salvation at sea—Abbie Howell

i stand in the same graveyard every morning and gargle saltwater / which bleeds
from my body overnight / i know i do not belong here / but eyes stare,
pleading, into mine from the ground / i feel my bones
and those / of my children, / embraced by dirt and worms and miles
of nothing / and although i cannot leave /  i sometimes slip
through a cracked sky / consciousness fading away… so i grasp / 
desperately to a shore i cannot see / paint the back of my eyes /
with the bruising wave’s palms and burning clouds /
i cannot see /

my tears have long since dried / and even the ocean will not weep
for me now / but here i still am, nails gripping tight / 
to the boards of a barrel / jesus commits his crucifixion
through the splinters in my palms / but will salvation
ever kiss / the wetness of my brow? /
will my crimes ever be absolved? /

living is a sin / that the dead condemn, jealous souls / 
chained to an un-ending beyond- / there i always will be,
i am clinging / to both here / and the hereafter /
i hear my children pierce the night / with their cries / return
to the graveyard at the break / of the dawn / to feel my boatbones drown
in saltwater / that bleeds through the holes / in my open palms /
and dream of salvation / for one day more

Abbie Howell is a 20-year-old poet from England who enjoys writing about spirituality, the natural world and its intersection with the human experience. Find her on Instagram @abbie.hx

photo by Jens Aber and Matt Hardy (via unsplash)

Whose Woods These Are—Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin

You first spot the boy on the industrial side of town, off the highway.

The windows of your old Pontiac are rolled down to the sound of cicadas bouncing off the auto repair shops and plumbing supply stores. The sun-broiled air is humid and hard to breathe.

He’s sitting on a cinder block in front of LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration, which is closed because it’s Sunday. You notice him before he notices you. His shirtless torso is thin and white and his skinny little arms fold across his knees as he watches the cars go by. When he sees you he sits up the way a cat would, expectant and alert. He stands slowly, pulling up the jeans that have fallen low on his hips, and starts walking toward you as you brake for the light.

He’s no more than eight or nine, and to your surprise he extends his right arm and sticks out a thumb, gazing directly at you. The light turns green at the last minute and you coast through the intersection, eyeing the boy.

You drive to the next block and pull to a stop, discomfort in your gut. Why is he trying to get a ride in front of a deserted body shop at the height of the day’s torpor, small and fragile as he is and only half dressed? No kid around here goes shirtless even on a day like today.

You know you can’t pick him up. He could be some sort of setup. And if he is just a little kid hitching, you can’t stop for him. He needs to learn this is a bad thing to do. But how can you just leave him there? 

Not until much later do you recall how he seemed to be waiting for you, letting every other car pass until your faded blue coupe pulled close, reaching out with his twig of an arm while pinning you with his stare.

You make an illegal U-turn and head back to LiMandri’s, where the cinder block now sits empty. The smell of tar and cat piss rises off the road. This area is like the one you lived in not long ago, bare and shadeless, harsh to the senses. Pulling into the lot, you decide to wait for thirty seconds. If he doesn’t show up, you can leave with a clear conscience. 

Fifteen minutes’ drive from here your cool and shady house awaits you, a Cape Cod with dormers that look out on linden trees. Behind it is state land, an uncultivated swath leading to woods a half-mile deep, a refuge for deer and hawks and Canada geese. At night often the geese set up rowdy parties full of cackling and chattering—and you feed on it, having been starved of nature for so many years. 

A shadow at your side makes you jump. The boy is by your window, staring into the car, face smudged and nose dripping. A beaded metal chain with a soldier’s dog tag hangs around his grimy neck. You reach for the box of Kleenex next to you and hand him a couple, which he takes without a word and uses to wipe the offending mucus off his lip.

“Are you lost?” you ask. “I can call your mother or father.”

He continues staring, the dirty tissue clutched at his side.

“What’s your name?”

He uses the snotty tissue to swat at his arm. A smear of black and red appears where a sated mosquito has met its end. You pull another Kleenex from the box. He cleans his arm with it and then swipes it across his nose.

“Don’t do that! Here.” You hand him the box. “Listen, honey—” You can’t help yourself, he’s only a little boy. “I saw you trying to hitchhike. That’s very dangerous.” You glance at the sky. Not a single cloud to impede the white intensity baking your car into the asphalt. “Do you live around here?”

He tugs at the beaded chain as if it irritates his skin. What large irises he has, the color full and deep, hazel burning into gold.

“Can I look at that?” You point at the tag on his chest.

He hesitates, then lets you squint at the single name and phone number engraved on it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” you start to say, then bite it back because maybe something is wrong with the boy and he doesn’t know what he can or should do.

You key the number into your cell phone, and a man answers on the first ring.

“Is this Mr. Gallagher?”

“Yes?” The voice is guarded.

“My name is Laura Valentine. I live in the Mahogany Run area—”

“Yes?” 

You pause. “I’m at a place called LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration off exit—”

“I know where it is,” he snaps. “What do you want?”

You take a deep breath. “There’s a small boy here, all by himself, and he’s got a chain around his neck with your name and number on it.”

“Brown hair? Skinny?”

“Yes.” A glance at the boy catches him running the back of his arm across his nose. “He won’t talk to me. Does he belong to you?”

The man groans in an obvious mixture of vexation and relief. “I never thought he’d wander so far.”

“Can you come get him? I’ll wait with him.”

He pulls up in an old maroon Chrysler that looks as if it’s never seen better days even new. The car is familiar.  

Gallagher must have come to fatherhood late, or maybe he’s the boy’s grandfather. Or—you realize with a chill that you didn’t establish the relationship between them—he could be a pedophile reclaiming his charge. The boy immediately runs to Gallagher and buries his face in the man’s sweaty tee shirt.

Gallagher offers you a hand slick with perspiration. The thick glasses sliding down his nose give him an abstracted air, and his general scruffiness seems to have little to do with the heat. No wonder the kid is running around half naked.

“I think I know you.” You try to place the face as well as the car. “Where do you live?”

“By the woods,” he mumbles, clutching the boy.

The odd phrasing makes you consider a moment. “You mean Mahogany Run?”

