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In the Wind and Sand

I had an eloquent speech planned out. And now I don’t know my name. Twenty dilated eyes waiting for me to speak. Say anything.

What was the question? I can’t remember the question. Shit. So I sit in silence, wondering how it was I ended up here: cross-legged on a folded blanket in a side-street Jamaican yoga studio. Squished in a circle with twenty people I’ve never met. Waiting for my mouth to open.

“When I was little, I was riding my tricycle down the street. And all of a sudden I fell into one of those manholes. Off the sidewalk, you know? Who knows why it was open. But it was and I fell. And my mother said she looked up and I was just, gone. So she ran over and found me ten feet down in this hole, just sitting there. I was crying of course, but I was just sitting there. No scratches, no nothing. So I waited and she finally got somebody to pull me out. She always said it was my guardian angels that saved me.”

As soon as my mouth closes, I remember the question. Tell us your name, where you’re from, and why you’re here. I shut my eyes tightly and don’t crack them until I hear the woman next to me. Sharon from Wisconsin. She needed a break from her corporate job and a yoga retreat by the beach sounded like the perfect opportunity. Right.

After we make it around the circle and pack up to leave, Sharon lays a hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Beth.” It comes out quietly and I offer a soft smile to combat the lunacy I displayed earlier. It’s going to be a long thirty days when everyone already thinks I’ve lost it.

“Well, Beth. I believe in guardian angels, too.” She winks before turning to leave the room.

***
The first time it happened, I was at a baseball game with my husband. His thirty-fifth birthday surprise. My hand clutched my stomach before my mind even felt the pain.

“Oh babe, I think I ate too many of those damn fries.” I forced a laugh and passed him the remainder of the ones I’d been hogging.

“Here come those pregnancy hormones.” He kissed my cheek and crammed the fries in his mouth.

Five minutes later, I didn’t know my name or what the cheers around me meant. Only that I couldn’t feel my breath in my throat or lungs. Only that knives and fish hooks were dancing inside of me.

When I stood up, Eddie grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the exit. He’d seen the blood on my white shorts.

The tires screeched as he sped to the hospital. I couldn’t manage to produce tears. Not now. Just panic that burned my chest like acid.

After the examination, the room stood quiet. A framed picture of a crimson-haired rag doll hung on the wall. A piece of me yearned to keep my eyes locked on it forever. The way her head dangled towards her chin. The way her body drooped and draped. I knew her then. I knew what it was like to live without bones.

We finally broke the news on a Tuesday morning. I wore a purple dress whose hem I had balled up inside my fist when my mother covered her lips with her hand. The tears pooled at her pinky tip. Well, what did the doctor say was wrong? She asked. Nothing, these things just happen. No. She shook her head vigorously. No, these things don’t just happen. It must have been something you ate. Or maybe it’s all that yoga. I told you it wasn’t safe. A mother knows these things, Beth.

And then came the phone calls. The ones to check on me, each one revealing a new theory. Aunt Una told me that her friend Karen had a miscarriage last year. Remember her? That tiny little Karen. Barely 100 pounds. No wonder. You can’t be a vegetarian, Beth. Not when you’re pregnant.

You must have starved the poor thing.

***
Another night in a bed dampened by sweat. Another night without sex. Another night praying to a God I’m not sure has ears.

I could hear Eddie’s breaths, deep and steady like a lullaby. In the corner shadowed by pastel walls stood the unopened box. The one Eddie hadn’t yet moved or thrown away. Maybe he was still clutching onto hope that one day he’d assemble the crib that was supposed to comfort the child we’d never hear cry.

“We can try again. We can’t give up. Not yet.” His arms wrapped tighter around my waist and I flinched. “That is, if you even want to try again…”

I want a child. I don’t want its death. I don’t want to kill it without even trying. I felt like screaming but the only sound in the room was the whipping of phantom branches against the frosted window.

***
In the mornings, I meditate by the water as the sun rises. Some mornings I close my eyes and listen to the waves that keep rolling and rolling, even though there’s nowhere to go but back from where they came. Other mornings I let my lids crack open. I gaze at the sand and the way the grains blow when the wind claims them. As if the wind has a right. It doesn’t have a right. So I fling my hands to the ground, holding the sand in place. I’ll keep you safe, so you can stay. I’ll keep you safe.

The afternoons consist of two different classes: power yoga after lunch then restorative before dinner. I move through the motions without thought. The passion has seeped from my limbs.

Once, the mat was my sanctuary. Rolling it out each day, I’d place my palms against it and press back into downward dog. Here: take my breath, take my pain, take my worries. There were a million fragments of myself in one mat- the one I practiced on for twenty years.

Now, on this new mat, in this new place, this new body and mind, I’m not anybody or anything.

***
The second time it happened, I was in the produce section of the supermarket. Bagging lettuce. Then the cramps that overtook my back and abdomen like a thousand greedy hands twisting the doorknob of my organs. My elbows sank into the shopping cart as I pushed past the apples, past the carrots, past the potatoes to the bright red bathroom sign.

I collapsed onto the toilet seat without pulling down my pants, pressing my head into my hands. I already knew. Why should I need to bring the burden to my eyes? So I kept my pants on, tying a sweater around my waist to hide myself as I walked to the car.

Three hours later, Eddie found me in bed. I still hadn’t taken off the pants. Or pulled them down or done anything I should have. He scooped me into his arms and carried me to the car where we drove to the doctor in silence.

When Eddie reached for my hand, I retracted it to my side. When he took my face in his hands- look at me, Beth– I memorized the pattern of his shoes against the white tile. The way the laces weaved in and out.

We stopped laughing. We stopped being intimate. We stopped talking about a family. And me, I choked on the taste of self-disgust.

At breakfast, Eddie sighed into the toxic silence. “Maybe we should reconsider our lifestyle, Beth. I mean, something has to be, I don’t know… off. Don’t you think? Health and fertility go hand-in-hand.”

I wanted to vomit as guilt swelled in my throat. So many voices screamed in my head, mixing with my own and never relenting.

You must have gotten pregnant too soon. I read recently that you have to wait at least a year.

You know, stress is also a big factor. Have you been working too hard again? You have to relax, Beth.

God does funny things sometimes.
Having children isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.
Maybe you’re just not fit to be a mother.

Who would want me as their mother?

***
The next morning, we work on back-bends in class. I lie face down to the ground, press my palms into the mat and lift my chest and shoulders. The teacher crouches beside me. Then all twenty eyes dart my way. I feel the stares as if they’re fingertips grazing my flushed face.

“Try this again, Beth. But this time, reach out through the crown of your head.” I lift once more. “Good. Now relax your belly to get more length.” Again. “Relax your belly, right here.” He presses a finger into my side. Again. “Good. Relax your belly. Relax through here.” I’m not getting it. Again. “Relax. Right here. Right in your belly, relax.” More fingers. Relax. Relax. I push myself back onto my heels. Find his eyes.

“I don’t know how to relax my belly.” It comes out stunned and child-like. My forearms clutch around my abdomen protectively. My lower lashes dampen.

In an instant, his cheeks go long and his gaze turns soft. He’s young and gentle and the multicolored tattoos running up his arms are faded. Even things we force into our skin don’t want to stay.

He turns toward the class I had forgotten. We all sit in silence. He begins talking about emotions and their connection to the body. About how we can find what we hide through movement. And there’s a creak in his throat like a rusty door.

“We have to talk about these things. We have to. If we can’t talk about them with each other, then who can we talk to? It’s time to feel.” His arms drop to his sides.

Feel. The word tumbles around my mind, becoming more and more foreign until I wonder how it ever existed, ever made sense. Like when you repeat a word enough, even your own name.

Feel, Beth.

***
It’s past midnight and the stars seem dimmer than normal. The sand itches the back of my legs as I spread them until my toes touch the water. It must be hours that I spend on this patch of sand. Hours of feeling trapped even in open air.

“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” Sharon plops down onto the ground beside me. Several minutes pass as we gaze into the night. I haven’t talked to her since the first day, almost three weeks ago. She asks how I like the retreat.

“It’s great.” I nod my head to emphasize what isn’t true. “But some days I feel like I’m doing everything wrong. Everything.” A sigh escapes and the wind claims it as always. Sharon’s lips purse to form a pattern of wrinkles that display her unrest.

“You know, I’ve spent forty-five years thinking I was doing things wrong. People would tell me things and I’d believe it, truly believe it. But I’ve realized that the only thing that is ever true is your intuition. Your gut. We’re always right about ourselves, even when we don’t want to see it.” I nod and we watch the flickering and burning of far off lights.

“I remember this one time, as a little girl,” Sharon starts, “we found these duck eggs, my brother and I. So we brought them back to the house and waited for them to hatch. I started to hear this little pecking from inside one of them. This desperate sort of pecking. The little bird had broken a small hole through the shell. And I wanted to break it all open to help it get out. But my father, he pushed me aside and said you have to let it get out by itself. So I just sat there listening to this clicking get faster and more frantic. A couple hours later, I could hear it screaming, wailing for its mother to help. It tore me up inside but I just sat there and prayed it would be strong enough. So it kept pecking and pecking and pecking for hours. Until finally, at three in the morning, it died of exhaustion.”

“That’s terrible,” I whisper.

“I’ll never forgive myself for that. For not listening to myself and trusting so deeply in what someone else believed. Anyway, I think you just need to trust yourself a little, Beth.”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and drift off to the sound of shifting waves and floating sand.

***
Sharon and I spend the last few days of the retreat splashing in the sea and eating fresh mango before class. I tell her how I’m scared to adopt. How maybe I’m really not supposed to be a mother. She tells me how she’s terrified of leaving her job, even though the thought of another meeting on Sales Tactics Every Entrepreneur Must Master makes her want to crawl beneath her desk and never come out.

There’s magic in the moments when I clutch my belly from the pain of laughing too hard; when we visit the natives at a local school and play hand games with the children; when we jump naked into a murky watering hole, paddling our limbs so full of pain and age. There’s magic in every moment.

***
The plane lands later than expected. When I step off the runway, Eddie is waiting by the ticket counter. I feel the soles of my feet caress the tile as I sprint towards him. He wraps his arms around my waist and I collapse into his warmth.

“It’s not your fault,” he whispers into my hair.

“I know.” For the first time, I know. Walking hand in hand, I can feel layers of the shell falling from my frame. All this time I spent pecking and pecking. Pecking until I died of exhaustion. Crying at the bottom of a hole I fell into too soon. Waiting for someone, anyone to help me out. Let me out.

Be still and feel, Beth.

