Transnational

Issue #7

Spring 2012

Table of Contents

3 Letter from the Editor

4 Contributors

5 Events

6 Fiction – “The One in Burning Blue” by Nels Hanson

7 Poetry – “In Search Of” by Howie Good

8 Poetry – “It has nothing to do with flames” by Simon Perchik

9 Fiction – “Morning Tea” by Greg Bogaerts

14 Fiction – “Creamy Bitter Starfish” by Jenny Ortiz

17 Poetry – “What You Learn About Words” by Dan Hedges

18 Fiction – “Emma’s Eyes” (“Les yeux d’Emma”) by Antoine Chalvin, translated by Margot Mille

 

Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

This is where I write something nice about how exciting it is that I’m introducing the seventh issue, and what a lucky number that is, what a wonderful spring it’s going to be in our little corner of the literary world, and something about what literature and the literary world, the literary life, means to all of us, and either a more professional picture of myself or just a photograph that is representative of the season without being too self-centered (like kids running through the town of Santa Cruz la Laguna in Guatemala between me and the volcano, but nothing that implies the way this picture is is the way the world is because this is the only world that matters, because it’s a big world out there and we can only see part of it at a time), and then I’ll write something meant to be inspiring about writing or art or what trans means and what transnational entails, something about crossing borders, about that which is beyond the nation, about bringing together people from different places, creating a space for intersection perhaps, and then we’ll see what transpires.  Warmest,

– Christina Phelps

 

Contributors

Greg Bogaerts is a writer who lives in Cooranbong, Australia, but he is NOT Seventh Day Adventist.  He has had many stories published in journals, anthologies, and newspapers.  He is married to Jill.  His cat, Whisper, is fourteen years old and has a heart condition, but she has responded well to heart tablets.

Howie Good, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of the full-length poetry collections Lovesick (Press Americana, 2009), Heart With a Dirty Windshield (BeWrite Books, 2010), and Everything Reminds Me of Me (Desperanto, 2011), as well as numerous print and digital poetry chapbooks, including most recently Love Dagger from Right Hand Pointing.

Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor.  He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana, and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award.  His stories have appeared in Antioch ReviewTexas ReviewBlack Warrior ReviewSoutheast ReviewLong StoryShort StoryStarry Night Review, and other journals.  “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.

Dan Hedges currently teaches English in the Sir Wilfred Laurier School Board of Quebec.  He has also taught English at Sedbergh School and the Celtic International School.  He has lived in the Yukon, Southern Ontario, Spain, Mexico, and Quebec.  Dan runs an artist collective called HUMANIMALZ, which is visible via www.humanimalz.com.  He also runs an art blog called www.danhedges.blogspot.com.

Margot Miller grew up in Ohio, New York’s Westchester County, and on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  She served in the Peace Corps (TEFL Niger 1972-74) and also has lived in Nice (France), British Columbia, and Maryland.  She earned a Master of Arts in Counseling in 1977, another Master of Arts, in French language and Literature, in 1996, and a Phd in French literature in 2001.  After working in several universities and colleges doing sabbatical replacements she turned to writing fiction and poetry, and more recently to painting.  She teaches contemporary French women writers in translation for the Academy of Lifelong Learning in St. Michaels, MD and the International Academy of Learning (Continuing Education) at Chesapeake College.  She is a Fiction editor at The Delmarva Review and maintains OCCASIONAL ART, a painting studio and gallery in Easton, MD.

Jenny Ortiz is a quite serious 25-year-old New Yorker, except when unicorns (specifically chubby unicorns) are involved. When she isn’t pleading with Kurt Sutter via Twitter to be her mentor, she is teaching at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and LaGuardia Community College (see, quite serious).  When she isn’t teaching, she’s hanging out with her friends showing off  earth and water bending skills (not serious, but super fun).  When she is alone and it’s raining, she likes to read Haruki Murakami, or listen to the Broken Bells and daydream.  If you want to be a fan, you can read Jenny’s work on fictionatwork.com, Blink-ink.com, Jersey Devil Press, dogeatcrow.com, Break Water ReviewStone Highway ReviewEighty Percent Magazine, and InkSpill Magazine

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan ReviewThe New Yorker, and elsewhere.  For more information, including his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” and a complete bibliography, please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Events

3.21.2012 – trans lit mag begins transmitting issue #7, “transnational.”

 

Fiction

The One in Burning Blue

by Nels Hanson

After Jodie threw the vase of roses and the window of the recording studio shattered I went out drinking, brooding about Marlene Black blaming Jodie for Johnny Black’s murder—

About Jodie firing Johnny and his band and me standing by and letting her do it, so that sooner or later he’d meet ring-nosed rapper Eddie Rat, who wore the coonskin cap and aimed the flintlock—

I had bad thoughts about the Wheeler Sisters, I thought Jodie might do something to make them quit if she couldn’t cut them loose too—

When Jodie let people go they got killed, or went crazy like Red Stampley and imagined they were World War II generals or Roy Rogers and started phoning in the wee hours, or like Hank quit playing music and tried to sell real estate in Vegas.

Their widows dressed in black and burst into make-up on the Donny Williams Show, on their anniversaries announced the murder of their husbands and threw wedding cakes at the culprit, the red-haired, cold and beautiful First Lady of Country and the latest darling of the Republican Party:

“You murdered Johnny!  You murdered us!”

I tried but I couldn’t remember which Wheeler I’d hugged briefly last week in the closet off the studio, Helen, Wanda or Charlene, the one who’d kissed me hard and then whispered, “I love you, Travis.”

I thought of that old TV show, “To Tell The Truth.”

“I kissed Buck Cole last week.”

“I kissed Buck Cole last week.”

“I kissed Buck Cole last week.”

Each sister wore green and held a blood-smeared yellow rose like a pink slip.  Two of the contestants were imposters.  All of them smiled.

I stayed out late, until I figured Jodie had gone to bed and wouldn’t be waiting when I staggered home to our Nashville castle.  If she got lonely, she could call George or Laura – Jodie’s thrown vase and Jerry’s cut hand had shaken me and everyone around us.

