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Welcome to our thirty-second issue. Each genre is well represented this round. We continue to receive a record number of submissions – which is great and challenging, too. We wish that we could send along comments to everyone who requests them, but we aren’t able to at this point.

The thirty-third issue of damselfly press will be available October  15, 2015. If you’d like to submit, please first visit our guidelines section and send us your submission by September 15, 2015.

As always, thank to you to all of our submitters.

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TRICK-OR-TREATING AT THE MAPLEWOOD MALL
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Yesterday at the bar I heard a woman ask a man,
“but what do you remember from third grade?”
I didn’t catch his answer but on my bike ride home
I passed a couple standing next to a parked car
in an embrace.
They didn’t move as I passed.
Sometimes I think I want to be alone
but what I really want is for everyone I don’t know
to move closer.
I want to hear what every stranger in the bar remembers
from third grade.
My lunch box was Mickey Mouse,
my backpack was Casper the Ghost,
and my winter coat was red.
I wrote a report on tree frogs
and puked on my board at the class BINGO party.
Then my little sister was born.
My father stood at the top of the stairs with a video camera
the size of a box of Lucky Charms
on his shoulder.
We were watching Jurassic Park in the basement
and then there was a tiny dinosaur on my lap.
It was funny.
I had wanted a doll
so I could tuck her yellow hair behind her ear
and whisper, I promise to love you forever
but she looked like she had just discarded a prehistoric egg
and though I was the one who knew how to love dolls
my mother seemed to know better
what to do with her.
I watched her nurse for the first time
and it was the most ordinary thing.
Her hunting mouth,
her latching on.
She was so certain that this was what she needed
and she was certain of so very little.
Now when I admire a stranger’s baby
I jerk away when I see the white slip of breast.
I don’t mean to—
it is nothing like the homeless man
peeing on the sidewalk in the midday sun
but that is what I think of.
Pretend to act normal.
Pretend to act normal.
Pretend to act normal.
I could turn and ask him,
“what do you remember from third grade?”
and listen
but instead I keep walking.

- Rebecca Yates studied at the University of Minnesota and the University of Iceland. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is a freelance writer and the program assistant for Late Night Debut, a podcast dedicated to first books.

 

Smoking
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She smoked all the time.
She was after some wave of blue sea,
some ribbon of flowers,
some childhood afternoon
with the oven open, an orange October,
her own mother placing warm cookies
on a plate in the kitchen.

Outside the window crimson colors,
and suddenly she was out there
dancing in lightness,
a leaf, whirling, amazing.

She smoked all the time
through my grade school years:
some television show,
some voice in the background.

Once I stood in the doorway
watched her smoke a Marlboro
right down to her fingers.

My beautiful mother
caught in
a swirl
of smoke rings, my mother
a wheel of changing color
in a clouded kaleidoscope.

She invited me to take
a drag of her cigarette.
It was moist with lipstick.
On my small mouth.
Such breath.
A mountain climber exhaling
at 15,000 feet.
A hot air balloon lifting
from a cut cropped field
waiting, waiting for
the burner to ignite.

- Gina Forberg is a recent graduate of the Manhattanville MFA program. She teaches poetry for The Connecticut Writers’ Project at Fairfield University and has published poems in numerous literary journals including The New Delta Review, Anderbo Magazine, and Slant Magazine.

 

ALUM COVE
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I’ve been looking for you everywhere,
but there is always too much space and not enough shadow.
So yesterday, when I entered the cave and sat on the boulder
of smooth sandstone, I found myself weeping
with relief:  it was you, your bones,
where I am home again.  Walls had been gouged
and hollowed by your blood.  The air was cool, away from time
and sun.  I could breathe your voice, I was inside
your chest, looking out
at early spring—redbuds
and dogwood just intimating
once again, with last season’s dead leaves
floating slowly, hanging in mid-air,
rusted butterflies.

- Some of Joy Dworkin’s poems have appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Paris Review, and Many Mountains Moving.  A mom, a student of mbira dzaVadzimu, and a long-time admirer of Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova, she teaches world literature at Missouri Southern State University.

 

After Building A Stage

All afternoon they test the sound.
Huge syllables of mwohs and hwans
Burst in clouds across the square.
I listen on the balcony as if
I really need to know -
But the words are moans.

