JULY 12, 2019| ISSUE no 253
crack the spine
Chloe Yelena Miller
Edward Michael Supranowicz
Martin van Velsen
short fiction by Brian Rosten
Thomas du Parque wrote with a pen which never ran out of ink. Nothing in terms of supplies ran out in the Library, the place he’d found himself in after he’d died. He was making notes on large sheets of brownish parchment, using a perfected version of the pen his grandmother had gifted him on Earth. The paper came from the Door. The Door went wherever he needed it. When he wanted tea, it revealed a pantry. When he needed to make a chart, it became a supply closet. When he needed comfort, it contained soft linens. He never needed toiletries or new clothes, though. Not in this place, the Library, which always was awash in sunlight, had all the books he’d ever want to read, stayed the same temperature, and never accumulated dust.
Tom was getting to know the place. Tom once tried to reorganize things to his likings, a shelf in chronological order instead of alphabetical. When Tom returned a few hours later, the Library had rearranged the book to their original places. The Library was like that. You had to learn it. It would not adjust to you. You had to adjust to it.
Tom was going over notes because he was learning languages, specifically, every language. Not just those of Earth or the Milky Way, but every language in existence. Tom had a lot of notes. The parchment he’d found was easy to write on, never smudged, and he assumed couldn’t be burnt. The thought of burning occurred for no other reason than the number of candles in his office. There were hundreds, always burning, never snuffing out, except once. When his first customer had arrived, an author who wanted their book in the Library to be recorded forever, a candle went out, and the Door had taken Tom to the author’s home, so Tom could retrieve and shelve the book.
Tom eagerly awaited the next author. He made graphic organizers and lists so that no matter what tongue the next being spoke, Tom could communicate and get the proper request form into the being’s hands or paws or tentacles. Studying such a volume was a daunting task, but he seemingly had all the time in the world.
Tom was hard at work for what had likely been months when the next candle snuffed out. The smoke startled him at first, but he soon discovered the smoldering candle, and joyously sprang from his leather chair, across the hall, past the elegant paintings, to the large wooden desk opposite another being.
“Hello!” said Tom excitedly.
“Hello,” said the man, wide smile on his face. Tom couldn’t help being disappointed, he so wanted to show off his new abilities to himself. He though he’d just ask, anyway.
“May I ask, is English your first language?”
“No,” said the man jovially. “My parents spoke Congolese. But I am Parisian and speak French fluently, probably better than my native tongue.”
“Merveilleux,” said Tom. “Continouns.”
“S'il vous plaît,” replied the man.
“I’m Tom,” he introduced, still speaking French, sticking out a hand.
“Louis,” said the man, taking his hand.
In French, Tom said, “We have a form to fill out, and I’ll procure the book as soon as possible.”
Tom began to reach down for the drawer containing the French version of the form when the man held up a finger.
“Actually, the text is in the form of a newspaper,” he explained.
“Ah, no problem. Should all be on the form,” said Tom. He reached down for the infinite, rolling queue of form variations based on an author’s language and popped out the French version. He congenially handed it to the man, along with Tom’s favorite pen.
The man scribbled down the information, occasionally looking back at a happy Tom, whose hands were folded politely on the desk. Tom tried his hardest not to appear concerned as the man left very little white space in each box, taking longer and longer to respond to each question.
Almost finished with the paper, the man paused and put the pen down.
“Perhaps it would be easier to explain,” he said, still speaking his most comfortable tongue.
“Parfois aussi,” Tom said, nodding confidently, attempting to appear knowledgeable. This was incorrect French, however, as he’d meant to say ‘sometimes true,’ and not ‘sometimes also.’ The man from Paris realized, and continued in English.
“It’s a newspaper, but it’s sort of underground. Really, it’s wannabe underground. We wrote it ourselves, my roommates and I, at University of Paris, and had a friend print it who lived in Versailles. At a small printing firm, you see. We paid him in beer once a month. He would only make one batch at a time, and we’d give them out for a euro a piece to friends and random pedestrians.”
The man suddenly looked worried. Tom thought a moment.
Finally, he said, “And you’re afraid it will be difficult to find?”
“Yes,” the man breathed.
“And this is a certain edition?”
“May I ask why this particular paper you’d like shelved?”
“It is…difficult to explain,” the man said, clenching his jaw.
“Of course,” answered Tom, unsure whether to question him further.
Any information would be helpful, but in this place that Tom assumed was his new afterlife, he thought it best not to pry into another person’s private business. So Tom had Louis fill out the rest of the form as best as he could, and told him to take a seat on a plush purple armchair, which the author was already headed toward after he wrote his last line.
Tom looked at the form. This person was obviously worried Tom would not be able to find his self-published paper, and had included a wealth of information in case any of it was useful. His address. The address of the press. The time of day the email was sent to the printer. The address of the person running the press. The color of the newspaper.
Tom assumed these might be clues, but everything made him recoil. Like the more information he got, the less he was inclined to use it. The cramped handwriting and abundance of detail made him want to blow the assignment off. The only assignment he had. Tom wondered why, and looked at the man. Was it superiority? Anxiety of failure? What was wrong with him? Tom would need to do some reflecting on this, but for now, he had a job to do.