Flesh was cut, twice, first Johnny Black and now Jerry.  I had a feeling something else, something bigger, was coming, that it was already rolling through the night like a semi on its way, pushing a wall of air in front of it.

I was waiting for it to arrive, whatever it was, I was listening for it and not budging, even if what was coming meant the end of the Coles.  The truth was I was getting tired of being Buck Cole, the creator of “Travis Jackson” and the President’s wayward phone buddy as well as Jodie’s verbal punching bag.

That night in Mom’s Tavern I sat with the studio crew, including Jerry with his newly bandaged hand.  He’d come in straight from the hospital.  Everyone was joking and laughing and flirting with the barmaids, trying to let off the steam Jodie had boiled up when she’d thrown the heavy jar of yellow roses – just before Travis Jackson called and she’d shouted, “I’ll have the FBI onto to you, whoever you are!  The President’s going to hear about this!” and then smashed the phone.

The CD was done.  After I’d left the studio strewn with glass and blood and petals and plastic Jodie had okayed “Lightning Strikes” and when Harlan called at Mom’s I’d decided to let it go.

I didn’t care anymore about walking the fiery sea or swimming the frozen land, the friend you finally meet wearing clothes of burning blue, or that the awful end was only the start of something true . . .

I’d really liked that song, I’d thought it was something special and new, something really my own, in a modest way a turn in direction away from our fans’ stock expectations of the Coles and “Travis Jackson” and now I’d kissed it goodbye to stop the fight with Jodie.  I’d said the tempo was off and there was too much treble and she said the Wheelers sounded like blue jays raiding a nest.

Like Gore, I’d conceded the election.

Pretty soon someone, maybe it was Greg Stills, asked about the ranch and then Travis Jackson.

“Yeah, tell us another TJ story.”

“Did Travis catch the rattler with the gold wedding ring around it?  Like an hourglass, Travis said?  I’d pay to see that.”

“Naw, he chopped off his head.  Killed him for his jewelry.”

They’d seen my fiasco on the Donny Williams Show.  I knew they were partly making fun but I couldn’t talk about Travis any time Jodie was around so I started in, seeing everything very clearly.

Travis could spin a story, and next time I’d ask him more about Tex, the cowboy who rode the steer instead of a horse, the tale Jodie had interrupted – “Whoever you are, the FBI’s going to get you!” – when she’d grabbed the phone and broke it like the window and the vase of roses.

George B. in the Oval Office would probably have liked it.  “Travis Jackson lives!” he’d exclaim, like the million bumper stickers said.  “Damn right!”

“One time Travis was prospecting for gold along a rocky butte,” I began, “when he found a cave leading back into the mountain.  He got off his horse and climbed back inside.  Pretty soon he comes to this dark chamber.

“He lifts the lantern and there’s two skeletons, one an Indian still wearing a deerskin vest, the other a grizzly she-bear, white teeth and claws.  The man and grizzly were hugging one another, the skeleton hand still holding a stone knife between the bear’s ribs.

“‘Can you imagine,’ Travis says to me, ‘what that scene must have been like, when that brave crawled in there out of the lightning and thunder with his skin bag of firewood?  And there they were, like dancers, still wrestling like their fight would go on for a thousand years—’”

“Travis Jackson lives!” someone yelled.

Somebody dropped a quarter in the jukebox and the song came on, like accompaniment:

                                “Travis Jackson was a friend of mine

                                Cowboy-bred but out of time.

                                The West is going, going, gone

                                You can hear it fade when you hear his song.”

“There he is,” Walt said.  “Right on cue.”

“Maybe he’s here,” Larry said.  He pretended to look around, over his shoulder, then under the table.

“No,” Jerry said.  “He’s in there.”  He nodded at the bottle on the table.

“Where is he really, Buck?” Walt said.  He didn’t laugh with the others at Jerry’s joke.

“He’s in here,” I said quietly to Walt.  I touched my shirt pocket.

Walt winked.  “That’s right.”

Slim Frye walked in with his sideburns and white Stetson and everybody gathered around.

Frye looked over at me, grinning that he’d known Jodie before I did, and I got up to leave.

He liked the idea that he’d put Jodie out of the red Porsche on the desert road, that day I’d come along and found her and taken her to the ranch where the green grass grew in the bowl of mountains – after swimming the underground river we’d made love while the horses grazed and I never thought of the cave where the skeletons waited like Adam and Eve—

“Oh yeah,” I heard him say, “that’s ole Buck Cole, Jodie Johnson’s ole man, the ‘Travis Jackson Special.’”

“You need a ride home?” Walt asked.

I shook my head.

“You going to take some time off, now that we wrapped it up?”

“I think I will.”

“You and Jodie going somewhere?  You got the tour coming up.”

“I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Walt held open the door and I went out onto the sidewalk lit green and red and sudden blinding white by the neons and the headlights of passing tourists, the eager white faces at the windows hoping for a glimpse of their favorite stars.

“You all right to drive?”

“I can drive,” I said.  “It’s living that’s hard.”

Walt pointed his finger at me.

“You’ve got a line on that,” Walt said.  “That’s the dirty little secret.”

“So long, Walt.”

“I’ll see you, Buck.  Take care.  Get yourself some peace.”

I half thought of heading out West but let the on ramp go by and went out into the wooded estates of the rich and famous.  Johnny Cash’s light was still on but Waylon and Jessie Colter had gone to bed.

I drove through the opened gate and waved to Witt in the kiosk and parked in the drive.  The house was locked and dark and I stumbled up the brick sidewalk to the back.

I tried to get a hold of Travis but again he didn’t pick up the phone at the ranch in Nevada.  The phone rang and rang and I imagined him sound asleep as the leaves of the cottonwood rattled and the cool night breeze blew at the window.

In the barn and across the wide pasture – where the cold river came up from underground – the horses and white face cattle were dreaming, as I lay down on the empty bed in the guesthouse and for an hour heard the floating machine with a mind of its own bump the blue tile edges of the pool.

I only talked to Travis when he called me.

