui è concesso rimanere nei giorni vicini all’ultimo. Ma nelle ore in cui sono transitata, ho trovato in queste stanze sempre una solitudine rischiarata dalle finestre alte sulla città. Stanze come cappelle, ognuna consacrata a un’attività della vita. Questo pensiero mi guida fuori dal seminterrato. Con me, in ascensore, una donna è diretta al mio stesso piano. Arrivata sussurra qualcosa al citofono: madre di…Io indugio sul pianerottolo. Ogni volta questa soglia mi chiede perché sono qui, che cosa mi autorizza ad entrare. Poi una forza che fuoriesce da una qualche intercapedine, pronuncia un sordo . Suono, pronuncio in un fiato: le parole necessarie.

Tra i padiglioni di ematologia e di malattie infettive, voltata di spalle alla stradina asfaltata, con il cellulare all’orecchio una ragazza piange. Il sole le illumina il viso facendolo splendere per via delle lacrime. Passando ho visto la luce che aveva, e un punto oltre la siepe, gli alberi, il confine dell’ospedale e i tetti di Bologna, a cui stava consegnando la sua storia.

Questi testi sono stati scritti tra il Policlinico Sant’Orsola-Malpighi di Bologna – reparto di Oncologia ed Ematologia pediatrica e il liceo artistico Mengaroni di Pesaro. Una tavoletta di cera è la versione rivista della plaquette Voci e tracce da un reparto, Le parole necessarie – Centro di poesia contemporanea dell’Università di Bologna, Policlinico Sant’Orsola-Malpighi, Bologna 2016.

marzo-maggio 2016

Translation by John Taylor

A gaze from above reunites all those who are divided.
—Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The swarm of tiny insects has gone back into a bend in the air. A quieted sense of alarm remains, a shock deep in the cells. Back on my feet, I have climbed the stairs and entered the ward again. At this hour it is almost deserted. Two nurses, before disappearing again into a meeting, smile at me. A half-hour ago, as white as the tiles, I was lying on the floor. Then my legs that are raised, my eyes that open again, a cuff that squeezes my arm: my pressure is still too low. I smile at the faces bent over me. “I’m sorry,” I would like to say, “I didn’t mean to.” A hand accompanies me to another room, I lie down on a bed; I have some fruit juice to suck on slowly, like a pacifier, while I look at the ceiling. Another time I happened to see the small fireflies that live in the air. They move about like wingless butterflies, swirling until they give you the impression of having broken through the windowpane of reality. Let’s go home, they were telling me, pick up your things. – I was at the sea and the sun had hit my head like a big hot stone. – I was obeying, but on two different wavelengths, within the vibrating lights sweeping me off, into a house that I was beginning to recognize at that moment, for the first time, and within a gap that was opening.

On the outpatient clinic bed, while the sugary substances of the juice were starting to circulate in my blood, I could still follow the wake of that swarming sensation. Something familiar and remote, like the images glimmering in a newborn baby’s eyes.

A school of fish painted on the ward walls leads me to a room full of games, with miniature tables and chairs, as well as drawings that tell the story of a single childhood sketched out by a lopsided house, a sun shining from a corner, a flower, or three or four beings standing out in white, like snowmen. I feel that this will be my base camp for now. I sit down at the big table and start writing. There is a five- or six-year-old boy in the room with me. He asks if I can help him turn on one of the two television screens, but I’m unable to do so. Silently he returns to the construction game he had stopped playing. I try to ask him some questions but he doesn’t seem to want to answer nor do I want to keep asking. Every now and then a piece of one of his constructions falls to the ground, and he apologizes to me, with a maturity that says everything it was necessary to know. Sitting at the table, I too went back to my game. We quickly realized that we would be perfect companions, each of us given over to a long solitude.

My body is a wax tablet. I was thinking of writing and instead I was being written. I wear the marks of another alphabet. A language that we can modulate with closed lips, pursuing a trail of meaning. Our ancestors knew this language, with their live, entirely marked-up flesh. Like us, as children, with our black-and-blue knees and elbows, our cuts reddened with Mercurochrome.

My blurred eyes have been incised today. It was an indirect intervention. Doctor M. did it to me without my knowing so, in the fourth-floor outpatient clinic. I had tied on my green gown. My mouth covered by a mask, like a bandage, to heal myself from words. But I didn’t know the power of two words which, when pronounced with simplicity, next to each other, at the end of the meeting, came out of the doctor’s mouth: spinal tap. Those words initiate a succession of gestures. So I found myself in the room with the door closed and the window without a handle. Inside, next to the child, the nurses, the anesthesiologist, the doctor, like bulrushes moved by a light current, bow their heads, moving their hands a few millimeters. The law that governed everything was that of submerged worlds. A nod and something in another’s body would have responded.

“The blue gloves.”
“Do you like them?” asks the anesthesiologist who is putting them on.
The child leans his head back, relaxes.
“You have to turn over on one side,” says the nurse.
“Why?”
“When you are sleeping you’ll be heavy.”

Let’s pray so that they won’t appear, so that they will be invisible, so that they will enter us in the blink of an eye.

The doctor has drawn a reddish rectangle. Where dolls contain batteries that make them move and talk. There is a large knitting needle. – The picture frame is just flattened on the sides, crossed by a slight tremor. The boy seems to feel something, he just shakes himself, as in a nightmare.

My feet are welded to the floor. I’ve never had hands. I only have eyes. Alarmed, they are sprouting from their bulbs. – Something is swirling in the air.
Drop by drop, a transparent liquid spurting from his back falls into a vial – water from the rock, the target hit exactly.

No button to press to exit. – When the vial is full, everything will be over. Drop by drop, it will be over. — The tiny lights have arrived, they burst out; they guide my eyes towards the opposite wall, between the whiteness of the wall and the medicine cabinet take a rest, for a moment, rest. But they have thickened – a dense swarm, teeming. I resist, on my feet. And something frees me from my will, detaches me like a leaf from a branch. I hover weightlessly. I smile at the tiny lights.

****

No one knows how, but it has found us. Its eye never stops penetrating us. In the vastness of space and time, among the multitude of the others who have been spared. A pain can stab like a nail. No one takes hold of the hammer, there is no one to cry out to.

*

What a trifle the world is. It was on fire. I still see its margins folding back.

Time has eased, expanded. As when a rainfall is over and big drops fall from the trees.

*

Today he weighs 12 kilos. How many milligrams every how many hours? We put four vials into the drip. Transaminase…How many antibodies does he have? Heart pressure, respiratory pressure.
He had no fever. He had no pain. He slept.

**************

A bed, a table, a chair, a wardrobe; a screen on the wall, a small bathroom. It is the cabin of a ship with which we will cross the ocean. Twenty days and from the windows the earth will begin to appear.

*

I can take three steps in one direction, four steps in the other. If I open my arms I have all the space. I sit down, go back to my seat. I am a large closet in which you hang your breaths. Winter and spring clothes, colored jackets, dark jackets.

***

In the meadow there are two brother trunks. One is a piece of wood, the other has small budding leaves. Between them – spherical head, cylindrical body – a stick figure. The arms radiate outwards until they touch the two trunks.

These two children are about to receive the Befana’s Epiphany gifts. It’s me, wearing a gray wig, glasses, and a big curved plastic nose. I bring a remote control Ferrari to the oldest one. But the younger one throws his game aside and cries for the other one. I promise, get back on my moped, and hurry to find an identical car. It’s a treasure hunt, from shop to shop, in those days after Christmas. I finally find it. In a breath I am back. Two little heads protrude from the landing. “She’s back,” they shout, “she’s really back!” And we celebrate twice, we celebrate together. This was happening – I didn’t know we were on the brink, where everything comes back for the last time – duplicated.

**************

“I have a hood over my head because I was sick,” he whispers into my ear. It is one of his first days of high school; he arrived early to confide these words in me, like an absence slip. “Yesterday a professor asked me to remove it in front of the class.” But the others begin to arrive, by twos and threes. And he goes to take his place, one of the most coveted ones in the last rows. He will be a silent rapper, with his hat and hood down over his temples, as if continuing to hear his music hour after hour in his ears, beyond the murmuring of the teachers.

Months go by. Between the desks, the voices light an inextinguishable fire on which I sometimes blow, pouring out my lungs on it. I asked everyone to read a book and tell it to the class. A succession of vampires and parallel realms inhabited by fantastic creatures, or stories that pursue blossoming love. Alessandro came back to the teacher’s desk to speak to me; the book he wanted to read was the manuscript that a hospital companion had left him. It comprised the entire history of his illness, from diagnosis to chemo treatments, to the transplantation and his return home. “Are you sure you want to read it? There are many books I could recommend.” But Alessandro was determined. He had been keeping it on the shelf at home for a long time: its moment had come. He would read it over the Christmas holidays. He didn’t feel like telling the story to the class yet, but meanwhile he would tell me.

We meet during the hours of gym class in which he remains seated on the bench or wanders around the gym. That book had such a radioactive charge for Alessandro that two years had to go by before he could open it. The time needed to sense that the story was over for him. “I once lent it to a friend; I brought the open backpack close to the shelf and with a little push I let it fall.” The girl had read it slowly and then silently brought it back. Now she knew what Alessandro had gone through during that long year in the hospital. She had no words to give him, in return, but she knew.
“And now that you’ve managed to read it?” I asked him. “It didn’t have any effect on me.”

There are territories where words don’t reach things. We carry a dark burden, handed over to ourselves. And suddenly we find we are solid, on our own bones, like Atlases who didn’t know they had strength. But something now is looking for warmth, it is looking for care, it needs syllables.

While he is speaking, Alessandro brings two fingers between the base of the neck and the collarbone and presses. At that point, a tube entered under his skin and exited at the center of his chest. There he still seems to feel a vein differently. He lowers his shirt collar to the small circle imprinted on the skin. They are signs that confirm his strength. The battle is won. As soon as he can, he will have a tribal ring below his shoulder, a compass rose on the inside part of his arm. Open to all directions, it will be his star.

A year in the hospital is a year of rainfall. A whole year waiting by the windowpanes.
When I went back to school, two years had passed. Things had happened but in the end my friends had remained the same. It is I who had changed. Inside the hospital, time is different. A day can contain a month. One’s whole house is in one room. Also the park to which you usually go and the school.

Alessandro tells his story, I am being taught by him. I don’t miss a word and yet I can’t write it down. I am unable to bear the plot. But we have opened a canal, a waterway. His voice flows into mine. A magnetic tape closed up inside his body unwinds.

