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  • Marriage of Disparities

    June 4, 2021: Veta of Mumbai opens his cell phone and with the most inglorious of appendages, his thumbs, finds every known fact in the world at his fingertips. June 4, 1944: J. Robert Oppenheimer of Los Alamos stands in front of a group of like-minded physicists and with a scratch of chalk on slate, scribbles equations that launch the Atomic Age. Veta was checking the latest cricket scores. Oppy was trying to tie together the work of scientific multitudes who worked out fundaments of the universe, standing in front of chalkboards, like schoolchildren. Had there been no sea creatures to create chalk nor sediments to yield slate, which could be wiped clean of error and experiment, it’s quite possible quantum mechanics and theoretical physics that make possible cell phones might not, in a word, exist. Union of chalkboard and cell phone stands as one of humankind’s great marriages of disparities. For want of a piece of chalk, as the saying goes, we might still be fighting in the Pacific. Slotting dimes in phone booths. And dying to read today’s cricket scores tomorrow. Dick Altman writes in the high, thin, magical air of Santa Fe, NM, where, at 7,000 feet, reality and imagination often blur. He is published in Santa Fe Literary Review, American Journal of Poetry, riverSedge, Fredericksburg Literary Review, Foliate Oak, Blue Line, THE Magazine, Humana obscura, Tatterhood Review, The Offbeat, Haunted Waters Press, Split Rock Review, The RavensPerch, Beyond Words, Sky Island Journal and others here and abroad. He is a poetry winner of Santa Fe New Mexican’s annual literary competition. He has authored two poetry collections, Voices in the Heart of Stones and Telling the Broken Sky.

  • Small Spells

    I. In real life she was a witch, but these days she was having strange dreams. One of those nights she was called a bitch three times, once by herself; then the friend she missed came back to life and kissed her knees tender, and she cried before her arms grew limp and empty, and she remembered that if she was trying to let go she was holding on, still. She fell from her broomstick and she was not sure if this had happened in real life or in one of her strange dreams, because she had that feeling of her guts soaring upwards in her cold torso that she only got when she tumbled from up high, a giddy fright—or frightful giddiness, if she gently, innocently, and very intentionally let her hands slip from the handle that would keep her from falling. Then she had to remind herself that she was in fact a witch so that the shock of the fall wouldn’t hit her too hard, and her eyes grew soft before they opened—or closed?—spotting a daisy flower blooming in the cracks of the asphalt street, and we are not sure if she died in her dreams or lived in her life, but she smiled from her bed either before she cried herself to sleep or after she woke up in a puddle of tear-soaked pillows. II. She knew words had physical weight, but only because she had tried swallowing them. She was getting better, they no longer threatened to fight their way out her eyes in tears instead, but she could feel their weight gather like stones in the wolf’s stomach in Little Red Riding Hood. She wonders if this is punishment for deception—because, wasn’t not-saying a form of lying too?—after all, the wolf had been a trickster too. She wonders when she will drown. III. i) There are spells she had believed she had mastered. Like letting go. She’d had a lot of practice. On a day she was feeling particularly arrogant she might even say, more than most. Practice leaving things, places, people, indefinitely, turning sad, moving on, turning back, and giving up, turning sad again, and letting go. Why was it that attachment has always been cheap and easy? So quick, she’d never have realized, she’d had no warning, and they refused to part. Sometimes she didn’t even expect to have to let them go, but she did, and she watched them leave before she could, and there is no point running backwards, like there is no point gripping a knife. Letting go. If believing and practice didn’t work their spell— Let go. Like cutting out pieces of her own flesh. Scattering them in place of moonstones to find her way back home, as she follows an unknown trail, not knowing where she’s headed, not knowing if she’d be able to return, not knowing, just hoping. But flesh festers and it hurts where she’s cut it. It hurts until she’s not sure it’s been worth carving them out, maybe the gingerbread house will be nothing grand, maybe she will find nothing worth the things she left behind, maybe it will really only be an oven and a witch eager to eat her half alive, maybe she shouldn’t have left at all. ii) (Or, Take 2) And this time she learns maybe she hadn’t let them go, any of them, not really. She turns each invisible stone in her hand, feeling each smooth gleam and rough edge, turn them too often, grip them too tight, let them cut into her palms till there is blood in the crease of her fingers and tears leaking from her eyes. Yes. It is beautiful and it hurts like hell, and she missed everything she’d lost. Don’t pretend you didn’t know. As much as she longs for it, as much as she misses it till her battered heart beats like a broken radio, she knows turning back will promise nothing. Has any of your homes been home? Has everyone home loved you so? Have you not met strangers who held you better than the things you tried to let go, have you not learned there are things too beautiful to have missed, even if it cost you a limb. She’d thought she’d been letting go. They’d only been cutting deeper. She never realized. Or maybe they are wounds she neglected until they festered into something worse, far worse, and they’ll always hurt in ways she didn’t expect, at times she didn’t expect. Cuts she’d taken, she thinks of Shylock, you can’t carve out flesh without shedding blood. Her rough bare feet, she’s lost or given away her childhood shoes at some point she doesn’t remember, now she is in red slippers heading onwards into an unknown forest trail and her spell is wearing out, she hasn’t let go and maybe she never will, and she is heading onwards, the last of her small spells. Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Jane published a 400-page novel, Fallen, with Creative Writing for Children’s Society on Amazon Kindle in 2014. Her short story Broken has been featured in STORGY magazine in 2018, and her personal essay, “Umma, How You Break My Heart,” was published in Cherry Tree Literary Journal Issue V in 2019. A flash fiction series, “Ten Bad Feelings,” has been featured in Cutbank Literary Magazine in 2020. Part of her poetry series to support the Black Lives Matter movement has also been featured in the We Don’t Break, We Burn anthology with Mindwell Poetry. After receiving her BA in Literary Arts and History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, she completed her master’s degree in English at St. Peters College, Oxford.

  • The Moth Bride

    2020 Contest - 1st Place. You think there was once a witch, but you’re not sure. Somewhere back then. Some once upon a time. There is a moth, and there is always a moth, because the moth is you. And there is a toad who has intoxicatingly kissable lips. He paints them either sugary or poisondark, depending on the mood. Tonight, you are marrying the toad. In moments of doubt, you’ve thought that this wedding is some kind of price for a spell. But then again, moth brides are always nervous. You focus on his sensuous lips as he silently mouths the vows. You’ve always thought toads are cleverer than frogs, just by implication of weight, and the intricate textures of their skin. As soon as the vows have been made, you gaze into your toad’s mottled eyes, loving him more than starlight. But as you kiss his poisondark lips, he croaks, and speaks. He talks like a prince. He tells the entire wedding party, ‘During our marriage I want diamond rings and sugar-dipped dried flies.’ He describes future holidays where you’ll both sleep under fairylights in swamps. You didn’t know he’d ever speak. His voice shocks you. You reel, shrink, flurry upwards, and bash your head on a lightbulb. Your eyes sting. What’s just happened? You’ve married a toad, you’ve kissed, and now, he talks like a prince. Perhaps you have wedding concussion. He hops onto the middle tier of the wedding cake and uses the top layer as a lectern. He knocks the moth and toad miniatures off the cake as he announces, ‘We’ll have constant house parties and all of our rooms will be filled with stinging nettles.’ The wedding party is in a forest glade. There are strings of lightbulbs and glow-worms, glittery bubbles in the ponds, and fleas have been employed as waiters. Your vision distorts. Your toad wears ant-made shoes. Pin stripe stompers. You’re frightened of flitting into their path as you dance the first dance. Your grey wings are dusted. You appear far brighter than you really are. Your toad gives you a wedding gift – an extravagant oil painting of characters from all kinds of fairy tales. Magical princes and princess brides - all applish and mirrorish and shimmering. Murderous red shoes. Kisses and transformations. Choirs of frogs, butterflies and mushrooms. There’s not a single moth. You feel inadequate, but hide it well. You give your toad the gift of a mothsong. You raise your silence as far as it will go, aiming for the lightbulbs, aiming for the stars, aiming for his heart. But no one hears silence, unless they’re listening. Your toad examines your face with melancholic eyes and your thoughts race. Have you always been a moth? You feel as if you have. Seeking out light, hankering for the moon, silent, torn-winged and hopeful. Has your toad always been a toad? You silently beg him to answer this question, but again, are unheard. For the rest of the celebrations, your toad constantly talks like a prince. You’re still disoriented but no one seems to notice, they probably think you’re drunk. Nectar is flowing freely. Now you’re married, you set up home together. It’s a derelict, dust-soaked cottage. You try to believe you’re happy, but as you collect husks of dried flies, you guiltily wish for three wishes, but only really need one. You constantly wish that your toad would unlearn speech. He doesn’t like how much you flutter around the rooms. He prefers you to crawl. You grow more silent as his speeches grow louder. He wants servants, it seems, more than anything in the world. Hiding all the gathered dust under the bed takes time, but you love listening to its quietness. As you lie next to him in bed, what can he be dreaming of with his eyes wide open? His stomach rumbles, and you’re fearful of his hunger. Your wings ache like dying things. While your toad takes afternoon naps, you half-dream of smashing all the sealed windows. You linger in the highest corners of each room, flexing your wings, avoiding cobwebs. He seems constantly irritated, and you’re no longer certain that he loves you. He tells you that you’re clumsy so often that you become clumsier. Sometimes you deliberately bump your head again. Concussion dampens sound; a foggy mind is protected from noise. There must have been a witch, once upon a time. A witch who hurt him. Everything about him seems hurt, from the stripes on his back to the cracks between his toes. His lips now pout with disappointment. Your toad is secretly a prince, waiting for the right transformative kiss. You feel sorry about this. You want love, but he wants transformation. These two things aren’t equal to each other. Your toad tells you, ‘It’s now your turn to speak about how you’ll meet my needs.’ You reply with the saddest mothsong he’ll never hear. He waits for a while, as if sensing he’s missing something. You keep singing. After waiting, he says, ‘Oh, get lost, then.’ You wait till Summer to get lost. A window is open at night-time and the fattening moon lights your way. You fly outside into lavender-scented wind. Changing direction, you fly towards a shining lake, up on a moor. For some time, you’re lost in your own thoughts, reflecting on the demands of untransformed toads. Sometimes you are not really a moth, but a woman who married someone with the heart of a toad. Sometimes you are a moth with the heart of a woman, escaping from anything which might hurt you, but slightly too late. On the mistiest nights you imagine your toad’s tongue, dark and enchanted, is there in the fog, and it’s drawing you in. But there are clear nights as well. And there is this moor. You’re in love with the moon in the lake and the lakes on the moon. And there are these stars. On the clearest of nights, they sing so silently, you can hear them. Jess Richards is the author of three novels. Snake Ropes, Cooking with Bones, and City of Circles are published in the UK by Sceptre. She also writes short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. She has recently completed a PhD where she combined art and writing in a hybrid project. Originally from Scotland, Jess now lives with her wife in New Zealand.

