Category Archives: Fiction

DongWon Oh

Troubles of Ants

Lee watches an ant climb his combat boot. It pauses at the toe, looks up, and says to itself not today. It turns back, climbs off the boot, and wanders back to its hill. Lee watches the ant for a while and then turns his head skyward. Birds are flying by, so far away they look more like origami than flesh and feathers. He remembers that his sister’s favorite birds are the ones native to this region. She started high school recently and checks with in with him less and less. The world is passing him by, it seems. These birds are too far away to be sure they’re the ones she likes. The July sun casts shadows across his face. He hears rifles fire in the distance. Lee reaches for the radio as it crackles.

“Command, this is Charlie Six, inquiring about which unit just got hit. Over.” Lee takes his finger off the radio, ears alert in case his unit is next.

“Charlie Six, this is Command. Stay off the radios.”

“Understood. Charlie Six will stand by.”

“Did I fucking stutter? Stay off the radio.”

Lee turns to his superior, Tae, who shrugs. Lee doesn’t understand yet, but he will. At worst, they will get chewed out for not keeping watch; at best, there might be a slight nod from an officer. When there isn’t much in between punishment and incentive, the more experienced draftees find there isn’t much to strive for.

“Sergeant Tae?”

“Yeah, Lee?”

“Do you think these would work if it came down to it?”

Tae, only half visible and standing guard by the mounted gun, turns to Lee slightly. “I doubt it will matter, Corporal Lee. Keep your eyes fixed ahead, and we go back to our fluffy cots tomorrow.”

Private Lim, the youngest, just a few months into his service, snickers at fluffy.

“Do you have a problem, Lim?”

“No, Sergeant.”

Tae lights a cigarette.

Lee cringes as the smoke drifts towards him. He grabs a latch on the side of the tank, climbs on, and slides into the pilot seat. He drums a steady rhythm onto the worn wheel.

“It’s too hot for this shit, Sergeant.” Lim says, tilting his helmet back to scratch his forehead.

“Fix your helmet, kid.”

Lee casts his eyes over to the right, where the rest of the war machines are lined up in formation. The officers never explain the reasons for these tactics; it’s do this, do that. Wake up at this hour, park the tank here, clean your rifle this way. Yes, it’s different from what you were taught at boot camp. Keep watch over an armory that hasn’t been opened in half a century.

Lee glances around. Every breeze could reveal an enemy—but that isn’t quite true. Their rifles are loaded with blanks and if hit, the sensors on their combat vests will ring, signaling injury. It feels childish, like a game, paintball minus the paint. It is, after all, just another training exercise.

The radio crackles. Tae scrambles to the radio, trying to make sense of the static nonsense.

“This is Charlie Six. Say again, Command? We lost you.”

“Guerrilla en route to your position. Watch out.”

Suddenly alert, the three soldiers wield their rifles against the encroaching enemy. The discombobulated voice has conveyed nothing helpful. All they can do is scan the foliage for lurking enemies.

Then the shots come, a steady putputput of rifles. A cylinder falls on the hood of the tank, just out of Lee’s reach and starts to sputter smoke. Lee, Tae and Lim all killed, technically. It’s over in a second.

The guerilla rises out of the dirt and mountainside like a time-lapse video of flora come to life, dressed in fatigues and silhouetted in plants. He approaches the tank, shaking his head. He slings his rifle so that it hangs diagonal on his back.

“Sergeant Tae, I expected more from your unit.”

Tae snaps to attention, his right arm already forming a crisp forty-five-degree angle. He fumbles with his rifle, nearly tripping over a jutting rock to greet the captain. The short, stocky Captain Cho steps forward, inspecting the empty shell of the smoking cylinder on the hood of the tank. Lee squints rapidly to blink away his tears from the smoke, aware that the training exercise is still on, and in this scenario, his unit has been killed. He can’t wipe his eyes until the captain calls off the exercise. Lee is, after all, dead—and supposed to act like it.

It’s all so damn silly. Lee is going nearly blind from all the war paint dripping into his eyes, every drop sharp and stinging. That, coupled with the tear gas sneaking its way into his lungs, hurts like hell.

“What do you have to say for yourself, Sergeant? Were you not on guard?”

Tae steps forward, bumbling his words.

“We were, Sir!”

The captain sucks his teeth, scanning the tank for faults. Finding none, he turns and walks away. The radio crackles and the training exercise is over. Tents are pitched, tanks are parked, and fires are lit. The afternoon sun folds into itself and fades out.

The barracks are not an architectural marvel. If it wasn’t for the rifles and men in fatigues, they might pass for a jail, and a drab one at that. The sun is high in the sky and lights up a windless day. The clouds hang as still as each hour feels to Lee’s mind. Some draftees sit around by the assembly area, others run laps on the field or crowd the singular pull up bar. Lee is high above the men, at the top of the foot of the mountain, with the never-ending expanse of mountain all around him, the monotony of the gray barracks to his back. To him, the men resemble ants on this Sunday morning, keeping themselves busy, never questioning, always efficient.

Snow starts to fall, soft like ash at first, but it quickly turns to blanketing waves. Lee knows the drill, and so do the men. Softly cursing their luck, they pick up brooms and start to sweep. Just in case war breaks out on this Sunday morning, all the roads need to be clear of snow.

The damn snow always falls on the weekend, Lee thinks. He knows there is no divine providence ruining the draftees’ weekend. But it is more comforting to find fault in weather, than to acknowledge the fact that they lack control, even over their weekends.

War doesn’t break out this Sunday, as it hasn’t for five decades.

Lee snaps awake, the alarm hitting his mind like a hammer of a pistol slamming into place. This isn’t a natural transition; there’s no soft alarm that gets progressively louder as he hits snooze over and over. It’s a new sound he hasn’t heard before. Is it a fault in the system? A speaker malfunctioning? It’s early August; the next set of training exercises aren’t scheduled for another week. They are men of routine, ants in an anthill, following the rising and setting of the sun, the gradual browning of leaves. All this occurs to Lee as he sheds his gray tracksuit and slides into his fatigues, the pieces coming together and blending into each other like a camouflage kaleidoscope. Lim zips off to retrieve their rifles from the armory.

As Lee zips up his combat vest and pats himself down for extra cartridges, he realizes this is a real situation.

“Move faster! We’re moving out!” Tae shouts.

With an efficiency that is ingrained past his muscle and deep into his bones, Lee neatly fills his pack. Two blankets, two uniforms, a flashlight, an extra pair of combat boots, toiletries. He snaps around. Lim has placed his rifle by his feet, ever the quick private. Lee runs to his post, scrambles up and down the tank, roping down the shovels, pickaxe, mortar rounds, checking the oil levels, and securing the extra fuel.

In a matter of minutes the mounted gun is set, and they are ready to move out. The engine roars life into the night, and the sirens blare. Tae steps aside for a forbidden smoke, and Lee inhales. He wishes he were brave enough to smoke too.

The radio crackles, almost quiet against the engine: “All companies of the 369th Field Artillery Battalion, this is Command. This is not a drill. I repeat we are at DEFCON two. Check in when you are ready to move out.”

One by one, all dozen units send in affirmative answers. All these men complain daily about being dragged here. They miss their girlfriends and their families; they want to be in school, but when it comes down to it, they are good at the jobs their country has assigned them. Tae is an excellent unit leader; Lim an efficient first gunner, and Lee pilots his machine as if it is an extension of his limbs.

War machines mar the tranquility of the Korean mountainside. Lee notes somewhere in his mind that DEFCON two meant there is only one threat level left—DEFCON one—or nuclear war.

The radio crackles with Captain Cho’s voice, hard-edged, as usual: “All units be advised, at oh-two-hundred, seismographs picked up a 6.5 earthquake off the east coast of North Korea, near a known underground testing facility. I repeat, this is not a drill. Be ready to move out. Stand by until further notice.”

Tae shrugs and lights another cigarette. If Tae is caught smoking in this situation, he will be court-martialed for breaking protocol and potentially revealing his position to the enemy. He’d get up to fourteen days in jail, which is fourteen more days in the army. A ridiculous punishment for an equally ridiculous crime, considering everybody knows that North Korean troops are nowhere near. Tae speaks and Lee snaps to attention; he is still second in command, after all.

“The North Koreans couldn’t test the missile during the day? Honestly rude, if you ask me.”

Lee and Lim chuckle. They are all thinking the same thing.

The next few hours are a blur of struggling to stay awake and alert. Lee imagines the rest of the Korean army, groggily scanning the northern skyline for a threat. Lee’s body has calmed down from the adrenaline rush, and his sweat freezes under his fatigues in the early autumn morning. As dawn approaches, Lee looks at the men around him, all of them serving a country that demands two years of their lives, no questions asked, with no exceptions.

Lee looks at Lim. His chin is still soft; the army hasn’t hardened him yet. Even Sergeant Tae is only tough because he needs to be. He’s still a boy with only a tiny patch of peach fuzz that he attempts to tease into a beard, only to shave off once an officer reprimands him for not following regulations. Just a year older or younger than Lee, these boys are made into the same shape. They are no longer individuals.

“Hey, Sarge?” Lim asks.

Tae is leaning on his rifle and turns to Lim. He doesn’t say anything.

“Do you think we’re really going to war, Sergeant Tae?”

“I know as much you do, kid.”

“This is Command. All units turn off your engines and maintain radio silence.”

The night drags on. Without the underlying growl of the engines, the mountainside is eerily silent. The bush rustles. Lee spins around, aiming down his rifle to see a deer trot out of the edge of the trees. The deer continues toward Lee, aiming for a patch of grass by the tank tread. Tae sleeps inside the tank, his snores reverberating off the steel walls. Lee wonders if he is the only one aware of all this, the only soldier who sees their service more as war games than war and is frustrated by the enforced patriotism of the Korean army. Lee thinks about all the times his fellow draftees have complained about being dragged away from everything and everyone they care about.

When Sergeant Tae discharges in a few weeks, Lee will be in charge of the unit, the first line of armored defense in case of the Korean War: The Sequel. Lee reaches out for the deer, wishing with the tips of his fingers that it would approach him. He knows that North Korea has the capabilities to evaporate this deer, him, and anything south of the 38th Parallel into radioactive ash. But his sergeant is sleeping and so is the rest of Korea. The deer cares only about this patch of grass.

The radio crackles; the deer bounds off.

“Threat level down.”

Lee stares at the radio. His unit is asleep, and he still has a year left of his draft sentence.

“We are back down to DEFCON four. Let’s pack up and go home. Command out.”

In the humidity of a Seoul summer, Tae, Lim, and Lee sit at a street side bar, slinging back soju. At first all their sentences begin, “Do you remember,” but eventually they move on to the future. On the bar’s T.V. screen, silenced by the ruckus of the street, Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands. With the shake of their meaty palms, the two presidents have signaled the end of a war. It has been nine months since Tae has discharged, two months for Lee, and Lim is in his last stretch. Tae has gone back to university; Lee will do the same soon.


Born in Korea, raised in India, DongWon Oh is currently a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He writes about his experiences as an international student and a drafted soldier in the South Korean Armed Forces. Currently he is interested in science writing and speculative nonfiction. He hopes to be a screenwriter in the future.

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Jamie Henshaw

Mud

That day I had my back turned trying to get an ottoman through the front door, so I didn’t see the flower-patterned sofa slip and knock Mark, my dad, to the ground. Probably everyone’s grandma had that same couch: hard cushions, oversized arms, and a petal-and-leaf print that looked more like potpourri than spring foliage. It had pinned Mark right on top of a stinging nettle which was, until that moment, two feet tall and about the only green thing on the lawn.

The sound of snapping was what pulled my attention to the front yard. Mark had gone down hard not twenty paces from his blue-and-rust pickup. Air hissed through his partial dentures as the red of blood-filled capillaries bloomed in his unshaven cheeks, trying hard not to yell or scream obscenities, which wasn’t like him at all. Every time he visited home, he hoped that Molly would be visiting her folks across the street in that sun-bleached green house and he hated the thought of being unimpressive around her. He had said she was a lawyer on the East Coast or something sophisticated like that. I figured she was something laughable like an actor because he’s always falling short of his dreams and face-planting instead. Or landing on a stinging nettle.

Mark only had enough leverage to keep the weight of the sofa off his leg. His brother, my Uncle Steven, grunted under the weight of his end of the couch while sweat dripped down his face like melting ice. They used to run a moving company out of Pine Bluff, about fifty miles south of Little Rock, back when they wore sleeveless shirts to show off tanned and bulging muscles. This was back when they had tans. And muscles. And a truck worthy of a moving job.

Steven turned to me, glaring against the sunlight, and jerked his head toward the couch, “Seriously?!”

Years later, the three of us did a lot of talking, passing around a shot glass that said, ‘IF FOUND, PLEASE REFILL,’ and a bottle of something that Jack Daniel’s red-headed stepson made. Through the evening, a yellow sun became red as it sank lower in the sky, the bottle became lighter as the whiskey level dropped, and expressions became solemn. We all talked a lot that night. And again, another night. We’ve talked about the day with the sofa more times than I can recall. Putting it all together. They revealed to me that their volunteering was about more than clearing their dead mother’s house and saving money by not hiring movers. It was mostly because it had been so damn long since they had moved somebody.

Scrawny, lanky, twenty-seven, and built-for-the-AV-club me left the ottoman in the doorway and ran over to help. My eyes avoided theirs as I looked for a place to put my hands, but I wasn’t nearly fast enough.

Steven, having absolutely no patience, yelled again, “Just get under it, boy!”

The tiny nettles were digging into Mark’s leg. Every time he tried to gain more leverage his calf pressed harder into the green leaves. Flecks of spit glistened in the air, propelled by the sharper hiss of his breathing. Everybody in my family always wore the wrong clothes for an occasion. While I had come to help after work and still wore my uniform, which included jeans, Mark wore cargo shorts even though he knew better. He had put them on that morning knowing how ridiculous his mother thought that many pockets looked. As a kid he used to collect things in his pockets: shoestrings, crayon stubs, an occasional dangly earring. When he got older, he collected souvenirs from every move, a small stolen token of remembrance. The first day that we drank and talked he told me that he wore his shorts that day because he hoped to collect something at Grandma’s house.

Luckily for Mark, the only broken leg was on the couch. Unluckily for me, the decorative front skirt made it impossible for me to see where my hands were grabbing and as I lifted, my right-hand forefinger caught on a broken nail. Steven and Mark used the momentum from my mediocre lift to flip the couch over onto its back. Without realizing it, Steven had dropped his end over a burrow in which a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, number two on America’s list of most deadly snakes, had taken refuge from the midday sun. Steven ran over to the pickup’s tailgate and retrieved a small remainder of duct tape, the same stuff that held his muffler and door handle in place. He pulled a length of tape free, knelt down by Mark and laid it along the back of his left calf. Steven pinched a corner of the heavy tape, squeezed so that it stuck to his thumb for better grip.

Mark looked at him, glared at the flat plant, and said, “Do it.”

It wasn’t the first time they had performed some sort of back-alley triage; there had been several cuts, gashes, sprains, and even a concussion. Mark had once made a splint for Steven’s forearm out of the broken chair that had caused the injury and the jagged splint pushed four splinters into his flesh.

When Steven yanked what turned out to be Gorilla tape, it removed as much skin as nettles. Mark punched at the earth, as dry and hard as he ever was. Tiny beads of toxin had been seeping through the needles into his calf, the swelling had begun to form large lumps. He squeezed his eyes closed, hit the ground a second time, and pushed the spent air from his lungs.

Mark held out his hand for help getting up. Steven dropped the tape on the couch and grabbed onto one of Mark’s hands. They turned to me as though two heads of the same creature, glaring because I wasn’t keeping up. I held up my hand, bloodied from the couch. One of them shook his head, the other looked at the ground, and up went Mark without my help.

“Get me a cup of water or something,” Mark said to either of us. Steven went to his truck a second time and retrieved a bottle of water. Mark crouched down and poured water onto the dirt. “Right. Of course. Friggin’ hot as hell out here.” He clawed at the ground with fingernails to loosen dirt which he put into the bottle to make mud. Mark squeezed out a handful, dropped the bottle, and spread the wet earth around his calf as thick as he could.

The pair of them strode past me looking straight ahead toward the front door. I’m not as strong as they were at my age and it disappointed both of them. I wanted to think that they were just being hard on me. Mark had tried to toughen me up like his dad had done to him. When I was nine, I fell off my bike and a red line of blood dripped from my knee to my white sock. I asked for a band-aid, and that’s when Mark told me that Mom was leaving. I knew those things weren’t related; they fought all the time. But it meant that she wasn’t there to comfort me and my bleeding knee. It meant she wouldn’t be there the next time I fell. It meant that I hadn’t done enough good things to keep her around. It meant that I would never ride my stupid Schwinn again.

The front door slammed shut and I heard Steven yell something about useless waste. The ottoman lay to the side of the door, leaning up against the house. I wrapped the bottom of my shirt around my finger, my blood creating a Rorschach blot on the dark blue fabric. I had to stop the bleeding—keep it all in.

The sun and heat outside Grandma’s house were too oppressive to willingly stand around. The small breeze I heard rattling in the leaves of the tree across the street didn’t provide any reprieve. At least that’s where I thought the rattling came from.

Inside the house portraits hung crooked on Grandma’s yellow papered walls and down the cramped hall. When I was six or seven, I counted all of them. I never cared much about who was in the frames, because most of them were complete strangers to me. Probably second cousins once removed, great step-uncles, and so on. Grandma’s collection, Mark said once.

