Fan Voting update for 2018 !Short Story Contest!

August 26th, 2018

 

With only one week left for

Fan Voting

the race is extremely close.

 

The top three are within two votes of each other,

so !vote now, 

and vote often!

 

And don’t forget to check out our newest publication,

Letters to Maria Coryaté

posting now, only on defenestrationism.net

 

 

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2018 Fan Voting and Fall Schedule

August 20th, 2018

Greetings lovers of literature;

 

Fan Voting is now open for the

2018 !Short Story Contest!

First Read the Stories–

“The Daughter the Mother” by Jessica Dalton

“Flee, My Pretty One” by Eneasz Brodski

“Squid Soup” by Salvatore Difalco

“Cloud Walker” by Martha Hubbard

“Watch” by Nathan Alling Long

Vote from our retro Navigation Panel, site left.

(do you remember when the internet had simple Navigation Panels, not ultra-gloss flashy menus?  Do you also remember it was called “surfing the internet?”  Then welcome, or welcome back, to defenestrationism.net )

 

 

And, here, is our upcoming Fall Schedule:

 

Paul-Newell Reaves’

Letters to Maria Coryaté– a tale of obsessions

August 26th- November 14th, twice-weekly every Sunday and Wednesday.

 

2018 reading of October Nights’ Lyrics (this one dedicated to D. Glover, R.I.P.)

October 30th

 

Close of Submission for 2019 FLASH SUITE Contest

November 1st.

 

2019 FLASH SUITE Contest

All December, daily

 

Winners announced for 2019 FLASH SUITE Contest

MLK Day, US, January 21st

 

 

So keep surfing through

defenestrationism.net

 

 

2018 !Short Story Contest! (including fan voting)

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the Daughter the Mother

August 19th, 2018

by Jessica Dalton

The mother never lied about her age. The daughter couldn’t tell you why—she could have knocked a few years off, at least, and spared herself all those rabid little hints other women liked to drop, about how much shop-work it must take to keep the old face running, and what a scandal it was, somehow, like a moral failing, that at thirty-seven she could have passed for the daughter’s double, at forty-three for her older sister, at forty-seven, her hip young aunt. If you didn’t look your age, the only decent thing you could do was take advantage of it, apparently. You weren’t supposed to laugh and say you owed it all to genetics and Pond’s cold cream and that Botox sounded like something you put in the toilet tank to keep the bowl clean. Nobody would believe it, though it was all true, the daughter could attest. The mother even got by without Clairol, morphing naturally over the years from a honey to a champagne to a platinum blonde.

The daughter (a mousy brunette at the roots and far too susceptible to the blandishments of the beauty page editors) has come to work.  It is morning, it is raining, and she has come downtown to the Howard J. Slover Community Building, once-proud site of local government, until it fled to newer, squeakier premises just off the bypass and left its old shell to scavenging nonprofit entities like the Literacy Council. The daughter has come to assistant-coordinate as per her title, to answer phones, make appointments, and help minimum-wage immigrants navigate the exigencies of the GED, because it will be good to do something normal. At least that is the cliché; and what a comfort it has been to resort to it, too. She will get hugs, when she goes in the door, and there will be cards on her desk, surprisingly tasteful ones with thoughtful, well-written messages inside, because what does an English degree do if not make you thoughtful and well-written?  (It certainly doesn’t make you employable.)

The rain is the misty kind that works in under the umbrella to condense on your nose, and the daughter keeps her face turned away from it as best she can while walking toward the building. This is why she does not see the silver Honda Accord that pulls splashing into the parking lot. It beeps to get her attention. This startles her, and her body keeps on moving without her permission; the Honda has to pursue her to the curb. The same color as the rain and impervious to it, it glides to a stop, so she has to stop, too. One of the fogged windows slides down, and a man leans across the passenger seat to speak to her. The daughter knows him, of course: men she does not know do not accost her in parking lots. His name is Kenton, and he is her mother’s husband. He wants to talk to her. He has to talk to her. Please will she get in the car. She gets in the car. He has cut the wipers off, and she can watch the rain bead up on the windshield and slide: the tears, maybe, that she is not crying.