He nods so vaguely it is obvious he’s not happy talking about it.

“Graham Road?” That’s the only street that backs up on the woods. “So we’re neighbors? Left end or right? I’m number 31.”

He shakes his head. The movement is more like a tic. “Other end.”

“Wait a minute—have I seen you walking a beautiful white Husky and a giant schnauzer?”

“I have other dogs too,” he says, averting his eyes. He takes the boy’s hand and they turn away. Gallagher glances over his shoulder at you as he opens the Chrysler door, but his “Thanks again” sounds like an afterthought.

You linger a moment after they leave. You should follow him, but what would that prove? Will it quash the unease bubbling inside, the unmistakable feeling that you’ve done something terrible by handing the boy over? What choice did you have, anyway?  The kid went willingly.

You get into the Pontiac and go, half expecting to overtake Gallagher. You arrive home just as a car is pulling out of the garage next door.

The man inside lowers the window and waves. “We just came back from Cape Cod.” Everett Clark is dressed impeccably, as always, shirtsleeves rolled up slightly, silver hair neat. He and his wife are good next-door neighbors, the kind who offer to take your mail in if you’re going away. 

“Everett, you know somebody on this block named Gallagher?”

“First name or last?”

“Last, probably.”

Everett thinks. “Oh, him!” he says suddenly. “He’s a real nut job. Why do you ask?”

You tell him about encountering the lost boy and calling Gallagher, but before you can even wonder how to ask discreetly if Gallagher is on the up-and-up, Everett shakes his head and says, “He’s certifiable. I mean it. Ever since his wife died—”

“When was that?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Any kids?”

“No.”

“So, no grandkids?” The sweat on your neck feels cold.

Everett shakes his head. “I was going to ask you who that boy was.”

“A nephew, maybe?”

“All I can tell you is nobody around here bothers with him. He doesn’t cause trouble or anything, he’s just weird. No joke.” He makes a looping circle with his finger near the side of his head.

You say goodbye and he pulls off before you realize you should have asked him which house Gallagher is in.

All afternoon you’re uneasy, thinking that maybe you should call the police. And tell them what? Wouldn’t Everett, an upstanding and trustworthy individual, have suggested that if he thought it a good idea? You phone his wife, Joan, but voice mail picks up and you don’t leave a message. You’re left alone with your concerns and disquiet.

After  dinner, the August sky darkening, you step outside and walk slowly up the block toward the dead end, feeling conspicuous as you study every house on either side.

Your efforts are soon rewarded. A tumult of yips and baying rises from the very last house, on the same side of the street as yours. A white face with pointed ears stares out from the living room window, ghostly and beautiful in the soft dusk.

For a long while you stand there watching the Husky watch you. A smaller, leaner face appears at the dog’s side, but in the fading light its features are hard to make out. Now what? Now that you know where the man lives, what happens next? If Gallagher were observing you from a window, would you even know? You tell yourself he probably wouldn’t recognize you in this interstice of day and night, when colors and shapes blend.

There is nothing distinctive about the house, nothing that sets it apart from its neighbors or betrays seediness of character—or maybe the gloaming has removed the edges, the small discordances that would indicate unseemly things happening inside.

Finally you turn and head home. Soon crickets will start chirping, spiders will weave orbs in the cool damp of the dark.

Later, you float in and out of sleep, loving the pattern of moonlight spread across the sheets and the way slumber flutters over you like a proprietary bird. When at last it tucks its wings about your head, a sound from outside chases it away. 

A yip, downstairs near the back deck—but not a dog’s yip, and you don’t know how you know but you do. It’s followed by a single thin howl, a high-pitched offering that is neither lament nor threat.

The skin on your neck prickles as you swing your feet over the mattress and look out the window. The moon is high and full and everything below is drenched in its light—and there is nothing, no one, there. 

Yet you know what you heard. The coyote as interloper, as wild other trying to make its way through the detritus and perils of civilization, holds allure for you. Your sympathies are with the animal, whose only crime is to find itself in a world not of its own making. Who among us is any different?

A ripple of tall grass opens on the left, and a shadow with two bright eyes reflecting the moonlight looks up at you. The eyes burn into yours, and then the shadow leaps away in the direction of the woods, emerging from the grass into the scruffy band that runs along the trees.

When you get back into bed you have forgotten about the hitchhiking boy for the first time all day.

The next morning, as if attuned to some primal resonance in the air, you wake up before the alarm and step to the window. August’s fullness already cradles a harbinger of autumn.

As if on cue, as if you’ve heard their laughter (and maybe you have), two boys burst from the woods at the far right and caper through the grass. Even at this distance you can see they’re barely dressed, and you’re pretty sure one of them is the kid you found yesterday. In high spirits, they head toward the far end of the block, probably the Gallagher house.

Before you can give thought to what you’re doing, you pull on jeans and a tee shirt and rush out the front door. One house from Gallagher’s you cut through a yard, and there they are, right off Gallagher’s back porch—the white Husky, the black schnauzer, several other mixed-breed dogs with vulpine faces, and the two boys. The whole pack of them, dogs and boys, are play-wrestling like a huddle of puppies squirming all over one another. 

Gallagher comes out dressed only in baggy shorts and leans over the porch railing. “Get inside! Come on, hurry up!”

No one on the ground listens and, obviously annoyed, he comes down off the porch and grabs the two boys, separating them from the waggling, festive mass. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” His words carry on the stillness of air already dense with humidity. 

One of the boys breaks free, howling playfully—and the sound chills you. It’s the boy you’ve met. He bolts toward you.

“Come back here, dammit!” Gallagher stiffens when he catches sight of you. 

The boy stops a few feet away and stares at you, not afraid, not threatened or threatening, a little timid but curious. His chest and face are filthy, his shorts tattered, his hair flecked with leaf bits. You intuit rather than smell a feral scent coming off of him. The mucus dribbling down his nose smears across his face as he drags an arm over it. In your head a thousand thoughts jostle. Are these the eyes you saw last night from your window?

The idea is dismissed the moment it forms. 

Exasperated and very angry, Gallagher holds the other boy under his arm and yanks one of the vulpine dogs by the collar. The dogs are torn between following him up the porch steps into the house and assessing you. Your vulnerability hits you and you back up.

