April 5, 2017| ISSUE no 213
crack the spine
William Ryan Hilary
Cover Art by
poetry by Jennifer Manthey
Of course, distance
will always be a part of it.
My son sleeps
as we leave his birth country.
and orange, creasing now,
folding into night.
Birds loud and constant
fill the sky
Do you also break
to think of his mother?
Her promiscuous prayers
to God - cold lover
she’ll never leave.
Think of God hearing her,
sending His adulterous answers
to other countries.
How little my heart
is like a colony.
Is his home
wherever he is loved?
Horizon, lit like this -
I cannot sort out your sky
Poem to the Congolese Horizon
An Ocean and a Continent Away
On Sunday mornings they go for dim sum at the strip mall on Route 34. When they are filled up on xiao long buns and pickled chicken feet, they head outside to smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk, holding beer bottles hidden in crumpled brown paper bags supplied by the liquor store next door. The four of them squat down low on their haunches, the beer slowly turning their faces red, watching a procession of cars pulling into the narrow lot dispensing mothers dragging kids for haircuts and sullen teenagers picking up milk for pancakes.
A woman in slim tan capris emerges from her silver Lexus and sniffs at the cigarette smoke drifting across the sidewalk. She glares at them and mutters not quite under her breath, goddamn illegals, before heading into the hair salon next door. They ignore her, caught up in a conversation spoken loudly in monosyllabic tones, barely hearing each over the rush of the highway running alongside the parking lot.
He tries to pretend the traffic is a noisy chorus of mopeds that they used to ride helmetless, squeezing three, sometimes four on a bike, but it’s hard picturing minivans with automatic sliding doors and government approved seat belts as carefree bikes swerving in and out of traffic. Some things a mind cannot overcome.
The afternoon sun clears the corner of the strip mall and for a brief moment the heat swells up enough to envelop them in its embrace. He sighs. Summer is never hot enough here.
Tomorrow they will be back at work in gray suit pants and buttoned up shirts, colleagues at the lab laughing at, but not understanding, the jokes made by the dads who moved to this town from the next town over and not an ocean and continent away. They do not invite their colleagues to join them on Sundays. They play tennis in the morning and go for dim sum after. Their wives know not to expect them back until late in the afternoon.
The restaurant door jangles open.
He closes his eyes and inhales the scent of roast duck covered in thin slices of crisp garlic coming from inside. The clarion call of a horn beeping from a car cutting too close in the left lane sounds lonely without the answering chatter of the road back home. Sweat beads down his back and he takes another drag of the cigarette, not because he smokes, but because it is only when the mingled smells of exhaust, tobacco and grilled meats fill the air can he catch the scent of home.
flash fiction by Yen Ha
short fiction by Gabriel Congdon
The neighbors’ daughter knocked on my door asking if she could borrow two femurs, a clavicle, pelvis, and a pair of spines. I led her into the living room, flicked my wind chime, rolled a cantaloupe like a bowling ball, and released a caged bird.
“What do we need these bones for?”
“I’m making a collage for school.”
“I see. What’s the collage about?”
“About bones, sir.”
“Indeed. It seems an odd selection of bones. I could roll you out a full skeleton if you wanted, I’ve ninety-one of them, and yet you ask for certain singulars and multiples.” She sat pensively. Not quite ready to fess. “My dear girl! I’ve seen the flyers. I know of the posters. The theme of the years’ science fair is: Alterations to the Human Animal. You’ve designs for the New Man, and you're trying to keep them from me. And yet, you have the audacity to ask for your spines and your femurs!”
“It’s true! My father said you’d overtake the study, and whatever educational merits would be consumed wholly by you!”
“You’re father holds his own idiocy against me. If he doesn’t want to build a cabinet the first time round, he should watch his how-to videos with headphones. He should publicly proclaim, ‘I’m choosing foolishness, do not offer suggestions or love, I’m intentionally screwing things up.’” I forgot who I was talking about. “Ah, I shouldn’t have said that. Well, here are the bones you need. At least indulge me in a rendering of your ideal.”
She drew the person she had in mind. I didn’t need to look at the picture or listen to what she was saying. She was obviously going to replace the femurs with spines. I interrupted her, “Do you think spines are just super awesome bones? That when in doubt throw a few spines into it?”
Offended, she spoke slow, concise words at me I wasn’t listening to, “We would walk like trees,” I said, “And not in the cool Biblical way. People would have to be giants.”
“People will be giants.”
“Why do you want to bring giants back?”
Now the eyes rolled like ski balls. “Once the earth is officially been-there-done-that the giant Renaissance will begin. In one leap the Giants will surpass what would take us 5foot-9ers centuries to accomplish. Not just in bodily feats, but with the mind.”
“The fragility,” I lifted my hand as if to display a case of cigars, “will remain.” “You’re thinking of tall humans, I’m speaking of giants.”
