Category Archives: Issue 2.2 Summer 2013

Issue 2.2 Summer 2013

Peretz Markish

Translator’s Note on Peretz Markish’s Work:

Peretz Markish was a prominent Yiddish writer who was executed by Stalin on August 12, 1952, a date that has come to be known as “the night of the murdered poets.” His work is among the most acclaimed Yiddish poetry that has come out of Russia in the early to mid-twentieth century.  LW Markish’s greatest poetic accomplishment was his epic poem, Di Kupe (The Heap), which describes Jewish suffering through a metaphorical heap of corpses in a marketplace. This selection is an excerpt.

 

Rose Waldman (translator) is an MFA candidate and a writing instructor at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Pakn Treger, The MacGuffin, Ami Magazine, Meorot, and elsewhere. Her translation of a I. L. Peretz story from Yiddish is forthcoming from Back Pages Books.

 

The Heap (15)

Night unbuttons her black mouth
Its teeth dripping with stars
Board, lonely ones, and sail
The silver ship of the new moon

Who has no rest in his bed
Who has no cure in the night-hour
Board, naked ones, without coffins
The silver ship of the new moon

Like the ark on Ararat
The new moon sits on the heap
They sleep.  Only the crow does not rest
She busies herself in the rotting trash:

“Enter, residents of mourning
The skin of sunset lies slaughtered
We the crows don’t want to sail
The silver ship of the new moon

Pack the new moon with victuals
Lay a pair of carcasses onto it.”
And the silent crows wander like clouds
On the silver ship of the new moon.

Leib Kvitko

Translator’s Note on Leib Kvitko’s Work:

Leib Kvitko was a prominent Yiddish writer who was executed by Stalin on August 12, 1952, a date that has come to be known as “the night of the murdered poets.” His work is among the most acclaimed Yiddish poetry that has come out of Russia in the early to mid-twentieth century. 

 

Rose Waldman (translator) is an MFA candidate and a writing instructor at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Pakn Treger, The MacGuffin, Ami Magazine, Meorot, and elsewhere. Her translation of a Yiddish I. L. Peretz story is forthcoming from Back Pages Books.

 

A Silence  

When no one is in my room
I become sprightly
Smile to myself
And dance a silence with the stillness
We spin in secret, easy wildness
We spin – I and stillness 

She clings to me, blows into my ear
Intoxicates me with her grey appearance
I become a simpleton
I spin, effortless, my body spins itself
But soon in stillness’ corners
A whisper dissolves
It moves me
I recognize her, my stillness
We dance with easy wildness
In the dark air, like dark cloths
We dance, I and stillness
A deep light silence
 
It happens—
Sometimes I appear
And stillness refuses to recognize me
I seek my reflection in her eyes
I see: my temples burning
I turn back
She steals a glance
And pounds both me and the door
I startle
And bow to her
 
When I awake
The sky is already a black roof
I and stillness stand, embrace
Eyes moist, cheeks warm
Soon we sing a ballad
Of nights and rains
And dance a silence light and long

Alisa Velaj

Translator’s Note on Alisa Velaj’s Work:

A Velaj. blrAlisa Velaj is a prolific Albanian writer and poet who received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Tirana, College of History and Literature. An accomplished teacher of Albanian, Velaj has received a Master of Arts degree in literature from the University of Tirana. Her graduate thesis was entitled “The Catharsis in Mitrush Kuteli’s Prose” (Discussions on the Intertextual content of Kuteli’s prose). Alisa Velaj is a Ph.D. candidate of Albanian literature at the “Blanzhe Koneski” University in Skopie, Republic of Macedonia. She is fluent in English and Italian.

Velaj has published two volumes of Poetry: Foundations of Wind (Ideart Press, 2006), and Around the Flames (2011). She has also written a foreword to Godot is not Coming, 2010, a poetry volume by Ndue Ukaj, translated in English and Spanish by Peter Tase and published in the United States by Lulu Enterprises. Alisa Velaj regularly participates in regional conferences on comparative literature, and Albanian language and professional writing seminars. Her verses of  “A tale of pilgrims” is published in the October, 2012 issue of  Enhance  in the United States, translated by Peter Tase. Velaj’s poems are translated in Portuguese by Fernando Dias Antunes and printed in his magazine which is published in Lisbon, Portugal.

 

Peter TasePeter Tase (translator) received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Italian Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, United States (2006) and is a graduate of Marquette University, Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C. (2006).  Tase has translated more than ten fiction and poetry volumes by Albanian writers, from Albanian to English and Spanish. Tase is the author of Simultaneous Dictionary in Five Languages (2010), and editor of El Idioma y Cultura Guarani en Paraguay (2011), a volume of essays and research articles written by David Galeano Olivera, president of Ateneo de Lengua y Cultura Guarani, Paraguay. For more information see, www.petertase.com

 

Manna

I ate Manna
at Zacharia’s home.
Sweet Manna
and two grilled fish.

Later was upset with my mother
who would never cook tasty food
just like grandma Rachel.

Many years went by,
but myself, a kid,
still cherish that sweet flavor
every time I see fish,
as they’re fed with coins from worshipers,
there, at the river near a synagogue…

 

Mana 

Vogëlushëve hebrenj të fëmijërisë time

Une hëngra mana
në shtëpinë e Zakarias.
Mana të ëmbla
dhe dy peshq të pjekur zgare.

Pastaj u zemërova me nënën time
që s’gatuante kurrë ushqime
si të gjyshe Rakelës.

Kaluan shumë vjet,
por une-fëmija,
ruaj ende atë shije të ëmbël
sa herë shoh peshqit,
tek ushqehen me lëmosha besimtarësh.
atje, në lumin pranë një faltoreje…

Stella Vinitchi Radulescu

Translator’s Note on Stella Vinitchi Radulescu:

Stella R.Stella Vinitchi Radulescu was born in Romania in 1946, and left the country permanently in 1983 at the height of Ceausescu’s communist regime. After seeking political asylum in Rome, she immigrated to the U.S. She received an M.A. in French from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Philology from the University of Bucharest. Since 1989, she has taught French, first at Loyola University, then at Northwestern University

Radulescu began writing poetry in Romanian at an early age, and published several collections in Romania. As she puts it, “Writing poetry was risky—it could have been ‘a political manifesto’ against the regime!—but it was also a refuge.” She faced a crisis of sorts when she left Romania, because she was uncertain how to continue writing in a new language. However, she enjoyed discovering other dimensions of expression through writing in English. She attributes part of her success in this area to her study of philology. She also began to write in French, which was always “la langue de la poésie” for her. She points to the fact that Samuel Beckett wanted to write deliberately in French, and asserts that “there is always something mysterious about the language.”

For Radulescu, it is difficult to translate her own poems. As she puts it, “I feel, think, act, perceive, smell, touch differently according to the language I write in.” She has been kind enough to allow me to begin translating her French poetry, and I gratefully acknowledge her partnership in finalizing these translations. These poems are from her collection, Un cri dans la neige [A Cry in the Snow], which was awarded the le Grand Prix de Poésie “Henri-Nöel Villard” and published by Éditions du Cygne in 2009.

In addition to publishing books of poetry in Romanian and French, Radulescu has published five books of poetry in English, including All Seeds & Blues (WordTech, 2011), Insomnia in Flowers (Plain View Press, 2008), Diving with the Whales (March Street Press, 2008), and Self Portrait in Blue (March Street Press, 2004).

 

Luke H.Luke Hankins (translator) is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011), and is the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Wipf & Stock, 2012). A chapbook of his translations of French poems by Radulescu, I Was Afraid of Vowels…Their Paleness, was published by Q Avenue Press in 2011. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including American Literary ReviewNew England ReviewPoetry East, and The Writer’s Chronicle. He is Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review.

 

 

the earth begins

the earth begins one distant afternoon
with the breast’s
ochre color
the transparent milk that flows and the mouth
that takes pleasure in it

with the memory of another land
which has just left us

the fear of losing that land     the breast withdrawn
the milk dried up

look—the earth is beginning
today
and ends with me as I wait     you’d call it
a withered place

pinched between two fingers of silence

 

la terre commence  

la terre commence un après-midi lointain
avec la couleur ocre
du sein
le lait qui coule transparent et la bouche
qui s’y plaît

avec le souvenir d’une autre terre qui vient
de nous quitter

la peur de la perdre le sein qui se retire
le lait qui tarit

la terre commence, voilà
aujourd’hui
et finit avec moi qui attends        on dirait là
un endroit rétréci

tassé entre deux doigts de silence

Agi Mishol

Translator’s Note on Agi Mishol’s Work:

The poetry of Agi Mishol is evocative, accessible, grounded in the present yet steeped both in Mishol’s personal past and in the public past of Israel. The challenge is to translate the words without removing them from their larger cultural context and also to preserve the gentle lyrical quality that Mishol’s poetry possesses in the original Hebrew. Cynthia Ozick wrote that “a translation can serve as a lens into the underground life of another culture,” and my wish in translating Agi Mishol’s poetry is to create this lens for readers of English.

 

Agi MisholAgi Mishol is an established Israeli poet who has won an array of prizes, including the Yehuda Amichai Prize, the Prime Minister’s Prize and the coveted Dolitzky Prize.  The daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Agi Mishol was born in Transylvania, Romania in 1946, emigrating to Israel at an early age. Her work has been translated into a number of languages and she has published more than a dozen books of poetry in Hebrew. Look There was published in English by Graywolf Press. Her latest Hebrew poetry collection is entitled Working Order. Agi Mishol directs the Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv.

 

Joanna ChenJoanna Chen (translator) is a British-born journalist and poet. She has published extensively in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, BBC World Service and Radio 4. She has also published world reports on women’s issues in Marie Claire that have been syndicated in the USA, Europe and Australia. Joanna Chen’s poetry has appeared in a number of literary journals both in Israel and abroad, most recently in Poet Lore.  www.joannachen.com

 

 

She-Dog

1.

When she sees me in the morning
coming out of the house toward the fields
she leaps around me leaving
on the path
one long, precise sentence
on happiness.        

2.

Proud of her name
she charges into the crows
just to prove she’s guarding
the yard.

3.

She returns with a chicken in her mouth.
It must have escaped the neighbor’s coop.
She won’t eat it but neither will she let it go,
just stands there steaming with the bird between her teeth
and a shy wag of her tail –
half she-dog, half she-wolf
lost on the border.

4.

She has no money
no clothes
and doesn’t hold a grudge.

When she’s hungry – she eats.
When she’s thirsty – she drinks.
When she’s tired she stretches out
and falls asleep under a bush.

5.

Always by my side
she goes where I want to
before I even get up. 

Howard Schwartz

Howard ScwartzHoward Schwartz is the author of five books of poems, VesselsGathering the Sparks, Sleepwalking Beneath the StarsBreathing in the Dark, and The Library of Dreams. He is also the co-editor (with Anthony Rudolf) of Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets. His other books include Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award and Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. 

The Angel of Ripeness  

While she waits for the sun to bestow
its blessing,
she rocks the cradle
back and forth,
tending the seed
the way a cloud and river
nurture the rain.

Every grain in the field,
every grape on the vine,
even the moon
listens
to the song she hums
under her breath.

Patty Seyburn

Patty SeyburnPatty Seyburn has published three books of poems: Hilarity (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002), and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). Her poems have recently been published in Minnesota Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Zocalo Public Square. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach, and co-editor of POOL: A Journal of Poetry (www.poolpoetry.com).

Lightning, 1882-1890

As witness, the amateur
hazards the first
photograph of this
phenomena, perhaps
the first phenomena –
what other tool would
the Great Cleaver wield
to separate firmament
from earth? The man
reveals the supposed
serrate closer to a straight
line or curve: ribbon
or random pattern
instead of jag, famed
zigzag, switchback –
the art of electricity
scissoring the dark –
the eye, ever-deceived.
Grievous the world
broken in two: fabric
of matter rent and
stitched by the Holy
Tailor with thread of
ether, needle of storm,
so seamlessly the seam
denies its existence:
you must have imagined me.
 

Judith Skillman

Judith SkillmanJudith Skillman’s forthcoming book is Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry, (Lummox Press). Her poems and collaborative translations have appeared in Poetry, Cimarron Review, FIELD, Ezra, Seneca Review, The Iowa Review, and numerous other journals and anthologies. Recipient of an award from the Academy of American Poets for Storm (Blue Begonia Press); two of her collections have been finalists for the Washington State Book Award. For more information visit www.judithskillman.com, or see her blog on techno-bling: abricabrac.com

 

If Miranda

The magician exists, of course,
if only in her imagination.
She’s the one who created him—
a daughter always makes her father
see with one eye. The other?
It’s gone white as dawn
in an overcast version of Paradise.
The white of an egg
pulled down beneath the lid.
Blindness frightens her, she tries
to make him see
it’s only wiles and guile,
a kind of feminine virtue
known and ignored.
He struts the sand like a bird
too sturdy despite the green toes.
He talks history, of the days
before this day.
Toward evening his apology
grows long as a shawl
of prayers, a foam rope.
She’s the one who must
reach farther in, find
the play within the play.
Without her probing
who would know the vagaries
of his latest illness?
Who plays the scamp,
the scalawag, that rapscallion
bound to haunt the waterfront?

Steven Sher

Steven SherSteven Sher is the author of fourteen books including, most recently, Grazing on Stars: Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2012) and the forthcoming The House of Washing Hands (Pecan Grove Press). He moved from New York City to Jerusalem one year ago with his wife. Find more information about his writing at stevensher.net.

 

 

A Lesson in Extending Compliments

for Rabbi Yehoshua Safrin
I told him he looked well today and he responded
that the surface of a man can be deceptive
and one’s health is in the hands of Hashem .
So then I added that his looking fine on the outside
was because the inside was so pure
and what was good came shining through.
Here he didn’t dispute what I had said
but nodded as if I had handed him a gift
that he couldn’t possibly accept,
yet he let it stand as he tugged on his coat
and turned up the collar, then swung the scarf
around his neck, fixing it like a mask over his mouth
up to the bridge of his nose—perhaps to trap
the warmth each deep breath garnered
as much as to keep the cold from his weakened lungs.
When next he pulled his black fur hat
down around his ears, as much to guard against the wind
that would slap his face once he stepped outside
as to strengthen himself against the doubts
that test a man before the door where he dons his gloves,
his mind was wrestling with new questions—
heavenly messengers, unseen by me,
now sent to lift him by his arms if they should drop
and raise the ground to meet his step.

William Shumway’s Painting Of A Rose

*(this poem is only available in our first print anthology)

 

Robert Stout

Robert Joe StoutRobert Joe Stout is a freelance journalist who lives in a small town in Oaxaca, México, amid bougainvillea and huge sunflowers. At night deer come to drink at the spring above the town. His most recent book is the novel Running Out the Hurt from Black Rose Writing.

