All posts by JONAHmagazine

A literary magazine about challenge and change

Midnight Mud Cruise

Moonlight Mud Cruise

Bill Diamond

The plan was to make indelible memories. The unspoken expectation was the memories would be the positive kind. Expectations don’t always work out.

I would soon depart Washington, DC for a life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A camping trip to Assateague Island National Seashore was on my pre-move Bucket List. Early May before the tourist crowds seemed to be a propitious time. The weather forecast was clear.

On arrival, the island was sunny and warm. There was no need to track down the Chincoteague wild ponies that are the island’s main attraction. They are EVERYWHERE from the moment you enter the Park. Although these feral horses are legally wild, their behavior belies that fact. They are not averse to human contact and many of the ponies are aggressive beggars. Park brochures warn you to stay a safe distance from the beasts because they can charge, kick and bite. Apparently, no one informed the ponies to similarly keep away. They readily approach cars, picnic tables, camping tents, and anyplace they darn well please. It’s a simple life. The horses spend their days eating; begging for food; eating; causing traffic jams; eating; mating; and eating.  

A full day of touring the island, photographing the horses and hiking the beach was capped off with a fortifying crab stew dinner at the Globe Theater restaurant in nearby Berlin. It was dusk when I returned to my site in the Bayside Campground. A ruddy orange, near full moon was just breaching the horizon.

My campsite backed up to the tidal marshes adjacent to Sinepuxent Bay separating the island from the mainland. The moonlight was bright enough to cast a slight shadow and illuminate the wispy clouds. I made a spontaneous decision to take a short moonlight kayak cruise through the wetlands before enjoying the campfire. It was custom made for creating a timeless recollection. What could possibly go wrong?  

Pulling the kayak off the truck, I realized it was an act of faith that it was still seaworthy. It spent the winter hanging beneath the deck. The sky blue bottom was marred with ugly brown drip marks where the deck above had been re-stained last Fall. When I had lifted it from the hanging straps, a squirrel nest had dislodged from the inside and tumbled onto my head. I dropped the boat and beat my skull to ensure no vermin were relocating to my hair. My father taught me, “If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you.”. If true, I am soooo up shit creek.

When I put it in the water, I was relieved the kayak was watertight. Buoyed by the good omen, I secured my life jacket and launched before second thoughts could arrive. The scene was idyllic.  The moon was luminous and reflected off the tentacles of water meandering through the marsh. Calls and responses of the night birds drifted from the trees.

The nearby woods sheltered me from the freshening breeze. It also protected the bugs from dispersal. While my repellent kept them from biting, they swarmed annoyingly. I kept my mouth closed to avoid inadvertently ingesting a serving of bugs for dessert.

To steer clear of the choppy water of the open Bay, I wended my way among the narrow channels of the wetland. Paddling in and out of small tributaries, I worked a good distance across the bog before feeling a chill and turning for home. As I started to head South, so did the excursion. When I ran aground the second time, I realized that at low tide these wetlands turn into mud flats.

Using the paddle as a pole, I pushed off the bottom and moved with more urgency down the narrowing canals to keep pace with the rapidly retreating water. The water was winning the race. As luck would have it, the night was also turning darker. It was an inconvenient time for the moon to choose to play hide and seek. Note to self: even ‘wispy’ clouds can significantly block the moonlight. While I’d had the foresight to bring a headlamp on the camping trip, that foresight didn’t extend to bringing it in the kayak.

Stuck on another mudbar, I couldn’t discern a path forward. Well, … if not prepared, the explorer must be flexible. I decided to exit the boat and haul it overland a short distance to a wide channel with access back to the campsite. Good plan, but the topography wouldn’t cooperate. The first sign of this was when I stepped out and my foot sunk into the muck. While this wetland floor was adequate to support saltmarsh grass, my body clearly exceeded it’s carrying capacity.  

The alternative of spending the night in the kayak until the tide turned was unappealing. I resigned myself to my legs receiving an unexpected mud spa treatment and trudged through the ooze. Something that should have been common sense, only now came home to me.  May is still early in the warm season. There had not been time for the water to heat to it’s comfortable Summer temperature. The ocean liquid that was pleasant to paddle across was damn near frigid to wade in at night.

Mostly, the mud was shallow and topped at my ankles. But, occasionally, it reached my calf. At those times, the swamp grabbed tight and tried mightily to remove my Teva sandals. As reluctant as I already was about this unexpected ramble, the idea of a barefoot stroll through this quagmire was intolerable. I struggled to free my legs and footwear intact and tried to chart a course across firmer ground that would support my weight. I had limited success.

Dragging a kayak across land constitutes a portage. Portage is a French word and sounds exotic and adventurous. It conjures images of Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition. In reality, it translates in English as ‘slog’. An equally rare term, but one with far less glamorous associations.

Scanning the dewatered swamp, I abandoned the notion of returning to camp by a wetlands water route. My new plan was to traverse the bog and use the open Bay to paddle back toward the campground. Although my legs were cold, my slow progress had me sweating. Trying to be optimistic, I told myself this effort would count toward my weekly aerobic exercise regime. Small satisfaction.  

Sitting in tedious meetings at work, I would glance out the window at the Potomac River and daydream about spending the day paddling. Right now, the warmth of the boring conference room seemed an enticing alternative. It proves the grass is always greener. To divert my mind from the muck sucking endeavor, I tried to distill lessons learned from this misadventure. At work, while evaluating whether to launch a new project, I would counsel staff not to jump in without thinking it through because things are always easier to get into, than out of. This fiasco seemed an apt example for that precept. It brought another cliche to mind: that I should practice what I preach.

The uneven terrain, mud holes and slashing vegetation made the crossing seem like a marathon. Eventually, I reached a sandbar at the edge of the Bay. Pausing to catch my breath, I imagined that for any rational stranger passing by, I presented the suspicious image of an ancient smuggler: dragging a cargo across an uninviting swamp in the dark without any lights. Not to worry, there were no sensible people out and about.

With the cold returning to my body, there was no advantage in further delay. Rinsing the mud from my legs, I was thankful that I retained my two sandals. Pushing the kayak into the open water, the stiff breeze was no longer blocked by the onshore trees and began to push back. The good news was that it scattered the bugs. The bad news was that it was blowing from the direction I had to travel. Deciding a straight line was a quicker path than hugging the beach with potential snags, I aimed straight across the inlet. While better than schlepping the boat across the mud, the paddle home would be no piece of cake. Heading into the wind meant each wave I cut through sent a chill and salty spray toward my face. I must have offended Poseidon in a previous life.   

To my right, there were blinking green lights on channel buoys. Farther away to the North, red lights marked the Park access bridge. Beyond that lay the dim glow of Ocean City. None of that was helpful to me as I headed in the opposite direction toward the dark Park. It was probably only fifteen minutes of paddling, but it seemed longer. I finally reached the shore near where the campground should be. 

The land was an undifferentiated black smudge. The wind had brought in thicker clouds and the moon only intermittently peaked through to shed some minor light. The tops of the trees were silhouetted against the sky. That was of little assistance as I wasn’t landing in the treetops, but in the unwelcoming abyss below.

With nothing to recommend one spot over another, I picked a random patch, landed and debarked. My eyes adjusted only slightly to the gloom. It was enough to see there was no obvious path through the thicket. Rallying my tired limbs, I lifted the kayak onto my shoulders with my head inside. Using it as a battering ram to protect my face from the tangle of branches, I plunged into the undergrowth. Low bushes scraped at my legs. Where was the protective mud layer when I needed it? 

Each time I stopped, the woods were silent, but for a few birds. However, once, I heard a footfall ahead. It was impossible to see in the dark, but from the sound, it was too big for a rabbit and too small for a wild pony. I heard it again. The thought bubbled up that the only animals that size are nasty or carnivorous.  

I told myself I shouldn’t be concerned. After all, I did have a 12 foot kayak on my head. However, it was unclear how great a defensive weapon it would be in the underbrush where I could barely move. To bastardize Robert Frost, the woods now seemed “hungry, dark and deep”.  

Of its own accord, my mind did a hypothetical analysis on whether it was better to be sprayed by a skunk or attacked by a rabid fox. Neither was attractive. Emboldened by my exhaustion, I determined to assert my rightful place on the food chain. I let out a roar to warn off any potential predators. Even to my ears, it sounded like an asthmatic clearing his throat. Despite that weak effort, I persisted with the concept that making noise should deter wild beasts.  

Talking would probably be even less effective than my pitiful roar. Screaming could convey eatable weakness. Since I never learned to whistle properly, my last recourse was singing. I have a limited repertoire. It was the wrong season for Jingle Bells. I can’t do justice to the Star Spangled Banner.  So I settled on Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup”. I loudly launched into the redneck anthem:

    “Red Solo cup, I fill you up

     Let’s have a party, let’s have a party

     I love you, red Solo cup, I lift you up

     Proceed to party, proceed to party.”

If the beer-soaked words didn’t intimidate any wild beasts, perhaps my off-key caterwauling would. With the lyrics reverberating inside the kayak, I continued thrashing through the woods.  When I ran out of the words I remembered, I listened for my visitors.  Silence.  Good news.

However, in the quiet, my imagination offered up an unwanted image of a snake lurking near my open toed sandals. It was likely because I’d seen a number throughout the day. At the moment, I couldn’t remember whether these reptiles were nocturnal. Not wanting to dwell on it, I told myself, ‘don’t even think about snakes’. Inevitably, the minute you say that, all you can think about is snakes. I had to get out of the woods. After some quick charging, I burst panting into a grassy field.  

Breathing heavily and with my chest heaving, I forgot about snakes. Not because they don’t slither in grass, but because a new thought erased them from my consciousness. It was replaced by the idea that if anything is more ubiquitous on the island than ponies, it is their droppings. This was triggered because my left foot stepped into a squishy pile of … something. I was momentarily hopeful it was merely a misplaced mound of mud. However, a pungent and undeniable aroma reaching my nose told me that was wishful thinking. “Shit!”, a loud and descriptive curse escaped by lips and echoed across the land.

I dropped the kayak from my head and rubbed my foot vigorously back and forth on the grass while trying to avoid any more piles. I was only partially successful in knocking the dung from between my toes.

Looking around, I realized I’d made it back to the campground. My site was a hundred yards away. Fed up with the evening, I grabbed the handle of the boat and began pulling it along the grass. At this point, my lightweight craft embodied the proverbial ton of bricks. I  motivated myself with the notion of a hot shower to warm up.   

As I dragged the kayak past the few occupied sites, I had that sixth sense feeling of being the object of strange looks. The other campers probably wondered whether I was stealing a boat in the dark; or, had been the source of the bizarre singing from the nearby woods; or, the rude curser. Or, all of the above. Regardless, I was in no mood to allay their misgivings with a friendly greeting.

Reaching the truck, I quickly grabbed a towel and warm clothes and headed to the shower to ward off what I imagined was incipient hypothermia. There, I received the coup de grace for the evening. No hot water. Great! Since, I was covered in salt and muck and manure, I steeled myself for the chilling soak. How bad could a cold shower be? Pretty freezing bad! I swear the water had to be pumped directly from the nearest glacier. If the military is looking for a replacement for waterboarding, I know the ideal substitute. Managing to survive, I got moderately clean. I will be making a submission to the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest shower.

At least the campfire started quickly. As the flames defrosted my toes and tea warmed my entrails, I spotted ponies grazing near the water’s edge. I had a greater empathy for the chilly downside of their daily existence. Together, we enjoyed the sight of the timeless moon peeking through the clouds.  

END

Photo by Gabriele Motter on Unsplash

Backwater

Backwater

Bill Bilverstone

When he finally came back, he came back with a woman and—clinging to each other, leaning into the warm, slow current—they crossed the river from the opposite shore. 

“Hey!” she called after they’d scrambled onto a low island and crawled thirty or forty yards through thumb-thick willows that shut out much of the twilight, clamped in most of the heat.

Cody glanced back over his shoulder. A disassembled fishing pole thrust from the bulky yellow pack that occulted much of his grimy face. “Just a little farther,” he said. “Just another sixty or seventy yards.”

Donna could barely hear him for the crackle of what must have been eons of drifted leaves, while those that still hung from the willows rattled like tiny bones in the fusty air.

“Damn it!” She shouted when he began crawling again. “Stop!”

Cody fell back on his haunches, turned and fixed her in eyes shining with desperation.

“I know I’ve been asking a lot,” he said. “But I’m not insane. Bear with me, Donna. I can’t afford distractions until we get this over.”

“Help me,” Donna said without pleading. “I know I promised not to ask questions, but I followed you across half the freaking state with you shut up in yourself like a stone. Bear with you until we get what over?”

When she went on looking at him expectantly, Cody crawled back down the tunnel he’d forced in the willows and took her hand

“It begins,” he said, “or close enough, when I was thirteen and we lived in a trailer park a couple of miles upstream from where we are now. My mom gave me her old Discman and a box of CD’s and—especially when they’d scream at each other—I’d lie in the dark listening to the tunes.  

“Anyway,” he said, “This one summer evening after a screaming match with Mom, the old man came bursting into my room, wanting me to take off with him the next day fishing. When I didn’t move fast enough, didn’t answer him quick enough, he tore the Discman out of my hands and hauled me off the bed by the front of my shirt.

 “‘Hey! That’s mine!’ I hollered at this whiskey-smelling jerk with ‘Hotel California’ boiling out of his mitts. And just for that, the bastard smashed my Walkman against the wall.

“For about a second-and-a-half we stood there glaring at each other in the light that fell in from the hallway, and then I lost it big time and gave him this mighty shove. He bounced off the bed, slammed into the wall, and when he went sliding and cursing down between the wall and the bed, I had the good sense to run. I tore through the mudroom, snatched up a pack that I knew held a water bottle and a box of chocolate-covered raisins, and blasted out into the dusk.

