An Answer to Darkness

A Feature with Kundiman

Kundiman is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian-American literature. Through readings and workshops; Kavad, an intergenerational community-based storytelling program; an annual retreat; and a Youth Intensive program for high school students in The Bronx, Kundiman creates an affirming and rigorous space where Asian-American writers can explore, through art, the unique challenges that face the new and ever-changing diaspora. They see the arts as a tool of empowerment, of education and liberation, of addressing proactively the legacy we will leave for our future and ensuring that Asian-American stories reach broad audiences throughout the country. To learn more, visit www.kundiman.org.

Diagnosis, by Ansley Moon

First sight of blood. Pain,
pain. Pain. An elbowed
girl carves an indentation

            nightly with her sharp hip.

Illness makes its own song,
reverberates—

Crossing, by Dao Ling

a bow to bear
a cross to bridge
it was rainmaking on a
vulva
velvet
night
there was a man
who made me feel
                                         safe

like a candle
in a bough
of a bursting tree
there were arrows drawn in caves
the woods thinly drawn
                                         like a womb
the perpetual gate
biding her time
and a finger
across the tip
of blue electric fire
there was an opening
no, a parting
no, a silence made
of circles & discs
rings & knots
                                         a web strung
of a million
poppy petals
barring my bones
from going                    with him.

Memory is a Gentle Blessing, by Arhm Choi Wild

So be careful.

For you the day at the park was proof
that emotions are the play things of men
but for him, it was just another Saturday afternoon.
You’re allowed to say no. You’re allowed
to think of yourself
over his ego.

You have been pretending for a long time
that you’re like everyone else
so stop berating and squeezing
and talking to an empty sky.
No one is counting, but I’m sure
you’ve done your time.

Memory is a gentle blessing—
all you will forget
when you’re standing at the altar
looking at her face,
all the bruises belonging
to someone else by now,
the names you were called
flecking off like old paint,
your mother’s eyes holding something new
and yes there’s that time, and also that one
that makes you think that this goodness is a lie

but how else can you remember
that you deserve to stand here
if only because of all
the blood you have left behind
trying to be worthy
of wanting something
just because your tongue insists
on wrapping around its name.

Questions, by Elaine Wang

What is the answer to injustice?

More action more love
More understanding more awareness
More consequences more laws

The answer is more more more always more

Justice is a roaring hunger god
never appeased

So once again we raid
the hornet’s nest
Once again they lay their eggs
into our soft, larval bodies

Generation, by George Abraham

Come See the Bears

We drove out in the middle of the afternoon, toward a town just off the highway that I never knew the name of, heading to the best strip club in the world. The drinks were expensive, but the girls didn’t mind if you touched them. They would take your hand and pull it over their stomachs and up and up, for a dollar.

Earlier, we’d been stretched out on his bed—Taven on his back, me curled against his chest. “Thalia, I’m bored,” he said, shaking me gently until the frame rocked. “We can’t just stay in bed all day.” 

“But I like bed,” I said, my fingers gripping tighter to the bottom of his T-shirt even though I told them to let go. 

“I know you like bed, and bed likes you, and I like you in bed. But we haven’t left my apartment in like thirty-six hours, and I’m pretty sure even bed is starting to feel kind of weird about it.” 

I laughed, but my insides felt sludgy at the thought of getting up and entering the rocky, changeable world outside Taven’s apartment. 

I thought about mentioning the roller derby bout I’d been planning to go to, but then I skimmed my hand up under his shirt and said, “Let’s go to the strip club again.” 

He raised his eyebrows and said, “Yeah?” and, when I nodded, “Hell yeah. I’ll get my wallet.” 

Now he put on his turn signal as the building and its neon girls girls girls marquee barreled into view on our right, and I remembered the last time we were here. How he’d told me it was a dare, no, a mission, nay, an adventure, seeming to understand exactly the right words to make me feel brave enough. How he hadn’t let go of my hand as we stepped through the door. How, afterward, our breath made frosty clouds between us in the dark of his car. 

I turned to look ahead, into the expanse of corn that marked the border of civilization. It looked different from last time, the bitter gray haze of winter giving way to sunlight. And that’s when I saw the sign, tacked to a telephone pole sticking up through the corn. 

“Wait,” I said. “What does that sign say?”

He looked toward the club, girls girls girls dark against the bright gold of three p.m. 

“Not that sign,” I told him, gesturing, and he drove up close, passing the parking lot entrance and idling in the turn lane. Come see the bears, it said, with an arrow pointing down the road. 

I looked back at the unlit strip club sign, and I couldn’t conjure the smoky pink fantasy of last time, couldn’t summon up the energy to think of walking inside. I turned and jerked my chin toward the piece of paper on the pole. “We should go,” I said.

“Are you serious, Thalia?” Taven asked. “Bears?”

“I’m serious,” I said. “Bears.”

I met Taven at a bar a couple weeks after I moved to town. I’d just started my job at the campus library and was regretting going for a drink with Samantha, an acquaintance from high school who hadn’t grown out of scheduling hangouts down to the minute, up to and including conversation topics. 

When I escaped from rapid-fire questioning about our former friends, I saw a poster on the wall advertising a party that night to raise money for the local roller derby team, and I leaned closer to read it. I didn’t even really know what roller derby was, but I stared at the girls on the poster, arms locked, grinning, a little bit wild around the eyes. They looked strong. They looked like they weren’t afraid of anything. 

I was typing the details from the poster into my phone when I felt someone next to me. I rolled my eyes, expecting Samantha, but it was a guy, with a square face and a skinny body and long fingers wrapped around a pint glass. 

“Roller derby, huh?” he said. “That’s hot.” 

I rolled my eyes again and had already turned away when he put his hand on my arm—not even his whole hand, just two fingers, right below my elbow. 

“Wait,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound that way. I mean, I don’t know anything about roller derby, but it sounds really cool…and you seem cool.” His fingers were still on my arm. I looked at them, and he took them away. 

I kept looking at his fingers, how long and bony they were. Hands for playing the piano or folding origami, not for touching strange girls in bars. I couldn’t stop looking at them, and I think that’s why I said, “I don’t know anything about roller derby either.” 

He smiled then, and it pushed a crease into his chin, so I smiled back. “I think I might go to this party,” I said, heat rushing around my ears, the words coming out before I thought them. “Do you want to come with?” 

He looked at the poster, head tipped and eyes lingering, then back at me. “Nah, I think I’m gonna stick around here. But if you don’t end up going, find me and I’ll buy you a drink.” 

I’d been thinking my first brave act in this new place would be to go to the party, but as I watched him walk off to rejoin his friends, I thought maybe it could be this instead. It could be talking to this guy I’d never met before. It could be letting him touch the small of my back and buy me a drink, letting him ask me about myself and tell me all about his master’s program in linguistics, letting him take me home and look at me like I was someone different than I was used to being. Letting myself believe that here in this place, with him, maybe I actually could be.  

Later that night, with our bodies pressed tight, it felt like we were passing all our secrets skin to skin, like osmosis or bacteria or ghosts.  And when I looked up at the shapes suspended from his ceiling and learned that he really could do origami, it seemed like a sign. 

I’d seen bears before, plenty of times, in zoos and on TV, but as we drove past the cornfields, through some trees, and into a little gravel lot, I was finding it hard to picture what one would actually look like up close.

When we pulled in, two men in flannel spilled out the door of a mobile home. They looked identical, except that one had a beard and the other didn’t. 

Taven turned to me. “Do you think those are the bears?” he asked, mock reverent. 

“Hey,” I said. “You’re ruining all the magic and mystery.” 

He shrugged, biting back a smile. “You know me. I call it like I see it.” 

I rolled my eyes and popped my door open, chewing on a smile of my own, which faded when I saw how small the gravel clearing was, how the trees loomed on every side. 

I tried to close the car door softly, suddenly not wanting to draw attention to myself, but the guy with the beard was already waving at us. I wondered if we should just leave right now. Then I thought of the empty parking lot, the strip club with its darkened sign. 

“Hey, folks,” the bearded guy said. The clean-shaven one snorted from his throat. 

“Hi,” Taven said. “We came to, um, see the bears?” 

“Sure, sure,” Bearded said. “They’re right out back.” He gestured behind him at the trees that crowded in close and green behind the mobile home. 

Taven looked at me again. “The…bears. Are right out back?” Both men nodded, and Taven frowned. “Like, loose? Is that safe?” He didn’t sound worried, just slightly disgruntled to find himself having to ask such a question. 

Not-Bearded giggled, then spoke for the first time. “Oh, it’s safe all right.” 

Bearded ran his hand up the back of his head. “Well, see, here’s the thing. We used to have bears—lots of ’em, three plus a baby one—but first they changed the laws in Missouri about keeping wild animals, so we came out here, and then a month or so ago the Illinois law changed too.” 

Taven didn’t say anything this time, and Bearded turned to me, nodding like I should understand. “Okay,” I said. “So you don’t have any bears.” 

“Well, not as such. They came and got the bears we had and took them to a sanctuary—not like a church, it’s like a zoo but nicer—but me and my brother, we’ve been showing bears for about ten years now, and we don’t really want to do anything else.” I glanced at Taven, who was looking between the two men, eyes narrowed. This, clearly, was not what he’d been picturing as the antidote to his earlier boredom. 

Bearded was still talking. “We had a couple of ’em trained, even; they could stand up and roll over and all. But now they’re gone and we still got a business to run, so we hired some imbearanators.” 

I jerked my gaze to him. “Im—what?” 

“Imbearanators. Like impersonators, but bears.” 

At that, Taven laughed, short and sharp. “Oh my god, Thalia, I cannot believe you dragged us out here, but this I gotta see.” 

So we went to see the bears. 

I didn’t go to the roller derby party, but I did eventually watch one of their bouts. I wasn’t planning to go. I had been in town for about six weeks by then. I exchanged hellos with the reference desk ladies daily, and I was hanging out with Taven a couple times a week, and that had started to feel like enough. 

I still had their schedule memorized, though, and when he texted me that day, asking what I was up to, I started to type Nothing, then backspaced and typed out There’s a bout tonight. Interested? But I deleted that too. I didn’t want to watch him watch the players, and I didn’t want a repeat of the night a week earlier when we’d been out drinking and he’d suddenly started talking about how a girl across the bar was into him, he just knew it, she was giving him looks, and did I dare him to go over and talk to her? I didn’t want to have to joke back and forth until my smile felt glued in place and I said, “Taven,” my voice cracked and salty, and he finally stopped and looked at me. 

So I told him I was busy and went by myself.  

When I slid into the last row of bleachers in the converted college gym, all the girls were already sitting at the center, in a double row like musical chairs. My eyes caught on one girl with curly hair sticking out from under her starred helmet, and at the start of each jam I found the star and followed it as it zoomed around and crashed and glided. I listened to the skittering thud of skates on track, felt a thrill as the jammer went up on her toes to pass people on the outside, jumping and landing like she wasn’t afraid she’d shatter. 

I went to the next bout too. When I told Taven he said, “So does this mean you’re going to become a derby girl?” I thought of the way we’d both looked at the girls on the poster. I wondered whether, if he looked at me like that, I would be able to see myself that way too. And the next week I drove to the kiddie roller rink and asked to rent a pair of skates. I was hesitant at first, but pretty soon I forgot why I was there, forgot everything but the air in my face and my feet beneath me, each glide powerful and strong, the plastic walls of the rink sliding away in my peripheral vision. 

I kept going back. I also fell, a lot. One night, I wiped out hard coming around a corner, tripping on the front of my skates and tumbling, then grinding, my hip heavy and hollow against the rink floor. When I came to a stop and sat up, my bones ached and my forearms were raw and bleeding. 

“Holy shit,” someone said. “That was a truly beautiful fall.” 

I looked up to see a woman a few years older than me leaning over the side, a helmet dangling from her hand. I recognized her curly hair, and embarrassment bucketed down on me. I took a breath to get rid of the crying feeling, then stood up and started wiping myself off, which only got blood on my shirt. “Thanks.” 

“Seriously, I have to commend you. That was a sight I feel privileged to have seen.” 

Her voice was friendly, but I knew she had to be making fun of me, and the longer I stood there, teetering in the middle of the rink, the more the tears threatened to rise behind my eyes. “Well, glad to be of service,” I said, limp-gliding to the exit. 

“It’s okay,” she said. “Falling’s how you know you’re really doing it. You gotta wear those bruises like a badge of honor.” By this time, I was clomping across the carpet in my skates, and she called after me, “Do you want me to help you get cleaned up?”

“I’m okay,” I said, waving over my shoulder without looking back at her.

The next day when I saw Taven, he was obsessed with my bruises and scrapes. “You look like some badass warrior girl,” he said, running his fingers over my hip, grazing my arms with his nose, making the scabs tickle. 

“God, you’re so weird,” I said, pulling my arms in, reveling as the new shapes of myself pressed together. But he pinned my wrists above my head and continued to examine me, then to kiss the places where I’d been hurt. I loved the sensation of his lips against my skin, soft on all my tender places, and the contrast of his firm fingers holding my wrists in place.

I was breathless, cracked open, sure he could see my thoughts on my face, read all my secrets on my skin. He leaned down and very gently kissed the center of the bruise on my elbow, and I loved him. 

As we followed Not-Bearded down the winding path that led deeper into the trees, Taven reached out and grabbed my hand, linking his fingers in mine. Something pulled inside me, then soft, velvety sadness blanketed down, anticipating the moment he’d take his hand away again. Which part was the love, I wondered, the pull or the sadness? 

I looked around for bears, but I didn’t see anything until Not-Bearded pointed up ahead. By a tree about twenty feet away was a woman. She was wearing a brown onesie with a hood, which didn’t completely contain her bushy gray hair. It pushed out around her face, upon which she had drawn a nose and whiskers. She scratched at the tree in front of her with mittened hands. 

“What,” Taven said softly beside me. 

“There you go,” Not-Bearded said, hitching up his pants. “Nice thing about not having real bears anymore is we don’t have to worry ’bout cages.” 

I shivered. The woman didn’t seem to see us, just kept pawing at the tree, making little grunting noises. As we got closer, I saw a look of intense concentration on her face. 

“I’ll let you kids at it,” Not-Bearded said, turning and ambling back the way we’d come. 

Taven slid closer. “This is batshit,” he breathed in my ear. “Do you think she actually thinks she’s a bear? Do you think they put up a job posting on a furry website or something?” 

“Stop it,” I whispered back. I didn’t want him making jokes. I felt so sad, looking at the woman scratching a tree as though her life depended on it. Or maybe as though her life was inside it and she was trying to tear it free. “Let’s keep going.” 

We skirted the woman, and soon we reached a guy who looked about thirty, sitting on the ground to the side of a little clearing. He too was wearing a makeshift bear costume—brown sweatpants and sweatshirt, face paint smeared along his face and neck. 

“Hey,” he said as we warily approached. 

“Hi,” I answered. “Are you supposed to be talking to us?” 

He shrugged. “I mean, no, but who’s gonna stop me? A couple of wackjobs who are paying me to pretend to be a bear? And not even paying me very well.”

Taven laughed, but not barbed like before. “How’d you even get into this, anyway?” he asked.

The guy leaned back on his hands, stretching muddy sneakers before him. “Saw a post on Craigslist. Haven’t had a job in a while, and I thought it might make a good story. My name’s David, by the way.” 

“Taven,” Taven said, dropping my hand to shake his. I waited for the pull, for the string connecting us to go taut, but I had to concentrate hard before I felt that familiar tug below my sternum. Taven was saying, “So what’s up with those dudes back there, anyway? And that lady…?” More laugher, the sound ringing out round and full in the space between the trees. 

But I didn’t want to hear what David had to say about the woman with the tree. “I’m gonna go on ahead,” I told Taven. “I’ll just meet you back at the car.” 

He caught my eye and mostly stopped laughing. “Okay,” he said, then held out his hand as though in warning, his voice going deep. “Do you feel safe out there alone? There are bears in these woods.” David guffawed, but when I looked at Taven, I could tell that there was a real question underneath the joke. That he would go with me if I asked him to, even though he thought it was all batshit and punchline. 

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said, stepping into the trees. 

It was Taven’s idea to go to the strip club, but we did it because I wanted to. After a few months, I would have told anybody who asked that we were dating. (Not that anybody did ask, because I had blown Samantha off until she stopped texting, and I hadn’t seen the jammer since that night I’d run away from her at the rink.) But then, one night in early February, we were lying on his bed, looking up at the cranes as usual, when he got up suddenly and started pulling on his pants. 

“Shit,” he said, “I totally lost track of time. I’ve got a date in fifteen minutes.” 

I sat up too, and my heart dropped, suddenly untethered. “What?” 

He grinned. “I met this girl in my phonology class, and we’re getting drinks tonight. She made a ‘bilabial’ joke, and I knew I was in. She’s really cool, I think you’d like her.” 

I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying with my heart flopping dramatically from side to side, blood whooshing. “What? Is this, like, an especially cruel way to break up with me?” My voice was shaking, and I hated that. I pulled his blankets up around my chest, huddled more firmly into the spot I had thought of as mine, but which suddenly seemed suspect. 

He laughed, looking up from doing his belt buckle. “What? No, of course not. You know how into you I am. But I told you that I’m not really big on monogamy.” 

That was true. The first night we’d met he’d talked at length about how societally prescribed dating rituals didn’t make sense, just look at history and biology and the short span of human life. About the world being full of beautiful people and opportunities that he didn’t want to cut himself off from by just dating one person, and he didn’t want to cut anybody else off either. It had been equal parts shocking and intoxicating, and then he’d leaned in close to me and said, “When I say beautiful people, I’m talking about you,” and I could feel his breath on my neck. He’d said, “Come on, I’m flirting with you,” and I’d considered that maybe I was letting myself be limited to what I’d been taught to want; that I’d moved here to give myself a chance to be someone I’d never been before; that if there was anybody to try something different with, it would be this boy. 

But he’d never mentioned it again, not explicitly, and I had allowed my mind to veer around the possibility that I wasn’t the only one he was dating, had pushed away the thought every time he said he was busy or didn’t answer my text for hours. I’d thought that he would prepare me for it, ask my permission before he went around asking out other girls. 

“Thalia?” he said to my stiff silence, the churning whirl behind it. “You knew this was how I am. But if you’re not okay with things being like this, it’s okay.” I looked at him, his crumpled forehead, and for a second I thought he meant that if I wasn’t okay with it then he wouldn’t go on the date, he would stay here and we’d forget all this. But then he leaned over me on the bed, his eyes serious. “Are you okay with this?” 

I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t known, that he should have been clearer. But he had told me; getting mad would just be petty, immature, missing the point. I knew if I said I wasn’t okay with it, this would all end. And that felt like giving up. A mature person would compromise. A brave person would fight to keep this.   

So I said, “Yes.” 

He tipped his head, really looking at me. “Are you sure?” 

I could see in his face, the hesitant lines around his mouth, that he could tell I wasn’t. But I nodded, then nodded again, and I saw him decide to believe me, to let this be my choice. And I loved him for it.

“Okay,” he said. He smiled and kissed me soft, his still undone belt buckle pressing into my stomach, and all my insides tugged me toward him.

As I put my clothes on, I tried to think about what someone who was cool with this would say, and I decided on, “I don’t know if I would be able to keep up with dating lots of people at once. It’s overwhelming enough to touch just one person.” Which was almost certainly a failure where coolness was concerned.  