“Giants were born into this world as corgis, and I see that you aim to continue the tradition. Giants are foes, brutes, and the evil offspring of lascivious angels and dull demons. Yahweh had to flood the place to be rid of them. The reason we find seashells on mountaintops is due to the despicableness of giants.”
“I don’t understand your malevolence.”
This 7th grader! The mask of freckles was beginning to wear on me.
“Flux, I don’t mean to rain on your crops. Look at me. I’m 6’5”. I adore giants as I do giraffes, and anything else that’s tall and has a g for a first letter. I said what I said because I like to yell and be difficult immediately. Now take your bones and be gone.”
Once it dawned upon me that I could order skeletons from the internet (fake and otherwise) my basement quickly grew into an osteological menagerie. I dress them up and create many macabre tableaus: skeletons in anatomy exhibits, skeletons digging up graveyards, the rapture. Sometimes I’ll pose only legs, and once I built a giant so tall, a drone crashed into it and exploded.
At the science fair, Flux’s table was horrible, and all the other brats I had in on the take did horrible too. But, I did meet a robot engineer, and once I told him I had a basement full of skeletons, he took a mighty interest in me. Tomasso parted his black hair to the right, he wore a lavender parachute suit patterned with Delaunay disks.
“I’m with ya, bones are where it’s at. Organs, tissues, nerves, the meat of necessity. It’s in the bone category that the human animal soars.”
I told him to get to his point.
“You got a lot of skeletons, and I’ve got a lot of robot brain chips.”
The skeletons seem less alive now that they’re living. The way they strike up conversations, move about, go out and live full lives, it all seems so hollow. When I run into them in public, because they don’t have any friends, they really try to cut it up with me. Super embarrassing. I had Tomasso turn off the hunger. It was too stupid. At first, it was funny, they’d eat something and it would fall straight to the floor and embarrass them. But then they started eating on the toilet and it became surreally wasteful.
Tomasso’s happy because now has a hundred and thirty-seven chatterbox skeletons and me for companionship. That’s great for him.
“What shall we do, invade a state?” Each state for itself.
“Who’s living in Rhode Island?”
“Buncha’ skeletons charge the Pope’s palace. The media would probably hook us up. You get a boon if you can feed a token into the Story Tank.”
Rounding Rhone Island on Rocket Skates (our boon) we began to see the Giants of Providence. They were benevolent colossi that looked like Donatello’s Pumpkinhead taken four stories high. After Flux nabbed the blue ribbon her work was put into rapid development and the giants became the Pope’s special Redguard unit. On sunny days he parades through the town and when the Protestant Panthers come aroaring, I hear it makes for a freaking good show. The skeletalbots and the Giants immediately hit it off, between the algorithmic chatter of their speech and the clickety-clack of their bones, the giants were smitten.
Flux was with the Archbishop of Cranston when I approached, “The science award really took off for you.”
“You’ve been playing with your skeletons for eleven years!”
“I was trying not to look. Anyway, the Giants of Providence seem nice. Are they anywhere else?”
She was answering, but the not-listening thing quickly reasserted itself. She noticed this and laughed. “What do you and your skeletons want?”
“I’ve been waiting for someone to ask.”
I tried to get her to join the party, but she was right, I was a mad old man, missing only the crown, but I was told by the giant carrying me in his mitts, that that would be provided. From the hollow of his cupped hands Providence looked like a wonderful diorama. Like anything seen from the vantage point of a roller-coaster, and isn’t that the amusement the amusement park proffers, a zooming view of the dialectic?
The giant brought me to the Vatican. I was taken to the Pope’s chamber where he wordlessly put a bone crown on my head and said, “Go, my son, take your army of skeletons and with them remove the last of the wicked ones. When you have succeeded the heavens shall descend onto the earth at last.”
“I shall do as you say.”
I was given an iron sword and a ray gun. We had no chance. The wicked ones tore us to shreds. Their car-catapults launched a hail of Volkswagens at us. I looked into a sky dotted with soaring automobiles and reached for the bony hand next to mine. “The prophecy,” I cried, “said death by slugged bug!”
microfiction by Mark Cassidy
Sometime a long time ago, back in fact in the Sixteenth Century, an old fool in a velvet cape, withered beyond the glance of God, struck upon a last chance, a glimpse of immortality, and opened a grammar school for boys. I would like to make it quite clear, have it fully understood, that the responsibility for the ruin of simple affection, for the groaning disguises, the lack of tact, the betrayals in the sheets, must rest unequivocally upon Prior Pursglove’s decrepit shoulders.
Bargaining With Owl Droppings
poetry by William Ryan Hilary
Among burned boys
this one with owl
with bits of bone;
that one a dirty rag
spread pink slit
grown ancient under the bracken.
Boys learning from
teachers and priests.