  • The Wild

    2020 Contest - Runner Up. Jayde knew exactly what that smell was. It was incense and pot and food left out too long. It was unwashed pets with matted coats. It was ripe clothes that needed to be turned into rags but were still being worn. All smells she’d grown up with it. Her mother brought her to this house on the edge of Lawrence well after sundown. They drove up in their old Geo Tracker, windows open and the air finally cool after a hot day of driving through Missouri and Kansas without air conditioning. The sun had been down for an hour, but the vinyl of the dashboard and door panels were still sticky with heat. The house was old, with a big wraparound porch, set far back from the road and surrounded by bushes and trees. The yard had tricycles and plastic bats and other toys that signaled children, a sign that awoke more anxiety than excitement. Jayde and her mother went inside, and her observations about the house produced more anxiety. The door had no lock. The house had no A/C The light fixtures had been replace with candles. The kitchen had no stove. The first thing Jayde had to do was say hi to her mother’s new friend, a man named Darren who would guide the commune and restaurant they’d come to be part of. He had short hair, glasses, and a square head, like a stone man from a Pacific island. The others in the house were introduced too, but with less importance, as they merely waved to her with whichever hand wasn’t holding beer or kombucha. But Darren stayed closer to her, his hand resting briefly on the top of her head. They all commented on the usual adult things, how cute she was, how much like her mother, how one of the women had a little boy there about her age and he was already asleep but we know you’re going to be good friends. She went up two flights of stairs to her room. Jayde had never been in such a tall house before. It smelled different up there, more like old wood and wet air and green plants just outside the open window. Her mother tucked her in and went down to join the others, and Jayde fell asleep wondering how they would eat without a stove. During the days, Jayde’s mom took classes with the other students and tended a large plot of vegetables that Jayde hadn’t seen on their dark drive in. It was so big that, the night before, she just assumed it to be another of the many weedy fields. Jayde played outside with the other child there, a boy named Kale. They were not allowed to sit in on the classes or work in the garden. Kale was a year younger and quite a bit smaller, but he was kind and funny. One of the first things she told him was that she didn’t like the food. “You get used to it,” he said. “Fruit is the best. Have you had figs? Figs are good.” “Don’t they cook anything?” she said. Jayde had already asked her mother this, and was hoping for a different answer from another kid, someone who’d been here a while. But his answer was basically the same. “No. Cooking is bad for you. It makes food into cancer. Darren, he says we eat like how Adam and Eve used to eat, which is better than what we do now.” Jayde sighed and stuck the hand trowel she was playing with into the dirt. They had milk and vegetables for lunch. She wanted a hotdog more than anything. Kale tapped her shoulder and pointed into the woods beyond the garden. “Did you see it?” he said. “No.” “It was a deer. There’s lots of animals out here, even really big ones. Do you want to go look?” They walked through the woods, finding only squirrels, and came back for suppertime. Jayde saw the fireflies on her third night. She had never seen anything like it. It reminded her of an animated movie about little fairies that lived in trees. Darren brought her a jar, and she and Kale ran into the overgrown lawn where they compared methods for capturing the bugs. In a short time they had more than two dozen in the jar. It glowed like a lamp. Kale brought one last bug to her and ripped it in half as though he were breaking bread. At first, she thought he was trying to gross her out, which she would not let him do, but he took her hand and gently stuck the gooey, still bright abdomen to the back of her finger. Again, she thought it was supposed to disgust her, but then she understood. She held it up for both of them to see, her fingers taut so that they could admire the glowing emerald ring he’d gifted her with. But there was something else, past her hand. Two lights, shining steady, bigger than any firefly, peeked out at them from the edge of the woods. As soon as Jayde pointed at them, they were gone. As long as the sun was out, the insects were vicious and never ending. Mosquitoes were the least of it. There were ticks in the tall grass, and they also fell from the tree branches. Horse flies and deer flies bit so hard that they felt like someone pinching with fingernails. Even the mown parts of the lawn were off limits because of the chiggers that crawled through any fabric and left welts that Jayde couldn’t leave alone, that bled with her constant attention. The worst were the seed ticks, little tiny red dots that crawled up her feet and infested the surface of her legs, making every inch feel itchy, like her skin had taken a life of its own. After a couple weeks, Jayde refused to go play in the long grass of the yard or further back into the trees. Her mom was alarmed by the red marks that pocked her daughter at the waist, the ankles, the neck, the wrist. She told Darren that Jayde needed more than essential oils, that the bugs were too attracted to her. “This will pass once she adjusts,” he said. “Look at me. I’m out in the yard, and I’m not all bit up. Once the toxins are out of her system, this won’t happen. I wonder… are you giving her treats? You said she likes Kit Kats. That could cause it.” Her mother got offended, said they were as devoted as anyone. “Then why are you asking for poisons to put on your daughter?” he said, and that was the end of it. The mention of a Kit Kat made Jayde’s mouth water. Jayde’s third floor bedroom was so high above the yard that it felt like a lookout tower. From one angle she could see a few lights from buildings near the bridge and downtown, but mostly she saw the area near the house and the woods surrounding them. As summer wore on, she spent more and more time looking out the window. The house was now “off the grid” as the adults put it, so they operated by daylight and candles alone. The sun didn’t set until nine but she was put to bed at eight, even though she wasn’t tired yet. The adults stayed up, despite the darkness. Sometimes they lit fires in the fire pit in the yard. They drank homemade wine. Many of them, including her mother, came and went from Darren’s first floor bedroom, a room that had its own small porch. They probably thought she didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t entirely, but she knew it had to do with sex. Some of the adults were noisy. One of the voices might have been her mom. She didn’t want to know. Even without a fire or a candle, an adult or two would walk out into the dark alone, to look up at the stars, whisper into a forbidden cell phone, or simply to urinate. These occurrences were the best. She learned the most about people when they thought they were alone. But no one was alone in this house. It was when people went outside that she saw the spots of light again. They would slowly grow brighter, like a pair of candles newly lit, the flame building. The lights grew brighter, then they moved, like two bugs traveling in unison. But she knew it wasn’t bugs. It was probably an animal, some curious deer or coyote who just wanted to see what they humans were up to, maybe even make friends. She watched, willing it to come into the clearing, but whenever it got to the edge, the adult outside would come in and the lights disappeared. Just once, she saw a long shiny nose, like the wet muzzle of a happy dog. Wouldn’t that be nice, if her friend was a stray dog they could adopt? In the morning, she scanned the edges of the trees for the animal but never saw it. The bugs were still so bad that she would hardly leave the porch. It was better to watch from a distance and hope the creature came to her. Jayde’s mother returned from downtown with bags of fruits and vegetables. While others put the food away, she took Jayde aside and drew out a small bottle of bug spray, which she gave to her daughter. The bugs left her alone then, but she had to be careful of Darren, whose nostrils flared if she got too close, and he looked at her with those wide-open, wild eyes of his. They were always like that, like he was taking everything in all at once and it was overwhelming him, though he was too afraid to admit it. Darren’s restaurant in town had just opened, so he and the others were too busy to see that she was arming herself with all kinds of modern tools. Besides the bug spray, she had found a keychain LED light for getting to the bathroom at night instead of a stupid candle. She liked to point it out the window at night and turn it on and off, as if she was communicating with the fireflies in the trees, as if she was part of their city and not isolated in her bedroom. Her only companion on these long nights was the creature in the forest. It stared out with its bright eyes, and she flashed her light back at, imagining she was sending a message of friendship that the animal was only too happy to receive. Work at the restaurant had picked up, requiring more “cooks” and servers. That meant they’d need more help at home, which finally got Jayde and Kale into the garden. They could help pick some of the vegetables. Darren had to be there to teach them. It seemed now that he had to be everywhere, or that other people always had to be around him. No major or even minor event could happen without his presence. And if he was there, he was leading the way. Today they were deep in the garden, on their knees between the spinach and tomatoes, picking snap peas. Darren had already explained how to pay attention to the fuzz, how they should feel when squeezed lightly, and how that should show the difference between ready ones and those that needed time to mature. No matter how much he talked, though, she and Kale couldn’t get what he meant. Some of the ones he said were ready were tiny, and others were big. “Close your eyes, honey,” her mother said. She stood back with the others, watching at a distance. Jayde didn’t like how far away her mother often was now, or how other adults in the house would sometimes come to tuck her in at night, like they were becoming her parents, too. “That’s a good idea,” Darren said. “That’s what I want you and Kale to do. Close your eyes. Feel the peas.” Kale went first, grabbing on to a small one. “Is this one?” he said. “No,” Darren said, swatting Kale’s hand away. “That is not ready.” Then Jayde had to try. It wasn’t any different with her eyes closed. Some were big, and some were small. She settled on a medium one. “Very good,” Darren said. He pulled the pod off the plant and held it up victoriously. The other adults applauded. He handed back to Jayde. “Here, enjoy it.” Eat it, now? she thought. But it hadn’t been washed. She wiped one hand on her shirt, then used that hand to polish the pea. “Don’t wipe the dirt off,” Darren said. “Eat it. We are made of the earth, and someday we’ll return to it.” “But it gets stuck in my teeth.” Jayde’s mother had talked about this eating dirt business back when they were living with her grandmother. Thankfully, her grandmother wouldn’t have any of it, the dirt or the justifications. “You’re a complainer, Jayde. Complaining won’t ever do you any good.” Darren was like this. He talked to her in ways other adults didn’t. “My grandma said you wash dirt off vegetables because the dirt wears down your teeth.” “Well that’s not true. That’s what we call conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually wrong.” He cast a glance at Jayde’s mom, who, as usual, couldn’t return his stare. He turned back to Jayde and put his hand on her bare calf. “The natural world only hurts those people who want to be hurt. Do you…” he cut himself short, but she heard the question anyway. Do you want to be hurt? “We don’t have to talk about this now,” he said. “You’ll get it, sooner or later. Now try the pea pod.” Jayde put the dirty vegetable in her mouth, snapped it in half, and chewed. Darren finally took his hand off her thigh. From then on, Jayde was allowed in the garden while Kale was not. He played just outside the chicken wire fence, his lonely games progressing in violence. He thwacked at the tall weeds with a long stick, and then when the sticks broke, used a mallet to drive them into the ground, so far that they disappeared in the pounded earth. Still later, Jayde saw him stalking through the grass, suddenly leaping with his mallet to strike an unseen enemy. After an entire morning of this, she realized he was hunting grasshoppers. She preferred watching him to working in the garden. Picking peas was the easy part, especially once she realized no one checked on the quality of her picking. They simply took the full baskets of vegetables and set them by the driveway for small van that constantly traveled back and forth between the house and the restaurant. When not harvesting, she had to weed. Weeding made them better than conventional farming, Darren told her, because those farmers relied on pesticide, which was unnatural. “I thought cooking made it poison,” she told him. “Yes, and so do pesticides,” he said. “All of it is an affront to nature.” She could have asked him what “affront” meant, but preferred weeding and picking to talking with Darren. All the weeds had to go so that there were enough nutrients for the vegetables. Well, not all the weeds. Dandelions were allowed, because they weren’t weeds. Unless they’d already turned to seed, in which case they became weeds. And she had to be careful of the plants that looked like weeds but weren’t, the arugula and carrots and potatoes. If it didn’t have an identifiable vegetable growing from a stalk, it looked like a weed to her. One day, she yanked the tops off a dozen parsnips before another adult stopped her. He slapped her hands, just like Darren, and spouted off about things she didn’t understand, margins and seasonal growing cycles. Jayde didn’t even know the man’s name. One afternoon, Kale collected a pile of rocks from the road and, using a stick from the woods, began batting the rocks into the garden, pelting Jayde and whomever else happened to be inside. Kale’s mother tried to calm him. “Kale, honey,” she said. “We don’t throw rocks.” Another man said “You need to stop him right now, Tanya, or I will.” “You know what happens when I get forceful,” she said. “He just gets more stubborn.” They continued working in a tense silence, the gardeners at their plants, Kale reassembling his pile of rocks. He kicked them together, then began carefully stacking them in a little pyramid. Jayde thought maybe the anger of the adults had reached him and he knew better than to continue. She heard another cracking sound, and a rock fell between her and the man. He stood up and pointed his trowel at Kale. “That’s it you little shit,” he said. He marched toward the edge of the fence. Kale sped up his attack, hitting one stone after another. Any that came close to the man, he knocked aside with his trowel. If not for Kale’s mother, the man might have jumped the fence. She ran ahead, to the garden gate and beyond. Normally placid and slow, she moved quickly, wrapping Kale in her arms and stripping the stick from his grasp. The man paused at the fence, scraping his trowel across the top. The grating sound of metal on metal made Jayde’s teeth hurt. As Kale cried and cursed in his mother’s arms, the man went back to work. “That wasn’t right,” Jayde’s mom said. “You threatened that boy with violence.” The man snorted. “Darren’s right. You bend too much.” Her mom shook a pepper plant, bringing the top all the way to the ground before letting it go. “I’m not a tree, Mark. I’m life producer, and I bend. Unlike you.” The man, Mark, shook his head. “Yeah, you’re a real earth mother,” he said. Outside the garden, Kale’s mother was dragging him away. She held him under the arms, pulling, while he wailed and dug his heels into the soil. Jayde’s mother gave up on arguing and put her energy into extracting weeds. A pinch on Jayde’s ankle reminded her to take care of herself. She swatted the mosquito and asked to be excused for the restroom. Really, she needed to reapply her bug spray. Nature, like people, doesn’t hurt those who want to be hurt. It hurts those who are most vulnerable. That night, while watching out her third floor window, Jayde saw Kale step out alone in the yard. He’d never left the house after dark, not without adults watching. He walked right to the edge of the garden. She wondered what he was doing only for a moment, only until Kale lowered his pants and started peeing on the green beans growing up the fence. Jayde got out her keychain light and started blinking it at him, hoping he would turn around, look up and see it. She wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, even if the adults had separated them. He finished, but didn’t turn around. Kale walked forward, to the woods, as though he saw something there. Jayde looked and saw the two dots of light that belonged to her animal friend. She was immediately taken by a sense of injustice; that was her animal friend, the one she’d reached out to. She should be the first one to meet it. It wanted to see her anyway. Why hadn’t she gone out at night to see it, like Kale? Jayde got out of bed and quickly but quietly descended the stairs. If Kale got to run around at night, so would she. Who would stop her, the angry adults? They were too busy sleeping off long days at the restaurant. She tried to open the screen door quietly, but it creaked and then slipped from her hand, slapping into the doorframe. Now she would have to go quickly, in case her mom or some other adult came to investigate. She held the button down on her light and walked out to find Kale. The grass was tall, and when it swiped against her legs it tickled, reminding her of all the bugs that could be crawling on her. She just had to hope that the bug spray she’d put on that afternoon was still working. Once in the trees, the grass died back and she had to walk around scrubby plants and fallen branches. The light barely lit her way enough for her to see the ground. “Kale,” she said. “Kale, where are you?” He had disappeared. In the short time it took her to get outside, he was no longer in the yard and not in the woods. But she did see another friend through the trees. The two dots, reflecting her light, or the starlight, seemed far away but got closer surprisingly fast. And they didn’t bob up and down like she expected, but almost floated towards her, the head kept incredibly level while the body moved. The eyes were her height, maybe taller. And below them, another reflection began to shine, this time in a horizontal line. They were teeth – long, bright teeth. It wasn’t a friendly animal. Jayde stepped backward while the creature took two steps forward. The long snout materialized out of the dark, blackish-blue in color, like the shell of a beetle. Its big paws, with long toes almost like fingers, settled softly on the ground in front of its body, more like a person trying to walk on all fours than like an animal. Unlike a person, it had a long alligator tail, the distant tip swishing in the brush. She continued to walk backwards, but her heel caught on something, a twig or a root, and she nearly fell. By the time she regained her balance, the creature was right in front of her. The head was huge, maybe the size of a horse’s. The skin really was blue, like a pond at night, and almost perfectly smooth, except for the wrinkles around the mouth and eyes. She could smell it now too, something earthy and clean. It smelled more like a wet stone than a wet dog. It sniffed her back, its nostrils flaring, and its head turned away quickly, as if it didn’t like the smell of her. But it returned to staring at her. The little LED light she held flickered and in those fractions of a moment between light and darkness the creature’s mouth opened and closed in flashing succession: wide and gaping, then clamped shut, faster than anything she’d ever seen. Still its eyes held her, its body nearly surrounding her. The muscles in her thumb twitched so she held the light in both hands, holding down the little button with all her strength. Then she heard the voice behind her, at the edge of the trees, by the yard. “Jayde?” Kale said. “What are you doing? I can see your light. I know you’re looking at something.” The monster raised its head to look behind her. “Go inside, Kale,” she said. “What are you looking at?” he said. The monster sniffed. It took a step away from Jayde. “I said go inside!” she said. The darkness blurred around her. She swung back to the creature, to fend it off with her light, but it was gone. Kale screamed. She looked at where he’d just been and saw the humped form of the creature. It jerked its head near the ground, lifted something in its jaws, and then cut through the yard, obscured by the tangle of trees. Jayde ran to where she’d last seen Kale, holding the light in front of her like a magic blade pointed tip-first. The creature took him, she knew it. She shined the light into the yard as best she could, but the range was so short. All she could see was the blood left on the grass. Jayde overheard the policemen talking. “You know, this has actually happened before here.” “Really.” “Yeah, a long time ago. The guy who built the house, he was found on his porch, all ripped to shreds.” “No shit.” “Yeah. I guess it got his wife and kid, too.” “How do you know all this?” “Heard it from the animal guy they brought in. He thinks it’s because of the drought. Mountain lion gets hungry, starts traveling around, settles on whatever small animal he can find.” “Huh.” “Got to be careful, living by the river. I heard they travel all along river corridors. Fucking hippies should have thought of that before they shut off the power.” “No kidding. I hate having to haul the floodlights out. It’s going to be light out in a few hours. Do we really need to do this now?” The men kept talking, complaining about their jobs, and Jayde did not notice someone walk up behind her. A hand clamped on to her and spun her around. Fresh tears had sprung up from her mother’s eyes, and she pulled Jayde in tight to her as she knelt down. “Don’t you dare go off in the dark,” her mother said. There were a lot of arguments, after the police left, about what should be done. Some people wanted the power to be turned back on. Some wanted to buy a rifle for protection. One woman said, no matter what they did, she was leaving. Darren wouldn’t hear any of it. The house was his, the project they were engaged in, as he put it, was his, and there would be no electricity to tie them to the outside world. There would be no murdering of animals, even predators. They would simply have to be more careful and aware than Kale was. They shouldn’t have children there in the first place, Darren said. Based on this, and other things he’d said, his attitude towards Kale’s death was quickly deemed cold-blooded. He tried to claim it was rational and instinctual, which led to new arguments, ones Jayde couldn’t follow, about Darren and his callous treatment of others, his megalomania, and many other complaints about the bureaucracy of the house. In the end, most of the people decided to leave, including Jayde’s mother. It took time to pack things and separate belongings that had become collective over the last few months. Darren went swiftly up and down the hallways, shirtless, darting around like a distressed lizard looking to scare away predators. He began claiming that this and that were his things, though they obviously weren’t, and more fights took place, prolonging their departure. Jayde found her mother and pulled at her skirt. “We have to get out of here before dark,” she said. “Don’t start with me,” her mother said. “We’ll go when we’re ready.” Jayde was ready. She’d packed what few things she could long ago and now only waited, looking out the windows into the trees. The sun was setting by the time Jayde’s mother was ready to go. Others had already left, and a couple who were staying busied themselves reordering the kitchen. Darren stood on the porch, dramatically holding a bare candle in both hands, like an angry Christmas caroler. He glared at Jayde’s mother as she packed the car. When her mother tried to talk to him, he turned his head away. Jayde and her mother got in the car, finally ready for another long trip back home. Her mother tried one more time to talk with Darren through the open window while Jayde scanned the woods. That’s when they appeared: two little glowing discs in the woods, a blue body behind them. Its head slowly emerged from the brush, still barely visible in the dark. Jayde’s breath caught in her throat. There it was, the creature that hunted her, that killed her one friend. Its head cleared the woods, and those long front legs. But its beady, glowing eyes weren’t fixed on her. They were on Darren. It put one paw in the lawn, then another. “Mom,” Jayde said, more of a terrified exhalation than a word. She pointed. Her mom saw it immediately. She leaned forward over the steering wheel and stopped her breath. Jayde felt a moment of satisfaction, because if her mom saw it, then it was real. Even if they didn’t know what it was, it still existed. It wasn’t just her fear. Everyone shared it. “What the hell?” her mom said. She turned the key and pawed at the control panel, but by the time she turned on the headlights, the creature had gone. “What was that?” he mom said. She put one hand on the door, as if to step outside and take another look. Jayde reached out and took her mom’s wrist. “Let’s just go,” Jayde said. Her mom backed out of the driveway, looking behind her, too distracted now to care about Darren still sulking on the porch. She turned the car so as to swing it around, so she didn’t have to back all the way down the country driveway. When she did, Jayde saw the eyes return, two sparks hot as fire in the woods, and the blue snout pushing through the leaves, aimed at the tall, wiry man blowing out the bare candle held in his fist. The tires spun as her mom put the car in drive, kicking dirt up off the lawn, the car issuing a warning to the night. Chris lives in Colorado, where he helps run the writing center at Colorado College. His work has appeared in The Hopper, LandLocked, West Trade Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, and others.

  • wanderlust

    2020 Contest - Runner-Up. from this precipice she sings with her raucous voice and asks what all the wasting is about. the bird song falls like pearls of rain or dew, the bees’ provisions brim full on the comb, and the lazy heifer eyes the rocking rook. the scale is off, I tell her, from this crest, and gay, we see the butting sheep below, small substances bustled back and forth by winds. she cries that autumn slows the footsteps and the mind and looks for foragers among the blades of grass. the frilled lizard by her hand blooms bright with blood, the murderous sight a bruise upon her brow. treading lightly goes the springing cotton rat, the grass below lays flat and low and dry. we’re made to leave the ridge for greater homes, but find them small and tight and keep on passing by. Alani Rosa Hicks-Bartlett is a writer and translator whose recent work has appeared in The Stillwater Review, IthacaLit, Gathering Storm, Broad River Review, ellipsis...literature & art, The Fourth River, and Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation, among others. She is currently working on the following projects: a novel set in Portugal, translations of medieval French love poems and sonnets from early modern Petrarchan poets, along with a collection of villanelles.

  • What Your Birth Year Says About You

    2020 Contest - 1st Place. Tell me what you puked up last night and I’ll guess your age. Create your perfect ice cream sundae from Friendly’s And I’ll guess your mom’s dress size on her wedding day. It was a 4. Tell me which brand of tequila you butt-chugged in 2016 And I’ll name your married crush’s ex-wife. Build your dream home and I’ll tell you No. Just tell me where your dad was on 9/11 so I know What kind of weed brownie you are. Pick your porn. You’re wrong. Tell me you love me and you will die first. Sophia Bannister works at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Her work is featured in Prometheus Dreaming, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, and Poetry Online.

