By Ravibala Shenoy
When my baby sister was a few days old, my grandmother showed me the soft spot on her head, how we had to be careful not to hurt her there. She said, my mother was going to be busy with the baby, and I should not mind because I was four-and-a-half years old, the big sister.
My mother’s thirteen-year-old brother tormented me with stories of Ghooghooms who he said roamed my grandmother’s house and garden. When night came, he‘d put a flashlight in his mouth and cover himself with a bedsheet and he’d go thump, thump, through the house making sounds like an owl, and I’d run away shrieking. It was no use telling my mother because she lay limp in bed with the baby.
One day, when my sister was sleeping, I brought from the kitchen the brass pestle that my grandmother used to grind peppercorns. My sister lay in a winnowing basket swaddled in a blanket. Her chest rose and fell with her breath and her round face and shiny hair looked as peaceful as a lake. Just as I was about to hit with the pestle the soft spot my grandmother had told me about, she ran in breathless and grabbing the pestle from my hand, pushed me away.
“It’s a good thing I can see from the back of my head like a bird,” my grandmother said, snatching up the baby. “She is so little and helpless.” She began to cry. “Older sisters are supposed to protect their younger sisters.”
Within that week I was sent to the Girls’ School in the village. I was too young for school, but because Miss Bhat, the school headmistress, lived in a cottage on my grandmother’s property, an exception was made.
Shyamal, who was a year older than me, lived a few houses up the red mud lane and we walked to school together. The girls in my class were older than me. They sat on wooden benches behind wooden desks. Since I was so small, I was perched on top of a desk, legs dangling. I was very quiet, I didn’t understand much but I listened to the teacher.
The village school had a red-tiled roof. During the monsoons, you could hear the wind rattling; the air in the classroom went still and the first raindrops falling in fat plops sounded like monkeys on the rooftop. Thunder rumbled overhead, and through the window grilles you could see flashes of lightning. The room felt claustrophobic and I wanted to be home. I wondered if my mother liked me anymore.
During the break some girls played catch in the school courtyard, others played with my hair, styling it in different ways like I was their live doll. I followed the girls all over the school grounds. When asked who I was, they introduced me as the “Headmistress’s daughter.”
Shyamal was always late for school. I used to run into her house and wait for her to get ready. She had an uncle who wore blue striped pajamas and a singlet all day long. He wandered aimlessly all over the house on stiff legs. My grandmother said he was lazy and jealous of my father.
Once when I was waiting for Shyamal, her uncle came into the room. That day, I was wearing a pale pink dress with a flouncy skirt that my grandmother had stitched for me. She had combed my hair and tied my pigtails in two red bows.
“How pretty you look today!” The uncle said. He lifted me in his arms. His rough chin scratched my face then he kissed my cheek with his wet tongue. There was sticky saliva on my cheek. His hand crept under my new dress and touched my knickers. Like a rabbit I went stockstill. Then with all my might I pushed and squirmed out of his grasp and ran out of the house, slamming the double wooden doors.
In the lane, I rubbed and rubbed the saliva from my cheek with the skirt of my dress, but still, it didn’t go away.
I waited for Shyamal in the lane. The sky hung heavy with purple monsoon clouds and moist breezes lifted the leaves of a bush growing in the crevices of the lane revealing a velvety underside.
“Why did you run away?” Shyamal asked when she joined up with me.
“Ghooghoom! Ghooghoom!” Hooting like an owl, I kicked through the puddles on the dirt road. Nearly a dozen fat cranberry-colored earthworms inched forward on the ground. They had come up from the soil after rain. Maybe they had to escape like me. I took a stick and sawed their ringed bodies in half. Both halves squirmed on the dirt road and kept on moving.
“Look!” I cried. “They have become two worms.” I felt powerful.
“No they haven’t,” Shyamal insisted. “The headless worm never becomes a proper worm.”
I never wore the pink dress again. I stopped walking to school with Shyamal after that, instead I began to accompany Miss Bhat who seemed to me as beautiful as the goddess Saraswati. She was tall and willowy, with long black hair. When it rained, she slanted her umbrella over me to shelter both of us. I looked up at her and I could tell from her expression that she liked me.
That October we returned to my father in the city. The next time I visited my grandmother in the village, Miss Bhat had been posted to another school upcountry. I never missed the village school or Shyamal.
Today, my sister and I get on well enough. The memories of Shyamal’s creepy uncle and the sensation of rubbing the gloopy saliva off my cheek are faint—but I am stricken by another memory: of ringed earthworms, red as cranberries, inching forward. I see their sundered bodies, some headless, others tailless, writhing and squirming in the mud.
