Author Archive

Over the Bay

by Andrea Moorhead


Up on the rocky neck, the spine, the solid protrusion, the trees grow tall, silver skinned and luminous, over the river, over the bay, over the next sequence of dreams you had imagined, once on the shore, in the blue-green waters, in the cold mist behind the terns, wavering as you moved off shore, flickering and shimmering, up on the rocky neck, the spine, the solid protrusion, the beech keep their leaves, walk around with the young oak, red-leaved and solid, some night you’ll see them moving about, it’s very curious, very strange, and people don’t like to admit that beech and oak, young and old, go off walking in the deep velour of night, coming home again when the grey dawn, when the rising fog, when the swiftness of the black duck passes above their hearts.


Andrea Moorhead is editor of Osiris and author of several collections of poems, including From a Grove of Aspen (University of Salzburg Press), De loin, and Géocide (Le Noroît). Recent translations of Francophone poetry include Night Watch by Abderrahmane Djelfaoui (Red Dragonfly Press) and Dark Menagerie by Élise Turcotte (Guernica Editions). Her work is featured in Phoenix 23 (autumn 2016 issue). In 2017, Red Dragonfly Press will publish her collection, The Carver’s Dream.

Issue 10.4

Welcome to, the online iteration of Forge.

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

-Robert of Cricklade

The Spring 2017 issue of Forge is here for your reading enjoyment.

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~Leif Milliken

Uber-editor, Forge 10.4

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Barbara Mujica: Green Eyes
Townsend Walker: The Talon’s Grip
Eric Rasmussen: Everyone Must Do Great Things


Andrea Moorhead: Over the Bay / Beside the Emptiness / Winter Camps
Dave Nielsen: How To
Susan Tepper: Meditations on dear Petrov
Jeanine Stevens: Frenzy / Hand on the Hilt of His Short Sword
Simon Perchik: Ten Poems—Spring 2017
Linda Neal: August 2: Homage / Cloudy as Absinthe


The Talon’s Grip

by Townsend Walker


prawled on the path, her pale skin, cherried lips, and ebony curls pressed against the green mossy stone. A lilac evening dress draped on her. I stared at the corpse. Turned, and saw the husband, seated nearby. A dark haired fellow, clothed in a silk dressing gown and velvet Albert slippers, appearing to enjoy the patter of rain, the scent of mown grass, and the blush of rose petals in early morning, only occasionally glancing at his wife’s body.

“Sir.” I tried to focus the man’s attention. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Turney.”

“Ironic,” Richard Carlyle said, “Irene dead, unable to share this splendid morning.”

An early call from the station had awakened me at home.

I tried again to shake Carlyle from his reverie, “Sir, when did you discover your wife’s body?”

“Oh yes, well I arrived home last evening before she did, woke to find her missing from her bed, searched the house, combed the grounds, then came out here. She rather favored this small garden, you know.”

Carlyle spoke little, perhaps mindful that when one speaks, one often says too much.

“Why hadn’t you come home together?”

“Happened often. Different tolerance for jollity, that sort of thing.”

There were no marks on Irene Carlyle’s face, hands or shoulders. The gown was not ripped or stained. Her face betrayed only an expression of slight surprise. The medical examiner peered closely, said, “Nothing to indicate violence or death by other than natural causes. We’ll know more, early afternoon.”

Carlyle pointed to a slate blue falcon resting on a post at the end of the garden. “Irene’s. Named her Mabel. I find few women are content without an interest, it matters little what—flowers, be they roses or hydrangeas; animals, horses or dogs; or friends, card playing or shopping—as long as pursued avidly. My wife found hers in falcons.”

“Excuse me sir, but your wife is dead, most unexpectedly. She’s lying here in front of you, and you are talking about birds.”

“Yes, the bird business started after she had been up to London one day. At the Wallace, she saw Vernet’s An Algerian Lady Hawking.” He turned toward me. “Have you seen it? Um, perhaps not.” I feigned indifference at the implied slight. “It portrays a woman in a flowing gossamer blouse, astride a magnificent white steed, seated on a crimson saddle, with a bird on the hand. This became Irene’s new self-image.”

There was little point continuing the conversation. Reality had slipped from Carlyle’s grasp. I told my men to trawl the house and grounds for clues. Carlyle requested only that they complete their work in the small garden first. He intended to do some pruning and talk to Mabel about the morning. “Figuratively, you understand, Chief Inspector.”

“I’ll be leaving one of my men here Mr. Carlyle, to keep an eye on things and see evidence is not disturbed.”

*      *     *     *     *

I returned to Pembroke Hall a little past one. In the house white flowers replaced the multi-hued ones there this morning. Carlyle was sitting at a small table nibbling on cheese and slices of cold beef. A bottle of claret caught the light, perhaps a glass left.

“Sorry to disturb your lunch, but I thought you would be interested in the medical examiner’s preliminary findings.”

“I was reminiscing about the times Irene and I vacationed in Morocco and India. That lovely hotel with the tiled arcade in Marrakesh, the chalk white inn above the caravan route at Ouarzazate, the palace in Jaipur with peacocks performing at breakfast and a subterranean blue and gold mosaic lined pool. One misses those things. Since the bird arrived a year ago, those adventures have been curtailed. Haven’t been anywhere.”

“Your wife died of asphyxiation. Most likely, someone smothered her. The examiner found some bluish discoloration around her mouth and nose, something we didn’t observe in this morning’s light. Also, congestion in the nose and sinus–typical in these cases.”

“So she stopped breathing.”

“Was stopped from breathing, sir.”

Carlyle nodded.

“And it seems she had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol.”

“Not unusual.”

“May I ask about the relationship between you and your late wife?”

“We lived together.”

“Is that all?”

“What more can one say?”

I stared out the window and saw a deer crossing the lawn. This chap seemed two biscuits short of a tin. “Tell me, Mr. Carlyle who would want your wife dead?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. None whatsoever.” Carlyle paused. “I don’t suppose that affair in London could have come back to haunt her. You remember, some ten years ago, the financier Sir George Bagot, Defense Secretary Thomson, and the showgirls. She was Irene Scarletti then.”

I did recall the scandal about government funds finding their way through a sham insurance company for a military project outside of Cairo. “We’ll look into it, but after this time, I’m sure most of the actors have moved on.”

I made to leave, put my hand in my pocket for the keys and came on some papers. “Oh, by the way, my people found these papers crumpled in the bookcase. Something from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Do you know anything about it?”

Carlyle turned, leaned forward, glanced at the paper, then shrugged. “Only that Irene was quite keen. I’ve never seen it.”

*      *      *     *     *

Carlyle’s preoccupation with the falcon was bizarrely out of place. I rang up a Mr. Elliott, a falconer of local repute. According to him, Irene Carlyle had devoted hours to Mabel: manning (acculturating to humans, becoming accustomed to the falconer, learning to associate food with the glove). Then training to hunt: the jesses and creances. Finally, she bought a telemetry transmitter for free flight hunting.

“She was uncommonly proud of that bird. When Mabel killed her first pigeon, her mistress had a taxidermist mount one of the prey’s wings. All that was left.” The disapproving curl of the lip was audible over the phone.

