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catching up with contributors: recent work from Amanda Miska

12 Jul

Let us count the ways we love Amanda Miska. She’s a writer! She’s an editor! She’s an amazing colleague!

One day, a comet zoomed through our sky, and from it fell an Amanda Miska story, and, blessed souls we knew ourselves to be, we published it in our Fall 2014 issue. If you have not read it yet, you should. And if you read it in 2014 but haven’t returned to it, please do. It’s beautiful. Go read it now: “Slow Wave.

We’ve watched Miska stories (and essays) emerge, and we always read them as soon as we see something new. Here’s a sampling of the past few years’ publications. (go read them all)

The Sinner and the Saint” at Atticus Review

A Good Ache” at Matchbook

Incompatible with Life” at Hobart

Weightless and Hysterical” at Little Fiction

 

Goya Talks with the Widow. Emily Hipchen.

9 Jan

Goya Talks with the Widow

Here are your eyes.
I make them slits, slits like mouths,
the center just a grey focus,
an empty spot of empty wall.
Where your arms go?
You are dancing. Look.
Here you haul up the rope to hang you.
Here your hands slice at the sky.
Here you curl around a ghost.
Everything smokes upwards
like the beginning of flames.
I draw your sex,
the dry breasts gasping,
pendulous as shadows.
Your hips are empty like
the corners of your mouth.
I want to find you where your legs meet
but that’s also a nothing, a zero, nothing.
I have tried, I swear, with your feet,
flexed them, bent them against
the dirt, each toenail the shell of
an ear, listening to his dust.
You hang there, aghast,
in silence, as I draw the
gunmen who can help you.

Emily Hipchen

Napoleon Talks to the Widow. Emily Hipchen.

7 Jan

Napoleon Talks to the Widow

I draw a tight circle around myself
roughly the shape of an island.
The rest of the world is born
through the O of the spy-glass
I keep on the desk in a box.
Whole days, whole weeks
I don’t open the box.

What was I atop the Carpathians—
in the Pantheon—horse-deep in snow?
Was I insane then, or now?

At my coronation, my chef
spun me a delicate sugar crown.
It dissolved in my mouth with a sweetness
I can almost taste again. That crown.
That sugar. You and I know better.

You know what I miss most? No?
My horse. The way it quivered
between my knees and still went on.
Why did he?

Here at the window, a box of watery glass,
I stand watching nothing, my hand holding
my heart in. The linen, the starch,
this placket with its bone buttons
like shards of ribs, this hand
and its one gold ring. See now?
How the tide’s come in.

Emily Hipchen

A Day in the Neighborhood. Sean Pravica.

30 Dec

Ten am

The Park
The blue sky rang loudly against silent rocks. Young flowers jitterbugged in a breezy ballad. While sitting quietly, a bird toppled over and grew quieter still.

The Bar
The bar top was so polished he could see his reflection bounce off its surface. It depressed him like hell. At least for now.

The Alley
A man poked his head out of a dumpster. The jogger, confronted with thousand yard eyes and the wretch of soiled cloth and old food, said, “Good morning.” It was a habit.

Two pm

The Playground
A needle lied in the grass. Behind him, he could hear his son calling his name.

The Office
The tooth ache was not going away, and neither were the bad dreams.

The Bedroom
Woke up. Rolled over. Lit up. Rolled over.

Six pm

The Restaurant
She slumped in her seat and shut one eye loosely, her long fingers wrapped around the tumbler. “I like drinks,” she said sweetly, wistfully. A long day long gone.

The Train Station
There were many reasons to stay, but he ignored them all. When he came back, she ignored him.

The Parking Lot
They misdiagnosed the distance left, then pushed the car into the nearest parking lot. Only one space was open, a blue one. They went for it anyway and soon after watched her wheel over from across the street while they waited for the tow truck, which couldnʼt come soon enough.

Ten pm

The Store
“But Mom, Iʼll buy it with my own money!” His were eyes serious and his curly hair messy and his walk a sloppy wobble. She promised him he could have candy next week, for his birthday. It will be his forty-fifth.

The Party
She looked more gorgeous than ever. He watched her walk in, and had to admit. That arm looked good around her.

The Break Room
Tired feet. Worn shoes. Holed socks. Apple sauce. 2 am

The Neighborhood
“Why?”
No one answered.

 

 

 

Sean Pravica

 

 

 

Orbit. Emily Horner.

28 Dec

Orbit

 

