Negative Space

 

 

By Anne Elliott

The geese grate on my waking ears in the mornings, there by the lagoon every day. Black beaks poke through the mud as they are trailed by their children. The parents keep watch with a beady eye while people pass by on the trails, long black necks rearing when they get too close. I like their protectiveness. My partner calls them water rats and wants them culled to keep the grass clean. There are nights I can see him holding a gun and I taste metal, blood in my mouth, a bullet between my teeth. There are days when, listening to his parents, I can see his father leaving England without a job and $50 in his pocket, his mother’s Portuguese potato farmer family. Sometimes when his children visit, our wall photos come to life and I see how they’ve grown into who they are now, seated on our sofa drinking margaritas. Once, his eldest brought a picture from art class, black and white, a vase with two faces. What’s bare does not always lack power, she told me. On the wall I smile out from the knee of a mall Santa, from beside a friend at graduation. My mother’s passport picture stares from the corner of a frame. I can remember how her face beamed when she was able to smile. My nest was built achingly, twig by yearly twig, empty but cozy with down; there was a time when I dreamed of a different life. Some things I still hold fast in my hands: those that haven’t yet slipped from my fingers like fish, that last flash of silver a brilliance of what could have been. Hope is not a thing with feathers, but scales. I tell my partner the geese are content and belong by the lake; they deserve to be here, too. I have no stories; I now strive for meaning, not purpose. To the geese, I say that it is enough. 

                                                                       *   *   *

Anne Elliott (she/her) is a Canadian East Coaster of mixed Indian and Norwegian descent. She holds a BSc in environmental science and studies creative writing. She currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she is never far from the sea. Twitter: @anneswriting

Particles

 

 

By Stephanie Trenchard

I hear the tub-water gurgle as my husband’s bath drains and I am tired and still hungry. The fire pops, tomorrow will be a big day, first day back after Sarasota, a working vacation. Soon he will shut his door. Sadness creeps into my bones, or maybe into my heart. Florida was fun—the king-size bed, late night whispering—but tonight he sleeps in another room, and I will sleep in our quiet bedroom. The wrinkled blanket on the couch needs straightening and I wish that the earth wasn’t getting so warm. Within our friend group there are two long marriages that are dissolving. The dog barks in his sleep, muffled yelps, slightly startling, the anxiousness of a dog’s dreams, chasing squirrels or perhaps a masters’ absence. On PBS a scientist holds a chunk of ancient permafrost in her hand. It is dense black like space, and when the temperature warms up in her lab it begins to sprout green buds. It held life within its darkness, maybe God is carbon. Now his door is shut, and I sit alone by the fire in darkness. Surly I will sleep well with no snoring or disruption. I know he loves me. The dog sleeps snuggled alone on his cushion, which will eventually become landfill before putting off methane gas from the bits of skin and hair that are embedded, and again, I exhale, reminding myself that I am assembled molecules. There are newly discovered forms spotted in the Milky Way, sinewy feminine, curious, and so graceful and mysterious that an artist could have drawn them, and there is no explanation.

                                                                *   *   *

Stephanie Trenchard , a visual artist, working primarily in hot glass and oil painting, out of her rural Wisconsin studio. In contrast to her once-molten-glass sculptures, which can be found in museums and collections, writing and publishing poetry is one of her cooler passions. Her poetry can be found in The Dillydoun Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Writers.com and The Closed Eye Open. You can find her on twitter as or on Instagram @stephanietrenchard or see her work at popelkaglass.com

Among the Beads

A Memoir by Bethany Jarmul

Our Father

I’m 7, standing in the spare bedroom in my grandmother, Nunny’s house. I’m alone; Nunny is cooking dinner in the kitchen—I hear pans clanging and smell the gas stove. I slowly pick up the clear heart-shaped music box that Nunny keeps on the dresser. I wind it five times, open the lid. The metallic melody of “It’s a Small World” greets me. A rosary of blue-gray glass beads is curled up inside. I weave them between my fingers—each bead a tiny round moon reflecting the overhead light. Jesus, hanging on the small metal cross, feels cool and pointy in the palm of my hand.

