Category Archives: Issue 2.1 Spring 2013

Issue 2.1 Spring 2013

Aron Wiesenfeld

 

Spotlight on Artist: Aron Wiesenfeld

Wedding Party
Wedding Party

 

 

GreenhouseBio:

After attending Cooper Union School of Art in New York, Aron Wiesenfeld had a five year career as a comic book artist.  He returned to school in 1997 and earned a BA in art from Art Center College of Design.  Since then his drawings and paintings has been in five solo shows, including a retrospective at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in 2010.  His work has been in numerous group exhibitions in the US and Europe, and has been featured in books and magazines internationally.

 

MarchArtist Statement: 
I find inspiration in a lot of places, and I try to keep my eyes open as much as possible.  I don’t set out with a specific agenda for what I want to achieve in my work because I really enjoy just following my impulses, seeing where they lead, and trying to surprise myself.  I think good images are loaded with potential stories, emotions, and places. (Art Title: “March”)

The people in my work are often engaged in coming-of-age rituals.  Some are institutional: weddings, first communions, quinceaneras.  Others are more personal, and harder to define.  The key ingredients of those are solitude and a desperate internal need to distinguish or define oneself.  Like many examples from history and literature, like the shaman’s journey or the Arthurian quest, he or she tests herself on the anvil of a hostile environment, mirroring the internal struggle that is at the heart of it. 

 

The GardenWebsite:
www.aronwiesenfeld.com

Image info:
“The Garden” oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, 2012

“Greenhouse” oil on canvas, 33 x 30.5 inches, 2012

“March” oil on canvas, 21 x 17 inches, 2011

“Wedding Party”, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 inches, 2011

Lidia Kosk

Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka & Lidia
Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka and Lidia Kosk

Lidia Kosk is the author of ten books of poetry and short stories, including two bilingual volumes, Niedosyt/Reshapings and  Slodka woda, slona woda/Sweet Water, Salt Water, as well as a poetry anthology that she compiled and edited. Her poems and prose have been published in literary journals and anthologies in Poland and in the U.S. English translations of her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including anthologies such as Contemporary Writers of Poland; September Eleven: Maryland Voices Anthology; Against Agamemnon: War Poetry 2009; and literary magazines such as Passager, Loch Raven Review, The Fourth River, The Gunpowder Review, The Dirty Goat, and International Poetry Review. They have also been broadcast in a weekly program of Polish Radio. In addition, she collaborated with her late husband, Henryk P. Kosk, on the two-volume Poland’s Generals: A Popular Biographical Lexicon, published 1998-2001.She resides in Warsaw, Poland, where she is helping to spread a renaissance of oral-history performance, and she presently leads literary workshops and a Poets’ Theater.

 

Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka (translator) writes in two languages, English and Polish. Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies in the U.S. and Europe. She is the translator for two bilingual poetry books by Lidia Kosk: niedosyt/reshapings and Slodka woda, slona woda/ Sweet Water, Salt Water. Her translations of poems by three Maryland Poets Laureate – Lucille Clifton, Josephine Jacobsen, and Linda Pastan – have been published in Poland; her translations of poems by Lidia Kosk, Ernest Bryll, and Wislawa Szymborska  have appeared in over 50 publications in the U.S. A scientist, poet, writer, poetry  translator, photographer, and co-editor of the literary journal Loch Raven Review, she resides in Maryland, U.S. 

 

Both poets were featured recently by Baltimore’s WYPR in a radio interview with Aaron Henkin: Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka in the studio and Lidia Kosk by phone from Warsaw.  The interview included some of Ms. Kosk’s poems read in Polish (L.K.) and English (D.E.K.K). The link is http://www.wypr.org/category/podcast-keywords/lidia-kosk

 

“The Moon Above the Wild Apple Tree”  The moon has various connotations in Polish culture, including a legend that placed one Mr. Twardowski, the hero of a ballad by the great Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, living on the moon. But this poem does not mention Mr. Twardowski. Rather, the one who seems to inhabit the moon is Lidia Kosk’s lifetime companion, her husband, with whom for decades she watched the moon from the balcony of their Warsaw apartment, in its various phases, kinds of weather, and moods. Even on the moon, he remains the companion who has always needed her presence and whose presence she feels.

 

The Moon Above the Wild Apple Tree  

by Lidia Kosk (translated by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka)

Suddenly I find you
peeking into the apartment’s windows—
the moon
suspended above the wild apple tree

you reside on the moon
whose growing and fading
we used to follow
from our balcony

but this cold glare—
I search for the warmth of your eyes
of when you stood beside me
in the dazzle of the full moon

today in its next phase
with a hazy ring predicting bad weather
the moon glances uncertainly
from the depth of secret shadows

you did not hide deeply                            
you had no liking for
rocky craters, waterless deserts
and you needed my presence.

 

Lidia Kosk_poem

 

Issue 2.1 Spring 2013

Click on the author’s name to read their work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

"Yellow Trailer Wonder Valley, CA" Art by Deborah Martin.
“Yellow Trailer Wonder Valley, CA” Art by Deborah Martin.

 

"Missing Jacques" Art by Candace Fasano.
“Missing Jacques” Art by Candace Fasano.

 

"The Birds" Art by Christopher Woods.
“The Birds” Art by Christopher Woods.

Poetry:

Allen Braden | Anniversary Card
Carol Hebald | Winter Dawn
Esther Altshul Helfgott | Pantoum For Uncle Izzy
Paul Hostovsky | Poem
Barbara F. Lefcowitz | Golden Eyes
Kelly McQuain | Strawberries, Limoncello, Water Ice, Passing Time
George Moore | Fast As Saint Ignatius
Elisabeth Murawski | That’s Life
Martin Ott | Bandits | Refrain
Linda Pastan | Like A Bird | Legacies
Barry Seiler | Yarhrzeit
Elaine Terranova | Stairway
Arnie Weingart | The Rothko Chapel
Changming Yuan | Y

Fiction:

Elizabeth Edelglass | Family Circle
Abbigail N. Rosewood | The Ones We Keep
Annaliese Wagner | How To Jump Rope

Nonfiction:

Karen Donley-Hayes | Hens On A Porch
Jennifer Maritza McCauley | Home Ghosts
Joan Moritz | Penguins In Flight
Renée K. Nicholson | Coda: Partnering
Gary Presley | Knife
Enid Shomer | Small

Artist Spotlight:

Aron Wisenfeld

Translations:

Rosa Alice Branco | The Girls Were Lovely Lithe | The Men’s Hands Would Graze
**Alexis Levitin
Lidia Kosk | The Moon Above The Wild Apple Tree
**Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka
Maria Teresa Ogliastri | To Be Empress | Alfalfa Sprouts
**Yvette Neisser Moreno
**Patricia Bejarano Fisher
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe | Third Roman Elegy
**Brett Ortler

 

** Indicates translators

Rosa Alice Branco

Translator’s Note on Rosa Alice Branco’s Work:

My task is to keep things unencumbered, as lithe and simple as possible.  Poem #10 is simply about the discovery of adolescent sexuality through a quiet observation of others. That eventually the girls may have to pay a price for this natural and unpremeditated activity is only vaguely hinted at by the phrase “never quite made it back.” In poem # 29, again a child is observing teenagers going off in pairs “to make nests here and there.” The suggestion that all this reveals our animal nature is made clear by the juxtaposition of the girl’s breasts “bouncing from her blouse filled with heat” and the immediate counterpoint of “The pig was grunting in the sty. /There was a smell of hay.” Rosa Alice Branco sees all this sexual activity as natural, but also as rather ominous, since in the end it will be the girls who have to pay for the animal pleasure they shared with the boys.

 

Rose Alice BrancoRosa Alice Branco’s most recent collections are Cattle of the Lord (winner of the Espiral Poetry Prize of 15,000 Euros for 2009), The World Does Not End in the Cold of Your Bones (she tells herself) (2010-2011), and Live Concert (2012). Her books have appeared in Spain, Tunisia, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Brazil, Venezuela, and Francophone Canada. Here in the U.S. her work has appeared in over thirty magazines, including Atlanta Review, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner and The New England Review.

 

Alexis Levitin’s (translator) thirty-two books include Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugenio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words (both from New Directions). Recent publications include Tapestry of the Sun: An Anthology of Ecuadorian Poetry, co-translated with Fernando Iturburu (Coimbra Editions, 2009), Brazil: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2010), and Blood of the Sun by Brazil’s Salgado Maranhao (Milkweed Editions, 2012).  Alexis Levitin translates Rosa Alice Branco from Portuguese.

 

10. The girls were lovely lithe

The girls were lovely lithe.
They went to the spring for water
with their earthenware jars and not even that weight
lessened the elegance of their haughty necks.

Quick as they could, the boys went after them,
and the water, the girls and the boys
never quite made it back

They must all have died of thirst

 

29. The men’s hands would graze

The men’s hands would graze
their skirts, their cunning breasts,
and everything would make them laugh.

Between gazes
they would  wander off a bit,
going away in pairs
to make nests here and there.
But I still could see the breasts of one of them
bouncing from her blouse filled with heat.
The pig was grunting in the sty.
There was a smell of hay.

It was night
and I an invisible little girl.

 

10.

Eram esguias as raparigas.
Iam buscar água à fonte
em bilhas de barro e nem o peso
diminua a elegância do pescoço altivo.

Mal podiam, os rapazes iam ter com elas,
mas a água, as raparigas e eles
nunca mais chegavam.

Devem ter morrido de sede

 

29.

As mãos dos homens roçavam-lhes
a saia, o peito matreiro
e tudo as fazia rir.

Entre olhares
afastavam-se um pouco,
iam indo aos pares
e criavam ninho mais além.
Mas ainda vi o peito de uma
a saltar da blusa cheio de calor.
O porco grunhia no curral.
Cheirava a feno.

Era noite
e eu uma miúda invisível

 

Maria Teresa Ogliastri

Translator’s Note on Maria Teresa Ogliastri’s work:
From the Diary of Madame Mao is a poetic journey into the heart and mind of Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, who is known for her pivotal role in China’s Cultural Revolution. The 48 poems in the book are written in Jiang’s voice and represent, in the author’s words, “fragments of memory recorded in an imaginary journal tossed long ago in a forgotten corner somewhere … [whose] pages fly with the wind and fall into the hands of the poet.” Some poems evoke intimate moments in Jiang’s life, some revolve around historical events, and others reflect on Chinese society.

 

OgliastriMaria Teresa Ogliastri was born in Los Teques, Venezuela, and lives in Caracas. She is the author of five collections of poems: Del diario de la Señora Mao (From the Diary of Mme. Mao2011), Polo Sur (2008), Brotes de Alfalfa (Alfalfa Sprouts, 2007), Nosotros los inmortales (We, the Immortals, 1997) and Cola de Plata (Silver Tail, 1994). Polo Sur was translated into English and published in a bilingual edition, South Pole/Polo Sur, in 2011. Ogliastri has been featured at poetry festivals throughout Latin America, and her poems have been selected for publication in several anthologies of contemporary Venezuelan poetry. The selection here is from From The Diary of Madame Mao.

 

Yvette N. MorenoYvette Neisser Moreno’s (translator) first book of poetry, Grip, won the 2011 Gival Press Poetry Award, and in 2012 she was the first runner-up for the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. Moreno is co-translator of South Pole/Polo Sur by María Teresa Ogliastri (Settlement House, 2011) and editor of Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2009). She is the founder of the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT) and serves on the Program Committee of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. With a specialization in the Middle East, she has worked as an international program coordinator, writer, editor, and translator, and has taught at The George Washington University, Catholic University, The Writer’s Center, and elsewhere.

 

Patricia B. FischerPatricia Bejarano Fisher (translator) is a multidisciplinary language professional who has worked as a translator, teacher, and learning materials developer in both government and academia. She was born and raised in Colombia and has lived in the United States for the past 30 years. She began her poetry translation career in 2007. Her co-translation of Venezuelan poet Maria Teresa Ogliastri’s South Pole/Polo Sur was published in 2011 and her work has appeared in several poetry journals. 

 

To Be Empress

To be empress
the jade seal
wasn’t enough
nor raveling our scales
on the imperial bed
I needed an armor of rock
the heart of a lizard
and to swallow things whole

but the taller the tree
the longer its shadow

when you live so close to danger
you must prepare your grave
with bear skins
terracotta soldiers
and jade amulets

when you live so close to danger
you must learn the way
to the Spirit Path
and hope for mercy from the gods

when you live so close to danger
you must not take shelter
in the tree’s shadow

 

Alfalfa Sprouts

My mother was made of bamboo
whenever the breeze moved her skirt
I saw the marks on her thin legs

my father would grab her willowy waist
and shake her like a stringless marionette

the last concubine
would do all the housework
if she didn’t have a son

my mother’s feet were a wheelbarrow
going going going
never tiring

I remember her sprawled on the grass
by the small pond
where the ducks always swam

with a porcelain jug I’d draw water
then go over to where she lay
and sprinkle every toe
every alfalfa sprout

that was the only time I saw her smile
it is my oldest memory of love

 

 

Para ser emperatriz

Para ser emperatriz
no bastaba
el sello de jade
ni entrelazar las escamas
en el lecho imperial
necesitaba una armadura de piedra
un corazón de lagarto
y engullir entero
pero cuanto más alto es el árbol
más larga es su sombra
cuando se vive tan cerca del peligro
debemos arreglar la tumba
con pieles de osos
soldados de terracota
y amuletos de jade
cuando se vive tan cerca del peligro
debemos conocer el camino
a la Vía de los Espíritus
y esperar la bondad de los dioses
cuando se vive tan cerca del peligro
la sombra del árbol
no debe arroparnos

Brotes de alfalfa
Mi madre era de bambú
cuando la brisa movía su falda
veía las marcas en sus piernas delgadas
mi padre  tomaba la cintura de sauce
y la zarandeaba como una marioneta sin hilos
la última concubina
haría todo el trabajo de la casa
si no tenía un hijo varón
los pies de mi madre eran una carreta
andaban      andaban     andaban
sin cansarse
la recuerdo tumbada en la hierba
cerca de la pequeña alberca
donde nadaban los patos
con una jarrita de porcelana recogía agua
y me acercaba hasta donde ella estaba
para regar cada dedo
cada brote de alfalfa
fue la única vez que la vi sonreír
ese es el recuerdo más antiguo que tengo del amor

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translator’s Note on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Work:

I’ve long admired Goethe’s work, but I’ve been always been struck by his Roman Elegies, perhaps Goethe’s most controversial work. In German they are known as Erotica Romana, and their publication was suppressed until after Goethe’s death. Given their often racy subject matter (and Western culture’s obsession with all things sexual), they seem particularly well-suited for translation in modern American idiom.

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Over the course of his lifetime, he produced some of the finest literature in the German language—and any language. His well-known works include Faust, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice and The Sorrows of Young Werther, and he produced a number of autobiographical works, including From My Life: Poetry and Truth and Italian Journey. A polymath, Goethe also produced several scientific works, including his influential Theory of Colors. He died in Weimar in 1824.

 

Brett OrtlerBrett Ortler (translator) is cofounder and coeditor of Knockout Literary Magazine and writes rather random letters at www.brettsletters.com. His work appears widely in print and online. He lives in the Twin Cities and works as an editor at Adventure Publications.

 

 

Goethe’s Third Roman Elegy

Look, don’t regret falling for me so quickly,
Believe this: I don’t think you’re cheap; I don’t think you’re easy.
Love’s arrows work in many ways: some only scratch
but sicken the heart for years with creeping poison.
Others, powerfully feathered, with fresh-ground tips,
go straight to the bone and the blood burns.
In ancient times, when gods and goddesses loved,
lust followed vision, pleasure followed desire.
Do you think that Aphrodite was really thinking about love
when she saw Anchises for the first time?
Had Luna delayed to kiss her beautiful sleeper,
Endymion would have awoken to a dawn full of jealousy.
Hero saw Leander at a festival, but soon his warm body fell into the evening flood.
Rhea Silvia wandered, a vestal virgin, to fetch water from the Tiber.
The god seized her—this is how gods make love.
Her twins drank from a wolf, and Rome calls itself the princess of the world.

