February 7, 2018| ISSUE no 231
crack the spine
Angela Doll Carlson
Kristen M. Ploetz
poetry by Glenn Ingersoll
A warm day, I'm
feeling sleepy. The ice
cubes in my lemonade
clink and shift as I
lift the glass. I'm
writing at a table
crowded with papers,
by a plate painted with fruit,
vitamins and minerals
in bottles. I hear
the hum of the clothes
dryer, a few ticks and
thumps as buttons strike
the inside of the spinning
barrel. The US bombing in
Afghanistan has paused
this weekend to respect
the anniversary of
into Heaven. On the
couch Kent wears a
small smile, a book of
Penn & Teller pranks propped
on his belly. I found
the book yesterday cheap
and, knowing Kent's
pleasure in showmanship
and magic, brought it home
for him. A few minutes
ago I asked if he wanted
to make sun tea. He threw
a few tea bags in a wide-
mouthed plastic jug and
wedged it under the
kitchen faucet. I waited
with the bag of apple
cores, onion skins, woody
grape stems, then took
the wet bottle in one hand
out to the porch railing.
"It usually stays there
a long time," Kent said.
I grabbed a pitchfork
from the tool cabinet to
dig a hole in the compost.
When I came back in
Kent asked after the
worms. "How were they?"
I said, "They looked fine.”
She descends the staircase in a swish of silver satin, uncertain on heels just a bit too high; her unruly curls now upswept from her shoulders, pinned and sprayed into place. She does not see his breath catch in his throat, the hand holding her corsage beginning to sweat.
He stands frozen in place like a serf at the feet of a queen, his starched white shirt sharp against the clean cut of his black tuxedo jacket, setting his spine straight and tall against his natural inclination to hunch. He does not see her heartbeat quicken, or the slight quiver of her lower lip.
The glitter ball bathes the room in stardust and dreams as the dancers sway in each other’s arms. Intoxicated by the scent of lilacs at the nape of her neck, her breasts full and soft against the thinness of his chest, he feels himself grow large with desire. He does not see her eyelids close or the images of ever after play out behind them.
It is over sooner than either of them expect. Cramped in the back seat of his dad’s Honda Civic, they both hasten to cover tender flesh. She waits for words of love he does not say. He does not see the tears well in her eyes. He asks if it had been okay. She does not see him bury his hands under his thighs to keep them from shaking.
They pass in the school hallway. She hidden under a mop of untamed curls. He buried beneath the stoop of his shoulders. Bodies press in on them from all sides. Their arms brush. Their eyes meet for a heartbeat. They do not see.
flash fiction by Jayne Martin
For a Good Time
short fiction by Angela Doll Carlson
The woman wearing the boxy red dress was Elaine. She bought that dress on a whim. She thought it accented all her positives and hid her “trucker hips” as she put it. She packed her small suitcase that morning to travel to Dallas, where she always travels, for her job as a headhunter. She drives the three hours each way. She could have flown, the company would pay for it, but she liked to drive. She said it gave her time to think.
Elaine drove three hours each way at least once a week. She drove there, stopping at the Truck Stop to change her clothes. She took her meetings and then changed back in the same bathroom, usually the same stall, if you must know. This was the day she wrote her name and number in that stall. The black sharpie fell from her bag as she pulled her panty hose out. Elaine hated panty hose, but she hated the thick blue and purple veins on her legs even more. She wished she could be young and tan like the girls she placed in the temporary positions. She got caught eyeing one of her temps’ legs last Spring and the girl reported her. Now Elaine had to be careful, be “above board and all that” as her boss, Clark, said. He thought she was as lesbian, but she wasn’t. Elaine was just caught being envious.
She wrote her name and number in that stall on a lark after the sharpie fell from her purse. It lay on the floor by the grimy toilet, stark against the white tiled floor. She’d never done anything “bad” before. She wrote her name and number, and then stared at it. She smiled and added above, “For a good time call…” Elaine wanted to get a phone call from some random stranger who wanted a good time. She’d feign surprise and shock. She’d pretend to be outraged.
