Mountain Goats on a Highway West of Aspen

I remember watching for mountain goats
on a steep ridge in Colorado, our small Toyota
flying down the highway towards the interstate.

Probably, I should have pulled off at the Historic
Interest
marker, sign bolted to a post, between
the river and the road. The goats, sure-footed,

as easy on the mountain side as sagebrush,
remained hidden, stoic as stones, as invisible
as spies. If we’d stopped the car, and stood

beside the roadside marker, it might have read
something about the old stagecoach trail
carved westward out of Aspen, the one

that emptied into Montrose, before beginning
the climb to Ouray, then into the San Juans.
There is no loneliness like an empty road,

especially in cold rain and shushing sage.
Nothing is written about the mountain goats,
then or now, they blend so completely

into the brush, into the granite knuckles.

Al Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recipient of the Rattle Chapbook Prize for Hansel and Gretel Get the Word on the Street. His most recent collection, Swimming Shelter: 100 Days of Coronavirus Poetry, was released from Spartan Press in December 2020. Currently, he lives in the Kansas City area, subsisting on Chinese carry-out with his wife Sherri and their rescue dog Stanley.

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Grinding the Christmas Sausage

I.

The papa I knew, in the telling, grew chickens
and parakeets from eggs. He lost his boy Walter
to a midnight hit and run on Thanksgiving,
then the same night, tossed the priest
along with his god from the porch.

Today, I grind sausage in the garage in November.
The sons come to tell jokes, to drink Miller Lite, to watch
the Chiefs on the outdoor television. The old recipes

are doctored with crushed pepper, powdered garlic,
squeezed into store-bought casings.
By the fourth quarter, sausage links hang
like bandoliera, strung for revolution,
for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, then frozen
next to the ravioli from Big Mike’s granddaughter.

II.

I crank an old press, found at a flea market, wheels,
blades, greased with olive oil, pork fat.

Today, I am the old man, the uncle at a reunion,
a second cousin once removed,
an usher at a Catholic wedding. Today,
there’s a Dollar General in every neighborhood,
a street with a church, a church
below a viaduct.
Traffic thumps through morning mass.

My hands frame the Italian, the old words
nearly forgotten, liver-spotted, my eyes
like vowels in the window’s reflection,

like dots in an ellipse to the moon.

III.

The truth at 5 a.m. is that the day begins
behind a thousand shut houses, a Catholic
altar, a bedroom light, a photograph
on a beige wall of children and grandchildren.

I am seldom without coffee,
without the crumb of tobacco on my lips.
This is what I know. Winter’s face
is chilled, brittle with crow’s feet. The surprise

is that I recognize myself so easily, a clock
with a battery on a nightstand, a glass of water,
pecan shells, a rosary.

IV.

There was always meant to be tomorrow,
time to adjust the contrast, to crop the photo.
How many generations will it take
to blur the face of the father, to lose
the grandfather, the great-grandfather?

When the old ones walked down the gangway
to Ellis Island, I was already years
in the making, the lover of a lover of a lover,
a child turned old in a Kansas window,
my children and their children
in a city where the words metabolize like spit,
lopped to the tip of the tongue,
coughed up from deep in the throat,
battle axes and blades,
a loaf of warm bread, buttered, split.

Al Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recipient of the Rattle Chapbook Prize for Hansel and Gretel Get the Word on the Street. His most recent collection, Swimming Shelter: 100 Days of Coronavirus Poetry, was released from Spartan Press in December 2020. Currently, he lives in the Kansas City area, subsisting on Chinese carry-out with his wife Sherri and their rescue dog Stanley.

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Some Love

At first you were everywhere, every room
I walked into; you’d either already be
there, or arrive soon after.
An acquaintance drove me
to you one afternoon, and then
your fine long hairs clung
to my bag, my clothes, my skin.
Wrapped me like a lover. Like
handcuffs. It got so I
could catch your scent
blocks away, I knew
which shops had sold you lunch
or cigarettes, knew which girls
you were fucking on the side.
I studied you like a thesis subject,
became an expert,
could detail your habits, likes,
littlest lies, favorite slights.

Then gone. I thought the trick
of holding on to you was to not
hang on much. But
you were always there flickering
behind other friends, just
around a corner or next door.
I thought I could reach you
without seeming to reach.

What were you thinking
then? Did you worry
that I’d boil your bunny?
Please. I still thought
I was Juliet
waiting in the tomb on a moonless night.

Siân Killingsworth’s poetry has appeared in Blue Earth Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Stonecoast Review, Poets Resist (Glass: A Journal of Poetry), Mom Egg Review, Nostos, and others. She has an MFA in poetry from The New School, where she served on the staff of LIT Magazine. She sits on the board of and is the Anthology Editor for the Marin Poetry Center. Her website was recently hacked, so don’t go there.

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Broken-Heart Charm

First, drink a cup
of milky onion-blood.

Take the molted skins
of three rattlesnakes

and braid them into your hair.
Over an open, outdoor flame,

burn a knot of wood,
a pig’s heel, a coin,

and a piece of red twine
the length of your left arm.

Watch the flames and speak
your beloved’s name.

When the fire is spent,
pour a pound of sand

into its center, suffocating
any remnant embers.

On a pure white sheet
of paper, draw a winged lion

and rub the paper with horseradish.
Eat the drawing.

Bathe for thirty minutes in the light
of a waning moon. Using coarse

salt, scrub off all bitterness.
As the water drains, rub precious oils

into your skin. This will ensure that next time,
you will be the one who slips away.

Siân Killingsworth’s poetry has appeared in Blue Earth Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Stonecoast Review, Poets Resist (Glass: A Journal of Poetry), Mom Egg Review, Nostos, and others. She has an MFA in poetry from The New School, where she served on the staff of LIT Magazine. She sits on the board of and is the Anthology Editor for the Marin Poetry Center. Her website was recently hacked, so don’t go there.

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Undercover

Your voice on the line was warm  but nothing
compared to the heat coming off your hand as
we rumbled through the sleeping town of Mas
in a rickety cab   On the night we met  trash was
alight in roadside piles  trash or prayer pyres  we
weren’t sure which  moving too fast to tell   We
didn’t speak over the loud flowers   They flew by
gushing their honey fragrance   After all those
months of phone talk  you laid your heavy palm
square over mine  covered it completely  then
gazed out the back window at the River Petanu
at the rice fields   I did the same out the other
window  next to you   That was how we started

No towel in the outdoor shower  but I came ready
with a camisole in my carry-on  covered in lines
of mostly illegible French  one of my grandmother’s
languages  the one she spoke to me in when I was
a child  the one she used for leaving and the one
in which she was left   A few words in cursive over
mon cœur   The neckline was netted almost to the
nipple  and so  too  the hem right up to my dark
seams beneath   Do you like it I asked   You
nodded with your whole face  It’s nice but I
prefer nothing
   Cliché  I thought  though your
hands were already kneading the arch out of me
already stripping off the slip  tossing it  unread
to the floor   You  une âme solitaire   The plumeria
garland lay crushed on the pillow   While you slept
I counted the nine blooms through dark bands
of my still-damp hair   Later  you would place a
fresh one behind my left ear  a sign of how we

were not leaving each other  not yet   If
you had doubts  I couldn’t tell   Your
charged hand did not betray you
It stayed powder dry atop
mine  closing the circuit
le secret de notre
séjour ensemble

Jess Lazar is a poet living in Washington, D.C. She was born in Chicago, came of age in Jerusalem, and has raised a family in the District.

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Shelter

The shed in the yard was overkill
We already had one on the side of the house
You obsessed about the perimeter
dug trenches and buried pipes
to herd water away from the slab
then waited for it to rain
You trundled out into the deluge
to see how it was running off
hunched over the French drains
to measure how high was the level
Would it overflow  It might

be too late  I should’ve told you
Let’s move more slowly
Let’s leave this plot
unfinished a little longer
never mind a flood or two
stay hungry  without a deed
We can huddle together for shelter

But you were already filling up
the bird feeders
whispering to yourself  I can do this
using only the finest seeds
for the rarest birds
the ones you must woo out of the air
the ones not usually on the wing
A temporary provision at best because
you turn out to be so unsteady
tending the glass silos only occasionally
making the birds dependent
on your sunflower and suet  then nothing
for days  weeks or more

I’m not confident they can feed
themselves through these lean times
while you lie in bed for hours at a stretch
your face turned
toward the blank morning sky
your back to my back
my face to the empty feeders
swinging too easily in the wind

Jess Lazar is a poet living in Washington, D.C. She was born in Chicago, came of age in Jerusalem, and has raised a family in the District.

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Fort DeRussy

Mid-winter  late in the year of our common catastrophe
I patrol the civil war trails  poplar branch in hand
bent over the leaf rot  over one battered
ice-encrusted seed pod after another
empty as eye sockets
blown down from the numb canopy.
I rise from this field research

to four stags  bearing newly erupted antlers
tips still fuzzy and blunt.
They are already massive  twice the size of a man
could take out the sharpshooters who prowl this park
thermal scopes trained  rifles loaded
culling whole families  or
lower their heads right now and aim

since I’m no different
no gun to stun or to sterilize
but with a house a mile from here
built over an ossuary of Anacostan bones.
One uneven breath
one disunited step  and they leap
knee-sprung  flashing white  their bright deer bodies

blurred out by the plexus of pines.
A bagpipe strikes up its nightly skirling
some hobbyist’s homage to the fallen  and I walk faster
though not fast enough to outpace the salvo of notes
scything through the air  suspended
like a bedsheet I once saw in Oświęcim
caught in a breeze a few yards from what would have been

the electric fence.
I stood alone  far behind my tour group  watching it flutter
pink and crisp  my feet rooted to the spot.
What kind of people
had dared to go on living in this place
strolling the camp’s edge in fine weather  then back home again
to pull down the laundry before the ovens got cranking
before the clean linens got snowed in grey ash.