 

 

Cactus in the Rocked-Off Grove
in Front of the Tourist Motel 

spined the gravel driveway
with shadows shaped like men
marching off to work. My son
dropped the leash to let our
dog race plastic bags blown
across boulders strewn every
which way against fossiled hills.
For a moment he stood
facing the horizon, fingers
of one small hand picking
at the brim of his baseball cap.
The dog, trotting back, stopped
and together they turned,
eyes drawn upwards
by the scratchy white
of rag-tag clouds revealing
some momentary message,
some indecipherable command
passed through the moonscape
growth to bind living things
to stones hunched
beneath that vacant dome
of fading blue. A wild bird
screeched, the dog spun back
to run again as my son wiped
his eyes and waved in wonderment:
Did you see it Dad?
It was beautiful.

Peter Leight

Peter Leight lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.  He has previously had poems in Paris Review, Partisan Review, AGNI, and other magazines.

 

Submarine

I’m spending some time in a submarine, under the surface, floating around, do you believe me? Underneath and inside, in a small boat, just big enough for one person, quiet except for an occasional pingPing.  Then nothing. The silence has a watery quality, a slow steady sip, a little gelatinous, without waves or irregularities. Water is a conductor, but there’s no flow or tide, no course I’m following or coordinates that I’m aware of, none that I have in mind. I’m not thinking I’m going to leave, not worried about going too far. Not concerned about returning. It doesn’t disturb what it passes through, a clean submarine, spotless, it’s never been soiled, and the water washes it off, columns of bubbles rising like bead curtains rubbing the sides of the submarine, breaking the way buds open up. There are shelves inside, books I meant to read but never got around to, there’s a limit on what you can bring with you, it’s hardly worth mentioning. The submarine purrs smoothly, gently, it doesn’t even feel like movement, resting in motion, in the stillness of travel. There’s no resistance that I’m aware of. There’s no insulation, I don’t even notice my body, is this a case, I wonder, of pure awareness? Am I a victim of mental browsing, the recipient of purely inactive and unadulterated understanding? It’s dark outside, and also light, as if there’s a light source inside a dark source, not flickering or wavering, a floating light that’s part of the unfiltered darkness, the shining darkness inside the light. In the window on one side of the submarine, fish draw near, as if they’d like to join me; they have delicate lips, mouthing their words, not in a language I’m familiar with, and large eyes with bulging pupils that see everything—I think they recognize me. Bivalves fly past, and starfish doing cartwheels, as if they want me to know they’ve made it this far. There aren’t any controls, no instruments or gauges, I think I expected this. It doesn’t even have an on off switch. I’m not sure where I’m going, it’s not taking me anywhere in order to leave me there, and when I empty my mind, it fills up automatically like the cup in the dentist’s office.

Matthew Lippman

Matthew LippmanMatthew Lippman is the author of three poetry collections, American Chew, winner of The Burnside Review of Books Poetry Prize, Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing) and The New Year of Yellow (Sarabande Books), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of the 2010 Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from The American Poetry Review. 

 

 **Recipient of Best of the Net 2013 Finalist**

 

In the Basement of the Holy House

I sat in the synagogue
and decided not to be a Jew. 
Just for a second. 
I wanted to see how it felt. 
It felt like the yellow traffic signal
on the corner of South and Center. 
Why don’t you want to be a Jew? my daughter said. 
How did you know? 
I can read your mind. 
No way, I said.  She smiled. 
Try me. 
I closed my eyes. 
You are thinking about how stupid mid twenties hipsters are
when they fall into their Existential free-fall,
four to six years after university, then wind up doing what most people do in America–
head out and make some money. 
Someone close to us said the word Adonai[1]
How did you guess?  I said.
I told you, she said. 
You are only seven, I said. 
Seven goes a long way in this world
and that is no joke. 
When I came back to being a Jew
The Torah had been put away and Kiddush[2] was happening
in the basement of the holy house
I was all alone in the sanctuary except for God,
I swear to it, who didn’t even yell or scream
or sink a blazing fireball into the middle of my chest
for not believing, even for just a second. 
Thanks, I said.  Not a problem, God said,
and it was like we had just shared a tuna fish sandwich
and there was nothing left, not even one little crumb.

 


[1] In Hebrew, this means God.

[2] In some Synagogues, this is done at end of service on Friday nights. There is a prayer recited and a type of bread called Challah is broken and sampled as well as a sip of wine from a silver cup

 

Benjamin Norris

Benjamin NorrisBenjamin Norris is a poet from Bristol, UK, whose work primarily deals with blending the mythic and the mundane, exposing the two to be little more than opposite sides of the same coin. Between writing projects, he lectures on Indian cultural history, and works as an academic linguist. He is currently putting together his debut poetry collection and developing a second novel.

 

For The Days 

We grow inside houses, and remember each spring
how it seeped through the flooring–
                                          bringing such thoughts, a cracking of dust–
the air will change, even now, as we lie
all bound in to our notional seasons,
fading grasses, and reasons to leave.

 
Clamber at the windows, catch sight of
woodsmoke, the tricks of trees, language held
in breathing bowls. Hammering, and
a child’s laughter cuts through old years.
These clocks, they do things you wouldn’t believe–
                                        bringing such thoughts, a cracking of dust–
in places, the snows have already come
falling with the precision of needles.

 

Joy Ladin

Joy LadinJoy Ladin is a Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, and author of six books of poetry: The Definition of Joy, Coming to Life, Transmigration, Alternatives to History, The Book of Anna, and Psalms. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life:  A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, and a Forward Fives winner. She is also the author of a book-length study of American poetry, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry (VDM). Her work has appeared in periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. Ladin’s work has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship.

 

Letter to Jonah

It must be cozy there, in the belly of the whale.
The whale knows you aren’t the end of his world,
his enormous heart pumps unbroken in the dark.
God reverberates quietly inside you,
a psalm you sing as you dissolve
in his gastric juices.
Dissolving is safer for all concerned
than growing into who you are.
And aren’t you really closer to God,
there in the cozy belly of the whale,
dissolving into gratitude and krill
and a story sailors tell 
about a man who slept through a man-killing storm
and when they woke him up to pray
said “Throw me overboard.”

Issue 2.2 Summer 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.

"The Bird and the Eggman" Art by Bernardo Medina
“The Bird and the Eggman” Art by Bernardo Medina

Poetry:

Joy Ladin | Letter To Jonah
Peter Leight | Submarine

Matthew Lippman | In The Basement Of The Holy House*
Benjamin Norris | For The Days

Howard Schwartz | The Angel Of Ripeness
Patty Seyburn | Lightning 1882-1890
Steven Sher | A Lesson In Extending Compliments | William Shumway’s Painting Of A Rose
Judith Skillman | If Miranda
Robert Stout | Cactus In The Rocked-off Grove In Front Of The Tourist Motel
Claire Zoghb | Skunk

*Best of the Net 2013 Finalist

Fiction:

Tiff Holland | Hungry
Tim Tomlinson | B.A.R.
Kirby Wright | Burt And The Christmas Tree 

 

"Hummingbird" Art by Christopher Woods
“Hummingbird” Art by Christopher Woods

"Blues Corridor" Art by Rose Blouin
“Blues Corridor” Art by Rose Blouin

Nonfiction:

Deborah Bacharach | The Mikvah Hike
Sheryl Clough | Under Sand And Shadow
Iris Dorbian | A Prayer In Times Square
Sue Ellis | Living On The Edge
Berdjouhi Esmerian | Frog Legs
Nina Ramsey | What I Know About Marmots

Artist Spotlight:  

Susan Bee

Translations:
Leib Kvitko | A Silence
**Rose Waldman

Peretz Markish | The Heap (15)
**Rose Waldman 
Agi Mishol | She Dog
**Joanna Chen
Stella Vinitchi Radulesc | The Earth Begins
**Luke Hankins

**Indicates translators

"Morning After The Rain" Art by Linda Woods
“Morning After The Rain” Art by Linda Woods

Susan Bee

Susan Bee: Out the Window
Out the Window

 

Spotlight on Artist: Susan Bee

 

Susan Bee: Trouble Ahead
Trouble Ahead

Bio:
Susan Bee is a painter, editor, and book artist, living in New York City. She has a solo painting show, “Criss Cross: New Paintings,” up until June 29 at Accola Griefen Gallery, NY. Bee has had six solo shows at A.I.R. Gallery. She has published many artist’s books including collaborations with Charles Bernstein, Johanna Drucker, Susan Howe, Regis Bonvicino, Jerry Rothenberg, and Jerome McGann. Bee is the coeditor with Mira Schor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online. Her artwork is in many public and private collections including the Getty Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Yale University, New York Public Library, and the Harvard University Library. Her work has been reviewed in Art in America, Art News, The Forward, The New York Times, Art Papers, and The Brooklyn Rail. Bee teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of Visual Arts.

 

Susan Bee: Wherever You Go
Wherever You Go

Artist Statement:
The series of oil paintings that I have been working on recently is based on stills from films, mostly noirs. These primarily small oil paintings dramatize the relationships between male and female characters through the lens of the dark, violent films of the 1940s and 1950s. These new works concentrate on complexity, sensuality, dramatic tension, and strong emotions. I am creating these paintings as spaces for a drama to take place. I’m emphasizing the dynamic between the figures, whether they’re pressing against a windowpane, or pressing up against each other. The paintings’ focus is on these relationships and the psychological space and emotions that are carved out among the persons that I’m portraying.

 

Ahava, Berlin
Ahava, Berlin

Ahava, Berlin, was inspired by a trip I made in 2012 to Berlin. I stayed near the former Ahava Kinderheim, located in the Mitte, which was the Jewish ghetto, and is now an arts district. It was a politically progressive Jewish children’s home. My mother lived there from 1927 to 1934. Both my parents grew up in Berlin and were exiled in their teens to Palestine. I based this painting on a melancholy snapshot of me standing in front of the war-scarred, graffitied building, which remains standing as a testament to the suffering of the Jewish population in Germany. The orphanage and most of the children were transferred to Israel, where Ahava, (Hebrew for love) continues to this day.

Website:

http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bee/

Image Info:

Susan Bee, Out the Window, 2011, 16″ x 20″, oil and enamel on linen.
Susan Bee, Wherever You Go, 2013, 24″ x 36″, oil on canvas.
Susan Bee, Trouble Ahead, 2012, 20″ x 24″, oil on canvas.
Susan Bee, Ahava, Berlin, 2012, 24″ x 36″, oil, enamel, and sand on canvas.

Tiff Holland

Tiff HollandTiff Holland’s poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in dozens of literary-magazines, e-zines and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel is available through Pudding House Press. Her short fiction chapbook Betty Superman won the 2010 Rose Metal Press Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.

 

Hungry

After the rape, three of us drove Stacy from the hospital to her trailer in the woods. She couldn’t stand to be alone. She kept talking about the guys, the guys in orange jumpsuits who had abducted her at a gas station. We told her not to talk about it. We told her we’d fix her some supper. She dozed in the car while we planned the meal: some mashed potatoes maybe or Stove Top stuffing, comfort food. Stacy lived a long ways out in the woods, far from the college. She had folded herself tight into one corner of the backseat. She was barefoot. She wore a sleeveless white t-shirt with blood dribbled down the front. She mumbled in her sleep. Julie sat beside her and stroked her head and whispered, while Alex drove. In the front seat, we were skeptical.

“What do you think?” Alex asked.     

“About what?” I was trying not to think. “You know, I mean. Jeez, do you think she was really?…”  

Back home, my ex-boyfriend, Ethan was a cop. He used to tell me about girls who faked rape reports, but I was never sure if I believed him. A few weeks before, Ethan had sent me a video of himself, naked, along with a note saying how much he missed me. Each shot was angled so that I couldn’t see his head, just his body. I turned the rearview mirror so I could look at Stacy more closely in the backseat. Her head, with its short spiky hair, looked huge sticking up from her tiny shoulders. She had a big multi-colored bruise on one cheek and just under her chin.

It was hard to know about Stacy. Every semester brought a different crisis. Last fall she had some kind of cancer. Then her cat got hit by a car. She accidentally drank part of a bottle of nail polish remover. In the spring someone broke into her trailer, and there was always her anorexia. Twice since our freshman year, Stacy had to be hospitalized when her electrolytes became dangerously depleted. Some of the other students jokingly referred to her as “Skelator.” I thought hard for a moment. Sometimes, I thought Stace was just lonely, but we’re all alone here.

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter?” Alex was tired of what he always referred to as Stacy’s “drama.” He had sighed heavily on the phone when I called to tell him I was heading to the hospital, and muttered something about “the girl who cried wolf.”

 “Yeah, I mean, there’s something wrong with her. Maybe there really are guys in orange jumpsuits, maybe there aren’t. Maybe she’s really worried they’ll find her, but even if she’s not, she’s too freaked out to be left alone.” Alex slouched down in his seat. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with a stick figure drawing of some up-and-coming indie rock group. He was really smart and always knew the best groups, and I could probably go for him if he cleaned up a little better.      

“Look, we’ll have some dinner. Then, you can leave if you want to. I’ll stay with her tonight.”

“Are you sure?” He looked relieved but not unconcerned.        

“Sure, just stop by my apartment and walk Jake for me, okay?” I dug in my pocket and handed Alex my keys. If I wasn’t there when Ethan called, or better yet if a man answered, maybe Ethan would finally get the message.

It had been three months. I couldn’t get the stupid video out of my head. In one shot he tickled his own behind with a feather, in another he did a bump and grind right up against the camera. In that shot he was wearing a red thong. As near as I could tell he was rubbing the thing against the camera lens by the end of that part.

Still asleep in the backseat, Stacy muttered, then shouted, but it was hard to make out her words.     

“What’s she saying?” I asked Julie over my shoulder. Julie patted Stacy’s arm.

“I have no idea.”  

Stacy woke up just as we reached her turnoff.     

“Good,” Alex said, “remind me which way to turn?”

Stacy seemed confused as she looked out first the driver’s side and then the passenger window. Alex raised his eyebrows as she turned to look out the back.        

“We just turned off Highway 16,” I told her. She gave Alex the directions and then started talking about the men again, how the whole thing kept running over and over in her head like some kind of bad dream. She rubbed hard at one wrist. 

“The handcuffs were so tight,” she moaned. Ethan had a weird shaped key on his keychain. It was long and thin with just one nub at the very end. He said it was a handcuff key, universal. I never saw his handcuffs, though. I only saw him in uniform once and he wasn’t wearing his gun belt.

Stacy started shaking and then told Alex to pull over because she had to puke. Alex and I hung back by the car while Julie rubbed Stacy’s back while she threw up into some weeds.

“Maybe it really did happen,” Alex said, turning back toward the highway. I nodded, but I didn’t say anything, thinking when I was a teenager and got so upset that I threw up even though nothing was really wrong. “Maybe I should stay, too.”

Stacy started to stand up, holding tight to Julie’s wrist, then bent back over for another empty heave. Julie dug in her pocket and brought out a tissue, but Stacy waved her off and wiped her mouth with the bottom of her t-shirt. They headed up the embankment towards us.        

“She didn’t say anything about handcuffs before,” I said finally, turning back towards traffic. Once we were all back in the car, Alex clicked on the radio and Stacy went back to sleep. At the trailer, Stacy made Alex go in first, check the place out. Once we were inside, Stacy went from room to room pulling the curtains as if the men were just outside the trailer looking in. Alex headed for the kitchen and stood in front of the open refrigerator. Then Stacy told us she felt dirty and wanted to take a bath.  