Year of the Insects
By Avra Margariti
Cicada boy, half-peeled skin falling off his wiry frame. She watches him from the window as he runs outside through the garden sprinklers, his clothes sullying the grass. At least he kept his swim trunks on—she told him the first time he ran that if the neighbors called the police he would land back in juvie so fast his head would spin. He called her a prude and laughed his pretty head off. But he has the nightmares still, so for once he listened to reason.
She will go out and pick his clothes up layer-by-layer while the dwindling light spreads its violet visage over the horizon. Dust and dry them. Make sure no insects have made their homes inside the cotton folds—he wouldn’t like that, for all that he’s insisting to be one with nature these days. Case in point the weed he was caught growing, the naked swims in garden puddles of dirty water.
He is asleep when she sees him next. Cocooned in blankets on her couch. The edges of his face filed down to a smooth finish, the cruel twist gone from his mouth, and only the boy she remembers remains. Almost daily now, he tells her how he’d like to sleep and be transported to a time before their parents died and left her in charge. He says just as often that he’d like to go into diapause and wake up when he’s eighteen and doesn’t have to stay a single day longer with her in the prison of his skin.
She slumps down on her armchair and watches TV on mute—her spinster shows, he calls them—so as not to disturb her brother’s seething metamorphosis.
By Jihoon Park
The first time Mr. Mantis was attacked he had been praying on the train. When he got off, he was jumped by some teenagers at the station. They slashed up his wings with a pocketknife. Mr. Mantis didn’t fight back. He hobbled back to the big house leaving a trail of green blood. Mum bandaged up his wings with a first aid kit. Mum always said it was a landlady’s duty to care for her lodgers, regardless of what they looked like. Hospitals in our county didn’t serve insects. They still don’t.
Even some of the lodgers in the big house were anti-insect. They refused to leave their rooms in the morning until Mr. Mantis had had his morning coffee and caterpillar and left for the law firm. He always wore a tweed jacket and a bowler hat to work. The law firm specialized in protecting insect rights. They were dirt poor. Mr. Mantis made even less than the public defenders, many of whom refused to work with insects.
I remember what the girls at school used to say about mantids. They told stories about how mantids would sneak into farmhouses at night and slit your throats with their jagged arms and kill all the livestock and steal your grandmother’s jewelry.
I never asked Mr. Mantis if he stole anyone’s grandmother’s jewelry, but I did ask him if he had ever killed anyone.
“No, I’ve never killed anyone,” he said.
“Then why are your arms so jagged and sharp?” I asked.
“They’re not so sharp.” Mr. Mantis unsheathed his claws and let me touch them. I ran my hands along the knife-like protrusions. They felt quite smooth. Certainly not sharp enough to slit throats. “This is just the way God made me. Now, run along back to your mother, child. I need to do my evening prayers.”
“Is your God the same as our God?”
“I’d like to think so.”
I left his room thinking that if everyone touched a mantid’s claws just once, they wouldn’t be afraid of them, and they’d stop making them look so awful and scary in newspapers and billboards and picture shows.
One summer, Mr. Mantis asked Mum to pick up some stationery. I went with her to the store and we got fried pickles and cola on the way back. Mr. Mantis spent an entire month’s salary, and we had to haul the supplies back in an old milk crate. Back in the big house, his desk was piled up with letter stock, envelopes, wax seals, fountain pens, and stamps. Night after night, Mr. Mantis wrote letters. He only took breaks to pray. He had all his meals in his room.
“Watcha writing?” I asked, peeping in from the door crack.
Mr. Mantis twisted his head 180 degrees in my direction, gave me a nod, and then turned it back. “My mother passed, so I’m writing to my siblings to see how they’re doing. Do you have any siblings, child?”
“None, but my friends at the girls’ school are like my sisters.”
“That must be nice. It’s important to stay close to your siblings.”
“How many you have?”
“Two hundred fifty-two.”
“That’s a lot. Where they at?”
“Some are out in cities and towns like me, but most of them are back in the forest. Won’t you help me write some letters, child? I’ll dictate and you write, my arms are very tired. Pens are for human hands. Maybe one day they’ll make a pen insects can use comfortably.”
I couldn’t help but cry as he dictated his letters. He was so alone, but so hopeful. He didn’t say a single thing to his siblings about getting mistreated and assaulted by people all the time.
During those days the radio was always going off about insects. Mantis kills two in bar fight, beetle robs convenience store, cicada arrested for narcotics, and so on. Once, walking back from school, I saw some construction workers harassing a lady mantis. They pushed her around, telling her to flutter her wings for them. When they held a knife to her, the mantis attacked one of the men, biting his head off. The police showed up and shot her right there on the spot. Didn’t take her to court or nothing like they were supposed to. All that came up on the radio was how mantids were biting people’s heads off now, and how we had to keep our doors locked at night and not let little kids out without supervision. They didn’t say nothing about how the men were attacking that lady mantis. They never said things like that on the radio.