 

Original German:

Laß dich, Geliebte, nicht reun, daß du mir so schnell dich ergeben!
Glaub es, ich denke nicht frech, denke nicht niedrig von dir.
Vielfach wirken die Pfeile des Amors: einige ritzen,
Und vom schleichenden Gift kranket auf Jahre das Herz.
Aber mächtig befiedert, mit frisch geschliffener Schärfe
Dringen die andern ins Mark, zünden behende das Blut.
In der heroischen Zeit, da Götter und Göttinnen liebten,
Folgte Begierde dem Blick, folgte Genuß der Begier.
Glaubst du, es habe sich lang die Göttin der Liebe besonnen,
Als im Idäischen Hain einst ihr Anchises gefiel?
Hätte Luna gesäumt, den schönen Schläfer zu küssen,
O, so hätt ihn geschwind, neidend, Aurora geweckt.
Hero erblickte Leandern am lauten Fest, und behende
Stürzte der Liebende sich heiß in die nächtliche Flut.
Rhea Silvia wandert, die fürstliche Jungfrau, den Tiber,
Wasser zu schöpfen, hinab, und sie ergreifet der Gott.
So erzeugte die Söhne sich Mars! – Die Zwillinge tränket
Eine Wölfin, und Rom nennt sich die Fürstin der Welt.

Kelly McQuain

Kelly McQuainKelly McQuain grew up surrounded by West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. His poems have been featured on National Public Radio and in such journals as The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Mead, Paper Nautilus, Assaracus, Bloom and Kin. Recently Stone Highway Review nominated his poem “Annabelle” for a Pushcart Prize. His prose has appeared in Icarus, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly and over a dozen anthologies including Skin & Ink, Rebel Yell, Men on Men and Best American Erotica. He writes columns on city life for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Learn more at www.KellyMcQuain.wordpress.com

 

Strawberries, Limoncello, Water Ice, Passing Time

You bring home Italian Market strawberries
so ripe they’ll be ruined if we don’t eat them today.

So after dinner I wash, core and halve them
as you water plants off the deck, the last of the sunlight

purpling the sky. I drop the strawberries into a bowl
over lemon water ice, add a shot of limoncello from a bottle

given us last Christmas, carry the bowl and two spoons
up to our bedroom, trying not to dig in before you join me

for a movie. But I can’t; it’s too good, so sugary, so cold,
while the day’s been so hot we ate dinner without shirts.

I can taste fresh lemon peel in the homemade limoncello
as if Christmas were yesterday, not half a year ago.

I pluck a strawberry from the bowl and study it close
as the water shuts off and you curl away the hose.

Such scarlet skin, so many tiny seeds, every one a wonder.
My fingers redden with juice, become sticky-sweet with water ice.

When you come in I pop the strawberry in my mouth
like a guilty child as I think of a sunburn long ago,

how you rubbed my skin aloe-cool, and then
rubbed me again, stirring blood, ripening stamen

until I seeded red skin and took safety in the false comfort
this world made time enough for everything.

Our bed creaks as you crawl in. You fluff your pillow;
I spoon you water ice and a strawberry half,

the white V within the red, this moment a quiet victory.
A drip hits my chest and you tongue it away.

What flavor is inside ourselves?
Sweetness, surely, the way you lap at my heart—

like strawberries, limoncello, water ice, passing time.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She is presently working toward an MFA as a Knight Fellow in Fiction at Florida International University. She has won FIU’s Graduate Literary Award for creative non-fiction and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers. She has contributed to The Florida Book Review, Miami’s WLRN.org, Gulf Stream Magazine and Daily Love.com. Her most recent work will appear in First Inkling Magazine. McCauley currently works as an intern for The Florida Center for the Literary Arts.

 

Home Ghosts

Daddy Ghosts

Three days after my eighteenth birthday, Horacio Costa returned to my mother Ida in a dream. My grandfather haunted the Costa family, sometimes. Horacio’s ghost would return on the holidays—perhaps a Three Kings Day or Easter Eve– and snatch open Aunt Nela’s pantry door. He slept, wheezing, beside my mother’s footboard until her wedding day. On some choice nights, Horacio would press his blood-wet forehead against Abuela’s lips and whisper, “Te culpo. Te amo.”  The Costas don’t sniff at his spirit.

The morning after the dream, Mom slogged down the stairs, murmured slivers of sentences, and joined me at the breakfast table. I didn’t notice her immediately. I was preoccupied with the pleasantness of the May morning. Sweet, sun-dusted winds shuffled in through the window above the sink. White-yellow light soaked the kitchen, brightening the caramel of our cabinet doors. I layered the belly of my biscuit with butter and flipped through a Time magazine. I swallowed a tongueful of hibiscus tea and peered up at my mother.

Her eyes were China doll-wide, her mouth wrenched down. Her ink-black hair was uncombed and wooly at the ends. I watched her dip two onion-colored fingers into a Vaseline container. She slathered the jelly on her chin, her forehead, the space below her eyes.

“Are you all right?” I asked. “You seem off. A lot.”

Mom twisted her body to the left, checking for my father. She turned back to me. “I need to go back to New Britain. Will you book the trip for me?”

“Are you… serious?” I nearly knocked over my mug in surprise. “Why now?”

My mother’s eyes flashed. The truth came next. She hadn’t slept well, she said. She dreamed her father was a shadow-man. He skittered about through the streets of New Britain, without ankles, without his rosy-brown feet. He wept, called out to my mother in Spanish. Idie, do you still love your Papi? Regresa a mi, mija. (Come back to me, my daughter).The dream repeated again three times that night. A terrible sign, Mom claimed.

“I haven’t had these dreams since I was in college.” My mother continued, “Your grandma saw something too, last week. My father’s ghost snuck up on her while she was reading and said, ‘I’ll see you soon.’”

My mother wasn’t a superstitious woman; I never thought she’d take a dream so seriously.  I assumed all the ghost-talk of the last few years was just old Santeria beliefs re-emerging.

“Jennie, will you come with me?”

Of course, I would join her. I’d heard wonderful stories of New Britain throughout my childhood, but I’d never flown up to the Connecticut town. Although most of my mother’s family still leased apartments in New Britain, Mom rarely visited. My mother left New Britain at seventeen, the year she graduated from high school, the year Horacio’s skull cracked open. When she returned home for college breaks, Ida was greeted with her mother’s growing insanity. Grandma Elisa would slam loaded guns on the table after supper and scream, “Remember your father!” She ripped apart my mother’s graduate school papers and slit the soft throat of Mom’s pet rabbit. She threatened to disown my mother for dating my father, a black medical student. Grandma sobbed, “If you stay with that negro, you’ll lose us! We won’t forgive you!” During these summers, Grandma insisted my mother sleep beside her in the same bed Grandma shared with Horacio. The two Puerto Rican women would lie sweaty and awake, listening to Horacio ruffle the curtains until sunrise.

After my mother married, she cut herself off from New Britain. She grew weary of Elisa’s venom, the prying neighbors, and the mournful wails of ghosts in the walls. Even her most joyful teenage memories of the town were overshadowed by one, powerful event. In my mother’s eyes, the town was drenched in Horacio Costa’s blood.

“Well…I mean, when do you want to go?” I managed to say.

“Are you free next weekend?”

Bienvenidos

Ida and Jennie, Costa-McCauley Family! Bienvenidos (Welcome)!

A cardboard sign with our names jerked up and down over a tide of multi-colored heads.

“Hey, Mom. One of your relatives has a sign for us!” I yelled behind me, butting shoulders with another happy patron of the Bradley International Airport.

Mami grabbed my arm and shouted back, “That’s Eto! He’s one of your relatives too, Jennifer! My aunt’s son!”

My mother and I weaved through the airport crowd: teenagers with circus-ring earrings, Latino men with blonde suits and toothpicks betwixt their teeth, white women with piled-high coifs.

My grand-aunt’s son, Eloy or “Eto” awaited us at baggage claim, jigging his hips and waving the neon sign. He looked thirty-ish, his skin the color of burned flatbread, his tight curls greased flat on his scalp. A too-large Nike jersey engulfed his long frame and a faux gold bracelet gripped his wrist. One earbud protruded from his left ear, reggaeton music dribbling from the speaker. He glanced up and noticed my mother.

“Ida!” He flung the sign to the floor, rushing forward and embracing Mom. He lifted her up in the air, rocked her back, and forth. She howled, “Eto!” and giggled like a little girl. When he released her, her face was hot-red, aglow.

“Eloy, Eloy! You’re a man! When did I see you last? What happened to my little Eto?”

Eloy laughed. “Ay, time and food got to me. It’s wonderful to see you, Senora.” He kissed her cheek and glimpsed back at me. “That’s the daughter, eh?” 

He approached me for a hug, and I tensed my biceps. I wasn’t good with introductions, as usual. In addition, this bronzed man greeted me as family, but he didn’t feel like family. His facial features were wider, plumper than my mother’s, his skin four shades lighter than my father’s. He spoke with a clipped drawl, a diluted street accent. Eto didn’t remind me of anybody I knew. I forgot to extend my arms at the proper time and Eto ended up embracing my shoulders, awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.” I mumbled, blushing. Eloy stepped back and punched my shoulder. “Look at you, girl. All nervous. How old are you, nena? Fourteen? Fifteen?” I didn’t respond. I was eighteen, but too embarrassed to correct him.

Eloy turned to my mother, “All right. You guys should get some food. My mom and Grandma Elisa might have some leftovers. They made ceviche last night.” He fluttered his fingers at me. “Does this little gringa know what ceviche is?”

I answered for myself, “I mean I do…when I was in Puerto Rico I-.” 

“No. We didn’t eat it there.” My mom cut me off me, chuckling. “Our Jennie’s very American.” 

I shrugged off her comment. When we visited Puerto Rico two years before, my American-ness was apparent, blinding. My draw to New Britain was in part to support my mother, in part to study her natural environment.

Eloy pumped his fist. “Okay, my little ladies. Vacation time!”

My mother’s narrowed her eyes, grimly. “No. It’s not a vacation for me, Etocito.”

Backwards

Eto packed us into his old ‘98 Honda and roared down I-91, south of the airport. Mom sat next to me in the backseat, her shoulder pressed closed to mine.

“Thirty minutes to go.” Eto said brightly, “The distance from Hartford to New Britian is like thirty minutes, tops. You guys excited?” 

“I am, definitely,” I said, glancing at my mother. She didn’t respond to Eto. She gripped my fingers tightly. I squeezed her hand.

 I was anxious. To help Mom through her process, however, I masked my feelings with big-toothed smiles and an “I got this” tone. I knew I was in the mother-role for this trip. Mom was weaker in her thinking now, and she looked to me for support, for a steady hand. I reassured her throughout the plane ride, “You’ll be fine. This is good for you.” She said, “Yes, yes”, and swallowed a butter cracker whole. Still, as Eto’s Honda cleared the Waterbury exit, a bolt of fear sizzled through my wrists. My mother was in New Britain to say goodbye to a ghost.

I leaned against the headrest and fell asleep to the sound of Eto’s high, sing-song voice. When we reached New Britain, my mother slapped my shoulder.

“We just passed the welcome sign. We’re entering downtown,” She said hoarsely.

I turned to the town. Sunlight splattered through the open car window, staining our jeans, our blouses. We passed Cape Cod-style homes with steep, amber roofs. One-floor cottages sat snuggly next to saltbox-style homes, homes made of bleached wood. Eto swerved by City Hall, a Venetian, brick, and brownstone building. Down N.E. Street stood the Anvil bank, a Romanesque limestone structure with brass quatrefoils and gothic two-bay windows. My mother ignored the historical buildings. She pointed to the ITT tech headquarters, the Bank of America tower, the McDonalds. 

“Jesus. What happened here?” Mom said, “It’s ruined.”

I didn’t think the area was ‘ruined’. While Pittsburgh was blackened with soot, iron-dust and bold industrialism, New Britain seemed fresh, quaint, picturesque. To me, the corporate buildings were like friendly visitors, not trespassers at all. 

Eto slowed down as he navigated his way through downtown. The main square was flanked by winterberry bushes, a rough-cut granite church and the New Britain Public Library.

“Ah, Jennie! This was my place!” My mother pressed her nose to the glass. The Library was a modest, gray structure, with rope moldings twisting around arched windows. I tried to imagine my mother as a child, skipping up the short flight of steps, pausing between the library’s long, fluted columns. I couldn’t. For so long I thought, irrationally, selfishly, that my mother’s life began when I was born.

“Can we take the Lafayette way to the house? I want to show Jennie the Puerto Rican street.”

Eloy cocked an eyebrow and twisted his mouth. “You sure you want to start the trip off that way?”

“Ay, come on! Let’s go, let’s go, Etocito!”

Eto obeyed. He took a left on N.E. 7th street to Lafayette. The atmosphere shifted dramatically. We were two streets away from downtown and the historical, carefully-crafted structures had already vanished. The New England-style homes were replaced with dirt-spotted Chinese buffets, a Dollar Mart with barred windows, and a check cashing store with graffiti scrawled across the glass doors. The streets were vacant, save for two jibaros (Puerto Rican country people) smoking and guffawing, and a young Latina proudly combing her cherry weave. In the alley between a store labeled MATTRESS and another labeled Rainbow, a man lay across the top of an old gray Chevy. He wore no shirt, his spongy belly exposed and sucking in sun. When the Latina passed, he wrenched his neck up, following her with dark, watchful eyes. He mouthed, “Ai, puta (bitch)! Give me some of you!”

We passed an alley, and I immediately smelled the dense piquancy of pot. My mother’s face darkened. I rolled up the window, embarrassed for her.

Mom sighed through her nose. “All the Puerto Ricans used to be down here. It was wonderful when I was younger. We had lovely shops, so many bodegas. This is the street where my father owned his restaurant.  Palomos. They’d turn it into a nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays. Everybody would go to Palomos for his sancocho (traditional Latino soup with meat) on Tuesday night. Seeing the way this all looks now, it’s disheartening.”

I agreed. As a child, my mother would tell me only good things about Lafayette. The dancing, the cuisine, the panderias, and poker matches. I always imagined Lafayette as a Puerto Rican magic land, like the neighborhoods from The Wonderful Ice Cream-Suit. I opened my mouth to comfort my mother, but I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.

“The Mexicans came in and fucked up everything.” Eto said apologetically, as if the Mexicans alone could be blamed for my grandfather’s death, and the deterioration of the street. “There are turf wars. People are selling hard drugs, soft drugs. Man, I got in a fight with this one cholo cat, damn, I’ll tell you. Made up some lies ‘bout me. ” My cousin told a brief story about a Mexican man who betrayed him, who told the cops he sold bad weed. “This is a small town, so any little crime makes the paper. They had my face on the front page of the Times. My mom was really ashamed.”

“That’s terrible.” My mother shook her head. She sympathized with Eto, but from her expression I could tell her mind was swimming about in the 1960s. She was trotting down Lafayette in canary lace. Mothers were greeting mothers as they bustled home with bagfuls of batatas (sweet potatoes) and plantains. An old man with bent knees and baby-soft hair hollered at a teenage boy, “Oye! A lo meno tu eres joven!” (“At least you’re young!”).  She was skipping into her father’s restaurant, the air thick with the scent of brining chicken and peppery hot pork. Her father bellowed into the smoke, “Ay! Idie! When you settle in, get table four, eh?” He always played the same song on his jukebox at 4pm. Some Guayanilla countryman crooned, “Un cigarillo y un café ‘; para olividar a mi amor.” (“A cigarette and a coffee to forget my love.”)

