Issue 5.4

My Crow

By Changming Yuan

Still, still hidden

Behind old shirts and pants

Like an inflated sock

Hung on a slanting coat hanger

 

With a prophecy stuck in its throat

Probably too dark or ominous

To yaw, even to breathe

 

No one knows when or how

It will fly out of the closet, and call

___

Changming Yuan, author of Chansons of a Chinaman and 4-time Pushcart nominee, grew up in rural China and published several monographs before moving to Canada. With a PhD in English, Yuan teaches independently in Vancouver and has poetry appear in nearly 470 literary journals/anthologies across 19 countries, including Asia Literary  Review, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, Exquisite Corpse, London Magazine, Poetry Kanto, Poetry Salzburg, SAND and Taj Mahal Review.

Replacing: A Parallel Poem

By Changming Yuan

Running short of bulbs
I planted some root words instead
Along the fence
In the backyard of my mind

All winter
They seemed dreaming under the frozen soil

When the last dews fly away
You will see certain three-colored tulips
Blooming aloud
Towards the early summer sun

___

Changming Yuan, author of Chansons of a Chinaman and 4-time Pushcart nominee, grew up in rural China and published several monographs before moving to Canada. With a PhD in English, Yuan teaches independently in Vancouver and has poetry appear in nearly 470 literary journals/anthologies across 19 countries, including Asia Literary  Review, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, Exquisite Corpse, London Magazine, Poetry Kanto, Poetry Salzburg, SAND and Taj Mahal Review.

Getting to Misha

By Janet Yoder

August 20, 2010: Going to Enumclaw

 pack smoked salmon, sesame crackers, and bing cherries into an ice bag. I put the e-mails about Misha with photos of Misha on the dashboard. I tuck my anxiety deep inside, where it settles in my stomach. My husband Robby and I drive south out of Seattle, east on 405, south on Highway 167, east on 18, then a long ways south on Auburn Way, which takes us right through the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation. Beyond, we see verdant farms and political signs, about ten to one in favor of Republican candidates. We talk about how King County ranges from highly urban Seattle out to bucolic Enumclaw. We talk about the Muckleshoot Tribe, about how easily we can drive right through other worlds. We don’t talk about our fears: that we are not ready for Misha, that he is damaged goods, underweight, not thriving; that we are damaged goods, depressed, aged by loss, that we will not be a match with Misha, that we cannot bear another disappointment.

 

July 1974: Doodley Squat

It started with Doodley Squat, a scrappy, tiger-striped, bat-eared, kink-tailed, part-Abyssinian kitten. One day we went to Aetna Bottle Supply on Rainier Avenue South in search of yeast for making strawberry wine. In the shop, this kitten was leaping from boxes of corks to carboys, tubing, siphons, and sacks of corn sugar. “She just wandered in,” the shop owners said. “No tag, no collar.” We picked her up, and she allowed us to gaze into her green-gold cat eyes, into her sphinx face. “If you don’t take her, she’s going to the gas chamber…” So we brought her home to our tiny, top-floor Capitol Hill apartment, transporting her through the halls of our “no pets allowed” building in a grocery sack that looked and sounded like microwave popcorn at its popping peak.

Doodley Squat was the reason we bought a cheap, funky houseboat a month later. She thrived on the lake and with us. She came and went as she pleased and kept the dock free of rats, raccoons, geese, coots, ducks, and otters. She followed us on walks. She learned to lag far enough behind that we didn’t notice her until we were beyond turning back. Then she strode along with us, threatening every dog she met, including a German shepherd named Kaddafi.

Doodley died at fourteen years, and we knew we would not be able to have any other cat.

We considered a dog, read about different breeds, visited the dogs of friends. It had to be a dog that could live on a houseboat. Not a dog that needs a yard. Our ears perked up when we heard about the keeshond, bred in Holland to be a barge dog. We researched the breed and placed a drawing of a keeshond on our altar. Then we waited.

 

August 20, 2010: There’s no business like show business

We follow signs to the King County Fairgrounds, to the Breed Specialty Dog Show. We see motor homes—a whole portable village—at the edge of the grounds, surrounded by corrals holding boxers, beagles, bulldogs, border collies, corgis, Weimaraners, malamutes, schnauzers, shar-peis, and pugs. We park and head for the main building in search of restrooms. The women’s is near the papillons, dogs with petite bodies and big “butterfly” ears; the men’s is near the Pekingese, with their snub noses and bulging eyes. Between are Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and Pomeranians.

We step outside and stroll down a row of booths selling canine accoutrement: combs, collars, leashes, brushes, dishes, breath spray, shampoo, and powder. Treats range from vegan peanut butter biscuits to turkey jerky to dried bull penis. Other booths sell hot dogs, French fries, and bowls of chili. My mouth is dry with worry, so I buy a bottle of water. We turn our attention to the outdoor show rings that spread across the grassy grounds—a circle for each breed. We see: russet-colored vizslas ready to hunt pheasants in Hungary, bearded collies who can barely see through their Mary Travers bangs, Irish setters, golden retrievers, Airedales, and standard poodles, all groomed to perfection.

We search out the keeshond, as if it is the only, the echt, the archetypal dog. If you come to know a particular breed, then dogs of that breed—your breed—look right to you. Their bodies are the right shape and proportion, their tails are right; the muzzle, the eyes, even the feet are right. When you think dog, your breed imprints on your brain. We see keeshonden in and around Ring 7, on grooming tables, in crates, leashed to their owners, and strutting their stuff. These dogs—with their short-coupled bodies, thick silvery coats, curled-back tails, eyeliner markings, and smiley faces—look right.

 

1995–2008: Saba

After Robby spent most of 1994 in Texas, after Robby took over his father’s heavy construction business, after Robby spied on the man who managed that business and found that that man had been using the equipment and connections to run jobs on the side, after he found that that man had pocketed the take, after Robby completed contracts to take down decrepit water towers and dig out old gas tanks and the soil around them, after Robby lived for months at the Ramada Inn at Grand Prairie, Texas, because he could not stay any longer at his folks’ house, where his father woke him at four each morning to give him battle instructions, after Robby told his father one hundred times that he was not moving to Texas to run the business to extend his father’s glory into the future, after Robby closed down the business, after Robby finally came back to Seattle, wrung out, laid low, and worn down, after Robby lay on the floor staring at the ceiling waiting for the other shoe to drop, after Robby tried Prozac and even therapy, we decided it was time to get a puppy.

In 1995, we drove to Gig Harbor to meet our first litter of keeshond puppies and their breeder, Barbara. Six wooly adult keeshonden barked and wagged their curled-back tails to hail our arrival. One dog jumped straight up, much as a jack-in-the-box springs from his windup box. Barbara greeted us. Barbara—gray-haired, solid, grandmotherly—is a librarian and the owner of “By the Book” kennel. She is a keeshond maven and knows all things keeshonden.

Barbara ushered us into a room with easily cleanable floors. We sat on low benches and then she released the five puppies, each with a strand of rickrack around its neck: red, blue, green, pink, and purple. The pups were fuzzy tumblers that tripped over each other. We watched the kinetic puffballs with tiny eyes, muzzles, and tails. Nothing like the big keeshonden we had seen outside. We handled one pup, then another, cradled each pup face up in our palms. Then we put them down and watched. One puppy—the one in the pink rickrack collar—kept running up to us, rolling over to show us her lovely pink belly. This pup stayed with us, liked to be held by us. This pup chose us.

Barbara explained that this pup—“Pinkie”—was claimed by a nun from British Columbia. The nun had recently lost her dog, also a keeshond, and was not sure she was ready for a new dog. Barbara would check with her and let us know. We should call her in a few hours. So we drove on to Shelton to visit another litter of keeshonden, all spoken for but one male. Cute, but no connection.

