Losing Form

By: Vanessa Finnegan
Sweet Briar College, Virginia 

I am both light and heavy. I have no feeling in my brain. My hair is only a formality. It grows from loose scalp that can easily be peeled away. My skull is brittle too, for it feels no passion towards what it poses to protect. It has no want at all except to decompose and become soil again. The brain within it is indifferent. It could be here or in some other realm completely. It could be as it is or as it was, the root of a tree or a bumble bee’s wing. It doesn’t matter except that it will not be decided by me. Today it is morning. Tomorrow it will probably be morning too, and then it will be night. It will never be by my own choice. My mouth is only a messenger, my heart only a drum that beats for fun. When it grows tired it will be done. None of this body grows to care for me, to love me, or become me more than physically. Once each is through it will disown me without pity or remorse. Each one will stay on being in some different form or way. But without them I evaporate, no form from which to change.

***

I feel her eternal lack of body when I walk through air; when I walk through it with such ease. I feel her nonexistence. The bruises that she gave me are almost completely vanished, and I haven’t felt pain in days. It’s a strange sort of feeling walking along this same cracked and crooked sidewalk, dragging my fingers along the sides of the same chain-link fences that have bordered my path to school for as long as I can remember. Strange because I let myself enjoy the feeling of the cold metal against my fingertips. I let it trickle up my palm until it gives me a shiver, and the shiver is like joy at a higher frequency—like a little jolt of electricity; I think it must be the closest feeling I’d know to describe the word euphoric. Strange because, where the sidewalk dips and crumbles, I can lift my feet and walk myself right over and it’s nothing. It means nothing to me. Or was it stranger before? Back when the cracked ground opened up and twisted the same way her mouth did and it made my stomach churn just to look; back when I’d drag my feet and stumble, and getting up seemed so hard that sometimes I’d just sit there and cry; back when I’d press my fingers hard into this chain-link fence and they would burn as I’d drag them along. Back then, everything, even my own body, spoke of her hatred and her harshness.

Now, as I step over the gaping cracks in my path, all I see is a flash of limp lips; harmless, immovable, meaningless pink flesh. I see them in the corner of my eye as I pass. For a moment, I think I can see specks of brown dotting their pink surface. My thoughts drift apprehensively towards a curiosity about the taste of dirt; the image of those brown specked lips urging me dangerously towards guilt and irrevocable regret. But my imagination is interrupted by the realization that I already know what dirt tastes like. I remember one night years ago: my face planted strongly against the ground where she held me by a fist-full of my long, knotted, grey-brown hair, her other hand shoving loose dirt in my face. Instead of a need for repentance, I recognize a sort of morbid irony and turn my focus towards kicking a small piece of cement that has chipped off of the sidewalk—watching it bounce along the hard surface, undamaged even as it is continually slammed into the larger counterpart from which it sprang.

Walking into my 1st period classroom, I decide that, instead of my usual seat in the back row amongst the nappers and the texters, I will take the empty seat at the front row next to its sole member, Henria. Henria is a small Russian girl whom I’ve never spoken to but whose voice is generally the only student voice I ever hear speaking words relevant to the topic we are meant to be learning. As I take the seat, she turns to me with small dark eyes and a round, somewhat dollish face.

“You are lost?” she says in her thick accent.

Without responding I lean over to open a faded green backpack with little dragonflies on it that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I pause and get lost in the pattern. I remember the day I first got it. She used to like me back then, back when I was small and manageable. When I was ten I told her I needed a new one because it was too small for me. Oh right, that’s why. That was the day I tasted dirt. She never liked it when I’d admit to getting bigger.

“Khemm?” Henria coughs loudly.

“Good morning,” I say dismissively as I sit up with my notebook in hand and place it on my desk.

This is Chemistry class. We are learning how long it takes for garbage to decompose; a glass bottle takes a million years, a tin can fifty, a newspaper six weeks, etc.  I wonder why it takes so much longer for a body to disintegrate than a soul. I’ve heard more of the words spoken in my classes these past ten days then in all fifteen years of my life together.  I suppose sometimes you have to cut off a limb or two to save your vitals. My body works better without her; my legs, ears, arms, they all work so easily at my will. But I know it won’t always be this way. One day my body will be stiff flesh in the ground, and I will be gone.

Once I pulled the hair from my scalp and buried it with her in the yard. I know how similar her body is to mine; we have the same thin lips, the same long legs, the same knobby fingers. I know how my body came from hers, and to her it belongs. I didn’t look at her face when I dug down to her. I know we have the same eyes, and I still remember their pale stare the night her body betrayed her.

I think about death now and I don’t understand. I don’t understand why a person can’t simply will their body into action, into survival. It enrages me.

They say when a person becomes blind or deaf their other senses are heightened. As my body becomes stronger, hers is slowly rotting away.

“Hello?” prompts an irritated Russian voice.

I look up suddenly from my notebook where I have been tracing and retracing a sketch of mine; the lines now thick and dark to the point of nearly ripping through the paper. The sketch is of a pregnant woman with a young child at her side. At first glance you might think the mother and child are holding hands, but looking closer there are no hands to speak of on that place on the page. There are only wrists twisting together as if they were ropes; tied together inhumanly in a snake-like tangle; veins from one reaching into the other.

“We are partners” Says Henria.

I look at her blankly.

“We have to answer questions together.” She huffs impatiently, pointing to the worksheet that had been placed carelessly at the corner of my desk.

Suddenly looking down at where my hands rest on my notebook, she reaches over and takes it out from under me. My heart gives a jolt, eyes wide in fear. I’m exposed and paralyzed, unable to make a move to retrieve it. She looks at it contemplatively.

Suddenly her attitude seems to shift: “This is beautiful,” she says, “you’re a.. artist?”

I stay silent, frozen.

“Why are their arms like that?” she asks, tilting the notebook sideways and holding it up close to her face.

There’s silence for a moment, and then something compels me to tell her: “If the connection is cut, they both bleed out.” The words come out of me as if I’m in a dream, not really knowing what I mean until I say it.

Another silence, longer this time.

“Ahh,” she says excitedly as if understanding something significant. “It looks like a… placenta” she comments, tilting her head to one side and looking closely.

“Who are they?” she asks.

“It’s me as a kid… and my mother.”

“You must love her a lot.” She smiles at me as she hands back the notebook.

My heart feels like breaking, but I stifle a laugh. The bell rings.

This morning and every morning for the past five days, I have carried Little Gina the fifteen blocks to pre-school because she loves to be up high, and because my arms feel amazing, and because I’m celebrating that I know she’s getting there. This is probably the first time all year she has been to school for this long without an absence. After school I bring her home the same way.

When little Gina asks where mommy went I tell her I made it so she can’t hurt us anymore, and she wraps her little arms around my legs and giggles with delight, and that makes me feel better about it all.  But when I tell her that mommy’s name was Gina too, and that she should change hers so she can have her own, she scrunches up her face and yells “No!” and starts to cry. I hate it, but I still ask her every day after school. I’m afraid that if she keeps that name she will betray me. We already have so much that ties us to her—so much that prophecies her resurrection through us.

Henria walks with me to pick up Little Gina. She says she wants to see more of my art. She talks a lot and I say little. She talks about how no one in our school wants to be anything, how they are all going to waste away here just like their parents and their parents before that. I wonder at how a person can find it so easy to open up like that. I’ve never said as much to anyone about what I really think, not nearly. She will be the first person to visit my house since the man who put Little Gina in my mom. She will be the first person to ever visit for me. Asking to bring home a friend was never worth it with her around. All it got me was bruises and tears and an earful about only trusting family.