How to give a good sell:
for my shit.
no longer a boy
packs my pocket
and I still don’t know
where to spend it.
Ellen refused to retire. Her job was mindless, essentially formulaic data entry, but Ellen loved it. She loved its repetition and predictability, the supplemental income it offered to her social security.
By the calculations of most, Ellen should’ve retired at least a decade ago. On especially tedious days, her coworkers cursed her for denying them that one thing they had to look forward to at work: the office retirement party, the only office party where employees could feel genuine happiness for each other, knowing that the retiree—which Ellen should long ago have been—wouldn’t be leaving her coworkers for greener pastures; she would leave them to die.
Ellen’s colleagues deserved the chance to eat and laugh with her, to say goodbye, to give her stupid gifts she’d feel to guilty to throw out, to take pictures in fluorescent office lighting in which everyone looked greasy and terrible. By refusing to retire, Ellen denied them the opportunity to grow nostalgic for her, for their memories of her to fade to worn, cherished things. She was depriving them of the rush of sadness and fondness they would feel the day they’d get the company email bearing the news: Ellen passed away, in peace, and flowers have been sent.
Instead, she would die at her desk, reminding them all of their mortality.
It was Tina from HR who suggested the party, soon after Ellen’s eightieth birthday. They would treat it as a retirement party, the one they would never be able to give Ellen, a way to celebrate her in case she died. Ellen knew she owed them the fun, so she couldn’t say no. She laughed and ate cake and smiled for the pictures.
They held the party every year for seven years.
A month after the seventh party, Ben found Ellen with her head on her desk.
He didn’t bother shaking her. She was clearly dead.
Everyone in the office gathered around Ellen’s dead body.
“Remember when, at the sixth party, Ellen got frosting on her nose and none of us told her?” Tina whispered, a tear slowly rolling down her cheek.
“I think that’s in all of the pictures from that year,” Mike responded. They smiled weakly at each other.
Others reminisced, memories now turned to gold, as Ben and Chris set about dismantling Ellen’s cubicle to build her coffin. No one had ever given a thought to what they should do with her body when Ellen eventually died, but they discovered that her cubicle’s collapsible walls folded to the perfect size for Ellen’s corpse.
Encased in the walls of her cubicle, surrounded by thumbtacked Family Circus cartoons and pictures of cats on tropical islands, Ellen looked like a creature in her natural habitat. It was clear that this was where she belonged, preserved within the soundproofed cube she had refused to leave, a monument to a corporate loyalty her coworkers could not pretend to understand.
Ellen had died gripping her mouse, and no one could pull it from her hand. Terry, the boss, decided to let Ellen keep it without docking her final paycheck.
Ellen was well loved.
More than a few tears were shed as Chris folded the lid down and Tina taped up the ends. Martin, Karen, Ben, and Mike acted as pallbearers and escorted her to the storage closet, where they made space amongst the loose pens, steno pads, and manila file folders and slid Ellen and her cubicle coffin onto the shelf.
Ellen’s coworkers wiped their eyes and noses and returned to work. As the day wore on, they reached out to those in neighboring cubes to share memories of Ellen. Mostly, they talked about the parties. It seemed Ellen had given them all the memories they needed to overcome the hollow space left by her dismantled cubicle.
As they filed out of the office at the end of the day, Ellen’s coworkers averted their eyes from the space where Ellen’s cubicle—and Ellen—had once been. Though they had loved Ellen, each of them hoped Terry would order a replacement cubicle soon. The time for sadness was over.
They wondered who they’d get to celebrate next.
flash fiction by Lindsay Fowler
short fiction by Lynnette Beers
"Something irrevocable has happened.
A circle has been cast on the waters; a chain is imposed.
We shall never flow freely again.”
Madame Butterfly echoed throughout the flat as Hannah sat on the floor and ate the remains of her Indian takeaway. With the TV muted, images of police in protective riot gear searching King’s Cross station flashed on screen, the diva’s voice providing background to footage of the latest IRA bomb threat. These bomb threats had been occurring for weeks now, the nightly coverage of these incidents a continual backdrop for Hannah as she faced not only a divorce but the loss of this Chelsea flat where she had lived for the past six years.
Already dark now, the dim lights from Albert Bridge filtered into the flat. Hannah stepped to the window and leaned against the wall, breathing in the damp air. Beyond the Thames was the foreboding skyline, a portion of it lit by London’s hazy glow. The night’s cloudy skies sat upon the river in sleepy heaviness. On this night in particular, Hannah was in awe at the undying flow of water. Like slick moving tar, the night flowed past her via the Thames’ faithful progression downriver.