We drove to Olympia and settled in at the Asterisk Coffee House. We drank luscious handmade espresso milkshakes. We talked about the pup in the pink rickrack. Would we take her if the nun declined? I sat across from Robby and saw his face animated, his eyes nearly as bright as a puppy’s. Charged up with espresso, sugar, and adrenaline, we called Barbara from a pay phone. The puppy is yours, she said. And so we got Saba.

Over time, Robby told friends that Saba brought him back to life. We rolled on the rug with Saba, played with Saba, held Saba, walked Saba, and through Saba met Alpha, Max, and Farley—and their people. And quickly, surprisingly quickly, Robby stopped taking Prozac.

We bought the book Places to Stay with Your Dog and then we proceeded to visit those places with Saba. We stayed on the edge of Stanley Park in Vancouver, where Saba chased black squirrels, a variation on the brown ones in Seattle. Though Saba never caught a squirrel, she remained optimistic, perpetually believing the next one to be hers.

Saba lived for food, loved dinner, liver bears, Greenies, and slices of meat from the French bakery. Saba was secure, sweet, and easy to love.

Time passes and it passes faster for dogs, and that is perhaps life’s greatest inequity. Saba slowed. At the same time, we had begun caring for our frail elders. We were on call. We traveled to be with elders. When we came home, we could not face Saba’s aging. But the day came when she could no longer go down the steps at our office. So Robby carried her down each time until our denial was washed away by the relentless tide of frailty.

 

August 20, 2010: Enumclaw Dog Show

We observe final grooming and the use of cornstarch for a last-minute butt cleaning. Keeshonden prance around the ring with handlers, then stop. The judge studies each dog for breed conformation: teeth, flews, eyes, ears, coat, torso, tail. Some dogs prance like movie stars; some are regal; some are just dogs doing their jobs. We listen to Barbara and the other mavens critique the dogs, the handlers, the judging.

Barbara takes us over to meet Robin, the breeder from Portland to whom Misha has been returned. Most breeders allow owners to return a dog at any point, which beats even the return policy at Nordstrom. Robin looks up from grooming a young dog. She asks us to hold and distract him while she brushes his ruff up toward his face so his coat fluffs out beyond the rules of gravity. It is like preparing for a fashion shoot on a Paris runway. Robin is also this dog’s handler, so she is wearing a rose-pink skirt and jacket. She offers to send her husband to get Misha; we tell her we are staying for the picnic after the judging, so no rush. Though we long to meet Misha, we hesitate to meet Misha.

 

2008: Saba’s rug

Saba lived on the Tibetan rug in our living room, the rug designed by artist Carl Chew, made at his rug factory in Katmandu. The rug is a giant postage stamp featuring an elephant with a ball bouncing off its head. Saba claimed the rug as hers. She took her treats there, received affection there, ran wild “cocktail hour” dervish circles there, and spent her last day there. On that last day, the veterinarian and her assistant came down the dock and onto our houseboat and sat with Saba and us on the Tibetan rug. Robby and I said our good-byes with the biggest praise and some bits of ham, the two most acceptable gifts to launch a dog into the next world. The vet found a vein and gave Saba the ultimate relaxant. Saba sighed, closed her eyes, and was gone. Then assistant Tracy wrapped Saba up in a blanket and lifted the bundle of Saba up into her arms. They carried Saba out and up the dock. Our vein of grief opened. We collapsed on Saba’s rug. We wept large gulping sobs and then quiet tears. Our grief could not be contained.

 

2008–2010: Losses

On December 19, 2008, we lost Vi Hilbert, the tribal elder who taught us the Lushootseed language and welcomed us into her world. On February 1, 2009, we lost Robby’s mother. On January 6, 2010, we lost Robby’s sister. On January 13, 2010, we lost Robby’s father. Of his original family, only Robby remains.

 

April 2010: We try a puppy

After everyone died, Robby calls Barbara to ask her to keep us in mind for the next litter, which we thought might be in the coming year. Barbara tells us there already is a litter, and it will be her last litter. We should come see the puppies right away if we are interested.

We are in mourning. We are probating three estates. We are exhausted. Yet we trek down to Barbara’s new place near Purdy like pilgrims seeking a miracle at Lourdes. We meet three fuzzy pups. The two boys are spoken for. The girl is wild but compellingly cute.

We bring the girl home. We play on the rug, and the pup bashes into us like a bull charging the toreador. Again and again. We have to walk her every twenty minutes during the day and every two hours at night. She is wild and the houseboat quickly becomes too small for her. She is an escape artist, and we fear she will fall into the lake. We do not sleep. We cannot keep up. Meanwhile, Barbara writes us an e-mail each day to ask if we might want to bring the girl back. As soon as we left with her, Barbara had the feeling she should have kept the pup. The pup’s mom, Trixie, had the same feeling and waited at the window for her baby’s return. Barbara offers to give us our money back. Then she offers to trade the pup’s father, Coaster, for the pup. Finally I call Barbara and tell her we are too exhausted to have a puppy. We drive back to Purdy and witness the wild and ecstatic reunion of puppy and her mom. We drive home, feeling like utter failures as humans. But also feeling relieved.

 

August 20, 2010, Enumclaw Dog Show: We meet Misha

When the last keeshond and handler have circled the ring and the last prizes given, we go with Robin to her motor home, to her corral of keeshonden. Robin leashes up one thin, agitated dog—Misha—and then opens the corral to guide him out.

Misha is distracted. He has only been back at Robin’s for a couple of months. He was just neutered. His former owners and their dogs are here from Spokane. And there are hundreds of dogs on the fairgrounds on this warm August day. Robin gives us the leash, and we walk Misha away from the canine hubbub and out the fairground gate. He balks on the leash, looks back over his shoulder at people and other dogs he knows. We walk along the outside of the perimeter fence, away from activity. Misha pants and strains at the leash, pees here and there, then hunches up to produce a poop that is more liquid than the desired form. We stop in the shade and kneel down to talk to him in reassuring tones of voice. He calms a little.

We bring Misha back to Robin and ask questions: How old is he? How much does he weigh? Is he healthy? Does he have any favorite toys? Why did his former owners give him up? Robin pulls salmon jerky out of her pocket to give to Misha. Her answers: He is almost four. He weighs twenty-seven pounds, which is low. He had a leg fracture, which healed. He has no toys. He was living with two other unfixed males, and Misha was not thriving.

We learn Misha eats grain-free kibble with a tablespoon of canned salmon stirred in. We learn he has to have his stitches out—from his neutering—next Wednesday. We learn he is an AKC champion who just needs a good home. Robin believes his coat will fill out and he will get up to thirty-five pounds.

 

Humans and Dogs and Wool

Humans helped dogs survive, and dogs returned the favor. Dogs pulled sleds, hunted rats, protected against intruders, and cleaned up garbage. Here in the Pacific Northwest, native peoples bred a longhaired white dog whose coat was sheared, spun, and woven, often mixed with mountain goat wool. They say the Salish wool dog is the only North American dog that was bred before Europeans and sheep arrived. The Salish wool dog was considered extinct by 1858 as a distinct breed, so there are no photos. But drawings of the wool dog show a resemblance to the keeshond.

When walking Saba outside the Tulalip Longhouse once, I ran into Professor Emeritus Bill Holm, who wrote the books on Pacific Northwest native art. He bent to look more closely at Saba and then reached out a hand to feel her outer coat. “Much like a wool dog,” he said.