After a week of protests, the city shut down the law firm Mr. Mantis worked for. He was out day and night, barely eating or sleeping, looking for a new job. Nobody wanted to hire insects. One day he came back with a broken back leg. A man at the train station, for no particular reason, pushed him down onto the tracks and he was almost run over. Mum sawed off an old chair leg and used it as a splint to bandage him up.
Two days after that, Mr. Mantis was shot for not having enough money to pay for a bagel he ate. They just left his body out by the sidewalk. Mum paid to have his body shipped back into the forest. I helped pick a coffin. A nice birch one.
I remember a letter we received from one of Mr. Mantis’s brothers that day he was killed.
…wishing you good fortune in the city. We received your last check in the mail. A thousand blessings for helping us stay afloat. I will join you as soon as I can and help you carry this burden. Visit soon, brother. We miss you at the dining table. Your empty chair weighs heavily on all of us back home.
Your loving brother
By Kelsey Englert
The battle is over. The Trojans and Greeks collapse on the sloped beach that climbs to the gates of Troy. Tired, yet curious about what comes next, they peer around, taking stock of one another. They will probably go out for drinks.
When play rehearsal ends, actors strip their pleather sandals, plastic blades, and cotton robes spotted with fake blood. They toss them onto a pile for Heather, the frizzy-haired intern, to deal with. They have been asked not to do this, to be more considerate, to place the swords on the rack and drape the robes over hangers, to put things in their proper places like their mothers taught them, but any efforts they make never last long.
The Greeks go out to the bar, except for Odysseus. He is in a hurry to return home to his wife and son. The other Greeks invite Hector, Paris, and their soldiers. Agamemnon wants to have sex with Helen, but he is with Clytemnestra, Helen’s not-as-beautiful sister. When he puts his arm around Clytemnestra, she says she has a headache and is going home.
Achilles also wants to have sex with Helen. So does Helen’s husband, Menelaus. So does Helen’s brother, Pollux. Cassandra warns Helen to go home alone. Helen asks if anyone remembered to invite Heather. No one answers. As the army moves down the city sidewalk, Pollux puts his arm around Helen’s shoulder. She brushes him off and slips into the current of men. One soldier says, “Imagine a world where you can have concubines.” He eyes Helen. “Wild.”
Helen is not in the mood to have sex. She is too insecure about being cast as Helen. At first, she thought there could be no greater compliment than to play Helen of Troy in the community theater’s production of The Iliad. She told everyone—her family, her ex-boyfriends, the ultimate frisbee guys at the park, the cashier at Kroger’s—about the casting. The reactions were always the same. “Helen of Troy. The Helen of Troy?” They would look back and forth between her and some place off in the distance where they kept their conceptual image of what the most beautiful woman in the world—the face that launched a thousand ships—should look like. “Well, good for you, hun!” Helen cannot measure up. This is saying a lot, because Helen has always been told that she is beautiful. If she ever figures out how to get her big break, she will be the face of CoverGirl. She already has her celebrity life pinned to a vision board in her apartment. She knows where she will travel, what kind of marble flooring she wants, and which charities she will champion.
At the bar, Agamemnon agrees. “No offense. You’re smoking, but Helen of Troy?” He misses his mouth and beer splashes down his shirt. “Party foul.” He dumps peanuts off a napkin and throws it in his lap a few inches from the beer stain. “No.” He points at her as he tries to keep his eyes open. “No one is going to war for you.” He has given up trying to sleep with her tonight. Another round of shots appears.
Helen sips a not-strong-enough drink and considers making a scene just for practice. She tries to eavesdrop on the director as he tells Cassandra about the famous actors that he partied with in the eighties.
Paris tells her that he will go to war for her. She shushes him and listens harder. Achilles says that he will, too, and she gives up.
Agamemnon slurs, “But, if you do, does that mean that if you do, you say she’s the most beautiful?” The bartender approaches Agamemnon’s empty glass. Achilles waves him away.
Achilles says, “If getting cast as Helen makes her the most beautiful woman in the world, then getting cast as Achilles makes me the greatest warrior.” This makes Helen sad.
Pollux makes one last pass at Helen. “She’s a fine Helen. By today’s beauty standards, Helen of Troy would be a six.”
“There you have it. Smile. Here,” Agamemnon pushes a plate towards her, “have a fry.”
“No, I mean,” Pollux tries, but Agamemnon blocks him from Helen.
Helen will not eat the fry because she has not eaten a fry in months. “Eat.” King Agamemnon commands.
The smell, riding on wisps of steam, wafts into Helen’s nose, rises through her head, and sets off signals in her brain. She falls under a spell and cannot control herself. She surrenders, reaches through the rubble of fries and retrieves the perfect, attractive, crisp, golden sliver. She raises it to her mouth, and when it meets her tongue, she is reintroduced to salt and starch and grease. She chews it many more times than she has reason to. She will not eat another for months. Still, Helen will never be as beautiful as Helen.