The living room smelled of musty furniture, and dust motes glinted in sunbeams. The worn cushion of a love seat made almost a U shape. A rocker missing three spindles eyed me suspiciously, threatening to break if I stood too near. After fifteen years of being away, that room held no more memory for me than a sepia photo, browning at the edges from overexposure, chemical bonds breaking down, and everything wilting.

The piano bench waited patiently as though longing for company. Small lines of light bled in through the blinds and laid across the smooth surface of the bench’s wood and on the piano’s top and front boards, mimicking the white and black of the keys beneath the felt cloth. “Keys need to breathe,” Grandma had said. “Never close the fallboard, that’s the keyboard cover.”

I felt myself moving slowly, as though wading through water toward the bench. A board creaked beneath my left foot. It squeaked when my weight shifted back to my right. The small wheels curved and smooth legs were nestled into the carpet’s beige, green, and red of a flower motif—burrowed, as my toes might have done when the carpet was new.

I heard Mark grunt from the bathroom. They had used hydrogen peroxide which bubbled on his leg where Steven’s tape trick had left raw flesh. I know now that Mark blamed me for it being so bad. I know that at that moment he held as much contempt for my many failures as he did for the nettles.

The bench groaned lightly under my weight. With age, everything creaks and groans and all we can hope for is that nothing cracks or breaks. Things that break generally become two broken things, neither of which is of any use. Like the leg that broke off of the potpourri couch which covered an angry snake in the front yard. Like Steven’s arm for the seven months after a doctor finally pulled the slivers out of the infected forearm. Like my parents, and Mark and me, and the display board I kicked down when I stapled my finger because all I wanted to do was fix something and it was the only reason I had taken a job at Home Depot in the first place. Things break—I had grown to understand this well. That is simply their nature; that’s just what happens. As I let my weight settle, the bench did not break.

That corner of the room smelled faintly of perfume and mints diffused into the wood. I’ll never be convinced that grandmothers don’t all smell of mints and floral perfume. We would sit at the piano bench when I was only up to her elbow. She would show me the inside of the piano, and we would watch the action of the hammers as I leaned on a dozen keys at once; a ruckus of disharmonic tones spilled from the soundboard every time. She would poke my ribs as though they were the keys and take tremendous joy in, as she said, “The sweet notes of laughter resounding from your soundboard.”

I knew the keys were clean and shiny beneath the felt. Grandma always wiped them down on Sundays. My right hand still holding the reddened hem of my shit, I took the corner of the keyboard cover between the fingers of my left hand and held it, peeling back the cloth so that I could touch the keys, hear their sound, and play something other than the disharmonic tones I used to create.

“Don’t get too attached to that thing!” Steven spat, scaring the hell out of me. I spun around toward the hall, gasping. If I had one of Grandma’s mints in my mouth, I would have choked on it. Mark stared at me. Steven stared past me. “That damn piano isn’t going anywhere. I’m not moving it. Probably weighs a goddamn ton and is worth a hundred dollars at best.”

Mark opened his jaw wide like an anxious mutt; a silent yawn, or maybe a stretch to ease tension brought on by clenching. He took a deep breath and put a placid smile on his face. He stared right at me, the way he did when I was a kid, when I had done something wrong. My finger had slipped from the hem of my shirt and threatened to bleed again. The felt cloth in my left hand hung to the floor.

That look he always gave me forced guilt or shame whether or not I had really done anything wrong. I always thought there was something mean about it when I was a child, or if not mean, maybe evil. Age changes everything, and I saw something honest instead. His eyes didn’t provoke guilt or shame, but truth. The discomfort of being stared at made my eyes do what they always did in these moments—avoid his gaze. Instead, I looked past him to the wall and a few of Grandma’s pictures.

A young girl whose eyes were the same color as Mark’s stared back at me. Her eyes were kinder and framed in red-rimmed glasses. She wore a knitted sweater of unfortunate pastels; her hair was curled and defying gravity. It came out of me before I knew the question was forming, “Who is she?”

Mark knew without looking which photograph was behind him, and he could read my expression. His face turned stone for just a second and flashed back to the smile. “Your Aunt. Joan.”

On weekends when I stayed with Grandma and counted those photos, I somehow never really looked at the faces. On holidays, when the whole family gathered, Aunt Joan wasn’t in attendance. On projects with a family tree, she was never mentioned.

Steven cut in before I could pursue, “Went missing on the night of her senior prom. Her and her boyfriend.” He shrugged. “Long time ago. We’ve got a couch to move, you and me. Get a box and move.” I glanced back down at my finger, the clot still intact, and nodded my head. He wasn’t going to give me anything more about Joan. Not yet.

I turned back around on the seat. Several of the piano keys had sunk in like bad teeth. Others were missing pieces of white or black, exposing wooden rectangles where I had imagined real ivory. The piano wasn’t something I could ever hope to fix. It was junk. And hiding under that cloth, it was a lie. Just like everything else in the house.

I replaced the cloth and stood up. I chose a large box by the hall to prove I was capable of helping. They waited for me to go first; probably worried that I would stay back for fear of hurting another finger, but they also needed me to open the door because they were already holding boxes. I set my box on the banister and pulled the door open, catching the corner of the box. It spun and tumbled to the floor, dumping Grandma’s trinkets along with a small container of remains of a past family pet. The tin fell onto the hard tiling and dented a corner badly, spilling its gray-and-black powdery remnants along with two small chunks of white.

“Christ! That was Miser!” Mark yelled.

Steven leaned his head toward his brother, “It died ‘Miser;’ it was born ‘Mister.’ Dad changed its name when it was ten and officially became grumpier than his own damn self.” Steven’s eyes dropped to the dark powder on the floor, “Course the cat was orange back then.”

“Clean it. I need a cigarette.”

They walked out, and for the first time I was glad there wasn’t a breeze.

Grandma’s bathroom was as dark and dusty as the rest of the house. The tub was covered with flecks of damp dirt. And invisible nettles. It was the room in which her body was found. I imagined her lying there in an old night gown, white or maybe pink, one hand up near her face, the other on her stomach. I couldn’t decide if her eyes would have been open or shut. For some reason I dwelled on that. They said she had a heart attack.

I found blue, green, and yellow cleansers under the sink before the unexpected sound of a garage door opening across the street pulled my attention to the window. A black car slowly backed out, making several corrections to stay straight. Mark stared across the street. Steven leaned against the exposed bottom of the couch, smoking. I wished he would get snagged on one of the nails. He flicked the butt too close to Mark, who glared at him, and then returned his gaze to the house. The garage door groaned its way shut, and the black car drove away. Staring vacantly at the yard, Steven lit another cigarette. Mark tapped his foot on the ground, waiting for Steven to pass him one.

I didn’t want to move boxes. I didn’t want to spend my day trying to prove something to them. I didn’t want to clean up their damn pet. I wanted things that weren’t. I had a strange desire to take that piano apart because it wasn’t worth restoring. I left the cleansers in the bathroom because, seriously, to hell with that, and I stepped back into the hallway.

When somebody says not to go in a room, the first thing I want to do is get a good look. A door nobody ever talks about, like a photo of a young girl, can become part of the wall. Until now I never needed to go to that room. Nothing else was down there, as far as I knew, but apparently there were coiled things waiting to strike and clots waiting to break free.

The hinges squeaked and moaned. Colors, brilliant even with the shades drawn, covered the walls. Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Prince, Queen, The Bangles; they all looked across the room at one another, striking poses, vying for attention in the quiet. A dresser, a bed, a stool. Everything else was too dark to see. I flicked on the light for a better look.

A record player sat on the desk just inside the door. I hadn’t seen one in years and couldn’t help but wonder how many years it had been since anybody had seen this one. My ears ached for compensation for the death of the piano. I flipped the switch on. The needle, already set in the grooves, began to feel its way across the vinyl, reading the small divots and bumps. Queen’s song, “The Show Must Go On”, began to play.

A turquoise Care Bear sat on the comforter of pink triangles, blue circles, and purple squiggles. A stuffed E.T. had fallen off one side of her bed. Hers, because I knew whose room this was. It felt like I gained and lost an aunt in a day. I could still, perhaps, learn about her. On a dresser rested arm sleeves, a couple of bows, a can of hair spray, a clock that had died sometime in the past at 11:58. Everything was doubled in the mirror. The dull complexion and appearance of my own reflected face was emphasized, being surrounded by the images of the rock star immortals posing in posters all over the room.

I felt the complete absence of time. The room was stuck between two frames of film and Joan might walk through the door if somebody could only fix the projector. I crossed to the window and debated opening the blinds. Maybe the sun’s light would somehow get the picture started again. Maybe it would reveal too much. After all, a room preserved for thirty years must have its secrets.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many times Grandma stood in the room. I imagined she would hug that bear a long while, probably smell the lingering perfume within it until one day she had breathed it all in. Or maybe, I thought, she avoided the room and never came down the hall past the bathroom after she made that bed one final time.

The music stopped suddenly, followed by quiet. Mark and Steven stood just inside the doorway trying at first to stare me down but getting distracted by the history around them. Their feet were as rooted as if they had also been in that exact place for thirty years.

Mark’s hand moved away from the record player, his arms crossed, hands turning into fists and nestling themselves under the opposite arms. “And just what the hell,” he asked, “are you doing in this room?” His eyes narrowed and his head tilted. I felt like he could hear my quickening pulse and wanted to hear it better. “Getting pretty curious today.”

“Yeah, like a cat,” Steven chimed. “Like Miser.” The bottom of his left shoe left a faint gray mark on the carpet as he shifted his weight back and forth. “Coincidentally, where our curiosity started. Remember that? ‘Course, stupid us, just left him there. Mom thought he’d been hit by a car.” He flashed a smile, or what he called a smile.

“You killed your own cat?” I asked, more shocked than disgusted. His lingering grin was his only response.

“Well, shit,” Steven shouted, slapping his hands together. “If he thinks a cat dying is bad, we better not say anything about the casualties involved in our side job. The kid might freak out.” The lilt in his voice revealed he thought he was funny.

Mark’s slow sigh was one of gathering patience. “Let’s mind our context, huh? The last thing we need is a panicked call to the cops.” Mark took another step into the room, nodding his head. He pulled a stool from beneath the desk and sat down. His elbows went to his knees. “Sit,” he said.

I lowered myself onto the floor in front of him. The fresh smell of cigarettes came at me from everywhere. Steven sat on the bed behind me, the turquoise bear tumbling to the floor from his movements. Instinctively, I picked it up. I wished that the music was still playing, that the clock was still ticking. Everything hung in the room.

“Would it make it easier,” Mark started slowly, “if I told you that it’s—it’s for good reasons?”

He had managed sincerity in his voice. Good reasons? For casualties?

“Just tell him. I’m gonna just tell him,” Steven said. “See, jackass there, what’s his name, Eric, right? Eric got to being a little frisky with Joan. Joan, she comes to us and asks if we can help her teach him a lesson. As in, stay the fuck away from Joan.”

Mark ran his tongue between his teeth and lips. “We offered to take care of it ourselves, you know. Rough him up is all, we told her. Nonviolent, she says. Ok. I told her, you get a chair and some rope, tie him up, scare him, see how he likes somebody getting too personal.”

I shifted uncomfortably, excitedly. They both regretted and relished the story.

“Obviously we followed. What kind of big brothers would we be to miss out on seeing Joan scare the shit out of that bastard? So, night of prom, sure as hell he tries to lead her away from the bonfire at a friend’s house.” Steven was visibly proud of her, even at this moment. “She lets him, guides him toward a clearing. Not far from the drop off.”

A lone cloud must have passed in front of the sun because what little light came in the window dimmed, casting a moment of cool.

“She lured him easily enough. He was all about that chair and rope, thought it was his dream come true. She tied him up without a problem; he didn’t struggle one bit, until she pulled out a hammer.” Mark’s eyes left this world and entered his own dreamscape. “The fear in his eyes was heavy, palpable. But uh, prom night drinks, you know. He fought back pretty hard and slipped the ropes. Joan didn’t tie it too tight, because she wasn’t too serious.”

“Yeah well,” Steven cut in, “Was her boyfriend who broke my arm with that chair when we seen what he done to her. Fast as fuckin’ lightning. We couldn’t stop him. You know who was there to help me? Made a splint out of the chair?”

“Family takes care of family,” Mark said.

“Too bad nobody was ‘round to help him. You know how it is…these teens, they drink, they wander too close to the drop-off. They hit every single goddamned rock on the way down. It’s terrible.” Steven shook his head.

Mark breathed in sharply. “I still have his class ring. Something to remember him by. I don’t know, I just couldn’t help myself. They never found Joan, though, for obvious reasons. I told Ma that she had talked about running away. That we didn’t think she was serious. Even suggested that Eric threw himself over when he found out she was gone. I think Ma always hoped Joan would come back. And I don’t think she ever really forgave me for keeping such a thing as my sister planning to run away a secret. I’d rather be hated than for her to have known the truth.”

“Most people would. Hence—our other employment.”

Mark rocked forward on the stool, lifting one of its legs off the floor, leaving him to balance on it’s other two as he held his breath for a moment before slowly exhaling. His eyes finally met mine. Like he was considering me rather than accusing me. “It’s a family thing, you see. Family takes care of family. We protect each other at all costs.” He was choosing his words carefully. “You, uh. You family?”

Behind me, Steven sniffed to remind me that he was there. Coiled, he waited for my answer.

“But. You were movers,” I said.

“We certainly moved a lot of people.” He sniffed again. Rubbed his nose. “You gotta just learn to go with the flow, kid. Like me. I don’t give a damn. I just do what feels right.”

A car door slammed shut. Mark rose from his seat and walked across the floor. He cracked the blinds open with two fingers. Peered out. His face dropped, eyes widened, and he whispered beneath his breath. He spun around and made for the front door. Steven, wary of unannounced visitors slamming car doors, called after him asking what it was, and ran out of the room.

My hands trembled. There could be danger. I thought it must be out of fear that I rose from the floor, stepped out into the hallway, and closed my aunt’s bedroom door behind me. Quickly, quietly, I made my way back to the living room, to the entrance, and peered out through the window in the door.

A red SUV sat in the driveway across the street, the back hatch still open. A woman was in Grandma’s yard talking to Mark; her bare arms waved in conversation, and long legs extended from a knee length skirt. It was Molly, visiting home on a long weekend. I could just barely hear their conversation. Business was good, she was so sorry to hear about what happened, and hoped everybody was alright. She stepped forward and hugged Mark like an old friend. I saw her make the move to let go of the embrace before him. She gave Steven a brief one-armed hug.

Mark nodded his head back to me and I heard him say that I was inside, cleaning something up. Then he gestured to the couch, and I lost his words again. He looked so happy to see her. Genuinely happy.

I pushed open the door and heard Molly clearly, “Well, now, I can help you. Got two arms as good as anybody else’s, haven’t I?” Her voice was both sweet and heavy, like a dripping honeycomb.

Mark raised his hands, ready to say that wasn’t necessary. Her eyes moved to his calf, pink and swollen, and she insisted. She put down her purse. Steven took the side with the stinging nettles. They wedged their fingers under the edge of the couch and counted together. “One, two, three. Lift.” A step toward the truck. The leaves rattled in the tree across the street, I thought. Another step toward the truck. Then, her face fell. We all heard the rattle. She dropped her end and jumped back, and I instinctively jumped too. The snake lunged after her in a long defensive strike. The edge of the couch hit the ground and caught the snake’s tail, silencing the rattle, holding back the bite. The hard movement of Molly’s drop pulled a nail across Steven’s hand, which sliced clear across his palm. His end dropped to the ground, freeing the snake which leapt again.

A snake of that size can open its mouth wide enough to wrap around the muzzle of a small mammal. Drops of venom are known to leak out even before contact with its prey. This snake’s bite landed high on Molly’s inner thigh. As the hollow-tipped fangs sank into her flesh, it squeezed a gland in its head and injected its venom. One fang hit the femoral artery. The spurt of blood spat back at the snake and caused it to release and slither away. Molly crumpled on the ground, life seeping out and death seeping in.

Molly’s high shriek tore at her vocal cords. Her face contorted like a reddening gargoyle. Blood pulsed out of her, harder and faster as panic and adrenaline flooded every inch of her shaking body. Mark was already at her side. He dropped to the ground and put his mouth to the wound to suck the venom out. Her agony rattled the window in front of me, echoed down the vacant street, and shattered a chunk of Mark’s heart.

I clenched my hand too hard. My heart raced inside my chest. While Mark sprinted across the yard for the rest of the bottle he had applied to his leg, blood seeped through the clot on my finger. As Mark dashed back to the convulsing and foaming-at-the-mouth woman, my own blood beaded at the tip of my finger and dripped onto the remains of Miser.

The contents oozed from the bottle onto Molly’s leg, while Mark’s finger pressed into the arterial gap to stop the flow of blood. Drawn out like a sailor to a call of the siren, I approached. It was rare for a reaction to the venom to be so intense. It could have been that the other fang hit a vein sending tainted blood straight to her heart. Mark didn’t seem aware of anybody but the two of them as Molly continued to shake and foam. Mark touched her leg where the reds and browns had not.

I realized how much I liked that shade of red. How well it mixed with the browns of earth. How good the tightness in my stomach felt—panicked, anxious, adrenaline-fueled. I approached Steven, turned, and leaned slightly in. “Is it always this—this exciting?”