“That’s a great idea,” Julie told her. “Do you want me to come sit with you?”      

“Would you?” Stacy started to cry and Julie gave her a big hug. I took a step closer to them but wasn’t sure if I should hug Stacy, too. Finally, I reached over and rubbed her shoulder. In the kitchen Alex closed the refrigerator door. Once the water was running, I headed for the kitchen.      

“What’s for dinner?” I asked Alex. He stepped aside.     

“Take a look for yourself.” I’ve never seen the inside of a refrigerator look so bright. Inside were a bowl of apples and three packs of fat free microwave popcorn. That was it.        

“Well, let’s check the cupboards,” I suggested.    

“Dammit, we should have stopped at the store,” Alex grumbled. He opened the doors over the counter. There were a few spices and a box of oatmeal. I thought of the food back at my apartment, boxes of cereal and rice in the cupboards, meat and frozen vegetables and TV dinners in the freezer, condiments lining the refrigerator door. I kept all my dry goods in giant plastic bags or Tupperware containers. Stacy had teased me about it the few times she’d been to my place. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring any food with me when I grabbed my keys and headed for the hospital. I hadn’t planned on taking Stacy back to her trailer. I thought I’d stop by, offer support, go home and have dinner in front of the TV with Jake like always, listen to the phone ring at seven or eight or nine. Or maybe, pick up, if I was lonely. In a way, it seemed stupid to worry about food. 

“We can’t even get a pizza delivered way out here,” Alex complained.

“How about that gas station at the turn-off?” I asked.     

“What about it?”   

“Maybe they have some food?”

“I doubt it.”

“It’s worth a shot. Do you want to go or do you want me to?” I shut the cupboards quietly so Stacy wouldn’t hear. I had hoped to have dinner ready when she got out of the tub, and then we would eat and everything would be okay again.     

“I’ll go,” Alex answered. While Alex was gone, I wandered around the trailer. I could hear Julie and Stacy talking in the bathroom. Julie had an amazingly soothing voice and I strained to hear her not for the content, but for the tone. After a while, there was more crying and then it got quiet again. I tried to imagine Stacy naked. I was glad Julie was in there and not me. Finally, the bathroom door opened and Julie came out.  

“How is she?” I asked.   

“Ok, I guess. She’s getting dressed. She’s got a lot of bruises, but they don’t look too bad.” Julie tucked a strand of hair out of her eyes and glanced around the trailer.   

I wanted to ask about the bruises, the size and the shape, whether they looked like they came from one set of hands or two, but I didn’t.

Where’s Alex?” Julie asked.     

“He went to get some food.”   

“Oh.” Julie plopped down on the ratty couch. She pulled open the shade and looked out.

“What? Are you worried, too?”

“No, I just…” Julie closed the shade. “It’s getting late. I have a German exam tomorrow.” She picked up a magazine from the table, thumbed through it, put it back down. “Shit.”  

“Well, maybe we can leave. I mean, she’s okay now. How would they know where to find her anyway?” I spoke quietly. There was just a curtain hanging between the living room and the bedroom. On the other side of it, I could hear Stacy opening drawers and closing them.       

“I guess they stole her wallet. I guess they could get her address from her driver’s license,” Julie paused. “I wish I had thought to bring my German book.”

“I wish we’d brought some food,” I joked. Julie laughed. There was a soft bang from the other room. Julie raised an eyebrow at me.    

“What was she doing way out there anyway?” I asked.  

“I think she was coming back from taking Ian to the airport. Kinsman is half-way, I think.”     

“Who is Ian?” I looked toward the bedroom which was suddenly very quiet.        

“Some guy she met,” Julie lowered her voice, “on the Internet, I think.”        

The curtain parted and Stacy walked into the room. She was wearing gray sweats despite the fact it was at least eighty degrees out and warmer in the trailer. Even though the windows were open, none of the breeze was making it past the drawn shades. Stacy stepped over the coffee table to sit between me and Julie on the couch. I didn’t have a chance to think about whether or not I wanted to hug her before she pulled both of us to her and started crying again. My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t help but notice how hard she felt.  After a moment, I slipped away. Stacy turned her full embrace toward Julie. I wondered how she had managed to escape if she had been handcuffed and what had happened to the handcuffs. I stared at Stacy’s wrist where it clutched Julie’s neck. It was smooth and so thin I could see how the bones joined together. We all jumped a moment later when we heard a car door slam. I peered through the shades. 

“It’s just Alex.”    

“Alex?” Stacy looked up, red-eyed and dazed.      

“Yeah, he went to get some supplies, for dinner.” 

“Oh, good. I’m famished.” Stacy said. She paused, “and tired.”        

“Maybe you should lie down,” Julie suggested. Stacy looked toward the bedroom.

“Go ahead; we’ll keep an eye out.”    

“Ok, that sounds good,” Stacy started to rise to her feet, then dropped a little, as though she were about to pass out.     

Julie took her by the elbow, “Here, I’ll help.”        

After Stacy was safe in bed, Julie headed back to the kitchen where I watched Alex unloading supplies.      

“It was just that little gas station. They didn’t have much.” He put a large jar of spaghetti sauce on the table along with a box of pasta and a twelve pack of cheap beer. There was also a roll of those refrigerator rolls that come in a tube, a large bag of potato chips and a jar of generic peanut butter.      

“Peanut butter?” I asked.

“For the rolls,” Alex explained. “They didn’t have any margarine.” Julie scowled at the beer.

“You said comfort,” Alex said. “What is more comforting than a little buzz?”
I was pretty sure Alex and Julie had gone out a few times, but neither of them ever mentioned it. There always seemed to be a tension between them, and Alex’s new girlfriend, Katie, a fashion major, didn’t seem to care for Julie at all, and everyone liked Julie.

At the end of Ethan’s video he turned from the camera and walked to the dining room table. I could see his whole body then, or the back of it, his curly blond hair with that weird white spot at the bottom left behind his ear. Seeing that spot made me miss him for a minute, a real ache. He took a swig of beer from a can on the table, picked up a picture, I think it was a picture of me but I really couldn’t tell. Then he turned around, walked back towards the camera, his face still out of frame, and, looking at the picture, began to masturbate.

Alex tore open the carton and handed me a beer then offered one to Julie who passed with a shake of her head. I don’t usually care for beer, then shrugged and popped the top. It tasted surprisingly good, sweet and filling. I was surprised how hungry I was; although I had noticed that I was almost always hungry around Stacy. We’d all go out for Mexican and Stace would munch a few chips and nurse a margarita, and I’d find myself devouring a burrito and three or four enchiladas. I wasn’t the only one, either. It seemed we were all hungry around Stacy.        

Alex took his beer into the living room and turned on the TV.

“Maybe there will be something about those guys on the news.” He put his feet up on the coffee table. Julie looked toward the bedroom.       

“Well, keep it down. It might upset her if she hears anything.” Alex nodded and started flipping through the channels.   

“So, what about this Ian?” I asked Julie as we looked for a pan.

“He was here all weekend, I guess, flew in from Florida or some place.” Julie pulled open the metal drawer and found a frying pan but nothing big enough to boil pasta water.  

“I thought Stace was gay,” Alex said from the living room.      

“Shh,” Julie and I whispered together.        

“I thought you were watching TV.” Julie accused. Alex dropped the remote on the couch and walked back to the kitchen, tore open the bag of chips.      

“Nothing on,” he told us, mouth full, “‘sides, I have to go to the bathroom.”        

“Now, who’s Ian?” I asked once he was gone.       

“All I know is he flew in from Florida, and he’s a drama major. I don’t think they hit it off, though, because Stace had said he was going to stay all week, be here for the big party on Friday, but instead she took him to the airport yesterday.”     

“And she met him on the Internet?”        

“Yeah,” Julie chewed on a fingernail.  When I had finished watching Ethan’s video, I yanked the tape from the cassette in long threads wondering what made him think I wanted to watch him do that, what made him think that I wanted to watch him do that without seeing his face. He called me a day or two later and begged me to destroy the tape, to do it while he was listening. He said he was afraid I’d put it on the Internet. I didn’t tell him he was safe, just that he should have thought of that before.

“How weird is that?” I asked finally.  

“I feel sorry for her. No one here will have anything to do with her,” Julie considered her words carefully. “Lots of people hook up on the Internet.”        

Alex returned from the bathroom holding a large pot in one hand. He shrugged as if to say, who knows why she keeps her pans in the bathroom, then handed it to Julie who set to washing it. While there was almost no food in the kitchen, there were cleaning supplies everywhere, bleach and ammonia under the sink and Ajax and a bunch of spray cleaners in the tall cupboard by the fridge, the place at my apartment where I kept all my canned goods. Alex offered the open bag, and I took a few chips.     

“Is she gay or not?” he asked. Stacy had gotten into a huge fight with some girl named Trish a few months earlier, and there was much speculation as to whether they were lovers.   

“I guess she’s bi,” I shrugged. 

“Of course,” said Alex and took the chips with him back to the living room where he started poking around on Stacy’s desk.        

“You were at the hospital,” I said to Julie as she set the water to boil on the stove. “Was she raped?” 

“I don’t know,” Julie shook some salt into the water, dumped the jar of sauce into another pan. “The doctors and nurses wouldn’t talk to me. A social worker came down and talked to her, and she talked to me after, but she just asked about Stacy’s eating habits.” To my surprise, Julie reached for a beer. 

“Didn’t you hear anything?”    

“There was semen. I heard something about a swab. That’s it.”        

I stared out the kitchen window into the woods. Maybe there were men in orange jumpsuits out there right now, lurking among the trees. I wondered if one of them raped Stace or if they took turns or maybe they did it at both at once like in porn movies.  I felt sick and headed into the living room. It was time for Jeopardy. I found the channel. The last champion had won five games, so there were three new contestants. Johnny Gilbert introduced them: a teacher, a lawyer, an accountant. It seemed like there were always teachers and lawyers. I decided to root for the accountant.    

“Hey, look at this,” said Alex from Stacy’s desk.  

“What are you doing? That’s her private stuff,” I said but drifted over thinking: five to one the lawyer wins anyway.      

“E-mail print outs from that Ian guy, pretty hot,” Alex held out some sheets of paper.    

“Really?” I couldn’t help but look. I scanned them quickly. They were hot and kind of kinky. Ian and Stacy were evidently planning a week of hot sex.     

“Maybe she didn’t put out and he got mad and that’s why he left early.” Alex surmised. 

There were pictures, too, one of a guy, about our age, with dark curly hair, and another of a pretty girl with shoulder length blonde hair and a confident expression.       

“The guy must be Ian,” said Alex.     

“Yeah, but who’s the girl?” I asked. Alex shrugged, pushed a few more chips into his mouth.  

“Hey, Julie, do you know who this is?” I held out the picture. Julie turned the water down under the pasta and joined us in the living room. She stared hard at the picture for a moment.    “I think that’s Stacy,” she snaked her hand into the bag of chips. I took a few, too and stared harder at the picture.   

“Nah,” said Alex.  

“Yeah, see that’s her nose,” Julie pointed.   

Of course, it looked fuller than Stacy’s nose, but there was definitely a resemblance. The girl in the picture was incredibly pretty, model pretty. She looked a little like Jodie Foster. “Do you think so?” I handed the picture back toward Alex but Julie took it and pointed to the girl’s hand.  

“See,” she said triumphantly, “that’s the ring Stacy always wears.”   

“Well, if Ian came here expecting this,” Alex nodded to the picture, “and got that,” and then toward the bedroom. He mock-shivered as if he were creeped out. The Stacy in the picture could have any guy she wanted.        

“Maybe Ian did this to her,” Julie said just as the thought popped into my head. I looked at Alex and could tell he had thought the same thing.     

We put the printouts back on Stacy’s desk and headed to the kitchen. Julie handed me the tube of rolls. I tore off the wrapper and pressed a knife to the seam in the cardboard, and the rolls popped out. Julie and Alex leaned against the counters, watching.   

“What kind of guy would beat up some girl just because she wasn’t what he expected?” Julie asked after a moment. Neither Alex nor I had an answer.       

“What kind of girl would say she was raped if she wasn’t?” Alex said after a moment. He started playing with the faucet, turning the water on, then off, on, then off, faster and faster until Julie reached over and pushed the faucet down, moved his hand away.  

“What kind of friends would ask these questions?” I thought out loud. “I mean, is it really any of our business?”  

“She called us,” Julie said        

“She always does,” said Alex.  

“Maybe we’re not doing her any favors, always coming when she calls,” I said finally.  

“But what if she really was raped?” asked Julie.    

“Then there’s nothing we can do anyway,” said Alex. “We can make dinner, I guess.”

I began to arrange the rolls on a cookie sheet. Julie stirred the sauce and Alex set Stacy’s tiny dining table. She only had three chairs, so, he dragged in one from behind her desk. Then Stacy appeared, rubbing her eyes.    

“Mmmm… smells yummy,” she said, pulling one of the chairs out and sitting down on it cross-legged. She had taken off her sweatshirt and was wearing another white sleeveless tee. The knobs of vertebrae stretching above the shirt up her neck were almost as white at the shirt. There was no comfort in her body. I thought about how lonely she must be out in the woods, how lucky I was to have a dog to eat with, to curl up with every night. For a moment, I missed Jake and wished I hadn’t promised to stay with Stacy. I longed to bury my face in his soft fur, to feel him place his neck over mine the way dogs do in a pack to protect one another.

Stacy adjusted her silverware with her long fingers, straightening her knife and spoon so that they were straight and parallel and moving her fork to the left side of the plate.   

“What are we having?” she asked, spreading out a paper napkin and letting it fall unto her lap, only she had no lap, so it collapsed into the hollow between her crossed legs.       

“Spaghetti,” Julie told her, lifting the pan of water from the burner and draining the pasta at the sink. 

“Oh, wait,” said Stacy and jumped up, leaving her napkin to flutter to the linoleum. She reached into a cabinet above the stove. After a moment, her fist emerged. She turned it over, opened her palm wide, “Here,” she offered. In the middle of her hand a clove of garlic was knotted. She placed it in the middle of the table. The rest of us sat down. I tried to imagine her with long blonde hair. She took one of the rolls. I let my eyes blur so she was slightly out of focus. Stacy looked like a chipmunk chewing. With her cheek rounded out by the roll, I could see the resemblance to the girl in the picture. What had happened to her?

I took a roll from the plate Julie passed. Stacy took another. She spread peanut butter on it, then piled her plate high with pasta and sauce. She held the roll with one hand and wound spaghetti around the fork she held in the other. She pushed in a bite of pasta, still chewing the roll. I took my own fork to my mouth and looked at Alex and Julie. They were just sitting there, motionless, watching. I bit down. There was nothing on my fork. I set it back on the table. The garlic sat on the table between us, the three of us and Stacy, as we watched Stacy eat.