All that winter me and the other girls in the pack tried to tell ourselves that nothing was wrong. It was just because Lynette had left; it was just because of that blizzard we had to dig ourselves out of. And then Jamie, who’d come up from the village a few months ago, fifteen years old, still enamored of hot baths and pretty shoes, complained about our watercress and our boiled bark; and Stella snapped, “I haven’t seen you out hunting.”
Jamie walked out into the snow. I followed, running, with a coat and a lantern. Angry that Stella had said it and angry at the fifty times I’d thought the same thing.
“I should go back home,” she said when I caught up with her. She wiped at her nose with a mitten crusted in frozen snot. “She’s right. All I do is complain. All those stories they tell about the wolf-girls. How they’re so fierce and so loyal and so dedicated to each other. How they’re the ones who’re going to save people from the satellites. It’s the kind of dream you’re supposed to grow out of.”
“Stella hasn’t seen you out hunting because you don’t know how,” I said, shamed by it. When Lynette was in charge it was always – Jo, show Sara how to set the trap lines. Jo, show Stella how to find dry wood. And all this time I’d never said, Jamie, come hunting with me.
“Come on. Let’s see if we can’t find us something better than watercress.”
We took arrows with us, and bows – a big one, and the little one all us wolf-girls had learned on with our weak village-girl arms. We walked for miles up the ridges of the hills, on paths that were covered in half an inch of snow, and I pointed out to her the footprints of rabbits and grouse, the places where deer had chewed bark from trees. I adjusted her stance, the way she held her fingers on the arrow. Her arrows flew wide when she surprised a rabbit in the underbrush and scrambled for her bow.
She stomped ahead of me, and despite the darkness widened the gap between us until she disappeared over the top of the next ridge. “Jo!” she yelled, one long minute later. “Jo, come over here.”
I lengthened my stride. Could be a bear, a human corpse, a lacerated hand or broken leg.
What I found instead was – at first I wasn’t sure, even as I brought the lantern down the length and breadth of it. A rectangular metal body, as big as the vans I’d seen in junkyards or lying along the side of the road, part smooth panels and part crumpled peaks and valleys. A long flat wing that made me think of the angels in old books stretched out on either side.
She was the one who finally said, “That’s a satellite.”
It was what I’d been thinking, but what I couldn’t say. It seemed blasphemous to think that our enemies, the machine-minds of the satellites who had overthrown human civilization and almost wiped us out, were really nothing more than a bucket of metal bits, propped up with vast panels to catch the sun’s light.
“We should go tell Stella and the others,” Jamie said.
“No,” I said. A moment’s mad impulse. “Don’t tell anybody.”
On the way home I managed to put an arrow in a woodcock, and Jamie shot the fluff off a rabbit, which was all she talked about when we made it back to the little barn where all us wolf-girls huddled around the hearth.
That night I dreamed the darkness of space. The glare of full sun on those solar panels. Blinks of light flashing from one satellite to another, transmitting data as if to say,
Hello. I miss you.
I dreamed whole lives of people – people from the old days. Cameras, in their cars and in their schools, watched fights with lovers, watched sudden crunches of metal that ended in screaming and sirens.
I hiked up the ridge to the satellite the next day, on my way to check the trap lines. “What is it you want to make me see?” I asked it. “You’re trying to get me thinking there’s nothing worth saving in our world?”
I aimed a kick at its front panel of lights and switches, stopping short with a couple inches to spare. Nothing moved, nothing lit up. There was nothing to make me think it had heard me.
The trap lines were empty. I kept walking, not sure what I was looking for until my feet led me to Lynette’s door.
“I found something yesterday,” I said as I was shaking the snow off my boots. “Up in the hills when I took the new girl hunting.”
“Good something, bad something?”
Lynette cut me a slab of apple cake, spread over thick with butter. I wolfed it in two bites and it caught in my throat, stuck to my tongue. In these dark corners of February I almost forgot the memory of sweetness. Her head tilted in disapproval, but she gave me another piece.
“Don’t know good or bad, but it’s giving me strange dreams.” My eyes kept wandering to the hand-woven table mats; I was trying to imagine myself in a life like this one, the kind of life that a wolf-girl could make for herself after leaving her pack. Even in the winters when every thought sharpened around warmth and food, I didn’t know who I’d be without them. “A satellite came down. All in one piece, not all burnt up like they usually are.”
“What did the others say?”
“Nothing yet. I asked the other girl to keep it quiet.”
She leaned back, arms crossed on top of her belly, and gave me a small nod.
“Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I can figure out on my own, though.”
“No need to untangle the whole thing right away,” Lynette said.
That made my teeth itch. Two years ago, when I was new in the pack and nothing but sharp angles, I’d have laid into her. Our years in the wilderness, the winters that we shivered through, the trance-bonfires where we tried to speak with those voices up there in the sky – that was all so we could find some kind of a truce or an understanding with the minds that lived in the satellites. Maybe this was our only chance to do something about it. But I had no idea what that something might look like.
As I was putting my winter things back on I couldn’t help turning back to her. “You miss it?”