In the street, the army splinters away from the bar.
The old director swats the young men away, warning them to leave Helen alone. Don’t they watch the news? He walks her home. Outside of her apartment building, the street light makes the gray strands of hair on his head glisten among the brown. “I hope I didn’t upset you at rehearsal when I commented about the way you laugh,” he says.
She stares at their reflection in the puddle below the step. Her red high heels toe the water’s edge.
“You make a wonderful Helen.”
She takes the earthworm-veined hand of the man who cast her as Helen. As he helps her over the puddle, her heel grazes the liquid’s surface, and her image ripples.
By Joe Farley
The ceilings are low and the lighting is bad, but Jimmy sits in back and shines a Maglite. Flyers paper the windows, blocking out light from traffic and what’s left of the neighborhood. The makeshift stage pitches performers forward, towards the lifers that line the bar where they wolf greasy hamburgers from wax paper, oblivious or annoyed. A yellow legal begins filling with names. Harry unplugs the jukebox in the back and the sound cuts, heads turn. An empty hat sits atop a bar stool, donations welcome—every show could be the last.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, open-mic night, three-dollar cans, buy one get one, six-dollar Dews and Brews, free popcorn. Wyatt’s the bartender and he always goes last. Guy’s got these massive hands like he’s been training for an Olympic thumb war, red-rimmed eyes, Sam Elliot mustache, shirt that says: Dead Hippie Brewing. Wyatt doesn’t laugh out loud. Only three rules: watch the clock, no airplane bits, and absolutely no prop comics.
Damien MC’s, his sense of humor scaring off the few who aren’t committed, the faces in the back sucking down beers, many of them are never seen again. Forever unheard. Keep it going for the very funny, the very talented, the next x, y, or z. Damien then proceeds to step on their material, rip their persona. People are too soft, he’s always saying, this is the real real, kill here and you can kill anywhere, he’s always saying. Harrison opens, he’s somewhat unattractive, bearded, he mentions this, tells the crowd the combination of two celebrities he looks like. Cady goes next, she leans hard into Lena Dunham, all tattoos and Planned Parenthood, minutes from a mental break. Craig wears sunglasses and clings to non-sequiturs. Ben is all hands and hostile energy, shouts his do-you-believe-I-went-there punchlines. But they get laughs—more and more it seems each time.
Some speak too quickly or too quietly, others far too loudly. One guy goes for shock; an 8chan thread come to life. A few appear to read directly from their diary and one girl looks to have come fresh from her therapist with mined material. A guy in a fedora attempts street jokes. There are a few hints at claps, some snorts, the clinking of glasses, but the majority eat shit. Dead eyes staring back. Some sneak off to use the bathroom. Sometimes badly bombed sets are given the hook by Wyatt himself. Like Jack who starts in on political commentary, a few salient jabs at Congress, the need to end the filibuster. This is met with hostility. Cady boos, Craig feigns sleep. Harrison just yells “Nope.” Jack tries to recalibrate, to act quickly; he goes to his dick—old faithful—and immediately steps on it. Wyatt howls, tosses an empty beer can from behind the bar. Before they can even bust his balls proper, he’s off the stage, throwing open the door, pushing the collar up on his coat. Gone.
Midnight comes and most are exhausted, many have work in the morning, some have girlfriends and boyfriends and babies and dogs waiting at home. A few go outside for a smoke, a few more bail. The rest grab empty chairs or saddle up to the bar, order drinks and wait for Wyatt. Wyatt takes the stage with the command of a cult leader. Every week he’s got new jokes, new tags, original premises. The newcomers that remain are floored, they look around the room and swig their beers, their look a collective: who is this guy?
Wyatt doesn’t help clean up, but he does hang around, toss around feedback, advice. He tells them to keep going to the well, drawing on what they have, to mine their past—it’s all there, enough for ten lifetimes. They shake their heads, agree, beg Wyatt for one more on the house. Tonight, he agrees, and fires up the grill for grilled cheeses. They talk about next week, tweaks, ways to improve the show. They talk about who had the best set of the night, something they never agree on but on this night it’s universal: Cady. By far. Cady doesn’t think it true, but Damien and Craig and Harrison are certain it is. Stage time, Wyatt says, grilled cheeses throwing steam off the shallow roof, it’s important we stay hungry.
A Quick Hit of Visio
By Tim Seyfert
Castro Street. Lunch rush. People charge the pavement like herded bison. I march with the cattle up the sidewalk, past the storefronts, down a side-road, up to his door. Knock-knock-knock. He answers, my hero, very much alive in this dream.
‘Let me grab my coat,’ he says. A brown cigarette dangles from his lip.
‘It’s a hundred degrees out,’ I say.