Hannah returned to the floor amidst piles of notes and books, clearing a space for her to do her evening chants. The muted news coverage showed armed police officers searching an Underground station. The IRA had managed to shut down all of London last week, the entire transportation system paralyzed for hours. Hannah crunched into a samosa, the flaky crumbs dusting onto her notebook. She took another bite then crumpled the wrappings and placed them in the paper sack, setting it on the floor. Imp burrowed his snout into the bag, his stumpy tail wagging as he tasted the leftovers from her dinner. Paying no attention to her Jack Russell, she retrieved papers from her briefcase and a copy of her book. Pawsitive Steps: from Denial to Acceptance was a guide she had written to assist grieving pets through the loss of their master—be it due to death or divorce. The booklet had led to a series of half-day workshops Hannah taught here in London. Her publication had been the result of research following veterinary school and the establishment of the Davis Animal Clinic which she ran with her husband James. But shortly following the publication of her book, James had made a shocking confession to her: an affair with the young intern at the clinic—six years of marriage now suddenly dismantled. She suspected there were other affairs before this one, clues she’d ignored over the years.
Kneeling in front of the butsudan, Hannah cleared her throat to begin evening Gongyo. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of clutter. She heard the faint tick of the clock in the hall, the click of Imp’s paws across the wood floor, the vehicles motoring along Chelsea Embankment adjacent to the river below. But she also heard the chatter in her head—reminders of all that she still needed to do to pack up her belongings. Six years of marriage, all crumbling around her. Opening her eyes, she saw the cluttered butsudan—stacks of notes and empty boxes ready to be filled with her belongings. Closing her eyes once again, she took a few deep breaths, focusing on each breath as James had taught her years before when she was new to the practice.
For a Buddhist, Hannah’s life lately reflected someone flailing and barely holding on rather than a woman who was thriving and connected to the universe. After James had made that confession to her several months ago, she’d stopped attending Soka Gakkai meetings all together, not wanting to be in a place where people would ask about James. At the time, her chanting had abruptly stopped, the words orated in front of her altar seeming so futile. Only recently did she occasionally mutter a few chants, the words rushed and fragmentary. Years ago, being an SGI member had meant a connectedness with all that surrounded her, but now she’d become so disjointed.
With her eyes closed, she took a deep breath and muttered the opening words to what she and James had chanted together for years. The words at one time had flowed so effortless out of her mouth, but now she’d developed some sort of debilitating stutter as she attempted to do evening Gongyo. “Nam-yo-rink,” she said, shaking her head after getting the words wrong.
When new to Buddhism, she and James would chant together, their voices blending as one. The experience itself contributed to Hannah falling in love with him. With their voices unified, she thought the experience would be reflective of their lovemaking. Hannah thought that if they could chant well together, they would surely make beautiful love together. As their chanting coincided with their lovemaking, no synchronicity was ever reached. In time, cuddling on the couch took the place of sex. Yet Hannah had continually waited for such magic to occur—foolish as she was.
Opening her eyes, Hannah stared at the altar. Seeing the butsudan cluttered with books and papers, she leaned over to move a pile of handouts onto the floor then stacked the books next to the packets which she would distribute at the seminar next month. With a cleared altar, she’d probably be able to chant more freely. But seeing the unfinished opening page to her upcoming workshop, she took a red pen and jotted down a few notes. Leaning against the couch, she skimmed the intro, quickly circling words and crossing out a few lines. Reviewing the opening paragraph, she was interrupted by the ringing phone.
Hearing Roger’s voice, she continued to edit as she spoke with him. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did get takeaway again tonight,” she said then crossed out the first two lines of the intro. She listened to protestations from Roger about her holing herself up in her flat once again. She made a few random comments as he told her about a gay café in Islington that he wanted her to visit with him and Jonathan.
Standing above the butsudan, she leaned over to open the window, the damp breeze from the river filtering into the room. Hannah pushed open the curtains and glanced at the darkened water below. Since the apartment faced Albert Bridge, the lights strobed onto the Thames and into the flat, creating moving flickers on the bed. Even though she’d dwelled in this flat by herself for months now, she still found nights to be most lonely and found it difficult to get even a few short hours of sound sleep. But soon, this view, the incessant waters flowing past her flat, would be but a memory.
“On a Sunday night?” Hannah said, her voice shrill as she looked to the blackened river in the distance. “Even in my twenties, I never went clubbing on a Sunday. I’m about to do my evening chants anyway. And besides, it might do you and Jon some good to stay in for a change. You know, stay home and fall asleep on the couch like most couples do!”
As she continued to listen to Roger’s accusations of her shutting herself off from the world, she glanced at the weathered bricks framing the window, each brick carefully mortared around panes of glass and iron railings. James had reminded her last week that even though the flat was in his name, Hannah needed to continue making a portion of the payment each month. She realized this, but what he really meant was that the flat was his. Yet she was still his wife—still the woman legally bound to him. But in a matter of a couple weeks, James would occupy this home with his new partner, Hannah being forced to live somewhere away from this river.