Steven turned his head toward me. The right corner of his lips curled upward, and his eyes gleamed. We both looked back to the slouched man. Mark shouted for somebody to call 9-1-1. I reached for my pocket and started to pull out my phone.

Steven held his hand out and shook his head. “The last thing we need is a panicked call to the cops.”

Mark took her left trembling hand in his, held it comfortingly, and whispered to her, sshhhhh. He held her hand, looked at her hair which now covered in dirt and saliva. Slowly, as though at war with himself, he grasped the diamond ring on her finger. I could see the fight happening behind his eyes as they shifted from her face to her leg and to her finger. I could feel the energy. As I pushed my phone back into its pocket, Mark slowly and gently slid the ring off of her finger. That was the drive. Looking into the whites of her rolling eyes he whispered one more time. Sshhhhh. He slid the ring into one of the small pockets of his cargo pants. There was the compulsion.

I knew who I was then. Who I am. I am my dad—strong and hard like the earth. And I am my uncle—calm and flowing like the water. “Yes. I’m family,” I said. “I think we need to move her.”


Jamie Henshaw is a returning student, currently studying English (Creative Writing) and Adolescent Education at SUNY Geneseo. His aspiration is to teach students, including his own children, how to apply their creativity to their written work, and to instill the belief that reading and writing are quintessential to success.

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Colin Sharp-O’Connor

Deerslayer

The doe is coiled up in the snow and still breathing. Fallen here in the hollow of an elm uprooted is the deer, with a fine steam rising from her flank, tawny and slick with wetness.

The boy is twelve years old today, and he carries on through the woods to where the doe has fallen behind his father and his older brother, a soft whine resonating deep in his temples. He has the stock of the shotgun in the crook of his arm and he cradles it tight to his chest. The gun is not made to be carried this way. The sling nips at his ankles, the weight sends him off kilter. He goes slowly and he measures each step. Lifting one boot out of a drift, pausing, plunging it ahead. Passing a bare right hand across his face to wipe the fluid from his eyes.

The boy’s brother has stopped at the base of the elm. There is the deer, lying crescent-shaped in a cove of tangled roots, ears twitching, dark dorsal fur pulled tight on the ridges of her spine, the swept grooves of her ribcage. The brother is seventeen and knows with a man’s surety of the absolutes of nature and life’s passage into death. He waves to the father, who has slowed to let the boy catch up, and sinks to his haunches, clicks his tongue, regards the doe where it lies. Boy if you ain’t unlucky, he says.

The father watches the boy’s back as he passes and eyes the narrowed shoulders under the overlarge coat. He is nearing fifty and with the clarity of age he recognizes the beauty immanent in life’s natural cycles. As such he sees in his sons the amelioration of his own self, like the widening rings of an elm tree, and understands the doe to exist under no different principle and for no different purpose. When he reaches the doe he whistles low under his breath and motions for the boy to come close. See the way she breathes shallow and quick like that, he says. Looks like a lung shot but not quite both. The boy stares mutely, still clutching the shotgun. He has circled around to the doe’s head to watch the weak flaring of her nostrils but finds himself looking into the eyes of the animal. Black eyes from rim to pupil, reflecting back his own face undistorted. He breathes in the sharp winter air and with it the rank, wild smell of her fur, cloying and sticky. How long’s it take to die? he says.

Turn her over and we’ll take a look, says the father. Take a look here, he says. This is the most important part.

The boy thinks to sit but will not set down the shotgun to do it. He looks again into the doe’s eyes as if to find some difference from before, but the brother steps in front and seizes her by the forelegs. The doe writhes listlessly, head lolling, neck dragging in the snow like a thing already dead.

Easy. Easy, the father says. Hold her still now, watch she don’t kick you. Now flip her on over.

Oh ain’t that a sucker, the brother says. Boy if that ain’t an ugly one.

Well don’t let go of her. Where’s your knife at.

Uh. Here.

Hey, look close now. Do it this way she won’t feel any pain.

The doe seizes once and sags into the snow, neck gouting. The blood stomped into the snow from its killing is bright and steaming hot. The boy’s brother carefully wipes his knife off on the carcass then folds it away. The father sits on the elm stump next to the doe’s head and lifts it by an ear to examine it. The boy watches the doe’s eyes as the head lists gently.

See that, the old man says. Don’t it put things into perspective?


Colin Sharp-O’Connor is a student at SUNY Purchase.

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8.1 | Fiction


Troubles of Ants

DongWon Oh


Mud

Jamie Henshaw


Deerslayer

Colin Sharp-O’Connor

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Colin Sharp-O’Connor

Searching for Eurydice

The sun is not up at five sharp when we set out for Taughannock Park in my beater of a Corolla, and this time of year the condensation comes so thick I need my wipers just to see the road signs. In deep fog this road takes on a different shape than in clearer weather. Vaughn, my flatmate, has reclined the passenger seat as far back as it goes to allow his bulky frame to fit comfortably in the cabin. He’s on the phone with Noah’s parents, speaking in a soft and serious voice that doesn’t suit him. Vaughn is robust, broad in the shoulders and sandy-haired, with a healthy face that usually reminds me of those pictures of old Ivy athletes postered all over the college gymnasiums. Grinning footballers in grainy Kodachrome. But he isn’t smiling this morning.

“I understand. Yeah,” Vaughn says, probably to Noah’s mother, although I can’t hear the voice. “Luke and I are on our way now, it’s just the weather—” He leans over the stick. “Any idea when we’ll get there?”

“Still a mile or two out. Time?” I say. The clock on my dashboard is long dead.

“Five-thirty. Ish.”

“Tell her another five or so,” I say.

Vaughn says so.

“We won’t be late, sounds like,” he tells me. “She’s just—yeah.” Then Noah’s mother says something, and Vaughn says, “Really, a whole rescue crew? That’s good,” and then, “Sounds like we’re in good hands,” and then, “We’ll find him today, Mrs. Alterman. I promise.”

He hangs up and taps the phone on his thigh. “I think she blames me,” he says.

“She say that?”

“You know how I mean.”

“Yeah.” I wish I had more to say. “Just you?”

He sighs. A heavy sound. “Who knows, man. I guess she’s not wrong, if that’s how she wants to play it.” And this is true.

“Was the both of us looking after him.”

“Was my idea to do all that stuff with him, though.”

“I don’t really remember,” I say. True as well.

“You wouldn’t,” he says, and laughs, shortly. It sounds pained. “If they find anything in his system, I’ll take the heat for it.”

“Have it your way.”

“I had it coming, I guess. So long as he’s okay I don’t care what else happens.”

I look at Vaughn’s face then, easing off the gas. He stares out the windshield into the fog ahead, eyes blue and wet, jaw tight, the muscles of his cheek standing out in relief. You promise. I wonder what he thinks, this boy from California. Whether he understands that Noah is dead. Whether he believes it.

Noah was mine and Vaughn’s other flatmate. A freshman. Last Friday he fell into the gorge. Vaughn and I were at the park with him. We didn’t see it happen. We didn’t see when he slipped away, but Noah fell and I know he died there. I feel it, and gut sense from a local in this respect is more than fact. Noah fell. A blank recognition suffuses through my memories of that evening like staring too long at the sun. What’s left are remnants, a fragment of memory, a roll of film pulled disfigured from the fire. Losing the night in full would be preferable to this. It hurts just to picture his face.

We reach the park earlier than expected, driving across a wide cobblestone bridge and turning into the entryway. So early in the morning of course the park is closed, and a firefighter stands out in the road by the ticket booth. He has casual clothes on under his hi-vis jacket. No turnout gear today. Only helmets and harnesses. I crank down my window and pull up beside him with mine and Vaughn’s IDs in hand, but he must recognize me because he waves us on without asking for them. I turn into the lot. A few cars here and there, not one adjacent to another. There’s one fire vehicle, plain white, a faded yellow maltese cross on the door. I park next to it and we step out into the chill.

Taughannock Park is a series of oblong fields, several loose colonnades of trees, a worn and patinated amphitheatre, a pavilion, a playground, a rocky beach, all arrayed against a convex portion of shoreline. It’s punctuated at intervals with white billet jetties left freely adrift in the water like decorative strings and on the northern end by sailboats moored in an inland marina—startlingly small but pretty enough on sunny days. But the park takes a different shape on these mornings, too, like a forest clearing in a dream. All detail erased in the mist that pours off the lake’s surface, transforming the land around.

A hundred yards from the lot an ambulance idles on the wet grass outside the pavilion, its emergency lights diffused into soft coronas. In the pavilion a dozen figures of no fixed uniform or order huddle in the relative shelter provided by their open building. As we approach two of them step out to meet us, ill-shapen in their nylon parkas. I recognize the face of Noah’s mother, broad and lined, hair wild in the mist. She hugs me tightly. So much strength for a woman her age. I am embraced for a long time, and when she releases me my hand is clasped as if by some supplicant and I find myself looking at a man I do not recognize and whose eyes I will not forget. We step under the pavilion and the firefighter in charge takes down our names and address perfunctorily. Then we stand with the rest, people I have never met who greet me softly by name and shake my hand in turn, as she explains the procedures and precautions, the zones of activity we will be assigned to, the intervals at which we will report. It strikes me that I have stepped into a church of sorts. Like it is a wake we are attending. Perhaps it is. When she is finished I volunteer to carry a GPS locator and a little laminate map of terrain I know by heart already. When she hands them to me this woman shakes my hand also and nods to me as though it were some noble choice. But there can be no protests now, no subversion of the ritual. Vaughn and Noah’s parents and I will go together, and this is another rite. When we step out from the pavilion and onto the grass again it is in three curious diverging lines, like hooded Franciscans in prayer.

The firefighter from the park entrance joins up with us as we head back toward the road along a little stream that feeds into the marina. His eyes are a clear and pale blue and he walks with a professional briskness that sets his rescue harness clinking and he answers all questions put to him by Noah’s mother with the same demeanor, though kindly. I see his crinkled face and wonder how many bodies has pulled from these waters. The stream flows under a wood bridge and then gradually broadens from ten feet to a dozen yards, still shallow enough to make out the darting shadows of fingerlings on the flatrocks beneath. We walk under the cobble bridge by the entrance and the shadow of the bridge turns the stream to softly rippling jet.

“And how long will you be once we find him?” asks Noah’s mother.

“Depends where he is,” says the firefighter. “How he is.” He scratches his chin and then, remembering his bedside manner, says, “Might need to call in more responders if he’s somewhere needs rappelling. Helicopter can take a while in this weather. If it comes to that.”

“But not long otherwise,” she says.

“Not long otherwise.”

The firefighter helps Noah’s parents down the long slope of the gorge mouth, the only real descent to be made. This place is really the inner boundary of the larger lake basin. The land ahead but fill displaced an aeon ago over a period equally unfathomable. Like fingers tracing their long marks in the dirt, so goes the old story. The gorge is a slight westwards fissure in this neolithic berm. Shallower even than the basin, terminating just miles from its rim. Geological minutiae from such a vantage. The sides are exposed shale, pines growing over top, and they seem to me to stretch up forever, on forever, irregular rock striae forming vectors along each face pointing deeper into the shadowed valley. Soon the sun will rise and all this will be gone. We press onwards.

We walk through the fog on a small flagstone path that passes under overhangs dripping clear water rhythmically on the smooth rock below as if demonstrating their own massive trajectories. We pass by pale screes where the shale is scratched and sunbleached to the color of bone, even in this damp time of year and from which brown moss and wiry sprouts of buttercup grow in clumps, isolate from their like, and when the flagstones end we walk on the thin band of alluvial clay built up on the sides of the stream or in the stream itself, it scarcely deeper than an ankle and running mostly over stable flatrocks so eroded by millenia of current, though covered in a slippery filamentous lichen, and we travel slowly and search each crevice and eddy carefully. All sounds distant except the cold trickle of water running over rock. As if some greater rite were underway beside ours on this liminal ground now at its periapsis and should our exhalations or our footfalls in the stream prove too indiscrete for what unnamable convocation thereby gathered it would be desecration. I walk with the firefighter and behind us Vaughn accompanies Noah’s parents, following their slower pace, making sure they don’t lose their footing in the current. Their black parkas glitter faintly with condensation. The two look old, though I never asked Noah how old.

After a mile of walking the stream deepens into a natural pool of the type familiar to collegiate truants and rescue workers, visible by a sudden darkness on the surface, a stilling of the current. A minor cascade perhaps ten feet high feeds into it at a gentle trickle. There is little flow over the blackened slate, only a liquid shimmer and a dull babble that seems as well to come from the woods around as the falling water. The firefighter and I search the sides and find a scalable path.

“What’re you thinking?” I say.

“What’s that?” he asks.

“How—” I rephrase myself. “Well. What should we be expecting here, is what I mean.”

The firefighter examines me a moment. That look in his blue eyes again, casting around for his bedside manners. “I guess I wouldn’t advise you to expect a thing,” he says.

“All right.”

“Give me a leg, here.”

I boost him up and then take his hand and clamber up after him. The rest of the way is easy enough for us. Slate makes for simple climbing.

“Look,” says the firefighter, sitting for a moment beside the stream. Legs swung out over the ledge. “I’ve been doing this thing longer than you’d guess. They all start the same. Kid goes missing one night. Drunk, stoned, clumsy, whatever it is. Sometimes—You get it. These public searches, no different. Follow?”

I wipe the grit and algae off my palms and squat beside him. “Yeah, I get you.”

He scratches his chin. Vaughn and Noah’s parents are making their way toward the still pool, speaking quietly. He carries on. “If his buddies aren’t right there when he tumbles, they won’t call it in for a full day sometimes. You all were pretty quick, considering.”

“He isn’t the wandering type.” I shrug. “I got worried.”

“Was a good call. Lot can happen in a day. Sometimes he might fall near a path and hikers find him in the morning. Hear him shouting, or see him. If it’s out of the way he could lay there days until we go out ourselves. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I say.

“Maybe laying there with broken legs, ribs. Damage to the organs, you know. Sometimes paralysis. If he hits his head, that’s it. Same if he falls in fast water. Get twisted up in that, you go right under and you don’t come up.”

“I get you.”

He looks at me again. “Don’t get me wrong, now. Lots of them make out okay after roughing it a weekend. Sometimes they’re just too scared to move. Young college kid, phone broken, all kinds of trauma going on in their head. Not unheard of to just stay put til rescue finds them. So that’s what I mean. There’s no good guesses here.”

“You know better than me,” I say.

“No one can tell from the start how these things end,” he says. “That I know for certain.”

I look at Vaughn as he leads Noah’s parents carefully around the lip of the pool, that darker blackness in the water. He must be optimistic. Not optimistic. Desperate. The way Noah’s parents are desperate, holding out not for hope but for the afterimage of hope, the same thought I clung to on the first day, that vanished on the second, that left in me on the third a more concrete resolution. My flatmate is dead, is swallowed up here. We may never find the body. If we do it will not be him.

Noah’s mother can’t make the climb. She gives it a fair shake but neither Vaughn nor I are quite willing to pull her up properly and the firefighter doesn’t take long to put an end to her efforts. He is gentle as a mortician. Doubtless he expects little more from her husband, and rightly so by the cut of him under that rubberized hood. Never seen a face gone to ruin like that. Too much to look at, too much to look at.

The firefighter speaks briefly at his pager in an approximation of English and then scratches his chin. “Well, I’m sorry.”

He means it despite the brevity. Quiet apologies abound. An offer of escort, a sequent refusal. The tears that follow. A pitiful thing.

They offer to wait by the pool until the search is done but the firefighter is set on sending them back to the pavilion, and so it goes. Noah’s mother turns away and my last impression of her face cannot be sadness. Nothing there could be encompassed in such a word.

“That’s the way of things,” says the firefighter.

“You think it’s for the best?” I say.

“For you all?” says the firefighter.

Closes my mouth right up.

We make quicker time just the three of us. The firefighter and I are used to wading and Vaughn outstrips us both, striding out in front like a man driven by high accord, as though he might part the very waters, and it hurts my heart to think he might be searching for some second possibility hidden in this darkly hyaline stream. There is nothing submerged in it, nothing kept for closer viewing. The darting shadows of fingerlings against the rocks, the lichen, the ripples of our boots against the current. The shadows of those ripples too. Around us the fog thickens further, the raw outcroppings on either side reaching jaggedly up into that strange absence of sky. Not far now to the source.

“You say he’s not the wandering type, huh?” says the firefighter, after some time spent in silence.

Vaughn looks back. “Could be he’s not in the gorge.”

“Where else?” I say. Vaughn shrugs.

“He took a hell of a trek for the middle of the night,” says the firefighter. “Whenabouts he go missing again?”

“Late evening. Was past dark. Couldn’t tell you any better.”

“I think it was eleven or so,” says Vaughn. He checks his watch now. As if the hands had froze in place the exact moment Noah had vanished. As if there was ever such a moment.

“Hey,” says the firefighter. “Pick that up.”

Vaughn turns around, looks down by his feet, stops. He stoops and picks something out of the stream. A soaking mess of fabric, vague in color, water pouring from the folds in gouts. Vaughn straightens it out the best he can.

“That his?” says the firefighter.

“Yeah, it’s his,” says Vaughn.

It’s Noah’s windbreaker. Forest green is hard to spot underwater. Vaughn goes through the pockets, comes out with ticket stubs and a shrunken leather wallet, wax all washed out by the current and settled white and filmy on the topgrain. The firefighter examines the wallet and finds its contents rotted and zips it up in a plastic bag and stows it. Nothing much to say between us. My hands begin to tremble.