It would be prudent, he realized, to check the periodicals in English first, to see how they were organized. To see if there was a college paper section, which he was certain there was, and see if it filed for ‘underground’ papers, which he was sure it did, and then find commonalities and perhaps even check the French sections for a different edition of the paper in question. It was titled Les Paris Récupèrent according to the form, and none were in stock.
He passed the main hall again and saw Louis staring out the large windows of the Library, a serene picture to entertain anyone for hours on end, and Tom veered for the Door.
It opened to a tiny dorm room, cheap white plaster walls with trinkets, streamers, and string lights strewn on them for cheap, intimate decoration. Two sets of bunk beds, implying four inhabitants, on either side of a small television set accompanied by an even smaller gaming console. Controllers, remotes, snack bags, and piles of homework and study sheets littered the desks and floor. Tom searched 10 minutes for the paper, no sign of it. Another edition or 2 were under one of the beds, but not the one Tom was looking for. He took note of its color and design.
Tom sighed, and realized he’d need to step out of the room to find the current edition. He did so, and could hear the lock click behind him. He panicked, and reached for the handle, the action clicking the lock back open. Looking around for anyone else, to which he found the hallway clear, he experimented. Whenever he touched the door, it unlocked. Whenever he let go, it relocked. Good to know.
He went down the hall and into the entrance of the building. He quickly realized he was not in a dorm, but simply in an apartment building, not officially owned by the University. He became disillusioned as everything hit him in waves. He knew little about Paris. He knew little about Europe. He knew next to nothing about European universities. He should have looked all of this up before he left, but in his excitement, and his anxiety about keeping an author sitting in those chairs just staring out the window, he hadn’t. He went back upstairs, back to the room, but too late. He opened the closet he’d come out of, and it remained a closet. He would need to come back with Les Paris Récupèrent or the Door wouldn’t let him back in. Suddenly he needed to know the date. He looked at his watch. It still displayed the day he’d died. He went downstairs, and found a day calendar sitting on the front desk angled toward the departing residents.
According to the form he carried, he’d need to find the paper in the next few hours.
He went out into the busy street, unable to soak in the charming views and quaint sounds of the city of Paris. He felt tense. He wanted a guide, and feared he would not get one. He had his request form, which had the address of the press. He probably couldn’t make it there in a day. He’d been to Europe in college, so he had some familiarity with the transportation. He didn’t have any tickets or a rail pass. Did he have money? He checked his wallet, which he just now realized he actually still had. Crestfallen upon opening it, he felt it a tad cruel that he’d gotten to keep it despite having no money inside. He jammed it back in his pocket and kept searching.
He looked around. So many people, so few of them probably knew where to find this obscure, poorly written, inside joke of a pap-
There it was. Sticking out of the purse of a beautiful, college-aged girl. Tom dashed across the street, almost being hit by a horn-blaring motorbike, he tried catching up with her. There was no time to worry about embarrassment, either from onlookers or the girl herself. He needed her paper. He thought about stealing it, but he didn’t want to change any events from the worldly timeline, and the thought of stealing to aid his new afterlife occupation didn’t sit well.
He strode to catch up, and reached out for the paper unthinking, until he realized he should just ask to see it. It was an awkward introduction as Tom was still halfway reaching out, but now pulling back his hand when the girl turned around and accosted him.
“Excusez-moi!” she yelled.
“Pardon,” Tom said, thinking quickly, blurting out English instead of French, “your paper, it was falling out of your bag.” He motioned to confirm this, to which the girl eyed him suspiciously.
He couldn’t see her eyes, as they were covered in large mirror shades, but he assumed she was glaring at him when she turned around and huffed away.
His chance was escaping.
He followed at a distance. He tried to think of how to say ‘Where can I get one’, but thought of something better. How could he say it in French? He needed to think faster. He decided to get it out even if the French was imperfect.
“Comment sais Louis?” he asked.
She turned around, this time scowling.
For a full minute, she tore him apart verbally in a language he did not understand fluently. The irony was he’d taken French in high school. It was probably why the Library assigned him a French speaker for his second, more complicated book search. He held out his palms, fingers spread, pleadingly, repeating pardon over and over, until she slowed down enough to ask him a question.
“Comment sais-tu Louis, eh?” she demanded with a snarl.
“I read his article in his paper. I wanted a copy. Uh, J’en vuix d’un,” he attempted.
The girl suddenly realized the intent behind Tom’s earlier comment. He was speaking broken French, and did not know what he was saying. She laughed, which Tom filtered as sadistic and backed away.
“Assistez-vous a la Sorbonne?” she asked. When she saw his eyes darted and mouth rambling for the proper thing to say, she saved him the trouble.
“Do you also go to Sorbonne?” she asked.
“Oh, thank goodness,” he said, anxiety beginning to recede. He pointed to her paper. “I need a copy, do you know where I can find one? And what is Sorbonne?”
“Sorbonne, the University of Paris? Do you know a Louis or were just accusing me of sleeping with any random Frenchman?” she asked, anger creeping back into her voice.
Tom blushed furiously. “No, no. J’accuse? Never! I saw his paper. It was so…unique. I saw it when I was traveling through a few weeks ago, and am on my way back to the airport. I wanted one as a souvenir,” he was speaking fast, lying not coming naturally to Tom.