You get out of bed, your legs won’t support up. Like crutches, my father and mother helped me by holding my arms. But I couldn’t climb the stairs. Your leg won’t follow you. You give it orders; you wait for it, but it won’t follow you. We took the elevator to leave. And at last it was the air, the fresh air that blows on your face and comes all the way into your lungs. They helped me get into the car. And I saw things flowing again, I returned to rapidity, again felt the shiver when my father accelerated. When I got home my old German Shepherd ran up to meet me. I could not pet him; he stopped a few steps away from me, sniffing the earth. The hospital has no odor; it leaves something too clean on you, a dense air that keeps everything.

*

I was finally free. But when I got up at night I moved carefully, groping sideways and searching for the IV. There was a silence so deep I couldn’t sleep. It’s the quiet of the winter countryside. That suspension from everything, in the hospital, doesn’t exist. In the room, when all the noises ceased, the constant bass from the pump remained to keep me company. That electric swishing that gave my father a headache. And a small red light always shining. Back home, next to the bed in my room, I placed a triple electric outlet with the on button shining.

*

I always tried to remember the last moment I was awake. But it fades, the picture blurs, then suddenly you pull yourself together, say something senseless and fall asleep. Thinking back on this, I feel eyes bending over me, and the questions with blunted question marks – the chirping of birds on the same branch. They are joking among themselves, lean over the windowpane, want to see me sunk into sleep.

*

If something happened I had a call button. But I was never alone. My father and mother took turns. His face kept up a mask. She was always sad.

*

A month without the strength to stay seated. I would spend my time on PlayStation, there was nothing else. In the morning they ask you what you want to eat, you put a cross on the list, but it’s always the same. The fork breaks in the meat.

*

I would receive letters from classmates. Before giving them to me, my father wiped them with a wet rag. One morning my classmates came under my window with “Be Brave, Ale!” signs.

*

I have a motorcycle to ride over the hills near the house. In June, after the combine harvester has come through, or towards September, after they have plowed, you can ride across the fields, where there are no roads, head downhill and pick up speed, follow the ditches hidden among the reeds and poplars in the valley.

*

After two years, I found my friends again. They were the same, with the usual problems and jokes. When I see them smoking I understand how different we are. I know what air means.

Despite everything, he had grown. So I went out to buy him some new pants. As he stopped between the shelves to choose, I was struck by a thought bursting out it’s useless to spend a lot – he won’t wear them very long.

*

We chose the house and a bedroom in the house. The doctor came every day. I asked the walls for a door, any door. His younger sister is weeping. I’ll have to give her a bath.

*

I had to go out with my sister first. As I was sitting on the beach, sullen in front of the sea: but she will have her whole life, I only now.

*

It comes straight from the body. The desire for the end. His, for everyone. It will strike you again. As the days continue, it will be your ax.

*

Try to stay. We owe it to them. Fully, in existence.

A lava flow was coming down and burning all the organs – heart, stomach, bowels –. Until I feel sterilized. Life’s door in ashes.

*

Deep sedation, alternating with moments of lucidity – He kept squeezing and touching my breast as if I could still breastfeed him. I’m greedy for you: you’re just like life. That evening, he left a sentence for each of us. For me this direction of dazzling sun, melted ice cream, at the height of a whole day at the beach.

It’s past 3 p.m. and I’m not hungry. This morning has fed me, incessantly, as if I had an IV too. I keep wheeling it along, even here in the courtyard, and it will follow me when I’m back home. What are you putting in my drip? The only thing I’m sure about is that I drank some coffee from the hot thermos with the nurses and then ate a piece of birthday cake (the mother of the girl in Room 5 brought it).

I put on the white coat of the psychologists who do play-therapy, then the green gown and pants of the transplant ward. I accompanied the final rounds at the day-hospital, and at the end I went back to the ward to retrieve my clothes. In the meantime, I jotted down some illegible marks in my notebook. Similar to those I leave when I am drowsing and my eyes are closed. They are messages I address to myself without being ready to receive them. I keep sending them, filling the mailbox – it doesn’t matter if one is away on a long trip, or has moved away without notice. I am confident that someone, one day, with the quiet strength that reaches things, will come to guide every unfinished sentence, every fragment, to a meaning.

The morphine will drip 10 mg. in 24 hours—a situation of apparent well-being. He sleeps all day. Ketoprofen is therefore suspended.
Mini-lesions in the mouth with almost continuous sialorrhea.
At Bed No. 3, the platelets are dropping a little.
He no longer vomits, he’s another person.

It’s the shift change, the head nurse passes the information onto his colleagues, who write down each fact on a personal organizer. In my notebook, I collect the traces of a storm that drags on beyond every shelter.

I turn the page, find the signs left by Paolo, the five-year-old boy with whom I stayed to play this morning. After a game of table soccer in which he easily beat me, we sat around a table, drawing. When he saw me writing, he started drawing intricate lines with his pen. “This is Chinese,” I was saying, reproducing the sound of unknown syllables. “This is German” – a saw-toothed mountain range. “This is the rough sea, this is a little bird that hops.” He knew how to write in all the languages of the world and of all the things that play and sing. On the opposite page he left me a drawing. Two stick figures, one larger and one smaller, standing on a stormy field with their arms crossed. They have hands as big as suns. The rays come together.

The threshold to the pediatric ward is watched over by two large plane trees. The trunks are clear-colored, constantly changing, with pieces of bark that break up and peel off like crusts of blood and hardened skin. The leaves reach the top floors, where the windows have no handles, and tremble at the looks seeking a protected place in which to leave behind the pain, its dark dust. When every direction is lost, we need to cling to you trees. In this space, you hold up this ship of corridors and rooms.

Daisies have bloomed in the small courtyards, at the entrances to the ward buildings, in the flowerbeds, along the bushes of the main avenue. Tiny and white, the daisies are shining in these first days of April. After a morning in the ward, the air comes upon you like a wind, you seem to feel its configuration of light-radiating particles. A source pervades you and you drink, you breathe, you drink – its gush germinates endlessly. I sat down on a low wall in the sun. Behind me, the Mother with the Child on her lap and the flower-filled vases at her feet, her head and shoulders barely touched by the branches of a cedar, looks out at whoever is coming up this road.

It’s the time for shift changes. You barely recognize the nurses who have came out without gowns and caps – they are like animals after molting. They talk in twos or in small groups, gathering from one ward to another, smoking a cigarette or eating something. Now my life begins – seems to say a young nurse who is going out, with her boots and skirt knee-high, and her face lit up by the sun. Next to me, a mother takes her few-month-old son from the baby carriage and bottle-feeds him. This baby has no gauze or tubes and isn’t crying. His father sits silently beside him. Behind us, an old woman takes a few steps in the grass and bends over to pick a daisy. Her back hurts while she is bending over and trying to avoid pain. But she remains bent over to pick another daisy and still another one, barely shifting her feet around. When she straightens up, she is happily holding a bunch of them in her hand. She turns towards us, as if to make sure that she has not stolen anything, then her eyes meet the Mother’s blue gaze, and she lingers over the rosary beads hanging from one foot of the Child. She crosses the lawn towards the entrance of the pediatric ward.

I should go away from here. The time comes when you need to do so and it’s not easy. Even when weariness is weighing down on your shoulders and you are still wandering from one corridor to the next, without finding the exit, progressing ever deeper inside as you follow the signs, their clear indications that lead outside. Now that you have recovered your energy in the sunlight, you need to leave this building. What I have gathered inside is asking for air. I head to the main avenue, turn left towards the other ward buildings, walk. Medical students in a grassy area are waiting for their next class. I’m not far from the road that runs along the outer limits of the hospital; the large gate opened on the side of the emergency room can already be glimpsed.

But a path that enters the vegetation attracts my gaze. I take it because what I went through this morning asks for trees, their presence on the back of my neck as a guarantee of goodness. The path leads into a gravel road that ends up as a concrete walkway that rises slightly up to the entrance of the pediatric ward. I sit on a low wall in the sunlight, gazing at the two plane trees from this side. Our guardian trees with their wide outstretched wings. Here a circular force takes effect. The coexistence of beginning and end generates a strong current that forms a whirlpool.

You cannot go away, you can only move off and return to another spot. Maybe that’s what my ancestors felt, stubbornly unwilling to go to the hospital. But now that I have entered one of its many doors, it seems to me that the avenues that continue outside belong to nothing but an attenuated force that responds to this center. And I have understood why I am here even if I do not reach with words what follows in the wake of this certitude. I have seen it as a light crossing my field of vision. A few steps and I’m back in the pediatric ward.

Before going up to the ward, I go down the stairs, following the Hospital Chapel sign. It’s a small empty room, on the first underground floor, with chairs arranged in a row under a sky-blue ceiling. Above, on a small shelf on the wall, a statue of the Child is illuminated by a neon light. Standing alone, wearing a light blue tunic, with the halo rays shining out from his head, he is showing the open palms of his hands. Behind him, a shadowy young child comes up to the circle of light standing out on the wall. Electric light effects, refractions. Rooms similar to this one are found on the fifth floor, in the transplant ward. They are near a glass corridor from which you can see the roofs and towers of Bologna; the rooms put together a house inside the hospital. There is a kitchen, a lounge with sofas and a table, a workout room, a laundry room, a bedroom, a bathroom.

These are for patients’ parents, who can cook up a hot dish for their child, wash his clothes, rest. It’s good when the bedroom remains empty: it is for the “second parent” who is allowed to stay there during the days near the end. But during the hours that I spent there, I always found in these rooms a solitude lit by the high windows overlooking the city. Rooms like chapels, each dedicated to one of life’s activities. This thought leads me out of the underground level. With me, in the elevator, a woman is heading to the same floor. When she arrives, she whispers something into the intercom: I’m the mother of…I linger on the landing. Each time this threshold asks me why I am here, what authorizes me to enter. Then a force emerging from some gap pronounces a mute yes. I ring out, pronounce in one breath: the necessary words.

Between the hematology and infectious diseases buildings, a girl with her back to the asphalt road and holding a cell phone to her ear, is crying. The sun lights up her face, making it shine through her tears. As I walked by, I saw this light that she had, and a point beyond the hedge, the trees, the outer limits of the hospital and the roofs of Bologna, to which it was delivering her story.

These texts were written in the Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Polyclinic of Bologna – the Pediatric Cancer and Hematology Ward – and in the Mengaroni Artistic High School of Pesaro. This translation is based on the version that was revised by the author after the texts were published in the chapbook Voci e tracce da un reparto: Le parole necessarie (Bologna: Centro di poesia contemporanea dell’Università di Bologna, Policlinico Sant’Orsola-Malpighi, 2016).

