Author Archive

Issue 11.3

Welcome to forgejournal.com, the online iteration of Forge.

Nunc lego qui nunc scribunt – I read now those who write now

-Robert of Cricklade


Happy New Year!  Welcome to the latest issue of Forge to warm you mid-winter (or cool you in the antipodean midsummer).

If you prefer paper to pixels, you can order a hard copy here.

~Melissa Venables

Uber-editor, Forge 11.3

Forge is an independent endeavor. We do not receive money from any institutional patrons – we are completely reader supported. If you enjoy what you find here, consider buying a hard copy of a journal issue, or submitting a donation by clicking on the button below. Thanks!


CONTENTS

—Prose—

Richard Compean – Yesterday and Today
Jory Pomeranz – The Fractalist
Sam Smith – A Warm Welcome

—Poetry—

Charles Elin – Orange Fanta
Eric Greinke – Alberta Clipper | Fire Man | Informality | John The Booster | Novel T
Simon Perchik – 10 Selected Poems — Winter 2018

—Visual—

Janet Coontz-Stoneman – Palm Tree Silhouettes, Sunset

—Audio—

Suchoon Mo – Largo in G Minor | Dance of Swallows No. 2

Yesterday and Today

By Richard Compean

e will be gone in two weeks—gone not just away on retreat, or business, not to visit family, not to the almost comatose sleep he has been going to increasingly for the past two months, but forever, to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as he himself would say, to the death that will us finally part.

All this I know because I just met yesterday with his hospice nurse, who has told me this, as she explained, for my own sake, not his, to get me beyond denial and anger.

And, yes, I have been angry at him ever since he told me a few months back that suicide might make things easier, especially on me. We both laughed when I threatened to kill him if he so much as even tried.

The hospice nurse also told me that his periods of consciousness and lucidity will continue to diminish, both in frequency and length, until they stop completely. Yesterday there were three, and all were less than an hour. Last night we talked for only about forty-five minutes, and he once again reminded me to be sure that his daughter Lucy gets that original Beatles Yesterday and Today album (the one with the broken dolls and meat) when she comes to visit today.

This request reminded me of the first gift he gave me—a two-part CD collection, one part red and one part blue, of all the Beatles’ greatest songs from 1962 to 1970. Then I was less than half his age, and he promised as he courted me that he would make sure that when we married—something he was much more interested in than I was—he would be less than twice my age.

This was one of several important promises he made me, and—dammit—he managed to keep them all, even though I grew to want more. I was halfway past twenty-four when we married; he was not yet forty-nine. And on my twenty-fifth birthday he promised that I would catch up with him in age. He anticipated the question on my mind, and the puzzled look on my face, by telling me that for ten years now he had remained the same age, an age that I, too, would reach. Each year on his birthday he would celebrate being, once again—as he is even now, with less than two weeks to live—“between thirty-nine and death.” This is how I caught up with him, in a matter of only fourteen years.

He also promised me on our honeymoon that in appreciation for my marrying someone so much older, he would give me at least twenty good years (a “score,” as Abraham Lincoln counted them). They have not always been perfect, but as of this morning our nearly twenty-one years together have indeed been good, even though he will not quite make it to the biblical three score years and ten.

When we talked last night, he also told me that he had a gift for me that I was not to open until he was gone, and that he would say more about it tomorrow. I already know what it is—something that he had his closest friend, David, help him prepare.

I not only know what it is, but also where it is, and I have even opened it, or at least a part of it. I overheard some of his conversation with David and saw David give him a large envelope, wrapped with gold ribbon. David had followed his instructions to write on the outside—just as Marshal Will Kane did in High Noon, with a quill pen—“To Be Opened in the Event of My Death.” Then I saw David, following his instructions, put the envelope underneath his mattress on the far side of the bed, close to the window.

Earlier this week, after I was sure he had gone into one of his more and more frequent nearly catatonic sleeps, I could no longer resist the temptation to pull out the envelope and bring it out to my room to look inside. But because I was sure he would know if it was gone, I took out and only looked at a part of the contents.

The first thing I noticed was that everything was in teal blue—his favorite color and the same color as the dress he bought me for our second anniversary, the dress that I wore out with him only three times, and which I wore out wearing for him at home with, as he had demanded (reminding me that Je demande in French meant only “I ask” or “I request” in English), absolutely nothing underneath. For a couple of years I had worn it as a prelude to our lovemaking, and I remember that it became so threadbare that the last time I wore it, he tore it off of me.

In the envelope was a sheet of parchment on which he had written (I, of course, recognized the handwriting), in dark ink, “I gave you the twenty years I promised, and I had hoped to give more, but then came the cancer that I did not anticipate. I thought our love would go into extra innings, but I’m now behind and it’s the bottom of the 9th, with two out and two strikes on me. And to top that off, Death has one hell of a curveball that’s almost unhittable and of which he is justifiably proud, even though one guy named Jack Donne hit it for a home run in that remarkable ‘Death Be Not Proud’ sonnet you know I love.

“Before I strike out, I want to leave you with something that will help in the game of your own life. I don’t mean it to be precious or sentimental, but something that will help you carry on without me—not that you’ve ever needed me to help live your life. That something is this small set of cards that I want you to carry with you, at least for the first year after my death. They are not in any order of priority or importance, so they can be shuffled or rearranged. And after you read them, you may decide to toss them as the demented blubberings of an old man whom you should not have let talk you into marrying when you were so young. At least consult them once and, as a last request (‘Je demande’) from me, give them a year.

“By the way, I think David did a good job in matching the paper stock on which they are written to that teal-blue dress I bought you a long time ago—yes, that one.”

Inside the parchment sheet on which he had written were ten—make that eleven—cards. To cover up my surreptitious theft, I grabbed the first three, then put the remaining cards back inside the parchment and the parchment sheet back inside the envelope, then put the whole envelope back under the mattress where I “found” it.

The first card, like the others to follow, was actually laminated. And it consisted of simple advice. I think he wanted this card to be first, even though he had written that they were put together in random order.

That first card only had three words: FORGET ABOUT ME. I liked its simplicity, but its message, like his earlier suggestion about suicide, made me angry! What do you mean, “forget about you”? Goddammit, you are the only one in my life that I will not ever be able to forget. You yourself made certain of that, you and all your fulfilled promises, all your loving gifts and days, your compassion and your calmness that got us through so much, and yes, even your humor, which I think underlies the advice on this card.

The second card was easier to accept: KEEP WALKING. Before the cancer, and even up until a few months ago, we walked nearly every day, through the park, around the lake, even just to Safeway and back. Those walks were a part of him that I am already missing, and a contradiction to that first card.

The third card was downright weird, not because of its advice, but because that advice was circled in red and had a line through it (like a No Smoking sign), meaning DO NOT. It said, inside the circle and line: WATCH BASEBALL. And I knew that it was meant as a joke. In fact, I casually flipped it over and found writing on the other side, writing that said, “Never mind. This one was for me.”

Then I thought to flip the other cards over, and sure enough, there was more on the other side of them as well. On the back of the first he had thanked me for twenty great years and assured me that I was a wonderful, life-affirming human being and that I never did need him before and certainly would not need him now. I never could get him to acknowledge that it was not a matter of need but want. And now that he is almost gone, I want him more than ever. The back of the second card advised me to walk slow; to walk for exercise of my mind, not of my (“great,” he had added) body.

Having read these cards, I went back for more, putting the first three back.

On Wednesday night I read two other cards, truly random: EAT RAW VEGETABLES AND FRUIT and WATCH MOVIES. On the back, the first simply said not to get cancer, as he had, growing up the son of a cook and eating all that meat and cheese. The back of the second one quoted the T-shirt he still sometimes wore on our walks: Si on aime la vie, on va au cinema.

Next morning I looked at the other two: READ DANTE and DON’T LET THE DUKKHA GET YOU DOWN. One advised, on the back, “not just Inferno and Purgatorio, which are the greatest depictions ever of human suffering, but also Paradiso, where you will find compassion and joy.” The back of the other told me to see the “Dante” card.

I have saved the remaining four cards for now, as I wait for Lucy to arrive to see her father for most likely the last time and to receive the Yesterday and Today vinyl album he repeatedly made me promise to deliver to her personally. As I look at the songs on this album, I hear him stirring and know that he will soon be ready to say goodbye to Lucy. I still want to know, as the Beatles themselves asked, why he is saying goodbye when I want to say hello.

I say hello to Lucy when she arrives, then check to see if he is ready for her. When she goes in for her farewell, I take out the final four cards.

