The Wild Birds
By Karen Schauber
Cormorants swoop and dive-bomb into the salty water, their trajectory stealthy and deep. The ravenous dog looks on, the birds out of reach. He paces back and forth, riveted along the water’s edge. Frothy waves tickle his paws, tracing wet impressions in the sand. He is prepared to wait. His stomach growls and bends.
The dog has been on the hunt for five days, lost far from home, disoriented since the electrical storm. He is managing quite well for a purebred: cozy cave, blankie, and binky, out of sight, out of mind. Foraging comes surprisingly easy for him, as if it were a daily hustle. He’s made friends too; first ever beyond the local fenced-in dog park. His master would be impressed, no, worried, both. He does not know that his human family has been busy plastering the neighbourhood with posters, leaving bowls of premium kibble and fresh water out on the veranda. The porch-light left on 24/7, beckoning him home. He is too far away to see the beacon.
He does not look back. He does not know where that lies. Adaptation happens fast. He’s caught and devoured his first field mouse his second day out, not altogether bad. Crab shells dropped by seagulls onto driftwood, shale, and barnacled rock, crack open, offering remnants if he is quick; the gooey innards delectable. The dog is now a scavenger. His lacerated gums and tongue are sliced on the sharp edges of shells he consumed in haste; little droplets of blood stain the hairs around his muzzle. Yesterday he devoured the shells, masticating claw and carapace in one fell swoop. Today he knows better. He eats slower. He has already corrected his mistakes; he is a quick study.
The cormorants circle around. They strategize en masse, targeting a school of Pacific jack mackerel. The dog yelps knowing they will score big. He wants in, and is not afraid to ask. The squadron descends in perfect alignment, a surgical strike. The display is impressive. He is eager to follow suit. He ventures out past the tide-pools, but is immediately turned back. The undertow is strong. He faintly remembers being told once before to ‘be careful.’ He takes heed. The tide-pools are teeming with life. He rummages. There is a lot to collect. Paws do the dirty work giving his inflamed lips and ragged tongue a reprieve.
There is a faint cry in the distance; the winds muffle anything more distinct. He hears it again, a little closer now. He turns his head up in the direction of the commotion, but is not sure if he should scamper away farther down the beach. Cautious, he thinks he recognizes a figure trudging through the sand, coming closer, arms flailing. He is sure now, the spirited gait, long auburn hair flapping in the wind. He’s heard that call before—“Hunter.”
The dog will have a warm bath, fluffy blankets, and special treats tonight. Wild with hunger, the cormorants look on with indifference.
SOUL OF A BUSKER
by Hákon Gunnarsson
When we came out of the restaurant I was sure she wanted to break up with me, and that she was just trying to find the right words to do it. Of course I could have been wrong, but she had been so quiet and distant all through dinner. That wasn’t like her at all. I tried desperately to find something that might change her mind without saying “I love you.” Saying that, and then being dumped is no fun, believe me.
We turned the corner, and walked into the side street. There I saw the busker. He was sitting on a red plastic folding chair outside a bookstore, singing and playing the guitar. You know, to tell you the truth, he didn’t look that interesting, long grubby hair, with a week-old beard, and his clothes may not have been dirty, but they weren’t clean either. By the looks of it, he was a street performer that was living on the street. But he could play, that much was certain.
“Oh, I know that song,” I said. “I used to play it with my band.”
“Really? You were in a band?” she asked.
“Yeah, we went through all that blues stuff. We thought we were going places. We started to look for an agent and all.”
The man didn’t look at anyone around him. There was a guitar case in front of him with some money in it, but I think one could have reached down and taken it all without the man noticing. It seemed as if he was in a world of his own. His raspy voice made me think of the blues master I had once been into.
“And did you go places?”
“No, I’m afraid we never did.” I looked at her, smiling a little. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, it was such a long time ago, but for four years it was my entire life. I slept with my guitar.”
“That sounds positively dirty.” She smiled.
“Ha ha, very funny. Didn’t mean it like that. I just … ”
“I know what you meant. So were you any good?”
“We thought we were, but no, not really. I mean, we weren’t bad, but nothing like this guy here. He’s got some serious talent, and has probably been playing forever. After four years we drifted apart, and I gave up on music, but at a time that was all I really wanted. To play, and be good at it.”
The busker looked ten years older than me. Grey. That was the best word to describe him. His dark hair and beard had been invaded by grey hairs. And it wasn’t just that. His entire being seemed a little grey, like he belonged in a museum and someone had forgotten to dust him for the past months. The only thing that wasn’t grey about him was his music. That had colour.
“So you liked playing?”
“Yeah, it was fun. I felt connected to something higher.”
“It is always a shame when people give up on things they have a passion for.”
“But I wasn’t that good, and I’m afraid I was never going to become good.”
“Doesn’t matter. If you like something, you should stick with it, even though you may not end up doing it full-time.”
He had such an expressionistic voice, but he wasn’t singing, or playing at full blast. He played just loud enough to be noticed, but not so loud that it filled the street. It really was the only thing that suggested that he knew where he was. He wasn’t in a bar, or a concert hall, but in a street where maybe not everyone was interested in the blues.
“So are you saying that I should get me a guitar, and start playing?”
“If you really like playing music, then yes.”
I dug into my pocket to find some money to add to the guitar case, found a bill, and let it drop into place. I watched it glide down to land, then looked up at the man, and was shocked to see that his body had started to crack up. He was still singing, but one could see how lines had started forming on the body. I took a step backwards. The lines became wider. He was turning to dust. Bit by bit the wind started to blow him away. When the mouth was gone, the singing stopped, but his hands kept playing the guitar until the rest of him blew away. Then the guitar fell to the ground, clanging. I looked up at her. She was as shocked as I was. I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed what had happened.