Jess Lazar is a poet living in Washington, D.C. She was born in Chicago, came of age in Jerusalem, and has raised a family in the District.

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What I know I could be

If I am milking it,
it is only because
I am always so hungry and thirsty and
this is all my stomach knows. And
moving on might look like red
sweaters and searingly hot soup but
I’m nearly colorblind and sensitive
to every word I’ve ever been fed.
I sip
ever so slowly and, by then,
the room is empty. I
wring dry rags between my hands
and try to draw out the excess. I’m
a dirty tea-drinker in a coffee shop.
I promise,
when I am older I will be purpose,
purpose, purpose. But then,
until—there is so much to swallow.
My throat is just a little narrow,
just a little bob here and there
as everything
goes down and down to
bile.

Annabelle Littlejohn-Bailey grew up in Lompoc, California, along the Central Coast, and now lives with her family in Middle Tennessee. She is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, where she studies Religion and English, and is always caught in the pursuit of brighter worlds. Her work is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review.

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Song of Solomon, again, again, again

Know that, for years,
sacredness meant nothing
to this violated, sacred body
of mine. Holiness something
to be defiled,
to be split open
at a faint crack or ridge. The
Word of God sour on my
dry, beige lips cracked open.
My body split along the hip,
spilling salt and salt
and salt.
Spilling the holiness
drained out, dried up.
Listening for the homily to rebuke
anything sticky to the touch,
anything touchy enough
to stick. Sacred enough
to burn in the little cuts
on my hands,
to call it tiny fire.
My young body
smoldering against the
painted sun, fracturing
on every rock. Divinity
as a young rock,
calling everything
the Will of God.
Murmuring
that even books, especially—
lying, lying,
straight out to the sea.

Annabelle Littlejohn-Bailey grew up in Lompoc, California, along the Central Coast, and now lives with her family in Middle Tennessee. She is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, where she studies Religion and English, and is always caught in the pursuit of brighter worlds. Her work is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review.

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Jericho—

In order to manufacture believable forgetfulness,
huddle up to the wrong side of the door
and breathe choppy fires.
Inhale twice before the spark ignites, and sigh against your cheeks
to let her know you are there.
Her bones will feel the simmer through her splintered mahogany door
and she will press a skinny envelope past the threshold
just to keep your lips warming the sill.
If the mahogany curves to your hip bone by dusk,
stay for one week more,
and grab a chair in consideration for your knotted toes.
Some days, she will sneak the tip of her nose past the border,
“Have you forgotten yet?”
Nod a simple yes, insist on an impervious no,
all to show her you are busy forgetting. Rub the pads of your fingers together,
flood the hallway. Drag out the mop, stomp your feet,
press your cheeks to where you think she is behind the door shivering,
take a sip—
call it the new reality, call it an adult conversation.
Repeat this seven times on the seventh day,
and google “How did the Israelites soothe a week of blisters on their feet?”
Cross your knees, kiss the baseboards one panel at a time.
Then sigh once more, a hello.

Annabelle Littlejohn-Bailey grew up in Lompoc, California, along the Central Coast, and now lives with her family in Middle Tennessee. She is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, where she studies Religion and English, and is always caught in the pursuit of brighter worlds. Her work is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review.

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Jiving with bone

A body could never be a burden,
always light pressure and rounded edges
My body is the same, even still,
soft in the superlative, jiving with bone
A hip catches each light a little different,
showing all and any colors where the stretch splits
An arm always rests gently,
building out and seeing out when and where it wishes
A leg is carrying heavier bodies,
going places and places, and with such intention
A chest is against yours like a sonic wave,
becoming and running, always on the move
A toe likes to call itself a leg,
balancing each day’s leading and following
A finger is a quick jab,
easily fashioned into a tool for breaking skin

But after you’re done waging war,
your own chest becomes the war and the rest of it
After you’re done waging war,
you have to sit with it and sip a little tea
After you’re done waging war,
the war becomes a person you sort of know
& my body tries not to become a burden

Annabelle Littlejohn-Bailey grew up in Lompoc, California, along the Central Coast, and now lives with her family in Middle Tennessee. She is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, where she studies Religion and English, and is always caught in the pursuit of brighter worlds. Her work is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review.

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Me and Maps

I inhabit a place connected to other places via roads like veins, or veins like roads.

This infrastructure is set in land mass; a flock of villages are ringed off by the stain from a coffee cup; a gathering of towns has slipped into crevasses along fault lines. The names of these places are lost forever in the folds.

There are red roads, as I would expect, and blue, for the noblest streaks of me; green A roads form a network of roots, spreading ancient knowledge along my subterranean ways. Deep waterways bleed out to sea. Public footpaths lose themselves halfway through fields.

There is a central hub from which all thoroughfares lead, or to which all thoroughfares lead, depending where you’re coming from, where you’re going.

There is a school from which it is impossible to graduate. An empty pay-and-display car park with the barrier stuck down. An understaffed hospital with emergency lighting. A church in need of a new roof. Overpriced motorway services with bad coffee.

A compass that still shows north.

Jo Robson lives in East Yorkshire, England, and writes short fiction and poetry. She is currently working towards a BA in Creative Writing with the Open College of the Arts.

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A Small Green Bottle

Original by Ken Nishizaki, translation by Toshiya Kamei

A bright blue sky stretched over Vernon County, and Augusta’s mood reflected the weather. Her son, Ed, was delighted at the prospect of not having to jerk himself off. Augusta pulled a bundle out of her tote bag, tore off the wrapping, and placed a small green bottle on the table. Its beauty had caught her fancy at the market, prompting her purchase. After Augusta’s death, Ed placed the bottle on a shelf in the living room. The small green bottle dazzled him with its beauty, giving him constant comfort. Ed killed two.

Fred didn’t remember who had brought the bottle home. Yet as soon as he laid his eyes on it, he decided it was his. The villagers chased him out of Much Marcle when they learned he had raped his baby sister. When he moved in with Rena in Glasgow, he kept the bottle in their room. The small green bottle dazzled him with its beauty, giving him constant comfort. Fred killed a dozen.

Eiji looked forward to visiting his uncle’s house in a town near Osaka City. There he was fed and safe from his father’s fists. A small bottle lay on its side on the living room floor. He made sure his cousins weren’t watching him and slipped the bottle into his pocket. He was drawn to it for a reason he couldn’t quite articulate. Eiji carried the bottle in his bag when he fled to Tokushima by ferry after he blinded his roommate. As he settled into his new apartment, he placed the bottle on the bookcase the previous tenant had left. The small green bottle dazzled him with its beauty, giving him constant comfort.

Ken Nishizaki is a writer, editor, and translator based in Tokyo. An accomplished musician, he runs the indie label dog and me records. In 2002, he made his literary debut with Sekai no hate no niwa, which won the Japan Fantasy Novel Award. His most recent books include Michi no chorui ga yattekuru made (2020) and Heading wa omoni atama de (2020). He has translated diverse writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, and Virginia Woolf.

Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations of short fiction and poetry have appeared in various venues. His book-length translations include Claudia Apablaza’s My Father Thinks I’m a Fakir and Selfa Chew’s Silent Herons.

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The End

Just as there is a first time,
there must be a last,

first kiss nailed to last,
only you always know first,

while last often is a hard maybe
till dirt takes you back,

so Last Poem could be this
or a distant that.

J. Tarwood has been a dishwasher, a community organizer, a medical archivist, a documentary film producer, an oral historian, and a teacher. Much of his life has been spent in East Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Currently living in China, he has published five books, The Cats in Zanzibar, Grand Detour, And For The Mouth A Flower, What The Waking See, and The Sublime Way. He has always been an unlikely man in unlikely places.

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birth marks

after she was born, after
I pulled her out, my hands
no longer shaking, a firm grip
on new life, bloody and warm
after the first shocking breath
the disappearing act of the NICU team
the smiling worn nurses, nodding
at the miracle, after the piercing stitches
that resurrected my torn identity
after all the not knowing, I began
to take her in. I memorized
every birthmark on her body
deep brown pinpricks
near the knuckle on the thumb
of her right hand, just below
her left knee, one on each
earlobe like misplaced earrings
and I knew that one day
someone else might love her
enough to know her by heart.

Eve Kagan is a trauma-informed therapist, educator, and theatre-artist. She writes at the intersection of her roles, by hand in small notebooks. Her personal essays and short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies including HuffPost, Role Reboot, Mothering Through the Darkness, and Dark City Lights. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her human family and Banksy the dog.

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Ghost Train

We called it the ghost train,
a haunting whistle, heard but
never seen, as we waited out
my depression in Munich.

An echo of the past etched
on our marriage, like the tiny scar
where I burned my wrist
on the top of the oven, on accident,
sort of, singeing memory on skin
of how close we came, I came,
to the end.