“I headed downstream, splashing across an irrigation ditch and loping along the lower end of a misty hayfield until I heard my old man yelling and threw myself into the brush. After thrashing for maybe forty yards, I broke out on the river and ran hard along the bank I couldn’t hear my old man yelling, and then I ran some more. Eventually, I kind of collapsed, still clutching my pack, and when I finally caught my breath, it was so dark I could barely make out an island covered in stunted willows and way-off the silhouettes of ancient trees.  

“I waded across from the opposite shore that we just did, and after a long, dark, claustrophobic crawl through the willows, I came to a clearing with these monstrous old trees. The clearing was mostly bright sand with a few tufts of coarse grass, and way over on the far side where the cottonwoods were clumped together, a pool of black water shimmered in the light of a three-quarter moon and first stars.

“I was just sitting there next to the funky-smelling pool, wondering what-in-the-hell to do next, when something humped up out there, glistening for a moment like the back of a huge lunker fish.

“I right away checked the pack and sure enough, besides the water bottle and box of raisins, there was my cheapo, telescoping fishing pole

“What-the-heck, I thought as I hooked on three or four chocolate covered raisins and plopped them in. Even if it was just my imagination, the casting and reeling will warm me up.

“Right away something big started bumping at the bait, and I got all excited and gave a yank and zzzizzzz here comes hook, line and sinker but half the chocolate covered raisins whipping out of that black star reflecting pool.

“Whatever it was—and I say whatever it was because no trout could live in conditions like that—it must have been spooked, because when I got the hook rebaited and cast back in, it took a while before it began to bite. When it finally did, I waited until it swallowed the hook and then I gave the rod a good stiff jerk. That motherhunper reared back and went plunging all over hell with me reeling and the drag shrieking until all of a sudden it charged up to the surface and stopped. It gave me the willies the way it seemed to peer at me from just beneath the black water. And then it dove. It went straight down, I swear it. With me reeling again and the drag shrieking again, until finally the line broke with a .22-loud Thwack.  

“I got pretty bummed then. I wanted to run home and tell my dad about the humongous fish, but I couldn’t very well do that. What with me being out there in the cold and the creepiness hiding from him. 

“After a while I trudged on back to the willows and scooped a nest in the mass of leaves. I didn’t sleep very well, though, what with these upsetting dreams of hiding and fighting, and in the morning, I felt wrung out. I got up before sunligh reached the clearing, tramped on home and there was my old man sitting on the steps.  

“‘How’d you sleep?’ he says with this shit-eating grin on his big pitted face.  

“‘Not worth a damn.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘let’s run on into town and get you a new music machine. That piece of crap your mom gave you was practically an antique.’

“And that was that, not another word said. Except that he liked to brag to his cronies about the night his skinny kid knocked him on his ass.

Cody sucked a breath and wiped his eyes with the back of a gritty hand.

“Probably out of spite, I never did tell him about the huge lunker fish.”

“Well, thank you” Donna said, more heartsick than appeased, “at least I know why you’re toting enough tackle to land Moby Dick. But I still don’t understand why you decided to come back after all this time.”

 “You know how I’ve been jumpy and short-tempered these last few weeks? With you all the time bugging me with, “Talk to me, Cody. Cody, what’s wrong?’ Well, every night I’ve been having those very same dreams of hiding from and fighting with something I can’t make out. 

“I guess,” he said through a tortured laugh, “I’ve gone and caught myself an obsession.”

Somehow during his tale they’d got themselves switched around so that Donna was holding him as he stared off into the cankered scrub. And that was how they remained, blank-faced with no birds singing, until Donna roused herself, planted a sloppy silly kiss on his neck and said, “C’mon, Cody. If we’ve caught ourselves an obsession, we’d best see it through.”

                                                   

Despite their common purpose and much dusty crawling, an orange froth lathered the west when they broke at last into the clearing. They threw off their packs in the dense, Silurian dusk, and Cody stepped back into the leaves to dig for bait while Donna looked around. It was pretty much as he’d described, monstrous trees and mat-black water, except that one of the cottonwoods had toppled across the pool, its leafless crown shattered like a line drawing of a tree on the trackless sand.

When Cody had his pole rigged and baited, they bellied up to the pool to avoid spooking their quarry and halted just back from the torpid water. Right away Donna noticed that the pool seemed to suck as much light as it reflected, and when something stirred out there, she shuddered at the thought of a boy confronting this place alone. It was then— just as she sensed its rank sterility and vain fecundity and was wanting to drag him away whispering the urgent conviction that this pool had nothing to do with them—that he turned on her his desperate eyes. All she could do was smile and nod and give him up to relentless casting and muttered cursing while the moon rose and the cold seeped in. 

When, after an hour, there was nothing, not a single bite, Donna stood up, shivering, and said, “I’m going to start a fire.”

“What fricking ever” he snapped.

Frustrated as he was, Cody flung down armloads of splintered cottonwood while Donna used her pocketknife to shave kindling before erecting a shock. Flames were licking against the stars and half a dozen white grubs squirmed on the hook as clambered out onto the fallen tree and—balanced two feet above the fire-reflecting pool—flipped the bait out into the water.      

Almost immediately there came a tentative bump and he glanced over his shoulder, eager to whisper, “Hey, Donna, watch this,” but she was already up and stalking out from behind the wall of fire.

Bump Bump Bump the thing persisted. Cody set the hook with a vicious tug and the thing struck back like a barracuda. It plunged and writhed and slammed and jerked, but this time he was man-strong, with a man’s hard-earned skill and reckless determination, and the creature soon ceased its frenzied plunging, rose to a spot not fifteen feet from the log where, once again, it held and seemed to watch.

“Go on, you sucker,” he muttered. “Dive away, you big ugly brute.”

Instead, it rushed straight at him, rising and swimming faster and faster so that a great surging bow wave passed beneath the log where Cody never stopped reeling until the pole was jerked down, curled under and pitched him off with a tremendous splash of the blood warm water.

By the scarlet light of the prancing fire, through the wincing facets of shattered water, it banked and came storming back, long as a man but fisted into a head. He clubbed it with the butt of the rod and kneed it with slow-motion knees while the slack line wrapped them sinking together with the slimy gray eyeless head mashed against his face. 

Cody’s mouth burst open and the brackish water filled his throat as a backlit Donna came stroking down, gripped him under the chin and scissor-kicked them to the bank, where she was on them like a Valkyrie, knife glinting, slashing away the stinging line, while “Kill it,” he gagged. “Kill it,” he gasped. “Kill it before it gets away.”

Very calmly, very firmly, Donna said, “Let it go, Cody. Please let it go”

When he flung himself up, enraged, on one elbow, Donna dropped to her knees and wrapped him in a sinewy embrace. The harder he struggled the tighter she held him, whispering, “Leave it, Cody, leave it alone,” until he ran out of steam, fell back and unknotted his fisted hands.  

At the sound of a grinding slither, they turned and watched the creature—long as a man and toothless with a brow like a sperm whale—flop out into the black and scarlet pool and sink slowly away.

                                                      END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Taquile Island

Taquile Island

William Cass

At an elevation of 13,000 feet, Taquile Island sat alone, as if dropped by the gods, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.  Puno, Peru, the closest town, was twenty miles away.  At that time, 1983, several hundred families lived there, all of them Quechua Indians.  Most of the island was covered in terraces that began at the water’s edge and climbed steeply among stone footpaths and scattered huts to the ruins on the mountaintop at its center.  No electricity, no running water, no vehicles.  It took less than an hour to walk across it in any direction.

Xavier, the youngest boy of one of the families, descended a primary footpath to the island’s main well carrying two empty clay jugs by their rope handles.  Like all males on the island, he was dressed in a loose white blouse under a black vest, black pants, sandals, with a wide red sash around his waist.  He wore a red woolen cap that had tasseled earflaps; the flaps were still tied up in the relative warmth of the dwindling late-May day, but later, after nightfall when the temperature fell towards freezing, he’d drop them.  His clothes had been woven by his mother and grandmother; the sash and cap had been knitted by his father.  The sky on the western horizon mixed vermillion with yellow.  

The well was a hole between two small boulders on the side of the path.  Another clay jug with a long rope tethered to a stake perched next to it.  Xavier set down his own jugs and lowered the roped-one into the hole until he felt it tip over into the water at the bottom.  When it had filled, he retrieved it and poured it into one of his jugs, then repeated the sequence until both of those were filled.  Next, he stood and hoisted them to his side where their heaviness dangled almost to the ground.  He began the climb back to where his family lived near the mountaintop.  He was perhaps nine-years old.  On his way, he passed several other children with empty jugs of their own.

At that same time, his sister was on the other side of the island collecting firewood, sticks and thin branches, in a shawl slung over her shoulders, a load that would become nearly as big as her.  Her twin brother had gone to bring in the family’s sheep; the two of them were a few years older than Xavier.  They’d all left the family work project they’d been helping with that day: the construction of a new hut.  It was for their older sister, Maria, who was in her late teens, and Diego, the boy she’d just married.

The sheep that Xavier’s brother followed were small, black and white.  All of them had red and blue ribbons strung through one of their ears.  Most of the bigger ones also had a front and rear leg tied loosely together to keep them from trying to scamper away; they moved awkwardly and sometimes slipped momentarily over the edge of the terraced pathway.  The sun inched lower, and it began to grow colder.  The dim shapes of slowly moving cows were visible in some terraces, as were other residents completing the same tasks along the pathways.  Here and there across the mountainside, fires and candlelight began to dot the interiors of huts.

Xavier was the first to arrive back at the terrace just below his family’s where three sides of the new hut had already been assembled in a cleared patch beside two scraggly manzanita trees.  Long shadows covered the final wall that his father and Diego had started building with adobe bricks.  In their black dresses, his mother and Maria were using rectangular wooden molds to form new bricks, which they added to the rows they’d set aside to dry.  A mark at the hem of Maria’s dress showed where the embroidered flower indicating unmarried status had recently been removed.  No one spoke.  

Xavier set down his jugs, then reclaimed his place in what was left of the pit they’d been digging and irrigating all day.  He used the spade next to it to break up several new feet of earth, poured water over the spot, kicked off his sandals, and began stomping again on the thick mud he created.  His mother came over and squatted next where he stomped.  She used her hands to scoop mud into her mold and mixed it with bits of straw from a pile next to her.  She shook and turned the mold until the wetted mixture hardly moved.  Then she carried the mold over to the collection of stiffening bricks near the new hut, carefully flipped it over, shook out the new brick, and turned it on one of its short sides to dry.  Maria was turning over other bricks that had stiffened adequately so their remaining sides would dry.  The dark, wet bricks that had first come out of the molds turned a pinkish, chalky color as they hardened.

Diego set a dry brick for the new wall in the next spot Xavier’s father had lined with wet mud mixed with straw, then tapped and straightened it into place with the heel of his hand.  They coated both sides of the new brick and its seams with more wet mud and straw, smoothing the surface with their palms.  The walls at their highest point stood short of six feet, but were taller than each of them.

The family continued to work as light fell further towards gloaming.  Eventually, Xavier’s younger sister, bent under her load, came down a path and dumped her firewood outside their hut’s open door, then joined him in the stomping pit.  Their grandmother came out of the hut and gathered a few scraps of wood for the fire inside that was cooking their dinner of vegetables simmering in a pot.

When the sky on the western horizon had become the color of a bruise, Xavier’s father shouted once, and as they all looked at him, made an “X” with his arms.  They stopped working.  Xavier’s brother was just coming over the nearest rise, his sheep’s cloven hooves clicking softly on the stones, and his father went to help with corralling them.  Xavier’s mother used water from a jug to wash the bottoms of his legs and feet, as well as his sister’s and her own hands, then the three of them walked up to their hut.  Maria and Diego stepped inside the three walls of their new home, looked around it, and embraced briefly before Diego went off to his own family’s hut several terraces away and Maria followed her family into theirs.  Xavier’s father and brother were the last to enter the hut where his grandmother was passing out clay bowls of soup and hunks of brown bread for dinner.  The fire and candles inside provided just enough light to show their faces where they sat on the earth floor and began to eat.

I opened my rucksack, took out a plastic bag of trail mix, an orange, a partially eaten chocolate bar, and the water bottle I’d brought with me on the boat from Puno that morning and began to eat, too.  I was hidden behind a clump of brush under another twisted manzanita tree perhaps twenty yards away and a little higher up the mountainside.  From there, I had a clear vista of their hut, the one they’d been building, and most of that side of the island all the way to the water’s edge at the eastern end where a full moon was just rising.  It threw a cone of shimmering silver across the dark surface of the lake.  I’d walked most of the island earlier that day after arriving on the boat, and then settled into my spot in the middle of the afternoon and began watching the family.  Around that same time, I saw the boat leave on its single daily return trip to Puno.  It was just an old converted fishing boat with benches built into the back for a dozen or so passengers; if they missed me or were concerned about my not being on the return voyage, I had no way of knowing.  I hadn’t asked if there were regulations preventing visitors from staying the night.

While I ate and watched the family finish their meal, I thought about things.  I’d only been able to make out Xavier’s, Maria’s, and Diego’s names when they’d responded to the father’s specific directions to them, but I wondered what the other family members’ names might be.  I thought about the lives they’d fashioned there together, their simple rhythms, their history, their future.  I thought about Maria and Diego’s new life together as a couple and of the woman back home in Juneau I was no longer certain I loved.  I thought about taking the boat back to Puno that next afternoon, the bus to Lima the following day, and then the plane home ending my summer’s travels where she’d be waiting to pick me up at the airport.  I thought about our own embrace there, of returning to our apartment, about starting another term at the elementary school where I taught.  She worked as a graphic artist.  We were both twenty-eight and had been together for two years. 