“Always.” A pause, and then: “It wasn’t ever my intention to pass the reins over to Stella. But it takes teeth to lead a pack.”
I stood there, frozen in the middle of lacing my boots. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind that I could’ve fought for this.
“I don’t know what to do about the satellite.”
“There’s no one who can tell you that.”
I didn’t have any answer but the crunch of my boots over the old leaves and the snow.
#
A few days later, Stella showed up with a deer haunch she’d got from the pack upriver from us, and in the middle of all the celebrating announced, “There’s a satellite come down in the hills.”
I said nothing. I worked my knife down the back of the deer’s leg, separating skin from muscle and tendon. But Jamie got a look on her face like the vole under the hawk’s gaze, while it’s still too scared to run.
“You knew about this,” Stella said.
She barely moved her head in a way that didn’t mean either yes or no.
I spent too long thinking, deciding, then said, “I told her not to talk.”
“You didn’t think this was important to tell the rest of us?”
Stella took two steps toward me and at the same time I was thinking that she was my friend, that she was a good pack leader, I was thinking about the knife in my hand that was slicing through skin.
“Maybe too important to jump all over it right away.”
“Is that up to you to decide?”
I gripped the deer’s ankle and handed it to her without a word. Most of the blood had drained away or clotted, but the tissue over the muscles was still slick, barely warm with the animal’s heat.
I thought I knew something about being in a pack by then. You snarled at each other and you bared your teeth and when it was done you abided by what the pack leader said. Because it was where you belonged. If you stayed down in the village, or if you stayed by yourself, you didn’t get to hear the echoes of what goes through the satellites’ minds as they drifted across the sky. All of us had made that decision over and over, even on the days when we wished we were home.
The other girls looked at me like they were sniffing out the wind currents. Like I was, maybe, not the right friend to have. That night I found my own lonely corner for sleeping, and buried myself in the straw until it covered me over entirely. I dreamed I floated in the sky. Looked down on the villages of Cambodia or Laos or – different cities and countries, by now, from the ones in the encyclopedias from the old days.
I was going to lose this.
I was going to lose a thing I didn’t even understand. Was there a mind in there at all? Or was it a mind like the filaments of a spider-web, that only made sense with all its pieces reaching out to each other, working as one?
I imagined myself in the sky, blinking my strange heart to my siblings, and then tossed out of my orbit, flung to earth, alone.
#
In a single-file line we marched up the ridge. The morning sun glinted hard on the ice that had scabbed over the snow. We were armed with what we had found in the barn, and in the other caches and lockboxes: crowbars and screwdrivers and knives and even a chainsaw, powered by the little bits of gasoline we could occasionally scavenge for emergencies.
“What do we need a chainsaw for?” I said to no one in particular, trailing behind.
“Are you getting anywhere talking to it?” Stella asked. “The other pack didn’t. If we can take it apart. If we can see the guts of the thing. I don’t know.”
I couldn’t even argue with her. I was curious, too, and angry. The satellites had killed children, destroyed power plants and oil wells, destroyed the era – long before my own memories – when you could put your clothes to dry in a machine instead of praying for a sunny day, when you didn’t have to spend all of the fall chopping up wood to heat you through the winter. And we didn’t even know why. They didn’t feel pain, or sorrow, or anything. Right?
Only, when we got over the ridge and caught the first glimpse of the solar panels washed in light, there was something that changed. It was the look that crossed our faces when an owl’s wingbeats blotted out the moon, when we stumbled upon the elk with her little twin calves. Jamie dropped her screwdriver, and though she scrambled after it right away like it was a mistake, it looked to me like doubt.
The other girls tried to gather themselves up and working together, they hauled the satellite over to where they could get in there with their tools and their knives. They crowded in around it until I had an excuse to step back, stand guard, sometimes glancing over to see what they discovered, but when I did I saw nothing but the backs of five heads, kitted out in hats their mothers had knit or headbands their sisters had woven.
There was a groaning shriek, and the front panel came loose. It took five girls together, with their fingers all hooked underneath it, to shimmy it away from the case of the satellite.
I had to pull Jamie away, at last, to get a look inside. A tangle of wires and cases and lights gone dark. All of it mysterious, all of it full of secrets that the rest of us would never uncover. These girls, hovering, nervous, still hungry for the wolf-girl stories whispered between them as children.
“I wanted to do better by it.”
“It’s not a person,” Stella said. “It’s a broken machine. And it’s useless to us like this.”
“Useless if it’s hacked into bits, too.”
“It’s my pack,” Stella said, but we were all looking among ourselves now like we weren’t quite sure if it was anyone’s.
It took teeth, to lead a pack.
I broke my eyes away from the bulk of folded metal. “I’m going up to check the trap lines. I could use some extra hands.”
I started walking. With my rabbit-fur hood up I could only see in front of my face, and I knew I would lose if I turned to see who was following me. I could hear the big river in the distance, the one that hadn’t frozen over yet, and the “dee-dee-dee” of the chickadees looking for crumbs. And softly, like a fragile and untrustworthy thing, the sound of small boots on the snow.