“You listening?” asks Henria.

I look up from my feet and give a small nod.

“There she is,” I say, waving my arms to catch little Gina’s attention amongst the crowd of preschoolers waiting outside the school. She immediately rushes out to me, pushing violently past the horde of children as if she were nearly drowned and is just now finally coming up for air.

She reaches me with a stumbling smile which fades when she sees Henria standing near me. “Fee-fee, who’s she?” asks Little Gina with the accusing point of a stubby finger.

For a moment I don’t know what to say. Should I call her my friend, a classmate, someone who likes my sketches? I settle with “she’s coming home with us.”

Little Gina looks up at me with a very stern look on her face. “That’s bad,” she tells me.

Five years ago, the corpse in the ground in my backyard pushed my baby sister out of her own body. When we all came home from the hospital, that corpse watched me stroke my baby sister’s face and whisper, “you’re all mine baby,” but I wasn’t quiet enough and the corpse snatched my hand up from the baby’s face, squeezing it hard, and with her face right up to mine she told me,  “this isn’t your baby, Fiona, she’s mine. Just like you’re mine, only this one’s gonna be so much better. She’s gonna be just like me.”

9 months earlier I was a little rap on that corpse’s tightly closed door, and she was the grunting and groaning sounds coming from the other side. The rest of that week I slept on the porch to learn a lesson about privacy.

“I’m going to be a doctor,” Henria tells us as we walk.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Because it’s respectable… and because doctors understand things, like how bodies work; like how to make people better, or sick if they want. They have power.”

“Power,’ I mumble to myself.

“What do you want to be, little one?” she asks, bending down and around me slightly to direct her question toward little Gina, who has been walking on my other side, grasping my pant leg but refusing to look me in the face.

“I don’t talk to strangers” she says indignantly, keeping her gaze straight ahead.

I open the short, rusty gate that separates the sidewalk from my property. The creak is my mother crying for me not to let outsiders in. There is a long, sharp, stretching pain in my chest as I force myself to ignore her. Henria takes a careless step onto the soil past the gate; her soil. Henria has no idea what she’s done; how this would make my mother feel, how she would make me suffer for it. It doesn’t matter though. It doesn’t matter. I try to slow my racing heart. It doesn’t matter. She’s gone. She’s nothing. It doesn’t matter. She’s gone and all that’s left of her is flesh and bones.

I am in a dark place, unable to move, unable to breathe. Cold hard matter packed in on me on all sides. I’m underground! No… I’m in the bottom drawer of my mother’s dresser, packed between piles of cold, thick jeans.

Before I know what’s happened, Henria and I are walking towards my bedroom having left Little Gina out in the living room to play grumpily with her array of stained and naked Barbie dolls, all missing one limb or another.

Just as I feel like I’m about to black out from a lack of oxygen, a glimmer of light shines through the crack of the drawer and gets increasingly brighter and larger as the drawer is pulled out from the dresser. I burst out from under the pile of jeans, take a deep breath and immediately start to cry.

“Mommy, why did you do that?” I sob, “Why did you put me in there?”

“You need to know who has the power around here, Fiona. You need to learn to respect me. I am your mother. I gave you life and I will make it what it should be.”

The first thing we see as we walk into my cold, dreary, dimly lit room is a huge dark sketch that takes up nearly the entirety of the back wall. It’s like the sketch I drew in chemistry class today, only different. In this sketch I am grown; as grown as I am now, anyways. Little Gina is not a fetus in my mother’s belly but the small child she is today, and I carry her in one arm. My other arm is still connected to my mother, tied in a knot of wrists and veins, but in this image she lays limp on the ground and it appears as though I am struggling to walk forward, dragging her behind me.

“Beautiful,” gasps Henria, going to touch the charcoal contours of my mother’s shape. Upon noticing the black she has gotten on her fingers, she bends her arm upwards at the elbow, holding her hand up daintily as if to remind herself it is now out of commission.

“Do you think power is always respectable?” I ask.

“Don’t matter. Power gets respect. Gets what it wants” She says matter-of-factly.

I wanted to kill her. I just didn’t expect it to be so easy. I stare at the limp charcoal woman for a long silent moment, a heat rising in my gut.

“Power isn’t real. Even the most powerful people die. They don’t have a choice,” I tell the wall.

Suddenly I feel that everything this girl, this stranger, has said to me, both simultaneously offends and illuminates the truth, and all of the weakness of my body returns to me. I am the same girl who falls down on the side walk and can’t will herself up. My eyes grow blurry and words pour like tears out of my mouth.

“You think you can have power by being a doctor, making people better…or sick if you want to. You can change their bodies, use your hands to fix or break them, but when those hands no longer work for you you’ll be nothing.” Then my words are violent and shrieking, echoing in my own ears.

“You won’t have the power to tell them: ‘move hands, move!’ because you’ll be dead whether you like it or not and those people you thought you held power over, they’ll die too whether fixed or broken. You die choiceless and powerless and pointless, no matter how much power you think you have.” I fall to the ground sobbing.

When I look up, Henria is gone.

I hear hurried footsteps making creaks across the living room floor, and then I hear the front door slam behind her.

When darkness falls, I tuck Little Gina into my bed and lay with her until she falls asleep. She never had her own room. She used to sleep with our mother, except on nights when our mother preferred to sleep alone and she’d have Little Gina sleep with me. I take one last look at the sketch on my wall, its shape like a shadow in the dark room with only the light coming through the cracked doorway making it visible. I know what I have to do.

***

As I watch the red stream of life pour out of me, I think I’ve done the right thing. She is my life source, and to keep the power of my own life I would have to drag her behind me forever. The only way to truly get rid of her is to get rid of all of her; to make her body whole. Now there will be no story of a struggle between powers. I thought I could sacrifice a limb to save my vitals, but I am the limb. She is the heart. A tree doesn’t simply rip itself from its roots and walk away. This body was never mine.

The stars blur and dim above me. The blood from my right wrist rushes down the side of my mother’s cold cheek like tears, as if she would ever cry for me, my hand resting limp on her forehead. My left wrist stains the faded green t-shirt Little Gina wears for a nightgown, my arm wrapped around her loosely now. The cut across her throat drips blood onto the soil beneath us.

Her chokes and cries remind me of the day she was born. It’s an amazing bit of symmetry; that day next to this one.

Sometimes I Like to Dangle, after Catullus 64

By: Evey Weisblat
Laurel School, Shaker Heights, Ohio

Ariadne, where are you?
I keep running into—

I am lost in here

hidden amidst the tangled chords
that over time have learned
to blind the guard inside
my lighthouse of a head

sometimes this labyrinth feels like a

minefield

a tragic kind of entropy quietly invading my ribcage,
plucking my silent heart strings

cutting my thread

never once stopping to ask if breathing is the very thing that’s

killing me

Won’t You Shudder

By: Marci Batchelor
Hollins University, Virginia 

A phantom lion greets me

at my doorstep.

His paws are the size of

a human face. I give him

a scowl,

and make a scooting

gesture towards my perfect

home,

relaying that,

no silhouette

can ever knock this tower of me

down.

Nature must think of me as some

pallid philistine

in need of a purple scream.

A shadow lion ploy is cute.

I give Nature points.