In the morning Jodie was waiting for me in the living room as I walked in wearing fresh black, my usual uniform, Jodie had picked out – “It worked for Johnny Cash and Waylon—”

From her now-the-world-has-ended look I knew she’d heard the story about the grizzly in the cave, from a third party, she was holding it back for spare ammo.

Sitting in her chair and swinging her leg like clockwork she started right in and twice I thought she talked over a mike in the studio and started to get up to turn down the volume.

Although I didn’t agree with the way she set things out, I could see the picture pretty clearly from her point of view, like morning sun through a pine forest from a passing train.

Even with the headache I knew that I must have sounded like a broken record, that I’d succeeded in making a public spectacle of myself.  My talking jags about Travis had become an open joke among the band and then the wider Nashville crowd.

(At Mom’s, Slim Frye, Jodie’s ex-something, had himself a good laugh at Travis’ expense, I remembered.)

I had diminished my personal dignity and then my authority with the music, I’d become a painful and flamboyant embarrassment to Jodie, caused her to lose her composure and threaten to fire the Wheeler Sisters for group fornication with her husband, scream and throw a glass vase at drunken Buck Cole and hit and injure an innocent bystander.

Like my recent performance on the Donny Williams Show – after telling Travis’ story of the baby snake stuck in the lost wedding ring and how it grew 8 feet long, four feet on either side of its hourglass waist, I’d tripped and fallen in a hail of flashbulbs—

The broken window and the roses would be a stain on the President, when it was twisted and hit the papers, undercut him with his family-values supporters, after the Bushes had been nothing but kind and generous to two simple entertainers.

G and L were the real adults taking the weight of the world on their shoulders with no help from any stimulants.  They were grown-ups, the parents, and had to be crystal clear.  Hadn’t George taken time out from running America to pray with me over the phone, tell me that together we could beat the drinking?

It was public knowledge now that Buck Cole was obsessed and alcoholic, unfit for the friendship of presidents or anyone else, and it was well within the realm of honest speculation that the best and safest place for him was the locked ward of a mental clinic, before he did something more to hurt the White House with his mania that a made-up character in a song was his real-life best friend.

I shouldn’t be wearing black but hospital pajamas.

I knew I was over the line, but the crux of the difficulty was that the line had been blurred for quite a while and anyway I didn’t much care about the line anymore or about my dignity or Jodie’s shame that was red as her trademark dresses, about “Lightning Strikes” or anyone who cared about or believed in the Bushes or anything else.

Travis was my friend and in the whole wide world that was the only solid thing I had to hang on to.

It was Sunday and Jodie and I were at swords’ points again.

Now she stood at the French windows, smoking, staring out at the pool.  I lay sprawled in the big white leather chair, wearing my sunglasses and fighting the hangover.

“What time did you get back last night?”

“You know you have it down to the minute.”

“Three a.m.”

I didn’t answer.

“I heard you were going on about the bad old days.”

“They don’t seem so bad.  And what’s the thing with Jerry?  Is he your spy or something?  Or do you have access now to the FBI?”

“You told the story about the bear.”

“It’s a harmless story.  No murders, no rapes.”

But I felt a pang of guilt.

It was a terrible story, worse than the laundered version I’d told in the bar, saying it was a brave instead of a squaw.  For a second I heard her scream entwined with the grizzly’s furious roar, echoing in the cave.

“I hate those stories.”

“You weren’t there last night.  I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Jodie walked to the coffee table and stubbed out her cigarette in a fancy glass ashtray.

“I don’t think it’s funny.”

“It’s not funny.  Just like it wasn’t funny when you locked me out the other night.”

She was silent.

“And I didn’t think it was funny when you called me a liar on Donny Williams.”

“But it was a lie!  It’s all lies!”  She was upset again.  “You promised not to get started – I don’t want to hear about Travis Jackson anymore.”

“Why do you care so much about him?”

“I hate him worse than the drinking.  Except he is the drinking.”

Jodie pulled a cigarette from a pack, then threw it down.

“You’ve got me smoking again.”

“Laura got you smoking again.”

She didn’t hear me, beginning to pace in her red pants suit.

“All that’s in the past.  It’s dead.  We’ve got a tour to do.”

“The past is never dead.”

“Don’t talk like one of your songs—”

I jumped to my feet.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, don’t be childish.”

“Childish, hell.  You used to like my songs pretty well.  As far as I remember, ‘Travis Jackson’ did all right—”

“You want to go back with Johnny’s band, because Marlene threw the cake and made the papers?  Go back with them and go nowhere?  You think I dumped Johnny for fun?”

“Johnny’s dead.  He was killed by a punk named Eddie Rat, trying to get him to sign a contract.  The great Johnny Black, working as a gofer for Columbia—”

“I know he’s dead.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  That’s what I mean about the past.”

“That’s not it.”

“I saw a break and we had to take it.”

She sat down on the sofa, dropping her head in her hands.

“I didn’t know he’d get killed.  Do you think I’d have fired him if I’d known what would happen?  It’s Harlan’s fault as much as mine—”

“Look, Jodie, this isn’t any good.”

“What isn’t?”

 “I don’t know whether it’s being cooped up together or something else.  It used to be we could spend weeks in three rooms in the middle of 5,000 acres 40 miles from Country Corners.  Now we’re having trouble living in the same city.  I’m falling down and you’re throwing things, phones and roses.  Maybe we need a break from each other.”

She shook her head without looking up.

“Well, what then?”

Jodie lifted her face.  She was crying.

“Come on now, what can we do?  Let’s don’t give in to this.”

“Let’s fly out to Reno early.  Alone.”  She looked up, nearly begging.

“How’s that going to help?”

“We’ll give the guys some time off.  We can have a second honeymoon.”

“A working honeymoon?”

“We can have at least three days free,” she answered quickly.  “A change will do us good.  No rehearsing.  No interviews.  Just the two of us.  Like before.  Like at the ranch, when you took me there—”

“That was a while ago.”

“Can’t you remember?”  She tilted her head, looking away at the floor.  “I can,” she said.  “I’ll never forget.”

