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Faculty Off-Site: Folsom Prison

By Jeanine Stevens

 

Clearing security: rings, keys, buckles.

One needs multiple passes

to disentangle a complicated

hairdo, hairpins triggering alarms.

 

I think of the old trick: key-hole saw

hidden in a birthday cake.

 

Walking into a smudge of denim,

so many who won’t receive training,

a week’s severance pay.

 

(We later learn this was a misdirect—

no outsiders allowed in the open yard).

 

Steel cuts air.

 

In a classroom we witness

an experiment in recidivism:

short testimonials, brief coffee.

 

Officials arrive, escort us outside granite walls.

In the visitor’s dining hall lunch is steak

with serrated knife, potatoes, green beans

and sweet nubby Gherkins.

 

One of our colleagues, raised in Lebanon,

is unable to eat, or speak.

No one wants apple pie.

 

Noon sun steams black.

Tower guards resemble dark squares,

lean like cardboard cut-outs.

 

I will remember the blaze of blue.

We were told not to wear blue.

 

 

——————–

Jeanine Stevens is the author of Inheritor (Future Cycle Press), and Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections). Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt (selected by Phil Levine), The Stockton Arts Commission Award, The Ekphrasis Prize and WOMR Cape Cod Community Radio National Poetry Award. Brief Immensity, recently won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award. Poems have appeared in The Curator, Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Chiron Review, Forge, Pearl, Stoneboat, Connecticut River Review, Provincetown Magazine and Rosebud. Jeanine recently received her sixth Pushcart Nomination. She studied poetry at U.C. Davis and California State University, Sacramento.

The Old Monsters Bar

By Corey Lynn Fayman

t was late on a Wednesday night. That’s why the bar was so empty. It was a crappy little place in a crappy little neighborhood, located on one of those weird Tokyo streets that have no name. An aging, one-armed bartender served low-grade sake and cheap Japanese whisky and topped off your drink with tap water. Paint flaked off the interior walls. You had to go outside if you wanted to take a piss, out the back door, then fifty feet down a foul-smelling alley to a claustrophobic bathroom, all the time checking the shadows for muggers. It was that kind of a place. It was exactly what I needed on this particular night. My teaching hours at the language school had been cut that afternoon, along with half of my salary. My Japanese girlfriend had dumped me the previous weekend. I might have been feeling sorry for myself. Six-cups-of-sake sorry by the time the lizard guy walked in. I wasn’t in the mood for any more Tokyo weirdness.

It was almost closing time, just me and the bartender shooting the breeze. I don’t remember what we were talking about. I had my back to the door when it opened. The bartender’s face turned to stone. I swiveled around on my barstool to see who’d come in, thinking it must be some wannabe-Yakuza putting the squeeze on the guy. It wasn’t a man who walked in, though. It wasn’t a woman. It was six-foot-tall lizard, standing on two legs. He looked like that movie monster, except shorter, much shorter.

I looked back at the bartender, to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. He gave me a low-browed glance, the kind of look that said, “Don’t lose your shit. Don’t be a stupid American. And don’t even think about posting this on Facebook.” I should point out that this bartender had very expressive eyebrows. He could say a lot with them. He was an old guy. He knew all the monsters. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“Nice suit,” I said as the lizard guy walked by, dragging his tail on the floor. He stopped and turned to look at me, then rocked back and forth for a moment, holding his stomach and waving one of his little claw hands, acting like I’d just said the funniest thing ever. Even in my inebriated state, I could tell he was being sarcastic. Before my pickled brain could come up with another smart remark and send it out my big mouth, the bartender cleared his throat. Loudly. I turned and looked back at him. He gave me that heavy-browed look again and spoke to the lizard guy.

“You are early, sensei,” he said, using the Japanese term of respect.

The lizard guy shrugged, then walked to the other end of the bar. He couldn’t get up on the stools, I guess, not with those funny legs, so he just leaned on the bar. The bartender pulled a set of keys out of his apron, squatted down, and unlocked a strongbox hidden in the floor. He withdrew a dark red bottle from the box, grabbed a shot glass from the back counter, walked to the end of the bar, and placed both items in front of the lizard guy, then whispered something to him in Japanese. I couldn’t make out what it was. The lizard guy nodded and poured himself a drink. The bartender walked back to me. He leaned over the counter and stared at me with worn-out eyes the color of gunpowder and smoke. I hadn’t noticed his eyes before under those shaggy brows, but he hadn’t stared at me like this, either.

“I give you one more,” he said. “On house. Then you go.”

“I was here first.”

“He longtime customer. You new.”

“I won’t bother the guy. What was that bottle you gave him, anyway?”

“Special sake. Only for him.”

“You been hiding the good stuff from me?”

“It is too expensive for you.”

“How expensive is it?”

“Only for Japanese. Not for you.”

“I speak Japanese,” I said, and laid a few of my favorite Japanese phrases on him. It didn’t make much of an impression.

“Not for Americans,” he said. “Not good for you.”

“I can handle my liquor.”

“You must leave now.”

“C’mon, let me try the stuff. You said I could have another drink.”

“I give you one drink. Regular sake. Then you go. No more talk. No more questions.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I looked down toward the end of the bar, where the lizard guy was nursing his special bottle. I’d become a bit of a sake aficionado during my two years in the land of the rising sun, but I’d never seen a bottle like this one before. It made me curious. The bartender returned with a shot of the cheap stuff I’d been guzzling.

“What’s it called anyway?” I said. “That stuff he’s drinking?”

The bartender eyed me for a moment.

“Tears of Hiroshima,” he said.

“Whoa,” I said, sounding like some California surf dude, which I’m not. I graduated from Vassar. “That’s one hell of a marketing gimmick.”

“Very old,” he said. “Very few bottles left. Just like him. He is last one.”

“What do you mean?”

“It has been hard for him,” he said. “No movies. No job.”

“Does he always wear that outfit? It’s some kind of cosplay thing, right? Kosupure?

The bartender stared at me for a moment, straining the two bushy caterpillars over his eyes.

“You go now,” he said. “Or I call the satsu. Have you arrested.”

Even I didn’t want to mess with the Tokyo police. They could lock you up for three weeks without even charging you.

“I’m going. I’m going,” I said. I knocked back my sake, climbed off the stool, and headed toward the door.

“You must forget what you have seen here,” the bartender said.

I stopped at the exit and turned back toward the bar. I was all set to show the bartender a fine pair of American fingerbirds when I noticed the lizard guy staring at me. It was a thousand-yard stare that passed right through me, a tangible melancholy I felt in my gut. I dashed across the floor and hoisted myself up on the barstool next to him before the bartender could stop me. I understood now.

“That isn’t a costume, is it?” I said. “You’re the real guy?”

“Get out!” screamed the bartender. He lifted himself over the bar and advanced on me. The lizard guy growled at him. The bartender protested.

“I will lose face,” he said. ”They will close down my bar.”

The lizard guy shook his head and waved the bartender off with one of his little claw arms. The bartender grabbed my elbow, wrenching me sideways.

“He is American,” he said. “I will lose my license.”

A high-pitched screech blasted my left ear and a blue-green flame shot out of the lizard guy’s mouth. It passed in front of my nose and caught the bartender on the side of his face. He screamed as he released my arm and put his hand to the side of his face. A wisp of smoke curled up from his singed hair. The outer part of his right eyebrow was gone. He fell to his knees, flapping his one arm in supplication to the lizard guy.

“You know the rules, sensei,” he said. “They will take away your privileges too.”

The lizard guy grunted and shook his head. The bartender bowed his head to the floor.

“I am your servant,” he said. “I will obey your wishes.”

The lizard guy turned back to his bottle and poured himself another drink. The bartender slunk back behind the bar. For maybe the first time in my life, I was speechless. The lizard guy knocked back his drink. He turned to look at me. I had to say something.

“I’ve seen the guy in the suit, you know, photos from the movie set,” I said. “They even have a video of him now on the Internet. They show a guy getting into the suit. Even when I was a kid, I figured it was a guy in a suit, but…this is crazy. You can’t be real.”

The lizard guy shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the bar. We sat in silence a moment. He wheezed a little, like he had a touch of bronchitis. Shooting those flames out of his mouth had taken a lot out of him. Sitting this close to him, I could see the age spots and discolorations marking his leathery skin.

“I saw all your movies when I was a kid,” I said. “I think you’re much better than those computer-generated things they use now.”

The lizard guy nodded his head. I guess he agreed with me.

“This is so cool,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m talking to you. Why did you stop making movies?”

The lizard guy shrugged. I looked at the bartender, who was chewing his fingernails and watching us nervously from the other end of the bar. I thought about what he’d said.

“What did he mean?” I asked. “About the rules? About taking away your privileges?”

The lizard guy pointed at a clock above the bar. He pointed at me and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at himself and shook his head. Then he raised a single claw, his index finger I guess. He made little movements with it, moving it from the nine o’clock position to twelve, like the ticking of the second hand on the clock. He pointed at himself and gave a thumbs-up. He pointed at me and shook his head.

“You’re only allowed to be in here after closing time, is that it?” I said. “After regular people like me are gone?”

The lizard guy nodded.

“But why? You’re legendary. People would love to meet you.”

The lizard guy put his claws over his ear holes, then his mouth, then his eyes, doing his impression of the three wise monkeys on the shrine in Nikkō. I thought about the ancient proverb it illustrates, a warning against dwelling on evil thoughts.

“No one’s supposed to see you,” I said. “Is that it?”

He nodded, made a little drawing motion with one claw, as if he were signing something.

“It’s in your contract? Is that what you’re telling me?”

He nodded again and poured himself another drink. I picked up the bottle. It was shaped like a lopsided teardrop. The glass was a dismal red color, murky and dim. Its surface was knobby and rough. I looked for a label. There wasn’t any.

“Tears of Hiroshima, huh?” I said. “What is this stuff?”

The lizard guy didn’t respond. I looked at the bartender. He shook his head.

“You will have many regrets if you drink,” he said. “You will mourn for your life.”

“Hell, I’m doing that already.” I raised the bottle to my mouth, took a drink.

The liquor bloomed on my tongue like an explosion of burning white flowers. As it hit the back of my throat, the taste congealed into ashes and tar. I swallowed. Fetid oil dripped down my esophagus and sloshed into my seawater stomach.

“Exquisite,” I said.

I took another swallow. My chest felt warm. I put the bottle down. A ticklish heat extended through my body, spreading from my sternum out to my shoulder blades. Sparks ran up my spine like a lit fuse and detonated in my cerebrum. I staggered back from the barstool, clutching my head in my hands as my brain exploded.

Scorching flames consumed all my reveries, setting fire to my vanities and conceits. Every failure, every self-centered preoccupation, every awkwardness and mortification I’d ever experienced was exposed by the liquefied heat. Every insult and abuse I’d aimed at family members, lovers, and friends flowed into the center of my brain like burning rivulets of shame. Long-repressed memories melted into a noxious pool of remorse. All the regrets and self-reproaches of my pathetic life surged at once into a great agony of light, and I saw myself for what I truly was—a rude, self-obsessed piece of human garbage, a bully, a fraud. Radioactive flames of guilt consumed my pitiful soul until it was snuffed out like a candle.

I do not know how long I remained insensible, but when I came to, I was still in darkness. I could not see anything. I could not move my body. A voice reached out to me through the impenetrable haze. I knew at once who it was. The monster was speaking to me.

We were children playing in the hills that morning. There was a cave in the hills, a cool place where they stored food and sake. We were exploring the cave when the great death light exploded above the city. In that flash of light, we all became orphans. By the time the rescuers found us, we had become monsters too, the ones you have seen in those movies.

We were kept secret, held in quarantine and hidden from the invaders until after the occupation had ended. Seven years we lived together in the hills outside the city, with no contact from the outside world except for doctors and nurses. Only government officials at the highest levels knew of our existence. They provided us with food and shelter, but we were treated as prisoners. One day two men came to talk to us. One of them was the head of the National Police. The other was the owner of a new movie studio. We weren’t children anymore. They offered us employment and a kind of freedom, but only if we followed their rules.

