Housefinch

by Lorna D. Keach

Wednesday the 12th:

Julien stepped on a rattlesnake today. The poison got deep before anyone found him. Papa brought him back to the house, but of course he didn’t let Julien go inside to die. Julien cried and cried, but Papa kept telling him we can’t let Itzal in the house.
Julian should’ve known better, anyway. He shouldn’t have been out so far. All the dangerous things live out there in the prairie: the rattlesnakes and wild bulls and bees. And the natives. That far out, the natives hunt with their rifles and green glass eyepieces. Papa says the natives will drag a person down into their burrows underground then no one will ever see that person again. He told us kids that’s what happened to the neighbor’s eldest daughter. The natives stole her, he said.
I don’t believe him. Papa is full of stories.
Papa’s from the old country, so he thinks death is a cat named Itzal. Itzal looks like a big black cat shadow and wanders around looking for warm places to sleep inside people’s bodies. The life of a house is in the birds, Papa says, and Papa makes sure we tend to those birds well to keep life alive. Julien and me are supposed to keep them fed and clean, the canaries and lovebirds, but Papa himself always minds the doves. Now Julian’s dead, I suppose Marian will have to help me.
When I die, I’m not going to die in the grass. I’ll do it when nobody’s looking, in the sitting room or the attic, or in my bed under Granma Eleanor’s quilts. The grass outside is cold after a storm, and it’s itchy and sharp after a long heat. It’s no good. I’m going to be the first one in my family to die comfortable because I don’t believe Papa’s stories at all.

Thursday the 20th:

The neighbors came by today. It takes them a few hours to walk across the prairie to visit, so we fed them lunch on the summer porch. Marian and I cooked. We roasted the two snakes Marian had brought home that morning, and we fixed dandelion greens and cucumbers and the last of the candied violets. We would’ve had butter, but the milking goats died last year in the worst of the storms.
Also, one of the canaries died. Its insides were turned out. It looked like someone had cut it open and unfolded its skin like fabric, leaving its organs glistening purple and grey in the sun. I think it was the neighbor’s eldest boy. He came to ask for Marian’s hand. Marian told me she’d rather spit in his face than marry him, and I think he heard that.
Anyway, a death in the house means I have to clean. Itzal must be lead back out. I have to scrub all the floors and wash out every cage and string up paper ribbons around the doorframes because Papa says that’s what they did in the old country. Marian’s supposed to hang coins up in the windows and doors, and a few finch feathers if she can find them, because these are things that lure the death cat out. We have no coins, and the finches all died last winter, so scraps of silver forks will have to do. The only feathers we can find are crow.
Marian found out I’ve been going up to the attic in the middle of the night, and she made me swear I wouldn’t do it anymore, so I have to be extra quiet. But Marian won’t tell. She’s too soft-hearted. She knows how harsh Papa can be.

Sunday the 23rd:

Papa doesn’t want me up here in the attic. When we found the house and settled in, the attic was locked. The door was painted with a sign in the natives’ speak, so Papa told everyone not to go near it. The natives built these houses and abandoned them, and it was just luck that we got to use it now. Best not tempt their gods, Papa said.
I broke the lock easily with a silver serving knife, while everyone was sleeping.
I don’t know why Papa’s so scared. The attic is just full of old junk, torn books and busted crates, broken glass cases, bolts of spare cloth, cracked furniture, old leather and these black masks with glass eyes. The books in the attic are written in their language. I know because Granma Eleanor taught me to read and write, before she lost her wits, so I know what words look like in our speak. I also found a green glass eyepiece like the ones the natives wear. It’s broken, half melted on one side, but when I put my eye to it and lean out the attic window, I can see the whole prairie in fine detail. I can see for miles, even in the dark.
In the dark, things glow green.
Once, with my eyepiece, I saw Marian by the creek in the middle of the night. She was standing next to a native. I thought the native might shoot her or worse, but they only looked at each other for a while.
I’m going to ask Marian to talk to the natives for me. If she can bring back a few words, written like the words in the books, then maybe I can work out what the books mean. After all, Granma Eleanor taught me to read because I was the smart one. I was going take over the healing work, but she lost her wits before she finished writing down all her cures. Now nobody’s sure what’s a cure or a curse.
I think Marian can bring me some words back because she’s smart, too. And I think she feels sad about Julien. She’s been extra nice to me since he died.