I sat down beside her.

“Remember, swimming the underground river that morning, after you saved me from that jerk in the Porsche?”

“I don’t want things to get out of control,” I said.

“It was terrible when we split up.”  She wiped at her eyes.

“I was losing my mind.”

“So was I, Buck.”

“Two months apart were two months too many.”

Jodie smiled through her tears.

“You wrote some good songs while you were grieving,” she said.  “Just as good as ‘Travis Jackson.’”

“The grieving and drinking got a little mixed up.  I want to cut that short too.”

I realized I meant it.  Again I saw the snow drift past the frozen window of the ranch house before she’d come back Christmas Day.  It was strange – Jodie was the one who’d re-titled the song “Travis Jackson,” that first night at the ranch when she sang it to me.

“Buck—”

Jodie gripped my wrist.

“You get out to Reno, get some mountain air in your lungs—  You watch, in a week you’ll write a whole slew of songs.  Just like that—”

She snapped her fingers.

“They’ll come easy.  You know yourself, that’s the way the best ones always do.”

She put her arms around me and kissed my lips.

She reminded us that all we had was each other.  Jodie never saw her brother or sister and I had no siblings.

Both sets of parents, hers and mine, were dead.

In a way, we were orphans who had saved one another.  Each of us was precious.  We were each other’s angel.

“Isn’t that right?  I told Laura and she said it was true.”

“Sure it is,” I said.  “We’ll hold on tight.”

At the time, all of this made sense.

After all, Jodie went on, jumping to her feet and beginning to walk up and down the room again, creative people had their ups and downs, it went with the territory.

If you wanted to fly, you had to burn a little now and then, didn’t you, dare the flames to capture the fire?  Just like our new song, “Lightning Strikes.”

Angels didn’t have time to waste moaning about a bent feather or singed wing.  They were angels and had too much to do, she said.

“We’re angels?”  I couldn’t help but smile.  “Have you told Donny Williams?”

Jodie giggled and leaned down, pretending to pick up dropped pinions and stick them back into her wings. She flapped each arm gently, testing, one and then the other, and flew around the room.

“We’re angels, Buck, angels!” she sang, as she laughed and beat her graceful wings.  “Honky-tonk angels!”

Then she stopped and came running.

From three feet she jumped in the air and I caught her and when she whispered in my ear I carried her down the hall to bed.

I’d get rid of the old monogrammed cufflinks she was always after me to throw out.

When we got to Nevada, I wouldn’t go near the ranch north of Country Corners.

“Promise?”

“Okay,” I whispered back.

“What about you-know-who?”

I’d never ever mention Travis Jackson one more single time or his underground river.

“Oh, I love you Buck—”

“You too, Jodie—”

Now everything was all right again, I thought, just like in “Lightning Strikes”:

Then you walk the fiery sea

                                        And you swim the frozen land

                                        Until you lose your way

                                        And you find a place to stand.

 

                                        That’s where you meet a friend

                                        In clothes of burning blue—

                                        What you thought was just the end

                                        Is the start of something true.

I’d forgotten that Jodie wore red and Travis only blue denim before he wore black.

Poetry

In Search Of

by Howie Good

1

We were friends before we were a couple, but unreliable narrators before we were either.  When I opened the door, I found a small Midwestern city, suicidal and dimly lit.  I couldn’t explain it, not even with complex equations.  We agreed to act as if these were things that mattered.

2

I came to a fence and climbed over it and then realized I had forgotten my bag on the other side.  There was nothing in the bag I actually needed.  I was traveling to a faraway country, where the word for rain was more real than the rain itself.

3

A fluttery bird spoke up.  It’s what happens sometimes.  The sky brightened, but only for an instant.

 

Poetry

by Simon Perchik

*
It has nothing to do with flames
but since your shadow comes from the sun
it starts out as silence

already knows in the few hours left
another evening will flow
and once inside your bones

even more restlessness
– the sun will never be content
till it ripens you into someone else

bewitched the way your shadow
breaks with the past, is absorbed
and once in the ground, nourished

safe from predators and over time
even this moon will become a sun
ignited half by sunlight

half at your side while the night
in its sudden joy becomes a morning
you never heard before.

Fiction

Morning Tea

by Greg Bogaerts

Alice Green arranges the morning tea things on the off-white marble topped table, she makes sure everything is in its place the way it always has been for forty years.  The two white porcelain jugs with blue and gold bands painted around their swan necks are there, filled with thick cream.  Two cups, white with navy blue depictions of shepherds and lords and ladies, are there worn fine by decades of careful handling, the handles, as thin as sea shells, from fingers curled around them a thousand times.  The pewter vases are there, dark grey sentinels holding sprays of white daisies with their golden hearts dropping specks of yellow on the white tablecloth.  Two mandarins, with their spongy skin and green navels, sit side by side in pride of place.  Two teapots with long spouts like eels and bellies like two corpulent men sit on the table.

At the back of the table a blue glass partition separates the dining room of Alice Green from the small bedsitter of Martha Brown, Alice’s protected tenant of forty years standing.  Alice can see the curled comma of the woman behind the blue glass like a fish coming up from deep and dark depths of water, swimming surely through the fathoms towards the light.  And Alice shivers when the blurred blue form approaches the blue glass and the lines of the body are not blurred any more but become almost clear.  A definite form close to the glass like a figure burned in soft metal by acid.

Alice has watched the silent figure for forty years and never has a word passed between the two women through the blue glass.  But Alice, with the antique clock ticking on her mantelpiece, has listened to the footsteps of Martha slow to an old woman’s shuffle, she’s heard the woman’s breathing become laboured as the years passed, she’s seen the straight feminine figure with big breasts fold like a dead leaf with old age, wither with the circle of the seasons.  All in silence.