The boy raises his face and sniffs the air before giving you one last look and loping to the four waiting dogs, who surround him like a wave up the porch stairs.

As they enter the house you remain immobile, half afraid Gallagher will push open the back door with a shotgun in hand. Then you head back up to the street.

Everett Clark is pulling out of his driveway. 

“You’re up early,” he says. 

“Who lives next to Gallagher?”

He eyes you. “That still bothering you?”

“Yeah.”

“That why you’re up this way?”

You nod, and he sighs. “Call the police, if it’s going to eat at you.”

“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor, in case it’s nothing.”

“Call anonymously.”

“I don’t think you can do that.”

“Yes, you can.”

“People find out. They always do.”

He scratches his chin. “Well, to answer your original question, the Rosens live next door to him.”

“What do they think of him?”

“I don’t know. I never see them. They spend their summers away.”

“So they’re not home now?”

“I don’t think so.”

You let Everett go and rush home to shower and dress for work, which will give you a reprieve for at least eight hours.

That night, after a busy day made gloomy by rain, you fall asleep fast and heavy. There is no opportunity for conflicts of conscience or ruminations over what constitutes good sense. 

What dreams! The night is filled with dogs, squiggling pups of every description biting each other’s ears in a tussle of paws and wagging tails, a mound of canine babies playing, terriers and dingoes, jackals and bat-eared foxes and mutts. Twice you get up to pee and twice you slip back into the dreams.

Again you wake before the alarm, this time a half hour before sunrise. The full moon, no longer visible from the window, shows as a faint glow in the contrast of sky and trees. Your gaze lowers to the thicket of long grass.

You sense him, of course, though after several minutes staring into the dark it occurs to you that maybe this is another dream—and then the eyes flicker below, catching the indirect light only a second or two.

You wait. The tops of the trees briefly bloom pink and then it is more day than night and the chirping of birds overtakes the fading bustle of tired insects. You grab the binoculars you placed on the windowsill last evening. A dark little face looks up at you, a triangular shadow in the grass.   

You watch each other, not moving, barely breathing. You try to blink away the thoughts of boys and pups, unwilling to acknowledge what you’ve been thinking, what your heart tells you, the thing that defies logic and pulses like a firefly inside you.

“It’s okay, little one,” you whisper.

The coyote looks suddenly to the right at two small animals running out of the far woods, where the two boys emerged yesterday. With the distance and the light you’re not sure but they look like . . . puppies. Pointy-faced, long-limbed puppies.

Of course! Baby coyotes. A foolish relief flushes through you. It’s the mother below.

But why has she been at your window two mornings in a row?  

Coincidence, naturally. She runs a circuit each night, hunting for food, and she ends up below your deck just as you wake up.

The mother quickly turns and tries to leap away, but she looks injured. Dragging herself amid the wild tangle, she heads not for the pups but for the trees. You swing the binoculars to see if the pups have noticed her, but they’re out of sight, hidden in the grass and the sprinkle of wildflowers.

The mother is fighting her way through a snarl of stalks and reeds. A sound of urgency escapes her. Pity wrings your heart, for both her and the pups. You glance their way again.

But instead of pups you see two familiar boys wading though waist-high grass and coming out the other end near Gallagher’s house. The dreams, the absurd thoughts of only moments ago, come back, and you keep your eyes on the boys until they’re beyond your vision.

In your heart, the little hitchhiking boy was the coyote below your window. 

Clearly you were wrong. But something is not right. You sweep the field with the binoculars. There are no puppies following the two boys home. Baby coyotes came out of the woods and small children appeared in their place shortly after. 

The coyote below has shown no interest in the boys and seems to have relinquished its interest in you. Its apparent preoccupation is attaining the woods. It reaches the perimeter of the trees and lies panting, turning its head to look back—at you. The binoculars do not deceive. The coyote is on its side catching its breath and gazing at your window. 

You put the binoculars down to process what you think you saw, then hold them back up. The face is now patchy with ragged hair and dirt, revoltingly familiar, attached to a body it can’t possibly be connected to.

The creature rises to its wobbly legs. It tries to push up on its hind limbs but falls. It has no tail. Clearly it is male—and large. It shudders broadly, letting out a groan of anguish that cuts the morning air, and the earth around it seems to quake. The sky and vegetation are the same as before, but the creature’s torment is like an overlay that changes the scene for you. With a rush of forced energy, like the last push before birth, the russet coat blanches and thins in a matter of seconds. You stand riveted in the center of the window.

Several yards before the trees, the rest of its body transforms and a pale, naked man stands slightly hunched until he whirls around and faces your house, your window, you. Gallagher watches you watching him. He makes sure your binoculars have a chance to linger on his scraped skin and flaccid white body. Now that you’ve caught him, he wants you to get a good look. You were not afraid of the coyote, but you are afraid of this man. Your first thought is that he wanted you to observe this display. “I’m number 31,” you’d said to him.

Your second thought is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath: What if he didn’t want you to see it? What if he blames you for distracting him from a discreet metamorphosis in the woods?

Does it matter which is true?

Gallagher turns and disappears into the trees. A piercing sound—half wail, half keening—swells from the dark thicket. It is a taunt, a demarcation of territory. The land behind the house, a restful stretch of nature only moments ago, is now mocking and grim. 

You back up into a corner of the room and stand there a long time, unable to think beyond the distress banging around inside you like a ball in a metal chamber. At some point the mechanical impulse to make coffee stirs you downstairs to the kitchen. A few hot gulps and you may see more clearly what to do. 

The coffee brews strong and you sip and pace from one end of the house to the other. The white Husky watches your movements through the low window in the dining room, and when you first catch his blue-eyed gaze you start. Only a few feet away on the front walk, he appears to be smiling, or laughing. He turns from you briefly as Gallagher saunters into sight beside him, close enough for you to see the gashes in his wrinkled shorts and dirt crusted around the abrasions on his belly.

Gallagher seems taken aback, as if not expecting to find you at the window. “I want to talk to you,” he shouts.

But you’ve already leaped into the kitchen for the phone, which drops to the floor and clatters across the tiles as another voice sounds outside.