The first Monday after the new moon:

Three more birds died. Something splayed them open, leaving their organs open to the air like meaty little pearls. Everyone is quiet about it. I can’t write long today because we all spend our time cleaning and chasing Itzal out.
Papa said someone must have asked Itzal to come inside, but I’m sure that’s not it.
It’s got to be the neighbors. I think the neighbor’s eldest boy is sneaking over to kill our birds since Marian said she wouldn’t marry him. Or, maybe the birds died because Marian is always sneaking out at night to go to the creek. Who knows what she brought back from that native boy’s burrow? It could be a sickness that convinces little bodies splay open by themselves. It could be anything.
The storms on the prairie are getting worse. We’ll face a flood, soon. The cellar’s flooded twice. I had a dream last night I was sitting in the hall with Granma Eleanor looking at the primroses and there was a cat on my lap. For a minute, I understood why Itzal wandered so much. There aren’t too many good places to sleep, after all, and I’m sure the inside of a body is warm and soft.
In the dream, I stroked his black fur, and he chewed on a dead bird.

Thursday the 5th:

Marian came back with words today. She didn’t mention how she got them and I didn’t ask. I was too happy to ask anything. They were five words written in soot on a piece of cedar bark: the native words for water, blood, beast, and food. The fifth word is not one I really understand. Marian described it to me as a tiny thing that crawls inside the skin and nestles inside a body, but I don’t know of any beasts that do that.
Marian tried to tell me that the natives gave up these houses for a reason, so we should probably leave, but where would we go? We can’t live in the ground like the natives, and the neighbors won’t take us in. Anyway Papa wouldn’t listen. He sits all day with the doves now, looking angry. The doves keep dying, too, but when I told him it was the neighbors’ fault, he didn’t listen.
We’re at the mercy of things we can’t see, he said.
I’m sure sooner or later Papa’s going to find out where Marian goes at night. The native at the creek must be teaching her more things than she shows me. When she told me the words she brought back, she said them so easily. She sounded like one of them. Their language is not much different than ours, so I’m sure it’s not that hard, but Marian is really good at it. She told me she’ll get more, even though she’s not sure why I want them.
The fifth word she brought me looks a little like the sign on the attic door, but I’m sure it’s not the same.

Monday the 16th:

Last night, I put on the eyepiece I found in the attic and walked around the house. Everywhere, I saw things crawling the walls. Tiny things, twitching and spreading in swarms. They were too small for me to see them individually. They reminded me of a cloud of bees.

Sunday of the full moon:

Another storm is coming. A bad one, I think.
Papa’s been sitting in the grass with Marian’s body. He won’t speak to me. His clothes are now dark brown from all the blood, but he won’t come inside, not if all the doves are dead. I can’t convince him.
He stopped talking to me when Marian came home with that native boy. I was feeding Granma Eleanor, so I saw the whole thing through the window. The native boy didn’t have a rifle. Maybe he was too young for one, or maybe he didn’t want to threaten Papa. If the native boy had a rifle, maybe it would have gone different. But he and Marian just tried talking. I couldn’t hear them, but I saw their hands moving fast and their faces full of fear. Papa didn’t say a word. I don’t know what Marian thought would happen. She screamed when Papa picked up the shovel and beat that boy till he stopped moving, but I don’t know what she was thinking when she jumped between them. She should’ve known better.
With Marian gone and Papa so quiet, it’s just me and Granma Eleanor now. I’ll have to get her to high ground once the cellar floods again. Maybe the water will take the whole ground floor of the house this time, maybe even the second floor too.
If that happens, then there’ll be nothing left to do. I’ll have no other choice but to take shelter in the attic.

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Dream On

by Leland Neville

It was a nice fender bender, very polite, gentle. The thud, almost inaudible, reminded Olivia of the soft sound a lump of concrete makes after striking a prone body. A middle-aged man, dark suit and striped tie, emerged from the navy blue BMW, carefully closed the door, walked languidly towards the silver Audi, leaned over, and tapped delicately on the driver’s window. The Audi’s door opened and a middle-aged woman wearing gray yoga pants and a white sweater arose from a black leather bucket seat and kissed him tenderly on the lips.

“Ex-girlfriend,” said Hannah, sending her half smoked cigarette end over end into the street. “They are still best friends.”

“Strangers,” corrected Katie. “This is the way adults now hookup. Casual collisions and the sushi bar at the supermarket are replacing computer dating. Take a good look at Mrs. Yoga Pants. There’s your future in just a few years.”

“But we are adults,” Olivia protested. “We’re 21-years-old. We work full time. We have boyfriends.” She lit her final Marlboro menthol of the morning break.

“Practice boyfriends aren’t real boyfriends,” said Hannah. “Three or four hours a week of them is enough. Right?”

No one disagreed.