Years ago my people
crammed into those cars, like
animals, as the doors shut them in
on themselves. When that train
moved through the towns
did the children wave?

Eve Kagan is a trauma-informed therapist, educator, and theatre-artist. She writes at the intersection of her roles, by hand in small notebooks. Her personal essays and short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies including HuffPost, Role Reboot, Mothering Through the Darkness, and Dark City Lights. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her human family and Banksy the dog.

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The Minimalist

Day 0:

Charlie hungered for the bag of blood the nurse pulled. She knew how hospitals worked though, and she knew she had to keep following her own empty-handed healthcare professional.

“When will I hear?”

“We’ll call you in exactly a week.”

“And you’ll know if I need them cut off?”

“I’m optimistic we won’t. But yes, we can recommend surgery, if we think it’s appropriate.”

“And if you don’t recommend surgery, can I do it anyway?”

The doctor gave her a stern look. Charlie knew better than to push it. She didn’t want the doctor asking if she simply didn’t like her breasts. That felt like a schoolgirls’ problem – insecurity. She wanted them removed. Never replaced.

She had a week left. A week to carry on with the illusion that she’d get to have her breasts cut off. It was enough to hang onto hope that she might. To pause her life, avoid looking into the future at all, and fail to address any of the many things that needed addressing. C did not deal in factuals, she dealt in hope. The hope that when she’d cut everything out, breasts and all, she’d be able to see.

The clock started now.
 

Charlie returned to her office. Charlie had a law degree, but she’d never used it. The law was just clutter and bureaucracy. Charlie wanted to create less. Instead, she was doing the Lord’s work, people would say. She was helping the sick, the vulnerable. Blood was like water to them. Charlie thought she gave more to the donors though. She was eliminating an unnecessary body part. Cleaning them. Or facilitating it, at least. By checking them into their appointments at the blood drive.

On her lunch break, Charlie stared at a bag of blood about to be transported to the hospital. She gazed at it lovingly. Everyone deserved to have fun once in a while. She poked it with her finger. She imagined the original owner of the blood before and after the removal. How much lighter they must have felt, as she herself had been many times before. A weight being lifted, like finding out you don’t have cancer, or, in Charlie’s case, finding out you do. The bag of blood was everything C wanted.

It was a common misconception that Charlie loved blood. As fluids went, it didn’t even rank in her top five. You couldn’t even see it, so it was hardly causing mass chaos. It certainly wasn’t a breast. A life without breasts meant you could stop buying a whole article of clothing. You stopped producing an entire food supply. A life without breasts was free and empty.

Charlie returned to her desk.

“Does it hurt?” a woman in the waiting area asked.

“What?”

“When they draw blood?”

“Oh no,” said Charlie. “It’s wonderful.”
 

“It would be interesting if you had your tits removed, since you have a guy’s name,” Jeff said that night.

“My name is Charlotte.”

“But you go by Charlie.”

“It’s shorter.”

“Why not go by C then, if you’re so obsessed with brevity?”

It wasn’t brevity. It was elimination. Jeff had never understood. He made a fair point though. The ‘harlie’ had to go.

“What’s feminine about tits?” C asked. “If anything, I believe an extraneous limb is more of a man-thing. To have something you don’t need.”

Tits weren’t limbs. C pointed to the two boxes stacked by the door.

“Thank you for packing them,” Jeff said.

“I needed to clear them out. I was running out of space,” responded C. Her apartment was nothing but space. There was one bed, one chair, and a shelf built into the wall on which her laptop stood. There were two trash cans – her prized possessions. She had a small box on a counter that held Q-tips, tweezers, waxing strips, an enema, laxatives, scissors, razors, and Band-Aids. None were for self-harm. All were for self-removal.

Jeff’s face flushed, as though blood had rushed to his head. The fool. If only he’d already had that blood removed. Then he’d be free.

“Well, it’s still considerate that you did something nice for me. I mean, we were together for over a year.”

“Yes,” said C.
 

Day 1:

“He didn’t fit. He had to go,” C said.

“When do you hear?” Shania asked. She wasn’t interested in discussing C’s breakup. C’s romantic choices made precious little sense.

C had one friend left. She wasn’t cruel, she’d just stopped responding to the others. Shania was the most persistent. Maybe C was cruel.

“I have six more days,” C said. “Till I learn if I get to have my tits removed.”

Shania laughed, assuming C was making a joke. C didn’t make jokes.

“I’m sure you’ll be so relieved when you hear,” said Shania.

“Yes, I think so. Things are too cluttered now, I can’t see,” said C.

Shania, wearing a gray tank top, raised her arm up to order more drinks, and that’s when C noticed it. Shania’s armpit. It was covered in hair.

C’s lips curled into a dark smile. Her armpits hadn’t had that much hair in them since…ever. She wasn’t disgusted by Shania’s display of excess. Quite the opposite. She was jealous. There was nothing C envied quite as much as a person who had so much to eliminate, should they decide to start. It was the envy reserved for those who’ve just begun watching your favorite show for the very first time. The knowledge of what excitement lies before them.

C looked down at her phone. She tried to turn it on. It wouldn’t start. Her night had gotten even better. After wasting a law degree, she couldn’t justify deliberately trashing expensive electronics. What she could do was wait for them to die. And once they did, they were gone forever.

She dunked her phone into a glass of water.

“I was going to drink that!” Shania said.

“It was broken,” said C.

“Don’t you want to see if you could have it fixed?” asked Shania.

“It’s an Apple product, it can’t be fixed,” said C.

“I get it, honey, you’re going through a breakup.”

C nodded along, not listening.
 

Jeff was just the latest in C’s elimination. Like most freaks, people assumed it started when she was a child. No, C was a late-onset oddball.

She wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the date of the arrival of her obsession even if she were aware of it. It probably began the year after college. C had always been vaguely sad, but post-college brought on a new desolation – the delayed sorrow that hits when you realize you’ve never known joy, but you’ve always had more school to look forward to, in the vague hope that a professor would teach you how to be happy. C floated about odd-job to odd-job, listless and sad. And still no answer. She didn’t have the funds to accumulate, but she needed a change. So, she shed. It wasn’t because she was a defeatist. It was quite the opposite. She thought the key was right in front of her, and she just needed to clear away the rubble before she could see it.

Did she have a goal in mind? Sure, who doesn’t? Did she expect to get addicted? No, who does?

First, she Marie Kondo’d her apartment. This was well and good – admirable, even. Classic self-improvement.

Next, she cut her hair. Saves money on shampoo, her mother said. It works with your cheekbones, lied Shania. With this came all the other ordinary eliminations – she loved to shave, have her ear wax removed, freeze warts off. But who didn’t?

Next, her subscriptions. Who needs Netflix? C liked her asceticism. She thought being a person without streaming services would make her more interesting.

Next, the blood donation. This was just social consciousness, she claimed. She was being a Good Samaritan. It would be once a year. Twice a year. Three times a year. The maximum amount the blood donation center allowed. Iron supplements were cheap. She’d eat more spinach. She’d be fine.

Next, processed food. This was healthy, after all. She had to remove all ingredients she couldn’t pronounce. She made her own buckwheat flour, what was wrong with that?

Along the way, her sorrow hardened. It grew more specific. She had less in her life, so there was less to make her sad. She probably expected the result would be less dejection overall, but she was wrong. More dejection in a more concentrated form. If only she’d realized this. But Charlie was nothing if not committed. So she kept eliminating.

Next to go was her career. She’d wound up in law school, as so many college grads searching for meaning do. But she wanted a simple job with simple responsibilities. A job that focused on less. So she set $200,000 on fire by refusing to take the New York State bar exam. She could always take it later, her friends would say. She wouldn’t.

Her most recent elimination was Jeff. Not the right relationship for her! Jeff had six chairs. Six? For a man who lived alone? C had a cushion.

And now, her name.

Last, her breasts.

They were her last hope. C was characterized by her optimism, but this might be its last hurrah. The day she found a lump on her left tit was the happiest she’d had in years. You can’t very well get a doctor to cut off other body parts – C had tried. If she could get her tits removed, surely she’d find some answers in there.

Her strangeness made itself known to her community, even when C was ignoring it herself. People started to wonder if it was OCD. But she didn’t own soap. Was it an eating disorder? Possibly, but no more so than most women. Should she go to therapy? C resented the idea that therapy was a catchall for all problems. That once someone was in therapy, they were on the path to be cured, and friends and family could stop worrying about them. It was treated as a black box on which to offload the problems of loved ones.

She had six days left. Six days before she’d find out if all her dreams would come true, or if she’d have to reverse course entirely.
 

Day 2:

C awoke early the next morning. Without her phone to use as an alarm, she had no choice but to leave her windows open and wake up with the sun. Nature, she thought, that must be the answer. But what was the question?
 

“Ms. Barker says she didn’t sign up to give four extra vials,” Nurse Radi said when C got to work.

“What?”

“It’s marked here that she’s giving the extra samples for the scientists to study, but she didn’t sign the waiver for that.”

Sometimes, donors with particularly high iron levels were willing to give just a bit more blood, remove just a bit more of what they didn’t need, for the sake of scientific research. And sometimes, they weren’t, even though it wouldn’t harm them at all. When this happened, C tried to restrain herself, She really did intend to hold her tongue. But often, she couldn’t, so she resorted to the only solution she could imagine – she’d simply sign the form for them. They wouldn’t even notice. And then they’d be less. They would thank her.