In Sunday school, I learn songs like “Jesus Loves Me,” but I’m not taught about rosaries. I know these beads have something to do with prayer, with Nunny’s beliefs, which are different from my parents’. I wonder if Nunny kneels when she prays, or if that hurts her old knees. Perhaps she sits on the bed, or stands arms raised toward heaven before crossing herself and whispering “Amen.” Does she pray for me—one of these beads serving to remind her of my round face and dirty-blonde hair?

Do these beads have special power—if I rub them will I gain a superpower? Will I feel closer to God? I roll them around in my fingers, close my eyes, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, breathe in the smell of dust and spaghetti sauce. At first, nothing, just the pinkness of the backs of my eyelids. Then, I feel a tug deep in my belly, a hunger deeper, stronger than chocolate-chip-cookie hunger. Could this be the Father’s touch?

Slipping away in solitude, winding the jewelry box, touching the rosary—becomes a ritual that I repeat—my secret serenity, soothing me, swallowing me in mysteries—content to feel, to know even as I don’t understand.

Hail Mary 

I’m 22, in my parents’ kitchen. Nunny just passed away a few days ago. My mother sits at the kitchen table, my father stands near the sink. 

“At least we know Nunny’s not in pain anymore. She’s in heaven.” I place my hand on my mom’s shoulder. 

“Well, maybe,” Dad says. “We don’t know for sure if she really confessed Jesus as Lord.” He puts a bowl in the sink.  

“Don’t tell me that. That’s not what I need to hear right now.” Mom buries her face in her hands. 

I flash Dad an angry look, rub my mother’s back. 

Later, at Nunny’s house, surrounded by my parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousins, my aunt brings out a plastic bag full of rosaries, a rainbow of colored beads tangled together like the Mardi Gras necklaces at the dollar store. My aunt and uncle, cousins each take one, despite their quasi-Buddhist, definitely-not-Catholic spirituality. They each take one and hold it gingerly or tuck it into a pocket or purse. My parents and sister refuse. 

“Bethany, would you like one?” my aunt asks, holding the bag up to me. 

“No.” I look at my parents for their approving nods. “No, I don’t want one. Thank you anyway.” I swallow the lump in my throat. 

No one offers me anything else, and I don’t ask. My mother gives the remaining rosaries to her cousin Mary, who three decades earlier nearly joined the convent. 

Glory Be

Today, I’m 30, sitting crossed-legged, laptop on my thighs, while my baby jingles the toys on her playmat. For months, I’ve been thinking about the memory of the heart-shaped jewelry box and the rosary. Sometimes I visit the moment in my dreams, the beads fading away, like sparks of glory melting in the palm of my hand. 

I wonder how many times I found solace in that room, in those beads—when my dad quit his job, when my peers were cruel, my first pimple, first break up, first period. Whatever was going on in my life, my grandparents, their home and the familiar objects were a constant, a refuge. Until they weren’t. 

Eight years after Nunny’s death, I still long for those physical reminders of a woman who made me feel safe, well loved, and well fed, and of that spiritual moment—the yearning, warming, growing, consuming of a small ember flushed with oxygen—that I didn’t understand, that I still don’t. 

A few days ago, I asked my mother about the jewelry box. “Yes, Nunny had a jewelry box like that. But I don’t know where it ended up,” she said. “Why do you ask?” 

“Just a memory,” I sighed. 

If only I was writing this with the jewelry box’s notes floating around me, the rosary in my hand. But we often don’t get a second chance to speak up, to be unafraid of the expectations of others, to find meaning hidden among the beads. 

                             

                                                             *   *   *

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Brevity blog, Gastropoda, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal, among others. She earned first place in Women on Writing’s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

Snakes

By Suzanne Halmi

The lake was really a pond, but we were kids, and once you call a thing a thing, it sticks. Naming has a kind of power, too, and it made us feel like it was ours, so all the things we weren’t supposed to do there, like party and swim, we could do. It was okay. It belonged to us. 