Hannah continued. “I like Tim, but I don’t miss him when he’s not around. When I’m alone I can close my eyes and still hear our conversations. I think I can sometimes feel him next to me in bed.”

“That’s maybe a little creepy,” said Katie.

“You don’t feel that way about Jason?” asked Olivia. “I see you answering his texts without even reading the messages.”

Hannah shrugged. “Communication isn’t about an inimitable verbal or electronic exchange. It’s just realizing someone is there, acknowledging your life. And, I almost forgot, his.”

Olivia exhaled the cyan cigarette smoke and studied its vapor trail. “This was in a dream I had last night.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Hannah.

“It’s all coming back to me,” answered Olivia. “The car accident during our break. This conversation. My smoking. Didn’t you think it was strange that I just started smoking today?”

“Not really,” said Hannah. “Breaks are better when you smoke. Staring at a computer monitor is also better after taking Vicodin. The numbers and words appear mellow. I just took my first Vikes this morning.”

“I know what happens next in your dream,” said Katie

“Well don’t tell me yet.” Olivia dropped her cigarette. “Oh shit. I just remembered.”

“I’m dreaming all time,” said Katie. “I can’t get a good night’s rest. Not too long ago I would forget my dreams as soon as I woke up, but not anymore. I miss those days.”

“So what’s supposed to happen next?” asked Hannah. “And you both need to answer at the same time. On three. One…two…three.”

“A bomb explodes,” Katie and Olivia said in unison.

Their hands clutched at nothingness as an unseen force flung them into the air. Waves from the blast pummeled and shook their world for the next ten seconds. Olivia peeled her face away from the sidewalk just in time to see a rectangular fragment of concrete, no bigger than an iPad, quietly hit Hannah on the back of her neck.

“Run,” yelled Katie.

Olivia knew from the dream that running was impossible; her legs were mangled. This was where last night’s dream ended.

“Come on,” screamed Katie. “You can do it.”

Olivia looked upwards. The 44-floor mixed use tower trembled and leaked black and blue smoke. She wiped her eyes with the back of her bloodied hand. The night sky was suddenly visible through a white space in the smoke: a full moon and spinning constellations smoldered. All her favorites danced past: Ursa Major, Orion, and Noctua.


Olivia, Katie, and Hannah were the lone customers inside the retro Space-Ex Lounge. The hirsute bartender, a sometimes actor in his other life, dozed behind the stainless steel bar.

“I didn’t think I’d like hard liquor,” said Katie.

“Me neither,” added Olivia. “I hope the bartender remembers what I’m drinking. I’d like to just order ‘the usual’ during my future visits here.”

“I don’t remember getting a tattoo,” said Katie, scratching the back of her naked left shoulder. “There are words, but I can’t read them.”

Olivia squinted. “Unexpressed emotions will never die.”

“What kind of font?” asked Katie.

“I think it’s Handel Gothic.”

“I don’t like that,” said Katie. “Everything is Handel Gothic. Even spreadsheets.”

“Maybe you need Vicodin,” suggested Olivia. “I heard that helps.”

“Let’s get down to the business of our dreams,” stated Hannah. “We need to determine which dream we all shared last night. We can’t just write them down and compare notes because I for one have trouble remembering my dreams without some kind of provocation. But I also realize that the process of hearing one of your dreams could taint the experiment since I might unintentionally and erroneously believe I too shared the dream. I confess that I want to believe.”

Olivia finished her third drink. She tried to remember if she had driven or walked to the Space-Ex. “We need placebos or control safeguards.”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Katie. “Let’s each write down the dreams we remember on the back of a napkin. Be sure to list some dreams that never occurred. Put a check mark next to those counterfeit dreams. Then we’ll give the napkins to the bartender who will recite our catalog of dreams. Maybe there will be the same dream on all three napkins.”

Hannah interrupted. “But what if I only remember a dream after the bartender reads the list? How will we know my mind isn’t overcompensating because of my dream inadequacy?”

“You’re making this too complicated,” said Olivia. “I also need another drink. The usual would do nicely.”

“We should only assign each dream one or two words,” said Katie. “Then it will be up to Hannah to provide the specific details. For example, don’t write that our office building was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Just write down ‘office building’. Or maybe ‘explosion’. And don’t forget the check mark next to the false dreams. Let’s try for five dreams – some real and some bogus – apiece. ”

Alf the bartender poured Olivia another drink and agreeably accepted the napkins.

“Just read the napkins,” said Katie, “but don’t mention which items have a check mark.”

“Napkin one,” Alf announced. “Concrete, naked man, meteor, food, and elevator.”