Still, un-shuddered, I twist my

keys into the shiny door knob

and enter

my perfect home.

Still, un-shuddered, I twist my

form, stretch and yawn.

Nature is not one to let up.

A real visitor waits for me on the inside.

A small ant, solid and spindly, peeps.

Shriek of shrieks.

 

I drop my bags. Drop my jaw.

A gallon of whole milk busts.

Timeline of a Child

By: Theresa Egan
Laurel School, Shaker Heights, Ohio

When I was a little girl,

My thanks never meant more than a genetically mutated goldfish

But my influence was transparent like filtered water from a kitchen sink

And my love and aggravation had wings to soar outside my integumentary bedroom.

When I was a young girl,

I spoke the truth with protruding branches.

Mother called back my obtuse gifts

But I leaped and bounded through golden oblivion.

When I was a middle school child,

Priority and commitment warred like the Greeks and Trojans,

Impurities broke the surface and required tools for fixing,

Tools like consciousness, carelessness, and metal wires.

Now I am a teenager in high school.

A veil has been lifted from my once glowing aura

Revealing a peculiar creature with mangled joy and wilting grace

Where Pandora’s box thrives with animosity inside a beating heart in wait.

When You’re the One

By: Michaela Wuycheck
Xavier College Prep, Phoenix, Arizona

When you feel like you’re the one
That did the killing,
That held the knife and thrust the dagger,
That noosed the chord and threw the line,
And you did nothing more than
Turn an eye towards the horizon.

When you feel like you’re responsible
For silent tears shed in the night,
And secret glances at the clock
Because you’ve put a timer on the company
By doing nothing more than
Turning an eye towards the horizon.

You know you need this.
You think you want this.
But all you feel is guilt.

Somehow, you’re no longer broken, but
Responsible for breaking.
They don’t see you crumbling,
But see your blistered fingers
Pull the plaster from the wall.
You are the instigator.
You are the restless.
You left solidarity to find the hoax of singularity.

And your family—
They are the abandoned.
They are the comfortable,
They don’t see the horizon line.

You know they’ll support you, and want what’s best, but until that moment you’ll stand alone.

Fighting tears, faking smiles, and embracing the chilled embrace
Of a lying wind that whispers the secrets
Of a timer
Ticking the end.

Her Tears Never Fell

By: Paola Mendez
Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts 

They hung there perfectly crystallized. A quilt entwining itself over her dark circles. Her cheeks had become accustomed to the rigidity and heaviness that nineteen years of open wounds, broken hearts, bubbling laughter, and cycling misery brought around. She had yet to meet a single professional whose hand hadn’t started to tremble the second their fingertips brushed against the translucent formations. The first doctor her parents took her to was disgusted and refused to even look at her, much less find any way to treat her. The second doctor told her she should try to get more rest and eat healthier. The third doctor gave her a prescription of pills that she was supposed to take three times a day, which stopped her from crying. When the effects started taking place, she realized she no longer felt anything. Feelings bounced off her skin, as though emotions were mosquitoes and she was bathed in bug repellant. When she realized laughter felt heavy and forced, like coughing cotton balls out of her throat, she stopped swallowing numbness. Truly, she thought, it is better to feel hurt and still be able to feel happiness than to feel nothing at all.

When she was younger, she learned that she was not conventionally pretty. It wasn’t the big nose that she had inherited from her mother’s side of the family, or how she felt as though her stomach always stuck out too far. When she became aware of how terrified people were of the permanence of her waterworks, she learned that others were just afraid of people like her — people who were walking bruises. As a matter of fact, she thought there was something oddly beautiful about the way she carried pain so publicly. In a society that glorified indestructible facades and repression dug deeper than buried treasure, she was the undeniable reminder of the peoples’ humanity.

As she got older, the load of her own perception of the world became too much to carry. The suffering going on everywhere was draining, and she carried the sorrow that she saw in the very core of her soul. Watching the news wasn’t an option anymore because she feared that one day her body would simply refuse to lift the density of existence. On the very last day of her life, she decided to take a visit to one of her favorite gardens. Strangers’ eyes bore holes through her fragile, aging body, but she tried her best to smile and reflect love. There was something definite about the steps that she was taking; they were firm, yet gentle and sure of themselves—as if her feet knew it was the last time they would ever kiss every patch of earth she walked on.

The garden was overgrown and blossoming with life. Rose bushes tangled and choked dandelions while patchworks of daisies made nature seem like a professional seamstress. Tulips opened their petals wide to the sky and large sunflowers overlooked the entanglement of

blooming scenery. On the far right of the garden, there was a weeping willow tree whose trunk had memorized the curve of her spine from the many years she had laid her head against him. Just like her, he was an allusion to all of the things that being and feeling brought along, so their relationship was one of understanding. He never spoke, and neither did she, but they never had to. A soft breeze blew by and stirred the tree’s long and flexible branches. She looked up and saw that dark clouds had managed to quickly move in and coat the sky. Her chest felt empty and anxious at the thought of such a beautiful moment being destroyed by heavy storms. “I could have easily checked the weather and avoided this,” she said out loud. “I could have easily stayed home and stayed dry.” As the words flew away with the gusts of air that began to furiously shake the willow tree, a small ladybug landed on one of her fingers. She had cried into her hands plenty of times, so they became filled with beautiful crystals that she admired for the way they reflected light so gracefully. Seeing the delicate red and black ladybug against the solidity of her own body, contrasted against the angry storm that had begun to take place, caused something inside of her to stir. The emptiness in her chest felt deeper than anything she had ever felt before, but looking at the beauty and simplicity of the small bug made her heart swell with joy.

She felt too much all at once, so she began to sob. Her chest heaved and her legs shook and collapsed beneath her when she tried to get up. Her eyes turned red and bloodshot, but her wailing didn’t end. She cried for the ladybug’s graceful beauty; she cried for the storm whose raging anger would no doubt rip apart the most beautiful parts of her favorite garden; she cried for the people who would never see her as beautiful; she cried for the people who would never see themselves as beautiful; she cried for the pain they kept inside; she cried for every centimeter of emotion that had ever existed on planet earth until her tear ducts were entirely empty. When her crying stopped, the world around her stood still. The garden was indisputably destroyed, but the sun cautiously peeked out and promised renewal. The weeping willow tree’s long limbs brushed gently against something hard, and he was immediately devastated when he realized what he was touching.

Her body lay there, beautiful and glowing beneath the crystallization caused by all of her tears. She was a giant gem, glimmering underneath the sunlight that streamed in through the tree’s branches. Her eyes were closed, and she looked the most peaceful she had ever been in her entire life. She had felt harder than anyone had ever felt. She had never been more present in her entire life, so the tree thought she would have been happy with the way the world had decided to let her go. Raindrops slid gently down blades of grass and the universe breathed a sigh of relief. On the very tip of her finger, beneath the layers of crystal that decorated the entirety of her body, sat the tiny little lady bug, red with black spots.

Embroidery

By: Halden Ingwersen
Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia

 

The correct answer

when given the choice between permission

and forgiveness, is the third.

Pierce the needle through

your pressed lips

and draw tight the waxy thread

to feel the tensed pull.

The black seam

stitched across your mouth

is safe.

Ask neither and do neither.

Simply sit and wish,

and sew.

