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Issue 11.3

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

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

-Robert of Cricklade


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

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

~Melissa Venables

Uber-editor, Forge 11.3

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


CONTENTS

—Prose—

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

—Poetry—

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

—Visual—

Janet Coontz-Stoneman – Palm Tree Silhouettes, Sunset

—Audio—

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

Yesterday and Today

By Richard Compean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

——————–

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

The Fractalist

By Jory Pomeranz

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

A Warm Welcome

By Sam Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” barked the owner of the eye.

The stranger cleared his throat before replying.

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

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

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

From somewhere behind him came a sing-song voice.

“Who is it, Alfred?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Issue 11.2

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

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

-Robert of Cricklade

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

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

~Leif Milliken

Uber-editor, Forge 11.2

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

Drop on by!

Bring a friend!

See what’s new!


CONTENTS

—Prose—

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

—Poetry—

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

—Artwork—

Don Swartzenruber: The Approach

Four pages from Cunning Punctuations

By Richard Kostelanetz

Help someone else get a job.

Help someone else, get a job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James and I played golf together.

Henry, James, and I played golf together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He ate a half-fried chicken.

He ate a half fried chicken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happily they left.

Happily, they left.

____

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of LiteratureContemporary Poets, Contemporary NovelistsPostmodern FictionWebster’s Dictionary of American WritersBaker’s Biographical Dictionary of MusiciansDirectory of American Scholars, Who’s Who in America, NNDB.com,Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories.

Ten Poems—Fall 2017

By Simon Perchik

*

A jacket could trick my arms

help me forget once they leave

though what I become

 

has lips and around each shoulder

both sleeves fit the way skies

still overflow, break free

 

settle down, neatened

as if this mirror was still looking

could hear, I don’t see you, louder.

 

 

*

You hover the way each memory

stands by –the faintest scent

breathes down your brain

 

till its dust reeks from moonlight

and you cover your arms with air

holding them down, drag this table

 

more than enough for clouds

and though nothing falls

you’re sure it’s safe to exhale

 

making room in your heart

for the smell from skies

and what they too wanted back.

 

 

*

Heated by sand each word

gathers up another

one teaspoon at a time

 

–your fever can’t be found

though the address was written

from salt and glass –you don’t see

 

the envelope :the bottle

crowding you from inside

has to be taken by mouth

 

as if a lull made any difference

without the pieces to settle down

and already your throat tastes bitter.

 

 

*

Once it reaches this sink

the sun takes nothing back

lets you place water

 

and forever it’s your shadow

wandering the Earth

the way all twins are born

 

already cold –you rinse

as if moonlight were leaving it

damaged, a scar would come

 

so this cup you hold you hold

twice, gropes alongside

as darkness though the faucet

 

still leaks, flows through your arms

draining hillside after hillside

from riverbeds and almost there.

 

 

*

A single charm and the air

slows though what you breathe in

is clustered with stones

 

falling into stones –even here

you use the ruined

to anchor between one miracle

 

and another –shoulder to shoulder

with no place to go these graves

are opened for stars

 

half coming back, half

the way your breath covers the dirt

takes hold and lifts from under.

 

 

 

*

You expect more from rain, point

though cupped in your hand

there’s no sign when these stones

 

pulled it to the ground

as mouths broken open

devouring the Earth

 

–all that’s left standing

is the way moonlight enters

with just enough darkness

 

to touch down everywhere at once

and not have to remember –the sky

owes you, should stick

 

cover your skin with a toss

made from a single name

coming to a close –splash

 

is what you count on

–place to place watering

the small door that opens at night.

 

 

 

*

Not yet certain, half stone

half held back –wave after wave

rattles it, makes it start over

 

louder, distracted by the sound

that is not your shoulders

gathering around this grave

 

no longer facing the fragrance

riverbeds become once they dry

by calling out to each other

 

clog your mouth with salt and nearby

–what you hear is edging closer

has doubts, lost count

 

the way these rocks are winded

and one by one broken up

as flowers and your arms.

 

 

 

*

Dragging one leg you dust

the way sunlight changes colors

once it touches down and this rag

 

spreading out along the limp

that carries you away

wiping off weeds, winds

 

and those webs spiders are taught

to listen with just their shadow

for distances –you smother

 

as if one death would point

where the others let you

and cover the Earth

 

with mouths that never close

though you tug, taking root

in wobble, losing hold

 

strutting into these corners

pulled by a closeness

that is not dirt or moving.

 

 

 

 

*

Inside this glass its sand

flowing between the hours

and shoreline –you drink

 

waves, not sure one grave

would pull you under

give in to the small stones

 

you swallow twice

covering your mouth

with beach grass, harbors

 

and sea birds flying toward you

no longer keeping track

bringing you more cries

 

and expect an answer –you water

rock that never ripens
though your shadow

 

is rotting on the ground

pouring from these dead

as moonlight and left behind.

 

 

 

*

And though you dread the mail

this note is used to her arms

folding over your eyes

 

brushing aside the dust

that’s unimportant now

–you can’t make out the name

 

floating up as salt, empty

with some small sea beginning

clings the way every envelope

 

is carried along, half evenings

half sinking back into darkness

and word after word while they last.

___

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 box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

The Laying on of Hands

By Heather Whited

t was quiet and Honor wondered if the snow had started.