He smiles and smoke escapes his teeth. ‘My coat’s my skin,’ he says, grabbing a corduroy blazer off the back of the door.
We head to Printer’s Inc. Bookstore. I trail him as he cruises the lit section, dragging his index finger along the spines. Then, like a commuter cut off in traffic, he snaps. ‘Crap!’ he says, throwing a book to the floor. ‘This one’s shit too,’ flinging another. ‘Nothing but lies. It’s all just word play.’ Soon I’m wading through a wake of discarded texts.
Then he stops. ‘Amen!’ he says, pulling down a book, a dusty red paperback, which he brings to his face and sniffs as if it were a piece of lavender.
I crane my head to look at the title, but the cover’s too dusty.
‘The only one who said it,’ he says, offering me the book.
I go to take it, but my hand passes through it as if it were smoke. He laughs as I try again to grab it, but still only hit air. Finally, he returns the book to the shelf, then comes to stand before me. His eyes are sincere, holding me in their gaze. ‘How’s yours coming, flower horse?’
I try to answer, but no words come, only croaks and wheezes. He laughs again, and as he does, he begins to morph into a shapeless mass, a contorting blob of ever-changing sizes and colors. The sight stings my eyes as it flickers from big to small, light to dark, until it settles into the image of my mother. She’s young, the woman from my childhood, smiling amused, the way she did when I once asked her if God has feet.
‘What do you say?’ she says.
I can’t answer, even though I can feel my voice returned. ‘Mom?’ I ask.
She goes to speak, but only the sound of bells come out of her mouth. Dingdong-dingdong. I’m on my couch.
My phone’s next to me, blaring my alarm, a church bell ringtone. I kill it, then roll to my back, disoriented, somewhere between my living room and the bookstore. I pry myself from the sofa and drag myself to the shower.
By CG Miller
The stack of tires conceals me, hides me from view, masks my teenage fear behind the pungent smell of cured rubber. I cower and watch.
The silhouettes of adult bodies eclipse the front doorway and I can’t make out what is being said. It escalates too fast to gather. My dad turns screaming madman before I can perceive the threat in the room. Someone needing correction. Dad sounds like Jesus when he turned over the sellers’ tables in the temple. Angry, but angry over the right things.
Time slows to a crawl. I make and unmake fifteen decisions: should I stay hidden, should I be hiding at all, should I stand by Dad, or does he want me to stay clear, am I a man or still a boy?
I just started working here, learning to put my hands to use. Dad wakes me on a Saturday morning and whispers if I want to go into work with him, start learning the family business. What does any thirteen-year-old kid say? Their father asking for their help, a passing of the torch. Of course. Of course, I say yes, even if I don’t want to, even if all I want is more sleep.
But I’m not sleeping. I wish I were—wish I weren’t anywhere near the screaming, the hollering. I didn’t even know people could scream that loud. The tearing of vocal cords. Like the screeching of eagles, or else, the final trumpet of God raising the dead. My dad shouts things like, I’ll take every one of you on! And, there’s three of you and just one of me! Maybe, I’m not a man yet.
I think it’s over his tire prices, something entirely miniscule. Entirely stupid. It makes me think he forgets I exist, or at least, that I’m somewhere else still in earshot in the shop, listening to every curse word that exits his mouth that he tells me never to say. Challenging three men to fisticuffs when he tells me never to pick fights. I don’t know which advice to take—his words or his actions.
The men aren’t having any of it. They back out into the parking lot with their hands up in submissive fashion, the sun revealing their features as they glow like angels. Dad’s hands are up ready to demolish faces, still in the shadows. They have a boy who looks about my age with them, though taller than me, lankier. His eyes are glassy, bloodshot, and he holds his stomach like he’s wounded. Not a man yet either. I feel for him. But I feel for myself more, seeing my father turn unrecognizable, maniacal, ready for a blood bath, disturbing the men who want better, know better.
Dad’s hands finally drop to his sides. The boy sees me as I edge out from behind the tires: courage forming when it doesn’t count anymore. Dad turns to check behind him, remembering me, remembering he has a son, and we see each other like it’s the first time we’ve ever gotten a good look. But then I see past him, the boy again, his eyes wild now, a fist raised to strike Dad.
A sense of excitement bubbles up in the deep primordial depths of my being. A rage, a flame, ignites. Men are fighters, animals, out of control madmen who prove their might through who has the craziest thirst for blood, for pulverizing, for smashing guts and breaking ribs. I picture me bashing blurred faces with my fists, smashing teeth, snapping noses, gouging eyes, taking the teenage boy and stomping his face until I can’t see weakness anymore. In him or in me. He is no angel, so I strip him of anything that reminds me of one.
Voices are behind, in front, circling me. I don’t know where I am anymore. Dad lifts me off the boy as I come to and see a bloody face under my shoe. I’m crying.