When we first got Saba, we were still learning about keeshonden. The Pacific Crest Keeshond Club invited keeshond owners to stroll with their Dutch dogs in the “Holland Days” Parade in Oak Harbor on the north end of Whidbey Island. It was something to do on a Saturday. We ran a slicker brush through Saba’s thick coat, through her tail and her trousers. When she could stand no more, we loaded her and ourselves into the car and drove north.

We spotted the keeshonden and their people, some of the latter wearing Dutch hats and wooden clogs. We joined our canine tribe, admiring one dog after another. One tall blond woman was wearing a fuzzy woven vest. “It’s made of keeshond wool mixed with sheep’s wool,” she told us. “Very warm.” She had the source of her wool on leash. We took her card and said we would save Saba’s wool for her. We did save Saba’s wool. But we lost the woman’s card, so eventually gave our three bags full to another weaver.

 

August 20, 2010, Enumclaw Dog Show: Lunch

Time for lunch. Misha goes back into the corral. I go to our car to get our picnic bag. The mavens set the table with paper plates in black, silver, and cream, the colors of the keeshond. We put food on our plates, then find our way to seats at the edge of the circle.

They hold a quick meeting of the Pacific Crest Keeshond Club. I am worried through all this whether Misha will be a match for us. My mouth is dry. I wonder whether Robby is worried, wonder whether we should call it off. But then we are surrounded by people who love these dogs and brag on them more than they brag on their children. I don’t remember eating. My brain repeats the big question: Should we take Misha?

Finally lunch is over. We follow Robin first to a vendor to buy a collar and leash, then back to her motor home. Robin puts Misha’s new collar on him and attaches the new leash. She sees we are hesitating and takes charge of us the way she handles her dog in the ring. She gives Misha a pat good-bye and hands over the leash. It is the beginning of our one-week trial with Misha.

 

August 20, 2010: Bringing Misha home

We get Misha to jump into the backseat and pour some water into a dog bowl we brought. The car is hot. Misha pants but he doesn’t drink.

We begin the Friday afternoon drive back to the city. From the driver’s seat, I roll down the back windows. As we make our way through the town of Enumclaw, I turn back and see that Misha is trying to climb out the window. I raise it up and speak calming words that I wish for him to understand. He settles, sits, and looks out the window. We head back to the city in an itchy heat.

We park at the head of our dock and lead Misha down to the houseboat. Once inside, Misha skitters from room to room, claws clicking on the oak floors. He sniffs under cupboards, snuffles along pillows on the sofa. He makes loops of nasal exploration. Finally he comes to a halt on the Tibetan rug. Saba’s rug. He sits, throws back his head, and he howls.

 

August 20, 2010: Misha at home

When Misha finishes howling, he goes to his bowl for a splashy drink that wets his ruff and the floor. When he returns to the rug, he lets us sit close, lets us touch him just a little. I run my hand down his flank and feel how thin he is under his fur.

He wanders from the rug, returns, then wanders again. After an hour of this, Misha comes up to Robby, lies down, rolls over on his back to show his entire front, from his mouthful of impressive teeth down to his empty black testicle sack and stitches. Robby rubs Misha’s chest and talks dog to him. I watch this from my chair. “If we give this dog back, we’ll just have to kill ourselves,” Robby says. We laugh. Later when I am on the rug, Misha comes and gives me the same frontal display and receives my praise. By bedtime, we know we don’t need a whole week’s trial.

 

October 17, 2010, Headline in Dallas News: Made Human by Animals

We read a piece in the Dallas News that describes the claim of anthropologist Pat Shipman: Early humans who lived with and trained dogs were the humans who survived, evolved, and ultimately became us. Humans who did not train and domesticate dogs did not fare as well. Shipman asserts that dogs helped humans evolve, helped humans become more human.

 

August–October 2010: Misha settles in

Misha is not secure. He wants to be with us every minute, wants never to be left. When we do leave him and then return, he barks insanely as if giving a dissertation on why we should never leave him. We realize he has lived with lots of other dogs and likely was never alone. For our first week with Misha, one or the other of us is with him almost constantly. We take him in the car with us. While we buy groceries, Misha moves from the backseat to the driver’s seat of our Subaru. He does not nap in the car. We find him sitting at attention, peering through the steering wheel and windshield. When he spies us, he barks. He barks when we open the car door. He greets us both and then licks Robby as if Robby has just returned from a year of living dangerously in Afghanistan, as if his saliva will cement Robby to him.

Outside, Misha rubs his whole self against bamboo, boxwood hedge, sedge, nandina, viburnum, and laurel. Inside, Misha rubs against throw pillows, cushions, quilts, rugs, blankets, and us. He receives his new world through the length of his body: head, neck, ribs, flanks, and tail.

We give Misha small slivers of deli meats—turkey and ham—so that his appetite will awaken. Slowly he puts on weight.

There is chemistry between dogs and people. Endorphins course through our bloodstreams when Misha rubs up against us and flops over on top of us. I believe endorphins course through Misha’s bloodstream when we scritch around his furry ears, when we massage his neck and down his spine to his haunches, when we rub through his thick coat down to his doggy body, when we praise him, when we wrestle him, or when we simply love up on him.

 

Biblical Law:

We know an elderly woman who loves dogs. She told us that there is a Biblical law or Rabbinic obligation to feed your animals before yourselves. When I Google this, I learn that Rav Yehuda said, “It is forbidden for a person to eat before he has fed his animals.” Misha likes to follow this law.

 

August 20, 2010 to present

We adopt Misha so that he will be an only dog; Misha adopts us so that we will not be lonely. We give Misha food, affection, assurance, walks, praise, play, training, and treats. We take him everywhere. We walk him all around the neighborhood, in and out of pocket parks. Misha meets other dogs, and we meet other dog people. Through Misha, we come to know Aggie, Maggie, Juju, Max, Gus, Tug, Gracie, Casper, Spooky, and Clue. Through Misha our world expands.

Misha prances, poses, plays, leaps, tugs, races, chases, sniffs, grins, growls, howls, and barks. And barks. Misha is quirky and needy, funny and quizzical, kissy and attached. His face is smiley. His breath comes as laughter, and this breath settles us together.

___

Janet Yoder’s writing has appeared in the books, Enchanted Companions: Stories of Dolls in Our Lives, ed. by Carolyn Michael, published by Andrews McMeel, 2003, and Sunday Ink: Works by the Uptown Writers, published by Tasseomancy Press, 2010. She was awarded first prize for her story, “Four Hands” in Crucible 2006. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua Literary Journal, River Teeth, Tusculum Review, Passages North, American Literary Review, The Baltimore Review, Evansville Review, PassagerThe Massachusetts Review, The Texas Review, Raven ChroniclesBayouFugue, Left CurvePorcupine, Rio Grande Review, The Binnacle, StringTownHistoryLink.org, The MacGuffin, North Dakota Quarterly, and Pilgrimage. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2008.

Wood Stork Needs Mate

By Susan R. Williamson

Yesterday I saw a pair of wood storks take off

and fly in separate directions. One sailed across

a wide expanse of flat green field, the other’s wings

were mirrored in the nearby lake.

 

Riding thermals over a palm, then a banyan,

their flight paths diverged in a wide “v” until

I could no longer see both at the same time.

My limited peripheral vision.

 

My friend the birder tells me wood storks mate

for life, a heady lifestyle in the natural order—so much

depending on survival and fitness, boredom or excitement,

or pleasure and pain—or some other opposite.

 

Isn’t that what attracts one to the other? Links of pheromone

or invisible lines drawn to appearance, aura, or agenda.

Doctor, lawyer, husband, poet, wood stork, mate, or wife?

Who says the bonds will hold?

