Gli Elefanti sono Stanchi

It was his
beauty. I loved looking at him. That’s why I found myself going back. He
wouldn’t pretend. He needed my help then he needed me as a woman. No more than
a couple of times. It was always up to me and I would always say yes. He gave
me plenty of space to say no. The way he asked, seemed he expected that. I
never tried to be elusive. I would go to the address he would give me. Two
different addresses. Two different times. One was his. One was his friend’s.

 I remember seeing him one day at the meadows. He wore a garish blue nineties T-shirt. A bit oversize. He was sitting a minute away from me. I had texted him if he was around for a drink. Hadn’t seen him while I composed the message. It took me half an hour to write a couple of lines. I used my two native friends. He replied the next day, saying it was a good day for it. Exclamation mark. The previous night, I slept with a guy I met that evening in the meadows. When I saw he would not reply to my message sitting a minute away from me, I would turn my head the other way, twenty minutes or so. When I finally looked at where he was supposed to be sitting, he was gone. After a couple of weeks he asked me to help him with his orals. I said yes. I met him the same day at the pub of the university. He was anxious. He wanted to get that done and leave. He didn’t order anything. He went along with his presentation. I pretended to have listened carefully to what he said. I ended up staring at him in an effort to focus on his voice. People were loud and his accent made it difficult. Then I gave him tips to avoid trap questions. If there were any. I remember trying to start a conversation.

We went out
he rolled me a cigarette and I rushed to finish my cider. Fringe was coming. He
said he wanted their money- those idiots who come and spend it there.  I didn’t think of asking him if he ever
enjoyed the festival. Next day, he thanked me saying he spoke cogently in
French.

Most of the times he was silent. That wouldn’t change even when he talked. He would say something but had no means to sustain a conversation. His words would linger a bit and drop. Beauty cupped it up. Out of all men I’ve slept with, I craved for two.  He was one of them. He couldn’t know that. I would look at him, look at him a lot. When I was dressing up, putting on my shoes. He looked back at me and smiled. It was more of a reaction to my staring at him and saying nothing. I had nothing more to say. I understood he wouldn’t see me again.




Crushed

Picture Credits: Callum Wells

“At the end, could you be
a bit less feminine?” she said.

They were in bed. As usual,
he was lying on top of her, exhausted, spent. She lay squashed beneath him, seeming,
he realised at this point, barely out of breath. As she spoke, it was like she’d
found a splinter already embedded in his sternum, a fine tweeze of wood, which,
with the tip of her forefinger, she was starting to push further in.

            “What
do you mean, less feminine?” he said, wincing.

            It was
the era of Time’s Up. It was the era of gender fluidity. But it was also the era
of Brad Pitt being interviewed for an online magazine, looking half his actual age,
and saying you shouldn’t be afraid to take
your woman like an animal
. Did he actually say that? It was a very confusing
time to be a twenty-something heterosexual, cis-gendered male. Especially when you
were infatuated with someone fifteen years older.

            “I just
mean you always sort of… whimper. When you come. Like a hurt puppy. It’s not a
good look. Couldn’t you be a bit more, you know…” She tailed off.

            “No,
I don’t know. What do you mean?” He was
hurt, now.

            “You
contort your face. And then you make this… noise. It’s just a bit disappointing,
that’s all. At the end.”

            “Thanks.”

            “I don’t
mean to say the whole thing is disappointing. It’s fine. Really.” She scratched her nose, stifled a yawn, then rolled
out from underneath him. He slumped onto his back and turned to the wall. “It’s
just,” she continued, “I usually prefer it when men are bit more…”

            The past
few years of gazing at ripped gym torsos tensed in his forearms; a decade of catching
his own voice like a stranger’s, shallow and childish in his throat, troubled
him now like a toxic aftertaste.

            “I
can’t help it.” He was speaking mainly at his wallpaper. “Once it gets to that
point, it’s instinctive. I don’t think you can control that sort of thing.” He
turned to her. “I mean, how would you like it if I said your walk wasn’t very
feminine, or your mouth was too male. You wouldn’t be able to do anything about
either.”

            “Yes,
but you wouldn’t, would you. I walk like a puma on heat. And you adore my lips.
You’ve told me.”
            Both of these things were
true. Why had he chosen examples of the very things he most liked about her?

            “Shall
we try again?” he ventured. “I’ll put in a special effort to make a better sound.
If we do it now, I’m more likely to remember, to get in the habit.”

            She looked
at him for a full five seconds before replying.

            “No, no,”
she said. “I don’t think we’ll try again.”

She lifted her long legs off
the sheets and slinked into the bathroom. He heard her running the tap, splashing.
He lay on the bed, staring at a ladybird that clung motionless to the wall. It
was sitting right on the dividing line between two strips of wallpaper.

He mulled things over for
a while. Gradually he started to lose focus. Where did those things keep coming
from? If he reached over right now with the tissues, and made one sudden movement,
it probably wouldn’t feel a thing.