Catch and Release – a Ghost Story

By: Pearl Thompson
Mills College, Oakland, California 

log jams unseen underwater obscured

turbulence – the reflection of clouds

tricky swift undercurrents swirl

invisible to the eye ashore and at a distance

dragged under: the boy in the life jacket whom we cried about over the landline

tossed against the rocks: the girl I had never met, but we were both thirteen at the time

—-

you swim up and down rivers and trickling rivulets

out of the current and into the shallows

run through foamy sand-brown surf

throwing pebbles and crystalline salt in your wake

the television says the smooth beaches and gentle creeks of my memory are deadly

and on bad days I believe this is true and recall tsunamis and flash floods instead

—-

in familiar forest layers I take comfort

under the trees because the rain falls softer there

but rapidly and unexpectedly

there is a forest fire whirling out into the downpour

I am simultaneously the flames and the pouring rain, a riptide in a mountain stream

a salmon leaping up a waterfall, vision blurred by clouds of mist and smoke and memory

A True African Woman

 

 

By Nampewo Josephine & Kobugenyi Grace
African Rural University, Uganda

 Content Warnings: Mentions of rape and physical abuse

She gave life, she is a wife, she is a mother and she is a friend.

She is a sister and a survivor to the end,

appreciate her, we don’t dare.

Ask her worries, we don’t care,

wipe away her tears, they are invisible as air.

She works, cooks and cleans. She laughs, helps, comforts and hides her pain.

When you struggle, she pulls you through, and what do we do?

Complain and create a mess, provide stress and leave her feeling depressed.

Push her away and ignore her advice

Tell her she is nothing without thinking twice.

She was raped, tortured and abused.

Told she was nothing and would always be used just for pleasure to forget her pain.

She swallows her pride, puts her feelings aside.

She does as you need in order for you to be free.

She ignores your ignorance and tolerates your flaws.

You call her bitch, slut, and tramp, she answers with pride, dignity and a complete loss of self.

You call her nothing and I call her strong, smart and sensual.

Good Morning

Dianne Honan, Brenau University, Georgia, United States

The kitchen glows.

I lean gently

against the stone counter,

wincing as my thigh grazes

the cabinet door.

The peach in my hand

is heavy.

I roll my fingers around

its flesh,

and gaze out the window.

Finches chirp outside;

the trees sway with the tune

and the mother bird feeds her chick –

open-mouthed –waiting

for the broken worm.

I wait too,

for the sound of your boots.

Your silhouette moves

through the doorway

and your hands cover my bare shoulders.

Fingertips tracing the length of my arms,

you find the fruit in my hand.

Squeezing too hard,

you bruise that too.

A Letter to My Lost

Taylor Frost, Hollins University, Virginia, United States

 

To my own,

I think about you every day–

you are my morning thought, my midnight

prayer. I think about your undetected heartbeat,

about your undeveloped lungs, about your freckled

cheeks, about your rose petal lips never curling

into a smile, about your forehead and your nose

and your fingertips and the bottoms of your feet

and all of the delicate skin that I will never touch,

that I will never press against my crooning mouth

just to see your curious eyes open.

I think about the way your father would look

with your miracle body cradled in his arms–

I see him kissing the tips of your ears, weaving

lullabies into your corn silk hair, laughing into

your reaching, open palms. I see him spooning

drops of amber honey on to your tongue, feeding

you tales of peach fuzz summers, of afternoons

spent chewing honeycomb on your great-grandfather’s

farm. I see him in the dark, bare feet lifting from the cold

kitchen floor, raising you up, holding you face to face

with the moon.

I think about who I could have been with you–

the kind of mother who would wash your muddy legs

in the bed of a quiet river on a Sunday, the kind

of mother who would carry you up a mountain

on my back to watch your first sunrise, the kind of mother

who would plant honeysuckle beneath your window,

the kind of mother who would pull you out into the storm

just so that you could taste the rain. I would be the kind

of mother to count your first steps, your oceans of tears,

your lost teeth, the number of stars in your vast, endless sky.

There is a word in the Portuguese language

that refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone

that you love and which is lost, Saudade.

That is what I call you.

Her Conflicts With Life

Zhang Xiaowen, Ginling College, Nanjing, People’s Republic of China 

 

“When I am standing in front of you, you will see both my old wounds and healing.” Every time I read these words, I tend to think of my mom, who once underwent those sufferings and miseries in her life while always carrying on without any pains. This is the portrayal of her life and she calls all her troubles, conflicts with life, as said in a casual interview.

That was a sunny afternoon; she sat beside me on the sofa, wearing a gentle smile on her face the whole time. She was just ready to start our interview which was for a piece of my assignment. I needed to learn about an honorable female around me to gain some new perspectives on females nowadays. The person I chose was my mom, whom I thought was worth speaking of. Except for this chance I would never have in-depth knowledge about her. Accepting my invitation with pleasure, she responded to each question in detail, recalling her memory of the past little by little. Everything was told in a light and peaceful way, seeming to have nothing to do with her at all. At that moment, it was just like telling stories to others, great pains and sorrows all going away, but as a listener, I could clearly feel bitterness in her words. Those so-called conflicts were not so easily skimmed over.

Mom was not fortunate enough to be born in a family capable of keeping her warm and fed, instead, she had to strive for her living all along. Maybe this could be the start of her conflicts. The family took it for granted that she should take on more work and responsibilities because of her identity that she was the older one of the two children and she was a girl. This meant that she ought to take care of her brother and always gave the priority to him. Thus, it was almost impossible for her to focus on study. Everyday after she was dismissed from school, she used to hurry back home and prepare dinner for parents after a hard day. There was nearly no more time left for her to deal with her own things and she merely adapted herself to such a life pattern without complaints, regarding them as her duty. As time passed by, she grew up, dropping out of school at the age of 16 and working in a textile mill. The tasks were usually heavy and tiring. She was forced to be strong in order to tackle the tough work, which required her to stand from early morning to late night and finish her daily workload before leaving. I once saw a photo of her during that period, in which she looked quite thin and weak. I could hardly imagine how she went through all these sound and safe, and what a determined will she had. Luckily or unluckily, she met my biological father later, with whom she fell in love and got married regardless of great disapproval from her parents. She left the former home and built a family of three people downtown. In spite of her marriage, she still continued with her career. In my childhood, I could only remember her setting out early and returning late everyday. It could be said that she spared no effort to work and support the family, and at this moment, life just had another conflict with her. I felt her regret, due to the idleness and irresponsibility of my father. After several quarrels, he finally left, taking away everything except me. I was only 6, just realizing that I had to live without a father and nothing would change, but this was totally wrong. I didn’t know that if her parents hadn’t offered her some help, what our life would have been, and if she hadn’t chosen to work and live independently, what would have been the ending. Gratefully, she found a new job and kept struggling to seek a livelihood both for herself and me. Apart from going to work with me, sometimes she made my grandparents look after me. She tried her best to raise me up and create a life for me as good as others’, giving me an equal opportunity to receive education. Although I really didn’t understand all that she had done for me, now her image became taller and clearer. It was my mother that sent me to school and picked me up no matter if it rained or snowed; it was my mother that helped me improve my study with the knowledge she learned by herself. Carefully evaluated by anyone, she was sure to be a qualified mother. She stuck to fighting her way on her own and was brave to confront the conflicts. Pain always came to her, however, she was able to recover from it with perseverance and optimism.