(March-May 2016)

Franca Mancinelli was born in Fano, Italy, in 1981. Her first two collections of verse poetry, Mala kruna (2007) and Pasta madre (2013), were awarded several prizes in Italy and later republished together as A un’ora di sonno da qui (2018)—a book now available in John Taylor’s English translation as At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (Bitter Oleander Press, 2019). In 2018 also appeared her collection of prose poems, Libretto di transito, also published by Bitter Oleander Press as The Little Book of Passage. She has participated in international projects such as the Chair Poet in Residence (Kolkata, India, 2019) and REFEST: Images and Words on Refugee Routes. From this latter experience was born her Taccuino croato (Croatian Notebook), now published in Come tradurre la neve (How to Translate the Snow, 2019). Her new collection of poems, Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (All the Eyes that I Have Opened), appeared in Italy, in September 2020, at Marcos y Marcos.

John Taylor is an American writer, critic, and translator who lives in France. Among his many translations of French and Italian poetry are books by Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Dupin, Pierre Chappuis, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, José-Flore Tappy, Pierre Voélin, Georges Perros, Lorenzo Calogero, and Alfredo de Palchi. His translations have been awarded grants and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, Pro Helvetia, and the Sonia Raiziss Giop Charitable Foundation. He is the author of several volumes of short prose and poetry, most recently The Dark Brightness, Grassy Stairways, Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees, and a “double book” co-authored with Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges.

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Calves

My partner’s ex hiked cross country
He passed through for a meal and a hot shower
I stared hypnotically at his detailed pair of calves
Boasting layers and stark division
Apparently available in all calves, even my own
If I cared enough to unearth them
When he excused himself to the bathroom
I watched him raise on his toes
As he walked, time slowed
The soleus, fibularis longus, and plantaris dancing together
Like a Russian ballet
Later in bed, I said coldly
“He left you to perfect the parts of himself he ignored.”
“I guess so.” she said, turning off the light
We held each other, our loose skin and muscles
Melding into one

Pat Hull is a songwriter and poet from Northern California. He is signed to a small music label out of Portland, OR, called Dutch Records. In his first attempt for publication, Pat is showcasing a series of poems called Field Notes on Love, a collection that attempts to bring humor and tenderness to the minutiae of loving through tragedy and doubt. He is 35 years old with a family of four, and more to come with fostering children on the horizon. He teaches Non-Violent Communication at CSU, Chico and Butte College.

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Oxygen Tank

            for Halle

The woman across the street had cancer
            while I was pregnant
both my neighbor and the baby
            knuckle-gripped life
one growing marrow and bones the other using
            a portable oxygen tank she dragged
behind her like a child a recalcitrant child
            not finished playing at the park
the five-minute warning all but useless I breathe
            for both of us one day she’ll breathe
on her own and I won’t know what to do
            with all the leftover air

Michelle Matz’s chapbook, Atilt, was published by Finishing Line Press. She won the Mary Merritt Henry Prize for a group of poems, was a semi-finalist in the Ledge Press Manuscript Contest, and was awarded an Individual Arts Grant through the San Francisco Arts Commission. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, including Berkeley Poetry Review, Rainbow Curve, So to Speak Journal, Cider Press Review, and most recently, at SWIMM Every Day. She lives in San Francisco.

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Motherhood

As my daughter napped
I scooped her goldfish from the tank

and flushed them down the toilet,
watched as each swirled to its untimely

death. The goldfish were her father’s
idea, a present on her third birthday.

At first, she couldn’t stop watching
as they’d dart for food, their mouths

a perfect O at the water’s surface.
Once, even, before bedtime,

I love you fishies, as she wrapped
her arms around the tank and kissed

the glass. But love is imperfect.
Their small, continuous orbit around

the plastic plant began to bore her.
By autumn, hardly a glance in the tank’s

direction. Still, I fed them dutifully, changed
a third of the water monthly as recommended,

installed a new filter when the first one began
to mold. I kept alive what was alive until I

didn’t. It was a week before she noticed,
and then, curiously, where my fishies go?

The parenting books stacked clumsily
by my bed say nothing about what to say

to your child after you’ve killed her goldfish.
Swimming in the ocean with their mommy,

I tell her. I wait for more questions but there are
none. The lie, so terribly, terribly absurd,

complete.

Michelle Matz’s chapbook, Atilt, was published by Finishing Line Press. She won the Mary Merritt Henry Prize for a group of poems, was a semi-finalist in the Ledge Press Manuscript Contest, and was awarded an Individual Arts Grant through the San Francisco Arts Commission. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, including Berkeley Poetry Review, Rainbow Curve, So to Speak Journal, Cider Press Review, and most recently, at SWIMM Every Day. She lives in San Francisco.

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Day of the Dead

Jesus in Mexico, flesh always caught in a fence of thorns, always gaunt-hollow and bleeding. He is tattered in torn purple, crawling to you, beseeching you with upturned claws. You swerve to avoid the lepers and the limbless in the same posture outside of the church, again to duck the old women hawking rosaries and matches. In Taxco, you dodge the throngs in chains and flames, strange rites of un/holy sadomasochism. Maybe we are all penitents, burdened by blackberry brambles, stooped in the searing sun. Maybe we are all bloody angels, festering paws bandaged, ambling to rise up, knock our crutches to the floor. In the cemetery at the south of the city, I come across an altar of bones. There are flies and ivy weaving through the empty sockets of somebody’s skull, there are marigolds scattered over the rest of us like coins.

Lorette C. Luzajic is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a literary journal devoted to writing inspired by art. Her creative writing has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications and numerous anthologies. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best of the Net, and is the first place winner of a story contest at MacQueen’s Quinterly. Her most recent of five books of poetry is Pretty Time Machine: ekphrastic prose poems. Lorette is also an award-winning artist whose collage-paintings have been collected in over 25 countries. Visit her at https://www.mixedupmedia.ca.

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Our Daily Bread

The prairies are inside you, you are covered in dust and disarray, in clouds so close they are kissing the hay. The mares are tough and determined, like you, and resigned to their purpose. Well, I have always been a city mouse, even though I was born of the same bread. I wanted pavement and paintings, I wanted frosty tumblers of patio gin with crushed mint. I wanted red high heels and Barcelona. To each their own, you said, when I invited you to the city. I wanted to show you the museums and the world, but you said the whole world was under the dust right where you were. I was an old woman before I felt that kind of certainty and safety. That sense of where I stood. And if I gave a few portraits and poems to this planet, you gave us hefty, rustic loaves and cold beer. You cajoled the very earth to ignite on our behalf, to feed us.

Lorette C. Luzajic is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a literary journal devoted to writing inspired by art. Her creative writing has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications and numerous anthologies. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best of the Net, and is the first place winner of a story contest at MacQueen’s Quinterly. Her most recent of five books of poetry is Pretty Time Machine: ekphrastic prose poems. Lorette is also an award-winning artist whose collage-paintings have been collected in over 25 countries. Visit her at https://www.mixedupmedia.ca.

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The Creek is Swelling

The creek is swelling, you don’t need to be told, because you can see it spilling over the creekbed into the backyard, which wasn’t muddy before, but now is, all the grass drowned by hungry water, hungry for what, you don’t know, and you can see strands of grass from the backyard carried away on the eddies, which are now more like rip currents after the thunderstorms that keep coming every Wednesday, and have been since June, and you’ve seen other things carried away as well, your mother’s peonies (the whole bed), and shiny silver chocolate wrappers, and cherry blossoms of course, and plastic bags, and once a salad fork, and crumpled balls of paper, and strands of your sister’s hair because sometimes she cuts her bangs with the window open when it’s windy, and yes, you’ll admit it, a few of your fingernails because the trashcan was full and it was nice to see something of yourself let free in there with the other remnants of everyone’s lives that flow right through your backyard and onwards, eastwards, and you can smell the river overflowing too, how it churns up the mud and the living things within it, the worms that the thunderstorms send squirming, the roots cursing the overabundance of water, so no, you don’t need to be told that the creek is overflowing, although they tell you anyway, the neighbors rocking away the evenings on their front porches as you walk by, the mothers of the children you babysit making small talk as they put on their shoes, the old man at the corner store who has known you since you were small, and everyone in the whole wide world on Wednesday mornings when they wake up to yet another crack of lightning, more reliable than alarm clocks by now, and then the drumbeat of warm insistent rain followed by the sound of the creek, so every morning you’ve been going to the backyard barefoot despite the mud, with a glass of water and ice cubes, to watch the river creep closer and closer to your toes, while thrashing along merrily in the frothy middle, and there’s the chill of icewater on your tongue as you think about moving away, which you must do at some point, everyone says so, and that point is likely now, when the water seems to be tugging you east and that’s where the jobs are, they all say that too, and as the water slips down your throat, you imagine it’s riverwater, although you know it’s silly, riverwater pooling in your stomach and then flowing out through veins and arteries into your elbows, hair, bones, fingernails, all the things that make you up, this riverwater that flows from here to there, carrying almost everything to places that are faraway, where people might lean down to pick up a crumpled soggy letter and wonder what was once written on it, and you’ve never looked on a map to see where the river ends, and maybe for a second then, as you’re thinking about maps, you taste moss on a riverworn rock or silty mud, but it’s gone by the time you realize it was there, and once you’ve finished the glass of water you go back inside to wash your feet, and that’s when you find your mother at the kitchen table with the phone facedown next to her, and she tells you what you must’ve already known: the creek is coming for the house, the boards will rot soon if they haven’t already, and the foundation will be eaten away, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all for you here, and that makes you thirsty again, so you walk to the sink and turn on the tap and in the split second before the water comes rushing out, you hope, or maybe you wish, or beseech, or pray (or maybe it’s not any of that, maybe it’s just a request, from one old friend to another), that when the tapwater does come rushing out, as it always does, that it will be brown and muddy and mossy and taste of the creek that has swelled, is swelling, into your home, so you will have to leave this place where the thunderstorms are more predictable than the electricity and people throw love letters into the river, and yes, you will leave at last, but you will do it on your own terms, with the taste of real creekwater on your tongue, and beneath.

Zoe Goldstein is a recent high school graduate from Massachusetts. She has attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf. Her work appears in Body Without Organs. She also edits Sunbow Zine, a zine about identity, social justice, and the climate.