Maybe the young men in shorts
Are playing the game we played
Underwater in a pool,
Guessing what each other mouths -
Abstract things like art or purple
Now just elongated vowels.

When we hear the music later,
None of us decipher the lyrics.
With wine and age,
We’ve also lost our nouns.
We dance anyway -
Seven floors up, above the crowd.

- Emily Buchanan is a publisher and writer who grew up in the U.S., studied South African literature in college, and eventually moved to South Africa.

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My Mother’s Mouth

My mother’s mouth has always been full of words. They crowded in, under, and above her tongue until they pressed tight to the roof of her mouth. Sometimes her cheeks bulged with just a few, but sometimes there were so many that they would choke her until she was forced to let them escape with loud heaving coughs. When she read stories to me at night, I pieced together the letters that fell from her mouth and followed along rather than studying the symbols on the pages. After she turned off the lights and left me alone, I would fall asleep with the words still clutched in my hands. I would walk into a room and find her sitting with a word or two on her tongue, tossing them from the back of her teeth towards her tonsils like a dealer tossing the dice. Once, after we had had an argument about a boy that I thought I had been in love with, I spent hours being angry at her smug words lying on the kitchen table in bright hues. She left them there, declining to throw them out just to annoy me.

“I can’t even find my tongue; how can you expect me to hold it?”

“That’s not funny,” I had told her.

“No, it’s not, but it’s all I’ve got.”

 
She has always been the most transparent person in my life. Threats always come out hallow, sarcastic comments could hit as cold as ice, and loving jokes were warm and soft despite their harsh edges. She was never mysterious or complicated. I never had to guess at her intentions.  The confusion only came when she was too excited and the words would begin to gush out before she had a chance to arrange them or consider what she was trying to say.

 
My grandmother and father had always been the most patient with her. They could sit for as long as she needed to rearrange words, try to make sense of them, or stick them back into her mouth to save for later. I asked my grandmother how she could sit still and wait so easily; the gene for patience must have resided in her but skipped right past me. She told me about a screaming toddler who hurled the word No from her mouth on an hourly basis. She told me about a scared little girl choking on the word monster after her uncle let her stay up late to watch a horror movie. Then she told me about my mother as a heartbroken girl who lost her crush to her best friend in the seventh grade.

“She came home with tears streaming down her face and a bad case of the hiccups. And with every little hiccup, I got more words. I got the name of her best friend and then there was a boy’s name and hurt and hate. So we sat together and rearranged the words into a letter so she could tell her friend how she felt. But by the morning, they had all disappeared. She got over it and they just faded away.”

“Weren’t you annoyed?”

“All of our feelings fade in time. Hers are just a little more obvious about it.”

 
I can’t count the number of times that I stood by while my mother tried to take back hurtful words. It was hard to deny that they had been said when they were still scattered around on the floor or being frantically shoved into her purse. One particularly loud fight with my father had left brands of letters on her skin that healed and faded but never disappeared.

The day before my aunt married her first husband, she and my mother were fighting in the kitchen. Even as a child I knew that loud voices suddenly dropping to harsh whispers was a bad sign. I stood around the corner, listening but unable to hear their words. When one of my mother’s words tumbled my way, I picked it up and held it in my hand for a moment before I registered how hot it was. By the time I dropped it, her heated word had left my fingers blistered and I was too scared to risk asking for her help. I spent the entire day with my hands behind my back. My only memory of the ceremony is the feeling of the petals on my still sensitive skin as I walked down the aisle scattering them. After the divorce, I stayed clear of any room that contained both women.  I didn’t want to test the temperature of the I told you so that my mother had been chewing on for weeks.

 
My mother could not be trusted with secrets but she was great at Scrabble and helping with my homework. Anytime I was searching for a word, I could literally snatch it from the tip of her tongue. Most of the words that she aimed my way were soft colors and textures. She woke me up for school with good mornings that were soft as clouds and her sweet dreams and goodnights hummed and twinkled like stars. When I broke up with my first boyfriend, she fed me ice cream and told me that her last words to her first crush has been so cold that she, well aware of how ice can stick to hot skin, had used mittens to throw them out.

“I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing it stuck to my hand when I went to school the next day,” she told me.

“Did you melt them down before grandma and grandpa came home?”

“Yes. Well, I threw his name against the wall because I wanted to watch it shatter. Your grandmother came home while I was cleaning it up, and I was so embarrassed. I mumbled something about dropping the ice tray, but I don’t think she bought it.”