  • Closure

    The fawn wobbled uneasily, placing one hoof in front of the other. It was not easy, but the newborn persevered. Mother doe watched closely. Improving with each clumsy step, the little fawn disappeared into the brush. How beautiful it was to witness her offspring take on the world. She went to follow, but not before checking one last time on her other child. Turning around, she made her way to an area of flattened grass where, not long ago, she gave birth to two fawns. The other still lay there, baking in the sun. Mother doe bent down in the grass slick with blood and amniotic fluid. A small nudge. No movement. A larger nudge. Still nothing. A few moments passed. Mother doe stared, expecting her baby to get up and join his brother, in vain. He was dead. There was nothing she could do. Instead of waiting any longer, she got up to join her living young in the brush. They walked together until they reached the side of a road. The young fawn walked towards the edge, then into the middle. Mother doe followed. “I’ll be there in a little while, I just got over the bridge,” Jason told his fiancée over the phone. “I’m going to run out of mental energy by the time I even get there. I have no idea how the hell I’m going to deal with him after that.” “He’s your brother… you’ll find a way. You always do,” Susan responded. “Please just give him a chance. This was his idea in the first place.” “Yeah, you’re right. I have to give him at least a chance.” “I’m always right.” “Bullshit.” “No bullshit here,” she teased, “have you heard from him today?” “No, I haven’t. I’ll call him when I get off of the phone with you.” “Let me know wha”-- Jason dropped his phone when he saw two deer in the middle of the road, staring blankly at him. His reaction came naturally. He stomped on the brakes and swerved. Both animals stood their ground as the car screeched passed them. Time stretched and Jason saw everything happen in slow motion. The squealing of tires deafened him until the car stopped and rocked back violently. Burned rubber plagued his nostrils, though he held his breath. Still gripping the wheel, Jason looked in his rearview mirror. The fawn continued to stare blankly, looked the other way, then crossed to the far side of the road. It had no idea how close it had brushed death. Jason watched the fawn disappear into the woods. Mother doe continued to follow. “Jason! What’s going on? Jason!” shrieked Susan from the phone. Where it was, he did not know. His breathing slowed from quick and shallow to controlled and deep. Jason let go of the sweat-covered wheel. Finding his phone proved to be easy; Susan yelled his name with a shrill that he would not soon forget. He put it to his ear and flinched at the brain-splitting cries. “I’m here. I’m alright,” he told her, “take a deep breath.” “OH MY GOD”-- she answered in relief, “I THOUGHT I’D LOST YOU.” “I thought I’d lost myself there too… I almost hit a deer.” “And you swerved?! You know you’re not supposed to swerve! You’re”-- “Supposed to hit it. I know. I didn’t have time to think,” he replied as if responding to a parent. He heard this many times before. “Listen, I should just call you when I get there. A little more attention to the road might not be such a bad thing.” “Fine. I love you.” “I love you too,” he said, then hung up. Placing his hands on the wheel and foot on the gas, Jason kept his eyes strictly on the road. He never called his brother. Hours later, he noticed an approaching wooden sign on the side of the road. Crudely written in bright red letters read: CHIBIABOS RAPIDS INN 2 MILES Jason exhaled out a deep sigh of relief. He found the place. “In two miles, your destination is on the right,” the voice of his GPS said. Behind the towering evergreens, Jason could make out a dirt road that led to a cabin-like motel. He turned into it. “You have arrived,” the GPS finished. Oh yes I have, he thought, but not without almost killing myself. Rocks and debris clanked under the car as it winded down the dirt road. Emerging from the evergreens, he now saw that the motel contained several rooms. A parking spot stood in front of each room, of which only one was taken. That’s his car. He actually made it, Jason marveled to himself. My burnout brother drove all the way here to do something with me… maybe he isn’t bullshitting this time. It was a comforting thought, but he had learned to not get his hopes up when his brother was involved. Jason parked right next to the spot and got out. He walked straight up to the room and knocked. If his brother already arrived, this would be his room. Room 6 was etched onto a green plaque hanging from the door. He waited patiently. Another knock. More silence. He must be out on the trails exploring. Nature has always been his form of release. Regardless of this conclusion, Jason felt an involuntary unease at the silence. He abandoned the motel room and set forth to the lobby. Behind the lobby desk stood a woman with graying auburn hair who must have been in her late forties, but appeared in her thirties when she smiled at him. “Hey there darlin’,” she greeted with a large grin. “You must be Jason. Bruce said you should be comin’ on up any time.” “You got me,” he admitted, smiling back. “I’m Bruce’s brother, Jason. You clearly met him as well.” “You bet I did. He introduced himself, quite confidently I must say. He explained that his handsome brother would be joinin’ him here for a weekend of trails and white water raftin’,” she eyed him up and down, “he hit the nail right on the head. I’m Tanya.” Brushing off the little flirt, Jason shook her hand. “Jason. Pleased to meet you.” The glint of his wedding band caught her eye. She flushed. Her voice took a more formal tone. “Pleased to meet you as well darlin’.” He paid and went outside to find his room. Jason peered down at his key, which read Room 5. Looking back up, he saw a familiar face. There stood his elder brother, Bruce. They sat and stared, unable to believe it. A thought came to Jason; I’m not sure whether to hug him or to kick his ass. Years ago, anyone who looked Bruce in the eyes would see vitality and happiness. Those eyes held enough power to lure most women into his bed and did for a very long time. He had a compelling nature that awoke life in even the most miserable people. Until he was in his cups, Jason reflected; and not without regret. Within the first few seconds of seeing his brother, his heart broke. Here stood a stranger. His brother’s eyes, which once held so much power, now belong to a tired man. Not just worn out from age, but from the day to day strife that all addicts face. His eyes told the story of a defeated man on his last attempt to make peace with himself. A part of Jason’s soul died while realizing this. The air around them thickened with tension. Any passerby would say they resembled two cowboys out west preparing for a standoff. Bruce’s hands shook unsteadily as if he could not take the suspense any longer. He must be having withdrawals, which is better than him being piss-drunk, Jason thought to himself. Bruce broke the silence. “Fancy seeing you here.” “The feeling is mutual,” is all Jason could say before both brothers embraced for the first time in several years. Jason expected passive-aggressive exchanges and cold silences during their first reacquaintance. On the contrary, he felt a surge of emotions immediately after their embrace. A myriad of emotions… and not all great. But they would get to that later. “So I’m your handsome brother I’ve heard?” asked Jason with a playful grin. “Nothing short of,” Bruce replied and winked back with his glossy eyes. “How long have you been here waiting for me? No offense, but I was kind of surprised when I saw that you had beaten me here.” Bruce hesitated before answering. It gave Jason enough time to notice that his brother was rather pale compared to his usual complexion. Contrasting his milky skin were blackened bags of fatigue under both eyes. Between seeing his brother’s shakey hands, his pallid skin, and the lifeless look in his eyes, Jason became convinced that Bruce was in fact experiencing withdrawals. Any harsh feelings Jason felt for his brother died at that moment. Unfortunately, it made room for pity. “Not too long. I arrived in style yesterday,” Bruce finally answered, “‘In style,’ with your shitty car? You have a unique sense of style, oh brother o’ mine.” “Your mom seems to think so.” “We have the same mom, you dirty bastard.” “Alas! The cat is out of the bag,” Bruce exclaimed, “Why don’t you go check out a raft. I’m more than ready to go down to these rapids” Jason looked surprised, “Already? I just got here.” Bruce looked at him but said nothing; he didn’t have to. Jason saw the desperation on his brother’s sickly face, then understood. Bruce needed to do something to occupy his mind. Anything to distract him from the pain. “Let me put my stuff in my room and grab a--” He almost said “drink” but caught the words in his throat before they could escape. "And grab some towels for when we’re out there.” Good save, he thought. He did exactly that, then they left for the lobby. Bruce stayed back while Jason went to check out the raft. “I’ll be back,” Jason said. “Alright,” Bruce answered before sitting on the curb and closing his eyes for a quick rest. God, he looks like shit, Jason thought, but anything to keep him from drinking. He looked back once more at Bruce, and could not help but despair. Anyone could easily see that if he didn’t get his life together, Bruce would die soon. It pained Jason to have these thoughts, but it wasn’t the first time the possibility crossed his mind. Without considering the matter any longer, Jason turned and walked into the lobby. “Back so soon?” Tanya asked when she saw Jason. “Welcome back darlin’.” “I’m just as surprised as you are,” Jason said. “I’d like to check out a raft for my brother and I. He wants to go out already.” “Oh. He’s up and around? I could hardly tell he’s been here. That one is as quiet as a mouse...quieter,” the word hung in the air ominously. “At any rate, you two be careful, please. The rapids can be very violent and people are known to get lost or seriously hurt ridin’ them. Sometimes even dead.” At this remark Tanya’s countenance became grave. It reminded Jason how old she actually was. “Yes. We’ll be careful,” Jason remembered again what it was like to hear a concerned parent. Satisfied, Tanya gave him a key to one of the locked-up rafts. He went to leave when Tanya mentioned one more thing. “Come in here tomorrow mornin’ when you boys wake up. I’ll have breakfast made. If you keep me waitin’ too damn long, I just may have to come bust that door open and serve you breakfast in bed,” she gave Jason a little wink and laughed. His face turned a bright red. “You have my full permission that if we’re not up by noon, you can come into our rooms and wake us,” he said then walked out the door. The two brothers strode past the motel towards the forest trail. No words passed between their lips. Their eyes were too busy surveying the labyrinth of trees on each side of the trail: maple, hemlock, evergreen, yellow birch, and white pine. Leaves and pine needles crunched under each stride. Breathing in the intense smell of pine brought back nostalgic memories of their childhood; a childhood that quietly slipped away into distant memory. “I’ve been away for too damn long,” Jason said, waking them from their daydreams. “I know,” his brother said, “you’re not the only one. I’ve been here, but my mind has been in other places…” he struggled to find the right words before Jason finished for him. “You haven’t been all there. I know. You don’t have to explain yourself… yet. I can tell you’re in pain right now. We don’t have to bring about the elephant in the room if you’re apprehensive. Let’s just follow the trail to our raft and enjoy it. If it comes up after that… it is what it is.” Bruce regarded his little brother after he finished. “Thank you,” was all he could say without his voice breaking. Jason could see him holding back tears and pitied him once more. Tears now began to swell in his own eyes but he fought them back. It agonized him to see his older brother this broken and vulnerable. The moment passed as soon as it had come. Bruce exhaled before changing the subject, his composure reclaimed. “Chipper up, chap! I see our raft and our take-off point,” Bruce said with enthusiasm, “I hope you’re ready to ride these rapids.” “Ready as I’ll ever be.” The trail sloped downwards to a side bank of the river. Next to the bank were the rafts to which they helped themselves. The two brothers were on the river not long after. Their paddles broke the clear surface. They floated down the river as gently as a leaf. Both brothers remained silent while Bruce studied the map. “If I’m reading this map properly,” he began, “it should be smooth sailing for a few miles before we get into the real shit. In the meantime... we can go with the flow.” The flow took them and they went willingly. Tree branches hung over the water on both sides, jutting from sloping rock walls. Trout swam beneath them, refracting each hue of the rainbow back into the sky. One jumped out of the water to catch a mayfly before crashing back down with a splash. Jason steered them out of harm’s way whenever a log protruded the surface, or a boulder inhibited their path. Bruce gave updates from the map but otherwise stared in deep awe at their surroundings. Floating in silence, Jason noticed this awe grow into what resembled a trance-like state. In fear of what thoughts troubled his brother, Jason casually broke it by speaking. “This is exactly what I’ve needed,” he said. “I think this is what we both needed, and we’ll come to terms with it even more with age,” he replied, keeping his eyes forward in deep thought. The comfortable silence grew thick with unease. Jason once again felt that Bruce was keeping something from him. As if he read Jason’s mind, Bruce shifted uncomfortably, then spoke. “Listen, man. I wanted to say thank you for meeting me up here when no one else would.” Jason, caught off guard, lamely responded: “of course.” I guess it’s time to confront the elephant in the room, he thought. “Since the last time we’ve seen each other, I honestly didn’t know if I would ever want to see you again. My fiancée convinced me to come up here actually.” “I don’t blame you.” “Good, because it’s not my fault. It’s yours,” Jason answered in a flat tone. It sounded much harsher coming out than intended, yet he made no apology. It was true, after all. They both sat quietly. A minute passed. “Does mom know you came to meet me?” Bruce asked. “Yes, I talked to her.” “She still chose not to come?” “No, she didn’t want to come.” “I’m not surprised. She hasn’t helped me or talked to me since the last time we were all together. Last time we tried this,” he added bitterly. “Can you blame her though? It breaks her heart to see the way you get. As heartless as it sounds, sometimes people just have to cut their losses and move on. People are not always in control of the world and people around them, as hard as that is to accept,” Jason said. Bruce listened, “does that justify giving up on her son? I know I’ve made terrible decisions time and time again. But I’m human. I can’t always be as successful as you, and mom doesn’t understand,” Bruce admitted. This was never spoken aloud previously, but it was true and both brothers knew it. “‘The strong survive while the weak die,’ she always used to say,” Bruce continued. “Over the years I’ve realized that she’s applied the idea of natural selection to her own children. Don’t you think? ” he asked. Jason calculated how to respond to this kindly. “In a way, I suppose. Yes. But you know what, big brother o’ mine? You’re here with me, right now. That proves you haven’t given up, and I applaud you for that,” Jason appended. Bruce absorbed everything his brother said with keen interest. A few trickles of tears rolled down his cheeks, yet he made no effort to wipe them. Many times Bruce opened his mouth to speak, but each time closed it without saying anything. His eyes told Jason everything. Bruce was clearly very disturbed, and still struggling to make peace with his own demons. He looked frail and haggard like a man fighting his last stage of cancer. Yet something was awry. Sure Bruce was upset. More than upset. But even as honest as he seemed, there was something he was not being completely honest about. After their talk, all tension disbanded into the air as the current carried them along. Bruce, very calmly, now spoke, “Even if mom didn’t come, can you please tell her I’m sorry for the stain I’ve set in this family? I would appreciate that.” “I can certainly tell her,” Jason said out loud. But I doubt she’ll buy it. “Have you ever read the story Siddhartha?” “What do you think?” Bruce answered, a thin smile appearing. “I’m forgetting that the only books you read are Playboy and Hustler.” They both laughed. “Siddhartha in a nutshell is a man trying to find enlightenment,” Jason continued. “Since I know you’re not going to read it, I’ll skip all of the bullshit. He finds enlightenment by staring at a river. Where are we right now, you ask? On a river.” If they were blind to the beauty of their surroundings before, it blossomed before their eyes now. Robins chirped and flew over their heads. The warm glow of sun cascaded on their skin. Notwithstanding his sickly condition, Bruce seemed uplifted by Jason’s words. His eyes showed no anguish now, only tranquility. At last, he spoke: “This may be the closest I’ve ever been or ever will be to enlightenment,” he said with profound gravity. “Right here on this raft, with the one person who was always honest and never gave up on me. I love you, Jason.” “I love you too, Bruce,” Jason replied. It had been years since those three words had been said. Was this a breakthrough? He still didn’t know. It was different for sure. He still felt that Bruce was not telling him everything. Although Jason never recalled him acting like this, he deemed this behavior an improvement. “This is the start of a new chapter in your life, Bruce. Forget about the past and move on,” Jason advised. Bruce faced his brother, “I think I will.” A rustling came from the bracken on the left bank. They turned towards it with apprehension when a small fawn appeared from the tangle, followed by what could only be its mother. The newborn wobbled along the edge of the river, while the doe patiently followed. The brothers both exhaled with relief and found themselves captivated by beauty. They watched the fawn look down at its reflection in the flowing current. Seeing itself for the first time, it danced around in excitement until its clumsy legs tripped up and fell. The mother gently came up behind her baby and joined it in the grass. There they cuddled, completely oblivious to the brothers floating by. “You know,” Bruce began, “it has taken me my whole life up until this moment, to realize that life is beautiful,” the words came out of his mouth in a tone of wonder and reflection. He said no more and held his eyes on the deer. It reminded him that life and beauty are just as prevalent in nature as death and darkness. All daylight must die, yet for every night there’s a brighter day. This comforting thought set him at peace. Distracted, the brothers were slow to hear the rising din of approaching rapids. Around the bend and coming into sight, was a small waterfall. Beyond that were violent rapids that wove around smooth boulders and under sharp branches of fallen trees. Jason looked forward and saw the falls. He breathed deep. The deer no longer mattered. There was oncoming danger. Adventure. The calm sound of flowing water rose into a thunderous din that warned incoming travelers. Jason gripped his paddle tight, feeling his adrenaline begin to pump through him. “Get ready! This is what you wanted!” Jason roared. He looked back at Bruce with excitement. To his surprise, Bruce remained unchanged. He sat, showing no effort to prepare for the dangers ahead. His eyes gleamed and Jason saw he was at peace with himself. Bruce stared forward at Jason while their raft slowly accelerating to greater speeds. Jason now saw Bruce looked very healthy. The sorrow of his soul was shed and the darkness cast away. His once pallid complexion now radiated color and vitality. Bruce looked ten years younger, but the wisdom in his eyes was sagacious. Instead of grabbing a paddle, Bruce held his brother’s gaze and shed a single tear. “What the hell are you doing?!” Jason screamed before he felt weightlessness and his stomach in his throat. The raft tumbled over the edge. It came down violently into the lower river before bouncing back up. Forcefully Jason thrust forward but his firm grip kept him aboard. He yelled out his brother’s name only to be silenced by the torrent of water crashing down all around him. Before he could look back, the raft approached a fallen tree trunk. Instinctively Jason snatched his paddle and plunged it into the dancing water to steer them out of harm’s way. Paddling hard, he managed to sneak past the trunk by mere inches. More obstructions approached, but Jason used this small moment of opportunity to look behind him. He turned, and his brother was nowhere to be seen. His heart stopped. “BRUCE! BRUCE!” Jason yelled. Still looking back, he only saw bouncing water rippling in every direction. He frantically searched until the vessel hit a large boulder. The raft smashed to a complete stop, throwing him headfirst into the surging rapids. Trying to find which way was up, Jason desperately flung his arms around. Rushing water blurred his vision. The deafening thud of his skull hitting a rock blinded him. Darkness flooded his vision and his panic ceased. No more cries on the river were heard that day. Tanya Orvis awoke the next morning to the sound of her alarm. She got dressed and began to prepare breakfast. By the time she finished, she had grown impatient with them for sleeping in. “I guess I’ll just have to go wake them. Maybe I’ll find myself having more than just breakfast in bed with the older one,” she spoke aloud to herself. She became quite lonely over the years running the Inn alone but was optimistic otherwise. Tanya grabbed the keys and went to go wake them. She approached room five and knocked. Nothing. She waited a while longer then decided to let herself in. The food would get cold otherwise. Unlocking the door and opening it revealed an empty room. He was gone. That’s weird. They must have been drinking and passed out in the same room. Stranger things have happened here in my time. Eager to be a pleasant host, she went to suite six and rapped on the door. “Rise and shine, boys! I’ve got your breakfast right here! Biscuits and gravy!” she said. Tanya listened but heard nothing. “I’m coming in, I hope you’re clothed,” she lied. The lock clicked as the key turned. She pushed the door and it creaked open, light flooding into the darkened room. “I hope you guys are hungr”-- Her voice caught in her throat. Deep in her chest, her heart thundered. Tanya stood and gaped in horror. Bruce dangled limp in the center of the room; his own belt fastened around his neck. In a matter of hours, a search party embarked to find Jason. Eventually, to everyone’s amazement, he was found alive. Lying unconscious on a sandy bank, the authorities airlifted him to the nearest hospital. Two days later he awoke to find himself lying in a bed with Susan sitting across from him. She smiled, but apprehension marked her face. Jason tried to sit up but almost passed out from his efforts. “No. Don’t sit up,” Susan said. “You have stitches in your head, a broken collar bone, and a broken wrist. You’ve had a rafting accident and almost drowned. When they found you, they thought you were giving in to exposure. You should be dead, my love.” Her eyes began to water as she finished, but she maintained composure. “Where’s Bruce?” Jason asked. “He fell out after we went down the waterfall.” Susan sat and said nothing. Now her tears came. “Where is he?” his voice wavering. “Jas”-- “Please tell me!” “Prepare yourself,” she looked at him gravely for a few seconds. “He’s dead.” Jason said nothing for a while and placed his head in his hands. “He drowned,” he wept through his fingers, “didn’t he?” “Bruce wasn’t with you, Jason. His body was found in his motel room. He hanged himself, my love.” She grabbed one of his hands and cradled it in hers comfortingly. “What? He was there when I arrived and we went rafting right afterward! It isn’t possible!” “The police found his suicide note and everything, honey.” She spoke through her tears. “They speculate that he did it the day before you arrived.” They both fell silent. He wept for hours while Susan consoled him. Looking back on that day with this new knowledge disturbed him. Not only disturbed him... but utterly confounded him. A discontinuity lied somewhere. “If what the authorities say is true,” he said, “then Bruce was dead the whole day I spent with him… correct?” “Yes. That’s right.” He held his breath. The room stood still and all was silent. An uneasy feeling overwhelmed them. Jason stared in a reverie which made Susan’s blood run cold. “Is there something I’m missing?” she asked. “No,” he answered as if to himself, clearly in deep thought. He now began to understand. A grim awareness chilled him, the awareness that Bruce had kept from him. Bruce was reconciling their brotherhood after his passing. His passing into whatever waits for us in death. Every year Jason leaves flowers at his brother’s grave. More often than not, a full-grown buck is seen grazing near. He believes it is the fawn from that profound day. The deer prances away, its white tail tracing its path, each time he approaches his sibling’s resting place. Etched in the dark granite, reads his brother’s last spoken words: Life is Beautiful. Tristan Miller is a 23-year-old Michigan State University student studying Physics and Mathematics to become an educator. Along with reading and writing, playing drums and other instruments in metal bands has been a lifelong passion of mine. "Closure" is Tristan's second publication, but there will be plenty more.