Claire Zoghb

Claire Zoghb’s first collection, Small House Breathing, won the 2008 Quercus Review Poetry Series Annual Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Connecticut Review, CALYX, Crab Creek Review, Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America (The Lebanon Issue), and Natural Bridge, among others. Her work has been anthologized in Through A Child’s Eyes: Poems and Stories About War and Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems. Twice a Pushcart nominee, Claire was the winner of the 2008 Dogwood annual poetry competition. A graphic artist and book designer, she is Graphics Director at Long Wharf Theatre and contributes graphics to Drunken Boat.

 

Skunk

What is left but this: The compulsion to tell.
– Mary Jo Bang, “The Role of Elegy”

She was but a rustling at first —
a crinkle of dried rhododendron leaves
under multiple feet. I rushed to the window
to see, spinning under the blue moon’s light,
an armful of white-and-black-striped cotton candy.
Three baby skunks rolling one another in the grass
while their mother swept enough leaves
to disguise the burrow she’d dug beneath
our sunroom. All business, she then led them
to the lawn in search of grubs.

For weeks I watched the nightly procession, the mother
so sure of herself — even after only two babies followed her.
Yet she got into the rat poison put out by the neighbors.
How many days she suffered, or where her
offspring were, no one knows. She made it back
home, her bloated body wedged in its entrance
pulled by the gentle gloved hands of the wildlife guy.
He photographed her, per state law, before he slid her into
a black plastic bag for disposal. A few spadesful of soil
squirming with maggots into another bag and it was over.
He left her burrow lightly blocked by a standing brick topped
with a cement shard (in case of survivors), looking like
a Neolithic tomb. Yesterday’s turned-up earth pales
in today’s stronger light, growing grayish, stench of rotted
onions already dissipating under a new season’s sun.
And found curled in this morning’s grass — three nests
of white fluffy hairs, holding perfect circles of dew.

Tim Tomlinson

Tim TomlinsonTim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing.  His recent fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Asia Writes, Caribbean Vistas, Citron Review, The Dirty Napkin, Extracts, Full of Crow, The Tule Review, Unshod Quills, Write Place At the Write Time, and in the anthology Long Island Noir (Akashic Books).

 

 

B.A.R.

Dad was antsy. He hadn’t worked overtime for a week. He’d made it home for dinner six nights in a row, a record. He sat at the dining table in a sleeveless t-shirt, looking around at things like he wasn’t sure where he was. The crèche on the china closet. Lights twinkling on the Christmas tree. The wicker basket of holiday cards on the kitchen counter.

“We got anything for dessert?” he said.

Mom sat at the kitchen window. With a damp sponge, she moistened sheets of green stamps and fixed them into coupon booklets.  She wore a bathrobe cinched at the waist.

“Whatever you didn’t finish last night,” she said, without looking up.

Dad said, “You didn’t get something for tonight?”

When she didn’t answer, he told me, “Cliffy, go look what’s left.”

I opened the closets, I opened the freezer. I knew there was nothing. I held out my empty hands.

Dad shook his head. He said, “You talk about how I dress at the dinner table, and you sit around the house all day in that robe.”

Mom said, “The house is freezing.”

“Then do something,” Dad said. “Try a little work.”

In a sing-song voice, Mom said, “You’re boring.”

Dad said, “I’ll give you boring,”

With her lips, she made a sound that resembled the sound of farting.

Dad said, “And she calls me vulgar.”

Mom squeezed her sponge over a small bowl and moistened the next sheet of green stamps.

“Cliffy, reach me them cards,” Dad said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the wicker basket filled with Christmas cards.

Mom said, “Are you gonna start that again?”

I leaned back in the chair and grabbed it.

“Don’t lean in the chair,” Mom said.

Dad said, “He’s getting something for me.”

“Not if he falls on the floor he isn’t,” Mom said.

“Watch you don’t fall on the floor,” Dad told her.

Mom sang, “So boring.”

Dad sorted the Christmas cards sent to us by his sisters, his mother, and a nun who was close to his mother.

“Get your crayons,” he said to me, “and give me a hand with these.”

There were some sent by ex-Marines and several current Marines, and others from his co-workers at LILCO. The rest came from bodybuilding buddies from his competition days back in Brooklyn, and from his bodybuilding fans. Three, all women.

He set the cards in stacks on the dining room table.

“Your mother don’t like I have all these fans,” he said. “She gets jealous.”

Mom said, “Fans? The house is freezing and he’s talking about fans?”

I said, “No, he means fans.”

“She knows what I mean,” my father said.

She said, “You know what this means.”

She made another fart sound.

I laughed.

“Hey, come on with that,” he said, “in front of the kid.”

“You come on,” my mother said.

He glared at her, then continued. “She don’t like that total strangers admire my body.”

“Somebody should,” she said, “other than yourself.”

“No one admires yours,” he said, winking at me.

“Touché,” she said. “Isn’t that what I’ve been complaining about?”

He stopped his stacking.

“Enough already, all right? You’re gonna give the kid ideas.”

“What ideas?” I said.

“Never mind,” he told me.

She picked up a basket of laundry and carried it to the basement staircase.

“Cliff,” she said, “don’t forget your list for Santa.”

Neither of them could leave a room without issuing a final order.

“He’s helping me,” my father said.

“Cliff,” she said, “did you hear me?”

“He heard you,” my father said. “And then he heard me.”

“Clifford?”

I looked at my father.

“Answer her,” he said.

I said, “Yeah.”

“Hey,” my father said, “you don’t say ‘yeah’ to your mother.”

“Yes,” I said, “I heard you.”

“You heard me what?”

“Hey, Jackie, hah? We’re doing something here. Come on,” he said, snapping his fingers, “give me the scissors.”

I pushed him the scissors.

“I want him at his desk in fifteen minutes,” she said.

My father said, “Yeah, yeah.”

“I mean it,” she said.

He started crossing out the greetings written inside the cards.

“Oh,” he said, looking up as if surprised to see her. “You still here?”

I started laughing.

“Laugh now, mister,” she said. “You have fifteen minutes.”

She opened the basement door.

“You ever gonna change out of that robe?” Dad asked her.

She said, “You ever gonna change out of that shirt? I can smell it from here.”

He yanked the shirt over his head and threw it at her. It hit her chest. She let it fall to the floor.

“Pressed and folded,” Dad said. “No starch.”

She left the t-shirt on the floor and descended, pulling the door behind her.

My father circled a finger around his ear. “You hear what I’m saying?”

“I know,” I said. “I already did my list. I told her.”

“Well, do it again,” he said. “And don’t call your mother her. She’s your mother. Come on, give me the crayons.”

I passed him the crayons.

He filled out addresses in various colors on the backs of envelopes: purple, orange, brown. Above or alongside the crossed-out greetings inside the cards, he crayoned in new greetings. “Yo, schmo,” he wrote, or “Howdy, putz.” He slid the cards into envelopes and handed them to me. I licked the stamps.

“Don’t we like any of these people?” I said. “Aunt Elsie?”

“We like them all,” he said.

“So how come we do this?”

“Do what?”

“Send used cards to people we like. Why don’t we send them new cards, like they sent us?”

“Because it’s wasteful. All the money.”

“Yeah, but—”

He looked up abruptly.

I said, “Yes, but—”

“And it’s nonsense,” he said, gesturing all around him at the crèche, the wrapping paper, the tinsel. “All this Christmas bullshit. The lights, the tree, the reindeers on the roof. We don’t like it.”

I said, “Mom likes it.”

“I said, we don’t like it.”

“I like it, too.”

“You won’t.”

“How come?”

“You’ll see,” he said. “Come on, work while you talk.”

“Mom says you don’t like it because of your unhappy childhood.”

“That what Mom says?”

“Is that true?”

It was easy to believe. Nana was full of gloom, and Poppy, while full of fun, was also full of Rheingold and whisky. Garbage water, she called it. Poppy’s wallet was never full.

“Your mother’s been watching too much Channel 13.”

“But was your childhood miserable like she said?”

He swept his arm across the table, pulling in the envelopes near me as if he was raking in poker chips.

“Go ahead,” he said. “You better go downstairs, finish your list.”

I said, “It’s finished.”

“Yeah?” he said. “What’s on it?”

I said, “It’s for Santa.”

“Well I might be talking to him later, you know, save us a stamp.”

“You can talk to him?” I said.

My father shrugged. “Yeah, him. His wife. A elf.”

“I asked for a dog,” I said.

He nodded. “That’s it?”

“And guns.”

“Guns,” he said, “what kind of guns?”

I told him every kind of gun I could think of. A Winchester, an M-1, a snub-nose .38.

“You don’t want the B.A.R.?”

“The B.A.R.?”

“The Browning Automatic Rifle.”

“What does Wally have?”

“Your brother?  I don’t know—a bolt-action Springfield, I think.  Thing went out in the Depression. But the B.A.R., Cliffy, that’s the strongest rifle there is. For the strongest Marine.”

I liked the idea of having a gun stronger than Wally’s, but I knew that I wasn’t as strong as Wally.

“I want a pearl-handled Colt .45.”

“Colt .45?” he said. “You want to be a cowboy, or a Marine?”

I chose a cowboy.

“All right. You better go do what your mother tells you.”

“But I already did.”

“Now,” he told me, gesturing with his head toward the stairs. He resumed with the crayons and the cards like I wasn’t even there.

I stopped at the top of the stairs. I said, “My childhood is miserable, but I still love Christmas.”

He looked up. “What, you’re still here?”

*****

For my Uncle Vic, Mom had purchased a pair of gloves. They were leather on the outside, fur on the inside. They came in a flat box with a red top and a black bottom. She set the box upside down in the middle of shiny gold wrapping paper, then she dragged an open pair of scissors in a straight line along the wrapping paper’s roll.

“How’d you get it so straight?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Practice,” she said.

She taped one edge of the wrapping paper to the bottom of the box, then she pulled the cut sheet tight over the top, folded it, and brought it around to the bottom again where it met the first piece of tape with just a quarter inch of overlap.

“Tape,” she said.

I handed her another piece of Scotch tape.

Now she trimmed a little excess wrapping paper from either end of the box. She pressed in the empty edges so that the open ends folded over. With her fingernail she pressed a crease along the edge where the paper met the box, folded the end over, and asked again for tape. She repeated the process on the other side. When she was finished, the box was wrapped as neatly as my father made beds – tight, no creases, pinches, bulges, no excess paper. It was as if the box had been wrapped by a machine.

“How do you get it so perfect?” I asked.

She said, “You have to love the person the gift is for.”

“But Dad says Uncle Vic is a jerk.”

She shook her head. “Your father loves my brother.”

“So why does he call him a jerk?”

“Your father says a lot of things,” she said.

“But is he a jerk?”

“Who doesn’t your father call a jerk?” she said.  “Or worse?”

“So is Dad a jerk?”

“No,” she said, “who told you that?”

“In school,” I said. “Miss Thornhill says calling names makes the person who says them the jerk.”

“Well, maybe she’s right,” she said. “He is a jerk, sometimes. Sometimes I’m a jerk.”

“No you’re not.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “you don’t know.”

“You’re not.”

“OK, I’m not.  Tell it to your father.”

“He already knows.”

“That’s not what he tells me.”

“It’s what he tells me and Wally.”

“Really?” she said. “What does he tell you?”

“He says, whenever we hear the two of you fight, no matter what it is, no matter how wrong you sound, that we should be on your side because he’s the jerk.”

She looked at me.

“He said that, huh? No matter how wrong I sound.”

“He said, ‘Your mother is always right.’”

“Hmm,” she said. “That’s interesting.”

She took the gift wrapped for her brother and set it under the tree on top of other boxes already wrapped perfectly. They might appear to have been just tossed under haphazardly, but Mom placed each box with great care, after which she’d step back and study the arrangement before making final touches, either to the placement of boxes, or to ornaments hanging from the tree. Once she took us to the city, to Lord & Taylor’s on Fifth Avenue, where she stood silently in front of the display windows as if memorizing the details. Santa Claus occupied every corner, shaking music from bells.

*****

Snow came on Christmas Eve. Wally and I knelt on the couch at the picture window and watched it gather like icing on a cake. First it was an inch, then it was two. Then the phone rang.

My mother looked at my father.

“You’re not going in,” she told him.

“Hand me the goddamn phone,” he said.  “Yeah?” he said into the phone.

As he listened, he snapped his fingers and pointed for her to hand him a pencil and a pad. She started looking through drawers.

He covered the phone.

“I told you always keep a pad and pencil by the phone.”

She said, “And I told you you’re not going in. My brother and his family are coming.”

“No one’s going anywhere in this weather,” he said. Into the phone, he said, “Sorry, one minute.”

He snapped his fingers at Wally and me. “One of youse, find me a goddamn pencil.”

I handed him one from the TV table.

“Go ahead,” he told the phone. He started writing on the wall.

Her jaw dropped, then she folded her arms.

“Got it,” he said, and hung up.

“Cliffy, find my keys. Wally, boots from the garage.”

“You’re not doing this,” my mother said.

“I need my long underwear,” he told her.

She turned from the kitchen. “Don’t expect anything when you get back,” she said.

We all braced for the door slamming. It slammed.

Dad winked at us. “When I install a stop on that door, it’s gonna close as quiet as a mouse pissing on cotton. That’ll fix her.”

Wally said, “Mom says you don’t know how to fix anything.”

He looked at us.

“Come on, the two of youse. Off your ass. The boots, the keys.”

*****

Noise in the living room woke me. I tiptoed to Wally’s room.

“Wally,” I said, shaking him.

“I’m awake,” he said.

“Listen. Is that Santa Claus?”

“There is no Santa Claus, you idiot.”

“Then who’s out there trying to be quiet?”

He sat up. “You’ll hear in a minute.”

I listened. Soft footsteps in the living room, the kitchen. The refrigerator door sucked open. I could picture Dad guzzling milk from the carton, wolfing cookies. Then his footsteps approached their bedroom.

“Now,” Wally said.

First there was whispering.  Then shouts.

“I don’t care who I wake up,” she shouted.

“How do you expect me to pay for all this shit?” he shouted back. “That sled?  Those rifles?”

“It’s Christmas,” she shouted.

“You lower your goddamn voice,” he shouted.

She shouted, “You lower it.”

*****

In the morning we opened our gifts. Wally got a sled, a Flexible Flyer. “From Santa Claus to Wally,” the card said. Wally snickered.

“What’s that about,” my father said, pulling on his coveralls.

“Santa Claus,” Wally sneered.

“Yeah?” my mother said.

“Nothing,” Wally said.

My father said, “Right.”

I got a B.A.R., the Browning Automatic Rifle. It was made of hard plastic but it looked like a combination of real wood and metal. It came with a bipod and a bayonet.

“You like it?” my father asked. He was lacing his boots.

Wally said, “It’s too big for him.”

“This is more powerful than your carbine,” I told Wally.

“Seven times more powerful,” my father said.

He handed me a can of 3-in-One oil and showed me where you poured it into the B.A.R.’s muzzle. When you pulled the trigger, the oil made smoke.

“You don’t point that at anyone,” my father said on his way out the door and back to work, “you hear me?”

“Can we go play guns?” I asked my mother.

My mother said, “I don’t care what you do.”