Emily Horner

 

 

snowstorm-002

Time on the Side of the Road. Madeline Cross.

26 Dec

Time on the Side of the Road

They don’t fit one bit. They never have. His toes are all curled in on each other and he’s sure the nail on one of his toes is cutting into another toe and he must be bleeding. He bends over to untie the laces. Holding on to one of the heels, he tugs, wriggling his foot until the leather gives a little. With a final pull his hot, crumpled foot comes free of the boot. He repeats the process with the other foot. With both boots dangling from the laces in his hands, he swings them around once, twice, a third time, let’s go of the laces, and watches as they fly high up in the air, landing on the other side of the road with a double thump. He takes off his socks too and it’s like peeling off a layer of skin. He was right – one toe is crusty with blood. Both his little toes are so crushed against the others they don’t really resemble toes anymore, just little lumps on the side of his feet. He sits down on the raised bank on the roadside and lifts up his legs so that he can feel the grass against the broken skin of his feet. He pushes his toes into the dirt.
Where is he? He sinks deeper into the grass and wildflowers. He doesn’t catch himself. He is shaded by the branches of a sycamore tree growing in the field behind and slightly above him. The road itself is more of a country lane, wide and pot-holed. On the opposite side thistles and nettles aggressively climb the bank, but growing between and around his fingers there are only celandines and cow parsley. The lane bends its way between flat farmland. In all directions a perfectly stitched quilt of quadrangle fields spreads itself. The odd tree, older than the fences and hedgerows, stubbornly ruptures the pattern.
He thinks about how he got there. He tries to visualise the route he’s taken, or where it even began, but working backwards doesn’t help. He stares across the tarmac at his boots.
“What are you doing?” A woman and boy appear around the bend. They are walking slowly, moving their feet in time with each other, equally considered expressions on their strikingly flat faces. They must be mother and son. They have the same ash blonde hair and thin mouths.
“I’m resting,” Lah replies, though he isn’t sure whether that’s accurate.
He had been walking for as long as he could remember, no differently to anybody else, until he had stumbled on the pothole that the women and boy just sidestepped. The thought had come to him without ceremony, without thunder or lightning: Just stop.
The boy tilts his head curiously. “Resting?”
“Resting,” the woman repeats.
“Yes, resting,” Lah offers.
“You’re a young man,” she says, as if this means something. Her expression has become hostile, breaking up her flat features in a menacing, reptilian way. Lah’s seen that expression somewhere before, directed at someone else. She takes the boy’s hand in hers and picks up pace. He watches their backs until they turn a corner and there is nothing more to see.