“Can we stop here?” Mom asked. We’d reached the end of Park Street, two lights down from Lafayette. Eto, our ever complaint tour guide, slid to a stop. 

Ay Maria!” He laughed, “Aren’t you guys hungry? Everyone’s waiting for you.”

“Eh, Eloy, Etocito just give me a second…” My mom grunted. “Stop here.”

Eto pulled over in front of a four story, red-brick tenement. My mother remained in the car for a few moments, holding her breath. She said:

“This is the last place my family lived before I went to college.” The translation: This is exactly where my father died.

My mother pushed open the Honda door, and I followed her outside. Eto stayed behind, sensing he wasn’t required for this part of the trip. My mother and I lingered on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building as if it were some Baroque painting. An iron, once-white fence hugged the structure. The windows on the topmost floor were drenched in black paint. A lawn with anorexic, yellowed blades of grass cowered miserably behind the fence.

“I don’t think we can get in.” I said, “Pretty sure the place is locked.”

“Oh I know…” My mother led me by the wrist into an alley adjacent to the building. I craned my neck to make sure Eto was watching us. He was. At this point, I was sort-of certain Eto could “go thug” if need be.  My mother paused at the mouth of the alley and smiled. “We used to hang our clothes outside, here. They had lines out set up then.” She stretched her neck up and scanned the left face of the apartment complex. Dark, engorged vines twisted up the crimson wall, curling around the window frames.

“The third window from the left. That was our living room. Your grandmother says Papi’s spirit returns to that room sometimes.”

She’d never called him Papi around me before. I looked back at my mother, ugly, jagged feelings rattling about in my body. Her face was plaintive yet angelic, her mouth still.  Was it blasphemous to think, for a moment, that my grandfather was a demon, not just a ghost? Only a spirit from hell could damage my mother so terribly. What father would haunt and ruin his own soft-hearted daughter? Was I selfish to want my mother to remember me more than him?

What Happened

I know how my grandfather died.

Horacio Costa’s skull split in his living room, thirty-four years ago. He passed on a Sunday evening, on his favorite day of the week. Each Sunday the Costas would host a gathering for neighborhood friends and family members. Horacio would cook up large pots of asapo de pollo, of funche, and sticky mofongo (fried plantain-based dish from Puerto Rico), perhaps a sugar-dusted loaf of pan de aqua (water bread) if he were in the mood. New Britain Boriquas (Puerto Ricans) would saunter about the living room, standing with their plates, picking at rice, waving forks as they choked out the gossip of the week. My mother usually stayed in the kitchen, to tend to the food. Now that her brother was off to college, and her sister’s belly expanded, Mom’s job was to sweep up the floors and scrub down the plates. On that particular night, my grandfather was trading stories with Ricardo, a young policeman with a brusque voice and a shadow of a mustache. Horacio leaned back into the recliner, sitting a skinny man’s sit, with his legs open and hips angled sideways. He shook his head, tugged his lips downward. He was routinely unhappy, Mom told me. Horacio stuffed his darkness underneath wide grins and warm, savory food.

Sometimes my grandparents fought.

Horacio’s wife Elisa stood in the corner, her arms folded. My grandmother mouthed “look at you, perezoso (Lazy). Lazy ass!” to her husband, and then repeated the phrase for friends to hear. Apparently, Horacio hadn’t given Elisa enough attention at another gathering the night before, and she felt embarrassed. Horacio ignored his wife. He pointed at the gun fastened to the young man’s holster.

“Ay, is that loaded?”

“Nah, man.” Ricardo smiled. He puffed out his thin chest-bones. “But I mean, I’ve used it. Obviously.”

“No shit…” Horacio said, impressed. Ricardo beamed. He lifted the Ruger single-six and handed the gun to my grandfather. Ricardo said, “I know you’ve been looking at it. I saw you.”

Horacio whistled, weighing the weapon with his hands. “Jesus.”

My grandmother called out, too loudly, over the music, “Horacio! Looks like Ricardo’s giving you an idea!”

My grandfather glowered at Elisa, a dark line creasing his forehead. He lifted the single-six and pressed the chilly steel to his temple. “Oh, like this you mean? You think this is a good idea?”

A few family members clapped and whistled. My seventeen year old mother appeared in the doorway, a plate of biscuits in her hands. She wandered over to Elisa.

“Why is Papi playing around like that?” She turned to her father, “Oye! Papi! You’re not funny. I’m not laughing.”

Her father smirked. “Hey, your Mami wants me gone. Whatever she wants goes, eh? You want me gone too, Idie? You want me to pull the trigger?”

My mother bit her lip and said, “Whatever. You wouldn’t do it, Papi.”

“Let him do it!” My grandmother said, “One less bastard in the world!”

Horacio’s head exploded. Bits of brain and blood splattered on my mother’s shoes, a chunk of cranium smacked against the wall behind Horacio with a wet thud.

Ricardo was wrong. The gun was loaded, had one bullet left.

Everyone screeched then vacated. Ricardo too. He fled, to report the incident to the police and save his ass. Elisa ran too, somewhere, in fear.

My mother remained, clutching the biscuit tray.

***

I learned the truth about my grandfather two years before our trip to New Britain. The story came randomly, organically, while my father was away on business. I remember not speaking after my mother finished; I remember wrapping my arms around her. I remember feeling, selfishly, that this woman was an imposter. A woman with this sort of history was a miserable, dreary person. Not my mother.

After Papi died, I always felt un-whole. Mom told me, Like I couldn’t love the whole way. Your father always said I was a dark woman on the inside. I tried to fight that darkness, for you, if anything. I didn’t want you to see me miserable.

On that May evening, I watched my mother. Her eyelids fell halfway, she lowered her head.  Where was she? Was she reliving that day…should she? Panic pricked my throat and I swallowed it down.  At that moment, the fiery Ida Costa Barry transformed into a damaged girl from New Britain, a girl who spent her entire life pushing down her past. I feared Horacio’s ghost.

Was his spirit circling us now? What could I do, if anything? Would he take away my lovely mother, my mother?

The Grave

We skipped dinner to see the gravestone. Mom wanted to speak to my grandfather first, before she visited my grandmother and cousins. “I want to get the hard part over,” she explained, as Eto rumbled up Walnut Hill. We passed a forest of coppice drenched in mist; we inhaled the honey perfume and apricot blossoms of the Walnut Hill flower garden. The sun crumbled behind a coral-colored skyline.

Eto waited by the gates of St. Mary’s Cemetery. My mother and I thanked him, exited the car, and padded across patches of sweating grass, up a slope of upright headstones.

My grandfather didn’t have a headstone. His memory was immortalized by a foot-length “flat” near the back of the graveyard, one white square amongst hundreds of others.

My mother kneeled to the ground and tucked her legs underneath her behind. She brushed the filth from the stone, tenderly.

She said, “Hey, Papi.” Mom closed her eyes and mumbled in Spanish, too quickly. I couldn’t understand her.

I stepped back and wiped my face. I didn’t belong here. I didn’t know Horacio. To me, he was decayed bone, fistfuls of dirt underneath a stone.

 I kneeled down a respectable distance away from my mother. I faced Horacio’s grave and prayed.

Bless you, Abuelo. Give my mother happiness. Remember, she’s not just your daughter. She’s mine too.

When I looked up, my mother was staring at my nose. She rose to her feet, dusted off her knees. “I have to get some flowers. Bring them here tomorrow.”

I stayed on the ground, searching her face.

“Did…” I licked my lips. “Do you feel any better? Do you feel like his… spirit…I don’t know…”  I couldn’t finish the sentence. I felt sacrilegious speaking about spirits in front of Horacio’s grave. I felt foolish speaking about ghosts at all.

My mother smiled and shrugged one shoulder. “A parent never leaves you. Good or bad, ghost or not. But you asked if I feel better?”

I nodded, slowly.

She leaned forward and kissed my forehead.

“I don’t know. I think so.”  

 She helped me to my feet, my mother again.

Joan Moritz

Joan Moritz has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Tilt-a-Whirl and Drash: Northwest Mosaic. She was born in New York City and now lives in Seattle, Washington.

 

Penguins in Flight

Penguins are migrating at the San Francisco Zoo.

I’m eating breakfast on a wet Seattle morning in January 2003 when I read this in the newspaper. Next to the short article, there is a photo of six penguins swimming. According to the story, there are fifty-two penguins at the zoo. Perhaps the other forty-six are less photogenic, or maybe they’re just shy. The penguins have been swimming since November.

The San Francisco Zoo is not actually on a migratory sea route, so the penguins are doing the next best thing. They are swimming laps around their pool. They begin early in the morning, and they swim all day. At dusk they stagger, spent, onto Penguin Island, eat a bite of herring, grab a few zzz’s, and start over again the next morning.

These Magellanic penguins are native to the Falkland Islands and coastal Chile and Argentina. In the wild, they migrate after their chicks are self-sufficient. They might travel, for example, from the Falkland Islands to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, roughly a thousand miles away. Eventually, they go back home, logging a grand total of two thousand miles in a season. That’s equivalent to 26,400 laps around their pool. Someone at the zoo calculated this number.

Normally at this time of year, the zoo’s penguins are happily nestled in burrows with their mates. It’s their quiet time, the months before breeding. They clean house, maybe redecorate a bit, stuff like that. Not this year though.

The zoo has had penguins since 1984. Penguins live up to twenty-five years in the wild, and even longer in captivity, so it’s possible some of the birds have lived here since ’84. Many were born at the zoo. None of them has exhibited this type of behavior before.

Why did the penguins start migrating? Zookeepers blamed it on the new kids in town, those rogues from Sea World, near Cleveland, Ohio.

Sea World, home to the whales and penguins of the heartland, had run into financial trouble in the ’80’s, and the business was eventually sold to Six Flags, another theme park. The new owners decided to reduce the sea population, and, as a result, six penguins were put on the auction block. They ended up in San Francisco.

Zookeepers think the newcomers somehow convinced the local populace that the time for migration had come. They are at a loss to explain what the Ohioans might possibly have said or done to get this sort of reaction, so I’ve been thinking about it.

Here’s my theory. I think the penguins didn’t want to forget where they came from. I think they knew there was something fundamentally wrong with being hand fed, having their pool water cleaned weekly, and being given monikers like Pearl and Bluto. Oh, they may have accepted it, or at least grown used to it, but at heart they knew it wasn’t who they were.

I think they developed a mythology, a story to help them remember the old ways. It may have gone something like this: We were once a strong and powerful tribe living in a clear, cold sea filled with sardines and anchovies. One day, The Great Penguin, mother of us all, sent us, in her infinite wisdom, to live at the San Francisco Zoo. She swore she would return for us one day, and would lead us back to our ancestral feeding grounds. We must be ready.

Then along came the Ohio Six. Because the San Francisco Zoo had been extremely successful at breeding penguins in captivity, these were the first outsiders ever to arrive at the zoo. The message was clear. These newcomers had been sent by The Great Penguin to lead them home.

The San Francisco penguins were ready. They jumped into the water surrounding Penguin Island and took off. Now, each day, they start at dawn and swim laps until dusk. When the pool is emptied for cleaning, they walk on its concrete bottom. They are too tired to eat much, and they’re losing weight, but they are not about to miss this opportunity.

Maybe it seems as though they end up at the same place every night. Maybe the burrows they fall into at the end of the day are a tad too comfy, a bit too familiar. It doesn’t make any difference to them. This is about faith. This is about destiny.

If it takes 26,400 laps to get there, I figure they must be half-way home by now. I know when they arrive life will be harder in many ways. There will be predators and sickness and days of hunger. There may be oil spills. I don’t know how they’ll deal with global warming.

But I do know this: At the end of the journey, they will be free.

Gary Presley

Gary PresleyGary Presley has written essays for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Salon, and Notre Dame Magazine. His memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, was published by the University of Iowa Press.

 

 

 

Knife

I still have the first knife I was ever given, ever trusted with, an original Swiss Army knife with a screwdriver, a hook-nose can-opener, a small cutting blade, a leather punch, and a corkscrew, all in a package no more than the width of my palm, no thicker than a five-stick package of gum. My father gave me the knife on my tenth birthday, a tool he thought I had grown worthy of, knowing that the knife would carry a meaning for me beyond the utilitarian.

Five or six years before that, my father had spanked me because I had accepted a knife from a Japanese man. More likely, since my father hated lying, he spanked me because I lied about having the knife and lied about where I got it. I hadn’t stolen it. I accepted it as a thing I lusted for and my father had denied: a knife.

I don’t know why the Japanese man offered me the knife. Then I only knew I wanted it. Now I know the knife may have had a deeper meaning to the man, perhaps a remembrance, a token he offered to recapture an image, perhaps his own memory of a boyhood that had turned to ashes when the Americans firebombed Tokyo. You can tell by that—the firebombing, and the city—that the gift of the knife was a long time ago, the late 1940s, in fact. There’s symbolism certainly, the Japanese man giving the knife to the American boy, and whatever lies within the gesture is probably worth thinking about, but it isn’t that metaphorical connection beyond language and circumstance that sticks with me now. It is the idea of a knife, and a boy who wanted a knife, and how it shifts about in my memory of Japan, of how it propels me through that time when I lived within borders drawn by my mother and father.

I like knives even today, the idea that they are both tool and symbol, utilitarian and beautiful. I know I was fascinated by knives then, fascinated long before mystics might have told me that to dream of knives is to dream of manhood, to dream of power through violence, to dream of cutting through all that controls and restricts.

My father then was part of the occupation army in Japan, those few short years after the war, our family living in a barracks-like apartment above the Yokohama harbor. That day we had gone on an errand, the three of us, and stopped at a place where I was left in our car for a few moments. Perhaps it was near the commissary or the post’s exchange. It would have been normal to see a Japanese person thereabouts, for the military did its best to employ civilians within its labyrinth. I sat in the car, content to be left to my thoughts. The Japanese man, dressed in white, wearing the traditional Japanese sandals, the geta, squatted near where the car was parked. Maybe he worked shining shoes. Maybe he was a peddler. We didn’t communicate, other than through his smiles and gestures, and my wariness, my knowing only the words for “hello” and “thank you.” I watched him, and he watched me, and somehow — I would be lying if I said I remembered how — I ended up with the knife, which was a little single-blade pen knife, no more than two inches long.

The Japanese man who had little, from all appearances, except his quiet dignity and his amusement over the whims of children, gave me the knife, a gesture that might have meant nothing, or something, to him.

I took the knife. I possessed a knife. I hid the knife. And my father found the knife.

Then came the music of childish lies, anger from my father, and the discipline of a spanking. I understand now my parents were confused, cautious, coping daily with the slippery, never fully realized insecurities of living in a foreign country, always alert to protect their only child. And they knew what I would not learn until I turned twelve, knew that gifts from man to boy are sometimes not innocent, sometimes not without motive.

I do not know what my father did with the little white-handled pen knife. It disappeared. I do have other things that mark my memories of Japan, pieces of brass, a portrait of a samurai warrior on horseback, and more.

The Swiss Army knife, though, speaks of Europe to me. My father gave it to me on the morning of my tenth birthday, in the spring of the year 1952, my first day in France, as I came awake in an apartment above a pharmacy three blocks south from the medieval city gate of Verdun, France, two blocks west from the Meuse River. The knife is too fragile to use much now, if you can think of such a thing as being fragile, but I carried it for years, front right pocket, there because I’m right-handed.