  • No Way to Survive Without Calling on the Oracle First

    Mother thinks I’m dying. But these are the days that must happen to demonstrate the fallibility of us all. Fragile fingers sweep hair from forehead to search for fever first. In my sleep, I dreamed a poem, but that was too long ago now. And I taste the blood from my nose in the back of throat before it ever petals down my lips. There’s a desperation to understand the world, but such is a toxic taste. Not tannins, but treacle turned to rot in the gullet. And what is in your lungs now, my dear? Mother’s words hum in a non-human manner; honeyed and hard to believe. You must Hope, for such is the thing with a heartstring. Mother maps shapes in the dark, to guide like swords and scales. Thread reddens around her wrist now, as she outlines the windows and walls. She pretends the pharmacological warning never stated oneirataxia as a side effect for eating past the garden gate. Just ask the poets practicing the way to end obsession, and they’ll tell you. These are the oracular symbols I must cling to, call out to the Lady who bestowed these futures first. She would speak her own name slow if she were here now to explain the meaning: that which is put in place. But such is a sacrifice for us women. Bring tinctures and tea to tame the madness now settling in marrow. Womb will remain empty, but such suits me. How could I tell those children about the steady slope of a room after too many cups of coffee? Anxious angles cloud vision on those days. Maybe, I would’ve called it art. Like the greats. Like the dead. Because aren’t they the same thing now? I ask for small things: hail and helium, teacups and thistle. I’ll swallow them down to stave off the subtle sound of starvation. Please don’t expect me to eat from red clover beyond the backyard. It never tastes like forgetting, but that’s the juxtaposition of it all. Kayla King is the author of These Are the Women We Write About, a micro-collection of poetry published by The Poetry Annals. She is the founder, Editor-in-Chief, and contributing writer for Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective, now available for purchase. Kayla's fiction and poetry has been published by Firewords Magazine, Sobotka Literary Magazine, and Capsule Stories, among others. You can follow Kayla’s writing journey over at her website: kaylakingbooks.com or her twitterings @KaylaMKing. Gerburg Garmann, a native of Germany, is a professor of German and French at the University of Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications appear in both German and French in international journals. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in various magazines and anthologies around the world. Feel free to check out her art website: www.gerburggarmann.com

  • Transcend

    I walked down the stuffy aisle in the overflowing archaic chapel of St. Peters catholic church that is mounted at the epicenter of the city’s mainland. The pews glistened in the eerie atmosphere of the empty chapel. Before visiting the father in his wooden boxed confession room at the opposite end of the hall, beside the tall built Victorian doors, I decided to stop at the altar for a brief one-on-one dialogue with the crucified Jesus on the cross. There on the altar, I watched a tamed yellow light fall right before eyes on the red-carpet floor and when I looked up, I saw it was cast from the communion stained glass above my head. In a split second, the light bounced off the floor and pierced my heart in sharp brief sequences in the same exact manner blood is drawn from a person’s vein. Then tongues of fire arose from the ray of sunlight; they blossomed into a lotus fiery flower that chanted hymns of mass in crystal-harmonic voices; while I gaped at its surreal existence, the lotus flower spun itself into my mouth and slid down my esophagus. It had been two weeks since Uncle Abem died in a car accident. The firefighters who arrived at the scene described the grotesque manifestation of his death as incomprehensible because there were no external wounds or blood on his body despite how brutally damaged the car was and the fact that the car was found at the bottom of a mountain in Abeokuta. “He looked like a baby asleep. Only, he will never see the light of another day” was what they said of his corpse. About two months after my confession, I rest my back on my bed. On the chair in the right corner of my room beside the entrance door is a grumpy man, who chants vague words fit for no one to hear. He focuses his face on my now paralyzed body in my nightwear moist from sweat. He feels somewhat familiar yet cold. I call out to him but my words bounce back like they hit a force field. Tears trickle down my face like pebbles. My body crackles and spits spark of a thick fluid outward that takes the shape of a human. With every passing moment this figure forcefully comes out of me, it leaves a stab that punctures the micro vessels in my chest. I look up to stare at the creature that floats above me; what I see is a mirror reflection of myself, the only difference is its devilish facial expression. This sight is incomprehensible. When our eyes encounter each other, it feels like I am dancing with a part of my soul. Before I utter a single word, it vanishes. I jerk my body in repetitive motion to its left side with force. Then close my eyes hoping this is all a dream and by the time I open them, I find my dad looking at me with a smile on his face on the chair few inches away from my bed. “Dad? What are you doing there?” “Nothing.” “How long have you been sitting there?” “Not long. I came in about a minute ago.” “How long have I been asleep for?” I ask in a confused state. “Were you sleeping? Heard you mumbling. So, I presumed you were meditating or needed some time to yourself.” “Are you sure Dad because I think I just had a frightening dream.” “Get some rest, my daughter. I am sure it is nothing for you to worry about.” It is Saturday night, my brother - Bas is coming home for a visit. It has been almost a year since I last saw him after his move to the United States of America, but it is draining waiting for him to arrive at the airport. Meanwhile, my dad traveled to our hometown earlier today on a business trip. Earlier on in the morning, as I escorted my dad down to the garage, there was a loud tingly aching sound in my ears. My Mom later suggested it was stress from the cooking I did the previous day. She comforted me with the words, “A little rest will sooth the pain.” My mom, my older siblings, Bessy and Daniel along with myself are standing in front of the ‘Arrival’ pathway at the airport, where I catch sight of my long brother with a broad chest and a face like mine. It is hard to see the clothes he is wearing because of the crowd, nonetheless, I run forward in the same direction to make sure I don’t miss him and him, us. Jostling my way through the crowd; I spot him where he stands with his luggage and the scenery makes me smile. When I reach him, I wrap my hands around his waist and rest my head on his arm. It is nice to hold him in my embrace after a very long while. Most of my childhood memories are with my brothers. We are tight-knit. They made my childhood exciting. One time, we created a live wrestling match in our Dad’s room – Bas and Daniel were the fighters, and I was the referee. Lately, it feels as though life is trying to create a distance between us, which is what makes this moment of being in the same space with Bas special. After our prolonged greeting, I tell him where the rest of our family are, and we go meet them back at the arrival pathway. Only this time around, I drag his luggage behind me. Everyone greets each other before we leave for the car park. The tingly sound comes back to reverberate in my ears. It is persistent and continuous, but I ignore it and resist the pain. Bas takes the driver’s seat on our way back home. During the cruise, Bas reminisces about his hustle, the roads, infrastructures, and sceneries of the city before he left for America. At around a couple of minutes past 7 pm, we arrive at College road, Fagba, Lagos – the connecting busy road to our estate. There is traffic. So, my two brothers, Bas and Daniel, bore us with their technical tales about games and movies. Out of nowhere, a mentally unstable young man wearing a tattered brown shirt and grey shorts begins to hit the hood of every car stuck in traffic. When he gets to our car, Mom keeps repeating to my siblings and I, “Ignore him, he will leave.” The mentally unstable young man leaves, but the ringing in my ear increases the volume of its reverberations to swallow the voices of my family. When I tilt my head towards the left direction outside, I see him holding a green beer bottle in his hand. He is standing on the demarcation at the center of the road with his body facing our direction. Hawkers walk past him. But I look at his deluded existence, not knowing what he intends to do with the green beer bottle in his hand that is lifted in the air. He swings the bottle in the direction of our car. And in the blink of an eye, I hear the bottle collide with the vehicle's window. One-piece after the other – the glass comes crashing down on Bas. There are no words. Bas's clasps his bloody face in his arms and cries, “Mommy! Mommy!! What happened?” My mom, despite being taken aback, gets herself together. When we look outside, the man has disappeared. Mom switches seats with Bas who places his bloody head on Bessy’s thighs. I can feel his roaring pain. So, I close my eyes while fighting back the reverberating sound in my ear to pray that by some miracle, his pain subsides. All the while, Bessy is also in tears. When our eyes meet, she looks at me strangely. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I worry about my brother, who needs medical attention. My Mom drives straight to the nearest hospital using the wrong lane of the road because of Lagos traffic after we were rejected assistance from the Fagba police station. In the hospital, Bas's blood-soaked shirt is the least of our concerns. One of the doctors on duty this night, treats his wound as an emergency. While Bas receives treatment, we wait in the waiting room where on the opposite part, our mom took care of the bills. Later in the night after we return home, my sister comes to where I sit and asks, “How come you were calm after the whole incident?” Without knowing what to say, I just smiled at her. Three weeks later, when I get up from my bed, I find myself in another realm. There are cars lined up on the left and right lanes of an infinite road, and I am standing in the center. From the corner of my eyes, a man in a security uniform runs towards me. Then the road changes from a tarred to muddy road. I try to run away before the man reaches where I stand but my legs are immovable. I hear the man shout out to me, “How did you end up here? Are you lost, kid? Are you lost?” The cars begin to circle around me - forward, backward, and over me. One of the vehicles is about to crush my head and boom! My eyes open to the features of a yellow-painted room with books everywhere on a bed. This place is green. There is a garden, streams of water, birds chirping among other animals, trees of sweet fruits on every corner, and a swing made from thick green branches with colorful flowering plants. At the center of the garden, I join my friends seated on the ground where we laugh and chat about our silly fun memories. However, there is a tugging and disturbing feeling that warns me to leave the garden immediately. “Let’s leave this place and go back home,” I say to them. They all follow me even though they complained about me being a party pooper. We reach the gate and pass through it. Every one of us. As we are about to get to the road leading to our homes, more gates appear to obstruct us from leaving. The further we go, the smaller the gate becomes. A young yet wrinkly woman shows up in front of us out of nowhere when we reach the second to the last gate. The woman who has the spots of a cheetah on her neck wears a petite black leather dress and black stilettos with red neon nails reaching the crown of her head, and a long golden staff in her hands. She orders in a sly hissing tone, “Stop and sit on the fence, each and every one of you.” I dwell for about a minute on how her body moves in an awkward wine that slouches her back and limps her leg. I notice that she has a nasty plump cherry mouth that shoots out spit like an automatic gun. My friends stop moving as if they have been hypnotized and they begin to climb the fence. One after the other, they climb like soldiers of war, slaves to the world around them. I do not follow, or at least I do not feel compelled like my friends to obey this strange woman. So, I scream at the top of my voice: “Don’t listen to this woman, she is just going to keep you here,” but no one listens to me. Headstrong, I fight my way out of this place without the woman noticing; at least I do not think she sees me. I am about to pass through the last gate, but she appears in front of me and shoots black-colored dust at me from the staff in her hands. I escape it and run as far away from her as possible in the opposite direction of the gate. She laughs straight from her lungs like a possessed monkey. I wonder why until I realize I am cornered. She shoots colored dust at me again for the second time. My mouth begins to chant strange words retounen tounen nan moun k la paske mwen simonte pa pouvwa a manifeste nan mwen as all I can think about is finding my way back home. This chant sends the red-colored dust back to her and it transforms her into a chameleon. Everything else changes to black and white, including my friends. Eventually, they all turn to ash. With nowhere to go and the speed increase in the color change, I fear I am at my last until the cemented walls shatter. I enter into the open space without a second thought. I am within and without inside a gigantic titanium bubble, while beneath my feet is a glass blocked floor that stops midway in the air. Below me is a dark abyss. When I look ahead, I see an exact replica of myself snoring in her sleep on my bed in what seems to be another dimension. This sight spooks the sanity out of me as I think to myself, how can I be in this space and there at the same time. And for the first time, I question my existence. This very moment, my stuffed teddy bear with his deep chocolate eyes now in a crimson shade with only his head turned to face me whispers to me in a small voice, “Your soul belongs to me now” and he pushes me out of the bubble into the abyss, but my hands are quick to hold onto a moving branch of a Cherry Blossom Bonsai Silk tree. From where I hang on the tree branch, I can hear the palpitating rhythm of my heartbeat. My teddy peeps from the edge of the glass platform at me with his tongue stuck out. Right then, one by one, my fingers begin to lose their grip on the tree branch so, I switch my hands but they both slip away and toss me into the abyss below. As I fall to my nonexistence, I catch a glimpse of my teddy bear waving at me before my eyes close out in fear. Luckily, my body drops on what feels like tiny hands. These hands hold me and help me float back upward. When I open my eyes, there is a glowing rainbow light that serves as a protective shield around me. I can also hear the clashing of tiny voices coming from different directions. However, it is when I look up that I see a winged creature with thick legs, a tiny waist and wide hips in an amethyst gown and a yellow halo above her head flying in front as if she is leading a pack of others like herself. At the bottom of where her presence graces, there are tiny shimmery golden powder that accompanies her. I realize the hands carrying me belong to creatures of my dreams. The ones who keep at bay my own murderer that hides inside my shadow. Bibiana Ossai is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Long Island University, Brooklyn where she was awarded the Marilyn Boutwell Creative Writing Award for Fiction. She is the winner of the Equinox Journal 2019 poetry contest. Her works appear in The River, The Book Smuggler's Den, Refractions (iō literary online journal), Sad Girls Literary Blog, and The Republic Journal. She is a writing tutor at LIU Brooklyn and volunteers her time as a prose reader for Athena Review.