“Huh,” said C. “I wonder how that happened.”

“I wonder how it’s happened five times in the last month,” said Nurse Radi.

“But you don’t wonder that,” C responded. “You know.”

Nurse Radi gave her an expression like the one you give your child’s only friend when they’ve just stained your carpet. Constrained disgust.

“Be here at 8 am tomorrow. We’re having a meeting with Doctor Schultz.”

Doctor Schultz was C’s boss, and the meeting was for her to get fired. The prospect didn’t bother her. Nothing could bother her this week – this was the week she could continue to believe her breasts were going to be removed. This was the week she could still have hope. What’s more, the bags of blood seemed just a bit bigger that morning. Perhaps because C had been busy forging the forms.
 

Day 3:

Dori stood near the door. Dori was always standing near doors. If C wanted distance from everything and everyone, Dori wanted absurd proximity.

Dori was her next-door neighbor. Fitting. She was next to the doors. Dori had one of those faces that made you think, “I don’t like your face.” C didn’t like Dori’s face. It wasn’t that C didn’t like most people – she really thought of anger as unnecessary, like cooking oil. But Dori pushed her buttons. She had made all sorts of rude comments about C’s lifestyle over the years – how frequently she took out the trash, how she’d dump even one bottle into the recycling bin without letting it build up in her own apartment, how she never had anyone over. She must have knocked on C’s door twice a year, at least. C got no peace.

“I don’t think you should leave your windows open,” Dori said. “You heard about the mosquito outbreak?”

C smiled. She loved mosquitos. They shared a goal.

“How’d you know about my windows?” she asked.

“I saw them from the street.”

“You must have walked into the alleyway to look,” C said.

“This years’ mosquitoes are particularly vicious,” said Dori.

“I haven’t heard anything,” C said.

Dori moved to block C’s door.

“For the sake of the building, I can’t let you out of here until you close your windows. We could have a full infestation.”

C rolled her eyes. She turned back around and shut one window. She looked over to Dori as if to say, happy now? Dori wasn’t happy. C shut the other window. Her arms were tired by the effort. Why had she gotten an apartment with so many windows? Two – it was two too many. And why did she have no arm strength?
 

C arrived at work significantly earlier than she needed to, particularly as the only thing on her calendar that day was getting fired. Her boss commended her for her punctuality, at least.

“Usually, people show up late when they know they’re about to be sacked, just to waste my time,” her boss said.

“I don’t waste anything,” responded C. “And I don’t waste blood.”

C knew she’d done the right thing – she wasn’t bothered. She ripped an entire fingernail off. She felt so satisfied she tried to get another, but none of them were hanging.

“Well, it’s been nice working with you,” her boss said.

C nodded. She sat in the room a bit longer, trying to build up the energy to leave. Her boss left her there – it certainly wasn’t the type of firing where C needed to be escorted out. She was a peaceful person.

Eventually, she gathered her strength and left. She hit a bag of blood on the way out. Smacked it with her flat palm. It burst, and red splattered everywhere. No one saw. C didn’t care – the blood had achieved its goal, merely in its own removal.
 

Day 4:

C tried to open her window back up. She did, but only barely. C had weak arms, and she felt a twist and then heard a snap. C didn’t like snapping.

C had no phone. She could have knocked on Dori’s door, but that would have brought the woman far too much joy. To have C owe her a favor – that was out of the question. C didn’t mind debt, as it was the opposite of excess, but she wouldn’t be in debt to Dori.

Fortunately, C could walk to the hospital two blocks away. The doctor said C needed a sling for the next two weeks. Before she put it on, she asked the doctor to shave her head.

“Is this a Britney Spears thing?” the doctor asked. “Because if so, I’m in.”

The hair was wiped and the cast was attached. C would be unable to use her left arm. Good, she thought. If I get on for two weeks without it, I’ll know I can someday have it removed entirely.
 

Day 5:

C hadn’t lost a parent as a child. She hadn’t lost any siblings. Not even an aunt, she didn’t think. Her parents split up, but not until after she’d gone to college. None of the canonically sad childhood events had transpired. So there was really no excuse for what had happened to C, but she had no control over it. There was no reason she should be eating raw lentils for dinner. She was from Westchester. People from Westchester didn’t eat raw lentils. C didn’t set out to either, but that’s where she ended up. And by the time it did, so much was unusual about her life that the lentils failed to register.

C’s mother opened the door. Her apartment was emptier every time C returned. This was due, in part, to C’s concerted efforts. Each visit, she’d explain to her mother she needed something from the apartment – perhaps a toaster, a rug, a can of black beans. And her mother acquiesced. The black beans C would eat. Everything else went in the trash cans. C loved trash cans.

“What have you been up to?” C asked. She knew the answer just by looking around the apartment. She’d been up to nothing. There were no changes, not even a shift in furniture. She’d arrived at a place of stasis. The most minimal state of all, in which you indulge not even in variation. C indulged herself in envy of her mother’s home.

Contrary to popular belief, C wasn’t depriving herself. She spoiled herself with elimination. She took it to the most extreme form for her own pleasure. It was about challenging herself to have less. Proving she was better than others because of how little she needed. And until her gluttony of elimination solved any problems in her life, it would continue creating them.

“Nothing,” said her mother. “Did you hear whether or not you need surgery?”

“No,” said C.” I have two more days of hope left.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said her mother reassuringly, in the tone that you use when what you really mean is, ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine for me.’ C’s mother wasn’t cruel, but she didn’t take her daughter’s pain as her own. She didn’t even pretend to, as many mothers did. “Can I have a cup of tea?”

C stood up to get the kettle. She needed to hold it under water with one hand while the other lifted the top off it. But C had just the one hand. After shuffling about for a minute, she made do with her elbow.

“A second hand could have come in handy,” C noted as she set the tea down.

“Second hands are useful,” she said. “How long is yours out of commission?”

“Just one week,” C said. “I didn’t realize how much I used it.”

“How much you used a second hand?” her mother asked.

C crossed her arms on her chest haughtily and glowered at her mother. How dare she judge her. No one had ever told C she might need her second hand. Why wouldn’t she want to get rid of it?

“Your apartment is empty,” C said.

“Yes, there’s less for you to take this time. My therapist thought it might be good to donate old things I’m not using.”

“And is it?”

“I don’t know yet. She says change takes time.”

“Well, what do you see in the emptiness?” C asked. She felt no better than a cheap psychic. But seeing a newly empty apartment invoked the same mirth as a newly pumped bag of blood. She always wanted to confirm that the donors felt wonderful afterward. Magnificent, even. She hoped her mother felt the same way.

“Nothing. Isn’t that the point of emptiness?”
 

C returned home that night. There was a note from Dori on her door that read, ‘I TOLD YOU SO.

She’d left her windows open. The apartment was not strictly “teeming” with mosquitoes, but there were more than a few buzzing about. There was nothing she – a weak, broke, phoneless, single, one-armed lady – could have done to get them out if she cared to, anyway. But she didn’t. Her apartment was larger than it needed to be. It was large enough for the bugs. They deserved a home too. C went to sleep.
 

Day 6:

C’s eyes were completely swollen shut from the bites. She couldn’t see. But what did she need eyes for anyway? She had never been able to see what she wanted to see. This new development left her unperturbed.

Unfortunately, the first hurdle of her blind day materialized almost immediately. She had to pee. She felt along the borders of her apartment until she arrived at the bathroom. Thank goodness she lived in a studio.

She sat on the toilet and enjoyed what was undoubtedly the highlight of her day. But then, she continued to sit. There was nothing left to do. C had no idea when this would end, and no way of finding out. She’d dunked her life in water, and it didn’t work anymore.

C tried not to panic. This is what she’d wanted all along. This emptiness. This is where she figured out the answers. What she was meant to be. What she ought to do. How to be happy. But no answers came. At last, though, she figured out the question.

“How do I get out of here?”
 

C had no choice but to knock on Dori’s door. And she was sure to be standing by it, smugly. Dori was always standing smugly by doors, as C had noticed, back when she had eyes.

C knocked. Dori wasn’t home. Did Dori have a day job? C had never thought to ask. She slumped down by the door. She’d wait. She worked so hard to empty all of herself, even her schedule, but she didn’t want to wait anymore. It was the satisfaction of cancelling plans only to find yourself woefully lonely.

C knew why she’d cut everything out. Being busy left her tired. Exhaustion was an understandable emotion – easy to predict, easy to fix. Emptiness was not. C hadn’t thought about the potential consequences when she made the exchange. But, now, she was confronted with them. And she began to cry. And that’s where Dori found her.
 

Dori was decidedly not self-righteous on the way to the Emergency Room, but she returned to her old ways immediately after. When the steroids had begun to work and C could see again.

“Do you see why I told you to close the windows?” Dori asked.

“Oh, yes,” C said. “I see all sorts of things.”

“Honestly, you could have infected the whole building.”

C smiled. She could have let more mosquitoes into the building. More for her neighbors. More for herself. More. More. More.
 

The floodgates had broken. There was so much she needed. A shield for her window was the very beginning. Toilet paper, floss, a second pair of shoes, almond flour, mason jars, duct tape, yarn, wrist braces. C wanted more. What was the most cluttered book, the one that fit the most words into the least volume? C bought the Holy Bible.