After conflicts, there would surely be something cheerful. In her thirties, she met my stepfather, a trustworthy and hardworking man. She viewed their marriage as a kind of blessing and cherished it with gratitude. Her life seemed to be changed and her conflicts with life were gradually relieved. She is now living a happy and quiet life without rushing about and heavy worries. According to her words, she has no other big dream or want from life but the well-being of the whole family. Only when people had witnessed different incidents, could they fully understood the true meaning of life, and she was fortunate to get the key point of it.

Thanks to those conflicts with life, she knew how to treasure happiness and fight against other troubles in her future life. During the dark years, she held up on hope alone and made every attempt to strive for a pleasant ending. What pushed her to seek for and get ultimate happiness are those torturing conflicts and sufferings. This was the right golden rule in life.

When her words finished, she still smiled. I almost had an illusion that her whole life was presented before my eyes, making my heart full of complicated emotions. Looking at her through warm lights, I suddenly felt satisfied and proud. This was my mom, the winner in her fight with conflicts.

To Thought

Alina Siddiqui, Barnard College, New York, United States


I.

Do you ever talk and while talking, suddenly

you don’t know what’s coming out of your mouth anymore,

where did all your thoughts go?

and you stutter and stop.  you don’t know where.

and your conversation partner nods. Saving

you from the humiliation of acknowledging your

probably words,

lost in translation between the oceans in your mind.

Her nods invite you to trail off and

there.

the thought never needed to exist, says the peculiar

reassuring rearrangement of her eyebrows.

II.

My heart muscles are weak, I think

if a cigarette was found between my lips again

I would die on the spot.

so I run on the treadmill.

I start off fast.

trying to keep up with the beating of my heart, I run faster.

If I lower the speed, I’m out of sync.

worse,

I cannot keep balance without holding on to

the handrails.

I watch people fly and fall off besides me,

but I can only bear to stain the rubber rail

with the ever-present sweat of my palms,

while my tense rib muscles forbid my lungs

from collapse.

This is enough.

III.

I’ve always wondered,

tell me if you’ve wondered this too,

how long runaway balloons survive

floating in the great blue sky?

I think, the burst

might have to do with pressures,

I’d ask a physicist if I knew one,

where to find one,

how to approach one.

I wonder if this physicist would understand

my want to know

what happens.

to the ribbon, the knot, the shattered rubber,

I wonder if they ever touch land.

Brookdale Park

Megan Jacobs, Mills College, California, United States
 

Sitting in the dugout

I dig in

Wondering who will wander

into this park after dark

A girl runs the bases backward

on a pink and white

Princess bike

She stands

hair whipping

the texture of the dirt vibrating through metal

through her cells

tassels streaming on the left handlebar

the right one bare

The young men

with their bodies

sweating

skid and skim

Along the surface of the blue court

like insects on a concrete lake

nervous, erratic

aggressive

From somewhere comes

the scent of a sprinkler

the wind nips a little

and we all try

in our ways

to put off the dissolution of summer

A Divided Spirit Monologue

PaChia Vang, St. Catherine University, Minnesotta, United States
 

I’ve always felt like the odd bird among family and friends.  I don’t fit in completely with a crowd.  Don’t tune out on me just yet.  I promise you, this isn’t one of those monologues about how I am a unique circumstance or misfit and no one on the entire face of this earth understands me.

You see, I am a Hmong-American woman having double values and living a double lifestyle.  I have what you call a divided spirit.  I grew up with people wondering what ethnicity I was.  Not because I am Asian and I look “exotic,” but I am not like other Hmong girls.  I know because I have been told this and it is often implied wherever I go.  On a black to white spectrum, black being Hmong and white being white-American or vice versa, I’m definitely gray… gray to the max.

My parents had me after they graduated from the University of Minnesota.  They did not raise my precocious older brother, crazy younger sisters, and me as traditionally as other Hmong parents.  My parents were young and laid back.  They wanted to take us on road trips through out the country, rather than inform and remind us about our own culture.

I grew up in a household where I was taught to speak and read in English and watch re-runs of Little House on the Prairie or English period dramas (I’m an Anglophile because of it.)  Occasionally, my mom would dress my siblings and me in Hmong clothing and blast a traditional Hmong song for us to dance to.  That was occasionally.

My Hmong race and culture barely crossed my mind at times.  Sometimes, I forgot I was Hmong.  I would forget about my yellow complexion, chinky eyes and smaller than average frame.  I was just a girl with a big imagination and ethnicity had nothing to do with who I was.

I had bigger than life dreams.  I was going to be an excellent writer and tell extraordinary stories.  I was going to be an influential person.  I was going to be more than a Hmong-American girl.

~ ~ ~

Now at 20 years old, I see my yellow complexion, chinky eyes and smaller than average frame.  My ethnicity has everything to do with who I am.  I may be a Hmong- American woman who dreams of doing bigger than life things, but there is one thing I hold close to my heart.

Sometimes, I feel like I would let go of everything to tend to my extended family.  I love all my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.  They are the roots that keep me grounded in my Hmong culture.  I continue to practice and learn about Hmong culture from older family members.  I hear my language and it is a beautiful song.   I don’t speak my native language as fluently or often as I would like to.  I can speak little bits and pieces of Hmong here and there, but I could not speak Hmong to save my life.  It’s always been hard for me to pick up my native language.

One of my favorite things to do when I am not binge watching Downton Abbey or talking to my college friends about being a writing superhero that saves the patriarchal world from its demise, is working with the gorgeous, witty, and strong women in my family at traditional Hmong gatherings.  I love the energy that is present.  There is tons of laughter, undivided support and words of wisdom that come from my grandmothers, aunts and cousins.  While we skillfully perform cooking and cleaning tasks, we reminisce over funny stories, usually about raising kids.  Not only is it truly amazing to hear what kids these days are saying or doing, but it is astonishing to know what they will bring to our family legacy.

I am divided.  Sometimes I wonder if I should be like the women in my family.   Instead of pursuing life in a fast pace individualistic society, what if I settled down for the simpler things in life: follow tradition, raise a family and get a small stable job that will pay the bills, but not place me in a powerful position?  These women I speak of, are just as influential as the ones I acknowledged as a girl.  The ones that I found were beyond what a Hmong-American girl was.

My ethnicity has everything to do with who I am, but I am a divided spirit.

Frozen Solitary

Amanda Carpenter, St. Catherine University, Minnesotta, United States

 

Snow-covered fields stretched beyond the horizon, bisected only by a flat stretch of freeway teeming with interstate truckers and fun-seeking motorists escaping the city. Beyond the closed space of my stopped car, the wind whipped the bare branches of trees, curling them like the bony fingers of a specter, beckoning in the watery last rays of the day.

Thirty minutes earlier I had been driving down the road, my husband my passenger. His words came out, fueled by the alcohol he had guzzled at the bar that he thought he’d hidden from me. He couldn’t hold hard liquor, it did something to him. He was supposed to behave – we were on our way to meet my friends.

“I want out.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, thinking I had misheard him, “do you have to throw up?” I glanced at him while merging onto the gray, four-lane interstate, falling in place between monstrous semis.

“You have life insurance on me, right?” he asked, his eyes open too wide as he turned to me.

“Huh?” I tried to keep my eyes on the slightly uneven road as a semi braked before me.

“You’ll be better off.”

When I swerved to avoid a pothole on the overhead light came on and the seatbelt alarm dinged.

“What are you doing?” I yelled, jerking hard left, praying no one was next to me as his door slammed shut.