We accepted their proposal. We went to work for the film studio. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day. National security agents acted as our handlers, pretending they were our dressers and makeup team. We lived in trailers on the back lot. We were allowed to roam the studio grounds at night, when no one was there. As the years passed, and memories of the war faded, we were given more leeway. The government negotiated with establishments like the one you were in tonight, gave them special dispensations to allow us in during approved hours, always late at night. The proprietors were all ex-military, veterans crippled in battle. They were paid well, but they had to sign non-disclosure agreements. Failure to abide by the terms of their agreement would result in closure of their business and their arrest. They would have no recourse, no right to appeal.

“That’s why the bartender was angry with you.”

I should not have acted as I did. I was ungenerous. He has been good to me and my friends.

“They were real too? The pterodactyl and the three-headed dragon? The Silkworm? They were your friends?”

Yes.

“And the flying turtle and giant moth?”

Yes. All except the mechanical monster. The prop department built him. My friends are all gone now. I am the last one to die.

“Are you dead now?”

I am not dead, but I soon will be. It is the way of all things, even monsters.

“What about me? Am I dead?”

I do not think so. I can only speak to the living.

“I can’t see anything.”

The Tears made you blind.

“I can’t move.”

Tell me what happened, after you drank it.

“There was a conflagration inside me. I felt consumed by a great fire of self-condemnation. I fell into a hole of pure darkness. It is lighter now, but I still can’t see anything. It feels like I’m moving.”

That is the ambulance. The bar owner called for one after you collapsed.

“What did he tell them?”

Nothing. He left you outside.

“Where are they taking me?”

To a hospital, I would imagine. They think you are a drunkard.

“What’s the story on that stuff, anyway? The Tears?”

There was no answer.

“What does it do to you?” I asked again, but there was still no answer. I felt the centrifugal force of the ambulance as it took a long, sweeping turn. Flashes of light appeared in my field of vision. I heard an indistinct rumble of sounds. The ambulance came to a stop. The rear door opened and I felt a blast of cold air. Two men pulled me out of the ambulance. I realized I’d been strapped into a gurney. That was why I couldn’t move. A man spoke to me.

“Mr. Johnson, can your hear me?”

I mumbled a reply of confirmation.

“Mr. Johnson, my name is Reginald Saferman. I work at the American Consulate. I am a special assistant to the ambassador. The Japanese government has declared you a health risk. They have revoked your visa. You are being put on a U.S. Navy jet bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. Once there you will be transferred to another aircraft and flown to San Diego, California, where you will be put into quarantine. Do you understand what I have told you?”

I mumbled again. Saferman took it for my endorsement.

“We will contact your employer and explain your situation to them,” he said. “We will pack up your personal effects and have them sent to you. Is there anyone else I should contact?”

I tried to think of someone who would miss my companionship, but the great fire inside me had revealed the truth. I had seen my authentic self. I had no friends. I was a monster to all who got close to me.

“There is no one,” I said. I could see the shape of the man standing over me. My eyesight had returned.

“Very well,” said Mr. Saferman. “On behalf of the Embassy staff, I am sorry for your illness and wish you a speedy recovery.”

Saferman disappeared. Two soldiers pushed my gurney across the tarmac, up a ramp, and onto the back of the jet. They strapped me in. I heard the door closing, the sound of the turbojets warming up. I closed my eyes tightly, searching for the darkness again.

“Are you there?” I said, without speaking.

Yes. I am here.

“They put me on a jet.”

We must speak quickly, then.

“I’m being deported. They say that I’m sick.”

The Tears have changed you.

“How did they change me?”

I do not know. Each of us is changed in a different way.

“Wait a minute. Are you saying it was the sake that changed you?”

We were not the only things transformed on that day. In the cave. Something happened to the spirits there too. The bottles warped in the heat. The glass turned to frozen blood. The intoxicant inside the bottles never spoiled, not like regular sake. It only grew more complex as each year passed, like fine wine. When I drink The Tears, it brings back images of my youth, of my parents and the time before the war. It brings back memories of my friends, the ones who are gone now. We are human again. We are children. The Tears are all I have left.

The jet engines roared in my ears as we hurtled down the runway and lifted into the air.

“I wasn’t in that cave,” I said. “What did The Tears do to me?”

There was no answer. I knew he was gone. I opened my eyes and saw the metal struts above me, the boxes and cargo around me. I raised my head, straining against the leather straps that held me to the gurney. I came to a stop.

Thick green moss grew on the back of my webbed hands.

 

——————–

Called “A powerful new voice on the crime-fiction scene” by Foreword Reviews, Corey Lynn Fayman has made a career of avoiding the sunlight in his hometown of San Diego, California, where’s he’s done hard time as a musician, songwriter, sound technician, and multimedia designer, though he still refuses to apologize for any of it. His hometown provides the backdrop for much of his writing, including the award-winning novels Border Field Blues and Desert City Diva.

Unnatural, Wicked

By Marcelle Thiébaux

was four and my parents’ only child, when we piled into Daddy’s Ford coupé and drove to a New Jersey lakeside resort for a week of canoeing and swimming. The place was called Brown’s Mills. The lake water was muddy brown, so shadowed I couldn’t see to the bottom. Splashing, wading, I felt underwater weeds tangle their rubbery fingers around my legs.

The resort kept riding stables for the guests, but my parents knew nothing of horses and their ways. One afternoon I strayed in the path of a muscular, mounted animal. I tumbled under the horse and remember to this day his fiercely galloping legs as he dashed over my head in a clatter of hooves. My father and my screaming mother raced to grab me, but I wasn’t hurt.

That seemed the end of it until I got to an age where I was reading too many books, so many they gave me dreams. One night it was a black stallion trotting up to me. He tossed his head and neighed a greeting. I knew I was in the grip of a dream. I’d never ridden a horse in my life, but I mounted without effort. He struck off at a canter, then galloped away with me clinging to his silver bridle and his long black mane.

We rode into a forest of gnarled trunks and branches. His flashing hooves barely touched the ground. Hoot owls called out mournful warnings, crows beat their greasy wings and swooped to peck out my eyes. Nothing could touch or hurt me. My hair flapped behind me like a honey-colored banner. We soared at a powerful gallop through the trackless wood, always hovering a little above the earth as my horse spread his strong pinions.

He alighted in a grove of oaks bearded with hanging mosses. I slid off his back, curling my bare toes in the velvety leaves. I patted my horse’s flank and threw my arms around his neck. I felt myself enfolded in his broad, black, feathered wings. Sensations of muddled warmth spread through my body as if I were consumed. I knew nothing like it.

To my surprise the horse spoke. I wasn’t expecting what he had to say. “Dorian, listen. Your mother will be seriously sick. She’ll die within months unless you’re willing to suffer a hardship to save her. An ordeal. You can grant her a few more years.” I was sodden with sleep. I mumbled, “Yes, anything, I’ll do anything to save her.” Again we rode until the dream faded into nothingness and I woke up. I thought about it all that day and the next. Gradually I forgot about it.

Shortly afterwards, my mother fell ill with a rare cancer. Untreatable, her doctors said, and gave her no hope. I cried for her. I went to see her every day in the hospice bringing her books and music and flowers but she lay listless. I raked through the Internet, reading about her disease on Web MD but found no consolation.

Off and on I thought about my dream. When I missed two of my periods, then a third, I saw this meant trouble but I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening to me. I didn’t even have a boyfriend except for boys I danced with in Mrs. Mallory’s dancing classes at the Tennis Club. If she saw any kids dancing too close, she blew the police whistle she carried in her pocket, and rushed over to pull them apart. The only boys I went out with, I met with my girlfriends at parties and the Rialto movie theater. But I kept thinking I’d been happy when the black horse had taken me under his wings. I had even felt love for him. All I felt now was fear.

I looked for information on Web MD to learn how it was possible for a girl to get pregnant by a wild non-human creature, but I found no mention of such a thing. I only read in Wikipedia about a queen who wished to take a bull as her consort. She had the palace engineer build her a wooden cow with an opening in the right place so she could sit inside. The brute mounted the fake cow without knowing the difference. The outcome was a disaster. The story had nothing to do with me.

I told my mother I’d missed a couple of periods. She was stunned. Weak as she was, she raised herself up on her thin elbow. With her failing strength, she cried, “Dorian, how could you humiliate us like that? I’m dying, and you do this to me.”

“Mom, I didn’t do it to you. It happened to me.”

“I know what you did. Thank God I won’t live to see this shame you’ve brought on yourself and us.” But she did live to see it, for she soon got better. Cured, she left the hospice, astonishing her doctors. She told my father about me. He was furious. He slapped my face. “Who is the boy? I’ll kill him.

“There’s no boy,” I said, truthfully. He shoved me into my room and locked me in. My belly got bigger while my mother’s health dramatically improved. Her friends marveled, saying she looked years younger, as if she’d spent time in a Florida beauty spa, while I grew pale and stolidly awaited my baby.

I couldn’t help dwelling on the heedless promise I’d made in my sleep. Was this my ordeal? At first I didn’t dare tell my parents about the horse dream. They’d certainly think I was crazy. At last I talked to my mother, explaining her recovery.

“You expect us to believe that?” Abruptly she changed her tone, speaking carefully. “We are going to consult a specialist about you, Dorian.” My father arranged for therapy sessions with a psychiatrist at Willowbend, a clinic for disturbed and delinquent girls.

I took back the story about the dream. “I just made it up,” I insisted as if I were a normal person.

My parents abandoned the psychiatrist idea. They sent me to stay with an aunt to hide my disgrace while waiting out my pregnancy. The creature I gave birth at my aunt’s house, painlessly and without a doctor, was a spindly foal. This was the last straw.

On receiving the news, my mother suffered a daylong bilious attack, after which she emerged resolute. Together, she and my father came to see me at my aunt’s house. Their faces were ashen with loathing. “What you’ve done is unnatural, wicked. The act of a deviant,” said my mother. “You are worse than we imagined.” She and my father got on the phone with the Willowbend psychiatrist.

Eavesdropping behind the door, I heard my father’s rich, honest voice. “She’ll have to be committed. That thing she gave birth to, we’ll take it out somewhere and burn it.”

I couldn’t let this happen. I’d borne the creature, however bizarre it seemed. Behind my aunt’s flower gardens an overgrown path led through the woods to a stockaded wildlife preserve, run by the State. I never ventured into it because of the hordes of deer ticks, tiny as pepper grains and impossible to detect. A neighbor had been bitten and died of Lyme disease. Pulling on a sweatshirt and cargo pants with thick boots, I tied a scarf over my face like a bandit’s and sprayed on insect repellent.

In my arms I carried my foal. He was small and light. I ran stumbling over thorns and thickets, brushing away swarms of gnats from my eyes until I reached a wide, sunny clearing. I laid my foal in the grass and wrapped him in leaves. I fed him with a milk bottle I’d brought with me in my blue Muggles baby knapsack until he slept. He was winsome, really adorable, but he smelled horsey like a barnyard. I wanted to let him go.

If ever I needed a friend, it was now. I could think of only one. I had to summon the horse demon who had done this to me, even though I’d agreed, all unwitting. Feeling helpless, I burst into tears. After I blew my nose and dried my eyes, I noticed the woods at the clearing’s edge were the same as in my haunted dream.

I called aloud, “You’d better come to me now, wherever you are. This is your doing, and this is your brat. Take him, take care of him for me.” I waited while nothing happened.

I heard a snorting, and felt a pawing of the earth. Here was the black steed galloping out of the woods, his satin flanks dappled with white foam as if he had come a long way. His tail and his long mane streamed like a stormcloud. The flaring nostrils breathed red sparks. He stopped before me.

“I’ll take him, Dorian, but I have to ask a favor.”

“I don’t see why. I kept my promise. Look at the price I paid to save my mother. She and my father disowned me and they want to lock me up.”

“You fulfilled your end of the bargain. All the same there’s more I have to beseech of you.”

I looked away. “What is it?”

“I need you to come for me, and live with me as my loving spouse and companion. My wife.”

“You must be out of your mind,” I cried. “I never want to see you again. Just take the child. I’ll say I gave him to a zoo or a horse farm.”

“I’m under a powerful spell that only you can break. We could make a life, Dorian.”

This was so absurd, I had no answer. A long moment went by, before he turned from me and made for the wood. The foal, who had scrambled up on his ungainly legs to frisk in the sunny clearing, doing pirouettes, cropping the daisies and paying no attention to us, spun around and trotted after his sire. Both vanished into the trees.