Bite

Picture Credits: Duane Burdick

Later, she would say that he had been blessed but first, she would curse the fleshy lip of the mushroom, sprouting there in the shade along the path where the boy walked daily, back and forth from the mines, his bare feet scuffing the red dirt, his fingernails seamed with mud. And it was the yearning, not the weight of the leaden sacks on his bony shoulders, not the hours spent picking through dusty pieces of rock in search of metal, that put him in harm’s way on that day. Mineral dust took longer to scar a person’s lungs, tainted water took time to grow a tumor. It was the walk home, an empty-bellied trek along a stony path, a shortcut past the cool, wooded corner where his temple twitched as he reached down to pluck at the mushroom, that single moment of daring, that put the boy’s shins within striking distance of the snake’s fangs. Later, she would say that her son had been saved by the serpent’s head and herbs which she had ground up and charred and rubbed into razor cuts on his body. She would say that a boy, as small as he, might have suffered more than just the fever and the retching. She would wipe the dirt from his face and feed him a spoonful of fufu and tell him that one day, he would grow as tall and strong as an ebony tree and live like a king.




A Boy in Wolf River

Watching Wolf River flow by is to watch a god in rage. A flood of spring
rains turns the typically docile creek into a roiling serpent, broken branches
and trash swirling in its coils. Every now and then, little waves leap ashore,
bleeding through the grass to lick Adrian’s toes.

He stands a respectful distance from the springtime menace. A year
before, he had enjoyed swinging from a rope tied to an overhead branch,
trailing his toes across the water like a tease before landing in a dirt patch
beyond. But all good predators are patient, and when the old branch snapped,
Adrian dropped right into the river’s frothy jaws. It toyed with him, tossing
him over and under, slinging him tauntingly against its slippery banks before
sweeping him along again. The water was so cold that his body ached.  His lungs felt like they were twisting up
inside his chest, trying to wring themselves of the water he kept inhaling. The
gray-white churn of the surface gave way to blurry darkness.

This is it, he didn’t think but felt, for there is little space for thought in
the act of drowning. Thankfully, the hand of God reached down to yank him
through a sharp S-bend, and he was mercifully spat ashore.

The wind rushed by, wild and raspy, but then he realized that the
sounds were his own gasps for air. He clutched at the earth with every inch of
himself. The world spun, the day turning to hazy night and then back to burning
day once more.  Even as he dragged his
trembling body away, a piece of himself would be forever caught in the river’s
grip. A piece of his youth, stripped from him and driven to the sea.




Chemistry

Picture Credits: Feliciano Moya López

Boy has brown eyes, brown hair, and a
two-piece green-white pencil box with a hinge on one end. If you hold the
outer bit at the hinge end, you can swing the inner bit out all the way.
You could never lose just one bit and have to explain why. It’s cool. 

Boy has a brown voice too, but with
golden spangles that pop up at random. You don’t see them coming, and
suddenly they’re there. My brother says it sounds like the lab test
for lead. Plumbum. 

Boy catches flies. Mosquitoes. Bugs.
Spiders. A grasshopper one time.

Boy takes out his pens, pencils,
eraser, sharpener, 6” ruler — lays them out on the desk. Tears out a sheet
of notepaper, folds it in half lengthwise, and then once again. Places it
inside the pencil box, tucks the edges. Places the day’s catch inside.
Swings the lid closed. 

In his plumbous (valency two),
sometimes plumbic (valency four), voice, Boy offers it to me: innu njaan
naale nee. My turn today, and tomorrow, yours. I see this written on
the sides of hearses sometimes. 

I give Boy my antelope tooth, but
that is another story.




Hand Job

Picture Credits: ahyakal

I am working at the fish and chips shop when I am poached. The man who
poaches me looks like an old-time Hollywood producer. He is wearing brown boat
shoes, white linen shorts, a long-sleeved white linen shirt with one too many
buttons undone, and an expensive gold necklace; he should have been relaxing
poolside somewhere while beautiful people did cocaine from silver plates and
fucked in his pool house, not buying greasy food in some Melbourne tuck shop.
Later, when we are doing cocaine from a silver plate and beautiful people are
fucking in his pool house, I tell him of my initial impression and he says
emphatically, ‘the movies are a sucker’s game, baby, the hand industry is where
the money is!’

When I hand him his order – two pieces of battered
fish, $7.20 worth of chips, three potato cakes, a cornjack, two dim sims and a
Chiko roll – I am conscious of his heavy gaze. I ignore it and put another
basket of chips into the deep fryer. The oil splatters more than expected. When
I yank my arm away I hear the man cry out. ‘Get back!’ he yells. ‘For the love
of God be careful!’

He asks me to stop what I am doing and speak with him.
Once I finish cooking the new batch of chips and the customer leaves, the store
is empty, so I figure what the hell, take off my apron, and sit with him while
he slowly makes his way through his order. He has a special talent for chewing
food and breathing heavy through his nose at the same time.

‘Your hands are something special,’ he says, his voice
emerging from some deep cavern in his throat. ‘If you stop working here and
come with me we can change the world.’

I don’t have much going on at the time, so I shrug and
say, ‘sure, why not.’

The starting rate is $1000 just for showing up. Then
he pays me $200 for each ring I put on. On any given shoot, I will wear between
twenty to thirty rings. I make $5,400 on my first day. The man takes photos of
my hands for hours, gives me the cash in a yellow envelope sealed with a wax
stamp with an imprint of two hands inside the stamp, and sends me on my way.

Two weeks later, I see my hands on a billboard near
the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Maybe thirty people are standing in the street,
staring up at the billboard, saying admiring things about my hands. Everyone
agrees that my hands are the truly impressive part of the advertisement. When a
woman turns around, she notices my hands and says, ‘look, it’s the person from
the billboard. It’s the same hands.’ The crowd chases after me and I hide in an
alleyway until I feel safe.