He glanced at me. “Is it overwhelming for you, to touch me?” 

“A little bit,” I admitted, thinking of the way I sometimes counted beats of my heart before I was daring enough to reach out my hand to him. “I don’t know. It can be scary. I haven’t really touched that many people.” 

“Really?” he asked. “How many?” 

“Three.” I wondered if I was ruining his idea of me and felt a mingled twist of regret and relief.   

He raised an eyebrow. “Wow, how did I not know that? I love that.” 

“You do?” 

He nodded, considering. “Yeah, it’s different from most twentysomethings. It’s fascinating.” 

He hadn’t asked, but I felt like I needed to explain. “Well, I had that one boyfriend for all of college, long-distance, and we didn’t even have sex until junior year. And then after we broke up, I hooked up with someone at a party and figured that counted as my rebellious phase.”

“And that didn’t make you want to have more rebellion? See more people naked? In my experience, usually the more you do, the more you want.” 

I hesitated, the truth heavy in my mouth, wanting to tell him that I had never wanted anybody until him, not really, never felt the draw of someone in my bones and skin and hair follicles. But it was too vulnerable, so I just shrugged. 

His eyes brightened. “I have an idea for you. Have you ever been to a strip club?” 

I snorted. “Um, no.” 

“We should go!” he said. He grabbed my hips and shook me so that I stumbled into him, and he wrapped his arms around my waist. “It’ll be fun. You can touch so many people. And I can watch you touch them.” 

That’s when he started in on his talk of dares and adventures, and I thought, I could do this. I could go to a strip club and I could be okay with him going on a date with someone else. This was just another way to be brave. 

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, yeah.” 

“Yes!” he said. “Awesome. We can go this weekend.” He grabbed his jacket, then turned to me again. “And I promise, no matter what, that you’re the only girl I’ll go home from the strip club with.” His mouth curved, teasing, and he traced an X over his heart before leaning in to kiss me. 

I walked on through heavy silence until I heard rustling up ahead. Another imbearanator lay on a branch. A girl, with a sharp chin and big eyes, wearing one of those animal hats with the long flaps that end in little mittens to tuck your fingers into. 

She dropped, landing in a crouch.  “I’m a bear,” she said. “Grrr.” 

I laughed, but it caught in my throat. She scanned me up and down as she stood, eyes darting like she was taking in every detail, memorizing me. 

She reached out toward me, and I stepped back. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to. Touching is sacred, you know? It’s how you find out all the secret things people don’t know how to say.”

“What?” I said, crossing my arms against my body on instinct. “How do you even know I’ve got secrets?” 

She shrugged. “Everybody’s got secrets. I’ve got secrets.” She looked at me consideringly. “I actually am a bear. That’s the big one.” 

 “Um, okay,” I said. “I’ll be sure to tell the guys out front about your commitment to the bit.” 

She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, them. I don’t care about them. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up, staying here without a cage instead of going to some sanctuary, which whatever they tell you is just a zoo with better square mileage.”  

I looked at her. It was an odd character to play, for sure. A bear pretending to be a person pretending to be a bear. 

She sighed. “You don’t believe me. I get it. Do you want to touch my tail?” 

“Um,” I said. She turned around and pointed her butt toward me, like I’d said yes, like there was no reason why I wouldn’t want to touch her tail. 

Beneath a brown sweatshirt like David’s, the girl was wearing some sort of furry pants that formed to her leg, following the thick curve of calf muscle into the knobbles of a knee and widening around her thigh. And at the top, a little stubby mat of hair. 

“Go ahead,” she said. “Touch it.” She did something that made it wiggle up and down, and I followed the motion with my eyes. In the silence, I counted out five heartbeats. Then I touched the lump of fur, scratchy and warm under my fingers. The girl spun around while my hand was still outstretched, and my fingers slid along just below her stomach with a scrape of molecules against molecules that rattled up my arm. 

“See? Tail.” She smiled, showing teeth too large and long for her mouth. I jerked my arm back. “It’s okay,” the girl said. “I don’t bite. I mean, I do, but I won’t bite you and blow my cover.” I didn’t say anything, and she looked at me, her eyes gobbling me up again. “I want…” 

Then she tugged up the hem of her sweatshirt, revealing a strip of stomach above the fur pants. I didn’t remember feeling a waistband when I’d touched them, no elastic or zipper. “Will you touch my skin now?” she asked. “I want to know if it feels real to you.” 

A bug zipped past my ear, whining, and I jumped. My pulse beat in my fingers as I looked at the indent of her belly button, the fur just below. Touching is sacred, she’d said. I thought of tracing my hands across Taven’s back, of secrets itching to be spilled in the dark, of the yearning climbing up my throat, to know if the things I wanted could survive outside myself, if he could give them form and substance. Night after night, it seemed inevitable that with every touch my body would communicate what I couldn’t: the hurt every time he waxed poetic about another girl, even though I’d told him I would rather know than not know; the fear that eventually he’d look away from me and not look back; the knowledge that the strip club wasn’t just a fun, sexy thing we’d done together, but something that highlighted all our contradictions. 

In the shadow of the trees, I stepped closer, I could smell her, like she’d gone two days without a shower and slathered herself in honey. Then my hand was on her, and her skin was skin—warm and a little dry. My fingers brushed the fur below her stomach, and I definitely couldn’t feel a seam. 

 “It’s part of me,” she said. “I could make it skin too, but it’s hard to keep your whole self changed for very long, and I need my energy to hold on with these stupid hands.” She took her hands out of her little mittens and clapped them like crab claws, fingers to thumbs. Then she reached for my wrist, pulling my hand off her, and her fingernails were yellow and thick and filed to points. I pictured her sharpening them by scratching on the bark of a tree, the way the woman had done, and while that had been sad and hollow, this sent a shiver vibrating up my neck. I stepped away, but she didn’t let go. “So does it?” 

I nodded. “It feels real.” I swallowed, the sides of my throat sticking. I glanced at my hand, but it looked the same as it had before. I listened for my heartbeat, like I would be able to hear if my secrets were still rattling around safe inside my chest or if they’d whooshed out desperately at the first invitation. 

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, running one finger down the center of my palm. My chest hurt, and I realized I was holding my breath. Then her eyes snapped open. “I think you know how to fix it. Your problem.” Her fingers moved to circle my arm, pushing my sleeve up. She lingered over the purple-yellow bruises on my bicep, and despite the nails, her hands were gentle. 

“He didn’t give those to me, if that’s what you think,” I said. “I’m practicing, to join a roller derby team. You know, roller skating.” 

Her hand trailed back down my arm, pins and needles and heat. She said, “You gotta be tough to do that.”

“I am tough,” I said, but I swallowed my breath and the words came out sounding small. 

“Out here, maybe,” she said, stroking the calluses on the heel of my hand. “But here”—she tapped above my heart—“you’re just a big bruised peach.” 

“You don’t even know me,” I said, pulling away with more force. She stepped toward me and stroked her fingers down my neck instead, and I wondered what my skin felt like to her. I thought of my veins running sticky juice through my insides, pumping just beneath my bruises. She was tracing precise lines, like she knew exactly where those veins were.  

 “No,” she said, letting her hand drop, looking at my eyes. She blinked, and hers seemed to drink the reddish light coming through the trees. “But I love peaches, and bruises.” She spread her palm wide, pressed it down on my chest. Not anything like the way you’d slide your hands up someone’s skin for a dollar, and not like clinging to a person you hoped would never let you go. 

I backed away. “I’m going to go find my boyfriend,” I said, the word slick and foreign in my mouth, too sweet to taste good.

“You’re not tough,” she told me as I walked away. I looked over my shoulder, and she was already halfway up the tree, tail wiggling, not even looking at me. “But that’s not bad. Sometimes bruises make you tender instead of rotten.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said to her dangling feet, rubbing my chest where it radiated warmth. 

“Bruises aren’t your problem,” came her voice from the trees, and in the gathering darkness I could no longer be sure which tree she was in, couldn’t see her at all. 

The night we went to the strip club, I clutched Taven’s hand as we walked through the door into the smell of sweat and perfume. In the entryway, as the guy was checking my ID, Taven turned to me and said, “Are you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to. We could go do something else.” 

I turned to him, opened my eyes wide so he could see there was no hesitation hiding in the corners. I felt like I had those first times at the rink, everything fluttering and sliding but finally coming to rest on something solid, the knowledge that I wanted this. “Yes,” I told him. “I’m sure.” 

We sat in low chairs in front of a stage, and I watched Taven sliding over dollars and hands, paper and skin. The music was so loud I couldn’t hear my own heart pounding, though I knew it was because a blush pulsed in my cheeks and ears. Taven’s hand was warm when it squeezed mine, slipped a dollar into my palm. 

When he did that, he made it so easy. Almost all the steps had already been taken, and all I had to do was hold my hand out, wait for a girl to take my dollar, then spread open my fingers and let my hand be drawn up over plasticky, lotioned skin, blood tingling in my fingertips. The act of reaching out over and over made me giddy, until I started to feel numb.  

My last dollar, a girl took my hand and pressed it to her waist, leaned in close to my ear and asked me, “How’s your night?” and “Is that your boyfriend?” 

Sensation returned then, and I could smell her powdery perfume and feel her skin, firm but velvet-soft. I said, “I don’t know,” suddenly sure that I would cry right there in the middle of the strip club. She met my eyes and hers were green and then she leaned down and pressed a kiss to the side of my neck, and it felt so intimate and so strange all at once. 

After, Taven asked, “What did she say to you?” and I told him, “Nothing,” because this night had been so good and I didn’t want to cry. 

I don’t know if he believed me, but he didn’t ask again. He raised my hand up to his mouth, and I felt both kisses burning, drops of fire in the hot room. 

When we left, it was deep dark beyond the streetlights ringing the parking lot. The glistening unreality of the club followed us out into the cold, and it felt like we were right on the edge of the known world. It felt like anything was possible. 

He turned on the car and we sat looking at each other while the windshield defrosted, and, for a second, I thought that he was going to say he loved me. But instead he turned the key and said, “So how’d you like it?” and I said, “I liked it,” and he said, “I can’t wait to feel your hands on me. Watching you with those girls really turned me on.” 

I looked out the window. I had done the brave thing, reached and touched, but it hadn’t made me feel the way holding his hand or curling into his bed did. I wondered if they could both be bravery, or if one was something else. He put his hand on my thigh, and I felt the warmth of him through my jeans, coiling deep in my stomach, almost pushing out the cold disappointment as he drove us away from the dark, toward the pinpricks of the city. 

When I got back to the mobile home, the last rays of the sun were slanting down and Taven was leaning on the hood of his car. 

Bearded swung open the door as I reached Taven, asking, “So did you enjoy the bears?” 

“Yes,” I told him, an automatic response I couldn’t stop. Then, “They were very frightening,” which was the truth. 

He bowed his head with a mock flourish, then grinned at me. “Why, thank you kindly. We’d be very much appreciative of a positive Yelp review, if you felt inclined to give one. Always trying to drum up more business, and there’s nothing like a firsthand account.” 

Taven unlocked the car. “Yeah, we’ll do that. Thanks very much.” As I slid in, he muttered, “Yelp, my ass. I paid that guy twenty bucks for this, which I’m pretty sure means you owe me a lap dance when we get back.” 

He turned his smile on me, a teasing one, but I wasn’t in the mood to be charmed. I felt drained, like I’d been running through the woods for hours, only to emerge and see more trees ahead. 

“I don’t want to go to the strip club today,” I told him as we pulled onto the road. “Not now.” 

He looked into the rearview, the sunset painting colors on his face, strips of pink and gold. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want.” 

I thought about that in the silent miles as we drove away from the edge of things, back toward the center. Whatever you want. When we reached the city, he said, “So, where do you want to go, then?” 

“Let’s go to the bout,” I said. 

 “Sure,” he said. He looked away from the road and met my eyes. “You should join the team next time they have tryouts. You would look good in those short shorts and weird tights they wear.” 

“I know,” I said. He laughed and I realized that he’d misunderstood me, because I wasn’t talking about how I’d look in tights. I could have laughed with him, but instead I said, “I am going to try out. I was already going to.” 

My voice was too loud in the small car, and he looked at me with eyebrows up and said, “Okay.” Placating, as if I might turn feral. 

When we pulled up, I put my fingers on Taven’s wrist as he reached for the key, scratching my nails lightly up his arm. Not hard enough to leave a mark. You could only leave marks if people let you, anyway. 

He smiled at me. “Your hands are so soft,” he said. But I didn’t feel soft. I felt like a peach pit you could break your teeth on. I felt like walking into the dark at the edge of the world.

“Actually,” I said. “I kind of want to go by myself.”

He turned off the ignition, making my fingers slide down his arm, thunking on the console. “Are you mad at me?” he asked. “Is this because of what I said about the short shorts?” I shook my head and he said, “Then did I do something else wrong? Is it about the bear thing? Because I know I made fun of it but if you want to dress up as a bear in your spare time or something I will totally support you.” 

“Taven.” I remembered all the times I’d felt so close to him, the way I’d been sure that he could see what I was thinking, if only he tried. That he could make me happy, if only he wanted to. But I’d never actually told him anything. 

“Remember at the strip club,” I said, “when you asked me what that girl said to me?”

“I think so, yeah.” 

“She asked if you were my boyfriend and I said I didn’t know.” I looked across the car, my eyes steady on his. “But I do know.” 

A pause, and then he said, “I know,” voice soft, eyes sad, like for just a second he wished the answer could be different.

I thought of the questions I’d been asked: Is that your boyfriend? Are you okay with this? The answers were never going to change. I knew that the source of my sadness wasn’t just the other girls, the ghosts of their kisses on his mouth, but that I’d had a picture of how it would be, that first night when I looked up at his ceiling and saw those paper birds. I’d had the idea that I could get used to this, that it could be mine. 

I thought of what I’d been told: You know how to fix it. Your problem.  

“Thalia,” Taven said. “Is that what you’re mad about? Me not being your boyfriend?” 

“I’m not mad.” My mouth trembled; my voice didn’t shake. I reached for the door handle. “You might have done something wrong, but also I let you do it, so I don’t know.” I pushed open the door, put one foot on the pavement. 

“Okay,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he knew what I meant. I wasn’t sure it would matter if he did. “Do you want me to pick you up after?”  

“No.” 

“How will you get home, then?” 

“I’ll run home,” I told him, climbing out of the car. “Because I’m a bear. Grrr.” 

“Thalia,” he said. “If you’re mad we can talk about it.”  

I thought of the people I’d met today, dressed up as something they weren’t, yet with their selves still poking through. I considered that while I’d been trying to bury it, my sadness had been seeping out, leaving tiny holes as it passed. 

I thought of the way my skin had stretched and mended itself after every fall, my body’s own brand of magic. I could still feel those tender, mottled places where Taven had kissed me and my blood surged up toward his lips, asking me to be the person he seemed to want me to be for just a little while longer. But I could also feel the muscles that had formed beneath my bruises, and I wondered if being brave could look different than I’d thought it did. 

“Thalia?” 

I reached through the open window, and Taven gave me his hand, laughing a little. His fingers pressed into mine, skin on skin and nothing in between. When I breathed in I could feel my heart heavy and solid in my chest, knew the ways it had grown and strained and changed and would change again. After all, a heart can be a lot of things. 

“I’m not mad,” I told him. “But I gotta go.” 

Then I turned and walked inside.  

Three Poems by Devin Kelly

In the museum of lost things there is a hole
you fall through & keep falling through
until you fall once more through another
hole in the museum of lost things there is
a room with the painting you came to see
painted over with another painting
in the museum of lost things the curator
separates the word painting into two
as a means to make you see the pain in things
it’s supposed to be clever but like most
things it’s not & this is a kind of loss & so
in the museum of lost things you have
already paid your entrance fee it was years
ago & you missed your stop on the train
because of that wrenching inside your gut
like a bird had made a nest out of the twigs
of your intestines I am so bewildered to be
alive as such I try to remember everything
so I might always return to a part of myself
that refused to surrender joy I was a boy
sitting in the backseat watching the blue
float behind the clouds or the clouds float
before the blue I can’t remember so I go
to the museum of lost things to figure
it out but here I am deeper inside myself
someone is hanging a painting upon
the near side of my skull what does it
look like I can’t tell there is a hole
I am falling through if I reach my hand
through this other hole it extends
into an arm that extends into a body
that extends into a tree that extends
into the earth I am always reaching
toward something toward what I can’t
tell are there stars where you are is it
the kind of light that I could never even
try to describe I’m sure you’ve heard
there is a little bit of us in everything
even dust even dirt even birds can see us
trying to love do you think they notice
the way we rummage through our pockets
looking for our keys our phones that scrap
of paper upon which I wrote down my last
thought it said I am something trying
something to tell you something about love

At night I hear the open windows arguing
with one another like the moon is not
the face of your first lover’s father
breathing quiet as he listens on the home
phone’s other line. We each live in the ether
of discontent, & the continent hums beneath
us, & that hum is the hum of all of this
rumbling together as it separates. Once,
waking in the city, I walked alone, making
my own tracks in the snow & then turning
back to watch them, albeit gradually,
disappear. I know the past is nothing
but a dog’s hair on the underside of a pillow,
& yet I thought I could make it invisible,
the way I walked all morning & into afternoon,
past the wet & closed thresholds of other
people’s lives, where each doorman stood
without question guarding what I assumed
must have been fire, or the clinking of ice
in a glass, only to turn around & find not even
a trace of where I’d been. All of my life
I have been wanting. But I know this. & this
is only to say: all of my life I have been
wanting to find in my wanting a kind
of dignity I can live with without looking
back to find that place where it all went
so terribly wrong, where I became, all
at once, who I am. It isn’t much, a story,
but it explains something.
& the people now whose windows are blue
as a dying heart raise their voices once more
before lowering them into that final
crescendo of a whisper. & they will go
to bed together or alone, or together &
alone, & the seasons will come one after
another in the steady march of nature
that underlines all our fumbling, & years
from now someone will call you & you
will not remember their voice & you will
feel terrible. & you will long for someone
to step out from the audience & hold
your hand & say “it’s alright, it’s happened
to me too.” & if it happens or it doesn’t,
let me say: sorrow is the insomnia of feeling,
& morning always comes. Thankfully.
Without fail. I am trying to be better
at waking. This morning I will walk out
into the city & see how the light reflects
off a thousand mirrors before it finds my face.
In this way, I know, we are all forgiven.

In the valley before the rain Noah lined up the saved
two by two. Where there was supposed to be
an ark, there was only the promise of an ark
& the couples paced about the dirt as the sun
held them for an hour before leaving.
Time passed like the shadow of a fish.
Everyone grew old & wanted more
& finding not even less, began to need.
This place we have come to call the world
was once nothing more than nothing —
time deflated until the space between a knuckle
& a nail measured Holocene. What can we make
of this? The couples waited the long turn of a page
that represents an epoch. They grew weary
& began to fight. One man’s voice called itself
by a different name. It was dark. No one could
see. People died. Others wandered up the mountain,
hunched through the weeds, & found
themselves in the hollowed moan of a tree.
It was late. There was sorrow. The intimacy
of bone crushing bone. I can understand without
forgiving & forgive without understanding.
It’s the swallow’s burden to keep singing
through it all. Come morning, the dove called
from the other side of the hill & the flood
that was the end of all floods began to flood.
The old promise of a boat emerged as small
as a nail head along the long curve of the horizon.
Noah was nowhere to be found. Tell me
what shame makes of a man. Tell me the heart,
lodged in the ribs, is not treading water
through a night that never ends. Those left
moved from one body of the drowned
to the next until they reached the ark.
I don’t know their names. They could have
been anyone. We are descended from this
history. Home is the splash of Icarus falling
along the horizon & Noah, alone, rowing
toward it. We are taking the long way around.