“Time to go on,” says the firefighter, scratching his chin. “Sunup soon.”

We trek on in silence through the thickening fret looking much like ghosts ourselves. The stream deepens here into as true a river as any, rising up above my boot-collars, drenching my socks, but none of us steps out into the bank. The looming shape of the valley narrowing above us in uncertain shadow imposes a peculiar sense of vertigo, as if after crossing some antecedent threshold all gravity and direction had reversed along our course and by following the source of the current we are not moving up toward the surface of the world but impossibly downwards and deeper into the earth. I have a sudden urge to turn back, but then I remember the faces of Noah’s parents and do not know which of us is for the worse. Too late now, anyway. I can hear the falls roaring.

It is by ear one first recognizes Taughannock Falls, but the feel of the place is what they remember. Even on a clear day the sheer spray of that enormous overhung flume bears down on hair and clothes, out nearly a thousand feet from the whitewater. Not a regal weight, as some naturalists might ascribe to the experience. Taughannock belies such personification. At the end of the gorge there is a deep and sheer-faced rondel canyon and at the westmost point of this canyon the falls pours out into a small lake below. A plaque somewhere on the visitor’s trail far above in the ridges will tell the reader that Taughannock Falls is the tallest single waterfall this side of the Rockies but this comparison is meaningless. Stand close enough to feel the weight of that water crashing down and there can be no comparison. There can be no anything at all.

We reach the canyon just past sunrise, light tinging the fog a soft, opaque amber. The river has shallowed out again and broadened into a sort of slow-running floodwater only half covering the pale shards of slaterock scattered across the canyon floor. Or perhaps it runs to further depths after all and the rocks are piled up deeper than I see. Mist tendrils drift from the lake in front of us like ectoplasm, mixing with the fog, evaporating. Our own breath following in course.

“Give the fog time to clear,” says the firefighter. “Easier to look round that way.”

We find a rocky place in the river and sit and we watch as the fog clears. It takes five minutes to see the sky, midnight blue in the west and still faintly dotted with stars. As the day brightens further, a thin strip of rainbow manifests in the spray of the falls, vibrantly shaded, arcing across the canyon’s width as if drawn by some illusory paintbrush. The wet erected rockpiles that litter the perimeter of the lake glitter magnificently and one among them is larger and darker than the rest and it too is soaked with spray.

The firefighter stands abruptly. “I want you all to wait here,” he says.

It lies strangely equidistant from the little cairns that flank it along the shoreline as if, like them, it had been placed there deliberately by some unknown artist—as if its very existence had been presupposed for that endeavor. It and all around it perfectly clear and already memory in my gaze. A waterlogged shape smaller than any person ought to be, a pile of wet hiking clothes, jeans and a hoodie, colors soaked close enough to black. Sneakers white but filthy. Not him. Not him.

“Vaughn,” I say, and Vaughn is already standing to follow the firefighter now picking his way across the uneven shale with sure steps and raising his pager for words to be lost in the deaf roar of the falls. I say, you’ll only get in his way, and feel my voice as air and vibration and no discernable sound, the words all hollowed out, and Vaughn stops but does not sit down and I feel guilty for stopping him so thoughtlessly.

“Is that him?” he says. “Is that him?”

I look numbly at the distant bundle. Do my best to look at it. Now I think that perhaps it is a mirage, is some impossible thing, and it seems so that I cannot see it clearly no matter how long I focus on it. A thought washes up against the bulwarks of my conscious, a dispassionate, conceptual thought, and I flinch from it and then force myself, nauseated by the contradiction, to review it. Noah is dead. That cannot be him. Nothing animate could look like that. When I was a boy a deer died in the nearby woods close to the treeline. It died in late fall and was covered in a thick snowbank all winter and was preserved like some natural taxidermy until spring. As the days warmed again the hide took on water and rotted and swelled and when it finally split all but the bones were gone already. When my father and I went out to bury it in the spring it seemed weightless and somehow graceful. That was a dead thing. That was death to me.

The firefighter puts on a pair of nitrile gloves and leans over the bundle and then reaches out and touches some part of it, carefully probes the bundle away, probably for our assurance more than his, and then he sits on his haunches and takes off his helmet and runs his fingers over his scalp and does not move a while.

Vaughn splashes across the loose shale and I follow him, shambling, the ground under my feet tipping forwards, and then I feel I would fall if I went a foot further and I stop in the middle of the stream, in the middle of the canyon and the spray, and am witness to that thing I cannot bring myself to see.

The firefighter rises and pulls Vaughn back by the shoulders, Vaughn already kneeling over on the shore. From the back he looks like a man arrived at the end of a pilgrimage, not a mourner at all. When he is pulled away he does not resist. The firefighter looks him in the eyes and speaks at him, the words a thrum in the air, and releases his shoulders one at a time. He walks back to me slowly, dragging his feet in the current.

“Jesus, Luke,” he says.

The firefighter shakes out a foil survival blanket from some hidden pocket and drapes it neatly over the bundle and weighs the corners down with rocks and then he comes back to us and says somebody ought to call the boy’s parents. Vaughn and I nod without looking at him and he says “When you’re ready to,” and he leaves it at that. We sit back down on the rocks and we sit there a while.

“He’s,” says Vaughn, and then he turns away from me and starts to cry, hiding his face in his hands. I put an arm around his shoulders. So much tension in that musculature. Like his body might tear itself apart. I look at the blanket and the shape under it and think that if there is any wholly cruel thing in man’s design it is that we remember most strongly what we refuse to see. I look for a long time. I look until the rescue helicopter arrives with a thrum in the air and whipping wind up in the canyon, displacing the lake surface in broad concentric ripples, beating the foil blanket into a shimmer, and I look while the firefighter and more rescue workers lift the thing onto a stretcher and tighten the straps around it, lift it away into the sky, and the helicopter rotors beat the wind harder and the unrestrained corners of the foil sheet beat the air and I cannot see a thing from so far away but I see nonetheless a shock of hair slicked black against skin, a forehead, an ear, the white line of a neck, already memories forever. The firefighter makes his way back to us and I see the blue of his eyes and wonder how they stay so clear.

“I’m sorry you boys had to see that,” he says.

Vaughn has stopped crying now; his eyes are red but dry. He nods slowly. “It’s good we found him,” he says.

“Either of you ready to make that call?” says the firefighter.

“I will,” Vaughn says. Some kind of atonement, perhaps.

I don’t cry until after Noah’s parents pick up the phone.

“We found him,” Vaughn says, and then, “I’m so sorry.”


Colin Sharp-O’Connor is a junior at SUNY Purchase.

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Misty Yarnall

100 Miles Per Hour

Five miles per hour felt dreadfully slow on the gravel driveway of the White River Drive-Ins. Mazzy barely had to brake once stopping at the ticket window. Charlie, sitting in the passenger’s seat, passed her a crumpled wad of cash, totaling nine dollars. She took her own wallet out from the glove compartment, the door hitting his knees as it dropped open, and unzipped her wallet to scrounge for more.

As she handed the man a handful of bills— crinkled fives and ones, he gave her two printed tickets. She wondered what their purpose was. She imagined turning fifty, attending scrapbook meets in the Baptist Church basement, pasting hand-cut hearts and the same printed tickets to a page.

After driving through rows of cars, Mazzy found a slim vacant space between a bunch of rocking vehicles. She parked the car, but left it on and cranked up the volume to hear the previews. She and Charlie crawled over the center console to the back seat.

“Here we are,” Charlie announced, trying to be clever or ease her tension. He stretched out, wrapping his narrow arm over her shoulders like a boa constrictor tightening its choke.

“Grammy wants you to come over this Sunday for brunch,” he said. “My cousins from Delaware are visiting.”

“Okay.”

A black-and-white cartoon of a striped box of popcorn and a paper soft drink container danced across the screen, singing about White River’s refreshment counter, but the front seats blocked Mazzy’s view. She meddled with the levers, but the seats only reclined so far.

“Don’t worry about it, babe,” Charlie said.

Mazzy gave up, leaving the seats at an awkward angle. She sat back next to Charlie. As the Pixar logo appeared, and the little desk lamp bopped across the screen to trampoline on letters, Charlie placed his hand on top of her knee. He rested his head on her shoulder, something she always believed worked the other way around. His body heat was overwhelming in the muggy, summer air. He was stuck to her like cling wrap.

He kissed into her neck, trying to mimic some sort of sucking sensation he’d seen actors perform in movies. His hot breath on her skin sent uncomfortable chills through her. Mazzy twitched, something he mistook for pleasure, and she felt the purple mark deepening on her neck, draining the blood and the feeling until her skin was raw.

Charlie came up for air. She wished she could, too.

“I love you,” Charlie told her, and without waiting for an answer, targeted another spot on her neck.

She held the movie ticket in her hand, picking at its splintering corners and crinkling its perfect flat shape.


Misty Yarnall wrote a five page story in third grade, and never stopped writing. Growing up in northern New York, she obtained sixteen awards for her short fiction and poetry, along with a publication in Thousand Islands Life. She is currently a Creative Writing major at Monroe Community College and is working on a novel.

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Danielle Gonzalez

The Muck Sisters

The muck sisters of Wiles Road are mighty fierce. Or so they say. They being the kids we see at school who cling to clean and have a lot to say about those like us who live in the muck. Who think we’re odd ‘cause we follow our own way. It’s not our fault we know how things are in the wild, that we know how to survive. We see the night howlers and many-eyed monsters that come out of the dark. Sitting up straight and using your fork isn’t gonna save you. You can’t use fancy language with a beast. Kinda scary, but Mama has a shotgun and we all have the family baseball bat. Ours has some nails sticking out of it, makes it real scary. It can’t hit a baseball anymore unless you wanna hear a pop. They also say you can spot us playing in the mud and after that we bathe in the swamp water nearest to the mangroves. They’re not wrong, the oldest muck sister going extra times too, often under the light of the moon. Normally we’d be begging her to take us with her but right now all we’re concerned with is why she been so clean lately. This question drained the fun out of July.

These last couple of days all of us are pretty bored. My youngest sissy, Lily, marches around our trailer not knowing how to contain herself. Her reddish hair is unkempt and wild, and her bangs stick to her forehead from the July heat. When we play in the muck you can barely tell the dirt apart from her freckles. Her arms lay all jumbled at her sides. She’s twelve now and when summer ends she’s gotta go to school. No more gym wrestling or mud-wrangling at recess; she’s gonna have to sit still for a while in middle school. I bet she’s gonna hate it. Today she been asking me all about the hallways. Our elementary school is set up in a clump of trailers, similar to ours, with a class in each one. Middle school’s when you get the buildings. Since I’m fourteen now, I’ll show her all the ropes. I tell her that school people are different from us; their clothes don’t have wrinkles and they don’t eat free lunches at the school either. There’s some things we gotta do to avoid getting gawked at, or worse, pitied. That’s what I tell her.

Don’t get lost, our oldest sister Tilly says, laughing. Tilly’s seventeen and looks for a different type of mischief. She’s still a muck sister though, no matter how hard she tries to hide it. Even she’s stuck in the trailer. Right now she’s glued to her hand mirror fixing up her hair, waiting for her boyfriend. Trevor don’t get out of work until late. He pumps gas down by the two-way intersection of 34 and 495 that’s about a twenty minute drive away. Twenty minutes before the dirt road goes into pavement and we’re met with the highway. Tilly gets real moody when she waits, starts telling us she can’t wait to get out. She says she got proof that lots of people wanna get out of the trailer park too, to the nicer apartments where the paved roads are, far from the swamp.

There’s fewer muck families living in our town than there used to be; most of us live in one clump, in the Sunny Grove trailer park. But the shrinking numbers don’t scare me. Mama tells us stories of the ones who lived deep in the Florida swamplands. Said they even ate wild boars. She smiles when she tells us this. Mama’s old but she’s still as wild as us. Her senses are still sharp, too. She raises chickens outside of the trailer for eggs and meat, not afraid that their clucks could attract a wild beast. That’s our Mama, but Tilly never seems impressed; she doesn’t want to be anything like her or us. She wants to be like Trevor, nice and cushy. Now with Trevor she’s gone almost all the time. He takes her from us, I swear. Worst part is he’s a secret; Mama don’t know a thing.

Ever since Tilly’s been working she’s been like this. It started with her complaining about work she’s been doing around the yard. Now she’s waitressing at that rundown Gator Grill Diner. The only one Mama usually brings us to, since it’s the closest one to home. Most days Tilly walks there and back. Only a ten minute walk! Mama says, though sometimes the way Tilly huffs and puffs makes it seem like an hour away. That’s another thing with Trevor, he got a car. Makes her eyes all glowy like she’s real hot stuff dating some guy outside the Sunny Grove trailer park. Trevor lives in one of those New Palm apartments with his brother, even has cable, Tilly tells us. Lily and I watch her as she jams lipstick on her lips, slaps it on thick.

Nice Crayola, I say.

Shut it, Milly, Tilly hisses with her mouth still closed.

Just ‘cause he don’t wear muck makes her wanna dress up. Now Tilly smells like vanilla.

Quiet! Mama’s voice roars through the trailer. Come get! she says. We get out and stretch our necks to where Mama is, behind the trailer. Close to the woods, holding a shotgun in her mighty hands.

What’s wrong? I ask, scratching my head. Mama puts a thick finger to her lips. Then I hear it, some rustling the leaves. Some squealing too. Mama gets her shotgun ready, she waits. I hold my breath. She cranes her ear further down into the forest. We wait for the beast. My mind goes wild, in my head I see a wild boar, then a crocodile, a giant cockroach, no, two giant cockroaches—

Just a pig, she snorts. Lily, get that crate! Mama hands me the gun to put back and rolls up her sleeves, Mama’s ready to tussle. We sprint as fast as we can to get the crate and run back into the trees cheering. There’s a dart of movement in the leaves. We see its little pink legs scuffle, seeking cover, but Mama’s already pounced. I swear if we lived in the mountains Mama would be wrestling bears. Makes me wonder how bear meat tastes.

Mama got the pig good. Wrestled it to the ground. It tried screeching real loud for help but there ain’t no other pigs around. Sorry piggy, just Mama, Lily and me and we’re all drooling. Now Mama’s got the pig between her legs. She had to pin that piece of pork real good before getting it in the crate.

We’re gonna have a real feast soon! Mama bellows. Mama hacks spit and rubs her hands.

We’re getting meat real soon, real meat, wild meat. We just have to wait until it gets a little bigger, Mama says, gotta fatten her up. Until then we nash on the corn and fish sticks. Globs of the stuff dries on our faces, which we scrape off with our fingernails, real good. You can’t scratch too hard. Then you bleed. Got to just get right under the corn and peel it off. ‘Course you could also eat neat, but what’s the fun in that? When I see corn, I go at it. I know that once school starts I can no longer eat as I please, Lily’s gonna learn that lesson too.

Mama takes the crate the pig’s in and drags it to the chicken pen. We hang on the pen’s sides watching as Mama kicks the crate over, sending the pig sprawling out. The chickens go wild and cluck this way and that. Mama looks to the empty feed bin, all dusty in the corner of the pen.

Someone’s got to feed this thing, she says. And it ain’t gonna be me.

Me neither, I got things to do, Tilly says. Lily and I almost forgot that she’s there. She’s filing her nails now, they come to little red arches. They don’t even have dirt on them. Mama looks her straight in the eye and Tilly returns the stare. Makes me wanna yell traitor. But what good is that going to do? Besides Lily’s looking at me, wants to know what comes next. Come on, I say. With sharp shoulders Tilly follows us out to the pen with her shoulders down.

Lily and I break the job in half; Tilly can’t contribute much with her arms crossed. We take out a quarter and flip it. I call Washington, I say. My little sissy huffs but accepts; she is younger after all. We flip it into the sky. Washington stares at us from the ground.

Darn. I grunt. Lily smiles, revealing a corn chunk wedged between her front teeth. I take the bag of chicken feed from the shed. It’s heavy, almost as heavy as Lily. I drag that thing into the pen. The pig’s still squealing away, much louder than even the baby chicks. I open the top and spray it into the bin. Most of it makes the feed pen, some spills over the side like rain. The pig’s looking at me. Now eat, I say. She just keeps on staring. Fine then, I huff. I pick up the feed bag and drag it away again, all sweaty. I smell all grainy now. When I come back Tilly’s already in the trailer, now that Mama’s away. She wouldn’t’ve been much help, I say to Lily, might’ve broken a nail. Lily shrugs, her eyes now on the pen.

Recently it’s been Lily’s turn to feed the pig. The coin keeps landing on tails, except I don’t think she minds it, she might even like it. Every day she wades out there a little longer. Just her and that pig. Throw it, Tilly and I say. She can’t hear past the oinks. If I look out the window I still see her out there, petting that pig now. She comes in smelling like pig. Thinking about the pig makes me hungry. I just wanna have a piece. It’s a shame you gotta kill the whole thing before you can have just a tiny bite. The pig keeps oinking. Lily says it’s a girl and her name is Betsy.

We keep feeding it chicken feed. Seems to do the job. I see that Lily brought out a water bucket. I couldn’t tell whether it’s fresh water or not. Betsy the pig seems to like it, she been slurping it up. I bring the chicken feed down. She plops her chin up, her feet scuffle toward me. I could almost swear she’s been tamed. Betsy oinks once before eating the whole darn thing in front of me. No manners. I grin. Mama don’t go out and feed her, says that’s our job. Says we got to learn our way around animals. She doesn’t think collecting eggs is enough, she wants us to see how our dinner eats. As our dinner keeps slurping at the water, I can’t help but snort.