One card says PRAY; on the back it reminds me to wish wellness and happiness to everyone, even my enemies. Has he become an enemy for deserting me?

The second card says TALK TO ANIMALS and adds, on the back, that I will be amazed at how much they have to teach me.

The third card advises me to GIVE TO OTHERS and reminds me of what he has already taught me, how much great pleasure and joy there is in giving.

The final card says LISTEN TO THE BEATLES. I think I already know what will be on the back of this card.

 

——————–

Richard Compean grew up listening to The Beatles and has passed his love for them on to both his children and student at City College of San Francisco where he teaches English. In his spare time he enjoys hanging out on the corner of pop culture and spirituality, admiring the work of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon as much as that of John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Andrew Marvell.

The Fractalist

By Jory Pomeranz

n some old encyclopedias, you will find under the article on Spain, the border between Spain and Portugal is 620 miles long. In the same encyclopedia, under the article on Portugal, it says the border is 760 miles long. It’s the same border. The geometry we learned in high school—circles, squares, triangles—tells us nothing about the shapes of nature. Where the land and sea so variously lie about each other and lightly kiss is no hyperbola. If you measure in kilometers, you reach a certain length. In meters, you’d pick up more wiggles and wobbles of the coastline. Centimeters? Even longer. There is no well-defined length for a coastline; the length depends on the scale by which you choose to measure it and the scale of your perspective. This is called scale ambiguity.

Michael Crane was a mathematician studying and teaching fractal geometry at Cornell University. Fractals are great for finding simple descriptions for complicated shapes. Take Sierpinski’s gasket, for example. The gasket possesses an infinite number of triangles, and the equations of those triangles aren’t straightforward. Yet if you shrink it by a half, take another copy and shrink it by a half, then move it over by half, and then take a final copy, shrink it by a half, and move up by a half, you get the gasket. A fractal description of an object is the story of how it grows.

I learned from Michael he was dying of cancer and it was everywhere. It was inside his brain; it had taken one eye, which he hid by covering his glasses with duct tape and joking about being a pirate. It was all over his lungs and he would exclaim, “Our lungs, oh my God! There are half a billion alveoli in our lungs—it would take the whole genome just to describe the lungs! That’s why the genome just tells us how to grow instead. If we take these structures apart, study the patterns in smaller scales, anything visually complex can be decoded into something very simple.” And he’d be totally out of breath, and I could see and feel it hurt him now, every time he chose to use those lungs to speak. There are, on average, twenty-three levels of branching in the lungs, and they have a volume of five to six liters and a surface area of 130 square meters. It’s like taking an envelope and folding it up to fit inside a thimble, yet evolution discovered a way to do it by branching, and branching, and branching. Every bit of the lung looks like the whole lung. It’s a fractal and dually simple and complex.

* * *

With Michael’s disease progressing, I wondered how much of his nature, nature itself would have to destroy before his childlike curiosity for nature itself would be destroyed. He still had this gentle, vivacious curiosity in a dying body. As a child, he had wanted to understand the different shapes of clouds, or why flowers grew the way they grew, or why mud cracked the way it did when it dried out in the sun. As an adult, he wanted to be that tottering old guy ambling into class with a piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe, still telling the same dumb jokes. And the sicker he got, the more I wanted to walk the measuring tape back on his life, giving him more time with his wife and his seven cats.

Michael taught me that science has a narrative component that we too often forget. He was a storyteller. The shape of a snowflake is the story of the pressure, temperature, and humidity it encountered on its flight through the clouds. A coastline is the story of rocks and tides and waves. A mountain range is the story about plate tectonics and erosion. A child’s face, a field of daisies, a fall of snowflakes: bilateral symmetry for the human face, translational symmetry for the field of daisies, rotational symmetry for the snowflakes. Fractals.

Near the end of his life, they took one of his arms. He used the one arm to walk with a cane. He told me, “I feel disgusted that I’m being betrayed by my body,” and I knew he understood it was by the nature he found so beautiful. Cancer cells are fractals too. He died a few days afterward at night. I sat on my porch. I cried because I felt it was unfair for a man to understand so much about the uncontrolled elements of life and still have to die. I looked up at the night. I had this very clear sense that instead of looking up into the heights, I was looking down into the depths—something flipped, and the space between the stars was just immense and empty, but there was something else to it too. And I couldn’t explain it. And I missed him already.

——————–
Jory Pomeranz is a holistic chef living in Cincinnati, OH. He teaches chess to students and veterans.

A Warm Welcome

By Sam Smith

is temples throbbed as he lurched through the undergrowth, each step tightening his chest. Stopping to catch his breath momentarily, he leaned against a tree and scanned his surroundings for any sign of sanctuary. Nothing but dense foliage rose up to barricade him on all sides.

He glanced upwards through the lattice of branches at the failing light; the last thing he wanted was still to be out here after dark.

Following a minute’s rest, he trudged on warily, listening for anything untoward. It began to rain heavily, the canopy of tree limbs providing scant cover, and it didn’t take long for him to become completely drenched.

A wet crunch from somewhere behind sent him stumbling ahead once more, boots squeaking as he slithered over downed tree trunks. An unfamiliar animal’s grunt to his left caused him to stop too quickly, and he narrowly avoided plunging blindly into a quagmire. This time he threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his hands. When he was sure the danger had passed, he got slowly to his feet and moved on, looking all around.

Then, through the rainy haze, a square patch of light could be glimpsed. As he drew nearer, he squinted ahead and saw that it was emanating from the window of a squat, picturesque farmhouse. Just like Grandmother’s place in Little Red Riding Hood.

He attempted to hide the limp in his left leg as he walked, and ran a trembling hand over his wet face to check for any cuts or bruises. Stopping at the fence that skirted the perimeter of the dwelling, he washed his face in the water butt, before approaching the front door.

He patted his jacket pocket and felt the slight heft of the Swiss Army knife, blade already out, and was instantly reassured. Taking one last breath, he hammered a fist on the rain-splattered door. A muffled sound from within, and it was opened to reveal a bloodshot eye, which looked him up and down.

“Well?” barked the owner of the eye.

The stranger cleared his throat before replying.

“I got separated from my rambling party and I just need a place to ride out the storm”, came the well-rehearsed reply.

The door opened a little more and an elderly man’s head emerged, like a turtle’s from its shell.

“It’s barely even coming down out there”, he sniffed.

From somewhere behind him came a sing-song voice.

“Who is it, Alfred?”

The sound of approaching footsteps followed, and then the door was opened fully to reveal a plump woman wiping her hands on a chequered apron.

“Don’t stand on ceremony young man, come in!”

She shoved her indignant husband aside and ushered their guest in, before spinning to face him.

“Were you giving him the full inquest, you old goat?”

The old man didn’t reply, instead choosing to slope into the front room. He growled over his shoulder at the interloper to “close the damn door”, then was gone.

“Never mind him”, the pinafored lady said as she removed the stranger’s coat, “It’s the cold affecting his mood, not you.”

As she secreted it in a bustling pantry, he remembered the knife in the pocket and silently cursed himself for being so complacent. Looked as though he’d have to…improvise. He hovered awkwardly on the threshold for a few more seconds before wiping his muddy boots on the mat and stepping into the kitchen.

The woman busied herself near the sink, and the stranger took the opportunity to scan the large table that occupied the majority of the room. Three place settings, which included three plates, three forks…and three steak knives. Just one would do.

In one smooth movement he grasped the handle of the nearest one and held it low by his side. He glided into the living room and glimpsed the top of the old man’s head over the back of the armchair. It was reflecting the eerie glow from the television and sending it around the darkened room as the old man swayed his head.

The stranger crept forward, raising his knife in readiness, and ran a tongue over his dry lips.

Snick! He felt something enter his spine, and his limbs went limp. The steak knife clattered to the floor a few seconds before he did, a large cloud of dust sighing from the carpet as he landed.

“Ahh, the impetuousness of youth”, whispered the old man, rising stiffly from his chair. He stepped over to where the stranger had fallen, and picked up the steak knife between thumb and forefinger.

“This’ll need a wash”, he said to his wife, who was standing directly behind the stranger. As she stepped into his eye line, he used the last of his strength to turn and look at her, and immediately wished he hadn’t.

From the neck down, she still resembled the same sweet, slightly doddery old lady as before, but her face had…changed. It was now a monstrous black protuberance from the misshapen and deformed head, easily double the size it had been. Two compound eyes, made up of hundreds of glistening red orbs fixated on the stranger’s helpless body. Instead of a nose, there was now a long, flexible appendage that extended slowly from the face, twitching horribly. It must have been what he felt enter his back earlier.