You creep to the window and see Everett on his side of the walk, pressed slacks and crisp shirt a sharp contrast to the other man’s dishevelment. “Did you hear me?” Everett says. “What do you want there?”

“Mind your business, Everett Clark.” Gallagher is stooping slightly and appears to be looking up at Everett even though they’re on level ground. The Husky is gone.

“She’s my neighbor. She is my business.” Everett walks toward him but stops. “Are you in trouble? You’re all cut up. What happened to you?”

“Nothing for you to mind. Nothing’s wrong with me.”

Emboldened by Everett’s presence, you open the front door and step outside. Something grotesquely carnal wafts off of Gallagher and then is gone.

“He’s been watching my house from out back,” you say. “Today and yesterday.”

“That right?” Everett steps closer and Gallagher draws himself up to full height. “You watching Laura’s house?”

Gallagher’s hands wander over the scratches on his stomach, his eyes glued to the other man.

“I asked you a question. What are you doing out back? You watching my house too?”

A mewling sound escapes Gallagher. The insight hits you fast: He’s not a bold man, and whatever he’s been up to is out of character, something that ballooned up fast inside him and could deflate just as quickly.

Your insight also tells you he may be erratic, and you pull back. “Are you trying to threaten me, Mr. Gallagher?”

He glances at you, but his gaze drops to the ground. When he picks it up again his eyes are flecked with the sunlight that’s already heaping itself onto the back of your neck. Your nostrils flare at the smell he throws off.

The white Husky appears suddenly at the end of the walk, accompanied by the little boy you picked up at the auto body shop. Dressed in jeans and a red tee shirt, the boy looks almost clean as they approach. His eyes are on you. 

There he is, the child who isn’t yours, the child who could be yours, the one who might have been. And all at once you understand the twisting in your heart. 

Everett, sensing your moment, watches the boy and the dog but says nothing.

Gallagher looks at them too, but sideways, as if trying to keep one eye on you.

“Where did you get them?” you ask. 

Gallagher reaches a hand to the boy, who takes it and stands beside him like a dutiful son, though his eyes never leave yours.

You clear your throat. “Who are the boys? Where did they come from?”

Gallagher hangs his head, chin to chest. “I found  ’em.”

You signal to Everett with your eyes and hope he reads them correctly. He does, crossing over and standing near you.

“Found  ’em in the woods,” Gallagher mumbles. “Tiny little pups, shivering without a mother.”

“The woods back there?” Everett indicates the direction.

Gallagher nods. “Took them in after a few days. I didn’t know they were little boys.”

Everett’s face registers confusion. You hold up a hand and he says nothing.

“What about you?” you say gently. “What happened to you?”

He looks down at his abdomen, flustered, hands fluttering over the scribble of blood and soil.

“Not that. I saw how that happened. How did you . . . become like the boys?”

At this the little boy reaches for your hand. He is now holding yours and Gallagher’s in a bizarre family tableau, clutching your fingers firmly.

Gallagher looks at him sadly a moment. “Puppies bite.” 

The boy lets go of Gallagher and throws his arms around you, burying his face in your tee shirt the way he buried it in Gallagher’s the day you found him. He holds you close. 

Automatically you hug him back, maternal instinct warring with prudence as if you’re holding the essence of nature in your arms, a tender wild thing that needs mothering even as it clamps the teat between its teeth and rips it off. He smells of fur and feathers and all things untamed, with a strange maple overlay.

“I knew he liked you.” Gallagher’s voice is resigned. “Animals have their favorites.”

Everett scowls. “What the hell’s going on? Laura?”

The burning in your side takes a moment to register, but when it does you push the boy away, feeling betrayed but knowing it’s your own fault. It’s not right to blame an animal for its nature. You touch the tee shirt and blood sponges through. Not much, but enough for you to understand your whole world has changed.

Everett yells, “Get that kid out of here!” He takes a phone from his pocket and punches in numbers.

Gallagher’s eyes glitter, and for a moment you think he’s crying. He sniffles hard and runs the back of his hand across his nose, pulling the boy close to him. The boy gazes up at you softly, without guile.

“The paramedics are coming, Laura.” Everett puts his arm around you as if to hold you up, but you’re still erect, merely shivering in the sunlight.

Your fingers move as if to touch Gallagher’s arm. “Is this why you came here?”

“No.”  He looks at you directly now. “I was threatening you. No point in that now, is there?”

“No.”

Everett’s eyes narrow at the other man. “You are one aberrant bastard, and I’ll see to it that you pay for what that kid did.”

Gallagher ignores him. “If anything happens to me, will you take care of them?”

You glance down at your tee shirt and the red smudges on your hand, and for the first time it occurs to you to lift the shirt and look. It’s not a bad bite, more like a nip. A love nip, you think.

“Yes,” you say as the ambulance wails down the street toward you.

previously published in Rose Red Review (Winter, 2014)

Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin is author of the horror novel Snare and a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her short fiction has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Luna Station QuarterlyBards and Sages QuarterlySkulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates, and other publications. Carrie also writes poetry, which has been published in The Orchards Poetry JournalThird Wednesday, Writing In A Woman’s Voice, and other places. You can find her at cvnelkin.com, on Twitter at @cvnelkin, and on Facebook (Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin, Author).

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Embla’s Ages in Love, Observed—Hanne Larsson

4

I’d never seen you cry before; I didn’t think fathers cried like that, but you did when she left. Even then I knew she was the love of your life but she’d made you choose between your two girls. It was me: the fire-scarred one, the human one. I tried to wipe away your tears from your granite cheek, but they turned to diamonds, so I hid them under my pillow. I already know what power troll tears possess; you’ll need them returned. 

10

They bully her. They bully her for being fearless of the sun and she stands there bathed in the warmth because she knows they can’t touch her there. She wishes her best friend could stand beside her, and she looks over to see how he has made a coat of pine branches and mud that casts a shadow for him so that he can stand beside her. He reaches for her hand, stretching out from the shade, his warm grey fingers blistering almost as soon as the sunlight finds them. She beams at him, for the love he’s shown.

