How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

I was once a classically trained chef. I studied in France, then in Italy, even did a short stint in Japan to learn the art of making a perfect sushi roll. I’ve worked in some of the finest restaurants too, right beside the greatest chefs in the world. At this point in my life most of these skills are ill used. There is little need for blanching and deglazing when you are working in an industrial kitchen with fifteen other men, turning powdered cheddar into macaroni and cheese and busting open cans of slimy chicken and mushy green beans.

But every once in a great while, every few years or so, they come to me with a dinner request scrawled in shaky letters on a scrap of paper.

“Can you make this?” they ask. “Can you make it good?”

Yes. Yes I can. And over the past thirty years I have made many a perfect meal. I’ve made coq au vin with buttered egg noodles, maple glazed ham with charred pineapple and candied parsnips, and steak, steak, steak. T-bone, ribeye, prime rib. So many of them want steak, but they want it their way, the perfect way; the way they remember from that time they went to a real BBQ joint with their dad on their thirteenth birthday; or with cinnamon and nutmeg, the way Aunt Susie used to make it every Christmas Eve.

You name it, I’ve done it. Seafood too. Lobster more than once. Any time I get an order for the big red sea bug, I send my nephew down to the docks to get it—one perfect mid-sized lobster. People often go for the giant four-pounder, but that’s a mistake. It may make for a great photo-op when you are trying to wrangle its six-inch claws into a pot of boiling water, but in the end the meat is tough.

They mess up the butter too, which is almost as important as the meat itself. You can’t just zap it in a microwave and pour it into a plastic ramequin. No. It must be melted slow, the foam top removed, cooled, and then warmed again.

When I do lobster, I leave the warming of the butter to the very end. I have everything else plated and ready to go. I allow the temperature to rise just a hair above perfection, so it can withstand the cold walk down that long narrow corridor.

I never deliver the meals myself. I never take that walk. I am just the chef. But a damn good chef I am. I have made more than a few perfect meals, over a dozen, and always on a Tuesday night.

Today is Tuesday and at 7:00 p.m. dinner will be served. The priest comes at 8:00. The doctor at 9:00. The witnesses at 9:30. Lights out at 10:00.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My eyes narrow at the note that has been left for me on the countertop. No explanations, no caveats, just three neatly printed letters, PBJ. 

I can offer him what no one else can, thirty years of expertise, an understanding of how it feels to be trapped in this place, of what it’s like to have the world start working against you.  

I had an instructor once, early in my culinary education, who had us make boiled potatoes for a final exam. He used to say that the simple dishes were the hardest to make. That complex sauces and entrees with dozens of ingredients came with spaces in which to hide errors, but the simpler things got the smaller those spaces became.

From a tiny closet in the kitchen I pull a pressed white chefs coat. It’s the one I got when I graduated from culinary school, the one I wore to every job interview, and now the one I wear on these rare Tuesday nights. I button up the front of the jacket and look down at those three letters. 

Where do I start?

Bread. I must start with the bread. White, oh yes, it must be white. Not even fresh baked or organic, but that cheap airy sort. The kind that’s smack dab in the middle of the grocery store bread aisle, the loaves twice as long as the others and two dollars cheaper. The kind you cradle on the car ride home like a newborn infant and still it arrives mutilated.

That is the kind of bread peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ought to be made of. And they should be eaten off paper plates while shooting hoops in the driveway with your friends, hand-delivered by a smiling mother who is much sweeter than your own. The kind of mother who asks if you would like chocolate or strawberry milk with your lunch and puts the cool beverage—foamy, rich, and stirred to perfection—right into your sweaty hands.

I pull a brand-new loaf from the pantry and bring it to the countertop. I grab a handful of slices and set the heel aside, because there is nothing more disappointing then opening your lunch box in a screaming cafeteria, trying to forget about the bully who knocked you down at recess, and that girl who laughed when you mispronounced “negotiate” while reading to the class, only to find that one side of your sandwich is supple and pure and the other side is the goddamn heel.

I examine the first slice. It’s too small and a bit dry. The second is moist but has a giant hole. I stick my finger through, whirl it around a few times, and fling it across the kitchen. The third also has a hole.

I pull another handful. Slice number four is hole-free but the whole right side is caved in, a serious deformity that also afflicts slices five, six, and seven.

Eight is perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Nine is a marred by a crater-sized dimple, victim of an errant air bubble.

Ten is okay.

I stack eight and ten on top of each other but they don’t line up. I flip one piece and try again. Flip the second. Still nothing. It’s useless; the slices must be adjacent, brothers cut from the same cloth.

I check two more loaves to no avail. I almost had it once, only to find that my own brutish fingers had dented the soft bread. 

I step back from the countertop, grumbling. Any bum off the street could have made this sandwich by now. You do not need a chef to smear peanut butter on a slice of bread. 

Then again, you don’t need a Michelin star to run a kitchen like this, but here I am anyway. Because I need to make a living and because, just like these men, I was cut off from what I love the most by a series of poor choices. An argument with a restaurant owner, a flying pot of soup du jour, an accumulation of rants and ravings I will never remember, and morning after hot morning being pulled from the pantry, hungover with whiskey on my breath. My flagrant outbursts layered themselves so thickly over my name that when that final night came, no one could see the man any more.  

I grab an armful of loaves and lay the bread on the counter. Carefully unwinding the ties—while holding the end of the plastic and keeping my hands far away from the bread—I ease each loaf onto the counter. After fifteen loaves, I find them. Number 287 and 288.

Choosing the right kind of jelly is a total no-brainer. Smucker’s grape. I pull a new jar from the pantry, twist the top and smile at that oh so satisfying pop. I touch the smooth glossy surface with the tip of my finger. Perfect. It always is.

I head to the pantry for a fresh container of peanut butter, because nothing is better than seeing that smooth, caramel colored surface—sometimes riddled with little specks of nut, sometimes not.

Fuck. Smooth or chunky?

It’s a personal preference. It’s been a personal preference since the beginning of time. Adam liked his peanut butter smooth, creamy, and luscious. Eve liked hers chunky, rich, and crisp. Neither one is wrong, neither one right. Except to the individual. Then it is either absolutely right or completely wrong. There is no in between and no way of knowing, except to ask.

He is likely on the phone now with a mother, a father, a wife, or a child—saying goodbye. Excuse me sir, I realize this is the last time you will ever hear your beloved’s voice, but do you like your peanut butter smooth or chunky?

No, I do not think so.

I grab a jar of each and a spoon.

I dip into the smooth, take a big glob, shove it into my mouth, and close my eyes. It feels so right. It tastes like life when it was perfect. When all you had was moment after precious moment. Because two-year-olds don’t understand past and future, they only know the bright red of their favorite fire truck, the way it glides so effortlessly across the kitchen floor, how it climbs straight up the legs of Father as he sits in the recliner, and how it fits so perfectly in the palm of his little hand as he falls asleep in Mother’s arms.

This peanut butter is pure comfort, but for good measure and to be sure, I take a swig of water then plunge my spoon into the chunky. Damn it’s good. A bit dangerous. A bit exciting. A six-year-old would choose chunky and eat it at the top of the playground jungle gym, mouth gaping and drooling, looking down at the world.

Chunky or smooth? Smooth or chunky?

I try to focus but all I can taste is peanut butter. It lingers even as my tongue slides around in my mouth, cleaning it up, polishing my teeth, savoring the richness.

I stare at the jars on the countertop for the next thirty minutes as the tightness in my chest grows and the panic that started in my toes burns up my spine.

I am running out of time.

Chunky or smooth? I need to decide but all I can think about is this speck of peanut lodged in between my molars from the chunky. Amazing, how a tiny thing can cause such discomfort.

My tongue has it under control though and works methodically to root it out. The fleck of nut feels as huge as a boulder between my teeth, and as my tongue scrapes over it, the salty sweetness of peanut rises in my mouth.

Dinner at 7:00. Priest at 8:00. Doctor at 9:00. Witnesses at 9:30. And then, 10:00. Can a speck of peanut last that long?

When his senses are flooded by the smell of sweat and disinfectant, overwhelmed by the squeeze of the leather straps on his ankles and the cold of the chair that seeps through the fabric of his jumpsuit—when they place that hood on his head and pull it over his eyes, when all goes dark and the fear comes, more intense and burning than he ever thought possible—when he can’t decide what he fears the most, death itself or the indescribable pain, will he find that speck of peanut?

I ease my knife into the chunky and lay heap after careful heap onto number 287, smoothing it out with wide, deliberate passes of the knife, matching the thickness of each stroke like a barber cutting hair.

I spoon the jelly carefully. It matters less how much peanut butter is on the sandwich and more how much jelly alongside the peanut butter. Ratio is everything.

I myself was balanced once, early in my career—talented and driven, with a passion for food and life that swung me perilously from pole to pole. Until that night when my knuckles slammed into the jaw of a pinch-nosed critic sitting in the middle of the restaurant, arms folded, sneering. 

That blow could have landed me behind these bars, but it didn’t, and yet I am here anyway. Because what is a person to do, lying flat on their back at rock bottom? What is left when the reputation of a man is infected with rot, his name akin to the black sludge that builds up in the crooks of the pipes of a kitchen sink?

I put the two pieces of bread together and it is perfect. I press down ever so slightly with the flat of my palm and the grape Smucker’s oozes out the sides.

I sharpen my best bread knife for five minutes. Then I take the blade to the bread. It cuts with ease into two perfect triangles. I place them side-by-side on a large plate.

The footsteps of the guard echo down the hall. This one walks heavy, but it doesn’t matter which one it is, they are all the same. All tired and depressed, pulling graveyard shifts, sick of the bullshit and the drama, brushing insults and curses off their uniforms like settled dust, thinking of their ladies and their babies asleep in their beds and not about the danger behind locked doors, and certainly not about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a white porcelain plate.  

The boots of the guard hit the kitchen floor. 

“Is it ready?”

“Yes,” I answer, “but I’ll take it myself.”

A Window into Worlds Unfamiliar

A Pioneering Writer Feature

Over the course of her 60-year career, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than fifty novels and thirty short-story collections, many of which went on to win prestigious awards such as the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Award, and the National Book Award. 

Her dedication to the arts and diligence in production have not gone unnoticed. In 2010, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President Obama, in 2012 she received the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime achievement.

For most people, awards like these would be capstones to already incredible careers, and reason enough to slow down. But not Joyce Carol Oates. Fresh on the heels of last year’s The Hazards of Time Travel comes a new novel slated for publication this year. Due out in June from Ecco, My Life as a Rat follows the story of a young woman who goes into hiding after providing testimony that sends her brothers to jail. Be sure to check out our exclusive excerpt, “The Sorrowful Virgin,” after the interview. 


You have published over 40 novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Is there anything about the creative process that gets easier with time? Any elements that grow more difficult?

Writing is probably “easier” for the beginning writer because they have all the world to explore of fictional technique.  As time progresses, these strategies are explored, and as each is executed, there are fewer possibilities remaining. For instance, first-person unreliable-narrator confessional mode is a fictional perspective that is very appealing to me, but I feel that I can (probably) not use it again, or at least not soon again.  

The psychological effects of writing—the oscillation between frustration and (if but minimal) satisfaction, dismay and (if but temporary) excitement—become more familiar, so that, ideally at least, one expects to be discouraged, disappointed, and dismayed in the execution of the text. The older writer understands that writing is a process, and must take time. A younger writer might feel impatient with slow progress. The older writer also understands that the revision process will be a thrilling experience, no matter how arduous the first draft has been, so this is encouraging; indeed, something to look forward to.

What was the industry like with regard to personal When beginning a project, how much do you plan? Do you always have specific intentions when approaching a piece? Do those intentions or goals ever shift as you get into a piece?

My new novel My Life as a Rat has its genesis in a short story titled “Curly Red,” which was written long ago, so this is quite new for me—the experience of revisiting a story and developing it. Obviously, the early version of the story was much too sketchy and condensed, and one can see that this should have been a much longer narrative.  (The story appeared originally in Harper’s Magazine and was reprinted in I Am No One You Know (2014).) The tragedy of being rejected—“disowned”—by one’s parents must be deeply imprinted in my imagination since it is also, in a very different way, a theme of my novel We Were the Mulvaneys.   

Developing a story into a novel was—surprisingly—more difficult than writing a novel out of sheer imagination. For some reason, the early stages of this novel were extremely arduous, and I remember having written 200 pages and having only about 20 that were actually useable.

You’ve said before that you use the pseudonym Rosamond Smith as a way into an “adequate voice” (Nightmare magazine). Can you talk about what you mean by that? Do you have other methods for finding the “adequate voice” for telling a story? 

I have also written under the name “Lauren Kelly.” What I’d intended in these pseudonymous novels was to create narratives that, unlike my usual narratives, move quite swiftly, without much accommodation for background, exposition, and description. Each chapter is imagined as a sort of short story, propelled forward. Because they are “suspense” novels, each final chapter clearly resolves the mystery, though it may have an element of irony, as in Soul/Mate with its ambiguous ending.

In your memoir, A Widow’s Story, you say, “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important.” Have you ever struggled to continue writing? Broached a difficult topic? On the other hand, have you ever found writing to be therapeutic? 

Creating fictitious worlds is problematic when the “real world” is so broken, tumultuous, and ever-changing. The imagination is most fertile (and feels more worthwhile) in times of relative calm, even stasis. (Recall the Bronte children trapped in their father’s parsonage at the edge of the moors.  Nothing to do but read and write for years.)

You’ve spoken about the rhythm of writing, revising, writing, and revising (The Paris Review). What would you recommend to a new writer working to develop their own rhythm?

Just follow one’s intuition, I suppose.

I’ve heard that you’ll sometimes leave a work-in-progress alone for years at a time. Do you continue to think and wrestle with it while it is shut in the drawer? How do you determine when it is time to pull it out and continue to work? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I did work on the manuscript for the novel that would eventually become The Accursed for a remarkable number of years—from 1989 to 2011. But I did not work on it consistently and often did not look at it for months at a time. The manuscript was in another room—I would enter the room and re-enter the novel’s world—or rather, I would try—but was usually rejected or rebuffed after an hour or so. This went on for years until eventually I discovered the ideal “voice” for the novel and so could rewrite every word, every line, while maintaining the plot and the characters. It became an ideal experience of revision because I did not have to re-invent anyone or anything—I only had to rewrite, and since I love to write, this was a joy.

You’ve said, “There is no fiction so horrifying as the horror of actual life” (Nightmare Magazine). When writing fiction, are you seeking to replicate the horror of actual life? Are there factors that might motivate you to write genre fiction over literary fiction? Do you see genre and literary fiction as separate and distinct? 

We don’t replicate “reality” in art but present a distilled, selective simulacrum of it. Most art that deals with extreme subjects depends upon the principle of synecdoche. The scene in which the affable hedonist Gloucester suffers the loss of his eyes, in King Lear, is terrifying to behold on stage, but if there were numerous other eye-gougings in the play, the dramatic effect would diminish considerably.

How much fun do you have with Twitter?

Twitter is a window, or rather windows, into many worlds unfamiliar to me. I learn a great deal from Twitter—things not available in mainstream media.

You’ve been teaching since the age of twenty-two. Is there anything you would tell that fledgling educator now, if you could?

I think I have been very fortunate to have had excellent students over the years.  So “teaching” is really a pleasure, and is often just intense discussion among like-minded persons.

In the literary world you’d like to see “less emphasis by publishers in promoting just a very few titles while not attempting to promote other titles that might be equally meritorious” (The Rumpus). Are there other aspects of the literary world you’d like to see changed? Are there recent titles/authors that you think deserve more attention?

This is difficult to answer since there are so many prizes and awards, especially in poetry, that the effect has been somewhat numbing. Yet some sort of “award-giving” seems inevitable—since at least ancient Greece. Of course there are countless titles/ authors who “deserve more attention”—but there is not enough space to do justice to them, I’m afraid.

Ground Covered: The Life and Career of Joyce Carol Oates

MAYBE HE WILL SEE ME, SOON. ACKNOWLEDGE ME. 

That is all that I want: to be seen by him. 

WANTING TO PLEASE THE MAN WHO WAS NOT READILY pleased. 

Wanting not to disappoint the man who was frequently disappointed. 

For more than once when I was cleaning his apartment I’d overheard Orlando Metti on the telephone speaking harshly to someone at the other end who’d been presumably silenced, abashed by the man’s speech precise and cruel as rapid face-slaps with the palm of a hand. 

Someone female, I had to assume. Ex-wife, or another woman. Fluttering moth-wings, broken. 

But to me, Metti was courteous. What pride I took in this! 

Gentlemanly, soft-spoken. Expressing (mostly) satisfaction with the work I’d done. Pressing tips into my hand. 

It was a matter of anxiety to me, standing only a few inches away from my well-groomed employer, that possibly/probably I smelled of my body after hours of dragging a vacuum cleaner through the apartment, stooping to scour tub, shower stalls, toilet bowls, tile floors. Cleaning, polishing, buffing fixtures until they gleamed with manic and pointless intensity as I’d been instructed. 

Sweated through the thin white T-shirt, you could see the shadowy outlines of my breasts, nipples. If you wished to look. 

My forehead was damp, oily. The little star-shaped scar at my hairline throbbed with heat. 

Out of shyness/cageyness I did not exactly look Orlando Metti in the face. My wistful glances at the man were sidelong, covert. It had become my way to register the world in quick sidelong glances hoping that the world would do no more than glance at me in turn. 

Metti was amused by me, it seemed. The little star-shaped scar intrigued him but (of course) (as it intrigued many men) he was too polite to inquire about something so personal. 

“Would you like a drink, Violet?” 

So unexpected a question, I thought at first that it might be a joke. A test? Heard myself stammer No. 

Standing very still, smiling inanely. 

At Maid Brigade we’d been warned of certain of our (male) customers but no one had named Orlando Metti as a threat. 

“Are you sure? Wine spritzer, vodka soda?” 

The damp T-shirt was sticking to my skin. Damp hair straggling down my neck, hot-tingling scar on my forehead. Determined not to scratch the scar with my fingernails and inflame it. 

“I guess—not. But thank you, Dr. Metti.”

“Next time then?”

“I—I don’t know…”

Metti laughed at my stammering reply as if I’d meant to be amusing.

Now staring more frankly at my forehead—the scar that felt so livid, alive. Wondering if indeed it was a scar, or a birthmark. Tattoo? 

Would you like to tongue it? Kiss it? Suck it? 

Feeling dizzy, as Orlando Metti smiled at me. 

“Y’know, Violet—you could take a shower here. I mean—if you wished. Before leaving.” 

Another unexpected remark I could not answer. My face pounded hotly with blood. 

Metti laughed again, and relented: “All right, Violet. Don’t look so alarmed. We’ll plan for some future time. What I’d like you to do now is—” 

Drop off clothes at the nearby dry cleaner. Drop off a prescription at the nearby drugstore. Or, take the dog for a quick walk, he hadn’t the time or patience for his daughter’s damned dog today. 

HE MEANT TO INSULT ME. ALLOWING   ME to know he could smell my body. 

He meant to excite me. Allowing me to know he could smell my body. 

THE GAME. FOLLOWING THIS METTI would leave money scattered about the apartment for me to discover. And small expensive items—jade cuff links, coins from foreign countries, figurines of crystal or mineral, so small they could easily be slipped into a pocket. 

One- and five-dollar bills. Half-dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels in unexpected places like drawers used to store towels, linens. 

Are you tempted, Violet? Go right ahead, dear. Help yourself. Plenty where this comes from!

And when I’d become accustomed to discovering bills of small denominations, which I always left where I found them, there was a twenty-dollar bill made to look as if it had casually fallen between a bedside table and a bed—and here, on the floor of a closet, amid shoes, a fifty. 

A fifty! This was serious money, to me. 

Of course, I was not tempted. I would never steal from Dr. Metti even with his tacit permission. But the game excited me. 

For the nature of a game is uncertainty. How will it end? And who will be winner?

A treasure hunt, it was. Except nothing would be moved far from its place of discovery, so that Metti could have no reason to think that it might be missing. 

The bills, I would leave in plain view, on a tabletop. Which is where a cleaning-woman would naturally leave something she’d found on the floor in a room. 

Articles of clothing to be put in the laundry, with pockets— frequently there would be coins in these pockets, even folded bills. (Since all clients leave items in pockets, I could not determine if this was part of Dr. Metti’s game, or accidental.) Felice had instructed me: check all pockets before putting clothes in the laundry, place items you find in a small basket in the laundry room where the client is sure to see them. 

But the bills and other items scattered through the apartment had not been there when Felice and I had cleaned it together. 

This is new. This is for my sake. But—no. 

By this time I had cleaned for other clients at the Agency, uneventfully—all women. No games. No one remotely like Orlando Metti. Anxious—waiting for the client’s key in the lock. Waiting for him to return. 

Obsessively shutting off the vacuum cleaner so that I could hear more clearly if he was at the door—but no. Not yet. 

I’d learned: Metti had been divorced eighteen months before. In the rooms of the apartment there were no visible reminders of a past: no photographs of a family. 