But by far the worst of all were the jaws, which the stranger felt compelled to gaze at, even though he would rather be blinded than to ever see anything quite so terrible again. To describe them would be to go mad, but describe them he must. They were large black mandibles, slick with mucus, and they clicked and quivered whenever she (it?) made any movement. The mucus shone in the light, and ran along the mandible’s razor sharp edge before splattering and pooling on the cottage’s wooden floor. The stranger saw that the creature was clutching something by its side that resembled a used rag, only realising after a few moments that it was the old woman’s face that the creature had been wearing like a mask.

The old man now appeared by her side, having taken on the same appearance, and put a hand on her shoulder. Finally, the woman spoke. When she did so, the mandibles opened and closed in a grotesque imitation of a human mouth speaking.

“We’re ever so sorry it had to end like this, love, but I’m sure you understand that we can’t let you go. Now, shall we make a start on dinner?”

The creatures shuffled towards the stranger, and the last sound he heard was that of the proboscii unfurling from their alien faces.

 

——————–
Sam Smith is a former Creative Writing and Scriptwriting student. His preferred genres of writing are sci-fi, horror and comedy. Among his influences are George Orwell, H.G.Wells, Charlie Brooker, Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. His stories have been featured in Maudlin House, Lit Cat, Visitant Lit, Two Words For and Baphash.

Issue 11.2

Welcome to forgejournal.com, the online iteration of Forge.

Nunc lego qui nunc scribunt – I read now those who write now

-Robert of Cricklade

It’s a party! Come enjoy some of the fine offerings on our digital table in the newest issue of Forge.

If you like the feel of a book in your hands, hard copies are available as well.

~Leif Milliken

Uber-editor, Forge 11.2

Forge is an independent endeavor. We do not receive money from any institutional patrons – we are completely reader supported. If you enjoy what you find here, consider buying a hard copy of a journal issue, or submitting a donation by clicking on the button below. Thanks!

Drop on by!

Bring a friend!

See what’s new!


CONTENTS

—Prose—

Sharon Barr: Like a Complete Unknown
Nancy Bourne:  We Gather Together
Linda Carela: Teachings of the Wolves
Z.Z. Boone: Headhunter
Heather Leah Huddleston: From Where She Stands
Raymond Abbott: Going to Lough Derg
Burton Shulman: Cakewalk Island, 1944
Mike Siemasz: The Ghost of Joseph Gagnon
Heather Whited: The Laying on of Hands

—Poetry—

Richard Kostelanetz: Four pages from Cunning Punctuations
Simon Perchik: Ten Poems—Fall 2017

—Artwork—

Don Swartzenruber: The Approach

Issue 11.1

Welcome to forgejournal.com, the online iteration of Forge.

Nunc lego qui nunc scribunt – I read now those who write now

-Robert of Cricklade

The first issue of Forge volume 11 is here for your reading enjoyment.

Purchase the hard copy here.

~Melissa Venables

Uber-editor, Forge 11.1

Forge is an independent endeavor. We do not receive money from any institutional patrons – we are completely reader supported. If you enjoy what you find here, consider buying a hard copy of a journal issue, or submitting a donation by clicking on the button below. Thanks!

Drop on by!

Bring a friend!

See what’s new!


CONTENTS

—Prose—

John Ballantine: A Kitchen Full
Joe Baumann: Bury Your Children, Bury Your Bones
Nancy Gerber: Eva’s Gift
Kate McCorkle: J.P.M.
Hali Morell: My Month Alone: When the Cat Won’t Help and the Inner Critic Won’t Shut Up

—Poetry—

Gwendolyn Jensen: Singularities
Simon Perchik: Ten Poems—Summer 2017

A Kitchen Full

By John Ballantine

he chicken breast is soft, moist, and succulent, covered with a gentle crust. Crispy with no grease, just the warm smell of centuries of song cooking the fried chicken. Henrietta rolls the floured chicken leg in the light breadcrumb batter. It blankets the leg with a thin layer before slipping slowly into the simmering oil—four minutes later, a perfect lightly-browned leg is placed on the platter next to the breast, thigh, and neck.

Looking in at the cast iron stove, set deep in the cooking alcove, and a flour-spattered tin table at the center of the kitchen, you would see the rhythmic movements—back and forth from table with parboiled chicken rolled in flour and dipped quickly in the breadcrumb batter before it makes its way to the black frying pan with bubbling oil. Each piece of chicken is deliberately put in the cast iron pan, worn dark by years of cooking, and then as the batter browns, it is gently moved to the platter on the counter.

Henrietta flows with music I cannot hear, but I see her as she touches the history of frying chicken on Alabama sharecropping farms. Special Sunday meals for the poor black folk after church. The soul of black-eyed peas, carrots in butter, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken is all you need to keep you going through the tribulations of living down South. Each week families gather, amens fill the air, heads are bowed, and hands reach across the table.

Food is love. It binds the soul and fills the heart with history and all that comes at you. I did not know the written history or hear the songs when I was eight, but I tasted the sustenance of life. Henrietta shared her time with us in the kitchen, passing on the wisdom of years slowed down, meandering songs, and the sermons that hold us together.

It was not just the fried chicken, apple pies, or greens that let us white folk, her black children, and grandchildren learn that the kitchen was safe. A sanctuary from the world out there with all of its shouting, misery, and meanness. We gathered each day with Henrietta as she shushed the noise, “Now quiet down, listen up, and take that hand away from the food. Don’t spoil your dinner.”

I was taught the kitchen ritual; I was part of it each morning and night. We all were in our ways. Cleaning up, clearing the dishes, and witnesses to the dance of meals. At first Henrietta pulled the dinner together by instinct and years of watching—no books, no words—then, with tutoring and gentle guidance from Joy of Cooking that sat on the counter, her repasts grew—learned after years of lessons. Henrietta only read the Bible and passed-down cookbooks.

She knew batters, the silky smoothness of mouse, the English custards, legs of lamb with rosemary and garlic, and even the French sauces. Her affinity with the vegetables, chickens, and grains was uncanny. No schooling taught her the ingredients or measures. Just a touch of salt, a little curry there, two dabs of butter, and this spice and that sprig of rosemary or basil. The kitchen was full of magic and song; a goodness warming all who wandered in.

Of course my first meal—my mother’s milk—was a sweet, warm flow squeezed from her breast. My eyes closed, slowly opening with the May sun. I held my mother’s body, full of images: yellows, and grays, and even the dark pulsating purples of the womb. I was out in the world, slapped awake with a cry, and put into my mother’s care. Neither of us knew what to expect or where we would walk.

Soon I rolled on the blanket, looked at the sky, and crawled on my stomach. The pabulum and baby foods, ground up to keep me going, were terrible. Spit out and thrown against the wall as I sat locked in the baby high chair. Gerber tried to feed us right, but scientists forgot to ask kids the essentials of baby rearing. Cries were heard across the land. I was just one of the red-faced children looking not as cute as the baby ads. Mothers were distraught; Spock did not know how to feed his offspring.

We were thrown from the spinning Ferris wheels. The kaleidoscope of the 1950s pushed black sharecroppers from the farms, opened schools to black and white with Federal marshals, and created Madison Avenue men in gray flannel suits who knew nothing about child-rearing. The mushy food and jars of syrupy vegetable mixes littered the floor. Traumas were spawned everywhere.

My sister Chia and I were saved from these ill-thought-out lessons: not by design, but serendipity. Henrietta came by a long bus journey from Alabama with grown children soon to follow. She did not read or know how to drive, but kindness and gentleness flowed from her hands. Her quiet smile, soft voice, and firm hand was all my mother needed. At three I was too much, with Chia climbing out of the crib, Henrietta brought order to the family. Her room was over the garage—separate and part of our family.

Early on I pushed the liberties: talking back, grabbing, and taking what I wanted. Smack, a fast slap on the hand, “Don’t you do that.” She walked me on the leash before I ran too far ahead, put me to bed as my parents played with other adults, and cut the carrots, greens, and meat just right so I could eat all I wanted. My life was not like the other kids on the block. Food was love.

The miracles of the kitchen, the flour on the counter, the songs hummed with cut apples, corn meal, and crusts that crumbled in my mouth soon became our manna. We all sat at the kitchen table, heard the stories, the aphorisms, and the chuckles that rolled with the kneaded bread. Her arms wrapped around me as I grew taller with the years; we rocked back and forth knowing that love flowed from the food, the kitchen, and the songs that held us firm.