Full darkness had almost fallen when Xavier and his younger sister came outside the hut carrying the family’s empty bowls.  They used water from a jug to clean the bowls, shook them, and leaned them against the hut on a mat just outside the door. Next to them were the beans, carrots, and onions their grandmother had harvested earlier and sprinkled into a kind of carpet.  While they worked, those inside the hut blew out candles, spread similar mats, and begin stretching out on them under thick woollen blankets.  The mother and father moved into the darkness of the farthest corner, the grandmother next to what was left of the fire, and Maria and the brother to opposite sides of the hut.  I pulled my down sleeping bag out of my rucksack, unrolled it, and climbed into it, too, but stayed sitting up.  A small, cold breeze lifted the acrid smell of collective fires.

Xavier’s sister went back into the hut and crawled under the blanket next to Maria.  Before he went inside himself, Xavier lowered the flaps of his cap over his ears and tied its tassels under his chin.  In the moonlight, his breath came in short clouds.  He looked around him, then his gaze went up to the stars overhead, a canopy so vast it seemed impossible.  From a hut down the mountainside, the notes of a wooden flute broke the silence, a lonely, lovely sound.  For several moments, Xavier stood still, listening,  Finally, he went inside and curled up under the blanket next to his brother.  I lay down then myself, listened to the flute’s mournful song, and waited for sleep to come.

END

Photo by Thomas Quine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The Flower Lady

The Flower Lady

Jonathan B. Ferrini

“The Flores Family Flower Shop” was founded by my grandfather at a road side stand and grew to become a fifty-year-old favorite within San Diego.

I drive the truck to the wholesale flower market at 4:30 in the morning six days per week, purchase the flowers for the day, and unload them at the store. I also do the flower deliveries.

My pop handles the office, my mom and sister are expert flower arrangers, and we all work the phone orders and the counter. 

The “cycle of life” is inherent within the florist business; birth, birthdays, graduations, marriages, sickness, and death. We do our best to provide cheer or empathy to our clients depending upon the circumstances.

We are “first responders” to the savagery of Covid, working tirelessly to accommodate the multitude of funeral arrangements required. 

Covid didn’t “discriminate” when choosing victims. So was the case of “June”, a “soccer mom” whose thriving home-based bookkeeping service failed due to the many restaurant and bar clients shuttered by regulatory closures. The loss of a second source of income, the distractions associated with the children seeking assistance with their home-based on-line school instruction, a husband working overtime at work and with his mistress, placed pressures upon an already crumbling marriage. 

June could no longer afford the stress relieving personal athletic trainer and yoga instruction, and sought stress relief from drinking wine. The increasing wine consumption ceased relieving the stress, and June turned to Oxy found within the medicine cabinet. When the Oxy ran out, she sought sedatives from her physicians based upon fabricated ailments. When the pharmacies and physicians caught wind of the medical charade, June was cut off from her daily “fix”.

The substance abuse interfered with June’s responsibilities as a mom resulting in her husband divorcing June, taking the home and custody of their pre-teen son and daughter. The judge ruled June to be an “unfit mother”.

June found herself homeless with her sole possessions being her minivan and clothes. Her friends and family weren’t keen on helping a “substance abuser” and abandoned her.

June took to living in an inexpensive motel room, subsisting on unemployment insurance until it was exhausted and she was forced to live in her minivan. The stress of living in a car, seeking different places to park each evening, often told to leave by security or police, led to the need for heavier sedation which she found in heroin. June looked into her rear-view mirror and saw a prematurely aging junkie staring back at her.

Seeking a quick nap on a comfortable couch inside an art museum, June marvelled at the beautiful flowers painted by Van Gogh. She dreamed of running free and happy through a field of sunflowers. She was awoken by the security guard and ejected but developed an idea. 

Word spread throughout town. A “Flower Lady” was wandering about giving out flowers to strangers in hopes of a handout. We suspected the source of her flowers were the waste bins behind flower shops. 

As I returned one morning from the wholesale flower mart, I saw a beat-up minivan with a person sleeping inside. I flashed my lights at the car, awakening what appeared to be a female occupant, who sped away.

I opened the trash bin, and noticed all of the discarded slightly fresh flowers had been picked through, necessitating a lock. 

Pop said, “Let ‘em have them. Better giving pleasure to somebody than landing at the dump.”

Every morning, over the course of a week, the trash dumpster was picked through. I parked the truck down the block, and hid to find the woman with the minivan carefully assembling bouquets of discarded flowers. She was quick and demonstrated a skill at arranging beautiful sets of flowers. I let her finish and leave, before bringing the delivery truck around. 

I told Pop who suggested we set a “trap” by leaving a fast-food breakfast, coffee, orange juice, and a dozen roses with an invitation to come inside and meet pop. 

June “took the bait”. She entered the store carefully as if fearing arrest. Pop greeted her and invited her inside his office to sit, handing her a cup of coffee she grasped and savored. 

Pop had an instinct about people. I think it was June’s eyes which won him over. Her eyes were dark orbits with tired red pupils, teary, frightened, craving love and understanding. They spoke to Pop’s emotions.

June was about 5’2’’ inches tall, emaciated, with long, stringy, dirty blond hair becoming gray.  The substance abuse and stress of living in a minivan made a woman in her mid-thirties look to be in her late forties.

Ferrini/Flower/3

June’s clothing and shoes were thrift store cast offs. There was a faint scent of urine about her suggesting the lack of a shower and toilet facilities for days. The lines and wrinkles in her face resembled deep, raging rivers leading to her soul, eventually drowning her, alone in an alley, with the only mourners being garbage cans.  

“Don’t be afraid, ma’am. What’s your name?”

“June. I’m sorry for taking your flowers. I won’t return. Please don’t call the police!”

“My name is Hernan, June, and I won’t call the police. I want to help you.”

After hearing June’s circumstances, Pop recanted,

“When I came to San Diego, I was broke and lived inside my beat-up station wagon parked next to my roadside flower stand. I understand hard times, June. I need extra help today. We’re slammed with customers, as it’s prom season. I’ll pay you $100 cash. We close at 7:00.”

June cleaned up in the bathroom and we provided her a clean shirt and florist apron to cover her disheveled clothing. She immediately went to work at the counter and taking phone orders.

June related to the emotional suffering of a teenage girl without a date requiring a corsage to the prom,

“This corsage is beautiful, darling. I’m certain you’ll attract many gentlemen to dance with you.”

June was empathetic with a young man selecting flowers for a first date,

“What’s your budget, Sir?”

“I was hoping to spend under $10.”

“I suggest a single rose. It will include a beautiful fern, lovely wrapping, and I’ll tie a ribbon around it for $5.00. She’ll love it!”

June began to sob, and retreated to the restroom. My mother knocked on the door and asked to be let in to console her.

“Why are your crying, June? You’re doing a wonderful job!”

“The teenage girl and young man are the age of my children taken from me. I haven’t seen them in months and may never will!”

“June, honey, there’s a nightly non-denominational substance abuse meeting run by a female pastor named “Sunny Dominguez”. Many of my son’s friends have benefited from these meetings. Between your hard work here, and your meetings, we’ll have a lawyer convince the judge to grant you visitation rights.

“You’re about the same size of my daughter. The three of us we’ll go through her closet and I’m certain Lupe will be pleased to have you pick out and keep any clothing she no longer wears.

“Sunday dinner is a big deal around our house. Please consider yourself a permanent guest.”

Mom held June tightly until she could resume work.

June had a glow on her face, bolstered by pride in a good day’s work, $100 bill, and a new found confidence in seeing her children. 

Pop offered June a full-time job, and use of a cot in the store room where she could live until she got back on her feet. 

In the ensuing weeks, June was always pleasant, upbeat, and hard working. The work around the store, combined with the opportunity to meet similarly situated people of all ages at the sobriety meetings, brought June happiness and sobriety.

June mastered all facets of the business including the register, taking phone orders, creating flower designs, and even making deliveries and pick ups when I wasn’t available. Customers would call and ask for June by name.

About three months into the job, June was excited to report she had been granted a visitation hearing and hoped her regular substance abuse meetings and Pop’s testimony would win visitation rights with her children.

Pop attended the visitation hearing, sadly reporting the judge denied visitation rights citing “unproven sobriety”. 

June never returned to work. 

We hadn’t seen June for months until I arrived one morning and saw her minivan. She was slumped across the steering wheel, a hypodermic needle within her arm, and an envelope marked for Pop. Alongside her body were opened photo albums showing her family; likely her last moments together with those she loved.

Pop opened the envelope, and found a cashier’s check payable to a funeral home for a cremation and scattering of ashes at sea. There was a second cashier’s check made payable to our flower shop, requesting the creation of a simple spray of tropical flowers.

Mom and my sister immediately went to work on the funeral “spray”. We charged no fee for the “spray” choosing instead to donate the check to Sunny’s substance abuse center. The funeral home provided a 50% discount and donated the remainder to the same cause.

It was sunset when the boat sailed around Point Loma and into the Pacific Ocean. All of our family was aboard. June’s family chose not to attend.

Sunny Dominguez eulogized, 

“The world is full of fragile souls with loving hearts who become lost on their journey through life. When faced with adversity, and despite valiant efforts to recover, they succumb. June was one such soul.

She was fortunate to have met your family and receive your love and compassion. She will always be a member of your family, and you’ll find solace in the belief you were chosen to help June.”

June’s ashes were placed inside a water proof floating container along with her photo albums. The beautiful tropical spray was attached to the container and placed into the ocean by Pop. 

We watched June’s “vessel” quickly carried by the ocean current west towards tropical paradise as the sun set into the ocean. 

We shouted,

“Bon Voyage, Flower Lady.” 

“We love you!”

END

photo by Harry Rajchgot

World Travellers

 

World Travellers

J L Higgs

The airplane descended through the field of dark gray clouds into dazzling sunlight.  Asha leaned forward in her window seat, raised her camera, and pointed it at the dense jungle o

f ancient Banyan and Silk Cottonwood trees.

As the plane’s wheels bumped against the tarmac, she thought,  Air Force.  The takeoffs and landings by each branch of the armed forces were as different as signatures.

Removing her chewing gum, Asha wrapped it in paper and placed it in her shoulder bag next to a small, thick plastic bag.  “We’ll be there soon, Jabir,” she said. 

Traveling North on Sivutha Boulevard, the tuk-tuk moved through the encroaching untamed forest land with a determined steadiness, leaving Siem Reap behind.  After about 20 minutes, it had reached the sandstone causeway.  From there, the towers built to represent Mount Meru could be seen.   

Asha and Jabir were world travellers.  In the last three years, they’d been to Stonehenge, Chichen Itza, Petra, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Easter Island.  All of those places had been impressive,  but this trip was special.

o

After moving into a condominium complex without having done her normal due diligence, Asha had had a sleepless night.  Were there other single older women?  What about other black residents?  She’d often been “the only one,” and found interacting only with people lacking experience and an understanding of people of color uncomfortable.  

As she returned from her early morning walk, she saw a dark-skinned man outside the door of the unit diagonal to hers.  He had salt and pepper colored hair, a graying moustache, and was wearing a well-tailored suit.  With one arm, he was pinning a set of file folders against his side.  In his other hand, he held a commuter cup as he attempted to lock his door. 

“Good morning,” called out Asha.  

  Spinning in her direction, the folders slipped, and the cup’s contents spilled onto his hand and clothing.  “Shit,” he said, shoving the door open with his shoulder.  Then he kicked it shut behind him, his keys left dangling in the lock. 

That evening, as Asha continued unpacking her moving boxes, she heard a knock at her door.  Through its peephole, she saw the man from across the hall.  Sighing, she opened the door the length of its safety chain.   

“Can I help you?” 

“An apology.  For this morning,” he said, holding out a bottle of wine.

“That’s not necessary.” She started to close the door. 

“Then a welcoming gift from one neighbor to another,” he added.  

She hesitated.  His warm brown eyes appeared sincerely apologetic.  “Would you like to come in?”  she asked, unhooking the chain and accepting the wine bottle.

“Maybe for a minute or two,” he answered.

After they exchanged names and basic pleasantries, he explained that he’d been running late for a morning appointment with a client.  She then asked if he’d like to join her in a glass of wine?  He said he didn’t want to interrupt whatever she’d been doing. 

“No worries,” she said.  “I know where the wine glasses are.”  Walking over to a stack of moving boxes, she slid the top box aside and opened the lids of the one beneath it.  “Voilà.”

After pouring the wine, Asha went over to her couch and plopped down cross-legged.  Jabir looked around for a place to sit.  Boxes and unpacked items occupied all the other furniture in the room, so he joined her on the couch.

As she took a sip from her glass, he noted her high cheekbones, cropped hair, and large gold hoop earrings.  She possessed a unique sculptured beauty.  Smiling, her dimples surfaced, making her look playfully mischievous.

“Where are you from?”  he asked.  “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” “Air Force brat.” She stretched an arm along the top of the couch.  “I was born in South Korea.  My father was stationed at Osan Air Force Base at the time.  You?”

  “Born and raised right here,”  he said, shaking his head.  “What was it like?”

“South Korea or being an Air Force brat?”

“Either…  both?”

“Ever been to South Korea?”

“No.  Always wanted to travel, but never had the opportunity.”

“We moved around.  Ramstein in Germany.  Lakenheath in the UK.  You go where you’re sent.”

“Must’ve been hard.”

“You adapt., though constantly being the new kid isn’t great,” she said, pausing momentarily.  “The hard part is making sure not to form attachments, since your living situation is temporary.  Now that I’ve retired, I’m looking forward to some stability.”