No wedding pictures, family pictures, baby pictures. Not even pictures of Metti at a younger age. Works of art, framed, under glass, prints and lithographs by artists of whom I’d vaguely heard, on the walls, tastefully neutral colors, abstract designs. A row of framed Modigliani prints, ethereally thin nudes, young girls with beautiful mask-faces, small sculpted breasts. That was all: nothing personal. As if the man had divorced not just a wife but also an entire shared past. 

Wistfully I thought—That is the way. The only way of salvation. 

Digging out weeds. Yanking out weeds. Toss onto the compost, into a bushel basket.

Recalling from my mother’s garden how quickly even the sturdiest weeds would go limp, begin to die.

This was heartlessness, and heartlessness meant survival. Extirpate the past like weeds.

Metti wasn’t a medical doctor, I’d learned. Instead, an administrator at the Saint Lawrence Biomedical Institute, a research center. His degree was not an M.D. but a Ph.D. How rich was the man? I wondered. Not knowing what rich might mean, exactly. 

Forty-three years old. At least six feet two or three. Towering over me as I’d towered over Felice. Or so it seemed. 

And there was comfort in this, the man’s height. As there was comfort in the man’s confident manner, the modulation of his voice, the very dark eyes, the air of restraint and reticence where another man, in such close quarters with a lone young female, might have exuded an air of sexual aggression. 

Beautiful clothes he wore. Closets of clothes. Shirts of fine cotton or linen, in pale, pastel colors, with thin stripes. Trousers with a precise crease. Sports coats of soft wool flannel, rich tweeds. (There were several suits in Metti’s closets. But I would never see Orlando Metti in a suit.) Handsome leather shoes, black. Always kept polished to perfection. 

He’d asked me to polish these shoes, once or twice. See if you can remove the scuff. Thanks! The elegant shirts that required ironing were done at the dry cleaner’s and not entrusted to a cleaning-woman. 

Sometimes he asked me, would I pick up these shirts? An errand that wouldn’t take more than a half hour. Usually. 

And sometimes he asked me, could I run out to the drugstore and pick up a prescription refill and while I was there, in the store, could I buy a few small items for him?—Thanks so much. 

A terrible sick rage stirred in me, for the individual who lived in this lavish apartment. Who owned such elegant clothing, and who took advantage of his employee’s wish to please him. His employee’s need to survive. 

Your mother oughtn’t to have let you. This voice, I could not recognize. It was not an accusation, I wanted to think. 

FALLING IN LOVE WITH AN EMPLOYER. You have to be very naïve, foolish, or stupid. Or desperate. 

HOUSEWORK IS GRIM WORK. HOUSEWORK is solitary work. You are made to toil in the service of another’s house. You are made to inhabit the interior of another’s life. You are made to experience an unnatural and one-sided intimacy. 

Hairs in drains, stains in toilets and on sheets, indefinable smells that make you gag. Clothes, underwear carelessly flung down for someone else to pick up. Disheveled beds, soiled towels. A spillage of shoes underfoot, no matter if they are expensive leather shoes—too much intimacy. 

The scummy condition of his safety razor. Broken, yellowed bristles of old toothbrushes, for what unfathomable reason saved beneath a bathroom sink. 

Dishes encrusted with food, soaking in gray water in the kitchen sink. In the dishwasher, more dishes, glasses, silverware encrusted with food which I would have to chip away with a knife, scrub off with steel wool, before they could be properly washed in the machine. 

Scattered through the rooms of the apartment were dirtied glasses. In some of these, remnants of alcohol that smelled sharply. Whiskey glasses, wineglasses. Beer glasses. Occasionally, those delicate glasses I’d learned were for champagne. 

Felice had taught me: start the laundry as soon as you can. Strip the beds, gather the towels, haul the soiled-laundry baskets into the laundry room and start the machine. The time you spend housecleaning should approximate the time required to do the client’s laundry for you may have to do more than one load and you must make sure that the clothes are sufficiently dry before you leave. Especially, you must not—ever—put away damp things, for the client will discover them and be unhappy. 

Wash, dry, sort, fold, put away. Repeat. 

Felice had taught me: never leave a room until you’ve checked it thoroughly, all the corners, ceiling, floor, and beneath furniture especially beds where filth can gather. Then, check it a second time. 

Still, Dr. Metti had not valued Felice, much. She’d assumed a good relationship with the (single, male) client who tipped more generously than other clients but he’d dropped her, the more experienced house-cleaner, with a single curt call to the Agency. 

Just the girl. Not the other. 

When Ava informed me I’d felt a sensation of panic. But then, later, satisfaction. For I’d been preferred, unfairly. 

Fact is: one day I would be Felice. And another young girl, not beautiful but young, with that expression of naive curiosity, wonder, sexual possibility in her face would supplant me. 

You know I want to fuck you, dear. Is it—Violet? 

I knew this. But, I did not wish to know this. 

Thinking of how my mother, as a girl, cleaning houses on Highgate Avenue, had been approached by her employers. Some of her employers. 

For all that I knew, my young mother had allowed these strangers to exploit her. She may have clipped the old man’s gnarly toenails, she may have massaged the old man’s flaccid body. Certainly she’d have said yes if he’d asked her to do extra work for him without the cleaning service being any the wiser. Off the books

Thinking these things. Dragging the vacuum cleaner from room to room while in another part of the apartment the lonely little French bulldog was barking. Here I am! Feed me! Free me! Love me! 

Each Thursday the forlorn sound of the little dog barking tore at my heart. Yet I could not allow Brindle to run free as I worked, he would cause too much commotion. Nor did Metti allow him in most of the rooms for he had a mischievous habit of dribbling urine. 

The little bulldog was someone else’s responsibility, not mine. I wanted to think so. 

When at last I opened the door to the sparely furnished, carpetless small room in which he was kept Brindle blinked at me in astonishment as if for a magical moment he’d convinced himself that I was not a stranger but his beloved mistress, who seemed to have abandoned him; then the frantic barking began again. I was hurt that Brindle didn’t seem to recognize me from the previous week. Or wouldn’t forgive me for being the wrong person. 

Each week, I had to win the little dog’s trust another time. Each week, the little dog’s tremulous affection, that seemed scarcely distinguishable from terror. 

How strange, this breed of dog! A miniature bulldog, scarcely as large as a cat, with a very short, compressed face, bizarrely flattened pug nose, enormous wide-set shining eyes that bulged in their sockets. Deep-chested, short-legged, dwarfish. His coat was stiff-haired, brown mingled with white. Yet there was something elegant about the dog, so unlike the coarse-haired mongrels of my childhood who were free to roam the neighborhood and were never “walked” on leashes. 

You had to laugh at Brindle, he took himself so seriously. No idea of his small size though when he tried to run, he sometimes tripped and fell. To me he displayed bared teeth, raised hackles. Panting, and growling deep in his throat. Sharp toenails that clattered against the hardwood floor as he slid and skidded about trying to gain traction and rush at my legs. I wondered—was this miniature animal going to attack me? Bite me? Hadn’t I been the one to take him on a walk the previous week when the master hadn’t had time for him? 

“Brindle, no. I am your friend.” 

He’d overturned his water bowl. He’d devoured all his dry food. A puddle on the tile floor—urine. Quickly I cleaned up the puddle, mopped and cleaned the floor before Metti arrived and was furious. 

Bleach, Dutch cleanser. Windex. Doggy-Out! Paper towels. With rubber-gloved hands fending off Brindle feinting and rushing at me. 

Felice had been frightened of the little bulldog, taking him at his own self-assessment. She’d complained of having to clean up after a dog though (it seemed to me) this was hardly the dog’s fault, that he was so neglected; Brindle had no choice other than to make messes indoors, and wherever he could in the apartment when he was able to run freely barking and knocking things over with the joy of abandon. Felice had told me that Brindle belonged jointly to Metti’s ex-wife and their daughter, and that the daughter was away at college in another state and couldn’t bring Brindle with her; the ex-wife was living somewhere not far away but in another city, unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility of the damned little dog

I could not decide if the deep-chested bulldog, with his short legs, and ridiculous mashed-in face, was ugly or in his eccentric way beautiful. It seemed sad to me that he was so lonely for companionship. Ravenous for food and for affection. Dutifully I fed him, and replenished the water bowl, that had become scummy since last Thursday and would have to be scrubbed clean. With a tissue I tried to wipe away mucus that had gathered in his eyes but he shied away from me with a little whimper as if I’d hurt him. Badly the room reeked of dog, I dreaded Dr. Metti reacting in disgust and blaming me. 

Last time he’d said, reprovingly—This place needs airing out. Please. 

A previous time he’d said—Not all the stains are out of that rug in the foyer. Try again. Please. 

I wondered if anyone had spoken to Brindle with affection since the previous Thursday. Or had spoken to Brindle at all. 

After he’d eaten, and sloppily lapped up water, Brindle reconsidered me and decided that I was his friend. His stubby little tail whipped back and forth. His hindquarters quivered. My heart was suffused with an exasperated sort of affection for the damned little dog

But exertion caused Brindle to pant, wheeze. I knew that miniature bulldogs are prone to respiratory ailments. Their joints become arthritic as they age, they are susceptible to many health problems. The compact little creatures are bred for display, not for survival. Not for their own sake but to flatter an owner’s vanity. 

Brindle had lulled me into petting him, and speaking to him, and not watching the opened door behind me; he managed to dart past me, out into the hallway skidding on his toenails, and into the living room where I dreaded he would leak urine in his excitable state, onto the newly shampooed soft-beautiful-beige-woolen carpet from Ecuador . . . 

“Oh, Brindle. Oh no.” 

I wondered if the little French bulldog was the punishment the former Mrs. Metti and the daughter were inflicting upon Metti for his having expelled them from his life. 

By the time I finished re-cleaning the carpet, and putting away most of the laundry, and dragging the vacuum cleaner back into its storage closet, there came a sound of a key in a door—the door opening at last. Metti had returned. 

A shock of anticipation ran through me. Like Brindle, in an instant I was alerted to the arrival of the master. 

Hesitantly Brindle trotted toward Metti. His hindquarters were quivering. His tail moved hesitantly. He was eager to greet the master yet fearful of the master. I didn’t want to think that the master sometimes “disciplined” him—struck him or gave him a kick. 

“Ah. You’re still here, Violet—is it? Violet.”

Metti greeted me courteously. I saw his eyes moving on me more readily than in the past, when he’d scarcely noticed me at all. 

With an effort, Metti greeted the little dog. Laughed at the dog’s antics. Damned if he’d acknowledge how irritated he was with the dog, in my presence. Like a parent with a disfigured and obstreperous child, wishing to be rid of it but not when others were observing. 

I was feeling very warm. Metti’s gaze made me uneasy. Through a roaring in my ears I could barely concentrate on what he was saying. The gist of it was, could I spare a few minutes to do a favor for him, by taking Brindle for a quick walk?—“I will pay you of course.” 

It was gratifying to feel that Metti had come to depend upon me in such ways; yet, it made me anxious that I had already spent so much of the afternoon cleaning the apartment, and dealing with the little dog, I hadn’t had time to complete the reading assignment for that evening’s class. Also, during the housecleaning it had come upon me with a small thrill of horror that I had yet to prepare a one-page, single-spaced critique of the assignment, to be handed in that evening. 

But I had to say yes. I could not say no to the man who smiled at me so warmly, and who had secreted bills and little treasures for me in his apartment, as a game; or as a suggestion of what I might claim, if I wished. 

When I returned from walking Brindle in the light-falling snow Metti greeted me at the door and took the dog’s leash from me. He thanked me profusely, and asked me another time if I would like a drink before leaving; but now I did tell him no, for really I had to leave. My pulse was quickened, snowflakes were melting in my hair. I could not raise my eyes to Metti’s face for I wondered if I seemed beautiful to him, in that instant. 

“Tell you what, Violet. Stay, have a drink, and I’ll drive you home. Or—to the university? D’you have a class tonight? I think you said.” 

Metti was breathing audibly as if he’d been running. He did not step toward me. Yet, I would recall that he’d stepped toward me. 

Quickly I told him No thank you. Suddenly eager to escape. 

Not even noticing, until I stepped dazedly out of the elevator on the ground floor, that the bill Orlando Metti had pressed into my hand at the door was a fifty-dollar bill. 

I’D CONSIDERED INFORMING THE AGENCY that I didn’t want to return to Dr. Metti’s apartment. And why? Has the client harassed you? 

No. No! 

IF YOU WON’T FUCK ME, YOU’RE DONE. We’ll give it another week or two. Understand? Sure you do, you’re not stupid. 

JERR SAYS, OK, LET ME FIX IT. 

Squatting beside my bicycle. Frowning at the jammed chain. 

I’d been riding my bike in the street when something happened to make the wheels lock, I’d fallen tangled with the bike, shuddering with pain as my right leg was dragged against the pavement so that my jeans tore at the knee, a bright burst of blood seeped through the fabric. 

Blue Schwinn bike with balloon tires, already an old, discontinued model when Daddy brought it home for me, a trade for carpentry work he’d done for a friend. I’d been ten years old, totally thrilled. 

Falling from the bike on Black Rock Street within sight of the house but there’d been no one to hear my cries, I’d had to drag myself home limping and bleeding. 

And now, Jerr is repairing the bike for me. For in my dreams of my brothers, Jerr is alive. He and Lionel are just boys. When they’d liked Violet Rue, or anyway had tolerated Violet Rue, as the youngest sister who adored them. 

The time before I’d learned to fear them. Before they’d learned to despise me. 

SHAME. THE EX-WIFE WHO CALLS METTI too often, leaves (drunken?) rambling messages on his answering machine which I am tempted to erase out of shame for a woman so abased, abandoned. 

Never! I would never. Absolutely never beg. Not me! 

EVIDENCE. IN EACH OF THE (THREE) bathrooms, in the sinks, on the tile floors, in shower drains there have been strands of hair conspicuously longer, different in color from Orlando Metti’s hair which is dark, gray-streaked. 

In a bureau drawer in his bedroom, a silky black nightgown—smelling of faint, fragrant perspiration. 

Yes, I’d pressed the nightgown against my face. Yes, my eyes had closed in a swoon of angry rapture. 

On a bathroom counter, a half-empty tube of maroon lipstick. 

On a shelf in the shower, an unfamiliar brand of hair conditioner. 

On a bedside table, a jar of what appeared to be face cream or moisturizer, an Italian brand—Yves Rocher. So rich and buttery, I am tempted to rub some of it on my face. 

Quickly removing the rubber gloves from my hands, that stuck to my fingers. Always, the gloves felt moist, even wet inside. I thought there had to be a tiny pinprick in the rubber but I haven’t been able to locate it. Hated the feel of the gloves and wished never to have to wear them again. 

It was rare that I paused to examine anything in a client’s house. The women whose houses I cleaned had little that appealed to me—clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, husbands. Possessions. 

I wasn’t jealous/envious of their lives. In thrall to the husband, or rather to the idea of the husband of years before now fading, vanished. 

Recalling my mother’s stricken face when Daddy stared at her coldly, insulted her. Look. You were the one who got pregnant, not me. You were the one who wanted children. 

Sure he’d loved her. This was the voice of love. Sometimes meant to hurt, and sometimes just for laughs. For other men, husbands of other wives, could be counted upon to laugh heartily. 

In the bathroom mirror the face was a wan hopeful girl’s face. Not a bad-looking face, I thought. 

The scar at my hairline might’ve been a birthmark. Or a clever little rose tattoo. More than once I’d seen Metti glance at it and his glance linger. An exquisite sensation, to imagine the man pressing his mouth against it. 

Also, I’d changed the color of my hair since the previous Thursday. 

Metti had seen my hair as brown. If he’d noticed at all. Now it was glossy-jet-black, with “russet-red” highlights. Shorter, with bangs that fell to my eyebrows. 

Changing the color of my hair at intervals. Though I knew that no one was stalking me still it seemed prudent to take measures to prevent someone from stalking me.

And the maroon lipstick, that smelled like overripe grapes.

I wasn’t so shy when I was alone. People who believed they knew me would’ve been astonished to see how brazenly I rubbed the fragrant Italian cream onto my face, neck, hands. 

Telling myself no one would know. Whoever owned the cream had left it behind. If she did return, she wouldn’t ask Metti what had become of it. Or, she’d have forgotten it herself. Or, Metti would never bring her back. 

Maybe he tired of them, quickly. That was the male prerogative. 

More than one woman. I was sure, examining the evidence. 

Thrilling to me, that my employer was cruel to women. Adult women. 

In years I was an adult woman—twenty-five years, seven months. But so slender, lean-hipped, with small breasts and a flat belly, at a little distance you might have mistaken me for an adolescent boy, in T-shirt and jeans. 

Not unlike the Modigliani nudes on the living room wall. So it had occurred to me. 

Just the girl. Not the other. 

Indeed I was smelling of my body. For I’d been working very hard. Determined to do a good job for Orlando Metti, to earn the generous tips he gave. To please the man, to avoid a look of displeasure, disappointment in his face. 

Should I take a shower?—would that please him? I would clean up after myself, if I did. 

The idea was thrilling. I could hardly breathe, considering. But had not Dr. Metti invited me to take a shower in his apartment? Smiling at me, enjoying my discomfort. Taking care to call me by my name—Violet. To prove he hadn’t forgotten my name. 

How many girls, women whose names the man had forgotten. Shaken off like something on a gleaming leather shoe. Quickly then, before I could change my mind, I stripped off my clothes—T-shirt, flannel shirt, jeans, underwear. Gray woolen socks. Rare for me to glance at myself in the mirror for I did not like to be reminded of who I was but I saw now that my small hard breasts had oddly large, soft-looking nipples, a pale brown, like freckles. There was a shadow at my belly, a kind of cleft. A swath of downy pubic hair. The pallor of my skin suggested illness or malnutrition but it was the winter pallor of the Irish, the Kerrigans.

In a bathroom drawer I found a shower cap, saw with interest that there were several blond hairs stuck to it, which I shook out. One of Metti’s women. 

How many, I could not guess. Perhaps two or three. Or more. I had not once encountered any woman in the apartment, leaving or arriving. Yet there’d been the evidence of soiled sheets. Mucus stains, lipstick stains. Though I stripped the king-sized bed in Metti’s bedroom as quickly as I could, not wanting to see anything, half-shutting my eyes that I would be spared seeing anything, yet it was my sense that yes, Metti’s bed was often slept-in by more than one person, and for all that I knew, Metti had changed the bedsheets himself during the week, or one of the women had changed the bedsheets replacing soiled sheets with clean sheets out of a sense of delicacy, decorum. 

Languorously I stood beneath Metti’s elegant nickel-plated showerhead, slowly I soaped my body, and let hot water stream down my torso, belly, legs. Even before I shut off the shower, and rubbed myself dry in an enormous soft towel, I began to feel sleepy. 

Removed the shower cap, fluffed out the glossy-black hair. Still there was maroon lipstick on my mouth, smudged. The buttery-rich cream had worn off in the shower and so I applied more to my face, flushed now from the heat of the shower.

Made my way barefoot, wrapped in the towel, to the room where Metti kept his liquor. Had not Metti invited me to join him in a drink, more than once? Of course I’d always declined. But now, brazenly I went to the liquor cabinet and poured an inch or two of whiskey into a glass. 

It was an experiment: observing myself. Smiling at Metti as he handed it to me. Thank you, Dr. Metti! 

In small cautious swallows I consumed the whiskey. When men bought me drinks I did not always drink them but found ways to dispose of them. But when I did drink, I became sleepy. And now, I was very sleepy. 

I intended to dress quickly, and to complete the housecleaning. If Metti was to return home before I left, he would return in about forty minutes; he’d already left a tip for me on a table in the foyer, a sign that he might not be returning. 

I had not yet taken the tip. That would be my reward, when I completed my housecleaning. 

In Metti’s bedroom the bright sunshine of an hour before, that had spilled through the tall windows, had become muted, bleak. The king-sized bed was awkward to make, requiring a fit- ted bottom sheet. As soon as I’d arrived to do the cleaning that afternoon I’d stripped the bed to throw the sheets into the laundry and in the interval I’d begun to make the bed with fresh sheets. You do not want to use the same sheets each week. Nor hang the same towels in the bathroom each week. In the midst of making the bed I’d become diverted by the Yves Rocher face cream on the bedside table. 

So very sleepy, I had to lie down on the bed. Shut my eyes for only a moment, I thought. 

Should’ve removed the maroon lipstick but too tired. If Metti saw, he would know . . . 

But too sleepy. Sleep like ether lifting into my brain. 

Then I was asleep. That delicious voluptuous sleep like floating in dark water. No dreams, for the water is too shallow. Yet the water is deep enough to cover your mouth, nose, eyes. And soon then, it seemed that I was being wakened—not by a light switched on to blind me, nor by an exclamation of surprise, but by a sudden presence close by. 

The man had returned, and was standing in the doorway of the room, staring at me. 

Utterly astonished. Staring. 