 

Or will planes come crashing, tsunami wash the stretch

of land once lived upon, earthquake shake the East Coast’s

fault, or hurricane waste a path of destruction through

what was once considered solid?

 

This could be fate, or just what is, my friend the birder

says. But then I saw the two storks land together again, near

the lake’s retaining wall, grass greening beneath their wings,

their long and oddly hinged legs kneeled to perfect purchase.

 

I saw one tuck a long-beaked head under wing, safe, as the other

took watch. One feathered sentry looked out over slick water’s

surface, clouds as white reflections passing by in a mirror where

we might also see ourselves.

 

___

A poet and arts administrator, Susan R. Williamson divides her time between Charlottesville, where she serves on the advisory board of Streetlight Magazine and Boca Raton, where she is assistant director of The Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Cape Rock, The Chaffin Journal, Connecticut Review, Controlled Burn, Crab Orchard Review, Eclipse, Hawai’I Pacific Review, Lagniappe, Lucid Oona, Lumina, The MacGuffin, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Paterson Literary Review, Sanskrit, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Smartish Pace, StorySouth, Streetlight, Three Candles, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Willow Review. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and more recently anthologized in Letters to the World (Red Hen Press 2007). She has attended the Sewanee Writers Conference, Nimrod Summer Writers Workshop, and won the University of Virginia Medical Center LINK Poetry Award, judged by Kate Daniels. A finalist for the VaBook On-In-Ten Competition, she received a fellowship with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is currently a Joel Oppenheimer fellow in New England College’s MFA poetry program.

Approaching Wilderness

By Gene Twaronite

e fumbled through his knapsack, rechecking the contents, especially the two loaves of bread he had baked last night. And the fifth of Bacardi—the most buzz for the buck. For a brief moment he thought of the curving naked landscape of his wife, still asleep. She’d worry, of course. Then, wincing, he remembered. He saw a casket covered with her favorite daffodils.  And he saw his stupid stony face, still dry. What was wrong with him? A man should cry at his wife’s funeral.

But he knew Ellen would worry. That girl could worry enough for the two of them. The fact that she was divorced now and her two screwed up kids were who knows where didn’t help. Or that she felt she never had much of a chance to get to know her old man, with all of his business trips while she was growing up. Probably never should have had her, but Sarah didn’t want an abortion and that was that. And he knew the little phone Nazi would call at exactly 9:45 a.m. to check up on him, so he better call her later from the road. Grabbing his walking stick near the door, he slipped off into the pre-dawn darkness.

For a time he closed his eyes as he walked, feeling each rut and turn in the road with his feet while reaching out to touch familiar trees and boulders. Onward the road pulled him, up Juniper Ridge and down through the wash, where the night’s cool air had settled. Off to his right a great horned owl hooted. A propitious sign. He hooted back and laughed.

To the east he could just see the outline of the Black Hills emerging. This was the part of the journey he loved best.  It didn’t matter what far off wilderness he was headed for. It was the act of setting off before dawn in the direction of his goal that filled his heart with joy. Indeed, when he finally did arrive at his destination, its reality never quite matched his initial wonder and anticipation of the unknown. Approaching wilderness was better than being there.

Not that he was much of a wilderness explorer. In his ninety plus years he had managed to actually visit some wild areas, but in reality he was more of a dreamer. Many were the trips he had made, armed only with maps and travel books, from the comfort of his easy chair. Excitedly, he would trace his fingers along contour lines, imagining the feel of changing topography and unfolding vistas. No need to worry about rain, blisters, or black flies.

But this time only a real trip would do. Lately he could think of nothing else but wilderness—all the magical places he had never seen and never would. The Sawtooths. North Cascades.  Boundary Waters. Kings Canyon. The Brooks Range. Grand Staircase-Escalante. Reciting them had always brought him comfort, a distraction from the all too orderly life he had constructed. But now they had become an aching obsession, phantoms of an untrammeled world he still longed to see.

Grimacing, he sat down on a boulder and rummaged through his knapsack. He swallowed half a dozen triple strength Glucosamine tablets and loosened his boots. It’s going to be a long trip, old boy. Keep moving.

In no time he had found his stride. Once he got into the zone, he could walk for miles. Pumping his arms, he stuck out his chest, inhaling deeply. Walking was his answer to everything—hangovers, arthritis, even the loss of his wife.

His plan was simple. He needed to see real wilderness again. Maybe even a wolf or a grizzly. He needed to be out in the Wild.

But Ellen had a different plan. She had found a “nice little” assisted living center. It had won awards and was only a few miles from her house. She would come visit every day.

“Dad, you’ll love it. You won’t have to worry about that smelly old cabin. You’ll have a comfortable apartment and get all your meals in the dining room. You’ll meet new people. Everything is planned, with trips and fun activities. They’ve even got a nightly poker game. You’ll be happy there.”

“So why don’t you just go and move there yourself?”

Ellen clenched her teeth. He was trying to bait her and she knew it. She resented the little boy he had become after her mother died. There was no one left now to tame him. He was all alone in that shack, in the middle of nowhere. One day, she would find him dead on the floor. Why did she have to be the one? He didn’t give a rat’s ass about her or anyone. But no matter. She would not let him win this time.

“Come on, Dad. Don’t you want to be happy?”

“Not particularly. Happiness is overrated, if you ask me.”

One thing about Ellen, once her mind is made up, there’s no stopping her. He had even gone to see the place, just to shut her up. He had to admit it wasn’t as bad as he imagined, all shiny bright and perfect. His resistance was weakening. With each passing day he became less sure of himself, less able to resist. He knew his solitary days at the cabin were numbered.

He still didn’t know exactly where he was going, but as he walked the details fell into place as they always did. He would head northeast and keep a low profile, crossing roads only when he had to. He didn’t trust his Nazi daughter. Funny, he couldn’t remember when he had started calling her that.  Maybe it was that clipped, severe way she had of telling him what he ought to do.  Or that she always beat him down with her arguments. Why couldn’t she understand that a man needs more than just security and comfortable surroundings? But surely she would come looking for him once he told her about his plan. Fortunately, there was still plenty of wild country around in which a man could hide from his daughter. He would make for the big timber, then wind through desert scrub to the Colorado, crossing at Lee’s Ferry. Then follow the Paria River to wander through the endless canyons of Escalante. And from there who knows, maybe he would even make it to Yellowstone and see his first wolf.

His reverie was interrupted by a sudden obnoxious sound. Fumbling through his knapsack, he found the source of his torment—the new cell phone Ellen had bought him last week. So we can always be connected, she said. Fuck connections! The world is too connected, too absorbed in its own shit. Why did he ever agree to one? He opened the gadget and pressed it to his ear. Hello. Hello. Then he pressed a button, then another. Hello, goddamnit! It started beeping as if about to explode.  He threw it far and long. The sun was just coming up as he turned from the road and headed into the scrub.

For a while he followed the ridgeline past the Indian ruins. In both directions he could see throngs of new houses and cabins advancing like locusts across the valleys and up the once unsullied slopes. Generations of new retirees and refugees from California and other big government states looking to get away from it all. Pretty soon the ridge would be nothing but an endless line of houses and condos. He was glad he would not live to see it.

Descending from the ridge, he paused at the edge of a narrow wash. From the look of the pinyon-juniper country he knew he was somewhere in the national forest. Coffee would be nice, but he was too keyed up to build a fire. He washed down his breakfast bar with a few slugs of water and resumed walking.

The winding path of the wash wasn’t the most direct way north, but it perfectly suited his mood. He had been planning this trip for years. What was the rush? He knew the state highway lay just a few miles to the east and the wash wasn’t exactly wilderness. But for him it had a wild feel, as if he were the first to explore it. Ignoring a startled scrub-jay, he squeezed through the underbrush and clambered over the rocks with boyish glee.

