SOUP OF GLASS AND CHALK-STAINED SKIES
- Maybe you own a crockpot. Meals made in them are supposed to be nourishing. Chalky edges of plaster gape open around the hole in the wall next to ours. Crockpots are things mothers give to men newly divorced. Dad can’t feed us pizza and Campbell’s ready-to-serve with mini-sirloin patties anymore. We’ll be yanked back to Auburn, California or wherever Mom’s moving. The new boyfriend’s name is Dick.
- Cleave 2-3 lbs. of discount beef into stew chunks. Use a good knife. Dad says his problem with cooking is he’s never had to do it before. Top ramen with lunch meat doesn’t count. My eyes are fixed on his flimsy blade severing tendon and miniature arteries, soaking the cutting board with blood like bruises blooming. There’s another hole in the hallway and one in my bedroom. I don’t understand why we have to wait until we move to patch them.
- Quarter 4 medium potatoes and chop an onion roughly. Fish a pound of peas out of the freezer and hope they’re not frost-burnt. He slams the meat chunks into the pot with the vegetables. He sets down his sixth beer. He adds water. It’s supposed to be that easy.
- Add seasonings to your taste. Dad has a memory of Mom’s soups, hearty and simple, with a little love nip of pepper. He tosses in a handful from a pre-ground jar like he’s sowing a field. Take it easy, I tell him. It sits for the time it takes him to go on a beer run. Miracle, it’s done. He walked to get the beer. The last thing we need in this family is a DUI, he tells us sisters, slouched over our stools at the dining bar. It’s so full of pepper that it hurts. It’s like swallowing glass. Eat it, he tells us, I don’t want people thinking I can’t take care of you.
Nora Brooks is a writer whose work has been published in Poets & Writers, PopMatters, Monkeybicycle, Redactions, Alimentum, and The Best American Poetry blog and is forthcoming from H.O.W. Journal. She is an MFA candidate at The New School and lives in the East Village. This piece originally appeared in Redactions. Nora can be found online at norabrooks.org.
Before I learned to play, I knew the harp was the only instrument fit for God. I had seen paintings of angels and saints strumming it atop clouds. They deigned lift a trumpet for the people of earth.
During our first lesson my brother told me the strings were made of catgut—the internal parts of an animal we weren’t to eat.
My father carted us out during his parties and quieted his guests and told them to listen as his cherubim played. My brother sat in the chair and plucked the chords, just as he was told, and when he finished, I followed. My father always wanted his little girl to play last.
Neither of us learned it very well. Our teacher would admonish us. Remind us to practice. Tell us to pluck more gently. Keep our fingernails short.
My brother quit before I did.
The last we heard of him was a resounding note before I took my turn in front of our bay windows. All he and I had in common, really, was that neither of us understood how such a delicate sound could echo from something so vulgar as catgut. But he left before he could come to know our father.
Scott Dievendorf grew up in California and now resides in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from Columbia University. His work has appeared in Epiphany. He currently serves as fiction editor of Apogee Journal and is polishing his novel on a Charlie Chaplin impersonator.
SOME FACTS ABOUT WHALES
Whales are difficult to trust because they are large and because they will not tell you about their blowholes or ever offer you the option of subtitles for their conversations, which are often called songs. Whales can travel vast distances. Whales reproduce one at a time, and very slowly. Whales have a lot of love to give. Whales will make a house for you inside of their bellies for all of your days. They will ask that you not light a fire, as it tickles them. Tickles is a whale word for the ways in which they will kill you. My mother once told me about being swallowed by a whale but then I realized she was talking about Pinocchio, who was a puppet made out of wood. Floorboards are made out of wood. Chairs are made out of wood. The cabinets in the kitchen are made out of wood and the burners on the stove are ringed by fire. This is a sure sign whales are not around as I go to sleep. As I go to sleep I am bathed by streetlights and surrounded, on all sides, by darkness.
Sasha Fletcher is the author ofit is going to be a good year(Big Lucks Books, 2015), one novella, and several chapbooks of poetry.
A young woman becomes her grandmother’s teacher. Though the old woman, now near 90, has lived in Canada for over 60 years, she still speaks with a heavy Hungarian accent and an inverted arrangement of words in which her granddaughter delights. “What for do I need that?” Grandma will ask about a new skirt. “I can make it myself.” “Under-the-neath” she will explain where the napkin has gone. When her granddaughter calls to say she’s on her way for their Tuesday night dinner, “Lovely!” Grandma replies. She often uses the word, and, coming from her wrinkled throat, it sounds lovely.
“I’m too tired to write,” Grandma says to her little girl after kokosh cake and compote. “That’s why you should,” replies the young woman. “Write me that story about your Uncle Herman, the one who owned a printing press and book repair shop.” Grandma has told her how in the old country people kept things forever so they needed to get the spines of novels reglued and knives sharpened and shoes resoled. “Tell me how he didn’t give a book back until he’d read the whole thing.” But Grandma says, “For me it is too late.”