Outside the tall windows the wan winter light had shifted. Hours had been lost, it was much later in the day. There were no lights in the bedroom. 

A single light in the hall fell slantwise onto me sprawled naked in the oversized towel and my arms outflung as if I’d fallen from a height, helpless. 

“Violet! Hello.” 

At last Metti spoke. His voice caught in his throat, he was deeply stirred. His face was livid with feeling. I thought—He is furious with me. He will fire me. 

Then I thought—He will make love with me.

“Violet. My God.”

This was not an Orlando Metti familiar to me. This was an abashed man, totally taken by surprise, smiling, but dazedly smiling, almost at a loss for words. 

“You are so beautiful. So sad. Like the Sorrowful Madonna—or maybe—Sorrowful Virgin…Can’t remember the artist’s name, something like Rossi, or—Bellini? Italian Renaissance…” 

In the doorway the man stood indecisive, tentative. This was his bedroom, and that was his bed, and yet: What was permitted him? He had not yet removed his overcoat. His dark, graying hair glistened with melting snowflakes. He was waiting for me to give him permission to approach. He did not want to misunderstand. He did not want to make a terrible mistake. He did not want to be accused of a sex crime. He did not want to be sued by Maid Brigade, or blackmailed by the naked girl wrapped in a towel in his bed. 

By this time I was sitting up. Groggy, uncertain where I was. An aftertaste of whiskey in my mouth. (Was I drunk? Who’d made me drunk?) Hugging the damp towel close about myself. 

Yet strangely calm. Not at all frightened. For whatever happened, had happened. And whatever was yet to happen would happen, beyond my control. 

At last unable to resist Metti stammered: “Violet? May I—OK if I—touch you? Is that what you would like?” 

Yes. Yes. If you will pay me extra.


Clean Slate

I have purchased 28 boxes of chalk over the semester, and that is simply too much. I am convinced that neither the other teachers nor my students are responsible for the theft. I have been watching them carefully and asking questions. My students do not seem to care, but my fellow faculty all complain that they are also missing a piece or two. I do appreciate their efforts to empathize, but my situation is quite different. I am missing more than 300 full-size pieces of chalk. Most are white, but there have been other colors along the way—blues, reds, purples, and even a limited-edition box of neon colors.

When it became clear that this was more than forgetfulness, I had a recollection from childhood. Squirrels stole seed from my father’s bird feeders. Rather than traps, my father spread seed, bread, and dried out pieces of cake across our yard. The squirrels ate it all and still ate the seed in the feeder. After two weeks of doing this, my father went to the yard with his rifle. “They’re much larger and slower now,” he said. “Remember son, the best way to catch a thief is through an abundance of evidence.”

My father wasn’t an educated man, but I have taken this advice to heart and left numerous pieces of chalk behind after every class. It is obvious that this is a compulsion on the part of the thief, but no one can hide this amount of chalk forever. Eventually, it must fall out of a pocket or desk drawer. But it is now nearly the end of the semester. There are no signs of fat squirrels. My students’ essays need grading and I have office hours to fulfill, but instead I spend my days either in my classroom or the hallway outside it, watching. I only leave the room so my fellow faculty can teach their classes.

My wife wonders where I go at night. She may think I am having an affair. 

A few nights ago, as I was rifling through the A/V supply closet, I noticed that my left shoe had split at the seams. Everything is falling apart, but I must find the responsible parties.

After my class, I fill the trays with deluxe dustless chalk and plant myself in a desk in the corner, a new therapeutic pillow underneath me. I have packed a lunch and will not leave the room. Other faculty members still need to use it, of course. I am not here to stop them, but they will not stop me, either. I cannot help but fall asleep during a lecture on geological formations and I dream of icebergs on misty lakes. I feel myself become a part of both. I consider if I am iceberg and water, am I floating in myself? Do I surround me? I awake, shivering. I have slept too long, and the classroom has emptied. It’s nearly midnight and the board is clean. The chalk is gone.

I run from the room and see a tall man in blue coveralls turn the corner from the hallway into the open foyer leading to the cafeteria and elevator banks. He is pushing a cart with two squeaky wheels that cannot find harmony or rhythm. I follow him to an elevator. I could call him out now, but the area feels too open and empty for a quality confrontation. Instead, I must find out why he has stolen my chalk. He gets on the elevator, and after the door closes, I rush to watch the counter above the door mark his ascension. 

13, 14, 15, R.

R?

Roof.

When the elevator returns, I try to follow, but roof access is restricted to those with a key. I sort through my keys. The office and house key are too large, but my mail key is close. I shove it in. I know there is no chance of turning, but I hope. Either the lock or my key will give. There is a struggle and a groaning. I feel my hand feel the metal of the key and for a moment I believe that if my hands are soft enough and my wrist is firm, the key will align. And it does. The lock gives.

The elevator opens again under the city sky. The moon hangs high and the cold creeps across my neck. There are approximately two inches of still black tarpaper on the ground in front of the elevator. The rest is chalk. My chalk. There are brilliant starbursts and swirls. I recognize maps of long dead nations and my childhood bedroom. It is the universe decontextualized and reconstructed, the Big Bang spilled across the rooftop.

I want to call out, but words feel tiny. What is chalk, anyway? Scribblings on the wall to be nodded at by a captive student body? No. Chalk is never erased. It is laid in lines and then violently spread beyond its limits, leaving shadows and dust. It may be washed away, but then it turns the water opaque. The dust is suspended but it remains.

Then I see them—two janitors on the far side of the roof, their hands still covered in pink, blue, and white dust. They have drawn themselves into a black corner. Without a word, they disrobe completely. Man and woman, but only bodies in the vastness of this art. They are oblivious to me. The smaller of the two bodies holds up a stone, as if to absorb gossamer light, and then tosses it underhanded into the air. It lands on a white square. With a nod, the larger body leaps to the spot. There is no sound upon landing. 

The second body launches into the air, seeking the same spot. Just in time, the first body is in the air again, finding another white square. They leap over and over, landing on one foot, then two feet, then one and then the other, always finding new white squares buried in the pattern. The second body follows the first exactly. The routine is not planned, but it is ordered.

It’s hopscotch.

The moon moves closer. The stars cast spears of light. For a moment, I consider joining them, but I feel as obscene as a crashing plane. I turn away.

As the elevator descends, I want to cast out the memory of what I have seen. To think on it would be to invite madness or devotion and I don’t think I can invite either into my life now. Tomorrow, I will buy more chalk and leave it, but I will never come to the roof again.

I remember the squirrels—fat, happy, and completely unaware of their fate. The night before my father went out there with his gun, I laid awake at the window, listening to them chatter. I remember thinking the noise seemed almost like language, and if I listened long enough, I could distinguish between the clicks that meant “cake” and the chirps that meant “bread.” I imagined that I would be the one to translate and begin interspecies communication. When I was young, I could imagine just about anything—except what my father was going to do to those squirrels. I looked down at my torn shoe.

The elevator door opens, and I go home to my wife.

The Reds

The first time I ripped out a beast’s throat, I cried. In spite of all my training, nothing could have prepared me for the stain of blood scalding my naked hands.

She was supposed to be an easy kill, an execution almost, which is part of the reason why they sent me instead of my mother, Ruby. With the beasts dying out, I was the last to complete my training. It wasn’t my choice. My name itself, Garnet, shows I was chosen to continue this honor from birth. I am one of The Reds.

So, at nineteen, I was sent on my first hunt. I think now that my mother wanted to test me. Perhaps she saw in me what I hadn’t yet acknowledged in myself—the doubt beneath my bravado. I was both excited and scared to set out, in the way of young people, though the pride in her eyes made me feel it would all be worthwhile. A gatherer had spotted the beast in the woods and hit her with an arrow. I was told she lay wounded at the base of a great tree, wheezing, near death.

When I arrived at the tree, the sun was melting into the branches, soaking everything in shades of crimson so rich I thought the pool of blood I was looking at was simply water tinged by the light.

She pounced from above—dropping like a blanket of muscle, fur, and claws—screeching the eerie cry of the beast.

If I’d been holding my spear straight up, she would’ve impaled herself. But with it at an angle, her attack knocked it from my grip and sent it rolling. She was twice my size, and I was trapped on my back beneath her.

It’s too often said that time slows down. The truth is that time doesn’t waver, doesn’t care. In that moment it was I who changed, not time. My thoughts doubled their pace, stretching my perception of the moment.

I’d like to say that when I reached my hand beneath her mighty, snapping jaw, I was simply doing my duty. It’d be honorable to report that my training kicked in.

In truth, I looked into her eyes as she lowered her head to devour me, and she looked into mine. I hadn’t expected that, to see someone looking back at me. Her gaze pierced me. She seemed to see me, to know me in a way I had not yet known myself. And I knew her.

Everything inside me prickled to life, as if I stood on ground struck by lightning.

In the dying light, I saw the spot over her ribs where the gatherer’s arrow had wounded her. I tasted the sharp tang of metal in the air, and beneath that, I smelled raw meat and the desperate beginnings of infection. I felt her panic.

Lest I appear to be claiming some sort of misplaced nobility, I freely admit that mixed with that deep, electrifying understanding was a strong dose of survival instinct. I was more frightened for my life than sorry for hers.

I think about that moment often, when I lie awake at night listening for some distant howl that never comes. Which feeling drove the reach of my hand? 

In the end, I suspect it doesn’t matter. I tore out her throat before she could clamp her teeth around mine. Her corded neck was thick, so thick, and coated with soft, dense fur. Her cry broke in two. Then silence.

The blood was red as it poured over me.

The beast went limp.

It took me minutes to struggle out from beneath her, to look down upon her massive back, her silken ears, her lean, powerful legs.

I cried as I severed the claw on her smallest digit to string around my neck—the first of many—and headed home for my celebration.

Ruby didn’t understand my grief. I wonder now if that made her more or less suited for this job than I. It makes no difference. With my mother now dead, I’m the last of The Reds. There are scarcely any beasts left. Soon I will not be needed. 

In the past eleven years, since completing my training, I’ve slain twenty-two beasts. My necklace is nearly full. 

I don’t cry anymore.

I haven’t been sent to the woods in over a year.

In the middle of the night, when the villagers are snug in their squat, thatch-roofed homes, I venture to the fence line. The moon is large and white, but the light it sheds on the melting blankets of snow is blue. The woods are bare, silent, empty.

My mother died in the depths of this wicked winter. Her passing was expected, but it left me strange. The weeks have dragged long and cold, confusing. I venture out almost every night, alone, as if searching for something I don’t know I’ve lost. Only now do I see the first hints of spring: melt that turns that falsely pristine surface into a wet, sloppy mess, revealing the deadness waiting underneath.

One of the last times my mother spoke was to ask me who I would take as my mate. She told me that I should choose someone strong—not Irving, is what she meant—so my daughter could carry on as one of The Reds. She didn’t mention the possibility of a male child, as men aren’t suited to our line of work. I didn’t tell her that I want twins, one boy and one girl, that I don’t care if my lover is strong so long as he makes me feel something, that I pray my daughter will never be as bloodthirsty as she taught me to be. I didn’t remind her there will soon be no need for The Reds. I told her that I didn’t know which man I might choose, and I suppose I still don’t. After all, what right have I to want these things?

I smell the ghostly smoke of dying fires escaping the chimneys within the village. It makes me think of a type of warmth I haven’t felt in years. I slip beyond the fence, bathe myself in blue. I strain my ears for the cry of a beast, but there’s none.

I remember when Ruby told me about her first kill. It was when I returned home from my own. She’d readied me for the banquet thrown in my honor, and I’d begged her not to make me go.

“Why Garnet,” she replied, pulling my hair out of its tight braid, “this is the proudest day of your life, my child. Why should you not want to claim your glory among our people?”

“I feel no pride for what I did.” In fact, I was imagining the sad stare of a sweet boy with big eyes, his reaction to my new status. Though I had no real relationship with Irving, my mother’s disdain for him had grown from seeing our shared looks, our stolen, stilted conversations amidst crowds, my flushes when she casually commented on his weakness.

“You did exactly what you were trained to do,” she told me.

But I hadn’t understood before what I had been training for, not really, not in practice. 

When I didn’t answer, she moved in front of me. “Were you afraid?”

I looked down, but she tilted my chin up, forcing me to look her in the eyes. “Yes,” I whispered. “Terrified.” But I didn’t know how to tell her that it wasn’t the fear that bothered me, but locking eyes with the beast—seeing, being seen.

She nodded. “Then you should take pride. We face that fear so the villagers don’t have to. It’s our duty. It’s an honor.”

“It’s your honor.”

Then she told me of her own fear.

Her first kill wasn’t as easy as mine; her beast wasn’t wounded and waiting. She was sent out by Cherry, her mother, who took great joy in the slayings. I knew Grandma Cherry only when I was young, and she horrified me. She wore a triple-stranded necklace of claws.

Ruby was sent deep into the woods, all the way to the borderlines where only a small wooden bridge signified that one had gone too far.

It was a new moon, pitching my mother into near-black beneath the summer canopy of the trees. She was cyclical with the moon, as we all are, which is why we are superior to men in this skill. Ruby, truly, was one of the best. I had always pictured her as fearless, but she told me she was afraid then, standing at the end of the bridge, staring into the darkness that heaved and sighed around her like living heat.

“I looked for the glowing eyes of the beast,” she told me, “but he was too clever for that. Nonetheless, I could feel him watching me on the far side of the bridge. So I drew my spear and eased onto the old wooden planks. But the attack didn’t come. I crossed the bridge and searched the woods but couldn’t find the beast.”

My mother curled my hair around her finger, but her gaze was distant.

“I didn’t have to. After an hour of hunting, I headed back to the bridge, and there he was, waiting.”

Only then did she look at me, let me see the fear still haunting her eyes.

“I, too, was afraid, my daughter. But I am one of The Reds, and I don’t take that lightly. I did my duty. I protected my people, as you have done, and that is something to be proud of.”

I was afraid to ask if she felt anything for the beast. I was afraid to learn that something was wrong with me. So I shoved that feeling down, buried it deep. With each slaying, I’ve shoveled another layer of dirt over it, weighing it down in the dark, far from me. Sometimes I feel as though that dirt has made me quiet inside, like a filled well. I drop something into it, expecting to hear it ping and bounce and splash, but it lands, muted, in the dirty shadows. 

I think now, staring into a wood emptied by my family’s killings, that there is little pride to be had in sending someone to slay a dying beast. Little danger to be had from a population of creatures hunted to the brink of extinction. My fingers find the row of severed claws around my neck.

I tilt my chin to the sky, stare at my mother moon, and let forth a howl. The sound is all too human. I have no reason to expect a reply, yet still I’m disappointed when no harmony answers.

A commotion sounds from within the walls. I duck back inside.

A large cluster of people are talking amongst themselves. I tap a boy on the shoulder. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“There’s a beast near the fence!”

I heave a sigh. “Everyone,” I shout. About half of the crowd calms. “Everyone!”

They all turn to look at me. “There is no beast. It was me. I was—I was simply checking that none are lurking nearby.”

“No, Garnet,” the priest says. He’s an old man with honest eyes. Honest, urgent eyes. “We didn’t hear him. We saw him, in the pen, devouring the livestock.” He points across the village.

“Who saw him?” My eyes narrow as I look at the crowd. I can’t trust the gossips, the fearful, or the glory-seekers. It’s been so long since anyone has spotted a beast that I’m not even sure there are any left.

“I did,” the priest says.

I break into a run.

Years ago, not long after my first slaying, I was in the woods by myself and came upon a beast. He was young, dangerously thin—so unhealthy that his coat was bald in places. He didn’t see me as I watched him suffer bee stings to get to the honey inside a hive.

I lifted my spear, poised, aimed to take him with a single heft, but I didn’t throw it. He was too desperate, too pitiful. I let him be.

That night, he killed a young boy playing just outside the fence. I listened to his mother wail, watched her sob over his bones.

I was sent to slay the beast the next day. I cannot tell you even now exactly what it was I felt when my spear pierced his side between protruding ribs, but it nearly broke me. That was the last time slaying a beast made me feel much of anything. It was the last time I let it. 

Tonight, as I run through the village, my boots slapping the mud, I’m tempted to stop at my hut to grab my spear. It’s safer—keeps me out of reach. It’s what my mother would have done, would’ve had me do. But the blade that always lies down my back along my spine, my reserve, lets me get closer. And that’s all I want right now. To feel again.

I hear a cow’s desperate scream and run faster.

The cattle have backed into one corner, pushing against each other, eyes white with dread. Distressed lows sound across the night air, cries for help, for a savior, for a Red. Cries for me.

I draw my blade as I stand outside the pen, panting, sizing up the beast.

It’s a male, larger by half. His fur is a reddish brown that defies the blue of the moonlight. The hump of his shoulder blades bristle to make him look even larger as he bends to his prey.

A small calf, still alive, lies broken and heaving at his front paws, his muzzle buried in her intestines. I’m close enough to hear the wet snapping of some organ rent by his jaws.

Keeping both hands on the handle of my blade, I press my foot to the lower rung of the fence and jump, landing with a soft thump.

The beast lifts his head. His eyes lock with mine. I step forward.

He tosses back his head, black nose to the moon, and screams his challenge. Goose bumps explode on my skin.

The beast steps forward, protecting his kill. His tail flicks back and forth behind him. His ears drop toward his skull. He’s skin and bones like that young male long ago, ribs prominent as a carving in relief. 

My blade’s as long as my arm, which means I’ll be within his reach. I open my eyes wide, eager. He stalks forward, expecting a fight, but that’s where he’s wrong. There will be no fight. I am not a beast; I am a Red.

As I pace toward him, I howl my response to his challenge. His own eyes grow wider, showing a slim ring of white around his dark irises. This is why we study the cry of the beast.

He tilts back his chin to shriek at the sky again, exposing the soft triangle of flesh. I lunge for it.

I’ve never so perfectly slowed my perception of time as I did during my first kill, when everything was crystalline and new, but I’ve become better at responding without thinking. The tip of my blade approaches his neck. It will be an easy kill, even without the spear.

But he’s faster than any beast I’ve slain. He senses my advance even before he lowers his head, striking out with one massive paw. Claws like scythes stretch for me, and my blade is lifted too high to protect my body. I have only one option.

I step into him, so close that his chest fur brushes my cheek, and plunge the blade home as his paw strikes empty air behind my back.

A thrill of heat pierces me, as bright and sharp as my blade in his jaw, vibrating up and down my body. Dangerous, swift, free.

My teeth are cold, and I realize I’ve bared them in a snarl that’s morphed into a savage grin that doesn’t even feel like mine.

I know now what my Grandma Cherry must have felt at every slaying.

The heat rushes up my throat to my face, teeth clamping together. I jerk the blade from his throat, pushing with my free hand, and as his body falls to the earth, blood pours from the wound. It is red, red, red.

As am I.

My great grandmother, Scarlett, was the first. She wasn’t raised with the knowledge I have, nor trained from youth. I imagine she never thought she’d face a beast at all, until her grandmother Rose went missing when Scarlett was twenty.

Rose, my great, great, great grandmother. Arguably, Rose started it all. Scarlett’s mother, Pearl, died during childbirth, so Rose raised Scarlett on her own. The bond between them was a strong one.

One century ago, Rose failed to come home from gathering in the woods. She went out in the morning with a basket for her finds, expected back for dinner. Dinner passed, then bedtime. The woods back then were not empty as they are now. When day broke the next morning, it was assumed Rose had been taken by a beast.

Scarlett was heartbroken. The priest advised her to grieve and move on, as many had before her, but there was only one thing that would bring Scarlett peace: revenge.

Scarlett set into the woods. No one has ever said as much, but I suspect she never intended to return.

I’m told she slayed a dozen beasts in the first three days. Each time, she split them open from sternum to pelvis, searching for the confirmation that her heart surely knew.

Finally, on the third day, she cut open a beast and found her grandmother’s ring among the contents of its belly. She severed one of its claws to hang around her neck: a life for a life.

She returned to the village with proof that a beast had eaten Rose. Her tale struck terror into my people. They fortified their fences, tightened their grips on their children, and retreated to their homes—leaving Scarlett to destroy the scourge that had been lurking in their woods. And so she became the first.

The only thing more dangerous than a broken heart is a cold one.

It’s been three days since I slayed the male beast in the livestock pen, and I’ve barely slept. I run tallies in my head, trying to figure if he truly could have been the last beast. I wonder how I’ll feel when there really are no more. I sit beside my hearth warming my feet by the fire. The heat only reaches partway up my body, never fully melts the coldness inside. I’ve stopped going beyond the fence to wait and listen—for the first time in the weeks since my mother died.

If I am a well slowly being filled with dirt, that dirt has nearly reached the top. I feel it now, choking me, suffocating me. I hadn’t thought of that, back when I started shoveling over the things I didn’t want to see, to feel. In burying them so thoroughly, I’ve lifted other things right to the brim. New, ugly things.

I am not who I want to be. I am who I’m supposed to be.