The Way to the Tower

I

She rests in bed and considers eating her fingers. Not for real, not actually chewing them off, but pulling at dry skin, calluses going to seed, and putting them in her mouth. She’s never known hunger quite like this. She turns herself over and over like a pebble on the beach, but she’s never worn any smoother. Instead her stomach keeps swelling and her skin keeps stretching until her navel radiates red angry lines. She tells her husband Jacob to go away, stop hovering, go sell something to feed the other children. He strokes her hair, calls her his sweet Margaret. She turns her head away. He goes. Her bed smells like sweat and the sheets look gray but they can’t change the linen. They don’t have any extra linen because anything they ever had two of has been sold long ago. She wants to yell at Jacob, at the other children congregating in corners, mud in the eddy of a stream. But she doesn’t yell, she just asks for some water, and the oldest, fourteen, detaches from the shadowy corners and brings her an earthenware cup full of water. She drinks and drinks but never gets full. She touches the cheek of her oldest, little Adam, in a remembered gesture of tenderness. 

She wishes she didn’t feel as if genuine affection was dried up inside her. She wishes she could really feel what she used to. But all she can feel is the pregnancy and the hunger. If this one survives (if she survives) it will be her tenth living child and her sixteenth pregnancy. No more, she vows, no more. She’ll have to resign herself to Jacob visiting Julia down the road, with her dark hair and overfull bosom, like the other husbands whose wives have started saying no. No more. 

Jacob eventually comes back with a bag of potatoes, and a half a wheel of cheese. The chairs were sold last winter, so the children stand in a circle around the table and suck on their bit of cheese. Jacob’s eyes look eaten out from the inside, but when he hands her a double portion of cheese she doesn’t tell him to take it back, because she feels like she’s being consumed. Secretly, she begins to hate the child, and then hate herself for doing so.

II

One day Margaret feels well enough to stand up. She says she’s going to walk the roads to see if any wild dandelions are growing along the verge. She envisions a salad, bright green dandelion leaves, pig-weed leaves, wild violet blossoms. Her mouth waters. Jacob, sitting on the floor, whittling a spinning-top, looks relieved. He’s a carpenter, but since the flour mill closed and the dairy went away, no one can pay him, so he whittles small things out of scrap wood: spoons, toys, and other objects he can sell by the side of the road and at the market.

“The walk will do you good,” he says. 

“I suppose,” she says. She feels tired already. She wishes he would stop making things they can never sell.

Before there were so many children, she was an expert in plants, in the efficaciousness of arrow-root and nettle, which mushrooms can go in stew, which can stop a heart. She used to treat the women of the village for aches and pains, for warts, lost love, and the kind of bruises never talked about. But no one comes anymore. Ever since the last child, two years ago, one of the ones who died, it’s been all she could do to get out of bed in the morning and brush her hair. Lately Margaret hasn’t even had to turn people away who come to ask for her various herbal remedies, they’ve started going somewhere else, to someone else. 

But today she walks, she picks a few sparse leaves, her breath heaves. She has to stop and lean against a tree. She wishes for a stick to help her stride. A few people pass in horse-drawn carriages and wagons. They look at her slant, at her ragged clothes, matted hair and swollen body. She imagines that they think she’s a whore down on her luck. They speed on, drivers urging horses into a trot. A little way down the road she sees the walled garden, surrounded by heavy stone reaching eight feet or more, the garden rumored to be owned by a witch. In these times, with the priests wandering through every town, cursing women’s wisdom, a witch would need a wall. She’s heard that the wall surrounds a harvest of un-imaginable bounty. She’s heard that no matter the drought, no matter the season, in that garden the earth delivers up its fruits. Ever since that wall was built, mere months after she fell, two years ago, into her post-birth malaise, she’s heard the women of the village have been going there for healing. They say the witch can make an unborn child go away without pain. They say she looks at broken bones and tells them to heal correctly, and they must. Margaret wonders how much of what the villagers say is nonsense, and how much is true. 

As she gets closer to the witch’s garden, she sees that the wall has a single red door. It swims in front of her vision and she rubs her eyes. She imagines the dense stands of raspberry bushes, the apple trees, the lush clumps of lettuce, so thick they carpet the ground like grass. She takes one step toward the door and then another. She finds herself knocking. The door swings open, and a tall woman with long white hair in a braid reaching to her ankles stares down at Margaret, her face blank. Margaret reminds herself that this woman stole her customers, that she’s no natural woman, but a witch, a trafficker of the uncanny.

“I need,” Margaret says, but suddenly realizes that she doesn’t know what she wanted to ask this woman. She couldn’t pay for any services or for food, so what does she expect, exactly? Margaret doesn’t even know if she wants to fall at the woman’s feet and beg or spit in her eyes and then curse her as a witch.

“I can see that,” the woman says. 

She opens the door wider, and Margaret sees the garden. She feels side-swiped by the color green. Margaret steps inside. The woman (the witch?) leads her down a path between the garden beds. The earth in the garden looks dark and rich, rioting with fertility. Vines grow up trellises, small boxes contain sharp smelling herbs, and trees practically drip with fruit. Margaret feels as if she could eat the air. Her stomach and the child inside boil and seethe. The woman leads Margaret to a clear grassy area in the middle of the gigantic walled garden, a sort of meadow, and motions for her to sit down. Margaret lowers her heavy body into the grass. In the face of so much natural growing splendor she feels filthy and used. The woman tells her to wait for a moment. Margaret watches her leave, and ponders the wrinkled face, the straight back, the red skirt. This woman doesn’t fit easily into any category that she knows of. While she waits she watches a spider string a web between two tall blades of grass, tiny tensile strands, so small to hold the spider, with its delicate legs and yellow-white body. Margaret thinks of the circus she saw once as a girl, the woman balancing on the wire high in the air, limbs dancing with the breeze. In the middle of the meadow there’s a circle of bricks mortared together and a pile of unused bricks nearby. She wonders what the woman plans to build.

The woman comes back with a tin plate. On the plate is a salad of rapunzel leaves, beets, and cucumbers. Margaret can’t bring herself to eat slowly, so she devours the plate of vegetables, but despite her speed the food seems to go on and on. After she finishes, Margaret looks up at the woman (witch?) still standing and watching her. Margaret says she’s sorry. The woman smiles, flashing a full set of very white teeth, and Margaret stares, entranced.

“You used to be the healer,” the woman says.

Margaret says yes.

“I’m sorry I’ve taken your custom, but if it helps, I don’t treat grown men, only women and children.”

The woman kneels beside Margaret and puts her hand on her stomach without asking. Margaret intends to protest, but the warmth emanating from that hand holds her in place. She looks at the woman (witch?) and sees that her gray eyes are staring intently at Margaret’s swollen stomach, tracing lines with her gaze. Margaret wonders what she sees. The woman stands, and at the loss of her hand Margaret feels strangely bereft.

“Did you like the salad?”

Margaret nods mutely, suddenly afraid, she’s waiting for the bad news. She’s remembering all the stories she’s heard about accepting food from faeries or witches.

“You need food and I need a child. You have too many children. You can come here, work the garden, learn from me, and take as much food as you want. But in exchange, if your child is a girl you must give her to me.”

Margaret suddenly sees the cold gleam in the woman’s eyes, like a sheathed knife, and decides she’s definitely a witch. The witch suggests purchasing Margaret’s child as though she’s proposing a perfectly normal transaction. In a sense she is—after all, the child-buyers come to the village every year, talking about apprenticeships in the city, good homes, and easy work as ladies’ maids, or butlers, eventually. The parents get lots of money and tell themselves they assure their child’s future. But the buyers only want the most beautiful little boys and girls, the ones with un-blemished skin, soft hair and wide trusting eyes. Margaret sits in the grass and presses her hands to her stomach, and feels her baby there, rolling in its private sea.

“I can’t do that,” she says. But she doesn’t get up off the soft grass. She stares at the ground, watches an ant crawl over a tiny clod of dirt, and then another and another. She wonders if an ant feels like the whole world is a mountain it must climb whether it wants to or not. 

“Women like me can’t abide men. Men can’t even come into this place. I just want to teach a child my ways, have someone to take care of me when I’m old. Nothing perverted,” the witch says, shooting a look at Margaret as if she knows what she’s thinking.

Margaret heaves herself to her feet, feels the separation from the grass like a wound, and starts to leave.

“Please,” the witch says.

“No, no.”

Margaret moves faster than she thought she could, stumbling through the garden rows, keeping the red door in sight.

The witch shouts after her, says she can come back if she changes her mind, and that the red door will open for her.

III

When she arrives home, Jacob asks her what she found, and she throws down the now wilted and crumpled handful of dandelion leaves. She says she needs to go to bed. When she looks over the corner of the one room cottage where the bed used to be, she sees only a nest of blankets and a few sad pillows. 

“The town store wouldn’t give me any more credit,” Jacob says.

She keeps staring at the pile of dirty bedding.

“We need to stock up for winter,” he says.

“Next I’ll wake up bald,” she says. She’s only half kidding. People will pay a good price for hair; the city is full of fine ladies wearing wigs made from the hair of desperate peasants.

Jacob tries to say something apologetic, and her children try to swarm out of the corners, but she turns to what remains of the bed and lowers herself into it. She sleeps. 

She dreams of rapunzel leaves, dark green, springing fresh from the ground, more no matter how many she picks. She dreams about her days as the local healer, and in her dreams the remedy for everything is rapunzel. 

Days and weeks go by. Her stomach gets larger, her breasts swell and look like melons. The bones stand out in her hands and her knees are larger than her calves. Her children look like walking twigs. Margaret keeps dreaming of rapunzel. Whenever she passes the walled garden, she sees the round brick structure getting taller and taller, much higher than the walls of the garden. She wonders what the witch could need a brick tower for, and how it’s being built without scaffolding or workers. She’s afraid she knows the answer to her questions.

No one buys Jacob’s carvings, but he keeps whittling, out of hope, desperation, or perhaps just a lack of other ideas. Soon their house is full of little wooden dolls with jointed limbs, bowls, spoons, tops, wooden ponies; an endless number of useless objects. The whole place smells like fresh pine and urine. Jacob seems to be whittling out of compulsion, as though it’s the only thing he knows how to do, as though if he stops making things, stops trying to create something someone, anyone, might buy, he’ll see his family wilting around him, and break. His carving projects get increasingly complicated, even as he loses flesh, waning as the rest of them wane. One day, she sees him fashioning a puzzle out of a knotted branch, turning it into interlocking joints, a chain to clasp, to unlock. His face creases with concentration, looking, for a moment, like her youngest son when he’s trying to solve some seemingly unsurmountable problem, like finding a beetle that disappeared between a crack in the wall. 

Margaret feels a surge of pity for Jacob. She catches him in an embrace, kisses his bearded cheek. He looks surprised, but he hugs her back, wrapping his arms around her despite her growing belly and bony shoulders. She likes his smell, and she remembers when they first got married, so many years ago, the way she loved his hands, so strong and dexterous, and how he’d carve clever things on their chairs and tables, little faces, flowers, knots.

One day the child-buyer comes to town in his bright clothes and boots with shiny buckles. Margaret and her eight-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, sit on a blanket at the market, trying to sell Jacob’s carvings. The sun beats down on their heads, and Margaret thinks of the witch’s garden, of the shaded alcoves, the fresh water spring, the pear trees. Sweat makes her dress stick to her grossly swollen stomach. The baby should come any day now, and Margaret feels distracted—torn between the desire to get it out and the fear of having yet another open mouth, and so she doesn’t notice the feeling of being watched at first. But eventually she feels the weight of eyes. She looks up and sees the child-buyer looking in their direction. She darts a glance at her daughter, suddenly sees the girl has hair the color of the sun, blue eyes, and hunger has made her fey and waif-like. She fights the desire to rub dirt on the girl, to bruise her, to make her look undesirable. But the child-buyer eyes Elizabeth all the same. He strolls over. His boot heels stir up dust. He pretends to be interested in a wooden spoon. Margaret can barely breathe. He crouches down and reaches toward Elizabeth’s braid.

“What a delicate child,” he says.

“She’s simple, and mean,” Margaret says. She hopes her daughter gets the hint.

Elizabeth picks her nose and says something foul. The child-buyer steps away, wrinkling his too-smooth forehead in distaste. After he’s gone, Margaret wishes that she was still the healer, that whatever used to be in her that let her help others wasn’t desiccated and crumbling. She used to imagine teaching Elizabeth about arnica for pain, wormwood for parasites, and honey for burns, but now, what would be the point? Everyone goes to the witch for healing. A friar walks by in a brown hassock. He nods his head at her and tolls his bell. He shouts: alms for the poor, alms for the poor. He holds out a tin cup to her. She shakes her head, and he turns away, a disapproving expression on his face. She wants to laugh derisively, to tell him, I am the poor. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t have a wall.

That night, she dreams of the witch, dressed all in red, and younger, her hair as red as her dress, blowing around her. The witch looks Margaret in the eyes. Margaret hears the witch’s voice in her mind. She says, someone must be the teacher. 

The next morning Jacob comes inside carrying a basket stuffed full of rapunzel leaves. 

“Look what someone left by the front door,” he says.

He’s smiling, excited, as though he feels that the world has kindness in it after all. Margaret, lying on the pile of fabric, holds her hands at the base of her stomach. She knows the basket for what it is: a message. She goes through the day, thinking, trying to make the house presentable. She sweeps the raw boards, stopping to rest every five minutes as her belly shifts and her back begins to ache in spasms. She makes the beds, such as they are. She kisses her children, and smiles, even though her face feels stiff and unwilling. She tells a story. She makes a salad out of the rapunzel and boils a few sad potatoes. She looks at the nearly empty cupboard and the house devoid of anything anyone will buy. Well, nothing except her children. She looks at her children, all nine, and despite her exhaustion, her hunger, her alienation, she knows they are beautiful. She thinks of the child-buyer. She thinks of taking a cleaver to his face. And yet, she knows how children get sold. For a moment she can almost see the future. 

Jacob comes home with a handful of scavenged wood. He says he’s going to carve something beautiful, something someone will surely want. He chatters away, inane hopeful chatter. Margaret tries to close her ears to his hope, his foolish, wasteful hope. 

When night comes she cleans the children’s faces, and hugs each and every one, and then sends them to bed. She goes to her corner of their tiny home and makes the straw pallet and pile of blankets extra carefully, smoothing them out, scattering the last petals of the previous summer’s wild roses on the sheets. They crumble into dust but still leave a faint hint of sweetness. She knows she’s trying to make herself feel better, to balm her guilt for what she’s about to do, to leave a moment of softness behind. Jacob lowers himself gingerly into bed, as though his entire body aches, as though age has stalked like a beast. She looks at him, really looks at him, for the first time in what feels like years. It’s as though she can see tired and aching Jacob (lined brow, hair graying at his temples, cheekbones stark from hunger, hands rough with calluses and scars) overlaid with the Jacob she married, the laughing young man with hair like a crow’s wing, who made her a wedding ring out of applewood (it smelled like springtime and honey) and who, when they hid from their families, coupling in a barn, kissed her eyelids, her nose, and her lips, before kissing her breasts.

Jacob notices her standing above him, watching him get into bed, and smiles at her. He’s missing one tooth. Lost to hunger.

“Do you need help getting on the ground?” he asks, holding out his hands.

She remembers when she gave birth to their first child, the one who they named Sara, who lived for only two short years. He used to fall asleep with Sara on his chest after a long day working. Their mouths open, breathing deeply, child and man a mirror.

“Yes,” she says, even though she doesn’t, really.

He takes her arms and helps her into bed.

He notices the rose petals.

“What’s this then?” he asks. His eyes gleam with knowledge, with memory of other nights she put dried flower petals in their bed. He doesn’t know she’s trying to say goodbye.

He puts his hand on her enormous stomach, feels the baby moving there, and kisses the spot he touched. She takes his hand and moves it to her breasts, swollen with milk in waiting, and pulls his head down for a kiss. His pleased chuckle against her lips makes her want to weep. 

“Oh, my lass, all will be well,” he says.

She quiets him with her mouth. 

If she lets him talk anymore, he’ll derail her intentions, he’ll make her remember other days, other nights, the reasons they have ended up with so many children in the first place.

She thinks of her children’s empty bellies and hollow cheeks. She thinks of the child-buyer eyeing Elizabeth. She opens her nightgown and slides one leg down Jacob’s.

She waits until he starts to snore and then gets up. With a piece of charcoal from the fire she scratches a note on the wall to Jacob. Come to the walled garden. Then, not taking anything with her (what would she take?), she leaves. She walks down the road in the dark, the stars distant pricks of light, bugs chirping secrets to each other. She searches in herself for regret and finds none. Her stomach contracts, her legs feel hot and wet, but she keeps walking. She tries the knob on the red door and it swings open at her touch. The witch waits in the meadow. The brick circle has turned into a tower with a red door too, at the very base, with a giant wrought-iron lock. Margaret tries not to look at it. She nearly collapses at the feet of the witch. 

“I’ve come,” she says.

“Yes,” says the witch.

“Why do you want my child?”

“I told you.”

Margaret hugs her belly, wants to hold the infant in, and she remembers her dream.

“I’m afraid of what you can do,” she says.

The witch stares down at Margaret, at her dress covered in birthing fluid, now caked with the dirt of the ground. 

“Please,” she says. Her face is blank, as though from tightly controlled feeling, and she stares through Margaret.

Margaret realizes, through the quakes surging through her body, that in her own way the witch is as desperate as she is. She needs this baby.

“You want to it to be like you,” she says, her breath catching as a contraction roils across her belly. This isn’t the time for bargaining, but she must.

The witch nods.

“If I say yes, if she’s a girl, you must let me stay, let me learn from you too.” Margaret couldn’t stand to go back to Jacob without the baby. Explaining would be unbearable. She tries not to look as desperate as she feels, tries to look strong, and hopes the witch’s own naked need will make her accept the bargain.

The witch replies quickly. “Yes, I’ll teach you what I can. But, she’ll never know you, she must know and love only me.” She nods toward the tower.

Margaret wonders how many times the witch has tried to make this bargain, how many times has she moved into a village, put up her wall, and waited for a woman without options to come to her. She tries not to look at the tower. She doesn’t like the implications of it, but she doesn’t know what other choices she has. She’d like her child to have such power, to build walls on command, to keep out the child-buyers, the priests, the duties of being a wife.

“May I send food to my other children?”

“As much as you like.”

Margaret nods and the witch shakes her hand. A bargain made. Margaret relaxes just a bit and feels her womb begin to release. She clutches at the witch as her legs lose strength.

The witch makes her a bed in the grass. It feels soft and its freshness fills Margaret’s nostrils, makes her think of spring. The witch sits behind her, and puts Margaret between her knees, and holds her hands. She helps her through her labor, tells her when to push, won’t let her lie down, says such things are nonsense. It puts the pelvis in the wrong place. 