  • Ragwort

    Meggy’s babe died in her womb on a cool spring night. The mandrake appeared not two days later, in the misty early morning as Meggy went out to take a breath of air. She had not been looking at the ground as she walked and so almost tripped over the root, bundled as it was in green-brown fabric which blended into the earth. When she saw it, she stooped and picked it up, shaking off its covering and turning it over curiously in her hands. “Husband,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the neighbours. “Look.” Saulf, leaning against the open doorway, finished tying the straps on his leather shoes and straightened his back silently. “Husband, someone left this for us.” He grunted, sparing a glance at neither Meggy nor the mandrake. “What do you think it means?” Saulf kept his face turned from her and spoke stiffly. “There’s word that the the mesne lord will gift an extra halfpenny-per-day to the man who reaps the most by the end of the barley season. We’ll need it, to make up for what you’re losing us with each day you stay home.” Since the start of their marriage, Meggy had felt vulnerable around Saulf. But after the death of her babe, nearly full term and born like a bluish stone, not even one of Saulf’s comments could make her feel much more than a passing sting. “I’ll be fit and fine next morning,” she said meekly. “I’ll not be idle today, either. There’s spinning for me to finish. And I’ll ask my mother about the mandrake.” “Forget the mandrake. You’d sooner spin the day away in aimless stories, fairie woman, than do your share of work.” Fairie woman, he had called her from the start. Not meant as a compliment, but out of all of Saulf’s insults this one had always stung the least. At night Meggy sometimes dreamt of being a fairie and flying away on a stem of ragwort, alongside her no-longer-bluish babe. “Your mother––bah!” Saulf muttered. “It should have been her who died. What good can all her herbs and cunning do, if she could not save my son?” Meggy waited until Saulf was far enough away before wrapping the mandrake in a corner of her skirt and walking the short distance to the even smaller wildflower-lined cottage which the mesne lord had allotted to her white-haired mother. She found Albreda sitting on her packed-dirt cot, cleaning her herb-knife. In the shifting dim of indoors, the cunningwoman’s pale eyes with their luminous black pupils stood out like chips of melting ice. “Meggy,” Albreda said, tilting her chin up. “Come inside and shut the door.” Meggy watched as Albreda stood and lifted a thin cloth on her table, inspected a set of dried red-and-white and began to methodically dice them. “Eda is in the family way and yet unmarried,” Albreda said conversationally, setting down her knife and bundling the pieces back together into their cloth. “She’s just begun to show, and nobody’s too pleased with how it’s proceeding. I believe I raised you well when I see the girls who come to me, all for the same thing.” A fleeting ache like a yewberry popped in Meggy’s stomach, but she said nothing about how she had seen Eda only a few days past, and her friend had looked happy enough at the slight swelling in her belly even if her parents had not. Nor did she give voice to the resentment buried deep in her chest at the careless way in which Albreda spoke of snuffing out a pregnancy in the same way she might smother the weak flame of a rushlight. “How are you faring, these past few days?” Albreda’s tone was quiet and cool, and held the expectation that Meggy too would be cool and tearless in return. Meggy untied the mandrake from her skirt and held it up. “I’m all right. I came to ask about this. I found it by our door.” Albreda raised an eyebrow. “How did it get there?” “Well, someone must have put it there. Mandrakes can’t crawl out of the ground on their own.” A strange smile played on Albreda’s lips. “You wouldn’t think so. Perhaps it was meant as a blessing for fertility. Was anything else left with the mandrake?” “No…” Meggy remembered. “Yes! It was swaddled in green cloth, as a babe might be.” The black in Albreda’s eyes swelled and glittered. “Let me see that,” she said, holding her palms out. Almost reluctantly, Meggy handed the mandrake to her mother. “Do you remember what I taught you about mandrakes?” Albreda asked. Meggy bit her lip. “Paste of mandrake puts you to sleep? That’s all.” “Mandrake has developed many a way to send you to the grave,” Albreda said grimly. “Too much paste is poison, and its scream can fell those who come too close as easily as a man cuts down grain. Meggy, my girl, sit beside me. There’s something I neglected to tell you.” She sat and Albreda handed her the mandrake. Meggy clutched it almost maternally while Albreda put a thin twisted hand on her shoulder. “Ken this,” she said softly. “You are not my daughter.” Meggy sat numb, processing this latest in a stream of petty cruelties. “I birthed a babe of my own once. He came out dead, just as your son did.” For a moment Meggy thought she saw a flash of something cross Albreda’s face, a brief glint of the sort of emotion she had always discouraged Meggy herself from showing. “Not two nights after we buried him, we found you laid at the foot of the door. There was ragwort placed in your hand, and you cried bitter until we took down the iron horseshoe from the top of the door.” Meggy found her voice. “You call me an auf?” she said hoarsely. An impossibility. Meggy, for all her little oddities, had never felt anything of the weird in herself. Even Albreda, with her cunning-magic, her talent for creating potions and cures out of herbs, would make a more believable auf than Meggy. “Not quite,” said Albreda. “Not the sort which the Hidden Folk charm from rocks or sticks of kindling, anyhow. You are flesh enough––you have your father’s hands and jaw, and I’m sure there’s something of your mother in your face too, though I’ve never met her myself.” “My mother?” “He told me the story, when I asked. A week before we were to be married, as he was crossing the fields back to his own home one night, he heard the ring of laughter on a knowe nearby.” Albreda’s eyes grew distant, flickered with the light of a hilltop fire. “Foolish that he was, so sure of his own invincibility, he did not heed the old stories. Instead he climbed the knowe’s gentle slope and joined the merry party. When a lady caught him by the hand and bade him lie with her he did not object. He didn’t think much of it when she was gone the next morning, and he found himself alone, on flat ground, with grass-stains on his good shirt. But I’ve found that men seldom spend much time on thought.” “I’m not yours,” Meggy said quietly, processing this. Albreda did not voice any denial. “This mandrake must be from your own mother’s folk,” she said instead. “A gift of sorts?” “The Hidden Folk give no gifts.” Albreda’s voice was sharp. “I know their ways, as any cunning-woman would. They have no concept of generosity, or pity, or sympathy. If you must ask my advice, bury it in the churchyard, where it can do naught to harm anyone.” Meggy stumbled out her mother’s door and back through her own in a haze, the mandrake held tight in her arms. On the way she bent and picked up the cloth she had found the mandrake in, still lying on the dirt at the foot of her doorway. A dried stem of ragwort fell from it. The Hidden Folk give no gifts? Well, perhaps not to humans. Meggy thought about Albreda’s story and tried to picture the fairie mother who had rolled with her father on the grassy knoll. A willowy woman, for surely weren’t the Hidden Folk always thin and tall? Pale-haired, most likely. Meggy’s father had been a redhead himself, and so too had Albreda as a younger woman. Meggy’s locks, though, had always been blinding yellow, barely darker than Albreda’s now snow-white hair. Dark eyes––the fairie mother would have dark eyes, of course, for Meggy’s father’s eyes had been light like Albreda’s. She tried to envision the rest of the fairie mother’s features but could only come up with blurred approximations, black eyes blinking from a smooth white oval of a face. It was, by contrast, so easy to picture the mother of her youth. Albreda, heavy-faced and lined with ropy muscle even at her age. Albreda, sculpted from ice and smoke and pungent herbs. Albreda, who taught her that every woman is tied together by the pain she carries inside her, threads made of the things she must never speak aloud. Albreda, who slapped her out of childhood crying fits, then held her tight and close to her chest. Her bare foot brushed against the ragwort stem. She laid her palm on the mandrake’s stiff wooden bulb of a head, and she chose what to believe. Meggy milked the cow with the mandrake tied to her back. She spun piles of wool with the mandrake on her lap, sometimes reaching down to brush a caring hand across it. The thought occurred to her that she would not mind if Saulf came home with a babe from a dalliance with a fairie woman––not that she could picture him ever making such an outlandish confession. As evening broke she swaddled the mandrake in its cloth and rocked it in her arms, humming a wordless lullaby. Why, she could not say––only that some buried natural instinct had guided her to hold it as she might a child. When the sky had faded to black, she gently lowered her swaddled mandrake into the cradle, hoping that Saulf would not notice it and decide to throw it in the cooking fire. Saulf came home hungry, ate Meggy’s portion of stew and drank half the milk she had collected that day. Not once did he look at the cradle, and for that matter he barely looked at Meggy. “I have somewhere to be,” he said, once finished. “Your rest is over, fairie woman. You’ll be back in the field tomorrow morning.” Meggy thumbed her frail ragwort stem and almost laughed at the sweet irony of Saulf’s intended insult, but stayed herself in time. “When will you be back?” she asked instead. “Doesn’t concern you,” Saulf said brusquely, which Meggy took to mean he would be out all night drinking. She let out a tiny breath as he banged out again. He would not be at home, which meant that the mandrake would stay safe. Meggy went to the corner of the room, opposite the cradle, and dipped a measure of ale from the barrel into her cup. She had just brewed it fresh, so the barrel was nearly full. She sat on the cot, kicked off her goatskin slippers, pulled her shawl around her, and took a pensive drink. Her reflection shimmered back at her from the sunset-gold liquid, and when she locked her gaze onto her own big black eyes––yes, she could believe Albreda’s story. She held onto her ragwort stem as she drank, closing her eyes and letting herself fall into an airy dreamlike state, awake yet suspended in a hazy other world. In that world she could hold her babe close, and it was neither stone nor root, but a real and whole son of her own flesh. The thought crept in that Albreda too must have yearned for her own dead son, even as she swaddled Meggy and rocked her and fed her. Meggy’s eyes flew open just as Saulf entered, the door crashing shut behind him. “Christ’s fingernails!” hissed Saulf, looking into the cradle. “What is this?” She sprang to her feet. “You’re back early.” “Not early enough, evidently.” Saulf plucked her off the bed and held her off the ground. “What in hell did you do while I was gone?” Pain spread across her shoulders as she whimpered, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I only thought…” Saulf shook Meggy. “Has the devil gotten into you? Do you think yourself a fairie, to carry away someone else’s child?” Meggy’s mind went white and still. “A child?” A soft babble, fragile as a twig of sallow, rose in the room. Saulf dragged Meggy to the cradle and placed his broad hand on the back of her neck, forcing her to look downward. “What do you call this?” The mandrake had vanished. Inside the green swaddling cloth lay a newborn, button features screwed up in confusion. The fine tufts of hair on his head were whitish blonde like Meggy’s, and when his eyes opened they were the same startling cornflower blue as Saulf’s. “The fairie mandrake!” Meggy exclaimed. “The what?” “I found a mandrake at our door, swaddled like a babe,” Meggy said. “Albreda told me the Hidden Folk might have put it there, and so I… I kept it, as a gift. Husband, look, he has your eyes!” Saulf set her down, slowly. “A mandrake cannot become a child. You’re as mad as your mother.” Meggy backed into a corner, holding her arms around herself. “Husband, my mother told me something else.” Her hand curled into a tight fist, the ragwort stem prickling her fingers. “She said I…” “No,” Saulf said, striding toward her. “No, I don’t want to hear anything more of what she said. What do you think will happen when this babe’s parents come around looking for it? Did she say anything about that, Meggy?” “Look at him,” Meggy said firmly. “He is the babe we lost, sprung from the mandrake. Look at him, Husband! See the selfsame birthmark on his cheek?” A surge of hot bravery coursed through her and she darted past him, lifting the now-quiet babe out of the cradle. Her husband stared at it. “How?” “The mandrake,” Meggy repeated. “A root cannot become a child!” Saulf sounded desperate. But if that root were left with the daughter of a fairie-woman? Any last bits of disbelief sloughed away. She truly was a changeling, just like the mandrake child. Just as Albreda raised her as a daughter, she would raise this babe with care. She would be warmer than Albreda, too, kinder and more loving. Time stretched as Meggy stared Saulf down, silent and defiant. “That’s truly an auf?” Saulf said faintly. He had never believed in fairie stories. His eyes darted to the bare top of the doorframe, where so many others, people whom he had derided as superstitious halfwits, had nailed a horseshoe for protection from the Hidden Folk––Meggy’s folk. “You let an auf into our home, with your witch mother’s blessing?” Saulf’s voice grew loud. He wheeled frenetically, clumsily around once, twice, before knocking the top off the ale-barrel. “Give it to me,” he said, holding out his arms for the babe. “What are you doing?” Meggy demanded. “We can’t keep it, woman! It’s a devilish thing. You can brew more of your second-rate ale tomorrow.” A devilish thing, her mind echoed. In her arms, the babe hiccoughed gently. “But my mother kept me,” she said steadily. He froze. “What?” “My mother didn’t drown me in the ale-barrel when she found me laid outside.” A sudden boldness coursed through her as she clasped her no-longer-bluish babe to her chest. “Not even when she had to take down the horseshoe from her own doorway.” Saulf gaped. “You always called me fairie woman,” she taunted, feeling a thrill of delight at the vulnerability spilling from him. He reeked of shock like rotted fruit, a new thing for her to see in him. A choking sound emerged from his throat as his hands sprang forward, almost as if they were guided by an unseen spirit, and he began to stalk toward her. Meggy made an animal dash for the door, but Saulf caught up fast. His hands scrabbled for her neck and closed around it. She writhed as her vision blurred into liquid dark, fighting to keep her arms from slackening their hold on her son. “Changeling bitch,” Saulf growled. “You’re the reason I’ve been under a curse.” He pinned her against the wall with almost, not quite, enough force to break the cradle of her arms. “You are the reason I reap slower each year. You killed my son, and put this monster in his place. Devil take you both!” A raw keening shriek filled her ears: her own death cry, Meggy realised dimly. The sound might bring her mother running, but by then she herself would be gone. Knowing how much Saulf hated Albreda even at the best of times, she hoped her mother wouldn’t investigate. Yet Saulf dropped before she did, the pressure vanishing from her throat as he tipped heavily onto his back. He lay still, blood trickling from his open lips, as Meggy fell to her knees and sucked in ragged breaths as a babe would suck its mother’s milk. The babe! She loosened the crush of her grip and felt her son’s wrist. His eyes were shut, but his heart beat even and strong. She kissed his soft cheek hungrily before glancing nervously at Saulf, prone on the packed-earth floor. He did not look unconscious. There was a greyish waxiness to his skin and his eyes were open. Meggy’s thoughts screamed, I need Albreda, and she flung the door open and ran barefoot outside, hurling herself over her mother’s threshold just as a crowd of people, drawn by the din and illuminated by the pale flicker of rushlights, emerged from their own doorways blinking groggily in the night air. Albreda had evidently just taken herself to bed, for a single rushlight was still burning softly in its holder on the floor, but as soon as the door slammed behind Meggy she sat bolt upright. “Mother,” Meggy gasped. Albreda’s dark silhouette slumped for a moment before moving clumsily to her feet. “Meggy? I dreamt that Saulf…” “He’s dead,” Meggy cut her off. “He––he tried to kill my son, and nearly killed me, but there was such a scream, and I thought it was me until he… it must have been a demon dragging him away.” Lowering her voice further, she added, “The neighbours are on their way down to the cottage. They’ll find him and then––they’ll think I killed him! Mother, what can I do?” “Your son?” The half-burnt rushlight cast a weird glow over Albreda’s drawn features as she held it up, moving closer to Meggy. When she saw the babe, miraculously still asleep in Meggy’s arms, she drew back as if burnt. “Where did he come from?” “The fairie mandrake turned to a babe,” Meggy said. “Why didn’t you didn’t bury it, as I told you to?” Albreda snapped. Meggy ignored her question. “Hide us, Mother. I cannot lose my son again.” “Ken this, girl,” Albreda said urgently, never once taking her eyes from the babe, “that’s not your son. That’s a devil taken his form. He must be what killed your husband!” “He’s not a devil! He is a gift, from my mother’s people!” “It cannot be.” Albreda looked as if she might faint as the rushlight fizzled out in her hands. “A root cannot take the form of a child!” “This one did,” Meggy insisted. “I can feel it in my bones––it’s not a devil I’m holding, but my own lost son come back to me. Mother, please, hide us before they find Saulf!” “No,” Albreda said, and Meggy’s breath fell away at her mother’s cold disregard before she realised that Albreda was not addressing her, but had instead fixed her eyes on the baby. “You will be gone!” She fumbled around and struck another rushlight ablaze. “I buried you myself. I put you in the ground and I made sure you would not rise.” Meggy’s stomach churned at the strangeness of Albreda’s wording. “Mother?” she asked, shifting the babe into one arm and reaching toward Albreda with the other, meaning to stroke her hair gently. Albreda jerked herself away as if Meggy’s touch might singe her. “God help me, take that babe away!” “I thought you’d be happy to see us,” Meggy said, confused, grieving. “Your only grandchild––You were heartbroken when he was born dead.” Belatedly, she realised that Albreda had given no indication of heartbreak. Her face had been calm and set that night, as she had held Meggy’s sweaty head in her lap and rocked her. She had not cried when they put the babe into the ground. Had Meggy found that peculiar at the time, her mother’s unwillingness to shed a tear for her grandson? She looked away, confused, and her eye fell on the cloth bundle still sitting on Albreda’s table, the mushrooms her mother had prepared for her friend Eda in the morning. Eda’s belly just beginning to swell, Eda’s glowing smile… Had Eda requested the mushrooms herself? Did she know about them at all, or had Eda’s sour-faced mother knocked on Albreda’s door and asked for something which only Albreda could provide, a way to save the honour of her unmarried daughter? A memory hit her, from not four nights before. Albreda had brought her dinner, and pushed away Saulf’s hand when he reached for it first. Special for the mother-to-be, she had called it. She had made mushroom stew. Sweat pooled under Meggy’s arms as she thought about the stew, made so rich with root vegetables from Albreda’s garden and meat from Albreda’s freshly slaughtered chicken that she had not thought about it when she bit into a piece of something orange and dry. Something clicked in her understanding, and all at once she saw the woman whom she called Mother in a new and terrible light. As if she had read Meggy’s realisation reflected back at her, Albreda heaved a shaky breath. “It was the doing of a foolish and grief-mad woman,” she said. “I raised you as a daughter, and I gave you care, but I could not stop thinking about my own son who lies in the churchyard even now. Your father never understood that kind of pain. Men seldom do––and besides, you were his true babe.” “You wanted someone else to know what it felt like,” Meggy said, and when she thought of her dead son laid in the churchyard she held the living one even tighter in her arms. A silent minute passed. “I always thought,” Albreda said slowly, “that your mother, the fairie-woman, must have cursed my womb.” “And so you cursed mine!” Meggy snatched up the bundle from Albreda’s table and threw it hard onto the ground, letting the mushroom pieces scatter. “I never intended to harm you,” Albreda half-moaned. “I knew it would leave you alive, I did not want to kill you. I am fond of you, Meggy, you must understand… We both have lost our sons, but we will always have each other…” “I have a son,” Meggy said, holding up her now-awake babe and noting with some surprise that his eyes were no longer blue like Saulf’s, but had become as soot-black as hers. “He is no devil. He is mine, a gift from my mother’s people. Perhaps they do not give you gifts, but I am one of them. You said so yourself. Perhaps,” she added thoughtfully, “perhaps I loved the mandrake-child so much it became real. I am the daughter of a fairie-woman, am I not? Perhaps I can do things even a cunningwoman cannot fathom.” “Listen to me!” Albreda looked pale and ill. “Your mother was a fairie-woman, but your father was a man. You were born flesh-and-blood, not a devil-possessed root. I know this creature must be sent as punishment for what I have done. But for your sake, Meggy, don’t keep the cursed thing!” A great shout rose nearby. “They’ll have found Saulf’s body,” she continued. “God forgive me, girl, you can stay here, I’ll say you were with me all night, but you must throw that babe out the door. It’s not natural. It’s the work of devils––let it crawl back into the hellfire it came from!” As if he understood Albreda’s words, the babe opened his mouth and began to cry quietly. “No,” Meggy said simply. “I cared for you all your life,” Albreda pleaded. “I fed you my milk and silenced you when you cried. I tied poultices for your wounds. I only made one mistake. It’s not too late…” And what a mistake it was, Meggy thought, but stayed silent. The baby’s sobbing grew more and more intense, soaring higher and louder and sharper. Meggy thought about the sound she had heard right before Saulf fell, and had a moment of sudden sharp clarity. Albreda saw the resolve in Meggy’s face and shut her eyes, icy calm washing over her. The mandrake child burst into a crackling lightning shriek which made the hairs on Meggy’s arms stand straight up. When the sound died so had Albreda, the blood dotting her chin the only indication that she had not merely fallen asleep. The babe lay still and quiet again while Meggy knelt and wept briefly for the cunningwoman and all that she had done. Then she wiped her eyes on a corner of her shawl. “They’ll be drawn by your cry,” she said to the babe in her arms. “What shall we do? We have nowhere to go. If my mother’s people could help me, as they did when they gave you to me…” There was a pounding on the door. “Was that you screaming, Albreda?” a man’s voice called. “Saulf lies poisoned in ways only kenned by a cunningwoman like you, and his wife is gone missing!” another said. “You best come out now, or we’ll come in.” The pounding resumed, more vigorously this time. Meggy leapt to her feet and looked around for a crack, a looseness in the wall. If she could slip away… A tugging distracted her and she cast her eyes down to meet her babe’s dark unblinking ones. One of his tiny hands lay open; there was a stem of ragwort inside. She stared for a moment, and thought about her old daydreams of riding into the air with her babe by her side. Go on, the babe seemed to say, go on and take it. The door broke down. “Hoy!” one of the men shouted, seeing Albreda’s corpse, but Meggy was already closing her hand around her babe’s, the ragwort held fast in their linked fingers. And there was a lightness in her chest, like flight. Aditi is an autistic software dev, author, aspiring chaos spirit, and avid consumer of both literature and baklava. As a teenager they devoured every Neil Gaiman book they could lay their hands on; thus began their deep love of irreverent creepy fantasy, which has never since died out. You can follow them on Twitter at @AditiRamaswamy. J.E. Crum is a fantastical artist who creates vividly abstracted variations of self-portraits inspired by mythologies, including her own. Working intuitively, Crum creates personal narratives related to thoughts about fate, destiny and the meaning of dreams. J.E. also has an exciting career as an elementary and middle school art teacher of nearly one thousand students a week in central Pennsylvania. Crum believes in the power art possesses to bring happiness to others. Check out www.zhibit.org/jecrum to see more of her colorful works of art.