“Just when you were telling me to pick up the guitar again, this happens. Do you think …” I took one step towards the guitar.
“No, I think you should let this one alone, and buy another one. A guitar that is less haunted.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the guitar. I nodded, but couldn’t help thinking that this was maybe one of those “make a deal with the devil” moments I might regret later on, but I picked it up anyway. That was years ago. I’ve played some real music since then, but as I sit here on this red plastic chair I know all things come to an end. I’ve had my moment, and it’s time to pass the talent along, and become one with the streets.
by David Evan Krebs
I spot him as he sways, playing what I strongly suspect is his own composition, eyes closed and mouth open in a mild ecstatic agony, enthralled by the slightly unusual chords he periodically inserts—unusual enough that I imagine he thinks about, and maybe even studies, jazz. But he’s not playing jazz now. He’s coaxing an abstract autobiography out through a plain brown acoustic-electric guitar and tiny amp onto the streets of this fairytale village of Granville Island, a waterfront hub of tasteful consumerism.
His long sandy brown hair hangs down straight despite his impassioned leaning. The hair is like a bird’s head, still and oriented on a wind-disturbed perch. His dark trench coat, scruff, and the booted foot he sometimes stomps in his fervor make me imagine the contours of his music as harder than they actually are.
I’m mildly embarrassed for him, or maybe it’s pity, but I’m not sure it’s justified—he’s doing fine, performing well. His chords are melodious and sensible. Their unexpectedness isn’t overstated. I even slow down, cross the street to be nearer. Who am I to judge his spell if it’s working even a little on me?
I drift past him, and his very personal take on melody fades. I’m chuckling to myself—at him, I think, but I could be wrong.
The everything-you-could-want of the Island sprawls in every direction, approaching me inevitably as I walk away. Fresh-smoked fish, boutique sake bar, clothes you’d be embarrassed to wear but excited to buy, twenty toy stores under one roof. Giant geodes and First Nations pseudo-artifacts or a food-court-slash-farmers’-market in a warehouse-sized interior.
The intensity of it all can cloy, and people gravitate toward the water, clotting its edges and clutching their justifications for being there: cameras, meals, and lovers are most common. I don’t have any of those, but I end up there anyway, staring at the sky and bridge and high-rises past bobbing dirty white boat masts.
And then I spot the other one, the dueling counterpart to the young man a few odd-angled blocks behind me. I get closer to listen. His amp is warm-sounding, a vintage tube model or a good imitation of one. He’s at least fifteen years older than the other guitarist, loose grey curls escaping from under the edges of his black porkpie-ish hat. He reminds me vaguely of Bob Dylan from what I can see behind his steel-rimmed sunglasses.
He has a microphone, is singing in French, frets standard jazz voicings with cool precision. It’s bossa nova, and he coos just above a whisper, the mic so close he’s punctuating the music with intimate puffs of air. The rumples of his dark suit suggest he’s lived, has known hard times. His guitar, like his amp, is-or-wants-to-be from a bygone era: a hollow-body swell of rich, lacquered wood he enfolds like a lover. They’re in bed together in public.
This man intimidates me. I don’t move closer. He’s approximating a dignity the passionate youth didn’t know to aim for. But his clinical movements, lovingly distressed equipment, and venerable compositions are all too careful, his effect too precise. He knows what he’s doing, knows how he’s doing it, knows people will compulsively respect the picture he’s painting. He became this way so people wouldn’t chuckle at him like I did at his rival. He’s succeeded—I’m not chuckling. But I’m not moving closer, either. I’m frozen at the perimeter of his spell, forgetting the water and watching him on the phantom pedestal he’s built for himself.
I’m afraid the bossa-Bob Dylan muttering vintage sex to milling tourists has won this duel, that his nemesis deeper on the Island doesn’t know he’s been struck down, pistolero-ed at high noon in the horse manure dust of Main Street. He doesn’t know I’m the weeping coquette mourning over his body, lamenting the end of his pure naive flame, snuffed out in the flush of youth by the rumple-suited man gone cold and efficient with age. I drip damsel’s tears on the good-looking corpse, gather my skirts and flee the unbearable scene.
The man still makes love to his guitar, and I don’t know how he can be with her after what he’s done. I wipe away invisible tears and veer toward the quiet shushing of the sea.
By Annie Dawid
At 4 a.m., she finds herself under the Broadway Bridge. Riversmell, brine, the damp of cardboard flattened, inhabited and soaked with rain. Willamette glittering in streetlights, bridgelights, the lenses of her foggy glasses. She wipes them on her silk scarf, her belly bellowing, charged with hunger. “This extasie doth unperplex,” she says aloud, relishing Donne in the middle of the night/morning, alive on her tongue, “and tell us what we love.”
Her fingertips wake from sleep beneath her thighs on the cold cement, her once elegant piano-playing fingers, 63 years old, curling with arthritis, seeking the keys. Without music, she will need a whole new life. In lieu of life, she has the Metaphysical Poets, Donne and Traherne tucked deep in her bag, the words of their poems committed to memory like the most important sonatas of her favorite period, the Baroque. Now her fingers play only pavement, the baby grand in her studio become an altar, candles lit to Mnemosyne. So precipitous has been her fall, so slow her rise: a lifetime of study, deprivation and concentration. Why, she’d never had another life outside music, never loved a man nor woman, had a child, kissed a stranger’s lips.
A lone skiff races the crested waves, its shrill motor dissonant against the calm, then the water against the pilings a round of applause, allegretto. Awake for nearly two days, Elaine has walked the city, observing buildings, shops, a multitude of worlds she didn’t know existed, though they had, evidently, for years, even decades, while she, in the recesses of her musical hermitage, noticed nothing. Always she’d thought her father’s inheritance a boon, which, if hoarded carefully, would allow her a life of music, a frugal, luxuryless life perhaps, but one devoted to beauty.