C shopped like a woman who hadn’t just been fired from her job. She shopped like a woman who hadn’t taken out $200,000 in loans to become a lawyer, and then become a receptionist instead. She shopped like a woman who didn’t live in a tiny studio apartment. She shopped like a woman who hadn’t committed herself to a life of less. She shopped like a woman who had friends to shop for, but instead of friends, she just had Dori. But she shopped for Dori anyway. She shopped like a woman with no credit card limit, and she shopped until her credit card limit made itself known to her. Then, and only then, had she accumulated enough.

The items spilled out into her apartment like that bag of blood. Taken from one place to another. People don’t eliminate blood, they donate it. C had never really gotten rid of anything, she’d merely redistributed. She knew there was a law of physics that addressed this phenomenon somewhere, but she didn’t need to know specifics. She was full. She wanted her hand back. And her hair. She wanted the space filled.

She still didn’t have the answers, but it was okay, because she didn’t have questions anymore, either. Stuff had taken their place. In the light of her crowded apartment, she realized what child’s play it was to search for “answers” to a “vague dissatisfaction.” She should have been searching for stuff. Stuff was great.
 

Day 7:

C’s phone rang. Her new phone.

“We recommend surgery,” the doctor said.

In her buying blitz, C had forgotten that her week was up today. The week in which she could still believe she might get her breasts removed. What a lifetime ago, C thought. How could I have wanted that?

“And if I don’t get it?” C asked. “I’ve decided I like my breasts. I’ve decided I shouldn’t just cut things off willy-nilly for no good reason.”

“You’ll most likely die within a year.”

C paused for a moment.

“Can I get back to you?”

Ginny Hogan is a satire writer, and she’s written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times. She’s also the author of Toxic Femininity in the Workplace, published by HarperCollins in 2019.

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Late Developers

In the last few weeks of her life, I caught him peeing in the sink. I came through the back door, as all of us always did, via the porch with its fly papers and window ledges and stands chock-full of plants, straight into the kitchen and there he was, in side profile standing on his tiptoes, pissing in the sink. A grown man of sixty-something years pissing into a kitchen sink. One thing I will say. He doesn’t have great balance.

The only reason he thought it was bad was from the look on my face. If I hadn’t lost my temper so spectacularly, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, of being caught in the act. I cannot recall – although I’m sure there must have been a time, especially when the children were young – having ever become so instantaneously furious. One look was all it took. No requirement to wait for explanations. No conclusions to be jumped to. It was all there in plain sight.

It was so many things to my eyes; slovenly, disgusting, disrespectful, but my particular fury was reserved for the sheer laziness of it. The childhood home, where we all grew up, is a bungalow and not a particularly large one like the ones they have in America. It is a classic 1950s English pebbledashed bungalow, which means the loo is never more than ten metres away from any given point in the house. I could not comprehend the circumstances which would lead to my older brother being forced to urinate in the sink. You cannot get caught short in a bungalow. And then it dawned on me. It was not the first time he had done it. To him, it was no big deal to piss in the sink. It was an awful realisation.

After the shouting, I had to pass the sink to get to the sitting room where my mother would be. I saw that it had not been empty. There were the remains of what must have been their lunch crockery. Two plates, two cups, a knife and a teaspoon. The same cups and plates she’s eaten off and drunk out of for the last thirty years – longer, maybe. When I got back to my home (for I could not tell my mother what I had just witnessed), I began to worry how well he was washing those coffee cups that I would often see on the draining board when I visited. We had all been assuming what a great comfort it must be to her, to us all, to have him living there and caring for her, but was that the reality? It got me thinking, what doesn’t he apply his slapdash attitude to?

Two weeks later my mother was dead of a pulmonary embolism. After the sink incident, I had been coming every day to check upon things and if there were dishes in the sink I would wash them. I found her, making no sense in her bedroom and called the ambulance. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. I was with her, holding her hand in the ambulance when she died. Thank goodness I was, and that she wasn’t alone. I had no idea what he was doing or where he was. I do now, of course, after the event.

In the wake of her death it became clear that our eldest brother had always been that way. In his head pissing in the sink was neither unusual nor outrageous. We had chosen not to see it, either wilfully or through our own disinterest. Possibly, our mother had purposefully hidden it from us. I don’t know. But it was obvious that she must have spent her life fixing his messes and never grumbling even a word about the fact.

Our older brother was left with us, his two siblings, who were not prepared to coddle him as our mother had done. And that’s when things started to fall apart. We were all he had, yet not at all what he needed. He was an old man who still needed a mother.
 

My best friend tells me every family has one; a person who just can’t quite get it together, at least to the standard the rest of their family thinks they should be able to. Her brother-in-law is incredibly myopic, she says. But at least he has a basic level of personal hygiene, I tell her back. I am nigh on certain that not every family has someone as bad as Robert. He is our own special burden to bear.

Our mother had left us everything equally. Myself, Clive and Robert were to inherit the bungalow, the land and the contents of her bank account, which, discounting the land and the bungalow, amounted to nearly fifty thousand pounds each. Clive, of course, is a successful businessman, so it made very little difference to his life, but for me, to have that money sitting under my name felt huge. I have never been financially independent, but with that amount I felt I could be. I expected Robert felt the same, after his lifetime of less than average jobs. He was, at one stage, an accountant, but he was dismissed for reasons that have always remained opaque. After that he worked manual jobs; a truck driver, part of a factory line and a spell as a dry stone waller. Shift work seemed to suit him best. So, I’m sure that seeing that money in his bank account made him feel good too. Important. Like he could be someone. Like Clive, I suppose.

A few months after the inheritance had come through we had gotten together to discuss the land. It was unusual, us being together. We rarely assembled as a threesome apart from Christmas, weddings and funerals. Clive arranged the meeting. He had plans for the land. After our father had died the land had always been let for grazing to local farmers. It brought in very little but it kept the fields in good working order; the hedgerows and fences maintained, the land annually fertilised and well-grazed. You cannot just leave land to its own devices. As anyone with a garden should know.

Split between the three of us, the profit from the grass letting would have been a good meal out somewhere. Not to be sniffed at. But hardly an income one could rely on. It gave me great pleasure to see the farmers on it, coming daily to tend to their livestock. It was like how it used to be when I was a girl. All of our houses are built on the edges of the land. From my upstairs windows I can see Robert’s cottage and the bungalow. The land connects us. Most mornings I see Clive at the crack of dawn walking his dogs on it before he drives to his office. The land is a part of us all. It has three great oak trees in a perfect line down the middle of it. I can tell you every undulation in the ground around them, exactly when their buds will bloom and when their leaves will drop. I can tell you every wildflower that grows in the hedgerows, every tree around the perimeter, every rock that juts out of the ground and became so goodness knows how. I have spent my life playing, running, riding and walking around those fields. My father taught me to drive in them, he said I took to it better than either of my brothers. Good lass, he’d say, and slap me on the thigh.

Clive thought we could make more from the land by developing it, a strip of houses, he said. We’d still have plenty of land left, but we’d be able to monetize it better by building five homes on it. Nice homes for decent hardworking people. None of the social affordable stuff, he said, which has no profit in it. He’d already instructed an architect to draw up some plans and a planning consultant to get it through the council and he was asking for our contribution to pay for this. Around one thousand five hundred pounds each. By his estimations he thought we could be in for at least six figures each – if not seven – all from developing only a fifth of the land. I was shocked by the idea of having this much money just sitting there untapped in the land. I didn’t much like the idea of five ugly new houses marring my view, but for that much money maybe I could get over it. Robert on the other hand was visibly agitated by Clive’s plans.

‘I can’t afford to pay that right now,’ he said.

Clive laughed and said, ‘You’ve just inherited fifty grand, what do you mean “I can’t afford it?”‘

I too was a little confused.

Robert was fidgeting in his seat, he seemed incredibly defensive. It was a pain to watch him, in truth. It was apparent he had something to get off his chest.

‘I don’t have it. I’ve been scammed,’ he said eventually, to which Clive and I both expressed our astonishment.

‘What do you mean, scammed?’ I asked him.

‘Dad always said, invest in land – they’re not making any more of it,’ he said, as if this was a defence.

‘Yes,’ Clive said, meaning go on. I could see he was growing impatient. It was a bugbear of his that Robert never got straight to the point. You always had to go around the houses first. I put my hand on Clive’s and said, ‘Let him explain in his own time.’

Robert repeated what our father had said again – I don’t recall him ever saying that, but it sounds like the kind of thing he would have said – and then proceeded to tell us how he’d answered an advert for land investments he had seen in a newspaper or magazine (he couldn’t tell us which) for a plot of land down south.

Clive interrupted and said, ‘Why did you need to invest in land down south when you already own some right on your doorstep?’

‘You’re not the only one who knows about money,’ Robert snapped at him.

‘Clearly I am,’ replied Clive.

I encouraged Robert to go on.

After he’d answered the advert to request details of the investment, he’d received a phone call. It is hard to establish the facts of what happened on this phone call, but it ended in Robert making a payment of thirty thousand pounds over the phone on his credit card.

‘You’ve still got twenty grand then?’ Clive said.

Robert wouldn’t be drawn on the state of his finances, nor would he say exactly how much he had given them, but it had become clear to him that he was unlikely to get any of it back.