“Teaching me already?” Margaret says, gritting her teeth.

The witch snorts and tells her to concentrate.

Margaret remembers this feeling, as though all the gravity of the world has chosen to congregate in her pelvis, an irresistible weight. She’s done this too many times. For a moment all of her labors, all of her births, merge into one gush of blood, infant cries merging with infant silences, red squalling faces merging with blue silent ones. She weeps as she pushes, and says goodbye, in her mind, to all her children, alive and dead. She will never do this again.

Then everything is over, and the witch pulls the baby, a girl, out from between her legs. She cuts the cord with a silver knife, wipes her clean, and wraps her in a snowy white cloth. She lets Margaret hold the baby just once, look at her, and nurse her. As Margaret watches her daughter nurse she feels the familiar tug on her nipple, the release, and the witch says the child must be named Rapunzel.  Then she takes her and goes inside the tower. Margaret wants to cry, but her eyes are dry. She’s cried all she can and she can’t help but feel as though she’s made the best bargain she could.

Margaret’s husband shows up at the garden, bangs on the door, but she can’t seem to get herself to move. The witch gathers a basket of vegetables and goes to the door herself. The witch says something to Jacob, but Margaret can’t hear specifics, only the murmur of voice answering voice. The witch comes back to Margaret, fluffs her pillow, and gives her a few slices of ripe pear. She says that he’ll send the oldest daughter from now on.

So every day Elizabeth comes to the door and Margaret gives her a basket and hugs her. They both cry, but Margaret will not leave the garden, says she’s made her bargain and means to keep it. She doesn’t tell Elizabeth, but she can’t bear the thought of hands tugging on her, begging her, needing her. She doesn’t want to have to tell Jacob no, no more. 

After a few weeks, Elizabeth’s cheeks start to look plump, and her hair bright, and Margaret feels her guilt waning. At least once a day, casually, as though it’s nothing, the witch (the woman?) will come to her, sit beside her, and tell her things. She’ll pinch a leaf off a plant and talk about its uses, not just in medicine, but in other, more secret practices. Sometimes, she’ll brush Margaret’s hair. 

Sometimes Margaret thinks the witch has been lonely, watching her hair turn from red to gray and fearing solitude was the price for her power. Sometimes Margaret wonders about the world out there, but not enough to leave the garden. She’s seen enough. Every few hours when her breasts start to ache, and she hears her baby cry, she goes into a corner and massages milk out of her breasts like she would a goat’s teats. Then she puts that milk into an earthenware jar and gives it to the witch. The witch takes the jar and goes into the tower. Margaret can hear her singing lullabies, and the notes drift down from the tower, sweet but distant. At those moments she takes a break from gardening and sits in the grass, listening, and imagines she’s holding that little girl. Sometimes at night she dreams of Jacob’s hands. 

State of the Wards

She   applies   ink  to   her   lips  and  begins  running
her mouth on  the  page. The   folk   explanation   for
the  irresistible   urge  to eat dirt.  Organs in  the head
are   the last  to live and the first to  die. We   put  our
hands against  our  heads in moments of  shock,  as if
to contain the enormity. As if   you  could grab   hold
of  the moon  with your hand to keep it from cresting
the distant plateau. As if all you had to do was throw
a rock  at   its   reflection in the puddle. It’s black ice,
smooth as a mirror, by morning.


The  rent  moon   disgorges  onto  a hillock,  releasing  an acrid  light. 
I  pull  on  the  bitter   end of the  rope  from which I am   suspended,
watching   the  blood   drain  from  the  leaves, watching the    boughs
swoon  to   the   heavy breath   of autumn. I describe sluggish  ellipses
and   reflect. The   way to my heart is through the suture in my  chest. 
I bequeath   my body to  superstition. My higher  cognitive  functions
were  not present at the   incident in  question. My  memory  registers
only a restless horizon, a  bottomless glass.  Pure  tones, incandescent 
ovals, soft at the edges.


The eye sockets are cups of black ink. That’s where I jab
my barbed nib. It’s coming down in sheets. The dark streets
illegible with it, the storm drains swallow and swallow and
swallow. Ink runs down the billboards, runs down the faces
at the bus stop. It collects and comes to rest right here, reflecting
the lick of moon that hangs like a rotted eyetooth pulled
from the jaw of night. The cups run over. But
blink, and you miss everything.

Ave Ernesto

Ave Ernesto

One day, when Ernesto was not yet a man, Pai told him to sit on the couch. Pai moved the bag of frozen peas and revealed a dark patch of gray fabric where the bag had been thawing under his back. Beneath his push-broom mustache, he gritted his teeth and grunted while shifting his overlarge stomach. Pai had called the pain in his spine fogo de diablo—devil’s fire—and said that, when he burped, the pain tasted like bay leaves, cumin, and garlic from Mamãe’s cooking.

Ernesto liked to believe that the memories he had of his father were accurate—that Pai had been guilty of coldness and also of suffering that sapped his willingness to do anything besides breathe the aromas of Mamãe’s caçoila, squint at the eight-inch black-and-white television, and cough until he died. There had been a time, Ernesto remembered, when Pai’s lungs were hearty, and he would sing along with the aftershave commercials in a high, honeyed voice. Pai joked that the jingles helped him practice his inglês, which was probably why he had spoken like a Portuguese immigrant until the end.

Ernesto, Pai said, escute, you’re a man now. 

That was it? A man? He blinked at the swollen wrinkles on Pai’s forehead. Ernesto had not thought the blossoming of three curly chest hairs and newly fragrant underarms meant he was a man. Working at the mill, eating boring masa and butter sandwiches from a tin pail, and sleeping next to a round woman like Mamãe who smelled of cherries and took up too much of the bed—that was how Pai defined his own manhood. When Ernesto imagined this life for himself, the one Pai wanted for him, he saw a straight-backed man with strong arms and weak lungs, a man who would kiss his wife out of necessity instead of love. 

Look at me, Pai said—his two eyebrows pushed together into a single black caterpillar. You’ll take my place in the mill, and…

He began coughing into the air. Spittle landed on Ernesto’s cheek.

Why couldn’t Pai go back? He didn’t use his arms to cover his mouth when he coughed, but at least he still had both of them—unlike Manny’s father, whose right arm had been plucked by the weaving machine like a fig from a branch. He’d had to bury his own arm in the garden himself, because Manny was too young to hold a shovel, and then he shuffled back to the mill only to have Mauricio, the foreman, tell him there was no work for him anymore. After that, Manny’s father had to learn how to eat, how to strike a match, how to love himself with his left hand, and their family struggled until Manny was old enough to take his place behind that same machine at the mill.

Ernesto remembered how beat up Manny’s shoes were after two days of working at the mill. He bit his lip to stop the tears collecting in his eyes. Before, sandlot ball wore holes in his friend’s shoes, but now the holes were from friction against unfinished mill floors. Manny complained that dirt under his nails, greasy and blue from the dye, smelled like smoke—that no matter how much he scrubbed, he couldn’t get his hands clean. Ernesto looked at his own hands.

Pai, I don’t want to, Ernesto said.

Pai chuckled. He placed his rough hand on Ernesto’s knee and said, It does not matter. You are twelve. Now, you are a man.

Ernesto brought his hand to his chest. The few hairs had not yet exploded into a forest of coarse brown fuzz, but his skin was beginning to smell of cinnamon, and his two separate eyebrows were creeping together to form one. 

He didn’t argue, afraid that Mamãe would overhear and lumber in with her tea-towel twisted around her wrist to see who needed a reminder that the Carreira family did not argue. Instead, Ernesto sprung a leak, and his air began slipping away, stealing his happiness, too. He discovered that happiness had an opposite, and it was not sadness, or anger, but something so sugary and deep and disappointing that it turned bitter. He hoped that he would one day learn to laugh at that bitterness.

Pai had prearranged it. The next week, Ernesto would work his first shift.

Querido, he said, You are doing for your family.

That night, Ernesto locked his bedroom door, sat by the window, and listened to the river rushing beyond the mill. What more could he say? He had told Pai what he wanted, but wanting was not enough. Wanting did not heal Pai’s lungs or his back. Wanting did not meld the life he wanted with the one Pai envisioned for him, like two church candles dripping into the same pool of wax. If Ernesto could have what he wanted, then he would have floated through the window, across the rooftops and stove pipes, and disappeared into the roof of Manny’s house. There he would stay, safe and unchanged, under the disguise of a different roof. Ernesto prayed for this to happen. He would hide from his father. He would hide from God, who was watching, Ernesto knew, because the scent of oranges drifted in from someone else’s kitchen, and Mamãe always said that when God was watching, he would smell oranges.

After Pai died, Ernesto found his father’s musty blanket folded neatly on a shelf in the basement. Both Pai and Mamãe had held on for forty years after the night that Ernesto looked out of his window. It surprised Ernesto when Mamãe died first. Pai died not more than a month afterward because, Ernesto thought, he could not stand living alone. Until then, Pai had taken his time with dying and done it thoughtfully, so that everything in the house was well-organized for Ernesto to begin grieving. Ernesto placed the blanket into a plastic bag and put it in the corner with the other items that he, like his father, did not have the courage to throw away.

He pulled a small box from the back of the shelf and recognized Mamãe’s curlicue handwriting across the top: Ernesto—recordações—memories. Nuns would kill for those perfect circles, Pai had said. Every letter was uniform, perfect, exactly the same height. Unlike Pai, who had used the Bible to practice English, Mamãe had taught herself to read and write with cookbooks. She had been better at mixing spices and meats than praying, so she paid attention to what she liked: to meat temperatures and flavors and using each ingredient as a prayer itself. Bay-leaves were for her husband’s back. Cumin for his lungs. Her favorite was orange—because no fruit was more delicious. She believed them to be signs of God’s love and sprinkled every dish with a pinch of grated zest. Ernesto thought she was the perfect kind of Catholic—one who treated the Bible itself as a recipe book, picking and choosing the parts to use that caused no one else harm.

He opened the box. Turnip-shaped bodies, squat noses, and wide, still eyes looked back at him from family photos. The resemblance was irrefutable, unnerving, and these people—none of whom he recognized—had passed down their money problems, inexplicable drinking habits, and bad cholesterol. He flipped the photo over. His mother’s handwriting marked the photo São Miguel—1907. This was what his parents had been brave enough to leave behind. He returned it to the box.

Ernesto found the photo in which he made his debut. It was 1942. He was too young to stand, so he sat on Mamãe’s lap and looked into the sky as if dreaming. Pai clutched Mamãe’s shoulder. They were smiling, not knowing anything about Social Security or the neighborhoods and markets where it was unsafe to speak Portuguese. These photos were proof that, despite what the neighborhood women said, Ernesto took after his Mamãe, and that Pai really had been the least simian of all the Carreira men. It was something, at least.

He returned the photos to the box and noticed that, at the bottom, there was an envelope: Para Ernesto. He took the yellowed paper and tried to read it. There was a time he’d been proud of how well he had forgotten the language. If Pai had asked for a glass of water, Ernesto had brought him grapes. If he’d asked for port, Ernesto had brought water. Ernesto had made his father believe that they would never understand one another. And, if Ernesto could give the appearance of never correctly interpreting his father’s desires, then he was free to do anything he wanted. Now Ernesto was old enough to regret, and to know that understanding was not only about language. What else was it? He didn’t know. He scanned the letter. One phrase caught his attention. Written twice, underlined: feliz aniversário, nós te amamos. A birthday card.

Something in the basement whirred, and Carl came into view, riding the mobile chair down the stairs. Red and white Christmas decorations were piled on his lap.

We should get one of these, he said, grinning. His spindly legs dangled from the chair.

Ernesto waved the letter at Carl.

Your mother’s love letters? Carl asked.

If Mamãe had taken a secret lover, then Carl was the only person she would have told. No one had loved Carl like Mamãe.

Their uncomplicated affection began long before Mamãe understood the shape of Ernesto and Carl’s relationship. As for Pai, either he had never truly understood it, or he’d been unwilling to believe that such a love could exist between men. Pai had eventually, quietly accepted their friendship, and Ernesto knew better than to be suspicious of certain types of grace. 

The night that Carl joined them for dinner, Pai had almost had Carl taken away in handcuffs. A black man had never before set foot into the Carreira household. He must have been trouble—that was Pai’s reasoning. Mamãe had convinced Pai to put down the phone, that Carl wasn’t a burglar; he and Ernesto were friends. Mamãe said, Come in! You like caçoila? Carl nodded—although he’d never heard of it—and sat, his large hands fumbled with the tiny glass of port that Mamãe set before him.

Pai’s eyes bulged and fixed themselves to Carl’s dark skin and wiry black hair. Ernesto kicked Pai under the dinner table, but the perpetual discomfort in his father’s spine had habituated him to pain. Mamãe never drank, but she poured herself port and left Pai’s glass empty. To him, she said: I will pluck out those eyes with the sugar spoon and offer them up like Abraham’s lamb if you don’t stop staring. This was all said in Portuguese. Pai fixed his eyes on her. She turned to Carl and said, You like caçoila? Carl, who had no idea what he should do while the tiny Portuguese man stared at his wife and shoveled food into his mouth, did what came most naturally—he laughed. He laughed, and Mamãe loved him. 

Ernesto pushed his plate away and nursed his port to dampen the fear in his stomach. His father did not even know the truth, and still he held his spoon like a weapon.

Back then, when Ernesto and Carl were new to love, Mamãe’s fondness for Carl made it easier for Ernesto to love him. His mother had arranged a shelter under which his devotion for Carl could grow unnoticed by Pai. Ernesto could love him because his mother had first. Still, while Ernesto and Carl learned the texture and weight of love—how love was like a cat’s tongue, coarse but pleasant—they fought. After one year together, Carl threw the ceramic-cow creamer against the wall. It shattered like hope, and cream soaked into the yellow floral wallpaper before they calmed down enough to clean it. Ernesto understood why Carl had thrown it, and a part of him had believed the same lie—that men were not made to love other men. The thought always sounded gruff, like something Pai would say while running his thumb over splintered rosary beads.

Don’t breathe, Mauricio said. He pointed to the vat of blue dye with tiny wisps waltzing over its surface. A tarnished silver whistle dangled from his neck. All the foremen at Lippitt Mill wore them.

Deep blue, navy. Safira, he had called it.

Turn here, he said. He demonstrated with his hairy hand on the wheel.

New, eager to please, Ernesto placed his hand where Mauricio’s had been and turned it. He held his breath. The wheel inched forward and dipped long skeins of fabric into blue-black dye. The machine looked like a fat woman dancing with bedsheets on her arms. Ernesto didn’t share this with Mauricio, who smiled often, but only after calling someone burro or imbecil.

He is not your friend, Pai had warned.

Mauricio’s eyes narrowed on Ernesto.

Now you do it like a man. Faster, Mauricio said. 

Mauricio leaned in. His mouth was too close to Ernesto’s. His breath sweet like plums. Ernesto pulled and his lungs wept inside him. Pai hadn’t warned him that it would hurt, that breathing would fill his lungs with lightning and set fire to his eyes. Ernesto hoped God was watching, but the scent of chemical dye was too strong to tell.

Mauricio tapped his foot.

I’m itchy, Ernesto told Mauricio. He was on the verge of tears. He wanted to claw away his outsides.

Mauricio blinked at the word “itchy,” shrugged his narrow shoulders, and laughed.

He pulled Ernesto away from the wheel to demonstrate changing the skeins. He instructed in soft, broken English, each sentence punctuated with laughter that Ernesto did not understand. Mauricio always gave himself a reason to laugh.

At the end of his first day, Ernesto filed out with men whose lunch pails clanged like church bells at their sides. Outside, the men enjoyed the clean air. They lit their cigarettes and shuffled home.

Manny had crept ahead and was kicking a stone. Ernesto ran up behind him, waving, calling his name.

Manny stood on the curb under a streetlight, and his greased hair shone black. He looked at the way Ernesto scratched his thin forearm and laughed at him. You’ll get used to it, he said, The itching, I mean.

You’re lucky, Manny said. In the looms, some people lose fingers or…

Ernesto kicked a rock into the street. It bounced against the pavement once, twice, and then fell into a roadside drain. He was standing on sore feet, holding Pai’s tin pail, and looking for his friend in the face of this young, joyless man. It surprised him how quickly Manny had become a man—a disappointed and rageful and impatient man. Ernesto knew he should feel lucky that he himself was not yet angry; that he did not squint at the world as if it were conspiring against him.

They walked in silence until the intersection of Perdu and Ames, where they separated and Ernesto walked home alone.

The house was warm like July, and Pai sat on the couch, listening to the radio. Mamãe prodded pork in the kitchen. She was singing, which meant that Pai had upset her. She’d once said that, when she was angry with him, he was better played low to the tune Ave Maria.

Ernesto placed his lunchpail on the floor next to the door.

It is so hard to breathe in the mill, Ernesto told his father. He sat down next to him.

The breathing, Pai said, This is not the worst thing. At least you do not have hunger.

He laughed and offered Ernesto a grape from the pile on his lap. Ernesto saw that it was amusing to his father—the grapes, the working, watching his son fumble with a role that he himself had failed to fulfill. How could he succeed when his father could not? 

Pai ate a grape and began to cough. The sound gurgled like water sucked through a straw. Ernesto moved as far away from Pai as the couch would allow. His father closed his eyes, sipped port from a tiny glass, and sucked his teeth, from which, he had said, the wine took the ache. Pai loved port, and he loved Mamãe—port when he was in too much pain to speak, and Mamãe when she said something she’d learned from a cashier in the grocery store. As for Ernesto—Pai’s love for him, his only son, was reserved for the man he pretended his son would become, the man his father wanted him to be. But that transformation seemed to be as impossible as rain and work and God.

Pai ate another grape. A commercial for aftershave played in the background.

Filho, he said, will you do me one thing?

Of course, Pai.

Make it louder, he said, pointing to the television with a shaking finger.

Where do you want this, Ernie? Carl asked.

Carl held the taxidermied crow as if it would pluck his nose from his face.

Set it down there, Ernesto said.

Some things, he would not mind letting go. Carl placed it on the floor and scooted to the far side of the basement. He inspected cobwebs and the creepy door to Pai’s workshop.

When Pai had first fallen ill, he had taken it as a sign of imminent death and gone to Jenks’s Funeral Home. He asked Mr. Jenks to see his fanciest model, so Mr. Jenks showed him the Gomorrhan, which was a mahogany coffin that was much too expensive. Pai couldn’t shake the idea of his death and made one for himself out of Portuguese-immigrant-budget pine. He installed a frame into the velvet lining and nailed in a photo of Mamãe—the one of her in a wedding gown with up-done hair—certain that God would let him look at it all day while he sat on a cloud and ate grapes in heaven. That casket sat in his workshop for forty years, unused, collecting dust, and reminding them all that photos turn yellow with time.

One night, after two years of working at the mill, Ernesto found Pai writhing on the couch. His face was port-colored, and his right eye was wider than the left. Ernesto didn’t ask what happened. Mamãe wasn’t singing in the kitchen. She wasn’t even cooking.

Sit, Pai said.

Ernesto sat. His father was puffed up, bloated, enraged like a boil.

Through clenched teeth, Pai whispered the story of how Padre Costa had visited and asked if Pai would need the last rites soon, since he hadn’t been to church in months and there was a coffin in his basement. He had explained how he suffered, but Padre was unsympathetic. 