It was a manmade pond, and the bottom was sticky mud. There was a small island on the far side, near an inaccessible bank that backed into the thick woods, but no one wanted to go the island because of the snakes. They were in the water, too, but sometimes it was just too hot, or we were too stoned, to care about the snakes.

We loved the pond. Nobody else seemed to know it was there, even though there was a wooden gate for everybody to see. We knew every inch. The woods had been pushed back from the lake, so that there were sunny spots to sit on, not too near the weeds where the pokeweed flourished along with poison ivy. You were okay if you didn’t try to pick some Queen Anne’s Lace or some other kind of flowering weed, or if some newbie boy didn’t think it was funny to grab some pokeweed berries to throw at the girls. There weren’t that many girls. 

In the summer, after buying a pack of cigarettes at the crummy little bar near the road into the lake, after trying to ignore the old man whose mouth was permanently fused up into a sour, angry pucker, after feeling nervous and also dirty that the boys had sent you in because girls could get away buying cigarettes from the machine when they were underage, we went down the dirt road made for the big lawnmower the owner used, and there were wineberries to eat. We ate a lot of wineberries. They tasted good. They were free. Like the lake. That was even before you got to the little wooden gate.

Who came to the lake? Sometimes it was all of us, but that was rare. Mostly the same few, mostly boys, mostly when there was nothing else to do. It took at least thirty minutes to walk there from the nearest boy’s house and there was no shade on that long walk. The sun beat down on us. We trudged. But then there were the berries and the cool, muddy water. The boys were the first in and they went under and came up with their hair all wet, their pale shoulders naked in the sunshine, and then the girls figured, well, why not. After buying cigarettes and eating wild berries, you might as well swim.

The girls always forgot about the snakes. Or they pretended to forget about the snakes and then remembered them. When they remembered, they’d get scared, spooked, and scream. The girls all hated the snakes, and were annoyed that the snakes were there. This was our place, and the snakes didn’t belong. The boys would tell the girls stories about the big ones, the ones that would slither against you in the lake, the ones that might bite if you weren’t careful. Their faces were gleeful when they told these stories. 

One day, we got up there and got in the water and swam around and the old man came up to mow the grass and yelled at us. This was before cell phones, when old men just yelled in person and kept the cops out of it. Even when the cops did show up at parties, you knew it was some old lady who called. The old man yelled, and we got out of the water, and pulled on our clothes over our wet suits and told the worst one of us not to be a jerk, don’t give him the finger, it’s his place. What if the old man starts patrolling? What if he does call the cops?

We didn’t want the old man to think we were all like the worst one of us. 

We wanted the lake like we wanted the cigarettes, and the berries, and whatever we could get to party with. We wanted to be there, together. We couldn’t go all the time, it was too far, but when we were there at the lake, the rest of the world receded. We confessed to each other. We laid on the ground to laugh. We bathed in the muddy water. We owned it.

The old man made sure we left his property that day. He said, shame on you girls. We hung our heads as we left. We knew we were going to have blisters from our wet feet in our old sneakers, knowing we’d burn from the hot sun on our heads as we went down the steep county road. One of us said, I think he’s the guy in the bar, who gives us free matches for the smokes.

We all shrugged and shook our heads, because what did it matter. It was so unfair. We loved the lake. The things you love, they belong to you. We loved the cigarettes we weren’t supposed to smoke, the Jack D we bought from the boys who stole it from their parents, and we loved the lake, with all its flaws.

But the old man who did own it, he thought we were like the snakes. 

We had to sneak in after that, but it was over, going up to that pond. It shrank from being our lake back into somebody else’s pond. I think we only went once, and a girl slapped one of the boys, and it got a little ugly, and then it was over, and when we closed the gate behind us on the way out that day, it closed for good.