 
My mother went to a very good college, and she let her education go to her head. When she was being pretentious, which was often, the words that spilled from her lips seemed to have been manufactured by an antique printing press. Her lips were often stained blue by the ink. She came home from school every vacation ready to fight with her parents about the political issues that she had been studying in class. Every picture of my mother from her years in college makes her look like she had just finished enjoying a blue Popsicle. These pictures always make my grandparents laugh, they have them framed all over their home.

She had a fear of sleeping in front of people. In junior high, she had accidentally fallen asleep in class and was abruptly woken up by the sound of her teacher banging his hand down on her desk. She had blinked and looked around to see the last words of her dream floating to the ground like paper airplanes. She had been dreaming of flight. Her teacher had stopped class to stand and watch as she, her face bright red, scurried around to clean up the mess. Too afraid to ask to walk to the trashcan, she had clenched her fists around the words until they finally faded away. After that day, she avoided sleepovers with friends, and as an adult she pinched herself to stay awake on trains. No matter how long the commute, or how far away she travelled, she never slept in public.

My father always laughed when she expressed this insecurity. He had always loved sleeping next to my mother. He told us that her dreams comforted him at night when stress kept him awake.

“Reading her dreams is better than reading any book.” Of course, he loved to see his own name falling from her lips, but he smiled when he saw mine as well. On the night that I graduated from college, my father had been drinking enough to tell me his secret.

“Sometimes I keep them.”

“Keep what, Dad?”

“Your mom’s words. At night, sometimes she has these dreams, and they’re so beautiful. She’ll be lying there asleep, and these words like pillows just kind of tumble out of her mouth. I’ve been doing it for years.”

“What kind of words?”

“Words about how much she loves us. And I just can’t watch them fade away, or wait for her to throw them out in the morning. So I put them in this box under our bed. And I do it enough that the box stays pretty full, you know? They fade, but there are always more, always another night.”

 
There have been times in my mother’s life when she has enjoyed her quirk. On a warm summer night, our faces flushed with wine and our fingers stained with juice from the fruit salad that we had been picking at, my mother told me about the night that she and my father first used the word love.

“I don’t remember who said it first. It was probably him. But I know that, if it was, then I said it right back.” The words led to one kiss that led to another. Hours later, love still had not faded away.

“We pushed the words back and forth between our mouths all night. It was warm and kind of squishy. It tasted like cherry cobbler.”

When my acceptance letter to my top choice university arrived, I rolled my eyes at my mother’s enthusiasm. She responded by catching her words of pride that fell from her mouth to her hands and letting out loud laughs while throwing them at me. I rolled my eyes, but carried them around in my pockets for weeks. I walked through the halls of my high school, sitting in class and talking with friends, my fingers constantly reaching down to trace the curves of the letters.

My parents often joked that I was an only child because I had been such a handful as a toddler. The words bounded off me, empty and light. They said that they loved me so much, that there was no room in their hearts to love another child. The words were heavier and warm. They had not wanted another child. I was enough for them. They did not want to try for another.

I tried and tried. I was twenty-five when I married my husband. We knew we had time, so we weren’t too concerned when I did not get pregnant right away. When I was thirty, I found out that I would never be able to conceive. We invited my parents over a week later to let them know. My mother sat still for a moment. Her hands held mine and squeezed once before releasing them and moving up to her mouth. She caught the words that hung there and handed them, one by one, to my husband and me They carried the beating rhythm of her heart, as if they were still connected to it. The words kept coming, but several were repeated over and over. You, us, family, love.

 
The last time my mother was in the hospital, I couldn’t stop myself from constantly thinking about my parents’ favorite story. It happened when my mother was giving birth to me. While pushing, she let out an arsenal of words so colorful that my father had been shocked that she could be so creative. The words were expertly aimed at him as he tried to simultaneously guard his face with one hand and hold on to hers with the other. The words were hard and sharp but hollow. They were bright too, much brighter than the hospital lights that were aimed down at them.

Hours later, after I was successfully brought into the world and my exhausted and relieved mother found her mouth open but empty for the first time, my father’s job was not yet done. While my mother slept, he was in charge of bagging up all the words that had stubbornly stayed put scattered around the floor of my mother’s hospital room.