Occasionally Alice has heard the form sob, bent over, convulsing with grief, the closest Martha Brown has come to words.  At these times Alice has been tempted to go to the woman’s door, knock on it, offer comfort but something stops her, something holds her back so she cannot even find words to give the woman through the partition of glass.  Alice turns off her lights and watches the figure behind the glass swimming back and forth like a shovel-nosed shark in the blue gloom of her bedsitter, sometimes breaking the silence with a sob.  Sometimes dropping something in the middle of the night waking Alice, who sits ramrod straight and scared stiff in her bed.

Sometimes Martha stands facing the blue glass partition as though she’s looking into Alice’s dining room, as though the protected tenant can see Alice clearly although Alice can only see Martha as a blur.  At such times, Alice sits perfectly still on a chair hoping her stillness will not attract the stare of the woman, hoping her stillness will make the woman turn away from the glass and go about her day-to-day business.

It is when Martha places her body against the glass that Alice is scared the most.  Martha, with her breasts, her knobbly knees and her lank-flesh shanks of arms pressed against the glass, looks like a gigantic slug about to break through the barrier.

But Alice has had enough of this ridiculous silence, her intermittent terror, so, after forty years, she’s determined to invite her protected tenant in for morning tea.  After all, both women lost their husbands in the Second World War, so both women should have a lot in common even if it is only long past grief.

The only difference between the two of them, muses Alice as she puts the finishing touches to the morning tea things, is that she inherited a house left to her by her husband while Martha was given a protected tenancy by the government of the day.  A common thing for war widows to be given a bedsitter for a next to nothing rent until they died.

Screwing up her courage, Alice heads for the door to go to invite Martha in for morning tea but a movement behind the blue glass stops her.  With dread, Alice turns to face it, she sees the second form as black as the Indian ink Alice used on her headings in school so long ago.  The figure takes Martha in its arms, Alice see the blurred mouths, the lips like dead orchids joined.  The hands of the faceless man slide down the legs of Martha, the dress slides up the old thighs and over the head bowed by vertebrae spurs of arthritis and lust.

Holding hands, Martha and the man walk away from Alice, they become a jellyfish blob, a curdle of blue and black, a scratchy whisper of fabric.  Alice stands in the middle of her dining room and hears the springs of the bed squeak on the other side of the blue glass.  Slowly Alice raises her hand, places it over her mouth to dam, to keep in the sound of horror.

But after it is over, when there is silence, Alice decides she will go ahead with her plans to invite Martha to morning tea even though the exertions of the man with Martha have made it early afternoon now.  Alice leaves her house, goes to Martha’s door and knocks.

There is no answer but the door opens under the force of Alice’s rapping.  There isn’t anything or anyone there.  Just some nooses of cobweb and some dark shadows scuttling about in the four corners of the deserted one room.

Alice walks in, goes to the blue glass, looks into it, sees the bent form arranging the morning tea things, hears the clink and chink of porcelain and cutlery.

 

Fiction

Creamy Bitter Starfish

by Jenny Ortiz

Kyuzo spears the starfish with a sharp stick before holding it over the bonfire we’d made using driftwood and a matchbook we’d taken from the hotel bar.  The skin of the starfish chars slightly.  When he pulls it off the fire, he offers the spiny orange meat to us.  Kupono accepts, sniffing at it cautiously.  He pops it into his mouth quickly only to spit it out.  The discarded chewed piece of starfish in the sand disgusts me.  Kupono stretches out and closes his eyes unaffected at the sight.  Using my sweater, I clean the spit and sand off before crushing the meat between my teeth, sucking the residue of salt off its skin.  I chase it down with a long swallow of beer from the bottle Kyuzo hands me.  The brew is foreign to me, but they always are.

Kyuzo is quiet as usual; a quiet that shuts up everyone around him, allowing the sounds, usually drowned out by human voices, to come through clearly.  The wind, the water, the sky, the sand – all of it is dark and only their sounds differentiate them.  When the silence is unbearable, Kupono and I venture into the water.  We peel off our clothes, leaving everything by Kyuzo, by the bonfire.  We start shivering even before we touched the water.  We float next to one another as if in a bed, like the bed we shared last night.

When Kyuzo had come in this morning, he found, beside me, Kupono, the person that took his place for the night.  He walked out of the room, leaving the door open so I could watch him go to the kitchen to make breakfast.  Slowly, we joined him.  Buttered toast and scrambled eggs.  Coffee, black with a generous amount of sugar.  The newspaper was open, but unread.  The TV on, but muted.  The sound of Kupono’s chewing was magnified.  I gave Kyuzo an apologetic look, but he mentioned the beach instead.

Before the waves push us back to the sand, I think of this and of Kyuzo’s blank expression at another man in bed with me.  I’m not supposed to sleep with the men we decide upon.  I’m only supposed to give them the illusion that soon I’ll have sex with them… after a long day of surfing and drinking.  After I’ve introduced him to my friend Kyuzo, who will teach him how to surf at night, while I steal his money.  And with the help of the waves, by the time they come to the shore to dry, Kyuzo and I are gone. But this time I got bored waiting for Kyuzo to get back with the cigarettes and beer that would take him the whole night to bring back.  The sheets were cold and there was nothing on television, but there were plenty of warm bodies at the bar.  Warmer than Kyuzo’shas ever been.  As kids, I used to call him Frosty, and in high school Ice man, and now I just call him Kyuzo.

 Heavy with water, we make our way back to the bonfire.  They sit next to one another, close so that they can hear each other over the loud crackling of the burning wood.  I sit away from them.  The whole day I have watched as Kyuzo has fed Kupono, called him brother, and has surfed with him, making me nauseous.  This is not our usual plan.  He isn’t supposed to chummy up with the mark until later in the day, later when the sun has made them tired and hungry and looking for a warm fire, a good storyteller, cold beer, and a soft girl.  But I couldn’t blame Kyuzo; I was the one who started this… this mark at least.  The first time we stole anything was a candy bar from the supermarket Kyuzo’s uncle owned.  I suppose if we’d ask his uncle for the candy bar, he would’ve given us two or three but taking it made us feel as if we’d slipped into the adult world and wreaked havoc on it.  We duped the adults a lousy dollar.