Dad screams for them to leave. Leave! I’ve killed someone. No, I’ve gone to hell. I’m dead. Or a man now.
They carry their fallen boy to the car as blood bubbles at his nostrils. Still alive. I pray for him, harder than I’ve ever prayed for anything or anyone before. They fill their vehicle, laying the boy down in the backseat, and peel out of the lot, spewing tiny rocks from their back tires into our large glass window with our prices painted in bold numbers, their only method of retribution.
Is Dad proud? God? Do they hate me? I feel disgusting, like we’ve both just been tossed out of paradise, though Dad’s the only person to ever tell me about it.
We stand in front of the tire shop, hands down, faces down, tears streaming, both without words to share. I want to say something, anything, a prayer, an apology; I want to yell at him for ever starting anything, but nothing comes out. Nothing at all.
After the Race
By Hannah Whiteoak
The race leaves me buzzing. I tell Mum about the start line crowds, the freezing rain, how I couldn’t feel my toes until the second mile. I tell her about the hill that had four false summits, about the runner dressed as a bottle of beer, about eating too many jelly babies and feeling sick around mile ten. I tell her about the crowds that lined the course, the music that picked me up when I thought I had nothing left, the reporter who asked why I ran barefoot.
“You did what?” I imagine her saying.
She’s not really here; I’m home alone, talking to the air while I lean against the counter, stretching my aching calves. My medal clanks against the countertop. I take it off and wonder what I’ll do with it. Framing it seems trashy. But I don’t want to just stick it in a drawer.
Dad butts in. This being my fantasy conversation, I should be able to shut him out, but I’ve never mastered that. Even when I’m racing towards a finish line, I can hear him in my ear, sneering. “Two hours for a half marathon? You should be able to do it in half that time.”
He appears now, filling an armchair. Mum fades like memories are supposed to.
“No woman has ever run a half marathon in an hour,” I tell him.
He snorts. “But two hours? What were you doing, walking?”
I shake my head, trying to erase him like the picture on an Etch-a-Sketch. I reach into the bag a smiling volunteer handed me at the finish line and pull out a protein drink. It tastes like strawberries and success. I hold up my medal, snap selfies, post to Facebook and wait for the likes to come pouring in.
I check both parents’ profiles from my other account. Mum has spent the day making fruitcake. Dad has been for a hike. “Ten miles. Not bad for an old man!” There is a picture of his boot-clad feet propped on the edge of a rock. I don’t know where it was taken. Whenever we went walking together, he mocked me for being slow, so I stopped going, spent my teens in front of a computer screen.
I switch back to my main account, from which I’ve blocked both parents. Three of my friends have liked my post.
Mum is back. This time she’s standing by the sink, sleeves rolled up, wearing her plastic apron with the daffodils on the front.
“Yes, barefoot. I couldn’t find any shoes that worked for me, so I trained that way. I like it.”
The way she raises her eyebrows and says, “Well, that’s certainly unique,” irritates me so much I want to punch her, and she’s not even making that face. She’s not even here. She’s sitting in her kitchen in Swifton-in-Swaledale, eating a slice of fruitcake and nodding at the photos Dad took on his walk.
Sometimes, nostalgia hits me like a tidal wave. I want to pick the glace cherries from the cake while she’s not looking, leaving holes in the slices. I want to sink into their big bathtub and soak the soreness from my legs.
Sometimes I wonder whether I miss my parents, or if I’m just homesick for the comfortable, well-insulated house they brought me up in. I take a shower, shiver as I pat my blisters dry, and check my phone again. Fifteen likes. Another comment. “You’re amazing!”
Standing by the fridge in pajamas and dressing gown, I eat bread and hummus. “I ran thirteen point one miles,” I tell Mum, when she looks disapprovingly at the empty tub.
“Even so … ” she says.
Dad chimes in. “I’d sooner feed you for a week than a fortnight.”
I roll my eyes and reach for a packet of biscuits. I take it over to the window. My flat overlooks the race course and a few participants are still limping along, relegated to the pavement now the official cut-off time has passed and the road has reopened.
“See,” I say, spitting crumbs. “I’m not slow.”
“You did well, love,” Mum says, and the punch to my gut nearly makes me throw up. Of course she loves me. How could I be so ungrateful? If I weren’t such an awkward daughter, they’d have been on the finish line, Mum cheering, Dad making an effort not to look bored. Instead, they won’t even know I ran the race, unless that reporter puts me on the local news.
A woman in pink shuffles along the road, red-faced, staring at the ground.
“Look at that porker,” Dad says.
The sick feeling disappears. My fists clench. I open the window and lean out, cupping my hands around my mouth.
“Great running!” I shout. “Nearly there!”