One month later, I am in New York with the man from
the fish and chips shop. We are in a warehouse in Chelsea and a famous
photographer is taking pictures of my hands. These pictures get published in
Vanity Fair. Around the same time, a very cool writer who is famous on Twitter
publishes an article in N+1 about my
hands, their commodification and what it all says about late capitalism. It
goes on to become very influential; it is published in Best American Essays and taught in universities. 

Sometimes, stupid people I went to high school with
message me things like, ‘haha ur life is like that episode of seinfeld’ and
then use the crying laughing emoji.

While the man from the fish and chips shop and I are
doing cocaine from a silver plate and people are fucking in his pool house, I
think about being chased by a crowd and hiding in the alley. Sometimes I miss
putting chips in the deep fryer. My psychiatrist says I didn’t let myself deal
with the trauma of this event, but I say to her, ‘what is there to deal with?
It happened and it’s over.’

A man from the pool house comes up to me. His body has
a light sheen and he smells of sex. We let him take a hit of cocaine from our
silver plate. He says, ‘I have had sex in many pool houses and done cocaine from
lots of expensive silver plates, but I struggle to connect with people on a
meaningful level. But your hands, even on a billboard, even in a magazine, even
on a screen – they make me feel like I am being nurtured by another person. You
have a gift. May I please touch them?’

He reaches out to me and I pull my hands away.




Warning Systems

Picture Credits: Stefan Keller

Warning systems

4 hours before: The first sign is deep in the earth, a
tremble becoming a tremor. There is time to flee to higher ground.

 49-year-old Xavier Da
Sousa leans backs in his 22nd floor Canary Wharf office, sinking into his first
Glenfiddich of the day. The slight tremor in his right hand causes drops of
amber liquid to bounce off the edge of his Waterford crystal glass. He picks
them up, one by one, with a wetted finger, the way his father chased grains of
rice even in the throes of Parkinson’s. He tastes earth, and ash.

In the end, he needn’t have worried. He outlives them all.

 45-year-old Elisabeth
Da Sousa smiles through the aftershocks from her second ever orgasm, enjoying
the tremors rolling deep in her belly. The purple-haired woman sprawled across
her runs a pale hand over her dimpled brown thighs. This newly discovered
pleasure feels so undeserved she takes it as retribution that this is what she
was doing as the wave gathered pace.

Eventually, she dies alone in her Richmond garden flat, dreaming
of a woman she can’t name.

2 hours before: Then, water may recede from the coast, exposing the ocean floor, reefs and
fish. Some escape routes may be cut off.

22-year-old Mary Da Sousa drops the coral earrings she’s
borrowed from her mother into the  sink at
Café Rouge, an attempt at returning them to their original habitat. She throws
her blue plastic hairnet in after, an expert at the right dramatic gesture to
use before leaving a room. She takes the expression on her ex-manager’s face
and the clapping of her former co-workers as her due.

Ultimately, when she returns herself to the ocean ten years
later in unnecessary sacrifice, it’s only accompanied by the shushing of the
waves.

 22-year-old Marcus Da
Sousa scrubs the last piece of grime from the empty tropical fish tank that was
the twins’ joint 12th birthday present. His father wanted to replace
them but it wouldn’t have been the same. He talks to Maggie, the long dead Forktail
Rainbow fish, the way he always did when his bronchitis flared up. He talks
about it the most after, the space that’s left, he’s even interviewed, holding
back tears, on local TV.

So the painful way his lungs fill with water for the final
time makes it into the papers, the son of the financial genius, the brother of
a teenage mermaid.

 19 yr old Magdalena
Da Sousa, Maggie to her friends, lies back on the deserted white sand beach,
and puts in her headphones. It’s how she’s always dealt with the arguments she
lives in, whether the voices in her house were too loud or too quiet, or when
she needed to recharge. She’s started ‘Their Eyes are Watching God’ in the
middle and already read the last page, something that her brother, her favourite
teacher, would frown about. She immerses herself in Janie Crawford’s life.

  She never knows
she’s exactly 30 minutes from solid ground.

29 minutes before: An
approaching tsunami creates a wall of water and loud “roaring” sound
similar to that of a train or jet aircraft, unmistakeable if you can hear it.
Run.




The Poetry of Snow

Picture Credits: vagueonthehow

Snow drifted across the windshield, broad blank flakes that outdid the wipers, their pendulum motions dulled to juddering flailing. Eventually we pulled up alongside the train tracks and turned our faces toward the hidden mountains, running the windows down zip-zap quick to get whatever stilted view there was. We passed boxes of crackers and a lukewarm flask between us in comfortable silence and then, without much in the way of discussion, we made love on the back seat, cheeks pressed damply together.

The old saloon
wagon became like a womb, covered in the skin of ice, sheltering our raw
nakedness from the worst of the chill as we rocked together. The radio played
up to my imaginings offering muffled pinches of show-tunes from way out over
the valley; carpet-slipper tapping classics of a kind old folk enjoy. I sighed
and pressed my ear to Michael’s chest, feeling the hair tickle my helix like a
delicious, whispered secret. His roughened palm stroked up and down my back and
then, after a time, his fingers began creeping into the narrow gully of my
buttocks to signal that he wanted me again. I pretended to be asleep, not
because I didn’t want him but because the shy little spanks he imparted in his attempt
rouse me sent my blood rushing from my head, thawing me out and turning my
climates tropical in ways I had clean forgotten could be done. I was glad of
Michael then, and I showed it until he was spent and quivering in my arms.