“I’m getting out of the car. This is the nicest thing I can ever do for you.” The look in his eyes was different, a calm lucidity behind a manic, alcohol-infused veneer. His eyes never left mine as he opened the door again and I aimed for what I hoped was the shoulder.

“I’m going 65 miles an hour and we’re surrounded by semis,” I screeched, my tone matching the scalding tires on the frozen pavement as I skidded to the shoulder, kicking up sand and road debris. The car jerked to a stop. But he was already out, his door left open to a snow-covered field. Another semi roared past, rocking the car with me still inside.

“Get back in the car!” I screamed to his fading back.

He walked unsteadily. The snow, higher than his knees, didn’t stall him from leaving me. I watched him raise his hood while I dialed his number with shaky hands. I was dismissed to his voicemail. “Hi, you’ve reached Tim.” He sounded normal. He sounded like my husband.

Tears of frustration and confusion welled. I would never catch him. Hip-high snow stood between us. I needed help. My friends were still an hour away. His friends were still at the bar, just a few minutes back.

“Tim just jumped out of the car – he’s walking through a field.”

“Yeah, right. Tell Tim he’s an asshole,” friend number one laughed, disconnecting.

Panicked I looked to the field, he was getting smaller. Too much adrenaline surged through my hands, I misdialed. “Don’t hang up,” I screamed at friend number two. “Tim really jumped out of the car and he’s walking through a field in the middle of nowhere. We’re still an hour from home.” The tears began spilling out of my eyes, frigid tracks on my cheeks as the wind howled through his open door.

I listened to the apologies. I must have given them directions to the dirt road I was now on. I could drive no farther into the field. Tim’s door still stood open. I watched as he trudged further through the hollow field as I sat in silence. Wherever we were it didn’t smell like cold snow. There were no smells of pine or spruce, of wood burning beneath the smoking chimneys of the farmhouses surrounding me, not even the smell of diesel exhaust from the semis thundering down the highway. We were in a void. A scentless void on the side of a highway. Hopeless thoughts flooded my brain: who jumps out of a moving car on a highway? The tears fell again. My husband, that’s who. My husband jumps out of a moving car on a highway. A busy highway.

The sun settled farther in the horizon, making way for the moon’s solace. The branches of the barren trees gave him safe passage while snagging the coats and the hair of the friends and farmers running through the field after him. From a distance they looked like children frolicking joyfully, ready to build a snowman. In reality my husband leapt to evade the people trying to catch him, ready to end his life if they would have just let him be.

Someone called the police – the phone was warm in my hand. A police car and an ambulance sat behind me, the lights flashing blue and red in the twilight. He would be so angry if he ever came back from the field. The dusky white field. Frozen. Solitary. Deafening with silence, devoid of smell. Waiting for the appearance of the distant stars and cover of the cool darkness. More appealing than marriage.

He ran.

I cried.

We said good-bye.

Unromance

Sidney Shank, Meredith College, North Carolina, United States


The first time I was not what you wanted,

you kissed me, and I

kissed you.

Only.

I the passion of bleached bone —

skeletal, seared in sun —

was not awake, when blood beats

red and flush

skin slides skin,

muscles taut,

muscles relax.

Spun from circadian sun,

not lightning strike.

No Juliet here,

wrapped in lover-lust;

just an unflappable fallacy,

and unromance,

and me,

flapping it in ’bye as you

drive away unsated.

The Shouts Echoed More Than the Tumble

Michaela Chinn, Smith College, Northampton, United States


Every Wednesday of that summer in 2000, my papa and I would take the old blue pickup with the crate on top down to the sale barn to find some good live meat. The lure of the place came a half-mile before reaching it when I could smell the ammonia and dirt from the cattle. When we got close the trees would disappear and buildings would emerge. The road became more refined and less bumpy, too. The truck would make its way through the labyrinth of quaking, mooing, and squealing, towards white pavement. We would always park in the back of that colossal brown building we called “The Meat Dealer.”

I remember how, with the rust of the truck’s door stuck under my fingernails, I would crinkle my hands under the sale barn doors to open them, which were withered, heavy, and oiled by the hands of others. I recall, whenever we climbed the stairs to the main door, how papa would be consumed with attention, bombarded with many firm handshakes, ripped to a person’s side for a thank you, and forced to answer the questions being screeched to him like how to get cows to come when called or on how one should handle that terrible man on the corner of Berrytown who liked to poison farm animals. Newcomers would gag at perfume of animal blood and they wouldn’t understand how we all could stand the human heat.

The mooing of cows and squeals of pigs were never ending, and the sale barn was so old, built when my papa was a young boy, it was always creaking and cracking under the slightest movements, even a sneeze! The gritty sawdust all over the floor would get into my mouth somehow. Skinny men in oil-drenched overalls who were scattered in between the forty rows of seats, would be sucking on hot dogs covered in chili or yelling at their wives to take control of their grubby kids. My papa and I would take our same spot, sitting in the middle, smack dab in front of the arena where the animals would be shown.

I would either be chowing down on some spicy pickles or a small hotdog smeared with mustard brought to me by Anna, a pathetic street dog-looking southern woman, ribs in all with nasty yellow hair. She’d shuffle along the sale barn with a greasy yellow tablet taking orders from grubby kids and exhausted mothers. I recall the “cha ching” of the register behind me. The shuffling of Anna who looked like she was going to break every time she moved was always present. Once the sale started, people really began to yap but not me. My eyes would be fixed on the two blonde brothers. The weaker boy had his cattle rod ready and on while his younger but stronger brother, with drops of sweat latched like leeches to his face, would take the first swipe barehanded at whichever beautiful dairy cow got too close for comfort, smacking her right in between those big polished eyes. That cow would make a theatrical tumble, would get covered in the sawdust, and cause even more of it to become airborne, dimming the lighting to a strange woody tint. I remember the place would shake with voices. The skinny men in oil-drenched overalls would raise their numbers after hearing the loud thud of all that weight.

Why I Don’t Date Engineers

Marissa Stephens, Georgia State University (Graduate Student), Georgia, United States
 

Marissa Stephens Photo

Sir Issac Newton sat beneath an apple tree,

finding refuge from me and my fury

at his economical ordering

of a scotch-on-the-rocks-hold-the-rocks

and pondered hackneyed,

the word he’d used to describe I love you,

a phrase not to be overused.

I’d wanted to hear them.

I wanted to hear those hackneyed words

every goddam day

while he played a ukulele outside my window

(preferably in the rain),

and I wanted them carved in a tree trunk,

in every tree trunk in the fucking forest

while he pirouetted about like Orlando in Arden

at their mere utterance,

and he did not know why,

when the apple knocked him on the head,

he felt his eyes well

the moment he knew

we fall because our mass and the earth’s mass

are inversely proportional

to the square of the distance between us.

Affectations

Sarah Hoenicke, Mills College California, United States

 Sarah Hoenicke Picture

“It’s the twenty-first century.  People fall in love on Instagram now.”

Helen was looking at her phone, her neck at such a drastic angle that Matthew felt compelled to stand behind her and pull her shoulders back, her chin in, to line up her spine.  He did just that, and she let him, setting her phone aside.

“We should get going,” she said, pulling away from his hands on her shoulders.  She looked down at her phone again as she walked to the counter and, without looking up, grabbed her keys and purse.

Matthew opened the door and Helen walked next to him down the stairs from their apartment and into the parking lot.  She scrubbed with spit and a fingernail at a spot on her white jeans as she walked. Her hair was slightly static from having been combed and sprayed into the smoothed-over beehive style she liked, and she had to wet the strands sticking to her neck with saliva, too, to get them to stay up.