People begin to pass by regularly. They are mostly young men, long-limbed and full of purpose. Some of them don’t react to Lah at all. Maybe they don’t see him, or don’t know what they’re seeing if they do. He watches them and can’t settle on pity or envy. He studies their clothes and haircuts and shoes, mentally giving himself a point for every man wearing a tie or with stiff wax in his hair. It passes the time, though he is not worried about that. He is worried about jealousy. It’s jealousy he doesn’t want to feel. Each time he is left alone again he turns his attention back to his feet and feels only the pain dissolving, leaving no room to feel anything else.
A man comes by who Lah immediately senses isn’t like the rest. He’s closer to middle-aged, with a steady walk, unfaltering smile, and cheeks as round and pink as small apples. Carrying a walking stick in one hand, he looks Lah right in the eye as he approaches. Everything about him is bright and capable. He slows down, seeming not to mind about it, and prods Lah’s discarded boots with his stick. “Are these yours, my man?”
“Yes, they’re mine.”
“What a wonderful thought – taking them off like that. How do they feel?”
“My feet?”
“Yes, yes, man!” He cries animatedly, almost stopping completely but continuing to step up and down on the spot.
“They feel freer.”
“Wow, what a wonderful thought. So you’ve stopped have you?”
“Yes.”
“How did that come about?”
“Just a thought.”
“Unfortunate to have a poor pair of boots, some are born better equipped for life than others aren’t they? No damn fairness about it, no fairness about it at all. See my boots – beautiful creatures, practically alive. I swear sometimes they make me bounce.”
Lah smiles but he is still unsure of himself and his fingers dig into the earth nervously. He eyes the man’s boots. They are made from a velvety material, moleskin maybe, and dyed forest green. The soles are at least an inch thick.
“Would you like a sandwich?” The man asks.
“Yes, I would,” Lah says, the memory of hunger replacing his anxiety.
The man rummages around in his rucksack without breaking the rhythm of his steps, pulls out a sandwich wrapped in Clingfilm and hands it to Lah.
“Will you stop with me?” Lah chances, unwrapping the sandwich.
“What a thought, man, what a thought! That would be a blast.”
“So you will?”
“Oh no, no I can’t, lovely idea though. I’m glad it’s caught you, but it’s not for me.”
“Have you ever stopped?”
“Not yet, but I’ve met those who have. Though I must say they’ve all been much older than you, on their last boots shall we say. You on the other hand seem rather young?”
Lah chews and frowns.
“There’s always something new around the corner,” the man continues, waving his stick in the air. “I’ve been told I’m an optimist. I’m glad you like the sandwich. I’ll leave you another before I go.” He sticks his free hand back into his rucksack.
Lah swallows a lump of cheese and can feel it rolling down his oesophagus like a stone as he tries to think of something to say that will make the man stay longer. But the man puts another sandwich on the grass beside him and then grasps his hand to shake it. “Good man. I’ll be thinking of you here.” And then he turns and carries on, humming slightly, leaving Lah staring at the terrible boots where they lie on the road. The man was right; they should have been better and had let him down from the very start.

The evening is warm and muggy. Lah eats the second sandwich and lies back in the grass. He is just starting to doze off when the air beside him changes temperature. He opens his eyes and for a second all he can see is a smudge of dark orange blocking out the sky and the setting sun. Then the smudge turns and the white side of a face appears with a trail of freckles riding its cheekbone.
She’s the most perfect thing he’s ever seen. And she has stopped completely.
He swings himself upright. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve stopped.”
“So have I,” she says, her eyes laughing at him. They are big and beetle-black.
“Why?”
“Because I saw you, and you looked happy, and I wanted that too. It’s taken me so long to catch up with you. Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
“I remember, Bea.”
It isn’t true. He doesn’t remember the time or the place, but he does remember her. Her name comes to him as though he was already thinking of it before she appeared. He recognises everything about her and nothing at all. Her hair smells like chamomile tea.
He wishes he could think of the perfect think to say, the most perfect thing ever said. He’s never been taught the words though. He’s never been taught anything. All he knows how to do is walk. He looks down and sees that she has taken off her boots and socks and they are now lying on the ground beside his own. Her feet are small and pink and they aren’t as tortured as his. The skin seems new. She is watching a robin on the opposite bank. Lah kisses the freckles on her cheek. She leans into him as he does it, and he keeps his mouth against her skin, not moving his lips, listening to the life in her. Her voice is low and he hears it in his chest. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”
She motions to a couple walking by, a good ten years older, with weathered faces and grey in their hair. They glance over at Lah and Bea darkly. Lah studies the cracks in their boots. They don’t slow down, becoming silhouettes against the flat skyline, then fading altogether.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Bea says.
“Have you?”
“I guess I didn’t know it before.”
“It just came to me,” Lah replies. “Like a slap in the face, but not as violent as that.” He tries to think. “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what it was like.”
She laughs at him but nothing about her makes him feel ashamed.
“Come with me,” she tugs at his arm and they scramble over the bank into the field. It feels strange to move and put the weight back on his feet. The ground is doughy and slightly wet where the sun hasn’t reached. She stops at the trunk of the sprawling sycamore and sits with her back to it. She guides his body and he fits around her like a coat. They are still close to the roadside, but it seems to him that it’s getting further and further away in their minds, and that the people that walk it are walking in a different world.
When it gets dark he can’t see the freckles on her face and arms which he had been creating pathways with, so he turns to the stars. At walking pace it always seemed to him that the stars moved as he did, constantly crossing the sky, unable to pause. But lying there with Bea in his arms, they do as he does. They stay in place. He can see the patterns they form, the shapes and worlds they hold together. “They’re so still,” he whispers.
“They’re moving,” Bea says, with her head against his chest. “They’re just so far away you can’t see it.”
“No,” Lah closes his eyes. “They’ve stopped.”