Here I stood as a small boy, teenager, and man pushing through the walls of controversy—the injustice and the questions of living in a world of white and black, brown and immigrant, poor and rich. We sat in the kitchen, equals sharing what held us together. There was nothing magical or divine about the food, yet care and love bathed me, my sister, and my family. Henrietta felt the wisdom of the fields, the land that birthed us all. We held court in the kitchen and learned how to walk into the storms that rose outside.

The kitchen meals were the center for me before I knew why we prayed or how to hold the ones I love. Henrietta filled her sanctuary, our kitchen, beyond her children, her black and brown grandchildren. She held me each day with the steaming pots, the aromas of freshly cut beans, clean milk bottles, and the lightly-sprinkled lamb leg with garlic, rosemary, and touch of maple syrup. Here I began each day, safely held with a huge hug, and a “Get going; you’ll be late.”

What fell in between, all that stuff out there, was just white folks stirring the pot. Henrietta feeds me still, as she sways back and forth in her special place up there. “And you had better believe me, or I will smack you real good.”

 

——————–

An economics professor at Brandeis International Business School, John Ballantine took his Bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard, with an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Economics from NYU Stern. He has published economic commentary in Salon and the Boston Globe. His literary work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Existere, Green Hill Literary Review, Penmen Review, Ragazine, Rubbertop Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Santa Clara Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Slippery Elm, and SNReview. He writes to understand the world we walk in and stay in touch with essential truths.

Bury Your Children, Bury Your Bones

By Joe Baumann

hey bought the house because of his new job and her pregnancy.  Travis liked to think of it that way, that each of them had come to their cramped dining room table with something to offer, a reason to escape their peeling paint and flickering light bulbs in the rental that smelled like cabbage and was powdered with fruit flies because the woman next door never threw away her trash.

The house, a sprawling modern suburban two-story with vinyl siding and green shutters, sported enough space for an office and guestroom and a nursery.  She loved it.  Hardwood floors were great, even though Rhys’s sneakers squeaked as he shuffled in and out of the living room and hall washroom, looking at the walls like he was in a palace.  A fresh construction, the realtor had called it.  Most people would love this, Travis thought: a chance to begin with a blank slate, to mold and color a place with one’s memories and scents without having to wash away what came before.  Even the smell—fresh linen and springy flowers, a hint of chlorine—was new, exhilarating.  But Travis thought that the house lacked charm, everything echoing with an empty quiet, a carbon copy of the neighboring homes, identical to those across the street.

The agent was all cheekbones and eyeliner, her skirt wrinkle-free.  They wore her down like sharpened pencil asking questions, but she had all the answers, about the school system and the HoA fees—none!  She squealed it out like she was yelling surprise! at a kid’s birthday party—and when she showed them the back yard Lenna put a hand on Travis’s forearm and she squeaked.  Everyone was squeaking at something or other and he knew she would have to have this place.  It fell in their price range, under budget, and the backyard with the pool and the little garden already growing—your heirloom tomatoes, Travis, Lenna said, voice low like she was trying to seduce him—and the back deck with a grill there (for show, of course, but the realtor said it like that was a cover story, that, with the greasing of some palms, the stainless steel, the side burner, the temperature gauge could all still be there when they moved in).

“Okay,” he said when they were out of earshot of the realtor.  Rhys was plucking at grass in the yard.  Travis ran his hand over the smooth cedar porch rail and mustered a wide smile.  “Let’s do it.”

 

Lenna would often wonder about the coincidence of it all: him coming home in a flurry, his tie’s twisted knot going slack, yelling about the new job, the huge pay raise, while she gripped the pregnancy test in her hand, the third one she’d taken, the third one with the two blue lines.  She’d let him calm down, the hugs and kisses and excitement fading before she showed him the test, and Travis went quiet for a moment and then declared, puffing out his chest and reminding her of a peacock, that they would have to find a new house.

And how perfect it was, what, the thirteenth, fourteenth house they’d looked at?  And so inexpensive and ideal.  She could tell that Travis wasn’t in love with it, though she didn’t understand why, and of course Rhys hadn’t a clue or a care, running down every new hallway they looked at, stomping up and down every flight of stairs with wonderment at the unfamiliarity of everything.  Lenna ignored the iciness of Travis’ shoulders as their realtor told them about the vaulted ceilings and central air, two things they certainly didn’t have now, which Lenna could swear the woman just knew; they gave off that vibe of we don’t know these luxuries, we’re not that kind, not yet at least but you could change that, couldn’t you

“What kind of trees are those?” she asked when they toured the back yard, which was, of course, perfect: sure, the pool might not be the safest with Rhys being his rambunctious self, unable to be corralled by the kindest cooing or loudest yelling, but the fence was great and the yard long, sloping down to two thick trees, broad leaves like hands that reached out to each other, the long branches nearly touching, a perfect place for a canopy, a picnic table, maybe a hammock.  And Rhys had taken swim lessons and been promoted to Shark so quickly—the fastest ever, Lenna liked to joke to herself—able to kick and paddle himself above water with only moderate splashing and whooshing water, the plastic lane lines waving like palm fronds.  He would be okay back there.

“I’m not sure what they are,” the woman said, leafing through her paperwork.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Lenna said.  “I was just curious.  They’re gorgeous.”

If only she’d known.

***

Rhys was the first to notice them, when he was done splashing in the pool and enjoying the tickling feeling of the water drying off his skin like dozens of little fingers poking at him.  His parents were lounging on the deck, cooking like hotdogs, and he was bored sitting on the chair whose taut plastic strips stuck to him like bandages, so he traipsed down to the trees.  Looking up, he saw small budding growths, yellow like an old person’s teeth, the size of thick toothpicks.  He leapt, trying to reach them, but his fingers were too short, his jump too low.  He grunted and groaned as he sprung up, but the tree seemed to laugh at him, the branches pulling away at the last moment like an older boy’s torments: grab it from my hand and it is yours, but I know you’ll never reach.

He ran to the porch, flopping his feet against the wood, the last bits of wet leaving behind soggy, elongated prints, and he stood over his father.

“Something’s growing on the trees,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”  His father sat up, the hairy pooch of his stomach crinkling.  He was normally pale like bleached bed sheets, but his skin was cooking an Easter pink.

“Yeah,” Rhys said.

They traipsed down the slant of the back yard, and his father stared into the trees.

“Holy shit,” Travis said.

***

He knew a botanist, a guy he’d played poker with a few times.  They drank beers together, met through a work buddy, and so he called the botanist and stumbled through the greetings.

“I have this tree, and it’s growing stuff.”

“Oh?”

“I think it’s growing bones.”

The botanist didn’t say much except that he could come over on Saturday, nine a.m. maybe, if that would work?  Travis didn’t want to get up that early on a Saturday, especially now that Rhys was finally starting to sleep in, he was nearing that age where seven a.m. and cartoons and fruity cereal start to lose their luster, and he and Lenna were enjoying that bit of quiet, especially knowing it would all go away again when the baby came.

But Travis said, “Sure, great,” and gave the botanist the address.

The bones had been bleached white by the time Saturday rolled around, and some had fallen from the trees, dropped like elongated bombs into the grass.  These were heavier, adult-sized, as if a dozen arms had been picked clean of muscle and tendon, the knotty bones all that was left behind.  Travis hadn’t touched them but the botanist did, just reached down and picked one up like it was a piece of fruit.

“It’s certainly not a piece of fruit,” the botanist said.

“No it isn’t.  What is it?”

“A bone.  You have a bone tree.”

“Is that a thing?”

“It is now, it appears.”

 

Lenna called her ex-boyfriend, the one from before Travis, because he was a coroner.  “We have bones,” she said, when he asked what she wanted.  He had a nasally voice, something she hadn’t really noticed when they’d dated but now seemed so obvious, his nose-y chug-a-chug-a breath when they had sex sounding like a limp steam whistle.  He was thin but smart, and he had a strong hairline, and he did know bones.

She led him down to the trees, Rhys traipsing after them.  Her son was obsessed with the bones, and she knew he was playing with them even though she’d hissed at him too many times not to, repeating herself enough to know that there was nothing she could say to stop him.  She’d have to get over it, let him do whatever he wanted, she supposed, because when the baby came—they didn’t know the sex, they didn’t want to, they liked the idea of the surprise and having to pick out neutral colors for everything—Rhys would be on his own in a way, in a you’re-not-the-baby, you’re-not-the-only-one-anymore way that made her heart sink just so.

“They’re human, alright,” he said.  “You might want to call someone about this.”

“And tell them what, exactly?” Lenna said.  “That we have human bones growing in our backyard?”

“Good point.”  He ran his fingers over the lowest-hanging bones like he was petting an animal.  He bent over and grabbed one of them, tossing it in his hand.