Darkness had
gathered around us, but in a rare twist of nature the snow seemed to trap and
hold the last of the light a little longer than usual and I used it to try (and
eventually fail) to read the map he held out to me. Michael was smiling
encouragingly so I pretended to know what I was about and forced my unsteady agreement
with the coloured lines and penned stars. Stalling for time, I twisted to get
another cracker and the zip of his hoodie slid cool and firm against my nipple.
I looked him up and down and he put his hand in the shaggy nest of my hair; by
the time we were finally ready to drive on darkness was upon us in full, the
map forgotten.

When I let him
out at the motel, he thanked me for a nice time and for the ride along. I
thanked him for a nice ride and for passing time along. It was silly and I felt
like a goose for saying it, but he just looked at me a little funny, like all
the emotion in him was welling up and he didn’t know why. “You driving back
this way? Tomorrow maybe?”

I told him I
was not and let his disappointment soothe my own aching chest and return some
strength to my sex-heavy limbs. I told him I was a drifter too and he nodded,
all solemn, as if our kind holds this knowledge as a sacred truth; not just a
happening of circumstance. My tyres and his boots crunched the same snow, a
million individual snowflakes all coming together ready to be faded away in due
course. I could see the poetry of it but I had no desire for it to change. Drifters
never do.




Leeches

Picture Credits: Theresa McGee

When I was 7, I witnessed my first death. We were at
the cottage when my cousin Sebastian found, trapped and tortured a leech on the
dock. My mother took this opportunity as teachable moment; not about how some
young boys can be cruel and violent or how others will try and beat the ugly
out of this world but of how these parasitic, predatory worms are super
resistant, strong, “can even resist torture,” she said. When the boys left, I
built a home for the suffering leech, of sticks and mud and a red leaf for the
roof. Shortly after, the leech died. Sebastian returned to steal the dead from
its home, to use as bait to catch fish, he said. I strongly resisted but
failed. Sebastian wouldn’t listen to reason. Sebastian was a killer I guess. I
remember crying so much that afternoon, throwing a tantrum so severe that
Sebastian enlisted my grandfather into finding a replacement leech. They went
off into the lake. Just after dinner, when the sun was setting, my cousin and
grandfather returned with two long, beautiful, speckled leeches.

            I had permission to bring them home
as long as they were returned the following weekend. During that time, I cared
for them, brought them to show and tell at school. A new addition to my friend
group, to our tea parties and adventures. I kept them in a bucket of sand and
weeds. Aunt Margaret closed the cottage as the summer came to an end and we never
got the chance to return the leeches to the lake. I wondered if they were mad
at me for taking them from their home. A profound guilt came over me. I was to
protect them from an uncertain future, I told myself, from the cruel boys and
the fish that wanted them dead. I kept them for two months.

Leeches can go a long time without eating but by the
end October, I started noticing how they weren’t as active, as responsive. I
thought about placing my little hand in the leech bucket and letting them suck
at it for a while but I couldn’t stomach it. I was getting concerned. Winter
was quickly approaching and my babies were starving to death. I tried feeding
them meat, raw meat, even the blood from raw meat. Nothing.

            My mother got worried that they
would die. That the trauma from their death would cause irreparable damage; foreshadowing
a future of bad relationships and loose morals. “Trauma can do that,” she told
my dad quietly. My mother called the Museum of Nature for some advice. She
spoke to a woman that specialized in creepy crawlers, in leeches. “Leeches only
feed on live mammals,” she said. In their exhibit, they fed them mice. I don’t
think I could stomach that either. The museum people told us that we would have
to put them in the fridge over the winter so that they could hibernate. Mom
didn’t want that. However, the museum had an upcoming workshop on creepy
crawlers. They told us to bring our little friends and that they would keep
them in their exhibit if they were a fit, or else, release them. I was happy.
My leeches had found a home, of glass and fame.

            Workshop day had arrived, and one of
my leeches escaped. I was destroyed again. I yelled at everyone to watch where
they were stepping or so help me god. Mom said they could sense water. When she
came home, she looked under the rug in the corner of the house facing the
biggest body of water, the river. My leech was there, alone and shriveled up,
but still alive. We quickly rushed them to the museum. There we met with the
leech specialist and compared leeches. Mine were much more beautiful, they were
mine. Theirs were small and grey. Mine were big, dark green, with a dotted
vermillion line along their backs. “They slid like pretty ribbons through
water,” I told them. The museum agreed to take them. They went even further and
gifted me free admissions passes, inviting my entire class to come see them in
their new home. A few months later we took a school field trip to the Museum of
Nature for the creepy crawler exhibit. My leeches were easy to spot amongst the
others. They were the prettiest.   




The Sea is Wild

Picture Credits: Michal Jarmoluk

The gale-force wind
shrieks, whipping up nausea and pain. We gasp as the boat lists. Blood is
seeping down my nose ― now and then it dries up for a while and then starts
again, sometimes slowly, sometimes black. Sleep doesn’t come easy; when it
does, it gives no rest. The only thing I know is my story will, sooner rather
than later, end up at the bottom of the sea.

When the bullets
started to explode, there was no echo. The air was dead, but the echo formed
inside my head; the echo echoed my fear and the fear turned into nosebleed. I
held my breath, I shut my eyes, I pressed my fingers hard on my ears. Within a
few minutes, I lost all the men in my life: my father, three uncles, two
brothers, four cousins, six nephews and my father’s father. I couldn’t see how
it was done. They were either in a hurry, or the gods were kind to me:
they didn’t stop and look underneath the hut or torch it before they left. And
so when I, and then my mother, emerged into the night after the dripping of
blood had stopped (from the floor above), we were crushed by the sight of the
handiwork of these othermen.