“You are a tourist, not an exchange student, and you don’t know Louis?”
“Neither personally, nor in the biblical sense, which I realize is what I implied earlier, unfortunately, no.”
“So, you unfortunately don’t know him in the biblical sense?”
“Oh my, no, I, uh…”
The girl laughed again. “I’m early for my lecture anyway, the shop is down this way. I’m Claudette,” she stuck out a hand.
“Tom,” he said, taking it.
They walked together down the cobbled street, making small talk. He had to remember details of his actual vacation during his beforelife, while she told him about growing up in a small farming community 40 miles from the city, getting into the University to the surprise and shock of her entire family, and how she’s fallen for Paris life despite her father’s admonitions. Tom, even though literally dead, could not help but notice she was quite pretty. She had light brown, curly hair. Freckles and a round face. Wide smile. She wore a grey tank top and capris. Tom now knew that he could still find people attractive, at least during these visits to Earth, as butterflies entered his stomach.
“Something wrong?” Claudette asked.
“Not at all,” he said politely, trying to focus on his task and not extra curriculars.
“We’re here. Café Fête. See, that’s Louis, looks like he’s almost out of papers.”
The girl was making a joke here. It certainly was Louis, wearing different clothing of course, a blue button down and khakis, smiling at people. But they all ignored him or even frowned. Tom suspected people did not want his newspaper, as he was holding a large stack, and even more were in a pile on the small counter he was standing next to.
“I’ll introduce you!” she said, taking Tom’s hand.
“No, no, please, I…get so embarrassed. I just wanted a copy. Please, no…”
It was too late, as Claudette successfully dragged Tom over to Louis, and the 3 started a conversation. Luckily, Tom was not grilled extensively about his vacation which did not really exist and he couldn’t remember much about Europe anyway, his last trip being many years ago. 6 years before he died, if he was counting right. Tom took in the picturesque Paris street as the two talked about their classes, and their recent travels, and friends whose lives intersected one another at Sorbonne.
Tom became absorbed in the sights and smells of the city. Their table was outside, and it was a gorgeous summer day. Banquettes and muffins and espressos went by on trays, expensive cars strolled down the street, honking at rude pedestrians, all kinds of languages, French, Italian, Spanish, were conversed hurridly as people stood in line for the amazing food. The fashion people donned was bright, bizarre, and bold, for the most part. Tom’s inattention cost him, however.
“What do you think, Tom?” asked Claudette about a topic Tom had been ignoring.
“About the new President. Another veiled Nationalist, exactly what the country doesn’t need, eh?” clarified Louis.
“Oh, uh, which President, again?” asked Tom.
Claudette threw her hands in the air. “Americans! Never informed. Have you even been listening, Tom? Maybe you should buy that paper, I think.”
“Perhaps for the best. I don’t want to hold you up. Oh, oh no.”
Tom had no money. He patted his pockets. But Louis waved him off.
“It’s fine. You know, people aren’t buying them today anyway. They wouldn’t know good journalism if it bit them in this country. Here, take it.”
Tom had to have something. Anything. He took out his wallet futilely. Opened it again. But this time, it contained a single Euro. He insisted Louis take it. Louis refused, since it was his last one, and he simply left it on the table. Louis and Claudette scooted closer to one another, and continued their conversation. If Tom had wanted to steal a paper, Louis was so engrossed with Claudette, he easily could have.
Fortunately, no one was in the apartment when Tom made it back, paper in hand. He opened the Door, and was back in the Library.
He triumphantly held up the paper for Louis, who clasped his hands together in excitement.
Tom handed it to him, as he’d decided to do with every author, in case they wanted to read it one last time. The last author had refused. But surprisingly, Louis took his work back over to his chair and began reading. Tom, with nothing better to do, decided to join him, with a book he’d found earlier that he wanted to start.
Tom was self-conscious now knowing that Louis might have recognized him, or might now recognize him. Tom wasn’t quite sure how it all worked. It became apparent, however, that Tom was the last thing on Louis’ mind.
The man’s hand went over his mouth as he read, revealing a wedding band. Tears welled up in his eyes. Tom put his book down.
“It’s ok,” he said, not knowing if it really was, “Let it all out,” he found himself adding.
“This was the paper that came out on the day of our first date.”
Tom’s stomach dropped. It was the first time he’d felt genuinely worried while in the Library. If Tom hadn’t been on the street, would the first date and subsequent marriage have still occurred?
“She was amazing, supportive, beautiful, intelligent. She died a few years after we were married. Her parents never approved of course, but after she passed away,” he paused, choked up, “they let me stay with them a while. I never remarried, you know. I knew I could never replace her, but I dunno, maybe I should have, I just…I thought I’d get to see her here, you know?”
Tom didn’t know what to say.
But the Library did. Tom had been finding that listening to the Library, its whims and notions, trying to stay in tune with it, instead of his own logic or musings, had been working. Simply listening to the place helped him find things easier, work faster, feel better. So it was with this instinct that Tom got up, and motioned Louis to follow.
“Come with me.”
Tom’s intuition led him back to the Door. He turned and smiled at a worried Louis, who’s handsome face was streaked with tears, and was still holding his paper.