It was a sign of trust that knife, expectation, responsibility. No longer five or six. Ten; an age of some accountability. And living also in a safer place, a place where at least — and you’ll need to understand this because my parents grew up in a time when segregation plagued the world and the Japanese were relegated to internment camps — where at least the people looked like us, white-skinned, blue-green-or-brown-eyed. Whatever they felt, my parents, I found little different between the Japanese and the French. At five, and at ten, I understood I was an outsider, a small quiet reminder that something had been taken from them and replaced by men in uniform and women and children who were too loud and too large and too friendly. In France, it is true, we weren’t occupiers treading on the land of the defeated as we were in Japan. We were guests, the U.S. military there to face the Iron Curtain until De Gaulle’s pride said we were unnecessary. And we were constantly reminded we were guests, maybe because, I think now, we were scars, vestiges of a defeat. Life and politics being what it was then in France, we could read “Yankee Go Home” on walls all over Verdun, and Étain where we moved later, and every other French town with a wall.

I used the Swiss Army knife for years, even though early on I was young enough and stupid enough to nearly ruin it. A dull knife is dangerous, folk wisdom expressed every place there is a knife to be sharpened. After we left France, after short sojourns in California and El Paso, and after giving my father time enough to heal from a serious car accident and be sent to school to learn about radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns, our family ended up on Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State. I soon learned the Air Force, being the glamour military service of the Cold War, had more amenities than the average Army post. Among the gyms, theaters and clubs, and all other things to distract a teenager on the base, there was a fully equipped hobby shop. I found a grinder there, and I began to sharpen the blade of my Swiss Army knife, too much in the two years or so we spent there, sharpened it so that the primary blade, the cutting blade, was finally pared down from the fat, flat torpedo of a carving blade to a stiletto shape.

I carried the knife, the remembrance, the validation, the talisman, even after we moved back to Texas, where my father decided the army was for him no more, took his pension, and moved us to Missouri. There in the hills I found myself isolated from the only life I knew and understood, a remainder of the boy who loved the impermanency of travel, a boy soon forbidden the promise of a manhood, soon attacked by poliomyelitis, an attack no knife would divert, and left to take temporary residence in an iron lung, a place more foreign than Japan, even less welcoming than France, a place where no knife was useful or necessary, a cage no knife could cut away.

Things changed, as things do, and I came home, a kid no more an Army brat, a kid no more a few months from graduating high school, and I found my knife in a desk drawer. It is difficult to carry things in a pocket if you sit down all the time in a wheelchair, and so when I got home, and I wanted my talisman, my Swiss Army, that amulet of magical powers within my former self, I hooked it on a peg that stood out on the front of my wheelchair, hooked it through the little metal half loop at knife-end meant to hang the tool on a piece of military equipment, since it was an army knife after all.

I carried the knife there for years as the chair became as much a part of me as the knife, and I used it, taking care to sharpen it by hand so that the blade wouldn’t be ground down so narrow as to be useless. I carried it and I used it until one day in the office where I worked, I don’t remember when or how, the knife or the wheelchair or the peg on the wheelchair caught on something, and I moved, and the Swiss Army knife, then thirty years old at least, twisted until the little metal half-loop, the half-loop meant to hook the knife firmly to a belt or pack, twisted and popped off, and the knife fell to the floor.

And so the thing I carried for years, I began to carry no more, at least not regularly. The missing loop makes no less of it, not hurting its usefulness, its pure practicality, its life as a talisman. I keep the knife now in a box, and take it out only to remember, unfolding the blade ground away to stiletto width in search of perfection of sharpness, as if there was an ultimate edge where the knife would find its utter purity as knife, as perfection the boy perceived, but the man knows is ephemeral. The knife now as always retains its honest aspiration, its ability to cut, to separate, to cleave, even though it’s damaged like me, the man who roiled through anger, frustration, and self-pity until something snapped, and I forgot about all that was gone and began to think about all that was left.

 

Renée K. Nicholson

Renee K. NicholsonRenée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance.  A former professional dancer whose career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, Renee earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks, and co-founder of Souvenir: A Journal. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.

 

Coda: Partnering

Your partner knows your body better than any of your lovers. He knows your means and hows, your hollows and crevices, how your weight is distributed through bust and hips and thighs. He doesn’t make fun of your large potato head or your stick-y-out ears. When you dance together, his sweat and your sweat mix, no way to tell who has perspired what.

You both sweat all through rehearsals.

He admires your strong, flexible feet and your strong, flexible back. You learn to trust that extra rotation, the flying leap that’s caught in air. Most of the time, you trust your partner more than you trust yourself.

The art of partnering is a lot like love, the coming together of two beings, two bodies.  These bodies, yours and your partner’s, are honed with technique and purpose and work. You condition it with daily class, daily rehearsals, daily regimens, a daily diet, your daily bottle upon bottle of water. Your partner takes the same classes, attends the same rehearsals, but carries out his own rituals and regimens. You respect that about one another. You respect what is physical, and you use it to reveal what is sublime.  He will hold your waist, circle your wrists with his hands. He will cradle your body, grip your thighs. It isn’t sexual, but it can be sexy.  The thrill is in creating something beautiful, as if beauty were something you do, not something you are.

In the low light of an expiring day, you will remember this, think of your partner more fondly than your past lovers. You will wonder where he went after you left the stage, what new and lovely creatures he supported and lifted and spun. You will not be jealous; rather, you will wish you could have seen these performances, your body humming with past knowledge. The sun will sink. It will rise again in pink streaks across a slate of indifferent sky.

Karen Donley-Hayes

Karen Donley-HayesKaren Donley-Hayes is a regular contributor for several medical publications in the Modern Medicine collection (Dermatology Times, Cosmetic Surgery Times, Ophthalmology Times, Drug Topics magazines, etc.). Her work has also appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and in numerous horse magazines (Equus, Dressage Today, The Horse, etc.). She has essays in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul – My Cat’s Life, and forthcoming in The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, a Holy Cow! Press anthology to be published in October 2013. She has an M.A. in interdisciplinary studies, an M.F.A. in creative writing and is editor at Hiram College. She lives in Ohio with her husband, several geriatric cats, a German shepherd, four hens, and one horse.

 

Hens on a Porch

I sit on a white wooden bench on my back porch, being careful to avoid the frozen clots of chicken poop. It’s dusk, and despite the cold, I’m spending some quality time with “the girls,” our four golden laced Wyandotte hens. It’s March, but winter in Ohio doesn’t care much about the calendar. It’s so cold frost laces the porch screens, and I wouldn’t be sitting out here at all except for the evening sun … it’s bright even as it slides northwest and sinks behind the hills and woods of our neighbor’s property.

A year ago at this time, the sun set through a thick stand of winter-naked trees; this year, it settles over a thinner, sparser stand of trees, survivors of a clear-cutting free-for-all last fall. A year ago, during the months when snow covered the ground and the leaves were off the trees, I watched winter in the woods, saw things one didn’t see in the summer – the way the land sloped uphill, and a band of wild turkeys that lived along the crest of that hill. They foraged along the woods’ floor, sometimes chasing each other, bickering. When I had braved the cold on the back porch, I listened to their turkey songs, the chorus of their society.

During the lumber rape in the fall, I had often wondered what would happen to the turkeys. This evening, I see much more of the hidden floor of the lost woods – much flatter than I’d realized, just one small rise of a hill, the rest dull and uninteresting, flood plain from the creek that runs through there. I used to want to ask our neighbors if I could walk through their woods (when the woods were still there), but now I have no desire to walk through the refuse left from the plunder, scraps of wood, discarded branches, swathed now in snow, lying like corpses. But they hadn’t massacred the entire woods, just this section of it, and beyond this hack job the trees huddle together again. The setting sun – vibrant in a way it hasn’t been in months, a way that warms me even though it’s not warm – winks behind those untouched trees.

On the porch at my feet, our hens work on the two ears of corn I’ve given them. They love it, not just the corn, but the activity – pecking the kernels off the cob, scratching away husks with their claws, turning the cob, investigating the possibilities. The girls murmur, chuck-chucking and clucking, looking up at me with curious purr-puuuuurrrpps when I squat next to them, pulling a little more of the husk down the corn cob. They pluck the cob right out of my hand and go back to work at it, and I sit back on my bench.

The hens are sequestered at our screened and covered back porch because in December, when there was two feet of snow on the ground, hawks became risk-taking famished and killed Ezmeralda, our black Jersey giant hen, a bird much too big to carry away. We found Ezmeralda rammed deep into her own snow-grave, her crop and breast meat devoured. Black feathers and down drifted across the snow’s surface, broken only by three indentations the hawk’s wings made when it tried to but could not carry off the hen.

Now I wonder what the hawks think, those who have survived the winter so far, that the chicken buffet is screened off. They can surely see the hens, hear them, smell them (can hawks smell?). And I wonder, too, if the newly denuded landscape behind our house benefits them at all; surely hunting would be easier with fewer trees, but do those fewer trees also mean fewer small woodland creatures scampering across the raptors’ menu? Has this logging I abhorred for its plain ugliness been a boon or bane to the creatures inhabiting the area? I have not seen the turkeys, nor heard their song, at all this winter.

But a few times in the last week or two, I’ve been awakened late in the night by a new song, ancient as the hills and snow, one I’d never heard before yet knew instantly: coyote. I think they’re new here, perhaps finding some appeal in the ravaged woods. Several nights, I listened to their yelps and howls, yips and cries, all weaving together, moving like one voice through the woods, nearer then farther, back toward the fence-line again, then dancing up the hill and fading south. Their chorus seemed haunting – mysterious and joyous and as old as the denuded hills. Those nights, snugged in the warmth of my covers, spooned against my husband, I lay still and listened, awed.

It’s getting dark. The hens have finished their corn cob activities and are chuck-chucking their way to the “stunt-coop” we set up when we evacuated them to the porch: a giant dog crate, inverted, with tomato stakes wedged through the vents to serve as perches. The girls seem entirely content with it. As I leave the porch, clean my boots off in the snow and get ready to go inside for the evening, I hear something I have not heard all winter. It stops me in my tracks. I turn to scrutinize where the woods had been, squinting into the fading light. I don’t see anything other than snow and rubble branches, then deepening shadows where the trees throng together again.

But I hear it again – a little farther away than in previous years – yet clear and conversational and entirely unperturbed: turkey song.

Enid Shomer

Enid ShomerEnid Shomer’s seventh book, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was named one of the six best historical fiction novels of 2012 by National Public Radio. Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories Imaginary Men, and the Florida Gold Medal for her second, Tourist Season (Random House, 2007), which was also selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Paris Review, and many other publications. As Visiting Writer, she has taught at the University of Arkansas, Florida State University, and the Ohio State University among others. She lives in Tampa, Florida. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is her first novel.

 

Small

Around the corner from our house lived a frail, white-haired man and his wife, the English teacher who had my brother expelled from eleventh grade. Perhaps they pitied me for his crimes, for that year, when I turned nine, the husband began making me dollhouse miniatures. Wordlessly, he’d motion me to the door and hand them over wrapped in tissue: chairs and a table, a skillet from crimped tin, a baked turkey carved from wood. I was a shy kid; all I ever said was “thanks.” I never told him these were my favorite possessions or that I considered them artistic masterpieces compared to the crude miniatures from occupied Japan sold at Woolworth’s, all of which were made of a slick pink plastic the color of organ meats.

I kept my minikins in a drawer and only played with them when I was alone. Perhaps because I was not much cuddled or held as a child, I took especial pleasure in arranging and touching my small treasures. Their very size made perfection seem attainable, and imparted a powerful sense of control and pride of ownership. My brother, who had a model train in his attic bedroom, must have thrived on similar satisfactions—on the aura of impending action in the landscape glued to the 4×8 foot piece of plywood. Soon the train would puff fake smoke through the motionless forest, past the tiny waiting dogs, the penned cattle just beginning to turn their ears in the direction of the sound.

Three years later, my neighbor died and his widow moved away. I began to acquire my own miniatures: bitsy scissors that snipped, a doll’s porcelain tea service, a real screwdriver no larger than a thumbtack, the final surprise in a nesting set that belonged to my father. I quickly became a connoisseur, rejecting anything with inauthentic proportions, mold seams, sloppy paint, immovable parts.

But nothing I owned was as fine as the furnishings and accoutrements of the Thorne Rooms, which I recently visited at the Art Institute of Chicago: earring-sized crystal chandeliers that cast milky droplets of light; cranberry lusters tinkling on a tiny marble shelf; crumb-sized ink pots; a red and white jade chess set with rooks and pawns smaller than gnats; dime-sized Limoges portrait plates achieved with a single bristle.

And here is Mrs. Thorne herself in an artist’s smock, leaning over a magnifier in her studio, surrounded by the artisans she commissioned to create the rooms. Whether French Empire antechamber with pietra dura floor, English refectory with copper chargers, or California living room with stamp-sized modernist paintings, everywhere an inch equals a foot.

At a time when most women of means or brains were limited to becoming socialites or patrons, Mrs. Thorne (née Narcissa Niblack) turned to the arts and charity, but her secret passion was for nubbins. As a girl, her uncle, an admiral in the Navy, sent her “smalls” from around the world. She amassed a huge collection in her own right. In middle-age, she began to plan her legacy: sixty-eight historically illustrative rooms so perfectly executed that it’s impossible to detect their diminutive scale in photographs. Twelve-inch ceilings float above veneered chests and japanned desks, palatial petit-point rugs.Set in the museum wall behind a pane of glass, each room is a complete and expansive household, with adjacent rooms, not wholly visible, yet furnished to the last chair-rail.  Bedrooms, studies, gardens, even distant mountains and the light grid of cities peek through hallways, windows, French doors.  Everywhere, there is the illusion of natural light.

Everywhere, the absence of residents seems merely a coincidental pause in the pulse of life. A pair of reading glasses hold down the pages of a Chiclet-sized book; coal spills from a scuttle in the frosty entry to the kitchen; a swatch of knitting on needles finer than straight pins trails from a basket. And on a braid rug, an inch-long doll with porcelain head and arms and soft, stuffed body slouches, waiting for a little girl to return.

Scattered in other museums are equally impressive smalls.  An artisan in Russia has fashioned a globe of the world from a bee-bee, and etched a microscopic map on the head of a pin. Another has carved the Pietà from a tiger’s tooth. Imagine that minim of grief, fingers the width of stitches! This desire to reduce reality without loss of accuracy and clarity must be an elemental human impulse, like breasting oceans and climbing mountains. Tiny objects—especially infants, puppies and toys—actually cause the pupils to dilate. A melting warmth—the gooey heat of cuteness—suffuses the body, settling in the stomach. Muscles and tendons relax and the desire to touch and possess, to care for, swims through the limbs.

Like a roller-coaster ride, or an excess of chocolate, the Thorne rooms delighted and sickened me. So much restraint and attention to detail quickly devolve into claustrophobia, with its attendant threat of non-existence. It would be so easy to vanish into a miniature empire, the way anorexics disappear as they perfect their art.

After my visit to the rooms, I walked the banks of the Chicago River, re-inflating in the broad air. Smallness is a kind of corrective, I thought, like a homeopathic remedy. Its effectiveness depends on the dose and that day, I had overdosed.

Though I’ve collected miniature pictures frames and perfume bottles, all my life I’ve consciously resisted the urge to make my own tiny replicas. I know that smallness can add brilliance and balance, the way a diamond pendant lying in the notch of a woman’s throat shares its clarity and delicate beauty with her skin and the slight motion of her breathing. But in large doses, smallness can be poisonous. When you visit the Thorne rooms, one thing becomes manifestly clear: no tiny person will ever walk through those scaled-down doors calling your name.

Paul Hostovsky

Paul Hostovsky is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Hurt Into Beauty (FutureCycle Press, 2012). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize and two Best of the Net Awards. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and is a 2013 Featured Poet on the Georgia Poetry Circuit. To read more of his work, visit him at www.paulhostovsky.com.