– Malia Bradshaw is a writer and yoga teacher residing in Austin, TX. Her most current fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found in Maudlin House, Wilderness House Literary Review, and New Literati.

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Salvage

I am 99 years old. I do not expect to see 100, nor is it a goal of mine. Others have begun to show interest, to root for me (for all I know they are placing bets), but I don’t give a damn about that milestone. What is a number compared to a life?

Some want to know the secrets to my longevity, what I eat and drink, if I consider myself an optimist, that sort of thing. Anyone who has lived as long as I have will tell you the same thing: there are no secrets, you are on your own. I suppose you might better the odds with exercise and the right food; I never tried. People born before 1900 ate and drank what was there; none of us knew a thing about preservatives or saturated fats or high fructose corn syrup until long after we’d consumed quantities of them. Don’t lecture me about the dangers of red dye #4. I drink Manhattans—yes, still—and can’t tell you how many maraschino cherries I’ve sent down the hatch.

My arteries, along with everything else, have stiffened up. They tell me I have heart disease, as if that’s news. They say I could go at any time—again, not news. “Maybe in your sleep,” the cardiologist said last week, giving my hand a reassuring pat. This does not comfort me, the idea of falling asleep and never waking. I want to be there, to see it, to feel it. I can’t believe that anyone dies without knowing. I think there must be a little tap on the shoulder, a few seconds of clarity before the next world bears us away. Even if there is nothing after, even if I go out like an old television screen, a vanishing white dot and then a gray blank, I have a hunch that those last few seconds will be worth the cost.

I can’t drive anymore and my hearing isn’t good, but my mind is still spry, if wayward. It’s true what they say about memories of youth becoming more vivid with age. Though I often forget where I left my book or glasses, I can draw you a map of the flour mill I worked in when I was a girl. I can hear those stone grinders moving, can smell the buckwheat being crushed into meal, can see the powder on my skirt. There is John, grinning at me, his face coated white; there he is, pulling me close, kissing me behind a bin of corn. These stories keep coming to me, as if my mind, bored with current conditions, sneaks away, plays hooky with the past. That was you, it reminds me, you had that, you did that. Claim tickets, that’s what memories amount to. A friend of mine has Alzheimer’s; she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know anyone. I can’t imagine that endless fog, being lost inside your own life.

My great granddaughter, Liza, attends college in Eugene and is majoring in journalism. She is on her summer break and has been coming by to “interview” me. I love this girl. Liza has no guile, not a smidge. She expects to find the good in you, and so she does. Innocence must be a gene, a recessive one, because only a few folks are born with it. I hope she stays this way, that her goodness is a match for this world.

Liza is not asking me questions about my diet. What she wants to know is how I lived, what Oregon was like in 1895, the year I was born. She is thrilled by my descriptions of the hats and corsets we wore, the horse-drawn buggies we relied on. She never tires of hearing about the drafty house I grew up in, alongside my three brothers, one who perished at the age of five, as so many children did back then. We had no central heating, no indoor plumbing, no phone, no car (there weren’t any cars to be had west of the Mississippi River). My brothers went to work instead of high school. I got through school alright, but most of my education came much later, by way of night classes and the public library. My father made $3000 a year repairing farm equipment; we saw him only at dinner. My mother died at age 45, three years sooner than average.

Liza is collecting this information for an essay she hopes to publish. She has asked for my permission and I’ve given it.

Today I will tell her about my husband John and my son Frankie. Like the rest of the family, she knows only the bare facts. I never wanted to talk about the Santa Clara and people knew this, left me alone with it. Now I am ready to tell the story, partly because it seems mingy not to, like taking a recipe to your grave. And what if I am the last person on earth who lived through that night? People should know what happened to us; there should be a record, something to lay hands on, something not lost to the waves.

*

We were living in Salem then, with John’s folks. I was twenty, John was twenty-four. He was working for his father, in the flour mill, and I was helping out there, too. He didn’t like the mill. He was keen on seeing San Francisco, where his brother lived. Henry had a job building ships. He told John it was good paying work and you didn’t have to be cooped up all day. John wanted to visit Henry and those shipyards. I was nervous about traveling with the baby, but John wanted to go so badly.

It wasn’t like people think. You mention ship travel and they think Titanic—private baths, telephones, fancy staircases, ladies in long white gloves. Those old steam schooners were nothing like that. All you had was a bunk in the wall, two or three in each room, and there was a little sink, and that green can near the head of your bunk—you knew what that was for pretty quick. Only one of you could stand at a time, that was all the room there was.

Whatever you brought, they put below. You slept in your clothes—if you could sleep.  Everybody got seasick. The smell was terrible. They had this mechanical piano in the dining room, to try and make things cheerful, I guess, but no one put any money in it. The food wasn’t too bad—of course we didn’t feel much like eating.

There was a nice woman traveling with her little boy. He must have been seven or so, sweet little thing, had a limp from polio. His mother and I talked for quite a while. Her husband was in San Francisco, waiting for them.

There were four children, including Frankie. He was the only baby, though—thirteen months. Looked just like his father. Dark blue eyes, wavy hair. He’d just started walking.

We all went to our rooms after lunch. No one wanted to be up on deck. It was cold, the wind had picked up. Nothing to look at anyway, just gray sky, gray waves. John and I got in our bunks. We hadn’t slept much the night before and we were tired, but it was no use trying to sleep, not with the ship tossing like it was, and Frankie fussing. There was nothing for him to do, no place to play.

It was late afternoon when we hit that reef. Oh my, what a jolt. I was lying with my back to the wall, holding the baby, but John was sitting on the edge of his bunk and he got knocked to the floor. He jumped right up, wide-eyed, told me to stay put, that he’d find out what was going on.

It got my attention all right, but I wasn’t in a panic. I knew we had life boats and life vests, if we needed them. I’d never been on a ship. I trusted the crew, I guess, figured they knew what they were doing.

John came back a few minutes later. He said we were close to shore and that everything would be fine. I could hear people talking outside the room. Everyone was in the hall, all talking at once.

The captain rang the bell then, four times—we all knew that was the distress call, and everybody started rushing for the deck. The children were crying, a few of the women, too.

The ship started to turn then, slowly, you could feel the pulling under your feet. It was hard to walk, and we were tilted, we kept bumping into each other. And the noise—you wouldn’t think a ship could groan like that. I remember feeling sorry for it—isn’t that odd?

It was getting dark by then and raining hard, didn’t take more than a couple minutes to get soaked through. Mind you, the clothes were heavier then, made from wool. All the women wore woolen stockings and those long treacherous skirts. Felt like you were lugging the world around once you got wet.

The ship turned two, maybe three times, and then it started leaning more, sending us all to one side. Someone said the bow had a hole in it and water was coming in. We could see the shore then, or at least the lights on it. Folks must have known we were in trouble and were getting ready to help.

The captain was there. Gus was his name. Poor man was trying to figure out what to do. One of the men said we should stay on the ship, that the sea was too rough, but the captain was afraid we’d sink—he had us start putting on life jackets, told the crew to lower the lifeboats.

You couldn’t fault the crew. They were kind, helping us tie on the life jackets and get into the boats. They were trying real hard to keep folks calm, making sure things were kept orderly.

The wind was blowing and the rain was coming down hard on the deck, and everyone was shouting over the noise, but they finally got us loaded up. John was in the second boat, I was in the first, with the rest of the women and children.

There was no moon, just the dark sky and rain coming down. Nobody was talking, we were all just hanging onto the sides of the boat, looking toward the beach. One of the crewmen was rowing, having a hard time of it. A couple of us tried to help him, but we weren’t much use.

I think we were about halfway to the beach when the boat turned sideways and a big comber hit us. Picked us right up out of the ocean like we were nothing and flipped us over.

I lost Frankie right away. The water was so cold, and that life vest—they were bulky back then, you couldn’t get a proper hold on things.

I  couldn’t feel my legs, couldn’t catch my breath. I kept reaching out, all around, trying to find Frankie, trying to keep my head above the waves. Behind me I heard people crying for help. They were hanging onto the overturned boat. I felt a hand on my arm and someone was pulling me over. I grabbed one of the boat ribs, hung on as tight as I could. I called and called for Frankie, but it was no use. The surf kept pounding the boat, smashing us against it. My legs were useless; my arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets. Some poor souls slipped off. I don’t know how I kept my hold, but I finally felt the sand under me. People were pulling me onto the beach.

The second boat overturned too, someone said. I kept asking about John, but no one had seen him. There were all kinds of people trying to help, handing out blankets, giving us food and coffee. They said I needed to get to the hospital, but I wouldn’t leave. They were shining lanterns on the people washed up, trying to find the survivors. When I saw two people carrying a man in a green coat, I knew it was John. I remember how his hands looked, hanging down, so long and white; I knew he was dead. They didn’t find Frankie that night, not that there was any hope for him.

The hospital was full, so they took us to private homes, people with the room to take us in. I wound up in North Bend, with the Cabots. Alfred Cabot was a doctor. He bandaged me up, set my legs—my ribs were fractured and I’d broken both legs. I stayed there ten weeks, till I could walk again.

They found Frankie two days after the wreck. The Cabots didn’t want me to see him, but I insisted, so they brought him to me. Course he didn’t look like himself anymore. It was terrible. It was like being ripped in two. We had a service for him there in the room. They were good people, the Cabots. We stayed in touch for years.

The captain lived—he probably wished he hadn’t. They found him negligent, took away his license. He was being punished, you see, for putting us into those lifeboats.

That ship would have held together for days, and it did. Looters started climbing aboard, taking whatever they could. They had it pretty much emptied in a few days, whatever hadn’t been ruined by leaking oil or water. Someone finally set fire to it, just for the spectacle.

We never needed those lifeboats. We could have used the gangplank. The next day, at low tide, we could have walked to shore without even getting our feet wet.

The wreck of the Santa Clara. You can look it up. Coos Bay, November 2, 1915. 48 passengers, 42 crewmen, 14 dead—or assumed dead; not all the bodies came back. That’s as much as you’ll learn from the newspapers.

I wanted to die of course, could not understand why I hadn’t, what point there was in sparing me when all I had left was pain. A life without John and Frankie did not seem possible, and all I could do while my bones stitched themselves together was think about Frankie, slipping from my arms, and John’s ghostly hands.

You want to die, but you don’t, you can’t. Your life keeps towing you along. In that bed, half-mad with misery, I could not have conceived that five years later I would marry a watchmaker named Alan Collins, that I would lose him too when a piece of roofing slid from the hands of a carpenter and struck him on his way to work; or that two years after this, I would marry a third time, a banker named Clyde Odell, and promptly give him twins; that we would wind up in a big gabled home in Portland, which is now worth a fortune; that I would live to the age of 99. Maybe longer.

– Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her debut collection of short stories, SURVIVAL SKILLS, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award.

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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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Out There

I’m nine and hidden behind a bowl cut. It’s the hottest summer we’ve had in Oxford for as long as I can remember, a heat filled with thick, dripping afternoons and the rattle of a million cicadas. I’m not one for sunscreen, which is why my skin is yellow-brown and feels like pebbles to the touch. I spend a lot of time outside chasing everything that comes my way: the twins from the apartment building next door, lightning bugs at night, a white rabbit with red eyes. I am a terrible mixture of bug spray and rancid tennis shoes.

This summer is special and infinitely better than all summers before it. That’s because our apartment complex just got a new play-scape. You’re probably picturing a nice, cookie-cutter apartment community with gates—but that’s not what it is at all. In reality, our “complex” is just a cluster of old apartment buildings for international student housing on the University of Mississippi campus. These five shabby brick buildings are an ugly sight next to the creamy white fraternities just down the street. I like to spy on the boys who live there—men in my mind. I memorize and crave the things they have: Pastel shorts, thick leather belts, bold voices that twang and rumble. They’re not afraid to laugh out loud and bare their teeth. I admire their careless freedom and the foreign colors on their bodies. I admire their broad shoulders. They’re always so brave, these Americans.

Our apartment complex is filled with a bunch international kids like me. There’s Gabby and Charlie, twin Filipino girls three years younger than me. Their dad is white and divorced, so he lets us watch movies like Dracula, Titanic and Worms whenever I go over to play. There’s also Ping Ping, an older Chinese girl who wears pigtails all the time. She is the leader of our “group” and likes to make me cry. Mary, another Chinese girl with big teeth and even bigger glasses, who obsesses over a thriller series about a cat detective. Henoc, an African boy my parents don’t trust, and Jay Dogan, a blond boy with an angelic face and icy eyes. He wears a bracelet with beads that spell out “WWJD” and sometimes tries to choke me for fun. There’s John Song, a Chinese boy who just moved in a few months ago. I made him show me his penis once, and laughed wildly while he cried. Finally, there’s my best friend Kelly Lin, a Chinese girl like me who lives in the apartment unit diagonally below ours.  Her mom, like mine, is a graduate student in computer science at Ole Miss.

It’s peaceful, our happy lives as children of immigrants. We know that we are “WaiGuoRen” (outsiders) here, but this temporary home feels real. The world is at our doorsteps, just outside our frayed screen doors. We are a community of plastic plates, secondhand furniture, and rubber-banded coupons for Dominos’ “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” deals. We are the children of a blistering hope and sacrifice—and we don’t even know it.

Our parents disappear into the big university buildings during the day and leave us without babysitters (mainly because they can’t afford them). So we create our own version of Oxford, one where our morals are dictated by the rules of Freeze Tag and Hide and Seek. We cup dragonflies and grasshoppers in our hands, sometimes squashing them without meaning to when we’re too excited. We luxuriate on swing sets and smack on honeysuckles. We nap on beds of yellow pine needles and earthworms, and climb the flowering magnolia trees when we want to feel big.

We are salty and sticky. The world is marvelous.

We are, all of us, so very happy. We are, I think, American.

* * *

Kelly Lin is my age. She has big, droopy eyes with long lashes, and her cheeks bulge out like she’s always got grapes in her mouth.  Kelly is also very smart—much smarter than me. She’s the first in our class to memorize all the multiplication tables (which is why she can get away with always being the Banker whenever we play Monopoly).

I’m different, and I like keeping it that way. I’m always the Prince when we play Princesses, the boy dog, husband, or boyfriend when we play house. I make ugly faces at skirts, dresses and ridiculous hair ties. My body is a tangled landscape of scrapes and bruises; proud badges of whatever war I had been fighting in the deep trenches of our backyard. Our friends call me “the freak,” but I don’t mind—at least I’m not soft and girly.

Kelly is, though. She’s pristine, and she’s also good at things like handwriting, cursive, and art. Stuff the parents and teachers talk about and compliment. She wears dresses with ruffles on the sleeves and bows at the waist. Instead of the typical Asian bowl cut, she wears her hair in a sleek ponytail. It shoots down the back of her head like a black waterfall.

Kelly is also fat. So whenever my mom or our teachers praise her neat handwriting or nice, unbitten fingernails, I think of her bulbous cheeks, her fleshy forearms, and her tender legs. At least I’m better than her in one sacred, important way: at least I’m not fat. So what if Kelly gets better grades than me? I can run faster, climb higher, and slip through holly bushes without getting my skin caught on the pointy ends. Kelly always comes out with tiny red stitching down the chubby blocks of her arms. How embarrassing for her.

Kelly’s fatness becomes a real problem one night when we’re goofing off in the bathroom. Mom is at one of her night seminars and dad is staying late at work. This leaves Kelly and me on our own—something we’re gleefully used to by now.

We play with Barbies as usual, one of my favorite games. I had acquired quite a collection over the years: Cynthia the dirty plastic blond with no bangs (I accidentally cut them off), Mulan the Asian Barbie with flat feet and two wigs, Ashley the All-American with big breasts and a colorful dress, and Ken the token male—victim to all my sexual exploration. Poor Ken, with his comically enhanced abs and muted man parts.

I bring my newest addition and current favorite out to show Kelly: Serena the Ballet Barbie. She isn’t like the other Barbies I’ve encountered—her socketed shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and feet rotate in every direction, making her one of the most fun to play with. Her hair is an elaborate bun that resembles icing on a cake, and she wears painted pointe shoes instead of the usual rubbery tiptoe feet.

Most of all, I like her hands. They’re effervescent and lovely, exactly the way a real ballerina’s hands would be. Her delicate fingers fan out like a bird taking flight. And despite my determination to look the part of a tomboy, I secretly want to be like her hands.

Kelly likes her too, I can tell. She cradles Serena in her lap and bends her limbs every way, ooh-ing and ah-ing every time the doll hits a new position. Serena looks at home with Kelly, as if she belongs to her and not me.

“I’m bored. Let’s play Hot Lava Monster.” I yank Serena out of her hands. I feel strangely jealous, and I don’t know why.

The rules of Hot Lava Monster are simple: the floor is covered in lava. If you touch it, you’ll die. So we take our game to the bathroom. I climb on top of the sink and step onto the little wooden stool mom keeps next to the toilet seat. Kelly crouches on the toilet seat.

“Look what I can do!” I leap from the stool to the bathtub, wrapping my hands around the shower rod before my feet touch the bathtub edge. I dangle off the rod in glee.

“Let me try,” Kelly says.

I laugh meanly. “No, we’ll be too heavy!”

It’s too late. She propels towards me, and miraculously, she makes it. We hang in the air for a second as her triumphant breaths fill the room.

Then CRACK! The shower rod snaps in two, and we’re crashing to the floor. My hands slap the cold tile floor—not hot lava—as we land in a cacophony of limbs and girlish screams.

Mom is furious when she gets home.

“Goodnight, Kelly,” she says through tight lips, schoolbag still on her shoulder. Kelly obeys, flashing me an apologetic glance as red unfurls across her soft cheeks.

Mom waits until the sound of Kelly’s quick footsteps disappears. The air is brittle between us. Then she lays me facedown on the bed and uses the belt until our neighbors tap on the wall. As the leather thwacks against me, all I can think about is Kelly’s heavy breathing on that shower rod. I see her fat, useless body, and I hate her. She must have felt so triumphant for such a fat little girl! Every time I cry out, I feel my rage harden. I hate her!

We also go on a lot of adventures, like stealing into the backyards of campus buildings and ravaging their honeysuckle bushes. We lap at the thin fibers for a sweetness we can almost taste, and leave behind a crime scene of wrinkled petals and naked shrubs.

When the honeysuckles wilt and the groundkeepers complain, Kelly and I find a pipe spanning the deep ravine behind our elementary school. It reminds us of a black snake with a rusted bronze underbelly and sooty scales. One heroic weekend in July, we sit on top of the pipe and scoot our way across with our hands and bony butts. We emerge from the woods with dark palms and smeared shorts, crowns of sweat adorning our foreheads. Our friends are jealous and our parents are too exasperated to hit us. We don’t care, because we sat on top of a pipe and called it ours.

It’s a friendship you can’t expect to explain. It’s our lives, bound by Oxford and the things we did out there.

* * *

We’re all taking piano lessons by the end of summer. The virus starts with Ping Ping. Her mom tells the others that Ping Ping is learning to play more advanced pieces than most girls her age. Soon, Mary is enrolled in a summer music camp with piano concentration. She doesn’t come out to play with us anymore, instead buried in sheet music and her cat books. Gabby and Charlie’s dad gets them an electric piano as a sort-of joke.

Kelly and I end up with the same private teacher: Mrs. Wang, a tight-lipped piano professor at the Ole Miss School of Music. She teaches in her spare time and charges $40 an hour. I don’t know how my parents afford it—and they never let me forget that they can’t.

All I know is that it’s unfair. We’ve been transformed from a raucous bouquet of wildlings to obedient little pianists glued to wooden benches. All of a sudden, posture is important. Our moms cluck their tongues to a set tempo—our own bizarre human metronomes—and dream of the grand pianos they’ll buy when they have bigger apartments and more money.

I am furious. I don’t want to go to the music school every day and practice for an hour. I don’t want to see Mrs. Wang and suffer her criticisms about my sloppy, erratic playing. I want to be outside climbing trees and riding my bike. I want to live a life I am convinced I deserve—full of mud and laughter and mosquito bites.

Mom and I fight more than ever. I tell her I hate her, hate piano, hate Mrs. Wang. I drag my feet out of the apartment every time we leave to go practice.

“Why do I have to do something I hate?” It has become my shrieking mantra. Our arguments fill the apartment. I’m crying every day.

“Ingrate! Do you know what that means? It means you don’t appreciate anything I do for you. You don’t appreciate how much I’m spending for you to learn piano. I go to class every day and take you to practice. Think how hard that is for me! You should be thankful. I am doing this for your future.”

Those words I hate: “your future.” I shoot my tongue out in contempt, and mom slaps me every time.

My body is a tangled landscape of bruises—not from being outside, but from the belt. Mom uses the end with the clasp almost every night now. At school, a teacher pulls me into a supply closet and asks if I got the bruises from playing outside or being disobedient at home.