Elliott had been present at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Mrs. Carlyle walked in. The plight of the northern harrier was being discussed. The impending loss of its habitat in Scotland to building speculators aroused the birding contingent.

“The lady pledged some millions of pounds against the purchase of land for a sanctuary. As if the sum were a pittance.” Days after the meeting, Elliott was still unable to recount the event without stumbling over his words.

Mrs. Carlyle, on the other hand, was promptly promised (“though not guaranteed,” Elliott noted) a presentation to the Queen and an O.B.E. for her generosity. Her Majesty is patron of the RSPB. After hanging up I put Sergeant Oliver Sellman, one of my brighter lads, up from Cambridge, on the trail of the Carlyle’s finances.

Next morning, I came back to the Hall with more questions. Could Carlyle prove he came directly home? Never left his bed until morning?

No, he could not corroborate his movements. He recited events as they occurred: he and his wife went to the ball. Sipped champagne. Danced. Dined on pheasant. Played cards (he, whist, she, bridge). Heavy stakes at the bridge table required she stay longer and so he left and went home to bed.

“The Moncrieff’s, I believe it was Sara, or perhaps Hugh, I’m not sure who, volunteered to bring her home.”

“Did you sleep soundly?” I asked, wondering how natural the reply might be.

“I did. I’d been riding earlier in the day with some younger fellows and they rather extended me.” Carlyle sat back in his chair, thinking I’d be satisfied with the reply.

“Their names, please.”

“What? You doubt me?” Carlyle sat up, as if on horseback.

“In cases like this, we need to verify everything. Speaking of which, as your wife seems to have been suffocated, we’ll be sending the cushions and pillows in the sitting room and library to the laboratory in London to examine them for fingerprints and fluids.”

“Why London?”

“Very special equipment. Quite new. The materials are placed in a vacuum chamber, gold is heated up and spread like a film over the fabric. Then zinc is heated. It attaches to the gold where there are no fingerprint residues. The fingerprints are revealed as the fabric. Somewhat like a photo negative.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman stumbled into my office, a jumble of chairs, filing cabinets, and chalk boards, all dominated by my large wooden desk piled high with folders and papers. The walls were covered with some of my water colors of the Lake District. I’m a keen hiker and amateur painter. Not poor, I’ll admit. A few ribbons at local shows.

“I persuaded Mrs. Carlyle’s solicitor to share with me the principal terms of her will.”

“Good show, Oliver.”

“A small annuity to Mabel. Jewelry to her sister. The flat on Eaton Place, number 31 (three units in addition to one under the stairs) and five million pounds in Treasury bonds were left to her husband. And, the contents of a safe deposit box and numbered account in a Swiss bank to a woman in Bologna.”

“Someone connected to the Thomson affair, I presume,” the Inspector mused.

“And I know you’re not interested and it’s probably not relevant,” Sellman rushed on, “But I found out that number 31 has a bit of a history. Alan Lerner wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady in the maisonette on top and Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, kept the under stairs flat as a chamber close for his liaisons with other men.”

“No, not relevant, but an interesting sidelight, if one is fond of the West End, or politics.”

“Yes sir.”

“The amount on the RSPB pledge form would have left Carlyle a poor man,” I reckon. “I wonder if he could have held on to Pembroke Hall.”

“I suppose he was aware of the pledge.”

“Elliott, the falconer, was there when the pledge was made. He was under the distinct impression that it was a spur of the moment thing on her part.”

“So it would appear that since, or because of, the death of his wife, Mr. Carlyle is without a financial care.”

“It would.”

*     *     *     *     *

As I walked up the path to the Moncrieff’s manor, the scene of Mrs. Carlyle’s last party, I heard shouts and cries from inside. I rapped on the door, wasn’t heard over the barking man and bawling woman, rapped again, finally pushed the door, found it unlocked, and hesitantly stepped into the foyer. Sara and Hugh stood at opposite ends of the space framed by tall wooden arches, open mouthed, red faced, whirling their arms, hurling invectives at one another. As they caught sight of me, they quieted.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time?”

“Please, do come in.” Mrs. Moncrieff swept her welcoming arms towards a nearby room. “You’re here about our dear Irene, I’m sure.”

Sara Moncrieff was a tall willowy woman, chestnut hair, and freckled, more and more apparently as the angry red drained down to her neck and chest. I noticed her arms, the prominent musculature of a horsewoman. We went into the library where we sat another around a low mahogany table.

“Something to drink, Chief Inspector?” Moncrieff offered heartedly, as if to a long lost friend.

“Water will be fine.”

“A sherry,” she said.

Moncrieff returned balancing a tray with my water, his wife’s sherry, and a tumbler of whiskey. He offered a sharp contrast to his wife: short, stocky, bright blue eyes, and broken-blood-vessel ruddy cheeks.

“Before we talk of the night of Irene Carlyle’s murder, what do you know about them?”

Sara Moncrieff started. “I heard Richard found her somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, lying low after the scandal in London. You know the one I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“It was the perfect match—she was pretty, vivacious and had a bundle, apparently a payoff. He was landed gentry in a quiet spot of the country, sophisticated, with a manor going . . .” she paused.

Her husband barged in, “Say it, dammit woman, Pembroke Hall was going to ruins.  The disgrace of the county.”

This confirmed what Carlyle told me and what I’d picked up from an internet search and talking to others in the village about Pembroke.

“The night of your ball, Mr. Carlyle said one of you offered to drive his wife back to Pembroke. He had left earlier.”

“You have it turned around, Chief Inspector,” Moncrieff said, “She left first. Richard wanted to stay on.”

“I see. But, which of you drove her?”

“Was it you Hugh darling?” with an emphasis on ‘darling’ that suggested the contrary.

“Don’t you remember, it was you, old girl?” he snapped.

“Why it was. I remember now. I had to help poor Irene up the stairs and ended up setting her down in a chair in the library. I simply couldn’t carry her further.”

“Did you see anyone?” I asked. “She was found in the garden.”

“I know, poor thing. No one, but then I’d drunk a bit more than usual.”

“Than what, darling?” he interjected.

“Than usual. So you see Chief Inspector, a thing or two may have escaped me.”

“Or many things,” Moncrieff added.

“Darling,” she insisted, “we have a guest.”

I stood up and walked about, to create a different mood. “So it appears you were the last to see her alive.”

“Oh dear, I hope I said something nice to her.” Sara Moncrieff twisted her hands as if perhaps she hadn’t.

“I’m sure you did,” her husband said. “You are always considerate and sweet tempered to the wives of your male friends.”

“Especially in these times,” she said.

“These times?”

I lost the thread of the conversation.

Moncrieff leaned forward, face flushed a second time from having consumed a tumbler of whiskey. “Our Irene had become quite batty these recent months.  First the falcon, then the affectation with all those gauzy dresses. She’d become one of those bloody 70s hippies, back to nature, communing with birds, money the root of evil sort of thing, except when it came to that damn falcon.”

“Poor Richard was beside himself,” Mrs. Moncrieff added. “The money to run Pembroke was hers, and though she put a million or so into it when she arrived, it forever needs repairs.”