Glad to be rid of these two who had ruined my life, I gave no thought to the fresh burden the strong-willed stallion tried to lay on me. Nothing could force me. I was free. There was no going back to my parents, who’d given me up as a pervert. Home was now my aunt’s house, where I’d stayed until the birth of my foal.

Hers was a neat shingled bungalow, gray with white trim. When I reached her street, thirsty and footsore, I saw some of the shingles had loosened. The unmowed lawn was scruffy with dandelions, and the hedges, usually clipped, had sprung up high. Had I been gone so long? I banged the front door knocker. The door swung open, I pushed it and ran into the kitchen. My aunt wore her old turquoise robe, now soiled with age. Her hair had grown long and gray. She didn’t stop stirring a big pot on the stove. The sluggish brew smelled rank as the weeds in the Browns Mills lake.

“So, you gave the baby back to its horse father,” she said as if this were an everyday business. I began to think this aunt was a psychic or a witch. At the foal’s birth she alone hadn’t condemned me. She’d greeted my scandalous newborn without batting an eye. At the time I was too distracted to grasp this fully.

“I saw him,” I admitted. “I never talked with him before, except in a dream. I didn’t believe such a thing was possible, but it happened. Can I stay with you now?”

“You can’t live here,” said my aunt without rancor. “You left your human hearth.”

“I ran off with the foal to protect him. That was only right. My father would’ve killed him.”

“You made a choice and will have to go.”

I protested. “But none of this was my fault.”

“You’ll have to beg your way in the world until you find your husband.”

“Husband! He can’t possibly be my husband. And I don’t want a husband.” How did my aunt know he had asked me to marry him? She acted as if she knew a lot more than I did.

“Go on, find him.” Her laugh was bright and cruel. “Save him. I doubt you have the nerve.”

“I don’t need to save him.” I hated the way she talked about the mess I was in. I was better off leaving. I packed a few things. At the door she gave me a little embroidered purse on a chain. “If you run into trouble, use this.” I unsnapped it and saw it was full of money. I hung it around my neck.

It was still spring when I Ieft her house. I took a bus to a nearby industrial town called Railway Junction where I’d seen homeless people camping out on the sidewalks. They sat on blankets and cardboard boxes with signs like “Hungry. Please Help.” Vagrants marked their spots, so I threw my blanket roll in front of Victoria’s Secret. When the police came to shoo us off to the shelters, which I heard were dangerous, I left the town. By summer’s end I walked out beyond the train tracks into fields of goldenrod, sumac and Queen Anne’s Lace. Wild blueberry bushes grew beside a running brook.

Nights I moved deeper into the trees. I hunted for edible mushrooms I’d studied in school, hens-of-the wood, pink oysters, and morels. Pinched with hunger, I ate them raw, whether they tasted like walnuts or garlic or gulps of woodland air. I drank the stream water and ate sour blueberries. I wrapped myself in newspapers and my street blanket, sleeping in some animal’s burrow, breathing in his fusty, fecal, dried-prune smell.

The maples brightened blood red, the weather grew bitter cold and I took shelter against a concrete pillar under the train trestle. Now I didn’t see how I could keep going. My boots were worn to paper thinness, my clothes and blanket threadbare. Ragged men tramped along the railroad tracks. I hid, frightened of being beaten, raped or knifed. My head got so dizzy I couldn’t make out the time on my watch any more. I couldn’t read the headlines on the old newspapers I slept on. Words ran together in a jumble.

Hallucinations crowded my mind with giant sun-drenched blooms in crayola and day-glo colors, fragments of a flower show I’d once gone to at the Botanical Gardens. I was sick and filthy, without friends. I was hungry. I’d spent the money in the embroidered purse and couldn’t see much hope ahead.

I opened the purse one last time. In it I found a beautiful comb I hadn’t seen before, crusted with gems and inscribed in gold. How had I missed it? I thought I’d tug the snarls out of my dirty hair, but I stopped to read the inscription. My clouded eyes cleared and I read, “Easeful Death.” There was dire magic in the comb, my aunt’s final gift to me. Was it possible that my destiny had been laid before me by this witch? Full of self-pity, tempted by the alluring comb, I thought I might as well use it. The inscription faded. Now it read, Let me comb your pretty hair, Dorian. I continued to read the comb, whose words kept changing. There’s nothing more, it read.

I threw the comb as far from me as I had strength to, watching it become a scuttling lizard. I leaned against the concrete pillar, closing my eyes in relief at my escape.

When I opened them, a metal glint caught my attention. Beside the tracks a low-slung, rusted-out vehicle had parked, a golf cart or a child’s toy automobile. Dragging my blanket, I climbed into the mildewed seat. I flipped a switch. The car’s engine coughed, stuttering to life. As there was no road I didn’t know where I was going, but the car pretty much drove itself, rattling and jolting over rocky ground. Light snow drifted in my hair, feathered my lashes.

I drove into an abandoned amusement park. An earthquake, a hurricane, or time had struck this fairground and left it a ghostly rubble. My vehicle, which turned out to be a carnival bumper-car, jerked to a stop, stalling beside a fleet of wrecked, overturned bumper rides. Steering wheels were pulled from their sockets like crippled arms.

I leaped out, and trudged toward the wrecks of funhouses scrawled with graffiti. Haunted grottoes hung with skeletons. Here and there lay the twisted girders of dead thrill-rides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel looming against a vacant sky.

Beyond a cracked swan-boat, I stopped at the ruin of a carousel. Vines grew up strangling the decayed bodies of wooden horses, some headless, others with fractured knees. Unburied bones littered the ground. Over the carousel was nailed a horse’s skull.

Then I saw them just rounding the bend of the devastation, the black horse with the colt, both of them racing across the windswept field, snorting clouds of steam. It was winter. Their iron hooves rang on the stony ground. The two bounded up to me, neighing and nickering. The colt kicked up his back legs in a capriole as if I were an old friend.

“You’ve come back for us,” said the black horse.

“How long have I been gone?”

“He’s been asking for you,” said the horse with a toss of his head at the colt, who clearly had grown.

“I didn’t come for you. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Whether you meant it or not, you got here,” the horse said. “You’ve come to this place where the spell can be broken if you’ll do it.”

“I don’t know if I’m up to it.” I wavered. “Out of curiosity, what did you have in mind? I’m only asking.”

“Go to the fortune-teller’s booth and take the rusty knife stuck in her turban. You will have to cut our throats. Catch the blood on my silver bridle. Then flay off our hides.”

“Never!” I loved these two. How could I kill them? “I won’t carry out such a bloodthirsty deed.”

“Then we can never leave,” said the horse in sorrow, “and you can’t leave without us. Our doomed home is here, this fairy hamlet by the dead carousel. The three of us, we have to live here always in the shadow of the horse’s skull.”

“I’ve seen the skull. Where is the fairy hamlet?” I looked past the shattered wooden horses, to a cluster of low, thatched, dwarfish cottages with crooked chimneys. Windows grinned out at picket fences lined with hollyhocks and ladybugs. The little hovels had a distorted infant charm. They were pictures that had looked out at me long ago from my book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. They were magical, but I knew I didn’t want to live here frozen in childhood.

I went for the rusty blade, yanking it from the fortune teller’s turban. First I looped my arm around the neck of the young colt, and pressed my face against his flank. Then I knew I could never do this. “No, no, no,” I cried out.

“You had better begin with me,” said the stallion. I choked back my panic and touched the knife point most delicately to my beloved horse’s neck and in terrified remorse saw a drop of  bright blood bubble from his skin, clinging like a baby ruby. Sobbing with horror, I flung the knife away and kissed the tiny wound I had inflicted, reddening with his blood.

To my astonishment he fell. At the same time the colt weakened and collapsed to his knees without a peep as one drop of his blood, too, appeared like a jewel against his neck. I looked at what I had apparently done and threw myself sobbing to the ground with them both.

“Take the bridle as a crown,” said the big horse in a strange voice near my ear. “Our enchanted blood has power in it.”

I caught drops of his blood on the silver bridle, and saw the bridle turn into a slim jeweled circlet. I set it on my head. My hair fell shining down my back. I hadn’t bathed for months but my body became fresh and clean. There was more I had to do, the horse explained to me. All at once I understood that this was how potent spells had to be broken. I had dreamed about such acts of violent magic.

Salt tears ran into my mouth and I swallowed them, tasting blood. I took the colt’s skin and it sheared away easily as a cloak, becoming a gown of red velvet. I put on the gown, which fitted my body perfectly. It felt rich, warm and soft. Heartened, I seized the black horse’s hide, which turned into a canoe with its paddles.

Before my eyes the two horses rose up to take on human shapes, one a young man like a prince with a black mane, the other a boy of three or four, who was fair like me. Our child stared at me, wide-eyed. The man stood fit and sturdy from his years in the body of a horse. He filled me with joy, since I knew at once that he was kind and always would be. He spoke in the human voice I was used to. “Our bitter enchantment is over, Dorian.”

“It was my aunt, wasn’t it? She set it up.”

“She didn’t like us. I angered her because I refused her daughter’s love, for you. She tried to destroy you, then me.”

“So now I’ve become a kind of witch?”

“Only because you outmaneuvered her in the end.”

Our little boy never took his eyes off me. I picked him up, and he clasped his hands around my neck.

The drops of blood ebbed, then darkened, rose and swelled in floods that turned before my eyes into the brown lake waters of Browns Mills. The amusement park melted with the snow, giving way to the familiar tall pines, whose cones and spiky-scented needles strewed the beach sand. Reeds sprang at the water’s edge, along with the savage purple cups of the pitcher plants. It was summer again.

“We can navigate to wherever home is.” I stepped in at the prow and seized a paddle. The old murky waters cleared so I could read straight to the bottom of the brown lake, where I saw my mother and father and aunt pacing the lake’s floor in a stately company. They walked away from us, empty-eyed and unsmiling, their watery garments trailing.

My husband took our child from me and lifted him into the canoe. We three gazed at one another with new recognition and pleasure. He got in at the stern where he could paddle and keep an eye on our child, who sat between us, clutching the sides of the canoe the way I’d done at his age. His gray eyes were large and solemn and had not lost any of their look of wonder.

 

——————–

Marcelle Thiébaux has published short stories in Delmarva Review (with radio play), Dogzplot, Grand Central Noir Anthology, Home Planet News, The Griffin, Keeping the Edge, Literal Latté, The Penmen Review, and KY Urban Fantasy. Her books on medieval themes include The Stag of Love, and The Writings of Medieval Women. For her fiction, she received a Pen & Brush Club Award and a Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Number 401

By Trevy Thomas

arvey scratched the persistent itch behind his left ear as soon as he woke in a culvert pipe under the bridge. Most of the humans who lived near him were asleep, and that was the best time to get to work on his route. He crawled up the steep grassy hill, his long rat tail held out behind him, until he reached the street above. He ran, sniffing for morsels of food and the smell of predators, all the way past the university lab down 32nd Street to the nicer part of the city. Some of the white coats from his former prison lived in these houses. He’d started following them when the night terrors and flashbacks came after they’d let him out. When he was first on the streets, he’d just expected to be caged and tortured again, but then, slowly, he came to see that they were done with him. He was alone and, lost in his freedom, had to figure out how to get his own food, now that the button that once supplied it was gone. He hadn’t been able to find a button like that on the streets.

It was cold tonight and warm breath streamed out ahead of him as he ran, long nails clicking against the sidewalk. Sometimes he missed the heat of the prison. Finally, Harvey reached Number 401 and turned down the alley beside the house. He jumped down beside the stairwell, landing on a sill in front of the basement window, and peered in. There was a lamp on that provided just enough glow to light the couch. Harvey felt disgust rise, and he chewed at the bar in front of the window. His whiskers worked quickly, ears moving this way and that, as he watched the couch. There, curled up on a wrinkled blanket, was a large white rat, fat belly rising with every carefree breath, a thin ribbon tied around its neck. The only rats he’d seen with bellies this big were the ones kept in the smallest cages in prison, lying on their side gasping for air as the white coats stood observing their last painful breath. Harvey had never wanted to be fat. It looked painful. But being hungry also hurt.