Alf paused. His voice, flat, maybe even harsh, reminded Hannah of an old boyfriend who was from a flat and harsh state somewhere in the Midwest. Everything was reminding Hannah of something else.

He continued. “Napkin two: elf, meteor, bartender, novel, and water. Napkin three: computer, smoke, meteor, bed, and star.” He placed the napkins back on the table.

“So every napkin has the word meteor written on in?” Katie asked.

“Should I read the napkins one more time?” Alf looked at Hannah. “Incidentally, all the napkins were written in Handel Gothic. The words are very legible.”

“Do any of the napkins have a check mark after the word meteor?” Olivia asked.

Alf again glanced at Hannah who shrugged.

“They all do,” said Alf. He placed the napkins in the center of the table and withdrew to the bar.

“This is kind of weird,” mumbled Katie. “I certainly wasn’t expecting this.”

“I think it’s significant,” said Hannah. “Sharing a non-dream must have meaning.”

“It’s just a coincidence,” said Olivia. “We need to concentrate on the real shared dreams. Those are the ones that have made living so difficult. The worst part of the day is now night, because that’s when the nightmares arrive. Explosions. Fire. Death. You can’t look away. There are no distractions. I don’t remember having nightmares until recently. Sleep was always restful.”

Katie began to sob. “I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t even think anymore.” She emptied her glass. “I think the dreams are angry after having been downgraded by society. Do people tell their dreams to psychiatrists anymore?”

“I think we’re not alone,” Olivia said. “There are probably thousands of people sharing these dreams. Maybe millions. That’s why they are so powerful and controlling.”

“You’re probably right,” said Hannah. “Everyone looks exhausted and afraid. It definitely has something to do with technology and group dynamics. We perform the identical tasks at work and take identical medications. We all are wearing identical Bluetooth headsets. We dream the same dreams.”

Alf materialized. “It’s almost closing time. There’s time for one more drink.”

“Have you been dreaming more often?” Hannah asked the bartender.

“I never dreamed – or at least remembered my dreams – until a few months ago. Now I’d do anything to stop dreaming. They are disruptive.”

“What was your last dream?” asked Olivia. “I’m not trying to be personal. You can just tell me to mind my own business. You can even make one up.”

“Last night I had a dream about a meteor. I woke up in a sweat and couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Hannah laughed. “There goes your tip, asshole.”

“And I was considering spending the night with you,” smirked Olivia.

“I’m being serious,” said Alf. “Nightmares about outer space are an occupational hazard for me. Inside the Space-Ex Lounge I’m surrounded by space paraphernalia. I’m buried in a sea of silver. And for the last week almost all the news has been about the meteor that might hit Earth. I’ve turned the sound off, but there are still all those computer generated images showing the meteor striking the White House, a Justin Bieber concert, or Googleplex.”

“Why haven’t I heard about this?” asked Hannah.

“This is new to me too,” added Olivia.

“It will probably crash into Siberia,” said Katie. “That’s what usually happens.”

Then the lights died. The black silence was broken by Hannah.

“I don’t remember this.”

“Will it sound like a rocket?” asked Olivia.

“The meteor is traveling faster than the speed of sound,” answered Alf. “You won’t hear anything if it’s a direct hit. It’s better that way.”


Alf didn’t understand why customers chose to talk to him. Listening was, of course, a bartender’s obligation, but none of the other bartenders were on the receiving end of so many stories. Genial, immaculate Gareth would go home with a lonely woman at least once a week and comely efficient Henrietta would get the big tips, but neither exchanged more than a few clichés with a patron.

“Your unkempt appearance invites dialog,” Gareth told him. “Women assume you’re not going to hit on them. And with those wire rimmed glasses you could pass as a brilliant but distracted psychiatrist.”

“I thought long hair would help me get a part in the musical remake of Solaris, but it didn’t.”

“That’s my favorite book,” said Gareth. “It’s my second favorite movie. At least the original film. I watch it once a month. I can recite the lines in Russian. Listen…”

When had people become so tiresome? What did they want from Alf? In the last few months their stories had become both personal and particular. The women (over 70 percent were women) sipped their Cosmos, laughed too loudly, and relayed their twisted visions and dreams in monotones more suited for conveying expense budget spreadsheets. He was assailed by disconnected details, replicating, mutating, and refusing to leave his mind. Was he hearing acts of confession? Were social media disclosures, the appropriate venue to anonymously commiserate or ridicule, no longer a sufficient form of absolution?

“I’m all right when I’m working,” the clientele said. “Multitasking is best. When I’m at the computer, on the phone, and texting I feel safe. But when I fall asleep I immediately start dreaming.”