She was hidden in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, wearing two sweaters and two pairs of socks and listening to her father wash the dishes while she pretended to be a cave explorer. It was a game she played, crawling under there with her flashlight. She’d drawn on the back wall of the cabinet; a stick bison being hunted by two stick men like she’d seen in a book at school. Mom would kill her when she saw. The skinny calico cat was curled up with her, a pink triangle nose pressed against Honor’s ear. Warm against her cheek and a purr rumbling through her. The rhythm of breathing.

The cabinet door was cracked open and she watched the kitchen; her father’s swaying legs, a sliver of the kitchen table, the high chair where baby Daphne slumped. She had lost one of her small blue socks and her other foot was bare. She weakly flexed her toes. Their parents were normally more careful since Daphne was sick, so Honor was surprised at this oversight.

No one had even turned on the television this evening and every small noise had free reign. Pings and drips and forks banging against each other in the sink.

Snow was quiet. Not like rain. On the news they had said it was going to snow today and all day, the sky had the look of it, overfull and moody, a heavy and lumbering stomach. Everything was so quiet but she couldn’t tell if the snow had started.

“Lance.”

Mom. Honor couldn’t see her feet just yet, but there was the smell of coffee. Mom always had a mug of coffee with her these days. His name was all Mom said and Dad stepped away. Mom’s feet joined Dad’s at the kitchen door and the whispering started. Honor closed her eyes and hugged the cat to her.

It was a Daphne talk, the whispers tense, reminding her of the out of tune guitar upstairs that Dad sometimes played. She fell asleep there, under the cabinet and Bo woke her. It was a hard waking, scared because she had forgotten where she had fallen asleep, jarred by the cold. The sink leaked and it had dripped on her back.

“Wake up,” said Bo. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to?”

Bo shrugged.

“Don’t know. Mom and Dad said get ready.”

Honor crawled from under the sink. The house was so cold tonight. She rubbed her hands together. They put on their shoes at the door. Bo’s were from the church bin, pink with flowers. They’d been the only ones that fit him and he was silent about it in a way Honor had not been about hers, which were scruffy and plain. Shoes are shoes, he had said, to himself and to his sister.

There was no one in the house but she and Bo, but Honor heard footsteps on the front porch. Heavy. It was Dad.

“I’m hungry,” Honor said. “Why didn’t we eat dinner?”

“Don’t ask me.”

“Is it the hospital for Daphne again?”

“I don’t know. Jeez.”

Honor knotted her laces together.

Outside a sky pearly with the anticipation of the weather, a sharpness to the air.

Mom drove them and Dad stared out the window, his hand on her knee. In town, they pulled into the drive-in place and sat at a table under one of the heat lamps. Soon, a tall, skinny girl came out with a bag of hamburgers. Honor finished hers and played with a dog tied up at a neighboring table.

“Come back and eat,” said Mom.

“But I’m done.”

Mom looked over at her crinkled up wrapper and she sighed.

“Fine.”

They didn’t go home after that, but the road they took was a familiar one. For a while driving past the business of houses and cars and all their lights, driving past the billboards, towards the darkness and silence of the hills. It wasn’t Wednesday night, so Honor didn’t know why they were going to church.

When they arrived at Miss Judy’s house, where the small congregation met several times a week, there were already cars parked in her drive. Dad turned around and took Daphne from her car seat.

“You stay here,” he said to Bo and Honor.

“It’s cold!” said Bo.

Mom snapped around.

“You won’t freeze. We’ll be back in a minute. Watch your sister, Bo.”

Every light in Miss Judy’s house was on. The tiny, square basement windows, just stretching over the hedges, were bright too. Daphne whined.

“Is it church?” asked Honor.

“Stay here,” was all Mom said.

Then they were gone. The door to the house opened for them as they walked up the steps. Miss Judy, in her large sweater, her gray hair pinned up. Their parents went in and the door closed.

The world had fallen into the still that only came before snow, when everything stretched out and lay unmoving. The sounds of church music rode the emptiness to them from Miss Judy’s house.

Bo said, “Want to see something?”

From his coat pocket, he pulled a rolled up magazine. There was a baby lion on the cover, yawning stretched on its back. It had the library’s stamp on the front.

“I took it,” he whispered. “Yesterday, when I walked down.”

“You should give it back.”

“I don’t want to.” He bit his lip. “Don’t tell.”

“I won’t.”

“Come here and I’ll read it to you.”

Honor unbuckled her seat belt to move closer. Bo opened the magazine and started to read.

“Do you think Daphne is going to die?” asked Honor.

“Don’t say that. You’re not having faith. Mom and Dad say that we have to have faith if she’s going to get better.”

“Well you broke the stealing commandment. What if you being bad makes her die?”

Tears came to Bo’s eyes.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it,” mumbled Honor. “It’s only a magazine. Just read?”

It was dark and they could hardly see, but he read until they both fell asleep.

The car doors opened and Mom and Dad were back. Daphne wriggled in Dad’s arms. Her pallor was replaced with a frantic, pink flush. The windshield was dusted with snow.

“What time is it?” asked Bo as he rubbed his eyes. He hid the magazine back in his coat. Dad was buckling Daphne in her car seat as the car warmed.

“Late,” said Mom. The car reversed. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was going to get this cold.”

The snow picked up quickly on the way home. The tires crunched on the frost that had hardened on the ground. Theirs was the only car on the road as they drove away.

At home, Bo and Honor complained that they weren’t tired.

“Look at the snow,” Dad said to Mom. “No school tomorrow.”

“Do what you want,” said Mom. “The baby needs to go to bed.”

She left with Daphne and Honor watched Bo jump at the slam of the bathroom door.