But it didn’t feel like we were duping anyone this time around.  Kyuzo smiled at Kupono as if he were in on the plan with us.  And in the process of Kyuzo making friends with the mark, Kupono had lost the golden skinned beauty that had attracted me to him the night before.  Now, he looks like a leech, fat with our blood – Kyuzo’s and mine.  By the time we had the bonfire going, I’d already pulled away from Kupono’s touch, but he didn’t seem to notice.  He, like most people, is focused on Kyuzo – on his silence, on his stillness.  Kyuzo’s eyes are on the bonfire.

Another starfish is being grilled; I prefer mine boiled but take the piece given me.  Kupono doesn’t take a piece this time, but watches as our teeth pull at the flesh.  Kyuzo chews the meat right off the stick.  Then they talk about surfing and techniques and tournaments.  Kupono does most of the talking, but Kyuzo’s face is animated, which allows Kupono to continue.  He thinks he has found a new set of friends in us, but we will leave this place, we’ll leave this view of the ocean for another.  I’ll meet another young surfer, and play with him before we discard him like our sand-caked sandals at the backdoor of our new home.  I look to Kyuzo for a silent agreement, but he doesn’t look at me and, for a moment, I have a sick feeling he won’t look at me.

I get up and tell them it’s a good time to surf, the moon is round and out.  Neither one follows.  I hesitate, tell them again, but they wave me off.  Kupono is dangerously close to the bonfire.  Kyuzo smiles at me; his face is illuminated by the flames.  He takes the knife he cut the starfish with and sticks it into the log next to him.  His smile grows a little larger, but Kupono doesn’t notice.  I ask Kyuzo if the waves are too rough and he says no.  I think my voice sounds shaky and I try to steady it.  I ask if he wants me to get more beer from the convenient store, but Kupono says they have a whole pack left.  I ignore this answer and ask Kyuzo again, but he agrees with his new friend.  In between my teeth, the starfish has left behind a  bitter taste that trickles onto my tongue and coats the insides of my cheeks.  It reminds me of the taste of Kupono’s semen.  I think of the starfish alive a few minutes earlier, looking for food, its two stomachs digesting its prey.  I kick up some sand in the bonfire, which causes a stern look to cross Kyuzo’s face, but he doesn’t say anything.  I tell them I’m leaving, that I am going to bed.  They wave me off, as if good riddance to a distraction.

When I get into bed, the sheets are cold and wrinkled once again.  But I know better this time.  I remain in bed, waiting for Kyuzo to finish.  The window has been open the whole day and I don’t have the energy to close it, although with it open it is hard for me to sleep.  The sounds of the waves are too loud and my ears are alert, taking every sound in, waiting for waves to break, for voices to crack.

 

Poetry

What You Learn About Words

by Dan Hedges

What you learn about words,
in your life,
when, or, and if, you get words to resonate,
for you, around you, or with you,
is the way in which words do, ought to, or may;
words in their great elemental essences,
bring you closer,
to peace,
and waking to words,
what you learn about words in your life,
will define you.

 

Fiction

Emma’s Eyes

by Antoine Chalvin

translated by Margot Miller

It was an old hovel built of dried stone, out of place on the moor.  It just appeared, without warning, a hundred yards in front of me, still shimmering, like a heat mirage.

It was about two o’clock; I’d been walking since dawn in this desert of gorse and heather, looking for an improbable path.  My backpack was getting heavy and I was out of water.  This house was providential.  I advanced toward the only window of the façade.  It looked into what seemed to me to be the main room: a large square room, nearly empty, with nothing but a table and four chairs, an iron bed, and a china closet.  The walls were naked, without any sort of decoration.  I noticed only, on the left, propped up on the mantel, a small frame containing the photograph of a woman.  A reflection on the glass prevented me from clearly distinguishing her features, but it seemed she was young, and very beautiful.

I knocked on the front door.  Three distinct thumps were enough to awaken something inside: I first heard a door opening, then a rather slow gait, which took its time coming toward me.  I imagined whoever it was inspecting the room before responding.

When the door finally opened, I had difficulty repressing my surprise: the face of the person who stood in front of me was entirely concealed under a black wool hood.  Two holes allowed me to see the dull and expressionless eyes.  The worn clothing and the rather stooped figure suggested an old woman.  She looked at me without uttering a word, her hand still poised on the doorframe.  I was coughing and explaining confusedly that I had gotten lost and I needed water.

She indicated I should sit at the table and, still without speaking, disappeared into the next room.  I was alone for a long time in the large space, growing more and more uneasy.  Mechanically raising my eyes to the mantel, I saw the photograph was no longer there.

When the old woman at last came back from the kitchen, her face still covered, she carried a place setting and a dish of beans, which she set in front of me saying,

“You will eat.  Afterwards, I will show you your room.”  Thus, without asking, I was invited to spend the night.  This proposition seemed suspicious.  I was just about to decline the invitation when I saw through the back window the silhouette of a woman outlined against the clear blue sky. She was walking toward the house.  Her dress floated above the heather.  The backlighting, the distance, and perhaps the numbing cold that interfered with my vision prevented me from distinguishing more.  It was, however, enough to make me decide to wait.

I conscientiously emptied my plate of beans, keeping watch out of the corner of my eye on the approaching silhouette.  Then the old woman took me to what was to be my room: a small, bare room with a mirrored armoire and a bed covered in an enormous eiderdown quilt.  The bed and the room had been cleaned, as if they were expecting someone.  Handing me the key, the old woman said,

“You will always close and lock, turning the key twice.”  It was the second time she had spoken to me, and her strange manner of speaking in the future tense already unnerved me.  I didn’t know if I should take these sibylline sentences as orders, as advice, or as predictions.

Outside, the other woman must have been nearer now.  I walked around the large room trying to catch sight of her, but the window frame was empty.  She must have been coming around the house.  I sat, facing the doorway.  Footsteps approached and a young woman, fairly tall, appeared on the threshold.  She wore a white dress, and her face… was dissimulated under a black wool hood.