We were too afraid
to stay to bury our dead. I couldn’t quite tell one from another, as all their
faces were gone ― except this was an adult and that a child. My seven nieces
were gone too; so were my three sisters, two aunts, five cousins and the wives
of my uncles. Even my two grandmothers. They’ve become trophies in a war that
nobody understands.

My mother and I
didn’t talk for days; all our words had died. Walking was all we could do,
until we saw, from a distance, the frothing sea. My mother had all her money in
a bag sewn on her inside vest. You go, I’ll come later, she said. She
only had enough to pay for a single fare.

I don’t remember
what I said to her; I don’t remember how I’ve come to this half-standing,
half-crouching pose, with all these other stinking bodies pressed against mine
in a dark dank dingy space. How I overcame my gut-wrenching sea-sickness I
can’t tell. Somebody tried to grope me, but too weak to do anything else. Some
went overboard, or perhaps were pushed. Children whimper; grown men weep.
Feeling has deserted me: my passion is gone, my compassion has disappeared. A
little girl somehow let herself fall into the water, vanishing without trace,
leaving her mother howling with pain. I hold my breath, I shut my eyes, I press
my fingers hard on my ears. The storm shrieks, we gasp as the boat lists. The
thought of dry land, the thought of my mother’s face.

I shall not be
singing lullaby to my children and their children: they’ll never be born; my
womb will stay empty. Their faces I want to see; they’re looking for me.

But there’s only
the sea: will the sea set me free?




A Week in the Country

The
passivity of her husband had been the thing that irked Amalia most throughout
their ten-year marriage. When a neighbour had planted a row of cypress trees at
the border of their estates, Georg had shrugged it off. We have more than
enough land, he’d reasoned, what is a few hundred feet to us? When their eldest
daughter had complained that her pianoforte lessons were too difficult, Georg
had indulged her, and allowed her to leave off. No point in making the poor
child miserable for an accomplishment that’s purely decorative, he’d smiled. He
hadn’t minded her decorative
accomplishments, Amalia had fumed.

Which
was why she was so shocked when Georg had turned up at her brother’s house in
Vienna, the week of her planned liaison with Captain Muller. George proceeded
to spend the week attending to Amalia’s every whim, dancing until their feet
were sore, riding out with her in her sister-in-law’s carriage, even reading
poetry with her in the library, until Amalia quite forgot all about Fritz and
his lasciviously curling golden locks. Georg had begun to reveal shades of the
man he’d been when they first married married, and Amalia’s curiosity had grown
until it was a pleasure to spend time with him.

On
their last day, the men decided to get up a shooting party. The women protested
– it was foggy, the season was almost over, why traipse into the country for
the dregs? Captain Muller was injured, and carried home screaming and thrashing
in a manner most unbefitting an army captain suffering a mere flesh wound. Amalia
felt more than a little repelled by his behaviour, and watched anxiously for
her husband.

‘What
a horrid accident,’ remarked Amalia absent-mindedly, as she and Georg climbed
into their carriage for the station.

‘It
was certainly horrid, that’s for sure,’ replied her husband.

Amalia
laughed as she settled herself amongst her furs. ‘Why, Georg, whatever do you –

Georg
fixed his young wife with a grim stare, and she stopped laughing.




My Mother’s Tongue is Balkan

My mother’s English jerks like a mare that has sighted the Danube. Her tongue is tied with white lace and folktales and the song of Balkan crones and nymphs around a forest fire. My mother’s tongue speaks one language but is understood by all. Her tongue always gives her away like a “runaway bride” or one of the other “Americanisms” she has learned after arriving in the land of the dead Last Mohicans. She is always troubled by her treacherous un-conforming mouth parts, but mostly by her ancestry. My mother, she says, “fruet” instead of normal fruit, and researches how best to pickle plums in America and “where can one find good cow-cheese for burek?”

She says mila, dear sweet girl – come here, help me with these stolen Mohican words.” She chews on a Bic while comparing Cyrillic and Latin letters in her copybook and her blue eyes take on the color of ink. She sighs, “I am stupid. Never did well in school, or perhaps it’s early Alzheimer’s like that of my great-great aunt Vera. She too, died alone in a foreign country that didn’t want her because of her tongue. Imagine, I survived a war, and your father’s hate and my fear of the American man, but am afraid of their alphabet – mostly W – demonic letter that it is.”

And she then calls me Mila, like my grandmother’s name, and it
sounds like poetry but then she says “wacuum” pulling V over the words with a
sucking that feels like a death rattle each time, like something that might
finally kill her is stuck in her long neck. My mother’s Ws are hard but she is
a Durmitor rock and her words are
fragments – she speaks like she wants to forget the vowel-less language of her
ancestors and the shape of their black mountains.

Later, at the 7-Eleven we stop for
a crushed ice slushy and when she asks for wet
wipes
she trembles, spilling words like quarters from a Blue purse that is
embroidered with a single rose that is Red. My mother’s tongue was molded in
the Balkans; she can only hear the strumming of a tamburitsa song in her mind.




Shakespeare Wrote About Us

In the beginning, we were Romeo and Juliet, exchanging
promises of eternal love, caring words, kisses, saliva and other bodily fluids,
feelings of joy or even exhilaration, that lost sense of belonging warming our
hearts, when we walked down the street, hand in hand.