In her fantasy, Elaine talks to the faceless stranger a long time. She feels emboldened in the conversation because it’s anonymous. She tells the stranger what she’d let him do to her. In her fantasy, Elaine lets her hands roam around her body as they talk. In her fantasy, Elaine agrees to meet the stranger. She doesn’t tell anyone where she’ll be. She does it during her lunch hour. In her fantasy, Elaine meets the stranger and he is handsome, younger than she is, stronger, a little big sinister, a little bit scared. He pins her against the wall with his hand to her throat. She thinks, in her fantasy, that she’d die like this and no one would know she was missing. She thinks no one would care. She thinks she’d die like this, the air leaving her lungs, her blood stream, her brain. She’d black out.
The fantasy ends there but the feeling of it lingers a while. She bumps the metals sides of the stall, gathering the panty hose between her fingers, first one side, then the other until it is bunched in her hands. Elaine looks at the start black writing against the dirty beige door reading and re-reading as she slides the bunched hose on her bare left leg. She leans heavy against the side of the stall, bunching the other side, hunched over now because one leg is sleeved to the knee with panty hose.This is the hard part, she thinks, as she threads the hose around her thick toes.
You probably saw this next part on the news.
The explosion was caused, presumably, when the fuel tanker hit the pump. The tanker itself was moving slowly toward the truck stop. The driver, Edward Muncie, worked for BP all his adult life. His father was a small-town banker. His mother liked to eat at Denny’s. He was unmarried, thirty pounds overweight and played the flute to relax. He took up the flute in High School. He played in the marching band beginning in Sophomore year. He won a scholarship to Purdue to study music but he didn’t go because his father passed away and his mother was grief struck. He stayed home, like a good son, an only child, a boy with only a small measure of ambition anyhow. Ed got the job with BP and drove the fuel trucks. He was nearly a virgin.
Once, in a fit of despair after his father passed away and while his mother had confined herself to the house in her grief, Ed made a long drive to the big city. He found the worst dive bar in his path, sat on a sticky bar stool and drank steadily for three hours. He listened to a grunge band, nodding his head to the beat. He wondered if there was a heaven or a hell or a benevolent deity of any kind who watched over him while he ate, prayed, slept, drove. He wondered if he’d ever amount to much. He wondered if he’d get married, have children, settle into a patchwork life, poorly educated and provincial. He realized he wanted more but he had no idea how to get it. He looked around at the city kids slamming beers and bodies. He hated them. He always had hated them.
The drive home that night was a blur. He managed to get through the toll booths and all the way to his mother’s street before he was pulled over. By then he was almost sober. The cop was a friend from grade school, Pete. He let him off with a warning, knowing that Ed was in mourning. Pete liked Ed’s dad. He coached Peewee baseball. He bought the team the good drink boxes and always brought snacks to go with it. After that night, Ed stopped drinking. He knew he’d dodged a bullet.
The highway through Lafayette was wide open the day in question. The main stream media called the events of that day “monumental” and “life altering.” It certainly altered Ed’s life. He never even saw the bright light and never heard the deep hum that people reported to the news anchors who arrived on the scene. The witnesses, at the least the ones who were willing to come forward and speak to the camera, were unified in their story. The bright light was first, “blinding” is how they described it. The deep humming sound seemed to be coming from the earth itself. One witness said he was sure it was something to do with that earthquake earlier in the year. He went on to tell the reporters that he suspected it had to do with a secret government plan to take away his right to bear arms.
None of the witnesses knew that Ed was, at that moment, wearing headphones because the radio in his rig was broken. He could not drive without music. He was listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. He had closed his eyes for a moment, just a very moment, because the cello solo was so very sweet. It was so sweet, he thought he might die from it. He missed the blinding light. He gained the sweetness of Bach. He pulled off the highway after opening his eyes. He did not expect the mass of cars lined up, piled up, people stunned, blinded by the flash. He pumped the brakes but it was too late. He never heard the hum, the sound of the concerto filled his ears as the truck jackknifed, slid, skidded into the truck stop that sat like a monument at the end of the ramp.