 

Poem

When I finally figured it out—
you know, life, the whole thing—
I couldn’t write it down fast enough,
and I was shaking my head in disbelief,
and smiling at the sheer dumb luck
of each new line revealing itself to me
like a winning scratch ticket, hitting it
big. I mean really big. The kind of big
that comes over you slowly but all at once,
like what it will mean for the rest of your life,
how you won’t have to work at it anymore
because everything will be different now
and the same. It was a little scary actually,
and my stomach started to hurt. But the pain
was different now. It was part of the joy.
And the joy was different too because it was
unbelievable. I mean I knew it was true—
I just didn’t believe it. And that hurt, too.
Then the old hurt gave way to the new
and suddenly everything rhymed a little.

Martin Ott

Martin OttA former U.S Army interrogator, Martin Ott currently lives in Los Angeles, where he writes poetry and fiction, often about his misunderstood city. He is the author of Captive, De Novo Prize winner, C&R Press, Poets’ Guide to America, co-written with John F. Buckley, and Interrogator’s Notebook, Story Merchant Books. His Writeliving blog – writeliving.wordpress.com – has thousands of readers in more than 75 countries.

 

 

Bandits

The tattooed van braked in the right
lane, the rush hour traffic backed
up for miles. The cover band set up
without orange cones or warning
flares, guitarist, bassist and drummer
daring the cars to mow them down.
Who knows what the furies have
in store for these freeway bandits,
setting speakers out toward the sun?
Some say it was for publicity, others
that the stunt didn’t make a dent.
Their ex-manager swore that music
was a top spinning with no center.
The singer’s father just swore.
But for one morning, the audience
merged to the band’s frenetic song,
to a syncopation of Love and War,
their single, their opus, angry fans
erupting in an applause of horns.

 

Refrain

The home that is not a home
is like that one person’s name
beyond the window painted shut.
That lover who made you forget
the closet ghosts, the repeating song
is never far, is never close.
The keys in your junk drawer
from past doors, from unknown cities
leave you opened, keep you closed.
That time you did the one thing,
the one you can never tell
is buried away, is in your place.

Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan’s 13th book of poems, Traveling Light, has recently been published by Norton. She was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991-1995 and has been a finalist twice for the National Book Award. In 2003 she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

 

Like a Bird

 

1.

Despair is like a bird. Not a crow with its dark
wings, its shadows
over the heart;
not a raptor,
all appetite.
Despair is a sparrow,
no color at all,
pecking away
at crumbs,
ubiquitous.

 

2.

Joy is like a bird.
Not a robin, with
its arrogant breast;
not a mockingbird— ventriloquist of the air.
Joy is a white ibis,
glimpsed once or twice,
its great wings opening
like theatre curtains
onto a blue
dazzle of sea. 

Legacies

From my father comes the dark current
that runs under the surface of my life;    

from my mother the old need
to please at any cost.

The residue of memory is honey
on the hands, so hard

to wash away.  Let my demons rest
in the coffin of the page,

not in my sons and daughter
who speak another dialect,

though we signal to each other
from the separate shores

of youth and age.  I leave them only
a map in the genes

and a residue of memory like honey
on the hands.

I leave them consolations
of sun on a lifted face,

faithful as the nurse who pulls
up the blinds each morning

to call the sleeping children
back to the world.

George Moore

George MooreGeorge Moore is the author of two new collections, The Hermits of Dingle (FutureCycle Press, 2013), and Children’s Drawings of the Universe (Salmon Poetry, 2014), as well as Headhunting (2002) and The Petroglyphs at Wedding Rocks (1997).  Nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Web and Net Awards, and the Rhysling Poetry Award, he has been a finalist for The National Poetry Series, the Brittingham Award, and Anhinga’s Poetry Prize. He lives with his wife, the Canadian poet, Tammy Armstrong, in the foothills of Colorado, and teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

 

Fast as Saint Ignatius

If I could be in two places at once,
I’d defy Newton’s old bugbear
and warp the mirror to see myself

at the other end of the universe
looking back.  If I could live a desert
life, one step ahead of earth’s curve,

and blur the boundaries between
being and dreaming, like between
the storm and Pedernal,

the one moment in O’Keeffe,
I’d live out my time on Ghost Ranch
like it were heaven

and I were made of stone cold blossoms.
But my order is the order a la mode
without the travel to the Basilica

or heaven, without seeing beyond
the moment, this tree, this star,
this absence at the center of the flower.

Esther Altshul Helfgott

Esther Altshul Helfgott
Photo Credit by Ann Teplick

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a nonfiction writer and poet with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Holocaust poet, Irena Klepfisz. Esther’s work appears in the Journal of Poetry Therapy; Maggid: A Journal of Jewish Literature; Drash: Northwest MosaicAmerican Imago: Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences; Raven Chronicles; Floating Bridge Review; Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease; Jack Straw Anthology; HistoryLink, and elsewhere. She is a longtime literary activist, a 2010 Jack Straw poet, and the founder of Seattle’s “It’s About Time Writers’ Reading Series,” now in its 23rd year. She is the author of the poetic docu-drama The Homeless One: A Poem in Many Voices, and her book, Dear Alzheimer’s: Why Did You Pick our Sheltered Lives to Visit – a caregiver’s diary & poems is forthcoming from Cave Moon Press in 2013. www.estherhelfgott.com.

 

Pantoum for Uncle Izzy

In 1945, Uncle Izzy came home from the war
He drove up to our apartment in an Oldsmobile
He wore a soldier’s cap and a uniform
Mother doted on him and made a big meal

He drove up to our apartment in an Oldsmobile
He was the most beautiful person I ever saw
Mother doted on him and made a big meal
He hid my presents – a doll, stuffed animal, and a ball

He was the most beautiful person I ever saw
That’s when we lived at 1931 East Baltimore
He hid my presents – a doll, stuffed animal, and a ball
I hid under the table, I was four.

That’s when we lived at 1931 East Baltimore
His brown eyes crinkled when he smiled
I hid under the table, I was four
He let me be shy, it took me awhile

His brown eyes crinkled when he smiled
He and Mother talked of work and war crimes
He let me be shy, it took me awhile
Soon I came out from my hiding behinds

I sat on his lap and hugged round his neck
He wore a soldier’s cap and a uniform
The kitchen was quiet, their eyes were all wet
In 1945, Uncle Izzy came home from the war

The kitchen was quiet, their eyes were all wet.
He carried me to bed, my arms round his neck.

 

Elisabeth Murawski

Elisabeth MurawskiElisabeth Murawski is the author of Zorba’s Daughter, which received the May Swenson Poetry Award, Moon and Mercury, and two chapbooks. Publications include The Yale Review, FIELD, The Literary Review, et al. She was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2008. Currently, she resides in Alexandria, VA.

 

 

 

That’s Life

He’s with a much younger woman
on the Yellow Line train.
I’m sitting right behind him,

his graying buzz cut, a white
athletic sweat band hugging his head.
It’s the Lou Rawls ache in his voice

that floors. I quit reading my book,
the poem about changing the names
of paint colors: “Nerves”

for the frost of stars. Imagine
waking up to those vocal chords!
I wonder if he talks, a bee

making honey, cruising the cape,
the hip of his Lady Love. When
they exit at L’Enfant Plaza,

I get a better look. He’s stocky,
paunchy, moves as if, dancing,
he’d float like balsa wood.

She takes his arm. They disappear
into the swarm of tourists. That voice.
The caramel skin. I think of Len

who called me precious, charmed away
my resistance. It’s been years
since Manhattan, the lumpy sofa bed.

What will the girlfriend remember–
a pet name like mine, the first time,
Sundays on the Yellow Line? Him

asking a stranger to take their picture
beside the cherry trees in blossom
at the Tidal Basin?

Elaine Terranova

Elaine TerranovaElaine Terranova is the author of five collections of poems, most recently, Dames Rocket. A new collection, Dollhouse, is forthcoming. Her work has appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Her translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis is part of the Penn Greek Drama Series.  She has received the Walt Whitman Award, an NEA, a Pew Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize.

 

 

Stairway

Think of the dollhouse
as a collection, a museum,
even a prison, but a little doll,
a tiny chair, mean nothing
if not in the context of a house.

There is in a house, despite
its safety, I don’t know,
such capacity for movement and change.

At night, for instance, a house
talks back, crackles and knocks.
Turn on the alarm and it is like
setting the alarm of your fear,
little birdcall of eternity.

Downstairs you have only just
shut the door on the world
and you float up, giddy with sleep.
You fly–don’t they call the sets
of steps flights?  At the top,
massive dark, a wind that rushes
through the hall.

Everything moves around.
Nothing is stable.  Then you open
a door, look through a window,
and find there, pocketed by the sky,
the nearly perfect moon.

Changming Yuan

Changming YuanChangming Yuan, 4-time Pushcart nominee and author of Allen Qing Yuan, holds a PhD in English and works as a private tutor in Vancouver, where he edits and publishes Poetry Pacific.  Yuan’s poetry appears in 649 literary publications across 25 countries, including Asia Literary Review, Barrow Street, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, LiNQ, London Magazine, Poetry Kanto, Paris/Atlantic, Poetry Salzburg, SAND and Two Thirds North. Poetry submissions welcome at yuans@shaw.ca.  

 

Y

You love ‘Y’, not because it’s the first letter
In your family name, but because it’s like
A horn, which the water buffalo in your
Native village uses to fight against injustice
Or, because it’s like a twig, where a crow
Can come down to perch, a cicada can sing
Towards the setting sun as loud as it wants to
More important, in Egyptian hieroglyphics
It stands for a real reed, something you can
Bend into a whistle or flute; in pronouncing it
You can get all the answers you need, besides
You can make it into a heart-felt catapult
And shoot at a snakehead or sparrow, as long
As it is within the range of your boyhood.

Carol Hebald

Carol HebaldFollowing a 12-year career as an actor on the New York stage, Carol Hebald enrolled as a freshman at the City College of CUNY, where she studied full time as an English Major. She received her B.A. in 1969: Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, with high honors in English. Subsequently granted a Teaching and Writing Fellowship in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she received an MFA in 1971. She is the author of the memoir, The Heart Too Long Suppressed (Northeastern University Press, 2001), a novella collection, Three Blind Mice (Unicorn Press, 1989), and more recently, two poetry collections from March Street Press: Spinster by the Sea (2005) and Little Monologs (2004). Links to reviews of, and excerpts from her books are on her Website: www.CarolHebald.com.

 

Winter Dawn

With so much too much night to bear
let beauty bow open your mouth.
Called on to speak, keep silent.
This bright wilderness the birds know.

In the blue wind, on this hill
all is distance and no breath.
Only the cold scream of the fox
trembles to your breast.

All status drops from you,
you love,—
The gentle light shines
in the eye of the beast.

Daughter, will you dance,
fling out your bloodbright mane,
tame the wilderness in him,
or let his heart alone?

Barry Seiler

Barry SeilerBarry Seiler lives in a small mountain town in the Catskills with his wife and four cats. He has published four volumes of poetry. His most recent, Frozen Falls, was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize.

 

 

 

 

Yarhrzeit

I keep misplacing the anniversaries,
So I say today and buy one at the market
Around the corner. It takes three swipes
For the scanner to get the price.
It’s true a candle in a glass can’t suffice
To settle accounts with the dead.
Yet each year my mother burned them for hers
To balance the books the generations keep,
Placing them on a counter in the kitchen.
And when the candle had thoroughly burned,
She soaked the glasses and washed them,
Practical to the last, and used them to serve
The juice I drank each morning for my bones.

 

*A yahrzeit candle (also spelled yahrtzeit candle) is also called a memorial candle, which translates to soul candle in Hebrew and in Yiddish it translates to anniversary candle.  It is lit in memory of the dead in Judaism. It can burn up to 26 hours. (Wikipedia).

Barbara F. Lefcowitz

Barbara F. LefcowitzBarbara F. Lefcowitz has published nine poetry collections, including her latest, The Blue Train to America (2007). Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in over 600 journals. She has won writing fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National  Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland and is also a visual artist.

 

Golden Eyes

Sprawled on the condo pool’s deck
I flip through the paper’s latest catastrophes
look away and gaze
at the semi-circle of catatonic townhouses,
their eyes identically bandaged.
The old mirrors inside them must be lonely and bored
reflecting only a succession of lights and darks
with neither fingerprints nor eyeprints.

On my paper’s back page a few lines
about the images of wild goats
carved into gold Canaanite earrings
recently unearthed from two millennia back
not far from Meggido. At which point
a flock of goats romps and frolics
on the concrete deck and I jump
into the pool’s turquoise eye
float above its zigzags of sun rays.

Allen Braden

Allen BradenAllen Braden is the author of A Wreath of Down and Drops of Blood (University of Georgia) and Elegy in the Passive Voice (University of Alaska/Fairbanks), and winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest.  He lives in Lakewood, Washington.

 

 

Anniversary Card

There is, in every leaf fallen,
each seedpod offered,

a prediction sleeping.
In your journal today

preserve a singular leaf
and fold a seed into her

placenta, the master chef
tucking a truffle into cake batter,

the finale to the most outrageous
dinner of a lifetime.

Gabi touches your shoulder,
kneels to join in planting

a seed of choice, yours and hers.
The tissue an envelope again

for what soon will drink in
all delivered light.

Arnie Weingart

Arnie WeingartArnie Weingart attended Dartmouth College, where he received a B.A. in German and Comparative Literature and studied poetry with Richard Eberhart. He also attended Columbia University, where he received an M.F.A. in writing, studying with David Ignatow and James Tate. More recently he was awarded a writing residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, working with Rosellen Brown. He and his family live in Chicago, where he is the owner and principal of a graphic design consultancy specializing in identity and wayfinding. Recent poems have been published in Arts & Letters, Nimrod International Journal, Coal Hill Review, Oberon, Enizagam, and …and Love (an anthology).

 

The Rothko Chapel

Eyn Sof:  the Kabbalistic term denoting the state of non-being prior to creation of the universe

This is the record of what God did
before the first day before the thought
of the thought of days before he had even
decided whether there should be a
God each canvas is too large for
human scale there being no humans
no couches or walls or museums no
points of view each canvass looks
like a slate not quite wiped clean from
previous efforts no telling how many
this being before the invention of
numbers there is a gray color which is
no longer black but which looks as though

it longs for green or perhaps just the idea
of green there is another canvass in which
barely discernible purple and ochre and
verdigris seem to suggest what might
become blue given enough time given
the beginning of the beginning of time
and on at least one painting there is
out toward the edges when you stand
far enough back what looks like a
border a willful shift from one color
to another a line which once having
been drawn by God or not by God
there is no other choice but to cross

 

Elizabeth Edelglass

Elizabeth EdelglassElizabeth Edelglass’s stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (winner of the Lawrence Foundation Prize), Lilith (short story contest winner), In The Grove (winner of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize), American Literary Review, Passages North, New Haven Review and more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices and has won a fiction fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She is currently at work on a collection of linked stories and two novels.

 

Family Circle

“Over there,” Ma instructed, handing Ruth a tin pan heavy with her homemade apple cake oozing caramelized brown sugar and cinnamon, a few burnt bits just begging to be plucked and devoured. “Put in front,” she said. And Ruth knew she meant in front of the store-bought babka Uncle Harry’s wife Hannah had brought in a string-tied box, then set out on her own fancy cut-glass platter from home. Ruth had already noticed Ma nudging Hannah’s cake to the back of the counter.

“Thinks she’s such a big shot, can afford store-bought,” Ma grumbled, “then pretends like homemade with the fancy plate. Never mind if she baked herself, dry like straw.”

“Ma,” Ruth whispered, trying to be casual, pretending not to be shushing her mother. The other wives stopped blowing across their hot tea to listen, but Hannah-Harry’s took a big slurp as if they weren’t talking about her.