“Ah yes, poor Richard, who must be at every function we hold, so extraordinarily handsome, such a conversationalist, life of the party, according to my Sara, who knows him intimately.”

She got up from her chair and walked to the end of the room. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure it is relevant to the Chief Inspector’s enquiry,” he said.

“What do you mean, Mr. Moncrieff?” I asked.

She offered, “What Hugh means is that he thinks Richard and I are having an affair.”

“And you’re not.” I said.

“The very idea!” she shot back, outraged by her husband’s insinuation, but not exactly denying it.

Moncrieff lowered his lids over his eyes, slumped in the chair, and mumbled.

“If there is nothing more, I’ll be leaving,” I said. “Please let me know should you decide to leave the county for any reason.

“Let me walk you out to your car, Chief Inspector.”

At the car, Moncrieff proffered, “Something you should know about Richard’s property deals. He’s a clever sort, especially at cards. He’ll be in the middle of recounting the most wickedly funny and salacious story, seemingly paying no attention to the game, and then turns five winning tricks in a go. But from what I’ve heard, he’s been terribly unsuccessful freeing himself from his dependence on Irene’s money. Never a detail man. He never says anything, but his type always resent relying on others.”

“His type?

“The land poor upper classes at middle age.”

*     *     *     *     *

I went over to Pembroke in the evening, finding only one of the servants about, a young maid named Mary, a rosy cheeked, fair complexioned lass. Carlyle explained that his wife was most keen on having staff live in the village, not at the Hall, but last night he’d been uncomfortable in the large house and proposed someone might stay a week or two while he became accustomed to the quiet.

“Everyone begged off the duty, except young Mary here.”

I’d seen Mary around town and overheard my young constables chatting about her. Last summer she’d blossomed. Noticeably. And her spending went more to lipstick and eye liner than larger blouses. When Mary brought us whiskey and sodas, Carlyle’s languid eyes, and her mincing step suggested there may have been more to Mary’s duties than answering the door and cleaning.

“One more thing before I go. The night of the party, the Moncrieff’s seem to think that your wife left first.”

“Curious. I looked around and someone that told me she was caught up in a game of bridge.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember who told you?”

Carlyle cocked his head in a “no.”

I walked toward the door, and as a last minute thought, asked, “Tell me, what were the relations between Mr. Moncrieff and your wife? Anything more than good neighbors?”

“I rather had suspicions of something going on between them.”

“And you and Mrs. Moncrieff?”

“Really, Chief Inspector. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.”

Mary showed me to the door. As she opened it, I asked her, “We understand from the RSPB that they sent a letter by Royal Mail Sameday to Mrs. Carlyle the morning she died. Did you see the letter in the post?”

“Well, the Mister was there beside me when the post arrived and took it, actually he more like grabbed it from me hand, said he’d deliver it to the Missus.” She reached for my hand, “Sir, about . . .” And then Carlyle called her from the library. “Later,” she said, in an urgent whisper.

*     *     *     *     *

The next afternoon, when I walked into the station, Sergeant Sellman was there typing up reports. “Oliver, grab a cup of tea, one for me and let’s see where we are.”

“So, who wanted her dead?”

“Her husband, so her money didn’t go to the birds.” Sellman knew me better than to add literally. “Add to that the RSPB pledge form he claimed he knew nothing about, despite having grabbed it from Mary.”

Sellman looked back at his notes. “Then there’s Sara Moncrieff, a rival for Carlyle’s affections who might have wanted her out of the way.”

“And/or might have wanted retribution for the alleged affair between her husband and Mrs. Moncrieff,” I thought. “Or, welcomed an opportunity to switch husbands and enjoy Mrs. Carlyle’s money. Hugh Moncrieff is a bully, in addition to being borderline alcoholic.”

Sellman looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, “You know, sir, I don’t understand these people, their affairs.”

“Simple, my boy. Life can be quiet in the country.  When we lot want a bit of fun, we go down to the pub for a pint or two. That lot, they go up to the bedroom for a shag.”

“Both of them had an opportunity to smother her. Didn’t take much, given her condition. But we haven’t found the cushion or pillow that was used. Those we sent up to London for testing came back with only the servants’ prints on them.”

“Oliver, talk to Mary. Find out if she found anything amiss the next morning during her cleaning rounds.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Not so fast. If you’ve noticed, and it’s hard to believe you haven’t, this young girl is aching to get out of the village. From my experience, there are two ways, the right way and the wrong way. She appears bent on the latter.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman later reported that he found Mary at the chemist’s. “May I ask you some questions about your former mistress?”

“It’ll cost ya a tea and scone.”

They went to Bea’s Tea Room. I know the place, cozy with lace curtains, butter yellow walls and floral print chair covers. Mary said the day Mrs. Carlyle died, as every day, she counted the pillows on the chairs in the main salon and found one missing.

“She was quite particular, was the lady, didn’t trust a soul. Thought everybody was out to pinch something from her. Such a habit counting I had, even though she were a gonner, I did it anyway.”

“And did you find it?” Sellman said he nearly leaped across the table with hope.

Justified, when Mary said, “It was days later, stuffed into the linen closet, of all places. So put it back where it belonged, didn’t I. Now the others were brought back.”

Sellman bribed Mary with another scone and she took him back to Pembroke to recover the pillow.

*      *     *     *     *

After the tests on the new-found pillow were in, Sellman and I drove out to Carlyle’s house at day end. No one answered our knock. We opened the door and went through the house into the garden. Carlyle was stretched out on the chaise with a drink, Mabel on his arm. The setting sun ignited the yellow roses climbing the east wall. The remains of a cold plate and bottle of wine were on the table. A man at his ease. We watched him savor his last minutes of freedom. As the sun fell behind the wall, a murmuration of starlings traced wide circles in the evening sky.

Mabel sounded “kak, kak, kak.”

Carlyle loosened Mabel’s jesses and flung the bird into the sky. She climbed slowly, high above the starlings, wheeled, then dove and struck.


Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A novella in noir, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in June 2015. Some seventy-five short stories have been published in literary journals and included in ten anthologies. He has received two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award; first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He is currently writing a screenplay based on La Ronde and a novel based on original collage works of Beverly Mills. His website is

Everyone Must Do Great Things

by Eric Rasmussen


e could all tell, right away on the first day of Hjalmar’s freshman year, that he would grow up to be either president, or a super villain genius. In the teachers’ lounge at lunch we compared notes on the new kids, and Hjalmar received the most analysis. We speculated about his full suit, with vest, and his strange, almost British speech pattern. In World History he shared that he had taught himself Italian over the summer. In Calculus II, surrounded by seniors, he discussed how he intended to test out of the class at semester and start taking math courses at the university.

In Health, I got the story of his name. During the first time through the attendance list, most of the kids told me what they wanted to be called, “Josh” instead of “Joshua,” that sort of thing. When I got to Hjalmar’s name, I chuckled.

“Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad,” I said. “Not much you can do with that, is there?”

“It’s Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad, the fourth,” he said. “My great-grandfather was an admiral in the Swedish Royal Navy.”