My older sis is out with Trevor again. It’s been two weeks and Betsy’s been fattening up nicely. Lily still takes long with the pig though. She comes in talking about Betsy, making her sound real high and mighty. She even begs me to give her my turns, she just wants to get out of her house chores. I shake my head. It’s my turn and besides, Betsy would know I skipped. When I walk in the pen you can tell Betsy knows me. She points her snout right in my face. Here you go, little fella. Betsy’s wild whiskers tickle up against the palm of my hand real funny like. It’s getting hard now to pour out the feed. She moves too fast, and then she’s on me snorting and wheezing. She keeps going for my hand. Oink Oink. Pig’s real funny, I can’t help but chuckle.

I’m washing my face when Tilly comes back home. She slams the door shut since it’s only evening and there’s no sense in sneaking. At this hour, Mama’s out getting dinner ready. The way Tilly smells makes me think she ate already.

Hey, Milly, she says and hangs up her purse. She makes sure it’s not tangled with anything. I know she’s heading out again tonight. I look at the denim skirt she has on. She looks kinda nice. I sniff the air, she’s got on that vanilla perfume again. But that’s not all, then she goes and hands me her french fries she got from Wendy’s, they’re cold but salty and I shove them in my mouth quick.

How’s Trevor? I ask between globs. Tilly beams.

Real nice, she says, he treated. My munching slows and she can see I’m impressed. She pulls out her pinky. The left one. Says I better not let this spoil my appetite. I take out my pinky and wrap it around hers; it’s a deal.

At dinner Tilly doesn’t say a thing. Mama gives us corn, no fishsticks. Tilly takes some corn, plays around with most of it, picking it out kernel by kernel. I can tell Mama’s watching. She only grunts once. Lily and I nash most of it, just a bit left of the tip. I’m grateful for the fries, or I might even eat the cob. Tilly looks from Lily to me and snorts. Says we look like animals. We oink back. We spend the rest of the evening in the trailer. We press our faces to the trailer’s windows facing the chicken pen. We try oinking to get a rise out of Betsy, though she knows it’s us and oinks back anyway. Y’all are getting soft for that, pig, Tilly says from her bed. I could say a lot of things, like how she’s gone soft for Trevor. We all know it. Even Betsy.

Lily’s little pointer finger traces some lines in the glass. It’d be funner out there, Lily says. It’d be funner with Bets. It would. I wink. I see Lily’s eyes light up and it makes me excited. We could play with Bets all night even, Lily says, her voice rising. We can go—

No. I shush her. We can play with Betsy as long as we’re the only ones awake, I whisper. Lily eyes Tilly who is in bed flipping through a clothing catalog. She sees us staring and lets out the fakest yawn I’ve ever seen. We all know she’s going to be waiting up for Trevor, like I said before, she’s gone soft for him. But we’re gonna out-wait her.

We see the orangey sky fade into indigo and Mama goes to bed. We almost do too. But we stay up, keeping an eye on our boots. We wait until late into the night when Tilly disappears. Don’t want her to rat, can’t even let her know that we’re up. She’d never leave if we were awake. We cover our faces with a blanket, our clothes still on from before. In the dark she can’t see our smiling faces in the midst of Mama’s snores.

We hear some weight on the floor boards, and then a slight creak as light shines through the our blankets real quick then disappears. We hear an engine grunt and gravel move. Then silence. We wait a bit before peeling the covers off.

She’s gone! Lily says. We run to the window and pull the curtains back. We can see Trevor’s rusted pick-up truck jumble out the swamp until it’s swallowed up by some trees. Our boots get yanked back on. Lily and I slip through the muck and the dark walking in the darn tall grass. There’s no killers out here, right? Lily asks.

Only us, I say, and the wild. We get to the pig pen and see that all of the chickens are heaped in one corner asleep but Betsy’s still up and snorting. Wish you’d been out here earlier, she seems to say. Lily pouts playfully, crossing her arms. Betsy races up to the pen, pressing her snout to the wire. I open up the latch and we go in. We all play tag until Lily explodes in a yawn. Darn it, she says. She plants a wet kiss on Betsy’s ear. Our trailer’s lights are still off which means our sneaking has been a success. When we return home Tilly’s bed is still empty. Mama won’t know and Tilly’ll be back again in the morning.

Ever since then Lily and I have been sneaking back to take a peek at Betsy whenever we can, which is hard since we don’t know exactly when Tilly will be sneaking out. We have to lie in bed and wait an hour for the growl of Trevor’s truck. It’s been about a month of this sneaking and I can’t lie, I like it. Ever since then Trevor’s been getting Tilly some gifts, small things like charms that can be worn under clothing like a pinky ring that you can only see when she eats. Anything she can hide she wears. Often I catch Tilly staring at me, staring at Lily. She doesn’t know that I found the “For Hire” section of the newspaper crinkled under her bed all circled up, and none of the jobs are around our trailer. It was buried in the little notes Trevor writes to her. Makes me want to gag, but me and Lily find them funny from time to time. When I was alone I took out the newspaper and smoothed out the crinkles. SECRETARY FOR HIRE is circled and underlined. The date of the interview’s already passed, August 3rd, 1987. Maybe that was when Tilly was at work? Did she miss it? I hoped so. I took the paper and stashed it in my pants pocket, hoping that she wouldn’t get any more ideas, that she’d stay here forever, with Lily and me.

Mama keeps looking at Betsy. Any day now, she says to us. Mama starts buying things. She got onions, peppers, next thing I know I see long fresh carrots. Mama’s going to be cooking up a stew. A Betsy stew. Poor Bets, she’s fattened up nice since we got her. She’s still silly though, shouldn’t be gaining all that weight, just makes her look more delicious. When Mama calls Betsy Pork Chop I get hungry half the time. Other times I just feed the gal and I can’t think of her feeding me.

Lily and I hear bangs. Copper bangs. Pots and pans. You know what that means, Mama found out about Trevor. I gulp wanting to hide, but Lily’s with me so I just say it’s gonna be okay.

I work, too! Tilly screams from the trailer. I stay up, too! I can hear that her throat is sore. I can also hear Mama cussing.

You ain’t gonna be seeing no smart mouth priss! Mama roars. Not in my house! Mama storms out of the trailer. Huffs and puffs out. That’s when I see it, paper is crumpled in her fist, one of Trevor’s notes. Mama spits at the ground and marches into her truck. I can hear Tilly howl before stepping outside. We watch Mama and then we watch Tilly. I can’t tell whose face is redder. Makes me want to hug Lily close. Instead we both slip back further. I can see that they’re both tired. I want to yell at them both to stop it and say sorry, but then I’d be looking for another home too.

Mama snorts. She sees that we’re watching. It doesn’t hold Mama back. Ain’t putting up with that priss no more, she says to us. That’s bull, she says, shaking her head. Tilly retreats in the trailer and Mama goes marching again, this time to the car, drives off, who knows where. I repeat what I’ve just told Lily, that everything’s gonna be okay.

Next day Tilly’s gone. Dead gone. All her clothes are gone, even her lipstick she crammed in a trash bag somewhere. When Mama’s at work, only Lily and I can hear the screaming silence inside the trailer. We spend most days with Betsy now, holding her closer than ever before. Never leave us, Bets! Lily cries.

When Mama comes back home we crowd around her like animals. Mama starts sharpening her knives, real sharp. I take Lily aside and whisper through a hot breath. Those are her carving knives. She nods. We look at the ax that’s been taken from the shed. It’s a hacker, that’s for sure. Gonna be a clean cut. Sissy and I go to pet Betsy. We call her Bets sometimes. She doesn’t oink too loud anymore. She’s quiet like she knows what’s coming. That she’s gonna get hacked. Makes me sad. I want to be with Betsy forever. Lily starts to sniffle. Poor Lily’s already getting sad. It’s okay, I say again. We can play with Bets again tonight. She’s not gone yet.

It’s nighttime and Lily and I run to Bets again since we don’t know if we’re going to see her tomorrow. We splash in the water tubs lined up by the pen. Betsy cheers and slowly trots out to see us. She missed us after all. She’s huffing all heavy now, sassy that we made her get some exercise. I’m going to miss her, darn it. I pout. Lily looks at me. We look at our fourth sister, Betsy. Can’t explain it much but she been looking kinda tired lately. Even as we play with her, Betsy doesn’t even want to get mud on her face. She lifts that hairy chin of hers up every time she flops around. It’s like this place has started eating at her or something.

You know it ain’t right, Milly. She’s a muck sister, too. Before you know it, Lily is already at the gate, lifting that rusty old latch up from the fence. She jumps up on the rickety thing and leans back swinging it open. I stare in shock but my body doesn’t disagree, even if this is gonna get us spanked.

Now we’re both in front of the open pen. We stare at Betsy and she stares back. Nothing to hear but the howlers and crickets. Come on, get! I say. Betsy trots out real self-assured, she wastes no time breaking free, at a speed that doesn’t match her fat belly, she sprints. Betsy, Betsy, we echo. Go, Bets, go! we holler. We run with her past the pens, past the trailers, into the woods. Faster and faster, our muddied boots keep up. She bolts through the muck, away from Mama’s reach and we swear she’s laughing. Betsy goes real quick right into the thicket. Lily and I stand back, watching her get smaller and smaller, till she disappears into the darkness. We can’t help jumping up and down in excitement. She’s a fast one! We grin. The night sky almost swallows us whole. Makes us wild. Betsy hollers in the night.


Danielle Gonzalez is a fourth-year student at SUNY Geneseo. Danielle enjoys writing fiction to satisfy her inner child. When she’s not writing or praying you can find her looking out the window, spotting birds.

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Volume 7 | Fiction


The Muck Sisters

Danielle Gonzalez


Searching for Eurydice

Colin Sharp-O’Connor


100 Miles per Hour

Misty Yarnall

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Marissa Canarelli

Buckyboy

Buckyboy was lame so Father was going to shoot him. He planned to do it behind the barn so that Hattie didn’t have to see and the stallion would be closer to the fields where he was to be buried. Hattie was understandably upset. Mother explained to her that Father was being generous; it was a kindness for him to do it behind the barn, when he could make money by selling him by the pound. Buckyboy weighed just shy of a ton so Father’s good nature was costly.

There had been a snow storm last night and Hattie was not in bed. Being the eldest daughter, I was sent out to find her by Mother, who woke me with a touch to the shoulder. I had been under the covers, curled in a pocket of heat with Hattie’s empty space against my back. My eyes adjusted to the dim light and I made out Mother’s stern-set mouth as she cast me out of my nest of sheets. She had the baby, Beatrice, fat and gurgling, awake and bright-eyed, set on her hip. Father’s snores rolled through our home like a crashing wave; he slept like the dead after a day in the field and would be up and gone before breakfast. Just as I was about to leave the room, Mother held me back and using only her single free hand, pulled a hat down over my head.

I traversed our property in my thick leather boots with a shawl wrapped around my shoulders and the hat shielding my ears. In my left hand I held a lantern; in the right, my pocket knife. I had only ever used it to gut fish, but its familiar weight felt good to hold. Coyotes weren’t uncommon on our land.

First, I searched the shed that housed Father’s equipment: the plows, Buckyboy’s harness. I jumped when eyes flashed from underneath the broken frame of a wagon wheel leaning on the wall, but it was only Sheba, Mother’s mutt, watching me. Usually she slept near the chicken coop and guarded it from foxes. Tonight, she had tucked herself away from the bad weather and was buried in a pile of empty feed bags. She was a shaggy mass of dark fur that blended with the shadows. Her pups were due any day now; her appetite was off, and she was being even more unapproachable. Just that morning, she had barely been interested in the bits of charred bacon that Mother tossed her. Sheba watched me with sleep-heavy, yellow eyes as I examined the shed, but there was no Hattie. Feeling the weight of Sheba’s gaze on my back, I left the shed behind.

Outside the wind was picking up, the gusts having gained momentum over Otisco Lake not five miles off. There was no fresh snow falling, but the overactive currents lifted heaps from the ground and hurled them into the air. The white flakes made the black sky flicker. Hattie’s escapes were routine, but usually she had more sense than to run out into bad weather. The chicken coop was quiet, all asleep. I wrapped myself tighter in the shawl. The lantern’s light wavered with the wind, and I slipped into the barn before it could be extinguished altogether.

Considering the age of the wood, the barn wasn’t drafty; it had been crafted with expertise by the hands of my grandfather and great-grandfather. The animals that filled it gave off a comfortable heat. I heard movement as I slid the door shut, the iron squealing. The darkness made my skin prickle. I reached out with a hand and felt the wall for another lantern. I lit four in total, and the barn glowed. Surprisingly, the animals were all awake. There was the milk cow in her stall; in the next was her yearling calf, who we planned to sell in the upcoming spring markets. The mule flicked his ears backward in irritation. When I came closer he turned his face away from me and stuck his hind end into the light. The last stall was Buckyboy’s. His large head hung over the stall door and the tips of his ears grazed the rafters. They flicked attentively in my direction but after a few seconds focused on a sound behind him.

Even after my most recent growth spurt, I stood just under Buckyboy’s shoulder. Years ago, Father had placed Hattie on Buckyboy’s broad back before she could hold a conversation. This past autumn, the stallion had even carried little Beatrice with our Father’s hands clasped tightly around her abdomen. Buckyboy’s whiskered muzzle twitched as he took in my scent, his hot breath warming my chilled fingers. I was not yet six when he had arrived at the farm. I remembered him as a giant, but when he took oats from my cupped hands he was always gentle. That seemed a world away from the here and now. Under his dark forelock, his eyes examined me carefully. I looked over his stall door and scanned the piles of bedding. There, curled by Buckyboy’s massive hooves, was Hattie.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

Hattie squinted up at me, her eyes adjusting to the light of my lantern. “Ida?” After a moment her brown eyes widened and she scowled. “Oh, Ida, just go away.” She was squatting in the straw with bandages beside her and Mother’s sewing scissors teetering on her knee. Buckyboy’s lame hind leg was nearest to her. He was favoring it, keeping as little weight on it as possible, the toe of his hoof cocked as to minimize touching the ground. Several inches up from the hoof, his whole fetlock was swollen into a meaty mass, bulging out from his cannon bone. A thin layer of bandage was wrapped just below his hock.

“You’re not a vet.”

“I said go away, Ida. Nobody asked you.” Hattie cut a strip of bandage with the sewing scissors and set them on the ground.

“You better not lose those.” Mother wouldn’t be happy, even if she was always sympathetic to Hattie’s silly causes. Like the time she tried to heal a robin’s wing or nurse the orphaned rabbits under the shed. She didn’t understand the operatings of the world. I watched her ignore my warning and wrap the linen carefully around the stallion’s leg. He flinched at her initial touch, but otherwise was motionless. Her tongue stuck out as she focused. I said, unable to bury my frustration. “That’s not going to help anything,”

Hattie spun around to glare at me and snapped, “You just don’t care if he dies. None of you do.”

Mother said that Hattie was too passionate. On hot summer days, she exerted herself so much that her entire face would burn crimson; she radiated like an ember.

“You’re being unreasonable,” I said. Hattie glared at me and I realized then what she must have noticed earlier—I sounded exactly like our parents.

Buckyboy sighed and his hot breath let out a cloud of steam. Hattie saw and giggled. She began to exhale large puffs of air as well, the billowing vapor an amusement. Like ghosts, the white sheen floated upwards and then disappeared.

“Let him sleep, Hattie. We’ll put a rug on him before we leave.” I saw her pause for a moment, then unclench the scissors and shiver. “Come on,” I continued. “I can’t go to bed until you do.”

She fell to my reason, and together we threw a blanket around the stallion. He had a full winter coat; his hairy feathers were as thick as muffs around his legs. He barely felt the chill, but it was more for Hattie than for him. After some coaxing, I was even able to convince her to undo her knotted wrapping. I went into the stall to help her and felt the heat rising from the limb. I ran my hands down the bone as Father had shown me to do and kept a watchful eye on the stallion’s expression, wary of the telltale pinning of the ears or a frustrated swish of the tail. But Buckyboy seemed merely curious of my sister and me, and examined Hattie for treats, nuzzling his muzzle into the pockets of her skirts.

Tucked there beside my sister in the bedding, I noticed braids tied in Buckyboy’s feathers. I felt the thick strands of hair with the pad of a finger and followed a single track as it twisted under and over. I had forgotten how Hattie and I used to tie clumsy braids in the volumes of hair coating Buckyboy’s sturdy legs. We never feared being so close to his powerful hooves.

“He’ll get better,” Hattie insisted as we walked out of the barn, extinguishing lanterns as we went. “He just needs more time.”

I nodded, but it was just to humor her, as I was already thinking of being back in our warm bed. As I opened the barn door, I realized that we were being watched.

“Sheba!” Hattie cried. The mutt was always wary of Hattie’s brazenness. She never showed my sister anything more than tolerant indifference. Instead, she was watching me. She had followed my tracks in the snow; her prints paralleled mine.

I closed the barn door, trapping its heat, and pulled Hattie forward past the mutt. “Go away, dog. I don’t have any food.” She blinked, hunched in the snow, with her ruff thick and shoulders braced against the wind. She followed us back to the house, ten or so feet off, until we were on the porch and then she returned to the shed.