From where she leaned in her stall, crouched now like an animal in hiding, the black writing danced before her eyes. She felt liberated by the words, entranced by them. She finished pulling the hose up, over the knees, over the ample thigh, over her wide trucker hips. The sound of air brakes, of tires squealing, metal tearing and cinderblock falling assaulted Elaine’s ears and before she had time to process it, the truck stop exploded in a feast of fire.
Demon and Pop Star faced each other on the wooden stage.
“You first,” said Pop Star. He stared at Demon, upper lip curled in defiance.
Demon laughed. “Do you think I'm a fool?”
“Very well,” Pop Star replied. He removed his shadow and handed it to Demon. “Do what you want with it. You've already given me everything I need.”
Pop Star vanished. Demon tried on the shadow. It fit perfectly.
micro fiction by Leah Mueller
For clarity sake, let’s run the reel back
to the late afternoon on a graveled farm road
through monotonous miles of corn and soy, corn
and soy, more corn and more soy, while an August
sun sizzled your shoulders and thighs, as you pedaled
across the heartland, alone, the longest year of your life,
waiting for a court date, waiting for papers to sign.
Flat expanses of nowhere rose gradually
after crossing a bridge, wooden and decayed,
remember? In the muck below, a muskrat struggled
with a cable snare, thrashing. Another nearby, slick
with scum, also ensnared, but this one lifeless,
It’s like the click of shutter — isn’t it? —
the way a simple glance can lodge in the brain,
while so much goes by we let pass as if
behind our eyelids there’s no one there.
And there she was, one hand raised head-high,
standing on the front porch of a weathered farmstead.
Truly, she was there, in the flesh, wasn’t she? The bib
and skirt of her apron stained crimson. Tomatoes, maybe.
Or blood? You, with only a toehold on the cliffs of what’s real,
did you invent this apparition? You waved. You saw blood,
and you kept going, muscling your way blindly forward,
immersed in troubles of your own, travails you now know amounted
to vapors of guilt and ghosts of old apprehensions. Was her hand uplifted
for sake of shielding her eyes from the sun’s lowering horizon?
Or was she beckoning to you, and you ignored her call?
Note to an Earlier Self
poetry by Lowell Jaeger
Life Without Anesthesia
Outside the picture window, the Phragmites undulates. Reed-thin blades arc and sway in the wind. The ballet of lithe hunchbacks nod their taupe-colored tassels in susurrant agreement: another storm is coming.
Once aggressive, now invasive, they are her only reliable informants.
She walks quickly to the whitewashed kitchen and doesn’t notice when her heel catches on a loose nail in the floorboard. Small circles of blood stamp the rest of her path to the shelf anchored high on the far wall. With the tips of her fingers, she pulls the box down. The sticks inside shift and click in her urgency. There are more than thirty in her collection and she will need a sturdy one today. It’s been a long time coming, though it’s not the big one yet. She worries that the sticks have been dwindling at a faster clip. They might not hold for the rest of the season.
In the stillness of determination, she is mesmerized by her choices. Yellow birch would show teeth marks. Too soft. Better for the joy of popsicles and flimsy rafts. Better for the first few lies. She’s uncertain why it’s still in the box. Tiger maple and cherry . . . both pretty and sturdy, like her. The old her. Before every doorway of pain, there is always a threshold. That’s why she wishes she had Brazilian walnut, even a short length, because inevitably, she will need something indestructible. She knows it’s not a true walnut. It’s a misnomer. A fake. Another impostor, just like him.
She chooses the hickory and puts the box away as the key turns in the front door.
With slow movements, he hangs his coat in the closet. Silently, she watches him, now aware of the throbbing in her heel. He pulls something out of his pocket and tucks it into his leather bag on the floor. When he starts toward the kitchen, she slides the stick between her teeth and bites down, ready again to bear the pain of what he’s about to tell her, revealing the jagged triangle of space where her tooth chipped the last time.