“What’d you do before retirement?”

“Air traffic control.  Same as my father.  I joined the Air Force after high school. Completed my tech training in Biloxi, and was assigned to Aviano, Italy.  Got transferred a few times after that and when I left the Air Force, I got a job across the river, at JFK.” 

“You always wanted to be an air traffic controller?”

“No.”  She laughed and lithely stretched out her legs.  “I will say that keeping all the moving pieces on the ground and in the air in sync is exciting.  That’s why controllers and pilots rely on a shorthand language for communication.  You’ve got to be flexible, creative, and decisive.”    

“Sounds intense.” 

“It can be stressful,” she said, then took another sip of wine.  “I wanted to be a photojournalist, but my folks weren’t too keen on the idea.  They didn’t think that was a realistic career goal for a black girl.”  She shook her head.  “I mentioned Gordon Parks to them and they said one exception was exactly that, and he was a man.  How ‘bout you?”

“Insurance?”  He shook his head.  Necessity had dictated his life decisions.   “Pure accident.”  

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” she said, raising her glass in a toast.

“John Lennon.” He returned the gesture, then took a sip from his glass.

They drank in silence, both lost in their thoughts.  At times, their eyes made contact, and they shyly smiled at one another.  

“Ever miss it?” he asked, breaking the silence. 

“What?”

“The Air Force?  JFK?”

“Sometimes I miss being an air traffic controller,” she said.  “It’s like you’re conducting a symphony but with real life and death implications.  The Air Force or JFK?  Never.  In every workplace, there’s someone who causes infighting.  And there’s also usually some white guy in upper management making everyone’s lives miserable.  Know what I mean?”

“Definitely,” he said, nodding.  “And they’re always spouting their unasked for opinions no matter how offensive they may be.”

“Exactly.”

“What’s that saying?  The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see just a behind.”  

They both laughed. 

“I can’t count how many times I’ve had to hold my tongue,” he said.  “If I ever said what I truly think of them or what they say, I couldn’t keep a job.”

Grimacing, she nodded.  “Well, at least we can commiserate among ourselves.”

“Yeah.  It’s one of the rare times we don’t have to be on our guard.”

With the atmosphere having once again turned somber, Asha and Jabir sat silently, contemplating their own thoughts, and sipping the wine in their glasses.

Suddenly, Asha sprang to her feet.  She went over to one of the moving boxes and removed a thick photo album.  Returning to the couch, she set the album down on the coffee table in front of it.  As she paged through the album, Jabir slid forward to get a better look, his thigh inadvertently touching hers.  He looked down.  She’d stopped on a page of sunlit, whitewashed buildings with blue-domed rooftops.

After staring at the arresting image for a few moments, he turned the page.  There was a photo of The Great Wall of China with morning mist rising from its rough-hewn stones toward snow-capped mountains. 

  “Did you take these?” he asked, turning back to the first photo.  “What’s this one?” “It’s of some homes overlooking the Aegean Sea in Santorini, Greece at sunset.” “They’re amazing.”

“Well, thanks to the US Air Force, I traveled extensively while I was in the service.  I’ve got a bunch of albums like this one…  if you’re interested?”

“I’d love to see them.” 

After that, Asha and Jabir began taking turns hosting each other at dinner once a week.  Following dessert, they’d look at her photos.  He’d ask questions about each country’s food, customs, and inhabitants.  She found his inquisitiveness and attentiveness to her responses uniquely refreshing.  He was consistently impressed by the depth of her knowledge.

  As the months passed, their dinners became more elaborate, the bottles of wine more expensive, and that evening’s attire in line with that of a special occasion.  It was during one such dinner that Jabir told Asha what had led to his lifelong fascination with foreign places.

  Excited by the opportunity to see bare-breasted indigenous women in the Amazon Rainforest, a childhood friend had snuck a copy of The National Geographic magazine from his home.  In that same issue, there’d been an article about the Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia.  The photos of the multi-tiered sandstone buildings adorned with images from Hindu mythology had so captivated Jabir that he requested a subscription for his 12th birthday. 

From then on, he’d devoured every page of the yellow-covered monthly magazine when it arrived.  And while his adolescent peers decorated their bedroom walls with photos of star athletes and hot cars, he covered his with pictures of places he dreamed of visiting.  

On another evening, as they looked at some of Asha’s earliest photos, she went into her bedroom and emerged with a small cube-shaped camera.  It was a 243 Baby Brownie Special.  Her very first camera.  She told Jabir her maternal grandmother had given it to her when her father received his first overseas assignment.  She and her grandmother had been very close and agreed that Asha would send her photos of the places they lived.  But photography soon became an obsession.  Over the years, Asha had acquired more sophisticated equipment and taken courses covering everything from shooting techniques and photo composition to darkroom skills. 

With their ages, lived experience as black people, and interest in travel in common, Asha and Jabir’s relationship flourished. In addition to their dinners, they began spending time together attending movies, going for sunset walks, and watching television.  Being in each other’s company so often also led them to share their life stories. 

Asha learned a stroke had partially paralyzed Jabir’s father the summer he graduated from high school.  Because of that, he’d foregone college and gotten a job to help his family financially. When the last of his four much younger siblings completed high school, he was studying for his insurance licensing exam.  After that, he’d married, subsequently gotten divorced, then spent years caring for his aging parents.

“I’ve lived alone since their deaths,” he said.  “I’m not that close to my brothers and sisters.” 

“That can be a good thing,”  she said, “Provided that it doesn’t lead to loneliness.” 

Jabir learned Asha was an only child and never married, despite twice coming close.  In both instances, her prospective husband had wanted her to leave the service and be a stay-at-home mother.  Jabir asked her if she ever regretted not marrying.  

“I’ve grown accustomed to having my own personal space and things as I want,” she said.  “Sometimes when I was doing a lot of traveling, it would have been nice to have had someone with me, but things just didn’t work out that way.”  

“That sounds a bit lonely.”

Looking thoughtful, she then said, “Well, during the day, you’re normally busy sightseeing.  It’s the constant dinners and nights alone in a foreign country with no one to talk with that are hard.”

That night, for the first time in a very long time, they spent the night with one another.  Theirs was not the sexually charged passion of youths.  Instead, each of them took simple comfort in knowing someone understood and deeply cared for them. 

   In the morning, when Jabir awakened, he lay there watching Asha sleep peacefully.  When she finally opened her eyes, he smiled at her and said, “I’ve been thinking.  We could travel together.” 

She stared at him, the silence discomforting.  Then he noticed the warmth in her eyes. Feeling reassured, he said, “I’ve been thinking of retiring.  We’re both in good health.  I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

“I’d like that,” she said, moving closer until their bodies touched.  “You only live once.” After that, Asha and Jabir often spent the night together.  The focus and purpose of their dinners became deciding what places they’d like to visit.  First to make the list was Angkor Wat. When the places and their potential travel schedule had been settled upon, Jabir asked Asha if she thought they should purchase travel insurance.

“Why?” she asked.

“For protection.” 

She laughed.  “Once an insurance salesman, always an insurance salesman.  You do realize there’s no such thing as unlimited protection or an absolute guarantee.” 

He joined her in laughter.

o

Now,  late in the day, as the sunlight was waning, most of the tourists had departed.   Asha’s thoughts returned to the present as she set her shoulder bag on the ground, knelt down, and pretended to tie her shoe.  Digging in the ground with her forefinger, she created a shallow trough.  Then, she reached inside the shoulder bag, pulled out the plastic bag, and poured its coarse, white, sand-like contents into the trough.  

Jabir’s strokes and heart attack had been sudden and unexpected.  In the three years since his death, Asha had done her best to fulfill their plans.  His siblings, not having kept in contact with their brother, had actually appeared relieved when she asked for some of his cremated remains.  

Task done, Asha swept the loose dirt back in place with her hand and stood up.  She placed the now-empty plastic bag inside the shoulder bag and draped its strap over her shoulder.

  “Angkor Wat is beautiful, Jabir.,” she said.  “You’d have loved it.”  Then, after kissing her fingertips and touching them to her heart, she raised her camera toward the temple and pressed the shutter release button.      

END

Photo attribution: Termer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Poems from the Loo

Poems from the Loo

Catherine A. Coundjeris

I thought it was important.

Zoom, zoom far away and long ago

when I was flying high above the clouds

on a journey to England from 

my home in Maryland.

Head full of old English poetry

and visions of plum pudding

and clotted cream dancing in my head.

I thought it was important

my first flight ever and I packed 

all the poetry I had ever written

in a white plastic bag that I carried

without a care in the world with my grey purse

on board the airplane.

Mother said, Careful, you will lose it all,

but I didn’t believe her.

I thought it was important

on a six-hour flight.

Dinner in a basket and  

I tucked the basket and green apple 

into the white plastic bag 

to keep for later

and then landed at Heathrow

Zoom, zoom onto Victoria station.

I thought it was important.

Bags and all

picked up by George and Maureen

And whisked off to their London flat.

A nap and a holy dream

of stone castles and grey skies.

Then a trip to the fish market

to buy our salmon dinner

and to get some fresh air.

After a bowl of olives

I thought it was important.

My appetite turned to the apple

as I realized the white bag was gone.

All my poetry was lost!

George took me to Victoria Station

and there in the loo the

Jamaican caregiver told me

I thought it was important.

She had tucked it into her

cleaning closet for safe keeping.

Basket and apple and poems.

George more knowing than I

gave her a large tip

and I was forever grateful

to George and that beautiful woman

and her lovely words.

I thought it was important.

What was lost was found again!

Those lyrics echoed in song

 forever in my mind:

Poems from the Loo.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

TRICKS

TRICKS

John Grey

Pick a card.
Any card.
Let me guess.
It’s the sunlit oak trunk
of Canadian forests.
No wait,
I see red-shelled bedbugs
and the suit…
the flag of storms.
Now put it back
among the tender people
and the loudmouths,
the revolutionaries
and the computers.
Let me shuffle.
Pick another card.
It’s the black misted canyon
of New York hotels.
Am I right?
Stop shaking your head like that.
I know it’s thousands of people in pain
of the metal finger cymbals.
I’m sorry.
You were expecting
the ten of clubs or something.
But I’m not a magician.
You don’t even need
to pick a card.
I can tell you it’s
the penumbra of reckless cancers
or the weakened eye
of Capitalism’s forefathers.
Okay, no more tricks.
I’ll just hand you
the last thing I wrote about you.
No, don’t shuffle it.
Don’t ask me to pick a card.
If you know it’s the
white-capped waters
of love long passed,
then what’s left for me to say?

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Of Autumn

Of Autumn

for Josephine

Rose Maloukis

light—

days when the wind

floats branches on the far

side of the park, 

pushes slow and rolls 

light onto leaves—

they bow, turn, lift 

their shoulders I

I cannot look away

your shoulders

light brightens—

naked yellow lapping 

the last warmth 

before stepping 

into cold corridors

little little girl in light

determined, walks

with her father—

he glances at me

you glance at me

light—    

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Things Fall Off

Things Fall Off

John Reed

Things fall off and roll under other things. 

And sometimes they break when you’re almost done. 

And then you’re late but you have to go back. 

And people think they’re being so clever. 

And the cords are tangled just out of reach. 

And what should we do with our precious time?

And what would we do without Novocaine?

Maybe eat with our hands, much too loudly. 

Maybe ask our frenemies for more money. 

Maybe take the extra party favor.

Maybe flip the switches and hitch the latches. 

And itemize what we can’t leave behind. 

And scream in tunnels on the sleeper train. ⠀

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Climbing Mount Royal, 2020

Climbing Mount Royal, 2020

Peter Richardson

You’re twitchier than usual coming up this path

that shadows the curves of Camelien Houde road

but at least you’ve sloughed off the windy effluvia

of other people’s sidewalk breath as you slowpoke 

up the last three turns to the guard-railed belvedere.

Here’s where muscle cars idle in parking spots. Fans

of flaming tailpipes pass blunts between leather seats

till someone coughs which sparks a round of guffaws

and loud heckling. You remember that kind of a scene

taking place five decades ago in someone’s apartment.

Can it really be that long? Taj Mahal and The Doors

provided background music in the last years of a war

that ended on an embassy rooftop. You sat in circles

in rooms reeking of patchouli oil, while somewhere

graduate students struggled onward to their degrees.

You wonder if the guys in that Camaro give a crap

about becoming accountants or even laying cement

so it doesn’t crack after the first frost. Looking east

to Rougemont, you attempt to quiet your thoughts,

seeing them as clouds hanging over Mt. St-Hilaire.

At last, you stumble onto the Olmstead summit loop

with its west-facing glimpse of Lac St-Louis. That,

surely, is what you came for—a far off panorama 

of shoreline and river that just keeps on flowing

beyond jammed ICUs and sleep-deprived nurses.

Aren’t they the ones you should be saluting 

as you head for Beaver Lake, Tu Fu’s Selected

riding in your back pocket? All honour to that 

frail court advisor who, despite bouts of asthma,

penury and near-death treks over snowy gorges,

could praise the hoe he used for digging wild roots.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Françoise Singing

Françoise Singing 

Peter Richardson

It blindsided them and ended the awkward

talk they’d been making when finally they

rustled up three cups of over-steeped tea

and sat across from her in recycled air

in the long-term care canteen—bald

son-in-law and grown granddaughter.

Wasn’t Françoise down to three words

of greeting? How could she sink a shaft

far enough down in her mind to recoup

this tuneful blues banisher? If pressed,

her visitors might’ve said they sensed

a slippage to a crowded kitchen table

on, say, a Sunday in Montreal’s vanished

Faubourg à mélasses, her father tapping

a glass for her to sing a snatch of Piaf.