Thomas du Parque opened the door, and on the other side was a Paris street. Sitting alone on the other side at Café Fête was Claudette, this time on a chillier spring morning. She was inside, bundled in a jacket, reading Tom’s paper.
Tom’s hands went to the crown of his head, and he let out a single sob in surprise.
“I’ll take that for you. It’ll be in good hands,” said Tom softly, holding a hand out for the paper.
Louis gave it to him, still staring at the scene.
“Take note of the door you come out. I can’t imagine you’ll be able to bring anyone back with you, but when you’re ready, it will take you back through to wherever you need.”
Louis approached, and then stopped. “You know,” he said, “I have to say merci, to you.”
Tom tensed. “Oh, really?” he got out.
“Yes, it was apparently your broken French that put the idea of ‘dating’ me in her head,” he said, and laughed.
Tom blushed, and signaled him forward.
Louis went in, and Tom closed the door behind him. He saw neither of them again.
Everything Was About to Go Wrong, But So Far Had Not
Now that high school was over, the teenaged couple were ready to move in together.
Cheri’s friend who had moved to New York City after graduation. She sent Kyle and Cheri a poster: The Sleeping Gypsy. In high school, there had been a trip to New York and the Museum of Modern Art. The Sleeping Gypsy depicted a slumbering mandolin player, her instrument and water jar beside her. A lion stood beside her in peace. In New York City when their love was new, Kyle and Cheri had argued playfully about whether the lion had chosen to leave the gypsy in slumber or simply hadn’t devoured her yet.
They bought a couch so lightweight Kyle could pick it up himself. Cheri’s grandmother gave them an old refrigerator that made Cheri think of The Maltese Falcon. Several mornings a month, they'd find little mounds of jewel-like windshield glass in the gutter. But so far, Kyle’s car had been safe.
One morning the landlord knocked on their door to ask if they’d heard any sounds in the night. Their next door neighbor had been robbed. He was an elderly man who played the banjo late at night. While Cheri and Kyle lay together in Kyle’s childhood bed, they would listen. The old man played songs they didn’t recognized but which summoned sensual nights in Sevierville, Tennessee, where he came from. But they hadn’t registered the disturbance.
Cheri spent the evening reading and drinking diet root beer on the flimsy couch, while Kyle surveyed his World War II maps and masturbated sulkily in the second bedroom. Now it was late. The old man began playing his banjo, his aloneness seeping from the instrument like tea into water. The teenaged lovers lay there side by side, listening. It was so quiet they heard their neighbor’s fingers as they touched the strings.
flash fiction by Patricia Bidar
poetry by Lisa Shirley
Over the green
ice of Squaw Lake,
kerosene smoke wipes
across the sky.
My hands lie lifeless inside
gloves. I wish
of a truck
would arrive, burn
oil and time
and take me off
this lake, take me
back for whiskey
and hotdish. Christ,
what will make the tunnel
of these days end?
Wayne had lost thirty pounds, certain he was unattractive and overweight. “I wish you’d eat more than jello,” Emily said. A textbook mid-life crisis, she thought.
Wayne pressed his bony finger against the remote’s power button, turning off the soccer game. “Had fish yesterday,” he said. “Remember?”
Emily let her robe fall. She sat on the couch next to him. It had been weeks since he’d touched her.
“Not now,” he said. “Too tired.”
Emily watched him fall asleep, head back and snoring. She seized this opportunity to stuff a tangled mass of cheese, bread, and butter into his mouth.
micro fiction by Mason Binkley
Ever since Grandpa died, Ambuya—Grandma rations her affection in morsels, like the last pieces of beef in a stew. Some to Daddy, her first son, less to Mummy, the one who stole him from her bosom. It’s almost as if Grandpa took her joy with him to his grave in Mutenguleni Village. What’s left of it she lavishes on you, her only grandchild. Whenever she calls you to her room, her round face unravels a smile, with a dimple pressed deep in her left cheek, identical to yours.
In exchange for your presence she tells you stories about anything and everything: Daddy as a child, about her upbringing in the ‘40s, trips to Lusaka with Grandpa. You devour them and ask for more.
So, when you hear her shrill voice call, “Falesi!” you abandon your chiyato game on the veranda, tossing the pebbles and racing inside.
“Maa?” you answer.
“Bring me sweet water,” she says. Code, for Chibuku, the local brew which Daddy does a poor job of hiding in the pantry, behind the Kellogg’s.
You sneak into the kitchen and bring her a box of the beer, to which she grins.
“Lock the door, mashina,” she says, calling you namesake.
You smile back and turn the key without question. After all, Ambuya has asked for stranger things; last week she asked you to scrape an anthill off a tree for her to eat because she was craving salt.
Sit, she says by patting the woven reed of the mpasa.
You nestle next to her, breathing her in: Vaseline and Lifebuoy.
She shifts to face you.
“Tell me a story.”
“This story is about me,” she replies, “but it’s also about you.”
You fold your palms under your chin.
“Maziba ayo”—she points a crooked finger at your budding breasts— “mean, playtime is over.”
You chuckle, but your pits prickle, and you squirm.
She takes a sip and continues, “When Grandpa married me, I had to be sent back to my parents because I wasn’t ready for him.”
You furrow your thick brows.