  • The Muirgen Pearls

    The first time it happened, I panicked. My back had only been turned for the briefest moment. I set Mara into the high chair, clicked the tray into place, and turned to fill her sippy cup with water from the tap—then, when I looked away for only that infinitesimal second, I heard her gagging. I spun around. Her eyes were wide and rimmed with red, her mouth open in a terrible puckered O. My stomach lurched, pure sick dread, all alarms blazing. I dashed to the high chair. I fumbled with the latch on the tray, but it stuck, and as I yanked her out, the empty tray clattered to the floor. Quickly, I flipped her over and thumped her on the back, one two three. My heart was hammering wildly. Something dislodged from her throat and tinked across the linoleum. As she sobbed and coughed, I rubbed her back, the nubby texture of her ribbed cotton pajamas under the palm of my hand, and I murmured, "It's okay, shh, it's okay now, you're okay." Her cheek was hot against mine, her brown curls spackled to her forehead with sweat, like seaweed plastered to a rock. I was flooded with relief, but red acid panic was still coursing through my veins, the wide-eyed terror of a near miss. She calmed down more quickly than I did. Her cries faded to hiccups and then to happy burbles in my ear as we waltzed around the kitchen. I played along and softly murmured happy little sounds, letting her pull my hair and giggle while I tried to calm my own racing pulse. "What was that?" I said, in my most sing-song and light-hearted voice, eyebrows raised, pantomiming like a cheerful birthday clown. "What on earth did you put in your mouth, Miss Mara?" I tickled her in the belly and she giggled. Cradling her on my hip, I bent down to pick up the empty high chair tray, and then I looked for the foreign object. I kept her pressed against my body because I didn't want her tiny fingers to find it before I did—whatever it was—and pop it right back into her mouth, but she struggled and writhed against me, wanting me to let her crawl. I hadn't seen the foreign object, but I had clearly heard the sound it made, a tink-tink-tink as it hit the floor and bounced across the linoleum. It sounded like it was the size of a ball bearing, a small marble, a BB perhaps, none of which were items we kept in the house—certainly none of which had been in reach of my baby while she sat in her high chair. I pushed the high chair into the dead center of the kitchen floor, a moat of linoleum and air on all sides, and I clipped her back in. On my hands and knees, I peered into the dusty crevices under the cabinets, cast the searching beam of a pocket flashlight under the refrigerator. Dappled, murky light filtered through the swaying branches outside and poured in through the single kitchen window. Finally, near the grate that covered the heating duct in the corner, I came across a small white sphere about the size of a blueberry. A pale pebble, a bead? It gleamed under the cone of light and I picked it up, relieved. I turned it in my pinched fingers. It was a pearl, a rippled freshwater gem that shimmered like champagne and almost glowed with a strange luminescence. There was no drilled hole: it was not a bead. I turned to Mara in the high chair, who was noisily slurping water from her sippy cup. Her blue eyes sparkled like chips of sea glass. "Where on earth did you find this, baby girl?" I asked her. "Ba ba ba," she said, smacking her cup against the plastic tray. The pearl's luster was smooth under the pads of my fingertips. Its iridescence was mesmerizing, hypnotic. At first glance, the pearl was a single shade, a pale gold, but as I rolled it in my fingers and peered into the reflections of the distorted kitchen window—the curved lines of the ceiling, my own face like a dirty fingerprint smudge—the pearl’s sheen shifted, rearranging itself into soap bubble rainbows, swirling Hubble galaxies in incandescent shades of champagne. Surely it was a trick of the light. I glanced around the kitchen as if I expected to find an easy explanation. Idly, I flicked the kitchen lights off and then on again, but the pearl kept its strange, shifting luster. “Huh,” I murmured to myself. On the windowsill above the kitchen sink, there was a little ceramic bowl where I kept my wedding rings when I slipped them off to wash the dishes, and I dropped the pearl into the bowl with a plink. When Silas came home from work, it was dark. I had been alone all day, and I was desperate for human interaction. "Hey," I said. "How was the store? Did you have a good day?" "Jesus Christ, Joy, I just stepped in the door. Get me a beer and let me sit down before you start interrogating me, okay. Just chill with all the questions." He stripped off his polo shirt and tossed it towards the laundry room, where it flopped against the wall and landed in a heap. He had them in an array of colors, each with a Central Coast Aquarium Supply patch above the breast, a different shade for each day of the week. "It was slow, again. Okay?” he sighed. “Two bags of gravel and a betta starter kit for a twelve year old's birthday, that's it. Work sucks. Just stop reminding me. How's baby girl?" He had this habit of referring to our daughter as baby girl, never by the name we had given her, which irked me slightly, but always seemed too minor to argue about. "She's doing fine," I said. "Oh, actually, now that you ask, that reminds me. The weirdest thing happened. I caught her with something in her mouth. I have no idea where she got it from. She was sitting in the high chair when I saw her choking." "What? She was choking? You let her choke?" It flooded back to me with fresh panic, the sound of her gagging, the tears welling in her reddened, watery eyes. "Well, no, not really, I guess choking is kind of an exaggeration. It was more like coughing. She didn't turn purple or anything like that. I patted her on the back and it popped right out. She was fine." He reached for the baby, and I handed her over. He brushed the curls from her forehead, ran a fingertip along her cheek. "What was she choking on?" "It was a pearl. Like I said, the weirdest thing." "A pearl? Where are you going, wearing pearls? You're supposed to be at home." "No, it's not from a necklace. Besides, Silas, I don't even own a pearl necklace. Here, look—" I plucked the pearl from the wedding ring dish on the windowsill and showed it to him. "No hole. It's not a bead. Just a pearl." Silas was one of seven children, a fact that had appalled me, in all honesty, when I had first heard it. He recited their names with a practiced lilt over dinner, Silas-Samuel-Sorcha-Seamus-Solomon-Sean-Serena, as if was hearing the ghost of a childhood melody as he spoke. "Your poor mother," I half-joked. "I know." He nodded compassionately. "Five boys and only two girls though, sadly." "Well, I'm sure your parents were just glad to have healthy babies, right? Regardless of the gender." "Sure, sure, of course," he said, agreeing with me too quickly. His shoulders sagged just slightly. "It's just that… well, only two girls. That's kind of sad, isn't it." At the time, we had just started dating, and I had not yet met any of his family. I told myself that this must be an awkward attempt to impress me, by trying to prove his high regard for my gender. Or, I told myself, he likely meant something like, little boys can be rowdy and five of them would be overwhelming. Something about the conversationhad bothered me just slightly, like a burr stuck in my clothing and prickling against my skin. I caught a whiff of unspoken tension, something potentially odd about the family dynamic, but Silas was handsome and the wine we were drinking was flooding my heart with warmth and I was in love. At our table in the restaurant, I smiled, and let the kindness of his eyes wash away at my discomfort until there was nothing left. When our relationship grew more serious, I was summoned to meet his family. I met his mother first: the matriarch of the vast herd of children, Cleome Muirgen. I knew they were a wealthy family, although the source of their wealth was somewhat mysterious to me. The chain of aquarium supply shops they owned must be more successful than I could imagine. Old money, maybe. I had built up her legend in my mind, and I had to fortify myself with Seagram’s to meet her. Only a certain kind of woman would raise seven children, and Silas spoke of her with a reverence that made me assume she would be overbearing, intimidating. But when I met her, she was an odd bird, petite and frail, thunderhead circles under her eyes, her scraggly hair slicked back wet with gel. Even indoors, she wore a massive pair of square-framed sunglasses, or maybe it was the sort of glass that was supposed to transition, the lenses a strange lagoon-blue. She was hunched in a wool trench coat and wrapped in a scarf, but this was Central California in June, and I suddenly felt uncomfortably exposed in my tank top and sandals. Should I have worn something different? "Ma," said Silas, nudging me forward. "This is my girlfriend, Joy." "It's pleasant to meet you," Cleome said solemnly, with an accent I couldn't place. Her voice was reedy and quiet, and neither her tone nor her mannerisms implied that meeting me was, in fact, pleasant. The three of us sat in a restaurant at the pier, where a string of buoys bobbed in the distance, strung together by the thin line of the horizon. Seagulls cackled and swooped, coasting through the sky, menacing each other for scraps. I fidgeted with the crisp edge of the white tablecloth. Mrs. Muirgen ordered nothing but oysters and slurped them down hastily, her eyes downcast. When the oysters were gone, she nibbled away at the sprigs of parsley and sucked all traces of pulp from the lemon wedges. When the parsley was gone, she began to chomp on the bed of ice cubes under the pile of bare-bellied shells. She spooned the melted ice water into her mouth with a teaspoon. She tipped the rim of the shallow bowl to her lips and sipped the ice melt down. I tried not to gape. "Now," she said, licking her fingers. "Do you do a job?" "Of course she has a job," Silas said gently. His manner with her was protective and tender, and for a moment, I wondered if perhaps her odd manner was due to early dementia. "She's an adult woman, Ma." "Of course," Cleome said. "And which job do you do?" "I'm a dental assistant." I smiled politely. “I just finished school.” She nodded and looked out the window, where sailboats floated on the rippling sea, and brown pelicans with beady sulfur-yellow eyes spread their wings, wet feathers as slick and ruffled as mushroom gills, choking down lumps of fish. Even inside the restaurant, the air was briny and cold, thick with the smell of the sea. “When you have babies,” she said to me, handing the check back to the waiter, “You will stay in the home. Family is a woman’s true wealth.” I faltered, my mouth hanging open slightly. Silas and I were still only dating, we had not yet discussed either marriage or children, and regardless, I had never intended to be a stay-at-home mother. But, strangely, she turned out to be correct. In a whirlwind, Silas and I would marry seven months later, I would find myself pregnant shortly thereafter, and when I was ready to rejoin the workforce after my maternity leave, I would be told that my position was no longer available. The second time it happened, I was playing with Mara on our turquoise blanket, spread out in ripples on the living room floor. On the blanket was a wooden play gym, a plush whale, and a stack of soft-paged infant books. Mara looked straight at me and coughed, twice, nonplussed, like a cat coughing up a hairball. Then she was turning something over in her mouth, jaw moving idly, eyes shining with mischief. "Mara!" I said, scooping her up. "What do you have?" I swiped my finger through the wet cave of her mouth. No matter how careful I was about keeping the floors swept, she seemed to have the magical ability to search out some tiny treacherous thing that the broom's bristles had missed. In her nine months on this earth, I had already removed from her mouth the translucent milky half-moon of a band-aid wrapper; a sopping, mucky fingerful of dryer lint, like something washed ashore; and a single kernel of popcorn, still unburst and curled in its gleaming amber shell. I was constantly prepared to lurch towards her whenever I saw her little fingers stuff something into her mouth—but this was different. I had been watching her at that very second, and she hadn't grabbed a thing. We had been playing on the blanket, everything else well out of reach, our bodies an island in the center of the fabric. "Ba ba de de," she said. "What do you have in there, Mara?" I sang, trying to sweep her mouth clear, but now it was a game, and she giggled as she writhed away from me, arching her back and twisting away. Finally, I felt something firm hooked in the crook of my bent finger and I fished it out. When I saw what it was, there was an odd slip of recognition in my stomach, like a fish flopping in a net. Another pearl: of course it was. As soon as I saw it shimmering and wet in my cupped palm, it looked so familiar that I almost wondered why I had expected to see anything else. The reflection from the living room windows cast a square of white light over the pearl's rippled surface, the track lights of our apartment refracted like twinkling stars above. I flicked the lights on and off again, but the pearl was still dazzling under any lighting conditions, glowing faintly like a new moon in my fingers. The shimmer across its surface seemed to swirl as I looked closer, like glittering motes of dust caught in the eddy of a tidepool. Surely the movement I thought I saw was due to my own desperate sleeplessness. Of course the glow was just a trick of the light. I compared the first pearl with the second. Roughly same size, same rippled shape, same impossible, mesmerizing sheen. I put the two pearls together in the little dish by the kitchen windowsill, but almost instantly had second thoughts. I tipped the pearls into my palm instead. Upstairs, I dug through the bathroom cabinets until I found an unused contact lens case, and I deposited one pearl into each plastic eye socket. I screwed the lids on tightly and hid the contact case in my makeup bag, where nothing would possibly capture Silas’ interest long enough for him to look closely. Silas and I were still only dating when I met all the siblings at once, at a backyard potluck at one of the brothers’ houses, where odd black aeoniums grew on spindly succulent stalks by the walkway. I had trouble telling the five brothers apart. They were a dull and nondescript continent, a bland land mass of similarity. Straightforward and broad-faced, milling about, discussing the playoffs, the stock market, a new brand of razor that could accommodate seven blades. They clapped each other on broad shoulders and guffawed too loudly at boorish, unfunny jokes. One of the brothers handed me a business card for some consultancy firm: Sean Muirgen, it read, in a spidery creep of italics. When I looked up from the card, Sean’s face had already pulled away from memory, lost again among the vast herd of brothers. But the sisters, Sorcha and Serena, fascinated me. I could not stop watching them, although I wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what it was about them that drew me in. They glided through the kitchen, stirring a large pot of stew, whispering and peering at me over their shoulders. They both had waist-length hair, thick waves that tumbled down their backs like sea grasses in the current, flushed cheeks, skin as flawless as the inner curve of a shell. They weren’t rude, but they made no effort to include me in conversation, even though I tried to be gracious. Neither of them opened the wine I had brought as a gift: they didn’t even touch a fingertip to the bottle, and the amber glass beaded with dewdrops as it languished, abandoned, on the counter. In their bare feet, they padded around me cautiously, giving me a wide berth. They kept their sight fixed on me as they passed by. Each time I stepped into the room, a knowing look unspooled between them, their eyes as dark and gleaming as tidepools under the midnight sky. “I don’t remember if you’ve told me already. Where’s your family from?” I asked Silas in the car as we left. “We’re from here. California.” “No, I mean, your heritage? Muirgen—is that, what, an Irish name? Nordic?” I was thinking of Cleome’s unplaceable accent, the stew in the iron pot that the sisters swirled with rubbery scarves of kelp, stony fists of mussels, vegetables unknown to me. It had to be a family recipe. I thought if I had a little more information, I could find the recipe somewhere and make it for Cleome as a gesture of kindness. “We’re from here,” he said firmly, his eyes on the watery horizon as we drove. “We've been here for generations. Why, do you care? Does it matter where my family’s from?” “Of course not,” I said. “I just couldn't remember if you had mentioned.” He frowned, and I fell silent. Was it wrong for me to ask such a question? By that point, it seemed inevitable that we’d get married, and I was eager to understand his family, to try to figure out my place in it. His surname would be mine soon. Was my curiosity inappropriate? I slouched in the passenger seat as we coasted down the highway, the ocean dipping into view, then the emerald green hills rising again to swallow it. I felt like I had committed a grave misstep. I did not approach the subject again. Not a thing changed after our wedding—but as soon as we announced I was expecting a sweet baby girl, his family was overjoyed. Sorcha and Serena flooded me with warmth and attention. They stroked my hair, placed gentle hands on my belly, whispered indecipherable murmurs to baby Mara as she swam and flipped in my womb. The baby shower they hosted for me was a lavish affair: caviar on bruschetta, foie-gras steamed clams, lobster bisque, effervescent vials of champagne, pink bouquets on every table and an archway climbing with dazzling magenta shocks of ice plant blossoms, fluttering orange poppies, rubbery pastel aeoniums. “We’ll babysit, whenever you like,” Serena cooed, a clammy hand lingering on the swell of my belly. “Any time,” Sorcha said. “It’s no trouble at all. We would love to help you. Now that we’re all sisters.” Later, when one of the brother’s wives announced she was expecting a son, the sisters hosted a lackluster get-together in Cleome’s basement: paper napkins, plastic cups, a tray of flubbery sliced cheese from the grocery store. The morning after the second pearl, I waited until Silas left, and then I retrieved the stroller that I kept hidden in the garage, draped under a dusty moving blanket. “It’s just a weird family thing,” Silas had explained apologetically. “I don’t really get it, to be honest, but Ma thinks it’s bad for baby girl to be outside before she turns one. It’s a dumb family tradition, I don’t know. Just go along with it, okay, and stay inside? Please, just keep Ma happy?” My eyes had widened. A year? You expect me to stay inside with the baby for a full year? No walks around the neighborhood, no playing in the park? At Mara’s next appointment, the pediatrician, perplexed, had assured me that fresh sea air and sunshine were actually quite healthful, and that taking my baby for a walk would cause no harm. When I saw a sun-bleached stroller propped up against a neighbor’s garbage can, it had seemed like a sign. When Silas was at the shop, I had rolled it into the bushes and stashed it in the garage. What my husband and mother-in-law didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Now, I dressed Mara, clipped her into the stroller, and started down the sidewalk. I could almost feel the two lustrous pearls radiating in my purse, where they rolled around within the little round troughs of the contact case. Mara and I walked into town, straight to the address I had scribbled on a slip of paper: Oceanview Fine Jewelers, where the door handles were a shining, polished bronze. My own tired face stared back at me from the gleaming doorplate. Mara had spit up on her shirt and my unwashed hair was lumped back into a messy bun. I left the garbage stroller outside, collapsed behind a ceramic urn that held a topiary rosemary shrub near the entrance. It was safe to say that we were not this fine establishment’s usual demographic. Inside, there was, in fact, a view of the ocean, a full-length window that overlooked the winking and glittering sea. “Can I help you?” a man asked disdainfully. He was well over six feet, an absolutely hulking gentleman, with white flowing hair, a bulbous nose, a stiff pale mustache that drooped at the corners of his mouth like elephant seal whiskers. His doughy belly was cinched down by suspenders as he swiveled on a stool. “Yes, please,” I said, cradling Mara on my hip. “I have some pearls I’d like to have appraised.” I dug through my purse and withdrew the contact lens case while the dour elephant seal looked on, unimpressed. As I unscrewed the caps, he sighed, a long windy huff. Evidently, this was not how most of his clientele presented him with valuable jewels. He pulled a pair of tweezers from his shirt pocket and plucked up a pearl, holding it to the light. He frowned and sat up straighter. “Hmm,” he said, leaning forward. From the same shirt pocket, he pulled out a jeweler's loupe, which he pinched between the swell of a ruddy cheek and a rubbery eyebrow. With the tweezers, he brought the pearl before the monocle’s glassy eye. He let out another sigh, this one breathless, astonished. He gently set the first pearl back into the contact lens case and pinched up the other, turning it slowly in front of the light. Then, just as I had tried at home: he reached out and flicked his desk lamp off, then on again, a wash of darkness, a wash of cool light. His gaze lingered on the pearl’s glow, and he could barely pull himself away. “Incredible,” he said under his breath, the loupe still pressed into one eye. I bit my lip, trying to suppress a smile. Finally, he set the pearl back into the two-eyed case. “Where did you say you acquired these?” I paused and tried not to glance at Mara. “They’re family heirlooms,” I said. “I was just trying to get a sense of their value.” “I’m sorry, miss, uh, ma’am, what can I—er, sit down, please, have a seat. Can I offer you some coffee? Ice water?” “No, thank you. I’m just out for a walk with my baby, and I thought I’d swing by. If this isn’t a good time—” “No!” he said, too quickly. “Please, I would be delighted to help you. What did you say your name was?” “Stella,” I lied. “Ms.? Mrs….?” “Stella is fine.” “Well, Stella,” he sighed after a thoughtful moment, making a show of slouching back down upon his stool. “You have inherited some cute little pearls here. Unfortunately, these are quite common, no monetary value, really. You can find these at any little corner shop. Regardless, I'd be happy to take them off your hands.” I nodded slowly as I screwed the caps back onto the case. Without a doubt, he was lying. “Can you give me a dollar value anyway?” I asked. “A ballpark estimate?” “Well, hmm, it may take a bit more time for me to arrive at a figure. I'd like to do some more in-depth analysis, to ensure the accuracy of my quote, you understand. My stereomicroscope is, ah, currently being serviced, so I would need to hold on to your items for the time being, until my equipment is available to me again. I can get back to you within several weeks.” He stretched out a thick hand to pull the pearls in, but I swiped the case away. “That’s not necessary,” I smiled. “Thanks for your time.” The jeweler stood as we walked out. He wiped a hand across his forehead, and his meaty neck swiveled to watch us go. I might have misheard his final words, but I suspect I didn’t. “A real Muirgen pearl,” he said under his breath as the gleaming doors whispered shut behind me. My eyes widened. With trembling fingers, I clipped Mara into the stroller and I tried not to run. The third pearl: Mara in the bathtub, splashing happily, white crescent moons of the bathtub’s rim reflected in her eyes. The water was beginning to cool, the surface dappled with frothy remnants of soap. Bathtime was almost done. Already, she had tossed all of her toys methodically onto the sopping mat, and now all that remained was my slippery, blubbery, ivory-skinned babe and the small tide she made as she sloshed around in her ceramic ship. Her eyes met mine. She hiccuped, grinned, and stuck out her tongue, and there it was. I pulled the pearl from the tender pink pad of her tongue and tucked it into my pocket. On my phone, three missed calls from Cleome, two texts from Serena, three texts from Sorcha. My in-laws—the women—had been checking in with unusual frequency. The week before, Cleome had stopped by unexpectedly with a box of sea salt chocolates, shuffling away into the sun in her heavy coat. The sisters had been offering incessant messages of support. How’s baby girl? She’s getting so big, isn’t she. Could she be bigger than when we saw her last week? Can we offer to babysit? Does she have any more teeth yet? Has she started walking? You’re staying at home, aren't you? Anything unusual, any fun new baby behaviors, any silly little things she's started doing? We want to know everything. Tell us everything. To my surprise, I had also received a voicemail from the dour white elephant seal, suggesting that I stop by Oceanview Fine Jewelers again, if I didn't mind. He was willing to make me a generous offer to take those silly little pearls off my hands. Really, he was doing me a favor. They were worth next to nothing, he assured me, but he could see that I needed the money. I tried not to think too hard about the lengths he had gone to in order to track me down, given that I had lied about my name. Silas would not return from the shop for an hour yet, at least. Not that I was particularly eager to see him anyway: things between us had been bad for a while now. I hadn't realized, until today, that I had been just looking for an excuse. I dressed Mara, set the third pearl into the contact lens case, and screwed the caps on tightly. Into the trunk of the car went the forbidden sun-bleached stroller and the suitcase that I kept stashed in the back of the closet. On the passenger seat sat my makeup bag, where three shimmering pearls rolled around in the case inside. I shut the front door of our apartment for the last time. As I pulled the car out of the driveway, a hushing static hissed in my ears, my own pulse humming and vibrating in my throat. I swung the steering wheel wide, like a sea captain pulling a great creaking ship into open water. My tires shushed against the asphalt. The afternoon sun through the rolled-down window was warm on my skin as I let my cupped hand sweep and dip through the salty air. In the glass pool of the car seat mirror, Mara's wide-eyed reflection shimmied as we drove. A flock of gulls escorted us, swooping. Behind us, undulating mossy hills, the drab boxes of suburbia, a wide black river of asphalt. Ahead, reflected in my daughter’s knowing eyes, the slipping liquid horizon, diamonds of shattered sun glittering on the surface of the sea. MollySeeling is a writer and professional photographer based near Boulder, Colorado. She is currently querying her first novel.