The young woman comes back the following week. After they clear the table, Grandma hands her a piece of lined paper with her large, left-leaning script. “I did my homework,” she says with pride. The story begins with her father, a schoolteacher who was born in Szerencs and killed in Auschwitz. “Szerencs means luck,” Grandma says. The young woman already knows this and knows the town wasn't lucky. The story goes on to list when every family member died and how.“Grandma, this isn’t really what I meant,” she says as kindly as she can. “I have an idea. You can write the one you love to tell about the crazy lady who went around town saying, ‘To be beautiful you have to be born beautiful!’ ”
But when the young woman returns the next Tuesday, Grandma has written the same story—each parent, every sibling and aunt and uncle and cousin, even the cat who had no name, when and how,
Alisha Kaplan writes poetry and short stories and something in-between. This fall she will begin an MFA in poetry at New York University, where she will be a Rona Jaffe Fellow. A native of Toronto, she now lives in Brooklyn. "Under-the-neath" was originally published in Lilith Magazine. More at: alishakaplan.com.
MAYBE IT’S TIME FOR A STORY
This time it’s a stone that does it. I pick it up. It is smooth and wet. Are there only two kinds? Jagged or smooth. Sometimes we say this side or that side, but there are infinite dimensions. To all of us.
Boy or a girl, it makes no matter. But he, he was all man, cracked like the earth just above our receding creek. Was this the urgency?
It was wet, that much is for sure. Everything is wet when these things happen. We all make sure they are. He made sure they were. It was.
He did not control the oceans. Or the lakes. Or our creek, but there we were and he, of course, was tan, and I, of course, was not. A child with slathered sunblock, my skin remained fleshy and white. Fleshy as in chicken skin or the belly of a pig swaying from side to side. Pigs are not graceful, nor was I. But maybe I was able to contain all that ugly farm animal energy. Maybe my rounded girl belly made me God.
I did not find him beautiful, only the rocks, the soil.
It must have been different. Separate maybe. Is this how it’s done? Hold this, this thing you have not seen. This thing you have not touched. Or: look at ours together, this is how yours will become.
Children cannot help but be drawn to the moisture. They still remember resting in their mother’s womb, but my mother’s room was dry.
Put your mouth on it, he said.
They always say this. We all have said this, have we not? Put your mouth on me, I say to my girlfriend. All of me. My hardness, my softness, my every dimension. The cut of my hipbones, the round of my hips and thighs, the stone of my shins.
We say women taste sweet, men taste salty. But I say women taste warm. Like something you need to prepare yourself to eat. And then devour. Men I can swallow whole. Cold or warm. Leftover or fresh.
The bigness of things does not always matter, but the dimension.
I don’t remember the thickness or thinness of him. It changes depending upon how I’d like to remember it to be.
When I am soft and ready, he is thick and his hand has brushed himself with creek water. It is untainted. We are untainted. Until I put my mouth on him, I am innocent. After there is salt. But he is not ocean. Do not drink the sea, my mother told me. You must boil to purify. I turn the faucet all the way to one side, the sink steams. I burn my hands and then the insides of me, but there is no flushing it out, just scarring and as stuck as the fish water in my lungs. And it sits in my stomach, mixing with his juices and he is warm again. I keep him this way.
When I am dry. I am never dry.
Mary Krienke grew up in the Midwest and resides in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA from Columbia University’s Fiction Program and has been previously published by Midwestern Gothic, Joyland, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Underground Voices. Now an associate literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, she is currently writing her first novel. (Photo by Sara Fuller)
Through the blinding sands of the coast, across the great hills of Gaul, past the peaks of the Pyrenees, and surrounded by seas of armies from every empire, Hannibal strides across the land atop his pet war elephant, Isabelle. With one gold-tipped finger he traces through the thick furrows of her hide. His army is always on the move and he lives up there, hauling up food that servants place in a dangling basket and sleeping curled up on her wide back. Isabelle had been captured in the Serengeti by soldiers of Carthage. When she was found she was using her trunk to spray a fountain of water into her own face. Her skin is an inch thick, dark gray, and covered with deep lines, like the wrinkled map of some abandoned moon. This is the canvas Hannibal gazes upon for months as he chases the armies of Rome.
However, the Romans evade his advancing horde and after years of chasing and pillaging, Hannibal builds a camp in the hills. He waits. His men lay down their swords and use their shields to carry berries from the forest. Some mornings Hannibal awakes beside the warm belly of Isabelle to watch the sun squint over the sea and he thinks that he could be happy here.
One day a carrier pigeon arrives with a desperate letter tied to its leg. Carthage has been invaded while he was gallivanting about. Carthage! It has been so long he can barely remember its white buildings and green rivers. It is a home that has faded in his memory and now seems unreal, yet Hannibal has no choice but to race back gripping Isabelle’s neck.