“It’s because I was bad to my mom,” I whisper, ashamed. That night during dinner, we get a call from the school. They tell my mom that there are other ways to discipline a child.

“We should just run away,” I say to Kelly. “We should just smash all the pianos in the school and run away, and we’ll never have to play them again.”

She laughs and shrugs. I turn away, angry and disappointed by her unenthusiastic response.

The truth is that Kelly is getting better than me every day. I first notice this when she makes a funny movement with her body as she plays Chopin. Her body dips down and towards the piano, then pulls away lightly as if afraid of disturbing something sacred.

The action is sensual, intimate. It’s something I had only seen the advanced students do. Mrs. Wang nods in appreciation.

“Why did you do that?” I ask afterwards.

She smiles, folding her hands in her lap. “I don’t know. It just felt right.”

“Well it looked stupid.” Her smile disappears.

When Kelly plays, her fingers caress each key, as if she’s tucking it back into its crib. Her hands look like my Ballet Barbie’s hands. When I play, my fingers splay across, wild and desperate. I look like I’m grasping for something I can never reach. My sonatas are spastic, hers tender and romantic.

“Why can’t you play like her?” Mom asks.

“Just do what Kelly does,” Mrs. Wang says.

Kelly starts parting her hair down the middle like all the other older piano students. The part looks like a white worm glistening on top of her head. She says it looks good against her black hair. I think it just makes her face fatter.

It’s with a screeching devastation that I finally admit to myself the truth: Kelly is better than me at piano. Even worse, she loves piano. I feel betrayed—weren’t we compatriots in our misery? Weren’t we supposed to hate piano together, the same way we loved or hated most things? Of all the bumps in our friendship, it’s this great, irretrievable divide that hurts me most.

She has betrayed me! I write in my diary. She has betrayed our friendship.

* * *

Mom graduates in June 2000 with a PhD in Education. I attend the ceremony in a horrid dress given to me by her favorite professor. My bowl cut clashes magnificently with the round white collar and flower pockets.

I watch as my mom walks across the stage beaming. There are cookies afterwards.

That same summer, my dad gets a job offer in Austin. He moves out there first to set up our apartment—a real apartment in a real apartment complex—while mom and I stay behind to finish out the summer in Oxford.

Most of my friends have moved away by now. It’s just the way things seem to go in this shell of a complex—our halfway home between China and America. Ping Ping is in Pennsylvania, Mary is back in China, and Gabby and Charlie are living with their mom in Denver. Even John Song and his family have relocated to a mystical place called Canada.

“When you leave,” Kelly says, “I’ll be the only one left. Everyone else is gone.”

“You’ll probably move soon!” We both know this isn’t true. Kelly’s mom is dating an American who works in the IT department at the university.

I don’t even fully comprehend what it means to be leaving Kelly behind. It feels temporary, like I’ll see her again soon and for the rest of my life. We’ll buy houses next to each other when we’re “grown up” and still climb trees every day between our jobs and families. How crazy to think that we’ll have jobs and families.

My life in Oxford is packed into boxes by the time summer ends. Our apartment is empty. I tie a ribbon to the tree outside my window for the next person to find—maybe it’ll be another Chinese girl like me. With a day before the move, my mom relieves me of cleaning duties so I can grab a final whiff of Oxford.

Kelly and I end up sitting under the magnolia tree we climbed so many times before in the last five years. The flowers are open, dappling the canopy around us with spots of white and pink. We hadn’t really talked about me leaving other than by making vague allusions to call each other a lot. It was still a future forever away, and we were too invincible to be touched by it.

“Texas is so hot. You’ll be hot all the time. You’ll be darker than you are now.”

“Whatever,” I say. “I like being dark.”

“Are you gonna keep playing piano?”

“I guess. My dad already found a teacher in Austin. I wish they’d just let me quit.” I pause, watching her reaction. “What about you?”

“Yeah,” she says softly. “Mrs. Wang wants me to do the Solo Contest next year.”

“That sucks.”

“Not really.”

A breeze sneaks through, and we watch the waxy leaves twitch around us.

“Remember that time you tried to climb this tree with skates on?”

I start laughing. “That was awesome!”

“You almost died, it was so scary.”

“Whatever, at least I did it. And I didn’t die.”

We wile away the day recounting these small moments of our lives, at the time so unimportant, now the most vital things in the world. As the sun dips below the horizon and darkness crowds our little cavern inside the magnolia tree, Kelly asks what I want to do in my final hours in Oxford.

“We can do anything you want,” she says with an annoying benevolence. “It’s your last day, so you get to choose.”

I think of all the things we’ve done—from the pipe, to climbing every tree in Oxford, to playing chase with Gabby and Charlie by the Law School, to scaring the stray dogs. There were memories everywhere, memories I didn’t want to alter by recreating them now. For once, I didn’t feel like adventure. I only felt like being outside, being home.

“Let’s just bike around.”

We grab our bikes. Mine is a used Huffy from one of the older girls on the school bus. Kelly’s is a purple bike with streamers at the handles. It’s barely been touched.

“I haven’t ridden it in forever,” she says. “Can we practice a little before we go too far?”

She’s never been too good at riding. It was one of the things I could boast about without being wrong. I feel a little bad about choosing something she can’t keep up with. But this is my last night, and she asked me what I wanted to do.

Still, I try to be nice. I take her to an empty parking lot with neat concrete. There’s enough room to ride around and make mistakes.

“It’s okay—just remember to keep pedaling no matter what.”

She nods, anxious.  “I just don’t want to hurt my hands if I fall.”

“You won’t fall.”

She clambers onto the bike, looking awkward and wrong. Cruel satisfaction bubbles in me at the sight of Kelly teetering on her tiptoes, hands clenched around the white rubber handlebars. The streamers are a comical addition.

“Ready? Follow me.”

She pedals forward and falls. I swallow my laughter and brake to a halt.

“Wow, you’re really bad at this. Maybe we should just practice here tonight.”

We try again—she pedals a few more times before falling. I can’t help but feel magnificent as I make extravagant, lazy circles around her on my bike.

Kelly gets comfortable eventually. I bike to the end of the lot and wait for her to come to me. She’s slow at first, but finally stops jerking the handlebars and barrels towards me, falling only at the end when she tries to brake. Now she’s starting to look like a real rider.

“You can’t freak out at the end.”

“Yeah, I know. I just panic when I think about stopping. Thanks.” She inspects a fresh scrape on her knee before straightening up. “We should go home. I don’t want our moms to get mad.”

But I don’t want to go back. The lot, Kelly, our bikes—it’s enough for me to piece together and finally realize that this is my last night in Oxford. My life here is ending, and I don’t know where it’s going. I feel huge and sad.

“Let’s ride a little more. Come on!”

This is how I want to remember Oxford. This is how I want to remember us.

I don’t let myself see the hesitation on her face before whizzing away again on my bike, standing over my seat taller than ever. It’s way later than we’re normally allowed out. The dusk blends sky and pavement, and I can no longer distinguish between the two.  I cleave the heavy air as I ride through the night and feel it zipping back up behind me. A quick, shuddering stop at the end of the lot, and then I whizz past Kelly again, who’s trying to keep up, who flies past me with a pleading face. She’ll catch up.

Kelly is shouting something, but I am flying and even my sharp gasps, so close to my body, are lost in the torrent of wind and wave. I can feel everything, I am a hollow drum made with human skin and everything outside me beats against me. Pedal faster. I shudder and quake and woof at the sky. This is my Chopin Sonata. This is my orchestra. For every beautiful melody Kelly plays, so can I. I command the clicks of my bike into a string section, the staccato of gravel beneath me into percussion. And I bring with me the wind. I too can dip like Kelly dips, I can sweep and billow and feel something no one else can hear.  See me conduct the most beautiful symphony with my frantic legs and wild, laughing mouth.

I reach the other end of the lot and wait for Kelly to join me. My heart is still beating wildly, even as the wind dies down and the crashing waves in my head settle. Nothing. She’s not there when I turn around.  I bike the length of the lot again, then once more, but see no sign of her.

“Kelly? Kelly!”

She must have gone home. She probably couldn’t stand not being able to do something better than me for once. Stupid, fat, Kelly.

Mom is standing in the kitchen with her arms crossed when I get home. I tell her what happened. She grabs my arms and digs her thumbs into the skin, wedging between muscle and bone.

“It’s Kelly’s fault!” I yelp over and over again. “She didn’t tell me she was leaving! I wouldn’t have stayed so late if I weren’t looking for her.”

Kelly!” Mom spits. She lets go and I see fear, not anger, on her face. “She didn’t come home. Her mother just called to ask where she is.”

Mom’s sandals slap against the pavement as we walk through the night back to the parking lot. I wince and grow more panicked with each slap—all I can think about is the whipping she’s promised me once this is over.

There’s no sight of Kelly when we reach the lot. I feel small next to my mom and her violent breaths. Under the sallow glow of the street lamps, the lot looks lifeless—surely it couldn’t be the same lot I was in moments earlier, the same lot where I felt so tremendous? How dumb and pathetic for me to think that I could ever be so grand.

“Where is she?” Mom’s voice is horrible, mean.

“I don’t know,” I whine. “It wasn’t my fault!”

But I do know. Of course I know. I know there’s a ditch on the far left side of the lot, obscured by a black thrust of bushes and shrubs. I know it’s full of stickers and holly bushes. Worst of all, I know that Kelly probably didn’t know.

Without a word to mom, I run through the darkness towards the ditch, already dreading the answer as I reach the bushes along the edge. I part them delicately, gasping as their tiny thorns greet me. Everything below is collapsed into a nest of branches and brambles. Then, in the thick black confusion of nature and night, I see a flash of white blurring into the impossible backdrop.

Thick, clumsy Kelly.

“Kelly!” My voice disappears beneath me. “Are you okay?”

It doesn’t matter if she responds, if she says she’s fine and perfect down at the bottom of the ditch. I know I have to get her.

Mom’s going to kill me.

Kelly is curled into a tight ball when I finally reach her. My legs burn from the descent and angry little burrs cling to my socks, but I focus on trying to pry her coiled limbs apart, willing her to be okay. If only she would be okay!

Stop pretending! I want to scream. This was your fault!

“I told you I wanted to go home.” Her voice prickles, and I feel it more than anything else so far.

All of a sudden, fear floods my body. It’s a long way to the bottom, and the fall could have been really bad. Where is her bike? Did she tumble down the ditch while still on it, or was she thrown off as she tried to stop? I can’t see her face in the dark, and somehow it scares me even more. In the horrified corners of my mind, I picture her plump, white flesh oozing beads of red. I imagine her limbs bent at odd angles like my Ballet Barbie, and shocking bits of bone peaking out.