I was aghast that my brother, my eldest brother, would pay thirty thousand pounds to someone he had never met. It was shocking enough that a bank had deemed it a good idea to issue him with a credit card with that amount of credit on it. All mine are limited at ten thousand.

Clive called him a stupid bastard.

And I began to cry.

It was thinking of Mum that made me cry. How frugally – but never in a mean way – she had lived, how much she had saved and shored up throughout her lifetime and then within six months of giving it to her children, a third of it was gone.

‘I think that I might be able to get it back,’ said Robert, changing his mind again, which is something he does. Facts always seem so elusive to him. ‘I’m going to get a lawyer and I might be protected because I bought it on a credit card, not on a debit card.’

‘You idiot,’ said Clive. ‘You’ll spend the same amount on lawyers trying to claw it back.’

This did seem a reasonable thing to say, a case of throwing good money after bad.

‘There is another way,’ said Clive. Robert looked at him in the most pitiful way, I almost wish I hadn’t witnessed it, as if Clive was hope personified.

‘I’ll give you the money you’ve lost in cash in exchange for your share in the land,’ said Clive.

This seemed very generous of Clive. How much money did he have sitting around to be able to do this? It triggered a prickle of animosity I still felt towards him, of our mother having to finance his first divorce twenty years earlier. I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to her, cap in hand, for such a matter.

‘But I own a third of everything,’ said Robert.

‘Yes, and you still will, but you’ll forfeit your right to the development land. No need to worry, you’ll still own a third of the rest of everything else.’

‘But that’s where the real money is, if what you say is to be believed,’ said Robert, sounding a little uppity. He does get like that, uppity. It’s one of his most irritating characteristics, for what does someone like him have to get uppity about? He urinates in sinks.

‘I’m trying to help you out. Do you want your thirty grand back or not?’ said Clive. ‘And who’s to say, if this first development goes well, we could look at doing more, at which you’d be a third owner of.’

‘You could pay me to manage it. Like an estate manager. I’d look after it all,’ said Robert.

‘Do you want the money or not?’ said Clive.

‘Yes, thank you. It’s very—’ but of course, Robert couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He has never been able to give credit where credit is due.

‘We’ll talk about the estate manager stuff another time,’ said Clive.

We all went our separate ways. Robert had cleared his debt and I was now in business with my younger brother. I was a developer. Not bad for a retired part-time secretary. Not bad at all.
 

Over the next three or four months, I didn’t really hear much from Clive. I telephoned him a couple of times to see what was happening and he would fill me in, but afterwards I couldn’t really understand what he’d said, or what it meant. He was so convincing when I spoke to him, but then when I tried to outline it after to my husband or a friend, it was always a bit vague on detail. I was sure that it would be in safe hands with Clive and that I didn’t really need to worry myself too much with the minutiae, he could be counted on to take care of it all.

Robert meanwhile was doing what he had always done, which is not much. I’d see him pottering up the field occasionally, he drove into town every day, although for what I’m not sure. Clive suspected he had a gambling habit. One of his friends had spotted him coming out of one of the bookmakers on the high street, and he was always in pestering the ladies in the bank, wanting to check the accounts for the land, of which he was still a countersignatory. He couldn’t get access to the development ones though. Only Clive and I had that authority.

One day I saw him up the field in his car and so I walked up there to see what he was doing. One of the ash trees in the hedge had fallen over in the high winds and so he was repairing the fence and chainsawing the tree to pieces. He said he was going to split the wood into three piles and we could all take some for logs. It was nice to see him out working, doing something. I said I’d go and make the tea and bring it up in a flask, which is what we always did when we were haymaking. Mum would bring the lads in the field a cream tea. They were delicious, the smell of the cut grass mingling with the sweetness of the cream cakes. Really, the best of times.

I went back down to my house, thinking it would be wiser to make coffee, which carried better in a flask. Fifteen minutes later, perhaps a little longer, I was climbing over the stone stile between my garden and the field, with the flasks, cups and sugar (for Robert) and I see that he’s starting up the chainsaw. He had managed to get it going and was heading towards the main trunk of the tree. I watched, with some nervousness, as he lifted the saw up and then he appeared to stumble backwards. I don’t know if the ground was uneven where he was standing, but I watched in slow motion as he fell backwards, the chainsaw still running, falling down with him. I must have screamed and was running as fast as I could towards him. The chainsaw had fallen between his legs and was perilously close to his femoral vein, I grabbed it immediately and set it aside and lost my temper with him, more out of fear than anger. Not as bad as the sink incident, but certainly, I felt furious with him. Why did he pick up a chainsaw if he can’t use it properly?

He got up and said, ‘I think my balance is not what it was,’ to which I told him in no uncertain times that he shouldn’t use a chainsaw again. Did he not realise that he had nearly killed himself? Why was he so lax about the whole incident? He might have been dead! I went to retrieve the coffee from where I had thrown it down. The cups were still miraculously intact, luckily the ground is soft at the time of year it was, and we sat on the fallen trunk of the ash, in silence, and drank the coffee.

Later that night Clive telephoned to say that he thought we should let the bungalow. We shouldn’t make the same mistake as mother did by selling off another house the family owned for a pittance. He said she should have let it out and waited for the market to pick up. This was the mistake he didn’t want to repeat. It seemed sensible to me. Clive said he needed me to tell Robert to get out of the bungalow, it would sound better coming from me, a woman’s touch. I didn’t understand what he meant about telling Robert to get out of the bungalow. Robert had his own house. Clive informed me he had been sleeping between the two. Perhaps he missed mother. I said that I’d go down and speak to him tomorrow, but not before I told Clive about the chainsaw incident, which really made him laugh. I distinctly remember him saying what a plonker, and how it made me snort with laughter too.

The next day I went down to Robert’s house. I made sure I wasn’t too early as I know that he gets up quite late. I knocked on the door and he appeared in some tracksuit bottoms, which never look good on a man of his age, and a checked shirt which had egg spilt down it. ‘You’ve been eating fried egg sandwiches,’ I said to him and he smiled, ‘How did you know?’ He stopped smiling when I said, ‘Because it’s all down your shirt.’ I followed him in as he tried to wipe it off.

I don’t often have reason to go down to Robert’s house and if I did perhaps it wouldn’t have been in such a mess. There were dirty glasses all over the lounge, which was thick with dust. I couldn’t even guess at the last time it had been hoovered. But the real shock was the kitchen and I had to swallow incredibly hard when I opened the fridge. It is a miracle the man was still standing and hadn’t died from food poisoning. I was so beside myself. ‘It’s a shithole!’ I said. ‘Your house is a shithole! How can you live like this? Clean it up! Clean it up at once!’

‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘It’s perfectly fine. And how I keep my house is none of your business, Cynthia.’

I hate it when he calls me by my name like that, all snickety. I walked out of his house crying at the disgustingness of it all. How could someone, my own brother, live like that? I realised that I’d forgotten to tell him about the bungalow, the reason I was there in the first place, so I turned around and went back in and said, ‘And stay out of the bungalow. We can’t have you messing two houses up. It’s going to be let out.’

I wish I hadn’t told him the news in such anger, but I couldn’t help myself. I was so angry with him. He’s such a frustrating individual you see. Of course, it was hugely upsetting to think there would soon be strangers living in our childhood home. And it would get worse. The tenants we chose ripped up all her plants. The cherry tree, the rose…I can’t bear to think about it even now. And they filled the lawn with brightly coloured clutter for children and a huge trampoline. It was an absolute eyesore. I cried about the plants. If they had just said they were going to do that, I would have gone down there and dug them up myself to save them. Mum loved her garden and worked so hard on it, and in one day they ruined it. I really wasn’t prepared for how it would feel someone else in there, especially making such a mess. Why couldn’t they live there quietly? I worried about what Robert thought about it all on a daily basis.

I began to feel bad about what I’d said about his house so I turned up in my worst clothes, rubber-gloved, clutching my cleaning caddy, and said that I was going to tidy up the house for him. All day I worked, scrubbing my fingers to the bone, literally, until the house was sparkling again. And you know, he couldn’t even say thank you. A month later it was back to its usual pigsty and I vowed that I would not go out of my way to help him again. Why couldn’t he see the way he lived was disgusting? How hard is it to wipe the surface down once a day? Run a hoover around the carpet? I notice that he hangs his washing on the line. If he can manage that, why can’t he apply the same to his house? That night I telephoned Clive and told him about the state of Robert’s house and suggested we might hire a cleaner. Clive said he could hire his own cleaner, it wasn’t our responsibility. I thought how Mum must have been the one keeping his house clean all those years.

A few days after I had cleaned Robert’s house Clive rings me to tell me that Robert doesn’t want me to be company secretary for the land we own between the three of us because I’m not good with numbers. ‘He thinks you’ll get confused and mess up the accounts,’ said Clive. ‘He thinks he should do it because you’re not clever enough.’ How dare he! How dare he say this about me when I had helped him – the only one who had helped him, and he went behind my back to say this to Clive. I was furious, and I began to feel furious with Mum for leaving him with us – for not telling us how bad he was and a small part of me began to hate my mother, for which I also blamed Robert.

By this time the building work had started on the field. Clive had fenced off the site so it was clear, mostly for Robert’s understanding, which was the land Clive and I owned and which was the land we shared with Robert. The builders were hardworking lads and seemed to get the foundations in in no time. Clive was thrilled with the progress.