“Look at this!” she said, and thrust her phone towards him as he dug in his pocket for the key to their Prius.  “They literally met on Instagram and got married three months later.”  She got into the car and buckled her seat belt, scrolling with her thumb through pictures of food and faces and cats and books.

He started the car after putting on his seatbelt.

“I wonder if they’re actually happy, or if they’re like Jeff and Franka, who everybody thought were happy ‘cause of what they posted—their life looked perfect!—and then now look at them, getting a divorce.”

He had just pulled onto the freeway.

“Want to take a break from your phone for a minute?  It’s our only day off together and today was supposed to be special.  Jeff and Franka’s story is sad but I don’t really want to talk about Instagram the whole way.”

She put her phone in the glove compartment and brushed her hands against each other like she was cleaning up after having eaten.

“I don’t like fake trees.”  She was looking out the window and moving her shoulders to the music in an exaggerated way that told him she didn’t actually like the song.

He skipped it.

“These are supposed to be really great, though.  That’s why there’s an expo and everything.  Biodegradable, easily put together and taken apart and stored.  The lights are already on them.  It’ll be so nice not to have to clean up pine needles like last year.  Plus, my boss got us invited and that seemed like a really big deal to her.”

Helen pulled the invitation from her purse—heavy, matte paper, the venue’s insignia printed across the top.  Matthew had said almost word for word what was printed below their embossed names.

“Well, your dad will be impressed.  He was so adamant about us not using tinsel to decorate this year since” – she made air quotes – “‘it will end up in landfills and clogging drains and choking marine animals’.”

Matthew chuckled.  “Yeah, he’s even worse than you.”

Helen took her phone from the glove box and opened the camera app, checking her smile in the reflection of herself on the screen and then leaning toward Matthew and snapping a picture of them both, while he drove.

They pulled into the parking garage; Matthew parked and then walked around to open her door for her.  She smirked at this show of chivalry and slapped his shoulder with the envelope from the invitation.

He mocked shock.  “I see how being nice gets me treated.  No more of that!”

She laughed and hoisted herself out of the car, balancing on her low heels, and deleting old photos on her phone since it had just warned her that she couldn’t capture anything more until she freed up space.

She looked up at Matthew walking toward the stairs, and shut the car door.

“Is it nice when you walk three feet ahead of your wife just because she’s in heels and can’t speed-walk?”

He stopped so she could catch up and then took her hand, making a show of taking tiny steps.

“Stop it.”  She hit him again with the paper and moved ahead of him into the elevator.

They stepped out of the elevator and she turned to him as they walked through a marble hallway towards glass doors. She raised her eyebrows.

“They aren’t kidding,” she said, finger-combing her hair and straightening her shiny shirt.

Matthew laughed and pulled her into his side with one arm, opening the door with the other.

Though it was only the middle of October, a band was playing Christmas music in the far right corner of the ballroom-like space, each of the musicians sporting red ties.  Garlands draped the railings bordering the stairs down into the main space and hung between the pillars supporting the painted ceiling.

They were welcomed by a woman in a long dress and directed toward the open bar on the opposite side of the room from the band.

Matthew retrieved two glasses of red wine and they began to walk from booth to booth.

“I had no idea that so many different companies made Christmas trees,” she said, and sipped her wine.

“The invitation said there would be more than fifty vendors, but not all of them sell trees.”

She rolled her eyes at him and pulled him from the booth they’d stopped at two spots over with a sign that read: No Mess, Traditional Pagan Trees.  Before entering the white tent, she took a picture of the sign.

“Pagan?”

She spoke too loudly—the person running the booth had heard.  He was thin and wore brown leather shoes and a striped shirt tucked neatly into his pants.  Tattoos were visible from his elbows to his wrists; there was a crown of thorns depicted right below his hairline on the back of his neck.

He stuck out his hand.  “Michael Grand.  Welcome.  Our trees are made to look like the trees used by the first celebrators of Yuletide, the holiday stolen and proliferated as Christmas by the Christians.”

“Interesting.”  Matthew said.

“What makes them like the first ones?”  Helen asked.

Michael turned away from them and grabbed the top sheet from a stack of identical matte flyers.

“This has all of our research outlined, and our pricing sheet is on the back.  Now, let me leave you to explore.”  With that, he walked toward the back of the booth and greeted newcomers.

They left Mr. Grand behind and walked to the booth directly adjacent to his, after Matthew had retrieved more wine.

“This is my last one,” he said, when Helen looked at him with her brows raised and her lips parted, like there was a string of words in her mouth, ready to be spit out.

His justification seemed to placate her, because she walked ahead of him and exclaimed, “Oh, look!  They let you put it together!”

The booth had four trees each in varying levels of completeness, and one that was fully assembled in the center.

Helen walked to the first tree, and a small woman in four-inch heels and a tight black skirt came over.

“This is our newest model,” – she turned and pointed to the complete tree at the center of the tent – “and that is what it looks like completed.”

She picked up a few of the branches and pushed them into the holes in the central pole.  The inserted limbs immediately lit up.

“We have our customers assemble some of their tree in store so that you can witness the ease of assembly, and also so that you can see how real an imitation tree can look once it’s finished.”

Helen nodded as the woman talked and turned to Matthew.

“Well, it definitely looks real,” she said, fingering the branches.

She leaned forward, putting her face into the tree.

“It even smells real.”

The saleswoman was still there.

“Oh yes, all of our trees will retain their smell for up to ten years and then you can have the scent replenished for $100—though that price may be adjusted for inflation.”

“Thank you for your help,” Helen said, dismissing her with a smile and a nod.

As soon as the saleswoman was out of auditory range, Helen lifted the pamphlet attached to a branch of the completed tree and turned it over.

“Holy.  This one’s $1500, before tax.”

Matthew whistled.  “We only talked about spending $500.  That’s what we’ve got left on the AmEx right now.  Let’s keep looking.”

They picked a Simple Traditional Evergreen tree made of a kind of plastic touted for its short (by plastic’s standards) but durable life and scanned the AmEx and then another card, because the limit was too low on the first to pay for it.

“It’s an investment,” Helen said, rubbing Matthew’s forearm.  “If we’d gone to a department store or the mall, we would have spent nearly as much for way less quality.”

He sighed.  “Yeah, you’re right.”  He put the credit cards back in his wallet and pulled out the stub from the parking garage.

Helen led the way to the elevator, but stopped right in front it.  She looked back over her shoulder at all the people still milling around the room, at the lights and trees and garland and band.

She pulled Matt into her and extended her arm out in front of them, until she could see their faces on the screen in her hand.

The background looked perfect: a swirl of tipsy faces and bright, colorful lights – Christmas in October.

“Smile, Matt!”

He smiled, and she took a few pictures.  The elevator doors opened.

They rode down to the garage in silence, as Helen made a collage of the pictures from the day and posted it.

The doors opened and she looked up, and then at Matt.

“They said it’ll be delivered in time for the party, right?  And that guy will put it together for us?”

He nodded in response as they walked to the car.

December

“We’ll be paying off this Christmas until next Christmas,” Helen said, and continued to wash the dust off their holiday plates and mugs.

Matthew dried them as he walked between the kitchen and dining room, where he set each place.

“With mom living alone in Alaska now, I really wanted her to have some good company and fun when she came down.  Plus, with nine other people coming, it’ll be nice to have the house presentable.”