To find some relief from the stories, Alf took a week of annual leave. His health rapidly deteriorated and within one day he was almost too exhausted to eat or use the bathroom. The first casualty was Alf’s consciousness. That limitless space that held his memories and the innumerable caverns where ideas sought him out had been invaded and occupied by insufferable chatter. Childish voices incessantly sang insipid songs and recited trite dialog from television shows and commercials. He couldn’t sleep. Alf begged for the opportunity to once again be permitted to hear confessions at the bar. He miraculously dragged himself back to the Space-Ex Lounge, a wiser man. Listening to the women and dreaming their dreams was, he realized, both a curse and a calling.

“You were with me last night,” whispered an elflike woman drinking champagne at the end of the bar. “I saved your life.”

“Thank you.”

Alf refilled her champagne flute. The dreams he heard were lately melting into one monochrome smear. The nights were a litany of earthquakes, meteors, explosions, and fires. He was unable to recall either the elf or ever rescuing a woman from an avalanche of office furniture and computers. He’d always been a passive bystander.

“One of the women I work with in the office, Hannah Keyes, recognized you and told me that you work here. She’s a regular. She’s also part of the problem.”

“Hannah believes she is part of the solution,” said Alf. He had mastered the art of the platitude.

The redheaded elf pointed at her pale, bare upper arm. “Look at the size of that bruise! It kind of looks like a star.”

“Did I hurt you?” asked Alf.

“No. I bruise very easily.”


Her hands gripped and squeezed his flesh. Their bodies shook.

“Are you all right?” There was a lack of urgency in his voice.

“I’ve never been better.”

The elf’s plan was to never let Alf go. It would be for his own good. It would also be for her own good. Alf was a good listener and an adequate lover. Absent the dream debris from those other women he’d be an even better lover.

“I’ve got to go to work. The Space-Ex needs me. Friday is a busy day for confessions. ” Naked, he walked to the bedroom window. “Oh shit.”

“There was a bomb and then earthquake. An 8.7, maybe an 8.8. Then there was a tsunami. Bad things happen in threes.”

“I thought it was the sex.”

“The sex was a 5.0. I’m tough but fair. I also never grade on a curve. You’ll learn to appreciate that someday.”

“The city has been destroyed. It looks like those photographs of Hiroshima. Lots of smoke. Fire leapfrogging across the horizon. Everything is in black and white.” He gazed blankly at the elf. “Are we safe? Is this building going to collapse? We must be on the one hundredth floor.”

“We’re in a space station. The Orion.”

“But I remember getting into an elevator…”

“That was a space elevator. The Orion is in a geostationary orbit 36 thousand kilometers above the Earth’s equator. The window is actually a monitor that is displaying images transmitted from a drone 300 meters above the devastation.”

The dark hair on Alf’s chest formed an inverted isosceles triangle that compelled the elf to focus her eyes on his sad, lifeless penis. In time he would learn to appreciate the restorative solitude of the Orion.

“Are we alone?” Alf asked.

“Yes,” answered the elf. She joined him next to the monitor.

“Will there be any survivors back on Earth?” He unconsciously squeezed the elf’s delicate arm.

“There will be enough. This isn’t, however, the type of disaster that will bring people closer together. They will scheme and fight over food, water, and shelter. Their dreams will be mundane and innocuous.”

“I’m still tired.”

“Let’s go back to bed.”

“This room looks like the Space-Ex Lounge.”


“Do you want to play?” asked Hannah. “You do dream – don’t you?”

“There really isn’t time,” answered Alf. “It’s been a long day.”

“Write some dreams on a napkin,” said Katie. “One or two words. If you don’t remember five dreams just make something up. Put a check mark next to the fake dreams. Except for Olivia, we’re all going to do it. This won’t take more than a minute. Olivia will be the referee. She’s tired of this game. I think she’s tired of life.”

They wrote their words and gave the napkins to Olivia who squinted at Alf’s list.

“Just read his napkin,” directed Hannah.

“Spaceship, elf, Hannah, Katie, and Olivia.”

“Does the spaceship have a check mark next to it or is it real?” asked Katie.

“It’s real,” answered Olivia. “No one else wrote down spaceship.”

“What about elf?” asked Hannah.

“Real,” said Olivia. “You and Katie also wrote elf, but with check marks. One real elf and two make believe ones.”

“What about our names?” asked Katie.

“Not real,” said Olivia.

The overhead lights twinkled like a distant space station.

“Where’s our bartender?” asked Hannah. He was here a second ago.”

The lights failed.

“I saw him heading back to the bar,” Olivia answered.