The war in Europe over, rationing ending,

butter on the table, mint jelly, leg of lamb,

her kid brother and sisters called to order

by the faux-gruff father. But that’s fantasy.

This is Françoise at ninety, holding notes

in a lunchroom with no one to press record

just two maladroit listeners trying to field

what’s thrown to them—flats and sharps

that peel through air—sonic tchotchkes

that won’t come again, much less a medley

for the dazed father-daughter duo who clap

with hands that don’t know what else to do.

photo by Harry Rajchgot

Promenade

Promenade

Peter Richardson

I used to be able to lope along at the clip my daughter’s maintaining,

the younger one—fifty years my junior—cruising a step ahead

as we cross St-Denis. I tell her I’m bemused by the speed

with which she eats up ten blocks, then twenty and I remember

my father asking me to speak up, to repeat what I’d just said.

Can you please slow down a bit? I ask, and she decelerates 

before zooming ahead again. My father’s early hearing loss 

brought out the callous teen in me. I wanted him to try harder

as if he had a character defect that would get better if he made

an effort. Are you going to a fire? I ask. She sighs. We approach

Parc Jeanne-Mance. I used to be as fast as you. These days

I have to double-time to gain the half step I need to keep up.

My hearing’s shot too, I say, which she claims has more to do

with my not listeningthan with needing space-age hearing aids.

And what does pretending to be deaf have to do with dawdling?

she asks, as we dogtrot across Parc Avenue and up the brick

walkway past the gazebo. Was I ever this rude with my father?

I bow to her peppery wit. She’s fed up with my non-sequiturs,

my failure to listen when she and her mother talk in that elided

mother-daughter French which, although always grammatical,

leaves me in the semantical dust—but isn’t it up to me to hustle,

to cinch in my belt and listen with renewed zeal in the new Babel?

photo by Harry Rajchgot

kingdom of nil

kingdom of nil

john sweet

grey on grey in the kingdom of nil,

and kay would understand this

you escape only to return of

your own free will

you dream of suicide

of windowless rooms

within windowless rooms

doors that open onto

endless variations of your

lover’s naked corpse, 

and is there still the possibility

                                      of joy?

quietly, maybe

cautiously

the future always

remains a possibility, 

the past can always be

torn down and built again,

                             or this –

we are only ourselves, but we

can learn to be flawless liars

we can keep saying i love you

until it finally means something,

but you knew this already

you came back again

only to plot your escape

only to prove how easy it

was to leave me behind

i don’t feel anything no more

i don’t feel anything no more

john sweet

the death days,

everywhere and always

the decorations hung, but

most of the lights burnt out, and so

fuck the past and fuck

the present

ignore the future

you will fall in love, yes, but

fear will always be the stronger emotion

the house,

collapsing slowly

the drugs your children take to

help them forget you,

and listen – 

christ’s hands are too small to

hold all of the

pain we cause each other

these cities are destined

to become deserts

man builds a house 

just to set it on fire

buys a gun and then

shoots at the sun

understands that there can never 

be anything more

terrifying than hope

almighty

almighty

 

john sweet

 

two in the afternoon and

cold enough to understand the

meaning of hell

 

corpses of children still

smoldering in frozen ditches

 

dogs sick, dogs starving and

always the need for a

war that will leave only

          peace in its wake

 

always a clock running

backwards in an empty room

 

fields full of anonymous

bones and nothing beyond

them but more of the same

 

JONAHmagazine’s LATEST ISSUE

Welcome!

A couple of weeks early, we’re officially launching our latest issue of JONAHmagazine, the 17th edition. Click here to access the July 2022 issue of JONAHmagazine. And a Happy New Year to all our readers and contributors.

We still have a couple of technical adjustments to make to our Archives, but that’s a longer term project and won’t affect your ability to find and read our literary material. Now each author’s work can be accessed by finding their name in the left-hand column in alphabetical order.

EVERLASTING LIFE

EVERLASTING LIFE

Martha Phelan Hayes

It is early December, still late afternoon, but already we have sunk into the  blackness that is high-tide deep and all consuming, a cold that numbs. You could drown in a night like that. Inside the house we are warmed by the oil furnace and each other. I feel safe here in the golden lamp-lit living room, tucked into the couch corner, guarded by the paned window. I am seven and too young to understand its fragility, just that it makes my side of it seem to glow beyond its wattage. 

The new baby is sick. He has been getting worse, and now my mother swears his chest is starting to rattle. The doctor has been in and out, and tonight my parents have phoned him again. They need to bring him to the hospital. I hear them in the kitchen, their voices unclear through their efforts to keep their worry to themselves and the convenient din of the television and my siblings’ play provides them. But through the muddle of sound, I hear my name. It comes out of their sea of talk and is said as if it is a resolve. “Martha can go with you,” my mother concludes. There is a certainty in her voice, a hint of optimism. As if this minor decision promises some resolution, some hope. 

In the car I hold my brother on my lap. We have faced the cold with sweaters and winter coats and an extra blanket for the baby. The used Ford takes a while to heat up, and so we are as good as outside as my father backs out of the driveway, his right arm across the top of the front seat, his concern passing by me as he peers out the rear window, backing the car into the road. He is our driver when a friend calls, or my mother needs a ride home from the grocery store or to the library, or on long trips to Boston to visit our grandparents. On Sunday all of us cram in to attend Mass, in the summer sometimes stopping for daisies from the girl who sells them on her front porch. 

The heater relieves us as we enter the highway, the headlights boring through the thick onyx night, and as we exit into the city, we seem to descend into a pool of light. The hospital is bright with starched white florescence that hums the same chord as my classroom lights when we are taking a test. Everything seems to have grown larger, a checker-box of dark winter clothes and sterile white walls and uniforms. The night rests on my father’s tongue when he checks us in, his throat clearing the cold as he says his name. I sit on a blue, vinyl chair, hold my brother, and wait. I smell the despair and dependence on the other heavy faces sitting around me, a swamp of sick and broken in this antiseptic stench of chlorine.

And then it is our turn and my father takes over. I stand beneath the charcoal of his suit, his tense limbs, as the doctor examines my brother. He taps his infant back and listens to his lungs, looks into his eyes with a piercing light. He asks questions that might come out of a dark closet with answers that doom us all. The baby is quiet. He lets him poke his body as if it is some lifeless thing they have found in the dark. I am certain he will die, and death is a sooty shadow that has followed us here.

But then the doctor removes the stethoscope, pulls out a prescription pad, and looks up at my father. The baby will live. My father’s shoulders drop and there is a handshake, a warm breath of relief in the room. He smiles, my father, with ripples of delight, as if someone has dropped a pebble into the pond that is his mouth. Suddenly he becomes the salesman he is and remembers me, joking about the antics of our ride here with a story that seems to have been written while I was somewhere else. 

My mother takes my brother the minute we are in the door. And soon I am burrowed in my own bed. I fall asleep to the whirl of his vaporizer, the smell of wet walls, and my own thoughts of death and eternity, the claustrophobic terror of my soul living on and on and on.

As My Attacker Drifts On Through or Other Men

 

As My Attacker Drifts On Through

or

Other Men 

Myles Zavelo

Ernest is talking to me and I’m talking to Ernest.  

This is a fact.  

If I ever have a boy, I will name him Ernest. 

(This is not a fact.)

And the person standing next to us says he has a headache.  But I forget his name.  

I know the boy with the headache is well read because in spite of the headache he lets us know that he is very well read.  

He has also written an essay on the possibility of cocaine-induced psychosis in Bright Lights, Big City.  In high school.  

I cannot remember his name but the definition in his face is gone, this is of course self-reported, and he’s gained thirty pounds, all because of lithium carbonate.  They used to be in the school plays. Their family used to tell them they were good looking.  Handsome.  That was before lithium––George?  

Is Adele hot?  Adele, our DBT Skills therapist?  This is the topic of discussion.  Ernest would do her, he says.  But there’s also not much Ernest wouldn’t do, these days, he tells me.  Ernest and Adele do different things for me.  They serve very separate roles.  For example, Adele will take me outside when I become overwhelmed (when I lose it, in her office).  She makes me count.  And Ernest will flash me the pornographic videos of him and the women he meets on Occupied and brings back to his sober apartment.  

You could call Adele an expert in what she does.  She used to work at McLean.  I ask her about ECT.  They have ECT at McLean.  These days I’m asking lots of people about lots of things.  Especially ECT.  

We wear the same brand of jeans and she’s spent time at my college, Bennington, in her youth.  She knows it’s not a sober place.  

“It’s just not,” she says. 

Ernest in not an expert in what he does.  He is from Savannah.  Everyone seems to be from Savannah.  He is coming from Cirque, in Utah.  And before Cirque (in Utah), hard intravenous drugs in Georgia.  And before that, action figures in his bedroom.  

And when playing with GI Joe dolls, he was elaborate, and contemplative.  

And when injecting drugs, he would make grocery lists that he could not execute.  

I will ask him questions about ketamine and he will tell me about going to music festivals, when he was my age, and the k-holes that happened at them.  Are k-holes necessarily bad things?  I don’t know.  

But he will still never know Bennington.  My Bennington.  I talk about my Bennington and he is in the room, listening to what I have to say.  

Other facts about Ernest.  His father is suicidal because of Bernie Madoff.  And his father calls his therapist “his consultant”.  Ernest is thirty-five.

And George?  

George?  Seth?  Or Liam?  stands there, with me. 

My brother used to tell me this.  Never play around with the escalator brushes.  Because the brushes will hurt you.  The brushes will eat your feet.  If you look into the brushes you will see a monster that swallows.  This is my first time inside the state of Arizona.  I am making a terrible impression.  I’m in pieces.    

My driver holds up a sign with my name on it.  He speaks to me as if I’m mentally disabled.  But it’s okay because he’s a nice guy and an older man and he’s my driver, and it’s a cliché, but everything is already shattered (have I blown things out of proportion?), and I am in pieces.

For some reason I am afraid of Kevin.  He will call me a fruitcake, later.  But I don’t know this now.  

All the hard work behind his fourth tango in Tucson will not go unnoticed.  He will be appropriately rewarded.  Kevin will become the recipient of, rumor has it, felatio.   

Yes, oral sex, on the track, behind the pool.  This is against the rules.  

The most likely female, judging by his robust homophobia, suspect still unknown.  

But this too, will happen later.  

And never you mind that Kevin is married––to a wife who, like Kevin, has just made an attempt on her life––with three children.  

But I don’t know any of this now.  

I meet Kevin in the car.  Our driver tells us where to sit and this is the beginning of my compliancy.  Kevin knows things.  He knows how much an eight-ball costs.  He knows about the snacks from the cafeteria.  Which, because of the utensils, we cannot enter unsupervised.  

In the car, he makes several phone calls to several buddies back in Spokane.  The ride is an hour long and we speak briefly, in intervals.  Kevin lets me know where we are going (and it’s a place that’s not in the brochure, it’s a place in which I will spend the better part of a week).  He’s done this all before.  Kevin is a train conductor with trauma.  We will be roommates for a few nights. 

I am definitely slouching because this is Ativan and it works (this is before I graduate to Klonopin).  I am in the tank and this is a sofa.  I’m trying to read but can’t.  Across from me are two young men. They’re watching Marley & Me (2008).  It would appear that Jennifer Aniston is not wearing a bra.  They begin discussing their shared enjoyment of this fact.  

Vernon is twenty-one.  He is wearing his favorite blue tee shirt.  He is a father, with a son named John.  He is a husband, with a wife named something.  He got married in Hawaii.  On a yacht.  A helicopter was present.  His father is probably in Ireland right now.  He owns an auto body shop.  This is what he tells us.  And what to believe?  Vernon is a first responder, detoxing from crystal meth.  A drug I can imagine him doing, and loving.  

Zach, his movie partner, calls himself crazy.  He’s from Kansas City and his favorite beer is Blue Moon.  

This place is not working out for him.  

For either of them.  

Zach is too sick.  He leaves early, the next morning.  

Vernon is a plain seizure risk.  

Vernon feels another seizure coming on and no longer cares about Jennifer Aniston’s body. 

And Zach notices that something is not right.  So he asks Vernon the following.  Are you okay?  Do you need water?  A nurse?  

This is a barely audible exchange from where I slouch, but I see everything.  Ativan works well (this is pre-Klonopin) but I begin crying so hard that I fall asleep.  The girls find Vernon funny.  

They think he’s a sweetheart from Savannah.  

The doctors and nurses hope for a transfer to another place (he’s been kicked out of most places but I think Vernon’s behavior is pretty good).  Vernon is in the tank for so long that they begin taking him for walks, outside. Vernon will make it out, two weeks later.  

Kelly stressed me out and made me cringe but Kelly likes me and calls me sweetheart.          So I thank her.  Kelly talks a lot.  Kelly had a crush on John.  Kelly tried sitting on John’s lap but Dirk made Kelly cut it out.  Kelly smokes Marlboro Lights.  Kelly will ask the nurses how the stock market is doing and the nurses have no idea.  Kelly largely complains of a kidney infection.  Kelly wears cowboy boots.  Kelly’s dad was in the Air Force but Kelly’s dad is dead and Kelly was three years old when someone started hurting Kelly and where was Kelly’s dad?  Kelly is not talking about crystal meth.  Kelly thinks Kelly is getting out of the tank but Kelly is not getting out of the tank.  Kelly is mean to Amberlee because Amberlee is traumatized and won’t stop talking about it and Kelly tells Amberlee to disappear but Amberlee somehow does not disappear.  Kelly reminds me of my attacker.  Kelly has two sons.  Kelly has an ex-husband.  Kelly’s ex-husband made Kelly’s blue eyed boy beat Kelly in the kitchen but Kelly’s blue eyed boy’s blue eyes secretly protected Kelly.