“So, I’ll prepare you, and you’ll NEVER be sent back, okay?” She seizes your arm at NEVER, startling you, but you nod. This is Ambuya, after all, who, when you were seven, taught you to braid your curls into three-strand twists every night so that it was easy to comb for your first day of school.
“Good, now take off your pant.” Her voice drops to a whisper, so soft it’s almost not there, like the dawn sprouting between your legs.
Your eyes bulge. “M-m-y pant?” you stammer, your heartbeat rising furiously.
She sips again and nods. “We must start early.”
This is Ambuya, the one who taught me how to sew my skirts when I ripped them from rough play, you pacify yourself. The thought quiets your heart, silences your question, and you do as she says.
The flimsy cotton slides off, prickling your legs with goosebumps.
“Let’s see,” she says, bending closer.
She gulps the last of the beer and forces your legs open.
“I’ll bring more sweet water,” you blurt.
“Shh,” she repeats as she reaches between your legs to pull at two pieces of flesh you didn’t know were there.
You bite your bottom lip, taste metal, and force your lids closed.
She pulls again.
You swallow saliva. “I need to urinate!”
“Not, yet,” she says, reaching into the hollow between her sagging breasts to remove a tiny yellow bottle. She runs her fingers inside and rubs the sticky contents on the flaps of skin she just stretched. She’s so gentle, it’s as though she’s rubbing Vicks VapoRub on your chest when you have a cold, so you whimper a, “Thank you,” through your tears.
“Osalila,” she says, wiping your cheeks, “ndiye ukazi.” This is womanhood.
She hands you the container.
“Kudonsa,” she says, making a tugging motion, “is a rite of passage. Do it every night until they grow nice and long.”
You wince. “Kudonsa?”
“Every day! So that you will make a good wife for your husband one day.”
Her gummy smile returns as she explains, “Every good house has curtains. A good wife is like a house. Without those, you will be like a house without curtains. You understand?”
You don’t. But you let the word, “Ukazi,” crawl off your tongue and you nod vigorously. She’s never lied.
“Good. I’ll check next week.”
You stumble to the door, struggle to get it open, and step into the light of the sitting room, where you are shocked to note that, unlike you, nothing has changed. Daddy’s suede chair sits where you left it, between the Sony stereo and Mummy’s potted flowers. Daddy, nose in a newspaper, is perched in his seat.
Did he hear?
“Everything, okay?” he asks.
You stare at his large peanut-butter-coloured hands, at the screaming red newspaper headlines, at the open door where your dog, Tiger, is fighting flies from his ear; you dart your eyes anywhere but at his face, which will surely catch your lie. “Yes, Daddy,” you mumble.
In the kitchen, Mummy takes one look at you, rolls her eyes, and asks, “What is it?” Her arms are folded across her chest, and she’s tapping her foot.
“Nothing!” leaps out of your throat.
“You’re not in trouble again, are you?” she presses.
You mull over the word trouble, recalling your habit of biting the neighbourhood children whenever you lose a game.
Was it not Mummy who said to not speak ill of elders? Had she not told you over and over to listen to the wisdom of the old? “What elders see sitting down, a child cannot see standing up,” being her favourite proverb.
So, you caress the secret, though it sears through your chest and repeat, “no,” more to yourself than to Mummy.
“Good,” she clips, returning to her cooking.
At night, you lie awake in your bed and examine the contents of the container Ambuya gave you: mango leaves and charcoal, shredded and crushed into Vaseline. You lather the concoction on your still sore labia and pull, until they’re sweating like your brow, and you can’t take anymore.
Every night, as sure as moonlight, you do it. Kudonsa—tugging, wincing, crying, sweating.
“Until when?” you plead with Ambuya when she checks your progress, a week later, as promised.
“You can stop when they’re this long,” she says, showing you her pinkie.
You gape and wait for her to smile.
“Shut your mouth,” she snaps. “Curtains, remember?” She points at the murky ones hanging from her window.
Kudonsa until they dangle between your legs when you shower, sweat when you cover them with underwear, and itch against your widening thighs.
When, early the next year, your parents drive you to Kasisi Girls Secondary School to start Grade Eight, you learn that you’re part of a larger cult, joined together by kudonsa. Some peeking like a shy toddler, others, wagging like a dog’s tongue. But everyone united by the curtains that hang between your legs as you take cold showers together each morning.
After study hour, huddled up in your bunk beds, you giggle and share the reasons for your curtains as bedtime stories, where you learn your stretched labia are called, malepe.
“What are they for?” someone asks.
“I heard they help in delivery,” offers one, met by sniggers that bounce off the dormitory walls.
“How?” you ask.
“Stretching, to help the baby out,” she replies; this time the girls murmur back, churning her words.
“No,” interjects a shrill voice. “My sister said they help hold a man’s penis in place.”
“I heard it makes you watery…that you lose feeling…” a hesitant whisper.
“Ai, not that! They’re for a woman’s pleasure; you just have to know where to touch.”
“It’s true! The man plays with them until it’s nice for you.”
“Every good house has curtains, and a good wife is like that house.” This is you, closing the matter, met by nods and silence.
The word pleasure lingers with you though, so, that night, you test out the theory and try to pry it with your fingers. Finding nothing, you stop, leaving it for the school holidays, when you will surely ask Ambuya yourself, about the curtains’ other uses. But, she dies before you get there, buried together with these secrets. Leaving you wailing and rolling on the earth next to her grave.