“Cool,” I said. “So, Vilgy then? H-Blad?” A few students laughed. “Hjalvil?”

“Hjalmar will suffice,” he said, face flat, like he was choosing what type of potato he wanted with dinner. “Thank you.”

Four years later Hjalmar stopped in my room one day after school and sat in the same desk he did as a freshman, with his back impossibly straight, the knot in his tie impeccable, his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded on the writing surface. But this time he wore an expression I had never seen from him before. He was confused. “I assume they did not do it on purpose.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling while his Rhodes Scholar brain ran through all the possible explanations for the insult. “But I am unable to imagine a situation in which it could have been an accident.”

I leaned on my podium, sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know, man. I’m lost, too. I hope it wasn’t on purpose, but, you never know.” I smoothed my own tie, which was wrinkled and threadbare and covered in old yogurt stains.  “Most people are jerks. Maybe they were trying to get back at you.”

“For what?”

“You’re going to be a wildly rich uber-genius, and most of them are going to struggle to get through community college.”

“Everyone has always been quite nice to me.”

“Graduation’s just around the corner. Maybe it just occurred to them.”

The yearbook lay open on the desk between us, and under his picture and his ridiculous name was the offense we were trying analyze. H-blad had submitted an appropriately brainy and intellectual quotation, which would stand out amongst his classmates’ nuggets of wisdom courtesy of Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are,” by Soren Kirkegaard, translated from the original Dutch. Instead, what they printed, in all caps, was a little less profound. “MONEY, CASH, HOES – WHAT!” by the Kirkegaard of modern hip-hop, Jay-Z.

If Hjalmar felt offended, or embarrassed, or upset, I couldn’t tell. He looked lost. He could handle the sorts of high-level calculus problems that most of us mortals would never understand, but this problem stumped him, and not knowing the answer was a strange feeling for him.

“Do you know how it happened?” I asked.

“I spoke with Mrs. Gerhart, and she showed me the printed proofs with the correct quotation.” Hjalmar shifted in the desk. It was too small for him. It was too small for all of them. “That means someone must have altered the digital file after the final edits were entered.”

“Aren’t there thirty kids in the yearbook class? That’s a lot of suspects.”

“Students were locked out of the folder as soon as the revisions took place. Only staff members had access to it after that point.”

“Yikes.” Warm May afternoons always made my classroom too hot. I loosened my tie, wiped my forehead, and unstuck the shirt clinging to my back. “So a student must have used a teacher’s computer then.”

“That is the conclusion I came to. And there is nothing to be done. Almost two-thousand copies were printed.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“It is fine.”

High school stood for so many different things to so many different students. For some it’s the best four years of their lives, for others it’s the worst. A couple of them meet their future spouses in the brick hallways, and everyone finds a lifelong enemy or two. A lot of kids count graduation as a huge accomplishment. Not Hjalmar. For him, high school was a nuisance, a hoop, and maybe the other people in the school hated him for it.

I sat down in the desk next to him. “There’s something you should think about.”

“What’s that, Mr. Brunner?”

“How you want to get back at them. How you want to make them pay.”


*          *          *          *          *


Hjalmar stopped back later that week, and he did everything I suggested, without question or objection. It’s what made so many people love him, and it’s what made so many people hate him.

“The first thing you need to do,” I told him, “is to show them that this little stunt didn’t harm you at all. You need to prove that you found it just as funny as they did.” Hjalmar sat in the desk in the front of my room and took notes, with perfect penmanship, perfect order, perfect lines. When I paused he looked up from his leather portfolio and hundred-dollar pen to smile, but not in a demeaning or conspiratorial way. The turn of his lip and his eye contact were simply courteous, a small act to let me know that he heard what I had to say and respected the communication. He used the same look freshmen year in Health class when I stood at the front of the room and explained the effects of illegal drugs, or the food pyramid. At first it made me nervous. Later I found myself preparing more for Hjalmar’s class period, practicing my lectures in my head over breakfast and on my drive to school. Not much after that I grew to hate Hjalmar’s stark, unflinching attention.

“I have a few ideas,” I said.

“Should we be talking about this?” asked Hjalmar. “Should you be worried about your job?”

I laughed. It was a mad scientist laugh, much louder than I meant. “No,” I said. “Absolutely not. No one pays attention to what I do. My job is totally safe.”

“I understand,” said Hjalmar. “I would love to hear your ideas, Mr. Brunner. Thank you.”

On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, six days before the end of the school year, Hjalmar finished his lunch of carrot sticks and a peanut butter sandwich, wiped out his plastic containers, and repacked them in his spotless insulated lunch bag.

“Excuse me,” he said to the people he ate lunch with, his chess club and Academic Decathlon teammates. Maybe they were friends, or maybe they all just served as resume window-dressing for each other. “I have a task to complete, so I shall speak with you all later.”

Hjalmar disposed of his empty milk carton and his napkin in the garbage can as he left the cafeteria. He nodded at the assistant principal who leaned against the wall. “Good afternoon, Mr. King,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Lindblad,” said Mr. King. “Good to see you.”

“You as well.” Hjalmar walked down the wide hallway to the main office. He straightened his tie and ran his hand through his hair before opening the heavy door.

“Hjalmar!” said one of the attendance ladies. No one in the school liked Hjalmar more than the attendance ladies. He brought them homemade fudge at Christmas and scented candles for Secretary’s Day.

Hjalmar placed his hand on the counter and looked the attendance lady in the eye. “Did your granddaughter’s ear infection clear up?”

“Yes it did, thanks for asking,” she said. She moved her computer keyboard to the side of her workspace and leaned towards Hjalmar. “And I have to say, I am absolutely flattered you invited me to your graduation party. I never get invitations to those things.”

“I would be honored if you could attend.”

“Of course I’ll be there. Can I bring anything? Your poor mother is going to be swamped trying to feed everyone.”

“That is very kind. But we will be fine.”

“You sure? I can put together a seven-layer salad.”

Hjalmar rested his hand on the attendance lady’s. “You have already done more than enough for me over the years. Please let me say thank you with the party.”

“Of course.” She straightened in her chair and shivered her shoulders.

“The reason for my visit,” he said, “is that Mr. Brunner believes he forgot some papers in the PA room. May I go in and check?”

“Absolutely.” The attendance lady handed Hjalmar the key on the long chain that hung next to her station.

“Thank you,” Hjalmar said. “Have a fantastic day.”

“You too, dear.”

Hjalmar passed the attendance desk and entered the short hallway back to the administrators’ offices. He unlocked the door to the room where the ancient announcement equipment sat stacked in the corner. He flipped every tiny knob that corresponded to every room’s speaker to “On.” From his Italian leather shoulder bag he removed an unlabeled compact disc and placed it in the old CD player they used for the school fight song and the pre-recorded messages from the superintendent. He pressed the gummy play button, then switched on the microphone. Silent as his smart kid math class during test time, he rested the microphone on the table in front of CD player speakers, grabbed his bag, and left the small room. On his way out, he mashed a ball of firm modeling clay into the lock on the door.