A trail of flame snaked through the opened door. There were explosions both near and far. The smoke and fire were visible from space where Alf, rested and bored, planned his escape. He wanted to help. He needed to hear some more dreams.

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Four Poems

by Tiffany McDaniel

Taste

The day the peach ate me
I was June, I was July
I was summer and yellow flesh.
I think he yawned afterwards
while I left the earth on my heels
above the tree I climbed as a child.

Home

They say my father left today,
They say my mother’s old today,
There are fingerprints everywhere.
I’m not scared of the exact way
a firefly dies in a sealed jar.

Damn

When the miracle came, I wrote it down.
I still can’t remember to believe.
I step in this left weather,
losing both feet to frostbite.

Quiet

He dropped the rope down my long throat
She could not climb out of my stomach.
We decided to carry our shoes,
We’d be quiet enough to run away.

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Have You Seen Her?

by Karen Pullen

I remember every detail of that last morning. I’d fixed pancakes and bacon for the three of us. Our seven-year-old, Connor, rocked in his squeaky chair, humming, lost in his crazy-boy thoughts. When sunlight struck a crystal hanging in the window, scattering rainbow flickers around the kitchen, he reached out his hands to catch the flying jewels. He hooted his excited-monkey noise until I silenced him with the last piece of bacon.

After a twelve-hour patrol shift, Greg looked drained, even with the rainbow glimmering across his face. Budget cuts had reduced the police force, but not the workload. Just as many folks gone adrift as ever.

“I’ll take him to the beach park this morning. You get some rest,” I said.

Greg kissed my ear. “You’re a keeper,” he said, his breath sour and warm. He started loading the dishwasher but I shooed him out of the kitchen.


At the park Connor would swing happily as long as I kept pushing him, and though after the thousandth shove on his bony bottom I was exquisitely bored, it was a good day to be alive, to enjoy the ocean’s sparkle, the cries of gulls, the fresh iodine-smell of the sea.

We were alone until a girl sat on the swing next to Connor. Pleased at the diversion, I was a bit puzzled at her appearance out of nowhere; I hadn’t noticed her approach though the area around the swings was open space. Her golden hair was long, dirty and tangled. She wore a grimy white dress and black leggings with lace trim, and was barefoot. If cornered in a witness box I would put her age at ten, though she was slight and could be any age, even twenty. Alone, thin and dirty—at first, I felt a pang of sympathy.

Though she hadn’t made a sound, Connor twisted toward her, dragging his feet to slow his swing. He smiled. Was he smiling at her?

Then a miracle occurred. “Hi,” said my nonverbal son. “I’m Connor.”

You can’t imagine what joyful emotion flooded me at this instant as I realized that he’d spoken to someone. This girl had triggered something in him that a dozen therapists had tried and failed. He was being social.

She turned to us. Her features are hazy in my memory but there was something compelling about her and I stared at her until I realized what it was. Her eyes were solid black, reflective like marbles. Her eyes were all I noticed about her face.

When my gaze dropped to her dirty bare feet, my vision blurred. Were those claws? I blinked. No. Scaly, pointed toes. I felt pity, curiosity and revulsion, and hoped my feelings didn’t show. Though I was happy—and proud!—that my son had made a connection with another person, I had trouble believing what I saw—the strangeness of the girl’s eyes and Connor’s recognition of her were too far from my everyday normal.

“Can I go home with you?” she asked. “I’m hungry.” Her voice was low, confident and too mature for a child. As though she knew her eyes alarmed me, she half-closed them and looked away. A feeling of dread fell over me, my instincts whispered she is something other and I made a decision.

“No. Leave us alone.” I turned my back to her, tugged Connor from his swing, and trotted to my car. Usually he was limply docile, but he could be a handful when he was balked, and he struggled, kicked me and wailed. Adrenaline made me shaky and I fumbled as I buckled him into his seat.

The girl stood close behind me. “Please? Take me with you.” Her thin body drooped, her voice a hoarse whisper.

“Get away.” I slid into my car and locked the doors. She leaned towards my window, and her dirty gold hair fell about her pale face, framed her solid black eyes. As I drove away, I looked in the rear-view mirror, then scanned the parking lot and beach. Like that old cliché, she’d vanished into thin air.

Connor’s wailing intensified. He had an eerie cry, a high-pitched “eeeee” so painful you’d do anything to make it stop. He cried all the way home, where I had to hold him tight and rock him for almost an hour before he quieted down.

When I told Greg about the girl, he was skeptical and made jokes about broomsticks, aliens and spaceships. I brooded, wished Greg had been with me to see what I saw. I locked all the doors.