Ten years have come and gone since then, and still, you wait. In this decade, your period started, at first unreliable but then settling on the 21st of every month, another piece of the womanhood puzzle.
You’ve straightened your kink, bleached your skin raw, fading your rich ebony everywhere but your knuckles, which remain stubbornly charred, like Ambuya’s. But at least you look like the women on the news do.
You’ve finished high school and trained to be a nurse at Lusaka Apex Medical University. There, you fell in love with Sam, who was doing his residency at the Levy Mwanawasa Hospital, at the same time that you did your practical nurses’ training. And though he persisted, tugging at your tight uniform whenever he caught you alone, you made him wait. Because, before Ambuya died, she also told you to save the curtains for a husband.
So, when Sam proposed with cubic zirconia and gold, you knew the answer.
Mummy found you a choice Alangizi, to give you traditional marriage counselling and fill in the last pieces of the puzzle on your body. When she checked the length of your curtains, the Alangizi grinned. “A woman in full,” she assured Mummy.
Now, the reveal is here!
Dr Sam Chanda weds Falesi Tembo, announce the golden letters. Saturday, January 7th, 2017, at The University of Zambia Chapel,10.00 am, followed by a reception at The Mulungushi International Conference Centre at 7.00 pm.
Pulsating with excitement, you arrive, an hour late, to a church brimming with people.
Mummy has planted herself at the front of the chapel, her suit matching the pastel peach and green of the walls, with a giant feather of a hat to mark the place in the crowd. Mother of the bride.
“Ready?” Daddy asks.
“Yes,” you say, meeting his eyes this time.
Clutching Daddy’s arm, you glide in, catching a glimpse of the crowd: family and friends you haven’t seen in years; Mummy’s church crew and their spinster daughters. All of them smiling and clicking their phones cameras.
You did it! And your prize is waiting at the end of the pew: the reason you stretched the skin between your legs to three inches; the reason you now wear a string of plastic beads around your waist, and don fingernail-length tattoos on your lower back, rubbed dry with herbs, that turned them from red to black. Tall and bespectacled in a three-piece navy suit.
You curl your lips upwards and go through the motions of the day.
Posing for photos outside the Holiday Inn. Lunching with your ten-man bridal party. Dancing into the reception and pausing for the fervent ululations of the guests, drunk from the bright lights and the cold beer.
Then finally comes the climax in a white hotel room, with red rose petals in the shape of a heart on the plush king-size bed.
Sam fumbles with the latch on your bra, traces your nipples with his tongue. His fingers falter between your legs as he pushes your panties off, the familiar graze of cotton over your bare legs giving you goosebumps—a breeze of pleasure.
You watch his face for excitement, recognition, as his hands graze over your labia, but his eyes are shut as he rips into you with a groan.
You moan and dig your nails into his back, but feel nothing between your legs except a throbbing pain each time he thrusts.
“Osalila. Ndiye ukazi,” the ghost of Ambuya whispers.
He shudders and grins. “Did you enjoy it, baby?”
He rolls over, sated.
He’s happy, you think. He won’t send me away. But your words don’t soothe you. Your fingers twitch, a memory of something lost, as you try to reach for a salve you haven’t seen in so long. But it isn’t there—just the pain between your legs.
Outside, the world continues, unchanged.
Tires rumble over Addis Ababa, crickets chirp in the bushes, security guards stalk the hotel grounds, chatting and laughing. You lie there in the darkness, listening to your husband snore, all the while wondering, “Is this womanhood?”
short fiction by Mubanga Kalimamukwento
For six weeks, when I was four, I stayed with my aunt and uncle while my mother was hospitalized. “Your mom is sick and has to stay in the hospital for a while”, is what my dad told me as he rang the doorbell and shoved a suitcase in my arms. I didn’t know that ‘hospitalized’ meant she was sent to a mental institution. There was a lot that happened then that I didn’t understand. The doctors weren’t too concerned, called me ‘being a little behind’. My mother called it overly sensitive and my father called it retarded. Today we would call it Autistic. I did understand that my father thought my mother’s illness was my fault. My aunt and uncle agreed, one of the few things they had in common with my father. “Do you think he’s like her?” I overheard my aunt whisper to my uncle a few days into my visit. I pretended not to hear and instead tried to scratch their cat behind the ears.
My aunt and uncle had a crazy cat, a mentally disturbed, wild-eyed Siamese feline. It would climb onto the roof, claw itself onto the chimney and jump off. It would limp back up and do it again. It would hurtle itself into my uncle’s beard as if its mortal enemy was hidden in there. They tried to keep it locked up in a bedroom, or in the dog’s crate but it always escaped. From then on, they tried to keep it out instead. Whenever the cat could, it would follow me and stare at me, examine me. It would circle me and tap my shoe with its paw as if to check if I was real.
One afternoon, when my aunt had shoved me into their tiny garden again to get rid of me for an afternoon, I discovered the cul-de-sac behind the house: a cobbled street endlessly circling a tiny patch of green supporting a sad old tree. The back of every house faced that identical suburban splendor: a high wooden fence, an awning with one car and a small red shed. After playing for ten minutes I looked around and recognized nothing.