On Tuesday, the doctor, admitting her arthritis would worsen without mercy, suggested she try teaching children or the elderly. Elaine swallows hard and sniffs the air; she must re-assess. Her own smell is ripe, she knows, not unlike the street people she has come to see herself in as she haunts their shadows—sweat and urine the perfume of the showerless. Unlike them, she has money in her pockets, has nourished herself with tea and cake at cafés, dozed in hotel lobbies. Her ancient Burberry’s of London raincoat admits her still to the realm of the civilized.
A girl appears, wet hair draping a shaking body, in her hand a beer bottle, on her feet, nothing. She is keening as if for the newly dead. She does not see Elaine and crouches by the asphalt’s edge, silhouetted before the footbridge, hugging herself and rocking, pausing only to sip from her bottle.
Never having comforted a child or a stranger, Elaine retreats, as if to protect herself from the girl, whose alcoholic scent suffuses the air in the intermittent rain. In the past, Elaine would rush by the homeless on the sidewalks, briefly regard their upturned hands, their pathetic signs pleading for help. Never has she given. Deep in her pockets she carries another pair of socks, another pair of gloves. Why had she placed them there, if not for this moment? “For I am every dead thing,” Elaine whispers, “in whom love wrought new alchemy.”
Steeling herself—she anticipates being laughed at, scorned, or even hit—she takes a long slow breath, the kind of breath she used to take before beginning anything by Vivaldi, and walks closer to the girl, clearing her throat deliberately so as to be heard and noted. But the girl—not so young, Elaine sees now, as her hair is streaked silver, the veins on her hands swollen in raw relief—notes nothing. Elaine kneels down beside her, afraid to touch. Taking the socks from one pocket, the gloves from the other, Elaine is ready to deposit them and flee when the woman suddenly rises and hurls her bottle high up into the bridge’s underbelly, shouting something unintelligible. It does not fall back upon them. Only then does she see Elaine huddled there, quaking.
Perhaps I am to die, Elaine thinks, looking up at the woman who, though not tall, towers over her, a toxic beery smell oozing from clothes and skin. “Whoever comes to shroud me … ” But she can’t remember the rest. Elaine crumbles onto the pavement, fear taking her down. The woman reaches for the socks in Elaine’s left hand, separating with great difficulty the gnarled fingers from their possession. Lurching, she falls beside Elaine and rolls into her, nestles in her lap, sobbing.
“Let me help you,” Elaine says, breathing through her mouth, praying for herself, this woman, the passage of time. She wants to fit the socks to the stranger’s feet, but it is impossible. The younger woman has fallen asleep and begun to snore. Succumbing to gravity, Elaine leans back and waits, her legs uncomfortably twisted by their burden.
It is enough now, Elaine tells herself, exhausted. How her father would look down upon this act, her flight from reality’s prognosis into self-pity. Without closing her eyes, Elaine remembers herself a child beside her father’s enormity, there on the piano bench, his huge fingers spanning what seemed a thousand keys while hers could reach so few. In the big house on Montgomery Street, without siblings, without a mother, she had known paradise: her father teaching Elaine to play.
Stroking the woman’s hair, she allows herself to breathe its odors, discerning in its depths citron, cinnamon. Somewhere, once, a father or mother had smoothed this hair; Elaine needs to believe this is true. Humming, she remembers her father, those nights she fell asleep in the music room, the way he sang her into dreams. On the stranger’s pale arm, Elaine fingers Brahms’ Lullaby with her right hand—the other supports the woman’s head—playing past pity and loathing till light towers east above the river. “The Dust and the Stones of the Street were as precious as Gold,” she remembers from Thomas Traherne. Still true, she thinks.
A Beginning of Sorts
By Sean Murphy
A young couple stopped along the surprisingly uncrowded beach. They looked up at the fireworks, which illuminated the summer sky with artificial rainbows and colored clouds. They resumed walking, slowly, allowing the evening tide to splash against their legs.
“This is so romantic,” she said. “It’s like we have the whole beach to ourselves.”
He continued looking at the sky as if he hadn’t heard her.
“Hey … what’s wrong?”
“You’ve been awfully quiet tonight.”
“It’s okay, sweetie. But we drove all the way down here … I just hope you’re enjoying yourself.”
Overhead a flashing red mushroom exploded with a report that lit up the entire island with a flash of brilliant light.
“Oh,” she said, covering her ears. “I hate the loud ones!”
He smiled to himself and kicked at the water. Mistaking this for playfulness, she stepped behind him and sent a spray of water across his back.
“For Christ’s sake, what’s the matter with you?”
She cringed at the scarcely concealed animosity in his voice.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like that,” she said, softly.
He saw the tears forming in her eyes and winced. She walked up to him and took his hand. He shook it loose and moved on rapidly, ahead of her.
Crying, and now uninterested in the fireworks, she watched him walk up the beach.
A few minutes later she found him sitting on the sand, staring at the ocean. She sat down beside him and stared, but he wouldn’t look back at her. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know, I guess so.”
“Well, what is it?”
The kindness in her voice filled him with self-loathing.
“This is really hard for me,” he said, and she knew. Suddenly his recent bursts of anger and silence made sense to her, and she braced herself.
“I need some space,” he started. He began to say more, but stopped, realizing this was enough. He looked out at the water and waited for her reaction.
“So what does this mean? Is it … are we over?”
“Yes,” he replied and was strangely surprised to hear himself say it.
She got up quickly and walked away.
He heard her weeping as she disappeared into the darkness. He listened to the surf and appreciated its peaceful consistency. He was momentarily overwhelmed by a discordant surge of trepidation and excitement. He watched the waves until it passed. He decided he’d sleep on the beach and try to catch the sunrise.