In the beginning, we were one. Two of a kind.
Inseparable lovers. Fated to be together, until death’d do us part. Once we saw
the film, we jumped into the screen, and forgot to jump out when the film
ended.

Until reality stormed in. Until the film spit us out.
Until our fragile egos broke through. We stood there, facing each other,
suspicion in our eyes, a futile attempt at balance, like when walking on ice,
or a stretched rope.

Then, we became two. Two of a crime. Disconnected
components of the same machine. Doomed to remain broken, until repairs were
performed. Breaking up every once in a while. Each of us on their own, both of
us as a team. Over and over. Again and again.

Our little worlds collapsed and at the time, the whole
world collapsed too. Yet we collapsed alone. We suffered in silence. Each of us
hiding the pain from the other.

*

We managed to break into the film again, only our bond transformed into a minefield. We were careful not to walk on the mines, yet we failed again and again.

As soon as one of us turned around to leave, the other
turned into a predator chasing after the prey. Breaking up wasn’t that hard
after all. We were used to the pain, or even addicted to suffering. We enjoyed
the game, as if we were children, left alone, playing with fire.

Yet we lived among ruins, in a dystopic film about a
world lost, in which the protagonists kill each other in turns. Every once in a
while, we crossed the bridge. The pain of falling apart felt less excruciating
when we stood on the bridge. We came always in costumes, or uniforms, depending
on circumstances. We sometimes came in armors, on chariots, carrying our spears
and shields, pointing at each other, as if we were the worst of enemies.

*

 
We entered the bridge from different sides. We met in the middle. Only then did
we lift our eyes to face each other. There came the most crucial moment. That’s
when we measured our strength. Behind the masks we tried to hide, yet the
sparks could not be hidden. Sparks of passion or contempt.
The battle may have seemed like a passionate dance to the unsuspecting eye. Yet
the pain felt real. Covered under the mask. Suppressed under the uniform. The
result remained unknown, until the end. One and one equals one or two?
And the battle went on and on. Until one of us surrendered, admitting defeat.
Then we left the bridge embraced, proud to be one again, defying arithmetic
rules, against all odds.
We threw away the costumes, secretly wishing that one day, one of us would be
strong enough to burn that bridge and free us.

Several explosions later, we broke up for good.
Shakespeare wrote about us, only he didn’t know how to name the story,
uncertain if it was a love story or a tale of power struggle.

Compared to us, Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending.




Her Last Defeat

Picture Credits: Amanda Slater

By Selim Batti

Translated
from the Arabic by Essam M. Al-Jassim

She no longer harbored passionate feelings toward him—not even in their most intimate moments. To her, he was a cold-hearted imbecile who’d obliterated the landmarks of her joy and slaughtered any glimmer of the happiness she had once possessed. Whatever delight she had, he crushed down. He had robbed her of her solitary repose and pursued debauchery while toying with her desires. He tore away the threads of her happiness like a child swipes a spider’s web.  He was a reckless driver; she was merely a steering wheel with which he swerved left and right.

     How could she be a promising hope for him
when she was solely a winter whim in the womb of his hot Tammuz? She was a simple
winter fling, afraid of being exposed by the seasons that might reveal her
disappointments—indeed, the seasons of the year relish disclosing misfortunes,
and disillusionment evades the cruelty of the seasons.

     He had deprived her of all gaiety by
planting a thousand questions inside her soul. He had ravaged her person and
sowed the seeds of his lust with his frivolity and loathing. Since the day
she’d uncovered the fact that she was being taken advantage of as a suppressed,
inanimate object—a far cry from the exceptional lover he had promised her she
was to him—he’d betrayed her real emotions through his own resigned feelings.

    For him, she was a temporary addiction — a bottle of whiskey he felt no need to make a toast with. She was the panacea that cured him before being discarded—not because she had become outdated, not because they had outgrown each other, but because he had recovered from his illness, so that the medicine had become a malady.

     In his toxic masculinity and virility, he
shrouded her in a red jar, upon which he penned Approach is Forbidden— a
secret unknown to anyone. He kept the jar on the top of a shadowed shelf inside
his bedroom, never exposed to light. But he was intelligent; he knew not to
toss this container into the trash. His chauvinistic mind was unable to abide by
any collapse of his pride.

     Control over his possessions concerned him
deeply, and he lived in fear that someone might retrieve that jar, wipe the
dust off its past, and fill it with dear love instead of lust. Driven by this
fear, he buried the jar deep. It was his secret to keeping, his possession to
protect.

     Selfish, suffering from the dread of
losing control, and a twisted perfectionist in his craft, he molded his property
for himself. With his jealousy, possessiveness, neurosis, and insecurity, he resembled
a child who refused to give up his broken toys or ill-fitting clothing. He was
a shameless, brazen man, a pilferer summoned before a judge only to deny all
the charges against him, despite the overwhelming evidence presented.

    A dominating person, he had embedded himself into the orbit of her life; become the touchstone of her bliss, the lie of her truth, the reality of his worst caprices. His breaths were to her as daggers poisoned with betrayal. His friends had almost accused her of trying to kill him, unaware of the fact that she was the one who had died a thousand times in his chokehold.

    She had no friends, no confidant to help her see a way. He’d locked every door, closed every window and shut out the light. He had left her a laughing stock before her stronghold. In the darkness, in the small place she’d long lived, she saw hope. She’d had an epiphany. She’d seen the truth that his false love had hidden from her mind. She had reached a turning point. She breathed freely for the first time in ages and remembered who she was and who she had been. With hope again burning bright, she fled the habit of sleeping on the pillow of the nightmares he’d created.