“Dense,” he said.  He took it between both hands and groaned, and when that didn’t work, he huffed, cheeks red, and smacked it against the tree until it eventually cracked open.  He knelt in front of Rhys.  The interior looked like a grapefruit, pulpy and orange-pink.  The coroner stood and gave the end of the bone several more tough whacks against the trunk of the tree until the knobby end split open.

“This,” he said, “is the epiphysis, the end of the bone.”  Rhys moved closer, raising a hand to touch it, but he pulled his hand back as if he had brushed something hot, and satisfied himself with a close-up look: the inside was like a honeycomb, gossamer-like.  The coroner looked up at Lenna.  “They’re real, alright.”

She sucked in a whisk of air and bent over with a groan.  “Oh god,” she said, holding her stomach.

 

Rhys kept a small one in his pocket and rubbed his fingers against it because he liked the feel, at once smooth and gritty, like the edge of a stack of paper, ridges that if you weren’t careful could cut you.  Rhys felt like he and the bones understood one another, like allies.  He’d learned that word in school when the teacher taught them about World War Two, that allies were a good thing, that America had been an ally.

He was sitting in the hospital waiting room, which smelled like the Laundromat where they used to clean their clothes before they moved, a place strewn with bluish sticky stains from spilled detergent.  The coin machine liked to eat dollar bills so the harried woman who ironed clothes behind a puke-green counter would have to shuffle to the register and pluck out quarters.  She’d often yelled at Rhys for trying to climb atop the washers when his mother wasn’t looking.

His parents had disappeared into a room, and he sat under the not-very-watchful eye of a woman in confetti colored scrubs stapling papers behind a desk.  On television another woman with perfect skin and hair was talking about something he didn’t understand, a riot.  The woman in the scrubs had offered him a lollipop but he said no, because he wasn’t supposed to take candy or stuff like that from strangers.

When his father finally appeared, he was pale and he didn’t say much to Rhys, except that it was going to be a while, because something was wrong.  Rhys didn’t respond except to grip the bone in his pocket harder, the ridges digging into his fingers.  Wrong: another word he didn’t truly understand, fuzzy and amorphous as cotton candy.

 

When she went into labor with Rhys, Lenna had thumped into the living room and pressed a hand against the recliner, stopping Travis’ back-and-forth sway.  He’d been waiting for the detective show he liked to start.

“He’s coming,” Lenna had said, and he’d leapt out of his chair and grabbed his keys in one fluid motion that was so smooth that anyone who saw it would have thought he’d practiced it every night in anticipation.

Traffic was light, as if all the cars recognized that their baby boy was on the way and they were parting like the Red Sea for Moses so Travis and Lenna could get to the hospital no problems, no delays, no complications.

Rhys was fine.  He was pink and swirly like an ice cream cone, his hair plastered to his gooey head, and he cried for a few minutes but then he quieted and almost seemed to be purring like a kitten.  When Travis looked at him and then at sweaty Lenna, he felt full and perfect and content.

He found Rhys waiting patiently in the lobby, his Velcro shoes slapping against the legs of a plastic chair.  The boy was like two different people: at home a whirling monster, unable to sit still for more than a moment, his utensils rattling like drumsticks against the table at dinner, his footfalls pounding away on the carpet when he should be doing math problems.  But taken from the house he became angelic, stoic almost, and when he looked up at his father it took everything for Travis not to break apart, to let burst out everything that had taken up in his chest in the last hour.

 

She remembered Rhys being so easy.  Yes, Lenna had lain in her hospital bed for interminable hours, and the pain of pushing him out was, even with the oooh oooh ohhh breathing she and Travis had worked on for weeks prior, the most immense, blinding thing she’d ever experienced and she was sure she must have crushed a few bones in Travis’ hand while she squeezed and squeezed, but out had come the baby, cawing like a newborn should, the afterbirth following with smooth ease, and she had seen his little arms wriggling, tentacle-like and purplish with tiny fingers that looked like gummy bears.  They’d given him to Lenna after cleaning off the vernix that looked like a sheet of cottage cheese, and everything was as she’d imagined, the doctors sighing and content. She felt split in half, but in a raw, achingly pleasant way, like the emptiness in your lungs after a long, incisive run.

But this.  This was something else.  The baby didn’t resist, Lenna barely had to do any work, and it came slipping right out and she just knew something was off, the world tilting out of balance.  The silence in the room, from the doctors, from her husband, from, worst of all, the baby that should have been crying and screaming because that’s how babies were.  The doctors and nurses were frozen like they’d been petrified.  She wondered if she’d gone deaf, but then she heard herself asking, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” in a clear, bright way that was the opposite of what it’s like to shout under water, but no one responded to her and suddenly the baby was scooped up—yes, that was the word, scooped, like it was an unaccounted mass, a puddle of water being siphoned into a bucket—and disappeared.

She asked what had happened but no one would look her in the eye and the room started to empty in a slow, deliberate way until she was alone,until the last nurse let the door swing shut.  She wanted to scream and so she did, asking where everyone had gone and where was her God Damned Baby.

Travis came in with the doctor, finally, and their mouths opened and shut like fish and she said someone better tell her Right This God Damned Minute What Is Going On.

And the doctor did.

He said that her child, although alive, did not have any bones.

***

Even though his parents had told him not to, Rhys shoved a bone in his backpack, bigger and whiter than the ones he kept in his pocket, the length of a pencil and thick like a chair leg.  He showed it to his friends at lunch.

“What is it?” they asked, leaning over their pale lunch trays covered in square, squeaky pizza and radioactive green Jello.  The cafeteria lady had a mole on the tip of her nose so no one liked to look her in the eye when she scooped them the creamed corn no one ate.

“It’s a bone.”

“Is it real?”

“Yeah.”

One of the boys, Ryan O’Brien, who was short and pudgy and something out of a comic strip, snorted.  Ryan O’Brien always snorted, and Rhys didn’t like him much, but Ryan followed Rhys and his friends around like a viral infection, sticking to one of them and then another until he was back at the start again.  “I bet it’s fake.”

“It isn’t,” Rhys said, withdrawing his hand.

“I would know,” Ryan said, crossing his arms.  “My grandpa needs a bone marrow transplant.”

They all knew this.  Ryan’s grandfather was in bad shape, lying in a hospital bed, where he’s been for the last several weeks while his family waited and hoped that his name would float to the top of the donor list and that a match magically appeared.  He almost died last week, apparently, a fact that Ryan blared out like a fire alarm.  His face grew flush, as it always did when he was upset.  His cheeks changed shades so often the boys thought of him as a living mood ring.

“Maybe it will match,” Rhys said, before he could stop himself.  And he held the bone out to Ryan.  The gesture just came to him, like flicking at a mosquito that lands on your arm, or seizing up into a ball when someone jumps out at you from around a corner.  Ryan plucked up the bone and, scowling at it, shrugged, depositing it in his pocket.  The tip stuck out like a mole peeping out from its hole.

Rhys stared at his empty hand, weightless and phantom.

 

The knock on the door surprised them both, because visitors had been few and far between, unlike the days following Rhys coming home, when their tiny home had been a revolving circus of cooing relatives and awwwing friends all poking at their son, declaring him gorgeous and cute and precious and some of them playfully asking if they could hold him, Lenna or Travis saying of course, of course, passing their peachy bundle in his blue hat and matching footies to whichever visitor wanted to ogle him up close.

But now the house was silent; they’d told no one that Lenna had given birth, not even her mother.  Lenna had been discharged, no side effects from the birth, perfectly a-okay, they needed the bed so she would have to go, please, while their sagging, empty child that was alive in a way no one could explain was kept intubated and under close watch, the heart monitor blipping out the beats that fluttered under its gloopy chest.

Travis answered the door because Lenna was spending all of her time lying on the couch.  He recognized the woman, red-haired with a splash of freckles over her nose and under her eyes, so many they might have been a wave of spray paint.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

There was a pause.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m Ryan O’Brien’s mom, Patricia,” she said.  “He’s a friend of Rhys.”

“Okay.”

The woman dug into her purse.  “I wanted to ask you about this.”

She held out a bone, off-white like a freshly-brushed tooth.

 

Before Lenna could process the whole cavalcade traipsing into her backyard, her house was filled with people: scientists staring up at the trees, gawking at the miracle bones, reporters who wanted interviews, greasy, grizzled cameramen aiming the big glassy lens eyes on their faces, erected lights blinding them.  No one bothered to ask her about their tragedy, no one knew about the drooping, boneless child still being watched in the hospital, clinging to life.  No one was hemming or hawing over that miracle, that child born as a messy pile of muscle and tendons.  No one cared about a deformed baby.