“Thank you very much,” he said with a nod as he handed the key back to the attendance lady and left the office with plenty of time to walk to his sixth hour class.

It was a brilliant plan. Thirty-five minutes of silence preceded the song, more than long enough to cause all the morons in the office to doubt Hjalmar’s guilt. They would figure out he was the last person in the room, but they would never believe that he would mastermind such a prank. Someone else must have snuck into the PA room. Some other hooligan must have found a way.

Halfway through sixth hour, while all the students slumped in their desks and fought to stay awake during the lectures and movies and small-group activities, while all the teachers stood at the fronts of their rooms and talked as if what they had to say mattered, as if whatever of value they had to offer the world hadn’t been co-opted years ago by Youtube, the song exploded into the school at full panic volume. Mr. Jay-Z sang about fucking all the haters, his good friend DMX joined in to discuss his willingness to shed blood for his niggaz, and the whole building awoke into a beautiful chaotic dance. The students smiled and straightened up and bounced in their desks. The teachers ran to their phones to alert administration to the crisis, or they ran to find something to cover the loudspeaker, or they ran back and forth across the fronts of their rooms, unsure of what to do but convinced they had to do something.

Down in administration, Mr. King burst out of his office. “Give the me the god-damned key,” he shouted at the attendance ladies, who rushed to bring it to him. He attempted to unlock the door, but the clay made that impossible.

“Someone jammed the lock,” he said.

“What should I do?” said the attendance lady.

“Hell if I know,” he said. “Get a paperclip so we can pick it out.”

They failed to unlock the door before the song ended. The whole time Hjalmar sat in his AP Chemistry class and continued to take notes. I didn’t have a sixth hour class, so no one got to see the look on my face.


*          *          *          *          *


“Next, you have to make them all suffer a little,” I said, and this caused Hjalmar to look up from his portfolio.

“But I am certain this was the fault of only a few students,” said Hjalmar.

“A few students acting on behalf of your whole class.” I shook my head like this news was as painful for me to say as it was for him to hear. “This is super awkward, but you’re on a different level than all of them. Even if only a couple of them are responsible for switching the quotation, I guarantee every single one of them laughed when they saw it. They all thought you deserved it.”

“I am not willing to hurt anyone.”

“Of course,” I said. “No, for sure, we’re not talking anything illegal. It’s not like you need to shoot up the school!” I laughed, Hjalmar did not. “But you have to do something.”

Years before they hired me, the principal made a deal with the senior class. If they agreed to no senior pranks, no skip days, no big attendance or behavior problems, then the school would host an amazing all-night graduation party. And that party was incredible. Fully catered with live music from bands the kids actually listened to. Everyone who attended got a prize, hundred-dollar gift cards, electronics, all the way up to the grand prize, which was a car, a full, real, working used car, donated by one of the auto dealers out by the highway. The whole community came together to put on this unbelievable send-off for the graduates, and all they had to do was not make any trouble.

“You need to let them know that no matter how jealous they are, they can’t get away with treating people like they treated you.”

Thursday afternoon, four days before the last day of school, Hjalmar drove his spotless Range Rover two towns over to buy chickens. The farmer normally charged fifteen dollars apiece for the birds, but the old man was so impressed with Hjalmar’s polite demeanor and genuine interest in the intricacies of the corn-planting season that he sold the four hens and a rooster for only forty bucks. Hjalmar put the birds in an old dog kennel in the back of his truck and returned home.

At 2:45 in the morning, Hjalmar’s alarm went off. He dressed all in black. He drove to the school and parked back behind the auto shop, where the overhang above the service door was just low enough to climb on with the assistance of a stepladder. Before scurrying up to the roof, he tied one end of a rope to the top of the dog kennel, and clipped the other end to one of his belt loops. He pulled the kennel up slowly so he didn’t upset the birds. They clucked softly when the swinging of the cage found too big an arc, but Hjalmar’s world of lines and vectors, of forces and acceleration helped him calm the movement before each pull upward.

The center of school featured a courtyard that used to hold picnic tables, until the custodians got sick of picking lunch garbage out of the grass. One summer they landscaped the green space into a Zen garden, and locked the doors. Getting the chickens in the courtyard was easy. Hjalmar tossed them from the roof and they floated to the ground in a flurry of feathers and nearly vestigial wings. Hanging the sign in the garden where everyone would see it was quite a bit harder.


*          *          *          *          *


No one noticed until first hour had nearly ended. Birds flew into the courtyard all the time, and the sign was so well done that it looked like it belonged there, like it had been there the whole time. But as soon as one student noticed the chickens pecking through the bushes, all the students in all the rooms that surrounded the yard rushed to the windows like a flock. That was when they all saw the sign, pleasant and inoffensive but more than clear enough to implicate the trespassers. “Good morning, Harrison High. Thanks for the ‘eggcellent’ four years! Love, the Seniors.”

The real show started in the middle of second hour, when both assistant principals, two maintenance guys, and the ag science teacher tried to catch the birds. They chased the animals, bent at the waist with arms out like toddlers chasing stray balls. One of the maintenance guys fell whenever he tried to turn a sharp corner, his fingers inches away from one of the bird’s necks. Some of the teachers in the surrounding rooms fought for their students’ attention, but they lost. For nearly an hour, all of second and well into third period, the spectators picked their favorites, man or beast, and cheered or booed at the close calls. The strictest disciplinarian teachers shut their shades, but there was nothing they could do to block out the noise of the crowd.

I didn’t have a courtyard room, so I gave my second hour class a worksheet and excused myself to the Spanish room to watch. Hjalmar had English second hour in a different part of the building, so he didn’t get to enjoy the show either. In person, at least. Dozens of videos of the circus made it online by lunchtime. But Hjalmar was back in his desk at the front of my room at the end of the day to hear the principal come on the loudspeaker.

“I hate to do this, but we have a tradition here at Harrison, and that’s something we need to take seriously. Due to the incident in the courtyard this morning, the senior post-graduation party has been cancelled. I repeat, the senior post-graduation party…”


*          *          *          *          *


“And most important, you have to show them that you’re not ashamed. You know who you are and you’re proud and you’re never going to let them bring you down.”

Hjalmar leaned back to think, and he came up with the exact right answer, like I knew he would.

“I could use my valedictory speech at graduation to deliver that message.”

“That’s a fantastic idea. Hjalvil for the win!” I leaned over to give him a high-five, and he hit my hand so hard it reverberated through my shoulder. Hjalmar apparently didn’t give many high-fives. “You need to let them know that you are the only one in that whole fucking auditorium who is going places. You are the only one who will succeed.” I wanted to take his pen and just write it for him. “Right? You need to let them know that whatever big plans and dreams they have aren’t going to come true. Yours will. Theirs won’t.”

“What if I title the speech ‘Everyone Must Do Great Things’? And then discuss how most of them will fall short?”

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “A really great idea.”