flash fiction by Kristen M. Ploetz
Child of Water, Child of Dirt
The sun dips behind a veil of cloud and, still, the air simmers. Hot and damp, thick as sebum, it rises spectral from the pores of the asphalt and seeps over sunburnt lawns onto porches, through cracks in windows, brick, and clapboard. It beads on the necks of beer bottles and the backs of weary residents and along my hairline as I drive down the hill from the town of Rochester, windows wide open, breeze blowing, to the slick, gleaming muscle of the river. I ease the car to a stop at the back of the local bowling alley, a grungy, brown-brick edifice a hundred paces from the water, and set to work on a snug webbing of ratchet straps and bungees that hug my kayak to the roof. Gathering the cords, I toss them through the window into a pile onto the passenger seat and tuck both arms under the hard, slippery stern. I pause for a breath, sweep my forehead across a bicep, and lunge into the lift. Hoisting the boat up and over the roof, I stumble backwards under the weight and the ten-foot body smacks the asphalt with a thud. I wince and glance around, but, mercifully, the parking lot is empty. While the boat rocks and grows still, I snatch my paddle from the back, slam the doors, shut the windows, and lock up the car. Hooking a hand under the front toggle, I move for the river. Glass and gravel scrape the underside as I stagger sideways across the shattered parking lot, stooped and heaving, palm slipping, to the grassy hillside and down the concrete angle of the launch. Pausing at the lip of the water, I nose the boat in halfway.
“You’re braver than I am,” says a voice, and I look up to a tubby, middle-aged man in a plain red T-shirt perched on the retaining wall, tending to a cluster of fishing poles. His young son sits in the driver’s seat of their forest green SUV parked behind him, staring disinterestedly at the wheel.
I raise my eyebrows. What to say? I wonder if I should tell him that I don’t really understand this phrase, though I’ve had plenty of time to ponder its implications during my solo travels across the country. That I’ve heard it out of the mouths of friends, of family, from state park employees and strangers at the gas station, on wooded trails, shivering in the pool of a mountain cascade, climbing to the crown of the earth, and I’m still no closer to discerning its infuriatingly cryptic meaning. Is it a thin compliment or a veiled insult? Is it born out of envy? Incredulity? Condescension? I can hardly ever tell. Perhaps it’s just the nicest way of calling someone crazy, or stupid, or both. Perhaps I’m paranoid. Perhaps, like much of human conversation, it’s just filler, poly-synthetic peanuts stuffed between two strangers to make the gap a little more comfortable, to keep us from getting too close.
I want to tell this man that I believe him, that he, with his fishing poles and floppy haircut and plump, drooping belly, doesn’t look like someone who would ever toe the line of his comfort zone. Instead, I ask with a quiet smile, “Why not?”
He chuckles and shakes his head.
"I know what’s in there,” he replies with a shudder. “I wouldn’t go in.”
I look over my shoulder at that dimpled pewter mirror, pocked and shimmering in the mid-afternoon light. I know that if I leave my kayak bobbing at the end of the launch and wade in, to where the mud is thick and soft and cloying, if I plunge my hand under the skin of the water and pull up a pocket of earth, neither of us could begin to comprehend the possibilities
quivering inside my fist. There, in the silt caked to my fingers, dripping over the edges of my cupped palm, a tiny gasping world of decayed organic muck and drenched, residual earth: mountaintop broken to boulder pounded to pebble squeezed to silt by wind, water, time, millions of years carried miles and miles; there, in the palm of my hand, impervious stone transformed to silky grain, laced with the delicate, scarlet threads of river worms, the swirling shell of a gastropod, roots of water flora. If we peered closer, through the lens of a microscope, we’d see simple bacteria, single-celled algae, protists wriggling like hieroglyphs on the dark canvas of mud, the sacred language of a primordial empire.
The fisherman sends out his line.
I shrug. “I just launched out of here yesterday,” I tell him, and climb into my boat. I press the lip of my paddle to the cement and push off.
“I’ll try not to fall in,” I call back, though I can tell he’s not all that worried. Paring the water with quick, sharp strokes, I’m far away soon enough, skimming lightly over the sluggish belly of the Ohio. The paddle twirls in my hands, falling in a steady pattern. I’m moving with the current, gliding westward away from Rochester, my car, the fisherman and his son. If I were to stay on the course of this “Good River,” so named by the Iroquois nation that lived along its shores for centuries, I would flow nearly a thousand miles, under great steel bridges and past innumerable tributaries, out of Pennsylvania, through Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Kentucky, to Illinois, where I would slosh into the soggy mid-section of the country and south, to the Gulf of Mexico.