The urge to call on Irving nags at me—an urge I didn’t feel for years that has returned only since my mother’s death. I push it away. I used to want him, when I was young. He’s not overly aggressive like some suitors, and he possesses an earnestness and tenderness that appealed to me, with hair that refuses to lay flat and wide, emphatic eyes. We have never been together; he has always been an idea, a thing that could have been, had I been someone entirely different. Yet I know he waits for me. I’m expected to choose a mate soon and propagate the line of The Reds, but now I feel heaviness where longing used to be, and Irving deserves more than that—than me.

There’s a knock at my door. With my mother gone, Irving is one of the only people who visits, so I almost don’t answer. The thought of the way he looks into my eyes and really sees me…I should tell him I must choose someone else, but I don’t have the strength tonight. But I’m sure he’s seen my chimney smoke; he knows I’m home. I open the door.

“Garnet,” he pants. “There’s a beast.”

Blood rises to my cheeks, my breath fluttering in my chest, nestling around a strange sensation I barely recognize. “Another? So close to the last?” I can scarcely believe it.

“Yes, beyond the bridge. It nearly had me.”

What was he doing so far from the fences? Had he been alone?

I clench my jaw, letting the door swing further open. I gather my things, speaking as I go. “Did it follow you? Has it trailed you to the village?” I doubt beasts are capable of craving vengeance, but with another appearing so soon after my recent slaying—the first in so long—I can’t shake the thought that these two animals must be linked somehow. The thought makes me uneasy, restless, and tense.

“No. It didn’t even cross the bridge before turning back.”

That doesn’t seem right. I lace my fur-lined boots then toss a bucket of ashes over my fire. “Tell me where.”

“I’ll show you.” He holds the door for me, face flushed.

Our eyes lock.

I want to tell him no, he’s too soft, he should never have been in the woods in the first place, but I can see the spark in his eyes and I don’t want to be the one to snuff it out.

I launch past him, spear in hand. My voice is gruff. “Only to the bridge.”

He follows me into the frigid woods.

I have to slow for him. I bite my tongue at his ruckus. He tramps like a loping bear. When we reach the bridge, I turn. “You must stop here. Tell me where you saw it, then go home. It isn’t safe for you.”

He scowls but must know I’m right. He describes a cave opening north of the bridge, then sits at the foot of the wooden planks. “I’m not leaving you,” he tells me.

“Irving—”

“I will wait.”

I think of the beast that lured my mother across the bridge only to ambush her on her way home. “Fine, but don’t cross. I mean it. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped away from the village.”

Eyes wide, he nods.

I hand him my spear, then draw the blade from my back. He opens his mouth to protest, but I silence him. “I prefer the blade.” I cringe as my intended lie rings true. I cover it with a real lie, so he’ll accept the weapon: “The spear makes me careless.”

I wonder though, why do I want the blade? To feel that savage new joy its closeness brings? Or do I hope that for once, finally, I’ll lose? I’m not sure which is worse.

I walk into the woods without waiting for his reply.

Finally, deep in the dead, dark woods, I come to the cave. It’s like the beast has been waiting for me. She seems unsurprised by my presence as she stalks in front of the opening. Her fur is so black she looks like an extension of the mouth of the hollow—liquid darkness pacing. She’s small for a beast, svelte but muscled, her spine dipped low. Her eyes glisten when they find mine, but she holds her ground.

What’s in the cave?

A low, moist rumble emanates from her throat. She bares her teeth.

Blade up, I bare mine in return, waiting for that wicked joy to turn my snarl into a smile again, bracing for the heat that will burn me up, but it doesn’t come. My teeth are left exposed in a grimace.

I lower my blade a bit. 

Could I leave her, just this one?

I remember the young male I let go, the village boy, and having to go back out. I don’t think I can take another consequence like that one.

But, somehow, I feel myself begin to back away.

The farther I get from her, the lighter I feel. I smile, and it’s so unfamiliar it takes me a moment to place it. I hide it, lest she think I’m baring my teeth after all, but the buoyancy of it glows through me. I find myself admiring the way her dark fur sheens in the night, like beautiful things unearthed from black depths.

A crunch behind me.

I turn.

Irving stands frozen. His big eyes widen further, darting to something behind me. “Garnet!”

I drop, rolling.

The beast is a blur, pouncing where I just stood, screaming her rage.

Irving charges forward, spear out, but he’s holding it wrong. Brave, naïve Irving.

I leap to my feet, jabbing at her side with my blade, hoping to distract her. She twists to snarl at me. Irving uses the distraction to circle behind her.

“Not between her and the cave!” I scream.

She whirls, smacks the spear from his hands, and clamps her jaws around his throat.

I leap on her back, jabbing my blade into the gap between her throat and Irving’s chest, and rip it back, slicing her neck.

Even as she dies, as I ride her falling body to the ground, she doesn’t release him.

We land in a pile of overheated flesh, fur, and failure. I scramble off, thrust my blade in the dirt, and roll her off Irving. She’s limp.

Irving is also limp.

Both of them are dead.

Something begins to bubble up from deep inside me, scalding its way up my spine, my chest.

I let him come here with me, knowing he was too soft. I let her stay, knowing that she was just a beast and couldn’t help what she’d do. 

I let this happen.

The burning rises in my throat, stings my eyes, blurs the world. I throw back my head and cry, a howling wail like the scream of the beast. But it’s not. It’s too dark, too broken, too human.

I howl and howl until my throat is raw. When I can’t howl anymore, I lower my face to my hands and weep.

I’d forgotten what it feels like, this breaking. I shake and shudder with it as I run my hands through Irving’s soft hair, wishing I could’ve protected him. I’m sorry that he fell for me. Sorry that I missed my chance to love him back. Now, he will never again look at me with those wide eyes. Will I ever again feel so deeply known? I close his eyelids with my fingertips. My tears speckle him like rain.

I turn to the beast. Her fur is smooth, glossy. I run my other palm along it, looking at her bowed spine, thinking of her ferociousness, thinking of her fear.

The cave yawns for me. I wipe my eyes, retrieve my blade, and enter.

It’s not as large as I expect. All I find is a smooth dent in the dirt where the beast must have burrowed, layered with some soft forest debris. A bed, a nest. A den.

I race back into the blue moonlight, staring down at her swollen belly. I take the smaller blade from my boot and kneel to slice her open. Red spills in a hot wave, and I think of Rose, found finally in such a place by Scarlett, and what that must have been like, to find her only remaining family buried in the belly of a beast—all the anger and revenge that has fueled The Reds for generations.

I half expect to find something equally horrific when I reach in with trembling hands and feel around, but when I hear a sound—a small, gasping whimper—it’s life that I pull out, not death.

It’s a tiny, blind, mewing thing. A baby beast. I’ve never seen one. I clear the gunk from her eyes and sever the cord. Her warmth nearly scalds me. My heart pounds as I cradle her in my lap. The air smells of blood and placenta and dirt. I look up at the beautiful moon, holding this small, soft marvel as if it might shatter.

I hear something and reach back in. Out comes a second. A boy. Just as soft, just as warm. They are red with uneven black splotches, and I know the male I slayed back home was their father. 

One of each. Almost certainly the last of their kind.

I could kill them now. It’s what Ruby would have wanted. What Cherry would have reveled in. What Scarlett started all those decades ago, avenging her grandmother Rose.

But slaying these babes is not what I want. What has our vengeance brought us? Persistent fear, bloodlust. A line of killers.

We are their beasts as much as they are ours.

I wipe off their fur, steam rising from the freshness of their lives. My cheeks are damp, my chest full of warmth.

Again, I lift my head to the moon. All things cyclical. All things wax and wane. In the blue light, I raise my howl to it.

“I will teach you the ways of The Reds,” I promise them. “I will teach you to hunt. To survive.”A boy and a girl. The last hope for the beasts.

A Dog Ran Down the Highway

He came in from work, carrying firewood. He smelled like the string cheese I put in his lunches. I packed a lunch for him every single day, after cooking him oatmeal for breakfast. I prepared dinner, too.

I also had a career. It was a super long drive, which wasn’t exactly a picnic.

He put down the wood and bit my neck. He grabbed my boob and felt it.

The record player I’d just unpacked was broken and behind us.

What are you doing? I said.

Molesting you, he said.

Oh, no. I said. You’re not.

Women of Will: A Feature with Words Without Walls

Words Without Walls is a creative writing outreach program that serves Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children. Since 2009, creative writing classes have been taught by MFA students at Chatham University. Their program teaches 18 classes per year, serving over 300 men and women in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to teaching classes, Words Without Walls publishes chapbooks of their students’ best work, maintains a blog to showcase student and teacher writing, and awards the Sandra Gould Ford Prize annually to a student who shows outstanding promise and dedication to creative writing. By providing an atmosphere for creative growth and nurturing student work, Words Without Walls empowers students to express themselves on the page. Inspired by the passion, intelligence, and talent of the students with whom they have worked; the program’s primary goals are to help make their students’ writing better and to help make the best of their writing available for others via print and web publication. To learn more about the program, please visit www.wordswithoutwalls.com or email info@wordswithoutwalls.com.

Truth:  I drink my coffee black, standing barefoot in my kitchen and sitting in church basements at meetings that help me stay sober but almost never in hipster cafes, where I too often feel tragically unhip and frumpishly mom-like. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know the difference between a red eye and a macchiato.  

Truth:  I roll my eyes at the twentysomethings at basement meetings who fill their Styrofoam cups with three scoops of creamer and seven packets of sugar and then complain that the coffee isn’t strong enough. The inky sludge in my cup is somehow proof that my addictive behaviors are more potent.

Lie:  I believe the people in those basement meetings who tell me that recovery is about showing up early and making the coffee, following rules and being responsible, writing lists and making amends. I listen to them share their own experience, strength and hope, and I maintain my own recovery by following the recommended practices of self-flagellation and yoga.  


Truth:  I listen to Tori Amos and Liz Phair, and my friend Amy laughs at these “angry girl” playlists and labels me as a strident feminist. This makes me sad. I slip quotes by Cheryl Strayed into her sparkly pink notebook and tape magazine pictures of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the stark white walls of our shared rehab bedroom. Amy paints my nails and curls my hair. We are figuring out what it means to be strong sober women together.

Truth:  Amy introduces me to her older brother: “This is Leanne, she’s 38 and she’s a lawyer.” I almost correct her. I am those things. I am also a wife, a stay-at-home-mom, a daughter, an alcoholic, a bake sale pastry cook, an uncoordinated dancer and a terribly off-key songstress. This list somehow still feels incomplete. I want to be the kind of woman who wears lipstick.

Lie:  I don’t think about replacing that coffee with vodka anymore, about slipping away and finding that other more broken version of myself, the me I used to be before all the bad things happened. I don’t miss that girl at all.


Truth:  I have been sober for 164 days. This is not the first time I’ve strung together days, weeks, months without drinking. I collect sobriety dates, written hastily in margins of big blue books, the ink now mostly smeared; maybe I’ll hold onto this one long enough for it to become valuable.

Truth:  I clean my house and find empty bottles of Rumplemintze hidden under the bed, stuffed into coat pockets, stowed away in the basement with the Christmas decorations. I am embarrassed by the wreckage and waste, so I scrub harder to remove the stains on my memory. Upstairs, my son babbles and hugs his dolls tightly, all cautiously toothy smiles now that Mama has come home.

Lie: This life I have now is satisfying. Sobriety and motherhood have been my greatest blessings. I have learned to be grateful, and I have let go of my anger and resentments about my past.  


Truth:  I read books about women who drank and now won’t, women who have struggled with food and depression and men and now don’t, women who were once silent and small and now aren’t. I am all those women. Some days these stories are uplifting, and I feel empowered. Some days I just want to crawl deeper into my blankets and wave the white flag of defeat in the face of the oppressive patriarchy, sleeping next to me in the forms of my husband and my son.

Truth:  People ask me how much I drank, or how many men I slept with, or if there’s a God. I find these questions tiresome and unnecessary. I am focused on paying bills and finishing laundry and wiping crayon off my walls. Things that matter.

Lie:  The details of my story are irrelevant. Life lived in clichés is safer and more predictable. Happiness is only twelve steps away.

Truckin', by Holly C. Spencer

You’re at the ‘Dead show. You hear Jerry singing “A Friend of the Devil” in the scratchy voice he uses for that song. It is the summer of 1987.

Steve and you carry a bulky cooler full of beer and ice even though you’re both only sixteen. You luck upon a spacious spot under a canopy of Elm trees. It’s an open spot, surprisingly, amongst all these dancing Dead Heads. He spreads out a blanket and you sit down.

You’re toasty from the Skunk weed you smoked on the hour-long road trip from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Buckeye Lake, Ohio. But the cocaine got wet and ruined and you just ran out of said weed. The bright spot is that you still have the acid. You’d probably be near to a panic if you didn’t have that.

Sitting, you pull two pieces of blotter acid, small tabs of paper—no bigger than your pinky fingernail and immersed in LSD—from a protective tinfoil envelope and stick them between your front teeth and your lip, your saliva slowly dissolving the small squares of bitter-tasting paper. 

You look around. The grass is matted with footprints. You smell the damp of dancing bodies, scents of sweat and hemp and weed vying for your attention. The sounds of guitar, one long melodic ranting after the next seeps inside you as the tempos increase and the swerving bodies around you become more frantic, one huge dancing orgy of swaying limbs and bloodshot eyes. You are thankful for the shade of this good tree.

It will take a few minutes before the acid kicks in, so Steve reaches for your hand and pulls you to your feet. He needs no words. His big brown eyes, crinkled by long hours of laughter, say, Let’s Dance. 

And, you do. You dance like Dead Heads everywhere dance: with twirling arms and spinning hips and twisting legs, following the rhythm of the guitar or the drums, whichever your ears hear best. 

Senseless, pointless, needless, free. 

You look over at Steve. He’s in a zone, his arms curling, his hips coiling, his legs bending. Lifting, spinning, kicking, weaving. You’re doing pretty much the same thing. Snaking, twining, looping. You feel the acid start to work because you start to see colorful trails where Steve’s arms used to be, floating in the air as he dances.

Steve is new to your school this year, but he knows almost as much about Led Zeppelin as you do. You know he likes you right away. He teaches you how to make brightly colored thread bracelets with intricate patterns and more threads in one bracelet than you can hold between your fingers. You get almost as good as him. 

It’s a sign of deep love and peace to give and receive a homemade bracelet, so when he presents you with a vibrant purple and metallic blue one, you kiss him. He says you that you taste like watermelon taffy. 

He tells you he loves you a week later. You’re sixteen and you don’t know much about love. When you think of love you think of marriage, maybe not with gold rings and a document of proof but, you think of forever, joined to someone, and you don’t see that with Steve. But you shrug and say it back because you’re selfish and painfully aware. You know he isn’t the best you can get, especially not compared to the others, the others who broke your heart, but you need a break, and he’s kind and a lot of fun. And you plan on keeping it as light as possible until it ends.  

Now, the trip is intensifying, the swirls become blinding, making you dizzy. You plop back down on the blanket, and stay rooted for a time. The flannel pattern begins to enlarge before your eyes, trailing, causing double vision like the deep drop of a roller coaster that gets to the top of the track and barrels down the steep arc, and right before it crashes to earth, it curves and sends you spiraling through a darkened tunnel, unable to see.

Your head lolls back and you come out of the tunnel, and when your eyes refocus you see a guy standing in front of you. He’s kneeling. His long, brown dreadlocks are tied off with a paisley ribbon. He smells of Hemp oil. He has a satchel slung over one shoulder, crossing his chest, settling on his hip. He takes your hand and turns it over, so it’s palm up, and pulls out a bag of weed, not Skunk, but it smells strong. 

He starts breaking it apart in your hand. It doesn’t crumble right away because it’s moist. That means it’s good. He breaks it up in your hand, separating buds from weeds, which he gently slides off your hand onto the ground, and a Bible verse comes to mind, something about separating the wheat from the chaff. 

“I have this second-generation weed, you’re gonna like it. I have coke, vikes, methadone. I have blotter, ‘Shrooms, Percodan, Percocet, Valium, Xanax, speed. I have heroin, codeine, yellow jackets. We’re traveling this whole show. Front row, every show. Pure freedom. We have room for you.”

You hear his words but you’re watching his deft fingers make trails from separating the buds. His hands are separating the wheat from the chaff, and you don’t look up as he rattles off the laundry list of drugs he’s holding until the last.

You look into his emerald eyes, his high eyes, and see he’s waiting for your answer. You can’t speak but, you hear the weed cry out against the breaking of its body. So, you shake your head. He nods. He folds your hand over the gift of weed and leans in to kiss you before he stands up. 

His lips are soft. They linger. Then he’s gone. 

Years later, when you remember him, the scent of hemp oil fills your nostrils and you are taken back. You think of that laundry list of drugs he mentioned while breaking up the pot in your hand. You think about the stages of your life, the checklist of bad decisions, and you realize that you’ve tried everything on his list. Except for yellow jackets. They were no longer in circulation by the time you realized what you missed.

You remember Steve and how you cringed from his offer of love, not realizing you were already bequeathed to another, maybe not with a ring or a pending document of proof, but a commitment of forever to this shadow forewarned, your lover, your concubine, your one and only.

Your high. Joined forever and ever amen.

On that day, you look over at Steve. You look over at him with your unblemished skin and smile your wide smile with good teeth and an innocence you would have denied having.  You stretch out on the blanket.

“Got us some weed.”

Just as Sure as I'm Singing This Song, by Janette Schafer

I believe in Jesus and his plan.
Mother sings, strums her guitar,

braids bedecked in beads
and click as she flings her cornrows.
I push my finger into the space between
the scalp and the weave of hair.

These were the days when Mom was happy,
before my father sleeps with the neighbor,
before the pastor’s wife says:
Sometimes the Lord is hard.
You must stay with your husband.

Mother tells her my aunt is only 17.
But God’s ways are not our ways.
This is an incomprehensible God,
this Being who makes her stay with a man
who gives her gonorrhea,
a man who tries to take by force
her youngest sister’s virginity.

I believe in Jesus and His plan,
I know that He holds the future in His hand.

I crave it.
The only way to say I Love You.

It’s erotic:
A black eye.

A fat lip.
A public display of affection.

Fighting is a turn on.
To know that you would die.

Or kill me.

Afterworld

Three Poems

Ahead, by Alli Cruz
This morning, I wake up as a disembodied head / thoughts bloodied and matted / like cold wet dog fur / I feel a hand on my scalp / know it to be yours by its uncanny / dried leather smell / The blood / swims away from my neck / tiny fish / all the feral leaving the body / We were transformed into / two animals in the dark / Isn’t that what they / call us? / animals? / by the way we bear our teeth / and paw into each other / You put your hands on me call it love / as if saying, This is mine / that wordless snarl / that gnawing / wake of possession / Here’s what I want to know: What did you do / with my body? / I can do little to love / with just a head / It smells too much like fear / here, with my head held / down to the ground / as you blood me / A head cannot forget the howling hollowed / unholy silences / What is a head anyway? you ask / But a certain heaviness
The Strange, by Alli Cruz
At night, as I lay down in the river / and sprout sunflowers / from my sternum / I bloom into something / other than myself / shrouded in synthesized moonlight / yellow petals / like rocket ships / torpedoing into / the space / between the palm trees / that unfounded territory / The neighborhood kids wait / for me / by the banks / climb up the stalks / parents asleep / Tiny f eet / kick off the overgrown leaves / as they leap / higher / laughing as those veiny / green wings / fall soft / silent / into the slow current / Desire is a careless / unclaiming / When I was ten, I said to Mama / I want to be an artist / I think / what I meant was: I want to grow / something strange / from that thing inside my chest / expanding it beyond my fingertips / like an upstream lung

A man who is / too hungry / begins / eating himself / 

Excuse me, sir, but is that / your eye / resting / on the tip / of your tongue? / I see you rolling 

that eye / at me / How rude / it is / not to speak / with your mouth / open wide / Sir, / what is it / that you don’t want yourself / to see?

A man who is / too hungry / is still / an animal / comprised of loosely / assembled parts / Look closely / To know oneself / is a dangerous / consumption / A man who is / too hungry / fears / his appetite / but makes a home / in the dark cool cage / of his mouth / 

Would you like / a glass of red / wine / sir? / You seem to be choking / on that bit / of brain / sir / You can’t make / disappear / what’s already / been / inside you /

A man / who is / too hungry / filters his words / through flecks of his / chewed flesh / 

What’s that, sir? / You haven’t said / a word / all evening / sir / Oh! / I think / a finger / is stuck/ between / your teeth / I’d hand you / a toothpick but / you haven’t got any / hands / left / 

A man / who is too / hungry / knows that his body / tastes / like green lights and / power and he / can’t / get enough / 

I can’t hear you / at all / sir / Your mouth / is too / full of itself

Breaking Ground: A Debut Author Feature with Emily A. Duncan

F(r)iction is delighted to introduce our readers to Emily A. Duncan, the author of the upcoming trilogy, Something Dark and Holy.