  • The Shadowseeker

    The ink that drips from the tip of my pen fortifies my thoughts into crisp, round words, words that seem sure of their place on the page. The truth in my heart is I’m nowhere as sure as these words suggest, my thoughts, dreams and memories all mingling in a miasma of dulled sentiments to the point where I cannot make out which is which anymore. And, like the wrinkles that make their way up from the tip of my bony fingers, all the way up to my forehead, my mind is crooked with the uncertainties that doubt and decay bring. I’ll be long gone before the world has had Time to meditate on the all that has happened this Century. I was one of them, in the thick of the storm that came and nearly ended it all. And I’m one of the last who lives to speak of the story. But the ink is black and indelible, and I shall try my best to stay true to my inner voice and core remembrance. Nema revealed herself to me in my sixteenth year. It was a cruelly hot summer morning when I’d gone to fetch water from the well. The long walk to the outskirts of the city had chafed my alabaster feet, and matted my hair with swirling dust, and the vendors of silk and spices looked at me suspiciously, as I’d stared back at them, defiantly. No one could tell me I didn’t belong. I was a Varthan, known by the High Priestess in the Citadel herself, and that would be my saving grace. The girl behind me was not so lucky. She had no protections. She made her presence known to me when I’d heard the soft squishing of her feet on the sandy path we traversed, in the by lanes of the city. There were very few people around and at one point, it was just me, and the squishing behind, shadowing my every move. I quietly felt for my dagger beneath my robes and placed my right hand on its hilt. I negotiated a turn and hid behind a large earthen pot, almost as tall as me. Soon enough, the dark, diminutive figure, hooded against the sun, emerged from around the bend. There was no one else. I grabbed her from behind, my elbow locking around her neck and my dagger placed beneath her chin. “Why are you following me? Who are you?” I asked, feigning aggression in my fast-beating chest. “Wait! Stop!” she pleaded with a dulcet voice. I yanked the robes off her black hair and pushed her away. “I wasn’t following you!” she shouted, alarmed. “Who’re you trying to fool?” I demanded, but tears soon, started streaming down her chiseled, ebony cheeks and I, immediately, went silent. “There’s no need for this drama. Why were you tracing my steps?” I asked her, irritated, the boiling heat of the late morning seeping through my drenched clothes and into my very bones, making me yearn for shelter. “I wasn’t. I was headed to the well to fetch water. I’m not permitted to do so when other people are there that…aren’t my own. This time of day is when it is least busy. I saw you. I know who you are. I’m not allowed to walk in front of you, as you know. So, I followed. Please don’t tell anyone of this! They’ll hang me!” My pale cheeks turned crimson, and not just from the heat. My Varthan blood hadn’t insulated me from extending a cruelty upon a fellow citizen, a Douthan, as it turned out. “It’s okay. It’s my fault for racing to conclusions. I…I’m sorry.” She picked up her water vessel and was about to be on her way, but I’d sensed an opportunity. “Wait. What’s your name?” I asked, as she started shuffling away. She must’ve been nearly my age. She turned around, hesitantly, her pretty frame silhouetted by the incandescent sun. “Nema.” And with that, she was gone. I was born with a special gift. A curse, if you were to ask my mother. Of excessive empathy. No, really excessive. It’s called vartha by my people, the Southern Clan. I can bleed my sentiments into others and receive theirs as well, until there’s a complete transfusion of our spirits. This may not seem like a magical power but, as it turned out, it proved to have a deciding hand in the fate of the world. I think it’s Goddess Mithila’s way of having fun with me, by gifting this strange hyper-sentience to someone from the world’s most cruel of Clans. The harsh summers and the bitter fight for survival had ensured the Clan conformed to a rigid way of life, and in their hierarchy, only the strongest, richest or most powerful led tolerable lives. The rest, well, they weren’t accorded much respect and were exploited. They were beaten, threatened, raped. At the bottom of the social barrel were the Doutha, the manual scavengers. They were made to clean the drains and toilets and unclog the sewage pipes, and many would die from the toxic fumes in the dingy underground labyrinths in which they worked, covered in filth. They were considered dirty, untouchable. No, empathy wasn’t a prevalent quality amidst the Southern Clan. And yet, people would come seeking me from all corners of Klustria, the only known Varthan for miles, just so I could commiserate and understand what others couldn’t. It provided them with relief. It drained me completely, but I didn’t mind. People were burdened with all sorts of sorrows and regrets and helping them win reprieve made me happy. There’s a ritual that’s involved, for this transfusion of spirits, but I cannot go into too many details; I’m sworn to the Covenant. Besides, even I’m not quite sure how it happens. I hold their hands and close my eyes and empty my mind and then, their thoughts and feelings surge and course through me. I, in turn, answer them with my own, comforting thoughts. It’s an arcane process, and it just happens, and for all the Seven Suns, I don’t completely understand it. My mother had forbidden me from making friends with the Douthan children and so we grew up, side by side, unable to speak or laugh or share anything. They went to different schools. They walked behind us if our paths were to cross on the streets. They were strangers to me. But I was a Varthan: I yearned to understand and empathize with these pitiful people. I would need to get close to them for this. “What news from the Satraps?” shrieked Layrda’s High Priestess and Guardian, Ambala, growing restless as the days passed. Layrda, my home, and the only place I’ve ever known, is the northernmost city of the Klustrian peninsula, situated high on a craggy promontory, overlooking the choppy waters. It started out as a small trading outpost for merchant ships, but soon evolved into an impregnable and vast metropolis, protected by the ocean to the north and the Scorching Plains to the south. Ambala had heard of winter’s slow but sure ascent, inching its way north through the Burning Plains, after nearly three hundred years. And this only meant one things. The dragons. “It feels like months since we’ve heard anything from them. I pay those wretched messengers thrice their value and this is how they repay me! With indolence! Any news from our spies within the Winter Clan? What’s going on?” Mauryana, her trusted, silver-haired advisor, proffered: “The Dastardly Den stands between the Winter Cities of the south and the Burning Plains. It’s only a matter of time before the dragons will come north, seeking refuge from the cold. We are the biggest city in all the lands of Klustria. We will be doomed if we don’t fortify ourselves,” he cautioned. “How?” hollered the Priestess, her bony features puckered in a mix of fear and rage. “Who’s to say the dragons are still alive? No one we know has seen them in three hundred years. Maybe we can convince the people it’s all a myth. Folklore.” At this bold suggestion, a gasp made its way around the Royal Atrium, among the awfully assembled spectacle of Ambala’s trusted deputies and priests. “My Priestess, there are families in this city who can trace their lineage back to the time of the dragons. The stories are real and they know it. The scriptures and military accounts all tell us to turn to the Northern Clan for help. With their giants and Garudas, we will have some protection in the ground and in the skies. Please make peace with your Fellowship,” pleaded Mauryana. But, Ambala had long ago broken away from the Fellowship of Sorcerers, for reasons that tugged at her very soul’s sanctity. She’d been the only female in the Fellowship, and they’d treated her as such. They should’ve banished Kamarkar for what he’d done to me, she’d think in her bitterest moments, when the memories came flooding back and there was no respite. Rape among the ruling Sorcerers? It was unheard of! And yet, it was allowed to slide into oblivion and without accountability. It’d nearly destroyed her but Ambala channeled all her fear and grief into rage and broke away from the faction. Everyone in Layrda knew the story and applauded their Priestess’ bravery. If only she hadn’t allowed it to harden her into the cold and cruel person she’d become. Am I really that cruel? She’d rue over this, from time to time, only to dismiss the thought. Never again will I lose control, she’d vowed to herself. The dragons were a real problem she knew she had to surmount. And she had absolutely no idea how. I waited impatiently, for the day to be over and night to come and go. All I could think of was Nema and the possibilities my encounter had presented. To understand a different way of life. To make a new friend. That night, as I lay on my mattress on the ground, next to my mother, who’d blown out the lamps and had said her nightly prayers, a sign that the time for conversation had lapsed, I asked, “Ma, why do the Doutha walk behind the rest of us?” She softly groaned. “What fresh insolence is this?” “I just wanted to know why?” I persisted. “They are dirty creatures, vile from the filth in which they spend their days! Why would you want them to be close to you?” she barked. “Is this what you spend your time thinking about when you have a special gift to nurture, envied by the High Priestess, herself?” “She doesn’t envy me!” I protested, my young mind unable to grasp such complexities. “She was very nice to me the day of the Spring Festival, and spoke to me for a whole five minutes!” “Quiet!” my mother chided. “She is envious of anyone who has what she cannot possess. She may not show it but I saw it in her eyes. You be very careful, you understand? And don’t go about stirring trouble with the Doutha. Leave them be.” And then, just when I thought the conversation was over, my mother muttered, “It is considered unlucky even to walk in the shadows of the Doutha. And that is why we do not walk behind then, lest their shadows touch us and cast a spell of misfortune. Now go to sleep.” I stayed awake for many hours afterwards, unable to process what I’d heard. It was heartbreakingly cruel. The next morning, I waited until the sun was up and beating down upon Layrda, and the familiar, intense heat started taking root in the unfolding day. I grabbed the water vessel and made a dash for the door. “We don’t need water!” my mother hollered from behind. “Don’t you have school in an hour?” she persisted, even as I quickly escaped the front door and made my way down familiar streets and alleys. The day was yet to be fully formed, and people were still assembling their wares in the markets, and restaurants were slowly opening their doors for customers. I briskly walked through a crisscross of alleyways until the roads opened up onto a verdant field at the far end of which was the well. I saw a few people but no Nema. I sat under a stunted cypress tree and fidgeted with my pot. It seemed hours. And, just when I was about to give up and head back into the city, I saw the familiar diminutive, dark figure, with sheathed head, making its way to the well. There was another person present at the well, an elderly woman, and so I had to be careful. I sidled up to Nema who didn’t seem taken aback at seeing me. I waited patiently for the old woman to extricate her vessel of water from the well, and when she left, and before I could speak, Nema said: “Who is following who, now?” We both stared at each other for a moment and then, collapsed laughing. Nema was warm and funny and very smart and I will not bore you with the unfolding of our friendship. Suffice to say she wasn’t in awe of my relatively privileged status. In fact, she held it in healthy irreverence. And I, in turn, respected her for it. She lived with her parents and younger brother not too far from our home, in the tenements, and dreamed of being a healer. Understandably, she was very curious of my vartha powers and I skirted gingerly, around the fact that she’d never be allowed to study medicine. "You’ll be lynched for talking with me,” she’d once said, on the back of a sunny day, when we were sprawled under the cypress after school hours, munching on apples, and when the sun first showed the faintest signs of settling in for the evening. The orange hue made her ebony skin glow a ruddy bronze and I’d honestly thought she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. “Nema, how will you go to medical school? I don’t mean to upset you, but your parents are manual scavengers. There are rules.” “Useless, cruel ones,” she spat out bitterly, and it was the first time I saw anger flicker in her eyes. She’d been careful, as had I, to glean over the obvious disparities in our lives, but the time seemed to have arrived, when the uncomfortable subjects that loomed just beneath the surface, the kind that rear their head when any friendship is to inevitably survive and grow past the initial pleasantries, for deeper bonds to be forged. I wanted that with Nema more than anything. She was unlike any of the other girls in school. She was soft and hard at the same time, kind and sharp, generous and restrained, and above all, willing to be friends, at great personal risk, with someone she should’ve, ideally, detested. For I’d been born into undeserved privileges she could only dream of, and yet, she didn’t seem to hold it against me. “I agree,” I concurred. After a long pause, I added, “We should do something about it. I’d like to help.” “Don’t say things you cannot possibly mean,” she snapped. “I’ve never asked anything of you, but you shouldn’t promise things you cannot deliver.” I was stung by these words. I did mean them. Yes, I hadn’t thought of a plan yet, but Nema failed to see that I was different from most. I felt her pain. It tugged at my lifeblood making me weak. I wanted her to see I was earnest in my offer. In my feelings. “I do mean it, Nema. Will you let me show you?” And so, she did. Perhaps it was her curiosity about my powers, but we sat facing each other with closed eyes, holding hands, and I told her to relax. “Don’t force the thoughts. I can see you within you. Just let your mind drift. Let me do the work.” And what I saw, astounded me. I saw layers of grief and loss and oppression. I saw unending longing for things she couldn’t dream of having. I saw strata upon strata of hurt piled on from when she’d been a child, of people’s horrific behavior toward her and her loved ones. All this, buried in the soul of a sixteen-year-old. But most of all, I saw determination, to realise her dreams and uplift her family from the hard and trying lives they’d led. I’d never experienced the life of a Douthan before, it’d been forbidden by the Covenant. I’d broken the rules for Nema. And I knew, not in the least because I’d strayed, but because what I’d seen tested the very limits of my empathy, I couldn’t stand by and watch the atrocities that were being silently perpetrated, go on, anymore. I had to do something. And in my own small way, I would. Far to the south, beyond the Scorching Plains, and hidden deep within the Gorai Ghats, the Dastardly Den was abuzz with activity. It was a scene of carnage. Carcass upon carcass of animals, shredded and eviscerated by teeth that only one creature in the world possessed, lay piled in heaps, scattered through the vast catacombs. The dragons, after all, had large appetites, and their raids into the villages, towns and cities that skirted the Dastardly Den had yielded poorer results with passing time. They took to stockpiling