Lübeck

Picture Credits: Johannes

I haven’t slept much, I tell the private investigator. I think his name is Cole. He’s a tall man, a big man, but he doesn’t talk a lot. Do you have any leads, I ask, any idea who they might be?

P.I. Cole sits,
inhales a cigarette, sips at his coffee, watches the waitress dancing between
the clustered booths, watches a stray dog sniffing behind a dumpster (bark, bark!), watches the cars speed by
on the freeway towards the city.

They were outside
my apartment again last night, I tell Cole. Sat in a car, watching from across
the street. Outside the window old newspapers float across the vacant parking
lot. Cole remains silent, adjusts his tie, he doesn’t look at me.

I’m falling
apart, I mutter to Cole or myself. The cigarette smoke hurts my eyes. He
carries a gun. I don’t really know him at all, thinking about it. Bark, bark! This is a waste of time. Did
you see something you shouldn’t have?

I close my eyes
and I see a tent pitched at an abandoned campground, slashed canvas rippling in
the wind. The girl is missing. Bark,
bark!
The police can’t help with things like this. What did you see in the
woods?

Finally Cole
speaks. What did you see in the woods? When I close my eyes his voice sounds
distant and distorted, remorseful even. Memories of Lübeck in the fall. I met a girl
named Sofia. No more coffee, thanks. Can you remember exactly what you saw in
the woods?

I can see shadows
moving beyond my eyelids. I’ll try the pie, Cole says. She liked my accent and
she had a dog (bark, bark!) and we
walked through the park and the dog found a dead squirrel. Sofia went missing
too . . . or maybe we fell out of touch. Is there a difference?

I open my eyes.
Cole has left. The diner is empty. Did he pay? I stand up, leaving a few
dollars on the counter, and walk out into the empty lot. The moon is hidden
behind the clouds. It’s cold now.

In the dim
moonlight a man walks through uncharted woodland. He carries a gun in one hand
and a dripping plastic bag in the other and he thinks he’s alone. A wary dog
cautiously follows. What did you see in the woods? He’s talking to himself. I
think I’m being watched.

Bark, bark!




And now he is Mad

Picture Credits: Oleksy Ohurtsov

Mr Cole stands in his black suit beside the street waiting for 12 o’clock taxis. His right hand holds firmly the grip of his umbrella that covers him and his black hat from the hot sun. In his left hand is his briefcase containing papers of land agreements. His shadow stands narrowly alongside with the exact posture of him.

He is looking at a lady dancing at the
other side of the street with her flimsy gown blowing up that her underwear is
barely shown. Mr Cole, for a while, looks away from her and stiffens his gaze
to the ground with his eyes getting swollen by the scorched asphalt. He again
looks up to blink his eyes and sees the lady standing motionless and her gown
blowing up still.

He crosses to the other side of the street and walks up to the lady to tell her her dress is revealing her invaluable secrets. As he taps the lady’s shoulder, she turns back. Mr Cole throws his briefcase up letting the papers fling up into the air. His umbrella gets scattered on the street and his hat follows him for two inches before it drops off his head. He runs back, holding his chest, patting. He looks up again and starts babbling “no no no no… “.

The lady isn’t a lady. The lady is Mr
Cole’s neighbour living adjacent to his apartment. His name is James, he is a man
and he is now mad.




Spectral Light

            Tiny. Torn-up, sleepy. Trembling. That ash-grey kitten. And it depends on how you see yourself! Technically this is still me drawing comics. Still fighting it! Lozenges, the gum, keep from smoking, drawing board, the same four walls, pacing, more distraction, then stretched out, book on my chest, eyes closed. But now it’s dribbling drills, basketball . . . Because I’ve seen that footwork, magic, seen her come up with it on her own. But the question is, how does she see it? She’s ten now. And not really magic, more like music. C’mon Zhanna—Wave step. In and out dribble. Retreat. Retreat. There’s also a part of this that’s me, coming up with books, from youtube, new drills, every week, almost, or maybe even actually, like torture. Pump fake, wave step. Or yesterday, working out, ball slipping, going up on her forearm, which I hate, can’t stand it, I snatch the ball, I’m yelling too much, and she’s crying, now I’m trying to dial it back, so I switch gears, the BS thing about ballhandling being like music. Not that it’s not. Music, or torture. You push through. Find the answers. Ok, here. Zhanna. Do it again . . .

            Tuesday,
5:26 am. No sun yet. Going to the gym. Weaving beside puddles, piles of
dogshit. Wave step. Block away from
the subway. What I can only think to describe as a kind of, spectral light, as
that kitten, yawning, caked with dirt, steps from weeds onto the sidewalk.

            “That cat-

            “Kitten. Look at it.” I say, stepping over, I can hear the train.

            “Like one or two years old, right?”

            “Maybe a month or two, Zhanna. Let’s
go.”

            “Really?”

            “Cats grow up fast.”

            “They have to, right?”

            “Gotta be little soldiers.”

            “Little, fluffy soldiers.”

           “Hm. Yeah . . .”