                                                                          *   *   *

Suzanne Halmi teaches mythology, fairy tales, and postmodern literature, and writes literary and speculative fiction. Some of her stories have appeared in Subtropics, Southern Humanities Review, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her most recent publication is “Grandpa,” at Andromeda Spaceways. 

General Notes on Catching Truth – A Beginner’s Guide

By Rachel Canwell

  1. Never catch truth in a tin bucket. It  lands with a clang and will always alert others
  1. Truth is usually caught at night, when least expected; frequently bathed in moonlight or the glare of a hidden screen.
  1. Truth is revealed in parts, followed like a trail,  from one murky pool to another. Expect detours, fallen branches, most likely a wolf or two. 
  1. Always dress appropriately and in-line with your particular species of Truth. Consider body armour. Or possibly heels.
  2. Finally, take time to ponder how you will cage your Truth. Assess whether you have the space, aptitude and necessary fortitude required to be the keeper of something that will, undoubtedly out live you? 

*   *   *

Rachel Canwell is a writer and teacher living in Cumbria. Her debut flash collection ‘Oh I do like to be’ will be published by Alien Buddha in July 2022.. Her short fiction has been published in Sledgehammer Lit, Pigeon Review, Reflex Press, Selcouth Station and The Birdseed amongst others. She is currently working on her first novel. 

Website – https://bookbound.blog/writing/

Twitter – @bookbound2019

Big Bird, A Memoir

By Kathy Payne

I am 10. Taller, bigger, than other girls. My friend’s father calls me “Big Bird”. Being different sucks.

I am 12. A calorie-counter book is my constant companion, my bible. I record everything I consume in a diary and calculate the daily totals. If I stay under the limit, it’s a good day.

I am 14. My mother serves bacon and eggs for dinner one night. Gross! I cannot eat that, it’s absolutely out of the question. Think, quick!

“Can I eat in my room?” Scrape, ding, clang. Exaggerated sounds of cutlery as I smear the offensive, calorie-laden offerings across the plate. Delighted by my own cleverness, I stuff the food into a container, storing it for later disposal.

I am 15. What’s wrong with me? I’m too fat to have boyfriend, as other girls do. A local boy calls me a “lump of lard”. I resolve to start another diet. 

I am 21. My big party. I feel out of place. I see family members frantic in the kitchen, stressing out. This is not what I expected – or wanted. This was a mistake. I step outside for some fresh air, wishing I could just go home. I wonder if anyone would notice.

I am 22. “Best time” of my life? Ha! Everything is wrong. I have a “useless” degree, a quiet social life, and despair of ever having a boyfriend. Who would want me? “Everyone else” my age is having a wonderful time. “Everyone else” has lots of friends and goes out clubbing every weekend. “Everyone else” is having a blast. Why aren’t I? 

I am 23. “Can I have two vanilla slices and hedgehog slice, please?”

My regular Saturday order (slices are handy for eating in the car). I demolish them as I drive, feeling a “release”, but no joy. Custard, icing, chocolate – the sweet taste of my binge barely registers. 

I bring them back up in the shower, hoping the food doesn’t block the drain, lest I be discovered. I never was.

                                                                                *   *   *

Kathy Payne hails from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently exploring a range of genres and story lengths. Kathy is a life-long sci-fi and fantasy fan, and a mother of humans and whippets. You can find her on Twitter.

Giant Rock

By Greg Roensch

I’m steering a speedboat across the desert. 

Signs warning about flash floods are everywhere. Alternating with signs pointing the way to Giant Rock. I learned about Giant Rock from the woman selling knickknacks at the Integratron sound bath gift shop. “It’s the largest freestanding boulder in the world,” she explained. “It’s seven stories tall.”

So, I’m not all that surprised when I arrive at Giant Rock to find a glass and steel and concrete building on the face of the massive granite boulder. Seven floors of office spaces. Cubicle after cubicle. With all the computers humming – and espresso machines, too.