Dad made them cocoa while Mom gave Daphne a bath. They sat on the couch together watching television and waiting to be tired again.

*     *     *     *     *

He woke in his bed. On the other side of the room, Honor was asleep. The cat lifted her head as he sat up but didn’t pay much mind in the end. Bo made no noise going back downstairs, putting on his shoes, his coat with the magazine in the pocket. He creaked open the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

His were the first footprints. As he walked down the steps, the snow covered his ankles. His shoes were quickly soaked through. He would return the magazine and go home.

The night was a bright and brittle eggshell that he cracked.

___

Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a BA in creative writing. She lived in Japan and Ireland before returning to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to get her graduate degree. She now lives in Portland Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Straylight, Lingerpost, The Timberline Review, A Door is Ajar, Allegro, Foliate Oak, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Windmill; The Hofstra Journal of Art and Literature, Chantwood Literary Magazine, and soon Cricket, Storm Cellar, and Forge. In 2015 she was an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine‘s annual short story contest. She is a contributor to The Drunken Odyssey podcast and Secondhand Stories Podcast.

The Ghost of Joseph Gagnon

By Mike Siemasz

wen grasped a patinated handle of the black chest he had discovered in the lightless, grotto-like alcove under the basement staircase. The chest scraped across the concrete floor as the kid pulled it into the yellow light of a single bulb above. The floor above creaked where his sister, Sable, ambulated around in the burnishing mid-morning light pouring through the kitchen window. She was unpacking and obstreperously stacking dishware into various cupboards at the new house.

Owen unlatched the chest lid and opened it to the stale smell of age. Inside were old Army dress blues folded under a stack of notebooks beside a photo album on which sat a peaked cap. The album lay beside the folded canvass of a pitch tent upon which sat several inconsequential items—a necklace of animal fangs; a club of black, petrified wood; a snake skull; a lidded Mason jar containing a black, desiccated spider on its back with constricted legs; a canteen, a compass, a knit cap, a skillet, a rucksack. The chest was a reliquary of forgotten things, pieces of someone’s history. It was a museum of ordinaries arrayed in an unordinary context.

Owen pushed aside the items and flipped through the photo album. In the back, he found suctioned between two plastic sheets a black and white portrait of a young soldier. He flipped the page over and read the name on the back of the photo in messy cursive: “Joseph Gagnon.” Owen set the album down on the concrete floor and went for the dress blues. He flapped the stiffness out of the uniform and put it on, after which he chose the two most intriguing articles in the chest to carry upstairs to show Sable.

Owen slogged up the stairs in the baggy uniform, tripping over the blue slacks sagging below his little ass and covering his shoes. The shirt hung to his knees. Its sleeves were an arm longer than his own. Every few steps he pushed up the blue cap falling down his forehead and covering his eyes. He shuffled to the kitchen doorway and stood there about ready to burst with laughter. “Hey!” he shouted at Sable. She gasped and turned around. He held the snake skull in one hand, in the other the spider-occupied Mason jar. Her eyes shrunk back down from their wide glare into an inquisitive gaze and she turned back to stacking dishes.

“Where did you find that crap?” Sable said.

“Down there.”

“The basement? What’s down there?”

“A haunted black box with cool stuff in it.” He ran out of the kitchen, tripping on the blues and stumbling a little, and back down the basement steps. The unfinished basement was damp and concrete, its corners shadowy and pale with demented, blotchy light refracted through thick block windows near the ceiling. Sable came down the stairs after Owen and discovered him on his knees rummaging through the chest.

“It’s not kind to go through others’ things,” she said.

“Whose?”

“Someone who owned that box I guess.”

“Is he dead?”

“Who?”

“The man who collected all this stuff.”

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Probably, because he was in a war.”

She picked up a notebook. “Joseph Gagnon” was written on the inside cover. She flipped to the middle. Sable shut the thing and tossed it into the chest as though it were on fire. “What in the hell?” she said. It’s a witch book, or something, an evil thing, she thought. She felt a cold breath on her nape, though she knew it was a draft leaking out from somewhere in the basement. She had smoked something strong earlier, a parting gift from Sally, that pothead, before they piled into the car with Mom, Dad driving the big moving truck, and drove off to the new home, and the pot totally made her think this is such a drafty, evil basement, like it’s haunted or something, maybe Owen’s right. That would be so funny, though, to pretend I’m possessed or something, and that would totally be good practice for acting, given my aspirations to play a major role in the fall musical at the new high school.

It was decided, then.

Sable whipped her head around at Owen with such violence her neck cracked. That was a bad idea, she thought, I might have some pain tomorrow, but it’s dedication that makes good acting, even sacrifice of health sometimes, okay? She covered her mouth with one hand and began laughing with a heinous cackle. You have to be so high to do this, she thought. Owen stood stupefied and stupid looking in the baggy dress blues with his head tilted back because that big cap still hung too low over his little face.

“Would you like me to save this man’s spirit divided among lonesome nightmares?” she said. Wow, where did that come from? That was good. Sable could see Owen felt uneasy about how she was acting. Kids can be so intuitive, she thought, they pick up on aberrant behavior without a hitch.

“I’ll grab some garbage bags and get rid of it,” Owen said. With her best demonic smile, Sable stood glaring at Owen, glaring through him, her imagined sinuous fingers wriggling and snapping.