The first book in the trilogy, and Emily’s debut novel, Wicked Saints, will be out in early April from Macmillan. Hailed as a “blood-drenched fairy tale” and as a “gothic jewel of a novel,” Wicked Saints is provocative and timely, with an unforgettable heroin.

In this dark, enchanting tale, we follow Nadya, the girl who can speak to gods, and a group of ragtag associates as they journey to kill a king and stop a war. Full of magic, intrigue, shadowy secrets, and forbidden romances, this is a story that entrances from the first page and lingers on long after the last. 

In our interview, Emily discusses loving the villain, creating unique magic systems, developing narrative voice, and researching medieval Poland. After the interview, stick around to read the captivating first chapter. It does not disappoint.

An Interview with Emily A. Duncan

By Dani Hedlund

What inspired you to write Wicked Saints?

I actually got the idea for the book in college while I was playing Skyrim, but there was a slow build to it. I was unable to write the book until the middle of grad school, so I sat on the idea for a few years. But the video games I was playing in college mostly inspired the book. Right before I drafted it, Dragon Age: Inquisition had just come out, and that super inspired some of the elements in the book, but it was really a plethora of all the video games I played. 

One of the most interesting things about the book is the different ways to siphon magic. What was it like to create this system of magic?

Magic systems are my favorite thing to come up with. I started with the divine magic, and I had that for a really long time because the Russian half of the book was the first thing I had. But a lot of building the magic systems was working in opposition. If I had a character pulling from the gods, what would be the direct opposite of that? Pulling from yourself and ignoring the gods completely. It kind of built from there. I’m finding different avenues of magic as I write this trilogy, and now it’s becoming a chaotic monstrosity of threads that I can barely keep track of. It was so simple in the beginning. There were just two. Now, there are so many more. 

In addition to having this magical system, you split Wicked Saints along geopolitical lines. You have two warring nations and a nation that’s an outcast and not helping either of the others. What was it like to create that aspect of the world? 

That was so fun. I was a grad student at the time, and I was working at the Kent State library. I pulled every Russian history and folklore book that they had on the shelves. They were all in my apartment because I was having a really hard time coming up with conflict. 

I remember picking up a book and not reading it—some random book about a minor conflict between Russia and Poland—but that got me started in the direction I needed to go. Then I started trying to find everything I could on medieval Poland, which was way more difficult than I expected it to be. A lot of research avenues on Poland are understandably on WWII. I wanted further back, but a whole lot of that has not been translated. 

You have a strong female protagonist at the center of this book. Did you always want to lead with a female? Did you consider having a male cleric lead this story forward? 

Nadya was the one thing that I knew I wanted out of the story. I wanted a girl from a monastery, whose background is very simple outside of her very grand destiny. A lot of YA spends so much time setting up the grand destiny—training montages, discovering the magic—but I find that very boring. That’s not my favorite thing to write about. I like starting when that has already been established, and we are moving on from there.  

I’m interested in the ragtag group of people that join Nadya along the way. Talk to me about what it was like to create these other characters.

It’s funny because I kept trying to write this book and every single time I got stuck at the same 15,000-word mark. I went through multiple attempts where that happened. And then during the last attempt—the one that actually ended up working—I got to that point and I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to throw in an entire group of characters and hopefully something will stick, and I can get past this place in the book.” And I’m glad I did because I would have never finished the book otherwise. 

Because this book is fantasy YA, there’s a forbidden romance. How did that aspect of the book come together?

Villain love interests are my favorite thing to write. I have a villain love interest in all the books I wrote prior to this one, but those books never went anywhere. The thing I like about this one is that Malachiasz is so genuine, while also spending the entire book lying through his teeth. It made for such a fascinating dynamic for me, and it’s been so much fun to work through that in the next book. Nadya and Malachiasz genuinely like each other, but they are complete opposites. Their arguments are my favorite thing to write. I love the dynamic you get when you have two people who are very much grounded in their ways, and one has a better moral compass than the other, and yet they are still drawn together in spite of all of their differences. 

Each of your chapters opens with a little excerpt from the Codex of the Divine. Talk to me about why that was so important.

It’s not something that I had planned on writing. It was my agent’s idea. The book I had worked on before this one had all of these extravagant chapter intros. When I wrote this one, I was like, “Absolutely not! Never again! They are really stressful, and I don’t want to do them!” But my agent was like, “You should probably do it.”

I always save them for last. They are the absolute last thing I write, so the sequel doesn’t have any just yet. But it’s nice to not have to use space in the narrative to explain what the gods can do, and the excerpts do such a good job of blowing open the world. Because I’m using a country the size of Russia and I’ve got such a narrow focus on just these few people in this massive world, they help ground the setting as something bigger than just the little lens that the reader is seeing through in the actual narrative. 

How did you pair each of these excerpts with the chapter they prequel?

For the ones about the gods, I figured that if a god was mentioned in a chapter, I would match it up so that they were aligned. For the saint ones, it was half random and half luck. I wrote a bunch of the saint passages all at once, and then I moved them over into the book. So it was completely random. Some of them were kind of eerie at how well they hint at what happens in the book. I work a lot on instinct, so a lot of times things will happen and they will work out very well. I’ll be like, “Oh, I didn’t intend for that, but cool.”

Talk to me about how the actual voice of the narrator came about. Is this the natural voice you write in? Did you meld it a bit? How did that come together?

This book is probably my natural writing voice. My natural writing voice is kind of dark but also kind of funny. Serefin is a lot easier for me to write than Nadya. His voice is the most natural to me. He and I think the same, so he’s the easiest. Nadya takes a lot more work for me to get her voice right, and I’m not completely sure why. When I was first working with my agent, we rewrote the first few Nadya chapters a bunch of times to get her voice completely right.

One of the things that I absolutely love about this book is just how dark it is. There is so much blood. Is that just a fascination on your side with this darker element? Did you intentionally bleed those aspects in? What was it like to saturate an entire world with floods of blood?

I really like dark books. I have this frustration—I don’t want to say frustration, but it’s a little bit of a frustration—with YA books that hand me a premise and I don’t feel like they go far enough, like the author is holding back because of some fear that they are going too dark. I don’t have that internal line that’s saying, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t do that. Maybe that’s a little too dark.” I just go for it, but I do try to hit upon a balance between quirky and jarring. 

I really adored how visual this book is. Ten pages in, my first thought was, Has somebody made a film option on it yet? It would translate so gorgeously to a visual element. What inspired you to write that way? 

I was art minor in college, and for a long time I thought that was the route I was going to take—as an artist—until I realized that I like writing more. But I think that has a lot to do with it. I’m very visual-minded—I make super extravagant Pinterest boards with thousands of pins in them—but I can’t really know if it’s working because it’s all in my head. When I started getting all the fan art before the book was even circulating—people were doing it off a paragraph that I posted on Tumblr—it was a weird kind of confirmation that maybe this is working.

From putting pen to page to holding the galley prints, how much time did this book take?

 I got the idea when I was a junior in college, but I couldn’t write it until grad school. So there were three years where it was just living in the back of my head. I started writing it at the beginning of the summer 2015. It took a year for me to finish a draft and send out query letters. And then my agent and I revised it for about eight months. Less than a year after signing with my agent, we sold it and then the galleys happened a few months later. So it was a year to write, a year to revise and sell, and then a few months to physically hold the manuscript in my hands. That’s fast compared to the book that I had worked on for eleven years but never went anywhere. 

Talk to me about how you found your literary agent. Did you go to query tracker and just look up some people that represented YA? How was the agency hunt?

I did it the traditional way. Since I queried that other book that was an utter failure, I already had a list. But with this book, I wanted to be exacting. I didn’t want to throw it out there and hope that someone said yes. I wanted the right person to say yes, so I used query tracker religiously. I did a lot of searching through the acknowledgements of the books that I liked and thought were vaguely similar. The querying process for this book went relatively quickly. I think I only queried it for three months, and I ended up with the agent that I really wanted to work with. 

When you look at the first draft versus the draft I’m now holding in my hands, what are the biggest differences? 

The first draft was a lot longer. There were characters that ended up being cut, and there were characters that ended up getting combined. But the first draft didn’t make any sense. The plot was the same, but every three chapters I would turn around and say something that would negate everything I had built up in those three chapters. Or I’d get to a certain point in the book and realize that I should have taken a different direction, and I’d just keep writing as if I hadn’t made that decision thirty pages ago. Or I would take a turn in the story and pretend like I had been going that direction the entire time. All of which meant that when I got to the end of the first draft, I looked around and had a collection of what I like to call “loosely connected garage fires.” So revising it was an arduous process of making a very incoherent draft actually make sense. 

When we talk about the book that you queried was much longer than this, how many words was it?

It was originally 100,000 words, which is not that bad when compared to my sequel, which is currently sitting at 140,000 words. My agent wanted me to cut it to 90,000 words. I cut it to 93,000 words. I think it ending up being 97,000 words by the time it was finished. 

In one sentence, what do you think you meant to say with this book?

It’s okay to ask questions. At its heart, I think that Wicked Saints—and the whole trilogy, honestly—is about it being okay to ask questions. Regardless of what your thought or belief process has been, it’s okay to stop and say, “Well, what if it’s not like this? What if things are actually different?”

 
Emily A. Duncan works as a youth services librarian. She received a Master’s degree in library science from Kent State University, which mostly taught her how to find obscure Slavic folklore texts through interlibrary loan systems. When not reading or writing, she enjoys playing copious amounts of video games and Dungeons and Dragons. Wicked Saints is her first book. She lives in Ohio.

An Excerpt from Wicked Saints

by Emily Duncan

i
Nadezhda Lapteva

Death, magic, and winter. A bitter cycle that Marzenya spins with crimson 
threads around pale fingers. She is constant; she is unrelenting; she is eternal. She can grant any spell to those she has blessed, her reach is the fabric of magic itself. 

– Codex of the Divine, 2:18

The calming echo of a holy chant filtered down from the sanctuary and into the cellars. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers, a time where psalms to the gods were given up in an effortless chorus.

Nadezhda Lapteva glared up at the mountain of potatoes threatening to avalanche down over the table. She twisted her knife hard against the one in her hand, narrowly missing skin as she curled the peel into a spiral.

“A cleric’s duty is important, Nadezhda,” she muttered, mimicking the dour tone of the monastery’s abbot. “You could change the tide of the war, Nadezhda. Now go wither in the cellars for the rest of your life, Nadezhda.”

The table was covered in potato peel spirals. She hadn’t anticipated losing her entire day to remedial labor, yet here she was.

“Did you hear that?” Konstantin acted like she hadn’t spoken. His paring knife hung limp in his fingers as he listened.

There was nothing but the service upstairs. If he was trying to distract her, it wasn’t going to work. “Is it our impending death by potato avalanche? I can’t hear it, but I’m certain it’s coming.”

She received a withering look in response. She waved her knife at him. “What could it possibly be? The Tranavians at our doorstep? They have seven thousand stairs to climb first. Perhaps it’s their High Prince and he’s finally decided to convert.”

She tried to be glib, but the idea of the High Prince anywhere near the monastery made her shiver. He was rumored to be an extremely powerful blood mage, one of the most terrifying in all of Tranavia, a land rife with heretics.

“Nadya,” Konstantin whispered, “I’m serious.”

Nadya stabbed her knife into yet another potato as she glanced at him. It was his fault they were down there. His pranks, conjured from a mixture of boredom and delirium after early morning prayers, had been innocent at first. Switching out the monastery’s incense with lemongrass, or snipping the sanctuary’s candle wicks. Minor offenses at best. Nothing to deserve death by potato.

Filling Father Alexei’s washing bowl with a red dye that looked like blood, though, that was what had done them in.

Blood wasn’t a thing to be made light of, not in these times.

Father Alexei’s rage didn’t end in the cellars. After they scaled Potato Mountain—if they scaled Potato Mountain—they still had hours’ worth of holy texts to copy in the scriptorium.

Nadya’s hands were already cramping just thinking about it.

“Nadya.” Her knife slipped off course as Konstantin nudged her elbow.

“Damn it, Kostya.”

My perfect streak of fifty-four intact spirals, ruined, she thought mournfully. She wiped her hands on her tunic and glared at him.

His dark eyes were focused on the closed door that led upstairs. There was nothing but the—

Oh.

The potato slipped from her fingers, falling to the dusty floor. She hadn’t noticed when the service above had stopped. Kostya’s fingers dug into her sleeve but his touch felt distant.

This can’t be happening.

“Cannons,” she whispered, somehow making it more real by saying the word aloud. She shifted the grip on her knife, flipping it backward as if it were one of her thin-bladed voryens and not a half-dull kitchen blade.

Cannons were a sound every child of Kalyazin knew intimately. It was what they grew up with, their lullabies mixed with firing in the distance. War was their constant companion, and Kalyazi children knew to flee when they heard those cannons and tasted the iron tinge of magic in the air.

Cannons only meant one thing: blood magic. And blood magic meant Tranavians. For a century a holy war had raged between Kalyazin and Tranavia. Tranavians didn’t care that their blood magic profaned the gods. If they had their way, the gods’ touch would be eradicated from Kalyazin like it had been from Tranavia. But the war had never reached farther than the Kalyazin border. Until now. If Nadya could hear the cannons, that meant the war was slowly swallowing Kalyazin alive. Inch by bloody inch it was seeping into the heart of Nadya’s country and bringing death and destruction with it.

And there was only one reason why the Tranavians would attack a secluded monastery in the mountains.

The cellars shook and dirt rained down. Nadya looked at Kostya, whose gaze was flint-eyed but fearful. They were just acolytes with kitchen knives. What could they do if the soldiers came?

Nadya tugged at the prayer necklace around her neck; the smooth wooden beads felt cool against the pads of her fingers. There were alarms that would go off if the Tranavians breached the seven thousand stairs leading up to the monastery, but she had never heard them. Had hoped she never would.

Kostya grabbed her hand and shook his head slowly, his dark eyes solemn.

“Don’t do this, Nadya,” he said.

“If we are attacked, I will not hide,” she replied stubbornly. 

“Even if it means a choice between saving this place and the entire kingdom?”

He grasped her arm again, and she let him drag her back into the cellars. His fear was justified. She had never been in real battle before, but she met his gaze defiantly. All she knew was this monastery, and if he thought she wasn’t going to fight for it, then he was mad. She would protect the only family she had; that was what she was trained for. He ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. He couldn’t stop her; they both knew it.

Nadya tugged out of Kostya’s grip. “What use am I if I run? What would be the point?”

He opened his mouth to protest but the cellar shook so hard Nadya wondered if they weren’t about to be buried alive. Dirt from the ceiling dusted her white-blond hair. In an instant, she was across the cellar and nearing the door up to the kitchens. If the bells were silent, that meant the enemy was still in the mountains. There was time—

Her hand touched the doorknob just as the bells began to toll. The sound felt familiar, as if it was nothing but another call to the sanctuary for prayer. Then she was jarred by the urgent screeching tone they took on, a cacophony of high-pitched bells. No time left. She yanked the door open, running the last few stairs up to the kitchens, Kostya at her heels. They crossed the garden—empty and dead from the bitter winter months—into the main complex.

Nadya had been told the protocol countless times. Move to the back of the chapel. Pray, because that was what she did best. The others would go to the gates to fight. She was to be protected. But it was all formality, the Tranavians would never make it this far into the country, all these plans were simply if the impossible happened.

Well, here is the impossible.

She shoved open the heavy doors that led behind the sanctuary, only managing to move them enough for Kostya and herself to slip through. The tolling of the bells pounded against her temples, painful with each heartbeat. They were made to pull everyone out of sleep at three in the morning for services. They did the job.

Someone slammed into her as she passed an adjoining hallway. Nadya whirled, kitchen blade poised.

“Saints, Nadya!” Anna Vadimovna pressed a hand to her heart. There was a venyiashk—a short sword—at her hip, and another, long, thin blade clutched in her hand.

“Can I have that?” Nadya reached for Anna’s dagger. Anna wordlessly handed it to her. It felt solid, not flimsy like the paring knife.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Anna said.

Kostya shot Nadya a pointed look. In the monastery’s hierarchy, Anna—as an ordained priestess—outranked Nadya. If Anna ordered her to go to the sanctuary, she would have no choice but to obey.

So I won’t give Anna the chance.

Nadya took off down the hall. “Have they breached the stairs?”

“They were close,” Anna called.

Close meant the very real likelihood that they would make it to the courtyard and find the Tranavians already there. Nadya pulled at her prayer necklace, her fingers catching across the ridged beads as she searched for the right one. Each wooden bead was carved with a symbol representing a god or goddess in the pantheon, twenty in all. She knew them by touch, knew exactly which bead to press to attune to a specific god.

Nadya once wished she could blend in with the other Kalyazi orphans at the monastery, but the truth was, for as long as she could remember, when she prayed the gods listened. Miracles happened, magic. It made her valuable. It made her dangerous.

She tugged her necklace until the bead she wanted was at the bottom. The sword symbol carved into it felt like a splinter against her thumb. She pressed it and sent up a prayer to Veceslav: the god of war and protection.

Do you ever wonder what this would be like if you were fighting against people who also petitioned for my protection?” His voice was a warm summer breeze slipping up the back of her head. 

Truly we are fortunate our enemies are heretics, she replied. Heretics who were winning the war.

Veceslav was always chatty, but right now Nadya needed help, not conversation.

I need some protection spells, please, she prayed.

Her thumb caught Marzenya’s bead, pressing against the symbol of an open-mouthed skull. And if Marzenya is around, I need her, too.

Magic flooded through her veins, a rush of power that came with chiming chords of holy speech—a language she only knew when the gods granted it. Nadya’s heart raced, less from fear than the intoxicating thrill of their power.

The wide courtyard was blessedly silent when she finally pushed through the front doors of the chapel. To the left ran a path leading to the men’s cells; to the right, another trailed off into the forests where an ancient graveyard that held the bodies of saints centuries gone was kept by the monastery. Snow from the night before piled on the ground and the air was frigid. It snowed most nights—and days—on the top of the Baikkle Mountains. Hopefully it would slow down the Tranavians.

Nadya scanned for Father Alexei, finding him at the top of the stairs. The priests and priestesses who trained for battle waited in the courtyard and her heart twisted at just how few of them there were. Her confidence faltered. Barely two dozen against a company of Tranavians. This was never supposed to happen. The monastery was in the middle of the holy mountains, it was difficult—almost impossible—to reach, especially for those unused to Kalyazin’s forbidding terrain.

Marzenya brushed against her thoughts. “What is it you require, my child?” spoke the goddess of magic and sacrifice—of death. Marzenya was Nadya’s patron in the pantheon, the one who had claimed her as an infant.

I want to give the heretics a welcoming taste of Kalyazi magic, she replied. Let them fear what the faithful can do.

She felt the press of Marzenya’s amusement, then a different rush of power. Magic granted by Marzenya felt nothing like magic granted by Veceslav. Where he was heat, she was ice and winter and cosmic fury.

Having their magic at the same time itched under Nadya’s skin, impatient and impulsive. She left Kostya and Anna, moving to Father Alexei’s side.

“Keep our people away from the stairs,” she said softly.

The abbot looked over at her, eyebrows drawn. Not because a seventeen-year-old girl was giving him orders—though if they survived he would scold her thoroughly for that—but because she wasn’t supposed to be there at all. She was supposed to be anywhere but there.

Nadya raised her eyebrows expectantly, willing him to accept her place here. She had to stay. She had to fight. She couldn’t hide in the cellars any longer, not while heretics tore apart her country, her home.

“Move back,” he called after a pause. “I want you all at the doors!” The courtyard was a cramped enclosure, not made for fighting. “What are you planning, Nadezhda?”

“Just some divine judgment,” she replied, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She was going to shake out of her own skin if she stopped moving and allowed herself to think on what was about to happen.

She heard his weary sigh as she moved to where the stairs met the courtyard. It was the only way for the enemy to make it to the monastery and even then sometimes the steps were so coated with ice they were impossible to climb. No such luck today.

How could the Tranavians know she was there? The only people who knew Nadya existed were in the monastery.

Well . . . there was the tsar. But he was far, far away in the capital. It was unlikely news of her had spread into Tranavia.

Her breath whispered out in a prayer of holy speech, symbols forming light at her lips and blowing out in a cloud of fog. She knelt, trailing her fingers over the top of the stairs. The slick stone froze, forming the stairs into a single block of ice.

Idly twirling the voryen in her hand, she stepped back. The spell was a ploy for time; if the Tranavians had a blood mage who could counteract her magic, it wouldn’t last.

No going back now.

Nadya could fight an average blood mage. But the possibility of a Tranavian lieutenant or general—a mage promoted because of sheer magical power alone—made her feel like running back into the sanctuary where she belonged.

Marzenya scoffed at her doubt.

I belong here, Nadya told herself.

Kostya stepped up beside her. He had abandoned his kitchen knife for a noven’ya—a staff with a long blade on one end. He leaned against it, watching the slope where the stairs dropped out of sight.

“Go,” he said. “It’s not too late.” 

Nadya grinned at him. “It’s too late.”