I brush the hair from her face, or what I think is her face. It’s wet from sweat, and maybe tears. And maybe blood too. I feel sick and disgusting. I don’t want to see her face. I’m afraid to know what she looks like.

“I’m glad you’re leaving.”

I don’t see her lips form the words, but I hear them in the dark. They’re the only things here with me in the dark. Then I hear mom calling my name from what feels like another world.

“We’re down here!” I am a frightened little girl.

I don’t know how we got here. I grip Kelly’s hands, desperately willing her to squeeze back and forgive me. I can’t leave like this. She doesn’t return the pressure.

* * *

In the harsh light of our small kitchen, Mom dabs Neosporin and rubbing alcohol on Kelly’s face. It’s nothing like I feared, just a few tiny scrapes. Still, it all feels gruesome to me. I can’t look her in the eyes.

We leave for Austin the next day. Kelly’s mom tells me she’s still asleep when I stop by their apartment to say goodbye.

* * *

In the beginning, I write her letters from Austin about my cute neighbors and new dog. I ask if she has read Harry Potter. I apologize over and over again about what happened. I call her too like we promised, mostly to gossip about what our old friends are doing now. But over time, the calls stop, and I can’t remember the phone number I once knew by heart. My fingers forget what it feels like.

The last time I talk to her, she tells me her mom is pregnant and about to get married. “We’re moving to California,” she says, and for once, I’m happy for her. I want to ask if she likes the guy who is about to become her step-dad, but her mom yells that dinner is ready, and she has to hang up.

-Tinghui Zhang holds degrees in English and Plan II from UT Austin. Her writing has appeared in Revolution House and Hothouse Literary Journal. She lives, works, writes and eats in Austin, TX. Find her at devourings.wordpress.com.

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The Foxes

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.

Water. 

So many brushstrokes to learn.  So many words to teach.

So many images to forget.

Gazing down through the clouds, her eyes peer into the barren swamps of Siberia.  Somewhere in the rows behind her, a baby cries. Finally the plane swoops lower down, toward the maple trees, the autumnal colours of December in Japan.

Later, in the tall hotel where caged birds sing in the jasmine-scented lobby, she inspects the soft blue cotton kimono spread out on the coverlet.  She ties the sash tightly around her waist.  Then she tears into the plastic package to release white terrycloth slippers.  They fit snugly across her insteps as she paces around the tiny, perfect room.

Finally she huddles in the armchair, sipping green tea and leafing through her kanji dictionary.  She ignores the patient ghosts that haunt the dusty corners of her mind.  Only later, when she is asleep, do they moan in her ears.

In the night, she wakes, as if summoned by an invisible baby’s cry, wailing in pain like that infant on the plane.

She rises in the dark and opens the blinds.  Far below dark figures huddle on the platforms, silhouetted against the white-gold station light.  Tomorrow she will take the famous bullet train out of that station, to the most ancient city of Japan. Far below her window, blue fairy lights sparkle in bare-branched cherry trees.  Christmas in Japan.

Her hosts from the Language School drive her up into the hills, to a hotel, on the mountainside, which offers another fresh kimono, another pair of slippers to warm her feet.  Mozart plays the clarinet whenever she flushes the loo.

Down a twisting corridor, she discovers a secret moss garden enclosed in glass.  Outside, on the mountain, she climbs up a steep and winding path, hearing only the sounds of her Ugg boots crunching on the pine needles and birds’ wings fluttering in the bushes.

I want to begin work as soon as I can, she tells her hosts.  I need to find a flat or at least a room of my own.

They shake their heads and smile.  There will be time enough to meet her students, to settle in.  They will help her.  But first she must pay homage to Kyoto—to the temples and the shrines. They have arranged for a car and a driver. What would she like to see?

A temple, she replies.

This time last year, he and she moved closer together than was really wise, leaning up against the back wall of the auditorium.  The two of them had always been friends.  They were the young teachers, the ones the children and the parents liked,.   That evening they stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to four-year-olds wearing dressing gowns and tea towels  singing Away in the Manger in tuneless soprano wailing.

You’re not religious, are you, she’d whispered to him in the dark.

I sometimes think I might be a Buddhist, he’d whispered back.

The last time she saw him, he was not whispering but shouting. He’d be really angry if he knew she was at a temple in Kyoto, while back in Camberwell he was once again dusting off the shepherd’s crooks for this year’s Nativity.

Next morning, she discards her shoes and clambers up flight after flight of slippery wooden steps, to gaze upon the golden Buddha.

Outside, in thin sunshine in the grey-green garden, the quiet wraps around her like a silken obi.  She sits on a wooden bench beneath a willow tree, breathing in the leafy silence in the wind.  Small birds flutter down and peck at the dirt beneath the gravel path.

Back in Camberwell, she could not have envisioned this state of grace, this perfect peace.  This is the perfect place to learn to read Japan.  Later, when she goes back to the hotel, she will take out her ink, practice her brushstrokes in the embroidered sketchpad she bought at that art shop by the lake.

She looks out at the swaying bamboo in the gravel garden.  Tree.  Wood.  It’s the first Thursday of a new life.

But she can’t yet escape back to the silence of her hotel room.  She must see more sights.  The car and driver have been booked for the entire morning.  What does she wish to do next?

I’d like to see a shrine, she says, hoping this will suffice to show her gratitude, her respect not just for the Buddha but also for the older Shinto gods.

The driver says he wants to take us to his very favourite shrine, her host whispers.  I myself have never been there.

In the car park they push past milling pilgrims.  All is blazing orange.  The driver follows them through the crowd.  She walks faster, out of reach of his acrid cigarette smoke.  Children chase each other across the gravel courtyard.

This shrine seems rather jolly, she observes to her host.  That temple was so beautiful but this is much livelier, isn’t it?

We have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals, her host replies.

They climb past the temple gates, up a steep stony path enclosed within a canopy of rusting orange arches.  All along the path, stone foxes stand guard.  Their laughing faces stare at the pilgrims.  The foxes’ glass eyes sparkle.  They wear jaunty red bandannas tied around their necks.

Her sombre host presses his lips together.  He clasps his hands behind his back.  The fox god knows death as well as life, he murmurs.  The mothers who come to the shrine give the cloths to the foxes, to send a message to their babies who were born dead.

There were foxes in the allotments behind her London garden, shrieking in the night, as the clots of blood fell on the bathroom floor.  But London foxes shrink back from death.  They never offered to take a message to her half-born baby.

They climb upwards, through the endless tube of orange metal arches. Dark silence gathers underneath the shadow of the trees.

She looks back down the tunnel.  They are alone.  None of the other pilgrims have climbed so far up the hill.

At a breach in the parade of arches, the driver steps off the path.  He lights another cigarette.  I take my break, now, he says.  You go on.  Go up the path and see the lake.  People always go see the lake.

Do you want to go on? Her host looks doubtful.

She yearns for her hotel room, her clean kimono, her soft calligraphy brushes.  But this is her new life, in polite Japan.

Oh, certainly, I’d like to see the lake.

They duck their heads and enter the next segment of the rusting orange tunnel.  Outside the cage of arches, birds complain in the darkening woods.  The air smells of still green water.

They stumble out from the last of the arches into a field of gravestones.  An army of stone foxes leer at them.  The fox soldiers’ red bandannas hang limp in the windless air.  Feral cats twine their way through the gravestones, crying as urgently as the allotment foxes did, back in London.

The taxi driver emerges from the orange tunnel.   This is the place people come to see he says.  This is where the dead babies gather, in the dark, when only the cats and the stone foxes are here to see them.

Ruby-red maple leaves drift down, skating gently across the still surface of the lake.  The sun slides behind the clouds.  The cats slink back into the shadow of the gravestones.

Perhaps it’s time to head back to the car, says her host, looking at his watch.

But she steps forward, away from the men, toward the leaf-drowned lake.  Just under the silence, she hears multitudes of frightened babies, calling out to their lost mothers.

Please do take care, her host calls down to her.

She pays no attention.  She strains her ears, listening for the weary cry of one ill formed English baby, lost in the murmurings in Japanese.

Her feet sink down, through the leaf cover, into the mud.

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.  Water.

Ghosts.

– Frances Hay is an American woman who has lived in Britain for nearly 30 years.  She is a psychologist who has written academic papers and books.  Her short stories have been published online in Flash Flood, Café Aphra Flash Fiction Fridays and the Mulfran Press Story of the Month series.

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High on the Divide

The men are descended from hard-rock miners, their lungs gone to granite, their hearts chunks of ore. “On the rocks,” they say when they order their bourbon. The bar is O’Sullivan’s. The city is Butte. They call me Angel of Mercy because they’re Catholic and can never remember my name, not when their eyes mist with memory. Not when they cry. You can cry at O’Sullivan’s. In a city where the Bulldogs are Double-A wrestling champs year after year and the jail fills on St. Patty’s by noon, there are still places where grown men can cry.

I refill their glasses and leave extra napkins, and they whisper, “You’re the Angel of Mercy. Sent by the Lord.” Sometimes, when it’s someone with a sense of humor—Dylan Downey or Old Man McClure—I say, “I was hired by Liam, and he’s not the Lord.”

“Yes, Angel, we know that. But who will tell Liam and break his old heart?”

“You can’t break his heart,” says another. “It’s stone.”

And they all fall to silence, labored breathing, alcoholic fumes I could light. Sometimes I imagine flicking a lighter and blasting another hole in this scarred mountain. New veins to explore, new work for this town.

The men, when they’re sober, say go back to school. “Girl, that’s the future. A college degree.”

And though none of their wives—first, second, or third—had degrees, they want more for me, this future whose fingers they can touch.

When they’re drunk, they say, “Angel. Don’t leave. Take us into the next world. Angel. Mercy.”

I’ve nowhere to go, so I stay their saint, serving up spirits, mopping those broken circles they leave under their drinks. Sometimes I imagine flicking that lighter and starting to smoke. My pink lungs will seize up, and I’ll cough when I need to inhale. Sometimes I touch my wrist to remember the pulse. Michael Rourke sobbed one night—a sound like choking—because he couldn’t find his pulse. He wept that he’d died and, since that one pope erased purgatory, he was surely in hell.

“So I’m a demon, am I, Mikey?”

“Mercy, no,” he said when he could breathe again. “I know I’m in hell because I can’t touch you. You’re miles away, up in the sky, holding Our Lord’s punctured hand.”