Outside, it was the Battle of the Bulge, with thick heavy snow falling on a thick layer of snow. Our galoshes sunk past the top buckle. Still, no matter where Wally hid I found him with my B.A.R. I left the bipod on so I could just fall in the snow, find him in my sights, and pull the trigger until I was lost in a cloud of oil smoke and he was so dead. In less than half an hour he quit. He said he was too cold.

No kids were outside playing.

It was Christmas.

I walked up and down the block, shouldering the B.A.R. I aimed it at nativity scenes on lawns. I aimed it reindeer on the roofs. I aimed it at lights flickering along gutters and around door trim. I wondered when Dad started hating all those things. I wondered if he’d feel any better if I blew them all into dust with the B.A.R.

Mr. Di Lorenzo came outside. He said, “Hey, Cliffy, don’t point that gun at this house.”

“I’m not,” I told him, setting the gun on my shoulder. Right-shoulder arms, like the drill sergeants say.

Relatives from the city pulled into the Di Lorenzo driveway. They climbed out of the car, their arms heavy with gift-wrapped packages adorned with ribbons and bows. If they could come out, I wondered, why couldn’t Uncle Vic?

“Merry Christmas,” Mr. Di Lorenzo called to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

I wandered inside with nothing to do.

My mother watched TV in her bedroom with the door closed. Wally and I ate Oreos in the kitchen.

“How do you think that B.A.R. of yours makes smoke,” he asked me.

“The oil,” I told him.

“I know the oil,” he said, “but how?”

We looked in the instructions, but they didn’t explain, either.

“You want to find out?” Wally asked. He went downstairs and came back with a ball peen hammer and a flat-head screwdriver.

“Are we gonna be able to put it back together?” I asked.

“Sure,” Wally said. “If we’re careful.”

We spread newspaper on the floor, and the B.A.R. on top of the paper. Wally set the screwdriver against the stock, and reached back with the hammer.

Half an hour later, the plastic fragments and the metal springs and coils on the floor looked distressingly like garbage. We had broken it completely apart, but we were no closer to an explanation.

 

Kirby Wright

Kirby WrightKirby Wright was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii and lectured in China with Pulitzer winner Gary Snyder. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic. He is the author of the companion novels Punahou Blues and Moloka’I Nui Ahina, both set in the islands. His futuristic novel will be released in 2013 in Dublin, Ireland.     

 

Burt and the Christmas Tree

In memory of Joyce Kilmer

Burt Henke clerked for Lorain Water Utilities in Ohio. It was a dead-end job, but life wasn’t so bad. Judith Landers, a co-worker, was his girlfriend. Judith was Junior Controller and the only one who complimented Burt when he wore his Aloha shirts to company picnics and parties. They had an agreement she wouldn’t bring up his weight if he avoided calling her “Shorty.” Burt spend weekends and holidays with Judith, that is, when they weren’t flirting beside the water cooler or sharing paperback lunches in the employee lounge. He’d given her a promise ring during a TGIF bash on Lake Erie, but no wedding date had been set. They couldn’t decide on a location. Judith was from Iceland. Burt was a Lorain native. To top things off, Burt suffered an attack of cold feet after Judith gave the thumbs up for Water Utilities to hack down an oak on the beltway, one whose ancient roots had caved in the water main and caused a stream to percolate up. The stream ran the beltway’s shoulder, spurted over a concrete berm, and flooded a popular park.

“Will you kill the oak?” Burt asked Judith.

“Yes.”

“That seems drastic.”

“Remember the equation, Burty. One dead oak equals 500,000 gallons a month in saved water, a safer beltway, and a park to play in. Now that seems like a fair exchange.”

“I guess so,” Burt mumbled.

*****

Burt was crazy for Christmas. Everything about it excited him, including mistletoe kisses, Santa, flying reindeer, and opening presents. He loved running colored lights along his eaves, sticking plastic Santa signs on the lawn, and plopping a Season’s Greetings mat outside the door. 

Burt selected a six-foot pine at Home Depot. He sunk it in the plastic tree stand in his living room and tightened the steel anchoring prongs. He ‘trimmed the tree,’ as his mother used to say, which meant stringing garlands of white lights and hanging the hand-me-down ornaments his big brother had sent after clearing out their parents’ house. Burt switched on the lights and stood back to admire his work. This tree seemed different. It had an emerald hue and its needles seemed perky. The spine was as straight as a board and there was elegance in the way its branches swirled around the trunk like the arms of a ballet dancer. “Sweet, sweet tree,” Burt said.

He always spent Christmas with Judith. But this year she was off visiting relatives in Iceland. He didn’t mind. He smirked thinking how hoards of sheep had deforested her country by munching everything with roots. On Christmas Eve, Burt played holiday music and cracked a bottle of cognac. He opened Judith’s gift and found a set of copper wind chimes. He unwrapped the rest—mostly joke gifts from office pals. He’d quit exchanging presents with his brother after their parents died.

“To mon belle amie,” Burt said to the tree, raising a silver shot glass. Speaking French made him feel sexy. He loved this tree. She was brilliant, with sparkling garlands of light circling her amber trunk and shapely branches. The ornaments glistened like jewels. “Wilma,” he whispered, “votre nom est Wilma.” He took down a few more shots and stroked her needles. Just for fun, he splashed cognac in Wilma’s reservoir of water. He hugged her as Nat King Cole crooned, “O Tannebaum.” He pretended they were waltzing in a big ballroom with French Provincial décor and crystal chandeliers. 

*****

New Year’s Eve came and went but Burt still had his tree up. Wilma wasn’t losing needles and he loved the lights and ornaments. She drank water like a fiend and Burt refilled her reservoir dutifully. But he knew the day would come when the level wouldn’t change, needles would fall, and branches would droop. Then it would be time to rewind the strings of lights, pluck ornaments, and chainsaw Wilma into little pieces for recycling.  But the drinking continued. Wilma guzzled past Martin Luther King’s birthday and made it to Valentine’s Day. Burt quit switching on her lights—he didn’t want neighbors to start asking questions. He quit answering the doorbell.  

Wilma didn’t wilt. Instead, she seemed to be growing. On the Ides of March, she sent out bouquets of new green shoots.  Burt wondered if she needed more light. He hired a contractor to help him tear down a wall and they replaced it with a picture frame window. A skylight followed, one that bubbled out to make room for Wilma’s rising crown. Then her trunk expanded, cracking the plastic stand. Burt came home from work, sloshed through wet carpet, and found the reservoir bone dry. He was sure this was her death blow. He unscrewed the steel prongs that kept her anchored and peeled off the stand. Surprising, Wilma didn’t topple over. Then Burt saw something truly strange—a root system had developed at the base of her trunk and seemed attached to the floor.  Burt snipped away carpet. He found chunks of foundation cement. He scooped the chunks out and spotted roots entering the dirt below. “Oh, Wilma,” he whispered, “qu’avons-nous fait?”

*****

Burt consulted Dr. Bone, a renowned hortacologist, through Skype. He carried his laptop into the living room and tilted the screen.

“That conifer’s got a mind of its own,” chuckled Dr. Bone.

“What kind is she?” asked Burt.

“A pinyon. A scrub pine and hybrid of the great conifers.”

“She’s a mulâtre?”

“I’m sorry, Burt. I’m not familiar with French.”

“Is she a mongrel, doc?”

“Let’s put it this way,” the doctor said through the laptop, “never burn her inferior wood in your fireplace.”

*****

April arrived. The cold snap was over and families flocked to the park. The old oak had been removed, the main repaired, and locals no longer had to wade through water to reach the playground and the park’s spacious lawns. Judith got promoted to Senior Controller for all her hard work.  

Burt figured the decorations were torturing Wilma, especially after her growth spurt. Her crown was bending against the bubble skylight and she’d grown husky off the extra light from the picture window. Burt pulled off the vine-like light strands and unhooked the ornaments. “Voici, mademoiselle,” Burt bowed, “être bien naturel.” 

Judith knew Burt had an obsession. She’d been over at his house on Saint Patrick’s Day when he toasted “mon magnifique arbre,” pouring frothy Harp beer over the tree’s branches. She’d quit dropping by after that. On Good Friday, she stuck her promise ring on Burt’s desk and took off to go skiing in the Alps. 

*****

The doorbell rang on Saturday morning. Burt swung the door open before realizing his mistake. A pair of Girl Scouts stood on his Season’s Greetings mat, a red wagon between them.  The wagon was loaded with boxed cookies. The girls seemed frozen, lips parted, as they gazed in at Wilma.  Burt spotted a mother over the blonde one’s shoulder—she stared disapprovingly at the door, as if he’d said something off-color or made a lewd gesture.

“What is it, Emily?” the mother called. “What’s going on there?”

“Got thin mint?” Burt muttered.

The redhead handed him a box. Burt thrust her a fiver, shut the door, and slid the dead bolt. He held his back against the door and waited until he heard little steps chatter away over the sidewalk. 

*****

A week after Arbor Day, Burt knew it was time. He went to the Lorain Planning Commission and made the arrangements. A fleet of trucks pulled up to his home. Workers piled out and unloaded chainsaws, jackhammers, and mallets. A baby bulldozer arrived towing a buzz saw.  

“Jesus,” Burt said, looking through the picture window, “Oh, Wilma.”  

Neighbors gathered on the sidewalk.  The two Girl Scouts stood frozen in the gutter, even though it was 70 degrees. 

“What’s that they’re doing?” Burt heard Mrs. Bloomberg say.

“Chopping,” answered the Girl Scout mother. 

“Chopping what?” asked Mr. Darwin.

“A Jolly Green Giant marijuana tree.”

Men came in and dropped a canvas shroud over Wilma. 

“You’ll have to leave now, sir,” the foreman told Burt. 

One worker shattered the picture window with a mallet. Another marched in through the front door with a chainsaw, its steely teeth flashing.

“Poor Wilma,” Burt moaned.

The foreman led Burt away from the house.                           

*****

It was mid-morning on July 4th. Wilma stood in a tiny park, her magnificent crown rising for the sun and emerald branches fanning out. Burt’s quarter-acre had been rezoned under a special exemption clause, thanks to Judith’s pull with the Lorain Planning Commission. It had taken three months to demolish Burt’s home and replace it with a miniature park. 

Burt rested under Wilma’s bows. He was reading the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. He loved the sounds of wings caressing the air and the wind moving through branches. “I think that I shall never see,” Burt read out loud.

“A poem as lovely as a tree,” came a voice from a picnic blanket. It was Judith. She’d reclaimed Burt’s promise ring and let him move into her Lake Erie bungalow. Their wedding was set for Christmas Eve right here at the park, with Wilma decorated and gleaming in her holiday finest. 

 

Notes:

être bien naturel:  to be natural
qu’avons-nous fait:  what have we done

 

Nina Ramsey

Nina RamseyNina Ramsey is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and writer in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and creative essays have appeared in The Farallon Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Hospital Drive, Portland Magazine, and elsewhere.  

 

 

What I Know About Marmots

1.   Marmots belong to Order Rodentia, Genus Marmota, Family Sciuridae.  They look cute and cuddly and a bit like Himalayan cats—the big fat ones—but marmots have ugly, yellow teeth (incisors only, no canines) and their heads look similar to a beaver’s head.  All spring and summer marmots gnaw and chew on seeds, grasses, sedges, spiders, and worms; during the fall and winter they hibernate.  They can grow portly and stout during the summer feeding months.  Marmots have a gait that is more like a four-legged waddle.  They waddle a few steps and then stop and swish their tails—which look like furry beaver tails or fox tails on steroids—in a circular motion.  This gives them the appearance of having something bothering them around their bottom.  In the Cascade Mountains, our marmots are hoary marmots, after the color of their fur, which is silver, gray-blue, or frosty.  They can look like snowmelt or a gray granite boulder.

2.   From a distance, a marmot might be hard to distinguish from the gray granite boulder upon which it sits.  It may commonly lay flat on the top of the rock; scanning all about with its black eyes and keeping its ears open for predators.  Just how good is its vision?  Its hearing?  Its sense of smell?  When danger is seen, heard, or smelt, it stands up and lets out a sharp whistle, which sounds more like a banshee shriek, and which is usually answered by another shriek and then another as the message is passed along the colony: OMG!  Run!  Hide! Duck into the burrows!

3.   Marmot predators? All the usual: bear, eagle, wolverine, hawk, lynx, cougar, osprey (when fishing is poor), red fox, coyote, and dog.  Wolves, too, if the marmots happen to live in wolf territory, which the Cascade Mountains are once again becoming, with an estimated nine packs, three in the North Cascades and the rest in Eastern Washington State. Some native peoples hunted marmot for their fat, prized for its medicinal value.  But not the Yakima Indians (see No. 5).  Nowadays, people do not prey on marmots.  Not for meat, not for sport, not for fur.  I don’t know if marmots were ever trapped for their fur.  I doubt it.  Not because their soft, silver underfur and the gray-blue guard hair of their pelage isn’t lovely.  It just looks ratty when they moult.  Well, they are big rodents. 

4.   Marmots, in order to protect themselves against predators, graze in large groups, spread out, with sentries posted on gray granite boulders.  When the sentry shrieks, each marmot runs to his or her nearest burrow entrance.  There might be over one hundred seven-foot deep refuge burrows in an established colony—and the marmots remember every one.  Sleeping and hibernating burrows are deep chambers up to eleven feet long lined with dried grass and leaves.  These burrows have multiple entrances and exits—and the marmots remember every one.  Marmot memories are so good, when they wake up in spring and dig themselves a tunnel up through the snow, they can then waddle or slide a few hundred yards away and with no signs, no trail markers, no mailboxes, no burrow numbers, dig straight down through the snow to another burrow entrance.  Their visual memories are magnificent; their visual spatial cortex must be massive.  Imagine visualizing tunnels and burrow holes that cannot be seen.  Marmots might make good dentists.  Or, at least, score high enough on the visual spatial perception tests to get into dental school.  Lord knows most marmots could use a good dentist (see No. 1).

5.   Marmots are family oriented and friendly—the Latter-Day Saints and Pentecostals of Order Rodentia.  In the National Parks, where they’re used to seeing people, they will ignore us and go about their marmot business (grazing, digging, play fighting, and wrestling), or approach us as two-legged dispensers of granola and gorp. In remote alpine and subalpine basins, where marmots rarely encounter people, a marmot might take one look at a human and think predator; then shriek, run, hide, fight, or rise up on its hind legs and snarl.  But whether you encounter a marmot in a National Park or in the wild backcountry, you’d better keep on your toes.  A marmot might lure you—with chirps, whistles, or trills—toward a mysterious alpine Shangri-La.  Hunters from the Yakima tribe once told ethnologist Eugene Hunn, that marmots were associated with mythical Little People, “whose whistling might seduce a lone hunter, calling him ever on until he loses all track of time, space, and identity.” 

6.   Once, when we were camping up on the Railroad Grade on the west side of Mount Baker, a huge marmot got its incisors into one of my husband Bob’s t-shirts.  We’d had a hard, hot, hike up to camp, and that t-shirt was caked with dried salty sweat.  We tried to get the t-shirt away from it.  It hissed and growled and gnashed its teeth and shook its head side-to-side, clenching the t-shirt in its jaws, in the manner of a rabid dog.  Its growls and hisses sounded like the horrible sounds Linda Blair made while playing a young girl possessed by a demon in the film The Exorcist.  One of the scariest and most disgusting films ever produced.  I’m just saying.  This marmot kept Bob’s t-shirt.