Kelly has nephews who ski.  Kelly’s nephews who ski work at a ski lodge.  Kelly’s nephews who ski teach people (who are not Kelly) how to ski.  Kelly asks Olivia if Kelly needs to be Olivia’s mommy in the tank.  Kelly asks Olivia if Olivia’s mom is 51/50 because Kelly’s mom was 51/50.  Kelly loves Olivia because Olivia is English and blonde and has been in movies but Olivia hates Kelly because Kelly is Crazy Kelly.  

Kelly is also mean to Matt.  Kelly is mean to Matt because Matt always calls his mom a cunt on the phone.  You’re not supposed to say words like always, or never.  Kelly is mean to Matt because the nurses caught Matt licking a page of his notebook.  Matt was licking his notebook because Matt dropped liquid LSD on the page.  

Matt is from Skaneateles.  Matt moved from Skaneateles to Colorado.  

Matt talks really funny.  I forget how Matt learned to shoot up.  Was Matt self-taught or did someone show Matt how? 

Matt believes in aliens.  Matt has seen a UFO before. 

I share air with Matt.  How many summers does Matt have left? 

In my room.  It’s the early morning and I could roll out of bed if I wanted to.  I might as well because I cannot fall asleep for the life of me.  Today I was afraid to leave the house because I might run into someone I know.  Tonight I ate an entire pint of ice cream and smoked a whole pack of cigarettes.  And, right now, I want to make a good gesture.  So I put my feet on the floor and everyone in this house is asleep.  Here are some other details.  I’m nineteen.  I can hear birds.  It’s cold outside, it’s December.  I go upstairs.  I go to my parent’s bedroom and before I know it, I’ve woken them up.  I’m going through their drawers and I’m making a ruckus.  I’m trying to find a box of band-aids that I know exists.  I am being naive.  I remember that I’m doing this because I have been misunderstood by my community.  Obviously my parents ask me what I am doing and I tell them that I am trying to find toothpaste.  But it’s band-aids!  

In the kitchen.  This is hard.  I’m not good at this.  But I’m also scared.  Why are you scared?  I’m not drunk.  I need to be drunk.  If I want to do this.  If I want to do this I need to be drunk but my family doesn’t want me to drink and I can’t break the agreement.  I’m scared.         I want to begin at my proximal forearm and I want to end at my distal forearm.

In the backyard.  It must be four o’clock in the morning.  I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in the kitchen.  I light a cigarette with a match and inhale.

At the corner store.  I’m buying ice cream with my brother.  He tells the clerk to never sell me beer or cigarettes.  Then he takes my left hand and shows it to the clerk.  “What’s this?,” he asks the clerk.  The clerk studies it and it only takes him a moment.  He tells my brother that is the burn of a cigarette.  That’s the only thing it could be, he says.  I am awful at slaughtering.    

Now I am living with other men.  This is a step-down facility.  They make declarations here.  They don’t say women.  They say things like…  anorexic bitches are better fucks than bulimic bitches.  They like rub and tugs.  They have gained weight on Zyprexa and Lamictal.  They have poor table manners.  They have blowhard dads.  Some have compliant mothers.  They are SDSU graduates and USC dropouts.  They have access to the very best pornography.  They are psychotic when under the influence of marijuana.  They have body dysmorphia.  They discuss the possibilities of fasting.  They love college basketball.  This is all part of my treatment.  This is the regimen.  What I wanted, asked for, and got. 

Do I actually do that to people?  I don’t know.  But I think it probably happens when she tells me that I do.  That I do that to people.  It probably happens when she tells me that I’m staring.  At her.  She tells me because something about this is not eye contact.  And this could be a part of the reason why people feel uncomfortable around me.  But yeah, that’s when it happens. Or perhaps it happens when he strongly suggests that I begin attending SLAA meetings here, in Los Angeles.  Either/or, that’s when I realize that they have the best therapists in town.  

I should correct myself–– that’s when I remember someone saying that, and agreeing with them–– they have the best therapists in town and I believe all of them. 

I am now officially doing chores for cigarettes.  I am doing this because a sofa has swallowed my wallet.  I am doing this because my parents will no longer put out for cigarette allowance.  This is because I have become a pack a day smoker.  With nothing to do.  So I empty the ashtrays, clean the stovetop, refill the beverages, and clean the kitchen floor.

Someone has messed with the grocery list. 

It now reads like this:

1. Turkey breast

2. Estrogen

3. Egg whites

4. Caviar

5. Oreo/Brownie Quest Bars

6. Breast Milk

7. Peppered jerky

8. Hummus

9. Rolex

10. Bag of spiders

11. Pineapple

12. Dildos

13. Pita Chips

14. Almond Milk

15. Roast Beef

16. Twinkies

17. Viagra

18. Mustard

19. Anal Beads

20. Trail Mix

21. Penis Pump

22. Jiffy

23. Life

24. Money

25. Corn chips

27. Salsa

28. Dark Chocolate

         And as I write this, something is happening.  An ex-Southern California Trojan Prince explains an ex-princess to us.  She was royalty but not quite royalty because his family was wealthier than hers.  Not as wealthy because they had to share a Ritz-Carlton bedroom with her kid brother and sister.  And at night they would make love on a cot and the lovemaking was rough and because it was rough, it was loud.  The kid sister and kid brother would wake up but then fall back asleep and the rough sex on the cot would continue and so on and so on.

Every morning my roommate jumps into the pool.  It is a filthy pool with rain water, tree leaves, some cigarette ash, and a deep end.  The pool is cold, our bodies are white, and the shock is a shock, so I begin joining him.  Dan is from Philadelphia/The University of Alabama. His parents own a sporting goods store near Delaware.  Dan has cannabis use disorder and there’s something wrong with his chest.  Dan is not his real name.  I have cannabis use disorder too.  But mild. 

In my last rehab I met Mark the Shark or Mark S.  A retired optometrist whose husband gave a young hispanic man a Pepsi enema, late one night.  

And a few times in the early mornings, the boy came back for more, and they would play around with him on the optometry chair that Mark had in his home.  

Mark also loved crystal meth and was not going door to door.  

But I go door to door.  

He asked me why and I told him why.  I say alcoholism.  I say alcoholism as a homeless man wearing green pants is being taken care of by paramedics.  My trainer likes drinking except for the carbohydrates.  

After the gym, I run into some boys from the sober house.  As we walk back to the house, it is apparent that we have nothing in common so there’s nothing to talk about but we see a policeman, waiting.  And he’s been there for a while now.  Dan calls him a faggot, barely, and I pay Dan five dollars to pee in his shorts in front of Sorority Row and I’m actually not an alcoholic. 

Why did this happen to me?  I’m not a bad person.  I’m a good person.  It’s been confirmed.  I didn’t hurt anyone.  

I can’t stand the sound of my name.  I can’t look at myself in the mirror.  I can hear the UCLA students on the campus, behind the house.  

DIYA’S WEDDING

DIYA’S WEDDING

Steven Masterson

Tomorrow Diya would marry Tariq. Diya and Tariq had never touched, they had never spoken. Their eyes had met just once. This was the way it was, the way things were meant to be. Syed was pleased with the wedding arrangements he had made for his daughter, and Diya would uphold her family’s honor. 

Tariq was the son of a neighboring village leader, and the bond between the two families would bring respect and strength to both. Connections were important here in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan; they could save your life.

But still she was afraid. Tariq was a handsome man, and she knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. At fourteen she was really just a girl, but she could work and obey. She knew she could give Tariq sons if he found her acceptable. Tariq would teach her what she needed to know. She blushed at this thought.

With the ceremony a day away, neighbors offered their homes to friends and relatives who had begun to arrive. The village was in a festive mood with old friends meeting and laughing and singing. The dancing would be tomorrow. The women had been cooking for days, and Diya knew that somewhere nearby, the men would have some forbidden alcohol. This would be a joyful celebration! 

High on a mountain ridge overlooking the valley and village below sat two men observing the preparations and new arrivals. They watched with the survivalist eye and calm silence of fighters. If the soldiers came, Atif, the younger of the two, had his escape route planned. He didn’t fool himself; he knew that one day they would catch him and he would die. But the war would go on. In the end his side would win. That was why he kept fighting, and that was why he could face death. Allah willing.

“It will be a big ceremony,” Atif said to Bashir. 

Bashir responded, “Your brother Syed is well respected, an honorable man such as yourself.” 

“Yes, but he will not fight.”

“Atif,” said Bashir, “not everyone carries the sword. Perhaps Allah has another purpose for Syed. We cannot know.”

“You are right, we cannot. In the morning I will go down and see my brother and my niece. I will see my uncles and cousins, friends, maybe an old enemy or two.” Atif put his hand on Bashir’s shoulder. “You, my friend, will stay here and watch for soldiers, to warn me if they are coming.” He nodded at Bashir’s rifle.

Bashir said, “They will not be. You know that they are searching elsewhere. You will be safe but I will watch. Now you must sleep. The village is still a three-hour walk away.” 

When the sun rose over the mountains to the east, the villagers rose with it. Diya ate her final meal as her father’s daughter. She felt the giddiness, the nervousness, the fears, and the anticipation of a bride-to-be. 

Syed knew it was a sin to be full of pride, yet he was proud of the marriage that he had arranged, proud of the fact that his honor had attracted a man like Tariq. Surely Allah would forgive him this sin. This alliance would help bring wealth and security to both families. 

Atif had already been walking for an hour. High on the mountain ridge, Bashir thought of his friend. They’d fought together for twenty years, and Bashir had never seen a braver man. His courage under fire and his charisma away from battle had made him a leader among the fighters. This made him a marked man and continually hunted by his own country’s army and those of the west. He had become a liability. In this war, being invisible was best.

Atif was the battlefield commander but Bashir picked the battlefields. Bashir was the man in charge, the one who coordinated with other units, and the man who made the decisions. No one, not even among their fighters, knew this. It was as Bashir wanted it. Death follows notoriety; it was stalking Atif now. 

Bashir watched through binoculars as the groom and his family arrived on horseback. Syed had indeed done well, thought Bashir; even the women were riding. Looking at the sun, he knew Atif had been in the village for over an hour. It was time. Digging into his pack, Bashir pulled out a satellite phone and, punching a button, spoke three words… “He is there.”

Across the border in Afghanistan, on another valley floor, in a remote hanger on a small airfield, Preston had been expecting the three-word message. The agency had approved the kill-order on Atif. The warlord had hurt them more than once. The bastard seemed to know where and when to fight, and was fierce when he did. He fought where he was the strongest and they were the weakest. But now Preston had him. Atif had gone to the wedding. 

Preston himself had developed ties to this source and he was completely reliable. It had taken months but the source had finally gotten close enough to Atif to pinpoint his location. Now Preston would kill him. He took the target coordinates to the control room and handed them to a controller. “Now…Atif,” was all he said. Preston ignored the monitors and went back to his office. He knew the warlord was dangerous, and he knew he was saving American lives. But he could not watch.

In the beginning he had watched as the blood drained from the bodies and oozed away in the eerie, black-and-white thermal images. He had watched as the stain, and then the body, cooled and disappeared. In the bright light of day, he had watched small children run into the kill zone and die as they played, vaporized into mist, leaving behind no stain at all. He could watch no more.

Bashir was a good commander. He found the best end to the worst circumstance. Atif had become too big a man; they were hunting him. They would get him. He had become too dangerous to be around. Bashir had his replacement picked from among Atif’s lieutenants; a fighter other warriors would respect. Bashir would makehis star shine. The Americans had paid dearly for Atif. Money, enough to train many more rebels. And there would always be more men to train. Bashir had done the best he could. He turned his back on the village; he could not watch what he had done.

He heard the explosion as the drone-launched smoking spear crashed into Syed’s home. The terror from above seldom missed. Allah’s will: Syed’s purpose.

Diya and Tariq died ten feet apart; they had never touched. Atif and Syed died sitting face to face, Atif smiling while Syed spoke. Syed’s wife and two of her young children died making the last preparations for her daughter’s wedding.

Preston had his elbows on his desk and sat, head in hands, when the cheer erupted from the control room. His head sank deeper into his hands, forcing his lips back into the teeth-baring grimace of a man on the edge, losing his grip. His body swayed back and forth as his lungs exhaled in a tortured rush, then re-inflated with a frightened gasp. The sobs started deep in his soul and convulsed his body like Satan’s dance.  

Bashir started down the mountain. He had done the best he could; they would stop hunting. He had seen enough men die, lost enough of his fighters to have a hard heart, but Atif had been his friend. He fought to control his grief, for he knew what he would find below. 

He had been in Islamabad in April and watched the spectacle as the two mostly untrained pups had beaten the Americans in Boston. Even though the Russians had warned them! “They are as vulnerable now as they were for bin Laden,” Bashir said to himself, “still overestimating themselves. Atif and a handful of his fighters could have swept the streets clean of the western devils. Killed them on the corners where they stood.”

Bashir heard the pain as he neared the village. When he reached the wounded, he helped where he could. It wasn’t like it was in the west. There was no doctor, no ambulance, no hospital, no medicine; just dead, dying, and wounded men, women, and children: collateral damage. Bashir’s battle experience served him well closing wounds, setting bones, and removing useless limbs. He worked for hours and then, exhausted and bloody, went to sit in the shade of a tree beside the centuries-old well.

Bashir was a stranger in this village. No one knew him. But they knew he had been with Atif, they knew he was a fighter. He sat and waited in the shade of the tree. Now, Bashir thought, I will see what the Americans have truly paid for Atif’s life. I will see what seed has been planted today, and who will reap the harvest. They will come. If I was not here, they would come to the mountains.