I clutched his thin wrist, pressed his finger to the groove below his thumb, and I counted with him. One, two, three, four. You’re not pounding on death’s door.

That night Liam couldn’t drive him, so I walked him home, counting his heartbeats aloud on the steep mountain streets. One, two, three, four, Mikey’s heart ain’t made of ore.

“Unless it’s gold,” he whispered, stumbling at the threshold of his small, dark house. I wavered there in the doorway, unsure. Tuck him in? But I wasn’t his mother, and I wasn’t a saint. I shut the door on his cave, sealing him in. Fool’s gold, I thought I heard him say, but the door was metal and warped and it could have been whose gold or too cold or so many things.

One night the cowboy comes in, and I feel for my pulse. Thumping, thumping for escape. I think of that lighter under the bar, this place sky high in a shower of flame, my blood rushing out of me, my heart set free. I crouch low to the bar, swish my hair in my face, and Danny Riordan says, “Angel, you okay?” And one by one, these men still on their bourbons but ready for Coke walk to me. Wobbly as toddlers. “Is she sick?” “Is she hiding?” “Is her heart broke?”

Silence. Then someone, not me, says, “An angel’s heart can’t break.”

And someone else, the cowboy, says, “No, it just flies away.”

No one here entertains strangers, so none of them like how he steps through their words. They grumble as if they are young men with strong hearts, strong lungs, strong fists.

No stranger to me, this cowboy. He’d held to my finger a circle so perfect that I fled all my dreams of riding over the plains into the setting sun. I came back to this place high on the Divide where whole generations believe the sun is lit on the end of a wick a mile underground.

The men cluster tight like they can save me. But they’re the ones drowning in bourbon and rum, in memory shafts they’ve cut with too little air.

“You could cry here,” I say. “You could pour out a bottle and, depending on which side of this mountain you chose, it might join the Pacific. Or head to the Gulf.”

The cowboy knows. He studies the men, how they clutch their drinks and stare. Later, he will say stony stares.

That night I think of gold. Golden rings, golden plains, his bare golden arms, those golden sunsets melting through our golden years.

I let the lighter decide. Flame on the first try means “yes.” And it lights like a tiny sun. I inhale this air soaked with bourbon and the sour breath of old men. Nothing explodes.

I flick the lighter again, and it glows in the dark bar. Circles of light on every man’s glass. Extinguished as soon as I raise my thumb.

I flick it again and again, but that night the lighter is constant. The cowboy waits just outside the glow.

So I leave these men descended from miners. Without mercy. I unlace my angel wings, reckless as I abandon what they know of copper, what they’ve taught me of gold. Broken rock, all that broken rock.

– Chauna Craig’s writing has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, and Sudden Stories and has been cited in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She has received fellowships to Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and teaches creative writing in western Pennsylvania.

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Excerpt from Uprooted

The fire in the clay tamdyr was hot, ready for the dough to be stuck to its walls. It looked like an oversized anthill, Tohtagul had always thought—rounded with a big hole on top. The difference was what lay below, or rather what didn’t. There were no underground tunnels, no villages of bakers beneath the earth’s crust waiting to be discovered if one were to crawl in.

Tohtagul’s mother had just finished stamping the bread with the metal seal, which marked it as hers with a flower and let the air in, too. You could always tell one woman’s bread from another just by looking at it. Her mother picked up the jar of water and dipped her fingers inside. She splashed the water against the sides of the tamdyr; the water hissed against the hot clay and steam rose up in clouds. She put the mitt on and picked up one round, flat, unbaked loaf of nan. Slap, she stuck it firmly to the hot wall of the oven. Slap. Slap. There went another and another.

The knock on the wooden compound door didn’t cause any alarm. Tohtagul stopped sweeping the path to the house and unlatched the metal gate, ready to greet whichever neighbor or relative had decided to stop in. Her house robe was cinched tightly around her thin waist. Slap, another nan took hold on the tamdyr walls. Tohtagul pushed the metal out of the latch and pulled the door open with a creak for each year it had been on its hinges.

“Salam,” she said and then turned her eyes to the ground. Slap.

“Is your father home?” the thin, dark-haired man asked. Slap.

Tohtagul thought he looked like a turtle. His neck had a little too much skin, and it sagged beneath his chin. His eyes were on the beady side and bulged just enough to make him rather unattractive. She had seen him around town before and knew he was from the mayor’s office. Her mother looked up. She took the mitt off.

Gyzym,” she called, referring to her daughter as such, “come finish the nan.”

Tohtagul leaned her twiggy straw broom against the compound wall. Mother and daughter switched places. Slap. Another loaf clung to the clay. The heat of the fire in the bottom of the oven warmed her face and scared her. She was always afraid that one day the whole tamdyr would catch fire and the smell of burnt bread would singe the air for days. Bread was too holy to let burn. She couldn’t hear what the man and her mother were saying, but it couldn’t be good. Anytime anyone from the government came, it was never any good. Her mother led the man inside. Slap.

Moments later, the teakettle whistled. The first few loaves were ready to be pulled out, so Tohtagul opened up the bread cloth and placed the warm sweet-smelling loaves inside. She quickly ran them in to her mother, who was busy setting up the tea. She had the guest cloth spread on the floor, the good cookies were out, and the bread was placed reverently in the middle.

Tohtagul ran back outside, not wanting the bread to be any darker than the golden brown it was meant to be. Another knock at the door.

“Allo?” Her father’s voice questioned deeply through the compound door.

“Coming, papa,” Tohtagul placed another loaf onto the bread cloth and went to the door. She gave him fair warning of the man waiting inside. A cloud came over his face briefly, and he went inside the house, slipping his shoes off deftly as he did. Once the bread was finished, Tohtagul tied the neatly stacked discs inside the patterned cloth and then wrapped it again in a thicker, embroidered quilt-esque one. She brought them through the back door into the kitchen. As she was about to escape back into the compound yard, her mother appeared.

“Come,” she said. “He is here about you.”

“But I haven’t finished sweeping,” she pleaded.

“The dust can wait.”
She followed her mother into the living room and sat down with her legs folded to her right side. Her father was leading the man out the front door.

Tohtagul’s mother poured her a cup of tea.

“Do you see the bubbles?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good luck. It means true love will come to you.”

“But doesn’t it always have bubbles?” Tohtagul asked.

Gyzym,” she began affectionately, “you are fourteen now. The man who was here works for the Khan. He is making the bride selection for a young man in the village.”

Tohtagul almost choked on her tea. She stared at her mother, wishing it could all be a joke, but the pit of her stomach told her it was all very real.

“One week from today, we must bring you to the town hall. If you are chosen, you will be married.”

With that, her mother got up to prepare dinner. She was never one to waste words, even when a little sugarcoating would have been nice. Tohtagul popped each of the bubbles in her tea.

That night, she dreamed that she was locked out of every compound in the village. She kept knocking and knocking, but no one let her in. She could hear them all on the other side, laughing and talking, but she was stuck in the street, alone. She woke up with a pillow soaked in sweat and a heaviness in her chest. Six days remained until Huday would decide whether she could remain a girl for a while longer, or cross the bridge into womanhood.

Those six days seemed to fly by. Tohtagul tried to slow the seconds down, tried to stay awake as long as possible to keep the days from ending, but time passes whether it is watched or not. She had no excuse not to be at the town hall. Everyone would be there. These kinds of things always drew a crowd. She pulled on her best dress, the one she’d had embroidered for her cousin’s wedding. The neckline was stiff with the thousands of stitches ringing it. She sat on the floor in front of her mother, who began to braid her thick dark hair, firmly yet still somehow, gently. That was the essence of her mother. It was written in her hands, strong from years of kneading dough and scrubbing floors, with an indestructible delicacy that only a woman’s hands can have.

The whole family went to the town hall together. When they arrived, she could tell who the other girls were simply from the look in their eyes. It was sheer terror in each one. The Khan’s Assistant, the man who had come to their home, lined them up in a very straight row. It was uncomfortably hot already, not even the slightest breeze, and barely even an exhale. It was questionable whether or not the girls were breathing. It was far too still for any of this to be real. The girls looked at each other, knowing exactly what the others were thinking. No one dared to say a word. It was as though, if they were still enough, if the whole world was still enough, they just might disappear.

The groom-to-be was hustled through the crowd, his parents beaming with delight. His tunic-length robe had been embroidered with care, just for this occasion. His pants were brand new and finely sewn as well. His shoes sparkled in the sunlight. His little brother, in tow, had a telltale streak of black shoe polish on his left arm. It had been a family affair to get him ready for such a momentous day. He stood, as only a teenage boy can, with his thin limbs dangling awkwardly as though he didn’t know where such long things could have sprouted from. He tugged at the new clothing, looking boyish rather than manly. The ten girls stood, a row of eligible beauties from the right tribe and the right families. The boy’s parents could envision the dowries behind each pair of eyes. They saw rugs and dresses and gold and flour and goats. They were prepared to pay the bride price, even if it meant calling distant relatives for help.

The Khan’s Assistant, now looking like a puffed up turtle who had just shined his shell, approached the boy and his parents.

“Orun,” he said to the boy. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir. I am.”

“May Allah help you choose well.” He said and handed the woolen telpek to him.

Orun held the large hat in his hands. It still smelled a bit of sheep, and it was heavy, much too large for a boy. The inside had been stitched well and the outside was covered in beautiful gray wool curls. Looking at it from the top, it seemed big enough to fit two heads inside, but it was only built for one. He put the hat in one hand and then the other, to feel its weight. He felt eyes boring into him. He looked up at the ten girls lined up for him, for him to choose. He scanned the row. They all had their eyes on him, all except one. Her braids shone in the sun as she stared at the ground. What could she be looking at? he wondered.

Tohtagul was watching an ant stumble around. It kept climbing over obstacles in the dirt, obstacles which seemed so small to her but must have been mountains to this poor creature. She watched it try to find its way somewhere else, but it kept going in circles. There didn’t seem to be any other ants around. It must have gotten separated somehow, and now it was lost and scared. So, perhaps, if it were a she-ant, Tohtagul thought, maybe it’s not lost at all. Maybe it’s right where it is supposed to be, here with the other scared girls. She smiled to herself as she finally looked up.

Orun saw her smile and thought it was for him, as boys and men often do. He caught her gaze, lifted the telpek, and hurled it at her. She didn’t realize what was happening until the wooly hat hit her square in the stomach. It knocked the breath out of her, but she caught it. She stared at the telpek fiercely, as if it had decided to throw itself at her of its own free will. She was definitely still standing.