In the afternoon we took Connor to an appointment with his occupational therapist, where we watched him roll around in a ball pit, then refuse to button his shirt.

When we returned home, guess who was sitting on the porch?

“Oh, dear God. That’s the girl from the park,” I said. “Don’t stop. Just drive off.”

“Naw, she’s a kid.” He pulled into the driveway, and I shrank into my seat.

She came to Greg’s side of the car. “I would like something to eat, please,” she said, in her strangely adult voice. She studied Connor, who was asleep, with her coal-lump eyes. “Just a little something. I like cereal.” She was so close I could see the dirt rings on her neck, her bumpy skin.

I grabbed Greg’s arm. “Her eyes, Greg. Put your window up and lock your door.”

Greg looked at me impatiently. “We can’t sit here all day. And what’s a little bit of cereal?”

He got out of the car and motioned her up the steps. When she followed him into our house, I slouched down and waited for my heart to slow its thumping. As minutes passed, I wondered whether I should check on them, but I didn’t want to leave Connor sleeping in the car. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave the car, period. The girl scared me. Greg feared very little; he was a big man, a cop, and didn’t seem to sense what I did. And he took care of people, that was his nature.

By the time Connor woke up, writhing to be let out of his car seat, I decided that maybe I was a neurotic mess, afraid of someone who looked a little different, a dusty homeless girl with an unusual eye disease. Maybe this was the breakdown the therapists had warned me about: a caretaker’s collapse, the result of ignoring myself for too many years. Feeling numb, I unbuckled Connor and took him inside.

The house was silent and cold. In the kitchen, a cereal bowl held a few soggy corn flakes and a trace of milk. I looked all over the house but they were gone. I tried to be calm, rational. Maybe she needed Greg’s help, or had something important to show him. Surely he would return soon.

Connor rocked and hummed, his chair squeaked. I paced, sat, turned the TV on and off. I had a bad feeling and it got worse as the hours passed. I fixed a simple meal of chicken nuggets and green beans, but I couldn’t eat, my stomach was like cement. Something had happened to Greg, but what? If I called for help, what would I say?

Darkness fell. When I pulled back Connor’s blanket to tuck him into bed, on his pillow was a scarlet splotch the size of my hand that looked like blood. And a coarse gold hair.

I phoned the police. They came quickly; Greg was one of theirs.


It was hard to keep an eye on Connor; the cruiser’s flashing lights lured him outside and he twirled around in the darkness while they questioned me. I was well aware the police didn’t share my belief that the black-eyed girl was an evil being, an other. I knew how it sounded—my husband had gone off with a girl half my age. I was describing her for about the twentieth time when I sensed a blur of motion along the beach path, a glimpse of white dress, and saw my son run, flying to meet her, disappearing into the black vacuum of an moonless night.

Screaming Connor’s name over and over, I ran after him, but in the pitch dark I tripped over a clump of roots and fell hard onto the sand, knocked breathless. Someone lifted me up. “My son,” I gasped, pointed, “out there.” They ran towards the beach.


I am alone now. I hate this house because she was in it, but I can’t move away because what if they come back?

Every day is the same. I fill a baggie with corn flakes, tug on my floppy blue hat and walk the narrow path that leads alongside my house, down to the beach where fishermen chat over bait buckets and the first beer of the day. Wave at the bowlegged, leathery jogger running barefoot along the tide line. Stoop down to pet the bulldog inspecting the spiked shell of a horseshoe crab.

The crystal hangs from my neck, sending rainbow flickers onto the sand, into the wind.

I walk. I walk for miles, past surfers, sunbathers and couples, under boardwalks, around sand castles and tidal pools. I’ve become a fixture on the beach, the woman in the blue hat who walks all day and into the evening, and sometimes people join me. I tell them my husband and son are missing, and show them pictures of Greg and Connor.

I ask if they’ve seen the black-eyed girl. My memory has a blank hole, her features elude me and I can’t tell you what she looked like, other than her solid black eyes, dirty gold hair and pointed, scaly toes.

But that should be enough.

 

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The Creator of Tongues

by Kristine Ong Muslim

Death Wish Billy

His legs were cut short.
His stride, insignificant.
He would never reach
the end of this tunnel.
He would have disguised
himself as an orphan, a child.
He would knock on our doors
if only he had learned to curl
his claws into fists. He would
ask to be let in as his only source
of sky was depleting. But we built
our houses so that the facades
would not resemble houses.
We had to confuse him, to let
him enter the wrong doors,
to lure him to the basement
where the black mold
and old parchment paper
took on the wrong forms
and preyed on small creatures.