Harvey’s hands were tight around the bars, his feet dangling below him, as he pressed against the window to take in as much as he could. There across the room near the light was a pink and white bowl on the floor with a heart above the word CARL. Next to that was a plain white bowl that contained water. Once, when Harvey was early and there was still some light in the sky, he’d seen the fat rat drinking clean fresh water from the bowl. There was a picture on the wall of a man Harvey recognized from the prison, the one who’d opened a door and let him go.

By now, his muscles sore from hanging at the bar, Harvey’s nails scratched against the glass as he tried for a better grip. The noise woke the fat rat, and his eyes opened, immediately spotting Harvey: scrawny, with thin feet that dangled ridiculously, breath streaming like a dragon, a greasy smudge on his fur, and a crazed look in his eyes. The fat rat sat up and hissed. Harvey wanted to run, but he couldn’t get his back feet on a support, and the drop down was far. The fat rat jumped off the couch, ran across the room, and climbed up a chairback where he was practically eye to eye with Harvey.

Harvey hissed. The fat rat hissed back at him, but neither backed down. Harvey pressed against the glass for a better look, just as the human from the picture slid into the room.

“CARL!” he screamed as soon as he saw Harvey dangling in the window. Harvey had no choice now but to jump. He wasn’t going to get caught again. Harvey looked down at the steep drop below, squeezed his eyes shut, and let go of the bars.

The fall was quick and hard, but he landed on a pile of dead leaves that kept it from being fatal. With no time to indulge the pain, he tore off down the alley back to 32nd Street, his heart thumping in a familiar way.

* * *

The human scooped Carl up from the chair and peered out the window, but the other rat was already gone. He carried Carl back to the couch and sat down, stroking Carl’s head while holding him in his lap. “It’s okay, buddy. Your heart is beating like crazy. I’m sorry that vagrant scared you.” Carl looked toward the window, wondering where the rat went. He tried to imagine a life on the streets as he snuggled closer to his human. “I’d better check your tag to make sure the door stays closed when you’re in. If you want a friend, we’ll find you one at PetsGo.” His human untied the ribbon around his neck and fiddled with the nametag. “Everything looks good, but I’ll replace the battery tomorrow just to be safe. You should be fine now. Let me get you a chewy.” Carl jumped down from the couch and ran over to the cabinet where the Rat-Chewys were kept. “Here you go.” Carl snatched the chewy in his front teeth and ran back to his blanket on the couch. Thoughts of the strange window rat faded as he chewed his way back to sleep.

* * *

Harvey ran and ran, his rear leg now aching fiercely. He made it back under the bridge and slipped into the pipe he thought of as home. The street humans were beginning to make noise, and he knew it was best to stay hidden in the light. He’d passed opportunities for food along the run back home but had, for the first time, lost the urge to eat. Now his belly hurt as much as his leg. He was lonely too, even for the other suffering rats who were once his comrades. He curled around himself, tucking his nose under his tail, and drifted off to sleep with torturous images of the warm, well-fed rat. He heard the rattling of a paper bag nearby and caught a strong whiff of alcohol before finally falling into a troubled sleep.

When night fell again, Harvey woke up ravenously hungry. Tonight, he would not foolishly waste his meal-hunting time staring at the window of the idiotic fat rat. Harvey was a real rat, a soldier who’d survived the horrors of war, and knew how to fend for himself. What would a pet rat do on the streets? Probably beg with a can and a sign no one would ever read. Harvey knew how to feed himself, and that’s what he’d do tonight.

He scurried down streets and alleys, staying close to walls. He hid behind the trash bin at Kyoto Gardens until the men in tall white hats finished smoking, then tore a hole in the bag outside the dumpster and feasted on treasures of strong pink fish, slimy black skins, morsels of white rice. He’d learned to avoid the bits of green paste that made him feel as though he’d swallowed fire. The first time he made that mistake, his coughs were loud enough to draw the attention of a chef who chased him down the street with a fire extinguisher. Tonight, though, he ate and ate until he thought he’d never be hungry again.

His pace back home was slower now. He remained close to walls where his dark fur helped him to blend in. A woman in tall-heeled shoes looked right at him and screamed so loud that Harvey almost screamed back. Humans were unpredictable. Even with a full belly, this puzzling behavior was alienating. He paused at a dark basement window and gazed at his reflection, turning his head to see what was different about him. Other than being darker, a little dirty, and a lot thinner, he couldn’t understand what made the white couch rat so coveted while he was rejected.

Harvey had set off tonight with the intention of staying away from Number 401, but now that he’d had his meal, he couldn’t muster the same aversion. His trip back to the alley off 32nd Street was uneventful except for the sudden appearance of a gray cat. He jumped into a drain until the cat passed. Surely, the couch rat wouldn’t have been clever enough to do that.

Harvey arrived at the window with the bars and went down for a closer look. It was a perfect spot to avoid detection on the streets yet still have a laboratory-like view of the privileged rat. The last time—when Harvey saw the human come into the room and yell “Carl!”—he’d thought it was a warning, but now he realized it must be the rat’s name. Carl. What kind of rat has a one-syllable name?

The blanket was folded neatly and hung over the back of the couch. Carl was nowhere to be seen. Harvey looked at the food and water bowls, but there was no rat there either. Where could he be? Maybe this cozy room had been a setup, much like Harvey’s lab setting. Perhaps Carl had just been a victim in another kind of prison and, now that they were done with him, he’d gone into a smoking, foul-smelling incinerator in the back. Whatever the lab rats had undergone, no one wanted to be forced into that room. They never came out again.

Harvey’s old sadness returned. He’d lost so many friends now. Maybe Carl wasn’t privileged. What had he been thinking to imagine that a human would keep a rat as a pet? It was laughable. Humans only wanted two kinds of pets: dogs and cats. He’d seen that on the streets. Dogs tied to humans running down the street. Cats at stoops waiting for doors to open where they were welcome inside. But rats? Never. He’d never seen rats in anything but a cage.

He crawled, slowly this time, down the maze of bars on the window to the ledge below to sort out his dark thoughts, feeling the loneliness swell in him, missing his friend Carl. Maybe he’d just sleep here tonight. It wasn’t the safest place. Cats and humans could find him if they looked, but he didn’t want to face the empty pipe tonight. He’d rest here awhile.

Then, just as Harvey’s eyes were falling shut, he heard a noise inside the apartment. A scratching-against-metal kind of noise. It was persistent, so Harvey shook off his sleep and climbed back up to peer inside the window. There on a side table where Harvey hadn’t looked before was a cage. Inside it was Carl. He appeared to be in a state of panic, running and running on a wheel of some sort that never took him anywhere. Poor Carl. He was trying to escape!

* * *

Carl’s attention was drawn to the scratching at the window. He stopped the wheel and stared at his rat visitor in the window. He watched him drop down slowly until just his head was visible, turning his ears one way and another, tweaking his whiskers, cocking his head, all the friendly communications only rats know. Carl responded in kind. It felt so good to have someone who knew how to communicate with him. The human tried but it was all just talk. Rats had their own language. Suddenly, the other rat just dropped from view. Carl stood on his hind legs hoping for a glimpse of him, but he couldn’t see anything. He got off the wheel and settled into some straw in the corner of the cage. Why did he have to be in his cage tonight?

* * *

Harvey ran home with new determination. Who knew what Carl had endured in that cage? To think that Harvey had been jealous when, in fact, he was free to run where he wanted, eat what he found, and best of all, not be subjected to the confusing whims of a human. Harvey was determined to help Carl escape. He spent the rest of the next day in his pipe without sleep, planning and scheming. He waited impatiently for dark to fall again. When it did, he ran straight back to Carl’s apartment, skipping Kyoto Gardens—though the smell of tuna almost pulled him down the wrong path. “Stay focused,” he reminded himself. “Carl and I can have a meal later.” This sense of purpose and possibility of friendship motivated him away from his hunger.

Once at Carl’s, he skipped the window altogether and ran straight to the human door. There he began scratching and scratching, trying to make as much noise as he could. Finally, exhausted from his efforts, he sat back on the doormat for a brief rest when he heard rat-speak behind him.

“What are you doing?” It was Carl, standing on the very same stoop, frowning at him. “You’re going to wake the humans if you keep that up. Were you hoping for a broom to the face maybe?”

Harvey sat in shock. So focused had he been on his plan that it took him a while to accept the fact that Carl was already free, standing beside him. And rat-speak! He hadn’t heard that in weeks.

“They set you free?” Harvey asked.

“Free? What do you mean? I use the rat door when I need to take a crap, then I go back in. Humans don’t like cleaning poop.” He gestured with one manicured hand. “Look what you’ve done to the door.”

Harvey turned his attention back to the door and saw scratches through the shiny black paint. It was green underneath, decor from another era.

“I was trying to get your humans to open the door so I could run in and save you,” Harvey said.

“And then what? Dial 9-1-1?”

Harvey was puzzled. Carl didn’t seem to want his help. He just stood here like nothing was wrong, talking nonsense.

“I’m Carl. You look like you could use some food. I’ll show you the rat door. If you’re fast, you can follow me in.”

Harvey was not sure about this. Maybe it was a trick. But he was hungry, cold, and curious. “Rat door?”

“Yeah. It’s my door. It only works for me. When I stand in front of it, it magically opens. Then when I go in, it closes. There’s a gray cat around the corner who tries to make it work, but it never does for him. I think he’s got the wrong collar. Just stay close and follow me.”

Harvey followed Carl back down to the window.

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Harvey.”

“Harvey. You see that little door by the window?”

Harvey looked and, sure enough, there was a square opening he’d never noticed in the side of the wall.

“I’m going to stand in front of it. You stay right behind me, practically touching—don’t get any funny ideas—and it’ll open. I’m going to run in fast, and you stay with me. Got it?”

Harvey wondered if Carl had been drugged. They did that in prison sometimes, and it made the rats have all kinds of weird thoughts. But what did he have to lose? He’d been planning to go in anyway. At least this way, if it worked, didn’t involve running past humans.

“Okay, I can do it.”

“All right. Get in line and let’s go.”

Harvey positioned himself behind Carl, close enough to smell the weird human soap on him, and they stepped together to the window. They’d barely stopped moving when the little cutout in the wall magically opened.

“Run!” Carl yelled over his shoulder.

Harvey was scared, but he buried his face in Carl’s backside and stayed near as they both rushed through the opening.

All at once, there was warmth. Heat. The only good part of being in prison. He looked at the door they’d come through, now fully shut. His eyes bulged in a moment of panic. He looked at Carl and worried again that this had all been some sort of trick.

“Relax, kid. I’ll run you back out when you’re ready to go. Let’s get some grub.”

* * *

Harvey took his time looking around this place he’d only seen from the outside. There was so much more to it, so many soft, warm places to burrow, so many smells and dark corners to hide in, so many strange creaking noises. He could spend days in here just snooping around. It was better than a dream. It made him wonder what was wrong with the humans who lived near him out in the empty cold when they could be comfortable like this. What did it take, he wondered, to get such a perfect home?

“There’s plenty to eat,” Carl said, standing by the bowl marked “CARL.”

“Go ahead, finish it off. Humans will refill it in the morning. I’ll save you some Rat-Chewy too. I get at least one of those a day.”

Harvey approached the bowl and peered over the edge. The little brown balls had a funny smell, not as bad as what they served him in prison, but still off, like a fake version of something real he’d find at the trash bins. But he was starving, there was a lot of it, and he was warm and safe while he ate. He took Carl’s advice and finished it off.

When he was done, he joined Carl on the warm chair by the window, and they talked long into the night. It was glorious to share so much rat-speak, to finally have a real window into what Carl’s life was like. And Carl was just as curious about Harvey. A softness developed between them through their common ratness. Harvey began to see that Carl had had no more choice in the outcome of his life than he had. They’d been born into their circumstances by the uncertainty of luck. Or, in Harvey’s case, bad luck. Carl explained about the changes he’d heard his humans speak of, how rats had once been the only source of research for their own ailments, but now they’d learned of a more accurate way to do their studies without the use of rats and that explained why Harvey had been set free. Carl had been one of the new breeds, born into the luxurious life of a pet.