But where are the workers, I wonder? Where are all the people and how horrific is their commute? Two quails stroll through my legs, followed by eight quail babies the size of my thumbs. And when I look closer, I see that they really are thumbs.

I follow the thumbs for a few steps, but my attention is drawn to another speedboat racing across the sand. It roars like my old Triumph motorcycle. And it spits sand and small critters into the air. Squirrels and bunnies. Lizards and hummingbirds. They all giggle, and I’m relieved to see them land on their feet before scurrying off or flying away. Their giggling tickles my ears.

The woman from the Integratron gift shop waves from the backseat of the speedboat. She’s the one who told me to come here in the first place. Her nametag says “Venus,” and she resembles Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot.” I wonder if I’m dressed in drag. I reach up to feel if I’m wearing earrings (I’m not); I also check to see if my hands still have thumbs (they do).

Venus yells something from the speedboat, only it isn’t Venus any longer but a bobcat urging me to find higher ground. “The rain is coming,” shouts the bobcat. Just then a series of lightning strikes dance across the desert sky. Thunder cracks. “Move to higher ground,” the bobcat shouts again.

I’m no longer standing in the sand or captaining a speedboat across the desert. Now I’m bouncing on a pogo stick, and with each bounce I find myself peering into the Giant Rock office building, with each floor representing a different phase of my life.

First floor: Infancy. Diapers. Pacifiers. And a Casper the Friendly Ghost blanket.

Second floor: Adolescence. Catholic schoolboy uniform. Baseball practice. And getting busted for shoplifting candy at the Ben Franklin Five & Ten.

Third floor: Teenage years. Marijuana, mescal, and mushrooms. Tripping over a dead body on a moonless night in Golden Gate Park. High school hair. 

“Was that really my hair?” I ask.

“Yes,” replies the bobcat, “but hurry up… you don’t have much time.”

I bounce up to the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors, glancing at each phase of my life, while heeding the bobcat’s warning to move faster.

Then I hear a roar in the distance before glimpsing a tidal wave coming my way.

“Oh, God,” I cry. “Please help me.”

Only it isn’t God who answers my prayer. It’s Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” who raises his staff and parts the water just far enough for me to pogo up to the seventh and top floor, where I come upon myself on my deathbed.

Venus is there. Chuck Heston, the bobcat, and the quails are there, too.

Everyone is crying, bawling their eyes out and lamenting that I can’t be saved.

“Don’t worry,” I tell them, though no one hears me. My words are drowned out by the music of the spheres being played on crystal bowls by a quintet of hyper-sentient aliens who chant my name and assure me everything will be fine. 

                                                         

                                                            *   *   *

Greg Roensch writes flash fiction and poetry, makes short poetry-films, and writes and records original songs. His writing has appeared in Dream Noir, 365 Tomorrows, Defiant Scribe, Potato Soup Journal, and elsewhere. His poetry-films have been official selections at the Holly Weird Film Festival, the Absurd Art House Film Festival, the Socially Relevant Film Festival, and elsewhere. 

Wolf Song

By Nancy K. Fishman

I wish she wasn’t afraid of me. Every Saturday, before she walks to her grandmother’s house, I take a dirt bath and chew on the longest nails on my front paws. I see my reflection in the pond: a grey wolf with fiery yellow eyes. I comb the burrs out of my tail and practice speaking in a voice that might pass for human. 

I dream of her petting me; of pushing my black, wet nose into the moist palm of her small hand and feeling her scratch my ears. We curl up together in the cool green moss. She tells me stories about her friends, her grandmother, and how she got the scar on her right eyebrow. I stretch one paw over her, shielding her from the wind and curl my tail around us. She leans against me and seeks the warmth of my fur and the firm beat of my heart. It pounds steadily for the small girl with red hair and innocent palms. The moon rises and I resist a desire to howl. 