Roger blathered on a while longer as Hannah returned to the floor next to the couch and thumbed through the index of her book, jotting down topics she’d need to further research before next month’s seminar. He told her about Jonathan’s news from the doctor—that his viral load remained stable since they’d started him on new medication. She listened to details about the new cocktail, including such particulars as Jonathan having to take the meds at precise times throughout the day.
“We’ve certainly got reason to celebrate,” Hannah said as she counted to see how many handouts she’d copied for the seminar attendees. “Perhaps dinner tomorrow?” Her vows to join them for a night of carousing became the standard sign-off of their phone calls. Hannah kept this chat with Roger short, ending the call and returning to sorting the handouts.
The thought of being in a crowd of nameless faces convinced her that staying in her flat was where she should remain tonight. Yet Hannah felt an uprising curiosity to see this gay underworld which James now frequented. But the twist that she understood as being odd was that years prior, a confession to her fiancé revealed that she had experienced moments of sweet passion with a woman from the Soka Gakkai. Young at the time, Hannah had not turned away the woman’s kisses, those lips so soft and inviting. But she had feared the subtle gestures could lead to something deeper, something far beyond the perimeters of acceptable friendship. She eventually fled from that woman, those affections causing her to be so terrified that she changed to a different SGI center. At the time, she was to have nothing more to do with the sort, even confessing to her mother that only a man was to be the recipient of her affections. And so that was precisely what had happened years ago when she married James.
But that marriage had slowly begun to crumble nearly a year ago following James’s confession of his involvement with the young intern they’d hired at the clinic, the lad being at least ten years younger than James. Roger and Jonathan, knowing why Hannah’s marriage was dismantling, saw it fitting now to cheer her up by escorting her to London’s gay establishments. However, they were not aware as to why she felt drawn to these clubs—eager to see what her husband had been doing this past year of their marriage. But going out tonight was so far from her mind right now, for she preferred to remain by herself with a muted telly and arias echoing throughout the flat.
After putting the handouts in order, she set them in neat piles on the butsudan, only to be interrupted again by the phone. Hearing her mother’s voice, she offered terse responses as she listened to her mother tell her about an exhibit next month. Her mother’s association with art galleries enabled Hannah to frequent London’s newest and promising female artists’ shows, the paintings typically seeming so avant-garde and experimental.
“Mum, I’m fine. You didn’t need to check up on me tonight. I’m just about to do evening Gongyo.” Standing above the butsudan, she wedged the phone between her ear and shoulder and divided the handouts into separate piles, each one being an individual packet for the seminar attendees. She planned to focus on how dogs handled grief in the first few weeks following the death of their owner. Hannah searched through the stack of handouts as she listened to her mother describe an artist she recently discovered—a woman originally from Tokyo who now resided in the U.S.
When at an opening, her mother would proudly introduce Hannah to the art critics. “My daughter: recent author, veterinarian, Buddhist,” making it seem as though all three were something new to her life. But at this point in Hannah’s career, both authorship and veterinarian were directly linked to her Buddhism, for it was James who had introduced her to Buddhism and James who had helped her establish the Davis Animal Clinic. However, Hannah typically cringed at the titles her mother orated to the crowd, for she often suspected that she was more on display than the paintings and sculptures in the gallery.
“Mum, I’m fine. I’d rather be here than out. Really, it’s perfectly fine. Anyway, I’m sure I can make it to that artist’s opening, especially on a Friday night. The Saatchi’s only a short walk from here.” Hannah wrote the information on a yellow sticky and continued to listen to her mother go on about this new artist. Liz Delacroix, an up and coming art purveyor here in London, had a reputation for discovering and promoting the latest emerging female artists.
After she ended the call with her mother, Hannah returned to perusing the index of her book, making notes on which sections she’d cover at the seminar. But not ten minutes into her work, the telephone rang again. Hearing Lorna’s voice, she regretted picking up the phone but offered a few short responses to Lorna’s reminder about their upcoming meeting. The two women met years ago at a Soka Gakkai meeting, Lorna’s first few months as a Buddhist and Hannah’s first year. Back then, Hannah was still new to the practice, her growth as a Buddhist blossoming after she and James married. Hannah’s frequency at meetings diminished as soon as she got out of veterinary school. Thrice-daily chanting was replaced by nightly studying for her boards. Their next Soka Gakkai meeting would be at Hannah’s. She had agreed to this months ago, not thinking she’d have turned the butsudan into a makeshift desk where she had stacked reams of handouts. This of course meant she would have to dust off the butsudan—the shrine being efficient for her inconsistent chanting but not adequate for a group of women chanting in unison. Hannah had offered her house for the next women’s Buddhist meeting long before she’d known about her husband’s involvement with that young man at the animal clinic.