It was at this precise moment, I believe, that I decided to stay.  I have rather a placid and reserved nature.  Mysteries, ordinarily, interest me very little, mysterious people even less, and this masked old woman would undoubtedly not have held me long.  The young woman, on the other hand, more than intrigued me: there was something there, in the way she stood in the door, tall and straight in her dress shivering in the wind, a kind of vegetal perfection.  It was, surely, this fantastic arboreal apparition that made me see something of value in the hood: my curiosity overtook me, and suddenly I wanted to see her face.

Slowly approaching me, she planted in my eyes her incredible green gaze, almost florescent, and extended her hand, soiled with dirt, saying simply in a soft voice,

 “Hello.”

I no longer know what I did with this outstretched hand.  Kiss or handshake?  I believe there was a bit of both in the hesitant meeting of our fingers.  I was still fascinated by the two green crystals encrusted in the black wool.  When she turned to join the old woman in the kitchen, the room felt somber.

The afternoon passed quickly.  I spent a long time engrossed in my maps until nearly evening, without being able to find this farm.  The old woman passed virtually all her time in the kitchen, always shifting dishes about.  The green eyes, they knitted until evening at the far end of the room.  The meal couldn’t have been more morose: the old woman brought me a plate of soup and a platter of tomatoes.  Then she sat at the far end of the room as well, next to the bed.  I ate alone, by the light of the oil lamp, across from the two silent masks.

After downing a large bowl of herb tea, I took leave of the women and retired to my room.  I undressed in the darkness and lay down on the eiderdown, not without first closing and locking the door with two turns, following the recommendation of the old woman.  A few seconds later, the door of the next room opened, and sounds of flatware clinking could be heard in both the small room and the large one: the women each ate alone, undoubtedly so as not to mutually discover their faces.  I began to suspect that these hoods were not meant only to intrigue passing strangers.  What they hid had to be pretty bad for these two women – mother and daughter, perhaps – who lived alone on the moor, miles from any place, not to take them off in each other’s presence.  I imagined their faces disfigured, gouged out, ravaged perhaps by some skin disease.  I considered one by one every image in my gallery of horrors, without pulling from memory anything monstrous enough to justify this reciprocal dissimulation.  I fell asleep in the middle of my little teratological inventory.

I believe the best way to get to the bottom of mysteries is to not try to penetrate them.  They must be allowed to ripen and resolve themselves.  Questions serve only to obscure things.  It was in this state of mind that I passed the following day.  It seemed quite natural to the two women that I stay on several days.  I didn’t have to ask.  I wanted in particular to discretely observe them.  They spoke very little to one another, and to me even less.  I nevertheless learned that the young woman was called Emma and that the old one was indeed her mother, as I had guessed.

The following days were nothing so much as long exercises in immobility.  I spent them in the sun, seated on the small stone bench alongside the side of the house.  I settled my back against the lukewarm wall and let myself be invaded by the heat, unable to see anything around me, the light being so violent.  I thought of nothing.  I listened was all, without tiring, to the monotonous sounds that peopled this deserted place: crickets, the old woman’s racket in the kitchen, and the light groaning of the front door, when Emma returned at the end of the afternoon with her basket full of wild herbs.  At night, I went into the large room where my meal awaited me.  I ate without rushing, employing slow gestures, and after drinking my herb tea, I wished the two women seated next to the bed in the half-light a good evening.  Only Emma responded to my greeting, by raising her green eyes toward mine for a few seconds of human contact at the close of these insensible days.

Many weeks passed in this way, in the calm and uniformity of ritual.  One morning however, I got up earlier than usual, well before dawn.  In the dining room deep in shadow, the old woman was still sleeping on her iron bed.  I went back into my room and slipped out noiselessly through the window.  The moor was gray and silent.  It was chilly.  A light fog still obscured the horizon, but the day promised to be fine, as warm and clear as the preceding ones.  I lay down on the ground and let my mind wander.  A vague feeling, which had bothered me for a few days without my being able to define it exactly, suddenly took form before me, and I realized with horror that I no longer knew who I was.  I tried unsuccessfully to call up my friends, my occupation, my home…  Nothing came but anonymous images, gleaned along the path of my hike on the moor: countryside, sky, leaves of heather…  This monotonous desert had invaded my whole memory.

Panicked, I opened my wallet, where I found an identity card with my photograph.  The name I just managed to read meant nothing.  I re-read it, over and over; I had the impression it was never the same.  I also found a photograph of a woman.  I looked at it a long time without recognition, until it began to disappear: Soon, all I saw on the photo was a head hooded in black, which resembled Emma.

I went madly through my pockets looking for other clues, and pulled out the key to my room.  Suddenly, I remembered that I had not relocked the door.  It seemed very serious, although I couldn’t say why.  I got up precipitously and ran to the house.  I approached the window of my room.  Inside, like a giant white halo in the half-light, I saw Emma – naked.  She was contemplating her body in the mirror of the armoire, the only one in the house.  She wore only her hood and looked like a decapitated marble statue.  She seemed far away, much farther than this room where I looked upon her.  She disappeared.  Only her reflection in the mirror remained, the only sensate witness to her presence in this instant and in this place.  It occurred to me suddenly that she didn’t belong to any place or to any moment in particular, but she was of all eternity and only sometimes, in some places, allowed herself to be seen, here or there.  I understood that her eyes were time passing and that her faceless body was confused with the world.  I understood, or thought I understood, many other things as well, as I watched the image of her body imprinted on the dark veil of the mirror.  It wasn’t until the old woman in her kitchen doubled her usual racket that I came back to my senses.  Emma had not seen me.  She was still glued to the mirror, as if she too was fascinated by what she saw there and what she understood.

I entered the dining room noiselessly and approached my room on tiptoe.  After hesitating a moment, I opened the door abruptly.  Emma did not jump.  She turned slowly toward me and looked at me without speaking.  I spoke her name in an uncertain voice.  She did not respond.  She turned away and got dressed in silence; then she went out of my room whispering as she passed me:

 “My name is Emmanuelle.”

The rest of the day was as usual right through to the evening meal.  No one made the slightest allusion to what had happened.  But when I said good night to the two women, Emma, unlike before, did not raise her eyes to mine.