Inside, Mother was waiting. With Beatrice finally asleep, she had two free hands to smack Hattie with. Mother made her take a bath to wash the smell of the barn off her. I set aside my hat, shawl, and boots and slipped under the bed’s thick blankets. I looked away as she bathed; unlike our early years where we were one and the same, I now felt like my body had left hers behind. Into what, I could only guess; I was as little like Mother as I was like Hattie. Mother said that I could expect more changes to come, and while her words were spoken with the insight of experience they only made me more cautious of the body underneath my cotton nightgown. Silently, I listened to Hattie chatter to Mother in excited whispers. Mother’s replies were low hums. Even in my uncertain age, her voice was like a soft hand running over my hair, comforting and sure, even in its invisibility.

Once Hattie was clean, she crawled into bed by my side. There was no kiss goodnight from Mother, as it was too late and she was tired. She merely blew out the candle and left us in darkness.

The next day was warm for early February. The sun could not escape the thick clouds, but the wind had ceased. The snow barely sparkled in the mid-morning dim, making it the same shade of gray as the sky. I could hardly tell one from the other. If it got any warmer, all the snow would melt. Hattie caught water droplets on her tongue from icicles dripping off the porch.

Today, Father would not shoot Buckyboy as the storm had damaged our neighbor’s fence, and Father had offered to help him repair it for six jars of beets and a rabbit. If the fence was not repaired quickly, our neighbor’s sheep could be preyed upon by coyotes. So Father left with the mule, Hattie played in the melting snow, and I stayed with Mother and Beatrice in the kitchen.

Beatrice slept in her bassinet as Mother taught me to skin rabbit. I had only ever watched Mother prepare the meat—I knew little of how the blade sheared just below the skin or where to cut the abdomen as to not damage its liver.

Mother was a calm tutor. She seemed to enjoy our quiet hour together, even if she did not say so. I used to think it was hard picturing Mother as a young girl, as soft and lanky as me. Before my cycle began in the last days of the previous summer, she had prepared me for the event and told me a story from her childhood. She said that when she was young she had long, dark hair just like me. But that was impossible, her hair was the color of adler. Sun bleached, she said. And age, she added with a smile. Her mother had not told her about the bleeding at all. Mother woke up and thought she was dying, and my grandmother had laughed when she ran to her in tears. Mother added at the end of her story that many things seemed less scary in hindsight.

I watched Mother chop vegetables with her skilled hands. She sliced beets into clean rounds, revealing the inside of the bright magenta root. The purple coloring stained her hands.

She cast me a sideways look. I dropped my gaze back down to the rabbit carcass and returned to ripping flesh from the bone. “You’re doing well,” she said.

I nodded. Even from inside the walls of our kitchen I could hear Hattie giggling outdoors. My hands were slimy from the viscera and I wiped them on a towel. “Hattie was hiding in Buckyboy’s stall last night.”

“I know. She told me.”

I scrunched my nose. “Why do you let her do things like that? I wouldn’t.” I thought of Father and firmly believed that he would agree with me. He would, if he had time to be bothered with such silly things. “You treat her like she’s a baby, and she’s not a baby.”

Mother wiped her purple hands on her apron but it did nothing to remove their color. “You’re all my babies,” she explained. She laughed and went to hold my face in her hands.

I shied from her reaching fingers.

“Ida,” she said, her voice strained.

She looked at me like she didn’t recognize my face, even if it bore the same long, dark hair she once had. But I couldn’t see any bit of myself in her either. It was an unsettling foreignness. I swallowed down a habitual apology and returned my attention to the rabbit.

When Mother’s head shot up I assumed that I had not heard Beatrice let out a cry. I looked to her, but she was still bundled tight and asleep. No, there was something outside of the window. I followed Mother’s gaze a dozen yards away from the house. There, a weathered coyote was stepping toward the chicken coop. Mother grabbed a pan from the sink and a wooden spoon. I brought the knife and followed her as she charged out the door. We scared Hattie, who was still licking the icicles on the porch, unaware of the threat. I grabbed her elbow to hold her tight and watched Mother march up to the coyote with the pan and spoon held over her head like a sword and shield in her purple hands.

The coyote was slim, with large ears. It moved in jerking, anxious steps. It held its ground.

Mother began to bang the pan and spoon together; she began to yell, shout, and dance a madman’s jig. The chickens screamed in their coop. The coyote leaped into the air, took a few steps back, and then stared at Mother, hackles raised. Mother was undeterred. She beat the pan like it was a drum and hollered cusses with the passion she reserved for prayer. After only a few seconds, the coyote spooked and darted into the bushes from which it had first appeared. It was not alone in its retreat. There were three others with it, a small pack.

Hattie ran to Mother, and I followed feeling silly still clenching my knife. She finally lowered the pan and spoon and let out a haggard breath. “You saved us,” Hattie squealed.

Mother smiled gently as Hattie embraced her.

“What are they doing so close to the house?” I blurted.

Mother looked down at me. Her hair had fallen out of her tidy bun. “This is the first day of good weather after many days of bad. They’re hungry.”

“I’m hungry too,” Hattie said.

“Well, good. Ida was just making us a delicious lunch.” Mother smiled at me. There was no heaviness in her voice from my cruelty. It was forgiven, a blemish healed so well that it left no physical defect. But I felt its ghost. I averted my gaze from her and toyed with the kitchen knife. It suddenly seemed very blunt and small.

Together we walked back into the house. I ignored Hattie’s giddy exclamations at seeing the dent that Mother had bashed into the pan. I saw Sheba laying in the entryway to the shed in a rare patch of sunlight. Her posture was relaxed, but her ears were focused. They were fixated on the far edge of the fields, where I saw a band of four gray dots disappear into the tree line.

After lunch, once Hattie and I helped Mother with the dishes, we were allowed to do as we pleased. Father had not yet returned from the neighbor’s, so Mother let me do some shooting practice as long as she could see me through the kitchen window. She never minded when I shot at the crows. They were a nuisance.

Father had taught me to shoot the fall before last. At first, the rifle had felt far too long and too heavy for my arms. Now, I could raise it to my chest in one flowing motion. I imitated Father’s posture, the sureness of his gaze, his resolute stance. The kickback was still jarring and made me wobble on my feet, but Father said that I had plenty of time to improve.

I never actually killed any of the crows. They were not for eating, and Father emphasized never killing for sport. Father had painted cans and targets for me to practice on. Only occasionally did I shoot at the tree line, when the crows were getting too cocky with their loud, jarring cackles. The birds would flee the trees in a black cloud, as if they were dark leaves and autumn had happened all at once.

Hattie ran off again, and with Father still not home and dusk approaching, Mother was more nervous than ever. This time, I knew to check the barn first. It was warm, so I didn’t need the shawl and hat, but I still wore my boots. As predicted, the heat had turned many patches of snow to slush. Mud and murk appeared as brown sores. As I passed the sodden soil, I checked for sprouts of new green grass. There were only the dull remains of the summer before.

Hattie was not in the barn. The cows were antsy. With Father’s delay, feeding time had come and gone. I threw a flake of hay or two in their stalls, skipping the absent mule’s, until I reached Buckyboy’s and found it empty. His stall was a dark cavern without his massive girth inside. I half expected to find him dead on the ground, as improbable as it was. I only discovered a nearly empty roll of bandage and sewing scissors in the straw.

I left the barn, slamming the door behind me so hard that the wood trembled. Looking back at the house, I contemplated telling Mother. Light illuminated the curtains in her and Father’s bedroom. She would be awake, tending to the baby or waiting for Father’s return. He’d said that he would be home before nightfall.

The only thing I could do was keep looking. I stepped forward, only to find my boot stuck in a fresh pit of mud. I snarled and with both hands grabbed my boot and yanked upward. I nearly fell onto my back, but not before noticing the extra large set of hoof prints that had torn at the earth.

The size and disfigured gait labeled the prints as Buckyboy’s. They were paired with footprints several sizes smaller than mine. I followed the tracks, and they led me around the barn and continued on, pointing towards the fields. I paused at the edge of the lot, where the corpses of last year’s corn crop extended into the daylight. For several acres there was nothing but slush, snow, and mud until the fields reached the tree line. There, the barren limbs of tree branches clawed at the encroaching dusk.

I squinted into the distance to try and spot the pair but was unable to see anything amongst the rolling hills. Instinctually, my gaze fell on the section of trees where the pack had fled. But the distance was too far; nothing could be distinguished except for the sharp transition from white snow to blackened bark. Before I began my search, I returned to the barn and grabbed my gun.

Buckyboy and Hattie left an easy trail to follow. It was mostly a straight path, only occasionally meandering around a ditch or deep puddle. The stallion had plowed these fields every spring for half his lifetime. Where I stumbled on uneven, thawing earth, his steps would have been surefooted, but Buckyboy’s lameness would no doubt hinder his and Hattie’s progress. I expected to run into them soon. The clouds dulled the glow of the setting sun, but I could still sense it falling as the air chilled. Marching briskly, I clamped the gun against my chest. Beneath the cool metal of the barrel and the warm flesh of my breast, my heart pounded with brutal intensity.

The break of a corn stalk from behind caused me to spin around. I fumbled with the gun in my arms, the shape suddenly bulky, my arms weak. Before I even had the barrel raised, I noticed that the intruder was only Sheba, her large belly making her almost wobble side to side as she walked towards me. “Damn, dog,” I said as we regarded each other. “You shouldn’t be this far away from the coop.” I waved an arm in the air to try to chase her off, but she merely licked her jowls, obviously unimpressed. With a scowl, I turned away from her only to hear the gentle sounds of paws crinkling dried vegetation. I paused and the sounds stopped. I looked over my shoulder and found her just as close as before, looking up at me impatiently. “Suit yourself,” I said. We walked the rest of the way together, always staying several paces apart.

I found them at the far edge of the field, only a few hundred feet from the line of trees. Buckyboy was refusing to move any further and Hattie, tugging at his lead, was using all of the weight in her body to try and pull him forward. She was talking to him sweetly before she noticed my arrival, but after she saw me she began to tug harder and harder, her feet slipping into the mud. “Come on,” she cried. “Come on, Buckyboy, or you’re going to die.”

I grabbed the stallion’s lead from her, pushing her away, causing her to slip down into the murk. “Why do you always have to be so stupid?” I snapped. Hattie stayed on the ground, sobbing, her skirts becoming flaked with mud and dampened by the snow. “You’re hurting him!” I continued.

I looked at the spooked stallion and found his head thrown high, his eyes wide and bulging from stress, pain, and uncertainty. I placed a hand on his shoulder and felt him tremble at my touch. Behind him, Sheba stood a safe distance away, her ears pricked forward, subtly changing angles to hear things I could not. Behind her, I was able to see just how far Buckyboy had walked to get to where we were now. His injury was no more healed than it would ever be, but still, he had walked because Hattie had asked him to, and did so faithfully until he reached the edge of his only home. He let me gingerly feel along his swollen limb. Under his thick feathers was the burning heat of pain.

“Come on, old boy, let’s head home,” I murmured as I gently guided him to turn around. Every step he made was precise and seemed painful. Hattie began new sobs as she watched. “You too,” I said, ushering her up with a nod of my head. For a moment, I thought that she would refuse me but then she slowly teetered upright.

“I never meant to hurt him,” she said with a sniffle, shuffling towards me. She clenched my skirts as she did Mother’s. “I just thought…I just thought that we could hide out in the woods until he was better. So that Father wouldn’t have to shoot him.” The mention of shooting set her off once more. I let her cry. I was too focused on watching Buckyboy carefully place each hoof into the snow, as the light dimmed and the division between field and forest became muted by shadow.

As the sun set behind the line of trees, the shadows of tree trunks stretched across the field like dark snakes. Buckyboy was stumbling worse than ever before. His breathing was rough and shallow, coming in abrupt, inconsistent jerks. Hattie hummed to him, her voice breaking every few moments from the heaving of her chest as she held in tears. I let her hold the stallion’s lead. She clung to it desperately. I wanted both hands free to hold my gun. We were just under halfway there.

Sheba was staying at our perimeter, to the back and to the side so that I could still see her from the corner of my eye. She paced anxiously every time we paused to allow Buckyboy to rest. I tried to ignore her, but my body was picking up on her tension.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no. Ida! Ida! He’s laying down!” Hattie cried. I turned and saw my sister struggling to keep Buckyboy standing as his body collapsed under the weight of itself. His whole bulk heaved as he fell to the ground. I took the lead from Hattie and pulled, dropping the gun to use both hands. Hattie stood behind him and pushed, smacked, and clucked to urge him forward. Sheba paced.

Buckyboy would not budge. I gave up, stumbling backwards as I released the tension on his lead. “What are we going to do, Ida?” Hattie asked.

I shook my head. I didn’t know. I was tired. I was cold. I was supposed to be eating dinner around the warmth of our family table. I placed my hands on my knees and exhaled, my breath escaping my chest unevenly. Then a sound, deep and throaty, caught my attention. Sheba had moved close to me, so close that I could touch her. She faced away from me and growled.

I stood upright and stared down the trail that we had made in the snow and shadows. Four coyotes stood barely fifty feet behind Hattie.

Hattie had not noticed Sheba’s warning. She was wiping the tears from her face and then moved to the stallion’s neck to cry into his mane. “Please. We have to get you home.” The stallion hardly noticed her touch. His ears were forward and alert. The whites of his eyes rolled, bloodshot and bulbous.

Very slowly, I crouched down and retrieved my gun. “Hattie,” I said, just above a whisper. “Stay between me and Buckyboy.” Before Hattie could question me, I moved in front of her. My feet were heavy, as if they had been swallowed by the mud and buried. I pressed my back against her, forcing her to take clumsy backward steps. Sheba stayed at my side, her teeth bared.

The pack was quickly ensnaring us in a tightening circle. I stood motionless as they moved closer. They weaved in and out of the shadows. A corn stalk snapped in one direction, then the opposite. With numb fingers I clenched my gun, but I could not get myself to release it from its position clamped at my chest. Hattie’s breathing grew frantic. We were so close together that I could feel the pulsing of her heart against my spine. I heard her say my name, muted and faint with fear, the syllables out of place with her tone, as if she were calling out for Mother, not for me.

The pan. The spoon. I lifted my hands in the air, raising the gun high. It felt as if I was underwater, my arms unbearably heavy and just as slow. I attempted to shout. My words were caught in my throat. A couple of the more cautious coyotes had paused. Sheba’s growls radiated up my legs, stirring the terror in my belly. I raised my arms again and yelled; the sound was hollow and hoarse, but it sent the wary members of the pack back. Before I tried to spur my voice again, a coyote sprung forward and latched its jaws around one of Buckyboy’s thick legs.

I pulled Hattie away as the stallion attempted to leap upright. He did not have the strength to raise his hind end out of the mud before another coyote leaped onto his broad haunches and dragged him back onto the dirt. Hattie screamed. In the dim light, Buckyboy’s blood was the color of ink. For the first time, I raised my gun, but the end of the barrel bounced this way and that from the shaking of my hands. One coyote clawed at Buckyboy’s haunches; another had his lame leg between its jaws.

I felt a tug at my sleeve. Hattie. She frantically directed my attention to a coyote that was nearing, body crouched, compressed like a spring. I was about to try and shout to scare it off when it sprinted toward us. I had always mocked Mother’s chickens for being so dumb and still when danger was upon them. In that moment, I had no ability to do anything else. I had my gun, but my finger was frozen on the trigger. No crow had ever come after me before.

One moment she was at my side, the next Sheba was charging at the much smaller coyote. They collided, Sheba’s black mass pummeling the creature into the ground. It yelped and before it could lift itself off the ground, Sheba was at its throat. Her upper hand was quickly lost. Another coyote leapt onto her back and began to rip at her head, her ears, and her thick, dark ruff. She could not fight both at once, and I found enough voice to cry out as the two coyotes began to attack her in turn.

My gun was raised before I was aware of it. The sounds of the carnage around me was deafened only by the pounding of blood in my ears. My knees felt weak. Had my feet gone numb? I could feel nothing, only the cool trigger under the tip of a finger.

The recoil woke me up. That and the single uninhibited yelp of a coyote before it dropped.

The blood formed a small pool the color of beet juice.

The three remaining coyotes had frozen, one over Sheba, two over Buckyboy. The gun was still braced against my shoulder, the end of the barrel was still shaking. I waited for them to run. Why wouldn’t they run? Instead they stood and watched me. All three, silent judges. With unblinking eyes and twitching noses they asked, what are you made of, girl? Then, one cautiously sniffed the now open wound on Buckyboy’s leg and began to teeth at the flesh.

In a frantic rush of movement, I pointed the gun upwards, closed my eyes, and fired. When I opened them the rest of the pack, minus one, scattered. With fresh blood staining the fur of their jowls, they ran back into the safety of the forest. My arms shook. The gun had tripled in mass; I could not bear it but neither could I let it go. Sheba’s body was still in the snow and Buckyboy, trapped in a sopping mess of hoof-torn earth and blood, was struggling to stand.

His strength had long left him. He rocked to try to put weight onto his legs but they could not support him. Taking shallow breaths, the stallion dropped back to the ground, head falling back into the mud. Things weren’t going to get any better, I recalled my Father saying the day Buckyboy’s fate was sealed. It’s our job to keep things from getting worse, whatever that may mean.

I heard sobs and didn’t realize they were my own until tears froze on my cheeks and snot hit my lips. Father wasn’t here. Mother wasn’t here. It was just me, a gun, and a dying horse trembling in the mud. How I wished that things were just as easy as Hattie had wanted them to be; just run to the woods, leave the bad things behind. Instead, I raised the gun as I had always practiced.