His whole life lay ahead of him.
But a Dream
By Claire Morgan-Heredia
By the time I’m out of the shower or done brushing my teeth or two bites into a piece of toast, I’ve forgotten my dreams and moved on to reality.
Other times, my dreams follow me all day and I wonder how the hell I’m going to exorcise the images from my mind. I’m happily married, to my best friend, living the life my mother wanted for me, fought for me to have, begged me to keep. Never has she been prouder of me than when I bound my life to someone else’s.
And yet, in my dreams I leave my husband for someone else. I leave him for my high school boyfriend, the person I loved the most (if memory serves me correctly, if my teenage emotions are to be trusted) because I didn’t know how to ration my feelings, to pace myself and dole out affections in moderation in case of the unexpected. And in my dreams he’s returned to me. “No one else will have me like you do,” he says to me, quoting our favorite Jimmy Eat World song, voice hushed, head lowered in reverence to the sanctity of our bond. In the ten years since we parted, he’s had others, none of whom could match the electricity that coursed between our teenage bodies.
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said the night he told me he loved me for the first time.
“You sure you want to do this?” he said before we made love for the first time.
“I’m afraid I’m going to cheat on you,” he said one night, drunk and maybe high, mere weeks before moving away for college.
“Listen, you’re my ex-girlfriend. I don’t think we should see each other,” he said to me after I’d called him four, five, six times, drunk and trying to act casual, like maybe we could get coffee on some random afternoon.
“I know it was you,” he said to me after we’d seen each other at a party and I’d left early, drunk and angry, kicking the side of his car and denting the door.
All of that is in the past, though.
He’s next to me now and I’m back in my 16-year-old head, giggling nervously and aware (too aware) of my hair (long, back then) and my body (a foreign thing to me in those days) and my skin and my fingertips and my lips on fire with feeling, like nerve endings exposed to a surfeit of stimuli. When everything you’re feeling is for the first time, it’s almost too much to bear. I clench my fists, white-knuckled and holding on (to what?) and feeling like I have everything to lose.
In my dreams, I feel a yearning for my high school boyfriend that I haven’t felt for anyone since. He excites and thrills me. I am a girlish mess in his presence. When has my husband ever done that to me? Not a rhetorical question—I’m truly thinking about the answer.
And in my dreams, I know I am hurting my husband in my decision to leave him for someone from my past. But I prioritize my happiness above his (as I should) and I accept his tears and I tell him I’m sorry (because I am). Still, above all, I am supremely glad for the love I’ve rediscovered. My husband’s grief is overshadowed by the pink and shiny skin of my new (new?) love. I am filled with an ardor for my high school boyfriend that feels nostalgic and achingly true and painfully fresh, like ripping off a Band-Aid and finding the wound completely healed.
We (my high school boyfriend and I) are sorry we ever let this (our love, our relationship) end, that we ever allowed it (our unshakeable bond) to be shaken. But the past is the past and we must forgive ourselves.
And when I wake up, the intensity of these emotions holds me for a while, gives me pause, makes me question myself and my reality and the feelings I’ve claimed to have. I silently mourn the loss of love that comes with waking up. But images fade and new dreams will replace old ones, maybe even tonight. And for now, my husband is beside me, his breath steady with sleep, his eyelids fluttering, his mind perhaps engaged in dreams of its own.
By Hannah Stevens
A woman followed him down the station steps to the side of the tracks. She liked his hat, a grey felt fedora, and she wanted to touch it. He was drinking hot chocolate in a mug he’d brought from home. The drink smelled sweet and she wanted one but there wasn’t enough time before the train came.
She saw his beige Mac billow out at both sides as he stepped down to the tracks. His hands were in his pockets and she wondered where his mug was. Then he just disappeared with the rush of the train. She could see the faces of the station crowd reflected in its black glass as it slowed to a stop. Then she realised her hands were shaking.
‘Man under. Man under!’ Someone began to run along the platform towards the front of the train. Then other people started to move, to put their hands over their mouths, to catch the eyes of people next to them, people they’d ignored before.
She wondered how it would’ve felt to step out knowing the impact was coming, knowing that you would be smeared along tracks like wet leaves. The impact of the train would’ve killed him quickly, maybe instantly. His organs would’ve burst like over-inflated balloons before the train got anywhere close to stopping.
It was then she turned and noticed his cup on the platform, placed neatly beneath a board that advertised a soon-to-be-best-selling book. She picked it up and held it in the circle of her hands. It was still warm.
People were shouting and their voices drifted up into the blue shell of sky above them. The driver was off the train now, wrapped in a blanket that kept falling from his shoulders as he shivered. He couldn’t keep his arms still and although his mouth moved there was no sound, as if every time he thought of a word it burst like a bubble on his tongue.
‘It’s your first one, isn’t it?’ said a man in station uniform. He stood next to the train driver and kept placing the blanket back onto his shoulders. There was a bird tattooed in shaky blue across the driver’s hand: a swallow suspended in flight.
The woman who followed the man down to the platform and liked his felt fedora went home. She didn’t wait for the next train which was diverted to another platform and she didn’t go to work that day. Instead she walked slowly home with his cup in her right hand. She went back to bed and she slept for the rest of the day, dreaming of falling and of stairs that never ended.
New Day Starting
Its’s been 81 days and 147 nights that I’ve been living in heaven. In heaven, the nights are spread out through the days. Sometimes, there will be 3 nights in one day, and others there are 21 nights in one day. It all depends on when the sky feels tired. We don’t know when the days end, only when they begin. When a new day begins, it is broadcast on News Channel 5. A single still frame with a blinding red light flashes and stays up for about six seconds for every new day. It says, “New Day Starting.” During those six seconds, a man’s voice is played to repeat saying, “What a shame.” It is heard four full times, and on the fifth repeat, it cuts out before the word shame is heard.