The subjects of husbands requires a short digression. First, briefly, there was Mark—he had a band, they met in college, no bookie on the planet would have given you odds. Then came Lloyd, who lasted somewhat longer and was responsible for the daughter’s existence. A dentist, a dedicated birdwatcher, a very quiet man, it didn’t make much difference in the house when he left. He lives in Portland now, with Barbara, his second wife of longstanding, and their two boxers (Facebook has lately allowed the daughter to get closer to him). The reason for the divorce was irreconcilable differences. After it, the mother began taking little commissions in interior design through her friends, who understood how important a flexible work schedule was for the single parent. To be fair, she had a real feel for style, an eye for color. Before long, her friends didn’t have to get her commissions, and instead starting bringing Bill from church or Ted from the office: amiable, suitable divorced dads whom the mother politely declined, to a man. Focused on her career and child, she said. The daughter likes to think of her mother as having torrid affairs during this period, with clients and the husbands of clients, snatching moments in showrooms and half-furnished penthouses; she has no proof of this, but still likes it as a theory.

Kenton is Fair-Isle Irish with that arresting combination of pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, and ordinarily he looks good disheveled and stubbled, but he has gone way past that point now.  He says, “Ginny, I …”, then puts his head down against the steering wheel and sobs, while the daughter shifts from haunch to haunch in the other bucket seat and wonders if there was ever anything more embarrassing than someone else’s genuine emotion. 

Finally, lifting his head and staring out at the wet plastered asphalt, Kenton delivers himself of his phrase: “Please don’t let it be like this, Ginny.”

The daughter says, “It’s not …”  Important?  Her fault? 

“I know this is harder for—I know you had her for longer than—I know …” and he trails off again, gripping the steering wheel like it could guide him down the track of whatever train of thought is currently escaping him. The daughter shuffles her feet in the tangle of power jacks and circuit boards on the floor. Kenton is an IT tech. He has been trying to float his own consultancy, that’s how he and the mother met; she hired him to set up an inventory system for her new gallery.  He has an MBA from the same local state college where the daughter pursued her baccalaureate (it was familiar, it was affordable, she could live at home and save on her loans). They were probably even on campus at the same time: they are, after all, almost the same generation. When the mother announced her engagement to Kenton, her girlfriends got together and bought her a bunch of powder-blue Mylar balloons that said It’s A Boy!

Kenton says, “I made the—arrangements—but please, if there’s anything you want—”

The daughter feels a flash of resentment at this: completely irrational as an emotion because wasn’t it she who walked out, wasn’t it she who said, you handle it, I don’t care? But he could have left out that ‘please.’ That ‘please’ is offensive. 

“Thank you,” she says aloud, because what do you say? “I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Kenton laughs, chokes. “She would’ve wanted you there.”

What do you say, what do you say? “I know.”

“We were—” (wan, saintly) “—the two most important people in her life.”

“I know.”

Finally he looks at her. “See, now you’re angry again.”

At the wedding, the daughter had walked the mother down the aisle, at the mother’s request, because what better to mark the end of so many things: the daughter’s adolescence, their family-of-two, the mother’s exemplary turn as a single parent; and it was exemplary, the daughter knows. From how many classmates, fellow daughters of divorce, did she hear the stories growing up—awkward introductions to Mommy’s New Friend, creepy-uncle-on-the-sofa interludes. The daughter has nothing like that to resent. The daughter has nothing at all to resent. At times it can be maddening.

Kenton is still looking at her. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, and the daughter feels touched for a moment, before she realizes that he is not commiserating with her for her featureless childhood, her crises of identity, but apologizing for himself. 

“I didn’t mean to upset you, honestly, Gin, believe me.”

The daughter believes him, but would like to see him work a little harder for forgiveness. She sighs and looks away out the window, but with temperance, with maturity. Kenton carries on.

“I will admit—I’ll be the first one to admit—that I’m not making much sense right now. But I just don’t understand why you’re blocking me like this!”

“You ‘just don’t understand.’” She says it too loud. Maturity, temperance, are receding fast. 

“All right. Okay. We’re both emotional. This is an emotional thing. I should have realized that.” He takes a deep, shuddery breath. “I should have given us a little more time. We can talk about it later. I’ll be calmer, you’ll be calmer—”

“You be calmer,” the daughter says. “You be calmer all by yourself.” She swings open the car door.

God, Gin! This is what I mean! Can you just set aside that—that—”

“I have no intention”—she speaks over him—“of discussing it with you now or later or at any time—”

“—reaction! Just for a moment!” He’s beseeching. “People give their blood to their family. They donate kidneys, bone marrow—”

“This is not,” she shouts, “the same!”

(In that quiet little room off the ER, the intern on duty had tried to explain: “A pulmonary embolism can happen to anyone, at any age, there’s no good way to predict—although, of course, there are risk factors like smoking, pregnancy—”

And Kenton, already in the first heady rush of grief, had interrupted. “But we wanted a baby.”)