When he wakes with the sun he knows that something has changed. Bea is standing over him.
“I need to keep going,” she says.
“What?”
She looks at him pityingly and he feels his face flush.
“I’m not ready,” she turns to the road.
He stands up and his feet ache with cramp. “You’ve already stopped though. You’ve done it.”
“No, I haven’t, not really. It looks that way, I know it looks that way, but in my head it’s different.”
Lah doesn’t have enough words. He could trip her up and keep her there. He could hold her. He has arms and legs and strength. He stares at the bend in the road. He tries to imagine what’s beyond it, tries to make himself care. But he doesn’t. He knows somehow that this has all happened before and that it will only happen again. There is nothing he can do about it.
“I’m happy for you,” she says.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be.”
“Yes, I will. I’m always different.”
“You’re better.”
“That’s not what it feels like.”
“But it’s what is.”
She has already put her boots on. They have miles left in them, as if they’ve never walked a step. She slides down the bank on to the road. A crowd of people are passing beneath the early sun, and she merges between them seamlessly, until all Lah can see is a smudge of dark orange between the shoulders of people he doesn’t want to know.
When she’s gone she doesn’t fade from his mind like the others did. He doesn’t question whether he ever saw her at all. The imprint of her body can still be seen in the grass. He can feel her hair between his fingers and taste the salt on her mouth. It’s as if she’s still with him but she isn’t. He paces up and down until the cramp leaves his feet and then realises what he’s doing. He will not give in. He sits down. The pain in his chest is overwhelming. It is nothing like the pain in his feet. It’s as if his heart is lighter in weight. It flutters and rises, intending to throw itself out of his body. He’s terrified he won’t be able to control it and thumps his chest with his fists. He tries to cry but nothing happens. When he screams at the road two children he hadn’t noticed break into a run. He collapses backwards.

The sky clouds over and everything is dulled. It is still warm, but in a muffled, too-close way. The browns and greys and tired greens could have poured from Lah’s own mouth if he had spoken any words. But he is lying on his back, prostrate, with no intention of ever moving again.
“Is it almost night?” An elderly man is standing on the road.
Lah makes to open his mouth but can’t.
“Have you stopped for the night? I lose track of time, and my eyesight isn’t what it was, so I can’t tell if this is darkness coming, or that type of day that just sits on your shoulders.”
Lah eases himself up on to his elbows. “No,” he manages. “It isn’t night.”
The man hesitates. “So you’ve stopped, even though it isn’t night?”
He is very old, with a white moustache that droops down on either side of a small mouth, whiskers protruding from his eyebrows. His whole appearance is rough and animal-like, and his boots are so worn that Lah can’t see if they even have soles.
“Yes, I’ve stopped,” Lah says. “And it isn’t night. I’ve been here since yesterday, at least, I think it was yesterday.”
“Do you know where we are?” The old man asks.
“No,”
“It could be the midlands?”
“Or the lowlands.”
 “What a flat country. Will you help me into the field?”
Lah struggles to his feet. He hadn’t realised just how lonely he was, or how much he wanted to escape it. He takes the old man’s arm in his and gently supports him to get his footing in the grass. They climb across the bank into the field and the old man sinks against the sycamore.
“This is it,” he says.
Lah stares at him and tries to imagine what he’s feeling.
“This is it,” he says again.
“How long have you been walking?”
The old man stares at Lah with a curious expression. “I have no idea.”
 “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“How did you stop?” The old man asks.
Lah would like to give a better answer than he has so far come up with, but there doesn’t seem to be one yet. “I just stopped. It was what I wanted.”
“It isn’t hard for me. For me, it’s harder to keep going, but that’s different.”
“I think I was tired.”
“You were tired?”
“I was on my own.”
“You have no idea.” The old man yawns exaggeratedly.
“There’s no need to be like that.” Lah suddenly feels like a child again. He has a vague memory of his family gathered around him, laughing. He can’t pinpoint why, but he remembers feeling small, with an even smaller ball of red heat inside him, steadily growing. What was it he had done that was so ridiculous? Why did it feel like this was a regular occurrence, like everything he did was odd, laughable? It wasn’t a memory he wanted, even in its half-formed state, but perhaps it explained why he wasn’t with his family now – why he was alone.
“This a good tree,” the old man says.
“Is that why you’re here – for the tree?
“Can you appreciate a good tree?”
Lah doesn’t answer; crossing his arms over his chest and starting to hope the old man will get up and leave. He didn’t stop for this. Perhaps loneliness is better – better than being judged, better than being laughed at.
 “I’m teasing you,” the old man says.
“I realise.”
“Maybe you’ve just been walking alone too long. Try and remember how to take a joke.”
“Wisdom is it?”
The old man grins sheepishly, folds his hands on his lap and closes his eyes. Lah smiles too, no longer angry. He wants to be more patient. He doesn’t want to be left alone again.
“Does your wisdom stretch to answers? Or is that too much to hope for?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not as easy as that.”
“No, it never is.”
The old man is drifting away and into sleep, his words softer. “I really did take a liking to this tree though. I think it might be the best tree I’ve ever seen, and isn’t that a thing to be able to say?”
Lah doesn’t reply. The old man’s moustache has spread out against his cheeks. For a while he taps his fingers on his lap, but then he stops and Lah can tell that he is wholly asleep.
Lah closes his eyes too and lies back. He visualises himself on the road, picking up his boots and swinging them over his shoulder. He imagines walking bare foot along the tarmac, feeling the dirt and grit climbing between his toes. The sun will come out, surely, and he will feel it on his face. People will pass as they have always done, and maybe they won’t notice him, maybe one person might smile and say hello. That man, the man with the velvety boots, he will be ahead, never walking too fast, never in a rush, always with something to say to a stranger. And the road will widen, the people will fade. Further ahead, in a copse of bluebells and wild garlic, Bea will be in a heap on the ground, crying for the loss of him, her dark orange hair covering her white face. No one will have stopped to help her, to ask if she’s ok. But Lah will, Lah will not think twice before stopping and sitting beside her. He will take off her shoes and carry them for her. He will hold her hand and lead her bare foot on to the road. He will say sorry for what he has already done and what he has not yet done.
The footsteps on the road die down. The afternoon is no different to the morning, muted and unmoving. Lah rolls on to his side so that he is facing the old man who still has his eyes closed and his hands folded over his stomach. But where before each breath had moved the soft white hairs of his moustache, there are none now. Lah crawls over to him, looking down on to the old face. He places his hand on his cheek and feels how the skin has already become cold and dry like paper, then he moves his hand to the old man’s silent chest.
He stands up and stares at the horizon, trying once more to imagine what’s around the bend in the road, trying to imagine that it could mean something to him. There could be something. There must be something, but he thinks backwards for clues that will help him and there is nothing to fix on to. Except Bea’s face, the bright bone white of her skin, a red-breasted robin, a cheese sandwich, old boots. These solid things on the side of a road.
And for now there is also a dead man.
Lah bends over and carefully unties the laces of the old man’s boots. He pulls them off and holds them for a moment, feeling how light and temporary they are, then he throws them high into the air. They land on the road beside his own with barely a sound. The old man has no socks on. He looks childlike, lying there with his free toes pointing up to the sky, traces of a smirk on his face.