7.   Upper Goat Lake, the North Cascades.  We’d had a hard, hot, day hike—north up the Pacific Crest Trail, over Rock and Woody Passes—and we were returning to our remote camp above Upper Goat Lake, an alpine tarn sixteen miles north of Harts Pass and fifteen miles south of Monument 78 at the Canadian border.  Suddenly, this yard-tall marmot rears up.  A marmot with—I’d guess—a version of that growth hormone disease, gigantism.  He blocks the trail, stands, staring at us and gnashing his teeth.  His marmot forepaws curled in fists at his chest.  A marmot version of a big time wrestler.  I thought Bob would have to fight him with his trekking sticks—engage in some wilderness swordplay.  In my mind this marmot was definitely a “he.”  Although I have no idea how I would actually examine—how I might handle—a marmot to determine its sex.  But I’m sure this marmot had huge cojones.  He made no sound—no whistles, no growls, no snarls—he just stood there with his mitts up, staring and gnashing his teeth.   After a while, he dropped to the ground and crept into the meadow.

8.   Mount Robson, Canada; the trail to Snowbird Pass.  AKA the Valley of a Thousand Marmots.  Some hikers from New Zealand were terrified of marmots.  They thought the marmots were wolverines, whose bone-crushing canine teeth and powerful jaws could rip your throat open and your bloody beating heart out of your chest.  I have never seen a wolverine nor do I wish to see one.  I did see a badger once, in the brown sage and dry dirt below the Taggert and Bradley Lakes trail.  It was an ugly sucker.  Mean-looking.  I imagine a badger would score in the ninetieth percentile on a nastiness scale.  Marmots for the most part have a gentle nature.  Except when it comes to predators or salt-caked t-shirts.

9.   This morning I encountered a young yellow-bellied marmot as I started up the Beaver Creek Trail, here in Grand Teton National Park, where I am sitting now in my cabin typing the draft of this essay.  It was two feet off the trail, digging near a rotten log.  I stopped and baby-talked to it, and it looked into my eyes and blinked; then it waddled closer to that rotten log and resumed digging.  Its fur was a rusting-red, rich, copper and gold, the same color I get using Indian red henna on my hair.  I couldn’t see its belly but it must be yellow, because after all I am in the Teton Range of the Rockies, where the yellow-bellied marmots rule.  This marmot was digging under the snow and down into the dirt with the curved claws of its forepaws and then licking something—spiders, worms, or minerals—up from the soil.  The snow was all around.  Several feet in places.  Taggert Lake was still covered in ice.  This youngster was an early riser. 

10.  One time, I snapped photos of three marmot pups sunbathing and playing atop a gray granite boulder.  This was in a subalpine basin below Three Fingers, a peak in the west Cascades.  The pups chased each other and play-fought, rolling about and wrestling; then they flopped into a pile of gray fur and fell asleep.

11.  Marmots are clever.  Whether they are black-capped, yellow-bellied, long-tailed, hoary, alpine, or steppe, they understand taking turns and teamwork.  I once saw a dozen yellow-bellied marmots in a basin at the foot of the Middle Teton, circling a food bag some climbers had hung off a branch they’d jammed into a crack on an enormous boulder.  One-by-one, the marmots climbed to the summit of the boulder, but could not manage to climb out on or dislodge that branch.  Which would have been child’s-play to a raccoon.  Nevertheless, the marmots kept at it.  They circled below the food bag, like children under a piñata at a birthday party, waiting for candy to fall.  Later that same day, I sat on a rock by the side of the trail to rest, and a marmot waddled down the scree and sat beside me on another rock.  I expected it to cross its legs, lean back, and light a pipe.  Instead, it gazed at me—its powerful dark eyes imploring me—so, I hear you have some trail mix in your pocket.

Berdjouhi Esmerian

Berdjouhi EsmerianBorn and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, to Armenian parents, multilingual Berdjouhi Esmerian writes only in English, because “English is my favorite.” Some of her stories have appeared in anthologies published by Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, and she has co-authored with three friends the memoir According to Us.

She arrived in the United States at the age of 30 in 1963 with a degree in Education from the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Even though she had taught English in Cairo and Beirut, the path of her life took her into a career at a law book publishing company in Rochester, from where she retired thirty years later.

Now she writes her life experiences of growing up in the Middle East during many historical events there to bring personal perspective to the younger generation in her family.

 

Frog Legs

In the early 1960’s, I went to Lebanon as a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. I was in my late twenties and living at Bustani Hall, the residence on campus for graduate women students. I met a young woman who was also from Alexandria, Egypt, like me, and we became fast friends, especially when we found out that we had been flower girls at the wedding of my parents’ upstairs tenants. Her name was Isabelle, and she was about one year older than me but unlike me, she was not a student. She was a refugee and somehow had managed to get herself accepted to reside in the building. She had no identity papers.

Lebanon in those days seemed peaceful on the surface but everyone carried city-issued ID cards stating one’s citizenship, occupation, and reason for being in Lebanon. Many non-Arab Egyptians went there hoping to get a Lebanese citizenship or a passage to the United States or any other country that would take them in through various programs that had been created by the United Nations and these foreign countries. These were not the typical refugees of the early nineteen hundreds—they were all people of means, educated, capable of starting their own businesses, and most of them had had their personal fortunes smuggled out of Egypt (at a high cost, of course). Egyptian politics of the early 1960’s was veering toward Russian-style socialism. Our comfortable, westernized lifestyle had been turned upside down after the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956.

One Sunday afternoon Isabelle and I decided to go for frog legs. There was a famous restaurant in the Beka’a Valley, past the mountains about two hours’ drive by bus. I was bored, had no homework, and wanted something different to do.

About two in the afternoon we went downtown and got on the bus. As I remember, it was a very beautiful spring afternoon, and the weather got cooler, cleaner, and crisper as the bus wandered through the winding roads on the mountains. From time to time the bus would stop to either drop off some passengers or pick up new ones as we went through the beautiful villages with their stone houses and the famous cedar trees. The restaurant we were planning to go to had become famous for its frog legs. The tables were arranged about a small brook, gurgling along and adding to the unique atmosphere. I’d never had them before and was very excited, because this was the ultimate, newest, in-thing to do—to go to the town of Zahleh and eat frog legs.

Dinner was everything I had expected. The frog legs were delicious, crispy, and we had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and early evening. Still, we decided not to dilly dally and started our return trip before sundown. Lebanon in 1963 was no place for two young women to be out late by themselves in these far locations away from Beirut.

Shortly after we started, the bus was stopped by a couple of men on the road. They came on board with rifles hanging from their shoulders and started asking the passengers to produce their ID cards for inspection.

“I guess I’ll spend the night in prison,” Isabelle said.

“Don’t worry. I won’t produce my papers either so that if you are taken to prison, they’ll have to take me as well. You won’t be alone.”

We had a couple of magazines we were reading. It suddenly occurred to me that we were women after all and chances were that these people would treat us as not very important. They were not going to consider us dangerous. Gambling on this culture, I quietly told Isabelle, “We’ll continue looking at these magazines together as though there is something very important we are discussing. We’ll pay no attention to them and pretend that we will not be expected to produce any papers.”

The two men slowly reached our row of seats and without even a glance at us passed to the row behind. We continued being our “unimportant feminine sex” until they left the bus, and we started to breathe. The bus continued to Beirut without any further stops.

We never ate frog legs again in the Beka’a Valley.

Sheryl Clough

Sheryl CloughSheryl Clough has worked as a teacher, editor, whitewater river guide, paralegal, and egg packer in an Alaskan salmon cannery.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she designed and taught UAF’s first writing course linked to environmental literature.  Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in Spindrift, Explorations, Storyboard, Sierra, Travelers Tales, Soundings Review and many others. Recent honors include a creative nonfiction prize from Jane’s Stories Press Foundation and the William Stafford Award from Washington Poets Association.  In February 2013, Sheryl gave a featured reading at the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, which awarded first prize to her chapbook Ring of Fire, Sea of Stone. You can reach her at Scatchetpoet@gmail.com.

 

Under Sand and Shadow

Early morning rousts the Sedona, Arizona desert, where I have come to hike in Boynton Canyon, one of the “power vortexes” revered by New Age religions.  I want to experience the sensations reported by the faithful:  voices and visions at least, spiritual rebirth at best.  I come prepared to disbelieve, but maybe this exercise can vindicate the pride I take in keeping an open mind.

As I stuff the voices of cynicism back into their brain cavities, desert shadows retreat, changing the landscape from a purple place to a rage of red.  Under rising light, scarlet sandstone cliffs leap nearer to the observer’s face.  Millions of quartz inclusions, some no larger than the punctures made by hawk talons, reflect in the gathering sun and blind the eye with collective glitter.  Along the cliff tops, hoodoos strut.  Their fantastic shapes suffer from over-used comparisons:  giant punctuation marks; guardians of the desert; chess pieces.  What many formations really resemble is erect penises, red shafts jutting up to overhanging limestone rims shaped by centuries of dripping moisture.  In the jumbled priapic landscape, another desert day begins.

Twenty years of relentless Catholic indoctrination have spawned a healthy body of suspicion through which to view Boynton Canyon.  Specifically, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception kicked my adolescent rebellion into high gear.  I remember standing in the choir loft of St. Mary’s Church between the Holbein sisters, Eileen and Nancy, singing the Latin Mass.  We three, plus my sister and the oldest Holbein, Judith, made up the whole choir, plus Flo, the curly-haired organist who was as much a fixture in that church as the sculpted Stations of the Cross that lined the walls and seemed to have been forever in place.  A child interested in things scientific, I had been trying to work out in my brain the mechanics of the Immaculate Conception.  I failed, and the illogic struck me mid-phrase while singing et cum spiritu tuo:  if conception without intercourse equals immaculate, then any other conception equals not immaculate, equals dirty.  I was thirteen and didn’t know much about any kind of intercourse, but that thought struck me like a high-speed fist between my eyebrows.

Once planted in fertile adolescent soil, the doubt seedling sprouted many branches.  Endless questions pestered my mind, presenting themselves at random times during my daily routine:  while riding my bike to the store, or feeding the cat, or walking over to my best friend Joanne’s house.  Was the Communion wafer really the body of Christ, and the wine His blood?  Could our sins actually be forgiven by something so painless as reciting ten rosaries?  Why eat fish on Fridays?  Why couldn’t Catholic kids go to our non-Catholic friends’ churches?  How come I can’t be a Rainbow Girl?  (This was especially galling, because all the most popular girls in school belonged to Rainbow, an offshoot of the mysterious Masons.)  What was wrong with the movies on the infamous “Condemned” list, anyway?  I became convinced that only by eating forbidden fruit could I attain any real knowledge, and felt great pride when I managed to sneak into the old Avalon Theater on Monroe’s Main Street for a screening of “The Millionairess,” one of the films listed as Condemned.  Thirty years later, all I can remember is a scene in which a slinky robe slides to floor to reveal a woman’s bare back.  So much for “real knowledge.”

By 1980 or so, I had discarded the dead leaves of my Catholic training, and had not filled the resulting spiritual abyss in any consistent way.  Still no hard-boiled skeptic, though, I occasionally considered other philosophies ranging from the well-established to half-baked.  On a friend’s recommendation, I read Dick Sutphen’s book about the vortexes around Sedona.  He quoted many people retelling their spiritual experiences at the four alleged power centers.  They reported visions of Indian people, “The Ancients,” thought probably descended from Lemurians, the aliens who took up residence in the caverns deep within northern California’s Mount Shasta.  Other believers heard voices advising them to quit their jobs, move to other cities, or change occupations.   Still others saw auras, often around Bell Rock, a high desert outcrop noted as an especially fertile place for UFO sightings.  According to New Age theory, Bell Rock serves as a communications beacon vortex that transmits signals to other intelligent beings within our galaxy.  As a diehard Star Trek fan, this appealed to me.

These tangled thought vines entwined my brain as I stopped my rental car on the way to Boynton, stepped onto a Sedona grocery store’s weathered wood porch, and bought cheese, bread, and grape juice for my day of solo hiking, all the while telling my rational self not to expect any of the purported psychic phenomena to happen to me.  Still, the romantic part of me felt receptive, eager, and ready to believe that the famous four psychic energy vortexes held special opportunities for spiritual advancement, new chances to fill the vacuum that religious Nature abhors.

First stop:  Boynton Canyon, an electromagnetic power center that combines the best of male and female energy into a perfect balance.  Believed to revitalize the pilgrim who is able to properly attune to her surroundings, Boynton Canyon opens from a trailhead surrounded by beautiful red sandstone cliffs on three sides, a landscape reminiscent of the Olga Mountains in the Red Center of Australia, another landscape held sacred by its original people.  I climb up and over the first ridge, to escape the sight of cars on the highway.  Traffic noise is still audible.

Halfway down the other side on an outcrop, I note a healthy lichen community, drinking dewdrops before they evaporate under intensifying sun.  The symbiotic weaving of fungus and algae sprawls over the red sandy face, pitted with a great number of small holes which, judging from the material composing the edges, were recently filled with quartz crystals.  These inclusions appear to have been of granitic composition.  Scraping the edges with my thumbnail, I dislodge tiny fragments of plagioclase and quartz, smaller than heads on straight pins.  I suspect the quartz cultists have been here and dug out these beautiful stones, leaving spaces in the sandstone matrix as ugly as pits remaining after a teenager squeezes out zits.

Which goes to show what happens when a common mineral in the earth’s crust is elevated by pop culture to the status of healant and magical element.  New Age magazines publish full page color pictures of the “patient” laid out on a floor or tabletop, with garnets, amethysts, and quartz chunks aligned along limbs, clavicle, forehead.  Everybody now wants to possess stones that a few years ago were just pretty rocks; one consequence is this still beautiful but ravaged outcrop.  I am sure the diggers are excavating the quartz for their own ends, because most of the missing crystals are not big enough to bring any money in the crystal shops.  Some pits are smaller across than the surface of a dime, which is more than a shopkeeper would pay for one.

Descending to the valley floor, I allow the serenity of the Canyon to lead me.  I stroll along feeling a sense of peace, without thinking about whether I am on a trail.  I’m tempted to ascribe this serene feeling to the psychic properties of the Canyon, but the sterner half reminds me I associate this serenity with being outdoors anywhere.  I unzip my pack, take out a juice bottle, and tilt my head back for a drink.  An unexpected gift glides overhead in the shape of a red-tailed hawk.

In half a mile I spy a medicine wheel.  A recent craze of the New Agers, this idea is appropriated from Native American culture.  The builders pile desert stones into large circles and place stone peace symbols within their circumferences.  Some wheels are as large as thirty feet across.  Among the stones, the faithful place tokens of personal spiritual significance:  flowers, crystals, teddy bears, even battered cook pots from backpacking trips.