“Be right back. Promise,” Owen said after Sable didn’t respond. He didn’t want to upset her. He put down the jar and skull and fled upstairs. She was still staring at the place where he stood under the stairs after he had run off, just to keep the effect in place. Don’t want to upset the fictitious environment I’m creating, she thought. The thing she pretended to have inside her burned. Her face looked white and green, she hoped. Her eyes were red and dry maybe. Her tongue was purple and sharp in this role. She held it tight between her front teeth imagining all of this would be her true countenance when Owen came back.

Upstairs, Owen thought about calling the cops but the cops would think Sable’s crazy, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t appreciate coming home to discover I shipped her off to an insane asylum, he thought. Can’t we trust you with anything, Owen James? One quick trip to the sub shop for lunch and you send your sister off to a nuthouse?

Owen went back downstairs with the garbage bags. “Halt,” Sable said. Owen froze. In the upper left corner of the entrance to the lightless space, an orb weaver was perched halcyon and motionless in its awkward, ineptly spun web. Sable reached over, ew! can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, you have to be so high to do this. The spider crawled onto her finger. She brought it up to her eyes as it crawled over her hand. “Let me tell you the story of Joseph Gagnon. I’ve just heard it myself,” she said.

“Don’t you want me to clean this stuff up?” Owen said.

She glared at him in anger and he shook his head. The orb weaver still crawled along her hand, ok can’t take this anymore, she thought and flicked it off, ok broke character a little there. She opened Joseph’s notebook. She threw her shoulders back and stood straight and stoic and began to read in an incantatory drawl as though someone else was speaking through her. She was as unprepared for the content as Owen, though he believed she somehow was privy to its meaning without having read any of the sentences yet. She was, after all, empowered by dark forces at this point.

She read.

March 16, 1967

Yesterday, woke up in the medical unit. Dale’s dead. She maybe ate him. Maybe almost ate me. They won’t tell me where his body’s at; just make stoic faces when I ask. They say, who? What’s he look like? Big black dude, I say, like Frederick Douglass without the hair and beard. Frederick Douglass? they say. Forget it, I say. We were many miles out from Saigon where they found me.

Before that:

That way, Dale whispers.

How you know it’s that way? I say.

We been walking straight toward nothing for hours.

Walking through the jungle. One hundred degrees. M16s above our heads. Sharp grass lacerating our necks and cheeks. Far echoes of exotic birds screeching in the trees. Morning light. Stale air. Sweaty. Ache from sleeping on hard ground. Out here we feel watched. Can’t sleep well for fear of vicious beasts tearing us apart, or bullets or a knife.

I stop in the tall grass and shut my eyes. I smell the swampy heat. I listen to the jungle. I look at my broken compass. Let’s go this way, I say. Should have listened to Dale. We cut right and continue walking. The grass ends and we walk until we come to a dark, cool place. It’s preternatural in the middle of the blazing and muggy jungle. I stop to analyze the change in temperature and make some notes. We stand there for a few minutes while I note-take.

I don’t like this, Joe, Dale says.

Relax, I say. I put away the notebook and take a few steps forward and hear the thud of Dale’s body against the jungle ground. I turn around, see a long bamboo spear thrust through his chest. I sweep the jungle with my M16. The gun shakes in my hands. The clip empties. No one comes out. Loading another clip, something pricks me in the leg. I black out.

Wake up in the evening on a sheet of canvass beside a smoldering fire. Quiet, same cool temperature as when she killed Dale. She has me tied up. Some indigenous campsite with bamboo sticks in the dirt, vines strung between them and laced through a sampling of animal skull eye sockets. On a log sit in a line a number of cloudy, unrelated jars with large insects crawling around in them trying to escape. A sickening smell like burnt feces lingers despite a constant and unnatural zephyr.

She comes out of a small hut on the other side of the fire toward the edge of the campsite. Skinny, shirtless, native woman with piercings, wearing a tattered green skirt fashioned out of Dale’s T-shirt. Stringy, black hair hangs long over her shoulders and down her back. Eyes are black coins. Walks toward me with a scimitar in hand pointing towards the ground.

Degar? Degar? I say. I try to get up. My ankles are tied too. Degar? American. Friends. Good. Here to help. War. Saigon. She stares at me and continues walking toward me. My stomach tightens as I prepare for the abdominal pain of puncture.

She stands over me with the whet-anew blade dangling beside her. I spit at her feet. Last moment of pride. She starts mumbling something and holds out her fist, opens it, blows on a small pile of orange powder. It fills the air like talcum. She closes her eyes and begins mumbling something again. A heavy sleep overtakes me.

There’s a nurse at my bedside. Says some farmers found me naked and passed out next to a rice field. You wouldn’t wake up, like comatose, she says. You’re lucky the farmers told us. They said they wouldn’t bring you in like the other soldiers they’ve helped. They said we shouldn’t either because you’re cursed. The nurse looks askance at me. They took your gun and went through your pack, she says. They found some peculiar things in there, things a witch would carry they said. I’m staring at the snowy mountain peaks at the end of the bed where my feet stick straight up under the white bed sheet. I’ll leave you alone now, she says. She smiles and walks away.

Ill at night. Vomiting a black, putrid substance. I grab the hand mirror beside my bed and gaze in disbelief at the pallor of my face, the sluggish purple of my lips, the devilish red of my eyes. The doctors, I can sense, do not want to treat me. I’m ugly. Something evil is boiling within me. Others around me are sleeping. I sit propped up against my pillow wheezing, feeling my teeth with my tongue. They hum for something I can’t sink them into.. Each incisor, cuspid, bicuspid has a stomach of its own. The doctors stand in a corner at the end of the unit speaking in low, concerned voices. One looks back at me and I see the horror on his face.