Hannah walked to the opened window and glanced at the blurred lights from the bridge reflecting on the river. The sheer curtains swayed in the wind, ghostlike and floating in the room. A night barge heaved its vessel upstream, the only beacon coming from the bow of the ship. “Of course I’ll make it to your play,” she said. “Would it be possible for you to arrange for two tickets? I might even bring a date.” Hannah thought of how she and James frequented the theatre—even this past year. But date, as she told Lorna, would likely be Roger, should he not have plans to go clubbing on the night of Lorna’s play.
“Just staying home,” Hannah said then pressed speakerphone and sat on the soft leather couch. “Roger wanted to meet me at some café by the Angel Tube stop.” She leaned back into the couch and lifted her feet on the coffee table, kicking aside a stack of magazines. Imp snuggled next to her, setting his chin on her leg.
“Might be fun for you to go out,” Lorna said, her voice echoing in the room. “Maybe get your mind off things for a bit? And isn’t tomorrow your anniv—”
“It’s today, actually. But I’ve got heaps of work to do tonight. Lots of editing.”
“Surely you can put that pen down long enough to enjoy a couple pints with the guys. Maybe honor the years you did have with James? It’s six years, right? What’s the gift for the sixth anyway? Paper? Wood?”
“No, that was for the fifth. For the sixth, I think it’s iron. How utterly plain and unromantic. So manly and ordinary.”
“Perhaps getting a drink with the guys will be a nice way to uncelebrate? Maybe get out of the house for once? If I were in town, I’d drag you out myself. But I’m at my dad’s in Northampton right now. Probably head back to London day after tomorrow.”
“Be sure to check for road closures. Hopefully they won’t close the M6 like they did recently from those bomb threats,” Hannah said and glanced at the flickering TV screen. Behind her, the speakers continued to play Puccini’s opera, the next piece starting with the deep hum of the cellos, leading to the first few enchanting words sung by the soloist. A montage of video coverage of bombings from the past few years appeared on screen, portions of London, Manchester, and Northern Ireland completely obliterated by the bombs planted by the Irish Republican Army. “So listen, can I ring you tomorrow? I still need to chant tonight,” Hannah said then lowered the volume on the speakers as the soprano sang her last notes. The lone voice echoed in the flat, the crescendo building as the woman’s voice faded with the last words of the aria.
After ending the call with Lorna, Hannah assessed the mess in front of her. Seeing how late it was, she would forfeit any additional work on her seminar. She shoved the rubbish and papers into a pile next to the altar then stood at the window. The current of the river had become stagnant, the water so still and grey. The lights from Albert Bridge shone onto the water. A grey haze seeped into the courtyard below, the flat bordered by the tall spired iron gate she had entered each day for the past six years.
Positioning herself in front of the butsudan, she took a few deep breaths, focusing on each inhale and exhale. The next aria began, the soprano’s voice resonating in the room. Hannah sat alone in front of the altar, sitting in the spot which James had occupied for the past several years. As she released her breath, the words flowed from her mouth. “Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō,” she murmured in front of the muted TV flickering images of a railway station surrounded by police. Her voice, barely audible above the aria playing from the speaker behind her, breathed out the words she had learned long ago. Inhaling, she exhaled a slow, controlled breath as she chanted those sacred words. “Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō . . . Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō,” she breathed into the evening, the curtains swaying as the breeze carried her lone voice down to the river below. She continued, her voice carrying on the tradition learned so long ago. “Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō . . . Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō . . .”
One Lone Breath
creative non-fiction by Laura Iodice
Of Songbirds, Squirrels, and Street Rats
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will, “ said the Earth
“For all I’ve created returns unto me
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be”
It is morning, and I glance out the kitchen window, hoping to spot a few songbirds visiting our birdfeeder. Just the other day, I’d noticed a furry black squirrel frantically wrapping itself around the feeder’s spine, struggling to hold tightly while searching for a way to access the glass-enclosed grain. Finally, exhausted from his fight to remain upright against the force of gravity, he perched on a high branch and longingly gazed as birds flew by, landed gracefully, and fed themselves at whim.
This morning, though, a more agile squirrel, a slender gray variety, has devised a clever plan for gaining access to the coveted seeds. First, she eyes the potential prize below, her chin resting atop two front paws while all four paws rest atop a branch. After several contemplative moments, she hangs herself upside down from the limb where she’s been resting and locates herself slightly above the dangling feeder, her back paws gripping the extended leafy limbs like a trapeze artist preparing to do a backhand flip. The determined squirrel maintains this pose, body stretched tautly, front limbs dangling, front paws fanned out, back paws firmly gripping wood, until she gains confidence that she won’t slide or fall; then, using both front paws, she deftly attempts to lift the bronze lid off the glass cylinder, her operation surprisingly methodical, as she firmly digs first the right paw, then the left, then both beneath the roof’s rounded edges, swinging herself from side to side like a pendulum, so that she can elevate her entire body just enough to lift the lid.