Harvey wondered about his timing in life, remembering the procedures he’d endured. It seemed too much compared to the incredible ease that Carl had known. His feelings were coming at him fast and hard, and Carl could sense this. But their friendship had already begun to form, and their mutual willingness to cross the boundaries of unfair circumstance was guiding them over the bumps.

Carl made him a promise.

“Look, I don’t know how the humans would take to you living here, but if they don’t like it, it could turn out badly. Let’s just keep this between us. I’ll hide you here, and they don’t have to know about you. But you show me the streets too. I want a taste of that fish you keep talking about, and I want to travel like you have. As long as there’s a rat door, you have a home with me.”

Harvey felt something warmer than heat. It was almost too much. It called him back to his fuzziest memories of being snuggled between baby rats against the belly of his mother, snatched away from him too soon. That feeling of warmth had been fleeting then, before the hard, cold reality of his painful life began. But here was an offer of it, a glimpse that maybe life could hold warm surprises if you let it.

“It’s a deal,” Harvey said earnestly, as though this were a fair trade. He pushed down the injustice of their circumstances in favor of choosing the gift being offered that would change his. From where he sat on this warm chair with his new friend, he was getting the best of it. Finally.

 

——————–

Trevy Thomas is an author whose work has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, Drunk Monkeys, Sliver of Stone, Woodwork Magazine, the 2017 River Tides Anthology, and as a feature writer at Friendspast.com. She lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs, and can be found virtually at https://trevythomas.com.

Rupert and the Thimble Warriors: A Tale of the Famous Rabbit of Uncommonly Good Sense

By Matthew Wallace

ory and Dory tiptoed down the hall, sneaking past the pantry on their way to the rectory library. Ms. Finkelbaum, the girls’ matron and the reason for their visit, was in town shopping, but the twins were always cautious.

“Look at the pictures.” Dory pointed up at the series of pedestrian landscapes that lined the hallway walls.

“You always point those out,” Mory said. “Always.”

“Well, they’re pretty. And when are we ever going to get to see places like that?”

Mory wasn’t sure they were seeing them now. All the landscapes looked alike to her, and she wasn’t sure any of them looked like actual places in the world. Besides, she had to keep her button eyes open, not only for Ms. Finkelbaum but also Jasmine the cat. “Any sign of the demon seed?”

“Nope,” Dory said. “Unless you think those pawprints over there are fresh.”

Mory dashed over toward where Dory was pointing. But before she quite got there, Dory started laughing.

“Quit it, Dory,” Mory said. “We have things we need to do.”

Dory smiled, shaking her head. “How on earth do people confuse us? You’re always so serious.”

“About being eaten by a cat? Yes, I don’t really like to joke about that.”

Dory walked over, smiling a shy smile. “Sorry, Mory, I will try and be more serious.” Mory smiled, shrugging. She never could stay mad at her sister for very long.

“Let’s go,” Dory said. “The rectory library is right around the corner.”

* * *

Mory and Dory slipped through the barely cracked door into the light. The room was lit here and there by small lamps with green glass shades, each one illuminating a long row of high shelves. In the center of the room was a massive desk covered in papers and books. A larger, green-shaded light created a yellow circle in the center of the desk. Mory and Dory looked up and could see an open copy of a book and, just peeking over the top, a quill pen dancing back and forth. They could hear the scratching of quill pen to paper.

“Is that he?” Mory whispered. The pen stopped. A pure-white head peeked over the book, looking down. His eyes were sharp black lines that missed nothing.

“Ladies, how may I assist you?”

* * *

Rupert put the quill down and slid his notepaper aside. The Parson never missed the paper that Rupert used, and Rupert always refilled the inkwells. Rupert had moved into the rectory library several years ago, mostly because he found the quiet and calm to be much to his liking, and only discovered later that it was a convenient place from which to help people.

He looked down at the rag dolls and smiled. The parsonage library was a long way from the orphanage—nearly two blocks—and they would only come if it was a problem of great import.

“Well…we have a problem,” Mory said. Rupert recalled that she was the one with the red button eyes. The serious one.

Rupert held up one paw. “Just a second, please.” He placed his quill pen in its holder, marked his place in Newton’s Principia, and, with a single bound, leapt off the desk and landed, composed, next to Mory and Dory. “Would you join me for a cup of tea, and we can discuss your problems?”

* * *

Mory and Dory followed Rupert to a small corner of the massive fireplace. In no time at all, he had pulled out a small table and laid out a nice spread of cheeses and biscuits. He pushed a small kettle on a swinging rod just over the edge in the fire. They chatted and ate. Dory laughed as Rupert kept raising one of his long ears to hear if the water was boiling.

Mory elbowed her. “Be nice.”

“Nice? I think he’s delightful.”

Rupert adjusted his place settings and turned, smiling. “Thank you, ladies. The tea is almost ready, I believe.”

Mory stood. “Mr. Rupert, sir. All of us girls drew straws, and well, frankly, we lost and had to risk Jasmine to come visit you to ask for your help.”

“My door is always open to the Thimble Warriors. What troubles you so?”

Rupert cocked his ear as the water came to a boil. He held up one paw and went to remove the kettle and fill the pot.

Mory looked over and saw that Dory had already consumed a whole collection of biscuits, her cloth face plastered with crumbs and bits of raspberry jam. Before she could say anything, Rupert had produced a napkin and was wiping her messy face. He was at ease with the world around him and that helped Mory relax.

“Now, what is so important to be worth the risk of coming here?” he said.

“We are all made by the children of the ward,” Mory said.

“And that’s great, we love our girls,” Dory said.

Rupert nodded, pouring them all a cup of tea, and sat back to listen.

* * *

The story the twins told was grim. The Thimble Warriors were a large group of dolls sewn from cloth scraps and leftover buttons by the girls of the school. Each of the Thimble Warriors was a unique creation of love made by hand—Mory and Dory were the only twins. Many of the Thimble Warriors were sold at craft fairs and became toys for children all over the region. The rest attached themselves to children at the orphanage. The ones who were sold weren’t saddened to leave since they got to spread happiness far and wide.

“You know how much we want to go abroad in the world,” Dory said, “but there is something wrong now, Mr. Rupert.”

“It’s Finkelbaum,” Mory said. “She knows how hard the children work, and knows how much love goes out to make us, but she doesn’t care. She’s not doing her part.”

Finkelbaum had always struck Rupert as a source of trouble, so he wasn’t surprised to hear that the trouble was now arising. “How is she not doing her part?”

“Before, when we were sold,” Mory said, “she would collect the money and use it to buy more thread, more stuffing, button eyes and stuff. But now it’s all different. We have a number of our Thimble Warrior sisters that we can’t finish because they’re missing parts. They stumble around blind or without mouths—it’s painful to watch.”

Rupert scratched down notes and stared at them. He had a feeling he knew what was going on. The question was what to do about it, and how? He scribbled a few more notes.

The two warriors stayed quiet, munching biscuits.

“I think I have an idea,” Rupert said. “Maybe we can find a way to deal with Ms. Finkelbaum.” Dory snickered.

* * *

The fire had burned down to embers when Rupert finished laying out his plans to help the Thimble Warriors. Mory and Dory had long ago headed back to their dorm, and Rupert sat alone in quiet contemplation, sipping a renewed cup of tea. He had warned them again about Jasmine the wild cat—his old nemesis—but he felt confident that the ladies would make it back to the orphanage.

The fire had burned down to red embers by the time Rupert had finished writing out the last note. He wrote in a beautifully long hand, his letters formed with precision. He had scribed many such notes for the Parson, often reminding him of things he had forgotten to do. Over time his handwriting and the Parson’s Old English script had become indistinguishable. Rupert had recopied many of the Parson’s notes, with minor emendations, to help keep the parsonage and orphanage running at top efficiency. No humans noticed and simply ascribed the elegant script to the Parson’s gentle hand.

Rupert rubbed his eyes and read over his last letter, to the Parsonage Secretary. “Mrs. Merryweather: Please collect Rupert the stuffed rabbit from Ms. Finkelbaum’s office. I had it repaired and it needs to be returned to the library with all haste. With God’s blessings.”

Folding the note over, creasing the paper with care, sliding it into the envelope, Rupert tucked the letter under his arm. He pulled the chain to cut off the desk light and hopped down. He had to head to the boys’ sleeping quarters before dawn to find a particularly troublesome specimen.

Rupert slipped the note under Mrs. Merryweather’s door, taking care to push it all the way under. He kept his ears and nose open. Jasmine always seemed to be about this time of night, and he had no interest in tangling with that old canny feline. As he moved on down the hall, his ears caught the faint snore of the Parson and the louder, harsher grind of Mrs. Merryweather, the housekeeper.

Down two flights of stairs, across a drafty breezeway, and Rupert came to the boys’ dormitory. Of course he smelled the mixture of dirt, sweat, and bean-saturated farts long before he arrived—the curse of a sensitive nose. The room was dimly lit, and all of the boys were fast asleep. Rupert moved from cot to cot, looking for the just-perfect boy.

He found him in the sleeping Stevie McDougal. A crayon was still clutched in his dirty hand, the half-drawn picture of a large and rather engaging dragon having dropped to the ground next to the cot. With a quick glance Rupert saw that the boy had talent. His color formations were quite delicate, particularly around the belly scales. Not at all what one would expect from the orphanage’s most dedicated hellion.

Rupert hopped up on the cot, looking the young boy in the face. A tight mop of shaggy red hair, freckles, and a missing front tooth created a deceptively cute face. Rupert touched the boy lightly on the cheek, too lightly to be felt but enough to apologize for tomorrow’s lunchtime escapade.

Hopping down, Rupert found the boy’s backpack. He slipped in, burrowed down to near the bottom, curled himself into a tight ball, and went to sleep.

* * *

Rupert stirred when Stevie picked up his backpack. He had to wait for dinner to enact his plan, so he busied himself all morning dodging the debris of an active child. There had been a large, unremarkable clod of earth, the head of a plastic soldier, and even a smelly and quite confused toad (fortunately removed promptly by an instructor). But most of the day was spent in a quiet state as he kept trying to solve, on his own, a question posed by Newton in his book.

Rupert knew the instant he entered the dining hall. Even muffled by the backpack, the place was a riot of sound. He could make out near a dozen separate conversations, not counting the cacophony of screaming kids and disappointed infants that formed a background soundscape. Young Stevie was involved in a high-pitched argument about whether or not the invisible man in H.G. Wells’s novel could see.

“There is no way,” Stevie said. “If he’s invisible, his retinas would be invisible too, and how could an image project onto an invisible surface?”

“Maybe he could see himself?” someone said.

“Nope. If so he would have seen his hand when he held it up in front of his face,” Stevie said. “We are just the sum of our prejudices, like Doctor Butler said. He said the world around us is magical, and we just fail to notice it.”

The argument, with Rupert following it carefully, continued on for some time, long after Rupert felt the backpack drop to the ground beside the lunch table. Once the pack settled, Rupert started to work his way out, trying to avoid the wet spot where the toad had made his mark. He peeked out of the edge of the pack, looking for Ms. Finkelbaum. He spotted her tan hose moving between the rows of community tables.

He slipped out of the pack and took his place on the bench between Stevie and a mysterious pile of goo that may once have been salad. He would have to leave a note, in the Parson’s name, to review the food being served in the dining hall. Rupert was certain that he could find a bit of money in the budget to improve these children’s cuisine.

* * *

The tap of Finkelbaum’s too-practical heels was distinctive. Rupert had no problem following her progress around the hall without looking. Her sharp voice offered rebuke to first one child and then another. Rupert appreciated proper manners as much as the next rabbit, but Finkelbaum used manners as a way to punish. Besides being unfair, it gave manners a bad name.

Rupert sat leaning up against Stevie and waited. Once Finkelbaum saw Rupert in Stevie’s possession, his plan would come together.

But even the most practical rabbit’s best plans can go astray. Finkelbaum walked past Stevie just as she spotted Suzie Murphy chewing with her mouth open. She was so intent on her rebuke that she did not notice Rupert at all.

Rupert glanced around. No one was looking. He squatted on his haunches and launched himself as powerfully as he could at the back of Ms. Finkelbaum’s head. As he flew up toward her, he could see the mismatched collection of pins and clips holding her hair in place. He whipped his arm around, smashing her in the back of the head, crashing into her neck.