As if agreeing with her, the bells cut off with a disconcertingly final ring. The air around the monastery was silent but for the steady sound of cannons, now pounding clearly at the base of the mountain.

If Rudnya fell, the monastery would be next. The city at the base of the mountains was well fortified, but they were in the heart of Kalyazin. No one had ever expected the war to push this far west. It was supposed to stay on the eastern border where Kalyazin and Tranavia met, just north of the border on Akola.

A crack trailed up the solid block of ice on the stairs like a spider web. It spread, forming a pattern of fractures before the whole thing shattered. Kostya pulled Nadya into the courtyard.

“We have the high ground,” she murmured.

She was holding a single voryen. Just one dagger.

We have the high ground.

There was a tremor in the silence and a sharp touch jabbed into the back of her skull.

Blood magic,” Marzenya hissed.

Nadya’s heart lodged in her throat, doubt sliding cold tendrils down her spine. She felt her magic shivering, and without thinking, shoved Kostya aside just as something exploded near where he had once stood. A hard chunk of ice slammed into her back, pain ramming down to her toes. She was thrown onto Kostya and they both went crashing to the ground.

He was back on his feet before Nadya had even registered what happened. The courtyard became thick with magic and steel as soldiers swarmed up the stairs. She scrambled to her feet, keeping to Kostya’s side, his blade moving at a dizzying pace as he defended her against the Tranavian soldiers.

Children of a war-torn land were expected to know how to react when the enemy finally came calling. Kostya and Nadya had their strategy perfected. She was fast, he was strong, and they would do anything to protect each other. Unless she caused their downfall with her fraying nerves. Her limbs shook as more magic than she was used to swept through her body.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Panicked prayers to the gods would only be met with more magic; Nadya had to decide for herself how it was used.

She ran her hand along the flat of her voryen. Pure, white light followed her touch and though she wasn’t entirely sure what it would do, she found out quickly enough when she sliced a Tranavian soldier. She only caught his arm, but like a poison, the light blackened his flesh at the point of contact. It spread up his arm to his face, choking his eyes with darkness before he toppled over, dead. She staggered back into Kostya. The urge to drop her voryen needled at her hand.

I killed him. I’ve never killed anyone.

Kostya’s hand dropped to brush against hers.

Keep going,” Marzenya urged.

But there was so much magic swirling through the air and it was so powerful and Nadya was just one cleric. Fear consumed her for another long heartbeat until Marzenya jabbed the back of her head with a sharp, pointed pain.

Keep going.

Frost tipped her fingers and she ducked under a Tranavian’s blade, slamming her frostbitten hand against his chest. Like the last, blackened skin crept up his neck and onto his face before he fell, the light flickering out of his eyes.

Nadya’s chest constricted. She felt like throwing up and Marzenya’s bitter nudge of disgust at her weakness jolted her. There was no room here for misplaced sentiment. This was war. Death was inevitable. Necessary.

Nadezhda!” Marzenya’s warning came too late. Flames engulfed her, licking underneath her skin, her blood boiling. Pain blackened her vision. She stumbled, and Kostya caught her, slipping them out of the fray right before she crashed to her knees in the shadows of the chapel doorway. She gritted her teeth, catching the inside of her lip; blood coated her mouth, metallic and sharp. She struggled to breathe. It was like being burned alive from the inside out. Just when she thought she could take no more, Veceslav’s presence swept in, enveloping Nadya like a heavy blanket. He soothed out the magic, pushing it away until she could breathe. She hadn’t called on him; he had simply known.

She didn’t have time to be shaken by the gods’ omnipresence. She struggled to her feet, her limbs trembling. The world spun dangerously but it didn’t matter. Whatever that had been, it had come from a powerful mage. She scanned the courtyard and when she found him, her once-boiling blood froze.

Oh, she had made a horrible mistake.

I should have hidden.

Thirty paces away, at the entrance to the courtyard, stood a Tranavian with a bloodied piece of paper crumpled in his fist. A vicious scar slashed over his left eye. It started at his temple and ended just at his nose. He watched the violence with a slight sneer. Nadya didn’t need to notice the red epaulets and gold braiding of his uniform to recognize him.

There were whispers of the Tranavian High Prince throughout the monastery. A boy made general a mere six months after venturing to the front when he was sixteen years old. One who had used the war to fuel his already terrible grasp of blood magic. A monster.

Every doubt Nadya had pressed away crashed back on top of her. This couldn’t be real, not the High Prince; not him.

He was young, only a few years older than her, with the palest eyes she had ever seen. As if sensing her, those pale eyes met Nadya’s and his lips twisted into a wry smile, his gaze straying to the magic swirling like light at her palms.

She let out a stream of curses.

I need…I need something powerful, she prayed frantically. He’s going to come for me. He’s looking right at me. 

You risk injuring the faithful,” Marzenya replied.

The world tilted. Black tunneled Nadya’s vision at the corners. The courtyard was a nightmare. Crimson splattered snow, the bodies of those Nadya had lived, worked, prayed with, fallen and broken across the stones. It was a slaughter and it was her fault. The Tranavians wouldn’t be there if not for her. If she died, would that make this massacre worth it?

The prince started across the courtyard toward Nadya, and her panic blanked out everything else. If he took her, what would her blood give him? What could he do with the magic she had? There were so many Tranavians, they had so much magic, and everyone she knew was going to die.

Kostya shoved her back into the shadows. Her magic slipped away as her back slammed against the door.

“Nadya,” Kostya whispered, looking frantically over his shoulder. The prince was out of sight but he had so little space to cross. There was no time left. It was over. Kostya tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “You have to go, Nadya, you have to run.”

She stared at him, horrified. Run? After everyone she loved had been cut down she was supposed to flee to safety? What would that make her, if she ran to save herself? The monastery was the only home Nadya had ever known.

“You have to go,” Kostya said. “If you fall to him the war will be lost. You have to live, Nadya.”

“Kos—”

He kissed her forehead, lips warm, slipping something cold and metallic against her palm. “You have to live,” he repeated with a rasp. Then he turned away to call out to Anna. Nadya dropped what he’d given her into her pocket without looking at it.

Anna fought a few paces away, bodies piling around her feet. Her head whipped up when she heard her name. Kostya jerked his head in Nadya’s direction and understanding cleared Anna’s features.

Kostya turned back toward Nadya, an expression on his face she had never seen before. He opened his mouth to speak only to violently jerk forward, his knee buckling out from underneath him. A crossbow bolt stuck out the back of his leg.

A scream ripped out of Nadya’s throat. “Kostya!”

“Time to go, Nadya.” Anna grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the path leading to the graveyard.

I can’t leave Kostya. Kostya who, when they’d first met, had considered her unusual gift with a serious expression before wisecracking that she could never do a single bad thing in her life, else the gods would know immediately. Kostya, who disregarded her status with the divine and cajoled her into all manner of pranks and mischief.  Kostya, the boy who rolled apples to her during prayer. Kostya, her friend, her family.

He waved a hand at them to go, pain vivid in his face. Nadya struggled against Anna, but the priestess was stronger. Not Kostya. She was losing everything, she couldn’t lose him, too.

I will not trade my safety for his life.

Her throat closed with tears. “I won’t leave him!” 

“Nadya, you have to.”

She couldn’t break free. She could only stumble as Anna pulled her to a mausoleum, kicking the door open. The last thing she saw before Anna pulled her into the dark was Kostya, his body shuddering as another bolt thudded into him.

Sushi

On Monday, Jeff brings a water-filled vase into the office. A white lily sprouts from the top and an indigo betta circles serenely within. As he sets the vase on his desk, he explains to anyone who will listen that the betta eats the roots and the lily absorbs the “crap” from the water. It is low-maintenance and Zen. I consider getting a betta vase of my own. 

I spend my lunch break Googling and am left disquieted. Bettas don’t eat plant matter, and they need more room than a tiny vase. I take a detour to pass within view of Jeff’s desk on my way to the bathroom. Perhaps the fish is not serene, but sluggish. 

I watch the vase over the following week and a half. The water takes on a brownish tinge. A greasy film forms along the surface. Debris—decomposing vegetable matter and fish waste—settles into the spaces between the gravel. The betta’s fins grow ragged and he takes to lying on the substrate. When he does swim, it’s lopsided. Several times I consider saying something to Jeff, but he and I used to have a thing and I don’t want him to think I am using the fish as a pathetic excuse to get his attention, which he will. You don’t need to make up a reason to talk to me, Bev. So I prepare. Jeff goes out of town, and I strike. Strategically, I work late, until the office is empty. I take the vase. It sloshes a little on the ice-slicked drive, spilling shit-water on my car’s carpet. I’m a nervous wreck the whole way, twisting my hair around my finger, afraid he’ll topple and die on my car floor. He survives the drive with only some mild battering.

I already have a running five-gallon tank sitting on my kitchen counter, complete with sand, live plants, a heater, a filter, a hood light, and some driftwood. I don’t keep track of how much these things cost. There are worse things I could turn my obsessive attention on—like how after two months I still have a small patch of red pinpricks on the inside of my upper arm from when Jeff grabbed me during a drunken argument and burst the capillaries under my skin. I pour as much of the vase’s filthy water into the sink as I can without losing the fish down the drain, and then gently plop him into the new tank. I decide to name the fish Sushi and laugh to myself alone in my apartment.

I text Jeff and tell him that the betta died and was fouling the water, and that I “took care of it.” He is appreciative, and says, “We should hang out soon.” I don’t respond. 

Jeff intercepts me on my way to my desk five days later. Despite his smile, I have a brief moment of panic. Maybe he’s figured it out, maybe he knows Sushi is alive and well, stowed away in my apartment. He will confront me, and I’ll fold under pressure like I always do and have to confess to being a fish thief.

But Jeff doesn’t mention Sushi, and his gray eyes don’t hold that shark-like flatness that they get with just the right mixture of booze and ill temper. I feel silly for even checking. He says, “Have any plans for Christmas?”

Keeping my fingers laced tightly together in front of me, I say, “I’m sure my family will start talking about getting together soon. Nothing solid yet.”

“Most of your family lives down south, right? Georgia and Florida?”

Of course he remembers. “Yeah.”

“Some warm weather might be nice.”

“A beach does sound great right about now.” The lie comes easily.

“It’s too bad we never got the chance to go down to Florida together.”

I clear my throat. “What about you, any Christmas plans?”

“I’ll visit my brother.”

“And he’s in…”

“New York.” Jeff doesn’t seem the least bit bothered that I don’t remember where his family lives.

I force my smile a few degrees wider and begin to angle my body away from Jeff. “Well, that sounds like fun. I’m glad for you.” He blinks once at my abrupt exit as I step around him.

I am several paces down the hall when he calls after me, “Will you be at the Christmas party?”

I turn. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but there might be a slight twist to his smile. I had not been planning on attending the Christmas party, didn’t want to be in the same room as Jeff and alcohol. And he knows it. 

Before I respond, I take one full, measured breath. “Yeah, I think I’ll go.”

He blinks again, “Cool,” and walks away in the direction of his desk. I wonder if my recent petnapping has emboldened me.

The days tick by on my desk calendar. Sushi regains the ability to swim in a straight line and grows perky and active on a diet of frozen bloodworms that I keep in my freezer. My parents begin badgering me to stay with my aunt in Orlando for Christmas. I am hesitant. Florida means bathing suits, comments about the new softness around my stomach and thighs. I tell them I have to dogsit for my neighbor. Another lie that comes surprisingly easily.  

The company Christmas party takes place on a Friday, in the conference room. The long table is covered with plates of cookies and brownies, pies, cakes, simple hors d’oeuvres. And, since it’s after office hours, alcohol. The supervisors keep an eye on us as we graze, making sure no one gets shitfaced. I can’t stop looking at Jeff. He knocks back a sweaty Corona before most have even made themselves a plate. I lean against the wall, near the door, and pick at my cheese cubes and crackers. Several women position themselves nearby and chatter about Netflix shows and gym routines. I chime in to ask for cardio suggestions and they subtly expand their circle to make room for me. If I do end up visiting my family, I can say I’m starting a new exercise regimen. And if I’m in a conversation, Jeff will be less likely to try to come over and talk. He finishes another beer in the time it takes me to drink my half-cup of Coke. The soda doesn’t help my dry mouth, and I dump my paper plate in the trash. Jeff cracks open his third bottle, laughing loudly at some joke. He catches me looking, and winks. There’s no overt malice in it, just an acknowledgement that I’m staring, but I swallow and quickly look away. I twist a strand of hair around my finger, tight enough to hurt. I try to tune into my little circle’s discussion about juice cleanses, but Jeff lets out another booming laugh and I can’t stay there any longer. I slip out the door without saying goodbye to anyone.

On the way home, I buy Sushi four ghost shrimp from the pet shop, hoping they will entertain him. After living in a cramped vase with nothing but a knot of plant roots and some glass marbles, he must be lonely. Some companionship might do him good. The shrimp are tiny and transparent, their little stomachs green with the algae they grazed from the pet store’s plants and gravel. Sushi comes to investigate when I pour them into his water. He attacks without hesitation or mercy, ripping off legs and antennae and chomping at their armored bodies with audible clicks. Flabbergasted by his brutal violence, I am too slow to grab the net. The shrimp are dead before they can take cover, before they can even orient themselves inside the tank. After I scoop up the shredded torsos and floating legs, he parades around the tank with his fins fanned wide, congratulating himself on his savagery. I reach for my hair, but stop myself before I yank on it.

I call to make an appointment for a simple trim and somewhere between dialing the salon’s number and actually making the appointment, it turns into a cut and a color. I have six inches chopped off, so that my hair falls right at my collarbone, and I cover the brunette with a charcoal shade as dark as Sushi’s scowling face.

I walk into work on Monday braced for more attention than I would like. Everyone I see mentions my hair. Some gush over it, some clearly don’t like it but are being polite, which I don’t mind. Two older women ask if I’m going through something.

That afternoon, Jeff pokes his head into my cubicle with such suddenness that I believe he intended to startle me. “I heard you changed your hair.”

I pat my crown. “You heard right.”

His brows pull down as he studies my head. “Why black?”

I shrug. “Felt like it.”

“I liked it better when it was longer.”

“Well, Jeff, it’s not your hair.” I grin immediately after saying it, to soften the edge, surprised by how quick I am to snap back at him.

He blinks twice, then laughs. “Touché.”

Around seven that night, Jeff texts me: “I hope I didn’t piss you off earlier.” I reply with, “You’re fine.” He tries to call, and I let the phone ring. When he calls again, I’ll tell him “I’m busy.”

I text my parents and let them know that I’ll be coming to Orlando.

I am not yet convinced that Sushi is a strictly solitary creature. Perhaps he just doesn’t like things with legs. After waiting a few days to make sure he has completely calmed down, I go to the pet store on my way home from the office and ask the young employee loitering in the aquarium section about betta fish tankmates. He sells me three guppies. Females, because the males’ large tails might provoke Sushi. Three, because they live in schools.

The girls dart around in a frenzy during the drive; I can hear the tiny thumps of their bodies striking their plastic bag. During a red light, I hold the bag up and examine them. At first glance, they almost look like bettas. But they’re smaller, more slender. They’re like large minnows, with round dumb eyes and small pursed mouths. One is a speckled silver-gray, one dirty green, and one yellowish gold. They all have short little tails that flutter like pom-poms as they swim. The car behind me honks, and I put the bag back in the passenger seat.

I acclimate the guppies to Sushi’s tank water slowly, over a period of an hour, cutting the knot off the bag and pinning it to the edge of the tank with a safety clip. Sushi circles the bag, beady eyes darting about. He glances between me and his new tankmates distrustfully. Now that I can see Sushi and the guppies together, it is clear that he dwarfs them. The guppies pay him no mind, might be too stupid to notice he’s not a guppy himself. He pecks the bag a few times, then wanders off to lounge on his driftwood log. A hopeful sign.

I pour the guppies into the tank and watch them as I eat a bowl of cereal for dinner, standing at the counter. The trio remains tightly huddled while they explore their new home. Sushi attempts to chase them a few times, but his harassment is short-lived and he becomes content to follow and observe at a distance. Satisfied, I go to bed.

I check on the aquarium first thing in the morning. The dirty green guppy is lying in a corner of the tank, tail torn off. The grey guppy has wedged herself in the stems of the Java fern. Pinkish white wounds mar her spine. Her tail is in tatters. She gasps, sucking down water so quickly that her body bobs with the effort. I can’t find the golden guppy.

Sushi circles his tank, moving in quick little darts. He’s fired up, breathing hard and fins spread. He hasn’t noticed the grey guppy hiding in the plant. I feel foolish for not recognizing his spot-and-stalk the night before.

I decide to remove the corpse first. It takes several attempts for me to scoop it up in the net, and my movement disturbs the grey guppy, who worms from her hiding place and slides along the sand on her belly, seeking the shelter of the driftwood. Sushi is on her in an instant, and latches onto her chin. They writhe around in a knot while I swear and hurriedly flick the dead fish into the trash. I dip the net back into the water and swish it around violently near the locked pair. The now-jawless guppy breaks free and swims for the surface in a crooked zigzag while Sushi remains below, choking down a chunk of her flesh. I catch the guppy in the net. At this point, she’s mangled beyond saving. A quick chop with a kitchen knife and then she, too, goes in the trash.

I squint down at Sushi. His belly is full and swollen from feasting on fresh guppy all night. He pays me no mind, and resumes searching the tank. 

I sigh. I’m already running late and don’t have time to look for the remaining guppy. If she’s smart, she’s hiding somewhere. I start sprinkling some fish flakes into the water every evening, for her to snap up whenever his back is turned.

I develop the distinct impression that Jeff is avoiding me. It is a gradual realization, over a period of several days. He doesn’t come by my desk, doesn’t call after me in the hall, doesn’t meet my eyes when we cross paths by the water cooler or in the cube farm. It’s kind of nice to have him fade into the background. Just another face walking out of the parking garage, gathering around the surprise box of donuts in the break room, heading for the elevator at the end of the day. I’m not quite sure why Jeff doesn’t want to be around me anymore, but I think I could get used to this.

Four days after the guppy disaster, on a mess of a Thursday, it storms and the power at my complex goes out. I arrive home to see the temperature in the tank is already in the low 70s. When Sushi’s water falls to 62F, I scoop him up in a net and put him in a Tervis tumbler with some of his tank water. I sit and read a book by candlelight, tumbler tucked between my side and the armrest of my couch. I keep him snuggled in my body heat until the power returns four hours later. Upon being returned to the tank, Sushi flares at me, gill covers protruding and bulldog mouth frowning. He darts back and forth across the front of the glass to ensure I am suitably intimidated before retreating to sleep behind his Java fern.

I notice a fuzzy sort of cloud at the base of the driftwood, on the back side of the tank, and realize I have completely forgotten about the missing guppy. I reach in and shift the wood a bit. Her remains float out from where they were wedged between the wood and the sand. She has frozen stiff as a board, her eyes and most of her stomach are missing, and her body is carpeted in some white sort of mold or bacteria. Gagging, I scoop her out with the net and flush her down the toilet, then give the tank a thorough cleaning.

Sushi must have been eating the fish flakes every night. “You are a little brat,” I tell him, once the countertop is marbled with little puddles of water and I am no longer worried about the tank being a petri dish. He, unsurprisingly, gives no response.

After dodging me for another day, Jeff bangs on my apartment door late Friday night. I stare at him through the peephole. His face is flushed, and he’s wiping at his eyes. I’ve never known him to show up unannounced. I open the door and Jeff slips inside without a greeting, reeking of alcohol and cigarettes. I am in a sports bra and a pair of loose shorts, about to get a bowl of birthday cake ice cream and watch six episodes of The X-Files. I immediately regret giving in to my curiosity.

He surveys my kitchen with a sniff, eyes skipping right over the tank on the countertop, stopping to linger on my bare torso. “What’re you doin’?”

I cross my arms low, under my breasts. “Getting ready to go to bed. I was in the middle of getting dressed.”

“Hmm.” He sucks his teeth. “I feel like you’ve been distant with me. Lately. I gave you some space, like I thought you wanted, and it was like you didn’t even notice I was gone.”

“I’m just trying to…protect my emotions. Take care of myself.”

“You hardly talk to me. It’s like you can’t stand the sight of me.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to—”

Sighing, he rubs the residual shine from his eyes and drags his hands down his face. He addresses the floor instead of me. “Are you punishing me, Beverly?”

“No. Not at all.” I unconsciously go for my hair, reaching too short and brushing my collarbone. I settle for gnawing on my knuckle instead. Dimly, I wish I had a shirt to cover my stomach.

“Because every time I see you at work, I remember what we used to be—” 

“Jeff, please don’t talk like that.”

He rubs the back of his neck and faces the fridge.

“You should probably go home.”

“I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to be at home, alone.” 

As Jeff continues to examine the fridge, my eyes wander over to the aquarium. Sushi is flaring ferociously at Jeff. Well, likely not at Jeff, likely at his own reflection in the glass. But that doesn’t matter. I take in Sushi’s fluttering sapphire fins and protruding gill covers for a beat longer, then I step over to Jeff and place a hand on his arm.