While the squirrel doggedly continues her work, oblivious to my presence, I stare out the glass pane, amazed at her agility and persistence, even while silently lamenting that the squirrel might very well out-smart and outmuscle the birds of their meal. It all seems very Darwinian to me, as sparrows helplessly flutter nearby, excluded from access, while the squirrel continues to bully her way toward her source - that is, until she finally realizes that her rounded cheeks will never fit into the feeder’s tiny holes and that her pudgy paws are too cumbersome to divest the feeder of its lid. Dejected, she finally returns to her perch, leaving room for the birds to feed.
At first, I’m amused and self-satisfied that despite clever planning, superior size and nimble fingers, the squirrel isn’t able to steal the birds’ bounty, for it proves that I’ve chosen a feeder whose design takes into account the squirrel’s foraging nature and the birds’ vulnerabilities. My heart softens a bit, though, as I observe the hungry squirrel’s apparent despondency as first one tiny sparrow, then another, and then a third effortlessly wings its way to one of the feeder’s metal branches, sticks its beak into a perfectly sized hole and pecks away at the generous food supply, chirping happily throughout the process. Eventually, the squirrel accepts her fate, scampers down, and patiently waits until the birds fly off before scooping up the scattered remains left on the ground below.
As for the silent witness, I’m left to ponder just how much my trivial consumerist gesture of buying a bird feeder has impacted our garden’s natural order – and this is how I think of the space adjacent to our house; it’s our garden. My husband and I pay for it; we cultivate it; we spend time controlling its inhabitants and enjoying the results. It’s not that the garden would be deplete of birds were it not for the feeder; it’s that the feeder enables us to decide which types of birds we enjoy listening to, and to invite them temporarily into our space by using carefully selected birdfeed.
The squirrels, however, come uninvited, stay longer than desired and take whatever they can to subsist. We may permit their presence; but we don’t necessarily enjoy it – and should one happen to find its way into our more guarded space, as one did last summer when it chewed up our basement window sill in an effort to find an exit, we are quick to buy a trap in which to ensure its removal back outside where it belongs. Not so the bird though; if the bird’s song is beautiful enough, we might be inclined to purchase a comfortable, attractive cage in which to house it indoors so that we are able to enjoy its tunes at whim.
Still seated at my kitchen table, coffee in hand, my thoughts continue their meandering: It’s against the law in our state to trap and kill squirrels. Even if they’re considered pesky and plentiful, the best anyone can do to be rid of them is to trap them and move them as far away as possible, with no guarantees that they won’t find their way back again. They’re generally benign creatures, though, and if they do manage to return, we often settle for ignoring their presence unless they inadvertently damage our aesthetic surroundings. It occurs to me during my silent musing that our territorial attitude toward nature’s creatures is not so different from the ways in which we, as systems, structures and institutions control class order in our culture. A bit shocked, I realize that my seemingly innocuous gift of a bird feeder could be likened to the casual charity that substitutes for justice in our country. It’s charitable to feed the birds because we believe they’re harmless, and besides, their songs are so pleasing, they’ve earned it.
Not so the squirrel, though. No. The squirrel’s behaviors - his chatter, his hoarding, his disruptive presence make him a very different creature than the bird. He doesn’t roam much; he squats, and from culture’s perspective, gives little in return. Best to keep him at a distance, or if this isn’t possible, best to insulate our property and to ignore his presence, lest he begin to believe he’s found a home in our yard. Pragmatically, we realize that it’s not the squirrel’s fault, since culture has encroached upon what was once free space, but this is what cultures do; we cultivate. In this process, some win and some lose. Usually, we perceive those who lose as weaker, and therefore, less deserving. For many, then, squirrels need to learn their place, and while we don’t necessarily have the power to rid ourselves of them, we do have the choice to withhold charitable gestures so they learn to fend for themselves.
Sighing, I look down and realize that my coffee cup is empty and there’s no one around to fill it for me. I rise from my chair, prepare to refill my cup, and turn my back on the drama beyond my window, casting a glance, instead, at the coffee pot resting on my refurbished kitchen counter. I recall that during the reconstruction process last summer, when workers often left doors ajar to accommodate the transportation of goods, a pregnant creek rat made its way into our basement and set up a nest inside a closet that had been left ajar. Eventually, she even found her way upstairs into our dismantled kitchen.
The rat was a no brainer. The rat had to go. The night we discovered it there, our dog and cat had alerted us to its presence and had trapped it against the kitchen wall, but the rat was undaunted. Threatened, it stood itself on two hind legs and stretched to full height, baring its fangs. Petrified, I grabbed the dog by his collar and my husband took a broom to separate cat from rat, then we ran upstairs and closeted ourselves in our master bedroom, quickly dialing the same exterminator we’d called about the entrapped squirrel.