“I felt like I was committing some kind of crime, sneaking though the maternity ward with this bulging bag of profanity in search of a dumpster.”

“Did you get stopped?” I asked the first time I heard the story.

“No. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you just pick your head up and walk like you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, no one will question you.”

I told the story to my mother one afternoon while visiting her in the hospital. I held her hand and told her the story the exact same way that it had been told to me. She smiled and laughed at the right times, but I don’t think she realized that the story was really hers, instead of mine.

 
The words that we gather into bags now occasionally have some colorful language in them, but they are usually not words at all. Letters tumble out from shaky lips and we try to piece them together for her. Sometimes she reaches between her lips, searching for a specific word, but the letters that she studies make no sense. Some days she is coherent enough to have something to say, but the letters just refuse to cooperate and put themselves in the right order. The words are disappearing quicker too. Sometimes they end with a short pop moments after they make their debut. Other times they stick around long enough for us to solve the puzzle for her.

After her last stroke, the doctor let us take her home and we were all relieved that we could all stop walking down those gloomy halls and into the depressingly sterile room. I know that most nights, my father continued to hold her while keeping himself awake. At night, the floorboards creaked as he got up to retrieve her words and sift through the chaos looking for anything coherent. I listened to him from my old room, my husband asleep next to me, fighting for space in the tiny bed. My mother was asleep down the hall, oblivious to the tense atmosphere around her. Only my father and I would still be awake, both of us wondering if she was happy in her dreams, or if the confusion from her waking life chased her there.

 
The day that my mother died, I went into their room and searched for my father’s secret stash. I don’t think he remembers telling me about it: my family has a habit of loosing our drunken memories. I used to look through the box once a year, usually on a night that I was especially sad or lonely. I would dig my fingers in and pull out random samplings of words, reading the truth of my mother’s love for us. The box is emptier now than I’ve ever seen it, but it’s still heavier than it looks. The words that are there are still dense with emotion and they’ve heated the bottom of the box enough to make it too hot to touch.

I considered telling my father to seal the box forever so he won’t have to open it one day and find it empty. I know that the words will disappear one day and I don’t want him to have to face seeing the bottom of the box, or feel its lack of weight when the contents are all gone. I’m worried that he would call me and I would not know how to fix it for him. But I’m more worried that he won’t call at all. I decide that I would rather have him look under the bed and find that the box is gone than open it to that heavy realization.

When I get home, I open the box one last time. Her smell drifts up to my nose and I can’t resist bringing my face down to feel her warm words on my skin. Time passes, and eventually I force myself to close the box one last time and give it to my husband. I realize that the box has the power to break more than just my father. I shut the lid on my mother’s words and decide that I can pretend that they will remain sitting there forever. I save myself from having to lose my mother all over again on some day in the future. I want to remember the feel of her words warm on my skin, not the emptiness of a box where they used to sit.

- Marcy Braidman recently obtained her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College.  She spend her days working at a nonprofit serving system involved youth and her nights planning a move to the west coast.

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For All We Know
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I took a picture of my son when he was two years old, blowing a dandelion. His cheeks puckered in the sun, his eyes squinting, his invisible breath just catching the flyaway seeds. He stood in the backyard of the old small house we lived in on Garfield Avenue when he was little. The sun, now, is in the past, like the small boy and the dandelion. Fifteen generations of dandelions have lived and died since then. His father and I have divorced. We’ve moved. He’s just about to graduate from high school. I’m not even sure where that photo ended up. But I remember taking it, that moment, his blonde hair impossibly bright in that light.

Today, he played a Mozart piece in a piano competition in the river town of Marietta, focused and serious, his blonde head bobbing. He rushed through the swirl of notes as if they were the only things in the world. And really, they were. I sat and listened, watched this boy, this man, with his music.

This is what he sends into the world now: notes, as momentary as dandelion seeds, as true.

***

My mom shut the door on my finger thoughtlessly, going to open the gate on our dirt road, the gate between the Maxwells and the Bowens. I had my hand up there on the corner of the door, where she’d told me not to put it so many times before. And this was why: this long, excruciating moment. I cried out. She turned back, looking at my finger bent through the metal crack. She opened the door and gathered me in her arms.