Not horror at me, not horror at all. Tenseness as he regards the medic they’ve recruited to sneak up on my left side and jab a needle into my thigh. It prompts my sleep.

My dream is maybe drug-induced, vivid regardless of its provenance. The jungle woman appears. She speaks in a bygone ghostly tongue. I understand while remaining conscious of my unfamiliarity with it. She is bringing me a message.. I wake and recall the information without labor in my own language:

The night hag proclaims her shadow gathers princes’ souls to dwell in repose within her thorn-and-thistle haunt. The monsters assemble in her castle of cries to share the spirits they possess forever. All generations are her beasts for gathering from their overgrown desert briar abodes. There, all are gone wild and missing, lacking food and rest, mouths and minds. They shall be marked and ordered under her shadows of jackals for eternity.

“What’s going on down there?” The basement light flickered on and off. Their dad was toggling the switch at the top of the stairs.

“Just exploring,” Sable said.

“Come up for subs.”

Sable looked at Owen and brought back her demented countenance. “We’ll finish this later.” She slammed the notebook shut. Owen took off the old clothes and hat and put them away.

*     *     *     *     *

Owen observed Sable throughout the day as they unpacked boxes and put things away in the new home. She seemed normal now, but it could be a ruse to keep their parents from discovering her possession, either by Joseph Gagnon or the witch who cursed him or the demonic spirit that inhabited or empowered her, Owen thought. By end of day, he hadn’t noted anything else peculiar about her behavior. Still, he was wary of her earlier transmogrification, her seeming understanding of Joseph Gagnon’s notebook and other obscure items in the chest. He thought it would be best to sleep with his hand-carved hardwood tribal dagger, which some former missionaries to Africa who lived around the block from the old house had allowed him to purchase for ten dollars at their garage sale last month. It was very dull, but it was his only weapon. He wished he could trust Sable, but she wasn’t herself. It was a messy situation for her to get caught up in.

By midnight, Owen had fallen asleep, dagger enclosed in his right hand beneath the covers. When Sable crept into his room, the floorboards creaked. Owen stirred but stayed asleep. She walked to his bedside and knelt. This’ll be so good, she thought trying not to laugh and blow her operation. She put her hand around his neck, not a tight grip, and in her most infernal, guttural voice told him to wake up. And he did. His eyes shot open and, as he had been prepared, he threw the covers off, screaming, and smacked Sable above her ear with the blunt, wooden dagger. It was a poor attempt at a stab or a jab. Sable fell back screaming and holding her head. The hallway light came on.

“What the hell’s going on?” their dad stampeded down the hall like a pachyderm. He turned on the light. “What is this?” Sable was on her back pretending to cry. Owen sat confused and frightened in bed holding the dagger.

“She’s possessed!” Owen said.

“He stabbed me, he stabbed me,” Sable said.

“What?” Their dad saw the dagger. “Give me that. Where’d you get it?”

“Garage sale,” Owen said with his head down.

“But why? Why? You might have seriously injured her. This could kill someone!”

“She’s a witch!”

“A what? A witch? Owen James. What is wrong with you? You’re done. You’re done for a month at least. Grounded, I mean. I don’t even know what to say about this. This is just, evil. Absurd. Can I even trust you? Do I need to somehow padlock your door so you don’t come murder us all?”

Sable had stopped fake crying. Now Owen was truly on the verge. Sable stood. “I forgive you,” she said. She walked to bed. Their dad still stood over Owen.

“Don’t even think about pulling anything else tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said. He turned off the light and walked out.

No one will believe me, Owen thought, I should have figured that out hours ago, I’ll always be on my own with this. He lay in bed awake, wondering if he was crazy or if everyone else was too stupid to see the danger in Sable, who was there again, in the doorway, a still, breathless silhouette moving. Owen stared at her motionless, afraid to breathe himself; afraid she might eviscerate him with some vicious, punitive spell she had learned. He waited for her to move in on him again. He didn’t have his dagger now, or any other means of defending himself, so he waited. She stood there for half an hour, and then left. He sighed with relief and closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them, she was in front of him, having crawled along the floor beneath his line of vision, and was putting her hands around his throat again. And in that hoarse, horrible voice: “Gotcha.

___

Mike Siemasz lives near Detroit and works in corporate communications. He has a B.S. in Written Communication. His fiction has been published in Mulberry Fork Review. Twitter: @mike_siemasz.

Cakewalk Island, 1944

By Burton Shulman

he recon reports all agreed that the little rock they were attacking today, Cay-Ak Island, was barely defended—abandoned, in effect, but for a couple of hundred unfortunates who’d been left behind to die. Plus, Ike’s camera unit was going in third wave: strictly mop-up.

Low-rolling South Pacific swells were catching and releasing fresh morning sunlight. Hump—Lt. Humphrey—told the pilot to drop them near the left perimeter so they’d have a broad view of the other incoming Ducks and, on the other side, an equally broad view of the horizontal mound that rose fifty feet in the air a hundred yards inland, and ran parallel to the beach for half a mile. Reports from the first two waves confirmed that Jap resistance was minimal and would be over when they landed. The unit’s goals today were quality and clarity. The rear-echelon Johnnies—MacArthur’s tacticians—wanted rock-steady footage, fixed compositions they could study so they could tinker with the latest landing tactics. That was probably the operation’s only real value; the island had a small airfield, but no one pretended it was strategically important. Mostly, this was a live-ammo training maneuver to sharpen tactics for the landing everyone was starting to think about all the time—the invasion of Japan. MacArthur himself had taken to calling it “Cakewalk Island.”