At the end of the barrel was the stallion’s skull. Hattie was calling out to me but her words were unintelligible. I wanted to cry with her and beg with her and curl into Mother’s lap with her, but that wasn’t an option anymore. The gun was already raised and there was no one but me to do it.

“Ida!” a voice called, too low and deep to be Hattie’s. Suddenly, a hand reached from behind me and grabbed my gun out of my hands. Suddenly, I felt so weak I believed that I might collapse.

“Father!” Hattie exclaimed. I turned and found Father holding his gun in one hand and mine in the other. His face was as grave and pale as the landscape. Standing not far off was the mule, pulling a small sled behind him that held Father’s tools. Father ignored most of Hattie’s rushed, nervous prattle. He looked her over, grabbing her chin to turn her face one way then the other. Still, she blabbered. He had her hold the guns. Father made his way across our small battlefield, where the snow and mud churned into a filthy brew. Buckyboy nickered when he saw him. With his back to me, I saw Father pause in front of the ruined stallion. He crouched and ran his hand over the stallion’s muscled, trembling neck and topline, stopping before he reached any areas flecked with blood. He ushered him to stay down with a calm word and an open palmed gesture. Then he moved to Sheba and her limp body. Her belly was swollen. It rose and fell as she breathed, but she did not move. I watched Father pick up Sheba, careful of her wounds, and he carried her towards us. He asked me to move aside his tools on the sled and then set Sheba down upon the faded wood.

“Take her home,” he said. “Be quick about it.”

My body eased, welcoming a task I could accomplish and the prospect of home. Grabbing the mule’s lead, I waited for Hattie to appear, but she was lingering in Father’s shadow, still holding the guns. They were as large as ship oars in her small arms. I wondered if I had looked half as ridiculous, a pathetic mimic of strength.

Father coaxed Buckyboy to stay down as the horse again tried in vain to stand. “Rest easy, old boy. That’s it. That’s my boy,” he said softly. Father knelt in the dirt and with a great heave the stallion was resting his head on my father’s knees. His breathing slowed as Father gently ran a hand over his cheek.

“Hattie, go with Ida,” Father said after a moment. For once, my sister was silent. The only sound was the breathing of Buckyboy, each breath like broken bellows. Before we left, Father took his gun from Hattie and a shovel and lamp from the sled.

Hattie and I guided the mule back toward the house. Sheba was a quiet passenger. The mule shied as a gunshot pierced the still air. I expected to hear the earth quake, for the tilled dirt to tremble, for the corn stalks trampled beneath my feet to quiver like bowstrings. But we were too far off and heard nothing. The sun had set completely now. I could see a lamp on in the kitchen. I could almost see Mother’s shadow.

The attack had prompted early labor and Sheba had no strength for it. After stitching up the back of Sheba’s neck and the tattered remains of her right ear, Mother stayed awake to assist with the birth. Hattie and I were determined to help as well. But the process was long and we were exhausted. We slept in shifts. Mother did not seem to need sleep at all.

After several hours, Father returned to the house. He explained everything to Mother from out on the porch. From behind the kitchen window, the porchlight etched their faces and shoulders in silhouette. The darkened shapes moved soundlessly and blended together into one. Eventually Mother came back inside with Father following slowly behind. His shirtsleeves were heavy with dirt and moisture. He made no comment about how comfortable Mother had made Sheba in front of the fireplace. Father had a strict rule that she was never to be in the house.

Mother awoke Hattie and me when the first pup was born. I had never seen life so small. Five more followed. Two were dead, born not breathing. I rubbed one’s chest as firmly and as gently as I could. I cleared out its tiny nostrils and mouth just as Mother showed me. Still, it wouldn’t take a gasp. I warmed it between my palms, breathing a hot breath onto its fur as I had done hundreds of times before to warm the metal bit before putting it between Buckyboy’s teeth. After several minutes Mother took the pup from me and wrapped it in a towel and set it aside.

After the birth was over, Mother brought over a basin and I washed my hands in the cool water. Blood washed off my skin in clouds. Mother emptied the basin and filled it once more, dampening a towel and offering it. Hattie and I washed our faces. The water that fell onto my lips tasted of salt.

Sheba had little energy to tend to her pups, but she relaxed as they curled up into her side and began to nurse. Father picked one up, the pup fitting in his hand as perfectly as a teacup.

“Coydog,” he said as he assessed the pup he held. They were small, with slim muzzles, their fur light, with black tipped tails. Father set the pup down as Sheba began to growl at him. He chuckled. “Easy, Mama.”

Tomorrow, Father would go to the nearest town to purchase a new plow horse, but daylight was far off. I watched Father slip something out of his pocket and cup it in Hattie’s hands. One of Buckyboy’s braids rested between her fingers. Tomorrow, Hattie would go with Father to market and name this new horse, as I had named Buckyboy all those years ago.

Even though we were all tired, no one mentioned going to bed. Mother sat in her rocking chair with Hattie nestled in her lap, clutching the tattered braid. Father tended the fire burning under the mantel. His eyes gleamed as if stung by the smoke and his hands trembled around the fire iron. I remained on the floor, close to the pups. No one spoke. The pups whimpered. Sheba’s breathing was deep and even. In my palms I felt the ghost weight of the dead pups. I tucked my knees under my chin and placed my head on Mother’s knee and rested there until she woke me to say that it was time to go to bed.


Marissa Canarelli is a senior biology major/English minor at SUNY Geneseo. She writes, reads, and rides horses.

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Hannah McSorley

We Went to the Ocean to Forget

We return to the ocean to watch the gulls, to listen to the crashing waves hit the rocky shore, to feel its spit against our faces.

Our middle sister, Aila, descends the boat launch. She only wades into the water up to her knees today, and even though she’s in the shallows, she turns, glances at us over her shoulder, as if looking for reassurance. She reaches her spread fingers to the surface to let the ocean nibble on her fingertips as an offering. I step down the boat launch just enough for the water to soak through the sides of my shoes, until I feel the water rise between my toes, and I place my hands in the water too. Take the dead skin, the hangnails, take what has already passed, I say—I hope—and maybe the water won’t take anymore of us.

I look at both my sisters. As Aila tries to reconcile her love of the water with what it has taken, Adele stands staring at the sea defiant, angry that something so simple, so integral to life, could upend what she thought she knew. A week has separated the family of nine that we were from the family of eight we’ve become; the loss of our little brother Noah still raw enough to turn our stomachs.

We’ve always come to the ocean to forget; met here beside the boat launch—the fire pit—thrown photos of old boyfriends and papers with poor grades circled in red pen into the flames, which we then used to light our cigarettes and exhale the day from our lungs. Today, though, I can’t help but feel certain moments bombard me from behind.

A memory: waves kissing the tips of my tiny shoes. Papa is nearby talking to our two older brothers, Liam and Finn, about erosion, how water can cut through rock. My heart races as I look towards the rocky breakwater, protecting our shores from the rage of the sea. Images of waves, curling open into jaws, chomping through earth, race through my mind. Each time the waves lap against the shore in the nights that follow, I turn towards the window convinced that the ocean will have crept closer to our little red house, baring its teeth.

We were told of the curse from an age before our mouths knew words. Papa would lean forward in his burgundy chair in front of the fireplace, and remove his hat in respect for our drowned ancestors. His eyes would grow almost three times in size, and we’d suddenly notice the crazed chaos of his eyebrows. With my sisters and brothers gathered at his feet, he’d delve into the tales of the oak tree from which all life sprang, tales of an otherworld, of magic from his boyhood in Ireland. But he’d end his stories by rattling off a sequence of names once claimed by the lungs of our ancestors and send us off to bed with a warning. I’d imagine those names leaving their lungs in giant bubbles, as everything they were collapsed under the weight of water. At night our dreams would fill with faces that resembled our own, floating amongst cones of light.

Once all three of us had assembled between Ma and Papa in the middle of the night, with shaking hands and terrified hearts, Ma would sit up on the edge of her bed, take our hands in hers, and say, “Don’t worry. It’s a fib. It’s a lie, an old story that no longer has power.” But when Papa looked at the sea each morning, before he’d head to the docks and raise the sails, we could see a glint of fear, of focus, that he could shake no better than we could.

Adele was the only one brave enough to ask Papa about it. She was twelve at the time, Aila nine, myself five. He told us the sea simply craves the salt in our blood, that she whispers our family’s name, searching for us. He said our husbands will be safe, but children must be watched carefully. He said the ocean has been swelling, churning and crashing with ever more power each year; that the sea was getting hungry.

When Papa’s brother, Michael, drowned, Papa stopped telling the stories. We gradually forgot the names of the ocean’s early victims and felt the details of their deaths slip further into history. With a little more than a decade separating our generation from the tragedy of the last, we all grew apathetic, negligent. Whenever I touch the water, an ember in the back of my mind catches the wind, brightens to the shade of a spark. Because of it, I don’t dare step into water any deeper than my knees.

I step off the boat launch and sit on the rocks separating the land from the sea. I look at my sisters, and I wonder if they’re remembering the curse for the first time in a decade. My feet dangle above the water as I light a cigarette and guard the flame from the wind.

“Leah, you really shouldn’t smoke, you know.”

I turn back towards Adele, the eldest of the three of us, see her folding her arms in front of her chest as she paces.

“Says the person who handed me my first cigarette.”

“You should stop. That’s all I mean.”

She stopped, so I should stop, is what she means.

I hear grass shifting as she approaches to sit beside me. She reaches for the cigarette between my fingers.

“I just want it for a second.”

I smirk as she puts the cigarette to her lips and inhales; this is her first cigarette in four years, maybe five, as far as I know.

“Fuck…I forgot how that feels.”

Aila turns around and glances at Adele from the water.

Adele lowers her head, cradles her face in her hands. “Aila, will you please get out of there.”

“Yeah, or the kraken is gonna get ya,” I sigh.

“Don’t even start.” Adele stands, walks back towards the table. “How can you joke about that today?”

She shakes her head and snatches her jacket off the table. I look at our black dresses and skirts, inhale another puff from my cigarette.

This town is filled with tongues that love to spin tales, a quality that fills Adele with rage. Some were beginning to speculate that our family would know loss again soon, but when news of Noah’s death rolled through town with the fog, their guilt swept them like dirt up the aisle of the church to kneel in prayer before the tiny coffin.

Aila climbs up the boat launch, lets her dress fall from her grasp above the water.

“Adele, we’re all thinking about it.”

“Our family isn’t cursed,” Adele snaps. “We’re surrounded by water—everyone knows someone who’s drowned.”

I shrug. “Sure, but our family has lost like twenty people.”

Adele glances at me, but turns to Aila.

“What time is it?” she says.

Aila turns her wrist around and checks her watch. “Quarter to six.”

I scan the growing fog and spot a familiar boat racing the clouds home.

“Papa’s back.” I stand, brushing dirt from my skirt. “We should head home.”

“Well, let’s go meet him.” Adele pushes a rogue blond curl behind her ear.

“Why? We’ll see him at home,” I protest.

“Leah, you cannot be a bitch right now.”

Before I can respond, Aila steps between us.

“The docks are on the way.” She stares at me as she starts walking away from the water. Adele follows her in a huff, but I stay a second, take a long drag. I feel the smoke fill up the space behind my nose before the relaxation sets in, takes the edge off.

As scared as it makes me, I love to watch the gathering, surging water as it rolls towards the shore. Each time the waves finally break, I can hope that my silence has not been for nothing, that my siblings can see Papa in the ways that I can’t. I can hope that one day I will collapse, gather, regroup, and get as far away as I can from where I started. The waves splash my shoes, as if the ocean is saying, “Go on now, go on.” I spit into the sea, and take one more drag from my cigarette.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

The smell of rotting fish is worst at the docks, though it fills the air all over town. Our shoes click against the wood beneath our steps as Papa’s boat rams into his spot in the marina.

“Oh, geez.” Adele runs ahead.

Papa jumps onto the dock, nearly falls onto John O’Reilly’s boat on the other side, and lifts his arms up in the air when he spots us walking towards him.

Adele rips the bowline from his hand and ties it to the cleat on the dock so the boat can’t drift away. As she stands Papa wraps his arms around her, rubs her head with his rough palm. I jump down into his boat, but I have to make my way through a sea of bottles, rolling from one side of the boat to the other to reach the main sail atop the boom.

Adele steps back from his embrace and watches him with worry.

“How’re you doing, Papa?”

“I found some dolphins!”

He pushes Aila out of his way, so that she has to put one foot on the boat to avoid falling in the water, as he runs to the edge of the dock, pointing into the fog.

“Pulled up right alongside the hull here.”

“Maybe that was Noah.” Adele smiles, but we all enter a moment of stillness, of reflection.

Noah was twelve—five years, nearly six, younger than myself. He’d gone to work with Papa on his fishing boat at the beginning of last week, but he fell in the water and was carried away in a riptide. Papa, our brothers, Liam and Finn, and all the fishermen, even the coast guard, searched the rest of the week, but they never found him. He had Ma’s big blue eyes and freckles crossing the bridge of his nose. After he’d play baseball with his friends and his socks would get all sweaty, he’d stick them under Papa’s pillow. I told him to do it once—he was the one to make a habit out of it. Papa would yell for him, chase him through the house with the dirty socks, and then throw Noah over his shoulder when he caught him.

I watch Papa now as he stares at the horizon. His black shirt is buttoned askew, half of his shirt isn’t tucked into his pants, and his yellow sailing jacket is falling from his shoulders. At the memorial this morning his hair had been combed neatly, but now the wind tugs bits and pieces of his greying hair in all directions.

Aila grabs Papa’s arm. “It’ll be getting dark soon. We should get back for dinner.”

Papa nods, points at the sails, and steps down onto the boat to begin de-rigging.

As we turn onto our street, we see Ma handing coins to the paperboy on the porch.

I shake my head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The boy rushes past me with his messenger bag clutched tight to his chest, his hat pulled down to hide his eyes. I don’t have the energy to chase after him today, but I turn to Ma who holds the paper, lifts her chin in triumph. I wonder what craft the classifieds and the apartment listings will be turned into today.

“You’ve been paying him to avoid giving me the newspaper, haven’t you?”

She stares at me with dark circles under her eyes.

“I knew you wouldn’t rest, not even today.”

With that, I stop on the driveway and watch my sisters and Papa follow Ma into the house. I feel my nostrils flaring until I fear my nose will tear.

There are two boxes on the porch with Adele written on the side. At the age of twenty-seven, with one failed marriage behind her, she’s moving back in with her eleven month old son, William. Once again, three beds have been squeezed into our tiny bedroom, but today they also crammed a crib between Adele’s bed and the wall. There never was enough room before, but now we’ll be lucky if our lungs can inflate.

The house is quiet when I finally step inside. Low voices susurrate through the halls. Liam, the eldest, is standing at the dinner table, talking to Aila. Finn, the brother between Liam and Adele, is shaking Papa’s hand. Our remaining younger brother, Aidan, hands Papa an opened beer and sits on the floor beside the fireplace as Papa plops in his chair. In the quiet, I almost feel Noah slip into the room, as if he’s observing us all from the steps like he used to, his big blue eyes sparkling.

Liam lifts his bottle in the air and says, “Dinner is served.”

As we sit at the table I look at the freckles splattered over all of our faces, as if we were a single canvas receiving flecks of paint. Liam and I are the only ones with red hair. I hope to leave like he did: without ties to anyone or anything. But Ma didn’t have any issues when Liam left; she said he had to go find a wife. With me it’s different, I’m just supposed to be found apparently—I can’t do any of the seeking.

I turn to my right and look at the empty chair between Ma and myself. Ma stares at the table where a plate should be, and curses as she stands and stomps to the cupboard. We all glance between Papa and Ma, as she sets up Noah’s place setting. When she’s done, we’re all silent; no one dares move.

“Well, grace—let’s say it, come on.”

Ma holds up her hands, but puts one hand on the back of Noah’s chair instead of grabbing mine when I reach towards her. I follow suit and place my hand on the back of Noah’s chair as well, but look at my siblings as we lower our heads in prayer.

Papa whispers the “Our Father,” and we all say “Amen” before dragging our fingers from our heads to our hearts and across our shoulders.

Liam begins to serve the chicken, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole that he brought as our lips struggle to make conversation.

“Liam, how’s Eilis?” Adele looks across the table at him, asking about his wife.

“She’s doing well, she’s enjoying the kids now that they’re a bit older.” He nods. “Aila, still swimming?” He turns towards her.

“Yeah, always swimming.” She smiles beside me. She’s training to get on a national swim team.

We start eating, but freeze once again as Ma stands up with Noah’s plate, and gives him a serving of the food. Aila’s eyes well up, and I watch Adele grab her hand.

“I don’t want him to be hungry,” Ma snarls, as she realizes we’re watching her.

“Come now, Margaret.” Papa shakes his head. “That’s a waste of food.”

“I will not send him to heaven without a proper meal, Owen.” Ma snaps back.

Papa stands and puts his hands on his head.

“Pops, it’s fine.” Liam sits up in his chair. “There’s plenty—really, it’s not a problem.”

Papa puts his hands at the top of his chair, shakes his head once more, before lifting the chair and slamming it back on the ground. We all jump as he stomps down the hall, grabs his jacket, and leaves out the front door.

With the plates back in the cupboards and the food wrapped up in the fridge, Ma kisses us all on the cheek, says goodnight, but pulls Adele upstairs with her. When Adele returns, Aila stares at her.