I probably won’t make it to the highway. The river cuts a wide corridor between the train bridge and I-376, framed on either side by a high, dark ridge hooded with maple, sumac, and brush. I have lived on the fringes of this valley for over a year, and I still lose my breath to the beauty of these twin hills cloaked by a sweeping sky, the gunmetal channel chugging softly along in its trough. I’ve walked along this water’s edge in the soft shimmering of early morning, watched the fog cradle the new day’s light in its arms. I’ve dangled my legs from the scaffolding of the Monaca-Rochester bridge, drinking pounders with friends and dropping the empties on a boat that drifted soundlessly below. I’ve reclined on the hillcrest, reading books of poetry in the sun. I’ve sat on a bench in the heart of the night and watched the craning arm of a barge pull up great heaps of drenched earth. I fell in love along the riverbank. I ran away and I returned.
I angle the paddle and stop with a whoosh. The boat spins gently clockwise. Nervous to rock it, I peer cautiously over the left edge, though there’s little, if any, reason to worry in this quiet current. The river flows unbroken beneath my gaze, all but the surface imperceptible.So, what is in there? I wonder. What don’t I see? A question impossible to answer without an eyedropper and a magnified lens or at least a pair of goggles.
What I do see, floating before me like oil, is my reflection, a semblance of it anyway. A river, even one with a current as gentle as this, isn’t the best substitute for a mirror. If you can focus long enough to find your face in the caps and furrows, what you see is not a face at all, but a mix of mediums. The soft, imperfect oval I survey and scrub and squeeze each morning—its sweeping brow and mild cheekbones, its crooked nose pocked with blackheads—is even more so, seeping and sinking like paint dropped on wet paper. Form is forsaken and a curtain of fleshy color billows between light and water. At once before me, and gone in a shimmer, as though bits of my skin were being towed down through the water in sheer, gauzy strips by some force below, maybe that sticky muck that shimmies up our legs, takes hold, tugs us under.
I dash the water with my hand, scattering the colors. Prisms of light leap from the river to my skin and dance along the hard, green edge of my kayak. Isn’t this how we spend so much of our lives, probing the surface, pulling back? A nightmare wakes you in the middle of the night: lying face-up, drenched in dark, cold sweat, you sift through the details even as they slip from your body like the thud of your startled heart. When morning breaks, you have lost all but the sensation of disturbance. You can’t remember the dream but there’s a difference, you feel it, a shift in the air, in you. You pull at the thread, try to summon the memory. Wrench the chaos into a configuration. When it resists, you step into the shower, rinse the night’s sweat from your body, drink your coffee, scroll through social media, go to work.
How many of us dare to venture into to this damp, unsettling world? At some point, you have to decide: stop scanning and walk away, move on with your day, or take a breath and slide from your clothes, into the water that closes over your skin, the mud that creeps up your ankles, your shins, your thighs. Would you let your curiosity—what’sinthere?—take you like the current and step in knowing you’d sink? Would you let the earth swallow you whole?
On a trip to Costa Rica last year, I noticed that many of the high-end spas I passed in Rincón, Tenorio, and Arenal advertised mud baths in addition to their thermal hot springs. Flat-broke from the plane tickets and more interested in mountains than murky water anyway, I failed to join the thousands of tourists who travel to these places and others like them around the globe and pay good money to strip down and ease into tubs of goop. It’s said that the mud, rich in minerals, is revitalizing. I wonder if the effects have less to do with the dirt, and more with the action itself: by sliding into a pool of muck, you are simply backsliding into the vigor of childhood. Whatever the reasoning behind it, mud bathing is not a novel vogue. Both Napoleon and Beethoven frequented peloid baths in Karlovy Vary. Native Americans mired their irritated skin. Cleopatra coated herself with the sludge of the Dead Sea. Two thousand years later, I can buy an eight-ounce tub of her majesty’s remedial beauty secret on Amazon for the reasonably low price of fourteen dollars and change.