Upon moving to heaven, I was placed into an apartment with one room that was completely bare except for a small television that I found in the corner. This room functions as my living room, bedroom, kitchen, driveway, grocery store, and tennis court. I am fond of the tennis court in my apartment, but I would have preferred a baseball diamond. I don’t really play tennis, so it is rather a place where I go to feel alone and reflect rather than exercise. As of lately, I have been growing a garden in the middle of the court, and it’s made everything all the lovelier. The squash has been growing up to be beautiful. Aside from all of this, I don’t really have the option of playing tennis anyways because I don’t know how. I put up a couple of online listings desperately looking for a coach, and eventually, I did find one. The first time he came over, he said that he was very concerned about me. I’m not sure why he was, but one look at me, and he left. It was the quickest that someone had ever given up on me. The second time he came over, it was unannounced. I found him knocking at the door wearing a business suit. He’d had his mouth stitched shut both times we met, and spoke with his eyes. He would roll them back in his head until paper fed out in tears, much like a receipt. It’d come printed out in motor oil with text that, when read, his voice could be heard speaking to me inside my head. It was a familiar voice, I’m not really sure where I’ve heard it before. When he came over that time, his ink cartridge was getting low, so the voice in my head was very quiet.
You are a shame.
He cried this letter out of his eyes, which I pinned on the north wall of my bedroom. On the top right, I found that it had been stamped with the words “You Are Absolutely Hopeless.” I am to believe it was meant to belittle me somehow. This man wore a business suit, and never has anyone in a business suit been wrong about anything. The rejection hurt my feelings a great deal and I was very depressed until I looked in the mirror and made a friend. I’m not really sure who that person is, but I always know where to find them and they’ll always listen.
When I moved into my one-bedroom apartment, the television that I found in the corner was already on and tuned to News Channel 5, but it wasn’t plugged into the wall. Come to find, it wasn’t even run through electricity. There wasn’t a power switch or a way to turn the device off, and no way to change the station. The television was found to be so heavy that it could not be physically moved at all. It was even indestructible. For instance, there was a time when I had a fight happen in the kitchen between the air and myself. I was mad at the air because I found out that it wasn’t paying rent. I agreed to let it stay under the promise that it’d help with the apartment bills. I kicked the air and I punched the air until it was bleeding on the ground, but it kept getting up and fighting back. The spectacle attracted hundreds of citizens who came to watch the violence unfold. They flooded into my house and set up bleachers. Some time in, one man in the crowd wanted to take part. He fired a gun into the air, killing it. The bullet went right through, going on to hit the television’s monitor, which was innocently sitting behind. The bullet bounced off and combusted, left spread around in smithereens of dust. A grave was set up for the bullet and a funeral took place the next day. The ash was collected and dusted over the sky from a cloud, bringing with it a beautiful meteor shower.
I’ve decided to change something about myself. Before I can change anything, I hear the routine “what a shame” playing from the corner of my one-bedroom apartment, signaling that a new day is starting. It’s my 82nd day in heaven. I turn around. The television is off. I turn back around and the man with the stitched mouth is in front of me. He’s found a way to speak, and his voice is the same voice I hear play on Channel 5. He walks over and turns the television on, tuning into Channel 6. “You Are Absolutely Hopeless” plays from the television in his voice. I look into the mirror at a hopeless man in a business suit. The mirror flashes out into a bright red light. “New Day Starting.”
By Paul Luikart
I try to make amends to Breathless, a stripper I know whose real name is Anna. I used to go to her club. We got drunk all the time and fooled around a lot. I told her once I’d marry her. Anyway, she meets me at Julio’s, a new little spot where I’ve been spending my time. It has coffee and all variants of coffee, plus brunch-y food like fried eggs with sprouts on top. Breathless glances around and says, “Wow, Mr. Fancy.”
“It’s because I can’t be in the club anymore,” I say. “Can I read this to you?”
“What is it?” she says.
“My little mea culpa. Remember? I’m trying to tell you I’m sorry.”
“I wrote it all down. You can keep it if you want. After I read it to you.”
So I start reading. I make it through, “I regret that I manipulated your feelings and—” before Breathless laughs and stands up, mouths, “Fuck off,” and walks out. Her thick heels pound the wooden floor and she shoves the door out of her way. I watch for a couple minutes, waiting for her to come back. But she’s never coming back. Okay.
I take out my phone to call my sponsor but check my email instead. There is, of course, nothing new. In moments of clarity, such as they are, I understand that what I really want is a note from the people of Earth. “Hello and welcome back. You can still count yourself among our billions.”
At the Gates of Heaven
By Vivek Santhosh
From next year, only five-star hotels would be allowed to have full bars. Every other establishment—all the way down to the no-star, non-A/C dive bar that my father frequented, Apsara—would not have their liquor licenses renewed. That night he whipped my mother with a nylon clothesline. That was August.
My mother cleaned five houses on weekdays and eight on weekends. She told me something was brewing in big vats in the liquor baron Kaimal’s backyard. She did not tell my father this. He stood in line at the BevOrg every night.
A tenth of BevOrgs, the state-owned liquor outlets, would be shut every year, making us “alcohol-free” in a decade. On the news, wives and daughters smiled through tears of relief as they adorned the godsends in the government with pink and yellow flower garlands. My mother was not one of them.
My father had worked in construction before getting priced out by lowly paid migrant workers from the east. Thieves and rapists, he said of them, taking our jobs and screwing our women. These days, he started with a few beers in the morning at Mohini, followed by a long sit-in at the gates of the labor union office with his fellow unemployed. Cheap labor was something even the government could not pass up, so their protests went unheeded. In the evenings, he joined the long but impeccably mannered lines at BevOrg—a curious anomaly in a land where maximum push and volume got you the furthest.