What about your wife and your son? Padre Costa had asked. A man’s duty is to lead the faith of his family…

Pai continued, waving his hands, speaking of duty and faith—both of which, Padre had said, Pai lacked. Ernesto listened and stared at the wall as if he could see Mamãe in the kitchen, flipping through a magazine. Ernesto could only silently absorb his father’s rage and misunderstanding or risk having it turned against him.

Tomorrow, Pai said, we must go to mass and beg his forgiveness.

The next morning, Ernesto wore his father’s old black leather shoes, which were already too small for him. Mamãe pinned a plastic sunflower in her hair, and they left for Saint Miguel’s.

As soon as they sat, Pai moaned and shifted. The wood was hard on his spine. Mamãe fell asleep during Padre Costa’s long, lulling sermon, and then woke when the music began. She shouted Amen in accented English and then nodded off again, her sweet snoring masked by guitar and sonorous choirboys. Ernesto patted her gloved hand to assure her that he was there, suffering through it, too.

After mass, his father, clutching a wooden cane, approached Padre Costa.

Padre, he said, our filho, he is lost. Will you make him better?

His father’s statement was a surprise, especially to Ernesto, who did not believe that he was lost. He had given the mass as much attention as he could, and had done so without fidgeting, which was more than he could say for his father.

Padre Costa placed his hand on Pai’s shoulder, and the two men walked to the side, leaving Ernesto with his distracted Mamãe, who, examining the architecture, the lurid, painted statues of weeping saints, said nothing. She had already shown her disagreement with all the decadence by refusing to put money in the donation baskets and could not be troubled to fake guilt for Padre. But Pai had given double, and now he practically knelt before the priest. From a distance, Ernesto noticed how Padre Costa’s young face had the symmetry of a portrait, how his blue eyes were like drops of dirty rain.

Ernesto heard Pai say, Muito obrigado, Padre. Obrigado.

When Pai and Padre returned, they were smiling. What would his punishment be? Altar service? Selling sugary malasadas at the festa during the summer? 

We must come to mass every Sunday, Pai said. As a family, we’ll come and help you.

Mamãe remained silent. She was already exasperated with the neat ladies in tall hats and pressed black dresses. Ernesto resisted the urge to embarrass Pai in front of the priest—to tell them that he was not lost at all. He had walked to the mill every day, bringing home his meagre pay, his lunchpail, and the burning in his lungs. He had been hiding all of the parts of himself that his father did not want to see. All that working, all that hiding, and it would never end. He would always be punished—and not because of his secrets, but because Pai couldn’t be the man he himself wanted to be. Ernesto finally felt the tremor and buzz of a man’s rage. He looked at the uncomfortable pews, remembered the pain in his father’s back, and sighed.

The following week, in the church’s basement, where faithful women scrambled from one room to the next carrying pans of chouriço, peppers, and spice, Ernesto learned about guilt, about being a man of God.

A woman sat at the folding table, smoking cigarettes, selling one-dollar tickets for the buffet dinner, and chatting with couples, Como vai você, senhor? The Lord is born only once a year, and the church must spare no expense…

Pai smiled and handed her three pristine one-dollar bills.

Padre Costa appeared behind them. He wrung his smooth hands and bit his bottom lip. He wore the white surplice and purple stole, in which he received the most compliments about his apple-shaped chin. The downward curves of Padre Costa’s cheekbones and quiet, graceful gestures made him handsome. Ernesto blushed. It couldn’t have been a sin, he thought, to think the mouthpiece of God was beautiful. He was no different than Mamãe and Pai, or the other parishioners who thought that no one was more humble than Padre Costa.

Senhor, he said to Ernesto, will you help me with something? 

He placed his warm hand on Ernesto’s shoulder. Ernesto’s stomach fluttered. His mouth turned to cotton. He looked at his father, who was glowing. Pai nudged Ernesto forward with a hand on the small curve of his son’s back.

Claro, Pai said.

Ernesto squirmed at the thought of being close to Padre Costa, of being alone with him. If the priest could hear God, then he would know Ernesto had thoughts that did not make him a man.

Pai nudged Ernesto, who looked at his mother to say something. Her mouth crumpled into a frown.

Again, Pai was deciding for him, and Ernesto would have preferred to choose on his own. He still thought that being a man meant having the power to say yes or no when someone asked of him things he might not want to do. Ernesto narrowed his eyes at Pai and wondered how his father had gotten it so wrong. He wondered if Pai would be able to stand with the cane kicked out from under him. Stripping others of choice—was that what it meant to be a man?

Siga-me! Padre Costa whispered. He spoke to God, and he knew that He had an ear pressed to the roof of the church and was prone to headaches. Ernesto followed him.

Padre Costa’s office was tranquil. Light filtered through rose bushes outside the window. The room smelled nothing of the vase of lilies on his desk, but of cinnamon and of oranges. God watched them—and His mother, too, painted in oil, looking at the chubby baby in her arms.

When the door closed, the scent of oranges dissolved.

I need you take those boxes to the kitchen while I change, Padre Costa said.

He draped the purple stole over his desk. Ernesto saw no malice in his eyes, only a sincere desire to give a young man purpose. Then Padre Costa lifted the white surplice above his head. Underneath, he wore a cassock, which he unbuttoned and removed faster than Ernesto could turn away.

If Ernesto were the man his father wanted him to be, he would have turned away. He would have ignored the heat that erupted on his own cheeks when he saw the tuft of hair sprouting from Padre’s waistline. Ernesto’s failure to ignore, his desire to see, aimed bellows at a kindling fire within him. All that air and heat made it blossom. He could see the shadows it threw all around him like spokes on a wheel, each one casting him—with his pointed nose and weak chin—as a version of himself that he recognized but did not have the strength to love. He would lose his father. He might lose his mother. All of this for a few cumbersome boxes.

Padre Costa asked again if he would carry those boxes there, and he pointed to four of them near the door. He hung his surplice on a clothes-hanger and beat the wrinkles.

Yes, Padre, Ernesto said, but he did not move.

The dryness in his throat threatened to choke him. Ernesto thought of Manny—his slick hair sparkling under the streetlight. He had said, You’ll get used to it, but his voice sounded like Pai singing commercials in bad English. Pai, his father—the man of the house. Pai, the man in pain, who asked Mamãe to bring him a handful of grapes because he could not do many things on his own. Pai, who himself was so afraid of failing as a man, had decided that his son should be enough for both of them. But Ernesto could not look away from Padre Costa, and he did not want to. He was beautiful.

Ernesto imagined Mamãe bringing his father grapes. The fruit was heavy. Her arms shook. Her face, her arms, her roundness. His mind was not tamable. His mother dropped the grapes. She danced in a lush field fenced in with stone walls. Tea towels were draped over her arms, and she spun in circles singing Ave Maria, crying, laughing, shouting, Ave, Ernesto! Shouting because God did not have an ear pressed to the roof. He was not listening. God was never listening.

Ernesto’s eyes focused and he saw Padre, who was tilting his head as if Ernesto had projected his thoughts over the portrait of Jesus, and he was worried, worried, worried about the condition of Ernesto’s soul.

Ernesto, will you carry these boxes? he asked again.

Ernie, will you carry these boxes? Carl asked. 

Carl covered his nose with his sleeve to block the smell of the dead crow he had found behind a box of family photos—its claws pointed toward the sky. Ernesto couldn’t smell the crow. He was preoccupied with finding space for the box of photographs and overwhelmed by the sudden scent of orange.

He looked from his husband to the boxes, some of which were musty and water damaged.

What is inside? Ernesto asked.

Carl opened one, and together they looked. Like Mamãe’s box of recordações, Pai had kept a box of things he did not want to forget: pink raffle tickets that were used each year at the festa, a delicate glass snowflake ornament that was too precious to place on the tree, and, among other things, a framed photo of Carl and Ernesto.

Ernesto did not know when or how the photo made its way into Pai’s hands, or into this box where it sat alongside other photos of ancestors and people Ernesto had never met but were important to Pai. He and Carl stood in front of the red rock mountains in Sedona. Carl’s arm was wrapped around Ernesto’s shoulder. He remembered that their car had broken down on the way to the Grand Canyon, but they were smiling. It had just started to rain, and an elderly couple drove past and offered to take their photo.

We don’t know how to help you, the old man had said, We can’t change a tire.

Pai knew that story, and he had laughed at the two of them. Two men! Can’t change a tire!

Ernesto opened the frame, hoping that Pai had written something for him to find. Towards the end, Pai was that sort of man—the kind who knew more than he let on and was afraid to say so. But there was nothing written on the back of the photo. Ernesto and Carl lifted the box, for it was heavier than one person could manage, and placed it on the shelf where water would not damage it if the basement flooded.

The Fruit of Knowledge

A Love Supreme

A Pioneering Writer Feature with Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate has left an indelible mark on the literary world. Through both his own writing and the editing of landmark anthologies, he has reestablished the art of the personal essay. In addition, he’s a film critic, fiction writer, poet, educator, and has been awarded multiple fellowships—including two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. He claims to have once experienced writers block in 1969, but we don’t believe him. 


You are known as one of the champions who brought personal essays to the forefront of nonfiction writing. Can you talk about where that passion started and why you dedicated so much of your career to that work?

I started as a wannabe fiction writer, then wrote poetry. When I started reading personal essays, I realized that the form combined the narrative of fiction with the associative quality of poetry. I’d always been attracted to a kind of living voice on the page, whether in poetry or fiction, the first-person voice: confiding, intimate, establishing a relationship with the reader. Personal essays have that conversational aspect. I started off reading Hazlitt and Lamb, who directed me to Montaigne, who directed me to Seneca and Plutarch, and so it went. I realized that the personal essay was a conversation over centuries, with these writers talking to each other. There’s a feeling of family. Those who are in on the game recognize their relatives.

What was the industry like with regard to personal essays? Could you find great essays in bookstores? 

The essay was going through a decline. Editors didn’t want to publish books of essays; they wanted writers to reconfigure them with a theme, or as a continuous narrative. But actually, essays were everywhere, proliferating in all of the magazines. There just wasn’t consciousness of them. 

When I began writing essays, my novelist and poet friends encouraged me, pushing me into that niche, so I began teaching the traditional personal essay. I was at the University of Houston at the time, and I kept trying to find books to give my students. I photocopied many things and made them buy several books, which made me realize the need for an anthology. The only anthologies were contemporary; nothing out there was historical. That’s been an important part of my approach, the fact that I’ve always liked the historical, because the publishing industry is geared toward the hottest and edgiest. This is especially true in America, a country of amnesiacs who don’t remember anything. I loved the idea of bringing personal essays, this half-buried tradition, up to the surface, and I realized that there was no book like that. I was going to have to do it myself. 

Recently I’ve been working on a much bigger project: an anthology of the American essay, from 17th century Puritans to the present. After creating The Art of the Personal Essay I realized that, having corralled that form into its own niche, I myself didn’t understand this enormous distinction between personal and other kinds of essays. Whether something is a formal essay, or a piece of cultural criticism, there’s the same issue of personality, of character, narrator. Even if the narrator never uses the word “I,” there’s an implicit sense of the author behind it. I’ve been gathering material for this American essay anthology, taking the perspective that there are brilliant essays in every walk of life: science, politics, religion, anthropology, psychiatry. There are always going to be good essays because they are one of the forms through which information, opinion, and point of view are conveyed. I’m knee-deep in this project, finding so much, getting a whole new education

How did you manage to narrow down The Art of the Personal Essay to the most distilled version of the history of the personal essay? 

Some of it had to do with the lineage of essays talking about other essays. I read so much for that anthology, from various cultures that didn’t have strong personal essay traditions, like Native American and Arabic. I tried to be as wide-ranging as possible. Ultimately it came down to what spoke to me, what excited and amused me. But I know that I have certain inclinations, tastes, and blind spots. For instance, it’s hard for me to appreciate something with no sense of humor, irony, mischief, or playfulness somewhere in it.

What do you think of the current industry for personal essays compared to when you started writing?

There’s no question that essays are going through another Renaissance, another Golden Age, with many collections coming out. Of course there was a long period of memoirs being published, followed by backlash against memoirs. My own feeling is that memoirs are a legitimate form, but the first rate ones are rare, just as great collections of poetry and novels are rare. They shouldn’t have to apologize because there’s a lot of middling work in the field.

I do think there’s been a balkanization of memoir and essay, so that they’re geared toward different groups. In fact, the essay has been one of the ways that minorities have seized attention. African-American writers announced themselves in the 20th century much more by the essay than by novel or poetry. It becomes a way to address identity, and not only for ethnic minorities, but for the disabled, gay, feminists, and so on. My perspective is that I don’t really care about that; I just want to read something that’s stimulating, with beautiful sentences. For me, it’s not just that you’ve had trauma, or cancer, or that you were sexually abused; you have to write well. You get no points for living. You still have to write well.

One thing that I love about your essays is your skepticism. You view things through a critical eye. Now that you’ve been writing for so long, are you running out of topics to be skeptical about, or are you always finding new things to question?

Doubt and skepticism are intrinsically part of the essay. They’re certainly part of my DNA. It’s a reflex, how I think. I think assertively, and then I start wondering, what about the other point of view? Like most, I rationalize often, defending myself in my head, with self-righteous tendencies. But then another reflex of mine is anti-self-righteousness, and I’m opposed to asserting my superiority to everyone else. So I’m also self-skeptical. 

It’s amusing to be a contrarian, to think against the grain of received opinion. Many writers, especially young writers, write what they think their peer group thinks they should think, instead of what they actually think. And one thing literature can do is promote a sense of nuance and ambivalence, where not everything is black and white.

The ending is when an essay either falls apart or comes together. You’ve talked about your reticence with endings that are too easy, where everything is resolved, but you’ve also talked about the importance of providing wisdom at the end. What’s the balance between a too-easy resolution and wisdom?

I do like the idea of wisdom and feel drawn to it as a touchstone. Wisdom and honesty are important for me. That doesn’t mean I attain wisdom; it just means I try to get there.

I’m looking for worldly perspective. For instance, I was teaching workshop yesterday, and one student had written an essay about being passed up for a promotion that she should have gotten. There was a lot of wailing in the piece. At a certain point, I wanted her to get on with it, to stop being arrested by complaint or self pity. I have a sort of warm spot for stoicism, which is the non-traumatic response of making the best of this situation. I look for that larger perspective, which doesn’t come from complaint, but is more general. 

Every essay is unique, and every essay ends in its own way that it wants to end. It sounds mystical, but listen to the work, and there may come a time when you think, enough already, quit yapping. 

One of the odd things about essays is that since they track one’s mind, they could go on and on, because you have thought after thought until you die. But there’s such a thing as artistic resolution, which is different from content resolution. You may be writing an essay about a subject which you cannot resolve, like an essay about peace in the Middle East. You can’t resolve it, and no one else can, but it’s possible to assert an arc of your own thinking where you reach a point and you can’t go any further, while being honest in knowing you can’t go any further. 

You can sometimes manage to finesse more wisdom than you actually have. When you read a lot, you can understand the sound of worldliness and worldly wisdom. You can imitate it sometimes, but ultimately, you have to look in the mirror and say, this is all I can understand at this point; I’m just going to have to learn more and understand more. So there’s a question of being honest about how much you understand, how much wisdom you actually can attain. 

You’ve always encouraged writers to write about something they don’t know the answer to quite yet. What is your own technique? Do you start with a question, or with a possible answer? Does it change per essay?

There must be something that’s unresolved, some sort of question. That’s true even when I write a diary entry; I’m not sure what I’m trying to figure out. I start with both a question and an answer. The answer can only take me so far, so I explore. It’s not just exploration, though. I’m also trying to find an argument underneath the exploration. People think essays should only be exploring, that they shouldn’t be so lawyerly as to always prove something. But if there’s nothing connecting the exploration, then the essay will feel self-indulgent. I’m always looking for something crystallizing underneath the exploration.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” What’s the balance between sitting down and thinking and getting out and living?

Well, living will happen whether you want it to or not. I find that living throws up quandaries and questions all the time, especially in relationships. You can look at family relationships, love, friendships, which are endlessly intriguing, and frustrating, to some degree. I have a wife and a daughter, so I sometimes deal with their discontents. Or I might have an evening with a good friend, but somehow, it’s unsatisfying; something is off. There’s no end of mulling over concerns around relationships. 

And of course, there’s the larger political situation. I have a general sense of the world and whatever my responsibilities might be toward it. I haven’t written many political pieces, but I’ve written some, and I’m increasingly less nervous about it. I always want to be able to say something different that not everybody knows. Part of the problem in the current moment is that people get together, basically saying back and forth what we’ve all read in the paper today. What kind of writer do we bring to the table who has something different to say? That’s where one’s psychology and sense of self-awareness and mischief can come in. 

Every piece of your life is potential fodder for your writing. Is it difficult to turn off the narrator in the back of your head and engage with life? Is there a balance between these things?

There’s not a balance because I’ve always been a slightly-detached person. I’ve never been the poster boy for “live large.” I accept this, although whether or not those close to me accept it is another question. I grew up in a stormy family setting, and one way of getting through was becoming a spectator, developing a sense of detachment. I’m not troubled by wondering if I’ve put too much distance between myself and the world. I’ve developed my own method; it seems to work. I don’t have enormously high expectations for happiness at every moment, so if I can just get on with things—and that’s the stoical part of me—I’m more or less content. I have to trust that there’s a balance between sympathy and disengagement. And that’s true even in my closest relationships. I’m never so close that I stop observing the oddities of those around me. I have to know their flaws as well as my own flaws. 

The Life and Loves of Phillip Lopate, a Career Timeline

You’re best known for the personal essay, but you’ve written fiction and poetry. Does that create angst in you, or are you too stoic to get angsty about people not talking about your fiction?

There used to be this term, “a man of letters,” and now we’d say, “a person of letters.” The writers I respected most did many different things. Whether it’s Samuel Johnson or Edmund Wilson, they were always producing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so on. That’s something I’m finding while editing this anthology of American essays, that many of the best essays are written by novelists and poets. They know how to write. In general, I’ve gotten a fair amount of recognition; I’m not going to lose any sleep because I may not be a household name. 

You’ve written many essay collections. Which one proved most challenging?

I don’t know if “challenging” is the right word, but I was intrigued by writing Notes on Sontag. It was fun to take a figure about whom I felt somewhat ambivalent, then work through her achievements over time. Examining the chronological period which she and I both occupied became a way to look at the past, when everyone said certain things about the time, which she said too. And I see that now we no longer say those things. Sontag was attentive to fashions and thought. I’ve always had the opposite tendency. That is, a refusal to be topical, and a refusal to jump on bandwagons. Sontag fascinated me because she was always trying to get onto the newest thing.

You’ve taught at several institutions, influencing countless students’ lives and careers. How has that affected your own writing? 

Teaching is important to me. It’s another way for me to look at relationships and the drama of human psychology. I have students who come with various longings and resistances, and it’s fascinating to help them work through them. There’s the student who nods at everything you say but whose work doesn’t change; then there’s the student who fights you all the time, but whose work does change. In that sense, teaching is like being a psychotherapist, understanding resistances. 

Teaching is a verbal improvisation. It’s like writing in air. A student will ask you a question, and you have to come up with an answer. You bluff a lot, and improvise. It’s helped me articulate ideas about writing that would otherwise be half-formed. There’s something like jazz about it. You don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go; there are surprises. There’s also the fact that it’s a bunch of strangers who have to coalesce as a group, with chemistry, which is different in each class.