But, she thought with a sour tang on her tongue as she pulled the covers over her shoulder and rolled away from Travis after those strangers had finally gotten the hell out for the day, if you find bones that are a universal match for people needing marrow, everyone wants to hear about it, and why not?

Ryan O’Brien’s mother, it turned out, had taken the bone that Rhys had smuggled to school and had it tested on a desperate, thoughtless whim, not even wondering why or how her son had come into possession of a human bone.  A perfect match.  The first match they’d been able to find for her father, who would now live.  Words did what they did, flowed like a river, and suddenly everyone wanted to pluck from that tree, take what they could while trampling around in Lenna’s wonderful backyard, not even saying thank you.  Travis wanted to throw every stranger out, but he couldn’t say no to their desperate pleas to study the bones, could he?

“This will change the world,” one of the scientists said.

“A revolution in medicine,” a spunky reporter yelped into her camera.

“A place where miracles come true,” Tom Brokaw’s voiceover, deep and resonant, announced while the image on the screen panned over Travis and Lenna’s back yard.

“Please turn it off,” Lenna said as she thunked a bowl of pasta down in front of Rhys.  They were eating dinner while a worker plucked bones from the trees in the yard, dropping them into a burlap sack like apples.

***

Rhys watched from the back porch, huddled against the rail, as strangers stepped in and out of their home.  The more that came, the more the bones went away, and this terrified him.  The trees started thinning, their leaves drooping and washing out, the green turning to a brittle yellow.  After dinner, the sun a pearly pink dipping below the roofline, Rhys trundled down to the trees and searched for the bones that might have been missed.  The people picking them tended to take the larger, plump ones, those whose outer layers had turned as white as could be.  They propped ladders against the trees and muscled their way up into its highest boughs to find as many as they could.

He’d asked why, and his father had only said, “To help people.”

Rhys found a handful of yellow, unripe bones, so tiny he thought they might snap in his grip, and he took them to an untouched corner of the yard where no one went, far away from the bone trees, and he used his hands to dig out a place for them, dropping them into the ground, pushing the loosened soil back over.  Then he took some pool water, which was getting colder as the days grew shorter, scooped it right into his curled palms, and told himself his fingers were glued together as he ran back to the buried bones.  Rhys imagined the ground sighing with relief when he poured the water onto the mound.

He found his mother watching him from the porch.

“Why did you do that?” she asked, her arms wrapped around her waist, the belt of her bathrobe swaying like a streamer.

“To save them,” he said.

Lenna said nothing, but she tugged on his head and drew him close, the fuzz of the terrycloth itching his cheek.

***

When the phone rang, Travis somehow knew.  Deep down in his gut, a stirring gurgled when he heard the brazen trilly ring, and he knew it wasn’t another reporter, another scientist, another grateful recipient who was cured of whatever disease Travis couldn’t pronounce.  It would be something about the baby they still had not named, and he felt for a moment that this was why it was just a sagging bag of body parts that didn’t have shape or real breath or real life: a thing without a name is just a thing.  It cannot be a person, cannot have eyes or fingerprints or a voice that you can recognize when it calls to you from across the street.  It cannot have a scent, a wafting cloy that grabs you when you hug, chins hooking over each other’s shoulders.

The baby was missing.

Travis asked how that could happen, how babies—especially those with no bones with which to move one’s legs, or the puddles of skin shaped like candy canes that one would normally identify as legs—could possibly go missing.

“We think,” the voice on the other end of the phone said, “that it was your wife.”

 

Lenna knew Travis wouldn’t call the police, but she waited until after dark anyway, slinking around the side of her own house, the baby in its scratchy hospital blanket.  She felt like she was carrying a wet loaf of bread and she had to pause and adjust her grip every few minutes.  A melting ice cream cone, so she only had so much time before it seeped through the fabric.

Not once had it screamed or gurgled or cried out or spit up or slobbered on itself.  She’d so hoped it would, that there would be a sign, a something, anything, a piece of evidence to prove she should stop.  But no.  Nothing.  She wasn’t even sure the thing was breathing.  Lenna didn’t know if her baby could breathe.

The back yard was dark, the pool pump humming and burping.  A frog leapt across the gray concrete and splashed into the deep end.  It would probably get sucked into the filter and die, she thought.  She pictured the frog, squashed and grayed-out, after flailing in the endless pool, trapped by that overwhelming dragging force with no dry edge in sight.

She chose the corner where Rhys had buried the bones.  She tried not to upset her son’s garden, the little flabs of soil that he watered each day, scooping water from the pool—finally using a plastic cup she’d nudged his way—and dousing the soil to sponginess.  He had not unearthed his bones, nor had anything broken through the surface, not one epiphysis.  She liked the word epiphysis, the way her lips rolled around, tongue still.  Like labyrinth or ellipsis, words that felt more gymnastic than they maybe really were, words she never used in conversation but liked to say to herself.

The ground was runny and malleable, and it took her no time to scoop out a cubby with her hands.  She set the baby down, the unmoving mass, and felt herself start to cry because of the finality of it.  Lenna felt like she was on a teetering scale: this was it, wasn’t it?  All around her, in the trees, in the ground, in herself, so many bones, a myriad of those strong white sticks that hold everything together, that give shape and size and structure to things, and here she was, staring down at some thing with none of that, no sound or rhythm or air.  She pushed the scooped-out earth over the child and waited for a reaction that, of course, did not come.  When she finished she remained on her knees, patting the earth tight, thump, thump, like the way people clap each other on the back during platonic, rejuvenating hugs, the sort that say, it’s good to see you, bucko, or, keep your chin up, these hard times will pass.  She did this over and over, letting the tears leak out of her, in little Morse Code blips, hiccups that echoed in the darkness.

 

Rhys would never tell what he saw from the porch.  He’d slid the patio door with a slow patience, the squeaky track quiet as he nudged the glass open.  Even his footsteps, normally skittering and clamorous, were steady and measured.  He watched his mother bury the baby, keeping his breath low and deep.

She knelt in the grass for a long time, and her crying made his stomach clench.  Then he looked up toward the second floor of the house.  He couldn’t see through the dark glint of the window, but he knew his father was there, looking down in the dark.  Could his father see his mother?  Did he want to?

None of them moved for a long time.  Rhys wondered what would happen in the morning, when the place was crawling with people taking the bones, people talking about them, murmuring about the future.  The future, he wondered: would someone come for the baby that was down there under the grass?  Would they uproot it like they’d taken the bones from the trees?

He heard his mother squeak a slippery single word: “Why?”

Rhys wondered, too.  Why?  Why the night, why the bones, why any of it.  Why couldn’t the sun bring new life, where everything bloomed and burst from the center of the earth?

 

——————–

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others.  He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks.  He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.  He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.

Eva’s Gift

By Nancy Gerber

ude studies the black polish on her nails as she shivers at the bus stop near her high school on Cedar Street. It’s chilly this November afternoon; she wishes she’d listened to her mother and worn her winter coat. Once again the bus is late. It’s usually five to ten minutes late, and no matter how many times she explains this to her supervisor, Mrs. Goldberg always complains. “It’s in the judge’s order you show up promptly at three,” Mrs. Goldberg repeats wearily, as if Jude is conspiring with New Jersey Transit to keep the buses from arriving on time. Jude is edgy; she knows Eva is impatient to see her and she doesn’t like to keep Eva waiting.

At the end of August, right before the start of sophomore year, Jude was caught shoplifting eye shadow and lip gloss from Target. Because this was her first offense, the family court judge, a gray-haired woman with tortoise shell glasses who looked like an owl, opted for leniency in the form of community service. “You will report two afternoons a week to Valley View Nursing Home for the next three months, starting in September,” the owlish judge declared. When Jude breathed a loud sigh of irritation and rolled her eyes toward the courtroom’s yellowed ceiling, the judge added, “And since you don’t seem to value clemency, you will also write a paper on what you’ve learned from your experience.”

At Valley View Jude stops to sign in with Mrs. Goldberg, but the small office is empty. She takes a yellow Post-it, scrawls “3:10 p.m., bus was late,” and leaves it on top of a large stack of manila folders piled precariously high on the cluttered desk. There’s no point in fudging the time; she’s already tried this and was caught because Mrs. Goldberg was talking to another social worker in the office next door. Jude pulls off her black cardigan and walks quickly down the hall to the community room to find Eva.