“What the hell was that about?” she finally asks.

“Ma asked if the baby could sleep in their room…she just wants to hold him for a while.”

We nod, our hearts sinking. Liam pulls a bottle of whiskey out of a bag, sets it on the table.

“Anyone need a drink?”

We sigh collectively, relaxing our shoulders.

My sisters and I collapse at the top of the stairs in a heap. Aila lays on the floor in front of the door to our room as Adele and I lean against the wall, giggling.

“God, I haven’t been drunk in so long.” Adele laughs.

I kick off my heels and rest my head against the wall behind me.

“Tyler never took you to bars?” Aila looks up at Adele.

“No, not since the baby came. We went all the time when we were dating, we’d go dancing, and we did that a few times after we got married, but…”

She shakes her head, and looks down at her fingers now free of rings.

Aila stares at the ceiling, but whispers, “What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Aila.” Adele sighs. “Stay here, get a job and save up for a while, I guess.”

Aila rolls onto her stomach, rests her chin atop her hands, with her eyes nearly closed. Adele rolls the fabric of her skirt between her fingers, her brow furrowed in thought.

“Ma’s excited to have a baby around again,” I add.

“Yeah…” Adele chuckles, brushes her hair behind her ears. “He’s pretty fun…”

We’re quiet a moment. In the silence we hear the house breathing, and then the tapping of the radiator at the other end of the hall.

“Goodnight sir,” Aila whispers.

A chuckle bursts from my tired chest, as Adele smiles beside me, and we remember the story Papa used to tell to squelch our fear of that very tapping: he said an old man played spoons within the pipes, that the old man grew lonely in the winter, so when we heard the tapping we were to say hello, or say goodnight, offer him a word or two to stave off his loneliness. We used to lay awake at night in our room, waiting for the sound of spoons, so we could try to talk to him, ask his name, how he got trapped in the pipes, whether he was safe, happy. Papa was never as concerned as we were.

Aila drops her arms to the floor in front of her and rests her forehead atop them, exhausted. When her breathing slows, I look at my oldest sister, and my curiosity and the whiskey on my tongue draw the questions from my mind into the air.

“What happened with Tyler?”

She rubs her eye, and her mascara darkens her eyelid and the side of her nose.

“It’s late. We should go to bed.”

“Adele, come on.”

She studies me for a moment before beginning.

“It’s—we took Will to the beach a few weeks ago…we took him to Seal Point, where we used to meet Papa.”

I nod, remembering wind in our hair, as all seven of us raced to the beach to meet Papa for lunch during the summers, while all of his fishing buddies went to the pub.

“And we were way up on the beach like way up by the road where you park. The water was at least two hundred feet away, if not more. I set Will’s carrier on the sand beside me to help Tyler lay out a blanket…

“It was a sound like thunder—the waves came rushing all around us, lifting everything up, the buckets, the blanket, Will…it dragged him towards the ocean, but Tyler grabbed him, so he’s fine. Tyler wanted to just go home after that, but I had to stay, and watch…the waves didn’t come that far up the beach again, but I sort of hoped they would so we could say it was high tide or that the breakwater was damaged or something…”

“What did Tyler say?”

“Once we were back in the car, he started laughing and was about to drive home, but that’s when I stopped him, told him we needed to stay. I was terrified. I told him about the curse.”

I watch her eyes well up, and she folds her arms in front of her chest.

“He told me I was crazy; I told him everything I could remember from Papa’s stories, all the names…but he just started yelling, and told me I was never to speak of it again, but then Noah…he started attacking you guys, Ma, Papa…so I grabbed my favorite clothes and my baby and came back home.”

I nod. We’re silent a moment. The radiator taps and pings.

“So you believe in it now?”

Adele turns her head, catches my eye, and says, “I don’t know.”

She’s whispering now, as if the house, and the old man in the pipes, are listening.

“I just know that when everything rose up, and the sound of it; it scared the shit out of me. And I was helpless—if Tyler hadn’t been there…”

The day that Papa returned from the docks without Noah I learned what it looks like when a heart crumbles. Aila and I caught Ma before she reached the floor and guided her down the rest of the way. Papa leaned against the frame of the front door with Noah’s soaked sailing jacket, bought especially for this day and future sailing endeavors, dangling from his fingers, dripping into a puddle around Papa’s feet.

Guilt dries my throat.

“He was so young,” I whisper. Adele grabs my hand and squeezes it.

“Why do you want to get out of here so bad? I mean I know it’s small, but…” Adele shakes her head.

I pause, consider my answer. “I just need to start over somewhere new, maybe head to New York City.”

“Does the new place have to be so far away? Couldn’t you start with Portland?”

“I’ll have to start there. I don’t have enough to get all the way to New York yet. But I need to get away from these trees, from the sea, as far away as I can. New York City is the exact opposite of this.” I point out the window to the Maine landscape: the granite, the pine trees, the cold beaches.

“We’ll miss you.” Adele looks at me, as if she’s just realizing this herself.

I’m struck by her sincerity, moved almost, but change is the only way to reconcile the memories that have shaped me. I can’t be the only one of us that feels her regrets outweighing everything else.

I look out at the sun over the water from our bedroom window as I lift my head from my pillow and hear Aila and Adele chatting in the kitchen. Will giggles, coos. I dress and step down the stairs, listening for Ma’s booming steps. When I round the corner into the kitchen though, it’s just the three of them.

“Where’s Ma?”

“Walsh’s Diner,” Aila turns.

“Again?”

She shrugs. “Says the coffee’s her favorite.”

I know better than that: she hates coffee. I grab my jacket from the foyer closet, step into a pair of boots by the door, and walk out into the foggy morning.

Ma is curled around a mug in a booth beside the window. I slide into the seat across from her, and she lifts her eyes to meet mine. She’s tired. We’re all tired.

“Ma, you all right?”

“I can mind myself, thank you.” She nods, leans back in her seat.

“Ma…”

“Don’t you give me a bit of trouble, Leah.”

“I’m not giving you trouble. I’m asking if you’re okay, Jesus.”

Ma glares at the way Christ’s name comes from my lips.

“I’m sorry…I just thought you might enjoy some company.”

Her eyes skip from the coffee to me, to something behind me. I turn to see the doors to the kitchen swinging open and closed; where Ma was looking before.

“Good coffee?” I point at her mug.

“Yes, it’s great coffee.” She nods, folds her arms in front of her chest, raises her eyebrows.

“I don’t mean to hurt you…by looking for apartments. You know that, right?”

“You always keep yourself so separate from us.”

I nod, look at the table in front of me.

“I don’t mean to.”

She stares beyond me again towards the swinging kitchen doors. I know who Ma’s looking for—the woman doesn’t work on Mondays, but Ma can’t know that I’m aware of that, even though it might help her understand why I want to leave. When I turn back, Ma is staring out at the docks, at all the boats.

“Truth be told, I want to get away from the sound of it. I don’t quite blame you.” She nods towards the ocean, her face still, but her eyes daggers.

I touch her wrist, watch her eyes narrowing at my touch. She’s kept herself pretty separate from all of us this week, as if she’s scared to recognize that it could have easily been any of her children.

“How ‘bout we head home?”

She looks at me a moment, her eyes softening, before she nods.

I sit in the bay window in the dining room beneath the moonlight, with the window ajar, a cigarette between my fingers. Everyone else is asleep. On my lap, a local history book balances atop my knees. I’ve had the page flagged and dog-eared for years. I can’t even imagine the overdue fee it’s accumulated. I stare at the names, begin to remember them again, as if they were people I once knew.

The front door squeaks open, and I recognize the sound of Papa’s steps interacting with hardwood. He steps down the hallway, opens the door to the closet to pull out his toolbox for his boat. When he turns around, his eyes meet mine for a moment. He turns, sets the toolbox on the floor. I hear the kiss of the refrigerator door opening a moment after he enters the kitchen. He returns to sit at the table, facing me. We sit, self-medicate in silence.

He lifts his eyes from the table to look at me again, and—when he gains the courage—lifts a finger from his curled hand rested on the table.

“Remember when you was little, and I’d spin you round this room by yer arms?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

Papa nods, taps the table with his finger. When he looks up again he looks beyond me into the world outside the window.

“Fun to remember what we used to be,” I whisper.

There’s fear in his eyes. The same fear that fills him up before he steps aboard his boat, and I feel a sudden strength because I share a pronoun with that great expanse of waves. I blow a puff of smoke into the room. I remember when he got that old boat from John O’Reilly, and after fixing it up, he had us all crowd around him to reveal what he was going to name his vessel. He named it after me, waited for me to smile. I didn’t.

“We have to keep movin’ forward,” he whispers. “Try to be better than we were.”

He taps the table again, his temples roiling on either side of his head.

“I didn’t tell Noah the stories…I couldn’t bear them after Michael died, but I should’ve warned him. He should’ve known,” he admits.

The guilt wells up in my chest, and I inhale another drag in an attempt to squelch it. This is why I have to leave: he says things like this, and my insides shiver against the cold breath of the past. I think of things Noah will never have, and I feel courage building in my bones. He won’t look around the kitchen and see the faces of his siblings, and recognize how we all share the same eyes. He won’t reach an age in which he’ll get to see the ocean’s strength in a woman’s arms. He was so young, taken so easily.

Tonight, I breathe in the cold air and let some truth escape my chest. “I told him.” Papa stares at me. “I told him and it scared the shit out of him, just like it scared the shit out of all of us.”

As soon as we heard, I imagined Noah’s fear, how it must’ve felt like an immutable weight in his chest as the surface eluded his reach. He must’ve known his name would be added to the already exhaustive list.

“Please, don’t leave.” Papa’s whisper is nearly inaudible.

“Why? So I can stay here and watch every moment you lie to Ma, every moment you try to cover everything up?”

Papa shakes his head. “You can fix it.”

“None of this was my responsibility, or my fault, but I’ve lived my life as if it was so our family wouldn’t fall apart.”

He looks wounded for a moment. I wonder what it must be like to see your own anger mirrored back to you.

“We both need change, don’t we?” He nods.

My eyes well up, reflect the moon in their own saltwater. Papa notices and rubs his chin like he does when dealing with tough news.

“Papa, Ma knows. She’s been at the diner every day for a week, watching her…she knows something. This was all for nothing.”

He nods, takes a few big swigs from his bottle. I watch him stand up, stare at me for a moment, smile softly, and then take his beer and his toolbox out into the night.

A memory: I am eight years old, standing in a mud puddle, feeling water rise between my toes. I shout, “Papa!” He jumps back from a blonde woman leaning against her car, and I spot a bruise on her neck where his mouth had been. He rushes to my side, grabs my arm, drags me home swearing. He threw his glass bottle on the pavement so that it shattered at our feet. I danced through the broken shards, cutting my feet through my slippers, as he lifted my arm high above my head.

When I wake in the morning, a strange buzzing seems to fill the house, traveling through all the heating registers, white noise filling each and every room like smoke. Aila and Adele aren’t in their beds, and Will isn’t in his crib either. I rise to my feet, and realize a newspaper has been set on the floor next to my nightstand. Inside the classifieds are intact and up to date. I stuff them into my pillowcase, and rush down the stairs where the buzzing grows louder. When I enter the kitchen I see Ma sitting at her chair, Adele and Aila on either side of the table, with a walkie-talkie in the center of the three of them with its volume all the way up.

“What’s going on?”

Adele looks up at me. “Papa didn’t come home last night.”

“When he is within range, he will radio.” Ma whispers, but I see fear piercing the whites of her eyes in red crooked needles.

“John O’Reilly said his boat isn’t moored, so he’s just strayed a bit far from the usual places,” Ma rationalizes.

Either Papa took to the sea, or the sea took him.

I feel a kind of pulse in the classifieds, which sit solid in my pocket. I turn from the crashing, spitting waves, and head for the payphone in front of the library. With all the change on me, I make four calls for apartments in Portland. I feel as if my insides are shaking, surging.

Papa used to say that you could find wisdom at the edge of the sea, but now, as I step back out on the rocks, I think that’s bullshit too. I imagine the underside of the waves before me, the forceful twisting and curling of water as it thunders toward the land; the way it can erode rock, turn it to dust. I wish the ocean had a face, something I could smack hard until she was forced to explain what it has all meant.

I see the fog rolling toward the shore, rolling to envelop me like the big world awaiting my graduation. Maybe I’ll lose my way inside of it, but maybe in its arms I’ll find connection, warmth, freedom from the past.

At the far end of the beach there’s a woman standing, waiting. Her straight light brown hair billows in the wind like a curtain. We both stare out at the ocean, looking for wisdom. I hear her squeal, shaking me from contemplation, and a man with black hair in a yellow sailing jacket wraps his arms around her, threatening to throw her in the sea before he kisses her. The shaking in my stomach intensifies, and I light a cigarette to calm it. I turn away from the lovers, but each wave hits the shore with the force of all the waves it’s been in the past.

When I get home, I sit down beside Ma amid the buzzing, and their eyes scan my face. I shake my head. Papa had said we both needed things to change—admitted things were surging, gathering, and I can’t wait to collapse anymore.

“I don’t know anything for sure…”

I look at Ma then, and she leans back in her chair, exasperated, as if I’ve told her everything already, her cheeks reddening with fury.

“I think he left with her…”

Ma takes my hand in hers, starts to nod as she processes what he might have done. Adele and Aila look between us. “What do you mean? Who did he leave with?”

Ma pats my hand. “How long have you known?”

I feel the ocean swelling inside of me, and before I can try to stop it, I’m crying, collapsing like a wave.

“What did he do?” Aila’s face is bright red, her eyes three times their normal size.

“I was eight,” I respond to Ma. She squeezes my hand.

“He’s just lost!” Adele stands as she yells, leans toward us for answers.

“He had an affair, Adele!” I scream back at her. The words flow from my mouth, into the air, and I can finally breathe after a decade underwater.

Adele is stunned back into her chair, looks to Ma who nods to confirm. Ma fights tears seeing the betrayal in our eyes, grabs all of our hands, gathers us in the stretch of her arms, and explains the words that have choked me.

We take the rest of his beer to the boat launch. Adele says, “I want to forget everything he ever touched, take everything that was always his.” We drink our fill of the beer, and dump the rest in the sea to watch it mix with the sand and the salt.

Adele shakes her head. “I don’t think I can stay on the peninsula—surrounded by the ocean like this.”

She runs her thumb over the label of her bottle.

Aila nods. “I agree…I might leave too.”

There have always been sisters and brothers, parents and children, lovers and strangers. But I look at my sisters and feel the specifics of my life taking up more meaning, imbuing those words, those titles, with tones and shades. With nothing to hide, no wedges between my siblings and myself, I could finally return to them, but only if we retain the meaning of these titles, and the last name we share, amidst all the pain.

Adele lifts the bottle over her shoulder, and smashes it on the rocks in front of us. As the pieces fly in all directions, I see the true threat of shattered glass, feel our splintered future surging toward us. Eventually the edges would smooth, soften after years in the sea and the sand, but the pieces would never fit back together again. I can’t imagine the resolve of our ancestors to stretch a string across the Atlantic, from Ireland to Maine, to keep their ties to home even somewhat intact.

I wonder about the names and dates we know, about the people behind the letters and numbers. I wonder about their dinner table conversations, whether Sionnon Brennan and her sister Eileen slept in the same room, giggled till midnight, whether they lied to their parents for their older brother John when he snuck out to meet a girl.

“Do you think Eileen and Sionnon Brennan were close?”

Aila and Adele turn.

“What?” Aila stares.

“I just wonder what they were like, that’s all.”

“I bet Eileen stole Sionnan’s clothes a lot.” Adele tugs on the sleeve of Aila’s shirt.

“Yeah,” Aila adds. “Maybe Sionnan could threaten to tickle Eileen well into their twenties.” She curls her fingers towards me and I jump away instinctively.

We laugh, but then we begin saying, “maybe, maybe, maybe,” spinning the thread of life with our tongues, reminding me of the memorial service for Noah. When the mass had ended, everyone stayed seated. Men and women and children stood up to tell tales of moments Noah had made them laugh, had gotten away with a bit of mischief, had embarrassed himself so that his ears turned red. The stories came flowing out of the pews like water, whether motivated by guilt or grief. They were not a remedy to the tragedy, but at least we left the church with the remnants of a chuckle beneath our breaths, a feeling of tenderness between us all.

My siblings and I collapse against each other, gather together and regroup, as the waves have taught us. But instead of throwing myself far from where I started, I allow myself to melt into what I’ve resisted, but always been a part of. We continue saying, “maybe, maybe, maybe,” building lives out of the dashes on our ancestors’ gravestones.

I skip viewings for apartments in Portland, and my sisters and I stay on the peninsula for a few more years. Adele and I enroll at the local university together. Each night, the three of us sit in front of the fire, teach the stories to Will and Aidan, and welcome them into the process of creation so that the stories will never end.

We hold our family close with these stories, assuring that distance cannot be a threat. We grow old, tell the stories to our children, and when our grandkids visit the spot with their own children, where we took the stories into our own hands, we sit just beneath the ocean’s surface, in the calm currents from the other side of this world. And there we listen to how our stories have grown in the mouths of our descendants, how they have turned from material for nightmares into the stuff of warm milk.


Hannah McSorley is a senior at SUNY Geneseo studying English (literature). She loves Target and coffee. Her writing has previously been published in Crabfat Magazine, and she is hoping 2018 will be the year that she finds homes for more of her short fiction.

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