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Telogen Effluvium

After my mom passed, I found a few strands of hair
on my shoulders/in the shower/on my pillow
It didn’t bother me at first because I had an abundance

to spare but soon I found clumps in my brush.
They released themselves from follicles
onto my fingertips until I was afraid to touch

my head. Couldn’t bear to comb the survivors.
Stared at my hairline hoping I was imagining
this new normal. I looked at photos of what my

hair used to look like a few weeks back: Thick and long
and lush. Damn it looked good. But I took that me
for granted and my bun got smaller and smaller until

I could wrap my hair tie around and around two then three
then four times. I bought vitamins and biotin and hair restorative
and Rogaine and nothing worked and nothing worked and nothing

worked and it was all I could think about because I wanted
things back the way they were before I realized how important
everything was before the shedding. And I wanted someone to tell me

when this would stop. That it would be OK. That I wouldn’t lose
everything. But it was OK and it did grow back and that’s not the
key here – because this wasn’t that important because

I have already lost so much and could still lose so much more.

Victoria Nordlund’s poetry collection Binge Watching Winter on Mute was published by Main Street Rag in June 2019. She is a Best of the Net and 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee, whose work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Rust + Moth, Chestnut Review, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. Visit her at https://www.victorianordlund.com.

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The Matchbook Room

First performed by an actor as part of the Liars’ League Portland (now defunct)

What I wanted to tell you about was Grin. How she collected matchbooks and how it’s a dying art form. Her full name was Grinalda. She’d inherited her father’s modest collection when she was 25. At first, she didn’t like me, thought I was a know-it-all. Most people would agree with her, but I learned to soften my delivery, how to stop being didactic after a couple of shots of Four Roses whiskey. I liked it on the rocks and without flourish, but you don’t care about that. At first, Grin kept me around because of some familiarity or softness in my dark eyes. Later, I helped her make more money and became indispensable.

Tall, lanky, awkward. Grin muddled through the streets as if she were lost in a corn maze. We met when I found her matchbook museum, well, room. I would never call Grin a phillumenist (Hint, the word comes from phil = love, and lumen = light). She had made her father’s collections into a moneymaker, modest, but worthy. Within a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious that Grin had no idea what the historical context of the artifacts on display were—a lost opportunity.

Matchbooks are quite compelling and a little historical knowledge goes a long way. That was my gift to Grin. She had the complete matchbook history by the time I printed up placards and labels for her displays. I categorized them based on year, which naturally grouped the World’s Fair pieces together, a rare set.

The truth is, I know too much about matchbooks. Growing up, I knew a guy who had an extensive collection and I was curious to know why he was so fascinated by them. I’d done quite a bit of research and knew that matches had been around since 1892. And the tips, you know what they’re made of? Sulfur, atomic number 16. Well, not exactly, it’s a solution of sulfur and phosphorus, atomic number 15. Phosphorus is highly reactive, that’s what gives matches their spark. It comes in two forms white and red. You’ve seen white tipped matches? Red? Exactly. These little anecdotes went into my spiel to Grin about a higher quality experience for her patrons. She couldn’t argue.

Most collectors remove the matches from their matchbooks by carefully prying open the staple on the book, but not Grin’s father or Grin. They kept them complete. You think you know where I’m going with this, but you don’t. Grin even had a couple of the original matchbooks with the strike strip on the inside, a design flaw that was later corrected. In any case, I helped her see that she had a hook to get people to come in. The most dangerous matchbook room in town—move too quickly and sparks will fly. Untrue, of course. All of the matches were under glass. Still, it was a nice touch. I liked to think of it like hidden embers ready to catch.

Our friendship flowered and she began to notice things about me, like the dark flecks in my coffee-bean brown eyes or the two-inch scar on my wrist from a rocky fall. At some point, I kindly suggested that I get a percentage of The Matchbook Room’s earnings. The placards had boosted her business, and my idea of “The Matchbook Room” matchbooks, for advertising, were a success.

I stayed involved by giving tours once a week. We’d often go out for a drink after my shift. Early on, during one of those nights, Grin told me about her father. She said that he was a cheapskate, always trying to get ahead, but never saving. He’d grown up on a grape farm, what we might call a winery.

“My father had always loved matchbooks,” she said. “He’d started a collection when he was a teenager. He said he liked that they had more than one use, practical and lucrative. Fire and advertising. He had special matchbooks made up for the winery. One out of every fifty had a gold star on the inside flap and that meant you won a bottle of wine from the shop.”

I told Grin I thought that was a smart idea. She shrugged.

“The first person to come in was a portly middle-aged man who wanted the most expensive bottle of wine in the shop. Instead, my father gave him a bottle of our cheapest because of his sense of entitlement.”

I listened to Grin talk. She was generous, unlike her father.

“The second person that came in with a gold starred matchbook was a teenager, somewhere around the age of fourteen. He had smears of dirt on his face, under his nails and all over his clothing. The matchbook had two matches left in it, but it was in pristine condition.”

Her father asked where he’d found the matchbook. The boy shifted his weight from one foot to the other and swallowed. He said he’d found it on the bedside table next to where his mother slept. They used it for their gas stove.

“Then my father asked how he knew to come to the winery. The kid laughed and said ‘because of the front of the matchbook, it says the name right there.’ Then the kid looked up at my father with doleful brown eyes and said, ‘could I have another matchbook?'”

“When my father realized the kid wasn’t there for free wine, he took it as an opportunity, a mutually beneficial opportunity. He worked it out to pay the kid a few bucks to distribute his matches. Essentially, he was getting, dirt cheap, widespread advertising,” she said.

I asked what happened to the kid.

“He came by often. His pay rate never changed, but he kept coming by even on days there were no deliveries. He offered to help with weeding or other household chores. I’d come home from my job in town and he’d still be there. I got the feeling he didn’t want to leave, but my father didn’t like him staying for dinner because ‘an extra mouth to feed is an extra expense we don’t need.’ My mother always invited him to stay.”

I asked about the kid’s mom.

“Yes, he talked about her, but we never met her and if he had a father, we didn’t know it. His mom got sick, it was pretty bad. My father didn’t feel sorry for him, my mother did. His mother passed just after his seventeenth birthday, I think,” she said.

Bile rose up in my throat, souring it, I sipped my whiskey.

“A few years later, he had figured it out, that my father was exploiting his lack of means and so he asked for more money, but my father wouldn’t budge. The one thing I remember from that conversation was the look in the kid’s sad brown eyes. He wasn’t really after the money. I knew that. It’s strange, it was just a feeling, really. He wanted to belong to us or with us. It just felt that way.”

My face flushed involuntarily and I asked about her father.

“I was around for another year before I left for school and the kid stopped coming around as often. He didn’t live close anymore. Then I left for school. Two years after I’d been gone, my father died and I got his collection and the farm. I guess it’s been seven years since he passed,” Grin said. Her head tilted down while she studied the marks where beer bottles with mournful determination had dented the table top.

I reached into my pocket and placed a small glass box on the table. Inside it was a matchbook in pristine condition.

Grin’s face went pale. She looked at me then—a flicker of recognition changed her features—embarrassment. Her hands flew up to her mouth and trembled there—until they got to work on opening the container. The familiar match box included a gold star and two matches still. Grin paused, studied its long history, and met my gaze with resolve.

“This should be part of our little collection,” she said.

Christi R. Suzanne has work in Midwestern Gothic, the online journals Foliate Oak and The Gravity of the Thing, among others. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death founded by Caitlin Doughty.

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Buypast

blaring the loopholes
the out-of-body, walk in me
a lost remuneration
birthright apocalypse
paved roads with chalk signs

hours before we left
for the station
the Tupperware rice
went stale inside a crowd
a bus we got off
a fear of stampede

 
Warehorrors of the giant waves
sea level rise and a lost home
no going back where you came
from no matter how much money
you carry in your pockets,
no way to buy a past long gone

Bangladeshi-born Sujash Purna is a graduate student at Missouri State University. A poet based in Springfield, Missouri, he serves as an assistant poetry editor to Moon City Review. His poetry appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Kansas City Voices, Poetry Salzburg Review, English Journal, Stonecoast Review, Red Earth Review, Emrys Journal, Prairie Winds, Gyroscope Review, and others.

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Identity Poem

I am bare bones / brittle skeleton / no skin
thick tongue / thin hair / no voice /
I
taught myself to speak

quietly or / not at all / I
am disruptive / disrespectful / dissimilar
from my mother even though our blood runs
the same, red / hot / angry enough to

scald eager tastebuds, make you
lose feeling / faith / memory / lose memory of
my face, pallid like nausea; I am
always throwing up from

fever / motion sickness / insecurity / once,
I jammed two fingers down my throat till I
gagged then did it again / again / again till I
puked. Once, I ran so hard

bile burned its way up my throat and I
puked and I felt skinnier / prettier / emptier
a gutted gourd / infertile / nothing but rind /

yet still not interesting enough for anyone to

bite my lips / bruise my neck / I want to be
set ablaze at the stake if it’ll burn away flesh
like calories like guilt for not loving myself
more, like we’re supposed to. I want to

pry my ribcage open / I want to find my
beating heart / I want to know it’s there /
grown from the dirt and decomposition and
disappointment rotting in my cartilage / I want
to breathe / breathe / breathe.

Iris Yu is a Chinese-American student from northeastern Ohio. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Vagabond City, sinθ, and Blue Marble Review. She is an alumna of the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference (’19) and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio (’20). Her favorite word is ‘skyscraper’ and her favorite fruit is persimmon.

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I never knew

I remember getting out of your car, the green Mustang,
and getting into the car of a traveling salesman.

I never knew you came back to the entrance
of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to look for me.

It took you forty years to tell me.
Or forty years for me to ask.

I went on the road after I read On the Road.
After Uncle Jack bragged how Cousin Eddie
hitchhiked his summer before freshman year,
as far west as Montana, and into Alberta.

*

I never knew that when you die,
your body goes into a deep relaxation,
and someone needs to clean up
your bottom. A kind of legacy.

Another legacy: You showed me how to dive
at the bottom of the tallest waves,
and come out the other side
balancing the sun on my shoulders.

The waters are warmer than they were then.
And saltier.

Richard Bloom once worked in advertising, but switched careers and became a full-time substitute teacher. That’s when he started to take poetry writing seriously. He took classes at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. He is a guest lecturer on Emily Dickinson at Bergen Community College. He has been published in New York Quarterly, Barnwood International, and Seneca Review. Richard lives in New York with his wife Catia, and their dog Geoffrey.

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Roots

Jeremy pointed into the hole.

“See that?” he asked, looking up. “Roots.”