Eva is different from the other women in the unit. Her nose and cheeks are sharply chiseled, while the others have faces that look like melting ice cream. Her hair is crazy—a tangled mass of silver and white threads spreading outward from her skull as though she’d stuck her finger in an electric socket. Eva is completely lucid; she speaks loudly and clearly in full sentences, whereas the other women mumble softly and incoherently. Eva’s lilting accent makes Jude think of dark forests and deep rivers. Also, Eva is the only woman missing a leg. Because of diabetes, one of the nurses told Jude.

The friendship between Eva and Jude began on shaky ground. On Jude’s first day at Valley View while she was helping Allison, the activities director, pass around a green plastic tray filled with Chips Ahoy cookies and apple juice in paper cups, Eva stared at Jude and said, “Does your mother know how you dress? In all that black you look like a witch.”

“What’s wrong with witches?” Jude had asked.

Eva had snorted, and Jude sucked in her breath. It was bad enough to be stuck in a hellhole that stank of piss and Clorox with a bunch of women who looked like zombies, or as if they might drop dead any minute, without a total stranger criticizing her. She had her mother for that.

Later that first afternoon, a heavyset nurse wearing white pants squeezing her large bottom came in to speak with Allison and took a cookie. “You need to watch your weight,” Eva had called out.

“And you, Miss Eva, you need to mind your own business,” the nurse had said. Jude realized she found it amusing when Eva directed her sharp tongue at someone else. She’s really nasty, Jude had thought.

When Jude’s mother, Lynn, picked her up from the nursing home, she asked her daughter what she’d done during the afternoon. “Nothing,” Jude had said.

“Judith, I know that’s not true,” Lynn had replied with irritation. “You’re telling me you sat and twiddled your thumbs for the past two hours?

Jude did not answer. Her mother’s refusal to acknowledge her new name was infuriating. Her mother always began a conversation with Judith or Judy, as if she’d forgotten when they’d left the courtroom Jude told her she would no longer answer to those names: She wanted to be called Jude. Now that she was an outlaw, she needed an outlaw’s name.

“What’s wrong with Judith? Lynn had asked. “It’s so lovely—biblical and timeless. I’ve always wanted to be named Judith.”

“Yeah, it’s good if you want to serve up someone’s head on a silver platter.”

“Well, Jude is a ridiculous name for a girl.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You are very rude,” Lynn had said.

Jude and her mother live in a three-bedroom, sixties-style ranch in Mountain Ridge, a New Jersey suburb twenty miles from New York City. Jude’s older brother is a senior at Rutgers who didn’t come home from school over the summer, saying he preferred to stay on campus and work in a pizza place.

Last year when Jude was a freshman, her parents separated and her father moved to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend, whom he’d met on a business trip. This woman also has a teenaged daughter and a college-age son. A brand-new family, complete with replacement children. How very convenient, Jude had thought when her mother told her about her father’s new living arrangements. Her father was gone, he’d left her without any more thought than he’d give a trash can, and she doesn’t know if she can ever forgive him for the hurt in her chest each day. A few weeks after her father left, she began stealing candy from a local mom-and-pop convenience store and was caught on camera the very first time she tried to shoplift at Target.

On this cold November day Eva sat in her wheelchair, dressed as she always dresses—in a gray sweatshirt and a wrinkled navy cotton skirt that comes to the middle of her right calf, which is clad in a thick black stocking covering a foot in a red pull-on sneaker. For the first week Jude could not stop staring at the empty space where Eva’s left leg should have been, but now she is used to it. Eva never mentions the phantom limb, and Jude doesn’t either. Eva is small with delicate bones, barely five feet tall. Jude’s initial impression was that Eva was taller. Jude realized she thought Eva was taller because her voice sounds so much bigger than her body.

The two became friends at the end of September, during Jude’s first month at Valley View, when Eva offered to show her how to play gin rummy. Jude had not played cards since the days of Old Maid and Go Fish. For some reason, this cranky old woman with the Gypsy-sounding lilt wanted her company. Jude could not remember the last time her mother had asked her to spend time together. As for her father, who even knew if she’d ever see him again.

“Do you play cards?” Eva had asked while they were sitting at a small dark table, Jude listening to Eva complaining about the meat loaf. Jude shook her head.

“Here, would you like to learn gin rummy?” Eva patted her skirt pocket and took out a deck of worn cards wrapped in a blue rubber band. Jude nodded and pulled her chair closer to the table.

They played the first game with the cards face up on the table, so Eva could better explain. “Gin is based on strategy and luck.” Eva made a laughing sound in her throat. “You have to pay attention, not just to the cards you hold in your hand but also to this,” and she tapped a bony finger on the discard deck. “You need to be thinking about the cards your opponent gets rid of just as much as the cards you want. It’s like having two stories in your head at once.”

Jude nodded. Eva’s intensity about the game was intimidating, but Jude knew her own memory was strong. Jude lost the first game they played after they turned the cards face down but won the second. Eva snorted with pleasure.

“You’re good at this!” she said. “Now it’s interesting!”

Jude felt her cheeks flush.

Eva was wild for cards and taught Jude poker. They played each time Jude came to visit, first for pennies, which Jude confiscated from the jar on her mother’s kitchen counter because Eva had none of her own. Sometimes they ran out of coins, so Allison found a used set of poker chips in the community room closest. This did not satisfy Eva. “I want to show something for my winnings,” she complained. When Allison told her she could exchange the plastic disks for M&Ms, Eva said, “I want the ones with peanuts.”

Over cards Jude learned Eva despised the nurses, who were mean and bossy. “There’s no one here to talk to,” Eva confided one day as she reached for her winnings. “Look at these waterheads,” she said, nodding at the other women dozing in their wheelchairs. “I’m completely alone. Except for you,” she added.

Jude said she felt alone too. Lynn was always complaining about Jude’s silences, her laziness and messy room. Her mother refused to make vegetarian meals because they took so long to prepare. “She says she’s too tired when she gets home from work. She won’t cook for me and there’s no food in the house, so I’m living on peanut butter and jelly,” Jude said.

Eva clicked her tongue in disapproval.

“What kind of mother won’t make dinner for her daughter? And you’re such a nice girl,” Eva said.

Jude laughed. “You’re the only one who thinks so.”

Eva talked about her only child, a grown man named Peter who lived alone in Chicago and never came to visit. “He turned out to be a selfish good-for-nothing,” Eva said as she threw her hands in the air and muttered some words in a language Jude did not understand.

“I know what you mean,” Jude responded. “That’s how I feel about my father.”

One day in late October, as Eva collected the large mound of poker chips in the center of the table, she asked Jude, “Do you believe in God?”

Jude was taken aback. No one had ever asked her that.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you?”

“No,” Eva said. “Not after what I’ve been through.”

She must be talking about her leg, Jude thought.

“What religion are you?” Eva then asked.

“My mother is Jewish and my dad is a lapsed Catholic who says he’s an atheist. I’m interested in Wicca.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a modern pagan religion. Some Wiccans say a goddess created the universe and is the only divine being who should be worshipped. Some believe in a male god and a three-headed goddess. But basically there’s a lot of freedom to develop your own beliefs. Women have a lot of power, and I like that. Most Wiccans believe in rituals and magic.”

“So it’s witchcraft,” Eva said. “You’re a witch after all.”

“I guess so,” Jude laughed.

“Well, if you can cast a spell, I would like you to get me the hell out of here.”

“You and me both,” Jude said.

Today Eva takes the worn cards and shuffles them but does not deal. She looks at the wrinkles in her bony hands and clenches the cards as if to tear them to shreds. Then she looks at Jude and says, “I was in Auschwitz.”

***

Auschwitz. Jude’s skin becomes clammy. She knows what happened at Auschwitz. She learned about the Holocaust in school.

“I was born in Kartel, a farming village outside Budapest,” Eva says. “My father was a farm manager and my mother taught piano to the children in the village. My younger brother Peter went to yeshiva. We were a family and we were happy, until one day in March 1944 when the Nazis came. They screamed at us to leave our houses and our belongings and rounded us up as if we were animals. Do you know about the cattle cars?”

Eva’s dark eyes look like flaming coals. Jude has never seen her like this. “I’ve seen photographs,” Jude says.

“The old people from my village died in those trains, they were so terrified. For two days we had no food or water. Everyone was crying; the babies were howling. At Auschwitz they separated the men from the women, and that was the last time I ever saw my father and my brother.

“My mother and I went to the women’s camp. There were huge chimneys and a terrible stench everywhere. I said to my mother, ‘What is that horrible smell?’ And my mother said, ‘It’s human flesh. They’re burning people’s bodies.’ I didn’t believe her at first. Who does such things?”