My mom carried me hurriedly up the road, to where a rusty metal pipe leaked fresh creek water onto the sand. She lowered me to the ground and held my throbbing, bleeding hand in the water. Her breath came in heavy, frantic gulps. I gasped at the coldness of the water. But even in the midst of the shattering pain, I lapped up my mother’s attention. The fact that, for the moment, I was everything, the only thing. Me and my finger, there in the creek water. The rusty pipe. My mom’s worried grey eyes watched me, waiting for the pain to pass.

This is what happens, with pain. Swiftly it arrives, as if it had always been there. And maybe it had. Maybe all those pain-free moments of watching ribbons of sagebrush pass out the car window, of lazily taking in sunlit squirrels on the deck through the sliding glass door on a Sunday morning – maybe those moments are a lie. The twist of a vertebrae, the slam of metal: these are a kind of broken bedrock. Reliable. Familiar. True.

***

My son, fourteen. In a raft of his own. On the New River in West Virginia. I’m not sure what possessed me to take my children rafting on the New River, to assent to my son getting his own raft. They called it a “duckie.” A raft like a small kayak. He loved it.

My daughter paddled with me in my double duckie. I didn’t think we’d have any problems. But I worried about my son. As we pushed off, he smiled, gave me a thumbs up. He knew I was worried. He didn’t care.

Most of the section of the river we paddled was calm and uneventful. The late summer heat and dryness had lowered the river to something just above a stream.

When we approached Surprise Rapids, though, I knew we’d be seeing some whitewater. My daughter and I took the rapids first, following our guide’s advice and pointing directly into them, the water splashing and rocking us until we landed in the pool below. I looked back and saw my son cresting the top of the rapids, and then nothing. He’d flipped. I couldn’t see where he went, but I saw his boat floating, forlornly, near us.

“My son!” I screamed. “My son flipped! Someone help him! Where is he?”

Rafters near us smiled.

“It’s OK,” a man called. “He’s right here. We’ll get him.”

I saw my son swimming, the sun and the water lapping on his strong arms. Fourteen, but strong, I saw, maybe for the first time. He clung to the other raft, and they helped him get his paddle and climb back into his own.

“Are you OK?” I called.

He smiled at me, shaking his head and spraying water everywhere like a young dog.

“I’m fine, mom,” he said. “Stop freaking out.”

And so I did. We paddled on.

***

My mom always wanted a plain pine box. So here’s what she got: a smooth, solid pine casket with pine needles etched on the top. Heartbreakingly beautiful, really. And to think we got it at Costco. The guy at the funeral home was a jerk about it.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you buy mass-produced caskets like that,” he said.

What could go wrong? How would they not measure up? I was too muddled from grief to understand his meaning or to think of something to say in response, but not muddled enough to give in to his tactics.

We ordered the casket and had it delivered, and the funeral people laid my mom out in it, because that’s what they do, if you tell them to. They take delivery of mass-produced caskets (which are not at all like, presumably, the hand-carved wonders in their showroom), and they lay mothers out in them, and they arrange things pretty well in the end.

We stood out there in the shade on that August day in the desert. And despite the dusty haze, we could see clearly in the distance the mountains where we had grown up, the mountains my mom loved, the mountains with their granite, their sagebrush, their piñon pines swaying in the late afternoon breeze.

***

This is, perhaps, all we have: parents and children. Children and parents. Now, in my 40s, my mother gone, my son getting ready to leave, I walk in the muddy, March woods behind my house. Red-tailed hawks roost high in the trees, waiting for wary rabbits. The snow beneath my feet crunches, and the cold woods huddle around me, like children watching to see what I’ll do next.  I walk forward through late winter’s fresh air of mystery, looking for cardinals on the branches. Their red feathers always seem bright and out of place in the Ohio forest, as if they got picked up by tropical winds and found themselves here, among foreign maples and oaks. But they live here, as do I.

We’re never truly alone. Molecules, specks we can never see, swirl and embrace us. Oak and maple trees circle us. Birds call out. The whittled wood of branches makes way for our passage. The snow rests before us. And even the rabbits, small and vulnerable, manage to live more than they die.

We nestle, all of us. Even as we think about everything out there, everything still left to discover.

- Vivian Wagner’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Zone 3, The Pinch, Willows Wept Review, McSweeney’s, and other publications. She is the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music and teaches English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.

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The submission period for the thirty-second issue of damselfly press is now closed. Look for the issue July 15, 2015.

As always, thank you to our submitters.

 

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