As a Child

Before we read his name in the headlines
and before half of the jury cried when his
only surviving victim was put on the stand
and before he was electrocuted so we could
forget about how he had used his hands,
he was a child once, lived in a small house
in a small town by the lake. Nobody abused him
no matter what his lawyer said. He crushed
butterfly wings while his little sister cried and
yelled for him to stop hurting, to stop hurting.
He used to cut his hands at night and watched in awe
how the blood turned darker when left to dry.
It was a sight he never forgot. The pain
from the wound never bothered him; pain was
a luxury, a gift. In church, he imagined his body
vibrating with the piano, understood the secrets
of tautly pulled strings and the keys that rammed
against them. He dreamed of strings many times
before he finally used one as an adult. Eighteen times.
Then they caught him. He used a knife that time.
It was an accident. He went to summer camp,
ate a bug when he thought nobody was looking,
but then a strange thing happened, and he watched
himself from a distance swallow the dry crackling
thing down, down his throat where he believed
all gods were smothered. He believed that a string
tied around the neck could free the god and save
the host from choking in the god’s  screams.
He did not tell anyone about that time when he suddenly
saw the utter clarity of things. Even the grass below him
breathed. He did not want people to think he was crazy.

At Seven

A handful of television static was not a bad thing.
He observed his mother in the kitchen today,
understood that knives depended on the hands
that wielded them. He let a fly settle onto his palm;
the creature fascinated him—it dragged morsels
of the dead in its tiny legs. His cousin shooed it away.

“You’re so weird, you know that,” his cousin said.
And he did not know. He did not think it was all right
to whisk the fly away. His mother told him to wash
his hands, and the water was cold and elusive—
always avoiding his grasp, always attracted to the throat
of the drain, that dark, filthy small town repository.

The next day at the lake, he told his cousin a secret:
the hinges rust every time you hold the door open
to strangers, but the rust gets scraped off when the door
is locked. His cousin laughed. “You really are nuts,”
his cousin said. And the lake before them was a sliver
of light. It heard his cousin’s laughter and became still.

He wanted to be like that—a surface of light that would
not flinch. Silent, silent beautiful film of light. He smiled
at his cousin. To facilitate drowning, he held his cousin’s
head down much, much longer than necessary until it was
all right to let go. Everybody believed it was an accident.

At Eight

Salt kept the wildness in check, reminded him of home.
He smeared a handful of salt against the crisscross
of superficial cuts on his palm, and he heard instead of felt
the pain spread across his arm. It was wildfire—the sizzle
of pain as it followed the axis signaling the vulnerable
hemispheres of the body. He would have to wash away the salt
before dinnertime. His mother had taught him that far—
to never talk to strangers, to never skip Sunday Mass,
to never slouch, to never ask for more than what was given,
to never tug at the tablecloth, to never forget to say grace
before every meal, to say “please” when asking for the potatoes,
to not partake of any variations of the same hunger.

At Eleven

Today, he heard the word autistic from his Aunt Marcia.
She was talking in the kitchen, and he understood
by the abundance of pauses and restrained gasps
that they were talking about him. Knowing which
of the steps creaked, he tiptoed down the stairs,
caught a glimpse of his mother. She was crying,
was making tattered roses out of the table napkins.
Did he do anything wrong? Did he let her down again?
He went up the stairs, followed the parallel paths of light
offered by the blinds onto the floor. He thought he saw
his bedroom door open on its own. Somebody wanted in.
Somebody was lost. Somebody wanted to be found.
When he closed the door, his hands started to shake.
When he closed the door, he dirtied the wood with his grasp.
A year later, he discovered how a knife could still his hands.

At Twenty

There was a time when he wanted to stop,
when no door was wider than the one he held
in his hand. He remembered the story
about the murderer who hid the bodies
under his tongue; those bodies did not exist.
At twenty, he still believed that he was
a lost fragment of a hate letter.
He knew how it was to love.

The Creator of Tongues

All tongues were grafted in places
where they could learn to deceive:
Voices, he told the jury. They made me
do it. And they believed him, sent him
to the asylum that was supposed
to end his corruption of flesh.
Snow existed only in his imagination,
but it chilled just the same. The orderly
complained about the draft in his room.
Nobody could find its source. Two days later,
he ate the heart of another patient.
Then he called his room a bone garden,
where a compass point dangled to his will.
You should have killed me earlier, while you
still could. The shackles held him for a while.
His cell was found empty the next morning,
the lock intact. And every Sunday, he brought
an offering to the mental hospital’s director,
placed it under the brass plaque: a handful
of seeds, fingers, grass, eyes, love.

 

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