The men crouched over the dirt and peered at the opening.

“I can’t see anything,” Jack mumbled.

Jeremy took a stick and shoved it into the darkness. “Right there. Full of roots.”

Brad stood up and scanned the area, taking in the recent excavation. Surrounding a patch of bare dirt, filled with claw marks from the excavator’s steel bucket, were several gigantic trees, including a maple tree with a twisted, swollen trunk. “How much would it cost to fix the system?” he asked. “I mean everything. The pipes, the leech field, the tank.”

Jeremy stood up and dropped the stick in the hole. Brad’s face was in the shade. The sun was behind him. Jeremy squinted in the bright light.

“Six thousand dollars.”

Jack glanced at Jeremy, then at Brad. He took another branch and prodded around inside the tank, trying to feel the obstruction. Then, he too stood up. His short greasy hair reflected the sunlight. He appeared frail, like a whipped cur, or some other kind of animal that had received the short end of the stick for the majority of its life. Jeremy walked over to the maple tree and patted the trunk.

“It’s this thing, you know. She loves that tank.”

Jeremy was a stout man, with a round face, missing a tooth in front. He wore suspender overalls stained with mud. His hands were remarkably pale, the fingers slightly bloated, almost feminine. He enjoyed talking about septic tanks.

Several other trees could also be culprits. Two sugar pines shot up from the earth on the other side of the leech field. Maybe they had also nosed their way into the concrete cistern. Jeremy glanced at them with suspicion. He turned to the two men and pointed at the pine trees.

“Could be those two trees, as well,” he said.

The sun floated toward the top of a clear chilly sky. In the distance, mountains flecked with snow surrounded the valley. Jack wanted to hear more about the area.

“How long you been here?” he asked Jeremy.

“My whole life,” came the reply. “The family settled here in 1827.”

“Damn!” Brad exclaimed, “they must have been fighting the Indians!”

Jeremy’s eyes lit up. As the men walked toward the barn, he regaled them with information.

“Oh, you got that right. The tribe’s still a nuisance.” He paused, brought his pale swollen fingers up to his baseball cap and rearranged it, combing his hair back with his other hand as he did so.

“Got in a firefight with the bastards last year.”

Random events had brought the three of them together. Jack was the one who had originally found the parcel. Three weeks ago, desperate to purchase something before turning into an old man, he drove four hundred miles north and toured nearly a half a dozen properties with Janice, the local real estate agent. Janice explained the different parts of the valley to him as they drove around in her SUV. Jack tried to act interested in what she had to say. On a whim, as a last-ditch effort to locate something suitable, Janice brought him to this one, an abandoned twenty-acre homestead, located next to a massive alfalfa farm. Jack instantly liked it. So he called his friend Brad, and the next week they hopped in Brad’s car and drove north. Now, a local veteran, who had done three tours of duty in Iraq, who came from one of the original families in the area, and who installed and maintained cavernous concrete containers that collected people’s shit, showed them what was wrong with the property’s septic system. The homestead was three hours removed from any big city. It was part of a valley that had been home to two Indian tribes since before Jesus Christ. Quaint whitewashed churches dotted the landscape. Several safe houses for domestic violence victims were located in the small farming community to the northeast.

“Six thousand dollars, huh?” Jack asked, in order to confirm the bad news.

“At least,” Jeremy confirmed. “Could be more.”

Jack looked at Brad. “What do you think?”

Brad knew the routine. Jack was unwilling to process bad information. As soon as something negative appeared on the horizon, Jack moved to ignore it.

“That’s a lot of money,” Brad replied. “It’ll have to be negotiated into the offer.”

Jack didn’t hear him. He had a bad habit of losing his train of thought after asking a question. Why listen, if you don’t want to hear the answer in the first place? He and Brad had been friends for decades. The only reason why Brad was walking around a root-infested cistern, was because Jack thought that as a partner in the purchase, he could take advantage of Brad’s money and labor. For Jack, a friend meant a resource. Brad knew that. He didn’t care. He still liked Jack, enjoyed hearing his complaints, his terrible stories about the first wife, who turned out to be a vicious monster who had nearly destroyed Jack, the difficult circumstances related to his second wife, who recently began expressing thoughts of dissolution, the bankruptcy, the other disasters that seemed to stick to Jack like metal filings to a magnet.

Every friendship is transactional. This one was no different.

In the barn, the men discussed problems associated with having a septic system on higher ground. It meant that shit would have to be pumped by a machine through the sewage line, if ever a bathroom was to be installed under the barn’s corrugated metal roof. There was no house. A prefabricated plastic home that had once stood on the property had recently been demolished and hauled away, like a noxious weed. The abandoned homestead consisted of a large fallow field, filled with rocky dirt, a septic system filled with roots, and a barn that whistled in the wind. If anyone was to live on the property, the barn would need to be illegally converted into some sort of a domicile, at least in the short term.

Jeremy’s truck rolled to the front gate, an acre’s distance away. He pushed the gate open, drove the truck to the road, and shut the gate behind him. Brad and Jack watched him turn right, in the direction of the reservation, fading into a tiny white dot on the floor of the valley.

“What do you want to do?” Jack asked, pacing the floor of the barn.

“I don’t know,” Brad replied.

“Six grand’s expensive, don’tcha think?”

“Yes.”

Jack walked through the barn entrance and gazed out at the mountains in the distance. He wanted the property. Wanted it bad. He was nearly sixty years old. Time was running away from him. Truth be told, he had no idea where the last thirty years went. The life he had lived felt like a series of missed opportunities, a cracked pitcher, with the precious contents leaking out inexorably into the drain. His greasy hair was turning grey. The skin around his beady eyes was tightening, revealing brittle cheekbones. His hands looked scaly, bony, weak, the opposite of Jeremy’s. Thankfully, his narcissism provided him with a short-term buffer from a lifetime of lies that, like malignant vines snuffing the lifeblood from a withered sapling, slowly suffocated his spirit. He put his hands in his pockets, wondering whether Brad was still on board with the purchase.

Brad no longer felt bothered by the many problems bedeviling the property. This second visit confirmed his reservations about moving forward. Too many issues. Not only would it be a job for Hercules to build a house from scratch in the middle of nowhere, but trying to turn an abandoned homestead into a working farm would be a nightmare, even for an expert. Neither men had any experience with crops.

Not to mention the collaboration. Jack was already dropping the guise of friendly partner. On the drive up here, yesterday afternoon, he made it clear that he was the one who had located the property, he was the one who had found a real estate agent, he had figured out how to generate the land loan they would both be paying off.

“Shouldn’t you be grateful for all the work I’m doing?” he complained. “What have you done? You’re a mooch, Brad, a parasite!”

They had argued. At one point, it got ugly. At a gas station, Jack upbraided Brad for taking too long to put his seatbelt on.

“Come on,” he said curtly, “I don’t have all day.”

Brad looked at him from behind the steering wheel. He wanted to ball his hand into a fist and smash Jack in the nose. Instead, he jumped out of the car and walked around the gas pump, collecting his thoughts. What an impatient asshole, he thought. Eventually, he got in the car and they drove the rest of the way to the valley.

Imagine sharing a property with this prick, is what he thought, as he glanced out the front of the barn at his friend. Jack must have felt Brad’s eyes boring holes in his back. He abruptly turned around.

“Let’s check the perimeter,” he shouted.

“What’s that?” Brad shouted back.

“We need to check the property boundaries again. Make sure we understand the topography.”

“Why? Isn’t the surveyor going to do that for us?”

Jack didn’t hear him. He walked west, away from the road. Brad came out of the barn and watched him slowly climb the hill into the stand of trees along the fence.

“You’re making an enormous mistake,” he whispered to himself.

A hawk sat perched at the top of a towering Sugar Pine. It screamed into the chilly atmosphere. Brad looked at it. It watched him. Nearby, in the branches, sticks had been woven into a great raptor’s nest. Brad sensed that the hawk was screaming at them, two strangers, two uninvited land speculators from the city. He felt no business intruding on the magnificent animal’s hunting grounds. A moment later, the hawk sprung off its perch, spread its wings, and banked to the right, drifting through the air high above him.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Jack demanded, approaching him.

“Did you see that hawk?”

Jack couldn’t be bothered. He looked at him with his hands in his pockets.

“Yes.”

“Look at that nest!”

Jack lost his patience. “Come on, Brad. We need to check out the perimeter.”

“No, we don’t. That’s the surveyor’s job.”

“Of course we do,” Jack replied, indicating the obvious necessity of the task. “We need to see how deep it goes. Let’s walk it, from one side to the other.”

He turned around and set off for the barbed wire fence behind the trees. Out of the corner of his eye, Brad noticed something by the front gate. He turned to see a blue car stop at the side of the road. A woman got out, pushed the gate open, then drove through. He didn’t recognize her. Jack continued walking away from him, eventually disappearing behind the trees.

At the turnout, next to the excavated septic tank, the car rolled to a stop. The driver got out, looked at her phone, shook her head, then looked over at Brad. Brad walked toward her.

“You must be Jack’s business partner,” she said.

“Brad. Nice to meet you,” he answered, holding out his hand. She shook it.

“Janice. Nice to meet you.”

Janice was a big woman. She tried to hide her bigness under a black stretch sweater that dropped to her knees. She instinctively pulled the sweater around her torso. The sweater rebelled. It stretched back to her sides. Janice’s hair was prematurely grey. Her small lips looked out of place on such a hefty figure. Her eyes twinkled with warmth. She glanced at the bucket marks scarring the dirt next to the septic tank.

“Wow. They did a number on that,” Janice chuckled, pointing to the ground. Without waiting for a reply, she checked her phone, then looked at Brad.

“Is Jack here?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Brad pointed to the trees. “He’s walking the property line up the hill.”

“Okay.” Janice scowled. “He bounced a check. I just heard about it from the title company.” Janice was irritated. She leaned on one foot, then on the other. “I get bad buyers bouncing checks, who come up here and tie up properties without any intention of buying them.” Brad watched her. She glanced at him as if he was guilty by association. He shrugged and turned away. Not his problem.

A moment later, Janice asked him a question. “You’re buying it with him?” She wanted to hear for herself whether this fellow Jack had told her about was serious about purchasing the property.

“That’s the plan.”

Janice put her phone in her pocket. She walked over to the hole in the ground. “Was Jeremy out here?” she asked, reaching down and rubbing the cement.

“Yeah. He just left.”

“How did the inspection go?”

Brad looked on as she tried to see inside the tank. It was pitch-black. She couldn’t see anything.