The crowd cheered. Murmurs of the new match and the wedding to come wafted through the crowd like wind through leaves.

The girl next to her hissed, “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you fall?” Her unibrow was lifted high in shock.

“Fall?” Tohtagul was perplexed. “Why would I?”
 “If you fall, then you’re not ready for marriage. You could have stayed at home a while longer.”

“But I didn’t know that! No one told me to fall. Who told you?”

“My older sister. She tells me everything,” The girl with the unibrow walked off with the lightness of girlhood in her step. Tohtagul still held her ground and the telpek, unsure of what would come next.

The family didn’t have to ask what came next. The preparations for their toy were rolled out like dough in the hands of an expert baker, which, of course, all Turkmen women were.

Yards of solid golden silk were bent beneath the needle of a sewing machine powered by feet and a pedal to slowly, seam by seam, become a long elegant dress. The bridal tahya, a stiff square Muslim cap, was adorned with gold beads and shiny sequins, embroidered in the swirling shapes of flowers and leaves. Long beaded strands were attached to three sides and shorter strands, like bangs, hung from the front. A transparent veil would be draped as another layer on top of it. Her feet would slip into delicate slippers, also adorned with beads and sequins, so that the parts of her touching the earth and reaching for the sky would match.

Then, the food preparations began. Kilo upon kilo of flour was bought for the ubiquitous round loaves of bread and the traditional puffed triangular fried dough which were necessary at any major celebration. Her sisters ran their hands through rice sacks at the bazaar and let grains slip between their fingers to find the best one and then haggle for the cheapest price. They also selected cuts of mutton, yellow carrots, onions, and garlic for the traditional pilaf dish plov. Once all the ingredients had been lugged home from the bazaar, her sisters, aunts, and neighbors all sat outside in their housedresses with their legs crossed, beneath the trellises of dangling green grapes on the raised patio platform of the tapjan. Together, they kneaded dough, washed rice, chopped vegetables, and cleaned the meat. The air was heavy with heat, sweet with the smell of grapes, sharp with gossip, and punctuated with anticipation.

Of course, all weddings were important to the culture, and they were celebrations that people looked forward to, but there were so many. Weddings were not limited to family and friends; they were community affairs. The young couple’s ears would be filled with toasts wishing them longevity, fertility, and prosperity from each one of the guests. The ceremony was to be kept simple; it was about eating and dancing. It was about merging two families and ushering in the start of a new generation.

People would put on their gold and make their way to her cousin’s compound. It was on the edge of town, and they had a large plot of land, big enough to hold all of the guests. Very soon, it would fill with small cooking fires, upon which kazans of plov would be placed. The meat, carrots, and onions would be set at the bottom of the huge round cast iron pot first. Then all the washed rice would be poured in. Cottonseed oil would be added. Their tamdyr, along with many others, would fill with round loaves of nan for the occasion. Shallower cast iron pans would be filled with oil, which would crackle when hot and then cling to the dough for the fried dough in agitated bubbles until the dough puffed up and darkened to a golden brown; then fished out with a wire sieve and placed into a clay serving dish.

It seemed the whole city was making their way to her wedding. The courtyard swelled each time she peeked outside. Once the imam recited the prayers and everyone dipped their hands into communal dishes of plov to celebrate, she would be a married woman. Sharing a meal could be more powerful than all the laws in the land.

On her wedding day, Tohtagul stood very still as her mother brushed her hair and started weaving it into forty tight braids. She rightly assumed it would be the last time for such girlish things. From tonight onward, she was supposed to become a woman, except the hormonal right of passage that marks a girl’s entrance into womanhood hadn’t yet arrived. She still hadn’t felt the twisting of insides into cramps, that shock at seeing the first smear of brownish-red blood staining the inside of her underwear, the panic at wondering what to do, and the experience of walking around with cotton between her legs to absorb the flow. But just as she didn’t know not to fall down, she didn’t know that she was missing anything. Women never warned their daughters about menstruation until they faced it firsthand. Another thing that went unspoken was what really happened after the wedding, once the young couple was alone. Although a woman’s virginity was paramount, she was unaware of what that meant physically and why she would likely bleed when she and her husband consummated their marriage. Physiology was purely what could be ascertained by looking at someone. They could only be certain about what they could see; what went on inside the body was a mystery.

The bride’s arrival to the wedding was greeted with music and cheering. Though the bride’s body faced the groom, her eyes trained down on the ground, lingering on the pointed tips of her groom’s shoes. The veil was never lifted from her face during the ceremony. That intimate act of opening was always reserved for the husband later in the evening. It was improper to show such public displays of affection. Since Tohtagul still hadn’t gone through menarche, though, her veil and her legs would stay closed a while longer.

On her wedding night and every night until that tender transition came, she would sleep beside her mother-in-law. It took Tohtagul a long time to fall asleep in those first days. She lay awake next to the large sleeping mass of her mother-in-law, slowly expanding and contracting with each breath. She watched the woman’s body as she slept and wondered what she looked like with her eyes closed. She felt like she was watching a secret. It also empowered her a little bit to know that at least now, in the middle of the night, time and space was hers.

– Jen Wos studied creative writing and film at Emerson College and was an editor at Oxford University Press for six years. While serving in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan from 2004–2006, she met Haticha K., whose memoirs and family history are the basis for Uprooted.

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The Central Governor

You should know this is all theoretical. It has not been replicated in controlled environments. It has not been tested on diverse populations. It remains hypothetical—no more substantiated than my mother’s assertions: If you stand too close to the microwave, you’ll end up with cancer. The dead are watching, and they know if you start to forget them. Someday that boy will want to marry you. I know to be wary of hypotheses, that my mother was often wrong. I know I have not developed cancer, and that my brother is not a shadow stalking the cemetery, waiting for me to grace his grave with flowers or tears. I know that when you finally asked the question my mother foretold, you were not talking to me. So I know there’s no reason to believe the theory of the central governor, no reason to pretend that my brain knows how best to protect my heart, that it kicks in during intervals of extraordinary stress or exertion, that it weakens my muscles preventatively, promoting homeostasis, keeping my organs from harm. But I know this, too: when my brother died, I could not get warm. I spun the thermostat to ninety degrees. I cocooned myself in blankets and palmed mugs filled with steeping tea. It did not matter. I shivered so violently that I spilled the boiling water. Mother said I would start sweating. Mother said I would grow overheated. Mother said and said and said, until finally I quit listening. I knew it was not about science. I knew that my heart wanted to stop the way my brother had stopped, knew that my head had to outsmart and retrain it, had to coax it to embrace a life without. Now, after all these years without you, some part of me understands you will never be here again, that you are never coming back. I believe anyway, watching at the window while I wait for the water in my mug to color, believe I am governed by a system that knows just how much my body can handle, believe in the voice that reminds me just to keep steeping, to stay and warm.

– Elizabeth Wade’s work has appeared in such places as Kenyon Review online, The Rumpus, AGNI, and others. She currently teaches literature and writing courses at the University of Mary Washington.

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The Souls

I turn on the shower tap and soap myself and watch this little bubble and that little bubble grow and into the bathroom comes my great grandfather.  Holding up his rabbi’s robe, he climbs into the tub with me.  I am not afraid.  This is like a dream. I gently wash him, making sure to clean behind his ears with their sprouting white hairs.

Then his wife shows up, my great grandmother, and lumbers in.  She takes off her wig and I see her snowy hair cascade down her back.  My great grandfather soaps her and soundlessly I proffer a towel. I can’t understand a word they say for they are speaking in Yiddish and Russian.  It strikes me that they are dead souls, that Gogol was right, they are “as juicy as ripe nuts.”

Next, their daughter and her three brothers walk in, my grandmother and my grand uncles.  There’s hardly any room for so many souls in the little bathroom, but they immediately start an argument. Who gets to wear the black wool socks and who gets to deliver the single battered textbook to G-d. They use their fists and kick and scratch and it’s all I can do to stay out of the way, standing on the glistening toilet seat cover.

Finally, my mother and father come in, resplendent in white sailor suits, and ask who forgot the canapes.  They’ve no intention of letting a little thing like mortality impede their great catering business, at which they’re “making money hand over fist.”  My mother passes around vodka glasses and my father gives everyone a generous dollop of pickled herring on a cracker.

The bathroom now is so packed nobody can move but still we are eating and drinking.  They say souls that are disturbed never rest but flit to and fro, making trouble, and I believe it.  My great grandfather talks with his mouth full of herring about the Pogrom of Kishniev while my great grandmother chatters on about how to make Kasha Varnishkes so the noodles are just right.

My grandfather shows up and all hell breaks loose.  “Why are you always late?” my grandmother shouts shrilly, and her brothers join in.  As you can see they don’t like my grandfather one bit.  “Too lazy, too dreamy, writing verse instead of working in the butcher shop,” my grandmother says.  For these things I love my grandfather all the more.  We hung out together when he was alive, and read Milton.

From my perch on the toilet, I try to call them to order.  They are busy enjoying the gefilte fish loaves my father and mother smuggled in past the gatekeeper.  The shower is still on and a fine mist has covered them all.  They link arms, all except my grandfather, and dance in a circle, crushing the vodka glasses underfoot and sloshing water over the floor.  My mother wears the gefilte fish serving tray on her head.  Quietly, I open the bathroom door and slip out.

– Alison Carb Sussman’s poetry has appeared in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Willows Wept Review, the Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Eclipse, Slipstream, and elsewhere.  She lives in New York City.

 

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What Gretel Knows

Gretel is a six-year-old beagle and the keeper of my secrets. Sam, for instance. She smelled him on my hands and face, even after I’d washed up. Or maybe it was my step that tipped her off; maybe she heard the guilt in my gait. Or was the shame on my face?

A dog’s mind is too wide and pure for judgment. Gretel’s foremost concern is my happiness, which she endlessly encourages me to pursue. Still there are times when I walk in the house after being with Sam and she gives me a long, questioning look. Do you know what you’re doing, she telegraphs. Are you sure this won’t wreck our lives?

More than once she has found me in the kitchen helping myself to a juice glass of Chardonnay at two or three o’clock in the morning. There I am, sitting at the table in my robe, back lit by the stove light, then click, click, click, I hear her nails on the linoleum and she is standing in front of me, her brown eyes kind and searching.

Last month she caught me reading Hannah’s diary. I wasn’t looking for punishable offenses, I was only hunting for clues as to why my daughter despises me. By the time Gretel walked into the room and saw the green binder in my hands, I had read nearly half the entries.