“Cakewalk Island: the place to go in the Solomons when you’re…”

…thunder, followed by instant rain, brought Ike back to the moment; one of those Solomon cloudbursts where one second the sky was clear, deep blue and the next you were soaked. He glanced up— why was the sky still blue?—as a second thunderclap followed, this time accompanied by a skyrocketing fountain thirty yards to port. Confused, Ike blinked at the fountain, as a third eruption grabbed him and shook out his body the way a hand might shake out a paper bag.

He heard a scream and another boom, his eyes grew round as bullet holes, and he wet his pants.

Hump was yelling, Ike couldn’t hear what, and everyone was diving. They were still thirty yards off the beach as he hit the water. When he surfaced, the Duck was in a creaky turn and Ike was screaming at nobody, combat sweat popping out like measles. Another concussion threw him back underwater, where the shriek of metal was amplified and unavoidable; Pacific water was so clear that sound waves were visible, forming an envelope around the Duck’s hull as another shell tore it open. The water shook with such violence that it rammed Ike’s face down into the coral as his legs tried to run. When he found footing, his head and torso shot too high over the surface and he threw himself back down. His back was to the island, his face toward the mess that had been his Duck. A sob tried to emerge, but he had to breathe in first as he dragged his legs through the surf, which kept shoving him back.

He pictured himself beating MacArthur to death. Somewhere the old shithead was watching this, chewing his pipe, already working out the excuse; when he’d said “cakewalk,” he hadn’t meant what everyone seemed to think he’d meant. It wasn’t his fault if some crazy Jap officer had chosen third-wave Cay-Ak to commit suicide. They’d conceded the island, they’d abandoned it, plus Japs never did this on third waves, especially not when all they could hope for was a few dead GIs before they died themselves.

Ike was going to die in a cakewalk.

He started to dump his gear so he could move quickly but the impact of another shell rammed his lower back and threw his head forward, knocking out his breath again. This time his face slammed against beach, and he gagged on sand for a few seconds. He was frightened by the ugly, strangled sounds he was making, tried to spit and couldn’t but somehow managed a breath because his body kept moving, flattened itself against the clammy sand, dragged out the IMO camera, and started filming the futile maneuvers of the remaining Ducks. Shells continued to explode as they moved through floating bodies of dead and dying GIs. He’d never really known why they were called “Ducks” until now, seeing them flap around as if the ocean was a barrel of water in a carnival, and their wings had been cut.

The destroyers now started flinging masses of ordnance at the middle of the island, so when Ike turned he saw crazed GIs diving, jumping, rolling back over the mound, fleeing positions they’d secured hours ago, trying to escape the cross of friendly and unfriendly fire. Cay-Ak was an animal shaking GIs off its hide, shrieking with the staccato bursts of nonexistent Jap guns fired by nonexistent Jap infantry, occupying nonexistent Jap positions.

*     *     *     *     *

It took a half hour before there was enough of a lull for Ike to crawl down the beach and form up with the rest of his unit. Somehow they’d all survived.

The shelling heated up again as they hacked foxholes out of the coral and sand. Alternately ducking and digging, Hump wouldn’t shut up about how he’d personally seen the recon, personally read the reports proving there weren’t more than two hundred Japs on this piece of shit. Given a combined U.S. force of ten thousand backed by three destroyers that had thrown down 130mm shells for a week, their fucking situation was impossible.

Another shell exploded and Ike threw himself on his face, pressed as flat as he could under the hail of coral that pummeled his back, as his legs tried to jam his head deeper into the sand than the sand itself would allow.

*     *     *     *     *

For ten miserable days the Japanese maintained numerically impossible dominance of every part of Cay-Ak except the beach. The big guns that recon said they didn’t have established a cross-fire zone that made it suicidal to break the vertical plane of the half-mile mound. MacArthur must have been having trouble diverting ships from other operations because after the first day, the destroyers’ ordnance stopped cold. Ike wasn’t alone in assuming this had something to do with trying not to admit the enormity of his stupidity. How do you demand backup for a cakewalk?

Day eleven, the general’s voice crackled over Armed Forces Radio, psychotically reassuring them that “Mopping-up operations on Cay-Ak are in their final stages.”

Day twelve, word came that a forward patrol had finally figured things out: Running lengthwise under the middle of the island was a previously undetected chain of coral caves. Speculation was that when the Jap supply ships pulled out weeks before, they hadn’t left behind a “token” defensive force—closer to a full division, which was now dug into the caves with a full complement of heavy artillery. So the Japs had lured in waves one and two, then opened up on wave three—a good strategy if you thought you could win, mass murder/suicide if you knew you couldn’t. Since no Jap ships had been detected headed back to Cay-Ak—they couldn’t.

 

When you took a piss, you were shot at. When you crawled between foxholes, you were shot at. When you scratched your ass, you were shot at. HQ raised the estimate of enemy troops from “under five hundred” to “under ten thousand” so quietly, the first number could have been a typo.

Misery floated among the men like mustard gas.

Day thirteen, artillery spotters delivered the first reliable coordinates to a group of redeployed destroyers, which launched a fresh bombardment, this one directly at the caves. Shell after shell screamed overhead for a week, dwarfing the intensity of anything Ike had previously experienced. The noise hardly paused, amplified each morning by aerial bombardment, sometimes loud enough to push Ike to tears. When everything finally stopped, the silence was almost worse. Then came the order: Move toward the caves.