He had stopped where he was, next to the table, and was messing with the large red and white floral arrangement at its center.

The wet dishes were piling up.

“I didn’t mean anything by what I just said.  I was just thinking about it,” she said.

She put another plate on the dripping stack.  “Matt, the dishes.”

He looked at his watch as he returned to his task.

“Shit, it’s 10 already.  We only have six hours before everybody gets here.”

“Ah, crap, I didn’t put the clothes in the dryer.”  She ran out of the room and he noticed the sound of the dryer starting a few minutes later.

He heard her feet on the outside stairs next and was irritated at her slow pace.

She came into the kitchen holding red holiday socks and sat down at the table before putting the socks, balled up in her fists, to her eyes and half-moaning, half-grunting.

“What?  What happened?”  Matthew asked.

She didn’t respond right away, so he continued setting the table.

She was crying, he could see that by the way her shoulders shook over the table.

He walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder.

“What?  What happened?  Tell me.”

She looked up, red-faced.

“My socks were in the washer with my dress for today.”  She threw the socks across the room.

“The white dress?”  What this meant sunk in for him, then.  “So the dress is pink?”

She moaned into her forearms where she’d laid her head.

“But you still put everything in the dryer?”

She looked up at him, her face crumpled in annoyance.

“Yeah, it all still needs to be dried, doesn’t it?”

He heard a loud clunking noise coming from downstairs, like a lone shoe in a bag of towels, being swung against the wall.

“Were there shoes in the washer?”

She laughed.  “What?  No.”

“Then what’s that noise?”

She looked at him and lifted her hips off the chair so she could get all the way into her pockets, but she pulled her hands out, empty.

“Fucking A.”

She ran out of the room.  Matthew put the towel he was holding on the table and followed her.

She reached the laundry room first and he heard her open the dryer door while he was still on the stairs.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!”  Helen wailed.

He walked in just as she was pulling her phone out of the dryer, and picking little pieces of the screen out of a towel.

“Ruined!  Just like the dress!”

He knelt down beside her.

“Don’t worry about it, we got insurance, didn’t we?”

“No, we didn’t get insurance!  You were so sure the case would protect it.”  She scowled, but wasn’t looking at him.

He took a deep, audible breath and then began to take things from the dryer one at a time, examining them for glass.

They were both still on their hands and knees picking glass shards out of their socks and towels when Matthew heard his phone ringing upstairs.

“I’m going to go get that,” he said, and took the stairs two at a time.

It wasn’t a number he recognized, but since they were having quite a few out-of-towners over, he answered anyway.

“Hello?”  It was 10:55—they had five more hours.

“Honey, hi!”

“Mom?  Hey!  Why aren’t you calling from your phone?”

“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for hours but the storm has knocked everything out.  No flights.  I won’t be there for dinner like we’d planned.  I’m so sorry, sweetie.”

“You’re not coming?  Are you okay?  Where are you?”

Her laugh came over the line.  “I’m fine, honey, just stranded at the airport.  It’s funny how things work out.  I was so looking forward to seeing you, but I also had some bad feelings about coming.  I have made some changes since moving away from your dad and California and I was going to tell you I’ve decided to stop celebrating Christmas.  I wasn’t sure if I should tell you, since I know you love the holiday, but I guess now I’m being forced to tell you and stop celebrating, since the people here said we’re not likely to get flights out for a week, at least.”  She laughed again.

Matthew sat down on the couch.  “Well, I’m glad you’re safe.”

He said it without feeling and she took his attitude to be a direct result of the news that he wouldn’t be seeing her.

“I’m so sorry, honey.  I did really want to be with you two, it’s just not going to happen today, or any time soon probably.  They’re saying flights might be delayed for up to two weeks or more because of all the snow.”

He was picturing the bill they’d gotten in the mail the week before that had listed the debts incurred by their preparations.  Grocery shopping, the tree, the once white dress, his new shoes, and the new couch they’d purchased because the old one didn’t match the rest of the living room.

Helen walked in from the laundry room carrying their clothes and towels in a plastic Hefty bag.  She passed him, seated on the new sofa.

“Do you smell something burning?”  She was looking at the shattered screen of her phone, which seemed to be working despite its run-in with the dryer.

“Kara and Devin said they’re going to be late.”  She looked at the message showing through her fractured screen and sucked her thumb where the glass had cut her.

He jumped up from the couch, saying, “Shit!” and handing his phone to Helen.

Helen ran after him to the kitchen, his phone to her ear and hers in her other hand, which was also still trailing the plastic bag.

Matthew was pulling the organic vegan stuffing and the Brussels sprouts, both now blackened, from the oven.

Helen hung up on Matthew’s mother.  She had put her own phone to her ear, with care to not actually press the battered device against her skin.

“The bakery just left a message saying that all of their pie deliveries for the day have been delayed by up to four hours.”  Matthew’s posture crumpled at this news.  It really was all going to hell.

Helen leaned against the doorjamb.  She looked at her phone and scrolled through the pictures from the day they’d gotten their tree at the expo.  She came across the one she’d taken while Matt was driving and posted it on Instagram with the tagline: “#throwbackthursday to the magical day we got our #tree!”

Matthew’s phone, which Helen had handed back to him, pinged with the notification generated by her post.

“Really?  Right now?  Your posting right now, while everything’s falling apart?”

Whispers

Julia Zyla, St. Catherine University, Minnesota, United States

 Julia Zyla Picture

Little One looks at the blade of grass with awe.

Eyes follow the dragonfly

Darting through a forest of green stalks.

Iridescent scales dance in the light

With every fine flutter of her wings.

The agile acrobat dips and dives with ease.

Little hands reach upward

In hopes of capturing its beauty.

Digits envelop the creature in darkness.

Little One holds the blue-green wonder to her ear

To hear her secrets.

Eyes close to concentrate curiosity.

Darkness fell upon both worlds

And nothing stirred in the deep

Save a distant pulse.

Suddenly, dispersed Whispers

Disturbed the void with an unmatched purpose.

From every ripple sprouted

Light

Color

Substance.

Symphonic movements created structure.

And Beauty was there.

Calls sound from every direction,

Begging to be answered.

Groans and grumbles shook the foundation.

Barks and shrieks upset the place.

Piercing melodies traveled by heartbeat.

And the allure of every crescendo beckoned for one more

To bask in its glory

And add to the chaotic order.

The epitome of the whispers

Culminated in the birth of

One to behold the mystery.

The foundations rumbled with anticipation,

As the final beginning was conceived.

The Whispers grew

And a tremendous cyclone

Whirled a wonder into form.

And the One marveled and wrestled

With its surroundings.

Newborn eyes surveyed its home,

Overwhelmed by its extent.

The One grew and changed in fascinating

And horrible ways,

Altering itself and the beauty around it.

Water issued forth,

And there was Pain and Happiness.

An immense struggle strangled the Beholder

With no particular cause to speak of,

Blinded from understanding.

Desires and Distractions permeated from its pores,

Poisoning the atmosphere

With Confusion.

And Fear made its foundations

In the flounder,

Confining One to the vestibule.

And the One was consumed

By what it had made.

And it could no longer hear the harmony

Which danced along the light beams

And illuminated the spectacle

That was stirred into being

From the Whispers of the deep.

Darkness fell and eyes were opened.

And Little One looks down

Upon the winged whispers with awe.