He flopped down for a minute to catch his breath, admiring the patchwork of sun-dappled colors on the rocks and leaves. No awe-inspiring vista, but it would do. He took off his boots and rubbed his throbbing feet. Though he had walked past the pain for a while, it was back. He knew his arthritis would make him pay dearly for this trip. It was in all his joints now. He could feel them grinding away and disintegrating like the life he had once had. Maybe someday he would do as his doctor and Ellen wanted and have them all replaced. Then he could become the Bionic Man. There would be no more pain, no more startling jabs to remind him of the bittersweet beauty of life and death. O.K., feet, let’s go. One more time for the old man.

His brain swirled. Walking always stimulated him, but this time his thoughts came at him like a flashflood. Childhood memories of family trips to the Smokies and White Mountains came jumbled with fears of falling through the ice alone on a remote Michigan pond and lusty encounters with Sarah beneath a leaky tent in the Everglades. The day when Ellen was born, all thought of abortion forgotten. And the day when Sarah’s lab test came back and the world died.

And he thought of another day when he first started losing words. It wasn’t simply the inability to find the right word, but forgetting it completely. Like looking at water and not knowing what to call it. He would be reading the newspaper and suddenly come to a dead stop at a word that looked vaguely familiar but unknown. Looking it up in the dictionary would only add to his unease, as if it were a word he had never learned.

He thought of Sarah and how she would have hated losing even a simple verb. For him losing an occasional word now and again was more inconvenient than disturbing. After all, he still had thousands left inside him. It’s no big deal. But Sarah would have been horrified. For her, words were everything.  Fortunately she was sharp right till the end.  He could think of few advantages to dying before your time, but maybe this was one.

He slowed his pace, as if trying at the same time to slow his thoughts.  Breathing deeply, he started to remember something from this morning, something he was supposed to do.  He checked off the things he had done.  Turn off the stove.  Shake the toilet handle.  Lock the door.  Then what?  It probably wasn’t important.  That had become his mantra lately in response to all the little nagging feelings of forgetfulness.  A man shouldn’t have to remember every fucking thing.  Just getting up in the morning is hard enough.  Who cares what day it is?  They’re all alike, coming one right after the other whether you’re ready for them or not.

He left the wash and trudged up the next ridge to get his bearings.  Wheezing, he slumped on a boulder and shook his head.  What a pathetic old geezer.  But at the sight of the Coconino Plateau, he quickly forgot his pains.  He was a boy again, on a trip to Grand Canyon, where he had his first vision of a wilder world beyond the guardrail.  He could feel himself falling into the multi-colored layers below as the canyon walls closed around him.  It was the same feeling he always had when he hiked down into the canyon.  It was like walking back into the earth’s womb when life was still emerging and all things were possible.

After a quick lunch of cheese and fruit, he laid back and let the sun soak into his joints.  It was already past noon and he still had a lot of ground to cover.  He watched as a collared lizard bobbed its head from a nearby rock.  He bobbed his head back.  Even without words there were still ways to communicate, though he wasn’t sure exactly what was being said.  The lizard bobbed its head again.

He headed down the ridge toward the distant forest-carpeted plateau.  For the most part he kept to the trees, following whatever shade he could find in the open woodlands. Occasionally he would hastily cross a gravel road where the spell was temporarily broken.  He was resting more frequently now and for longer periods.  He couldn’t remember when he had last walked so far.  He leaned backed against a big pinyon.  The shade felt good in the hot summer afternoon.  It wouldn’t hurt to rest a while longer.

When he awoke the tree’s long shadow told him he had slept too long.  Only a couple of hours remained till nightfall.  He had hoped to make it at least to the interstate, but he knew it was still far off.  He set off again at a brisk pace, cursing his old body.  For a while he managed to keep it up until he tripped over a log and fell on his bad knee.  Slowly he got up, cursing yet another offending joint that had let him down.  Leaning heavily on his walking stick he hobbled on, feeling stupid and alone.

He decided to make camp in an outcrop of lichen-crusted granite that rose like a castle from a grove of venerable oak trees.  There was a nice private wedge between the rocks, filled with oak duff, where he could bed down for the night.  There were plenty of dead branches nearby and in no time at all he had built himself a competent campfire.  Building a good fire had always been proof of his manhood.  At least there was one thing he could still do.

He cleared a flat rock and laid out his dinner.  He opened a can of split pea soup and set it upon some coals.  Then he cut a slice of bread and a wedge of cheese. He had plenty of trail mix and beef jerky, enough to last for days.  He was certainly better off than John Muir, who often explored the High Sierras with little more than some tea and flour. What more does a man need?

Then he remembered the rum.  By his third drink his memories were well lubricated.  Stirring the fire, he thought back to a camping trip in the Smokies.  Just out of college, with his two hippie friends, he recalled the camaraderie of that moment—three outlaw rebels against the war, the Establishment, tradition, and anything old—hiding out in the wilderness.  But mostly he remembered the drinking and pot smoking around the campfire.  Then stumbling up to their sleeping bags on the bear platform and talking each other to sleep with philosophical bullshit.

He awoke four hours later with a jolt.  The booze had mostly worn off, and he had become suddenly aware of a sharp rock projecting against his spine.  Now he remembered why he hadn’t camped again since his twenties.  Shivering, he pulled his blanket tighter around him.  Dawn was still a long way off.  He could feel every joint screaming at him.  What was he doing here?  He stood up and stared at the stars.  But the stars that had always fascinated him were now just alien points of light.  He didn’t have a clue where he was.

He built up the fire, stoking the flames ever higher as if to make his memories burn brighter again.  But all he could remember was something about heading northeast and the sound of a cell phone smashing.

He made instant coffee, then gulped down a breakfast of trail mix, aspirin and glucosamine.  Rising stiffly, he spread apart the fire’s ashes and pissed on them with a painful, erratic stream.  His knee was still bothering him from the fall.  But he knew he had to keep walking.  He turned to the northeast.

After a few hours, he was no closer to an answer. At least for the time being he had largely moved past the pain. His rest stops and naps were getting much longer. When had he become such a wimp? There were days when he could walk twenty miles and more, or so he thought. He hated the hobbling old man he had become. But most of all, he hated not being able to remember.

It was late afternoon when he came to the interstate. For a long interval he stared helplessly across the wide expanse, relentlessly flowing with the Friday traffic of northbound city dwellers heading for the high country. He saw it as a great river blocking his way, the antithesis of whatever it was he seeking. He took a deep breath and made a run for it. A blue Hummer doing ninety just narrowly missed him as its owner flipped him the bird. Struggling to higher ground, he grabbed the trunk of a ponderosa pine and hugged it. And he thought of his wife. Sarah, where are you? Please forgive me. And for the first time in years he cried.

The setting sun felt good on his back as he headed upslope through the tall trees. After several miles he came to an old forest road with few signs of recent use. It was headed in the right direction, so he readily acceded to its linear command.

As he passed over a brook, he paused to admire the intricate handiwork of the stone bridge. It seemed out of place in this world, a testament to a distant age when workmanship still mattered.  Obviously the work of Civilian Conservation Corps elves, he mused, that legendary race of craftsmen who forged wonders out of native stone and timber while helping to rebuild a battered country.

Suddenly three sullen riders on ATV’s roared past him, nearly knocking him over. He looked down the road in disgust.  There are no answers here, old boy, and you know it. All this will lead to is another road. Off to his right he noticed a steep canyon running up a nearby slope, its sharp rocky mouth entreating him to climb up and explore its hidden corners.