He sat alone in the cool shade, watching the sun slide toward the mountains in the west, wondering when his time would come. “Allah’s will,” he spoke aloud, hoping The Prophet would hear.

They came to him through the village, six men and two boys followed by the remaining villagers, most still dressed in their bloody wedding finery. They stopped in front of Bashir, faces of shock and fear, and grief, hatred, rage, and determination. They stood disbelieving what had happened, yet knowing it had. One man stepped forward and spoke to Bashir.

“These two boys are Syed’s sons; they have a duty to their father. Three men from the village of Syed and three men from the village of Tariq will also go with you. We all have a duty to the families.”

“Debts will be paid,” Bashir said, and motioning to the six, he continued. “These men must train; in a few months they will be ready. The young ones, Syed’s sons, will take longer. Allah willing, they will go to America.” 

Sea Foam

Sea Foam

Sunny Stafford

‘Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep’

(William Shakespeare: Henry VI part II)

It was a place where the sea met the rocks and the rocks melted into the sea. In the shade of a twisted palm tree hosting thousands of glistening blackberries at its base, the girl watched as the translucent moon in a sky of mineral blue pulled the tide further up her legs. On the rocks beside her, a dead sea catfish stirred in the rising waters, its sun-hardened whiskers giving the eyeless body the look of petrified hope. A single crab prodded at the corpse with the patience of a matador past his prime. Dried bits of flesh were poked and prodded from the body of the fish. The girl knew the sea would take care of the rest. 

Galatea rubbed her left eye and winced. Over the years, she had been stung plenty of times. But this time, the walk through the swamp on her way to the jetty came at the cost of half of her vision for the day. The wasp that stung her eyelid was either smarter than the rest or just plain lucky. Galatea looked out to sea and watched the wind cast its sparkles onto the water. She reminded herself that beneath the surface an eternal battle was raging. From whale to minnow, everything was in a constant state of alarm. She knew there was no point in looking towards town. It was the same there, too. The only difference was the medium. But here, in the gray existence between water and air, Galatea felt like she was halfway home.

Dark clumps of seaweed drifted with the current and Galatea closed her good eye. The hirsute image of her father drifted across her mind. All those promises of riches and happiness, all the drunken blame on her mother and herself for the failure of the family Wool-works. It took three generations to build the family business, her great-grandfather nothing but a dirt poor sheep herder much further inland. But it only took a little more than a decade for her father, that monster of a man both in form and action, to ruin it. Fire took care of the rest. There was no reason to bury her mother, she was turned to ashes along with her father whose body was full of fuel in the form of cheap whiskey.

When the sea had reached her knees, Galatea was still deep in reflection with only a sliver of the seascape coming through her swollen eyelid. Then something soft struck her bare back. Again and again, she was struck with something that felt far better than some kind of malicious aerial assault. She looked up into the palm tree and saw nothing but the alternate fronds swaying in the breeze. When she turned back, she saw a few bruised golden grapes on the rocks. The grapes looked exotic, juxtaposed to the countless blackberries that stained the rocks they rested on with a deep purple. She had never tasted golden grapes, just green ones. Galatea picked up one of the grapes, took a deep breath and tossed it into her mouth. A smooth sweetness tinged with just a bit of acid made her tongue swell and her mouth water. When she swallowed, she saw her.

“I know, I know. It’s delicious isn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you’d eat it. Probably thought it just fell out of the sky from nowhere. But everything comes from someone,” the girl’s voice laughed from the palm tree.

“I can’t see you,” Galatea called out, shielding her good eye with her hand.

“You will. It just has to reach your eyes. Sorry. Your eye. Didn’t think I’d come across a cyclops today.”

“I’m not—“

“The name’s Acis.”

“I’m Galatea.”

“Well, what a pair we make. Hey, look!”

“Where?” Galatea shouted, looking around.

“At me.”

  If the sunlight dreamed of being a shadow in the form of a person, it would be who was climbing down the palm. Galatea put her hands into the rising waters to feel some kind of comfort as she watched. When the glistening shadow reached the rocks, texture and detail began to fill out the light. With every step, the form was walking towards personhood. By the time Acis reached Galatea, she was smiling, and in every particle a girl Galatea’s age in appearance. The dark-haired girl laughed as she sat next to Galatea.

“The last person ran away when I tried this,” Acis smiled.

“What are you?” Galatea asked.

“What are you?”

“I don’t know—“

“Me either. I’m just thrilled you can actually see me. Most people don’t get past a voice without a body.”

“But here you are,” Galatea muttered, not daring to make eye-contact.

“Here I am.”

“Well, I don’t like seeing most people and most people don’t take any mind to see me. So I guess we’re kind of even.”

“That makes us almost even. The water feels so good. It always does.”

It was then that Galatea noticed Acis’ legs in the water. Where the sea met her knees, the lower part of her legs were gone. Between the rolling wavelets, when the water had a moment of calm, there was nothing beneath the surface but the green water. A ring of sea-foam marked where Acis’ body gave way to water. Galatea marveled as a gust of wind sent the water to both their waists, leaving nothing below for Acis. As it receded, her body seamlessly was revealed.

“Quite a sympathetic thing I have going here with the sea, huh?” Acis laughed softly, looking down at herself. “When I go for a swim, I lose myself in it. Hey…you’re still here.”

“Me? Of course, I am,” Galatea laughed nervously. “But I keep on watching you disappear.”

“It looks like that. It always has. But you have a sea inside of you. Everyone does. I just have more. Look at your own legs. See how they change underwater?”

“Yes, but thats because of….refraction.”

“Sure. Call it what you want. But every particle of you wants to be what it once was. The sea is the womb of the world. We’re all sea-foam.”

“Can you breathe underwater?” Galatea asked, edging closer to Acis.

“I wouldn’t call it breathing. It’s more like a kind of being underwater. I just am as much as the water just is. Wait a moment. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

Just as Galatea glanced out to sea, a rogue wave crested and crashed on the rocks. Countless particles of united seawater sent Galatea onto her back and into the blackberry bushes. When she looked up, in spite of the thorns pricking her knees and hands, she saw that Acis had disappeared. But when she looked down at the rocks, in a pool of sea-foam, she saw a glimpse of Acis. Looking to her left and right, she saw other bits of the girl as she crawled on her hands and knees back towards the edge of the rocks. 

As the water spilled back into the sea, the form of Acis appeared. Galatea watched as Acis lingered just beneath the surface like an aqueous hologram composed of water rather than light. Jellyfish, catfish, minnows of various sorts, a sea-turtle, a school of dolphins, nurse sharks and indistinct simple-celled organisms gathered around the image of Acis. Galatea watched and waited as the hot wind began its task of eradicating the rogue water on the rocks and herself.

Galatea had always found the wind disorienting. Wind proved the air was one of the minions of death and decay, the slow eater of everything standing. It was the wind that portended what was happening to her. As the creatures of the sea danced with Acis, Galatea felt her swollen eye begin to sting. The tinge of tickling pain turned to torment as the sensation crept down her face and throughout her body. Somewhere in her stomach, a white-hot lump of fire was cooking her from the inside. Galatea tried not to scream and expected to smell burning flesh but the stench never came. A gust of wind took her eyelids first. A dark liquid spilled out of her navel as her insides poured out of her in a viscous goo tending towards molasses. By the time she fell to her knees, nothing remained of her but clinging sinews and her lidless eyes. She wanted to close her eyes and destroy her sight but the setting sun mocked her in its radiance from afar.

Harmony, that strength of binding opposites, found its masterpiece when the wind sent a wave crashing onto the tormented body of Galatea. Following the slant and crevices of the rocks, the water brought her along on its journey back into the sea.

When her ruined body found its way into the sea, when the wind was nothing but an effect in the medium outside of the water, Galatea opened her eyes and saw.

The sea creatures were gathered around her and moving in their multifarious ways in a counter-clockwise direction. Galatea took no breaths, there was no need. She moved through the water as light does through space. There was no space or time, only a being. Her name sank to the bottom of wherever she happened to be like a hailstone would from a storm over the sea, sinking and diminishing before it even forgot it came from the sky. She was someone who had found where she was supposed to be, as true as water.

The palm fronds below her danced in the breeze as she looked down towards the rocks of the jetty. A small cloud high in the atmosphere drifted by the afternoon sun and melted before it passed. Below her, sitting on the edge of the rocks where the rising tide had almost reached her knees, a girl was rocking back and forth. Her left eye was swollen shut. From the top of the palm tree, she closed her eyes for a moment as she felt the light passing through her. Then she remembered the grapes. There were only three but she knew her aim was true. She pulled out one of the golden grapes and threw it at the girl below. Contact. She threw another. Contact again. Then another. The girl on the rocks at the edge of the sea turned and looked up into the palm tree. Acis smiled to herself as she watched the girl eat one of the grapes. When the girl’s lips pursed, Acis felt her own voice return.

Two and 2/3 Jews

Two and 2/3 Jews

Vivian S. Montgomery

We were moving to a Norwegian-American mecca: Ludefisk, Nisse dwarves in every window, Hardanger fiddles, Rhinelanders, people who said “Oof-dah” without thinking.  My husband was offered a job in the music department of a Lutheran college in Iowa’s upper righthand corner. The department chair had called the town “the center of the universe.” Funny. Well, their annual Nordic Fest did draw thousands of ruddy types from across the nation, and hosted either the king or queen of Norway on a regular basis.

I had been poring over a demographic chart at the back of the college’s catalogue. I shuddered. “John,” I said, “I’m ‘other’ under ‘other’ and there’s nobody else like me!” The religious background columns were mostly various Lutheran synods: ELCA, Missouri, Wisconsin, Orthodox, Mysterium. Other denominations were substantially smaller: Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, UCC, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, General Catholic. Following was a list, accompanied by single-digit numbers, of “other religions”: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and…Other. The number next to “other” under “other religions” was 0.

Upon arriving in Decorah, I found it took almost no time for the conversation at pre-season faculty cocktail parties to turn toward kind efforts to place me with “my” people, even though there was very little evidence of such people within reach. In those first weeks, I had the same very short list delivered to me many times by various well-meaning souls: the husband of the town’s most popular pediatrician was Jewish, but he seemed busier with homeschooling their four children and driving the baby three times a day to his wife’s office for her to breastfeed; one person on the dance faculty was half Jewish, but he distinguished himself more by being gay and caught up in a messy divorce; and, while not “officially” Jewish, one professor emeritus had become a nearly obsessive Judaiophile, evidently disturbing the not-completely-spelled-out order of things in the college’s Religion and Philosophy department. According to all those who were helpfully filling me in on my options for tribal connection, this professor was my safest bet.  There had been one other visiting faculty member of Jewish persuasion a few years back, but nobody could remember his name.

Postville, Iowa was a town 18 miles from Decorah, down one of the county highways. Many followers of current events in the Upper Midwest had heard of the anomalous infiltration, in 1987, by hundreds of Hasidic Jews into the town’s previously small, predominantly German and Polish, population. The shift, resulting from the conversion of a large meat-packing plant into a kosher facility, had started only a few years before our arrival in Winneshiek County. A few of the Decorah residents who were racking their brains on my behalf came up with the connection to Postville, but for most, it just was too alien a connection to entertain. Even I, upon learning of the new inhabitants of that town, found it surreal and was hard-pressed to imagine the link between my background and the Ultra-orthodox as a comfort. I was the product of a mixed marriage and my mother had been too undone by her own orthodox upbringing, and her subsequent escape to the land of Quaker anti-establishment atheism, to raise me with more than a sporadic observance of holidays, and certainly no substantial Jewish learning. 

Still, I discovered a nearly involuntary reflex residing in me when one day, during our first couple of weeks in Iowa, we took a begrudging trip to Walmart. While wandering the hardware section, I looked up to see the backs of three men in black suits and fedoras, the spiraling contour of their payot, and the tzitzit of their prayer shawls, making them easily distinguishable from the occasional Amish group one encountered in those parts. Perhaps my memory has exaggerated the volume of my voice as I reached out my hands and said “Jews!” but I know John had to restrain me from rushing to touch them, like a parched trekker rushes to a water pump. 

After we had settled in, I started receiving calls from the women of the Postville Hasidim, quizzing me, inviting me (but not my goyische husband) to Shabbat dinner. The calls (sometimes from Leah Rubashkin, the wife of the all-powerful owner of the meat processing facility) continued throughout our five years, escalating after the birth of our son, Ezra, but dwindling to the bare minimum near the time we left. I was curious, a little sad, but never particularly tormented by being unable to bridge the divide between myself and that community. 

Even early on, when the isolation and strangeness of my environs weighed on me most severely, I had started to find some equilibrium, carving out my own way of being a Jew through an odd array of enterprises. While I was in no way drawing closer to satisfying the devout Jew’s standards of observance, I was wholeheartedly staging a type of real-life theater, unfolding, to those who wished to take it in, a series of episodes that revealed the angles of my difference. 

Were it not for this determination to publicly paint a multi-dimensional picture of what made me who I was, I might have simply gone down in the murmured history of Decorah as the type of alien woman who would show her cultural deafness by taking a reserved Upper Midwesterner at his word when he answered three times that he wasn’t waiting to use the library copy machine, despite the fact that he had been standing next to me holding a piece of paper for a full 15 minutes (my mother’s voice: “Why didn’t he just speak up? What makes that kind of politeness different from lying?”).

Or I would have been remembered as the woman who freely dismisses an acquaintance’s favorite movie as nothing but hackneyed feel-good formula, not knowing that, three years later, the hurt would still show in his eyes (my mother’s voice again: “How was I to know he was such a sap? People that sensitive shouldn’t ask for opinions”)

Or perhaps I’d be remembered as someone who, in a fit of pique among a group of young Decorah mothers, declared it barbaric to raise a child in a place that doesn’t have an art museum (my mother’s voice: “Well, isn’t it?”).