“He said it was full of roots.”

Janice stood up. “Really? Did he tell you what it costs to clean it out?”

“Six grand.”

“What?” Janice exclaimed. “That much?” She pulled her sweater forward. It stretched back.

At that moment, Jack came out of the trees. He sped up as soon as he saw her.

“Hi Janice,” he said, striding down the hill.

“Hello Jack. How are you?” she replied.

“Just fine,” he said exuberantly. “You met Brad?”

“Sure did. Listen, your check bounced.”

For a split second, Jack appeared shocked. His shock turned to embarrassment. “I know, sorry Janice. I saw it on the way up, yesterday.”

Brad was confused. Jack hadn’t told him anything was amiss.

“It’s fine, it happens,” Janice answered. “When can we get the money?”

Jack was irritated at the demand. “Soon as I get home, I’ll have another check overnighted to you.”

Janice crossed her arms under her gigantic breasts. Jack’s frail outline looked like it would get swallowed up by Janice, the way a particle of food gets swallowed by an amoeba.

“Good,” Janice said. She meandered over to the blue car, parked next to the enormous maple tree. From the back seat, she pulled a folder of papers out and fished some documents from it. “These are the water sample results.” She handed both of them a sheet of paper. “They look great. You’re sitting over an aquifer. Some of the best water in the state. And plenty of it. Seventy gallons a minute.” She pointed at the well near the barn.

Jack took the paper and folded it in half. He appeared lost in thought. Brad looked the document over. Various minerals and chemical residues were listed on a graph. It was hard to make any sense of the information, unless you knew something about water, which Brad didn’t. Janice noticed him reading the results and walked over to where he stood. At the same time, Jack paced around angrily.

“You sure it bounced?” he asked, out of the blue. Janice and Brad glanced over.

“I’m sure,” Janice chuckled.

“You just told us you saw it yesterday,” Brad added.

Jack gave Brad the hairy eyeball. He didn’t need any editorializing from the silent partner. Why do you think they call them silent partners? Because they’re not supposed to say anything. Janice pointed at the graph in Brad’s hands.

“You got trace amounts of calcium…look there…magnesium, iron, zinc…”

“Great,” Brad said. He looked her in the eyes. “I guess.”

Jack grew agitated. He didn’t come all the way up here so Brad and Janice could cluck and coo over some stupid water results from the laboratory in Medford. He turned in the direction of the trees.

Brad walked over to the hole in the ground. Jack’s presence made him nauseous.

“I’ll be right back, Janice,” Jack declared. “I was walking the property line.” He pointed up at the trees. “Do you mind?”

Janice waved him off. “Of course not!”

Jack marched back into the trees, leaving her alone with Brad. She approached him at the septic clean-out.

“We added you to the paperwork. It’s official,” she said. Her eyes sparkled in the bright morning light. “We just need your signature.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

Brad didn’t seem all that happy about the news. Far from it. Every day that passed brought with it some new confirmation that the proposition was a mistake. He had driven up here in order to dispel his doubts about the partnership. The opposite was happening. If anything, the idea of buying property four hundred miles from San Francisco, with a man who couldn’t be trusted to write a proper check to the escrow account, was beginning to feel ridiculous. What he realized, of course, was that he shouldn’t have expected anything different. He had known Jack now for over thirty years. He personally witnessed Jack’s panic attacks. He had been there when Jack had had his worst meltdown, after finding out his wife was pregnant. During one episode, he was in such bad shape, Brad had to drive him to the hospital. Another time, several years previously, after a mutual funds swindle cost Jack thirty thousand dollars, another panic attack had morphed into a shouting match, followed by six months of silence between the two friends. Over the years, the two men had learned to distrust each other. Their long friendship had devolved into a relationship of convenience. Brad had alienated most of the people in his life. Jack’s companionship alleviated the loneliness. Conversely, Brad had done well for himself. Jack wanted some of his money.

But that was yesterday. Today, on a crisp clear morning, in a valley surrounded by snow-flecked mountains, Brad woke up hoping that Jack’s invitation to purchase an abandoned homestead with him would turn out to be a good idea. Maybe even an opportunity to recalibrate their friendship. Why not? What else was he doing with himself? Watching porn back in the city? He smiled at Janice. Janice glanced at her phone.

“The surveyor can get over here on Friday,” she said, after a pause.

“That’s what Jack mentioned.”

Janice kicked some tree roots that had been torn up by the excavator. As she did so, Brad caught sight of something shiny in the dirt, next to her feet. Janice noticed a strange expression on his face. She backed up, wondering what he was looking at. Brad caught himself. He quickly distracted her, waving the water report around in his hands.

“You have more appointments today?” he asked, walking toward her car. She followed him, laughing.

“Ha ha ha! Always. I’m running around the valley like a chicken with its head cut off!”

A well-fed chicken with its head cut off, Jack nearly replied. He caught himself, instead saying:

“Well, there’s no reason to wait here, with us, for Jeremy. He’s already done.”

Janice appreciated his consideration. The septic inspection was complete.

“That’s true.”

She turned to the car door. “You coming by the office tomorrow to sign the paperwork?”

Brad needed her gone. He had trouble concentrating on what she was saying. “Yes, Ma’am,” he answered.

As soon as Janice had pulled the gate closed behind her, Brad spun around. Jack was nowhere to be seen. Brad slowly walked back to the bare patch of dirt surrounding the septic tank. The earth had been mauled by Jeremy’s backhoe. He crouched down near some severed tree roots and pushed them aside. There, in the mud, was a shiny chunk of metal. His heart started to pound in his chest. He rubbed the dirt from around the edges.

“Holy shit!” he muttered, picking it up. He turned to the hill dotted with sugar pines. No sign of Jack. In his hand was a gold nugget, flecked by pieces of quartz. As he lifted it out of the depression, he caught sight of another piece of quartz. The ground was compacted. He pulled a folding knife from his belt, opened it, and dug around the quartz, loosening it. Then he wiggled it back and forth, extricating it from the soil. Another gold nugget, even bigger than the first one.

“Hey!” he heard, from the tree line. He glanced up at the forest. Jack was skipping down the hill toward him. He shoved what he was holding into the ground, then furiously scraped some mud over the gold. A moment later, Jack hovered over him.

“Now what are you doing?” Jack asked, with a mixture of condescension and curiosity. He looked at the severed tree roots, the soil, and the lines of tooth marks from the excavator bucket, shredding the earth in parallel strokes near the gigantic maple tree.

Brad stood up, straightening his back. “You done walking the property?” he asked, moving from side to side, cracking his vertebrae.

Jack scanned the ground, wondering why Brad was inspecting mud. “Find some treasure?” he joked.

Brad stayed where he was. He lifted his knife in the air. “Dropped this.”

Jack couldn’t be bothered with an answer.

“I can’t believe I bounced that check,” he said, after a pause.

At the hotel room that evening, the two friends discussed the homestead. Neither was a farmer. Both were torn. Both struggled over whether it would be wise to partner on the project. Both men could be stubborn and uncooperative.

But Brad knew something about the place that Jack didn’t. Jeremy had struck paydirt. Excavating the old septic tank unearthed gold. Lots of gold. In the few seconds Brad was alone, he had noticed more quartz wedged under several more tree roots. It was a deposit. Jack had found the property and had brought him up here to look at it. Now, what should he do? Tell him what he had seen? Jack would most likely put an immediate halt to partnership. After all, Janice was working for him. At the moment, she was preparing title documents. Once he found out what Brad had discovered, Brad’s signature wouldn’t be on anything.

Jack sat on his bed, on the other side of the nightstand, reviewing the water report. He turned to Brad.

“You understand any of this?”

Brad shook his head. “Not really.”

Jack looked at the graph. Then he tossed it on the nightstand. Any minute now, he was expecting Brad to mention another problem. Something else about the property that wasn’t right. Because that was what Brad did. Ever since he had called him about it, Brad had poured cold water on the proposition. Too impractical. Too much work. Too small for two people. Too cold…blah blah blah, on and on, and so forth. Always something wrong.

“You wanna drive five hours from the city to park your ass in the country for the weekend?” That was the first sentence out of Brad’s mouth. On the telephone. Sight unseen.

“Why get twenty acres next to the main road?” That was the second sentence.

After he saw it the first time, a week ago, Brad bitched about the alfalfa farm across the street.

“What about all the shit they use to kill the weeds? Do you know anything about that?” he had asked.

Jack didn’t. And he didn’t care. Jesus Christ. You’re worried about a little weed killer? You’re paranoid! One thing after another. Brad worked to sabotage the purchase. Now, a day away from signing off on the contingencies and moving forward with the sale, together, roots in a septic tank were all that stood between them and the property. Maybe it was a mistake calling Brad. From his bed, Jack stared up at the ceiling. I can still do this by myself, he thought. Tell Janice I’ll be the only one on title. Why not call her, first thing in the morning, while Brad’s still sleeping, and cancel the meeting with the notary public, at the office? I’ll bullshit Brad and tell him Janice couldn’t make it. Then, once we’re back in the city, I’ll close it myself. Fuck Brad. I don’t need his negativity.

Oddly, Brad had clammed up. He wasn’t talking. Instead, he was chewing gum and watching some silly program on diamonds, on the jewelry channel. Jack glanced at him. What a headstrong sonofabitch. The expert’s nasally voice coming out of the television speakers was getting under his skin. After a few minutes, he lost his patience.

“Turn that shit off,” he ordered.

Brad looked over at his bed. Jack was staring at the ceiling.

“Huh?”

Jack grabbed the water report off the nightstand. “Turn the TV off. I can’t think,” he whined.

Brad was incensed. The night before, he had slept horribly. A foul odor in the hotel room had kept him up. Maybe it was the formaldehyde in the carpet. Or the ammonia used to clean the shower stall. The air was poisonous.

Except now, he should be careful. He could tell that Jack was having second thoughts. What he wanted to do, as soon as possible, was figure out a way to run back to the parcel, without Jack, and retrieve the two gold nuggets laying in the dirt. Who knows? Somebody could sneak onto the property tonight and find it themselves. There could be half a million dollars sitting up there, in the ground. Easy.

Jack stared at him. “Did you hear what I said?”

“Quit barking!” Brad snapped.

Jack reached for the remote, on the nightstand. Brad beat him to it. He tossed the remote on the other side of his bed, away from Jack. Jack chuckled.

“Come on, turn it off. Why are you watching the jewelry channel? That’s for old ladies.” He held the water report up. “We got work to do.”

Brad muted the TV. “What work?”