I let the kayak drift to the shallows, where the water rises just inches above the earth. Reaching in for a handful, I press it between my palms, smear my fingers, wrists, and forearms, my biceps, my triceps. I trace whorls and waxing crescents, waves and worm trails on the canvas of my arms until I am slick and squiggled with earth. The creation stories of many cultures, including those of the tribes who lived for thousands of years along this river, starts with such an act, this smearing of mud. Iroquois lore imparts that the earliest humans were not of this world, but belonged to one above called SkyWorld. Below their land was a dark, watery realm, home to many birds and aquatic creatures and in the heart of SkyWorld was the Celestial Tree. Our story begins when this tree is uprooted—because of a dream, because of blind rage, because a pregnant woman wanted tea from its roots; the reason varies with the version—tearing a great hole in the land. The curious wife of the chief, SkyWoman, had to know:what’s in there?
Creeping to the edge of the chasm for a peek, she lost her balance and tumbled into its mouth. Below, the animals sprang to her aid. A flock of geese caught her between their wings while the other creatures dove under the water, trying to bring up a bit of earth for SkyWoman to land upon. None succeeded. When it seemed hope was lost, a tiny muskrat (or an otter or a toad, again depending on the version being told) drew the largest breath of her little life and plunged down, deep, deep, deep, to the bottom, taking up a single scoop in her paw. Nearly dead, she floated back to the surface and spread her offering on the back of the Great Turtle, where it swelled and crinkled and set into a continent on which SkyWoman could lightly settle, plant her seeds, give birth to a daughter and sons.
Creation begins with the descent. A seed is buried, a woman falls from the sky. God comes down from the cosmos to mold a man out of clay, breathes heaven into his earthen lungs. Life hangs in the balance between soil and sky and in this soggy, wrinkled mirror dividing the two. There is power in the river. I’m not speaking of the current, hydroelectricity, or the way it wends its wet path across the country, carving new geography as it goes. I’m interested in something deeper, something moving below the waterline. It occurs to me that creation billows from peripheries like this, gurgling just out of sight, where the lines are wooly and the light is dim.
When I was a child, I would set my pet rabbits in the yard and try to sneak up on them. I’d watch as they twitched their heads a touch this way, a smidgeon that, able to see the whole of behind them with the slightest movement of their bodies. I’d attempt to imitate, muscling my eyes far into their corners and turning my neck for a peek, straining to see what I physically could not. I never saw much past the hump of my own shoulder, but I am curious now if I was not beginning to understand that the most intriguing aches, the most compelling questions, the pursuits most worthy of my time, were the ones that lay beyond the direct path of my vision.
There, flickering in the margins, shy bits of the mind whisper and flit and wait for you to wriggle your way into the cool, inviting damp, nudging past order, past manners, past sharp lines and certainty into a supple twilight. It tugs you down, beckons like a friend to come in, have a seat, stay a while. You get the sense that if you do, if you stay here long enough, suspended in a land between familiar and strange, you may never emerge, not as you were, that you will become as pliant as the shapeless ooze that holds you. Already, you feel wisps of yourself slipping into the muck, the seams that stitch together a sense of you —your beliefs, thoughts, hopes, memory—tattering like finger-worn threads. You rummage around, patch yourself up with what you can find: a strip of grass, a fish’s rib. Imagination grows wavy and bold in the sunken world.
Without a clear sense of direction or firm ground to place a foot, you grow lax and roll over, nuzzle into the womb of the earth. You are as thrilled as you are uneasy, thrilled, perhaps, because you are uneasy. Head light, eyes blurry, as in those times of the day when you start to doze off, you unravel and drift into reverie. The luxuriant silt settles into your eye sockets and the spaces between your toes, softens into the drowsy, dreaming folds of your brain. Here, there is suckle for the woozy thought, rich forage for the unformed idea. There is space in the shadows for the odd, the indistinct, the amorphous to grow large and lavish, the precious tendrils of the mind coiling down the tubers of waterweeds in that nourishing, untilled terrain, through the latticed rot of sodden foliage, through fish shit and rock mineral and algal scum, the gelatinous sacs of embryonic frogspawn. It is a place of transition, bounty, and frenzied growth. Who knew in a scoop of mud oozing over the edges of your hands, were entire continents, a whole world of scintillating deserts and shimmering prairies, low swooping valleys and romantic rolling hills, the high, craggy drama of mountain peaks. Draw close, plant your thoughts. Watch them flow and unfurl into the undulating slurry, great pools of words gathering and hardening to image, giving birth to cantos under the tangled roofs of liverwort and duckweed.