Recon had found more than one opening; the Japs had planned escape routes. Infantry sealed off all but one, set up a perimeter of night-lights around it, and cut down every Jap who tried to run. This attrition continued for a week until the big artillery was close enough to aim directly into the caves. That bombardment went on for yet another week.

Next came the flamethrowers. Ike filmed streams of jellied gasoline bursting into flaming light in the cave’s blackness. When occasional return fire hit a gas tank, it blew up and killed the operator instantly—who was replaced so quickly, there was hardly a pause. Long ago, Ike and his buddies had made it standard practice not to learn any of their names.

The battle was now a slaughter—and Ike was all for it. Jap willingness to suffer starvation, heat, thirst, and terror had always seemed insane, but suicide on this order terrified him, infuriated him. He hated these Japs far more than if they were only trying to kill him. Everyone said Japs were more concerned about avoiding a nasty afterlife than clinging to their current one—that surrender was disgrace. But after being bombed and starved, and now trapped in suffocating heat and darkness without the possibility of escape, why didn’t they surrender?

Because.

Without a surrender, everyone in Ike’s camera unit was now in almost as much danger as the nameless flamethrowers.

*     *     *     *     *

Twenty-one days after the landing, Hump slid into Ike’s foxhole and delivered the news.

“We’re up.”

Ike was checking over his camera and smoking perhaps his thirty-fifth cigarette of the morning.

“For what?” He made sure the cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he spoke, to remind himself he was tough.

“Anyone who’s alive is surrendering. We got to film it.” Hump scratched a bloody insect bite on his neck. “Then we go in.”

Ike had to breathe a few times before speaking. “Into the caves.” Of course MacFuckingArthur wanted this. Still, he couldn’t believe it.

“They want proof. We need to shoot the dead people so the general has proof that this was recon’s fault, not his.”

Ike laughed without smiling. His hands shook. The tough-guy image of himself he’d been clinging to after two years of on-and-off combat—Sgt. Grizzled Combat Veteran—collapsed. He wanted to bury his face in his mother’s apron.

“Ike, it’s just bodies. We’ll have infantry with us. I’m on Leica, you’re on IMO. They’re delaying the surrender till we get there. Dougie wants pictures. We gotta move.”

Furious, Ike threw canisters of film into his sack. He felt the eyes of his buddies on him, the ones who weren’t going. It was like being picked at by vultures: He knew how glad they were that they weren’t him, but he didn’t hold it against them; he’d feel the same. Ten thousand dead—maybe with a few still breathing who hadn’t surrendered because they were still really angry.

*     *     *     *     *

The ones who did surrender—there were maybe a hundred—had big heads, big bellies, and stick limbs. The bodies were barely alive and the eyes lacked light. It looked as if the only things still undecided were the exact circumstances of their deaths. Some clung to bits of white cloth—ludicrous symbols of surrender—stumbling with eyes half closed against the white sun, after weeks of darkness, banging blindly into the coral as infantry studied them for signs of booby traps.

Hump was right; it was just bodies.

What was ten thousand minus a hundred?

 

At the cave mouth the air was humid but breathable; thirty steps in, a wall of stench smacked into Ike so suddenly that he vomited. He turned to run but Hump was right there, also vomiting but not running. Ike swiveled back; he wasn’t going to be the one who ran.

“Sooner we’re in, sooner we’re out,” Hump said, and threw up again. Ike hit his shutter and heard Hump do the same.

It was a system of coral caves with huge ceilings, pools of rank seawater in places, and other places where the white floor was smooth and dry. Ike had shot plenty of bodies, but this was different. They were everywhere, in every pose. A few were more or less intact; most were in the process of falling apart. Nearest the opening, the flamethrowers had left charred meat. Further in it became clear that when the pace of dying accelerated, it overwhelmed the Japs’ ability or will to do anything with the dead. They lay where they fell. Every stage of human decomposition was on display, from older bleached skeletons picked clean, to recent corpses, bloated and wet, covered with the bugs who did the picking. Once, an itch on Ike’s leg caused him to shake his body wildly, sure that one had run up his pants.

He felt increasingly…odd—not that it made sense anymore, differentiating between odd and not-odd, but this was new; he felt as if something was draining from him, something he might have called “will.”

For instance: he had a crazy desire to sit down. He had enough presence of mind to wonder what the fuck was wrong, but that didn’t change what he felt. In search of solidity he looked for Hump, but it was dark in this part of the cave; he was flooded with vertigo and almost fell. He lowered the IMO. A surge of some kind of physical terror burst through his body and left him shaking again. He located Hump now, just twenty feet to his right, but it didn’t calm him. He wanted to tell him what was happening, but when he moved his mouth, nothing came.

“Orders are go deep,” Hump insisted. He spat, and spat again. “Faster we’re in, faster we’re out.” Why did he keep repeating himself? Ike again tried to say that something was wrong, again couldn’t. He tried pleading with his eyes, but Hump wasn’t looking. With nothing else to do, he lifted the IMO and resumed shooting.

Riflemen moved alongside. They’d tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths; they looked like desperadoes. Their job was to find signs of life and extinguish them. No one spoke; the only sounds were bursts of gunfire, boots, dripping water, intermittent vomiting, and the cameras, echoing through the caves.