their meat, even if this meant it wouldn’t be fresh. Winter was fast approaching and they had to leave the Den, their home, and make their way up north, to warmer climes, to ride out the coming cold. This would take decades. But Maia, Queen of the Dragons, was not worried. The northern reaches of Klustria were fertile grounds, even if the meat tasted different. It was hardened and sinewy. The heat and hard work to survive the scorching sun, did that to the animals. And the men. Especially the men. And the northern towns and cities were better developed and fortified, which meant more fire power was needed to bring them down. And so, Maia had ordered her cluster of dragons to feed heartily, for they had a long journey ahead. And lots of blood to spill. When I was a little girl, not more than six, I would play in the garden behind our house and try and catch the fireflies with my bare hands, as dusk settled in, bringing with it some respite from the scorching heat. They’d flicker to a deathly pallor, the light being whiffed out of them in my palms, and my parents would applaud me for catching them, but I knew I’d done something wrong. In my palms, I’d felt the sorrow of the little creature seep through my hands and its tiny spirit enter my blood, even as the life blood left it, forever. This is why I never ate meat. I could feel the last moments of fear and pain and horror these animals felt, course through my veins and it’d nearly unhinge me. And then, it did unhinge me, when my father died of a sickness. I’d spent my last moments with him holding his hands in mine and then, I was laid up for several days, nearly battling death myself. Not from sickness but melancholia. I couldn’t save him, but I’d tried to provide him respite in the end, taking on the waning energy of his spirit and offering mine. It changed me, forever. I missed school that day, after my spiritual encounter with Nema, and my mother heard about my truancy. I was shouted at and interrogated but I’d held fast to my story. I was tired from fetching water and drifted off to sleep under the cypress trees. “It’s just a day, Ma! I’ll make up for it, tomorrow.” “What’s the matter with you? You’re a young girl, soon to be of marriageable age. You cannot go about sleeping under trees like a vagabond!” she’d shouted before marching off into the kitchen, the consternation in her eyes sincere. But my mind was elsewhere. How could I help the Doutha? I was sixteen and didn’t possess any skills, but I had my powers. And so, I vowed to use them. I thought to myself, if Nema could, at such a young age, be walking around under the burden of so much trauma, perhaps she wasn’t the only Douthan suffering silently in Layrda. I would work my vartha upon them, help them feel better. If I couldn’t fix anything else, I would do this. And who knows, maybe it would provide them with the succor and strength to take the first steps in bringing change in their lives. I was in a faraway place that night, lost within myself and my plans, and my mother had silently, noticed. It was an ordinary morning, as it’d become those days, the sun high in the sky and at its brightest before late morning, when school would begin. Nema had taken some convincing, when I’d told her what I wished to do. Help her people heal. “Absolutely not!” she’d hollered. “Are you mad? You’ll be lynched for such a crime!” But, in the black pools that were her eyes, I could see that she that understood my powers could really heal – that it was no gimmick. And how her people had suffered. “One person a day. After school. Right here. Under the cypress. Come on, Nema. You know they know of me. They would feel better. It’s worth the risk,” I’d simply stated. For she was my gatekeeper to the Doutha, but I’d no idea what sway she’d had over them until, that evening, she brought the first person, a middle-aged woman, and asked me to work my powers. “Do it quickly,” she’d commanded. “It doesn’t work like that. It depends on the individual, what they’ve been through, their personalities. It’s like peeling away at an onion.” “Okay, okay, do whatever you need to. No need to convince me,” she’d said, trying hard to feign a smile. And so, I did. I held the woman’s hands and looked into her heart. Her being. It was one sad story after another, over the coming days, and my young body had never felt this kind of exhaustion before. It was spirit-sucking. But, when I saw what a difference it made to the Doutha, I persisted. All summer, we carried on with this ritual. Nema would bring one person a day. And I would try and heal them. For the first time in my life, I’d felt like I had a real purpose. I told my mother I’d made some new friends in school and that I was studying with them in the evenings. She’d let it be without questioning. She was so busy working, she didn’t notice my exhaustion and I tried hard to cover it up. And then, it happened. Perhaps it was our naivety in thinking we could get away with this, but it wasn’t to be. The soldiers apprehended us one August evening, as the sun was sinking behind the faraway hills in an orange cauldron. It all happened so fast. Nema and I were yanked by our elbows and roughly pushed to the front of a regiment of soldiers, and we were marched all the way to the Citadel. I’d felt like it was happening to someone else. My heart thumped loudly in my chest and ears, and my vision was blurry with panic. What would happen to us? I thought of my mother and fended off the tears. I’d been inside the Citadel on a handful of special occasions but not like this. Being pushed and prodded forward by menacing guards and taken right into the eerie, dark interior depths of the cold building. I soon realized, with a sinking feeling, that we were being ushered directly into the grand Atrium, and I knew who resided there. Large braziers that burnt golden embers skirted the periphery of the massive hall, but it was still cold inside. Nema was shaking, as was I. It felt a dream. A nightmare. I wanted to turn around and run but the sinking feeling in my chest kept me anchored like lead to the bottom of an ocean of terror. She was there. Ambala was sitting on her massive and ornate throne, at the far end of the atrium, completely still, with only the pupils of her eyes fixed on our approach. She recognized me. “So, it is you,” she whispered, barely audibly. “And who is this, your friend?’ she uttered, turning in disgust to Nema. Nema retreated into herself and looked at the ground. After an interminably long silence, where all she did was stare, she said to me, “You’ve broken the law. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Consorting with these filthy ingrates and breaking the scared Covenant, by offering your powers to them?” Perhaps the past few months of humanizing the Doutha, getting to know them, and my endearingly close friendship with Nema, sparked the words, but before I could catch myself, I said, “They’re not filthy nor ingrates. They’ve been gracious to me for my help. Why should they not have relief from the cruel suffering we subject them to, just because of their race?” There was a gasp in the room, and then silence. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. Ambala finally said, “You dare question me in my Citadel? Question my judgement? My justness? I was going to show you leniency, but now, I see you don’t deserve it. Guards, throw her in the Black Cells. Along with that filthy friend she risked it all for! I will teach her contrition!” she screeched, her rage echoing off the walls and high ceiling of the atrium. I went wide-eyed and quiet. My life was about to change forever, and in unpleasant ways. It was all over, and I’d dragged Nema into it, as well. “Please let Nema go; she didn’t do anything!” I’d pleaded, but it all seemed too late. The guard’s metallic hands roughly clasped my shoulders, and I was being turned around, still in a daze, when there was a deathly screech outside the Citadel. The hall was stunned into silence. And before people had a chance to react, the wall of the massive citadel on one side, partially broke apart in a deafening culmination of noise, and the screech happened again, so loudly, so thunderously, that people fell to their knees and shut their ears. A massive, dark shadow made its way through the gaping hole in the wall. Maia, the Queen of Dragons, showed herself to the room and then, lifted her slender head high into the atrium and screeched again. Nema fainted next to me, and the guards had abandoned us and were regrouping, with visceral fear in their faces, next to the humungous dragon. I rushed over to Nema’s side and tried to lift her head up onto my lap. I couldn’t form sentences, such was my fear of what was to happen next. The moment didn’t disappoint. Maia, in seeming rage, bent her neck down, picked up a defensive guard with a spear, and while he screamed in agony, ripped him apart with her teeth, and flung his dismembered body to the front of the room. His head landed at the feet of the High Priestess. Ambala, who’d turned a deathly pale, stared wide-eyed and vulnerable, at the beast. The room had emptied of screaming people. The guards had fled. I, with Nema’s limp body, stood between the monstrous dragon and Ambala, who was transfixed to the spot. She knew her spells would be futile against the primeval powers of the Queen Dragon. Maia focused the slits of her pupils on me, and slowly thudded her way forward, blood dripping down her jaws. I wish I could say panic overtook me, but it was an eerie lethargy, as if my body was shutting down in preparation for a bloody and painful end. The closer the green dragon got to me, I could sense the heat of her body, radiating out from her belly. Nema came to, and upon seeing the dragon, screamed viscerally. “Don’t!” I’d pleaded, but it was too late. The dragon quickened her pace and came within a few feet of us, all the while staring at me, obsessively. Then, she stopped. She bent her neck toward me so that her massive head was parallel to mine. I braced for the end. But all she did was sniff the air around me and stare. Now, I don’t know what got into me, but I felt drawn to her enormous life force. It was filled with angst and hunger. I turned the palm of my right hand upwards and extended my hand forward, slowly. She pared back her mouth, revealing her teeth, menacingly, for a moment, and then, brought her snout further down to let me touch her. I gently, placed my hand on her snout. What I’d experienced in those moments is, even now, hard to describe. It was a vartha unlike any I’d felt, before. Pure and raw and teeming with the lust for flesh. There was no malevolence to it, just intensity. After a few long moments, she pulled away, and before I could wrap my head around what was happening, she exited just as she’d come – through the large, gaping hole in the wall – took off and flew away into the skies, screeching one last time, the resonant remnants of which lasted for a long time before petering out. Maia, Queen of the Dragons, had left her calling card. She would be back. And not alone, the next time. Winter had reached the citadel. I turned to face Ambala, who stared at me in a manner I couldn’t read. And then, she screamed, “Guards! Lock these women up! Take them away1” And while she’d bled dislike toward me before the dragon came, there was an urgent, seething hatred in her this time around, and I couldn’t quite understand why that was the case. Then, I remembered my mother’s words. It wasn’t pure hatred anymore, but hatred made more poisonous, with envy. As I sat in the dark dungeons with nothing but my thoughts for company – they’d locked up Nema, elsewhere – there was a tingling sensation all over my body. It felt as if my mind and body where on fire, and filled with an animal force so powerful, I couldn’t shake it off. I felt I could lift a mountain. I was filled, I realised, with the life force of the dragon, and I could feel the world through her eyes. It was scary and exhilarating and unlike any vartha experience from before. Normally, the feelings disappeared when the connection was severed with the other person, but with the dragon Maia, it lingered on well past her departure. I could still feel her movements, her flying southwards, her frustrations and her hunger. She’d spared me. We were connected, now. So, when the guards told me of Ambala’s plan to execute Nema in two days, I knew what I was going to try and do, even before the thought had formed into words in my head. I had nothing to lose. Except Nema. And I would die rather than let that happen. The dragons came on the morning of the second day. They tore the city apart. I sat with a steel heart and broken mind, knowing I’d had a plan, and had clung onto it even as I’d felt buildings collapse and smelt the smoke and heard the beasts screech in the skies above, which reverberated through the damp walls. I thought of my mother and prayed to the Seven Suns that she’d be spared. But I knew in my heart the time for this had come. Change. And, like all upheavals, it came with blood and fire. I’d communed with Maia. I could reach into her being and convince her that she needed to help us. There was nothing in it for her. The act of altruism was alien to the Southern Clan. But, Maia had heard me. And I’d hoped and prayed she would answer my call. She did. Her band of dragons made for the Citadel and reigned fire upon it. I could smell the charred ruins of building and men and hollered for the scampering guards. When I finally, managed to get the attention of a viscerally frightened sentinel, I’d asked him to tell the High Priestess I knew how to make this stop. “Tell her I can talk to the dragons,” I’d said, knowing she’d believe me, after what she’d witnessed, but a few days ago. Time was of the essence. It’d been a simple plan, but the price that was paid that day, with the death of scores of innocents, would stay with me throughout my life. I’d known no other way. Suffice to say, a new era was ushered in, reluctantly by Ambala, where the Doutha would be treated with greater equality, and laws were brought in, to protect their rights. They could never be forced to clean the latrines and sewers, again. And their children could study along with the rest. No more were they relegated to the shadows. And no more were their shadows to be cursed. They could walk side by side, head held high, with the rest of humanity. If it seems too simple and good to be true, I can assure you, a price was paid. The dragons would leave Layrda alone, but I could never walk without looking over my shoulders, ever again. I’d been marked for revenge, and when the time came for Ambala, High Priestess of Layrda, to act upon her bloodlust, Klustria would be changed forever. But I fought back. And I had the Dastardly Den of Dragons on my side. That is another story, and I grow weary from this effort of recollection. The dragons are all gone now, and even as I write these words, I’m reminded of the existential debt I owe them, for showing me a kindness that went against their primal instinct. Us mortals are more complex; our motivations layered and nuanced, and rarely, do we do things without expecting recompense. I never told a soul what I’d asked of the dragons. Of my blood-soaked request. That was my guilty secret to take to the grave. But my mother guessed, of that I’m sure. I must go now; Nema beckons. She’s not got much time left, and I’ve promised to spend the last days providing the healing touch of vartha. It’s the very least I can do for a friendship that brought the world to its knees and changed the course of history. Madhurika is an impact investor (vistariventures.com) and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu, India’s leading national newspaper, in the Op Ed. She’s an engineer and holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write, but lives for music. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India.

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