I think teaching is fascinating; it’s as fascinating as writing. Writing will always take from you all that it can, and still demand more. Teaching is the same way; you never reach a point where you’re acing it. There’s always going to be something more you can do.

Now that you’ve learned so much about writing and craft, if I could take you back in time to when you first started writing, what advice would you give yourself?

Become a plumber!

The advice I gave myself at the time was don’t lose heart; stick to it. If I thought something was worthwhile, then even if it kept getting rejected, I should continue. The first novel I wrote was called Best Friends, and it never got published. I showed it to a best friend, and he said, “Write ten more, and they’ll figure out what you’re doing.”

Sometimes you have to teach the public how to read you; they don’t know initially. 

The basic advice I give to myself, to students, and so on, is first, to persist, and second, to read more and more, like saturation reading. I don’t agree when some writers say they don’t want to read when writing because they don’t want to be influenced. I want to be influenced as much as possible. 

I also advise developing areas of expertise. Some of my areas of expertise are film, architecture, city life, education, and obviously, literature—essays and nonfiction. Developing areas of expertise means you can be called upon to write about different things when you’re not feeling creative, and that’s great, so you can hijack any assignment and make it your own. 

What is the career high? What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of developing a voice and a persona that’s recognizable, that has idiosyncrasy to it but that encourages other people to live with their idiosyncrasies. 

My Love Affair with the Essay, by Phillip Lopate

Most reflections by writers about how they came to do what they do are, in the end, disappointing. Hence, I invite you to find this particular article disappointing from the get-go. If you can lower your expectation bar sufficiently, it may not prove wholly unworthy of your time. To expect little, in any case, is something natural to the essay form, whose professed modesty by its very name in putting forth a mere “attempt” is echoed by the lack of major award recognition and relatively low commercial status accorded it by the outside world. It is hard for an essayist to get away with being an egomaniac (though some bravely try). What I want to do here is to sketch (modest word) my own involvement with the essay, and consider how my understanding of the form has evolved over time.

When I first dreamed of being a writer, in my late teens and early twenties, I was drawn first to fiction and then to poetry. Never did it enter my mind then to become an essayist. The essays I was exposed to in college were assigned by way of teaching to write compositions and examination papers, the sort of tax you had to pay in order to read great literature. As I was usually assigned no more than one essay per writer from a textbook, it did not occur to me that essayists could have personalities as charming or idiosyncratic as my favorite novelists and poets. But I was already drawn to first-person writing, that intimate, subjective whisper in the ear, whether it be the growl of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or the clueless purr of Ford Madox Ford’s narrator in The Good Soldier or Machado de Assis’s posthumous prankster or Italo Svevo’s ironic Zeno or Celine’s manic shrill Bardamu or Browning’s sinister Duke in “My Last Duchess.” What I liked particularly about first-person writing was the one-to-one connection it established between author and reader, its penchant for self-analysis, which was so often undercut by rationalization and unreliable narrator self-deception. Unbeknownst to me, I was in preparation for falling in love with the personal essay. 

That captivation occurred during one summer vacation when I rented a cottage in Cape Cod. I had already written a book, Being with Children—about my teaching experiences as a writer-in-the-schools—which I did not realize was essentially a string of essays; I thought them chapters at the time.As is my wont, I snooped around the bookcases at the house I was subletting, and found a Penguin paperback of William Hazlitt’s selected essays, and took it outside to peruse. Unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, my conversion experience occurred lying in a hammock. Hazlitt’s cussed, animated voice electrified me from the start. He turned me on to his friend Charles Lamb, who had a much more insidious, playful tone, but was every bit as galvanizing. Hazlitt also warmly recommended Montaigne, whom I had read decades earlier in college with bafflement and indifference, but who now, as I approached middle age, became my guy, my model. The rest of the Anglo-American canon followed more or less automatically: Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, and on the other side of the Atlantic, Thoreau, Mencken, Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, etc.

I began writing the stuff and teaching the personal essay to my graduate students; I had to photocopy masses of material because it was hard to find any anthologies that went back before the twentieth century. All the publishers seemed to be rigidly focused on modern and contemporary authors. I, however, have been blessed or cursed with an historical sense and have envisioned the personal essay as a conversation between living and dead authors across the centuries. Eventually it dawned on me that I myself would have to edit the anthology I needed to assign. That is how The Art of the Personal Essay came about. In my genealogy of the canon, I went all the way back to precursors, Seneca and Plutarch in the West, and Sei Shonagon and Kenko in the east, before including a chunk of Montaigne, then a large dose of the English essayists, then a quick global tour of other cultures, including Turgenev, Tanizaki, Benjamin, Borges, Hubert Butler, E. M. Cioran, Roland Barthes and Natalia Ginzburg, before concluding with the American scene.

Let me say immodestly that it has become the standard text, adopted by universities across the United States. It is probably more responsible for my being invited by this magazine to ruminate than the five collections of my own essays I’ve published. Indeed, I have become so identified as the champion of the personal essay—even given undue credit for reviving the form—that I began to feel imprisoned in my promotional role, though happy to take whatever rewards it provided. 

Part of the problem was that the more I studied the vast literature of the essay, the less was I convinced that the personal essay constituted such a unique subgenre, distinct from other kinds of essays. First of all, I fell in love with Emerson, whom I had stupidly excluded from The Art of the Personal Essay, only to realize decades later that there was no American essayist more imbued with personality, acuity, and sheer strangeness than this man. Second, I began writing a lot of criticism—of movies, books, architecture, visual arts—and it didn’t seem to me that my brain or my deployment of rhetorical strategies was operating any differently than when I wrote personal essays. I knew that some of my favorite practitioners, such as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and Max Beerbohm, were equally adept at critical pieces as they were at personal essays, with no shrinkage of their inimitable personalities in their criticism.  As I immersed myself in the critical masters, from Diderot to Ruskin to Edmund Wilson to Lionel Trilling to Susan Sontag, and so on, I saw that they were all, each in their own way, cobbling together a highly specific voice or persona through which evaluations and insights could issue forth.  So, when it came time for me to edit another anthology, this time of American movie critics for the Library of America (that august preserver of the national literary canon), I decided that my selection of the various movie reviews would be adjudged first and foremost by their literary worth, and inflected, however subliminally, by the notion that each was a kind of personal essay. Or let me simply say, an essay. 

I have since been expanding my idea of what constitutes an essay, which has taken me in many new directions: food writing, nature writing, science writing, psychoanalysis, sports, politics, geography, religion. No longer restricted to the self-consciously belletristic, I seek out fine examples in every discipline, because every discipline has very gifted writers who are willing to venture forth with their thoughts on the page, testing hypotheses, registering skepticism about received ideas, examining their own doubts, employing worldly irony, and making a pleasing arc of their cogitations. Which brings me to my current project: editing an anthology of the American essay.

I signed a contract a year ago with Pantheon Books in hardcover and Anchor in paperback for a one-volume compendium of essays written in the United States, from the Puritans in the seventeenth century to the present. I decided to go big: to include essays of all stripes, not just personal essays, and from every walk of life. Which brings up the question: what is an essay? I’m sure you are all familiar with the various definitions, such as Dr. Johnson’s “a loose sally of the mind.” But E. B. White cautions that “even the essayist’s partial escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own discipline, raises its own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all hope) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.” Addison drew the line between essays, which didn’t quite know where they were going, and discourses, which did. For William Dean Howells, the significant line was between the essay and the article. Agnes Repplier thought that essays should offer “no instruction, save through the medium of enjoyment.” William Gass forbade the scholarly article from consideration as an essay. Cynthia Ozick, in her beautiful piece, “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” is at pains to distinguish a genuine essay from what she considers fakes. She writes: “A genuine essay has no educational, polemical, or sociopolitical use; it is the movement of a free mind at play…A genuine essay is not a doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. Thomas Paines’s Common Sense and Emile Zola’s “J’accuse!” are heroic landmark writings; but to call them essays, though they may resemble the form, is to misunderstand. The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.” 

When I read, or re-read that statement, I thought to myself, much as I revere Ozick, I disagree. Why should something meant to persuade readers to take up an action or to instruct be stricken from the essay rolls? Are Edmund Burke’s speeches or Alexander Herzen’s political analyses not essays? So I put a section from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense into the anthology. And I put in Martin Luther King’s speech on the Vietnam War, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and I put in sermons by Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich and Thomas Merton, and one of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, and Sarah Grimke’s discourse “On the Condition of Women in the U.S.,” and some humorous newspaper columns by Finley Peter Dunne, Heywood Broun, Don Marquis, Christopher Morley and Robert Benchley, and some rather brilliant academic papers by the sociologists Erving Goffman and Robert K. Merton, and film criticism by Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, and nature writing by John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Hoagland, and Annie Dillard, and science writing by Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sacks, and impassioned feminist polemics by Audre Lorde, Ellen Willis and Vivian Gornick, and wickedly anti-feminist writing by Florence King, and dense philosophical arguments by George Santayana and William James and R.P. Blackmur, and pointed political analyses by Randolph Bourne and Richard Hofstader, and a lovely piece called “The Stranger’s Path” by that splendid geographer J.B. Jackson, and Janet Malcolm’s experimental “Forty-One False Starts,” and Donald Barthelme’s puckish defense of ignorance, “Not-Knowing.” 

I became an opportunistic blotting paper, absorbing hints from everywhere around me. For instance, I came upon a review of Donald Judd’s art criticism in the TLS which said, Judd was all right, but the really first-rate artist-writer was the environmental sculptor Robert Smithson. I had heard in the past that Smithson had an excellent prose style, so I rushed to look him up and sure enough, I found something excellent by him that I could put in the book. When the art historian Linda Nochlin died, the obituary mentioned her influential essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” so I immediately googled it, read it and in it went. I even included a few visiting essayists who commented cogently on the United States, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, D.H. Lawrence, Jose Marti, Octavio Paz, and C.L.R. James.     

It should not come as a surprise that in the end the project grew to two, possibly three hefty volumes. When I turned in those photocopied tomes to my editor and my agent, I had to wheel in the manuscripts in a suitcase because they were too heavy to carry on the subway. We shall see what they make of it. At the moment, I am terrified but hopeful. (Recently, the publisher has proposed three volumes: one that will trace the whole arc of the American essay, from the Puritans to the present, one that will focus on what I consider the Golden Age of the American Essay, roughly 1945-1970, and one that will be devoted to the contemporary essay).

Lest you infer that I have become utterly promiscuous in my embrace of any piece of writing that might lay claim to being an essay, out of some imperialistic land-grab to expand my domain, let me reassure you that that is not the case. I have resisted the siren song of “creative nonfiction,” at least as it was characterized by Lee Gutkind as “making it read like a short story or fiction,” by incorporating fictional techniques, using lots of scenes and dialogues and cinematic detail. This approach scants reflection because it supposedly slows down the reader’s involvement in a scene. To me, reflection is still an invaluable ingredient of the essay—its payoff, so to speak. Of course, fictional techniques and dialogue scenes have always had a place in essay-writing, from Addison and Steele on down; but there is no reason for them to monopolize nonfiction at the expense of reflection and aphoristic summary. We essayists can tell as well as show. Among the graduate students whom I teach, and who are often drawn more to short story-like memoir pieces than to reflective rumination on a subject, I have sometimes encountered an antipathy to what they call “academic tone,” which strikes me as a disguised anti-intellectual prejudice. There is good academic writing as well as bad, and an intelligent academic paper can serve as one potential model for essay-writing. Consider the theoretical papers of Sigmund Freud, who, whatever you may think of his ideas, had a beautifully supple, rhetorically complex prose style.   

I have also been less than enamored of the hybrid cross-breeding of nonfiction and fiction, in the matter of telling the truth. The fact that an essay is fashioned or shaped via omissions and subjective judgments does not perforce make it a fiction. Whatever artifice goes into the crafting of a good essay, I still think it has an obligation to stick as closely to the facts as possible. There may certainly be times when shortcuts are advisable, combining three events into one or two, say, or creatively paraphrasing dialogue that occurred years before, or even changing some details to protect the identity of real persons, but those are very different matters from wholesale lying. The contract between essayist and reader is based partly on the assumption that the essayist is leveling with us, and not making up an experience from scratch. It is permissible for the essayist to speculate on a different turn of events, but then it should be labeled or implicitly understood as speculation, as for instance in Philip Roth’s masterful essay on Kafka, the first part of which is literary criticism, and the second part a fantasy about Kafka settling in New Jersey near Roth’s family. While I may appreciate the audacity of Lauren Slater’s book On Lying, which experiments with commingling fact and fiction, or John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact, in which he cheekily defends his right to change actual details in a reported piece because something or other “sounds better” to him, I am not drawn to such mischief myself and I see it essentially as a dead end.

Speaking of John D’Agata, whom I know personally and like as a human being, a sort of friendly rival, it was his own recent anthologies on the essay which sparked my interest in going one better. D’Agata, as you probably know, had been carving out his territory of the lyrical essay, and seeking to uncover (in his words) “the lost origins of the essay,” going back to Sumerian tablets, in contradistinction to the usual canon. In doing so, he has helped to renovate the American essay. He has ferreted out lists, poems, short stories, chapters of novels and so on, often elliptical and poetically mysterious, and made them the center of his interpretation of the genre. But strange to say, he does not seem to like what we normally think of as essays. He is averse to pieces that pursue a logical argument with clarity, or that construct any sort of narrative. This became clear to me in a discussion we had about the essay form in front of an audience, in which he asserted that the essay was primarily “associative” and I maintained that it was primarily “narrative.” 

Now, of course, essays can be both associative and narrative, but I somehow believe—perhaps because I think of myself as basically a storyteller—that any essayistic rumination or meditation tends to go from Point A to Point E or F, working through various tensions and knots along the way, and is therefore following, however inadvertently, a narrative arc. Its “plot,” so to speak, is the mind grappling with itself. D’Agata’s aversion to the traditional essay is based partly on his dislike of system and closure, and his desire for an essay to remain free as long as possible from causal connections, as many modernist poems do. Hence, “associative.” I realized how pervasively he clung to this preference when he chose for his newest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, a short story by Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties,” which is essentially a list-poem, albeit a good one, while passing up the chance to take something from that author’s magnificent posthumous collection, The Essays of Leonard Michaels. Since I regard the late Lenny Michaels as one of America’s greatest contemporary essayists, that substitution struck me as perverse.

As it happened, that last anthology of D’Agata’s came in for a harsh attack by a critic in The Atlantic, who commented on the sparse inclusion of what were customarily considered essays, and incidentally contrasted it unfavorably with my Art of the Personal Essay. All Schadenfreude aside, The Atlantic attack started me thinking. I do like essays.  What if I were to undertake a new anthology, focusing as D’Agata did on the American essay, but taking it out of that “lyrical” hot-house he had put it in and opening it up to as many styles and disciplines as could be conceived. And that, in all shameful honesty, is how my latest project arose.

I would like to end with a few ragtag thoughts about the essay. In contrast to the novel and poetry, whose narrative strategies or poetics have been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars, theorists, and critics, the essay has long been neglected on a theoretical level.  That is beginning to change, as evidenced by the appearance of several recent books that have attempted to pull together what might be called a poetics of and ideology of the essay. Some of the essay’s often-cited elements include its extraordinary flexibility and mutability, its literary sparkle, its undogmatic, anti-methodical, anti-totalizing tendencies, its tropism toward ambivalence, doubt, skepticism, self-mockery, its freedom to wander and digress, its cockroach-like resilience and survival ability. All these are good things. I would just like to caution that we essayists not take too seriously our own defensive propaganda, or adopt too smugly this self-approving, narcissistic, idealizing portrait of the form.  I who have championed the essay for so long am starting to grow impatient with these self-serving characterizations. Yes, essays can be charming; they have the appeal of the underdog. But let us not get carried away.    

In the United States, essays have been undergoing something of a revival. Twenty years ago they were considered box office poison; publishers went to inordinate lengths to disguise the stuff by repackaging essay collections as book-length themes. They wouldn’t even dare put the word “essays” on the cover. Essay love was the love that dared not speak its name. Now all that’s changing, somewhat. Writers such as David Sedaris, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Hilton Als, Teju Cole, Camille Paglia, Meghan Daum and John Jeremiah Sullivan have achieved an undeniable cachet, while a few of their antecedents, like Joan Didion and James Baldwin, have been elevated to sainthood. While I suspect the essay may be due for another market correction, we can speculate on the reasons for the present upsurge. In line with the recent vogue for the memoir, they appeal to the contemporary moment’s hunger for confiding voices, as witnessed elsewhere in TV talk shows and reality shows. Unlike the memoir, they are usually short, bite-sized, suited to short attention spans; you can keep the book by your bed and read one entry a night. In their penchant for fragmentation in the mosaic essay and opaqueness in the lyrical essay, they seem loyal to the project of modernism; in their acknowledgment of subjectivity and authorial prejudice, they exhibit a refreshing honesty, in line with the New Journalism’s recognition that strict objectivity and arrival at final Truth with a capital T are probably unattainable. 

Then, too, the essay has fed conveniently into identity assertions by minorities—whether ethnic, religious, sexual-preference, disabled, victims of abuse, prey to addictions, obesity and so on; all have elicited spokespersons who have plumbed the various aspects of the conditions that made them feel separate.  The danger in some of these identity politics niche offerings is that the essay may lose some of its worldly, playful perspective and gravitate toward moral self-righteousness, preachiness, unshapely rage and self-pity. Also, I sometimes miss the imprint or shadings of subtler older essays on these younger voices who are trying to write what has been called “the post-patriarchal essay,” which is one more reason why I (Mr. Patriarchal) feel obligated to make anthologies that honor and preserve the best historical examples.

Finally, while some rationalization and distortion are probably unavoidable in essays, the form has also been a welcome home for the exercise of reason. We can all agree that the essay by its very nature and word-derivation is an attempt, an experiment, a venture into the unknown; but that does not mean that we should allow it to be woolly-headed, or that we should resist whatever spine of argumentation may arise in the midst of our explorations. We must not be afraid to make reasonable sense. However neurotic we are as individuals, we should rejoice in the fact that the form we essayists practice has exemplified the very ideal of the sane, integrated self. Traditionally, it has not been hospitable to irrationality and psychosis. If this limits our freedom as writers, so be it. 

Have I disappointed you enough? Thank you for reading patiently. 

Love Notes, From the Desk of Phillip Lopate

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

– La Rochefoucauld

One’s relationship to food is conditioned by one’s upbringing, as no doubt everything else.  My mother, an overtaxed working woman with four children, was an indifferent cook, happy to open a can of peas or heat up a TV dinner of frozen fish sticks if pressed for time. Her children, in reaction, responded each in our own way: my brother, for instance, became an exigent gourmet and wine connoisseur, while I went in the other direction. Briefly, food has never been that important to me. Oh, I think I know the difference between a well-cooked meal and a lousy one, and I appreciate tasty dishes as much as the next man, but I am also not put off by ordinary grub. I do not require every meal to be a thrilling gustatory experience, and will not drive hundreds of miles out of my way to experience a highly touted restaurant. When I travel, I do not plan my itinerary around four-star establishments others would drool over.