Madeline Cross

Dust. Johnny Caputo.

22 Dec

Dust

 

“Well, would you look at that?” Dad said.
He stood at the top of the ridge and waved for me to join him. His canteens clanked at his side, and his backpack was filled with what we had found that morning: some scraps of firewood from the forest, a few cans of beans from before the Drought, and some kind of old handheld electronic machine that Dad claimed he could get working again.
“What? What is it?” I said, racing to the top of the ridge to meet him.
“There,” he pointed.
I wiped the thick coat of dust and sweat from my forehead and stared out over what appeared to be a graveyard of machines. A bunch of odd looking hunks of rusted metal just lying in the dusty field. One was just this big forty foot wheel with cars attached to it. Another one was this a big circular platform with a roof over it. Between the roof and the ground were these plastic horses with poles sticking right through their spines holding them in place. Most of them had these looks of pain frozen onto their faces like they would be stuck that way forever.
I had some engineering books lying around the house, so even though most of the machines we stumbled across hadn’t worked since before the Drought, I could guess what they had been supposed to do. But I had no idea with these ones. I tried to imagine them working, but all I saw was just a bunch of rotating wheels spinning around and around for no real reason.
“What were these for?” I said.
Dad pulled the bandana from over his nose and mouth, spat out a mouthful of dust, and took a swig from the canteen.
“Guess,” he said.
“Scaring birds off from crops?”
Dad looked at me for a long second before he started laughing. He just laughed and laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world. But I didn’t think it was funny. I got kinda mad, like he was making fun of me for being stupid or something. And I realized right then that no matter how much I thought I knew about the world before the Drought, I’d never really understand it.
“These were rides,” he said when he finally stopped laughing. “They used to have the fair here.”
“Rides?”
“Yeah. Rides. People would get on them and they’d spin around and go up and down and it’d be fun.”
“And they wasted gas on that?”
“It wasn’t always such a precious commodity. You know, you were actually here once. Back when you were real little. Your mother and I brought you.”
He passed me the canteen, I didn’t really know what to say. I pulled off my bandana and took a few big swigs. He never talked about Mom, so I never really asked about her much. It never bothered me or anything that she wasn’t around. It was just a fact of life, like how I knew the earth revolved around the sun. Something I knew, but never really paid much attention to.
“What was Mom like?” I said.
He thought for a second, like he was trying to bring up something big from way down deep in his brain. Like fishing through the gunk at the bottom of a pond trying to find a gold ring.
He set his pack down with a few clinks and clanks and then sat down sidesaddle on one of the frozen horses with a loud creak. He patted the saddle of the horse next to him. I set down my pack and climbed up.
“You know,” he said, “I think it’s time I told you.”
“About Mom?”
“About how it all ended,” he said.
“Really?” I gasped. That was the one thing he told me never, ever to ask about. He was always more than happy to tell me about how things were before the Drought, but whenever I asked him how it happened, he would get real quiet and tell me not to worry about it. That I shouldn’t concern myself with such things.
“Did Mom have something to do with it?”
He laughed this lonely laugh. Like he was the only person in the world who got the joke.
“Not quite. Your Mom was a damn prophet, though. I think she knew exactly what was going on, not that anybody believed her. Nobody wanted to pay attention, not even me. Hell, we were just kids back then. Twenty-two. Twenty three. You must’ve been two, maybe two and a half, so I guess that puts this around 2015 or so. God, was it really that long ago?”
He stopped and looked out at the horizon, then down at his hands. It was a long moment before he started talking again.
“The price of gas was up near four dollars, $3.89, $3.95, somewhere in there. It’d been climbing pretty steadily for years, so it wasn’t this huge, noticeable thing or anything like that. Still, people were talking about it. Mostly bitching and complaining, but we had every right to. I mean, you needed a car to get around back then to get to and from work and all that, and cars needed gas to run, so it was like that whole gasoline business kinda had you by the balls.
“Anyway, we were driving along that morning. Your mom was in the passenger seat and you were strapped in the back. I look down at the gas gauge and see we need to stop for gas. So I pulled over and I looked out the window at the big red-lit numbers, and that’s when I saw it for the first time. $4.09. For one gallon of gas. I looked at your mom and I said, Damn. And she told me to watch my mouth in front of you.
“I told her I was sorry, and she just kissed me real sweet on the cheek and looked at me. She had the most beautiful eyes. They had this dampness to them. I know that sounds weird, but that’s the best way I can describe them. They were damp in the same way that good soil is damp. You could see how nurturing and warm they were. It was like she made the world blossom around her just by looking at it. That’s the kind of woman your mother was. She saw the best in everything, even me. I knew I would always be better because of her.
“I had to cough up a twenty just to put a few gallons in the tank, which only left me twenty bucks for the fair. I figured that would’ve been more than enough to ride a few rides, have an elephant ear or a couple of corn dogs or something. When I started the car up, the tank was barely half full.
“Eventually, we pulled into the parking lot which was right over there.” He pointed off to a field which pretty much looked the same as everything else around us: dusty.
“They didn’t charge for parking or ask for tips or anything like that, which was nice. And as we walked through the parking lot up to the gate you Mom was holding your left hand and I was holding your right. We’d count ‘one, two, three’ and swing you up real high and you would laugh and laugh.”
“Sounds like a nice day,” I said.
“It was. Or at least it started off that way. But when we got up to the gate, and I asked for the tickets, and the woman said it would be twenty-five bucks.”
I gasped. “But you only had twenty left.”
“Don’t I know it,” Dad said. “I told the woman it wasn’t three adults. We only needed two adult tickets and one kid’s ticket. But she shook her head and told us that twenty-five was the right price. I told her it hadn’t cost that much a few years back and she just shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘What can I say, prices only seem to know how to go up.
“I patted my pockets but that didn’t change nothing. The twenty bucks sitting in my front pocket was all I had. I looked down at my hands and right then right there they looked about as empty as a pair of hands can look. Deep creases in them like lonely valleys that go all the way down to nowhere. Callouses rising up like mountaintops tipped with dead skin.
“For a second I thought about buying one ticket for myself, then digging around the fair to see if I could find a way to sneak you guys in. But the thought was only half-developed in my head when your mother stepped up right past me, handed the lady a few crisp bills, and didn’t say a word.
“The lady handed your mom the tickets, and your mom just smiled and nodded like nothing had happened. When we got inside I told your mom that I was sorry. That I had no idea it was going to be that expensive.
“‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. I told her I really was sorry and she said, ‘Really. It’s fine.’ And she meant it too. I told her that the work would pick up soon and then I could take care of her. Spoil you and her rotten like the two of you deserved. She told me that wasn’t my job. That the two of us could provide for you just fine and that she didn’t need me to spoil her. She was happy the way things were.”
Dad rocked to one side to pick up the canteen. He took a swig, swallowed harder than he usually did, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He passed it to me and I took a drink too. Then he told me to cover my face back up before any of the particulates got in my lungs. I did what he said even though he wasn’t wearing his own bandana.