The bombardment had opened a few holes in the roof, letting in pockets of breathable air along with weird ambient light. Concentrating on inhaling in one such pocket, Ike stepped on an arm; it cracked so loudly, the sound exploded through the cave and his brain. A GI called to him and pointed. Turning, he saw a fire pit with charred driftwood and bones. The bones were human. He saw other fire pits.

It took a few seconds to realize that the Japanese had been eating their dead.

The stench they’d been breathing included airborne bits of that too. Ike started hacking out saliva and mucus, took a slug from his canteen he couldn’t swallow, could only use to rinse and spit out, though that didn’t get rid of the taste. His muscles were so tense that his whole body ached; moving was getting harder.

At one point he almost threw down the IMO, but caught himself. He’d gradually learned to trust his combat sanity because Hump did; hearing the click of Hump’s shutter, seeing the flash of his light, he wanted to cry. Hump depended on him; Ike couldn’t do this to him.

In the ridiculous heat he shivered.

Maybe if he kept his eyes inside the viewfinder. Sweat splashed from his chin into pools of the foulest water there ever was. Tears, too, and tears were absurd, walking around acres of dead Japs whose kinds of death proved they deserved to be dead. Emotions he had no names for surged and retreated like surf. After two years in this shit, why was this fucking place snapping him like a rubber band? The bodies stank but couldn’t hurt him; they were just dead. So why was he fighting not to scream, not to throw the fucking IMO, not to fall, not to stop breathing, not to be dead himself?

If he was going crazy, it wasn’t what he’d expected—there was no release. He knew exactly where he was—a stinking hole with ten thousand bodies. The problem was that accepting such knowledge wasn’t possible. So where were the goddamned hallucinations? Why did he have to know what was going on and just not be able to stand it? He just wanted to shed all this, to molt it. That it existed, that he was inside it taking pictures, he couldn’t accept.

Maybe his number was up. His will went on pulsing out, an arterial wound draining the ability to do anything. You could fall down, he heard something say; Hump will hear the splash, and if you scream loud enough, it might get you out. He tried but got the timing wrong, tried just after he’d breathed out, so he couldn’t scream or breathe either, until a strange gasp turned into a strangled breath.

Even breathing was now complicated.

Another wave of vertigo caused him to breathe in more deeply, after which he gagged and spat again. Why had he forgotten how to breathe? He wasn’t an infant! And why could he only think now of his dead mother—not his stepmother but the one he didn’t remember, the one from old nightmares?

Part of his mind started talking shit—this was as good a place as any to die; there never really was an “outside” anyway. All your life you were looking at things through a window or maybe a doorway you secretly knew you could never cross. And because you could never cross, you’d eventually end up in a grave, except now you realized you’d been in a grave all the time. Wasn’t every place only a farm for cemeteries, where the fully dead outnumbered the merely dying? The purpose of life was to make bodies to fill graves.

No one here was “killed in action.” Whatever words you used to describe this should be invented or you shouldn’t use any.

Another part of him reminded him he was going crazy; with immense weariness he resumed moving, shooting, reloading, shooting.

Everyone said Japs worshiped the dead. So why would they do this, especially knowing they’d soon be dead too? A crazy pain ricocheted inside his head and left an aftershock. His hands shook as he opened the canteen and forced himself to swallow a salt pill. Sitting heavily on a coral shelf, he thought about how every bit of that shelf, every bit of the cave above the waterline, in fact, was dead too. Long before the war this was a tomb–for billions of tiny coral skeletons. Now his living bones sat on their dead ones, amid thousands of new dead ones, laid out like a carpet for as far he could see.

He closed his eyes but ghastly images sprang up, and he opened them quickly. He’d seen guys go nuts, seen medics tackle them and jab in needles full of morphine, dragging them off to field hospitals where they lay staring. A time or two he’d been close himself. He couldn’t do that now, not in this place, not with Hump in here with him, counting on him.

So he tried again. This time he decided to focus only on hands—no arms, legs, heads, or torsos, only hands. He’d study them. Some were all bone, white as coral; others had bits of flesh. Many seemed to be grasping at something. What? He shook sweat from his eyes.

Him?

He judged the distance to the cave’s mouth as about a hundred yards. Closer than he’d thought, but that made no difference. No way would he re-cross those hands—bone hands, purple hands, oozing hands, red meat hands. They’d let him in but they wouldn’t let him out. Now that they’d touched him he was infected. His head throbbed, as if one of the dead Japs had just rammed a bayonet through the back of his skull and out his eye.

There was sunlight back at the cave mouth. So what. Sunlight, darkness, sunlight, darkness. It never stuck. All bullshit.

He put the camera on another shelf and sat down again. Hump was probably gone, probably left him alone. Something would happen to him after the sun was gone. He was sure of it.

“Out.”

Hump said it hoarsely.

Ike shook his head but Hump pulled him to his feet and shoved him forward to get him going. They stumbled toward the mouth, stepping on all the things Ike could not step on.

“This is the bottom, Ike; there’s nothing worse.” Ike wanted to laugh.

Who was Hump kidding?

___

Twenty years ago, Andrea Barrett called Burton Shulman’s first collection of short stories, Safe House, “lean and beautifully written… A strong and unusual debut.” The book was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and other publications. Charles Baxter said, “It takes nerve to write stories like these-nerve, intelligence, and heart.”

Burton earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College. After the birth of the first of his two daughters, he worked for twelve years as a corporate vice president, mostly for Thomson Reuters and Standard & Poor’s, before shifting to a consulting position that allows for more time to write. When he’s not writing, he plays and composes songs for guitar, and studies secular Buddhism.