With newfound confidence, he turned away from the road and followed the creek as it trickled up the mountainside. He clambered around huge boulders through tangles of wild grape vines and thorn bush that tore at his face and clothes. He was far into the canyon now, beyond all that was safe and secure. There would be no one to know he was up there, no one to know he was gone. But then he saw a face. Ellen! How did she find him? He would not go back. He must keep going. But he was getting weaker. Just need to rest a while. He leaned against a rock and gazed up the canyon. He could see wonders ahead—the fabled canyons of Escalante. Wonders at the heart of the world. He closed his eyes and dreamed.

*  *  *

The hospice was bright and clean, with a perfect view of the San Francisco Peaks. Ellen had taken him here after the last stroke. Neighbors had found him lying unconscious just a few hundred yards down the road from his cabin. She sat at his bedside, hoping as always for some little sign of recognition. But she knew there would be none. She stared at the face of the father she barely knew. Come on, Dad, give me something, anything. But it was just that same old stupid stony face. He opened his eyes, staring not at her but at somewhere in the distance, at the last wild empty places. Then he smiled and bowed his head.

Ellen closed his eyes. She wanted to cry but couldn’t. Well, at least you gave me that much, old man. You finally made it to the wild. You’re home now.

 

_____

Gene Twaronite’s fiction has been published by Avatar Review, Fast Forward Press, Heinemann, Highlights for Children, Read, and The Write Room. He is the author of two juvenile fantasy novels, The Family That Wasn’t (www.thefamilythatwasnt.com) and My Vacation in Hell (www.myvacationinhell.com).

Morning Train

By Donna Baier Stein

September, 1942

 

hree of us wait on the train platform in Hannibal, predawn. My husband Virgil stands behind me. Without turning, I know his face: the dusky circles under his eyes and the unibrow that straddles them, too often forecasting a thunderstorm of rage.

And in front of me, Daniel, my son. I clutch both his elbows and stare up at his face under the regulation square-topped cap. I lean into him, left foot angled to brace me.

When he pulls away, I lose my balance.

A snake writhes in my stomach. I swallow with difficulty, hoping the panic will go away. My stomach growls; I haven’t eaten yet, though I put two full breakfasts on the table for Virgil and Daniel: eggs from the henhouse, two cups of precious coffee, even beefsteak that took up the last of our red stamps though we are only halfway through the month.

Even now, I’ve brought a brown bag filled with the last of the tomatoes and sweet peppers.

Across the train tracks, our dust-spattered gray Ford pickup waits. Though invisible from where we stand, I know its left passenger window is shattered. The snake inside coils tightly.

“These pants need pressing,” I say, running my thumb down the slash front of Daniel’s sage-colored trousers to take my mind off what happened last night.

“Too late for that, Mom.” Daniel took a step back, signaling once again that my touch can’t keep him. Too late.

He is only seventeen years old. And six-foot-two, though neither Virgil nor I are tall.

I look again toward our truck with its vee grille, pointed hood, and fender-mounted headlights. It’s the last of its kind; earlier this year, the government ordered Ford to make only military Jeeps, aircraft engines, bombers.

The sight of the truck and what it brings to mind threatens to bring tears, and I turn my head so Danny won’t see. I look down the train tracks—hewed boards laid under two iron rails that curve toward us as they approach the station. The rails merge in the distance, and a low hill rises behind them. A thin slice of sun tops the hill, like the peel of an orange.

Virgil clears his throat loudly. Just that morning he’d called Danny a goddamn stupid idiot for knocking the sugar bowl off the table as he swung his duffel bag over his shoulder.

That canvas bag now rests on the platform between us. I helped Danny pack the supplies he’d been given at the recruiting office: undershirts and drawers dyed a dirty green. Brown cotton socks. Black wool sweaters. Pack straps. Leggings. Foot powder.

Virgil speaks. “It’s 120 miles to St. Louis. How many hours that gonna take you, son?”

Daniel looks relieved to have a concrete question to answer. “Well,” he says, scooting his cap back on his head, “I heard this new Wabash line runs up to eighty-five mph.”

Virgil lets out a long, low whistle. One pocket of his short camel-colored coat hangs loose because I have failed to mend it.

“Then I take the bus to Jefferson Barracks in Lemay.” Daniel keeps his eyes locked on Virgil’s.

“You write us soon as you get your overseas orders, you hear?”

“Yes, sir,” Danny answers. His coat is belted at the waist and reaches just above his shiny black boots.

I stare at the baby-smooth skin of his face, the curl of dark blond hair that rests on the rim of his ear.

“If I were you,” Virgil says, “I’d sure as hell hope to go where the action is.” He puffs up his chest like the rooster does each morning at our farm. “The Pacific. Solomon Islands. There’s fierce fighting going on there now. No use twiddling your thumbs in some office.”

I finger the edge of the wool scarf wrapped around my head and think of the secrets I’ve kept. What happened last night is only one of them.

I’ve held my tongue too long.

*   *   *

When the draft notice came in the mail, the Order to Report for Induction signed by President Roosevelt himself, I hoped Daniel would be rejected. Maybe for his hearing. But the test said his hearing was fine, and I realized he simply tuned Virgil and me out now whenever he wanted to.

I’d tried just once to stop him, foolish as I knew the effort was.

I tried one afternoon when Danny and I sat on low wooden stools in the victory garden we’d planted. Virgil was at Corky Brown’s drinking moonshine. He called it mountain dew.

I simply said, “Don’t go.”

“I’ve got to go, Ma.” He looked at me with that new grown-up way he had.

“No, you don’t. We’ll move somewhere, anywhere. I don’t want you killing or being killed. I won’t have it, Danny.”

He stayed silent, then bent on his knees and started picking bright green peas off their climbing vines. He rolled a pod between two fingers, then pinched off both ends and pulled down the fine string on the inside. One by one he popped four peas into his mouth, rolling each around on his tongue. I watched him, imprinting the images on my brain.

He and I had spent much of the summer canning what we could from the garden. When extra sugar was still available for jam-making, we’d made a few pots of greengage and red currant jelly to keep for Christmas. All through July and August, I had insisted on assuming Daniel would still be at home for the holidays, even as we watched his cousin Gene and his friends Benjamin Lee Bird, Will Spillman, and Junior Orman leave for overseas.

*   *   *

My disappointment at being a farmwife had rained down on Daniel since he was a little boy. In addition to teaching him to work hard, I’d taught him that real happiness always lay over there.

I’d wanted to give him so much! College, maybe even out east. How could I explain that I’d made bad choices but didn’t want him to?

I’d wanted to be a reporter like Helen Thomas and ended up a farmwife in a small town where people barely read the paper. The farm kept me busy, raising Daniel kept me busy, and tiptoeing around Virgil took its toll.

And now here was my only child, being taken away by Uncle Sam before I’d enjoyed anywhere near enough of him. The journey through life was too fast, the consequence of choices so startling.

*   *   *

I pull a tomato from the bag, offer it to Daniel.

“Sweet enough to eat now,” I say.

“No, Ma, not now. There’ll be new things to try when I travel. New foods to eat, new sights to see.”

I know, I say to myself. I once wanted to travel the world too. Food wouldn’t have kept me home either, though you did, and I am the better for it, despite all.

“My sister called,” I say out loud to Daniel.

I glance behind me, to make sure Virgil isn’t paying attention. He’s stepped away from us and is staring at a recruitment poster on the brick wall of the station: KEEP ’EM FLYING IS OUR BATTLE CRY! DO YOUR PART FOR DUTY – HONOR – COUNTRY.