17

I dream of you although your face is fuzzy and your voice mute. I’ve never seen a human boy before, but I wish for pinkish skin and brown hair like the bark of my favourite tree. You would be as warm as the river stones I dry my clothes on. Your skin covered in hairs will sweat when I touch it. My mind goes damp when I try to feel you kiss me. I do not know what to expect, I’m surrounded by greys and granite shapes that love me but can never be my same softness. We shall be so happy together.

28

Da holds it out to me – this proof he’s finally found, the answer he knows his only daughter has been searching for, been so angry for – the proof I’ve needed above all else, and I just want to envelop him and apologise. I thought nature would answer all my questions, but instead it’s in nurture I should have looked.

30

You came into my life mewling and crying, and I thought I had known what love was until this moment. Caked in me and already disappointed with the winter darkness I named you Aska and squeezed you until I feared you would break. Your father will not acknowledge either of us, but I will love you doubly, and your grandfather will love you with the strength of mountains behind him. You will not want for love, my daughter. 

42

I still think of revenge for the way in which they treated you: a returning hero faced with the death squad or Old Sten’s way. The troll law was savage in its ruling. I have gathered an army even though I can hear your voice begging me not to come, but it’s too late, Da, they cannot be alive for this. You would always excuse them, transcending above their pettiness but I cannot let them sully who you are and the love you bore me, for this.

54

The blood spills from my gut in waves and each breath is full of retch and bile, and I turn my face to the sun hoping that Old Sten will turn me to stone like he did you. I don’t care whether we lost or won. Softly I begin to whisper the words creeping onto my tongue – the trollsong rising from mumble into rumbling – as your diamond tears cut blood into my hands, as I stare up into your gnarled face. Come back unchanged; tell me you’ve forgiven me. You gave up everything for me once, now I return the favour. Old Sten will understand my love for you, even if his priests say a human could never understand his stony ineffableness.

Hanne is a Swedish-British national who longs for the 95% humidity and hawker centre food of her childhood and is still wondering where home is. Her stories are fed by environmental science topics, moss-covered rocks masquerading as trolls and what-if scenarios. Her words can be found in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Common Breath, Lunate Fiction, The Drabble and STORGY, and in anthologies by Green Stories and Hammond House. She is a member of Dahlia Books’ ‘A Brief Pause’ cohort for 2021 and lurks on Twitter: @hannelarsson

photo by Jaanus Jagomägi and Hao Zhang (via unsplash)

Above the Curdled World A Giant Green Breathing—Sarah Wallis

In Llangollen you can see the trees breathing,
the reverse of you and I at respiration, in transpiration

the tall, yogic forest exhales calm, deliberate, and slow,
a dark green giant at rest and gentle rumble, rumination

forming clouds of steam above the train – hyperventilating
at the platform –

and what looks like a general mist or low-lying cloud,
hovering above the green station now is a gift,

allowing harmony, in the living breathing, then and how.

Sarah Wallis is a writer based in Scotland, with work published in journals cross genre, poetry and flash fiction, and she has had a number of pieces staged. She has two chapbooks out in the world – Medusa Retold @fly_press / Quietus Makes an Eerie @dancinggrlpress, her website is sarahwallis.net and she tweets @wordweave

photo by veeterzy (via unsplash)

Widow of the River—Nick Petrou

Despite the humidity clinging to the timbers of the port, my bones were numb and my hairs stood as stiff as ship masts. We lay in Isabella’s bed, and I rested my head on her breast, certain she held in her all the warmth that was left in the world. Our shadows shuddered in the candlelight, which flashed silver before returning to the colour of mead. My ring finger was starting to go dead.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you?” I said, my words exiting my mouth in whorls of steam. “Isabella, you know I must go home. But I will return, as always. Why are such thoughts on your mind?”

“Tonight, the moon is full,” she said. “Always I think of the Widow of the River when the moon is full. You know this story?”

“Yes,” I said, pulling the blanket up to my chest. “But will you tell it to me anyway?”

She paused. The city was quiet. Sailors did not stagger past the house jesting about fish and the red-light district. Nor did ponies rap their shoes on the cobblestone. Even the bedrooms above and beside us were without their regular commotion. There was only a faint, rhythmic splashing I could not place. I felt uneasy, as if I were on the sea after a year on land. Above my wedding ring, my finger was completely dead. I twisted the ring until it came off, then I reached over Isabella and put it on her nightstand.

After what seemed an eternal silence, she said, “There is a castle on the river and a lady in its tallest tower. She sings out from her window when the moon is mirrored and full. She sings for her husband, who left her for the other family he had made at port. Her voice is a lighthouse. Everywhere else is cold and dark. Can you hear her, my love?”

Isabella started humming a beautiful melody, vibrating my skull like a church bell. Through her rose perfume, I could smell the canals — slightly putrid, as if choked with algae.

“I think this is a different story,” I said. “Was her husband not claimed by the sea?”

Isabella’s humming somehow continued as she said, “This is the story as it was. You must listen, my love.” She rested her arms around my neck. “Her husband has yet to come home. Maybe he never will — who knows? But the lady does not surrender to death, even though she is just hair and bones in a dress. Her desire is strong, and men like her husband must be stronger to escape it.”

Isabella’s arms shut like a pillory around my neck, but I feared to fight her, lest I forfeit her warmth.

“They row to her island on nights as tonight. Their eyes are open, but they see only a dream. Their bodies are… What is this word? Puppet? Yes, something like this. The boats of the men who rowed before them clutter her shores, stinking of bilge water. There are hundreds of them, and as many wives back home, singing for their own loves lost.”

The candle stuttered. The rhythmic splashing grew louder, more determined. I looked out the window and did not see the cobblestone streets nor the ruby brothel glow but a round stone tower with the full moon socketed in its battlement like an imperfect gem.

The candle went out. Moonlight poured into the room, washing away the ceiling and walls. When all that remained was the bed, which somehow hovered over the river, I could see the castle in full, down to the boats and muddy shore. I fell against the headboard. Isabella was gone, her warmth absorbed by the warmth which poured from the tower. A woman’s silhouette stood in the tower window, hair swimming in a dark aura around her shoulder bones. Just below the surface of the river, the mud snaked out towards me, clasping my boat and dragging me to shore. I dropped my oars into the rowlocks and floated gaping-mouthed into the gravity of her voice.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you? I could not.”

Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has been (or will soon be) published by PseudoPod, The Arcanist, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can find out lots more about him at nspetrou.com and reach out to him on Twitter @nspetrou.

photo by Pine Watt (via unsplash)

Living With Crows—Jaclyn J. Reed

The doctor’s office is cold. It’s always cold, and no matter how I sit in the firm fabric chairs my tailbone hurts. Orange-scented disinfectant lingers in the air, but it doesn’t entirely cover the dank ripeness of disease.

“I’m bored,” Reaper squawks. “You’re bored. Let’s leave.”

“We can’t leave until we see the doctor.”

He screeches. A couple people look over. One woman pulls a toddler towards her.

“Please be quiet.” I say it like a prayer. Please be quiet. Just this once.

Reaper is a crow – a big crow, like the ones that haunt Japanese shrines and cornfields full of homicidal children. He landed on me ten years ago and has since nested on my shoulders. I thought he’d go away after the therapy and the pills and the sobbing, but he hasn’t shown any signs of leaving. He’s heavier than other crows. I mentioned this when he first landed, told him I thought birds had hollow skeletons; I asked if he shouldn’t be lighter. From time to time, he still laughs about it: how stupid I was think I knew anything about his kind of crow.

The glass door opens with a tonal bell. A teenage boy waddles in, his jeans too long and dragging on the floor behind his Converse. A piranha hangs off his right elbow.

“Good morning,” the woman at the front desk says. “How can I help you?”

“I have an appointment.” When the boy moves to sign-in, the fish’s scales almost look silver or blue. He winces. A bit of blood drips down the piranha’s belly. He pulls out a tissue and catches the blood before it can fall. This time, when he moves, the scales look less blue and more gold.

The receptionist runs down her list of questions: prior physicians, conditions, what kind of fish, when it latched on, how long he’s been coping on his own. I can’t make out his answers from this distance, especially since he tells them more to the floor than he does to her. She takes his insurance card and runs it. Asks him to keep a handle on the piranha; they have a zero-tolerance policy for aggression. She makes a joke about someone’s hyena, but she glances towards me and Reaper.

“They’ll call you from over there.” The woman points towards the grouping of chairs in front of me.

I’m alone in this section. The new mothers and old folk group on the other side. It’s better that way; Reaper gets antsy when people get too close to me. He’s been known to bite. He bit my ex-boyfriend the night we broke up. That’s what did it, that final bite. He already had so many scars; he couldn’t take another, and I couldn’t blame him.

I’ve grown too used to my scars. The ones on my hands are the worst – from when he first landed and I tried to shoo him away. He doesn’t gouge out flesh anymore, but sometimes he’ll break skin biting at my necklaces. Lately, Reaper’s been going for the eyes. I keep a band aid over the mostly healed cut under my right eye, otherwise he’d pick at the scab.

I can feel Reaper eyeing up the boy as he comes over and sits in one of the chairs across from me. There’s a squarish gap between us, an empty space filled by silence, the occasional door tone, and blue-speckled carpet with a suspicious spot. He puts the piranha on the armrest, and his shoulders relax a bit. Piranhas aren’t big, not like Reaper, but I bet one feels really heavy after a while with its teeth in your bones.

The boy smiles at me. It’s awkward, polite. I try to return it, but Reaper squawks again, and the boy cringes away.

“I’m sorry,” I say, as gently as I can. “He doesn’t like places like this.”

“Neither does he,” he says, gesturing to the fish. He keeps his eye on Reaper now, braced against whatever he fears comes next.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” I say. “Are you a new patient?”

“Yeah. I was handling him okay before but… you know.” He shrugged, wincing again as his elbow moved up-down, hitting both upper and lower rows of teeth. “My therapist recommended him. Is he good?”

“We like him.” Reaper goes for the little gem in my earring. His beak scrapes the top of my ear. I hit him away. “No.”

“Wow.” I turn back to the boy, his eyes wider than before but just as heavy. “You can talk to him like that?”

“It takes a lot of work, but I’m doing much better than I was. Dr. Newman has really helped me.”

“Good to know.” He wipes more blood from the piranha’s mouth before it can drop onto the chair. “Oh,” he says, “you have a little blood on your ear. Here.” He hands me a fresh tissue, manages to pull away before Reaper can move down my arm to peck him.

Reaper shimmies back up to my shoulder, behind my head, and onto my other shoulder. He picks at the bandage under my eye as I blot at my ear.

“Thanks,” I say.

He nods. “I always have extras. I feel bad if it gets on anything.”

“Have you tried moving him?”

“Once. He ended up moving back while I was asleep. He likes it there for some reason.”

“Yeah, I can’t get Reaper off my shoulders,” I tell him. Reaper clicks his beak and preens himself, forgetting the band aid for now.

“Reaper?” the boy says.

“Oh, yeah, Dr. Newman likes us to name them. He’s big on ‘accepting’ them.”

“I named me,” Reaper hisses. He likes hissing now. He learned it from the neighbor’s cat.

The boy leans back a little and presses his lips together. He chews on the bottom one in his mouth, and I know he’s drawing blood because Reaper’s excited.

“We should bite,” he whispers in my ear, scrapping the top with his beak. “I like that.”

“No,” I tell him, petting his wing with two fingers.

The hallway door swings open and a tiny nurse in pink and purple scrubs with some sort of pattern steps out. “Caroline?” she says.

Reaper shifts to my other shoulder when I stand to keep between me and the boy with the piranha. I nod to him anyway. Reaper pecks me on the cheek bone, not hard enough to break skin, only to bruise.

The nurse smiles at me. There are multicolored cats all over her shirt, climbing, rolling over, sleeping. She leads me back down the hall, making small talk, ignoring Reaper. He gets mad when people ignore him. He switches to my other shoulder to be closer to her. I’ve never seen this nurse before, so I’m not surprised by her discomfort. She obviously hasn’t worked with patients like me. She stops us at the scale in the hallway and seems genuinely shocked at the number that comes up.

“He weighs about 35 pounds,” I tell her.

She writes on the chart and smiles again, this time without her teeth.