He let his body go limp and tumbled all the way to the floor, looking to anyone like a thrown stuffed toy. The hardest part for Rupert was to not wrinkle his nose. Finkelbaum smelled like a rasher of cooked bacon and mothballs.

“Who threw that?” Rupert looked up from the floor as she scowled back and forth, looking around the cafeteria like a searchlight in a prison camp. “Who threw that?”

She bent down and picked Rupert up, her hands tough and iron hard. Holding him up, she repeated the question, her voice getting higher and shriller. Rupert kept his body limp. “This is the Parson’s—not yours. Which of you stole this?” She shook Rupert again, making his eyes rattle in his head. “Which of you?”

Finkelbaum stalked over to Mr. Taylor, the elocution teacher and other lunch monitor. She held up Rupert like evidence in a murder trial. “Mr. Taylor, did you see who?”

Mr. Taylor shook his head and reached out to stroke Rupert but missed when Finkelbaum held him aloft. He smelled of chalk dust and lemons. “Which of you?”

Taylor let her go on for some time and then quietly spoke to her. “Ms. Finkelbaum, most of these children grew up in an orphanage. They know not to speak up. You will never get a confession, I’m afraid.”

With a harsh snort she stepped up on the seat to one of the benches, displacing two orphans. “You people must appreciate other people’s property. Since you don’t, every one of you will write a two-hundred-word essay about how you should not touch other people’s things.” She shook Rupert at them as if he were a whip. “I want them on my desk in the morning.”

The whole room began a resigned muttering. Rupert could hear words like “tyrant” and “queen” and once a faint, whispered “bitch,” but they were rendered too low for Finkelbaum’s all-too-human ears.

“Tomorrow!” With that final shot she stepped down from the bench and charged out of the room with mincing steps, brushing past the elocution teacher. Her iron grip around Rupert tightened as she stormed down the hall toward her office.

* * *

As soon as Finkelbaum turned the key in the door behind her, Rupert sprang to action. He fluffed his fur where the old crone’s iron-hard grip had crushed his plush. The room was small and crowded with a busy life of a spinster house matron. He took a second to look the room over so he could put everything just as it was when he left. It would not do to have his actions discovered before they could take effect.

He tried the old woman’s armchair and then her sewing basket without success. At last, behind a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress on the shelf, he found a stocking that had been repaired so many times that it looked like a collection of mismatched threads. But the sock was stuffed full of small-denomination bank notes and one-pound coins. It added up to a lot of money. It took Rupert four trips to get all of the money onto her desk. He tossed the sock onto the sewing basket.

Rupert busied himself doing a complete count of the money, calculating how to divide the coins and bills. He almost missed the shadow growing larger. At the last moment Rupert sprang away as a massive cat plunged down onto the pile of money, spraying coins and bills all over the floor.

Jasmine.

“Now I have you,” she said. “A little rabbit goulash for supper.”

Rupert slipped under the desk, looking for a way out, his heart thundering in his chest. How could he have been so careless? He knew the transom window was open. He just didn’t think about it.

“Where are you, little rabbit?” Jasmine said. “You can’t hide forever, you know. There is no easy way out of this room except in my stomach. Why don’t we make it easy on you? I will end you quick.”

Rupert saw Jasmine drop off the desk on soundless feet. She was looking around, searching for where Rupert was hiding. He might have explained to her that he was plush, not real, and wouldn’t make a very good meal. But he knew she wouldn’t trust him without trying him herself. And by then it would be too late.

More important, what Jasmine said was true. There was no way out of the room. Rupert could never jump high enough to get out by the transom window, and he was far too well stuffed to slip under the door. He was trapped.

Unless…

He picked up a pound coin that had fallen close by and rolled it across the ground, out away from Jasmine. The instant she sprang for it, Rupert leapt, hopping across the room and into the sewing basket.

Just as he slid into the basket, Jasmine slammed onto the wooden lid, laughing. “You are mine now.”

Rupert grabbed some heavy button thread and quickly tied both ends closed, wrapping the thread around the backside of the handle. He hoped this would give him enough time to complete his escape plan. He began sorting through the scraps of cloth.

Jasmine tried to slip her claws into the lid to hook it open. “Come out, come out, little rabbit.” She pawed at both lids a few more times and then became quiet.

That couldn’t be good.

Rupert found all of the materials he needed and began weaving a cable from the strongest of the thread. Without warning, Jasmine jammed a sharp claw between the woven thatch walls of the basket and deep into Rupert’s leg. Then it was gone again.

Rupert looked at the stuffing leaking from the wound on his leg. Though painful, it would not slow him down. He had to focus and went back to winding the thread into a cable.

“Oh, little one, that is just a taste of what’s to come.”

Rupert could hear her licking the claw, enjoying the taste. He wound the cord tight, knowing his life depended on it.

* * *

Jasmine had fallen off into a light doze, her senses poised for the slightest sound from the sewing basket. She dreamed of rabbit stew, rabbit sandwiches, and rabbit shish-kabobs.

When she heard the faint click of the sewing box lid, Jasmine was instantly awake. She saw the back legs of the rabbit as he squirmed his way out of the sewing box. She did not hesitate but sprang to action, plunging onto the rabbit’s back legs.

There was a moment of confusion as her claws sunk deep, too deep, into the hindquarters and then a shock of confusion as she was pulled into the basket, her claws entangled in something. Glancing up just before she was pulled all the way into the sewing basket, she saw the rabbit pulling with all his strength, his powerful back legs braced against the other end. And she realized what she was tied up in was just bits of plush stuffed with fluff and tied to a cord.

A cord that led up to the rabbit.

And then she was inside. With a heavy thud the lid closed behind her.

* * *

Rupert wound the last of the cable around the knob of the sewing basket, leaning into it, making sure the knot would hold. The basket rocked as Jasmine expressed her fury. When this did not work, Rupert saw her claws flashing out through the weave of the basket.

He hopped off, taking a moment to check the lashings on both ends of the sewing basket.

Jasmine hissed in fury, the basket rocking back and forth and finally tipping onto its side. “Let me out!”

“I’m sure someone will let you out soon enough.” Rupert looked out the window. From the height of the moon, he still had a couple of hours. “But for now, my friend, I have much work to do, and I am quite happy knowing you can sleep the night away in there.”

With a single big bound, Rupert leapt onto the desk and began restacking the pound coins.

* * *

The sun was just starting to rise when Rupert finished addressing the final package in his long, fine hand. Jasmine had long since fallen into a grudging sleep inside her trap. Although he was still trapped in Finkelbaum’s office, he had managed to slide a message to Mory and Dory under the door and made sure they understood their task.

He lay down for a much-needed nap.

Mrs. Merryweather’s key hit the lock of Finkelbaum’s office to pick up the packages. According to the note she got, she had to get them all delivered before breakfast. She clucked her tongue when she saw how many there were, clucking again when she picked up the package addressed to Mr. Taylor and felt how heavy it was. But that was Finkelbaum all over—dumping her work on Mrs. Merryweather’s aging hands and back.

Hours later her tongue clucked a third time when she had to reach into her own pocket to pay for postage to not one but two places. She held her tongue when she saw that one was addressed to the local constabulary. She did not consider why a letter from the Parson would be left in the care of Finkelbaum.

* * *

Mrs. Merryweather dropped Rupert off on the Parson’s desk next to a pile of packages and took time to light a fire for the Parson. She placed Rupert in the armchair, taking care to sit him properly. Without a complaint she moved on to her next task.

Rupert hopped down and stretched his paws toward the fire, enjoying the touch of warmth. So far things seemed to be going well. He let himself doze, waiting for the Thimble Warriors to arrive.

He startled awake when Mory clambered up onto the chair, giggling. Rupert rubbed his eyes and stretched. It seemed it was already evening.

“Mr. Rupert, we found your note. How may we be of service?”

Looking at Mory and Dory and the heavy burden they had to carry, he realized they were not strong enough. “First, I need more than you two. It’s a hard task and requires lots of muscle.”

Dory poked Mory, laughing. Dory attempted a curtsy and managed only to tumble onto her head. She stood back up. “Then it’s a good thing we brought our friends.”

Rupert moved to the edge of the chair and saw a host of Thimble Warriors. He stopped counting at twenty-four.

Mory tapped him on the shoulder. “We are at your service, Rupert.”

Rupert brushed his hair and, taking a post on the edge of the chair, told the Thimble Warriors about their commando mission.

All through the night the Thimble Warriors worked in teams, emptying Rupert’s last heavy package. Just after 3 a.m. on Monday morning, the Warriors reported to Rupert and went off to happy slumber.

* * *

The events of the next week went down in the long history of the orphanage as the most stupendously extraordinary of all.

It started when the orphans, both boys and girls, each discovered a nice, shiny pound coin under his or her pillow, except for little Stevie McDougal. He had two pound coins, a fact that he shared loudly and proudly in between arguments about H.G. Wells and the War of the Worlds.

Then, at lunch, all talk of the sudden wealth ended when the local constable and solicitor general walked into the lunchroom and, without pause, arrested Ms. Finkelbaum.

“By order of Her Majesty’s Solicitor General in London,” the constable let his voice dwell on “London” as if it would convey greater authority, “I am remanding you into custody until suitable bail can be arranged.”

Finkelbaum stammered, her hand grasping the broach on her too-prim housedress as if it blocked the words in her throat. But she found her voice when she saw the manacles in the constable’s hand. “Why? Why? I never…” She pulled back from the constable.

The solicitor grabbed her by the elbow.

“Unhand me, you—you ruffian,” she said.

“Ruffian? It’s not me that got caught with a hand in the till.”

“What?” Finkelbaum’s voice was a high screech, like a fork on a steel plate.

“Don’t you try and deny it. We have all of the records in your own handwriting.”

The constable clapped the woman’s hands in irons. “Well, well,” he said, “it seems you have been a bad girl.”

Until that moment the entire lunchroom had been perfectly silent. No one dared breathe.

It was the long-suffering Mr. Taylor who started. His carefully cultured English reserve collapsed and he started laughing. He laughed so hard that he had to hold onto the table.

The room exploded into laughter and some scattered applause. As Ms. Finkelbaum was led away struggling, the laughter grew to a delighted cacophony.

Only Mr. Taylor had recovered enough to speak. He waved to Finkelbaum. “Good‑bye, Ms. Finkelbaum. Pleasant journey.”

The last surprise took place two days later, when the town’s largest hobby shop delivered parcel after parcel of art supplies, cricket bats, buttons, and thread. There were enough supplies to make many, many dolls, and toy trains, and hundreds of other things that the orphans needed. At first Mrs. Merryweather hesitated, worrying about the cost, but she was delighted to know they had been provided by an anonymous benefactor.

All of these good events led to a turnaround in the morale of the orphanage for both employees and orphans alike. Things got even better when the young Ms. Rachel Summers came to teach the children, but that is a tale for another time.

* * *

Far away in the rectory library, a rabbit of uncommonly good sense worked away on his translated version of Principia. He was lost in the intriguing mysteries of gravity.

But his soul felt lighter than air.

 

——————–

A lover of fantastic words and worlds, Matthew Wallace is the President and CEO of VRSim, Inc. (a virtual reality company). His work has appear in the Menda City Review. He is currently recording the next adventure of the kind rabbit with uncommonly good sense. Matthew can be reached at matthew.wallace@vrsim.net.

The Golden Sea, and Silver

By J David Liss

I

congregant asked me how I most want to be remembered, as a rabbi or a physicist. “Remembered,” I said, “Why, am I going someplace?”

In truth, for me that question didn’t make sense. I simply answered, “As a husband and a father.”  But I never was one to stick to categories. After my son Mikey died 12 months ago, I started to mix things together even more.

I used to think that the sea was the great body of water that encircled the Earth. As I thought more about the world, I saw the sea as something larger — the atmosphere that contained us all, water and land, living and still. After all, it was deeper than the water and all of us swim through it in one way or another. But now I realize that the true sea is the light that fills all the universe, soaks the spaces between planets. The true sea pours from the sun and all the suns, gold and silver, in all the skies. Molecules of air swim through the sea of light, as do the fractions of water and salt that flow and spray. We are all moving through a sea of light in the high tide of day and low tide of night.