Jack rubbed his greasy hair. “I can’t believe I bounced the escrow check.”

“No shit,” Brad replied. “You still want to go through with it?”

“The property?” Here we go again, Jack mused. More cold water.

“Yeah.”

“Of course. With or without you, my friend.” Here, Jack paused. He got up and walked over to a jar of soup next to the television.

“As a matter of fact, it seems like maybe it would be a good idea if I bought the property by myself.”

Jack unscrewed the lid from the soup jar and inserted it into the microwave. Brad was in a bind. After two weeks of objections, he couldn’t very well suddenly start gushing about the parcel now. That wouldn’t sound right. Perhaps Jack already discovered the gold. If that’s the case, it would make perfect sense to cut him out. Brad studied Jack’s profile. Nothing indicated he had seen anything. The glass jar spun round and round behind the oven window.

“You know?” Jack pressed the lever and the door opened. He pulled the jar out. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, dropping it on the counter. “Shit!” He grabbed a little white towel and nudged the jar across the countertop. Steam wafted out of the opening.

“You’re awfully quiet, all of a sudden,” he said. “Ever since we got back to the hotel…” After taking a plastic spoon out of a paper bag and dipping it in the soup, he blew on it several times, grimaced, and snapped his teeth over the food, like a rat, trying to keep his lips away from the hot liquid.

The jewelry expert handled several gold nuggets. On a pedestal in full view of the camera was a pile of gold coins, glistening under the lights. It appeared he was explaining how gold was melted down into currency. His hands moved this way and that, like spiders, now picking up one of the coins, now caressing one of the nuggets. Behind the treasure, his striped blue and pink tie dropped from the top of the screen to the bottom, like a cubist waterfall. Brad watched in fascination.

“Dude. Turn that thing off!” Jack growled, his mouth full of hot soup.

Brad ignored him. Not because he was offended at the order, but because he couldn’t appear to be too cooperative. Jack needed reassurance that Brad was as stubborn and negative as ever. Brad laid into him.

“Yeah? You wanna do this by yourself? You can’t even write a check for the good faith deposit!”

Jack looked at him, mouth open, inhaling and exhaling and trying to cool down the mouthful of food. Brad continued.

“You should have heard Janice. She’s pissed.”

“Really? What did she say?”

“She said that bad buyers, flakes like yourself, who have no intention of following through on the offer, come up here and waste her time tying up property. That’s what she said.”

Jack swallowed. He grimaced, as the soup slid down his gullet.

“No shit?” he responded, tapping his chest in discomfort.

“You asked.”

Jack steered the plastic spoon through the opening of the jar.

“You know, Brad, I couldn’t care less what that bitch said. I am serious. She knows I’m serious, and I know I’m serious.”

Brad looked at the pile of gold coins on the screen. Jack ate.

“Listen to yourself, man. You’re so fucking negative all the time. How does your wife put up with it?”

“At least she’s my first wife,” Brad responded, “not my third.”

The two men argued for the next forty five minutes, back and forth, Brad doing his best to seem skeptical. He wanted Jack to somehow fall asleep, so he could jump in the car, right now, and drive the eleven miles north from the hotel to the property. Eventually, tired of the bickering, Jack nodded off. Brad waited. Where were the keys? Brad searched around the TV, lifting clothes and papers. He looked on the nightstand. No keys. Suddenly, he remembered that Jack was the one who had driven them back to the hotel. He had put the keys somewhere. If the keys were in Jack’s pocket, he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Brad went to the bathroom. He gazed in the mirror. Lack of sleep made him look like a devil. He threw some cold water on his face.

As he exited the bathroom, he noticed Jack’s ski jacket hanging on a white plastic coat hanger, underneath the wall heater.

“Maybe there!” he whispered. He checked the pocket. They were there.

Jack had turned away from the reading light, toward the wall. Brad walked over to his bed and lay down. He tapped his fingers on the comforter in order to stay awake. Eventually, he reached over to the switch on the wall between the beds and turned off the reading light. Disturbed, Jack grumbled, turned around, then turned back toward the wall. Brad waited. He watched the digital clock on the nightstand. Every minute felt like ten minutes. Eventually, Jack breathed like a sleeping man. His nostrils flared open and closed, carbon dioxide rattling in his throat. Brad got up, put his shoes on, grabbed his wallet and phone, and walked to the door. Behind him, still facing the wall, Jack slumbered.

It was 11:30. Brad gently opened the hotel room door, walked outside, and carefully shut it behind him. Already, a thin layer of frost dusted the windshield of the car. With a turn of the key, Brad started the engine. He looked back at the door to the room. It was shut. The window was dark. The light was out. He pulled the seatbelt strap over his chest, shoved it into the buckle, then swiftly disengaged the parking brake and rolled the car backward. Another guest at the hotel had parked a trailer against the neighbor’s fence, along the far side of the gravel lot. Brad needed to be careful not to hit it on his way out. He craned his neck, assessing the position of the trailer in the darkness.

“Brad!” a voice shouted. Brad spun around. Jack was staring at him through the window, a look of consternation and surprise on his face. Fuck. Brad put the car in ‘park’ and rolled the window down.

“What are you doing?” Jack asked.

“I can’t sleep,” Brad answered.

Back in the hotel room, Brad sheepishly hung his jacket up next to Jack’s. Then he untied his shoes and pried them off his feet. Jack was upset. Brad was acting weird. If they couldn’t get along together for two days, how in the world would they be able to get along for two years? Or longer? One more reason to do this himself. He climbed onto his bed and stared at the ceiling, like a mannequin.

In the morning, the men stopped at a coffee shop around the corner from the motel, took some coffee and breakfast to go, and headed the eleven miles back to the homestead. Brad grabbed a donut, while Jack chose a ham and cheese croissant. As soon as they were on the road, things went south. Brad could hardly think straight. He had rolled around on the bed, all night, like a slug sprinkled with salt. At three in the morning, unable to sleep, he had turned the TV back on. Jack woke up, momentarily, then acted like he went back to sleep. Brad watched grown men drive trucks with huge wheels over hay bales and other obstacles. Some of the wheels were taller than the men driving the trucks. By the time the sun was up, he had napped for an hour. That morning, Jack took one look at him, and exclaimed:

“You look like shit!”

Now, on the drive over, Jack castigated him for his choice of breakfast.

“A donut?”

Brad sipped his coffee. He was in no mood for a critique.

“You got a problem with that?”

Jack snickered. “You can’t function on donuts, bro. You should know that.”

Brad lost his temper.

“Fuck you,” he said.

Jack slowed down. “We can’t do this,” he replied.

“Suit yourself,” Brad muttered.

“What’s that?” Jack asked, “I can’t hear you.”

Brad looked into Jack’s eyes. Jack’s eyebrows were raised. His greasy hair was messed up. He wrinkled his forehead. His little face looked like a carnival clown mask.

“Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat, asshole. Okay? Do you hear me complaining about your croissant?”

Jack smirked, then sped up. But he couldn’t let go. A few minutes later, he sniped:

“I’m just trying to tell you sugar and coffee’s no way to start the day…” He wanted to continue, but Brad cut him off.

“Shut up.”

After an awkward ten minutes of silence, the abandoned homestead came into view. Immediately, Brad felt his heart jump in his chest. As Jack turned into the driveway, Brad got out to open the gate. Jack pulled in, and, after waiting for a moment, sped on up to the barn without him.

“Shit,” Brad whispered. He nearly ran the thousand yards from the road to the turn-out. Jack had parked, but instead of getting out, he looked down at his lap. He was busy with his phone.

“Good,” Brad muttered, catching up to him. He was out of breath. A cloud of steam floated around his face. He didn’t want to go to the clogged septic tank, or the severed roots of the maple tree. On the contrary. He needed to lure Jack away from there. Jack didn’t notice, however. He was too busy responding to the morning’s texts. Brad hovered around, pretending to take in the line of snow-covered mountains surrounding the valley. Eventually Jack got out of the car and joined him.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

Brad looked at him. “Sorry about what?”

“Your donut, earlier. I don’t know, man, I get stressed. I’m stressed out.”

“No worries,” Brad answered.

Jack looked worried.

“I lash out, brother, I can’t help it…” He paced around, looking at the ground. “It’s lame.”

Brad understood.

“Come on, Jack. Don’t worry about it,” he said, trying not to sound mushy.

Jack looked at him. Brad averted his eyes, instead gazing at the mountains in the distance. He tried to change the subject.

“You know, Jack, you’re right.”

Jack turned to him. “About what?”

“Those.”

Brad pointed to the mountains. Then, he slowly turned to the left and the right, taking in the landscape, recalling Jack’s comment that the parcel was located in one of the most spectacular places in the country. Jack was right.

“What a beautiful valley,” Brad muttered.

The two men stood side by side, each debating a different problem. Behind them, from the top of a sugar pine located halfway up the hill, yesterday’s hawk shrieked into the chilly morning air. Jack broke the silence.

“That was a text from Janice.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You need to get down to her office and sign the paperwork for the offer. The seller looked at your finances and wants to make you party to the purchase. Without you, we can’t get it.”

“Oh, okay,” Brad replied. Was this another one of Jack’s games? He started walking toward the barn. Jack called him back.

“Did you hear what Jeremy said about the maple tree?”

Brad faced him. “What did Jeremy say?”

Jack began walking toward the maple, which was near the cistern. Brad hurried to catch up with him.

“What did Jeremy say?” he asked a second time. Jack continued walking, until he stood next to the tree’s grey trunk, which was filled with woodpecker holes. He put his hand on the bark, then looked at the roots, some of which had been severed by the backhoe. Flecks of quartz dotted the ground. Brad joined him. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the nugget of gold submerged in the mud.

Jack tapped the trunk. “It’s this thing,” he said, indicating the source of the tank’s obstruction.

Brad watched, as Jack knelt down, and picked up one of the severed roots. He turned it around in his hand, trying to imagine how badly the leach field had been compromised.

Gold lay nearby, submerged beneath a quarter inch of mud.

Jack let the root slip from his hand and skid toward the open hole in the ground.

Brad wasn’t sure what to do. At this point, not being on the paperwork, he was Jack’s advisor, not partner. And he never would be his partner, that much he was confident of, if Jack happened to grow more perceptive of his surroundings.