Eva takes a breath and covers her eyes. Her voice is a croaking whisper and Jude has to lean in close to hear her.

“I knew some of the girls in my barracks were stealing bread. I wanted to try. My mother was starving because she gave me her bread. So one day I snuck into the kitchen and hid some in my shirt. I didn’t think anyone saw me. But maybe one of the guards found out, because later that day my mother was shot. I killed my mother.”

Eva is shaking and gasping and before Jude knows it, she put her arms around her and pulls her close. It feels strange to hold another woman, especially one so tiny. Jude hasn’t hugged her mother in years. Eva’s ribs press against her shirt.

“Your mother died because she was in Auschwitz,” Jude says. “Millions of people died there and it wasn’t your fault,” Jude says.

Eva pulls away from Jude and gazes at the white walls of the community room. “After the war I came to the United States and went to high school. I’d always dreamed of being a teacher like my mother, but there was no money. So I married and had a child. They call me a survivor. But I’m not a survivor, because that means something positive, like I’ve done a good job. I’m alive because I was lucky, that’s all. I hate that word, ‘survivor.’”

“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” Jude says.

“Dogol meg,” Eva mutters.

“What does that mean?”

“It means they should rot for eternity,” Eva says.

“I thought you didn’t believe in the afterlife.”

“I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in hell.”

“I’m sorry,” Jude says again.

Eva pushes up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and points to a string of numbers inked in blue across her lower arm. Jude reaches her index finger out to touch the tattoo and looks up at Eva, who nods.

Jude runs her finger lightly over the wavy ink. The numbers feel hot and Jude shuts her eyes so she doesn’t have to look at them. Dark, shadowy figures dance in the black space before her; they bend and sway and Jude hears them moaning. When she opens her eyes she groans and lays her head in Eva’s lap as tears drop onto Eva’s navy skirt.

Two days after listening to Eva’s story, Jude is back at Valley View. She stops in the office to sign in and finds Allison sitting in Mrs. Goldberg’s chair.

“I wanted to be the one to tell you, where we can have some privacy, so you don’t have to hear the news in front of everyone,” Allison says, rising from the chair. “Eva is gone. She had a massive stroke last night and died before we could get her to the hospital.”

Jude feels faint and sits down in the chair opposite Mrs. Goldberg’s desk.

“I don’t believe it,” she says. “I was with her just the other day. She seemed fine, not sick at all. She didn’t say anything about not feeling well.”

“Stroke is like that,” Allison says. “It happens when you least expect it. Eva had all kinds of health problems. Cholesterol, high blood pressure. Her diabetes was out of control. I’m so sorry. I know how fond you were of her.”

“I don’t believe it,” Jude says again. She feels the tears soaking her mascara, dragging long black streaks down her cheeks.

“She left something for you,” Allison says. “She gave me this and said if anything happened to her she wanted you to have it.”

Allison hands Jude a tiny white box. Inside there is a thin, gold band set with a small, round garnet.

“It was her birthstone, a present from her parents for her fourteenth birthday,” Allison says. “She told me she kept it with her in Auschwitz and hid it in the toe of her clog.”

Jude puts the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, where it rests like a crown. “It’s beautiful,” she says as she turns the ring back and forth. “It’s magical that it made it out of Auschwitz with Eva.”

The sobs start coming and Jude hides her face in her hands.

“Do you want to go home?” Allison asks. “Mrs. Goldberg said she understood if you didn’t feel like working today. I also called your mom, and she said she would come pick you up if you wanted.”

Jude shakes her head.

“No, that’s okay. I’d like to stay. I just need to go to the bathroom and wash my face.”

Allison rests a hand on Jude’s shoulder.

“You’re a brave girl,” she says. “No wonder Eva liked you.”

Jude writes her paper for the court the day after she hears of Eva’s death. She gives a copy to Allison and mails one to the family court judge. The paper begins: Eva Bauer survived Auschwitz, though she did not care for the word ‘survivor.’ She thought it diminished the horrors she experienced and the suffering that followed. She taught me that even in the darkest moments it is not too late to love or be loved. Though I only knew her for ten weeks, I loved her. She was my friend. She paid attention to me and gave me something that was missing in my life. She was also the bravest person I’ve ever known.

Allison asks her to read from the paper at Eva’s memorial service in the Valley View chapel. Allison points out a thin, sallow-faced man sitting in the last pew.

“That’s Peter, Eva’s son,” she says to Jude. “I met him just once in all the years Eva was with us.”

Jude studies Peter’s face, trying to find the connection between him and his mother. He catches her staring at him and looks away. When the service is over he rushes out the door.

Two weeks later the judge telephones Jude. She says she gave Jude’s essay to a friend of hers, an editor at a local Jewish newspaper who wants to print it. “Would that be okay?” the judge asks.

“I don’t know. Let me think a minute,” Jude says. “I’d like to change Eva’s name to protect her privacy. Maybe I could call her Clara? That was her mother.”

“I’m sure that would be fine,” the judge says.

“And something else. I’m only half Jewish. I’m Wiccan.”

“I don’t see a problem with that,” the judge says.

Several weeks go by and Jude telephones Allison at Valley View. “Do you know where Eva is buried?” she asks. Jude cannot imagine Eva would choose to be cremated after Auschwitz, but she realizes she has no idea.

“Peter took her body back to Chicago. What makes you ask?”

“I miss her,” Jude says. “I was thinking I’d visit her grave.”

“I miss her too,” Allison says. “I’m glad you called. I’d been thinking about asking if you’d come back. We have a new resident named Rose who’s always complaining she has no one to play cards with. She’s very lonely. I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

Jude says she can come by tomorrow. She’s interested in meeting Rose, but more than that, she wants to sit in the room where Eva taught her to play gin rummy.

 

Eva’s Gift first appeared in a slightly different form in DoveTales:  An International Journal of the Arts (2017).  This is an annual journal that was published in Spring 2017.

——————–

Nancy Gerber has published fiction, poetry, and essays in various journals, including The New York Times, Mom Egg Review, Adanna Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, DoveTales,  and elsewhere.  She received a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University and is currently an advanced clinical candidate at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston, New Jersey.

J.P.M.

By Kate McCorkle

hadows detach, peel from the corporeal like masking tape. Easy once you pry an upturned corner. The skin goes on dancing or noshing or pacing the floor, mussing its hair, conferring with so-and-so. Distracted.

So it’s easy to worry a frayed edge, use the hint of a nail to scrape—breathlessly fret and gently strip—ease the outline away. Once the border lifts a shadow’s removable contact paper.

I have it, and you lost it.

You don’t know yet. You are preoccupied.

I snap the shadow out, a bedsheet freshly dried, and the crack pleases me.

A shadow is real and sturdy despite its ephemera. That part, the fragility, is actually a ruse. It’s evolutionary, like the lizard who can drop its tail when threatened or the possum mimicking death. This adapted, artful frailty lets them thrive.

The shadows vibrate and hum: an abyss, a hole that can never be filed. Because they are a chasm, and because no one looks, and because people think they are fickle and delicate—subject to the whims of the sun—no one notices how tricky and cunning, how fully powerful and awful these sinister shadows are.

They eat and eat. Their hunger is bottomless.

I look at it, holding it like a new suit. It squirms and recoils with the pained sound of metal twisting. It doesn’t want me. It wants to return to its meal. It slowly leans, becomes one dimensional, hopes to become invisible. Hopes to hide it vast maw. As the shadow does this, I question who is parasite and who is host.

I don’t want this one. I have my own shadow that fits just fine. It feeds off my fears, my anger. I don’t need someone else’s. I just want to inspect it—the one I skinned from the floor while you were talking on your phone and lying about who was on the other end. You made me feel guilty I interrupted. I didn’t know I needn’t have felt that way.

Would your shadow tell me this? I shake it, try to unroll the wrinkles. Snap it into a shape that makes sense.

I wouldn’t keep it—can’t keep it—but I’m studying. Trying to hear what it has to say. If it can say. So thirsty for clues, for some truth, some thimbleful of truth, that I sever your shadow; place one hand into the abyss where your heart is supposed to be as I cease my own breath, fearful of what may be retrieved.

You continue over there, phone to ear: blissful, unaware.

I am left with a shroud I do not know how to restore.

 

——————–

Kate McCorkle’s stories and essays have appeared in several publications, including Barely South Review, r.kv.r.y Quarterly, Marathon Literary Review, and Penmen Review. A Pushcart nominee, she writes with the Greater Philadelphia Workshop Studio. Kate is currently working on a book-length thing about her time as a 9/11 infantry wife.