My personal bias runs to “no trace camping” as the appropriate manifestation of spiritual respect for landscape.  From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, unless the old cook pot has a hole in the bottom in which case it should be recycled, leaving it out in the desert would be wasteful.  Seems to me these medicine wheels typify our human inability to travel through a place without depositing hard evidence of our passage.  Other forms this inability takes:  initials hacked into tree trunks; horse packers’ “furniture” left to rot; stone fire rings, often containing metal and plastic garbage; spikes driven into the living flesh of ancient trees to tether horses; plastic bags of trash partially buried; glass wine bottles (too heavy to pack out but not to bring in) left behind as candle holders.

Back in olden times, when I was a good Catholic girl, I would kneel weekly in a darkened confessional and recite my sins to a priest whose face I could not see.  He would assign penance in the form of a certain number of Hail Marys, or even whole Rosaries.  I hated that, because saying the entire Rosary took too much time away from the important work of childhood:  riding my bike or building a fort with my brothers.  As an adult, I have escaped the interminable rote prayers, but still have a need for penance, to atone for the perceived sins of our species against nature.  Nowadays the penance takes the form of carrying away, via kayak, bags of garbage stacked at maritime cabins, or breaking apart stone fire rings in alpine country, heaving the rocks over cliffs and scattering ashes to the high winds.

Today in this canyon, I turn to look behind, to check what marks I might have made.  There are footprints, of course, which will be blown away by wind or washed out by rain.  I search the sands for gum wrappers and cigarette butts to pack out, a self-imposed price of admission to this beautiful canyon.  The need to perform atonement bugs me; reminds me that as far departed as Catholicism should be by now, it lurks like spotted tick eggs under a hiker’s skin, awaiting optimal hatching conditions.

Thinking about human markers, memories of Uluru (Ayers Rock, Australia) flood over me.  There, a hike around the base reveals deteriorating but discernible cave paintings made by the aborigines.  Modern anthropologists and art scholars speculate as to why these paintings were made.  Theories include assertions of the art as maps, ritual markers, storyboards, and portraits of spirit beings from the Dreamtime.  For example, a Melbourne art museum guide interprets “The Gar-fish,” a picture made of earth pigments on bark which represents a cave painting in western Arnhem Land, like this:  Kunwinjku people believe the fish “left their underground home, painted their images on the rock face, then jumped onto the plain below, creating the Oenpelli lagoon.  These cave paintings are believed to be the actual bodies of the two fish.”

Many students agree the figures served purposes greater than mere decoration or evidence of human presence.  Whatever the uses served by these old markers, the materials used to make them belong to the landscape as surely as lichen belongs to rock.  Plants generated the red, white and black dyes; human saliva mixed them; the creation surfaces were rock and bark, sometimes sand.  The paintings weather and fade from one season to the next, pigment and substrate gradually blending together, beginning and ending zones indistinct.  The painted Gar-fish of Oenpelli will fade and blend into their cave wall, just as the original creatures have long since disintegrated into the red sands of their landscape.

Circling back past the false claims laid out by Boynton’s medicine wheels, a couple hours later I reach my beginning outcrop and climb back to the trailhead side.  Disappointed but still determined, I hike out to the car and drive to the Airport Mesa vortex, described by Sutphen as an electric (yang or male) power center.  The short trail to the top passes through ground-hugging prickly pear and the occasional medicine wheel.  On the summit, I recline against a pine trunk and begin deep breathing, to achieve the altered state recommended by Sutphen for experiencing vortex phenomena.  Within minutes I see shifting cloud patterns, jet trails, and colored cloud edges where the sun slants through.  Just as you would see anywhere, says my sterner brain.  I shift into lotus position and try to breathe more deeply.  This time I hear tinkling bells, ethereal, their sound seeming to float up from the valley floor.  The soft peals continue for perhaps thirty seconds.  Impressed with this psychic achievement, I stifle the self that suggests there must be bells ringing somewhere down in the town of Sedona.  That self wins, the damn cynic.  It is already too late.  Whatever spark may have existed for spiritual rekindling as I entered Boynton Canyon is now extinguished, bulldozed under the hot sand to lie suffocated in medicine wheels, plastic bags and cigarette butts.

I descend through advancing shadows, flinging the shards of New Age belief and Western religious thought back into their rightful places among the teddy bears and cook pots in desert medicine wheels: arbitrary artifacts, mindless, impractical, and unconnected to the landscapes they inhabit. Today’s wanderings have reinforced for me that human existence on earth has as much stability as aboriginal sand paintings, existing at the pleasure of environment and weather, and as easily obliterated.  Digging for religion in the desert is as futile as digging for health within crystal matrixes.  Like the stone fish of Oenpelli Lagoon, I will weather and fade, my saliva mixing with dust, my spiritual questions unanswered.

Deborah Bacharach

Debbie BacharachDeborah Bacharach is a poet and essayist.  Her work has appeared in New Letters, The Antigonish Review, Cimarron Review, Bridges, Drash, and Many Mountains Moving among many journals and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a college writing teacher for twenty years. Now, she is a freelance writing consultant in Seattle. Find her at atcwrites.com.

 

 

 

The Mikvah Hike

My life partner wanted to get married, but it took me fourteen years to figure out marriage wasn’t state sponsored shackles on women. So once I decided I was ready, I was really ready. I threw myself into the planning. I wanted a traditional Jewish wedding albeit a feminist one that could handle my ignorance of and often discomfort with Jewish ritual. I never said I was easy. Luckily, my sister, Julia, had gotten married the year before. She was my role model.

As part of her pre-wedding activities, my sister got a bunch of girlfriends together, not for a bridal shower or a bachlorette party, but for a mikvah hike. This version of the traditional Jewish ritual had been floating around the Seattle community for a few years. It takes the ancient tradition of mikvah, to ritually cleanse oneself in running water, and moves it out to the woods. A celebration in the wilderness? You can’t get any better for my spirituality. I liked the idea of putting a Northwestern slant on a traditional ceremony, so even though I had barely heard of a mikvah, I printed prayers from the Internet and headed to Mount Baker.

*****

For years I assumed I had an underdeveloped spirituality. Then I joined a synagogue and had an entrance interview with the director. I dutifully nodded my head about all the great opportunities awaiting me. The director said Seattle actually has the highest concentration of unaffiliated Jews. “Because,” he said, “of the wilderness.” Then I started nodding my head for real. “Jews in Seattle are getting their spiritual needs met through the wilderness.”

In Seattle, the wilderness is always with us. Even the huge cruise ships can’t block sun glinting off Puget Sound’s waves. It is the western red cedar, the Douglas firs, and all the other evergreens casting their shadows next to the roads. And, always the mountains. To the east the Cascades, to the west the Olympics–their blue and white peaks pierce the sky. From the freeway, I look up, and on a good day when Mt. Rainier is out, my spirit is taken out of my body. Hiking in the thin alpine air, finding hidden lakes and crashing waterfalls, I feel awe, wonder, and profound gratefulness. If that’s what we mean by spiritual, I’ve got that.

I was having similar feelings as I thought of my wedding. It made sense to bring the wedding and the wilderness together. Except, I wasn’t ready for the actual Jewish ritual of a mikvah.

*****

My relationship to Jewish ritual is complex and evolving. It has to meet my strict and, unfortunately, opposing guidelines: it has to have stood the test of time; I have to have learned it as a child; it can’t be sexist. Hard to bring any ritual to that set of criteria.

I know, I know, tried and true traditions have to be new at some point, and as a feminist who eagerly expanded the number of cups at a Passover seder to include one dedicated to Mose’s sister, Miriam, I can hardly be one to judge. But I do. I’m suspicious of rituals that are not rooted in the tradition I grew up with. That happens to be Reform Judaism. So I am wary even of traditions that are a centuries old part of Judaism, and which long predate Reform Judaism, such as a mikvah.

I think the rituals we learn as children create a permanent space in us. I picture each ritual creating a hook like one end of a bungee cord. It wants to be taut, to hold tight, to fulfill its purpose. When I stand and let the Sh’ma pour through me, Judaism’s central prayer and its assertion of monotheism, which is the other hook attached to the one inside me, and linking me to the service and the whole history of Judaism— it feels right. The rituals I learned as a child have the strongest hooks. I know I can add new ones. I’ve done so. I never used to touch the challah as I blessed it; now, I love doing it. But it took several awkward moments and many repetitions before it felt right to me. And that one doesn’t even have any sexist baggage.

We have a serious history of sexism in our religion. The Judaism I practice has done a pretty good job of ferreting it out. I now get to thank my foremothers along with my forefathers. My prayer book talks about God the mother. I am comfortable with these new traditions because they attach to hooks that also are part of me.

I can’t remember even hearing the word “mikvah” as a child or teen. In my twenties I read a mystery novel where an orthodox woman had to go to the mikvah and ritually cleanse herself after her menstruation, to allow her husband to touch her and have sex with her.

That created my pop culture understanding of a mikvah: menstruation makes women unclean, profane, disgusting, untouchable; sex is a man’s right, initiated by a man on a woman; women must cleanse themselves so men can have access to their bodies. I’m sure there’s some feminist revisioning of this, but from where I was standing, everything about a mikvah pissed me off. A mikvah wasn’t just an unfamiliar ritual; it went against my core values. I believe menstruation is natural and good. I believe sex is natural and good. I believe women, not the blessing of a mikvah, should control who touches them and when. I feel so strongly that it would take some effort for me to understand and respect a woman who chose to follow this ritual.

And then my sister did.

My sister is not particularly more religious than I am. Julia also grew up Reform and has basically the same lax practice as I do, but being part of the Jewish community has become central to her identity. She wanted a really, really Jewish wedding (albeit a feminist one that, if it could be helped, didn’t mention God; did I say we were easy?). She wore a veil, she signed a marriage contract called a ketubah, and she gathered a group of Jewish female friends together and went on the mikvah hike. (I should also point out that her fiancé also did a mikvah hike that day with his male friends, and they told dirty jokes on the way back—their version of a bachelor party.)  I wasn’t living in town when she had her hike, so I didn’t get to try it all out. But knowing someone so similar to me was doing it made it seem doable.

I also liked what Anita Diamant had to say about it in her book “The New Jewish Wedding:” “For brides and grooms mikvah is a physical enactment of the passage from being unmarried to married. Entering the chuppah is a public declaration of a change in status; entering the mikvah is a private transforming moment.” Remember, my partner and I had been together fourteen years. We knew who left the cap off the toothpaste. Because so much was going to stay the same, I needed a physical demarcation between the old and the new. I needed a threshold to cross. I loved that the wedding was a big old community hoedown with everyone wrapping us in love, but was grateful for some traditions that could be a private witness.

Even though Diamant tried very hard to make the official mikvah bath sound appealing and accessible to a non-Orthodox woman, her description of the rules and the mikvah lady creeped me out. I pictured one of those dragons guarding the bathroom doors in Italy. They take your money, they pick out your stall, they sit right there while you try to do something private and embarrassing. No way. I’d rather jump in a lake.

*****

It was the first hike of the season, a ritual in itself. When Talapus Lake trail turned next to a waterfall, the water jammed down, loud, unabashed, its own cheering section. It pounded, a great push of energy crashing through me. When we got to the lake, it was still and completely away from car exhaust and blinking lights, completely away from the hectic last minute choices about what flowers would go in the boutonniere. The dunk itself was crazy cold. If I was looking to be jolted into a new reality, this was it.

But my sister was in a bad mood. My mom was in a good mood, but she doesn’t like ritual, and I made her read the transliterated prayers. My other two friends hiking along were neither Jewish nor ritually oriented. A big hallelujah might have helped.

I love Jewish weddings. I love how the congregation seems to hang on every word of the ceremony and chimes in with the blessings. I love the friends and parents holding up the chuppah, or wedding canopy. I love lifting the bride and groom up on chairs, the dancing, and the great joy.

But I have noticed it only works if you have a critical mass of Jews. I can think of plenty of weddings with the five Jews in the room struggling through a lackluster horah while the rest of the wedding guests sat finishing their desserts.

It doesn’t have to be this way even if there aren’t many Jews. A high school friend converted to Judaism and married an Israeli. None of her family was Jewish and his family wasn’t there. It could have been very awkward, but they hired a klezmer band that taught us all the dances. It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. We may have been learning the rituals right there, but they were taught well and we joined in with an open heart.

At my mikvah we had no one to teach us the rituals, and I don’t think my friends and family came ready to be in a religious ceremony. Me either. I tried to separate my resentment of mikvah in general from the beauty and glory this ceremony might be. It didn’t work. I still walked into the woods feeling that I was betraying myself. No wonder that even after I got out of the lake and crammed my hat back on my head, and even after my teeth stopped chattering, I still felt cold.

*****

Would I recommend a mikvah hike? Yes, but only if. Next time, I’d prep better. I’d have long conversations with myself, inviting my ten different points of view for consensus building. I’d practice by getting myself invited to someone else’s. And, I’d build a community to invite to mine.

One thing I love about being Jewish is we have so much ritual and heritage to draw on. I feel perfectly entitled to revise the rituals, see them through my own idiosyncratic lens. I can imagine a mikvah hike to celebrate my ten-year anniversary. It’s a year away. I better start prepping now.

Iris Dorbian

Iris DorbianIris Dorbian is a former actress turned journalist who during her career has covered media, marketing/advertising, small business and theater/the arts. Her articles have appeared in a wide number of publications that include Playbill, Media Industry Newsletter, Mediapost’s OMMA, Live Design, DMNews, PR News, Backstage, Theatermania, Stage Directions, Pilates Style, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Pointe. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008. This is her second published personal essay. Her first personal essay, “Likable? Who Cares!,” was published this past spring in B O D YA New Jersey native, Iris has a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

 

A Prayer in Times Square

 

My hand trembled on my cell phone.

“You need to come home,” my mother said, her voice choked with pain. “He’s not going to make it.”

My worst fear was coming to pass: my father who had been my lifelong champion, confidante, and best friend was dying.

Seven weeks earlier, in late August 2010, Dad had checked into New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center to have a tumor removed in his bladder. Since being diagnosed with bladder cancer nearly nine years ago, he had withstood a semi-regular regimen of limited chemo treatments and procedures to obliterate a tumor in his urological tract that was becoming increasingly aggressive. I kept thinking that because his earlier operations were successful that perhaps they would be once again. The possibility that the ticking time bomb in Dad’s bladder would explode and spread to his major organs was not a scenario I wanted to face.

“Okay…I’ll be there…but I have to finish my lessons,” I said clumsily, like a child instead of the middle-aged woman I was. I had begun teaching journalism and professional writing at a New Jersey college, a job I was excited to land because it offered promise to a career that had been derailed due to a layoff. Yet as hard as I tried to give my all to the students, my father’s ailing health proved to be too much of a distraction. Small wonder I was not asked back.

“Finish it quickly and get here right away,” my mother demanded.  “He doesn’t want you to know how sick he is. He’s lying to you.”