“Come on, Jeff. It’s time for you to go home.”

He turns and steps closer to me, so I can feel his hot breath. The stink of alcohol tickles my nose. “See, this is what I’m talking about. What happened to the Beverly I used to know?” His fingertips skate up the outside of my arm. “I miss us, Beverly.” He slips an arm around my waist and presses his lips to my neck. His teeth graze my skin. Lightly, accidentally, but I think of the silver-gray guppy, Sushi tearing off her jaw. 

I can still see the tank over Jeff’s shoulder. Sushi zigzags back and forth against the glass, snapping at nothing. His eyes glint in the kitchen light, little black beads. If Jeff and I shrank down to Sushi’s size and jumped into his tank, he’d gobble us down in an instant, without any hesitation. His bite, proportionally stronger than a great white’s, would cleave us in two. 

I clear my throat and make an attempt to politely extricate myself. Jeff pulls at my shorts. I push harder. He shoves me up against the kitchen counter, from affectionate to angry in an instant. His eyes are flat and blank as old, cloudy dimes under his furrowed brows, coins laid on the lids of a corpse before the coffin is shut and the dirt shoveled. I inhale to raise my voice and he claps a hand over my nose and mouth so tight it hurts. He gives me another shove and the countertop digs into my lower back. My skull knocks against the aquarium. I hear sloshing, feel wetness on my hair. Driving home on the icy road, Sushi’s vase on the floor of the car, shit-water spilling onto the carpet. 

Jeff pauses, face slack with stupid surprise as he looks over me. “Is that my fish?”

I slide my hand along the countertop, reaching for the mac-and-cheese-encrusted fork I know I left there, and jam it into Jeff’s throat with all of my terror-fueled strength. He flinches as dark blood runs, gushes down to his collar, slowly bringing a hand up to protect his throat, and I stab him again in nearly the same spot. He backs away from me with an awful groaning sound, both hands on his neck now, stumbling. His skull cracks loudly on the fridge as he falls, leaving a dent in the door. He doesn’t move.

I’m shaking, my bowels are burning, and I have to step over Jeff’s body to puke into the sink. I rinse the vomit, then, stupidly, the fork. I have to call the police. Retrieving my phone from the couch, I stand vigil over Jeff’s body as I dial. Blood is leaking from his mangled neck. Thank God the kitchen is linoleum. I bend close. He doesn’t appear to be breathing. What a goddam mess.

As I give the operator my address and explain what happened with a lot of stuttering and sniffling, I look at Sushi so I won’t look at Jeff. He is at the front of his tank, regarding Jeff’s prone form from over the top of his downturned mouth. Sushi’s beady eyes flick up to me, and he begins to circle the tank, fins spread in display.

Snargleflox

Boric

She stands in my study, barefoot, head cocked, and stares at me. My most recent suitress. But it’s a different stare than the previous girls’, alert yet unafraid, like an owl’s. I place a cube of cheese on the cold stone floor between us. I nod. She steps forward, bends, nabs the cheese, pushes it past her lips.

“What’s her name?” says Snargleflox.

“What’s your name?” I say.

“Kriv,” she says, chewing. 

“Do you like the cheese, Kriv?”

“Best I’ve ever eaten, my lord.”

“Emeline,” I say. “More cheese.”

“Yes, my lord,” Emeline says, and limps out the door. She has a crooked left leg and one of her eyes habitually wanders noseward, a consequence of unholy peasant stock. I appointed her head chambermaid to keep the normal-bodied servants in humble spirits.

“Cheese is your favorite,” says Snargleflox, sitting on the harp stool, pretending to play.

“Shut up,” I say.

Kriv stares, swallows the cheese.

With the back of my hand I raise her arm sideways, lean in, sniff her hair, neck, armpit. Snargleflox stoops and sniffs the other side of her, but she pays him no mind. She smells of the fields.

“Stand on one foot,” I say.

She does.

“On your toes.”

She lifts.

“Close your eyes.”

She falters but regathers without letting her other foot touch.

“Her balance is better than yours,” says Snargleflox.

“No it isn’t.”

“My lord?” says Kriv, eyes shut, teetering.

“Nothing,” I say. “You can stop.”

Emeline returns with a silver plate of cheese cubes, sets it on the desk, and then limps away. Snargleflox trails behind, mimicking her limp, which always makes me laugh. But I don’t hear the door shut. I hear sweeping in the hall. “Still there, Emeline?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Please leave.”

“My lord.” The door closes.

Kriv eyes the cheese plate.

“Would you like more?” I say.

“Yes.”

“Yes what?” I say.

“My lord.”

Snargleflox stalks his way to the desk. He stands so tall he can’t help hunch. He wears a dark cloak, a sparrowhawk feather in his hat, which I like to tease him for. He looks pretty well human, besides the black, cave-like sockets where eyes would normally be and his yard-long tongue, forked at its end like a serpent’s but thrice. He lets it unravel and graze several cheese cubes.

“Quit that,” I say.

“My lord?”

“Not you.”

“She should earn her cheese,” says Snargleflox.

“Do you have any talents?” I say.

“Talents, my lord?”

“A trick,” I say, “a stunt, or a joke. To earn the cheese.”

She steps round to put the desk between us, then proceeds to shuffle the length of it, descending her torso with each step, as if she’d just miraculously uncovered a trapdoor staircase.

“She’s impressive.”

“That’s a very good trick,” I say.

She cuts eyes to the cheese.

I nod.

She crams cheese using both hands like a glop-nosher.

“The others weren’t like this.”

“I remember.”

“Remember what, my lord?” she says, mouth full.

“Nothing,” I say.

“What else can she do?”

“Any more talents?”

She chews, cuts eyes to the harp.

“Does she play?”

“Do you play?”

“No,” she says.

“Try,” I say.

She secrets a cheese cube under the neckline of her smock, walks over, sits on the stool, and hovers a hand at the strings but doesn’t strum.

“She’s useless.”

“Don’t be coy,” I say.

She plays, ragged at first, which makes Snargleflox titter, but soon she finds a melody, repeats it, and it sounds, almost, like a song.

“She’s better than you.”

“She’s not,” I say. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“My father has a lute,” she says. “Had.”

“A lute.”

“Not a real one,” she says. “Fashioned with the wrong tools. Twine for strings. I used to practice on it. Simple songs.”

“Kriv, where do you suppose this castle’s stones came from? Oxcarts, do you think?”

“The stones were dropped here by angels, my lord.”

“I like her.”

“You don’t know what you like,” I say.

“My lord?”

“I wasn’t talking to you. Keep playing.”

She plays.

“Snargleflox,” I whisper. “I like your hat feather.”

“You do?” he says.

“No,” I say.

Emeline

The castle sleeps.

He is not right, Lord Boric. Doesn’t bathe. Seldom changes robes. When I was first hired to the castle, Boric, just a rose-fleshed boy, would scamper about the halls, yelling curses, rabid from sugar cakes and poached pears and mead pilfered from the buttery. Down by the stables, we kept a pen of white hares for pies and stews, and young Boric would often wander in there with his mead pail. I didn’t think it odd at the time: choosing animals as drinking company; it seemed a gentle-mannered thing. But after the cook complained of hares spoiled by some strange condition, their coats stiff, their lungs swollen and heavy, I realized that the little lord had been holding the hares, one by one, in the mead. What could I have done? I had good work for someone hedge-born. Lame. Now, the hares have become village girls, and each day, as I sweep his floor, dust his vanity, tend his latrine, scrub his blood-streaked linens, this question like a mare untethered sprints through me: Are you still a coward, Emeline?

I rap the study door. No answer. I unbar the door’s oak plank.

The fireplace still smolders. Kriv, cross-legged on the floor, leans against the desk, half in glow. Her eyes follow me as I sweep the already swept stones.

“You should sleep,” I say.

She stares.

“Do you know what happens to the girls he collects?” I say.

She stares.

“Would you like to prevent it from happening? To anyone again?

“Yes.”

“Pick the mink,” I say. “The white one.”

I sweep the room, feel her eyes on my back, check her chamber pot: empty. I walk to the door, pull the handle.

“Did you tell the others this?” she says.

“The others were gone by now.”

Village Girl

I have found my most favorite thing: sugared beets. She handed me a pouch of them for no reason at all, the funny-walking castle servant with the eyes that scares me because where’s it looking? The sugared beets were so good I ate them up in a breath and spent that night in a giggly tremor. Next day I found her walking funny down the road by the fields. She didn’t have any beets on her she said but she could fetch me some if I could pay. I don’t have coins I said except for the ones I make out of mud. Do you want some of those? I’ll give you three. She wanted special berries she said, asked if I knew where and I do. The purple-black berries with the blood-red stems that live near mushrooms. But why does she want these ones? If you eat the purple-black berries with the blood-red stems Papa says your stomach will turn to oak and you’ll die bang dead just like that. But I get more sugared beets if I find more berries so here I am in the woods way past my bedtime (please Papa don’t branch-whip my ankles!) looking for the purple-black berries with the blood-red stems but really I’m looking for sugared beets.

Boric

The road, the fields, the village, the castle are bracketed on all sides by oak woods. The households, the fenceposts, the farm tools and castle furniture, the harp: oak. No one ever questions the origin of the oaks. The origin of the castle’s stones, however, remains unproven. Such stones have lately become hot gossip among village folk. Family lore states that the stones awaited the founders on site in a great mound, dropped there by one of God’s angels to aid the family in erecting our home and legacy. I don’t think much of angels, but Mother believed the story true. Though recently one of the peasants, a ploughman who fancied himself a student of history, began spinning rumors of an old oxcart track in the south woods that supposedly could’ve been used to transport the stones. 

The ploughman was to be hung from the old oak by the well as a way to soothe him of his madness. His family was to be strung up from the same tree. Half the village gathered to watch the hanging. A toothless crone squinted at the sun and sneezed. A small boy, with a little black goat on a rope leash, fingered his nose and ate what he found. Snargleflox stood among the villagers and pulled faces, making me smile. But when I saw her, the ploughman’s daughter, I told my guards to unloop the family’s necks and escort them from the platform. “I’ll take the daughter instead,” I said. 

 The guards collected her and we turned to leave— 

“Demon,” the ploughman said, and spat. “God will have you.”

The village quietly blinked.

I motioned to the guards. 

They relooped the ploughman’s neck and hung him. I could hear his boots clatter one against the other as I rode off with his daughter. 

I don’t understand it, how people hold this unshakable belief in the mental ramifications of one’s childhood. We have no respect for a child’s own agency. One’s maladjustment later in life is obsessively viewed as the consequence of a parent’s failings. But my father died of a bowel worm when I was an infant, so he could not possibly be accountable for what I became, and Mother loved me more than any mother has ever loved a son. Whatever badness lives in me is self-grown. 

Mother, the most luminous woman who ever lived, would wear a white mink shawl and these pearl cluster earrings like tiny vines of peeled grapes. She had hair the color of rosewood, skin like porcelain. My father dead, Mother raised me as the castle’s lord. We’d occupy each end of the dining table, and I was permitted to drink mead by the time I was ten and had a stomach for it. Mother educated me in the art of ruling and in the general dignities of the royal blooded. She also taught me Latin. By the time I was thirteen and sprouted my first nether-hairs, she began to school me in the art of the bedroom.

I was sixteen when Mother fell ill. She lingered for months, underwent treatments of leeches and sage smolders and twice swallowed the still-beating heart of a dove cock. Her skin lost its luster, grey rivered then swamped her hair, yellowish fluid from the crook of her right eye stained the pillowcase. She died a week before my seventeenth birthday. Her last words: “Find someone.” I still don’t fully know what she meant. 

I hated her for getting sick and unsightly and leaving me, and so I spent the week in excess. I hunted, hawked, drank wormwood, bathed in fermented milk, lashed horses past a gallop, dined in bed, stroked myself several times per day, but there was something loose in me. On my seventh night of gluttony, grief finally struck. I drank one-and-a-quarter mead pail by the hearth, wept like a fevered babe, then wandered out to the stables and took an axe to a ridiculously small horse until enough of the alcohol had been sweated. 

I spent the rest of the night in the chapel. Mother’s body had been entombed in the undercroft, so I pried open the stone slab door, went into the dust and dark, and began to stroke myself, thinking some fire might rekindle, but I couldn’t enter the mood. Mother was gone. Reclining on the front pew with my mead pail I guzzled and wept until dawn shafted the turquoise glass, and I heard a cough. Behind, in a center pew, sat Snargleflox, reading from an upside-down hymnbook. Outside the chapel I crossed paths with a stable boy, his face bloodless as yogurt, and told him we’d been visited in the night by a monster called Snargleflox. A good name, I thought. Sounds like meat wolfed off the bone and swallowed. “Lucky you weren’t around to meet him,” I said, then booped the stable boy on the nose with my finger. Boop.

During that first week with Snargleflox, castle life was a step better. We played chess in the mornings, ate cheese pies for brunch, cloaked ourselves in linens and hid in corners to jump out and scare the servants, though they didn’t even flinch when Snargleflox did it. One night I cracked my toenail on a bedpost and nearly sobbed with joy for the pain that rang up my shin. But with the parapet armed, the village quiet, boredom filled the castle like a fume, one I could smell. Mostly I remained in my study, a frogmouth helm on my head, plucking the harp’s bass string, hoping the vibrations might register in me somewhere, my spine, my little soldier, but each note faded to nothing. I thought of Mother’s last words.

“We should find a wife,” said Snargleflox, hunched by the fire, warming himself.

“A wife?” I said.

“What your mother would’ve wanted.”

“You didn’t know her.”

“Feel like I do, from all you’ve told me.”

I plucked. Perhaps he was right.

Stable Boy

Acorn was the most sweet-tempered animal in the yard. Our one pony. I would wedge strings of hay in the folds of my clothes and she’d nip them out one by one and soon she learned the habit of snuffling me belt to toe whenever I tended her. Now, the image is nailed to the back of my eyelids and I can’t shake it. Acorn in pieces. I mistook her for a pile of pink-wooded logs. I remember her blood’s weight as I pitchforked the straw bed. I will be cleaning up her body every night in my thoughts until I’m planted in the earth. Will Acorn be there in heaven? In pieces? I would groom her still, each piece. Shoe her, comb her tail. 

Lord Boric was in a bad way that morning, robes muddied, hair like greased bronze, eyeballs bloody and bagged. It was the first time a lord has ever talked to me. I counted the hay bits on my boots while he spoke. I’ve always known it, monsters are real. 

I groom more than needed now, comb Faxi’s mane straight and shiny like wheat stalks dipped in melted silver; hoof pick and shoe Hazelnut who shivers at every strike of the mallet; shine Topper’s coat with a damp rag, feed him oats from my palm. But the horses have become restless. They skitter and twitch at my hand. I hope this is because they’ve glimpsed the monster, but my suspicion is that I’m annoying them. The horses are my only friends. Though I guess you could count the gimp chambermaid a friend. She sometimes hobbles in to pet the horses and give me sugared beets, which I pretend to eat then secret under my belt to later feed the horses. She tells me stories, the chambermaid, of boys like me, on the brink of manhood, like the one about the farmhand who, too poor to afford a horse, trapped, tamed, and saddled an elk. Or the fisherman’s son who fell in love with a nymph beneath the lake and carved gills into his neck with a scaling knife and walked the lake’s floor to bed her. Or the whittler’s boy who dreamt of knighthood and shaped a brother out of birch to have someone to practice swords with, and he soon became the top fighter in the county. What’s the point of these stories, I ask myself, if not to teach a boy that he can become more than what he is?

Boric

Tonight I find a spider on my windowsill! I soak the creature in lamp oil, tilt a candle flame, watch the thing catch and curl and I’m certain I can hear tiny faint screams. “That’s the wind,” says Snargleflox. But what does he know about pain. 

Snargleflox waits out each night, standing at the foot of my bed, looking but not looking because of his eye holes but still seeing me. Tonight there’s a waver in his posture. He’s lengthened near a foot in height since Kriv’s taken up residence in the study and now his back hunches more than usual and he’s begun to drool. 

“Snargleflox,” I say.

“Yes?”

“You’re wetting my blanket.”

“Sorry.” He takes a slow step back.

 “Something wrong?” I say.

“It’s Kriv,” he says. “She’s contagious. I contracted an ailment when sniffing her.”

“I sniffed her,” I say. “And my health feels good. Too good. Uncomfortably good.”

“You have a king’s health. Uninfectable.”

“So you have a peasant’s health?” 

“I’m—sensitive.”

“You’re drooling.”

“Sorry.” 

I close my eyes and hear the guards downstairs in the buttery like boars at their nightly feed. 

Guard

I find myself in the wrong line of work. We are not guards. Fiends. And I am the fiends’ fat-handed accomplice.

When Lord Boric grows tired with one of his captives, he passes her off to us. Before the execution, we—well, I don’t partake, not truly, in what the other guards call “the fun.” Even if I wanted to, the others would deny me. “You’d flatten her to dust, Tallowcatch.” Their nickname for me. Tallowcatch. Barrel of fat. Though youngest, I sport the largest mail and own the meatiest hands in the ranks, and because of this sturdiness I am made to hold the girl still, to kneel behind and pin her down by the shoulders. It’s a grisly job, during which I shut my eyes and try to venture elsewhere, but it’s impossible to fully escape. I pray in the night that God sees my predicament and elects to spare me from what hellfires await my thin and huffing colleagues, though I’m not confident He will. 

I stay clear of the others, spending the bulk of my time in quietude, polishing armor and broadswords, but after a shift, when they crack open a barrel of ale, I act as cupbearer, milling about, refilling their pots. Last night in the buttery they discussed Lord Boric’s new captive, the ploughman’s daughter, up there in his study.

“A pretty thing,” said one guard.

“Ruby haired,” said another.

“Goose-necked.” 

“A farmer’s muscle in her arms.”

“A fighter, looks like.” 

“I give her a week.”

“A day.”

“I call first go.”

“Second.”

“Tallowcatch. My pot feels empty.”

The only person in my life I call a friend is Emeline, the lame chambermaid with the lopsided vision, who some nights shares a tankard of baked milk with me in the larder, where I once caught her filling a pouch with sugared beets, thinking her an intruder at the time. She listens to me and doesn’t say much. I’ve told her what the guards make me do. I tell her I spend most days numbed by an icy kind of remorse for the fact of my still being alive, and those girls, not. Tonight, I tell her I’m not sure how much longer I wish to live. She thumbs a dribble of milk off my chin, tells me that my life might still find worth. I don’t know what she means by this, but I listen.

Boric

“Pick one,” I say.

Kriv steps among the lain about objects: trinkets, jewelry, fine garments. Snargleflox wheezes in the corner, huddled there like a giant withdrawn spider. 

“If she picks wrong,” he says, “time’s up.” 

“Choose carefully,” I say.

She peruses, pausing at an opal necklace, velvet gloves, a bronze corkscrew. Finally, she bends at the white mink shawl, but instead of covering her shoulders, she knots it round her waist.

“How did she know?”

“Why that one?” I say.

“You told me to pick. I picked.”

“She’s lying.”

“That’s my mother’s shawl,” I say.

“I know that,” says Snargleflox.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” I say.

“Was she a good mother?” says Kriv.

“That’s not her business.” 

“She was,” I say.

“Do you miss her?”

“No,” says Snargleflox, drooling.

“Yes,” I say.

“Do I remind you of her?”

I say nothing.

I hold open the door and Snargleflox scuttles out ahead of me. “Practice your harp.”

Kriv

Each hour in the castle is like crossing a river—now I’m on this rock, now the next—but the rocks are the tips of towers, the river depthless, the current wicked.

Don’t call it luck, that I’m still here, in this room. I am the maker of my fate. 

For the longest time I’ve wanted no one to succeed but me. I would pick herbs and berries in the woods, then rip out their roots, so no other forager might profit by them. I stole hunks of bread from a belly cavity in the family loaf: more energy to spend in the day. I practiced my father’s lute at night, knowing talent can be useful. Spendable. I’m the one girl in the village deemed capable to work the fields in fall, though Father never approved of such ambitions.

I hate you, Father. Your prideful blather. But I miss you painfully. You have ruined my life; you will never get to finish engraving that scythe handle. Is this what grief feels like? I see Father at work in the house, bent over a project, my favorite of his constructions, what he declared a lute, though his woodworking tools themselves were home-built, the strings honey-soaked twine. The instrument sounded like a whining mule. At night after a supper of salted cabbage and bread crusts, I would practice, my own songs, basic double-string ballads about naked old witches in the woods changing into crows under moonglow; spelled wolves walking on hind legs and hissing Latin; a magic golden baby made from wheat bushels, who killed all who sighted her. 

When my noose was removed but Father’s remained, he whispered to me: Vengeance is best kept unseen. But what can I do? The door is twin-walled, bolted and iron-ribbed, barred on the outside by an oak plank. On the door there are marks, gouges and, closer, thin scratches. I trace one with my fingertip. Also: no useful weapons. Just a desk, a harp and stool, a hay-filled chamber pot, and a fireplace.