“I thought you said there was trouble?” I said.
He gave me a sideways look.
“I told her to stay right where she was and I’d go buy the two of you the biggest funnel cake you could imagine.”
“What’s a funnel cake?”
“It’s kinda like a…oh, what would you know? Kinda like a pancake, but sweeter and with powdered sugar on top.”
“What’s powdered su—
“Just know it’s good. Like real good. Anyway, your mom said she would take you into the barn to see the goats. For whatever reason, you really wanted to see the goats. So I brought your mom in real close, kissed her on the forehead, and set out to find the funnel cake stand.
“It only took me a few minutes to find the place, but there was a long line so I waited for a bit and got two of them. Bigger than your head, and they only cost me eight bucks. Had a good twelve bucks left for the rest of the day. Rides and games and dinner if we stayed that long. I was thinking about how we were gonna make the money stretch and everything as I was walking back to the goat barn. I was sort of on auto-pilot, ya know? Brain was too stuck on the money to actually realize what was happening in the moment.
“Until I got right outside the barn and I heard you crying. That brought me back real quick. I knew it was you because you had this weird little hiccup in your throat when you cried. So when I heard that, I started running. I made it to the stall and there you were with a goat chawing on some hay right behind you, tugging on your Mom’s sleeve. You were saying her name over and over again and tugging on that sleeve, but she wouldn’t answer you. I flapped the plates down on the ground table, and called her name too. And that’s when, I saw it for the first time…”
His voice trailed off. He rocked forward on his haunches and squeezed his eyes shut real tight. He took another drink of water and swallowed real hard. The horse creaked underneath him.
“That look she would get on her face. Like she was looking dead ahead, just staring into space. But not in a dazed way, more like this real deep concentration.
“‘Nance,’ I said, ‘Nance.” Over and over again. I snapped my fingers right in front of her face, but she didn’t respond at all. Her eyes had this dry and wild look in them, like there was a ghost standing heavy in the dust right in front of her. And I got scared. I’d never seen her like that at all. Ever. She was always so sharp and with it and paying bills and making sure we had your allergy meds wherever we went. I thought she was having a stroke or something.
“I looked around but there was no one else in the barn so I scooped you up and I told you that everything was going to be okay, that Mommy was just feeling a little weird, but that she was going to be just fine. But you didn’t believe me. You kept on crying and crying. And I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea what to do. So, I started running. Had you in one arm, and was waving the other one and yelling, Help, Help. I need some help over here. I got a bit up the midway, far enough to be breathing hard when a paramedic came up and asked me what was wrong. I told him about your mom and we ran back to her.
“When we got there, your Mom was standing next to the stall and the goat was still chewing away like nothing had happened. Your Mom’s head was swiveling all around, and she had this real scared look on her face. When she saw us, she came running over snatched you out of my arms and hugged you against her chest.
“‘Damnit, Brian. You scared me to death,’ she said. I tried to tell her that something had been wrong with her, that her face had this weird look on it and I thought she was having a stroke, that I only went to get help, but she wouldn’t have it.
“‘You never scare me like that again,’ she said.
“I kept trying to argue, but she wagged her finger at me and poked me in the chest. “‘Do you understand me?’ she said. ‘Promise me. Never again.’ So I promised her. I promised I would never scare her like that again.”
“The paramedic stepped in and asked if she was feeling alright. She said she was fine, besides that fact that I had almost given her a heart attack. She still had that wild look in her eye, but she relaxed a little bit. The paramedic asked her if he could get her vitals, just make sure she’s alright and everything. She let him do it, but she wouldn’t let go of you the entire time. He took her pulse and her blood pressure and all that. Then he pulled out a little light and shined it your Mom’s eyes.”
“You were holding on to her so tight, and the cloth of her shirt was all balled up in your fists. I looked her right in the eyes just like the paramedic did. And that’s when I really saw it for the first time. That bone dry look in her eyes like whatever dampness had been there before was all dried up now for one reason or another. It was like now she was seeing something that the rest of us couldn’t see. Or maybe she was just seeing the world like the rest of us saw it for the first time in her life. Either way, her eyes were real dry. And when the paramedic finished the examination, your mom looked right at me, right into my eyes. And I felt dried up too. Like I was just some normal, dried up, run of the mill collection of bones and nerves. And that’s all I would ever be.
“Anyway, the paramedic put his light away and said everything looked fine. Her heart rate was a little fast, but that was to be expected. He said she should probably drink some water and get some rest, just to be safe, but that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong.
“And over the next few years, every time she got the look on her face, as it came more and more often, first every few weeks, then every day, then every few hours, I thought about that paramedic. I thought about punching him right in his lying little mouth.”
Dad swallowed hard again. This time, he didn’t even take a swig of water to try to hide it. He was quiet for a long time, and it took me a while to build up the courage to ask him what I wanted to ask him.
“Did you ever find out what was wrong?”
Dad shook his head.
“She tried to describe it to me a couple of times. What it was like when the episodes hit. She said it was like watching the world falling apart molecule by molecule. Like she could see the molecules, every last one, and I watched them disconnect from each other. One by one, fall apart into atoms. And then the atoms themselves fell apart. And the worst part, she said, was that when it happened, she wasn’t even scared. She was fascinated. Like she couldn’t stop watching even if she wanted to. Like it was this rare opportunity to watch everything fall apart and she couldn’t waste it. She had to see and remember and record every last bit of it in her memory because it was just so damn beautiful.
“And every time it happened, I just felt so helpless. Like there was nothing I could do to help her. I would just tell her that she was going to be fine. That everything was going to be fine. And she’d look back at me like she wanted to say something else, but she never would. And I wouldn’t ever push her on it. Not even when she told me she was admitting herself to the institution. That she wanted to find a solution to this thing, and that as much as she hated it, she had to go away. For her sake and for yours. So that she could get better and be with you again and not scare you.”
Dad laughed again, that lonely laugh, and then he stopped talking. He just sat there dangling his legs off the side of that frozen horse and not saying anything.
“When she said that, all I did was tell her that I loved her and supported her and that everything would be fine. I didn’t try to stop her or help her or anything. I just told her that everything would be fine.”
“But it is, isn’t it? We’re fine.”
And he looked up at me. His eyes looked wet and he laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, “I guess it is, isn’t?”
“You really loved her, didn’t you?”
“To this day,” he said. He reached out and touched my knee. His hand sat there for a long time, warm and strong and comforting until finally he gave me a little tap and said, “alright, that’s enough of a break for us. Lotta work to do this afternoon.”
I jumped down off the horse and took one last look at it and all the other strange, purposeless machines scattered throughout the field.
“Hey, Dad” I said, “I thought you were going to tell me the story of how it all ended.”
“Well,” he said, his jaw tensing. He looked away and spit into the dust. “Maybe some other time.”

Johnny Caputo

 

 

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