My eyes welled with tears as memories reeled in my mind like a kaleidoscope: Dad taking me to a petting zoo in Fairlawn, New Jersey because I wanted to touch and hug the goats and the deer; Dad saving me from choking to death on a piece of steak in a Wildwood Crest restaurant when I was ten; Dad treating me to Saturday breakfasts at the local International House of Pancakes where I would always eat crepe suzette because my pre-pubescent self saw an elegantly hip character on TV order it; Dad watching all the just-released movies with me, even if they were age-inappropriate and traumatized me for years; and Dad guiding me at age fifteen to the TKTS booth at the heart of Times Square where we’d wait in a long line with the other out-of-towners arriving in New York City for the day to buy a discounted ticket to a Broadway show.

I savored that last memory. Our mutual love of theater reinforced the bond between my father and I, and probably opened the gate that led to my eventual exodus from the Garden State in favor of what I saw as my Valhalla–New York City. Or maybe my mother deserves to shoulder some of the blame. It was her idea that, every Saturday, Dad take me to New York City to see a Broadway show. Her reasoning wasn’t purely altruistic: She wanted my father out of the way. He might have been off from his job on Saturday but as the owner of a small women’s clothing boutique, she certainly wasn’t. Saturday was her busiest day of the week and as much as she loved Dad, she needed her space from him to concentrate on customers who would rush into her store as soon as the door opened, clamoring for bargains.

As eager as Dad and I were to undertake our Saturday excursion, we weren’t thrilled with the unedifying spectacle that awaited us once we got to the Port Authority. It was the late 1970s and the city was a study in urban blight. As soon as we walked off the bus, Dad and I would step up our brisk pace to a canter, bypassing the hookers and drug-dealers threatening our suburban equanimity. Once we got onto a neighboring street deemed by Dad to be less troublesome than the preceding areas, we relaxed our steps and let out a measured sigh of relief. We could amble comfortably to the TKTS booth and not race to our destination like hyperventilating maniacs.

There we were greeted by a swarm of other suburban dwellers queuing around Duffy Square, their faces ruddy with anticipation as they waited for a TKTS staffer to put up that all-too-important posting that announced which Broadway shows had “twofers” or tickets available for half their regular price for that day’s matinee performance. Usually, Dad would cede the Broadway show selection to whatever appealed to me.  I’d always pick the musical—like Grease, or They’re Playing Our Song, or A Chorus Line. Dad would buy the tickets, and we’d walk to our favorite pre-theater hangout, a Greek diner where I’d eat my tuna fish sandwich and Dad would gobble up his western omelet. There Dad and I would talk about everything under the sun: literature, politics, movies, bad TV—nothing was too weighty or trivial to broach with him.

There was one story he’d always love to talk about. It was when he decided to spend his first New Year’s Eve in America at Times Square. It was December 31, 1949. He and a relative had gone to Coney Island to have dinner with a couple whose home according to Dad, “was a den of Communist iniquity.”  Desperate to escape their rapturous odes to Marxism and Mother Russia, Dad and his relative bolted for Times Square where during the course of the evening, he found himself forcibly pushed by the crowd of thousands into a Russian movie theater.

“It was right there,” Dad, a Latvian-native, would say, in the perfectly unaccented English he mastered by listening to Edward R. Murrow newscasts, while pointing at a porn theater currently playing a decidedly non-Russian flick with the bizarre title of “Infrasexum.” Then he’d turn to me, his face reddening like an embarrassed schoolboy and we’d both howl as we headed to our Broadway show.

But now that version of my father was fading; he was expected to die within days or maybe weeks. With his eightieth birthday approaching in a month, I kept hoping and praying he’d make it for that milestone. Come on, Dad, you can do it. You survived the Nazis and the Marines—you can do this, Dad. You can do it.

On Monday, October 11, 2010, the day after my mother’s call, my lessons done for the week, I walked to the Port Authority and took the Number 164 bus that would deposit me right in front of my childhood home in Fairlawn. It was a lovely, unseasonably warm October day; the sun was breathtakingly brilliant and luminous as set against the sky, a yawning expanse of deep sapphire blue. Dad would love a day like today.

A survivor of various concentration camps, which included Stutthof and Stolpe, Dad was liberated by British forces on May 3, 1945, five days before V-E Day, which marked the official end of World War II in Europe; he spent the next six months in a hospital in Neustadt Holstein, Germany. As he later related in a letter to the historian Martin Gilbert who incorporated it in his book, The Day the War Ended: May 8, 1945 – Victory in Europe, “The 8th of May was spent by me in a clean and white bed for the first time in three years and I was all of fourteen and a half years of age.”

Dad couldn’t stay in bed, even though he was weak with typhus and dysentery.  Spring was abloom in this small town where days before Dad and other emaciated, half-dead prisoners had been marched to a barge going nowhere and later abandoned on a large naval base in Neustadt Holstein. It was the final leg of a death march that began in March 1945 when the SS, desperate to eradicate all traces of the Final Solution, Hitler’s plan to take care of the “Jewish problem” in Eastern Europe, evacuated Stutthof. Though ill with fever, Dad forced himself to go on this march. Not to go meant being left behind, which spelled certain death.

In the hospital, Dad was an unceasing source of frustration to the British medics. Rather than rest in bed to recover, every day when the nurses weren’t around, Dad would slip out to the garden at the back of the hospital, sit on a bench, and gawk at the panoply of budding flowers basking in the warmth and sunshine.

“It’s such a beautiful day today,” he said to me not long before he died, some sixty-five years after he had left that now long-distance British field hospital. It was the second to last conversation I had with him in which he was lucid. The final conversation I had with him was a day later—also on the phone: I had complained to him about the expensive commute from New York City to the Jersey college to teach my classes.

“Maybe you can get reimbursed,” Dad advised me. “Speak to the Dean, see what she says.”

A stupidly banal conversation, one that I cursed myself for having when I realized later it was the last one I’d ever share with Dad. It’s funny–you always hear these poignant Hallmark card stories about how when a loved one like a parent or a close relative is on their deathbed, they always impart one last shred of pithy advice or lay bare a stirring heartfelt admission right before emitting their last breath. My final real conversation with my father was a complaint about bus fare.

When I arrived at my childhood home that October Monday morning, I knew Dad would die—the question was when. He could no longer stand on his own or perform basic bodily functions although he was able to drink the Ensure my mother was plying him with; his speech was garbled and unintelligible and when he was able to formulate and voice complete sentences, he was not in the present but jumping to various points in his life: Working as a tool and die maker at a plant in Paterson; having a ringside seat at my brother’s acrimonious divorce from his ex; and suffering and starving in the camps. For each period he would travel to, he spoke in the language he primarily used for that time: Yiddish and or German for the pre-World War II chapter in his life and mostly English for the United States era.

 It was excruciating watching Dad relapse into his Holocaust period. I knew how much that childhood trauma affected him throughout his life. I’d seen it in his enervating insomnia followed by horrendous nightmares when he was able to steal some sleep. It was horrible to witness his mind time-traveling to the emotional and physical nadir of his existence.

 From his hospice bed, he bellowed in Yiddish, “People are screaming. They are being beaten. What should I do?” He uttered this as the life force was ebbing away from him. All I could think was, When will this stop already?

That Tuesday my mother and I sat up all night with my father who was rambling unintelligibly in English, German and Yiddish, incognizant of his surroundings. At one point, he moved his eyes, which had been lifeless and glassy as I clutched his hand, toward mine. He smiled sweetly and asked me in a voice that sounded very youthful:

“Who are you?”

“I’m your daughter, Dad. Iris.”

The smile evaporated. His eyes assumed a serious tincture. Whether he was confused or whether he realized who I was at that moment I will never know. Seconds later, he drifted back into incoherence.

The next evening at school, I forced my sleep-deprived self to go through the paces of teaching my students. The class was a blur. Boarding a bus from campus back to New York City, I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor, sweet father, the close relationship we had, and how his life soon would soon become just a memory. I wept on the bus, my tears streaming down my face into my parched mouth.

I couldn’t sleep that evening. I walked from my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to Times Square. The hub of midtown Manhattan was ablaze: neon lights blasting from billboards, taxis roaring down Seventh Avenue, and rubbernecking tourists thronging outside restaurants or sitting on one of the many fold-out chairs in the pedestrian mall.

I was going to sit down on one of those chairs and gather my thoughts when my eyes alighted on a whimsical but oddly welcome sight: a Christian caravan parked at the center of Duffy Square, outside the TKTS booth where years before, when I was a starry-eyed teen, my father had taken me to stand on line for discounted tickets to Broadway shows. I gaped at a sign some of the caravan’s young people were holding up to the midnight multitude: “Do You Need a Prayer? We Will Offer Them To You.”

Noticing my eyes fixed on the sign, a young red-haired man with blue eyes, moseyed over.

“Hi. Do you need a prayer?” he asked good-naturedly.

My throat constricted for a second. I fought the urge to let out a sob. I had to get a hold of my emotions, steel my features into granite lest anyone get too personal of a peek into my grief. But the young man wishing to dispense a prayer was a stranger, someone whose face, as benign and soft-featured as it was, I’d never see again. I relaxed.         

“My father is dying,” I said.

He nodded at me while touching the nascent fuzz underneath his chin. “Do you know how long he has?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They say it may be a matter of weeks. He is completely incoherent now. I just…don’t want him to linger like this…I want the pain to stop.”

“Is he a…religious man…your father?” he asked, carefully measuring his words. “Does he believe in Jesus?”

My heart sank. I wanted him to say a prayer for my Dad, but I didn’t want to lie.

“Dad is Jewish,” I said, “but he always had a great deal of respect toward Jesus, viewing him as a smart rabbi who wanted to introduce reform to the religion.”

He nodded again, this time appreciatively. “What’s your father’s full name?”

“Hirsch Dorbian.”      

He clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and intoned in a soothing baritone: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Please bless Hirsch Dorbian with a peaceful, relatively quick death although let it happen in a few days so his family will get things in order first. Let him go quietly and in his sleep as he enters heaven. Amen.” He opened his eyes and then glanced at me: “God bless you.” I thanked him for his prayer and walked back to my apartment.

Two days later, I got a knock on the door from my building’s concierge Debbie, an elderly black woman. I had woken up that morning early and had turned the phone off because I wanted to work on my lessons uninterrupted and in peace. Maybe I did it to pre-empt hearing the inevitable. Though I was prepared to go back to New Jersey, I was not looking forward to seeing Dad. It was cowardly of me, but I couldn’t stand watching my favorite person wither into a faded specter.

Debbie was holding a note in her hand that said I needed to call home immediately. Without asking, I knew why: the young man’s Times Square benediction had been granted; my Dad had died. A call to my mother and brother confirmed the news. Dad had died after five a.m., shortly after my mother left his side and told him, in his occasionally semi-conscious state that she had to get some sleep, but she would be back by his side in a few hours. He reached up to her and kissed her four times. An hour and a half later, the nurse woke my mother. Her husband had died in his sleep.

It was Friday late morning when I arrived back at my parents’ Fairlawn home. By then, the undertaker had removed Dad’s body. My mother had wanted him to wait until my arrival.

“Mrs. Dorbian, I’m going to get a summons if I do that,” he reasoned with her.

My brother intervened and said, “It’ll kill the kid to see him like that.” “The kid” was his nickname for me even though I’m only four years younger than he.

I was grateful for my brother.  As I journeyed home, and later sat shiva for a week during the traditional Jewish mourning period, I realized that it wasn’t abject cowardice that made me balk at viewing Dad’s body as a final tableau of remembrance. It was something else—something so intangible and finite I could barely articulate it even after I eulogized Dad at his funeral: His indomitable will and need to live, his ultimate act of rebellion against the machine of evil that had wiped out most of his family, and nearly him as well. To see him dead on the hospice bed is not what he would have wanted from me.

“You’re going to live a long life, Iris,” Dad had uttered to me one fine spring afternoon six months before he died. “I know it.”  We were strolling in our favorite park in New Jersey, talking about everything under the sun—just like we always did. After a miserably long and seemingly interminable winter, flowers were starting to bud. The pastoral scene was intoxicating and reminiscent of what Dad saw when he was recovering at the hospital in Neustadt Holstein so many years before.  Then Dad made his non sequitur. Was it a presentiment? Or something he wanted me to believe, knowing he would only have a short time left before the cancer would finally kill him? Or maybe it was his way of urging me to honor his legacy after he died by doing the one thing he had chosen to do every minute of his life after the war—and that was live—not in stagnation, not in the past, but in the moment, with joy and enthusiasm at all of life’s offerings, no matter how mundane.

I’ve chosen to do just that.

 

 

Sue Ellis

Sue EllisSue Ellis is a sock knitter, soapmaker, gardener and retired postal worker who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Her short stories, poetry,
essays and book reviews have appeared in various publications including Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, Blueprint Review, Fiction 365 and the Internet Review of Books.
 

 

 

Living on the Edge

We might have grown wise with age—failed to succumb to the isolation or the heady view from the canyon’s rim. Instead, that first glimpse of the cabin in the foothills of Mt. Spokane impressed itself onto the backs of our retinas with the tenacity of an eclipse.

In the days and weeks following our move, giddy excitement gave way to the realization that we hadn’t reckoned with the inherent problems of living on steep terrain—hadn’t reckoned with the responsibility of being stewards of a wild place. Our harsh, Northeast Washington winter transformed the graveled drive into ice-encrusted folly, and the sun didn’t rise high enough to clear the surrounding peaks and shine on our small cabin.  In high wind, a towering fir outside the bedroom window leaned menacingly toward the house.

The to-do list was long after our first winter, and we were stiff-jointed and out of shape from sitting too long in front of the fire. It took weeks to search out and gather stones to fill ten gabion baskets, upright columns of fencing wire connected by swags of chains. The structure gives the comforting illusion of an impenetrable guardrail where the sharpest curve of the steep driveway crowds the drop-off into the canyon. We didn’t realize that its most important function would be in providing shelter to a collection of tiny creatures nesting in its crevices.

We hired a woodsman to cut down the giant fir in sections, and after he’d gone, turned a blind eye to the fifty others that could topple in our direction. A Cooper’s hawk preyed upon the songbirds that fed at an existing bird feeder, so we tore it down and learned to be content identifying their songs from a distance.

And there is a garden now, an oddly shaped affair—fenced, on a hard-to-come-by patch of level ground. We drag the watering hose uphill on summer mornings, reveling at the juxtaposition of zinnias, cucumbers, and pole beans arranged against a backdrop of tamarack, Douglas fir, and the meandering pattern of deer trails sectioning the mountain’s face.

I’m not certain when our presence here began to feel appropriate, when it occurred to me that the literal precipice matched the figurative one–two elderly people poised at the edge of decline. I simply woke up one morning and realized I was home.

Exploring, we have come across old campfires, evidenced by chunks of charred wood or a partially decomposed tin can. They are pieces of history that give us an excuse to pause, sit, and imagine the people who passed through before we came. It was at one of those rendezvous that we made an agreement, spoken as if God was within earshot: We’ll stay until we can no longer plow snow or manage the steep hike back from the mailbox.

In a thick stand of conifers, the lower branches of the crowded trees die from lack of sunlight. Brittle and gray, they curve toward the ground, like deformed notes amassed into sheet music for woodwinds. God’s whispered comment is in the breeze that wafts through their geriatric spines. It is open to interpretation.