Bargain

Picture Credits: Angelika Demel

When I was fourteen I babysat for a couple with
three gorgeous kids, two girls and a boy. The kids’ mother was a ballerina. She
was petite and muscular. The kids’ father seemed to me like a bear, he was so
much bigger than her. And because there was something foreboding about him. I
imagined he contained a dark forest inside his skin. He was handsome, though.
The few times he was the one to relay instructions to me about dinner and
bedtime while the kids’ mother finished getting ready behind their closed
bedroom door, I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I didn’t know much back then, but I knew the
couple was drunk when they returned late at night. They had a ragged sloppiness
about them, like clothes wrinkled from sitting too long in the dryer. How late,
I don’t remember now, only that they stayed out much later than my parents ever
did. If my parents went out, it was for chicken fried steak and a movie. They
were in bed by ten.

When the couple returned, the kids’ father handed
me a wad of crumpled dollar bills. I was grossly underpaid. A bargain, my
friend Steph called me. The family she babysat for lived in a house with
ceilings so high she couldn’t reach them with a broomstick. Two kids versus the
three in my charge, but her hourly rate was three times what the Elliots paid
me.   

I put up with it because I told myself they
wouldn’t be able to afford dates if it weren’t for me. Their house was small.
Some of the tiles had come up in the kitchen. Every room looked like an
unfinished craft project.

Also, I was frugal. Scolded my younger siblings
when they begged our mother for toys at the store. Got scolded by her in return
because our mother was not frugal. Years later, after my parents divorced, she
would blow through her half of their savings within two years, despite having a
full-time job and no health problems or other financial impediments. 

I put up with it too because I was timid and
eager to please, thus easy to take advantage of, which is to say I wasn’t a particularly
good babysitter. The Elliots got what they paid for.

The kids’ father always drove me home. The
kids’ mother muttered thank you, then disappeared into their bedroom. The glow
that had been in her cheeks on the way out the door was dulled and hardened
when they walked back in.

Without a word, he would hold the front door
for me, just as he had for her some hours earlier.

The drive wasn’t far—a couple miles. Still, he
never said a word about how maybe he shouldn’t drive me home, how maybe he’d
had too much to drink.

Of course, I could have said something. I could
have called and woke my father to tell him to come get me. But I didn’t. Just
like how a few years later, I wouldn’t speak up in so many other circumstances
involving men who would make me feel as small and inconsequential as a gnat. As
that bear of a man drove in silence, as though he were alone, I felt so much
smaller than his ballerina wife, smaller even than his children. In reality, I
was taller than all of them, but I didn’t own my height. I didn’t own anything
about my body other than my shame at being the kind of girl no one gave a damn
about, not even a man with alcohol on his breath, nothing but crumpled ones in
his pocket.




Moon

Picture Credits: Ponciano

The rich arsehole is going to the moon and he is very happy to tell you that he alone will be travelling to the moon after all it is his rocket he will be travelling to the moon in and it was designed not by him but by others just for him to travel to the moon in but he did tell those others what he desired and he wants to tell you this that he helped and organized and encouraged but mostly he paid and paid and paid and so he will be travelling alone to the moon in a rocket he helped construct and he is happy to be travelling alone to the moon let’s face it who wants to be sat next to somebody on a long journey talking and sharing the experience nobody let’s be honest and that is why he will be alone in his rocket that will be traveling to the moon and on the moon waiting for him is his new home from home a simulacrum you could say of the home he has on his island his own island you know the one the one that you’ve drooled over numerous times with the slouching rock stars and movie stars and model stars that one that bores him now but on the moon it will suit his needs with its ten bedrooms and eleven restrooms and the wine cellar and the amazing kitchen and up there waiting for him there is a car that flies and other great gadgets that he wanted and helped to design and paid and paid and paid he just wants you to know  and not to won’t worry about him on his long journey to the moon in his rocket where he alone will experience the joys and exhilaration and he will take photographs and make videos while experiencing the journey just for and on his return of course he plans on returning he will publish a book that will be made into a movie and after the movie is old and stale he plans on taking you to the moon but only when he has turned the air up there fresh and clean and safe he just wants you to know.




The Ice Cream Wars

Picture Credits: SilviaEmilie

            The jingle starts it every day. Mrs.
Smith by the door, dollar in her hand. She is hungry with ice cream love. The
ice cream always looks back at her. Not like her husband. None of her dresses
fit anymore. That’s okay. Ice cream love is a much better fit.

Mr.
Smith does look at her. He watches her from the couch. Watches his widening
wife, her chest heaving with desire. He knows she loves the ice cream man. That
the ice cream is just an excuse. That the ice cream man is younger and tanner,
but that’s okay. Frankly, the ice cream man is a much better fit.

            The ice cream man is jingling, all
right. He is waiting for next door Laura to emerge her pretty self, same as she
does every day at this hour. She is a flower who comes out to water the other
flowers and never even looks his way. Of course, he thinks, his ice cream would
only plump her in the middle, lopside her perfect stem. He thinks of his wife,
home and garbled from ice cream bloat. Very much like the woman who lives in
the house next to Laura, who runs out to his truck, sweaty dollar in her fist.
He hopes one day pretty Laura will look his way. That she will hear his jingle.
He thinks again of his wife. And how pretty Laura is a much better fit.

            Next door Laura hates the daily
jingle. Upsets the roses, she thinks. Their delicate systems. She thinks about
all of that goo and ice cream fat which are of no use to flowers. She has spent
her life watching as people-love bloomed and wilted and crumbled to dust. Seen
the looks of lust from the ice cream man who should have been looking at his
wife, from Mr. Smith who should have been looking at his wife instead of
pretty, next door Laura, and frankly, at this point, her darling flowers,
rooted and still, are really a much better fit.