On Sunday, I awake from my dream and search for her among the blueberries, where she often lingers. She rounds the curve, cherry red lips stained blue and sees me. She is frozen in fear and I see the whites of her eyes. I could eat her in six or seven bites; this is what my instinct demands. I feel it coming over me, a reflex, an imperative to tear her limb from limb. I slink over to her, where she is frozen to the ground like a tree on the riverbank. I am closing in on her, my breath hot and my eyes keen. She opens her mouth to scream, but fear has closed her vocal cords and the only sound remaining is her shallow breath. When I am within striking distance, I gently put my wet nose in her hand and slowly lick, savoring each salty crystal, each delicate line in her palm. When I lick her other hand, she slowly understands that I want to play. She tentatively scratches my head with her dirty nails, and then, when she realizes that I will not hurt her, she giggles nervously and gives special attention to my ears. I bark hoarsely with delight and then howl, to tell the world that I have found joy in the sticky palms of a little girl who is no longer afraid. 

                                                       *   *   *

Nancy K. Fishman received her MFA in Creative Writing in fiction at San Francisco State University in May 2021, including a Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Achievement. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in English with an Emphasis on Creative Writing. She has been a resident at Write On, Door County (WI) and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony (CA). Her short story “Stoplight” was a runner-up selected by Joshua Ferris for Symphony Space’s 2021 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. She is currently working on a novel. 

My First Dead Dog

By Samuel Saperstein

I didn’t know what to do with one so I went for a walk in the rain. It was more a drizzle than a rain, and the sidewalk was more ice than sidewalk. At one point, I slipped, fell, broke my tailbone, and rolled onto a stranger’s snowy lawn. The stranger came out in a brown bathrobe, holding a brown tobacco pipe.

“You doing alright down there, son?” he asked.

“My dog died,” I said.

He took a puff from the pipe. The smoke dissipated into the clouds, grey as gauze.

“Lay as long as you need.”

“Thank you.”

One time, when I was nine, the dog ran at me full force and knocked me onto my back. It was the first time we’d met. He outweighed me by about five pounds at the time, though eventually I got bigger while he stayed the same. I remember feeling disoriented, lying on the grass at the public park where we’d met up with the people from the shelter. Over the following years, I did my best to mold that disorientation into love.

I tried to get up from the stranger’s lawn, but a bolt of pain shot out of my tailbone. I lay back down. It was a beautiful day for it. The clouds, the cold, all of it, really.

 

                                                       *   *   *

Samuel Saperstein is a writer from Michigan.

Frankie’s Gifts

By Emma Erlanger

Peppered steak. Chopped onions. Dill. The stuff Frankie’s dreams were made of. Being a cook meant being perpetually full, which was just how she liked to be. She slept in breadcrumbs from all her midnight snacking, and she awoke to the uneaten pastries she left on the nightstand each evening for her morning self to have. She liked them better when they were stale. 

So few people treated themselves with kindness, but not Frankie. She knew how to surprise herself, how to leave herself little presents, ways to show herself she cares. An extra five dollars in the pocket of a coat, two cigarettes in a pack at the back of a drawer, the clothes she would buy and put away with the tags still on them so that when times were tight she could still feel like she’d gone shopping. 

People might have thought from her poor skin and lack of rigorous exercise, as well as the constant garlic scent she carried with her everywhere, that she was a mess, unkempt, unloved. They didn’t know the first thing. 

They didn’t know her passion for garlic, the whole raw cloves she would sneak as snacks when she was on the clock. They couldn’t smell the twice-daily soaping and fancy lotions she gave herself underneath her pungent cloak. They didn’t know that her acne was hormonal, that she walked everywhere she went and had healthy lab results every annual physical. That was alright by Frankie. She didn’t need them to, when she knew herself so well. 

                                                               *   *   *

Emma Erlanger is a writer and visual artist in Los Angeles, CA. Her writing has been published in Backchannels Magazine, and she is currently finishing a Creative Writing program with UCLA Extension. She lives with four cats, one comedian, and the everlasting hope for happy endings.