We go further back down the hall and into a small exam room. They’ve redecorated recently, switched the fish motif for more medical posters, vaccination and medication diagrams, and an abstract mess of green and yellow swiped across a canvas.

The nurse asks how the medication is doing. Is my libido okay? Do I feel dizzy? Any unpleasant side effects?

“I haven’t been in the mood to have sex, but honestly that’s probably just because I don’t have anyone. Otherwise, it’s okay. Sometimes I don’t feel like eating for a day or two.”

She makes a note. “What about…” She searches the chart. A couple pages in, she looks back up. “What about Reaper? How are the two of you getting along?”

‘Getting along.’ That’s another one of Newman’s phrases. ‘Coping,’ he says, ‘sounds like these companions are a burden rather than a part of our personality.’

I look up at the bird, met only by his beady black eyes and the clicking sound of his upper and lower beak rubbing together. The sound used to drive me crazy. Now it’s kind of comforting.

“We haven’t been sleeping well,” I tell her. “He’s been restless and pecking more at night. I have to sleep with a pillow over my face to make him stop.”

Reaper squawks and fluffs himself. Just like a bird to boast.

She makes another note, asks a couple more questions: Do I smoke? Do I drink? How much do I drink? Could I be pregnant? Then she moves towards me. “Can I see that cut under your eye?” She doesn’t get within a foot before Reaper is there, his head in front of my eyes, screeching like a banshee. The nurse backs away quickly. She tries to smile, but it’s shaky.

“It’s okay,” I say, petting Reaper again. “It’s pretty much healed, I just don’t want him picking at it.”

She nods, gathers her laptop, goes to the door before saying, “Dr. Newman will be in shortly.” She closes the door on her way out.

I wonder how she’ll handle the piranha.

“I’m bored,” Reaper says. “Let’s go home.”

“We can’t yet. Soon.”

He pulls at my sweatshirt and nuzzles up against my hood. He likes the soft insides, flattens his feathers on it. Sometimes, when I’m in the office at home working or on the phone, he perches under my hood and sticks his head up in it to nap. After a while, I can’t feel his talons on my back and leaning forward doesn’t bother me. I prefer that to him picking at the phone case or chewing on my jewelry.

Knock. Knock. Twice, hard. It’s like his calling card. He never waits for a response either. Door swings open. Dr. Newman saunters in with a big grin. “Hello Caroline. Hello Reaper.” He plops onto the rolling stool in front of us and flattens his tie. He stares at us a moment before looking over the chart. I wonder what he sees. “So, the nurse said you haven’t been eating much, and it says here you lost about ten pounds since your last visit.”

“Good,” Reaper says. “No more fat.”

Dr. Newman is good with Reaper. He smiles, lets a second pass, then says to me, “You really can’t lose any more weight. Your BMI is already 15. That’s three points lower than the low end of normal.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to eat. I just get really nauseous.”

He thinks a moment, watches Reaper pull at my hair to preen it, running his beak down the strands to keep them together. I tried explaining that human hair doesn’t work like his feathers, that they’ll never stay together no matter how much he does that, but he just hisses and keeps going. Sometimes he pulls too hard and yanks out a couple strands. I think he does it on purpose.

Dr. Newman looks at the chart again. “I think maybe we should change your dosage,” he says. “Let’s take you down to 100 milligrams instead of 150, see if that doesn’t help with the nausea.” He makes a note of it. “It also says here you haven’t been sleeping. Is your insomnia back?”

I glance at Reaper. “No, he just doesn’t let me sleep. He’s always pecking at my eyes or my neck.”

“Now, Reaper, we’ve talked about this. Caroline needs her sleep.”

Reaper squawks and bobs his head. He likes playing games.

“Let me take a look at those new cuts,” Dr. Newman says. He puts on gloves and stands.

Reaper steps down my left arm, the tips of his claws going through my sleeve and scratching against my skin. Dr. Newman’s the only one he moves away for. Maybe it’s because the last time he tried to bite him, Newman slapped his beak, or because he knows when he’s good at the office, he’ll get sunflower seeds when we get home. Either way, he watches the doctor examine me, pull away the band aid and poke the skin. Some of the scab comes off. Dr. Newman blots the cut gently with some antiseptic. It stings, and Reaper likes that. He nods and dances a little. Sometimes, he leans forward like he might try to bite one of us. While Dr. Newman’s looking at my ear, and wiping off some of the leftover dried blood, Reaper lunges and takes a pen out of the lab coat pocket. He clicks it between his teeth.

“Reaper, no.” I try to grab it, but he dodges. He puts the pen in his foot and screams at me. I look back at Dr. Newman. He’s still smiling. He’s always smiling, and I wonder how he does it. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I have plenty more. He can keep it.” He tosses the used cotton swab into the red-bagged waste basket, along with the gloves. “None of those look too bad. I’m going to prescribe you a strong antibiotic cream to start using on fresh cuts; we don’t want any infections. And I want you to be more strict with him at night. Remember, this is a partnership, not a dictatorship.” He hands me the chart for check-out and a new prescription before walking us to the door. “I want to see you in a month, okay?”

“Okay.” Reaper and I walk back down the hall and into the lobby. The boy and his piranha are gone, replaced by a woman about my age and a middle-aged man. Only the man notices Reaper when we come out. He stares for a minute before going back to the magazine in his lap.

I hand the receptionist my chart and schedule another visit in four weeks. As I’m walking to the car, Reaper squawks, “I don’t like it.”

“Don’t like what?”

“Everything.” He scratches under his wing. A black feather falls and blows away. “Don’t like it.”

When we get in the car, he pushes himself against my head and picks at my hair.

“Do you have to do that?” I say. I push him away and tie my hair up.

He pulls apart the bun on my head and bites at the hair tie still tangled in the mess.

“Don’t like it,” he says. “Don’t like it.”