The irony is that for much of my adult life I have been surrounded by foodies, who not only bored me silly recounting their favorite meals and expatiating on the wines that accompanied them, but whom I sadly disappointed by being unable to remember the array of dishes at this or that bistro, beyond the fact that they were “very good.” For several years, in my bachelor days, I actually went out with a food critic, and resented having to spend so much of our private life in pretentious restaurants whose multiple courses took three hours to get through. The one piece of knowledge I took away from that experience was that the starters are often more satisfying than the main courses; but perhaps I had simply become numb to the novelty of ingesting fancy preparations by the time the big dishes arrived.

My ingratitude toward would-be mentors who sought to educate my palette goes back even further, to my friendship with Alice Waters in the days when she began her world-famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. Permit me to backtrack. The year was 1969.  I was a twenty-five-year-old runaway, having left my first wife and a struggling ghostwriter’s life in New York to join belatedly the counterculture youth movement in California. After hitchhiking up and down the coast and taking jobs in a post office and a sixteen-millimeter film distribution house, I secured a position as a creative writing instructor at an Oakland private school. I was temporarily living in a shambling house in Berkeley with four women roommates, and felt too uprooted and decentered to do any writing: one of the rare times in my life that I actually had writer’s block. 

Knowing my passion for movies, a New York friend had given me the name of Tom Luddy to look up when I got to California. Tom was an extremely knowledgeable film buff who, at the time I first met him, ran the Telegraph Repertory Theater, an arthouse. Eventually he moved on to program the newly established Pacific Film Archives, a cinemathèque of sorts on the University California-Berkeley campus which he turned into a world-class venue. The son of a New York State Democratic political boss, Tom had been a competitive golfer in his youth, and still had an athletic bearing and the shoulders to match. Ensconced in Berkeley, where he had gone to college, he was a man about town, a supporter of activist causes and a local celebrity. Through him I met Alice Waters and her then-live-in boyfriend, David Goines, a talented graphic artist who designed now-collectible posters in a clean, William Morris-influenced style, which stubbornly went against the grain of the vertiginous psychedelic fashion then prevalent in the Bay Area.

The Lake Road Killers

The road slips through rough fields, then crouches down into the tall, tall trees, into their inky, obscuring darkness. They are driving, these two boys, Ben Rainey and Clyde Boudreau, and they come this way to drink and drive undisturbed. The road is busy in the summer, the late light of this northern place keeps campers and bikers out and about. But now, the tail end of mud season, past midnight, there’s just Ben and Clyde, and they come arrowing through the dark, up from West Burke, working on a buzz. They are talking, because the radio reception is so poor. All you get, when you can get, is squeaky French pop music from across the border in Quebec.

Clyde’s hands on the wheel smell permanently of iodine, and his boots smell of cow piss-shit, a very particular aroma that cannot easily be washed away. Despite aid from the state, Clyde’s family is in permanent danger of losing their dairy. His dad has been at the bank again.

“It’s because of the liberalists,” Clyde says his Dad claims. “The vegans.”

Ben disagrees. “There are, like, five vegans in the entire world.” He has heard of a cheese mountain, somewhere in the Midwest, where all the unused milk goes and gets turned into cheese because cheese lasts longer. “Imagine!” Ben urges, and they imagine this cheese mountain, gleaming yellow in the hot, flat Iowa sun. 

“That’s so fucked,” Clyde says. “That is just so fucked.”

Ben cracks open another Bud Light. “The problem is sugar.”

Clyde makes a dismissive snort. 

“It’s true,” Ben insists. “If you’re at Cumby Farms, you can see people come out with these kegs of pink shit or choco-shit. Kegs, man. Keg size. Not milk, not cheese. It’s not even technically food; it’s sugar and chemicals. And you know from the size of those people that they are not hungry. They are not even thirsty. They are fearful. They fear that stuff will be taken away from them, the Democrats will make them turn in their sugar, the Deep State in black helicopters will come to their trailers, their blowed-down shit-pile shacks, and take away their Arizona Tea and their iced hazelnut capuchins.”

Ben is smart; he does well in school, AP Literature and Calculus. But he is poor. Being smart and poor is a bad joke, something given and taken away at the same time. 

“What does fear have to do with cheese?” Clyde asks. He sometimes has trouble following Ben.

“If people were not afraid, they would drink milk, they would eat cheese.”

This sounds remote and wise, for people do seem afraid of some unnamed thing, and Clyde looks through the windshield at the moon above the tall, inky trees. He and Ben have the windows rolled down; they want the air and the smell of yielding mud and long damp grass and water in the brooks. Clyde puts the heater on against the chill. There are frosts up here until mid-June. 

At last, they come upon the bend by the White Caps Campground. White Caps is dark but for security lights, a month away from opening season. The lake appears before them, sudden and grand and right there, the curtain of trees whisked aside like a magic trick. The wide, open lake in the moonlight is strange, so deep and dark, these odd places where the earth can still stash its secrets, its mysteries. As they hem the eastern edge, Ben surveys the black, wrinkled surface. What might be down there, lurking, living.

Ben’s mother loved the lake. On a summer day, she’d bring her own kids and anyone else’s, pack them into the Dodge Caravan, and she’d wade out into the sparkling water, knee-deep, with a beer and a cigarette, and stand for hours, beer upon beer. She looked beautiful and young and tanned from behind, but her face was already a ruin, teeth half gone. Ben remembers being hungry, because she never packed any food. All day in the sun and nothing to eat. The lake, even now, reminds him of that hunger, the ache in his belly, feeling so dizzy he’d put his head under water to get it clear. He’d keep his eyes low and unseeable and stare at the cool boxes brought by other people: the cold cuts, the bags of chips, the ice-cold sodas.

A few years ago his mother showed up at the back door. “Hi, it’s me!” She fluttered a casual little wave, cigarette in hand. Ben’s brother, Ian, let her in and, at dinner that night, she told them how she was clean, how much they all meant to her, the thought of them—her family, her children—well, they had been her light in the dark. Ian said nothing. He took a tooth pick and started working at a piece of hamburg caught in his back teeth. He had been the one to throw her out when he found her stealing their Gran’s morphine patches. She’d been replacing them with nicotine patches, so Gran was smoking the equivalent of two packs a day for a month before anyone noticed. 

Ben’s Gran’s bones are crumbling inside her skin now. If she so much as stubs her toe, the toe bones turn to powder. Gran is basically a sack of skin and she has started asking Ben to help her end it, her fingers catching at his shirt when he gets too near her. “Benny, I can’t take it no more.” He feels her staring at him from her chair with the same yearning he felt looking at other people’s cool boxes. She smells of piss and he’s sorry for her, but he also feels a horror of her, like what’s at the bottom of the lake. It might not be a monster with red eyes and a forked tail but this… this crumbling in a chair in a corner and the smell of what he fears is all the human grease and smear collecting in the many folds of her skin that no one dares wash away anymore. 

Ben and Clyde come along the lake road, passing Devil’s Rock where, in summer, you can hurl yourself briefly into space, a moment’s liberty before the lake receives you, the sparkling water cold as claws. The great granite knob of Mt. Piscah is on Ben’s side, the lake on Clyde’s, and a little further on, by the first set of cabins, she appears. She must be coming from the cabins, though why? What is she looking for there? Not like a bear you’d expect hassling people’s bird feeders and garbage. 

She stops, illuminated by the truck’s headlights. Jesus Christ, Ben thinks, a moose is a weird-looking animal. She just stares at the boys, and next thing Clyde is slowing down and braking, reaching for his gun, and the dumb animal isn’t running away, she’s just staring and staring.

 “Dude, you don’t have a permit,” Ben says. No one is supposed to hunt cow moose anyway; their numbers are way down due to brainworm and ticks, and it is not even in season. 

Clyde locks and loads. “She’s practically asking for it.”

And he shoots her, though he does not kill her. She falls down on her knees but struggles to get up. She does not look like an animal but a kind of mechanical beast that has broken some hinges and springs inside, so he shoots her again and she topples over. The boys run out to her. She is breathing, blood bubbling from her mouth and nose, and Clyde shoots her point blank, which is a mistake because her skull bursts up and open, and suddenly they’re covered in this hot, red brain soup of hers, their ears ringing from the shots. 

When the ringing stops, Ben can hear the chugging sound of the truck and Clyde’s laughter. But it isn’t a funny ha-ha laugh; Ben recognizes the nervy giggle. Once, when Clyde’s old man was repairing the electric fencing, Ben and Clyde were in the barn, right by the invertor, and Clyde turned the current on, just for a second, then off again. They heard his Dad scream out. Clyde tittered, high like a girl, and flipped the invertor on, one last jolt, then off, then he and Ben ran and ran, clear across the fields and made sure they came ambling up the road, from the opposite direction, so they couldn’t possibly have been screwing around with the electricity in the barn.

“Nice piece of meat,” Clyde says, resting his cow-piss stinking boot on her shoulder, a gesture of conquest.

“We’ll go up to Wheeler Mountain. Chantel, Lily, maybe Bogsy and T.J. It’ll be great. Barbeque is barbeque, right. No one’ll know.” Ben works to sound convinced. 

Clyde gives the dead moose a little kick. “Don’t tell Chantel, I gotta have your word, man, because she will tell the whole fuckin’ world.”

 Chantel is a vegetarian and will probably vote for Bernie Sanders when she turns eighteen, and she cannot stand the thought of animals being slaughtered. Ben has tried to tell her, because he wants the intimacy of conversation, of ideas, and not just the slow unbuttoning of her white, lace shirt, that wild deaths are just as bad, if not worse. The moose is dead, that is a fact, and so many are dying in a worse way, the brainworm which makes them go crazy and must be like having a badly-tuned radio on in your head 24-7, or the ticks. While taking down firewood, Ian found a young bull moose dead from ticks and said it was like a coat, these fat grey ticks more than fur in some places, a pelt of ticks. Sucked the blood right out of the animal, that’s how it died, from blood loss. Animals do not die pretty deaths in the wild, they do not grow old and lie down and go to sleep in a field of flowers. Neither will Ben’s Gran.

Clyde has his chainsaw in the back of the truck and he heaves it out, but it will not start. Over and over he pulls the starter arm but the motor refuses to catch. He yells out and chucks it into the bushes. 

“We’ll have to lift her in,” he says.

They try to haul the moose to the truck. But just moving her a couple of inches takes all their strength.

Clyde kicks her. “Bitch!”

Ben listens for cars. It’s nearly 2 a.m. Sooner or later someone else will come this way, and that person will see a couple of corn holes standing over a shot-dead moose. Her weight is that of a horse—say, 800 lbs. Ben feels his face burn, sweat pricks his armpits. The words, “You fucking asshole” form on his lips, but he knows there’s no point in uttering them. Clyde is just short-sighted, and he has no reason to be otherwise. His life is pretty much locked into the dairy, and when the dairy fails—which it will—he’ll be working as a logger, or a landscaper, or a roofer, for a dollar above minimum the rest of his life. Ben knows that Clyde’s dad regularly jacks deer, and if he gets a live coyote in one of his many traps, he sets the dogs on it first. Clyde does not want to be like his father, but perhaps there is no other way to be in this place, which visitors say is beautiful, but they’re not in the barn on mornings so cold the cow piss freezes in the trenches, they are not patching their roof with tarpaulins. Clyde may be short-sighted, but he can add, and he knows what his life adds up to.

Ben looks down at the body, the cloven hooves, the rough hair of her coat. She’s still warm. He exhales. “We can’t just leave her shot up like this. The cops, man. Fish and Game, man. We’ll have to smash her up. Make it look like she got hit by a car.”

Clyde grabs the crow bar and hits her. Just once. Then again and again, like a crazed wind-up toy, crow bar winding up and back and slamming down. The noise of the breaking bones, the sudden fragility of this enormous animal—how easily she splits open. Ben stands back, watching his friend’s fury, and he wonders at the intensity of that emotion, almost envies its purity and clarity. Clyde stops, panting. “What the fuck, you gonna help or what?”

There’re rocks on the roadside, debris from Piscah, and Ben finds a rock that fits his hand, in the ancient way, and he smashes the moose, mid-torso; he smashes again, but the rock is slippery with her blood and he hits her udders, which spurt out milk, and the milk turns the blood rose-pink. Clyde stands back now, and Ben feels a violent compression in his stomach; he manages to burp out a beer-scented heave. He thinks about the moose calf in the dark. It must be there among the dark, closed-up cabins, watching, the way children watch and do not understand when something is happening to their mother, what men in the dark are doing to her and she’s not moving but they just keep doing it. “Let’s go,” Ben murmurs. “Let’s just leave her.”

“We can’t.” Clyde turns now, re-coiling all his anger, winding it back inside, carefully, the way his dad puts his belt back through his belt loops when he’s done. “Obama made this database for every bullet, so they’ll trace the bullets.”

“I’m not sure he did.”

“Well I am, sure as fuck, and those are my bullets, my gun.” Clyde’s already rummaging around in the back of his truck, finding a chain. They truss this around the moose and hook her onto the hitch. As they drive off, they can feel her back there, thumping and jerking. At first Clyde drives slowly, and they drink the last of their beer casually, and Ben is thinking about her calf, how it will be taken by coyotes, not quickly, but one piece at a time, though he wonders if something happens to a dying animal, it stops feeling. The way the moose, even, had that faraway look. Her lashes had been so long. And her crazy rubbery nose, he’d noted her whiskers, much like his Gran’s.

After a mile, Clyde starts to speed up. Light is already washing up the eastern sky—it’s nearly 4 a.m. But it’s not the mid-May dawn causing Clyde to weight his foot upon the accelerator, nor the fear of discovery, but some great and childish anger at the moose for disappointing him, for making his life so unnecessarily difficult. The word “fuck” forms in him, gaseous and explosive, pressing outward. He will explode with it, and then the bits of him will rain back down and smother and suffocate the remainder of him. He floors it, the stupid dead moose yanking and bumping behind the truck. Ben says nothing.

They reach East Brownington, and a car comes around the bend, toward them, then past them. Clyde suddenly pulls on to the verge, gets out. Ben joins him and together they unhitch the moose. She’s a mess, though somehow the structure of her has held together. “Bitch,” Clyde says, but softer, in his mother’s voice, or perhaps his own. They drive away and Clyde chucks his beer can out the window, though he worries, later, that the cops will find his fingerprints, his DNA, and they will come for him.

The Pen Cries Power

A Feature with PEN America Prison Writing Program

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect freedom of expression in the United States and worldwide. Founded on the heels of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing, and we support free expression, encouraging the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. We strive toward an increasingly integrative approach—aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison and the identity of prisoner.

Soft Things Don't Grow Here, by Daniel Carter

Every day the convict rakes rocks the desert repels from inside itself
into fine single file lines to match the march of the subjugated as they shuffle to main line.
            One at a time! Yells the screw as though reciting from a script manufactured
By crooks who call shots for the Man who pulls their strings.
We all know these things.
Soft things don’t grow here.

My next-door neighbor needed a soup
So I gave him one of mine.
That infraction only cost me three days of solitary that time.
We are expected to get along
As long as we’re not too polite;
No one cares if it doesn’t make sense,
            Just keep your fucking mouth shut and keep to the right!
            If you turn your head around or make any sudden movements,
            We will take you down to the ground and spray
            (You Fucking Animal!)
Shackles leave scars only the soul sees.
Soft things don’t grow here.

A tumble weed struggles to free itself
From razor wire wrapped around my world.
The wild horses roaming the arroyos beyond the cyclones
Fill my teenage heart with a longing for what is illegal for me for nearly two more decades.
An old guard reads what’s in my eyes.
            Son,
            Soft things don’t grow here.

Stir the Eggs, Scrambled, by Charles Patrick Norman

Early morning: the sun not yet shining.
Still dark. Breakfast.

My Father sits across from me
        at the small square kitchen table
        covered with a red-and-white-checked
        oil cloth, spooning hot grits
        onto his plate—white, steaming,
        swirls of orange sharp cheddar cheese
        stirred into eddies with the melted butter,
        a shake of salt, then pepper.

He takes two buttermilk biscuits from the
        small round pan, hot from the oven,
        breaks each one open with his fork,
        dabs soft churned butter onto each one,
        sets the biscuits next to the grits,
        then scoops a spoon of molasses,
        from the little jar, dips one biscuit into
        the thick brown sweetness,
        bites, chews, and smiles at me.

He spoons hot buttered cheese grits
        onto my plate. I take two biscuits from the pan and copy him,
        move for move, as my mother turns
        from the hot stove two feet away
        black cast-iron skillet handle wrapped
        with a striped dish towel, and slides
        two fried eggs, soft, over easy,
        with the spatula, onto my father’s plate of grits.

He stirs the yellow yolks into the grits,
        dabs a biscuit into the mix
        and eats, pleased.

She turns back to the gas stove,
        blue flames flowing from the burner,
        grasps two brown eggs from
        the bowl in one hand.
        With practiced ease she cracks
        the eggs against the skillet edge,
        drops the yolks and whites
        into the bubbling bacon grease,
        stirs the eggs, scrambled­—
        I do not yet like the runny eggs
        like my father does,
        but one day I will,
        perhaps in homage to him,
        or yearning to return to that time
        when there were but the three of us
        in that little white house
        on the hill, happy, content, alive,
        before he kissed Mama goodbye,
        squeezed my shoulder,
        and drove to work,
one more time.

My Co-Worker, by Edward Ji

My coworker makes parole.
No goodbyes. Just disappears one day.
We wish him well in our hearts,
Like among the dead, one resurrected.
He’ll forget about those still dead;
Shake off the gray dust,
While here, we still sleep,
An island away from the world.
I file my departed friend
Into my memories of the gone,
and inherit his work boots
As if I were the living,
And he the dead.

In the nighttime dew
Twisted shady trees
Climb to find the fruit
All the apples in my eyes

Behind the library
Stalking service berry section
Invisible I consume
Medicinal amounts of wild fruit

Coaxing plentiful branches
Through my kitchen window
Mullberry tree in the streetlight
Let the city grow wild…

I am everythang
that signifying Monkey say I be      So they say: I am
      a comet rider, planet hurdler, Milky Way maker   I am
      beyond, I Kant’s   theory of knowledge
            I am, a celestial transcendent time traveler, who
walked with Wisdom and Knowledge
and debated the inherited fallacy
of religion, but founded common ground      in principles, I am
the Alpha and the Omega
and all the time in between
      I am, the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit
I am in the midst      of the burning bush and called-to:
Adam, Noah, Abraham
      Moses, Marcus, Malcolm
Martin, Mandela “Here I am!”
the fourth man loose walking in the midst of the fire
who made Nebuchadnezzar shout out:
Ni Na Moto Ndani Yangu, I am, I am, I am!
The North Star       master builders set the Great pyramid
underneath me, I am
the low moaning—strangled song, from a bilious bilge,
sung by kidnapped African nationals. I am the revolt, I am
the escape; I am
the dive, into the icy blue   death.
I am, the bones that littered the middle passage, I am
what the white man: stung up and hung out
the slave. I am underfed and destitute
I am what the Negro forgot, so he shouted:
“I am somebody,” I am    everything
that- that nigger Stagolee is not, I am
the black power, the Sixties sought, I am
rhythm in four/four time    laid over
eighth and quarter notes, I am
Blues-bent soul cries, I am
jazz, funk      on the one, soul, and hip-hop,
I am the bass drum       of the heart. I am
the graceful H that played
like Donny Hathaway running
warm and cool        at the same time
wild, through Coltrane’s veins
(through Coltrane’s veins)
I am, back-flips   no-hands, on mattresses
laid out, in Mad Dog 20/20 battlefields. I am
the threat police officer perceive, in the presence of unarmed black men, I am
the roll call on black mothers      for slain
children by white police officers’    violence, I am
incandescent with rage, beyond the point of pleading, I am
2.2 million Hostages, struggling forward    from government owned property
up to, I am. I am as much of a man, as you think you are
I am compassion; I am love.       I      am    Peace. I am
the black soil underneath your feet, I am
the Rebel without Pause, PE warned you about me, I am
the statue of liberty in Chains, (stop)
I am the American flag    painted in blood. (stop)
I am the future       the fire within,
on the eagle’s wings, which bore you to myself,
so I shall be     I am!