Ruth and her mother were in the kitchen with the women, laying out food for the men—Pop and his brothers, number-two Harry and the rest, plus a couple of their cousins, a tribe of shiny Brylcreemed heads tilted towards their joint reflection on the polished wood of the table where they were about to carry on their family circle meeting as seriously as a gathering of the Supreme Court. Ma always said they rented this otherwise bare Brooklyn basement for their monthly meetings just for that table, never mind the narrow alley kitchen where the women couldn’t help but brush bosoms past shoulder blades, someone’s soft tush against someone else’s girdled hips.

“It ain’t her turn, anyway,” Ma said, whispering now, but a loud whisper, loud enough for Hannah to hear, maybe wanting Hannah to hear. Hannah’s babka was as good as in the trash. It was Ma’s month to bring the food, and she didn’t like the other wives trying to show her up, although she would grouse later if they didn’t offer to lend a hand in the kitchen.

As soon as Pop smacked down his gavel on the table to call the meeting to order, he and the men offered a better target for the women, better than carping among themselves.

“Who do they think they are?” Uncle Abe’s wife Channah snorted.

“The Tsar’s generals plotting war?” Uncle Phil’s wife Ann added.

“Or the Knights of the Round Table?” Ruth chimed in, but the wives turned to stare. “What I’m studying in school,” she mumbled.

“Here, cut,” Ma said, handing Ruth a bakery bag full of rolls and a knife long and sharp enough to butcher a cow.  Ma might not mind what the other wives heard her say, but she was cautious about what Pop might hear.

Ma’s cousin Fanny, always stylishly corseted with breasts at attention, started to unwrap the whitefish and herring—Ma trusted her only blood relative in the room with the most expensive part of the meal.  Channah-Abe’s and Ann-Phil’s got busy arranging slices of tomato and onion and sweet Muenster cheese in decorative shapes like Chinatown paper fans. Now that Ruth commuted to college in the city, Fanny sometimes invited her downtown for eggrolls and fortune cookies and even the occasional fruity cocktail with a paper umbrella. Don’t let the umbrella fool you, Fanny always said if Ruth downed hers too fast. 

Fanny had a job in the city. It was a factory job, stitching shirtwaists amidst a gaggle of girls, who were really women, all bent over their machines with their fingers flying, like the men bent over the table with their mouths flapping today. Not much, some might say, not much Pop did say, on a regular basis. But it was a job, and it was hers, instead of a husband.

Pop’s cousins’ wives dawdled quietly in a corner, as if trying to fade into the chipped paint, like the second-class citizens they knew they were in the family circle. They were not helping, but also not interfering. Hannah-Harry’s, on the other hand, was already making herself a sandwich, grabbing the first roll out of Ruth’s hand, plucking cheese and drippy slices of red tomato from the pretty fans as fast as Channah and Ann could fashion them, even trying for a forkful of whitefish if Fanny hadn’t slapped her hand away.

Ma handed Ruth a dishcloth, from a pile she’d brought from home, to mop up Hannah’s mess. Ma’s dishcloths were rectangles of the softest bleached linen that she had hemstitched herself, finer than any fabric she used to make her own shirtwaists.  These were precious remnants from Ruth’s old Rosh Hashanah blouses, a new one brought by Fanny each year when she arrived for brisket and tzimmes. Probably smuggled out of the factory in Fanny’s big black purse, Ruth’s fine once-a-year blouse, and at what risk? The cloth in Ruth’s hand now bled the red of ripe tomato juice.  Ma pushed Channah and Ann aside to doctor the plate herself, hastily rearranging new, only slightly crooked fans.

The men wouldn’t care about fans, would attack the spread as soon as Pop banged down the gavel to end the meeting, as if they hadn’t been fed since they’d left Russia. The men were always hungry, scarfing down Kaiser rolls and pot cheese, never mind poppy seeds and curds catching on the scruff of their chins that had been clean-shaven just that morning, as if fighting with their only relatives in America made their beards grow faster, five o-clock shadows appearing before lunch.

It would end up a late lunch, two- or three-o’clock, European lunchtime as Ruth had learned, not from Ma, but from her well-traveled teacher in Eur. Hist. 101. The first one to start college from the first generation of her family born in America, and what was she required to study first thing freshman year? European history. But Ruth didn’t think of Ma and Pop as belonging to that Europe. What did Przasnysz have to do with Paris, shtetl rebbes with the Reformation? 

Today’s meeting had gotten off to a late start, Ma’s apple cake requiring a slow oven back home. “Quit dawdling,” Pop had hollered, standing in the street with the car door open. But Ma wasn’t about to turn up the heat and risk burning her cake, so they didn’t get on the road until she and the cake were good and ready. Secretly, Ruth knew, Pop didn’t mind being late. The meeting couldn’t start without him, family circle president by dint of being the oldest. Let the others wait.  But his foot had jerked from gas to brake and back again all the way from Newark, and Ruth’s stomach had sloshed in the back seat, her long legs tucked up to her chin and her tush wedged tight between her brothers Joey and Izzy. Never mind she was the oldest—stuck in the middle because she was a girl.

The biggest reason lunch would be late was that the brothers were embroiled in their monthly argument about the cemetery, a hundred grassy plots purchased with family circle dues, their parents, Ruth’s Bubbie and Zaydie, buried smack in the middle. The brothers and cousins might live scattered throughout the five boroughs and adjacent suburbs, but in death they would be reunited with their parents, wives, children, uncles, cousins, and the whole mishpocheh in the Jewish-cemetery-heaven of South Jersey.

The question was: how would they be reunited, who’d be more reunited than whom? Who would get buried next to Papa, who next to Mama? Whose wife’s sister was deserving of a plot, whose wife’s cousin was not. This argument had preoccupied every family circle meeting since the unveiling of Bubbie’s and Zaydie’s headstones last year. Not that any of the brothers were dying, nor even sick, but they were planning ahead, staking their claims while they were still young enough and strong enough to fight it out, even with fisticuffs if it should come to that.

“Forget about it,” Pop scoffed in answer to a suggestion from one of the cousins, Hymie or Heshie, that they toss a coin to see who would sleep where for all eternity. When Zaydie was alive, Hymie and Heshie had been stuck in second-class silence on account of their father, Zaydie’s brother, never made it to America. Now, one or the other brought up the coin toss every month, and Pop shot it down every time. As the oldest, and the family circle president, Pop had first dibs on the plot next to Zaydie, and he wasn’t about to entertain any doubt or any question.

“As if any one of them would let go of a nickel long enough to toss,” Hannah-Harry’s muttered in an undertone meant only for the kitchen. Then she sidled her babka in front of Ma’s apple cake, ostensibly to cut herself a piece, which she proceeded to eat with dramatic lip smacking and finger licking, as if it were tastier than any cake any of the women could remember their own mothers ever baking back home, those cakes growing in memory with the passing of miles and years. 

When Hannah went off to the bathroom, a mustache of white sugar failing to mask the ugly black mole on her upper lip, Ma pushed her babka behind Ruth’s pile of rolls and sent Channah and Ann to check on the kugel. Ruth knew Ma wouldn’t take the kugel out of the oven until Pop had sounded the gavel to end the meeting, time to eat, but the oven was near the bathroom door, the better for the other wives to get an earful of Hannah tinkling and passing gas. 

Zaydie had never needed a gavel when he ran the family circle. He’d never even needed to raise his voice, not with four strapping sons who bent to hear every gruff whisper. It was Ruth’s brother Joey who’d suggested a gavel when Pop took over, not a real gavel, just a hammer from Pop’s toolbox. But when Joey had shown Pop to hit the table with a loud smack that made everyone jump, then who cared that Pop had never heard the word gavel before.

So now here was Joey, seven years younger than Ruth, already sitting at that table with the men, butting his nose in like practicing for his own turn to take over. Joey, who had lately started helping out on Pop’s plumbing calls. His hand on Pop’s hammer showed new calluses and a nasty red arc where he’d been burned by the welding torch—either he’d been too slow to get out of Pop’s way, or Pop couldn’t be bothered to wait. But the scars were not a sign that he was still just a careless boy. To Pop, they proved him more of a man even than when he’d loomed a head over the rabbi at his Bar Mitzvah last month. 

Joey might’ve been tall, which on him, unlike on Ruth, was considered an asset, but he was still a kid, sitting at Pop’s elbow, brandishing the gavel through the air whenever Pop wasn’t looking. And Pop wasn’t looking, too busy yelling at the brothers and the cousins, all of them flailing smoldering cigarettes, ashes threatening to fly off and burn, everyone yelling, half Yiddish, half English.

When the tea kettle whistled its interruption, Pop shot Ma such a look that she yanked it off the stovetop without first shutting off the burner, gas flames licking into the air, lapping at the apron hanging low over her ample bosom. 

“I’ll pour,” Ruth said, pushing Ma back from the flame.

But Fanny shouldered them both aside. “You got homework, go do it.” She pointed Ruth towards the book bag she always brought in hope of sneaking in some schoolwork between serving and dishwashing. “And you,” she turned to Ma, but then they leaned in close, so Ruth couldn’t hear the rest.

While Ruth settled into the only spot available for studying, a corner of hard linoleum, and waited for her heavy history text to transport her to the Crusades, Fanny poured two steaming glasses of tea and strode to the table, where she slopped them down in front of Pop and second-oldest Harry. “Watch out, it’s hot,” she warned, daring to interrupt Pop, whose mouth startled shut for an instant before he remembered whatever he’d been hollering about and carried on as if Fanny didn’t exist.

Fanny, who wore red lipstick and the nicest lace-trimmed shirtwaist in the room, actually paid dues to the family circle, had somehow been finagled in by Pop before the other brothers had had time to think better of it. Ordinarily, wives’ relatives didn’t count as family. It wasn’t that Pop cared boo about Fanny, but he’d liked putting one over on the other brothers.

Even as a dues-payer with no husband to represent her, Fanny wasn’t invited to sit at the table, never mind to speak. But she had the nerve to approach the men for a listen under the pretext of hot tea, while the wives waited in the kitchen for her to report back. They knew Fanny wouldn’t say much except to Ma, but still they plied her with the first slice of apple cake upon her return, two cubes of sugar in her tea set out on the kitchen counter, with a chair pulled up, she should take a load off, let the others eat standing up, balancing plates and forks and glasses.

“Papa… Mama… Papa… Mama,” Fanny whispered to Ma, but loud enough for all the women to hear. Her contented sigh at the first bite of Ma’s apple cake said more than all of Hannah’s licking and smacking over her store-bought babka. “Enough already with the Papa and the Mama.” Fanny set down her fork to free a hand for flapping in disgust.

With that one gesture, Fanny dismissed all the jockeying for cemetery position next to Papa and Mama, but not because it was laughable in the way Ruth and Joey used to laugh about it before he took up his seat at the table. The women had no patience for this argument that seemed like it would never die. Not these women whose own papas and mamas had been left behind long ago. Women whose parents might be dead already, with the letter to inform them still months in transit, parents maybe buried who knew where across the ocean, if they were lucky in a familiar shul graveyard that would only ever be seen again in memory. No, these women didn’t care who would end up buried next to Papa, who next to Mama. Even the cousin who might get ostracized to the farthest corner would still be here in America, his children able to walk across the plush green grass to set a stone on his grave. 

“Why not first come, first served?” Hannah murmured for women’s ears only. “You want to get buried next to Papa,” she explained, brandishing the knife she’d used to cut her babka now in the direction of her own husband Harry, “you gotta be the first one to drop dead.  Problem solved.” And the other wives chuckled in agreement.  Even Ma, who covered her mouth to hide the fact that Hannah had made her smile.

All of a sudden Pop was summoning Ruth to the table, probably to ask her opinion, to show off what she was learning at that expensive college he was paying for, never mind her scholarship, let them think he was paying.  She tucked in her blouse, licked her lips to mimic the sheen of Fanny’s lipstick, pulled herself up from the linoleum to her full height, shoulders back. 

But no, he just wanted a sheet of paper from her notebook, paper for Joey, of all people, he should draw a picture of the cemetery, a map of where everyone should end up, settle this in writing once and for all. “And a pencil,” Pop called after Ruth when she went to fetch her book bag. “You got a ruler?”

“I brought history, not math,” Ruth said, returning with paper and pencil but no ruler, holding out the history text for explanation.

“History?” Pop said. “Like we don’t already know what already happened?” And he looked around for nods of agreement from the men. “Arithmetic you could use in the real world, measure a pipe, figure the water pressure. Ain’t that right, Joe?” with a big smile at his son. Now all of a sudden it was Joe, no more Joey.  “But history, who needs it? Just a bunch of girls.” 

Goyls was how he pronounced it. And the room grew quiet. 

The grown men, who’d begun to lean forward to watch number-one son Joe perform a miracle with Ruth’s paper and pencil, now backed up straighter in their chairs.

Even the women in the kitchen ceased their chatter.

What nasty words would bubble up Ruth’s throat? What smart retort would burst forth from her mouth?

And then, what new and different fight would break out?

Thump…thump…thump—the only sound in Ruth’s ears for a moment—not her dangerous heartbeat, just innocent Izzy and the younger cousins out front tossing their rubber ball against the stoop. She felt the weight of the history book in her hand, heavy as a baseball bat, a sharpened sword, a medieval pollaxe.

“Kugel’s ready,” Ma announced. And she appeared, as if from the trenches instead of just the kitchen, with her huge steaming pan just yanked from the oven. Only a couple of dishcloths protected her hands from the scalding tin as she hefted the trough onto the table directly in front of the men. They barely had time to pull their own hands out of the way. 

Pop had no choice but to bang down his hammer, calling for lunch. “Leave Joe in peace,” he said with a satisfied grin. “Let him concentrate.”

There was nothing left for Ruth but her corner and her books—battles and blood and battering rams and burnings at the stake. The pages in front of her eyes faded into a blur of penciled-in notes and crisscrossed underlining, the remnants of previous owners that had made the book cheap for her to buy, but would make it harder for her to resell.

“Come, Ruthie, eat.” It was Fanny offering a plate of kugel and a generous helping of whitefish, tender flakes she’d scooped from the belly of the fish, which Ma usually saved for Pop, not the bony dregs near the tail. If Ruth felt slighted by her father, there’d be little sympathy from the wives. Boys grew to be men and girls grew to be women and that was life. But Fanny, who worked all day for boss men without one to call her own, maybe Fanny had an inkling. “You helped fix this food,” she said, “you might as well eat it.”

It was out of the ordinary for the meeting to carry on through lunch. The men brought their plates back to the table, scattering fish bones and hard-boiled-egg shells, so Pop himself had to push aside the mess, clearing a space for Joe to work.

After cake had been served, and more tea, and also watery coffee for the few who wanted, Joe presented his plan, a neat grid of squares and rows, showing how all four brothers could lie near their parents by putting one next to Papa, one next to Mama, one at the parents’ head, and one at their feet. “It’s easy,” he said, “like geometry. Four brothers, four sides.” And he pointed out designated quadrants for the wives and the children and the future generations. The four outer corners of the sizable property, he’d assigned to cousins Hymie and Heshie and Fanny and old man Teitelbaum, a friend from the old country whom Ruth had been taught to call Uncle even though Ma could never entirely explain if or how he was related. 

In a way, it was absent Teitelbaum, maybe purposely-absent, cowardly Teitelbaum, who’d started this whole megillah when his wife died last winter and everyone arrived at the cemetery for the funeral to find the plot next to Mama opened up to receive her. There was nothing they could do at the time, what with the casket already out of the hearse and the frozen ground around the hole covered with snow.  But don’t think the brothers didn’t have a plan to dig up old lady Teitelbaum and move her just as soon as they’d figured out where to move her to. They would get her into the corner by next week, if they could vote today to approve Joe’s proposal.

But Uncle Harry, who was penciled in next to Mama, didn’t like that Joe had assigned Pop, his own father, the prime spot next to Papa. And Uncle Phil, the youngest, wasn’t at all keen on lying for all eternity next to Mama and Papa’s feet. “Their feet?” he said.  “Their feet?”