“No worries,” he quickly reassured us. “I can be there within the hour. Just keep your pets away from it, and stay away yourselves, in case it’s diseased. “The good news, though,” he placidly continued, “Is that a rat, I can kill.”
At the time, we didn’t know about the basement nest or the rat’s pregnancy that fueled its tenacity to escape capture. The exterminator, however, was quick to discover all of this: the old closet door that workers left ajar, now housing a rat’s nest made from clawed up clothing marked for the Salvation Army; the rat’s rounded belly full of little would-be rats ready to break free and wreak havoc in our home; the mother rat’s wily escape routes through downed basement ceiling panels the electrician had yet to replace; the draconian rat traps placed strategically in places least likely to be visited by our cat or dog. For days after the traps were set, I refused to do laundry because I was afraid I’d be the one to discover that the trap had done its job, or worse yet, that it hadn’t. Eventually, though, the rat succumbed; the exterminator returned; and all that remained was the battered, empty clothes nest I removed with gloved hands and discarded in an outdoor garbage bin. It goes without saying that I’ve been careful about leaving doors ajar since then because we can’t predict what will find its way inside, if we do.
As I rinse my coffee cup and return it to its place in my new kitchen, I think about all I’ve left behind over the last few years. With great poignancy, I recall those eager young minds who sat in front of me each day, reading across generations of literature and wrestling with human flaws and foibles while doing so. I remember, most especially, one bright young woman’s reaction to Camus’ The Plague: Why,” she exclaimed, “The plague is complacency!”
Camus might have expected such a reply when his book was first published in 1948, not too long after the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, yet here we are, almost eighty years later and we’re still wrestling with how to recognize pestilence. I’m reminded too, of Camus’s profound response to the inevitability of plague’s recurrence, despite our best efforts to prevent its spread:
… On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness or true love without the utmost clear-sightedness (110).
I contemplate his words as I raise my head and glance out the window to what is now just a blurred vacant yard, absently wondering where I’d misplaced my glasses.
Lynnette Beers is a professor of creative writing and British literature at a community college in Orange County, California. She is the author of a novel titled “Just Beyond the Shining River” which comes out early next year. Her story “One Lone Breath” is an excerpt from that novel. As a longstanding member of the International Virginia Woolf Society, she has presented papers at conferences in the US and the UK. Her stories and essays have been published in Calliope, Plain Wrap, and The Sun.
Mark is an Anglo-Canadian, presently living in Houston. He has had several short stories published in small presses both in the UK and the US over the years.
Gabriel Congdon was born in Grand Junction, Colorado and now lives in Seattle where he lives hand to mouth as dishwash extraordinaire. He’s one of the creators of the web-series &@, and occasionally acts in independent films and for virtual reality software. His stories have appeared in Jokes Review, Menacing Hedge, and Bartleby Snopes among others. His childrens play “The Biz” is available from A Pocketful of Plays.
Lindsay Fowler holds her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Psychopomp, and Gone Lawn, amongst others. Lindsay lives in Portland, OR, where she assists in editing The Golden Key, occasionally posts at lindsayannfowler.com, and is involved in various endeavors, literary and otherwise.
Yen Ha is a principal at Front Studio Architects in New York City. Her work was a Top 25 finalist in Glimmertrain’s Short Story New Writers Contest and has been, or will be, published in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Kentucky Review, Minola Review and the 2017 New Rivers Press American Fiction anthology.
William Ryan Hilary
William Ryan Hilary is an LA poet. He leads a workshop at Beyond Baroque in Venice and is a videographer for The LA Poets Society. Recently, he has poems published or forthcoming in The Bangalore Review, Oddville and The Common Ground Review.
Laura Iodice is a thirty-six year veteran of both secondary and post-secondary teaching, having spent most of her career as a teacher of literature, composition and rhetoric, and more recently, as a teacher and facilitator of courses focused on cultural constructions of race, class and gender. Throughout her tenure as an educator, she’s served as a university consultant across the region to schools offering extended-campus courses; mentored less experienced teachers and graduate students for a number of local school districts; and has written, presented and published professional articles, essays and grants on the state and local level, as well as in local news publications. She has served on state curricular committees and earned state recognition for several of her program designs and for her teaching expertise. She continues to work freelance as an educational and curricular consultant and as a racial dialogue facilitator. Teaching is her vocation and writing is her life.
Jennifer Manthey is an MFA student at Hamline University in St Paul, MN. She serves as the assistant poetry editor for the Water-Stone Review. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Jean Wolff studied fine arts at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, receiving a BFA in studio arts. She then attended Hunter College, CUNY in New York, graduating with an MFA in painting and printmaking. She’s since had group and solo exhibits in various galleries in New York City and internationally and is part of the artistic community of Westbeth in Manhattan.
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