She looks up, smiles, and waves. I clap and whoop as loud as I can, drowning out both parents’ sniggers, until she is out of sight.
Chicken and Egg
By Yunya Yang
The old woman carried a chicken under her arm.
The skin on her face was wrinkled like crumpled paper and coarse from the hardship and disappointments of a life spent toiling on farmland. Her eyes were permanently squinted as if constantly avoiding the sun, her brows knotted, her mouth half-open with heavy breathing.
The girl next to her had a hand on her protruding belly, another supporting her back. Her hair was in a thick, black braid that draped in front of her heaving chest. She pursed her lips and was helplessly silent as her mother-in-law talked to the doctor.
“Dr. Lin, I brought a chicken for you. See? It’s fat and healthy. Best of the lot, I tell you. It’ll get you an egg a day, or two!”
“I can’t take it, Zhang Jie. It’s against the rules.”
“Please, doctor. No one is here.” The old woman whispered, gesturing to the closed door of the office. “We walked all the way from the village. I hear you have this machine? The one that can see if it’s a boy?”
The doctor lowered his voice. “It would be illegal to tell you the sex of the baby.”
“But you’ll know, right? You can figure it out?”
The doctor didn’t reply.
The girl tugged at the old woman’s sleeve. Maybe we should leave, she wanted to say. She had secretly hoped that their trip would be in vain. But the old woman shoved her aside.
“Take the chicken, doctor. An egg a day, you’ll never run out. Way fresher than the ones you get in the market!” The old woman pushed the chicken to the doctor.
The chicken yelped and fluttered its wings.
“Zhang Jie, I really can’t do it.” The doctor blocked the agitated bird with an arm. “If everybody could find out the sex of the baby, we’d all have boys.”
The old woman eyed the young girl and gave her a signal. The girl froze for a second, then patted down her coat in a frenzy. Where was it? She couldn’t quite remember. Her head was fuzzy because she had been tossing and turning all night, having alternate dreams of being told it was a boy and being told it wasn’t. When the old woman awoke her before sunrise, she was in the middle of the latter. She wailed as she woke up because she thought the old woman’s forceful hands were tearing the baby—the one that was not a boy—out of her belly.
“Stop yelling!” The old woman slapped her. “Get up. We need to get going.”
The pain on her cheek shocked her out of the nightmare. She stifled her sobbing; only her chest rose and fell in a rhythm that punctuated her breath like the beat of a toy pellet drum.
Before they left, the old woman opened one of the earthen jars in the kitchen and took out a stack of Chairman Maos. She counted six of them, hesitated for a moment, put one back, but then changed her mind and took it out again. “Six,” she murmured. “Six is an auspicious number.”
She put the money inside a red envelope they saved from New Year’s Festival and told the girl, “Put it in your inner-most pocket.” The grease on the old woman’s hands made the envelope shine like blood.
That was where it was, the girl thought as she remembered the old woman’s words. She reached into her inner pocket and felt the harsh edges of the envelope.
The old woman snatched it from the girl as soon as she produced it, stuffing it in the doctor’s hands.
“Here, Dr. Lin. Just a little appreciation for your help.” She smiled obsequiously.
The doctor felt the thickness of the envelope.
“Just a peek on that machine, doctor. I hear it’s imported? Very fancy. That’s what I trust, you know? We have a midwife in our village, says she can tell if it’s a boy by just looking at the belly. Nonsense, I says to her. I only believe the real stuff, doctor. That’s why we wanna see if you can put her under that machine.” She pushed the girl forward.
The girl cradled her belly with both arms as she saw the doctor eyeing it. Could he, just like the midwife, tell if it was a boy by just looking at it?
The old woman tugged the chicken tighter under her arm and pushed the girl towards the doctor again. “We won’t tell nobody, doctor. Just a peek to see if it’s a good belly.”
The doctor sighed, then slid the envelope under a pile of documents. “Very well.”
“Thank you! Thank you, Dr. Lin! I knew you’d understand.” The old woman was ecstatic. The wrinkles around her eyes rippled like water in a pond.
“Go, follow the doctor,” she told the girl.
The girl didn’t move. “Will it hurt the baby?” she whispered to the doctor.
“No. Don’t worry.”
“Well, if it’s not a boy, you won’t be having a baby.” The old woman dragged the girl with one arm while the chicken whimpered under the other.
They followed the doctor to the room with the fancy machine.
As the girl lay down by it, she looked at the chicken in her mother-in-law’s clutch. Its head cocked to one side as its beady eyes stared at her, unfeeling, as they did every morning when she took the egg under its warm, protecting body.
Pained by a hollowing hope, she waited for the doctor to deliver a judgment.
Luck of the Gods
By Taylor Rae
Concrete, Washington — 1910
Someone had shattered Jia’s heart. It was not merely broken, made the unfortunate victim of a falling chunk of limestone. No, the concrete heart had been smashed. Pulverized. They even stomped the scrap metal frame into a spiral like a sun-shriveled dead snake.