He says, “I just think it’s your perspective that’s causing the problem—”

She says, “Oh my god, the problem. I am now ‘the problem’.”

(The intern had floundered “—wouldn’t say there’s any known link to fertility procedures like in vitro—really probably nothing anyone could have done—” while Kenton, looking for flagellation, looking for a wound to rake, had plowed on: “The clinic is five hours away and I know long plane trips are famous for causing clots—” But then a senior surgeon had joined them, and things became smooth and highly professional: “—an unresponsive state, all the tests show—it is legally and ethically acceptable at this point to remove support—”)

She says, “You find five other women and describe this scenario—”

He says, “You’re acting like I’m some kind of monster!”

In the course of imparting the news of her mother’s death to those who should know, the daughter has learned to brace herself for the near-universal cry: “But she was so alive!” As if everyone can sense the nature of her mother’s unfinished business. Some people leave a book half-read, a grocery list tacked to the fridge, plane tickets for a vacation never to be. The mother left a test tube, in a freezer, in a lab in New Jersey. The daughter pictures its contents like the illustration in her high-school biology text: a tiny pink sunburst. The ovum, the female gamete. The best that could be found in her mother’s admittedly mature ovaries, waiting to be united with Kenton’s vigorous sperm, and implanted in a womb. It could be, as Kenton had pointed out while they were waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive, any womb. A young, healthy, currently underemployed womb perhaps, one that was convenient to hand and, not least, alive (luckily, almost, it would seem, for this very purpose). It was somewhere around this point that the daughter had walked out. Her and her womb both.

Now Kenton sits back in his seat, his eyes pouched with tears, and says, “I thought you might feel honored, Ginny.” His voice is soft and sad. “I thought you might think of it as… a way to be close to your mother one last time. The last gift you could give her.”

And once again she is left standing flat-footed and graceless, the unreasonable one, the one with the dirty mind, the one who ran and told when her crayons were stolen, only to have the teacher come and find the thief sweetly sharing them with the other children— “Virginia, you must not be selfish.

She gets out of the car, catching her pumps on the mat and banging her elbow on the doorframe. “Hire a surrogate. Get a sex change.” Why can she, the English major, never find, which it matters, a choice of words that do not resemble B dialogue from a canceled reality show? But she is past caring at the moment. “Do whatever you want. But do not involve me—”

“All right,” Kenton makes soothing gestures with his hands for her, the unreasonable one, the one who overreacts. “I won’t mention it again.”

She shuts the car door—she doesn’t slam it, grant her that much—but the mirroring window slides down again. Kenton is giving her times and locations: the funeral home, the crematorium, her mother’s favorite restaurant where everyone is invited afterward for drinks. Donations are to go to a charity that microfinances women entrepreneurs in third-world countries, he thought her mother would like that. The daughter nods and nods and nods. 

Finally, with an air of forgiveness so palpable it could choke you, Kenton puts the car in gear and circles the parking lot to the exit. The daughter cannot get her magnetized badge to work in the employees’ door because her hands are shaking that badly. Years ago, in an essay for a freshman Lit class, she wrote passionately and at length about how John Donne was wrong, that no man could be anything but an island, trying to make sense of distant beacons glimpsed through fog, flotsam washed up on the shore. In the margin, her professor scribbled, Interesting theory, but you’ve missed the point of the assignment: see me & we’ll revise. At the end of their meeting, as she was getting up to leave, he had smiled at her, and said that he knew the first semester could be daunting, but it got better, and she should go out more, be around people. She had stuttered politely and fled before she found herself confiding that being around people only made her feel more stranded within herself. 

Finally, the right combination of slot, slide, and push: the door deigns to admit her. The shutting, metaphorically speaking, of a door, while satisfying on many levels, may still leave behind a kind of gap, an echo in the part of the psyche devoted to the possible. A daughter becoming a mother; the daughter the mother now; a daughter with a mother’s daughter, and that would have equaled what?—aside from two: but two is more than nothing, and less than a crowd, and with two on an island neither would have to be alone. Together they might spend their days searching the shoreline for bottles with notes, scanning the horizon from the top of the cliffs, looking for some sign that they are not the only ones of their kind.

 

 

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Flee, My Pretty One

August 12th, 2018

by Eneasz Brodski

 

From up on the stage, half-blinded by the lights, all I saw of him were piercing blue eyes. The crowd churned before me, pounding music whipping them into a froth, but those eyes glittered calmly in the chaos. They shone at me, reflecting the strobe lights like jewel shards, floating over the bass pulses that rose from the floor to rattle my rib cage.