I wailed, I screamed. Nothing. It felt like I walked around for hours in circles wondering if that fence there was my aunt and uncle’s, or maybe that one. I asked the tree, but it drooped and shook its leaves. I asked the birds but they didn’t care. I heard a screech, something that sounded like bragh or welgh. It came from somewhere above. Carefully I backed up, my back against the tree, not noticing I had lost control of my bladder. The sound came from the top of a roof. A Siamese cat sat at the very top, on the chimney; erect, staring at me, screeching its lungs out.
flash fiction by Martin van Velsen
I find my hair
twisted around your fingers
after you pulled it out.
There’s a bruise on my breast
from your knocking for milk.
You open your mouth and rush for my chin
with urgency, our jaws knocking together.
Where the doctor sliced me open
still aches sometimes, especially when I’m tired.
And I look at you – happy, sad, tired –
the same emotions on faces in your fabric book
ready for you to understand
Almost Seven Months
poetry by Chloe Miller
On Beginnings and Ends
creative non-fiction by Shannon Tsonis
I do not interrupt the game my husband is playing on his phone to tell him that Mom just disappeared around the corner of the hospital corridor, partially because I want the staff to keep feeding my IV with pain medication, but mostly because she has been dead for twenty six years.
Mom’s thick inky hair is cropped short, careful not to overpower her unusually tiny build, maybe 4”11’ with the right shoes on. But it’s the way she walks that catches my attention. I inherited this walk from her. It’s light and quick, we’ve got somewhere to go, something to do, no time to walk completely heel to toe, heel to toe. No, we lean forward just a tad into our steps, staying mostly on the balls of our feet. She bounced right past the open door of my delivery room.
I am lying groggy-eyed and greasy-haired in a bed at Mercy hospital in the heart of Baltimore City with a full moon under the gauzy white sheet. I’m either too high, or in too much pain to try and get up to go after her. Or scared. I could be that too. It isn’t lost on me that it’s Mischief Night, Halloween Eve, the day the hospital-gown-thin separation between the land of the living and the land of the dead lifts, allowing spirits to mingle with the breathing.
I press my fingertips hard against my closed eyes until I see dark wavy patterns beneath my eyelids. I’m trying to absorb the shock of the incoming contraction and Mom’s ghost. But I need her to come back.
“What time is it?” I groan.
Without looking up from his phone, he replies, “You’ve still got a few hours before they think you will be ready to push, it’s only 3:20.”
Neither of us will be getting any sleep tonight. I open my eyes as wide as I can and scan the room. Our two duffel bags sit next to the full size sofa where Tony is stretched out with a blanket and pillow from home. It’s cozier than I expected, painted in warm hues. A heart rate monitor spits out jagged drawn lines that I can’t interpret. I don’t see Mom, but I know she will be here. It’s the birth of her granddaughter; of course she will show up.
I only saw her for a second or two, not like the time in middle school where I saw her every day at lunch for months, convinced she was our janitor in the school cafeteria, pushing a broom along the perimeter, sweeping up everyone else’s mess. It was nearly the end of sixth grade when I realized it wasn’t her, having gone up and stared with great caution into her face without saying a word.
This is not like that time. Back then, it was easier to believe she had left for a better life and would come back from time to time to check in on me, even if only from afar. From across a crowded smelly lunchroom far. I had swept the memory of her funeral, her lying in the casket in the new pale green sweater, to some distant crevice that wasn’t easily accessible. Since then, I have been following the age-old advice for years now that therapists have braided in conversation – You can’t live in the past.
Tony finally looks up from his phone as the night nurse enters. He watches her scan my wristband before preparing more Demerol.
“Please state your name and date of birth.”
It takes me a few seconds to remember my last name is different now, and then a second longer because my mouth is dryer than the hospital toast I tried to stomach before I was admitted.
“Shannon Tsonis, May 11, 1984.”
Tsonis. I rolled it around my mouth before the wedding. Tasting it, pairing it with my first name like the jams and cheeses on a charcuterie board. It’s always pronounced wrong, but it kind of sounds like so nice. And so nice it is not to be a Schmansky anymore. Too much bad luck contained in one name.
The medicine makes everything warm and tingly again and I relax. With my eyes squinted, I examine the room for any sign of Mom one last time, remembering to check the window sills and corners of the room for the shimmer of pennies. They’ve been in each of my new apartments, right where she knew I’d find them; an indication worth more than one cent that she hasn’t left.
Before I nod off, my mind wanders to the story I was told about my Uncle, lying in a different hospital dying of cancer. He tells his wife that her sister is there with them, sitting quietly in the chair in the corner of the hospital room. And while it seems hard to believe Mom would wait for anyone, there she is, waiting for him to ready himself for the transition into another world. I imagine tears streaking down my aunt’s cheeks and her simply nodding, wanting him to tell her more. Has the ghost of her sister confided to him, right before he passes, the name of her killer? There were multiple decades of mutual understanding and emotional bonding in their marriage, a shared experience of trauma in the moments and years after.
This is not like that time either.