Father used to tell me a story about a lynx in a wildfire. The lynx, fleeing the blaze alongside other animals, decides to wheel and sprint toward the flames. It leaps through to the other side, to already scorched earth and safety. The others, slowed by the fumes, and fear, eventually tire and burn. I thought it a crude story meant to instill battle-bound boys with stupid courage, but standing here, in the Lord’s study, I’m feeling very much a lynx: however his previous captors behaved, I will enact the opposite. They ate daintily, I imagine, striving for ladyhood; I will gorge like a starved hog. They sniveled and wept, afraid to meet his gaze; I will stare. In shaken voices they tried to speak proper, but I will talk plainly, without hesitation. He will never see my hand tremble. It was people who moved those stones. Peasants. With oxcarts. Angels had nothing to do with—

A knock on the door.

It’s the servant girl, the slightly malformed one. But my chamber pot has been emptied, the floor swept.

Boric

Snargleflox grows larger and more monstrous by the hour. He has stretched three feet in height, his back sloped with yellowed vertebrae spikes protruding through his cloak like spear tips. His knuckles have met the floor and, lurking about beastlike on all fours, his hat feather looks more preposterous than ever. Just in the last few minutes, he has sprouted a second pair of arms and a fleshy nub of tail.

“Snargleflox,” I say, naked in bed, carving Latin phrases onto the inside of my thigh with a nacre-handled penknife. “You don’t look good.”

“How do you mean?” he says, scratching the rim of an eye hole with a newly sprouted claw.

“How do you feel?” I say, carving, feeling dead-in-the-face.

“Back’s a bit sore,” he says.

“Your back.” 

His dorsal spikes spread and quake as he breathes. The sting of the penknife does little to rouse me. Some months ago, after the disposal of my fourth or fifth suitress, one of the chambermaids tried to murder me with the nacre-handled penknife that she’d swiped from my vanity. She had entered to take my chamber pot, but instead pulled open my bed curtain and sliced me pretty good below the eye before I could wrestle her down and call the guards. She left along my cheekbone a sickle-shaped scar like a second smile. That little scuffle was the most excitement I’d had in weeks, and while Emeline stitched the wound, I savored the tug of each suture. 

 “I’m bored of Kriv,” says Snargleflox. “We should get rid of her. Try another.”

“How do we know she is the cause of your illness?”

“Don’t care about the illness. I feel fine. I just don’t see what’s so great about her.”

“She’s different.”

“She’s common.”

“Are you jealous?”

“No.” His tail nub wriggles. 

 “She’s trying to trick you.”

“No she isn’t.”

“She is. She’s miming your tastes to please you.”

“How so?”

“The cheese. The harp.”

“Everybody likes cheese.”

“I don’t.”

“You are jealous.”

“You think she’s your mother, but she never will be.”

I dig the penknife deep, blood soaks the linens.

Stable Boy

I know a lot about hay. Oat hay grows thick and hard to reap but makes a heartier meal. Clover hay’s thinner and easier for the sickle, but in wet weather clover hay can mold and sicken the animals. Alfalfa hay is the best of both: easily reaped, loved by the horses, but you’re lucky to find it in our fields. I have some alfalfa now, tucked in the folds of my clothes, but Faxi doesn’t notice. Or care. None of the horses have been eating much. My guess is they’ve seen the monster, prowling the grounds at night. If another horse gets attacked, I don’t know if I could bear it. I’ve been spending nights in the stables on a haybale, not sleeping much, but besides the usual mutterings of guards along the parapet, all I’ve heard are the horses’ nickering to one another, mocking me and my ability to care for them. By day, they ignore me as if I’m—unnecessary. Lately I find myself brushing and shoeing the horses with less and less tenderness. I scrape hard with the hoof pick, miss occasionally with the shoe mallet or else send a nail too deep. Sometimes I think of shoving a fistful of hay down Faxi’s throat or galloping Hazelnut until collapse and I hate feeling this way. Maybe the monster has somehow infected me. I try to shake the notion from my skull but like ale this only causes it to fizz and roil. 

I brush Topper’s mane, try to be gentle.

I whisper in his ear, “He hurt us. He hurt us.”

Castle Cook

A chambermaid, the cripple with the wandering eye, told me to make a certain kind of berries into syrup. I told her she had very wrong berries, but she placed a gift in my palm, the most elegant earring I’d ever seen, a tapering cluster of pearls, like a miniature grapevine. “Make the syrup,” she said. “And you’ll own the pair.” It’s easy work for such a prize: simmer the berries for an hour in water and sugar, add blackcurrant vinegar, sieve through a cheesecloth, store in a little mauve pot.

Stable Boy

Can’t sleep. I close my eyes and I’m back in her stall, shoveling her, bit by bit, into a wagon. I’ve filled so many wagons. 

Heaven is not for horses. 

Or stable boys.

Boric

The fire crackles and glows and warms the room. Emeline kneels by it, adds more wood, then starts adjusting the logs with her broomstick.

“That’s fine,” I say.

“My lord?”

“You can go, Emeline.”

“Yes, my lord.” 

As she limps to the door, Snargleflox, dorsal spikes brown and splintered, sags against the desk and his eye holes follow her out. He no longer has spirit for mockery.

Kriv stands in the middle of the room and stares. That same unchangeable look: an owl who chooses to live in a well, Mother’s shawl knotted round her waist.

“Wear it right,” I say.

“Prefer it like this.”

Snargleflox moans. “Kill her.”

“Do you hate me?” I say.

“She does.”

“Why would I hate you?”

“Does the village hate me.”

She thinks on this. “Lately you haven’t been their favorite, my lord.”

“You’re lucky to have me,” I say. “My cousin, in the next county west, he’s worse. He saws things. Hangs things from chains—animals, villagers, chambermaids, et cetera—upside-down by their ankles, then he saws them in two, crotch to forehead. You should see the blade he uses, teeth like a bear’s, which he always forgets to sharpen. He fucked an owl. He fucked a toad.”

Kriv stares, unchanged.

“Could we saw her?”

I nod at the harp. “Have you been practicing?”

“When I feel like it.”

“Put on the shawl,” I say. “And play.”

She walks whistling to the harp stool. She doesn’t unknot the mink.

Guard

The guards lounge in the buttery, slurping ale.

“A sour batch, this one.”

“Like vinegar.”

“And the color’s off.” 

“I’ll take your share if you don’t like it.”

“Never said I didn’t like it.”

“Shut up, then?”

“Tallowcatch. Refill.”

“Me next, Tallowcatch. Come now, on the waddle.”

“Look at him totter!” 

“He’s already downed two pots, the greedy oinker.”

Boric

“We’ve heard this song before,” says Snargleflox, heaving, his cloak split, flesh bulbing through.

“You’ve played that air already.”

“Sorry,” she says.

“She’s boring me.”

“Play something else,” I say.

She swivels to face me, unknots the mink and capes it over her shoulders. “You play.”

“Me,” I say.

“You can’t play,” says Snargleflox.

“Yes, I can.”

“But will you?” says Kriv.

“No,” says Snargleflox.

“I don’t feel like it,” I say. 

“You’re scared you won’t be as good as me,” she says.

“Saw her.”

“I’m not scared,” I say.

“You are,” says Snargleflox.

“No, I’m not.”

“Who are you talking to?” she says.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“You speak as if there’s someone in the room. Besides the two of us.”

“He’s called Snargleflox.”

“Don’t tell her my name.”

“Is he here?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“There.”

“Don’t point at me.”

Emeline

I wipe a tiny mound of ash off Lord Boric’s windowsill. Sweep his floor, change his linens, rope his bed curtains. There, on the vanity, his Bible. Once I tied a strand of hair around it that didn’t break for months. I can’t say this surprised me. 

I open the book. I never learnt to read but I enjoy flipping pages, looking at words. What would it be like, being able to puzzle it all out? Would the words speak inside my head? I wonder how the Bible describes heaven. Surely in a more beautiful way than how I’ve always pictured it: not unlike my world now, a castle and a village, but everything is cast in a keen white glow, everyone free to pursue their own desires, and it is always spring.

On the other end of the vanity, where he always keeps it, is a penknife, its handle white and glossy, as if hewn from a cloud. 

Snargleflox

ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE, ALIQUEM INVENIRE. 

ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE ALIQUEM INVENIRE.

ALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQUEMINVENIREALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQUEMINVENIREALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQUEMINVENIREALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQUEMINVENIREALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQUEMINVENIREALIQUEMINVENIRE ALIQ

Boric

“Play.”

“No.” She stands.

Her hair, haloed in fireglow, falls across the mink. Her skin, half-lit, looks smooth as porcelain.

“Tell Snargleflox to leave,” she says.

“Don’t listen to her.”

“You don’t need him,” she says.

“Give her to the guards.”

“Tell him. Now.”

“Be quiet,” I say.

“Who?”

“Both!”

The door shifts, creaks open. 

“Not now, Emeline,” I say.

“That’s not Emeline,” says Snargleflox.

It’s the stable boy, hay in his hair, face drunk with blood, wielding a nacre-handled penknife. My penknife. He cuts eyes to Kriv, to me. 

“How did he get past the guards?” says Snargleflox.

“How did you get my knife?”

The boy steps forward.

“Thank you!” Kriv blocks his path, snatches the penknife. “Finally, something to tune the harp. You took long enough.”

The stable boy stands there, unmanned. His emptied hand, still raised, trembles.

“Off you go.” She shepherds him to the door. “Back to your horses.” She shuts it—I hear the stable boy clunk the door locked—and now she’s circling the room, her eyes chained to mine, dragging the knife’s point against the wall. The scraping noise makes Snargleflox wince and whine and recoil his limbs.

“Stop it,” I say.

“The castle’s stones,” she says, scratching a thin pale line around the room, as if enclosing us in some spell, “how did they get here?”

“Angels,” says Snargleflox, slurring, his tongue unspooled across the desk.

“Angels,” I say.

“No,” she says.

“She’s lying.”

“No?” I say.

“Oxcarts. There’s an old track in the south woods.”

“Oxcarts,” I say.

“Tell him to leave,” she says.

“Don’t.”

“I don’t—”

“Tell him,” she says.

“But—”

“Now.”

“Leave,” I say.

Snargleflox groans. His joints crack and crack again. One of the arms unhinges and hits the floor.

“Say it,” she says. “Again.”

“Leave.”

Other limbs break and fall.

“Leave.”

His torso hits the desk. 

“Leave.”

The pieces of him begin to brighten, ember-like, and burn. Skin molts away. Flesh dissolves to ash. I feel the heat of this in my face.

“He’s gone,” I say.

She steps close, cups my cheek. “I’m tired.”

“There are plenty of empty rooms you could—”

“Where did your mother sleep?”

“Left down the hall,” I say. “Last door on the right. But, where should I sleep?”

“You’ll go to your room.” She sets my penknife on the desk, and a spider scrambles out from under it in my direction. Kriv ends the creature with her bare heel.

Snargleflox’s hat is here, beside the knife. The fire flickers. His sparrowhawk feather fails to catch the light.

Diligence

In the photo she looks older than fifty-four. It may be the hair, silver-rinsed and loosely pinned back from her face. Or the formality of the navy-blue suit with its three-quarter sleeves, the starched shirt with the notched collar. She wears good jewelry—gold cuff bracelet, cameo ring, wedding band. The photo was taken outside the small Cape house in suburban Connecticut, one town and a universe away from Bridgeport, where she and her husband had raised my father. Rosebushes border the front steps of this home, and in her lapel is a single red bud. Her hat, a typical bit of glamorous rectitude, resembles a miniature flying saucer. Its brim shadows her eyes, which look worried despite her smile. Does she suspect her life is about to change?

My mother picks up the photo in its silver frame, stares at it a while. She wants to say something but isn’t certain whether she should. She returns the photo to my desk. “Do you know the story behind this?” she asks.

The Fairway cashier is ringing up my groceries. Yogurt, soup, quiche, prepared foods mostly because I’m too tired to cook. No salads, no sushi, no raw milk cheeses. Those have all been proscribed. She grabs a chocolate bar, scans it, sticks her fingers in her mouth, extracts a wad of gum, and throws it in the trash. I look at her, incredulous. She smiles, reaches for an apple, says, “How are you?” Fine, I want to say, except for the fact that you just put your fingers in your mouth and are now spreading your germs all over the food I’m going to take home to my husband, whose immune system is no better than a baby’s. Instead I ask her to start a new bag for the remaining items. If I had a Handi Wipe, I’d wipe them all down just to make a point, only then I’d be the crazy lady in Fairway who holds up the line while she disinfects her food.  

When I get home, I wash my hands. I lay the “contaminated” items on sheets of paper towel then clean them, one by one, with hot soapy water. I’m overreacting, but I can’t stop myself. It’s something I need to do.

“Visitors are Welcome, But Their Germs Are Not. Please do not enter if you have a fever, cough, rash, diarrhea, or vomiting.” This is the sign posted outside the chemotherapy suite at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. The first time I saw it I’d found the sign alarming, but by Jeff’s second round of chemo I’d come to think of it as a sentinel—a raised hand to keep germs at bay. I knew the nurses took the message seriously; I’d even seen one of them shoo away a young boy with a runny nose. Afterward she’d rolled her eyes at me as if to say, Can you believe that?

According to my mother, the morning the photo was taken my grandparents were on their way to Yale New Haven Hospital. Several weeks earlier my grandfather, Geza, had lost his appetite; he was lethargic and had become alarmingly thin. His doctor, unable to determine the source of Geza’s ailments, had sent him to the hospital for tests.

My grandmother must have known something was wrong when the doctor asked to see her alone. Back then, the late 1950s, seriously ill patients weren’t always given their prognosis; it was left to their families to decide what, and how much, to reveal. Before marrying, my grandmother had been a nurse. She would have grasped the implications of the doctor’s summons.

“There’s a spot on your husband’s lung,” she was told. “A tumor.”

“How large?” she asked, and the doctor pointed at the rosebud pinned to her suit.

Here are some things Jeff has been told not to do: spend time in the sun, eat unpeeled fruit and raw vegetables, drink alcohol, eat raw fish, change the cat litter box, travel, go near anyone who is sick. During treatment he has to monitor his temperature; if it rises above 100.1, he must call his oncologist and report immediately to the emergency room. 

We don’t know how long he’s had chronic leukemia. Two years before his diagnosis he came down with a mysterious flu-like disease, but he recovered, and except for some swollen lymph nodes in his armpits and neck, he’d been fine. One evening, though, we came home to two messages from our doctor’s office. A routine physical had revealed an elevated white blood cell count. After that Jeff entered the world of biopsies and CT-scans, blood draws, oncology appointments, and the self-effacing vulnerability that comes with putting on the hospital “gown.” 

The doctor told my grandmother that her husband had, at most, six months to live. The diagnosis was advanced stage lung cancer coupled with acute leukemia. My father was granted an early discharge from the Navy so he could come home in time to say good-bye. Two months later, Geza was dead.

My grandfather was a heavy smoker, which no doubt accounts for the lung cancer, but my father and grandmother blamed his leukemia on a deep-sea fishing trip that he’d taken the spring before he died.

“He was fishing off the coast of New Jersey,” my father says. “Winter was barely over; the water still icy cold. And the boat he was on blew up. So there they were, stranded in the water, you know, for several hours before they were rescued. Meanwhile your grandmother was absolutely off the wall: ‘Where’s Gus? What happened? Nobody’s heard from him.’ And finally he came home soaking wet, bedraggled, and he got sick as hell, a fever, everything. I really believe that’s when he developed leukemia.”

Jeff’s oncologist has likened his treatment to a roller coaster ride—a slow climb back to health after each round of chemo, followed, a month later, by an immediate plunge.

The side effects were dramatic and abrupt. After the first round, Jeff’s lymph nodes shrank to nearly normal and his stomach swelled, making him look pregnant. In six days he lost five pounds. Suddenly he couldn’t stand the smell of cooked greens. Fish made him queasy and he could no longer tolerate spicy food. He reverted to childhood fare—ice cream, grilled cheese sandwiches, buttered noodles. 

Three months into his treatment he developed bronchitis, his temperature rising to just below the danger threshold of 100.1. This was summer, the heat muscular. Day after day we sat on the couch eating pistachio ice cream and watching the Olympics: Gaby Douglas pirouetting on the balance beam, Michael Phelps slicing through water, and those impossible feats and physiques. 

One afternoon, while watering the plants, I noticed that the living room air-conditioner was coated in a glue-like substance. The controls and grille were sticky. So was the windowsill and the lower part of the window. The other three windows were fine. I scrubbed away the filmy stuff, whatever it was, attributing it to exhaust from the double-parked buses and delivery trucks on our busy street. This didn’t make sense, but neither did a lot of things that summer. The next day the sticky patina was back. I began clearing the plants from the sill, and when Jeff asked what I was doing, I told him about the mystery grime. 

He got up to look. I went into the kitchen to make iced tea.  

“C’mere,” he said after a while.  

The oxalis—our big, lush, thriving purple oxalis—was spotted with pimply white scales. Parasites, I suppose you could call them. We had no idea where they came from. Jeff pulled off the affected leaves and for a while the sticky film vanished, but then the oxalis grew back covered in even more scales and those scales spread to our other plants. The prayer plant and begonia became infested. The violets, those small beauties, were spared, but the spider plants in the adjacent window succumbed. We quarantined the violets in the bedroom and threw the other plants away.

The cause of leukemia is unknown. A mutation in the blood-forming cells prompts the body to produce an abundance of abnormal white blood cells—leukocytes—that begin to multiply and crowd out the healthy cells. Smoking may be a contributing factor, especially in the acute form of the disease. Being in icy water, even for several hours, is not. According to Jeff’s oncologist, there is no way my grandfather could have contracted leukemia from his fishing accident. My father’s attempt to pinpoint the source of his father’s disease strikes me as a form of magical thinking. 

I’m not surprised by this. After all, it’s human nature, this urge to attribute cause to calamity. Crop failures are ascribed to an angry god, bad luck to “karma,” leukemia to icy water. There’s comfort, no doubt, in the notion that one can make sense of the senseless. If the reason for a disaster can be identified, the disaster itself can be contained, perhaps even warded off. If not, the world is a terrifying place.

There’s comfort as well in the balm of routine. Like me, my grandmother married late in life, at least by the standards of the 1930s. She was almost thirty-three when my father, her only child, was born. According to him, he disrupted his parents’ rituals: after work cocktails, wax-paper-wrapped hamburgers eaten at the beach on summer evenings, Sunday afternoons spent reading aloud to each other from the newspaper or the Saturday Evening Post.

“They were private people,” he once told me, “but always hugging and kissing. I was yesterday’s child. I was in the way.”

Jeff and I were even older when we married, and we chose not to have kids. We are a family of two with our own little habits—mornings reading novels side by side on the couch, afternoon walks to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, martinis at the King Cole bar on New Year’s Day—not so dissimilar from my grandparents’ routines. 

Another ritual: After Geza’s diagnosis, my grandmother kept his silverware in a separate drawer from the rest of the family’s. As a nurse, she must have known that leukemia is not contagious. She must have known that Geza’s condition could not be made worse by contact with someone else’s fork, especially when she washed those forks—and knives and spoons—all together. Yet she took care to isolate his utensils. This act gave her the illusion of control. False comfort is comfort nonetheless.

I never fully understood the story of my grandmother and the silverware until the day I found myself washing every single item that Fairway cashier had touched after jamming her fingers in her mouth. Ridiculous, I know. Those Fairway bags had been on the subway, that dirtiest of places. People sneezing, coughing, tossing food wrappers under their seats, wiping their noses, touching the poles. It would be impossible to create an antiseptic world and, even if I could, who’d want to live in one? Yet there I was in my purple rubber gloves sponging down the yogurt and milk containers, dropping the apples in an iodine solution, bleaching the countertops. I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help Jeff either, not really. I could sanitize every surface in our apartment, but it would not make his leukemia go away. 

So what were we thinking, my grandmother and I, two women at a kitchen sink fifty years apart? Women smart enough to know you can’t wash away cancer, not with all the soap in the world.

I picture my grandmother all those years ago running silverware under water so hot it scorches her hands. There is a day, not far off, when her diligence will no longer matter. She knows this. And perhaps, as with me, her actions are less a way of eradicating germs than of keeping that knowledge submerged.

After six rounds of chemo, Jeff’s cancer went into remission. To celebrate the end of chemo and the beginning of this tentative new phase of health, we went to the plant store. Flowering cacti, a begonia, two spider plants, something called a braided money tree—we bought them all. My mother gave us another oxalis. So far, these new plants have been healthy, unblemished by blight.

What caused the infestation to begin with is something we’ll never know. And so we take precautions, examining the plants each time we water them. Because the disease can return at any time, we have to be diligent. We feel the leaves for stickiness, inspect them for scales, prepared to sacrifice any unhealthy plants. In this way we hope to forestall calamity. It’s all that we can think to do.