Screaming for dinner right from the front gate, my father staggered down the yard and gave my mother her daily dose of clothesline. Without this daily victory, his abject life would not have been worth living. I stayed out of sight in the backyard until snores from the only bedroom in our house replaced the cracks and whimpers.
I hadn’t always been like this, nor am I a coward like my father. One night when I was fifteen I had waited behind the front door armed with a red-handled sickle. It seemed appropriate to slice through my father’s thin, wiry neck. But my mother seized the sickle from my hand and asked me to leave the room. My future was far too promising, she said. Later that night, as I watched him beat her with his bare hands, I decided a machete would have been the better choice.
Seven years later, here I was awaiting my work visa to Abu Dhabi. I was going to be a cashier at Carrefour. Everyone I knew that went to the Gulf flourished. The ones that stayed back stood in lines at BevOrg. Where would they go in ten years? I would make store manager by then.
One scorching, humid day in March my visa arrived by post. My mother was jubilant. It was as if she had been waiting all her life for this moment. That night she even kept the clothesline folded and ready. But my father did not return. She washed the dishes and folded my clothes, looking out the window every time a vehicle passed by.
The next morning, I woke up to wails. The neighbor’s wife was in my mother’s arms. My father and her husband had been hospitalized after consuming spurious liquor. My mother consoled her friend. We did not cry that day.
The victims of the hooch tragedy were being treated in the overcrowded general ward of the government hospital. In the oppressive heat, the stench of Phenoyl mixed in with the sweat and tears of mourning relatives made me nauseous. I wished I could shove a finger in each ear and shut out the bawling around me. My father was sedated. He had a thick white bandage over his eyes. A nurse set down a wooden cane and a pair of dark glasses next to his bed. He was one of the lucky ones, she said. Twenty-six had died overnight.
The government announced one lakh rupees of compensation for the affected families and disseminated even more warnings about the consumption of alcohol. The liquor lobby blamed the incident on the government’s prohibition. The vats disappeared from Kaimal’s backyard. At home, the beatings stopped.
By April, more than half the bars in the state closed. Others rebranded themselves as family restaurants. On the evening of the third I called for a taxi to go to the airport. My father gripped my arms and felt my face with both hands before resting a palm on the crown of my head as a sign of blessing. He then sat down in the reclining chair where he would spend most of his blind days. My mother saw me off at the airport. She wore her wedding sari for the second time in her life.
When the stewardess asked me if I wanted beer, wine, or one from their fine selection of whiskeys I was reminded of the long line outside a BevOrg we passed on the way to the airport—snaking down the street and across, stopping traffic but still maintaining the unique decorum of Apsaras at the gates of heaven. Being so close to mine, I politely declined.
CASTLES OF ICE
By Daniel Soule
As dreams do, she came to us during the night, silently on ancient currents from cold seas, bringing with her the empty vessel of wonderment for us to fill with whatever we had in our souls. We were the second to find her, Jeanie and I, picking our way along the shore, looking for her da. When we found him, we found her. Jeanie’s dad sat penitently on his knees, staring up, cheeks wet with tears. She rose above him, casting the revelation of her cold morning shadow.
Years later, when I was nearly a man, Keith Gillespie told me his story of that day. Everyone on the island had one, but none the same as ours.
“I was arguing with Bobby Macalister. You remember him? Tommy’s da’? Course you do. Anyways, I was saying to him, well, he says I was shouting and that’s why he barred me for fecking years. But I wasn’t, shouting I mean. Forceful, that’s how I’d put it. Bobby, I says, I’m not paying full whack for these here bananas. They’re browner than … well, I won’t say what. Times have changed. So, I’m putting my point about the cost of bananas, and he’s putting his, when suddenly he stops wide mouthed, like a gormless fish … but more than normal. I says, are you ignoring me, Bobby? There’s other shops on Islandmagee besides the Rinkha. I was ready for his counter. You know where you can go then, he’d say, only he didn’t, did he? No, he drops the bananas, points over my shoulder and says, polar bear.”
Everyone delivered a version of this punchline, even though each of us knew the story and had seen the bear. Apart from Jeanie and I. We missed it by a hair, probably passing her at the bottom of the Gobbins path: us coming to the end of the lane, following the stashes of empty bottles hidden in the hedge; it scrawny and on the prowl for food after its long voyage.
We picked up her da under the arms, alcohol coming off him, and stumbled back to the house on the clifftop at Braehead. “Did you see her, pet?” he said, tears still falling. “Did you see the iceberg?”
“Yeah, da, I did.”
People came out to see the polar bear of Islandmagee. The police came too, and so did the firemen and the reporters from Belfast. A man from the Telegraph took that famous picture of the bear with its head in Mary Moyle’s rubbish bin.
Jeanie’s da was filling a bin bag with empty cans and bottles, when her ma burst into the house, wearing her nurse’s uniform from nightshift. “You’ll never guess what’s outside the Rinkha.” While she spoke, the iceberg drifted away on the tide out to sea. It grew smaller as it sailed, as if it were a dream of a different world and our lives were like water: solid one moment, fluid the next, and then vapor vanishing into nothing.
By Geoffrey Forsyth
After the divorce, Benjamin found himself in his new apartment, decorating a brown paper lunch bag to look like Cindy, his ex-wife. It was a project he often did with his special ed students, a project whereby a puppet was fashioned by turning the lunch bag upside down. The kids then would decorate the bag to look like a family member or friend. What the puppets did and said was always revealing.