Then Pop must have realized that if Uncle Abe was placed at the top, next to Mama’s and Papa’s heads, why then he’d be next to both of them, both of them. All of a sudden the burial plot next to his father that Pop had been claiming for months didn’t seem like the place of honor after all. “So, okay,” he said.  “Abe wants next to Papa, I give in, I’ll switch.”

“Never mind, I keep what I got,” Abe said.

Meanwhile cousin Hymie pushed back his chair with such force that it clattered over as he stood. “The corners?” he said. “You giving us the corners?” meaning him and Heshie. “We ain’t good enough to lay next to you? Our money was good enough when you wanted to buy the place!” And he stormed out of the apartment in his shirtsleeves, Heshie running after, both of them side-stepping the ball that flew through the unexpectedly open door and landed with a threatening thwack at Pop’s feet.

So the argument took up where it had left off before Joe had been assigned to save the day. It was just the four uncles now, which in some families might have been less fractious than with the cousins thrown in. But here the opposite was true, the brothers free to curse at each other, to denigrate each other’s physiques and intelligence, without having to pretend a united front against the cousins. 

At some point, somebody must have felt the need to tear Joe’s master plan into angry shreds, which Ruth didn’t mind sweeping up with the cigarette butts and eggshells after one of the aunts handed her a broom. Joey, once again Joey, had long since abandoned the gavel, snatched up the ball and fled outside to join the game.

The gavel lay silent on the table next to Pop, just a rusty hammer again, the only thing silent at that table. Not that anyone had any further hope for the argument to end today, but the meeting couldn’t be called to its conclusion until Hymie and Heshie returned, or else how would their wives get home? None of the women knew how to drive, and none of the uncles would be in the mood to offer a ride—the aunts knew better than to ask.

So Ma put up another pot of tea and started pulling wax paper wrappings off the leftovers. She would regret this tomorrow, when she’d normally have served the leftovers at home for lunch. She didn’t stomp around or complain the way Ruth might have, but she balled up the wax paper into the trash instead of folding it neatly to re-use.

Ruth retreated to the tiny bathroom, the one Hannah-Harry’s would have been wise to avoid earlier, practically in the middle of the kitchen as it was. That practically public bathroom was the reason Ruth rarely ate much at family meetings, definitely not onions nor glass after glass of sweet tea. But now she squeezed in with her history book and her notebook, sat on the toilet with the door ajar for light. She’d have to copy out notes, the textbook too obscured by its previous owners for another round of underlining. But instead, she found herself doodling on the note paper, her own plan for the cemetery, like Ma’s apple cake cut into eight wedge-shaped slices, one wedge for each brother, and one each for the cousins and old man Teitelbaum. They could all lie in a circle, with their heads next to Papa and Mama, or their feet. 

Maybe they would alternate heads and feet, like the younger cousins did when they were all put to sleep across one bed after a late-night Passover seder. Ruth leaned her back against the toilet tank, her oxford shoes up against the far wall, which of course wasn’t really far at all, her knees skewed at an awkward angle. But she could almost forget where she was, having fun now sketching the brothers lying prone in their graves, Pop with his glasses, Phil’s daring goatee, Harry’s prominent paunch that Ma always attributed to Hannah’s cooking, fatty and filling. 

She drew in trees and some pretty flowers, even though Jews don’t do flowers on graves. She was just adding the mole to Hannah’s lip on the body next to Harry and his paunch, a smear of black that she’d always wondered how it might feel to the touch—like an angry raw pimple or a swath of fine velvet?—when she heard the apartment door slam, followed by the immediate bang-bang-bang of Pop’s hammer, time to pack up. Pop would be in a rush to beat the Sunday night traffic, once again late, probably cursing every red light all the way home.

Ruth came out of the bathroom to find the brothers standing and stretching, putting out their cigarettes and putting on their hats. Hymie and Heshie were back, their mouths shut, at least until next month.

“Where you been?” Hymie’s wife asked.

“Around the block,” Hymie said, barking the words in a tone that every woman in the room knew meant none of your business.

“A long time for around the block,” the wife said. “You must be getting old, pretty soon you’ll need that corner plot.” It was the most Ruth had heard from either of the cousins’ wives all day, and her instinct was to back away in case Hymie’s fists should fly.  But Ma and all the aunts were inching closer to Hymie’s wife, practically surrounding her, as if at any moment they might whip out shields from under their skirts to form one of those protective tortoises like Ruth had been reading about in her history book, medieval siegecraft.

The room simmered for a moment, until Hymie turned away to fetch his hat from its peg on the wall, and Pop himself swung open the door that Hymie had slammed and hollered out to the younger cousins, enough with the ballgame, time to go home.  Then the women set to packing up the leftovers for a second time, in new wax paper torn fresh from Ma’s roll—a few remaining slices of cheese, a bit of whitefish with the head still attached—Ma always brought extra, she shouldn’t look poor, nor cheap.  Then they, too, scattered to find their hats, powder their noses. Most of the wives took turns in the bathroom, before riding off in different directions towards home, except for Ma who never used the toilet outside her own house. Ruth always wondered how had she once made it across the ocean?

It was Hannah-Harry’s who came out of the bathroom holding what looked like Ruth’s cemetery pie chart. How could that be? Wasn’t it here in her book bag? Ruth zipped and unzipped frantically, shuffling through papers, Hannah’s eyes meanwhile scanning the room in her direction. Ruth saw Fanny pause with her hatpin in midair, as if ready to wield it in Ruth’s defense. But Hannah didn’t look angry.  She was smiling, then chuckling, then laughing out loud, gesturing for the other wives to come take a look. 

“Women’s business,” Hannah said, pushing Harry back out of the kitchen when he wanted to know what was what. Then, “I pay you a dollar for this, Ruthie,” she said, unsnapping her pocketbook.  Hannah, who never unsnapped her pocketbook. “Gonna buy a frame at the five and dime, hang this up in my bathroom.  Harry can have a look every time he takes a you-know-what.”

“You can keep your dollar,” Ma said. “Ruthie don’t need.” 

But then it was Ma who put the last forkful of Hannah’s babka into her own mouth, chewed and swallowed, licked the powdered sugar off her fingers with the careful pink tip of her tongue. “Come Ruth, it shouldn’t go to waste,” she said. 

So Ruth licked her own forefinger to dab up a dusting of white sugar left on the rim of Hannah’s plate, leaned forward to pinch up the last crumbs of babka from plate to mouth without scattering any across the bosom of her blouse, not an ample bosom like Ma’s and the other wives’, but perhaps someday enough. Hannah’s babka turned out to be moist and sweet after all.

Then Ma washed and dried Hannah’s plate and wrapped it in several of her own handmade dishcloths. “It shouldn’t break in the car,” she said to Hannah. 

“But your cloths,” Hannah said.

“So you’ll give back next time I see you.” Ma held out the padded and protected plate, which Hannah grasped from the other side. Their hands, both Ma’s and Hannah’s, were red and raw from dishwashing, but all the women had proper gloves to put on for the trip home. 

 

Annaliese Wagner

Annaliese Wagner is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. She has published her poetry in HUMID and The Blue Route, and has published fiction in Far Enough East.

 

How to Jump Rope

1) Start with the rhyme she liked to sing Miss Mary Mac, Mac, Mac. Bring the rope around and start jumping all dressed in black, black, black. Feel your sneakers smack the concrete. Close your eyes with silver buttons, buttons, buttons.

2) Remember to keep saying the rhyme. Squeeze your eyes shut. The pavement is hard.

3) Remember the pavement. Remember to close your eyes. Keep rhyming. Remember that today you went to the hospital and there were tubes in the veins of her hand, in the insides of her elbows, in her nose, down her throat all down her back, back, back. The pavement is hard. You want to hit your sister. Your sister is a bad word you can’t say. Say the bad word. Say her rhyme she asked her mother, mother, mother.

4) Your sister is beautiful. She took lots of pills. She is in a coma. She is not your sister. She is the bad word you said. She does not love you. Feel your knees ache. Feel your breath catch in your lungs as you chant her rhyme for fifty cents, cents, cents.

5) Remember you wanted to hide behind your father. She took a lot of pills and they were blue and white and orange and they mixed in her belly and they got into her brain and now there are so many tubes to see the elephant, elephant, elephant. Your knees ache and you can’t keep your eyes closed anymore because keeping your eyes closed doesn’t make any difference because you still see the tubes anyway and you are breathless but you keep chanting jump over the fence, fence, fence.

Abbigail N. Rosewood

Abbigail N. Rosewood writes in order to make sense of the world and in hope to connect with others just as lost as she is on the human journey. Her works have previously been published at BlazeVox, The Missing Slate, Greenhills Literary Lantern, The Bad Version, Pens On Fire, The Rusty Nail and forthcoming at Thoughtsmith. She studies Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University and works as an editorial assistant at The Missing Slate. She can be reached at www.abbigailnrosewood.com.

 

The Ones We Keep

Right after the constructors finished adding a second floor to the brick house, Tai confessed his affair to Ngoc. It was more of a declaration, touched with a little pride and some courage from a man who was prepared to leave his family. His destruction was implacable and he anticipated tears. Surely Ngoc would not have expected it. She was the more attractive one of them, and much younger. On their honeymoon bed, Tai had asked her for a secret, one she never told anybody before. And Ngoc, hands patting her flat and defined stomach, spoke in speedy, slurred words like water spilling from the mouth of a baby when it first learned to swallow. ‘Since I was young, I always made sure that I was better—prettier, younger—than the man I date so he would always feel lucky to have me. That way I won’t be the one afraid to lose him.’

The house was filled with commotion. Downstairs, the TV was on, Tai’s mother chatted with her sister in a hushed and self-important voice that old ladies sometimes do, somebody was in the kitchen, too. Ngoc could hear the sound of a blade hacking at the cutting board rhythmically. For nine years, she shared this space with Tai’s mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, his brother’s children. Now that her own child was at that age of unfathomable mood swings which were at once serious and shallow, they have decided to build an upstairs so the family could have its first glimpse of privacy, even though the ceiling was thin and everything that was said on the second floor can still be heard downstairs.

‘After all these years they finally let us have this extra space. You think they will let you leave?’ Ngoc smirked. She wasn’t afraid, in fact, she felt the strength of the time they had already spent together pushing at the tip of her finger. She stabbed the needle forward then backward on Tai’s pants with the impatience of one who was all too familiar with the tear.

Tai wasn’t much for words. In these verbal games, his wife always gained grounds no matter how twisted her reasoning. Already he felt the irrelevance of his admission to adultery. Kim, his mistress, was twenty-six, not that much younger than Ngoc. She wasn’t exciting, or had an unquenchable sex drive like he had heard of some his coworkers’ mistresses. But she was willing. Willing to wear the new dress he bought her even though it wasn’t her color. Willing to sit on his Moped as he drove aimlessly through the city, the fish market or the tourist shopping center. Her willingness to get lost, perhaps, was why he liked her. Ngoc always knew where she wanted to go and the route to get there. Her efficiency impressed Tai and reduced him little by little from her world.

On a Tuesday four months ago, he had skipped tennis to be in Kim’s bed. He’d reasoned that it was the right thing to do after having exhausted the amount of coffee, fruit juices, and cocktails they had ordered together. She had sat with legs slightly parted, encouraged him to talk about everything and nothing. She seemed to want so little from him, which inspired in him a magnificent generosity, to give her everything he possibly could. Still, he wasn’t leaving his family for love; he knew that much.

‘Why the threats? If you mean to keep Phuong from me, you can’t, she is my child, too.’ Tai suddenly felt the need to be either frank or cruel. He wanted to jolt Ngoc out of her constant self-composed calm.

‘I’m not keeping anyone from you. You are the one. Remember that.’ Ngoc tried to keep from trembling. In her head, she had already started to plan. The kind of job she would need to support herself. Serving homemade coffee to construction workers brought in some extra vacation money, but it wasn’t enough to live by. What would she do? There was no way she would continue staying here in Tai’s mother house, where he might show up with his—. She felt her head spin and could not focus on her husband’s words. His throaty voice sounded like scolding, as if this culmination of their marriage was somehow her fault. The heat in the room was becoming unbearable and the odor of burnt meat rising from the kitchen made her nauseous. She needed something to lighten the situation, to regain her apparent loss of voice in the matter.

‘I’ll help you pack,’ she said.

She didn’t mean it, of course, but sometimes she had released words just for their effect. Calculated syllables that made her own heart throb, and somehow when she felt its spasm, she knew she had done something right. Mostly she knew he had felt it, too.

She left the room, leaving the pair of pants without pulling the last thread, letting the needle hang from the rip. The sun was cooking them both. Beads of sweat glowed from his forehead. Perhaps he would understand the message she was trying to leave. She was proud of the steadiness of her own voice. In these moments, she knew what they needed weren’t the explicit and honest communication that happy couples claimed to have. Symbols alone could bolster her strength and give her the vague assurance of direction. No matter which path they found in this marriage, she would get there first and wait for him. She wouldn’t be caught surprised. Not again.

The first thing Ngoc did was weigh herself on their rusty scale in the bathroom. She hadn’t stepped on it in a long time, hadn’t cared to know. Somehow, she was absolutely certain that Kim, the one Tai hoped to run away with, was thinner than her. Ngoc felt no hostility toward the girl. After all weren’t these kind of things as common as soup and salads? She and Tai had discussed the adultery of their friends, relatives. Laying with their damp backs and staring at the mosquitoes swirling above them, they had gossiped about everyone’s affairs but their own. Tai had aggressively defended the wives whose husband strayed, while she found more faults with the women for not knowing how to keep their family together. She wouldn’t cry and act so pathetic as those women did. If tears indicated that somebody had lost, as long as she didn’t cry, there was no victory for anyone.

On the sink, behind the faucet was a tube of lipstick. The cap was as tarnished as the scale. She twisted it open and sniffed the stale, concentrated scent of vanilla. Somebody had told her once that the shape of the lipstick revealed something about the woman. The tip could either be round or pointy. She had always thought that the pointy tip meant a promiscuous woman. Hers was round. Suddenly, she felt an urge to shave it off, to give it the edge it never had. She could have been that kind of woman.

Han, Tai’s mother called her for help from the front yard. The old lady was always sweeping even when there were no leaves on the ground. Ngoc was used to seeing her with the broom in her hand, as if it were an extension of her arm and she would be incomplete without it. ‘Ngoc! Are you ever going to wash the dogs? They stink like tunnel rats,’ the old lady shouted. ‘Which dog?’ Ngoc silently resented, ‘There are at least ten of them.’ In this heat, the fleas multiplied layer by layer on the already malnourished canines. For hours, they sat chewing at themselves until their fur was sticky, their raw skin red and exposed. Ngoc felt sorry for them and the showers that cooled down the dogs temporarily, didn’t help. Yet the old lady kept letting them breed. Litter after litter, the little ones barely opened their eyes before they were already lunged into the misery of the world.

‘Where are you going?’ The old lady asked as Ngoc appeared from the staircase. Her tone was accusatory but Ngoc knew it stemmed from her fear of being forgotten, of aging into invisibility. Despite her constant irascible demands, Ngoc felt an irrational love for the old lady. Perhaps it was because Ngoc knew that only she alone could concoct the perfect beef stew for Tai’s mother, or slaughter the hen in the meticulous manner that the old lady wanted—with a sharp cut at the neck that allowed bright red drops of blood to drip into a clean, white bowl.

They needed each other in this way, in a busy and discriminating manner that let them receive and reciprocate blame—Han disparaging Ngoc for not being worthy of her son (Because she was from a provincial town and because her father worked in a factory that produced fish sauce. “Even his money doesn’t smell good,” Han would say), and Ngoc incriminating the old lady as the reason for Tai’s refusal to buy a house for his wife and kid, lest Han should be too weak and lonely to manage on her own.