Robert arrived at my house to tell me what a mess it all looked. There were plastic bags all over the site, track marks from their vehicles. He called it an eyesore, a phrase he probably got from me when I was describing the mess the tenants had made in the bungalow.

‘What building site isn’t an eyesore?’ I said, laughing. He could be so petty.

‘You don’t have to look at it every day,’ he said to me, which wasn’t true, because I can see it from the upstairs windows. Then he left. I didn’t have a chance to ask him about his comment to Clive about me being ‘not clever’, but he was mistaken if he thought I was going to let him get away with saying such a thing, scot-free.

The next day I was upstairs in the room that overlooks the field. It was late morning, and I was reading my magazine with a cup of coffee. It was an article about a donkey sanctuary and it was terribly upsetting the way these donkeys had been treated. I find that kind of behaviour so cruel in humans. The pictures were heart-breaking. I got up to get a tissue and I could see Robert out of the window in the field gesticulating wildly at the builders. He looked upset and I could see that he had not brushed his hair, which was getting long. I’d joked to Clive that he was looking like The Wild Man of Borneo. I thought I had better go over there. As I got closer, I could see that his clothes were filthy too. The builder knew me, and as I approached he said, ‘He’s telling me he’s the estate manager and we have to get out of here. He’s tipped over the cement mixer.’ I looked, and he had. An ugly puddle of concrete was congealing on the grass, or what was left of the grass.

‘Robert, what on earth?’ I said.

‘I can’t live with this,’ he said.

‘It’s not up to you. You made the deal. It was your decision.’

‘I was conned. Conned by my own brother.’

‘Oh come on, he did you a favour,’ I said, but I really didn’t want to get into it in front of the builders.

‘Perhaps, could you give us a minute,’ I said to the men who were standing looking at us. ‘Maybe a coffee break?’ I suggested, apologising for the commotion and they nodded and got in their two vans and drove off.

I looked at Robert, not really knowing what to say. A jeep pulled in; it was Clive. The builders must have called him. He got out of the car ranting and raving, calling Robert a silly bastard. He looked at the cement mixer and he saw red. There he was in his shiny leather shoes and one of his lovely suits trying to shovel the cement back into the mixer. Robert approached him, in his usual dithering way. He was shouting that we didn’t even tell him the construction was starting and then some other thing about access to the site and how he had a say. I don’t know how it happened, but maybe Robert was bending down to make himself heard to Clive who was still trying to get the cement back in the mixer, but somehow, Robert got clonked on the head with the shovel and he stumbled back and fell onto a pile of bricks. This I remember distinctly, looking down at Robert, his head bleeding and the polythene wrapping from the bricks flapping wildly in the wind. It was nobody’s fault. Robert’s balance was all-to-cock, I’d seen it for myself, and here it was again.

Clive was stood in shock, still with the shovel in his hand. I went to Robert who was out cold and bleeding heavily and screamed at Clive to call an ambulance, but Clive just threw the shovel down and said, ‘I ought to have effing battered him.’ I was shouting at Clive who didn’t seem to appreciate how bad the situation was. He got back in his jeep and drove off again, presumably back to work.

There I was, left with Robert having to help him again. I rode in the ambulance with him, holding his hand, the exact same route I’d been along with Mum a year earlier when he’d been sitting in his own house too frightened to go back in the bungalow and into her bedroom to see why she hadn’t drawn her curtains yet, even though it was past nine in the morning. Perhaps if he had, we could have saved her.

Robert has remained in a coma since. The doctors say he will need full-time care if he wakes up, a nursing home probably. Who is going to pay the bill for that? We could sell his house, but Clive pointed out that it has marriage value with it being adjoined to the land as it is. I don’t want to make any rash decisions.

I visit him in hospital every other day. He’s so clean, his fingernails thoroughly mucked out, for the first time in his life. I hold his hand and talk to him, read him the local paper cover to cover when it comes out on Friday. I think he likes to hear what his old school friends are up to. There’s usually someone he knows in it every week, up to something.

This is a reprint of work originally published in STORGY.

Elspeth Leadbetter is a writer of novels and short stories. She grew up in Cumbria, has lived in the US, the UAE and Singapore, and now lives in Surrey with her husband and two children. When she is not writing, she reads, runs and dreams of, one day, meeting the Obamas.

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Grief, in Slow Motion

at first, i look to the skies for rain. for relief to flood like a prayer, awash with the promise of rebirth. a new beginning with you firmly left in the past. you always did the leaving; this is what i’ve spent my childhood rehearsing for. this body as a forecast: clouds the colour of ash, the same way a daughter’s bones are rattled by an unexpected pang. then: a violent downpour, sickly sweet in the summer spell. enter the taste of an ache—a metallic, ferocious requiem residing on the tip of my tongue—and i buckle under the rainfall, limbs spread out like a fallen angel to receive the torrential bullets. this self-imposed punishment galvanised by a crumbling naivety: sometimes, fathers let second chances slip. here, my head is submerged in the good years, heart steeped in the bitter storm—two halves still battling for control. i don’t want to be angry anymore. just ready to be made anew. and this awakening arrives lethargic, first settling with a listless recognition: when the raindrops falter, so do i. where then, does the light begin to enter this clarified body? how can forgiveness be learned again? perhaps it comes in the stillness that follows the storm, morning dew as a presage to all the tenderness in a lighter soul. this time, no more fighting, no more cursing the skies. just this ceasefire, like the first slits of sunlight leaking through dawn. this hollow body, a home for the hurt at last. this petrichor, delicate, but aglow in my memories of you.

Natasha Lim is a psychology student from Singapore and an editor for the Interstellar Literary Review. In her spare time, she enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee and reading books that make her cry.

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Exhumation

your each ear resembles / a tangerine wedge / you have an excellent
voice / this is my attempt / at a more flattering sort
of love poem /
                        you write / because for you / history will strip away
her pretense of pedagogy / reveal something
vascular / buzzing wires branching / hissing sweetly
into / your tangerine ears / I write because / I have
a terrible memory /
                                    how public / like a frog / each figure paused
in the other’s landscape / mountains lilac
and alive with kindling / our mouths heavy with promise /
the same way a stone is heavy
with water / here
                                    / I am exhuming / trophying
every loss and loose item / there
you are likely writing / better love poems / even
                                                with our hands over our ears /
we’re too busy listening / we’re two buzzards listlessly picking
at a truth that won’t grow fresh / the carstruck deer won’t wake /
                                                                                                won’t
walk away /
                                                            please / before we get too coarse
with each other / before we both lie down at this road’s edge / re-empty
your jacket pockets / your backpack / your closet / walk me through
the detritus of your drawers again / I’ll write it all down this time

Brenna Courtney studies at the University of Virginia.

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In the ripening dusk

the sky, impaled
by crisp, black
silhouettes, bleeds yellow and white,

and the rosebush bubbles over
with blooms like bright lights, too
awake to take

cover
like cats into gutters, gutters cut
like the nape

of an envelope, its innards read
once, discarded,
and already, dark.

Brenna Courtney studies at the University of Virginia.

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metamorphosis

after Ocean Vuong

I want to write myself into something beautiful. To shape skin into sentences and limbs into language. Tell me about my hands. How they are too heavy to hold. I fetter my fingers around my throat just to feel my words. Mouth marrow into metaphor. A girl as luminous as the moon. I open my mailbox to love letters addressed in my own handwriting and burn them in the backyard. The flames flicker like monarch butterflies and charcoal veins my wrists into wings. Sometimes, I want to burn my body and I don’t know if this is a metaphor. I taste ash on my tongue as a skein of smoke slurs syllables, blurring body into beauty like there is no difference between them. Yesterday, I sewed myself another skin. Twisted the truth into thread and wove something kinder. What is a metaphor but the softening of a sentence? My hands necklaced around my throat, breath passing through my fingers like smoke. The cloud of butterflies behind my collarbones and a vein of charcoal clenched between teeth, I tip back my head and pull. Unravel this truth: I only know how to acknowledge beauty through comparisons. I fell for a girl brighter than the moon but I did not believe she could love me. Tell me how the body becomes a life sentence. If it was anything less. I want to pass through the smoke and into another ribcage, an intangible thing.

Ai Li Feng is a fifteen-year-old writer currently studying Latin and Ancient Greek. The editor-in-chief of Indigo Literary Journal, her work is published or forthcoming in Eunoia Review, Parentheses Journal, and perhappened mag, among others. Find her on Twitter: @ailiwrites.

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Paper Animals

It was the last day.

At the beginning, I had found myself counting the days. We had arrived here in the heart of winter. The little village was located up in the mountains, a place so untouched by globalisation it seemed to have been left forgotten by the rest of the world. Our objective was simple. We were here on an overseas community service expedition to bring about positive impact to the lives of the underprivileged. We had much; they had little. We would give; they would receive. In the months leading up to the expedition, we had all invested time and effort in preparing lesson plans for both the teachers and students of the village school, making logistical arrangements, and organising activities and workshops for the students.

Twenty hours of travelling on three different modes of transportation finally brought us here. The ten of us, in our lined winter coats and portable heat packs, unloaded our bags from the vehicles. As night fell, we unpacked to discover that light was a luxury that only daytime could afford. The next day, we bought ourselves candles from the nearest store that was an hour’s walk away. I gradually became accustomed to the sound of chattering teeth each night. In the mornings, we awoke to the signs of the world awakening. The cries of the cockerel. The caresses from the first light of day. The wafts of thickening soup broth drifting in the air.