Breaking Ground

A Debut Author Feature with Daisy Johnson

We at F(r)iction are elated to introduce our readers to Daisy Johnson, author of the acclaimed short story collection Fen and winner of the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath Prize, and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. 

Daisy’s debut novel, Everything Under, only hit bookstores in October, but it has already garnered impressive credentials, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, given each year for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK. 

In this captivating retelling of the classical myth, Oedipus Rex, we follow a lexicographer named Gretel. Abandoned as teenager by her mother, Gretel tries to make a life for herself. Years later the past resurfaces, pulling her back to the canals of her childhood and into a search for her estranged mother—all the while being pursued by a mysterious creature called the bonak. This genderfluid debut novel explores questions of fate and splintered family relationships in a surreal setting that is guaranteed to leave you unsettled. 

In our interview, Daisy discusses the Oxford Canal, dyslexia, genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and her motivation for diving into a retelling of Oedipus. After the interview, check out the first chapter and see what everyone is talking about!

Interview with Daisy Johnson

Let me open by telling you that this book is amazing. What inspired you to write Everything Under?

I knew that I wanted to write an Oedipus retelling for quite a long time. About five years ago, I had the idea to write it. But I think the main reason why I wanted to do it was because it was a challenge. I thought that a lot of retellings work really well in contemporary settings, but I wasn’t entirely sure if this one would. I also thought that it was such a compelling story! It’s so weird and filled with magic, and fate, and prophecy. It was something that I wanted to attempt.

Talk to me about setting, placing it in Oxford and various other locations around there. Why was that so important to you?

I tried setting it in lots of different places—it was in Wales for a bit, and it was in the city of Oxford for a bit. But then my partner and I went on a canal boat for a long weekend, and we were driving around the Oxford Canal, and it seemed such a weird place. There were people living there that had no connection whatsoever to the outside world. And I needed to find an environment where strange things could happen to the characters, and the readers would believe that they could happen in a place like that. So it seemed like the perfect location. 

You have a narrator that’s obsessed with words, expressed through her work as a lexicographer and with the secret language she has with her Mum. Tell me how that bled into the prose and your understanding of the world.

I think it’s something that I have always been interested in. In my first collection, Fen, a lot of the stories appeared to be about the weirdness of language and the colonialism of language—how language can take on a life of its own, sometimes in an aggressive way. 

I’m also dyslexic, so I’ve always been interested in how different people’s languages change the way they are and the way they think. So it’s something that was incorporated quite naturally into the book. But it was only in the later drafts that the narrator became a lexicographer, and I think it’s important for her to be that character because she’s completely obsessed with what happened with her when she was a child. She wouldn’t have been a lexicographer if she didn’t grow up the way she did. I think that was interesting for me—how the people who are with you as children change the way you are as an adult. 

Regarding the language these characters invent, I spent a day trying to work it out. I wanted it to be a child-like language, to have the sound that children make when they think of something and the comfort words that children might use.

From the prologue, we know that a lot of this book has to do with how the past changes us. Is this something that you have always been interested in, or did it just come out of wanting to rewrite this myth?

I think it has always been something that I’m interested in, particularly how the past can change you in a negative way. The mother is slightly sidelined in the original myth, but I was interested in her, this idea of a woman who is a mother but isn’t a very good mother, and what this does to her child, what the impact of this is, the idea of trauma tracing through our lives and making us the person we are. 

You’ve created a really interesting drip line to reveal the plot. Many writers would argue that certain things are essential to characters and need to come out in the first chapter, but you wait until chapter five or six to let readers in on these things, and so the evolution—the way in which we learn about these characters—is fascinating. What was it like to be that patient about it? 

It took a lot of edits to get it there. I didn’t want the readers to get confused, but I also wanted readers to feel like they were learning new things as the protagonist remembered them. I didn’t want it to come in a logical order, but in a way that it was emerging to you. I did want it to feel fragmented and potentially a little discombobulated. 

I’m interested in the role that sex has in this novel. Certainly with the myth you’re pulling from, that’s going to take center stage, but there are really interesting dynamics between your narrator and her mother as well as different aspects about how sex is used to bring people together and tear them apart. How did you do that so exceptionally well without going over the line like so many other novelists who write about sex in a way that is either uncomfortable or disingenuous? 

I really hope it was successful because it was something that I was worried about. It’s something that I have always been interested in as a writer because often writers try not to write about sex, which I think is strange since it’s something that happens to most everybody in the world. 

For the protagonist in the novel, sex is quite a complicated thing. Her relationship with sex is not simple, and I really wanted that to come across. She sees something when she is a child and it’s enough to break her in a way, to make it difficult for her to function and interact with other people. A single act has waves which reverberate through the years. I agree with you that so often the sex writers show us is awkward or disgusting, particularly for the women. The sex in Everything Under has enormous connotations, of course, but I also wanted to show that the characters enjoyed it. 

I have to ask about the use of the second person. Was that in all the drafts? When did that come about? 

That came about relatively early because it was clear to me that the protagonist is obsessed with her mother, so she had to be talking to her. Although I was aware that there are whole books written in second person, I think a lot of readers aren’t very comfortable with it. So I decided to do some of it in second person and some of it in first person. But I’m pleased that there is a second person perspective. I think it works, and I think it was something that the novel needed in order to give the reader the sense that the protagonist’s entire world revolves around her mother. 

I want to talk about the way the mother deals with intense memory loss and dysphasia. What was it like to write about that? 

It was hard because it is not something that I have any firsthand experience with. Nobody in my family has ever experienced it, so I was worried about it and did a lot of research. I read a lot of books, particularly a book by the writer Iris Murdoch’s husband, who writes about living with her when she was older and going through memory loss. That was helpful because a lot of the book is about living with someone whose memory is decaying. But it was a tricky and emotional thing to write about, how trauma can sometimes erode your memory. 

I spend a lot of time reviewing genre work, and I spent a lot of this book feeling like you were hinting to something mystical while simultaneously thinking you were going to explain it away, like literary fiction does. But there was so much of me, when I was reading Everything Under, that had an incredible, uncomfortable doubt about these darker figures, about whether there was something more magical happening or whether it was explainable. Who is your ideal reader? Are you hoping to court people on both sides?

I’m glad you ask that because it’s something that I think about a lot. I think there’s a weird divide between genre fiction and literary fiction. There’s an elitism about it, which I find quite unpleasant. I read and enjoy both! I think it’s impossible to find an ideal reader, but my ideal reader would probably be somebody in the middle. 

I think, more and more, people right now are writing somewhere in that gray zone, between literary and genre. And I think that is exciting. I think that the lines that have been created don’t need to be quite as stark.

How long did it take you to write this book?

From the idea until publication, it took probably about four years. But I was also working on my short story collection, Fen. I was probably writing Everything Under full-time for about two years, but it’s been in my head for a really long time. It feels strange that it is now out in the world and I’m separated from it. 

Did you go through several full drafts? Are you the kind of writer that agonizes over a chapter and doesn’t let it go until it’s perfect? Or do you write the whole thing up and then go back and tear it up? What’s your strategy?

I’m a rewriter. With this book, it’s probably taken seven entire drafts written from scratch, and a lot of writing binned. This was the first time I ever got this far into the editing process with a novel, so I was learning as I went along. I don’t necessarily know if it was the most streamlined way of working, but it was definitely how this novel needed to come out. I was thinking about things as I was writing, so I needed to be shedding a lot of words as I went along. 

How does writing this compare to your short story collection?

It was relatively similar in terms of rewriting. When I was writing Fen, I would write the entire story once, and then I’d go back and rewrite it again. Fen was difficult, but Everything Under was, at times, impossibly hard, perhaps because of its length. Just holding an entire novel in your head, trying to keep that world living within you is a lot harder than keeping a 5,000-word short story in your head. 

Also, with Fen I was writing about a place where I grew up, which I think already lived within me. With Everything Under, I was writing about things that I didn’t necessarily know. It took a lot more sitting down and thinking everything through, whereas Fen came out in sort of an emotional stream. 

When I sit down with author friends, they talk about delving into a certain relationship or using a narrative style that didn’t come naturally, and they just feel like banging their head against the keyboard. What were the parts of this book that hurt the most for you? 

I found it extremely hard to lose so many words. It wasn’t something that I was ready to do. I think it’s something every writer has to get used to, shedding as many words as you can without worrying about them. 

In terms of the actual plot, because I have an amazing relationship with both my parents, writing about a difficult relationship between a mother and child was quite challenging and uncomfortable. Readers often ask me if, by the end of the book, the mother has forgiven herself for what she does, and I don’t know whether that is true. I think it is actually important to write characters who are un-forgivable. But that doesn’t necessarily make for an easy character to work with.

Also, we talked about sex earlier. There is a sex scene in the book that has gone through many, many drafts. It was a very difficult sex scene to write and to read, and I found it hard to get the right balance. 

What was the publication process like? Did you already have an agent for Fen? Did you randomly run into a literary agent at a cute little cafe at Oxford and hit it off? 

There’s a creative writing master’s program at Oxford, and I was studying there part-time. At the end of the year, we got work sent out to some agencies. An agent got in contact with me, and we worked together on Fen and eventually sold Fen and an unnamed novel, which would then become Everything Under, to my publisher here. 

So I sent early drafts of the novel to my agent. We worked back and forth a lot until we finally sent it to the editor. The draft that we sent to the editor is unrecognizable from what the book is now. Luckily, I had a very hands-on editor who I worked very well with. There were a lot of long discussions and lots of emails. We worked together to unearth the novel, and I enjoyed the process of it. 

There wasn’t a creative writing master’s when I was at Oxford! Can you tell me a little bit about it?

I don’t know how old it is, but it’s a part-time creative writing program; it’s called a Master of Studies. The idea is that you go in for two years, and you have these long weekend residencies where you all stay in the same place while workshopping and writing together. It’s for people who want to try and do everything. You have to write poetry, and plays, and fiction. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So it was amazing, and I would definitely recommend it to people.

How has it felt to get this incredible response from the writing community, critics, and award committees?

I’m completely overwhelmed and extremely happy. I think it’s quite lonely being a writer, and it often feels like you’re writing into the void, and you don’t really hear anything back. Not everybody has loved it, but I wanted to write a divisive novel. I’m just glad that people are enjoying it. It makes you feel, as a writer, that you can carry on writing, which I don’t think everyone always does.

What are you working on now?

I just got back the edits for my third book, which is a horror novel set in Yorkshire. 

Now that you have moved on to the novel, is it difficult to go back to short stories? 

I write short stories at the same time. Because I’m a child of the creative writing course—I studied English literature and creative writing at Lancaster, where I went to university for my degree—I think short stories are just where I come from, so I’m always going to write them. It’s such a relief after writing a novel to go back to the short story and know that you have a certain amount of words to do it in. I love short stories, I’m obsessed with short stories, and I think I’ll always write them. 

Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her novel, Everything Under, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was the winner of the AM Heath Prize and the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was the winner of the Edge Hill Prize. She has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Prize and the New Angle Prize. Daisy currently lives in Oxford, UK. 

Excerpt from Everything Under

by Daisy Johnson

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you. 

The Cottage

It is hard, even now, to know where to start. For you memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding. At times I come close to violence. If you were the woman you were sixteen years ago I think I could do it: beat the truth clean out of you. Now it is not possible. You are too old to beat anything out of. The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.

There is a degeneration at work. You forget where you have left your shoes when they are on your feet. You look at me five or six times a day and ask who I am or tell me to get out, get out. You want to know how you got here, in my house. I tell you over and over. You forget your name or where the bathroom is. I start keeping clean underwear in the kitchen drawer with the cutlery. When I open the fridge my laptop is in there; the phone, the television remote. You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there. You are not Gretel, you say. My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful. You are not her.

Some mornings you know exactly who we both are. You get out as many kitchen implements as you can fit on the counter and cook great breakfast feasts, four cloves of garlic in everything, as much cheese as possible. You order me around my own kitchen, tell me to do the washing-up or clean the windows, for god’s sake. The decay comes, on these days, slowly. You forget a pan on the stove and burn the pancakes, the sink over- flows onto the floor, a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out. I run the bath for you and we go hand in hand up the stairs. These are small moments of peace, almost unbearable.

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language all our own. You tell me that you can hear the water effing along; I answer that we are far from any river but that I sometimes hear it too. You tell me you need me to leave, you need some sheesh time. I tell you that you are a harpiedoodle and you grow enraged or laugh so hard you cry.

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock your door open, put on the light. You are sitting up in the narrow spare bed with the sheets pulled to your chin and your mouth open, weeping.

What is it? What’s wrong?

You look at me. The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic. I shake it away. Open the wardrobe and show you the empty inside; help you out of bed so we can crouch together and look beneath, stand at the window and peer out into the black.

There’s nothing there. You have to sleep now. 

It’s here, you say. The Bonak is here.


Most of the time you sit stonily in the armchair regarding me. You have a bad case of eczema on your hands that was never there before and you scratch it with your teeth bared. I try to make you comfortable, but—and I remember this about you now—you find comfort an annoyance. You refuse the tea I bring you, won’t eat, barely drink. You swat me away when I approach with pillows. Leave it, you’re fussing, give it a rest. So I do. I sit at the small wooden table facing you in the armchair and I listen to you talk. You have an aggressive stamina that carries us through whole nights with barely a pause. Occasionally you’ll say, I’m going to the bathroom and rise out of your chair like a mourner from the side of a grave, your hands brushing invisible dust from the front of the trousers I lent you. I’m going now, you’ll say and approach the stairs with gravitas, turning back to glare at me as if to say that I cannot continue without you, it is not my story and I must wait until you have returned. Halfway up the stairs you tell me that a person has to own their mistakes, live with them. I open one of the notebooks I’ve bought and write down everything I can remember. Your words are almost peaceful on the page, somehow disarmed.


I’ve been thinking about the trace of our memories, whether the trace stays the same or changes as we rewrite them over time. If they are stable as houses and cliffs or decay fast and are replaced, overlaid. Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality. It makes me fraught, restless. I will never really know what happened.


When you are well enough I take you out to the fields. There were sheep here once but now there is only grass so thin the chalk shows through, lumpy hills rising from the ribs of the ground, a thin stream that burps out of the dirt and sidles down the slope. Every couple of days I declare exercise a cure and we march to the top of the hill, stand sweating and puffing at the top, and then cross down to the stream. Only then do you stop complaining. You crouch by the water and drop your hands into its cold rush until you touch the stony bottom. People, you tell me one day, who grow up around water are different to other people.

What do you mean by that? I say. But you won’t answer or have forgotten you said anything to begin with. Still, the thought stays with me through the quiet night. That we are determined by our landscape, that our lives are decided by the hills and the rivers and the trees.


You hit a bad mood. You sulk until it gets dark and then rattle through the house trying to find something to drink stronger than water. Where is it? you shout. Where is it? I do not tell you that I emptied the cupboards when I first found you on the river and brought you here and that you will have to do without. You flop into the armchair and glower. I make you toast, which you upend off the plate onto the floor. I find a pack of cards in one of the drawers and you look at me as if I’m mad.

I don’t know, I say. What do you want?

You get out of the chair and point at it. I can see your arms shaking with exhaustion or anger. It’s not always going to be my fucking turn, you say. I’ve told you enough. All of that stuff. All of that shit about me. You jab your splayed hand at the chair. It’s your turn.

Fine. What do you want to know? I sit in the armchair. It’s burning with your leftover heat. You skulk near the wall, pulling at the sleeves of the waxed jacket you’ve taken to wearing inside.

Tell me how you found me, you say.

I put my head back, hold my hands so tightly together I can feel the blood booming. It is almost a relief to hear you asking.

This is your story—some lies, some fabrications—and this is the story of the man who was not my father and of Marcus, who was, to begin with, Margot—again, hearsay, guesswork—and this story, finally, is—worst of all—mine. This beginning I lay claim to. This is how, a month ago, I found you. 

Three Poems

Dancing in the Dark

a burning haibun / after Bruce Springsteen

I spent summer, cloistered behind the curtain of my room, chest wrapped in stolen bra & panicked sweat. Woke each morning, ribs check-marked with the red echo of skin’s dreaming—what it might become. First learned the failures of my body in what a lover abandoned. Saw, in her discarded clothes, my chest as absence. Sold the whole season on a dream of looking like someone else. Danced with a candle’s soft pirouette of smoke, Springsteen crackling in the speakers like harsh light across a mirror’s scratched silver back. He sings “Come on, baby” “this town” “I’ll be carving you up” “you gotta stay” “baby” “I’m sick of” “this” & I wanna sing back, finish this broken lyric: “body.” I let the song play over & over, till Bruce’s voice fails him. I wanna press my lips to the hole his voice has burned in the dark & ask him if he ever stopped wanting to change. I stand in my bathroom with all the lights off, clothed in nothing but the word “man,” the first lie I ever stripped off my tongue. I shave down to my scalp, each strand ignites, hair of brilliant wicks, stubble to sparks, lighting my face, leaving a silhouette of ash.



          //


I spent summer behind the curtain of my panicked
sweat each morning check ed the skin
my lover abandoned. Saw
my chest looking like
a candle in the mirror
I wanna finish this “body.”
over & over, I press my lips to
the dark & ask to change. stand in my bathroom
lights off, clothed in “man,” the first lie of my tongue.
I shave my hair to sparks my
face, ash.


          //


“check my look in the
mirror I wanna change My
clothe s my hair my face”

Family Portrait as an Unfinished Meal

my mother skins onions
like small game, dabs chemical
tears from the corner of her eye.

the meat tenderizer is broken
necked, so i must soften
the beef with my father’s hands,

marrow-thick with knowledge
of how meat must be beaten
brutal into tenderness.

how any body softens
with violence. she grinds salt
into the carcass like a wound

or memory. the kitchen sprawls
around our bodies. open oven
spilling breath into his absence.

i dress the flank with incisions, fill each
new empty. a palm full of garlic cloves.
a flight of headless doves.

Translation Guide for a Crippled Trans Body

my body: a former list of possibilities
my body:            a museum
of potential futures
                    anthology of bee-stings
hive of uncorked hearts
fractured xylophone of my chest
a spill of keys           a fist
softened mouth         my hips:
salt-white parentheses
bracketing the un-woman of me
my hips:          kicked-in hinge
severed joint       & fractured
entrance        my spine: a rosary
of teeth      folded like a question
’s broken back
my gender: a mangled
woman             my gender:
last descendant of genus
meaning both birth & family
my body:           wombless
mother       how it births itself
my body: poem
written in a failed language
my body: a misheard voicemail
                   one lover telling another
I came to you       like a mouth
to flames.