‘Your mother is not weak. She’s stronger than me.’ Ngoc would say to him.

‘Still she can’t be alone,’ Tai would reply.

‘She’s not alone. Your brother—his wife, kids. There are four other people here to keep her company!’

‘You think I’m that selfish? Forcing my younger brother to take care of her by himself?’

That was how the conversation went. When Ngoc had the energy, she would add ‘He doesn’t take care of her. I do,’ but for the past few years, she’d only sighed and gone to join Han in front of the TV.

Now as she looked in the old lady’s questioning eyes, she recognized that imminent sense of departure, of knowing Han would soon be gone and the frame of her standing there now still, was somehow irrelevant. For the first time, Ngoc understood for she felt it in herself, too.

In the temple’s courtyard, men in long sleeved shirts and women in high collared dresses gathered around the bird cages. While the city’s population proliferated with colorful tourists and their overweight backpacks, the temple remained for the most part unchanged. There were but a few foreigners with their canon T3is strapped to their necks, kneeling at the marble staircase in an attempt to capture the seventeen animal statues on each step of the stairs, before a monk pointed the sign prohibiting photography out to them. A short, thin man of around five foot and a dark chestnut complexion was buying fifteen birds, possibly because that was how long somebody he knew had been gone. It was a common practice, the people bought birds to release them because one must do something good in the sanctum of God.

Ngoc watched the birds fly away with glee. Their dull, brown wings were little specks of dirt amidst the white clouds. The onlookers were disappointed, as if they expected something not quite so understated, as if they thought the brown creatures would suddenly explode with colors once they were free.

‘It wouldn’t be long until those birds were captured again, to be sold here.’ Ngoc said to the man.

‘I know,’ he nodded.

‘So why do you buy them?’

‘Because freedom isn’t free, even just for a little while,’ he smirked and then started to laugh. His light and complacent laughter startled Ngoc. ‘I’m just joking,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I do it. I come here to place incense for my daughter and buy some birds. At first I thought I did it for her, that she would have liked seeing some dozen birds flying off at once, but then I realized I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t find out about her existence until—‘ He stopped to check if Ngoc was still listening then resumed. ‘Well let’s just say I only got to know my daughter here, at this temple. And releasing the birds just makes me feel a little less heavy on my feet. After all, isn’t that where the spirits go? Up? Being light would help don’t you think?’

Ngoc didn’t come here to pray to the dead, but to see the living. There was a boy from her childhood who had loved her, perhaps the only one beside Tai. Long was an orphan and grew up in the monastery. His fate was sealed even before they met. Not that he didn’t have a choice, but that he wouldn’t survive anywhere else being raised by the elder monks who had taught him how to pray well and read scriptures, but not to barter, lie, or pretend his heart wasn’t broken.

In her early twenties, Ngoc didn’t feel too bad tantalizing Long. Everyone needed a source of unconditional love without having to return it. Perhaps that was what she was for Tai, and then her daughter Phuong when she was born. Ngoc paid fifty thousand dong for some dragon fruits, mangos, and oranges from a trembling old lady. ‘I could do that, sell fruit. Mourners are generous people,’ she thought, ‘I will leave Phuong with Tai’s mother until I save up enough to bring her with me.’ She continued to walk past the pond leading to the columbarium.

At the bottom the stairs, Ngoc could see Long on the balcony. He was talking to an elder monk with exaggerated hand gestures. They were both laughing as if they had just heard a dirty joke. From here, neither of them looked like they belonged in a monastery. She waved to Long before walking up the steps but his eyes were squeezed together, still laughing mildly, and didn’t see her.

‘Hey there,’ Ngoc smiled with some difficulty. She suddenly felt fraudulent, like she didn’t have the right to be there.

‘Hey!’ Long turned and hurried toward her. His overt enthusiasm startled Ngoc, who expected a shy youth and not a man so unruffled by her presence.

‘So good to see you,’ he said, ‘Are you here to visit your father-in-law? Funny, I just cleaned his urn and was thinking about you.’ He lifted the bangs from his eyes and looked at Ngoc for the first time.

‘I brought some fruits—’ Ngoc managed softly.

‘Great! I will put them in the altar right now.’ He walked over the large golden plate in front of the Siddhartha statue, took away the desiccated oranges and replaced them with the new fruits, still green so they would last a while. ‘So how have you been? How is Tai?’

‘I came to see you, Long. Can we talk somewhere?’

He shrugged as if disappointed that this wasn’t just a friendly visit, but one with motivation. With eyes still tearing from the smoke of the incense, he nodded. ‘Sure, let’s go sit by the pond.’

An orange tabby peered up at them from the space between the walls. Ngoc folded her legs on the bench and sighed lengthily. ‘I wish we could have done this more often, you know, before I married.’

‘We did. We went to Turtle Lake and talked nearly every weekend.’

‘So you don’t regret anything?’ She asked.

‘Things turn out as they should. You’re happy, aren’t you?’

‘What if I had married you instead?’

Long laughed, incredulous. ‘You wouldn’t be very happy.’

‘I think we might have been. I think so.’ She was emphatic. The words floated above her. For a moment, she felt like a young girl again, with important choices to make.

‘I’m gay,’ he said somewhat reservedly, his voice tinged with a little self-doubt, but mostly deliverance.

The two words stunned her and Ngoc didn’t look at him, nor reply. She merely swallowed over and over again. The back of her neck burned. Though a minute earlier she was admiring the soft hue of pink on the lotus and its bright yellow filaments, now she no longer saw them.

‘I know what I said to you Ngoc—the promises I made.’ He looked up at the clear sky as if searching for answers, ‘There’s the person you love before you know who you are and then there’s—. Well that’s it.’

‘You asked me not to marry Tai.’ Ngoc said. She felt as if she had just opened a wrapped present to find nothing inside. The box would have held hope, if not, given her wonders and a passing smile when she had little left. No more.

‘I know’ he said like a mantra under his breath, ‘I know’.

The upstairs room looked unusually spacious even though much of Tai’s belongings still leaned neatly against the wall. Two folded stacks of clothes, one for jeans, one for t-shirts. Both Tai and Ngoc had quietly lapsed into a routine of coming home on separate days. All confessions induced change, yet neither could admit that they were removing bricks from the foundation of their marriage. Ngoc took a job as a cook for an elementary school in the city. She had rented a bed in a small apartment behind the market. The smell of livestock, rotten vegetables, and rain permeated the walls. At night, she curled up inside the mosquito’s net, slapping her hands together at the mosquitoes that landed outside of the net. Their blood left a dot of brown stain on the blue mesh. Ngoc was astonished at how naturally one life slipped from her and another began without pause. No intermission. No great epiphany. Her wrists were sore from the repeated motion of untying, washing, cutting bundles of vegetables, but she felt the same as always. Without the familiar salty smell of Tai next to her and his erratic gasps for breath during the middle of the night, she found it hard to sleep at first, but eventually thought the extra space comfortable. Her childhood recurred to her more frequently and vividly than her life with Tai. When she was not back at the two-storied house, she rarely thought of her daughter. The girl, like her father, was slipping into a dark room in Ngoc’s memory. She felt as if she were looking at them through a smudged window and the more she cleaned the glass, the more distorted the image became.

Ngoc stood at the door watching her daughter sleep. Phuong’s cheeks were round and full but the fat had begun to disappear and a square jaw line was barely visible. Hearing the floorboard creak, she opened her eyes and looked at Ngoc.

‘Sorry I woke you,’ Ngoc said.

‘I wasn’t sleeping.’ Like her father, Phuong hated to be caught sleeping during the middle of the day. ‘Will you be staying the night, mom?’ Her voice was sulky like a young child still, but there were dark half moons under her eyes and she looked much older.

‘No, I have to go back to the apartment. It takes too long to drive to my work from here.’

‘Can I come with you?’

‘There’s nowhere for you to sleep there. I share it with two other women.’ Ngoc spoke impatiently. She was angry at her daughter for her suffering. When you were unhappy, it was better to be callous than sentimental. Phuong’s question had made Ngoc want to weep.

‘I can sleep anywhere mom. All I need is a fan, and I can live anywhere—’

One evening Ngoc dropped Tai’s mother off at her singing class. Since Ngoc and Tai’s separation, the old lady had filled her day with classes, group meetings, community services. It was Saturday, Phuong would get out of school at three instead of five. Instead of rushing back to the city, Ngoc sat on a low stool on the front porch picking fleas off the emaciated canines. The mother had brown fur with mean streaks of yellow on her forehead. She truly looks like a rabid dog, Ngoc thought. Her breasts hung from her stomach, raw and bald from the suckling of her babies. Ngoc felt sorry for her. The little ones didn’t look like their mother—with fluffy, white coat. Only the runt had the recognizable spots of brown fur on his tail.

Tai pulled up to the front gate. His powder blue t-shirt matched the dress of his passenger, a girl with hair as straight as if each strand had been measured with a ruler. Ngoc could tell he was more agitated than surprised to see her; they were supposed to stay with the schedule until they figured out what to do next. It seemed to Ngoc her husband already had made up his mind. His pretense of indecision was supposed to spare her time, to give her a chance to become used to or perhaps even comforted by his absence.

‘We’re just here to check out the dogs. Kim might adopt one.’ Tai said.

‘I love dogs,’ the young girl smiled, eager to please the soon to be ex-wife. She reminded Ngoc of when Tai first brought her meet his mother. The girl was desperate for Ngoc’s permission. No doubt she had suffered the guilt of a home wrecker. Her friends had thought her profoundly stupid for throwing away her youth on a middle-aged man who was neither wealthy or handsome. The fact that he was married was not one of their concerns.

Even though their age wasn’t too far apart. The young girl’s face possessed that vacant beauty unlined by experience. Ngoc frowned a little and said more warmly than she intended.

‘Sure, take as many as you want.’

Around the pond the air smelled of moss and wet stones. The grey sky thundered but there was no rain. Inside the cage the puppies were hushed. The slight joggle of Ngoc’s walking swayed them to sleep. With both arms, Ngoc carried the cage pressed to her chest. Their distinct puppy scent was a mixture of mud, milk, and wild grass. Ngoc wanted to press her face onto their soft bodies. Tomorrow Kim would come back for the runt. Immediately she had picked him among his noisier, livelier siblings. Apparently a simple girl with a soft heart, she was attracted to his frailty. Ngoc almost laughed. She could picture the scene unfolding—Kim taking the puppy home, coddling him with boiled chicken and raw cod, letting him snuggle up in between her and Tai. Ngoc’s husband would indulge his girlfriend at first until he lost patience and tossed the dog off the bed. If the runt happened to whine, he might kick its rear to quiet it.

Once Ngoc put down the cage on a dry, flat rock, the puppies stirred. She lifted the top open and they directed their noses upward, their senses awakened to a clearer, thinner air. Ngoc took the runt out first. He would get his first swim before joining his new family tomorrow. Holding him in her left hand, Ngoc walked out toward the middle of the pond. Without hesitation, she put him down into the cool water. Ngoc had done this before. She liked to think of herself as a swimming coach, showing them one by one how to float and turn the water around them into a light substance that lifted their small skeletons rather than weigh them down. Her daughter, Phuong, too had learned to swim this way. Ngoc would hover her hands under Phuong’s stomach and thigh, pretending to give support while Phuong was buoyant on her own. In the same way with one hand under the puppy’s belly, Ngoc let the runt kick his legs, creating tiny whirlpools around his body.

With a deep breath, Ngoc pulled herself under the water. She pressed the runt against her breasts and felt his newborn claws dig into her skin. Ngoc held her breath without creating bubbles with her mouth. She blinked several times, trying to keep her vision steady but the water, a dark olive green began to turn black. Still with arms locked tightly around the runt, she remained submerged in water until he no longer struggled but laid limply, contentedly in the cradle of her arms. Ngoc felt her nose grow warm. Whether or not she had cried, she could not tell.

It seemed the sky had stopped threatening to rain. The clouds moved aside, making way for the forceful flares of the sun. The pond was undisturbed, a rigid reflection of the sky. It held in its wet belly the same floating clouds, piercing rays of the sun. Another version of the heavens.

The other puppies too, left behind, wandered without purpose on the safe edge of the pond. One sat upright, peering at the far side of the water. His brothers and sisters heard him whimper and one by one they joined in his mourning.

The old lady was already home when Ngoc got there. Han sat alone on the ground in front of a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup.

‘You never came to get me so I had to take a cab. I don’t have that kind of money—’ Han was about to go on but Ngoc interrupted her.

‘I’m sorry. I meant to come get you.’

‘My son would always be on time. He wouldn’t let me wait.’ The old lady paused, as if suddenly she remembered something, ‘I don’t see the puppies. You didn’t sell them to the restaurants, did you? Those bastards, always stealing people’s dogs—’

‘No I left them at the pond. They won’t make it.’ Ngoc said.

A quick flash of sorrow showed on the old lady’s forehead. Her lips formed a tight line that seemed be frowning. But perhaps it was only age with its damage to facial expressions. ‘Oh—’ Han breathed. There was an almost imperceptible surprise in her voice.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ngoc repeated while standing there transfixed as if waiting for the call of a jury. She imagined being in the courtroom and signing the few last pieces of paper that were supposed to severe two people’s ties to each other forever and all she could mutter was those syllables. Not as an apology but more of an empty catchphrase one might be repeating in meditations, as an anchor to hold fast onto any remaining peace and numb out other thoughts.

‘It doesn’t matter that much. The bitch will be pregnant again soon.’ The old lady said matter-of-factly and slurped noisily on the soup bowl. She paused, looked inside the swirling surface of the bowl as the elders once did with the pattern of Pouchong leafs inside tea cups to predict the future. ‘The ones we keep end up dying anyway—,’ she nodded to herself, as if confirming with her memory of all the dogs they’d had.

Ngoc waited for Phuong to fall asleep before heading back to the city. Next door, the neighbor was burning a pile of garbage. The smoke colored the sky an ash grey. She could hear the motor on Tai’s Moped approaching and counted the seconds until the front door opened and a few seconds more when his footsteps hit the wooden stairs. The climb was slow and arduous. He had probably had a few drinks with his colleagues. Over the years, she’d accepted his alcohol intake as she’d accepted anything else—the dog getting pregnant while her last litter slowly died off, Phuong being bullied in class for wearing the same maroon uniform for three consecutive years. Ngoc had tried hard not to ask for more than she could have, to accept life’s little indifferences. She had been so willing to bend down and take the weight that she forgot to fall in love with what was around her. Here she was again supporting her husband’s flaccid body mass on her whole back and carried him to bed without questions or curiosity.

‘Hey wifey.’ Tai spoke childishly as Ngoc unbuttoned his shirt. He rolled over to let her pull the shirt off his back. ‘Do you still love me wifey?’ He said loudly in that jesting way of his, unconcerned with the silence of the household . Phuong stirred on the mattress against the opposite wall.

Ngoc felt a dull throb inside her chest. ‘If you can’t understand it without being told, then you can’t understand it being told,’ she recalled what Long had once said to her, except he was referring to an old religious pamphlet he’d found.

In the corner were the pants Ngoc had never finished mending. She picked them up and started to insert the needle back and forth. In between the steady and boisterous rhythm of Tai’s snores were Phuong’s softer, shorter breaths. Even as Ngoc focused on the stitches, she never took her eyes off them. The night rolled on like a music disc set on repeat.

Ngoc sat with her head against the wall. Unconsciously she measured her breathing to match with Tai’s so that it could not be heard.  With her legs folded beneath her, the muscles ached but she did not budge, afraid the floor board would squeak and wake them up. Like a statue, she looked as if she had fallen asleep herself except with eyes wide open, dazed in a secret kind of love, the kind that only unraveled itself when nobody else was there to see.