I used to think that God was a being who created the Universe. But the more I studied the equations behind creation, the more I understood the math behind particle physics, I came to understand that God is the Universe. He didn’t create something apart from himself; he is singular, not binary. He cares about us because we are all part of him—all of us—the kings and cats and coelenterates, the vast distances between endless galaxies that move forever from the center yet are still part of the whole, amen.

On Mikey’s last day, we took the long, hard drive to Sloan Kettering. After 15 months, this trip felt a little different. It had taken him two hours to move from his bed to the car in our driveway, he was in that much pain. But he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance. He didn’t want to make a spectacle of his pain.

He didn’t actually pass until the next day. By then, we were all gathered in the hospital. The oncologist showed us the MRI images. We made the decision to end the life support systems that were keeping his heart beating, his lung inflating and sending air to the rest of his body.

The process was quite humane. As they stop the drugs that make his heart work and remove the machine that makes his lungs work, they increase the drugs that suppress pain and anxiety.

His heart stopped and he wasn’t there. But I didn’t see him leave.

How could I have missed it? How could I not see the moment when his soul left, reached my hand out to him, given him my last blessing and received his, tell him that I would see him soon enough, when I joined him in the next life? How would he know what I was feeling?

II

My parents used to gently make fun of me, but with great pride, that I was 37 years old and still in school. Being in the Rabbinate at the same time I was working toward a doctorate in physics took time. But things were on track. Katie and I were married 10 years at that point and both kids were born. Neither Columbia nor Hebrew Union College were charging me tuition, and between Katie’s job, my stipend, and money from our parents we were pretty comfortable.

As I got very close to being both a rabbi and a scientist, my advisors from each program had a heart-to-heart with me that was shockingly similar in a way that still makes me smile. They both said a variation of the same speech.

“Arthur,” said Dr. Smithson, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the final version of your dissertation. The idea of viewing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, our best evidence of the big bang, through the lens of string theory is daring but has some really interesting points. Your math is good. But, Arty, your descriptive text concerns me. You describe cosmic rays with a prosody that border on poetry, that comes dangerously close to…I’ll just say it, scripture. Frankly, it detracts from the scientific gravitas of your thesis.”

“Ellis, we’ve had this talk before. My rabbinical studies are not getting conflated with my lab work.”

“To me, your thesis reads as if they are.”

“I look at it as if I’m reading two different books at the same time, one poetry, the other prose. I can read two books without confusing them. That’s what I’m doing with my studies.”

“It’s harder to maintain two world views than to read two books.”

“It’s working just fine. My dissertation is good, right?”

“But your future is not clear for me. I don’t believe you’ll ever reach your full potential as a scientist without being fully dedicated to your work. Forgive me for bringing in a reference to the religion I was raised in, but you can’t serve two masters.”

“You can render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto G-d what is his.”

“I should have known better than to quote any religion to you. Okay, I said what was on my chest. I’m going to move your dissertation to the committee.”

“Arthur,” said Rabbi Goldman, “Your thesis is original. I’ve seen close readings of the Genesis creation narratives before, but yours is the first to describe G-d’s creation of the universe as the template for human behavior. It will be controversial but is worth developing. I even like the title, The World to Come from the World that Was. But…

“But?”

“A mathematical approach? I expect to see a well-developed essay and I get tables laid out with phenomena and corresponding consequences.”

“It seemed more efficient to make the point by directly correlating what G-d does on a global level to what the Ethics of the Fathers says is how individuals should behave.”

“And is your job to be efficient, or to be a role model and inspiration for your people?”

“I don’t think those things are incompatible.”

“They’re not, if you don’t make them incompatible. Listen, eventually a committee will have to read your dissertation. Write it in a language they will understand. This is not going to a panel of physicists; it’s going to Rabbis, soon to be your colleagues. Use the language they use out of respect for the job they have to do.”

“That’s a good point.”

“Arty, I’m concerned that you may never reach your full potential as a Rabbi.”

“Why, Steven?”

“Because you have to explain things to yourself before you can explain them to other people, and how you explain things to yourself is inconsistent. You are trying to prove that G-d is true as if he were an equation.”

“I think that things that appear to be contradictory can still be true if we understand the context.”

“You may be right, but we don’t have a view that is big enough to reconcile those contradictions. That’s the role of faith.“

“I don’t think the contradictions run that deep. Sunrise and sunset seem like contradictions. But if you know the world is round, spins, and revolves around the sun, then it isn’t hard to understand that we’re just repeating the same view of the same phenomena.”

“Of course you use a scientific analogy. But there are things that cannot be explained by equations because they are not math problems. But very well, scientist-rabbi, let’s figure out how to change your charts and tables to something people will actually want to read.”

III

How could I not see the moment when his soul left him? How could I not see the moment when Mikey left me?

I believed. I believed he had not left me for good. And I believed that I could see that moment.

I had been following the work of Lene Vestergaard Hau, the Harvard physicist who had frozen rays of light so cold that it turned into matter. She could take light from a given moment and preserve it, release it later to illuminate a point from the past. Like a child capturing a firefly and putting it in a jar, she could hold light in her hand and own it.

It was time for me to leave the holy sanctuary and return to the laboratory. I would capture the light from Mikey’s last hour, in his hospital room at Sloan Kettering. I would analyze every photon of that light, across every spectrum, until I found the shape and shadow of my son’s soul. Then I would freeze that image and know, know beyond doubting, that Mikey’s soul was in the light.

For the senior rabbi of a Manhattan congregation to arrange a six-month leave of absence is usually as complicated as the most difficult physics problem. At least, it is unless the leave involves the loss of a child. Then the rules are suspended. There’s a Yiddish word that transliterates as rachmones, roughly meaning empathy, understanding, sympathy, pity, all rolled up into one. I would sometimes say to my more judgmental congregants, ‘In matters of charity, rachmones over rules.’

Katie was more of a barrier. “Stop it, Arthur. A leave is a good idea for both of us. We need some time to regroup. But you shouldn’t be working this out in the lab. It will only delay getting where we both have to be.”

She was wrong, though. I wasn’t going to move on without doing something. And then I realized she might be right about at least one thing.

I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for by examining Mikey’s hospital room. There was no way that I could recapture the light at the moment he died. That light had left the Earth months ago; it could never be reclaimed.

But I had to do something.

Professor Hau’s work gave me a direction I had not thought of before. I was expert in the field of cosmic rays, but I had not thought to freeze them the way Professor Hau had frozen visible light. If I could stop the motion of ancient cosmic rays, I could convert the microwaves into visible light. If I did that, I would see the universe at the moment of creation. I would see the face of G-d.

Such ancient cosmic rays are not common, but they are ambient throughout the cosmos and can be located. Controlling their speed and shape, their frequency and wavelength, would allow me to manipulate them into visible light.

Why did I want to see the face of G-d?

If I could see his face, I would see reality. Then I would be able to see Mikey again, for he is still here, only someplace that I simply cannot perceive.

Ellis Smithson, now chairman of physics, was thrilled that I was returning to the lab to work with primordial cosmic rays. I was still on the review board for several physics journals and served on a doctoral committee every other year as a favor to Ellis. He had come to Mikey’s funeral. He thought a return to the lab was how I was dealing with the grief, and he was right. He may have believed that I was turning back to science because faith had failed me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I never saw faith and science as incompatible and I finally had a research problem that brought them both together. Partly out of faith in me, and partly out of, well… charity, he absorbed the cost of the research into the departmental budget.

The part that would take the longest was locating the cosmic rays. I had come up with a method for capturing them, using magnetic fields to corral the radiation into the freezing chamber. It was a waiting game.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation—cosmic rays—are the oldest thing in the cosmos. The cosmos. The universe. The multiverse. I thought about the languages I knew. Of course, they all had a word that defined the place we exist. But the old words had a common history. The Earth, first just the dirt we scratched for food; then the entire world upon which we walked, and then sailed; then the concept of all that was contained in creation, Ha Olam, in Hebrew. Cosmic rays shone upon it all since the very first day. Interestingly, the oldest word for man in the Hebrew language—Adam—also translates as red clay. Man and his universe are dirt, but filled with the divine light. There is much that seems contradictory; but there are surely no contradictions.

Light as old as the cosmos doesn’t flit in a straight line at 186,000 miles per second. It is subtle. Capturing that old energy would require patience and cunning.

When the sensor alert went off, I knew the capture mechanism had been triggered and walked from our apartment to the lab. Cosmic rays filled the device, which I called the box.

I had to manipulate the magnetic fields to shape the frozen nitrogen atoms that held the cosmic microwaves. I would change their shape and speed to turn them into visible light, and project that light on to a special screen. This was a double challenge. My math had to be perfect. And I had to work the controls of the magnetic field with the precision of a conductor leading an orchestra, the confidence of a flutist charming the python that is inches from his face.

Microwaves aren’t supposed to make a noise. So, what was that sound that I was hearing from inside the box?

It was a single note of music.

I knew it.

It was the first note of the first prayer we sing on the holiest night of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was the first note of Kol Nidre, All Hear, the deep, soul-stirring moment when we repent and ask for forgiveness.

It’s the prayer we sing to tell all our own failures, our lack of faith and trust and honesty; the prayer that tells all the world we ask to be forgiven and makes clear why we need to be forgiven. This is the sound of a cello in the vacuum of space. I don’t need to be told there is no sound in a vacuum; I’m a physicist. There are more ways of hearing than through the ears. That note sounded from the box, and I knew it had to be my imagination and I thanked G-d for this holy moment in which my mind could meld my sadness and my ambition and my desperate need to see Mikey again.

Forgive me G-d, my ambition.

I shortened the wavelength of the microwaves, speeded up their frequency. My sensors crept to the moment when the cosmic rays reached the status of visible light. Optical fiber connected the box to a liquid crystal screen. The screen began to glow. Light that was 11 billion years old, that illuminated the universe as it was born, flowed over the glass fiber. But somehow, the cosmic rays weren’t projecting on the screen as they were supposed to, but filling the room. It was all around me. The lab was bathed in rich golden light. Shot through the golden light were threads of bright silver. They seemed to move through the gold at different speeds and with slightly different motions. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, though it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever looked at.

Inexplicably, the silver threads seemed to head toward me, circle me, then swim away and let others take their place. This was electromagnetic energy, yet it seemed to me that the light moved in purposeful ways, particularly the shining silver threads. I never wanted it to stop. The light filled me. I breathed it in and the gold and silver filled my lungs, infused into my blood, entered into my brain. I began to speed up. The universe was rushing away from the center. But the center was everywhere. Everything was exploding away from everything else and I was pushed along with the light, exploding out, becoming the source material for what would evolve into everything. The motion was overwhelming, sickening. I began to scream, but the sound that came out was a single note, the deep, resonant first note of the prayer, All Hear, Kol Nidre. My screaming was the cello that accompanied creation. All hear! The universe has been created and I have sinned. I have sinned the sins of pride and despair. Oh G-d forgive me the search for Mikey’s soul, for your face when you began Time and Space. And as I screamed and prayed in a single note, it seemed to me that one of the silver threads circled my head, entered my left pupil. Vision stopped. Mercy enters through the eyes.

As the radiation left the box, it started to slow down and convert back from visible light to microwave energy. The gold and silver dissipated. I was in the lab. My eyes filled with darkness and I could not see. I feared blindness. I sat for a long time, although I don’t know how long. Eventually I was able to see again, though ever since, my eyes have been very light sensitive and I typically wear sunglasses.

Ellis Smithson was disappointed when I told him I would be returning to my congregation. He had applauded the idea of freezing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Although my experiment hadn’t yielded useful data, he thought that visible light was the wrong conversion unit and that if we focused on generating the extremes of radio waves and gamma rays, we could learn enormous amounts about the big bang. He thought the fact that my eyesight had been affected was scaring me into returning to religion. Again, in a sense he was right.

God may be singular, but the best I can understand is binary. It has to be enough to know there is a sea of light, a sea of gold. And bright beams of silver swim through that golden sea. What it means, I will have to take on faith.

 

——————–

In 1984 J David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, he became a speechwriter, then a lobbyist. In the past 30 years, Liss has worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His prose has been published in “Inscape,” “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Between the Lines,” “Adelaide,” and others. He also writes and publishes poetry.