Nothing was the same.  All it had taken was awakening a little earlier than usual, taking an unfortunate walk on the moor, an insignificant carelessness…  In a single day everything was lost; in a slip between the cup and the lip, the lovely ritual of gestures that ended each evening in a few seconds when the marvelous green-eyed gaze turned toward me was broken.

I went to bed a little uneasy, naïvely hoping that the night might wash away my sins and that the following day would put things right.  But I abandoned all hope when, already in bed, I noticed I had forgotten to close the shutters.  The light of the moon bathed the room in a changing and unreal light that seemed to give life to the large, sculpted armoire.  The mirror undulated like a white sheet and I thought I could still make out the filigreed imprint of Emma’s body.  I imagined that she was dead and that she inhabited the armoire, with the mirror as her shroud…  I was recalled from my reverie by a light noise against the door: an imperceptible scratching, as if a tiny animal were trying to get into the room.  I was about to open the door, but before I could, Emma put her arms around my neck and pushed her body against mine.  I remember closing the door and tripping toward the bed.  Then there was a huge void.  I don’t think I lost consciousness.  I suppose, however, that I closed my eyes because I remember the instant I opened them: Emma was sleeping next to me, naked, but she still wore the hood over her head.  It was now or never! I reached slowly toward her inseparable wool mask…  I hesitated a moment… and my hand trembled.  I didn’t really want to see her face any more.  I think it frightened me.

I lay still for a long moment, eyes open, looking at the moon games and the clouds framed by the windowpanes.  Unexpected gloom left blue shadows on the objects, slowly darkened the room, and seemed to contract around these last bits of solidity: the mirror in the armoire – where a bright reflection seemed to keep watch permanently – and the luminous body of Emmanuelle which floated on the eiderdown, her arms crossed next to mine…  Then the shadowy folds lifted.  Everything seemed to get its breath before our bodies dissolved in the light and the room became infinite.  And then another line of clouds started another reduction of time and space.  The room, subject to the whim of the wind, existed entirely in this long irregular heartbeat, by the grace of shadow and the light of the moon.

I fell asleep against my will.  In the morning, when I awoke, Emma was gone.  The door was locked from the inside.  The window was closed.  I thought I had dreamed, and would undoubtedly have convinced myself if it hadn’t been for the scent on the sheets and the pillow next to me.

The next few days were calm and regular, as before, as if – once again – nothing had happened.  Emma never came scratching at my door again.  It was enough, each evening, to turn her green-eyed gaze toward mine for a few seconds, exactly as before.  I began to grow tired of this stagnant life, of this house, of this landscape, and of these hoods, which no longer intrigued me.  One morning I worked it out, I’d been there about six weeks.  I thought suddenly of my friends, of my wife who must be looking everywhere for me: my hike was not supposed to last more than two weeks.  She must have called the police, reported me missing.  Even as I thought of it, there must have been rescue teams beating the bushes of the moor, looking for me.  Why hadn’t they found this place?  I had to get back without delay.  A little before noon, I announced to the two women that I would leave after lunch.  Emma trembled lightly: she pulled in her shoulders a little, as if she were cold.  And the old woman, she simply smiled under her hood, and cocked her head lightly, as if to puzzle out my decision, and asked me if I would just chop some wood before going since fall was coming on and she was no longer strong enough to do it herself.  I agreed without hesitation, only too happy to settle up so easily.

I had been working for about a quarter of an hour in front of the house when the door opened and the old woman came out, dragging Emma by the hand.  The two women approached me and watched me split into the last log.  I set down my tool and watched them too.  The old woman dropped her daughter’s arm and made a sign with her hand.  Then, in one movement, with serious and ceremonial gestures, they slowly lifted their hoods.  And what I saw…. what I saw surpassed in horror my wildest imaginings.

The face of Emma was that of an old woman of sixty years or more: graying skin, deeply scared by black wrinkles that made her eyes even more unreal, even more impossibly luminous.  The old woman… the old woman had the young and regular face her daughter should have had, if you didn’t count the two soupy eyes that spoiled it, like two pools of greenish spit in a plate of milk.  I don’t know why, but it was these eyes that held me. They were made even more fearful by the absolute perfection of the face that surrounded them.  I looked at them for a long moment, fascinated by this ugliness and by the powerful impression they emitted.  I had the feeling they ordered me to do something, or more precisely they wanted me to make real some impenetrable destiny.  There was an instant of indecision.  Stunned by this abominable exchange, I looked again at the face of the old woman on Emma’s body, the face of Emma on the old woman’s body, the eyes of the old woman in Emma’s face, and Emma’s eyes…  Finding my voice suddenly, I screamed as loud as I could, from terror, from anxiety, from pain; I no longer know why.  And with one sweeping motion, I sliced off the two heads with a single swing of the axe.

Purposefully, I went back to the table, where the breakfast dishes still lay.  I took the spoon I had used to stir milk into my coffee a few hours earlier and, kneeling down next to the two bodies lying in the spilling blood, I delicately dug out Emma’s eyes.  Then I emptied out the sockets of the old woman’s face and inserted in their place the two green pearls that still shone a little in the crook of my hand.  After that I replaced the reconstituted face on the bloody body of the young woman.  Then, I went looking for the photograph I’d seen through the window the first day.  I finally discovered it in a drawer of the china closet, and I compared it to the body now swimming in the large red puddle.  These bits of flesh assembled in haste were a fairly accurate reproduction of the real Emmanuelle, who smiled in black and white from the palm of my hand.

I grabbed my backpack, and after a last look at the red and white image of her body, I took off over the moor with Emma.

I ran like a madman for several hours, until I lost consciousness.  When I awoke, I was still lying on the ground.  There were people around me.  I recognized my wife, who gently placed her head on my chest when she saw me open my eyes.  While she was silently sobbing, I withdrew the photograph of Emma from my pocket and noticed with stupor and bitterness that her beautiful black and white face was now covered under a hood…

A strange brown hood, in the shape of a blood stain.