The graduation ceremony took place on Wednesday evening. The whole ridiculous pageant looked like it did every year. Pictures on the lawn, hollow thank-you hugs and handshakes for all the teachers. Girls in wobbly high heels and boys in too-tight ties. Mothers dabbing their eyes and younger siblings asking when they could leave. At 6:00, the crowd found their seats in the musty auditorium. The band played, the principal talked. Before the mind-numbing procession of diploma handouts, Hjalmar stood up from his seat amongst his classmates and walked to the stage. The crowd clapped for him, not long, not loud, but respectful. A more deserving valedictorian had never walked across that stage, and probably never would.

He stood tall and smiled. He didn’t bring any notes with him, because a person like Hjalmar doesn’t need notes. When his classmates were little kids imagining themselves hitting homeruns and winning beauty pageants, Hjalmar had been picturing this speech. He cleared his throat and began.

“In a few minutes, we will all graduate, and we will all embark on our journeys into this world. Some of us will travel far, others will settle closer to home. As we begin the incredible work it takes to build our lives, I would like to share something I have learned during my four years here at Harrison High, and especially over the past few weeks. Maybe happiness is not found in a resume full of accomplishments, in a long list of titles. Maybe happiness is something we find in people and in connections. Perhaps this is contrary to what we have been told, but my advice to all of us is this: Not everyone must do great things. Our greatness will be measured by the people we affect.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the speech.

The principal made all us teachers stand outside the auditorium after the ceremony in a big receiving line, and I found a place at the end. Hjalmar came out last. He shook my hand and gave me his politician smile.

“What happened in there?” I asked, lowering my voice so the English teacher standing next to us couldn’t hear. “That’s not what we talked about at all.”

“I wanted to let you know, Mr. Brunner,” Hjalmar said, still holding my hand tight, “that I used Mrs. Gerhart’s computer to determine who last accessed the yearbook file to change the quotation. I understand what happened.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The computer in your classroom was used to make the change. You made the change.” Hjalmar didn’t look confused any more. “Why did you do it?”

“Whoa. I didn’t do anything.” It was so fucking hot out, I wanted to loosen my tie, but I couldn’t. Hjalmar wouldn’t let go of my hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Most people are jerks, maybe? Is that why?”

I held eye contact with him, forcing myself to return his gaze. “You’ve got this all wrong.”

“I do not get things wrong, Mr. Brunner. I have known the whole time.”

Across the yard in front of the school, the graduates gathered into a group to throw their hats into the air, while all the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles made a big circle around them to take pictures. “Three… two… one!” shouted one of the students, and the mortarboards went up and everyone laughed like they had all done something so special. They laughed like they had accomplished anything at all. Hjalmar was the only one not in the group, but he was used to that.

“Does anyone else know?” I asked

“No,” said Hjalmar.

“What happens now?”

“That depends on who comes forward to confess to the chicken prank, and the song. That depends on whether or not we get our party.”

One week later, they got their party. The music from the gym reverberated around the building and pulsed through the walls. I wanted to stop down. Maybe some of them wanted say thanks, since I’m the reason it all worked out, but I was too busy cleaning out my desk.


Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Sundog LitPithead ChapelBlack Fox LiteraryMulberry Fork ReviewChariton Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as Assistant Fiction Editor at The Indianola Review and founded the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand.

Green Eyes

by Barbara Mujica


ll you could see was her eyes, green as a fresh pasture, gleaming through the slit of her burka. Sergeant Lindgren tried not to look directly at her. The woman was obviously hostile—perhaps resentful, perhaps frightened, perhaps both. She knit her brow and contracted her eyes into a squint.

“Tell her we’re here to help, Saddiq,” Lindgren told the interpreter.

“She won’t believe you,” he answered. “Last time the Marines were in this village, they kicked in every single door and searched the houses. Maybe they took away her husband or her brother, for all you know.”

Lindgren sighed. “Tell her it’s different now.”

Ever since the surge, the dramatic increase in troops that took effect in 2007, more and more Sunnis had been cooperating with the Americans. As a result, many neighborhoods in Ramadi and nearby villages were calmer than they had been in years. People were beginning to venture out to the markets, children played in the streets, schools were reopening. Still, there were pockets of resistance. Some locals still didn’t trust the foreigners, and the woman with the green eyes was clearly suspicious.

“Tell her I’m female, just like she is,” said Lindgren.

Then, turning toward her, she added, “I’ve brought some supplies. Water, rice, that sort of thing.” She knew that the woman couldn’t understand her, but she wanted her to hear her voice.

The burka-clad woman jerked her head like a skittish colt, then disappeared behind the drab door of her drab house. The whole village was a dull sand-color, which is probably why the Marines, with perverse irony, called it Hollywood.

“This is pointless,” said Saddiq. “We should talk to the elders, but, of course, they won’t deal with you.”

They tried three more houses. Even though Sergeant Lindgren caught sight of shadows behind the curtains, no one answered.

Sunlight fell implacably on the dirt road from the motionless sky. It beat down on the soldiers’ helmets, giving Christine Lindgren an excruciating headache. She wished she had an aspirin and a glass of iced coffee. She wiped the sweat from her temples with her sleeve.

“Isn’t it unusual for an Iraqi to have eyes that color?” she asked Saddiq as they walked toward the truck they’d left at the edge of the village.

“It’s unusual, but not unheard of.”

On the way, they met up with two other Marines. “Any luck?” asked Saddiq.

“None,” said Corporal Wang. “Sergeant Lindgren, if you’d permit me to make a suggestion, I think we should try to meet with the women in groups. Trying to approach them one at a time isn’t working at all.”

“Sonya, you’re welcome to make suggestions, but I don’t know how we could pull it off. We’d have to find a female interpreter, and even if we did, it doesn’t seem like these gals want to have anything to do with us.”

“I think they’re just scared. They still see us as the enemy, even though the men seem to be coming around. Could you mention it to Lieutenant Montez, at least?”

Lieutenant Montez listened to Christine Lindgren’s report with his usual poker face, which is why his response surprised her.

“I’ve been thinking about this a while,” he said finally. “We’re not getting through to these women. We’ve tried talking to them individually. Now let’s try something else.” He paused and swallowed. “What we need is a female representative at the village council meetings. We need to know what’s on the women’s minds. They need to be able to express themselves freely to someone they trust, someone who’s a friend…or a neighbor. Someone who can then tell us what their concerns are.”

Wow, thought Christine, and I thought Sonya’s suggestion was radical!

“With all due respect, Sir,” she said, “there’s never been a woman at one of those meetings. Not in all the thousands of years since the Garden of Eden.”

“The thing is, women make up over half the population, and we have no idea what they’re thinking. I bet I could convince the elders that this constitutes a security risk.”

“Well, if anybody has the wasta to do it, you do, Sir.” She used the Arabic word that means something between “connections” and “clout.”

Montez smiled. “In the meantime, I want you and Saddiq to go back tomorrow. Take Wang with you.”

Christine sighed and looked at the floor. “Yes, Sir,” she said.

Collapsing onto the battered sofa in the next room, Christine tried to shut out the drone of Montez’s voice. Her head still throbbed. She felt as though a bell were clanging inside her brain. Montez was talking to one of his assistants, a sergeant named Pantelis, about medical equipment. Only twenty-four years old and with no hospital management experience, he’d been ordered to revive the local medical facility. Semi-dozing, she caught snippets and phrases: “dinars…     clinic… shambles… surgical tables… unusable… shortage… stethoscopes, syringes, bandages…” And then, a complete sentence: “We’re starting from scratch, Pantelis… We’ll set up a makeshift medical center until we can make the hospital serviceable.”