My great initiation into public advocacy for Jewish awareness came when, twice, in rapid succession, I had the phrase “Jew you down” uttered to me by Decorah locals with no apparent consciousness of its fairly obvious meaning. I think both incidents occurred on the same day, although that would be a little too priceless. Anyhow, I was in an antique store on Water Street and I was looking at a bracelet or pin and the woman behind the counter said someone else had just been in looking at the same item and had tried to Jew her down on the price.  I was stopped dead in my tracks.  Interestingly, I had never heard the expression, and I suppose my synapses were firing so explosively at the shock, that I wasn’t immediately able to piece together its meaning. I thanked her and left in a muddled state. Later, I was sitting with my husband in the diner, reviewing the incident and its implications, turning over what he was telling me about his familiarity, as a southerner, with the same phrase, trying to sort through the layers upon layers of sociological critique descending on my poor little gut reaction. The waitress brought us our bill, I absent-mindedly put down some money, and when she picked it up she saw that it was too little to cover the total. “You trying to Jew me down?,” she quipped cheerfully. 

The Decorah Journal was published twice a week. My dealings with the paper thus far had been awkward as it resembled so fully the type of paper John and I had been in the habit of picking up when we were traveling through little towns, and with which we found hours of endless entertainment as we drove on through the heartland. On trips, as we passed through, such “news” had seemed like colorful and kitsch objects bouncing off of our post-modern windshield, but now it reported the current events and concerns of a place becoming more and more real, a place where we apparently lived.  

My earliest trauma in relation to the Journal had occurred when my sister (who couldn’t restrain her near-constant references to pigs through the entire time we were preparing to move to Iowa) came to visit, and on our first walk down Water Street, on the first day of her stay, she spotted the newest issue on the newsstand. The entire front page was occupied with news about pigs: the winners of the Pork Queen and Little Miss Pigtails competitions at the Winneshiek County Fair; the ongoing dispute over hog-farm run-off seeping into the ground water; the dangerous escalation of pig manure stench during the recent heat wave; and the local supermarket sponsoring a rib-roast. 

But now the paper was becoming my forum. I wrote a letter to the editor about the use of “Jew you down,” what its affect was on someone of my background, as well as on the mindset of a population whose contact with real Jews was so limited. I wrote of the fact that most people, when questioned about it, whether they used the expression or not, said they had never really thought about its meaning.  

Not thought about it??? It has the word JEW at the beginning of the THREE WORDS! Some responses to my letter (both in print and on the street – yes, people spotted me and drew me aside to comment) brought up a tired comparison to the term “gyp,” which was evidently offensive to the huge number of gypsies living among us. Some responses were apologetic, but some called me hypersensitive. Thus my introduction to a burning question – can a person or population be antisemitic when they’ve never given any real thought to, or had any real intersection with, Jewish culture?

And so began that first year’s series of one-acts where I found myself cast in a role I had assiduously avoided in the previous three decades of Jewish life. The next was a happier occasion, a cooked-up Hanukkah Celebration that I had expected to host quietly at my house but that had expanded to absurd proportions with the help of some zealous oddball activists – not themselves Jews, but driven as though they were. Pine (yes, that was her name) had heard me playing the accordion in the co-op coffee house one day and was determined to make its singing swell the new soundtrack for the Upper Iowa landscape; Kathy, a brilliantly dry University of Michigan compatriot who was almost as baffled as myself to wake up each morning in this place, wanted her children to be more than the offspring of a Unitarian and an anarchist, goddammit, she wanted them to have lit a fucking menorah. It was a large and very public affair, with handouts, rehearsal, latkes, and dreydels for everyone. Signs were posted, reservations were made by phone, and a photo appeared in the following Tuesday’s Journal. The dawn of a new keyword for Decorah archive searches.

Passover approached and, not that I had EVER hosted a seder, it was a given. The guest list was carefully composed, the haroset recipe was selected with some torment (my mother’s version, with mushy apples and Manischewitz, resembling in taste the mortar of old? Or something delightful, blended with almonds and Moroccan spices?), and we made a trip to the organic farm to buy a new leg of lamb. The day before the seder, after returning from a trip to Minneapolis where I had bought extra copies of my favorite art deco Haggadah, it crossed my mind that I should call the grocery to make sure they had Matzah. “I’m sorry, do we have what?” I started to describe it – unleavened, for Passover, comes in a box, but I found my voice getting smaller as the hope drained out of me.  Of course. I lived in a town without matzah.  

I was reluctant to call the Postville ladies because I had thus far rebuffed their advances and I didn’t want them to know about my half-assed attempts at ceremonies that were open to all and everyone, regardless of their circumcision status. I was going to make my own stinking matzah. 

So I called the judaiophile emeritus to get a recipe.  “Well, now, seems like it would just be flour, water, and salt” he offered, before launching into his seder-length explanation of why no leavening. I guess it was a rare thing for him to talk Jewish to someone who actually knew what Passover meant. I allowed him a little extra time for spinning it out and then, as quickly as possible, got off the phone to begin the baking. 

Not much detail needs to be given about the process or the result.  It’s well summed up by our friend David, who, upon being asked to ritually break a piece the next evening and having to exercise certain arm muscles one wouldn’t usually employ for such purposes, said cheerily, “This is truly the bread of affliction.”

From the Hanukkah celebration, which involved a number of the lively instrumentalists who came out of Decorah’s spoon-carved woodwork when they saw an opportunity, it became obvious that there was one thing sorely needed to make the musical community whole – a Klezmer band. Joining me were a virtuosic blue-grass mandolinist, a classical clarinetist with a great talent for chirping and bending, an all-purpose dancing bass player with the best nature anyone could want in a colleague, and a Lutheran pastor-in-training vocalist who was given to fits of laughter but had an almost freakish aptitude for Yiddish – and Norski Klezmorski was born. We played for Nordic Fest, for the Back-of-the-Barn Summer Music Festival (with the cows, sheep, and YES! pigs chiming in), for the Cake Party, the Apple Barn Party, the Danish Midsummer celebration, for the Iowa Public Radio live local music show, for the Des Moines waterfront festival, and we were even invited by the non-Jewish street fair organizers in Postville to come play there, in hopes of bridging the gaping divide between the “locals” and the Hasidim. 

The one song I would allow myself to sing on any of these occasions was Yingele, nit veyn, about a boy seeing his mother for the last time before she’s removed to a concentration camp, and his father is telling him not to cry, that he’ll now be the boy’s father and his mother. Everything would grow quiet as I gave my translation.  As I sang and pulled on the bellows, I’d look out and know that, even with my croaky voice and stumbling Yiddish, I was party to a type of listening that’s rare and magical. It was the kind that occurs when perhaps the listener is realizing that something dreadful has happened, and is feeling its depths for the first time.

Cosmology of Beat

Cosmology of Beat 

Rana Bose

In the Cosmology of Beat

            there are back-bent cars parked on roads, detritus beside lampposts.

Rooftops above the Five-spot, with curling smoke,

           rising,

           rising from black-grey still-shots on walls of poetry on fire with desire,

uppermost in the narrow corridors of prized lofts,

           going for cheap.

                                                                                                                                                   

Still-shots of a messiah standing slouched, 

           Spouting, pouting defiantly 

on Wooster and Bleecker,

                      mumbling!

Mumbling Sanskrit slokas

Le Sang des Poetes painted on the walls.

                                                                                                                                                   

Leroi Baraka, 

           the lone gunfighter,

           pensive in a loft up there, or

standing in the wings or

           leaning against a piano 

           that weeps and faints,

           that weeps and faints

as he begins to recite-

           the tale of his baptism by bop,

           in a black and white space, 

           septic, surrounded 

 by Peter and Jack, 

           pounding on Underwoods

fuelled by whisky,

           with handwritten labels.

                                                                                                                                                   

In the cosmology of Beat,

           there are black iron stairs,

           that escape to below

           that escape to below

where sulks a twist,

           at the end of a martini,

at the bottom

           of the glassy pit, empty,

           as muffled horns screech to a cued stop,

for jalapeno and chips

 and a squeeze break

 for the needy.

                                                                                                                                                    

In the cosmology of Beat

           the mind sits,

armed only with a swizzle stick

Swirling the dust

           from the Buddhist tantra

That makes the cosmos

           sound like physics-

gone to shit.

                                                                                                                                                   

In the cosmology of Beat

           there is hope,

that the hum and the swirl,

           And the chance that

           a sound will emerge

and bulbs will sway

           and faces will turn,

In corridors

where whispers and chants, 

Once did ricochet.

                                                                                                                                                   

In the cosmology of beat,

           It is said that

           Beats will come

In technicolour, 

in ekta fuckachrome,

           beats from a bongo, a harp

a piano will bojangle-

           and bo-beep 

           from a sax on the edge of the metro,

           will tunnel down,

           will tunnel down,

and take you away

in a whoosh, 

far beyond

           any obsession with Om!

                                                                                                                                                   

Notes:  

Five-spot: Five-spot Café (1956-67), a café and performance space in New York City that featured cutting edge bebop and progressive jazz and attracted a host of avant-garde artists and writers.

Wooster and Bleeker: an intersection of two famous streets near Washington Square, Greenwich Village.  Bleeker Street was once a major centre for American bohemia and remains an important nightclub district; Wooster is home to many boutiques, restaurants and cultural institutions including the The Performance Group (later the Wooster Group), an experimental theatre company.  

Peter and Jack: Peter Orlovsky and Jack Kerouac

SPECIES-EUPHORIA

SPECIES EUPHORIA

Karen Ocana

                                                                                                                                                           

I am having dinner with a goldfish.

It is not a dream, my eyes are open,

the fish is looking at me, swirling

   solicitous of my solitude.

                                                                                                                                                         

It seemed rude to refuse the waiter

approaching with the fish in a bowl, 

as if I were some character in a

   story book. 

                                                                                                                                                      

The fish sizes up my curries and naan,

I eyeball its buoyant swishes,

our body language slides into

   complicated complicity.

                                                                                                                                                          

I raise my fork 

and something spasms

            a flash of molten gold rises

                        light cascades in the fish’s wake, 

            an improbable message

making its escape.

INVOLUTION

INVOLUTION

Karen Ocana

A Purolator truck drives by the living room window 

as you listen to Sam Rivers’ Involution and expect a parcel, 

expect it to contain a dehumidifier.  UV index reads 9/10 

and a heat warning is in effect.  Blinds are drawn, windows shut  

and you’ve been watching the drama of leaves 

fluttering in the breeze 

reflected on the grey wall 

as you work out 

how to translate 

certain key phrases.

You’re waiting for the delivery of a parcel, a dehumidifier 

and your dress is magenta, clinging to your damp skin 

as you translate certain key phrases 

in the book you find impossible to finish,  

the phrase about obsessively tracing hands 

across the new and old decomposing walls 

sitting still in the white space of a room 

listening obsessively to the rollicking riffs 

of Rivers’ Involution.

Key phrases in the evolution of the tenor saxophone, 

subtracting oneself from death 

like engraving in white-on-black 

the risk of a window. 

Camera obscura.

            How do we see, exactly?  

Listen.

            Heat rises from her middle like frothy magenta foam 

on a strawberry milkshake, and she dreams 

of fording a river on a steamy night in June,

her blue pencil scrolls, pacing, spacing the words, 

the meanings trailing with the ease of jazzic fluidity, 

horns, percussion, heat, voices, 

the apparent free flow of highly stylized phrases

those of the conversation

those of the hushed 

lush conversation 

when you tell me the events,  the dates,  the places,   the spaces 

you last heard music like this.

            The record ends in the shimmering shade 

            of the living room where the sun lingers 

            like the risk of a door opening onto the street 

            where a crowd rears its head and no one hears 

            the roar of the rivers that scream underground 

            day in day out, as potholes creak

            under the weight of ambulances.

HOW TO QUIT SMOKING

HOW TO QUIT SMOKING

Karen Ocana

                                                                                                                                                                            Dear one, 

Have you ever wondered which came first,

the poem or the letter? 

                                                                                                                                                                            I cycle to the canal to meet you —

you, who still smoke half a packet a day;

(We met at a poetry reading five years ago

among books and fine speakers with so much to say.)

                                                                                                                                                                            We saunter and speak but rarely in iambics

more rarely still in swishy hexameters

at best in blank verse, citing common parame-

ters, our aches and our nagging pains emblems 

of the strained life we lead in a metropolis,

with deaths in the thousands from

this novel coronavirus;

How the people we love we don’t see anymore

How friends have left and we’re tempted to flee

How chain-smoking was only recently banished

When ‘twas once the source of grace notes such as 

            these:

                                                                                                                                                                             Du feu s’il-vous-plait

             Haben Sie Feuer, bitte

                        Baby won’t you light my, um, cigarette?

                                                                                                                                                                             A writer we both admire once wrote

A poem called How to Quit Smoking

Where Felicity, smitten with Fred

Punches Bob in the gob, I’m just joking.

                                                                                                                                                                            It’s a poem wherein, as you know, the rhythm flows along quite unencumbered by rhyme scheme, in no way or shape bending to preconceived pattern, balanced on the triple knife edge of pathos, irony and delirium, along which it tiptoes acrobatically, following lyric chords strung invisibly like tight-ropes within our cerebral cortex, upon which stories of love and loss leap and pirouette…

                                                                                                                                                                            leaving me breathless,

              speechless

with visions of a simile

                          (Go ahead and blame the pox of romantic cigarette advertisements if you will)

                                                                                                                                                                          “… like the smoky whorls issuing from the rosebud of your dreamy lips…”