As I look over the edge of my boat, I can almost feel the vast energy pulsing up from the margins, burrowing into my skin. Is this the landscape of genesis? The instrument of transmogrification? Here, under my floating body—this body that is over fifty percent water, yet more form than fluid. Is this where it all begins?
I wonder if I would learn more by peering into my reflection, or past it, into the murky depths below. What could I lose in the downward plunge? What could I lose if I don't take it? I push my hand in again and the muck seals around my fingers like a wet glove, the earth giving, the earth taking. I knead my knuckles down further, splashing the water, stirring up silt, memory.
Smeared in mud, I am rejuvenated, I am purified. I’m squealing like a girl. I’m nine again, or ten, crouched as though in prayer in the irrigation ditch behind my father's house, squirming my toes into the squishy-squelchy, ooey-gooey, gushy mush. The earth is loamy here, a dank, sticky mixture of silt, clay, organic rot, and standing water that rises, damp and rich, into my nostrils. Cattails teeter on their long stems above my little body. Long slices of leaves flop over to tickle my cheeks as the warm mud sucks the spaces between my toes. I plop down on the slant, pull one foot up, shlurp, then the other, schlurrp. Water rushes the hollows, into the blurry, exaggerated reproductions of my little-girl soles. Overhead, a breeze picks up. The reeds rustle and begin to hiss. In my flooded footprints, a gentle ballet begins: the slim, sharp leaves sway and toss like a woman’s skirts and the tall, woody stems bow humbly, their precious velvet carriage bobbing in a cloudless sepia sky. The picture is dark yet clear, shadowy but shimmering in the mud-stained water, like a negative of film held to the light. Unlike a still locked up in a camera, the picture below my feet, in my feet, in the pockets they pressed into the ground, was moving, dancing, as though I had pulled back a curtain on a window to another world, one like mine, just a bit off color and softer around the edges. I watch for a few minutes then gather my shoes, shuffle through the grass and head home for lunch, still splattered with flecks of mud.
I was always running home dirty (still am) with grass-stained knees and chocolate-colored jean cuffs, face streaked with filth. I don't think my parents minded much. They were both teachers. They must have known that the muddiest places are also the lushest in life and in lessons, must have recognized the value of slogging through, carrying bits of that holy, fertile ground home on the treads of your shoes, in the cracks of your palms. When your parents looked at you, baptized as you were in the blood of the earth, and shook their head, sighed, turned your hands up to better see your handiwork, perhaps it wasn't exasperation at all, but lament, a deep and mournful yearning for the poetry you had reveled in all afternoon. Child of water, child of dirt, ambassador of buried secrets in the sanitized world: how long will we forsake you?
Dusk is settling on the river. Cupping handfuls of water, I wash the muck from my arms but a bit of residue holds to the skin hardest to clean: the beds of my nails, the folds of my knuckles and palms. I give them a shake, pick my paddle back up, and turn the nose of my boat towards home. As I glide back under the Monaca-Rochester bridge, I can make out the swaying silhouette of my fisherman. Under him, the water is flat, dark. The blue sky has dimmed to a rich plum, and still he’s casting lines, his red shirt a wound against the deepening landscape. The gash grows larger with each stroke. Each stroke rubs a little more mud from my palms. The blade takes over, flows its own pattern in my hands, slicing wildly through the face of the river. We are moving fast, too fast towards the embankment, the fisherman, his dead-eyed boy, and I want to stop, but I can’t. I want to stay out here in the cool, dark air, want to float like a muskrat in the amniotic deep, mud trailing from my fingertips, but the boat rakes up the embankment and rumbles to a stop with a wild, ragged gasp, delivering me back to the light.