“You know, man, I got a good feeling about this place,” Jack said, after a few seconds of silence. He lifted himself up straight and smiled at Brad. Brad realized that Jack was suddenly nervous about losing the property. Janice’s text scared him. Yesterday’s bounced check had made the seller angry. Without Brad, there would be no homestead in the valley. Hence Jack’s sudden warmth. It rubbed him the wrong way. He walked away from the tree, but to his consternation, Jack didn’t follow. On the contrary. He turned and hovered over the concrete opening, gazing with consternation into the dark interior of the septic tank.

“Six thousand dollars to scrape a tank?” he exclaimed. He turned around. “Jeremy’s ripping us off.”

Brad walked over and joined him at the lip of the opening. Jack was suspicious. He was convinced the world was trying to rip him off, which meant that Jeremy was trying to rip him off. He looked up at Brad, hoping for confirmation about his suspicions. Brad was having trouble concentrating on the root problem. Two nights of sleep deprivation made it difficult to worry about root removal.

“Six grand?” Jack repeated, pointing into the cavern. Brad watched, as Jack’s traditional sense of entitlement percolated to the surface. He grew increasingly frustrated at the prospect of receiving the short end of Jeremy’s deal.

“I don’t know, Jack. I’ve never scraped a septic tank,” Brad retorted.

Jack rolled his eyes. “The seller won’t pay. We have to.”

Brad couldn’t care less. But he shrugged his shoulders, doing his best to act otherwise.

“How do you know?”

Jack pointed at Brad’s car, where he had left his phone. “Janice texted me, right now. She told the seller about the root problem yesterday. The seller’s not budging. Property sold as is. Period. Roots or no roots.” He abruptly stood up. “It’s our problem.”

Brad didn’t know what to say. If it hadn’t been for the maple tree, Jeremy never would have started digging around in the mud with his backhoe, in the first place. Now, at a minimum, they needed to meet at Janice’s office, as soon as possible, so that Brad could sign the paperwork for his fifty percent interest. Unfortunately, the meeting wasn’t for several hours. Several hours during which he would need to listen to his friend’s interminable whining. He tried to remain calm.

“You understand what I said?” Jack bitched.

Brad grew flustered. Proximity to the precious metal, combined with Jack’s tone of voice, made him incensed. “So what?” he snapped. “Are we going to let a few roots ruin the deal?”

Jack cut him off. He didn’t want to hear from his friend. Brad’s the silent partner, remember? He’s supposed to agree, not object. Jack kicked some clumps of dirt over the lip of the opening.

“Pisses me off,” he growled. “How’s that fair? The seller’s unreasonable.”

Brad watched him. Same old snake. Suddenly, Jack dropped to the ground and stuck his head over the opening. He knelt lower and stared into the abyss.

“Where are those roots?” he asked, his voice filling the subterranean chamber.

Brad walked up behind him. A sudden surge of energy made his hands tingle. In front of him, on the ground, Jack tried desperately to see something in the abandoned septic tank. Brad spread his feet apart in order to center his weight. Then, his arms coursing with adrenalin, he grabbed Jack by the armpits.

“Oh!” Jack blurted, losing his balance. Brad shoved Jack headfirst down into the hole. Instinctively, he tried to grab the lip of concrete, but the push was too sudden. Brad watched his friend’s shoes disappear into the darkness. From inside, he heard a voice.

“Brad!”

Brad rushed over to the cement plug and dragged it toward the opening.

“God!” Jack shrieked.

The cistern must not have been too deep, or perhaps it really was full of roots. Jack’s spidery fingers appeared at the edge of the opening. Furiously, Brad scraped and pulled the circular cement disc over the dirt, toward the hole. It slid across Jack’s fingers, shredding them. As he plugged the opening, he caught a glimpse of Jack’s face, staring up at him in horror. A split second later, the lid fell into place, sealing the hole.

Brad jumped up, shocked at his strength. He heard muffled sounds coming from beneath the concrete, followed by thuds. The lid moved slightly. Brad looked around. He located several small boulders and dragged them through the mud. As he did so, he dislodged a salamander’s nest. The amphibians jumped around, their wet bodies glistening in the sun. They wiggled and danced and twisted and turned. Two of them squirmed forward, finding the circular seam at the edge of the concrete plug. The slippery little creatures squeezed into the seam, protecting themselves from the bright sunlight. Brad slid the boulders over the top of the plug, weighing it down. He was so sleep-deprived, he couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Ha ha ha ha ha,” he roared, springing away from the concrete.

Steam wafted over the newly planted field of alfalfa on the other side of the road. In the distance, a man on a tractor drove along the edge of the river. He was dragging something wide and sharp behind enormous wheels. It was impossible to tell what it was. Dust followed the tractor.

Jack was right to choose such a beautiful spot. The valley was one of the most picturesque landscapes he had ever seen. Exhausted, Brad wandered over to a set of deep gashes in the dirt near the maple tree. He knelt down and stuck his finger in the mud. Then, he collapsed onto the ground and gazed at the stand of sugar pines dotting the hillside.

Later that morning, he drove over to Janice’s office.

“Where’s Jack?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “He was talking about going to see another property.”

Janice got mad. “Really? With another agent?”

Brad shrugged.

“He has to sign this stuff, or he’s not on the deed,” she grumbled, glancing at a young man seated at a desk near the window. Must be the notary, Brad reasoned. In front of the young man was an open ledger.

“Call him,” Brad said, “maybe you’ll have better luck reaching him than I did.”

Janice put the documents on the table and for the next half an hour, carefully explained the terms. The loan was a ten-year note, at six percent. Seemed a bit high, but not enough for Brad to complain about. He signed the paperwork and left. Six hours later, the new property owner arrived back in San Francisco in time for dinner with his wife and daughter. Afterwards, he took a shower, before climbing straight into bed. His hands felt sore. He gently massaged them. One of the knuckles was skinned.

Thirty seconds later, he was fast asleep.

Cedric Wentworth writes fiction in a small yellow house, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His writing features a panoply of everyday individuals who take umbrage at their banal circumstances in ways that are both ludicrous and terrifying. Once written down, the characters in Cedric’s stories keep him company, aiding in alleviating the writer’s loneliness, which can sometimes occur from living in such an isolated environment.

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The Thinker 2020

How many Coronavirus molecules would fit on the head of a pin?
I just don’t get why the David gets more likes than I do.
How can I lessen my carbon footprint?
Is it time for a Tesla?
I think I’ve got it now: Da da da dat da dat da da da da ya da da da da!
What’s my cell phone number?
Everything about me shouts “man” except the way I feel.
How sad to think David Attenborough will soon be extinct.
Should I risk money on the Patriots without Tom Brady?
The “expert” who recommended masks during sex couldn’t have tried it.
Apple or Android, that is the question.
In retrospect, the “Sculpted Lives Matter” movement was doomed day 1.
This brooding, thoughtful look gets me scarcely a glance anymore.
MiraLAX simply isn’t doing the trick.
If they trot out one more mind reader, I’ll scream!
Is it finally time to give up on Ashbery’s poetry?
A horse, a horse, my pedestal for a horse!
I should be more active. Maybe a Peloton?
Now where’d I put my keys?
I guess it is what it is.
By adding even a simple beret, he’d have deterred these damn pigeons.
How did I get here? How can I get back?
I don’t know what to think anymore.

Darrell Petska is a writer from Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Buddhist Poetry Review, Nixes Mate Review, Right Hand Pointing, Boston Literary Magazine, Verse-Virtual and Loch Raven Review. See his published work at https://conservancies.wordpress.com.

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In praise, age

To make beautiful: fire & steel, water to cleanse,
kiss the underbelly of a knife like a heifer.
I remember looking into a bowl of ivory
once. Carved into the once-bone is the silhouette
of an animal made deathless for a house
more beautiful. My mother is the house who vomited herself
dry to look more beautiful. She is as solvent
as washing powder. Aside, loving nurses made of linen
arrange me in a bouquet. In this fantasy,

I break night & unyoke time
at birth. I admit, this woman is not
my mother. I was not born into beauty. I was not the child
who was winked at or asked to pass the salt.
The first time I wore makeup was in America.
I had to learn the hard way cheap eye black dissolves
into grease. I wish I was worth a song, Delilah,
Cecelia, Jude, they all have it. My name makes you
hiss & twist your lips & whisper a prayer
for your own name. I was three short syllables
short of an English name. I welded, knitted, glued

the knots & I keep tying,
stretched my skin into a trampoline I keep tying,
re-edited the sounds my laugh makes, I keep abundant
water and fibre I have been trying.
I am closer to the shape of an ivory, my accent
is better American-ed & my pockets are not empty.
Golden is the day I went & got a tattoo. My inner thigh?
Pale like maggots. In that winter sun, I held on
to my name, my child would inherit it. Listen,

she was born in a shed by my grandmother’s hands.
In the dream, my grandmother is without cancer,
without the burden of man. She boils her favourite
pair of fabric scissors to cut the umbilical cord,
hands me black coffee. I spill on the placenta.
Those were the colonial years, now
pow-pow! is the sound of my dead child’s name,
and she has a hole in the forehead the size of a name.
This morning, I went to empty the cartridges,
someone saw me through the window,
saw my cellulose-packed thighs move
with the ease of a swan. See, that velvet creature.
See, the words have always just been a mirror.
& I was never less beautiful.

Tan Tzy Jiun is a poet, graduate student, and boggle enthusiast living in Vienna, Austria. She has been previously published in nether Quarterly, Fleas on the Dog, and Postscript Magazine. She is also the co-creative director of Exit 11 Performing Arts Company.

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Blushing Red

Grandma didn’t have a washing machine in 1960
when Old Korea began to industrialize so she had
conversations with bald eagles perched on dispirited cobblestone.
She worked at the bottom of the hill
where people would scour for herbs and fruits;
four clotheslines were strung on eroded metal poles
like a skeletal Stradivarius violin.
Grandma would stomp on the brown dirt and
pinch dirty laundry onto a clothesline while
blood-soaked democracy
would whisper into her inner ear.
She took Grandpa’s pants and
drenched them with wispy curses of indignation,
wringing the excess soap water from the crotch.
Grandma plucked a clothespin from the line
like the snap of an American shotgun
and raised her beliefs.
The lemon sun would dry these quickly
she said.
But instead, her faith shriveled under years of sunlight.

At night, Grandma would look up at the moon’s retrograde motion
and slice a piece of the speckled sky for herself.
She would unspool the tender sinew from voluptuous stars
and pretend to sway the waves until her body ached.

From a river of sea salt tears,
Grandma told me to be red fire;
the same fire that tickled at her hometown trees.
the same red that America loves: the red
of freedom, sacrifice, blood, and democracy.

T. Han is a student in California. He hopes someone can find solace in his poetry.

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