Our first weekend was spent with the teachers of the school. We walked the same routes schoolchildren between the ages of five to thirteen traversed each day. These walks typically ranged from two to three hours in length each way. They also involved navigating steep terrain in the mountains with no marked pathways. It was strenuous for the group of us, and I imagined the children who had to make these treacherous journeys alone regardless of the weather, oftentimes having to set off in semi-darkness. “What about their parents?” I had asked in the first days, before coming to the realisation that there were questions that were probably better left unasked, unanswered.

On the first Sunday, we were invited to lunch at one of the teachers’ homes. After a three-hour walk through the mountains, we arrived at a relatively large hut with a spacious backyard. There were several children in the neighbourhood, curious to see how their foreign teachers were like. We were shown around the place before ending up in the backyard where a hog slept. Unbeknownst to us, its fate had already been decided. In a ceremonious gesture of hospitality, the hog was due to be slaughtered that afternoon in front of our eyes.

I did not stay to watch the glorious spectacle. Instead, I ventured out to a nearby field where a group of children were playing. My role soon transformed from observer to participant. I learned all of their names, and they learned mine. A pair of siblings caught my attention. It was difficult not to notice the tender affection between the older brother, Jie Hui, and his sister, En Hui, who was the only girl in the group of older boys. Her eyes sparkled with a wonderment of the world that I wished would never fade, and her chin rested naturally at an angle of defiant confidence. She was one of them; she did not need her brother’s protection. Her brother clearly thought otherwise. Weeks later, I would come to learn that the pair shared a single mother but different fathers, and that they would soon be forced to part, with their mother having to leave the elder brother behind.

I returned to the backyard that was now saturated with the metallic odour of sacrifice. Dark crimson seeped into the earth. The ground turned into a canvas peppered with scarlet footprints. The teachers split themselves into two groups: the women squatted by buckets filling fresh blood sausages, while the men stood dividing the remnants. It should have come as no surprise, then, that our lunch that afternoon comprised steamboat with an extensive selection of pork parts. I left the table feeling bloated with nausea, and turned vegetarian for an indeterminate time thereafter.
 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I became inducted into their way of life. Things were simpler here in the countryside. Happier, even. There was a sense of comfort from the routine by which we conducted our hours. There was a sense of security from the knowledge that I would arrive at the village school promptly at seven each morning to see dozens of eager children before me, hungry for knowledge. There was a sense of assurance from the mountains and valleys that stood unperturbed around us, whose length of existence had far surpassed our own.

We spent hour after hour together. While other teachers sought respite from the rowdiness during break times, I was often found in the fields playing with the children. I came to learn of their likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations, and inclinations and dispositions. Gradually, they ceased to be just another student whose face remained nameless in a sea of schoolchildren. Each child became a friend, taking on his or her own individuality, in the same way I was granted acceptance into their worlds.

Little did I know, then, of the darker secrets that remained hidden beneath the cheerful façade. As I fell deeper in love with the beauty of this place, of its people, and particularly of its children, I began to learn things of a more ominous nature. I came to learn that the reason for the relatively long two-hour lunch break was so that the children who lived about an hour away from school could head home for the possibility of lunch prepared by their grandparents. As for those who lived more than an hour away, lunch was but a distant dream, as most of their families could not afford to spare the money.

I also came to discover the reasons behind unspoken absences. For instance, a boy named Zhao Wen in third grade had stopped attending classes since the second day I began my teaching duties. The teachers shared with us that many of the children’s parents had gone to the city in search of work, in pursuit of higher wages and a better life for their children. Most of them would end up working in industrial factories, often with precarious working conditions. It was not uncommon for these parents to disappear after some time, never returning to the villages again. While the reasons were manifold, this was usually due to accidents that these parents met with, either in the factories or elsewhere.

Zhao Wen’s parents had gone missing about a year ago. His grandparents and teachers had tried to break the news to him, but to no avail. He continued to hold an adamant belief that he would one day locate his parents. A month ago, his grandfather lost his sight and his grandmother, her mental capacities. Shortly after, he, too, lost the will to go to school. Instead, he climbed onto a rusty, broken bike each morning, cycling for hours to the city, making round after mind-numbing round, in the hope of catching a glimpse of his parents. Their forms continued to be so vividly etched in his mind, and yet seemed to be clad in an air of invisibility in his wretched reality.

Each child, so bright-eyed and full of promise, to whom I had grown to become so attached and for whom I wished nothing but the very best, in fact carried a story within that told of pain, loss, and the circumscription of opportunities in life, purely by virtue of the circumstances in which he or she had been born. An acute sense of injustice tore through me. Inequality is a concept that is easy to grasp. Inequality is an enormous global challenge that should be addressed by some larger body, some higher order, to which we could contribute little. But when inequality stares you in the eye in the form of a hundred shining eyes looking expectantly at you – each child with his or her own story, each child with his or her own aspirations – it leaves you debilitated and in indignation at the unnerving unfairness of the world in which we live.
 

It was the last day.

I wanted to wish each of them the very best. I wanted to reassure them that things would turn out fine in the end. I wanted to galvanise them to study hard and to pursue their dreams. I wanted to convince them that their dreams were within reach, however dire their circumstances might be. I wanted to hold their small hands along each step of the way, to prove the validity of my words. I wanted to accompany them through the various stages of their lives, to see them grow up, graduate, and strive for the things they believed in. I wanted to tell them that their future occupations need not be dictated by that of their parents. I wanted to impress upon them that they each had a voice of their own, which they should let resound brightly. I wanted to show them the world, and the myriad of roles that they could each play in it. I wanted to help them to believe in themselves, and in their futures before them.

I wanted to do all of that, and more.

Yet, I could not bring myself to tell them half-truths.

And so in my incapacity to tell them all that I wanted to, I bade them a feeble farewell. We spent the morning saying our goodbyes. Shoulders were patted. Hugs were exchanged. What we hoped not to be our final words were uttered. Photos were taken. Letters were presented. Handmade gifts were given. In the flurry of activity, we did not realise that it was time to leave. Our bags were already loaded onto the vehicles, waiting at the gate. At the teachers’ commands, the children quickly formed into two long lines with practiced ease.

This is it. I took a deep breath. My vision was blurred. I willed myself to inscribe every detail to memory. But all I could recall from that scene was the cacophony of goodbyes that resounded in the air, the snatches of tear-stained, flushed faces, and the little waving hands that disintegrated quickly from their neat rows into clusters of fluttering anemone.

And then, one final scene I would never forget: He Jun Jie – my dearest pupil from fifth grade – called out to me, running across the field towards me under the bluest of skies, holding in his outstretched hands a paper boat overflowing with paper animals and a folded letter.

As he emptied his hands to fill my cupped palms, I realised who had been the true beneficiary all this while.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Desire for Elsewhere.

Agnes Chew is the author of The Desire for Elsewhere, first published by Math Paper Press in 2016. Her writing has been published in Southeast Asia, the UK and the US. With a keen interest in socioeconomic issues, she has worked in public, international and nonprofit sectors. Born and raised in Singapore, Agnes has spent time in Vienna, London and Germany, where she is currently based.

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When I Owe You Things

We spend the morning swallowing far away. When you drive me to my mother’s your hands are like slow magic, shifting us from mile to mile. When I owe you things. But I don’t really say it. In the passenger seat I feel your heartbeat from the inside. We find the perfect house. We bend at the knees. Everything you say sounds like helium & clouds & what goes up. We bury chairs and lay towels on our side of the moon. You sleep on the loudest part of our secrets. I just want you to be happy & then be everything.

Amanda McIlveen is a 30-something mother of one from Hamilton, Ontario. She is the former owner and operator of Thunderclap! Press and is the author of I Crush You Like (22-5, 2017), You Sang It Back To Me (Mad Rush, 2013) and North of the Mason-Dixon Line (In/Words Press, 2005).

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Ars Poetica with Wind

Fistfuls of fur bloom beneath my feet. Every moment
of creation is preceded by a sloughing. What I mean is

once, while you closed your eyes, I bottled
the light smudged across our lips. It rolls around

my staircase, ready to splinter in times of crisis.

In this particular time of crisis, however, I turn
to the crafted woman straddling my heel, her cheeks leaking

crescents of glue, tissues thumbed out at her waist. I christen
her “Wind” and snake her beneath

my tongue like a remedy. When I raise my
chin, the other girls wilt

into the walls; they don’t know what
it’s like to keep excavating themselves

into artifacts. Meanwhile, “Wind” itches into my gums
like shrapnel. At home, I unwind her

like a silk scarf from my throat and perch her
on my wrist. There, mercy. Leaning us both

into the bathtub, I expect two boned wings, clutched
together by wire, to buoy up in our places. Instead,

my body revolves back to the surface, and I cry through
the hole crumpled into my hand.

Alexa Theofanidis is a writer based in Houston, Texas. Her work either appears or is forthcoming in Birdcoat Quarterly, perhappened mag, Lunch Ticket, Anti-Heroin Chic, and elsewhere. Currently, she reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal and serves as the co-Editor-in-Chief of her school’s literary journal Imagination.

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