Selected Poems—Fall 2018

By Simon Perchik

*

You are quieted the way this dirt

no longer steps forward

is slipping through as silence

 

though there’s no other side

only these few gravestones

trying to piece the Earth together

 

where the flower between your lips

is heated for the afternoon

not yet the small stones

 

falling into your mouth

as bitter phrases broken apart

to say out loud the word

 

for eating alone :a name

curled up inside and pulls you

under the lettering and your finger.

 

 

 

*

You never get used to it

left and right –moonlight

all that’s left on your grave

 

each night heavier, bitter

with no place to fall

sometimes as snow, sometimes

 

counting on pebbles from others

all night bringing stars

to strike the ground over and over

 

covering you with shadows

and still you’re cold

come here as paths and distances.

 

 

 

*

To live like that, listening

as the sudden dive to the bottom

and though your mouth longs for a sea

 

death happens wherever water goes

–you hear the rain passing by

with shells and salt flaking off

 

from a dress that is still new

covered with moss and grieving

–you slip your hand through

 

as if each sleeve over and over

is filled with moss not yet blossoming

where the branches at the top

 

dig themselves in, opening the Earth

and the small stones that are your lips

filled with falling and thirst.

 

 

 

*

And your throat circles down

the way every kiss is emptied

though not all lips have this power

 

–pressed against a hole in the Earth

you begin where each hillside gets its start

–women know this, decorate their breasts

 

with kisses that never leave

grow those feathers that water from ice

remembers as the sound smoke makes

 

and you sing along till a small bird

flies from your mouth, louder and louder

not yet grass or at your side.

 

 

 

*

What you hear is your chest –with each crackle

more rain tearing holes in the sky

still struggling to open –your heart

 

sloshes around, growing salt from grass

kept wet the way dirt takes the shape

you use for shadows when there’s no water

 

–you stretch out naked as the ocean

on and on without stopping to breathe

or dry or arm over arm become the last

 

the slow climbing turn still missing

circling to calm a nothing beach fire

going mouth to mouth to burn itself out.

 

 

 

*

Slowly the glass, half filled, half

melting down for a slipper

not yet hardened into light

 

is flickering the way a moon

still sets itself on fire

then changes into taking its time

 

and you become an old woman

with a cane, around and around

as if this rim at last remembers

 

overflows and from a single wave

you grasp for air, for a warm hand

and step by step covered with ashes.

 

 

 

*

You feel for corners the way this rug

makes the slow turn into one day more

and though your fingers wander off

 

it’s already flying out your arms

becomes the place that is not a dress

emptied by the dim light from one hand

 

clinging to the other –this worn down rug

has no glow yet, just the darkness

with never enough sky –your each caress

 

lowers the Earth toward you –arm over arm

not yet an afternoon then a night

that lasts a life time side by side as later.

 

 

 

*

You pan for rocks though every breeze

smells from wood lying on its back

and between your fingers a stream

 

ripens as fruits and berries that fall

swallow the Earth hand over hand

the way beginner stones learn to splash

 

so nothing will float free, is melted down

as the darkness you hear spreading out

to dry and further you sift for anchors

 

and all around you the cold ripples

drip into your breath, lay there, whisper

to come up together, say it’s over.

 

 

 

*

Before it could endure its undertow your skull

hardened, was silenced with its marrow

kept calm by the half once seawater

 

and the other taking longer

though everything makes a sound

gathers you in, the way rust on all sides

 

scratches –with both hands you comb your hair

as if it still smells from a gate

that’s no longer iron down the middle

 

and there you listen to it opening

–from both sides reaching out for air

that sounds like shoreline, further and further.

 

 

 

*

Word by word the page clouding over

as if rain would wash the dirt from her face

flower though nothing will change –the sky

 

still covered with fresh dew not yet the stones

that forage forever  as the scent grass gives off

when paper is folded over and over and over

 

and each crease drains, outlasts its emptiness

taking away, making room in the Earth

for this old love note, your forehead.

 

 

 

*

Though she is covered with glass

there is no wind –it’s her sleeve

waving across the way an alpine stream

 

is pulled from a cemetery stone

for the unending free fall

over where a hole should be

 

–you never see the nail

now that the water in the photograph

has darkened, begun to drain

 

make room inside the cold wood frame

for grass, give up, disappear

and under the dust her arm.

 

 

 

*

You didn’t wave back though the leaves

still circle down, spread out, finish

as the sound a train makes waiting to leave

 

–this empty lot is their home, heated

by the scent rising from dirt

getting ready to greet its dead

 

and one by one burn the sky brown

then red then with the same smoke

take away your arms with the pile

 

–it’s a rake you’re holding, the Earth

all day opening its hand

for a cloth dress, a charred house.

 

_____

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by boxofchalk, 2017. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

To view one of his interviews please follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSK774rtfx8

 

Training

By Sarah A. Odishoo

nce you start on a journey, there is no turning back. My brother told me the story years later. Some stories get more real in the telling.

Bryan and Chuck drove off in my brother’s white convertible to Mexico on that winter day because, Chuck said, Bryan wanted warm weather—the sun was too low in the sky in Chicago. Bryan thought he was dying. The only cure—Sun.

They drove straight through, each taking turns behind the wheel, stopping only for food, gas, and pissing. Chuck said wryly later, the whole trip was a piss in the wind. The accident had made Bryan crazy.

When they got to Acapulco, they had one hundred dollars between them, so they had to find a cheap hotel. Bryan’s eyes kept watering, and he kept wiping them with the handkerchief Ma had given him—a yellow silk one—it was so wet by midday, he had to wash it out and leave it on a chair in the sun to dry.

Bryan cried at night, Chuck said. As soon as they got to Acapulco, he wanted to go back home. The room they found was in the poorest section and only prostitutes and the crippled roomed there. But crying at night helped his eyes, watered them, he said, then he could sleep.

 

One eye, his left, had been burned open in the accident, Chuck recalled. That eye open all night spooked him. He thought, “he’s watching me—not just here in this room, but in my thoughts—in my goddam soul.”

Bryan got relief by paying prostitutes to come to the room during the day. Chuck said, “I didn’t care what he did during the day. I left. But I was there at night—I didn’t want any fucking whores in my bed. And he, he couldn’t get to sleep unless he cried and fucked. He missed home.

“Then, one day he brought a goat to the room. It was a kid. He kept it in the room all day as he watched it pace and cry, running into the table next to the window, shoving it with his matted body, looking for its mother, it kept kicking its way into the empty window panes. Bryan lay on the bed drinking Tequila from the bottle, wiping his eye with the stained yellow silk handkerchief, watching the young goat.”

Bryan got the goat for Ziggy, the Arab who lived on the first floor. It was Ramadan, and Ziggy was too poor to get a goat for the dinner celebration. Bryan wanted to test himself.

Bryan hadn’t been in a war, but he had been in the Army. He had been training to go to war. But then the accident happened. His friend, his barracks’ buddy, died in the accident. Bryan thought he was responsible.

Bryan wanted to sacrifice to God, and he didn’t know what to do to make the sacrifice real. When Ziggy talked about Ramadan, Bryan figured if he sacrificed something innocent, it would show God he understood—giving back to the Source what was the Source’s. Then maybe, he thought to himself, he wouldn’t hurt so much.

When Chuck got back that night, Bryan told him what happened.

Ziggy took the kid, grabbing hold of the matted fur at his neck and his backside, and dragged him into the shower. He asked Bryan, “Do you want to cut his throat?” “Yes,” he said, and took the knife as Ziggy held the goat’s head back. Bryan said he tried not to look at the kid’s eyes, full of terror and wet with fear, they rolled wildly back and forth, but Bryan couldn’t help shaking, trying to get his bearings. Bryan cut across the fur, but the goat didn’t die; bleating relentlessly; he struggled against Bryan’s arm, wresting back and forth, biting to get free. Finally, Ziggy, screaming, “kill it, goddam it, kill it,” as he tore the knife out of Bryan’s hand, and ended the goat’s last cry as it went limp in Ziggy’s hand. He dropped the goat in its own pool of blood.

Bryan had started crying at the beginning of the story, and near the end, he couldn’t talk; he was shaking, trembling convulsively, bent over, both hands over his head as if he were being struck.

“I want to go home . . . Take me home.. . . . we have to leave now.”

Chuck said they drove for five days and five nights. Bryan couldn’t drive; his eyes closed blind in pain, while the left one wept involuntarily.

Ziggy and his wife cooked the goat celebrating Ramadan the night Bryan and Chuck started home.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Bryan had been in love with death for as long as I can remember. He loved it like a boxer loves his opponent. He ran until his legs buckled under him, and he’d have to stay off his feet for a week. He’d jump off the highest window ledge of the Rogers Park Bank, the ledge none of us dared. He would walk on the train tracks until the train a few feet away from him would cut us off from him and for seconds all we heard was the whistle howling. When it passed, he would be standing on the other side of the tracks, darkly serious and hardly able to walk back home.

Whenever Chuck would tell the Mexico story, I would feel the same way I did when Bryan would step on the train tracks. My heart would start to pound harder, and trying to stop the inevitable, I would be paralyzed with fear, helplessness, and a terrible fascination. He forced us to watch something we could not stop.

In the story, when Bryan raises the knife, whenever Chuck gets to the part where Bryan raises the knife, I gasp. It is the gasp I hear when the train and Bryan are feet apart; it’s the gasp I hear when I can’t do anything but watch, it’s the gasp—taking my breath away—of impending death. And Bryan trying to get the courage to face it.

When he tried to kill the goat, he saw himself doubled in that baby goat’s eyes, holding the knife and watching the helpless terror and standing it for seconds. He missed. And not being able to kill the goat, he felt something else, something new.

Bryan cried until he got home. Then he stopped. Chuck couldn’t see him after that. He said, for him, Bryan was dead. But he would continue to tell the story as if in the retelling he would get what he couldn’t get when he was there. I suppose it became a prayer.

At first, we saw his displays of fearlessness as a way to mock us, going too far, beating us. But what I have now discovered is that he was too sublime for us to understand. What he did by going too far was a daily unremitting devotion to what he didn’t know—the terrible seeking to know—not just what was humanly knowable, but that boundary line between life and death–the inhumanly knowable. He was called to that fearsome edge, enslaved by it perhaps, but called to act on it nevertheless.

Our minds, it seems, may be nourished and invisibly repaired by a renovating presence, a pattern beyond the world, by which knowledge of that presence is enhanced by our inherent pain. And like passion, that presence struggles to lift us out of ourselves when we think we can control our destiny, and it lets us fall when we need “to see” that which we can’t control.

For me, well, I am still standing at the train tracks, not sure if this time he will suddenly appear on the other side, once the train howls past.

___

Sarah Odishoo is a writer and poet. She has published in a number of small presses, including New Letters and Berkeley Fiction Review. She has also been a finalist in competitions such as Nelson Algren Competition with judges Joyce Carol Oates, James Dickey, and Margaret Atwood. Odishoo was also selected by Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who Among American Teachers (1998–2005).

 

La Petite Morte

By Edward Butscher

Green vase on a white doily

squeezes window light

into lime juice

 

blood of a dinosaur, desert

cheeks like a caked

sea floor, cheese

smiles.

 

An infant’s skull, even if unreal,

can be x-rayed by laser eyes

to unlace a Mississippi’s

imploring

eels.

 

Danger lurks here like a locked

mind in a room that reeks

of empty wine bottles,

lipstick wounds,

perfumed

books.

 

I father an unbearable lightness.

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Echoes

By Edward Butscher

If an experiment can be repeated

it proves itself, as may a name sung

by steeple bells in a mind’s Norway.

 

Language and consciousness echo

each another, a scholar reiterated.

 

I think I said I said I think I said I.

 

Edvard Munch’s sequences of lovers

and screams and self-portraits (set

between a clock and Van Gogh’s last

 

bed) retrace his global scream,

ringing out in cartoonish ripples

 

that ululate into a cosmic ocean.

 

Say it again, again and again, knees

exposed to rocks and shame in short

pants, finally shed for knickers, then

 

long pants, and a detached boyhood

of tulip trees and their visible roots

 

clawing at sky and armies of the dead.

 

Ordinary shapes paint in awareness,

walls, doors, women walking away

on high heels, repeatedly framed by

 

long slow days after broken nights

at the far end of an island and a life

 

that replicate what art once saved.

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.