Christine got up and fetched a bottle of water, then sat down again to sip it. Her mind wandered to her little daughter, Eva, only two years old and already talking in sentences. Christine and her husband had deployed at almost the same time, he to Afghanistan, and she to Iraq. They’d left Eva with Christine’s mother. Thank God for e-mail, thought Christine. At least she could get photos of her baby regularly. Her attention suddenly snapped back to the conversation in the next room. Pantelis was clearly getting on Montez’s nerves.

“Why do we have broads here, Sir?” said the sergeant. “They can’t fight and we’re not allowed to fuck them.”

“They can do all kinds of things that we can’t,” answered Montez drily.

“Like what?”

“Like talk to other women and find out what they’re thinking.”

“But we’re not,” whispered Christine.

Christine Lindgren and Sonya Wang returned to the village they called Hollywood a few more times, but the green-eyed woman remained hidden. They decided to wait until market day, hoping that now that things were calmer, she might dare to go out shopping. It’s true that the stalls were still mostly empty, but after the months of violence, many Iraqis were anxious to get out of the house and visit the souk.

At last, they saw someone trudging down the road, a shopping bag on her arm, a small girl scampering behind. They couldn’t be sure this was the green-eyed woman. She wore the same black burka as nearly every other woman in the village, and she kept her head bowed and her eyes lowered.

“Salaam!” called out Christine, as the woman approached the house. Christine and Sonya bowed.

“Tell her I just want to ask her something,” Christine told Saddiq. “And tell her that Corporal Wang and I are both women!”

Saddiq hurled the words at her just as she disappeared behind her door, dragging the child behind her.

“She’s not going to cooperate,” said Saddiq. “Let’s try somewhere else. There will be plenty of women returning home from the souk.”

The three of them stood there deliberating.

Suddenly, the door opened a crack. The green-eyed woman stared at Christine and Sonya, her gaze wandering from the helmet to the camouflage uniform to the heavy combat boots, and resting first on the gun and then, with an intensity that would have been rude back home in the States, on their breasts.

“They really are women?” she asked Saddiq.

He nodded.

“Tell them to take off their headgear.”

“She wants you to take off your helmets,” he said. “She wants to see your hair.”

Christine knew she was breaking a rule by removing an essential part of her uniform, but decided that compliance with the request was vital  to her mission. She pulled off the helmet to reveal a short, blond bob. Sonya did the same, exposing a tight black chignon at the nape of her neck. The woman stared at the two young Americans, as if trying to figure out how these lovely creatures, with their soft skin, girlish features, and modest hairdos could be soldiers. Her penetrating eyes were as green as the Garden of Eden must have been when its lush vegetation covered the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. Christine smiled, but the woman did not smile back.

“Ask her what her name is,” said Christine.

Saddiq complied. “Her name is Rana,” he said.

“Tell her she has beautiful eyes.”

“That would not be appropriate.”

“Tell her…”

Rana interrupted with some words in Arabic.

“She wants you to come into her house,” said Saddiq. “This is an honor. She is beginning to trust you.”

The women moved toward the door, but Rana held out her hand to indicate that Saddiq should stay outside. Christine shrugged, and she and Sonya followed Rana into the one-room house. A few mats on the floor for eating and sleeping, a shelf for cooking utensils, and a rickety table were the extent of the woman’s possessions. The child they had seen earlier and two older girls who looked to be around ten and twelve years old hovered by the wall.

Rana went over to the table where the shopping bag lay and emptied it out onto the table. A few vegetables—eggplant, okra, courgettes, onions, and tomatoes—as well as small bag of barley constituted the entire contents. She pointed at her purchases and then at the children and lifted her hands in a gesture of despair. An avalanche of words followed. The Marines understood she was frantic over the lack of goods in the market.

Christine stuck her hand in her pocket and whipped out a photograph. “Look,” she said.

The women gaped at the image of the bouncy blond child, her lips parted in a giggle.

“Eva,” said Christine. “My baby.” She pantomimed a mother rocking her child.

The Iraqi woman opened her impossibly green eyes so wide they looked like enormous emeralds. “Eva,” she whispered. She shook her head. She clearly didn’t understand what Christine was doing in Iraq when she had a child back home. She looked at Sonya and raised her eyebrows.

“No,” said Sonya. “No babies. Not yet.”

They signaled for her to follow them outside.

“Tell her that we’ll be back tomorrow with rice,” Christine told Saddiq.

Rana and Saddiq spoke for longer than it would have taken the interpreter to relay the message.

“She says she cannot feed her family with what she can buy at the souk. She has five children—three daughters who stay home with her, and two sons who go to the cobbler’s shop her husband owns with his brother.”

Rana stood staring at the ground, bowed in desperation. Christine took some candy out of her pocket and gave it to the children, who huddled around their mother.

“She wants to know where your baby Eva is,” Saddiq added.

“Tell her that she’s at home in Grand Marais, Minnesota, with her grandma.” Christine felt as though she had a wad of wool stuck in her throat.

The next day, the Marines returned with a large bag of rice. Rana signaled for the women to sit down on a mat, then brought a pot of tea and three cracked cups that had once been pretty. For the first time, she smiled at the two Americans.

Her gaze went from Christine to Sonya and back again. Finally, she pointed to Sonya’s eyes and made a questioning gesture, with upward turned palms.

“Corporal Wang’s family was originally from China,” explained Christine, fully aware that Rana didn’t understand a word she said. “Americans are from all different ethnic backgrounds. Corporal Wang is from San Francisco, where there is a large Chinese population.”

Rana shook her head and smiled. Christine and Sonya both shrugged, as if to say, “That’s just the way it is.”

Christine pointed to their hostess’ green eyes and made the same questioning gesture. Rana laughed and nodded to show she understood. Then she shrugged, as they had done. “That’s just the way it is.”

“We need a female interpreter,” Christine told Lieutenant Montez when she returned to base. “We’re making progress, but we need to be able to speak with Rana.”

“I’m meeting with the elders this afternoon,” said Montez. “It’s a long shot, but I’m going to ask for a woman representative on the council. See if Saddiq can get Rana to meet with other women to find out what they need and to elect a spokesperson.”

“A meeting of women,” said Christine. “That’s just what Sonya Wang suggested.”

A week later, about thirty women from the neighborhood packed into Rana’s tiny house. In their black burkas, screeching and squawking all at once, they reminded the Americans of a flock of blackbirds. In spite of the furious pecking and snapping, by the end of the afternoon, they had chosen an envoy named Marjani and made a list of three wants. Christine and Sonya were present at the gathering, and although they understood no Arabic, they knew from the smile on Rana’s face that it had been a success.

Rana pushed Marjani toward them. The newly elected delegate wore a long, thin abaya over her dress and an asha over her hair, but her face—as beautiful and evocative as a poem—was bare.

“I, Marjani, speak for women,” she said, grinning widely.