I hold Danny’s arm so he has to look at me. “She heard from your cousin Gene.”

Gene had been among the first Marines to land on Guadalcanal in early August. In his letter, he described earsplitting, heartrending air raids from B-24s made by Ford, and the sight of Japanese fighter pilots.

“Yeah?” Daniel asks. “What did the doof have to say?”

He kicks the duffel bag with one of his over-the-ankle boots. He calls them boondockers.

“That boy’s done his family real proud,” Virgil interrupts. To my dismay, he’s walked up behind us. “Signing up early on like he did. Just think of the action you could’ve been in on if you’d jumped in sooner. What an adventure you’ll have!”

“Yes,” I say, “a great adventure. Hiding in foxholes near frightening jungles. Air raids from B-24s. Why, Gene wrote that one day he’d fished in a river and found a dead Japanese soldier floating there. Yes, adventure.”

*   *   *

Virgil had returned from the earlier war wearing a white Navy uniform, looking handsome and hopeful. He promised I could go back to school one day, get my degree. He promised we wouldn’t have to stay on the farm, that we could move elsewhere. He promised that he loved me.

His rages started the first month after our marriage. But by then we knew a baby was coming, and I could not leave.

*   *   *

Now Virgil’s arms are posed awkwardly out and away from his body. He leans forward toward Danny and me, balanced on his right knee. His stance looks as though he wants to take flight to join us but is too heavy to leave the ground. The fingers of each hand are spread wide, as though in fear.

I look at the large circular Seth Thomas clock hanging on the outside wall of the station: five twenty-six. The train is due in less than ten minutes.

“The letter was dated late August and it had taken weeks to get here. So Sissy doesn’t even know how Gene is now…if he…” My words trail off….

Neither my son nor husband answer me.

*   *   *

In the duffel bag I have also packed Danny’s Cardinals cap: two-tone blue and red with the team logo above a curved bill.

As if Danny reads my mind, he says to Virgil, “You’ll watch the big game for me, sir.”

Virgil smiles, a lovely smile, really, when it breaks across his face.

“You think Billy Southworth can make that team keep on with its streak? Even against the Yankees?”

I look down the tracks again; curving pink ribbons now paint the sky. A full circle of sun balances on the horizon, with a small, dark smudge inside it.

“Sure. With Whitey and Creepy and Stan, they’ll do it. You wait and see.”

Then Daniel says, “There’ll be plenty of work to keep you busy when you get back home, Mom. You’ll be OK.”

Virgil pushes his hat up and looks at me, almost softly, still happy from his own baseball memories. Then he squints at me and says, “We’re out of beer, Ruthann.” Alcohol content was down because of grain rationing, so when Virgil drank, he drank many, many bottles.

I look away from him.

“You’ll get that window on the truck fixed, right, Dad? Before cold weather sets in. What happened to it anyway?”

I look at Daniel, startled. He hadn’t seen. I need him to know what Virgil did.

Virgil shrugs and pulls a bent and wrinkled cigarette from his pocket, then turns away to light it. I look toward the truck and see the water tower rising tall behind it.

Before the war, that tower was always lit with white lights at night. A walkway circled the top. During high school, Daniel and Gene and Benjamin Lee and Junior and Will sat and drank Orange Crush and must have talked about the things boys talk about.

“I read in the paper yesterday that ‘going west’ meant going off to die.”

“Ruthann, shut up. The boy don’t need to hear that.”

Didn’t he?

The cloud of black smoke grows bigger.

I read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Kansas City Journal-Post every morning. Pick them up at Ike Gruber’s grocery after I feed Virgil and Daniel and wash the dishes and make the beds and feed the cows, chickens, and pigs, and come up with a plan for dinner. I sit at the kitchen table and read, a half cup of tea cooling at my elbow, for one hour. I know more about what is going on in the world than Virgil does and most of the other folks in town. This doesn’t make me proud; it makes me lonely.

*   *   *

 “You ever been on a train, Mom?” Daniel asks.

“You took the train to St. Louis once,” he says, answering his own question.

Yes.

“I don’t remember that,” Virgil says.

“I do,” I say. “Six years ago. You were working for Paddy Cruikshank that weekend, over in La Plata. He had a construction job. Danny was on a trip with church. So Edith and I took the train for the opening of the Jewel Box.

“The Jewel Box,” I say, again, as though the words are candy in my mouth.

We’d taken a streetcar, green with yellow lettering on its side. Number 33. We’d walked past the reflecting pool at the entrance, stared up at the fifty-foot-high glass conservatory. Inside, we’d walked around the concrete balcony, looking up and down on all the living things: hundreds of flowers, plants, and trees, all of them lit by sunshine streaming in through thousands of panes of glass set in verdigris wrought-iron supports. Hundreds of chrysanthemum in a formal Chinese design. Trees stretching toward the art deco roof. Baskets of flowering plants hanging from the ceiling. Roses growing up forest-green trellises, tall stalks of iris, even an orange tree growing like a miracle indoors.

And afterward, Edith and I had a picnic near a wooden bandstand and Moorish bridge. There were bear pits on the grounds, a herd of buffalo and one of elk, a sacred cow called a zebu. Animals from many foreign lands.

“It took my breath away,” I said softly.

Virgil’s brow wrinkles, and I give him a tight smile. “I wouldn’t have gone if you’d been home,” I say and he nods, placated. The snake inside me takes another loop through my insides.

“I wonder if you could see it before you…”

Virgil snorts, and even Danny looks embarrassed.

“He’s a man, not a boy. He’s going to save our country.”

But there are so many things worth saving.

*   *   *

Here’s what happened last night, what I want to say to Danny:

After you were asleep in your room, Virgil came home from Corky’s.

I got out of bed where I lay sleepless and went to the window overlooking the side yard. I saw Virgil get out of the pickup, stomp through the garden.

I put my hands on the window ready to push it up to tell him to stop but I couldn’t. He looked like a madman in the moonlight, his hat pulled so low I couldn’t see his eyes, his boots dancing crazily, stepping in this row of squash and that row of cabbage. Getting his foot caught in pumpkin vines and ripping the vines out of the dirt. He bent and when he stood up, he held an early pumpkin in his hand. Moonlight outlined its vertical ridges.

He turned, stumbling, then lifted his arm and moved it in circles like a pitcher on the mound. I watched the pumpkin leave his hand and fly into the window of the truck. I did not hear a thing but watched the glass fall to the ground, each piece holding a drop of fractured moonlight.

*   *   *

I look at the clock again: four minutes left. The dark smudge inside the sun has turned into something recognizable, a black train traveling swiftly toward us, its cars curving around bends like an iron snake.

Smoke billows from its stack and its melancholy whistle shouts its code: short, short, long, short.

Despite myself, I make a small noise, like an animal.

*   *   *

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I say and turn to run inside the station. I pass a tall rack of train schedules, and to the left, see an open door to the LADIES room. I run in, clutching my skirt in front of me. I avoid the mirror, just bend and suck in air to breathe.

I hear the train whistle and hurry out. Daniel stands inside the station, near the door, holding something in his hand.

I run to him, throw my arms around his neck, and hug him tight to me.

“Ma,” he says, “I love you.”

Then he pushes me back from him gently, keeping one arm on my shoulder and with his free hand, gives me the folded piece of brown paper he’s holding. It’s tall and slim, with a huge red starburst. Missouri Pacific Lines. A line drawing of a train with a single curved line behind it showing a mountain and “over there.”

It’s a train schedule to St. Louis.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.” He pulls me quickly behind him out to the platform.

*   *   *

The train has pulled up—a massive black beast of metal and smoke, belching its arrival, and deafening us with the insistent, high-pitched blares of its whistle.