When I wake again, the doctor is getting into position at the foot of my bed, crouched down onto a backless chair, facemask secure. The nurses are preparing me to push, placing my socked feet in metal stirrups. I fight against the biology of my being, it wants nothing more than to bring new life; just wait a little while longer, she will be here, I promise. There is a feeling of both betrayed and betrayal in doing this without her.
But she doesn’t show.
Unexpected complications had me wheeled into another surgery room for immediate surgery and a second epidural, moments after the delivery. She will be waiting for me here, I think. This has become more than me wanting Mom to see the birth of her granddaughter, this is me needing her. I’m so sure she will be here, that I keep my eyes open through the surgery and the stitching. I listen.
Tony later places the tiniest swaddled baby girl into my lap. It was over an hour after she was delivered until I was able to see her, hold her, inspect her.
“Is this the same baby you saw come out of me?” I ask him, only half joking but the whole of my face would say otherwise.
“Of course!” he says, smiling. “I’m sure of it.” He holds his phone in front of my face, swiping through the pictures. There are pictures of him holding her, one of him watching over her in the hospital bassinet as they cleaned her up. Proud. I can see he is just as protective of her as he is of me. The final one is the last sonogram picture, her black and white face wedged up against something inside of me, but undeniably, it is her. The baby sleeping innocently in my lap is identical to the sonogram picture. I smile up to him, and lean in for a kiss, getting close enough to study his face to see how sure he is.
Looking down at her in my arms, I whisper her name, Natalie Kai. I make promises to her. Some I will inevitably break, but most I will keep. She squirms right out of the purple crochet hat the staff has given her, and I can’t help thinking of all the crochet baby clothes Mom would have made for her already, she was good at crocheting. She should be here.
I do not know what I will tell Natalie when she is old enough to ask the difficult questions, but I know someday they will come. But before then, before she knows to ask those questions, I will start to pick at my lips when her teachers ask for family pictures to teach family names. Should she know who her grandmother was? I mean, who she is. is. is. Do I add a picture of her grandmother to the pile of pictures I stuff into a sandwich bag? Not on top of course, or at the bottom, but shuffled somewhere in the middle, between cousins? I will put it in the bag and pull it back out twice on the drive to her school, ultimately leaving it in my purse.
On day six of our hospital stay, the nurse walks in with our discharge papers. The waiting has come to an end. I’m in the middle of a feeding and find myself trying to memorize all of my daughter’s features. It wasn’t like I was expecting to look down and see my mother there, incarnate in my daughters’ body; maybe I was, a little. But I felt without a doubt there would be some dominant trait that would push through, a head of thick black hair, maybe high cheeks. I trace my finger along the bridge of her nose and she opens her eyes. She looks right at me through a silvery shade of just born baby blue. But I can already see she has her father’s eyes. They are beautiful and they will not change and they are not Mom’s. There is not even the slightest resemblance. My daughter will not inherit a single thing from her grandmother except perhaps a story. I never see Mom again during our stay. This is exactly like all the times I’ve reminded myself that she is gone.
Patricia Bidar is a lifelong Californian with family roots in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro Online, ellipsis…literature and art, Wigleaf, The Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, Barren Literary Magazine, Blue Five Notebook, Train Literary Magazine, and Soft Cartel.
Mason Binkley lives with his wife and identical twin boys in Tampa, Florida, and works as an attorney. His flash fiction collection, “Familial Disturbances”, is forthcoming from Ellipsis Zine. His writing has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, Barely South Review, Jellyfish Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. You can find him online:
Mubanga won the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award for her novel, “The Mourning Bird.” Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Eunoia Review, The Best of Africa, Dreamers Creative Writing, The Airgonaut, The Mark Literary, Two Sisters Writing and Publishing and The Advocates for Human Rights. She’s a 2018/2019 Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow and a Young African Leadership Initiative Fellow. The Mourning Bird will be available in stores on June 1st 2019. @Mason_Binkley.
Chloe Yelena Miller
Chloe Yelena Miller lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their child. Her poetry chapbook “Unrest” was published by Finishing Line Press. Chloe teaches writing at the University of Maryland University College and Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., as well as privately. Follow her: chloeyelenamiller.com & @ChloeYMiller
Brian Rosten is a middle school science teacher in Champaign, IL. This is his first publication. He lives in Urbana with his wife, and are both awaiting twins. This is his first publication.
Lisa Shirley’s poetry has been published in Sidewalks and Mascara Literary Review. She has an MLS from the University of Arizona and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She has studied with esteemed writers like Vijay Seshadri, Billy Collins, Tom Lux, and Jack Driscoll. To pay for her poetry habit, Lisa works as a librarian.
Edward Michael Supranowicz
Edward Michael Supranowicz has a grad background in painting and printmaking. He is also a published poet. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia.
Shannon Tsonis resides in York Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter, and is currently working on her first memoir. She has been published in Little Patuxent Review, Memoir Magazine, and Buddy: A lit zine. She can be reached on social media, as well as shannontsonis.com
Martin van Velsen
Martin is a scientist, sculptor, researcher, code monkey, and a writer. His mad science adventures include: neurosurgery simulations, language technologies, artificial intelligence, robots and virtual humans.
Short Fiction Editors
Laura Huey Chamberlain
Creative Non-Fiction Editor
Kerri Farrell Foley
Flash Fiction Editor
Preston Taylor Stone
Crack the Spine Staff
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