While sailing across the Mediterranean, a giant storm descends and Isabelle drowns along with ten thousand men. Twelve guards have to hold Hannibal back from the ship’s edge as he watches her grey body sink beneath the foaming waves.
His ship docks in secret at night and Hannibal returns home with his clothes wet and his head hung low. He dries himself with a piece of cloth and eats a handful of grapes. Through his window he can see the fires of Scipio’s army in the hills outside of town. In the morning he will inspect the fortifications and organize the soldiers, but for now he carries his tired body into the bedroom. His wife is already asleep and he undresses, lies down and cradles her in his arms. Then, for a brief second, Hannibal pulls back in alarm. How pale his wife’s face is, and her skin, how impossibly smooth!
Lincoln Michel is the Online Editor of Electric Literature and the Coeditor of Gigantic. His work appears in Tin House, NOON, The Believer, Oxford American, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He tweets @thelincoln. “Foreign Lands” originally appeared in Beecher's Magazine.
WHO IS SO DUMB?
But it’s not all like that. Here’s a moment, while I am at my parents’ house. We’re at dinner. My father has done something unusual. It makes my mother frown and shake her head. I continue looking at her, but she refuses to tell me what it is.
What? I ask.
My father continues chewing, while my mother continues shaking her head. I don’t want to say, she says.
What is it? I ask. What did he do?
She shakes her head again while my father looks off to the side. From the direction of their glances, I can tell whatever had happened had happened near his plate.
Did he spit something out onto the table? I ask—it wouldn’t have been for the first time. Did he eat with the serving spoon?
Finally my mother tells me what happened: as he was spooning gravy from the bowl to his plate, a mushroom had fallen off his spoon and onto the table. My father had picked up the fallen mushroom with his fingers and plopped it back in the bowl.
So dumb, says my father, chewing.
And he call me dumb, says my mother.
So dumb, says my father.
Jem, what do you think—a person choose the dumbest person in the world to marry cannot be very smart. Don’t you agree?
A boy marry the dumbest girl can’t be smart, she says. Don’t you agree?
So dumb, says my father.
Birds of a feather, says my mother, picking up her fork and then putting it down without eating from it. She tells me about choosing “company who are like us,” alternating between English and Mandarin, then pauses excitedly.
Oh Jem, she says, here’s what I wanted to tell you—
Shut up, clean up! yells my father, getting up with his now empty plate. But he yells this in a way that is not actually angry, but mock angry, which over the years I’ve learned to tell the difference from angry angry, which he is more usually, and which I know my mother is left to deal with alone, now that I am gone. My father goes into the kitchen to put his plate in the sink and run some water over it.
I don’t want you to marry a dumb girl, says my mother, picking up her fork again. A dumb girl will have dumb children and make your life miserable. That is the truth.
So dumb, says my father, from the kitchen.
I took logic lessons, says my mother. In university. A person who choose the dumbest person to marry cannot be smart, she repeats. And he quit, he never say it anymore. Mommy tell the truth.
So dumb, says my father.
You think your Mommy is so easy to be picked on? she asks in Mandarin. Do you understand?
Mommy not so easy to be picked on, she says, switching over to English. He always say: “Mommy so dumb.” Well, a person marry the dumbest can’t be very smart. She looks up, smiling.
Don’t you agree?
You’re funny tonight, I say.
So dumb, ah, says my father, clearing his throat as he leaves the kitchen.
Hey, smart person, did you eat your medicine tonight? asks my mother.
So dumb, says my father, ignoring her. He goes into the family room, where the enormous flatscreen television he bought last winter is hung, covering the entire wall. Your mother is no fool, says my mother.
So dumb, ah, I can hear my father say, sighing as he sits down on the couch.
A little later my mother comes up to my room, knocking quietly.
Come in, I say. I am in my bed, reading.
You really think your mother is funny? she asks.
Sometimes, I say.
In her hand I see she is holding my jacket, which I had forgotten in the kitchen. She starts putting it on a hanger in my closest.
I know I’m not dumb, she says. But he has to keep saying: “You are so dumb!” Who is so dumb? If I’m really so dumb, I’m positive he wouldn’t marry me. Who is going to marry the dumbest person? I have to say: “If I am so dumb, you cannot be too smart, either.”
I can hear her laughing a little to herself, the small, pleased laugh of someone who doesn’t usually win at things. I’m not looking at her, but I know she’s first looking at my jacket in the closet, and then at me. I hear the sound of her quietly walking out of my room and into the rest of the house.
James Yeh was born in 1982 in Anderson, South Carolina. A founding editor of Gigantic. His stories, interviews, and other writing appear or are forthcoming in BOMB, Vice, NOON, Tin House, the Believer, Tank magazine,and the Organist. He may be found online at jamesyeh.com and twitter.com/jamesyeh. He lives in Brooklyn. This story originally appeared in NOON.
All pieces appear thanks to permission by the authors.