The doors open. A conductor in blue shirt and pants says “All aboard” as though he doesn’t know or care if those words might change peoples’ lives forever.

The beast would take Daniel away, and then I knew the secrets that had bound us would no longer need to be hidden.

Imagine living seventeen years with secrets, I think, as I watch Daniel take a step toward Virgil and throw one arm manfully around his father’s—no, no more. Around Virgil’s shoulders.

“Dad,” Daniel says to Virgil. “Take care.” And he shakes his hand and salutes him.

A cry escapes me, hidden in the howl of the train.

“Go on now, get on board,” Virgil shouts and I push Daniel away because I have to. And he climbs up one, two, three steps into the maw between two train cars.

*   *   *

He turns to face us, his boots apart to balance himself, duffel bag in one hand.

“You forgot the bag of food!” I shout but Daniel only shakes his head.

Virgil stands to my right, lighting a cigarette, blowing its smoke up into the sky.

He has no idea though surely he has wondered how he sired this pretty-faced, tall boy. This sensitive boy.

It made no difference where Daniel’s real father was. He himself had chosen not to stand to watch his son go off to war, or learn to read or write or throw a ball.

Once more the conductor shouts, “All aboard!”

He pulls up the stairs. Daniel shifts out of view, then returns. He winks at me and smiles. Then the train wheels begin to turn slowly and pick up speed.

“Kill me a Jap!” Virgil shouts, crushing his cigarette beneath his boot.

Has some of his anger come from all I withheld? Or have I withheld because of his anger? It is really too much to think about, and I concentrate on watching Daniel’s shrinking body leaning out of the vanishing train until I can’t see him any more. As the train cars passed me, I felt their movement against my body.

“Well, there you go,” Virgil sighs. And I know I will remember the depth of that sigh and wonder about my own responsibility for it the rest of my life.

I’d been so young. The professor had invited me to his apartment, poured glasses of wine I’d never tasted. Virgil an innocent bystander, and when I met him, I hadn’t even known yet about the pregnancy and, like my new husband, assumed the child was ours. It was only as the boy grew that I understood what had happened.

I had been so eager to love Virgil. What had gone wrong? Every tantrum he threw made me pull farther away until there was nothing but that gap between us. And Daniel. And the secrets.

*   *   *

Neither of us speak as we walk to the truck. Virgil climbs into the driver’s seat and I climb into the passenger side, next to the broken window.

I sit quietly, thinking, then finally say, “Let’s stop and get you some beers, Virgil. You deserve it after a day like today.”

I know he will drink too much and the beers will put him to sleep until late tomorrow morning. I finger the train schedule in my pocket.

After I study it at home, I will go out to my garden. I will try to repair the damage Virgil and I have both done. Next year, here or somewhere else, I will plant another garden. Pumpkins, potatoes, kale. Roses and iris, perhaps even an orange tree. Everything will grow with my good care. I have years of gardens ahead of me, and food enough to fill any hunger.

____

Donna Baier Stein is an MFA graduate from John Hopkins, and was a founding editor of Bellevue Literary Review.  She is currently the publisher of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Her story collection, Great Drawing Board of the Sky, was a finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards; Her novel, Fortune, received the PEN New England Discovery Award and was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. She received the Raymond Sokolov Scholarship at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, and a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. Donna’s writing has received two Pushcart nominations, and she has received awards from Kansas Quarterly and Florida Review.

Her prose and poetry have appeared in Confrontation, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Florida Review, New York Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, G.W. Review, Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Carolina Quarterly, Phoebe, Many Mountains Moving, and Alembic, among others. For over thirty years, Donna has also had a successful career as a direct marketing copywriter with clients including the Smithsonian, Time, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund, among others. John Barth, Caroline Leavitt, Howard Nemerov, Tim O’Brien, Hilma Wolitzer, and Peter Sacks are just a few of the wonderful authors she has studied with.

The Purse I Carry

By Carol Smallwood

is drying after being washed

and this is what it carries:

 

*Right Side Pocket

Leather wallet, coin pocket taped

from my husband before he left

3 keys attached with wide red ribbon

from a Christmas wreath

A quilting piece from a favorite aunt

who read to me

One of John Galsworthy’s books

 

*Middle Pocket

5 empty Kroger shopping bags

to use at Sav a Lot

Yellow napkins from Wendy’s

to use anywhere

White napkins from McDonald’s

 

*Middle Zipper Pocket

Small plastic container with lid

for rescuing small things

Several covered toothpicks

to use lunching out

A rubber band from somewhere

in case I need it

A safety pin (closed)

 

 

*Left Pocket

Plastic baby carrot bag

to carry daily pills

Orange case for sunglasses

for driving

Retractable black pen

to capture words

Coupons from Wendy’s

for $1 off combo meals

Small Tupperware party case

for Merle Norman face cream

Flash drive the shape of lipstick

in case my house burns

Notes from Trauma and Recovery

by Judith Herman, M.D.

Used copy paper cut in half

___

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012) is her most recent book. Her sixth anthology for the American Library Association, Bringing Arts into the Library, is forthcoming. Some magazine credits include: The Writer’s Chronicle, English Journal.

Sayings

By Carol Smallwood

Truth shall set you free, truth is stranger than fiction

We’ve all heard these—and it could be true

But day to day living brings whimsical constriction:

Truth shall set you free, truth is stranger than fiction.

Mark Twain wisely warned against illusions held on suspension:

“When they are gone you may still exist but you ceased to live.”

Truth shall set you free, truth is stranger than fiction

We’ve all heard these—and it could be true.

___

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012) is her most recent book. Her sixth anthology for the American Library Association, Bringing Arts into the Library, is forthcoming. Some magazine credits include: The Writer’s Chronicle, English Journal.

Seagulls

By Carol Smallwood

My grandfather called the birds, seagulls, that

followed his plow in spring. They were so very white

against newly turned soil—so far from the sea

 

When Jonathan Livingston Seagull arrived,

I poured over and over the paperback willing

Jonathan’s hard won wisdom to become part of me

 

Walking the beach after divorce, I wondered

if the curious speckled seagulls following me

were young or old

 

In a new city, a seagull walked in circles

and was told: “They die like that from

pesticides”

 

Now I wonder if seagulls migrate—

and why I hadn’t before

___

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012) is her most recent book. Her sixth anthology for the American Library Association, Bringing Arts into the Library, is forthcoming. Some magazine credits include: The Writer’s Chronicle, English Journal.

The Arrangement of Spices

By Carol Smallwood

How should one organize kitchen spices—alphabetically, size, or age?

 

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of curry against cumin,

pepper pushing cinnamon, onion salt hugging ginger that keeps mine jumbled, free from a cleaning lady.

 

Spice shelves are for wondering if bay leaves crowned early Olympic winners,

conjuring India with curry, contemplating romance with rosemary leaves, thyme;

to linger over crushed red pepper, the color of cayenne, sturdiness of stick cinnamon furls. To savor cans still shiny. Remember marjoram, savory, and braided cardamom bread.

 

When my son opened the spice shelves last Christmas he said,

“Hey, Ma, it looks like something out of Mad Men.” I replied I’d liked that show of the Sixties—not asking if he remembered allspice and ginger in cakes and cookies, tasting vanilla, adding breasts to angel cookies for Christmas.

 

Spices are what I paced by back and forth in grocery stores debating divorce,

torn between hearth and freedom.

 

Now I try to forget the clang they’ll make tossed when I’m gone.

___

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012) is her most recent book. Her sixth anthology for the American Library Association, Bringing Arts into the Library, is forthcoming. Some magazine credits include: The Writer’s Chronicle, English Journal.