These secrets must weigh on Gretel, which might be the reason she sighs like she does. All dogs sigh, but Gretel’s long groans seem to come from the depths of her being, as if she is trying to get free of herself, to utter the unutterable.

Even as a young woman I was not especially keen on sex. In this respect at least, Alan and I are a match. No more than twice a month we make good-natured, uncomplicated love; a ration that suits me just fine and seems to keep Alan satisfied. . Given this agreeable arrangement, I can’t explain what happened between Sam and me, or why it’s still happening. I love Alan. I do.

Sam is a lepidopterist. While he lectures on both butterflies and moths, he is especially devoted to moths. He has written three books about them, including a children’s guide. In search of exotic species, he travels all over the world; last winter, in Singapore, he came across a dozen or so giant Atlas moths. He said you could hear the whoosh of their wings as they cruised the cherry trees.

We met on a muggy, moonless night in August. Sam had run an ad in the local paper inviting anyone interested to join him in Turner’s Park for a moth hunt. I knew next to nothing about moths and had no idea what this excursion would entail, but it sounded more interesting than the book I was reading, certainly better than anything on television. It was indeed a night of surprises, the first one being the number of people who showed up—sixteen in all, half of them young boys, the other half adult women, my age or older.

Sam’s preparations amazed me. Earlier that day, he had painted a syrupy patch on three dozen trees along the trail, then marked each tree with an orange ribbon. Moth bait, he called it, a homemade elixir that contained stale beer, brown sugar and rotten watermelons. Guided by our flashlights, we walked quietly along the path, stopping to inspect each painted tree. Sam had covered the lens of his flashlight with red cellophane—less disturbing than white light, he said—and it was true that the moths didn’t stir when he aimed the beam on the trees. Some of the trees had nothing on them but slugs and carpenter ants, but many hosted some kind of moth, the names of which Sam whispered into the night:

“Glossy Black Idia….Copper Underwing….Cloaked Marvel.”

Captivated, we studied the creatures with budding reverence, as if in those deep woods we had all fallen under a spell. Why had I never noticed how exquisite they were, how intricate their markings? Why had I never seen their furry little faces?

“That’s an Oldwife Underwing,” murmured Sam, shining his light on a charcoal- colored moth that had opened its wings, revealing another set below, twin brown fans with bright orange stripes. Hidden jewelry.

“Do you think we’ll see any Luna moths?” I asked as we walked to the next tree.

“Too late for Lunas,” Sam said. He has a deep voice, almost mournful; his walk is slow and long-strided. He is, in fact, exactly what you might think of when you think: lepidopterist—lean, bespectacled, with a long narrow nose and deep lines running down his cheeks.

“And they wouldn’t be on these trees anyway,” he added. “They don’t eat.”

“They don’t eat!” blurted one of the boys.

“They can’t,” Sam replied. “They don’t have mouths.” His words hung in the darkness, allowing us to absorb them.

I couldn’t imagine the things he knew. At home in the dark, here was a man who was spending his time on earth learning the names and habits of moths; a man for whom these fluttery, powdery bugs were reason enough to be alive. Though months would pass before we mated, I was drawn to him that very first night.

There is no mention of me in Hannah’s diary. Evidently I am not worth comment. When I was pregnant with Hannah I used to imagine the two of us strolling hand-in-hand through meadows and forests; I saw us sharing sunsets, gazing at the Big Dipper. Even before she was out of her crib I knew this wasn’t likely. Hannah wanted action: talking toys, musical mobiles. Her favorite possession was a pink plastic phone which she babbled on for hours and dragged everywhere. Now she has a shiny red cell phone to which she is similarly attached.

Not long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table looking through a book I had borrowed from Sam. In front of me was a photograph of a Verdant Hawk moth, a species from Africa. I was admiring its powerful green wings and sturdy body when Hannah’s sudden voice startled me.

“You and your moths!” she said with a shudder. “Why don’t you study butterflies? They’re a lot prettier and you wouldn’t have to be outside in the middle of the night.”

“Actually,” I said, “there are lots of pretty moths.” I looked up from the book. Hannah was standing beside me, her dark hair hanging in her eyes. “And quite a few of them fly in the daytime.”

“Whatever,” she murmured, walking out of the room.

Maybe we’re like moths and butterflies, Hannah and I, sharing a few traits but living in separate domains. It helps to think so, at any rate. To know this divide is not our fault.

By day I manage a gift shop, a faux log cabin heavily scented with potpourri and filled with the sort of things tourists expect to find in a small New Hampshire town: maple syrup, hardwood bowls, pine-scented pillows, miniature birch bark canoes. Selling these quaint curios doesn’t require much effort and in the slower months I have ample time to write—not that I do much of that anymore. After college I did manage to publish a handful of poems in some decent journals, but at some point I lost momentum, then I lost heart.

Alan is a sales rep for a large organic fertilizer company. Nine months of the year he travels the byways of New England, stopping at nurseries and box stores. He doesn’t grouse about his job. I know the driving must get tiresome, if not hazardous, and how many times a day must he repeat himself, explaining the benefits of microorganisms and carbon-based compounds?

I’ve wondered if Alan, in his travels, ever has any dalliances—surely there’s plenty of opportunity. It’s not hard picturing that blue Sebring nosing in and out of seaside motels having trysts as trackless as windblown leaves. I have seen other women, friends even, look at him with a certain avidity. He still has a boyish smile and all his hair, and for someone who spends so much time behind a steering wheel, Alan is remarkably fit, thanks to those gadgets he takes with him: chin-up bars that fit in doorframes, stretchy bands that hook around his feet.

Sam and I were in his backyard, that first time, studying the moths that came to a sheet he had strung between two trees. In front of this sheet hung a bug zapper he had disabled—the black light inside was all he wanted. (Sam loathes bug zappers and refers to them as “indiscriminate killers.”)

What we were hoping to see, on the cool May night, was a Luna moth, though Sam said the chances were slim as the species was in danger.

“Why?” I asked. “Pesticides?”

He nodded. “The BT they’ve put in corn seed—the pollen goes everywhere.”

We sat in lawn chairs under the stars, blankets on our laps. Sam’s white sneakers shone in the grass. We could hear small frogs leaping into the pond at the edge of Sam’s property. The tree tops were black against the sky and the night smelled of pine and marsh.

We’d been sitting there for nearly an hour, watching the various moths and bats that flew through the night, when what we wanted to see came floating across the yard. The soft green glow of its wings was unmistakable. You could almost believe it had come by way of the moon. I caught my breath as it cruised over our heads, trailing those long tips, before deftly landing on the sheet. We both rose at the same instant and approached the creature slowly.

“A female,” Sam said. “The males have thicker antennae.”

“It’s amazing,” I whispered. I peered at the luminous wings, edged in maroon, the four transparent spots that resembled large eyes, a device to fool predators.

“I wonder if she’ll attract any males,” I said. I had read about moth pheromones and knew that the scent from a single female could draw males from several miles away.

“She’s already mated,” Sam said. “The females mate even before they make their first flight, then they find a tree and lay their eggs. This one has done all that.”

“And she doesn’t eat, right? How much time does she have left?”

Sam shrugged. “Not much. Maybe a day or two. Their life span is about a week.”

I smiled at him. “What a tidy life. You’re born, you mate, you fly, you lay eggs, and then you’re just a lovely thing. Free to be. And you don’t even know you’re going to die.”

That was the moment Sam turned to me and touched my arm. His fingers rested there, lightly. In the glow of the black light his face was serious, questioning, and it didn’t take long for me to close the space between us. That’s where we made love, that first night, on a blanket in the wet grass, not four feet away from a Luna moth. I had no second thoughts. I had no thoughts at all. It was as if we too were running out of time and only doing what we must.

Two years later I don’t know why we persist. Falling upon one another on a pheromone-drenched night in May is one thing, but where is the urgency in our random couplings now?

“What are you thinking about?” Sam asked last week. We were in bed and he was idly running his hand down my side. I had my back to him. His dresser was a couple feet away. I saw a gray sock sticking out of the top drawer.

“It’s different now,” I told him.

“What’s different?”

“Us.” His hand paused on my hipbone. I stared at the dresser. “It feels like stealing for no reason.”

Sometimes I think that what I like most about the affair is being in Sam’s cottage, which is musty and dark and nothing like the house I live in. There are books and papers everywhere, odd pieces of furniture covered in snug coats of dust. Sam lives like the bachelor he is (he was married, briefly, in his twenties), with a clutter of dishes in the sink and sheets that need laundering. This peaceful disarray soothes me—I’ve never so much as washed a cup, nor does Sam expect me to. Sam makes no demands. He is happy to see me when I can manage it; beyond that, I don’t kid myself. If Sam had the chance to see a Black Witch moth or me, I know I’d be curling up with a book.

Gretel never gives up on me. Every day of her life she waits for me to have some fun. She cannot understand why something so easy should be so elusive.

“Like this,” she seems to say, dropping onto her forelegs, rump in the air, tail wagging. “Just do this!”

Obliging her, I will sometimes start to run; I’ll put some excitement in my voice, and she will leap and bark encouragingly. It doesn’t matter to her if this eagerness isn’t genuine. She only wants the effort.

We have no idea how it happens, how the death of a caterpillar gives life to a moth. Here is this plump green crawler, busily sawing through sassafras leaves, shedding one loose-fitting suit after another, until, with a hidden nudge from nature, it stops chewing and gets down to the business of dying. If the weather is still warm, it will spin a silk sheath and wrap itself in a leaf. If winter is approaching, it secretes a hard shell and spends the cold months underground. In either case, the bug begins to disintegrate, bit by bit, leg by leg, breaking apart in its own digestive juices. But then, in this wretched dead sea some rebel cells start swimming. Having served no purpose in the larval life, they are finally called to muster. Their task: to make something marvelous, a creature—with wings.

I can’t walk past a moth anymore without stopping to peer at it, to marvel over its tiny, unfathomable dramas. Some nights I walk out on my porch just to see who’s showed up at the light. Sam says that moths are not attracted to light so much as they are pulled into it; stunned, they stay there. Turn off the light and they break away.

I do that. There are times when I step off my lighted porch and slip into the welcoming shadows alongside the house. The night absorbs me. There, under impartial stars, in a perfect wedge of darkness, I disappear.

– A native Vermonter, Jean Ryan lives in Napa California. She has published a novel, LOST SISTER, and her stories and essays have appeared in various journals including the Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, the Summerset Review and Earthspeak. A collection of her stories will be published by Ashland Creek Press in 2013.

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