creative non-fiction by Krista Banks
The day the 250 year old twin walnut trees crashed to the earth, the ground was covered in blood. The phenomenon was caused by the deaths of a legion of black snakes that had occupied the trees, hundreds of which still writhed in the hollowed trunks. Patrick, the owner of the farm whose front porch those trees had framed for so long, viewed the scene with a strange serenity as he sipped his coffee. The low storm clouds were finally carrying their load of polluted rainwater over the winter-barren hills of his forty-two Maryland acres and out to sea. He disappeared inside and re-emerged with a match and some lighter fluid. As he watched the stumps burn grey, alive with the gyrations of the smoking, searing snakes, perhaps he thought how fitting it was that those trees, which had witnessed so many violent deaths on this property, should meet such a remarkable end of their own.
Did he think about the flowerbed, now coated in ash and flecks of wood, that had provided a shallow grave for his father after a bullet crashed through his skull while he slept warm in his bed? Did he look in at the window to the bathroom in which his grandmother had slipped on the tile during a stroke, never to regain consciousness, or peer up at the tin roof under which, in the attic hundreds of years before, a slave had been stabbed to death by one of his own ranks in a romantic quarrel? Did the ghosts of the confederate and union soldiers who had died on the property rise, disturbed by the fire atop their powdery bones?
Patrick was the kind of introspective adult the world creates when too much horror confronts a small child, and so it seems likely that he thought about all these things as he took his coffee cup back inside, anxious to reassure his two year old daughter that everything was ok, that the fire wouldn’t come inside, that everything was safe as houses.
Its owner safely back inside and the sound of his footsteps on the chipped white painted wood having evaporated into the stillness left after the rolls of thunder, the bricks breathed a sigh and returned to their place as the unyielding shield against time and change and movement, weathered but otherwise no different than they had been in 1763. The walls, with their layers of paint covering blood covering dusty blood, were indifferent to what had come before. Can a haunted house know which of its residents are ghosts?
Death and Dying in America
flash fiction by Bailey Bridgewater
Krista Banks completed her BFA in creative non-fiction at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Since graduating, she has been roaming the country in search of adventure and good stories. She currently lives in North Carolina and chances are, if she’s not working on a piece of nature writing, she can be found in the woods with her dog.
Bailey is an introvert, but not a misanthrope. She is the recipient of a Max Ehrmann Poetry Award and publishes travel writing in Inside Himalayas and Pink Pangea. Her short story The Risk of Death by Suffocation appears in As You Were literary journal, and her short fiction has appeared in Tweetlit and Nanoisms.
Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has been published or is forthcoming in publications such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Bird’s Thumb Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, and Art House America. Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, David and her four outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.
Glenn Ingersoll works for the Berkeley Public Library where he hosts Clearly Meant, a reading & interview series. He has two chapbooks, City Walks (broken boulder) and Fact (Avantacular). He keeps two blogs, LoveSettlement and Dare I Read. Recent work has appeared in Poetry East, Askew, and Hearty Greetings.
Lowell Jaeger (Montana Poet Laureate 2017-2019) is founding editor of Many Voices Press, author of seven collections of poems, recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council, and winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize. Most recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse.
Jayne Martin is a 2017 Pushcart nominee and the 2016 winner of Vestal Review’s VERA award for flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Spelk, Literary Orphans, Five-2-One, Midwestern Gothic, Shotgun Honey, MoonPark Review, Blink-Ink, Cleaver, Connotation Press and Hippocampus among others. She is the author of Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, and lives in Santa Barbara, California. Find her on Twitter @Jayne_Martin.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks, Queen of Dorksville (Crisis Chronicles Press), and Political Apnea (Locofo Chaps) and two books,Allergic to Everything(Writing Knights Press) and The Underside of the Snake (Red Ferret Press). Leah was a winner in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, and a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival. Her work appears in Blunderbuss, Outlook Springs, Memoryhouse, Atticus Review, Remixt, Your Impossible Voice and many other magazines and anthologies.
Kristen M. Ploetz
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her recent work has been published with Random Sample Review, Atlas & Alice, Hypertext Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Harpoon Review, (b)OINK, The Hopper, Gravel, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays and short stories. You can find her on the web and Twitter.
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