Jia stood staring and staring, the factory buzzing obliviously around him. The limestone grinder roared overhead, thrumming through his very bones like his mother’s familiar warning: bad luck to break something on the first day of the new year.
Days earlier, he had hidden his heart in this thin gap between the wall and the chugging machine. He had waited until everyone else left: the office workers, the dusty quarrymen, all those other boys like Jia who darted under the machines sweeping up clinkers, falling chunks of rock the size of a boy’s fist.
But someone had watched him crawl behind the grinder with that little treasure of liquid concrete balanced on a cardboard sheet. Someone had planned this.
Jia crouched over his ruined heart. Part of him wanted to leave it, avoid the humiliation of walking out with his hands full of heartbreak. But his mother’s voice was there again: if you break something on yuan dan, Ahjia, you must wrap it up in red cloth to deflect the bad luck …
He tugged the red bandana off his face and scoffed at it. Some good luck it had brought him. Jia wasn’t even sure if luck could live in a land like this. In Jia’s twelve years, he had never seen proof of his mother’s old gods. Perhaps they couldn’t live in a town called Concrete. She carried them with her across an ocean only to die like a flower in the wrong kind of soil. Still she was back every spring, planting them again.
Overhead, the end-of-workday whistle sounded. The grinder growled to a halt.
Jia fashioned a pouch with the bandana and poured the cement dust into it. He crammed it in his trouser pocket, then scurried back out. He grabbed his broom and pretended to chase glittering silicate out of the corners of the machine.
But when he emerged, a familiar face smirked at him across the huge limestone-grinding room. It was the usual gang of clinker-boys, leaning on their broom handles, waiting for him. Tomas, the ringleader and Jia’s chief tormentor, stood in the front.
“How did it dry, Chinker?” Tomas hollered. The boys behind him burst into coyote cackles as they loped away.
Shame burned red in Jia’s cheeks. He didn’t look up until he heard the rest of the boys leave. He could tell them the truth: that he had been born in the territories; that he would die here, just like them; that he would never know the place people saw when they looked at him. But none of that would matter to them.
He turned in his broom with the foreman who was waiting at the door.
The foreman looked at him the way Jia imagined his father might. “You be careful going home now.”
Jia nodded and turned to go. He paused. “Sir? Do you believe in luck?”
The foreman scowled. “What kinda damn fool question is that?”
Jia cupped the ruined heart in his pocket. “I don’t know.”
“Remember this, boy: ain’t nothing worth believing in but your own two hands.”
“I’ll remember,” Jia said, uncertainly.
He stepped out into the frozen night. The yard of the concrete mill was gravelike and silent. In his mother’s homeland, today was supposed to be the first day of spring. He tried to imagine that fairytale place across the sea, full of sweet-smelling trees and people who knew how to speak to the gods.
But spring was still dead in Concrete. The old gods slept under a thick crust of snow.
Jia walked home along the river that split the town in two, and he felt just as divided.
His family cottage glowed in the dark. Red napkins, sewn into banners and painted with good luck prayers, hung on either side of the door. Jia hesitated on the doorstep before he ventured inside.
Their one-room house had never looked so festive. The massage table had been dragged to the center of the room, a gift from his mother’s old employer in Seattle, which she had hauled across the Skagit Valley with them. Usually, Jia’s mother would sleep on the padded top, while Jia curled up on the earth floor beneath it.
A fine brocade tablecloth covered the torn cushion top. Porcelain dishes crowded the table: egg-skin dumplings and soybeans and cellophane noodles. The air was oily, dizzying.
His mother stood before the fireplace, pushing a fat salmon around a sizzling pan. She didn’t even turn to look at him. “Oh, good,” she said, in their home language. “You can finish setting the table.”
Jia moved to do as she said. Their house had no room for words like bad, broken, lost— not today. If he spoke, the dark cloud of his bad luck would only infect his mother.
“I got a letter from your grandmother. Do you know the new government has renamed it the Festival of Spring?” She scoffed. If it weren’t a sacred day, Jia would hear her curses too. “Some people too quickly forget their roots.”
She turned from the fireplace. When she saw Jia’s face, concern creased her brow. “What happened, my Ahjia?”
Jia could only hold out his broken heart, wordlessly. He closed his eyes as his mother peered inside.
“I made it for you.” His throat tightened. “I’m sorry. I only brought bad luck.”
“It is always good luck to fix the fixable.” She poured out the dust into one of her fine porcelain bowls, then added a bit of water. “You mix. I’ll cook. Bad luck for the fish to burn.”
Jia picked up the bowl and, using his own two hands, made his own luck.
Deep beneath the frozen earth, the sleeping gods finally began to stir.