Jaclyn J. Reed received her MFA in Writing from Carlow University and her BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Northern Appalachia Review, The Sunlight Press, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She lives vicariously through fictional characters and works in e-commerce from the comfort of home, across the way from Hershey’s chocolate factory.

photo by Kevin Mueller (via unsplash)

seven year itch—courtney marie

i want to talk about how we shed layers of skin 
for years until we are no longer ourselves

i am interested in this rebirth

i am afraid of the space i take up
whether invisible or on display
               a mockery or ghost
sometimes too much

often not enough

i picture a snail 
slow moving and simple:
               are they also always thinking of things 
               that are safe versus things that are not safe?

i started a list of things i want people to know
without ever having to tell them:
               the new common language

               & i will read it to you if i ever have the courage to spare

the truth is i am on a side quest 
to learn every definition of loss
so i can remind you we’re not yet gone

               that there are things in this world older than fear
               & that to be soft is (sometimes) to be unbreakable

my secret is to pretend for a moment
               that i am in love with everyone i meet

                                                                           i am in love with you

& wonder in which ways 
we will ask each other to change

courtney marie is a writer & artist based in denton, texas. they are the author of don’t get your hopes up (2018, Thoughtcrime Press) and have a forthcoming full-length poetry collection to-be-released in 2021 with Goliad Media. cm enjoys making weird & sentimental art with/for their community, exploring the world, and playing pinball. they live with two three cats, cry all the time, and are forever writing letters & sending snail mail in a desperate attempt to connect with the outside world. cm is the co-founder & director of the artist collective spiderweb salon.

photo by Olga Drach (via unsplash)

Mother Chronos—Louise Mather

This night is a silk dress –
trembling, it births the snow.
The moon is ascended
from eiders of gothic coal,
wolves bring blood and amber,
gifts they split from the lake
and dragged for days.
Here, pledge your bronzed heart,
for harbingers of chronos –
the body of the blue sun,
dwellings of blossom,
the ocean where you shed
your skin, nocturnal.

Louise Mather is a writer from Northern England and founding editor of Acropolis Journal. Nominated Best of the Net 2021, and a finalist in the Streetcake Experimental Writing Prize, her work is published in various print and online literary journals. Her debut pamphlet ‘The Dredging of Rituals’ is out with Alien Buddha Press, 2021. She writes about ancestry, motherhood, endometriosis, fatigue and mental health. Twitter: @lm2020uk.

photo by Vincent Guth (via unsplash)

If you loved this, check out Louise’s debut pamphlet, The Dredging of Rituals.

Out now from Alien Buddha Press.

It can be ordered here.

We Could Have Been Witches—Jeanine Skowronski

If we had just listened to Grandma Gigi; stayed away from drafty windows, picked up lost pennies, even when they were showing tails, waited until midnight to open presents on Christmas Eve; if we had kept our combat boots (like we had kept our Mary Janes) off of the dining room table so luck stuck to our soles; if we remembered catching lightning bolts, not lightning bugs, in the Long Island house’s backyard; if I had never lost the family “G” ring and Lizzie hadn’t stopped swimming in skirts and Hartford hadn’t started to ignore Grandpa Gino’s ghost; if we all hadn’t laughed that one time for the first time, at Baby Enzo’s christening, when Second-Cousin Steffie took a ribbon off a centerpiece, wove it through her hair and said “listen, girls, I can see the future whenever I wear stuff on my head”; if we had worn more hats and hair bows, did like the Great Aunts said and hoarded locks of our bleached blonde hair for burning at the first off-beats of a broken heart; if we had kept wearing, kept rubbing our Italian horns, kept away the evil eye, kept away those evil boys, the ones Grandma Gigi told us to tell to go fuck themselves; if we told more boys to go fuck themselves, or if later, when we bottled up telling boys to go fuck themselves, we did it in Mason jars to be sold on Etsy for $10.99 alongside hunks of lavender soap; if our parents had listened to Grandma Gigi and played those numbers she found on a slip of paper next to Uncle Nicky’s grave; if they had passed along that recipe for mixing blood and dirt; if, after we too were parents, we too played those numbers or just-in-case threw handfuls of salt or at least drove to the meat store for meat and the bread store for bread and the tomato store for tomatoes solely because, we knew, like Gigi knew, that some things are truly special; if we had put back on our horns, I’m saying; if we had regained our nerve; if, the second the nights went dull and the mornings lost their lemon-yellow luster, we had dared to leave out a black-flame candle so some long-dormant spell could ignite.

Jeanine Skowronski is a writer based in N.J. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reflex Press, Tiny Molecules, Complete Sentence, Lunate Fiction, Fewer than 500 and Dwelling Literary. You can follow her on Twitter @JeanineSko.

photo by Jay Heike (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Rebecca Ruvinsky

Lark

When you flew in for the winter,
you were like a lark, looking
for a place to burrow before the snows.

I searched in the storm, downpour
clouding the windows, fogging up
words traced on the mirror. I love you

Too — soon we’re searching for another excuse
to cross the empty space of months,
changing seasons in the light of our eyes. I couldn’t

Go on, my little lark. Dream of ice melting, of the sun
opening back up to let you in as summertime sighs
over the ground. We planted seeds while you were

Here. A place in front of the window, water from
my own cup. Tilting towards the sky, grey with afternoon
thunder, waiting for the next raindrops. We could hardly see

Through the fog: lightning. Thunder. A call from home,
asking why you love me more. Thunder: closer. Urgent,
the voices picked up. You went outside to talk. Thunder: shaking

The house. You’re leaving, regaining the sky. I turn
the mirrors against the walls, like I’m losing you.

(Childhood) Home

Cold air seeps in
through the window,
cracked or not

We find ourselves
born, and born again

Old wires make for
new lights in the sparks
they set, and old wood
warns of coming down

As those before us
passed here, so shall we

The floors make music
when we step on them,
and we dare not step
where we could fall

We draw breath through
these breathing walls —

Plaster, bones, blood
and brick.

Rebecca Ruvinsky is a student and emerging writer in Orlando, Florida. She kept a streak of writing a poem for almost five years, with work published in Wizards in Space, Prospectus: A Literary Offering, Sylvia Magazine, Underland Arcana, Funicular Magazine, and others. She was also a finalist in the 2020 Lex Allen Poetry Prize. She loves baking cookies, watching rocket launches, and listening to music too loud. She can be found at @writeruvinsky.

photo by Daniel McCullough and David Thielen (via unsplash)