“You speak English!” exclaimed Christine and Sonya in unison.

“Little bit.” She shook her head and lifted her hand, pinching her thumb and index finger almost together to show that her English was very limited.

The first council meeting that Marjani attended was something of a shock to the elders’ systems. Montez had used all his wasta to convince the sheiks that their failure to consider the women’s concerns could seriously undermine stabilization efforts.

“We need to integrate the women and get them on our side,” he told them. “Otherwise, they could harbor resentments and work against us.”

“This has never been done!” objected some.

But one old sheik, a heavy-faced man with the eyes of a seer, challenged his brothers. “The young American is right,” he said. “Women can be treacherous, and there’s no way to know what they’ve got in their heads. Give them a voice. It will avoid problems in the long run.” Montez understood enough Arabic to chuckle at the reasoning of the eldest of the elders.

Marjani began to enumerate her neighbors’ requests. The women needed some kind of public transportation, she explained, because they weren’t allowed to drive and had no way to get their children to the doctor or wherever else they had to go. They also wanted a park, since it was now safe for youngsters to play outside. The council members nodded. So far, the women’s wishes sounded reasonable. Montez said the Marines could organize a jitney service from Hollywood to Ramadi without much difficulty. Working with Iraqi engineers and laborers, they could also build a playground with swings and slides and other playground equipment. It was the third of the women’s requests that left the sheiks dumbfounded. Marjani explained that the women wanted to work, to start their own small businesses, selling the products they made or grew. However, that required capital—for thread and yarn, for seeds and tools—that they didn’t have. What the women really needed, Marjani explained, was cash.

The sheiks began to grumble. They were strapped for funds themselves, and they certainly were not going to lend the little money they had to a bunch of women who, in their opinion, should be at home tending their babies. “Women starting businesses! Whoever heard of such a thing?” groused several of the men. Montez remained silent, but when he got back to base, he turned on his computer and looked through his contact list. The year before, he had met a State Department representative who was knowledgeable about the Grameen Bank, which made collateral-free microloans to impoverished people anxious to start businesses. He wasn’t sure how much wasta he had with the U.S. government, but that afternoon he shot off an email to Kelly-Lou Grotsky, explaining the situation in Hollywood, the little village on the outskirts of Ramadi.

To his amazement, she answered almost immediately. She had a colleague named Cynthia Lerner, she said, who was in Baghdad working on the reconstruction effort. Kelly-Lou was sure Cynthia could help. Montez was encouraged, although he knew the government bureaucracy was a lumbering animal, a cross between and elephant and a snail, and that besides help from the State Department, he’d need the approval of the elders.

Montez managed to assemble a fleet of jitneys to work the Hollywood-Ramadi corridor faster than he was able to secure a meeting with Cynthia Lerner. By the time she roared up to the gates of the base three months later in her Army-issued Jeep, the jitneys had been running for several weeks, and the sandlot designated by the elders for the children had been turned into a playground. It was, admittedly, like no playground any American had ever seen before. There was no grass, only sand—one massive sandbox surrounded by all-weather, rustproof jungle gyms, slides, swings, and monkey bars, as well as a playhouse with (and this was quite incredible) an aquarium. The sign on the gate, which the old sheik had made, said, “Lt. Ignacio Montez Playground” in English and Arabic.

Cynthia Lerner climbed out of the jeep and blinked the sand out of her eyes. Her red-blond hair glistened in the sunlight, and if Montez had bothered to think about it, he would have realized that she was pretty. However, Montez would be leaving Ramadi in eight weeks, and Marjani had made it clear that the women were still clamoring for stalls in the souk. His mission was to get them the microloans they needed, and there could be no distractions.

“I’ll be a couple of hours,” she said to the driver in Arabic. “Go have lunch.”

“You speak the language!” exclaimed Montez. He could feel his spirits lifting, but he knew better than to put too much faith in a bureaucrat. He called for Christine and Sonya.

When the two Marines arrived at Rana’s little house with Cynthia later that afternoon, they noticed something unusual. Instead of her usual black burka, Rana was wearing a long, flowing, turquoise dishdasha and a matching headscarf, both exquisitely embroidered with tiny yellow flowers. Her face was bare, and her dazzling green eyes glowed as she jabbered with her neighbors.

Cynthia introduced herself in Arabic. The women stared. Her bare head. Her spectacular ginger-colored hair. Her ruddy, freckled face. And her eyes, as bright and emerald as the Euphrates at sunrise. She smiled at Rana.

“We have the same color eyes,” said Cynthia.

“Yes, we do,” said Rana, beaming. “We are sisters!”

Cynthia listened and took notes. It was the first time any of them had met an Arabic-speaking Western woman or had a real conversation with an American.

“We can do it,” Cynthia told Lieutenant Montez and Christine after she had met several times with the women she now called the Hollywood Stars. “It will take a while, but we can do it! These women are smart, energetic, and ambitious. I want to help them.”

Montez took the news to the elders.

“Yes,” said the old sheik. “Let them have their businesses. It will keep them busy and also bring money to their families.” Montez breathed a sigh of relief.

Two months later, while he and his men were preparing to turn the base over to the next division, word came that Cynthia Lerner had received approval for the microloans.

“Wow,” said Pantelis. “The broads made it happen! I can’t believe it.”

“Told ya,” growled Montez.

*     *     *     *     *

Ignacio Montez—now Captain Montez—sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. California sunlight streamed through the window and fell in patches all around him. The base was a beehive, as new platoons prepared to deploy. Montez poured himself a coffee and opened his e-mails. One caught his eye.

Dear Ignacio,

I hope you’re readjusting to life in the States. No more tiptoeing through the streets, dodging roadside bombs! I wanted you to know that I was back in Hollywood last week and visited Rana at her shop in the souk. She had an unbelievable assortment of kaftans and scarves that she designed, sewed, and embroidered herself, and now that the economy is picking up, she is beginning to sell them. She gave me a lovely purple scarf, which I will send to Christine when I get home. After all, she’s the one who really made this happen. Rana and Marjani send their regards. Whenever I mention your name, they say, “Now there’s a man with wasta!”

Best regards,



As the mother of a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, Barbara Mujica is particularly interested in issues involving veterans. At Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish literature, she serves as Faculty Adviser of the Student Veterans Association.  Much of her short fiction derives from stories that veterans have told her. “Green Eyes” is based on a true incident.

    In addition to short stories, Mujica has  written several novels. Frida (Overlook Press, 2001) was published in seventeen languages and was a Book-of-the-Month alternate. Sister Teresa (Overlook Press, 2007) was adapted for the stage; the play premiered in Los Angeles in November 2013. Mujica’s  novels, I Am Venus and Lola in Paradise, were winners of the Maryland Writers’ Association novel competition in 2012 and 2016.

     Barbara Mujica’s other published books include Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), Women Writers of Early Modern Spain: Sophia’s Daughters (Yale University Press, 2004), Shakespeare and the Spanish Comedia (ed.) (Bucknell University Press, 2013), and A New Anthology of Early Modern Spanish Theater: Play and Playtext (Yale University Press, 2014).