One Sunday, towards the start of their marriage, Cindy was inspired to make a bag puppet in her own likeness. It was perfect. She drew her eyes with a light blue crayon, and around them she used black to draw thick, mascaraed lashes. Under the mouth flap she chose the lightest pink crayon to draw a tongue, which Benjamin loved to touch with his fingers when they were intimate. At the head, and around the face, she glued soft, yellow yarn for hair, and below it she glued on cotton ball breasts.
When Cindy first stuck her hand in and spoke, Benjamin thought the puppet sounded devilish. She brought the eyes of the puppet close to his face, and he felt himself go rigid, as if they were onstage and not in their own home. It was then he heard the puppet say, “I love you, but I wonder where you go sometimes.”
The puppet was staring now, blue eyes locked-in, unblinking. Benjamin didn’t know what to say to it, and for a moment he thought of his students who often couldn’t account for their actions, and he felt his face redden. “I’m here,” was all he said.
“I know,” said the puppet. “But often it feels like you’re not.”
Then the puppet pressed its face against his cheek and held a long kiss there, which felt real, as Cindy’s fingers were moving, gently, inside the bag, and there was something in the tenderness of this kiss that angered him, that made him thwack the puppet away from his face, and the three stood glaring at each other.
Then she said something in French, and the mood changed. She lowered the puppet just below Benjamin’s belt and undid his zipper with the puppet’s mouth, and soon, while in the throes of lovemaking, the puppet was torn and abandoned face-down on the bedroom floor.
Benjamin was remembering this, and all the while using his materials—the light blue crayon and the black for the eyes, and the pink for the tongue, and he had glue and yarn and cotton balls, and out of the mess, the puppet was reborn, and though the memory had shaken him, he stuck his hand in, bringing the puppet in close. He didn’t know what to say to it. He supposed he wanted to tell of this memory, when he had pushed her away. He was sorry for that. He was going to say sorry and thank her, too. Mostly he wanted to thank her, but she had already turned away.
Little Blue Shoes
By Mary Kane
Joyce is looking for little blue shoes.
It didn’t start that way. First, she found one, just stumbled across it really, a little blue shoe about the size of a pencil eraser, on the floor in her house. She found it in the hallway, just outside her downstairs bathroom.
Joyce picked up the first little blue shoe and looked at it closely. She felt interested in it. The first little blue shoe, she determined, was for a right foot.
The next day, she found one on the kitchen counter, behind the canister in which she keeps flour. Another right foot.
A few nights later, rising from sleep to go to the bathroom, Joyce felt something under her pillow. The room being dark, she couldn’t see the color or which foot it was for and waited until morning to look. Blue, left foot.
Then for several days nothing. For years a life seems perfectly fine without little blue shoes and then, after finding a few, everything changes. A new kind of despair creeps in. A longing for more of the shoes takes over and it’s a bit like a fog making the landscape lose all its detail. A sudden absence of birds, for instance, even though of course there were no birds in Joyce’s house. Instead, her focus had shifted. She began to notice this new absence, added to all the existing absences which included loved ones who had died off one by one as ones one loves are bound to do if one lives long enough.
Folding hot laundry the following Tuesday afternoon, Joyce finds herself searching the bottom of the laundry basket, amidst the assortment of dark socks not yet folded into pairs, for more blue shoes. Nothing.
That night in her sleep, she races from dream to dream, barges into dream offices and dumps the contents of dream waste paper baskets, looking for more little blue shoes. She roams through a crowd of dream people on a grassy dream hillside practicing tai chi at a dream sunrise. No little blue shoes anywhere.
The next night, before dinner, reaching into the vegetable crisper for a cucumber, she stops, lifts the carrots and searches underneath. Nothing.
Joyce is quite certain she’s never had any children so she doesn’t think the shoes belong to a doll belonging to one of them, to a doll of theirs that she’s not noticed before.
How big, she wonders, is the person who fits into these shoes. Or rather, how small. Measuring her own foot and then her height, she sets up a ratio, the way she’d learned in 5th grade math, and determines that the person must be about three or four inches high. As far as she knows, there are really no such things as people as small as that, even though many people, especially in childhood, like to believe so.
Two weeks after finding the first shoe, Joyce goes to the hall closet to get a roll of toilet paper. There, beside the multipack of Scott tissue, she sees four pairs of identical blue shoes, lined up neatly on the shelf.
Whereas she’d taken the first shoes and slipped them in her pocket, later transferring them to a cup she kept on the window ledge in the kitchen, above the sink, and which usually held twist ties and the occasional rubber band, she leaves these four neat pairs where she found them.
First, though, she lifts each little blue shoe to her nose and sniffs, to see if it has been worn, if there is any trace scent of foot remaining. She reaches the tip of her pinky finger inside each little blue shoe and feels for indentations. Determining that each of these eight little blue shoes has indeed been worn, she places each one back neatly in its place on the shelf beside the toilet paper.
Late in the afternoon on the day of the four little pairs of blue shoes, Joyce’s feelings about mysterious presences or lack of such presences begins to change. She begins to focus less on what is lost or missing or absent and more on a small thin sharp current of energy that she senses running like a thread through her house. It is as if the thread is tied to one door knob and then runs to the arm of a chair and from there to a lamp. It can’t be seen but Joyce feels it sometimes when she walks alongside it or when she passes through it on her way from one place to another in the course of her days and nights.
The night she discovers the four pairs of little blue shoes, she dreams a tidy little woman named Lillian. Hair recently coiffed, Lillian wears a knee-length tweed skirt with matching tweed jacket and no shoes on her nylon clad feet. She carries a pocket book. In her right hand she holds a pencil, in her left a note pad. Joyce looks at the pad on which is written, “when the universe comes to inhabit the house … ”
Joyce carries the words into her day. She wonders about Lillian and takes to keeping one little blue shoe in her pocket as she goes about her days, always returning it in the evening to its cup on the kitchen windowsill.
She lights candles more frequently in the evening, sensing that if Lillian or someone resembling Lillian is going to come looking for her shoes, she will be far more likely to come out in a place more friendly to shadows. Sometimes, sitting at her kitchen table, before dining on a bowl of yellow split peas and rice by the light of a tall candle, she gives thanks for the little blue shoes. She thinks they are the shape of what the universe has to offer her. To some people, she has heard, the universe sends money. But little blue shoes, she thinks, are not something she has heard of before.
By Robert Pope
Professor Sebastian fell into a deep sleep and dreamed that instead of his wheelchair he rode in a sled of the kind we imagine Saint Nicholas traveling on Christmas Eve. Though it was black, he ascribed no meaning to color. Such associations were accumulated fantasies of a species whose beginnings occurred on an African savanna as it rose through a collective ignorance to dominate the earth. Studying the dials and levers, he ascertained the sled served as vehicle for time travel, a subject to which he had given much thought.
A particular design on the panel offered its identity as the progression we have come to know as earth-time, the coming of man so late as to be negligible. Following backwards, spaces between species became wider, so wide, at last, as to quit altogether in a blank whiteness that made him laugh gleefully. Delighted to find free use of a withered arm, he tapped the space with the index finger of his left hand.
The sled lurched and bucked like a child’s ride. The environs whirred past at a terrifying speed. He saw no details in the blur, unless something came perilously close, a building, tree, creature, but shapes remained murky. Dark green emerged, as if he sped through corridors of vegetation. Shortly, dark became impenetrable. He felt a coolness urge around him, water or wind.
He wondered if he had fallen asleep when the sled lurched. Sudden cessation of motion pitched him on his belly, in a darkness so complete he could literally not see the hand before his face. He attempted to move on knees and elbows he neither saw nor felt, creeping forward as the palpable darkness pressed on him with greater force to emerge in a silvery light, dazzling to the eyes and mind: a vital, quavering negative image of the world from which he had so recently come.
His fondest theory proved correct! He had come to a world without time or physical extension, pure image surging, falling with thought or motion. It struck him as probable that what he saw was nothing more than impressions projected onto a newly undetermined void his human senses could not yet gauge. Ahead, silvery-edged silhouettes of prehistoric foliage possessed no more physicality than images on a screen. The sky, a solid black, supported three white moons, each waning further than the one before.
He saw a swamp, the steaming fen of life, but as he squatted at the edge, water became a mirror, his reflection looking back. The salamander’s head and face were green with dark striations, the eyes solemn, emotionless. Contemplating the beauty of his transformation, he dipped into light, gently thrusting through a clarity at the other side of time and space.
Home at Last
By Kristi Stokes
Most of us don’t remember how we started, only that we have always been. But I’d like to believe I’m unique. I remember those first moments in the Creator’s hands as he molded me and shaped me into what he wanted me to be—the rough outline and the filling in of color, the bits of personality he sprinkled lovingly over me. You’re a beaut, he said, and kept working. I recall it all even as I sit back desperate to be chosen, like the others.
The wait happens in a small room that smells of antiseptic and hopelessness. A steady buzz hums through the room. There’s a door on either end of the room—one for coming, the other for going. A table, a couple of chairs, a dusty countertop, dark walls, and a scratched-up wooden floor. There aren’t many others here—a pair of brown chickens standing too close, a lone black rooster chasing his tail while another white one can’t stop crowing, a small flock of peeping yellow fuzzball chicks—the same as me, but different. Looking over my black and white feathers, the yellow feet, I flap my great wings and shake my feathers loose. I know I’m gorgeous, but can anyone else see it? It’s more about personality, I recall hearing from the Creator. Am I enough?
The click of heels and the jingling of chains around her neck announce the first arrival. Too much happiness bursts from her like bubbles. I could handle happiness. Hands rub over me, pausing just for a moment at my back. My heart flutters. This is it. But it’s not. Those ring-laden hands move on, plucking the loving pair from among us first. The heels click away and again, I’m waiting.
A roar of sound announces the next. This one is big and burly, covered in coarse—Wait, what is it? Are they feathers? I cock my head, confused. Whatever it is, it runs up his arms and erupts all over his face and out of the top of his head. He carries others with him already and smells like anger, trouble, and fear all mixed into one. I edge away and he pushes me hard. His dirty fingers press into a rooster mid-crow, the sound cut off. And he’s gone. The chicks peep and hop in place. The rooster chasing his tail pauses and watches as his brother is taken from sight before resuming his fruitless pursuit.
I have only a moment for relief before the sound of the angel chorus rings out and a goddess with blue feathers sprouting from the top of her head walks through the door, arms swinging, funny-looking purple-nailed toes hanging out for all to see. She pauses at the hopping happy fuzzballs peeping their brains out, hands moving toward them and I know I must act. I hop too, clucking and warbling in her direction. I shuffle my feet and do a little spin in place. A proper dance is my one and only hope of being chosen.
Her hands freeze in midair and her lovely blue head turns to me. I breathe her in as she moves closer—sunshine and flowers and a fresh spring rain all wrapped in one package. This is the one. The one I’ve been waiting all my life for. Does she know it too?
She plucks me up, all of her coos now mine, and marches lovingly to the counter. I am passed across, back in the Creator’s hands. She sits down, waiting on me. He slides me into a machine where I’m warmed and prepped for the next step, my essence peeled from the paper backing. I can hardly contain my excitement as I am pressed to her shoulder—the beginning of our forever together. There’s a whir of sound, like the humming of bees, and I’m reliving my beginning as the Creator runs the buzzing electric needle slowly over all of my edges, retracing the places he formed so many moons ago, this time home at last.