I stepped to the mic, screamed the chorus line. “Death to all collaborators!” His eyes never left mine.

Three beats to my guitar solo. I threw myself into it with a quickened pulse. I would never slack at a gig–this is my communion, the guitar sings my blood. And yet, there’s an extra charge to it when you’re showing off for someone beautiful. The blood burns a little hotter. Look at me–this is who I am inside. Eat of my body.

When the surge of emotion finally ebbed, I could breathe once more. The last notes faded, we said our thank yous, we turned away. Only his eyes remained unchanged, numinous among the vulgar. I imagined briefly that he loved to submit to vulgar, mohawked girls.

He came up to talk with us afterwards, which was too bad. Not because the rest of him sunk the fantasy. He was thin, with the delicate features that make it attractive–I like the pretty boys. No, it’s because when new fans come up to see me they realize the slouch isn’t a stage affectation. They see me without a guitar to hide my stance, catch me pressing my back against a wall for the relief it brings. They realize I’m twisted. Their interest fades and we both wish we’d just left the damned fantasy undisturbed.

Except he wasn’t repelled by me, didn’t rebound to Zoe or the guys. He smiled for me. Me alone.

“You rail against collaborators way more than the dragons themselves,” he commented after introductions. “You never rage against the damn dragons. Always their human agents. You one of those non-sentience wonks?” A flutter in his voice as he said it, as if he feared challenging me, but couldn’t stop himself.

From the corner of my eye I saw Liam perk up from the merch table. When his head swiveled over to us, the raised lights of the club glinted off the metal of his piercings like a flesh-and-silver disco ball. He must have been dying to jump in on this. He believed that dragons have personhood and their own motives. I wasn’t so sure. There’s those who theorize that the dragons are just dumb optimizers. No self-awareness, simply responding to the stimuli of human desires. We’d stayed up countless nights arguing this.

“I’m with Greenwald,” I replied. “We’ll probably never know, and it doesn’t matter anyway. They don’t have human values. The longer they stay off-leash, the worse the world gets.”

My pretty fan-boy nodded. “I hear they’re expecting another wave of refugees from Louisiana this month. How do you explain the repatriation collapse, if not intentional malice?” He stepped forward and motioned to the audio cables as I coiled them. “And can I help you with that?”

We continued our political bitching. Neither of us screwed up too badly in the conversation, and it’d been a while since I’d gotten any. He came home with me that night.

I woke up smiling, with that warm glow that comes from being well-laid. Restraints and toys lay scattered around the bed. I rolled over awkwardly to admire his sleeping face. I rested an arm on him, one breast pressing against his bare chest, and I realized I couldn’t recall his name. I’m sure he gave it, but who knew he was going to stick around? I hadn’t paid that much attention. Shit.

A fist banging against my door startled me. My band-mate Tyrell yelled through the flimsy wood.

“Jo! Wake up! You gotta see this!”

The boy beneath me stirred awake, gazed at me with bleary eyes. “Good morning,” he said, and gave me a grin.

I kissed his collarbone, then his neck, and then Tyrell banged on the damn door again.

“Seriously Jo, come check this out! This is big!”

“Fine, I’m up!” I yelled back. “Give me a damn minute!”

I let my gaze wander over the boy’s body and back up to his face. “Hey, look,” I said, “I feel really lame about this, but I don’t remember your name. I’m Josephine. And you’re…?”

He laughed, and the rising sun caught his eyes, clear as the sky.

“Hi, Josephine. I’m Aiden.”

I grinned. “More later,” I promised. I rolled off him, and we pulled on our clothes to go eat and see Tyrell’s big deal. Tyrell sat by his laptop in the kitchen, a video queued up for us.

On screen, a business-suited man left a government building. The news banner identified him as an emissary for Hirath’bur, an elder oil-and-gas extraction dragon. A gathered crowd of the unshaven and emaciated exploded in jeers as he stepped out. Hirath’bur destroyed the land where it operated–poisoned the groundwater, blighted the soil. It had been corrupting the government for years with bribes and threats, turning our protectors into its accomplices. Whole counties had been despoiled when rich deposits were discovered. The emissary didn’t spare a glance at the angry rabble. Cops corralled the protesters behind thin barriers, their hands at the pepper-spray canisters on their belts.

An unusual movement in the air drew my eye. One of those miniature quad-copters that make up any city’s backdrop–routing packages or surveilling traffic or whatever they did. It had been passing overhead, and now tipped into a sharp dive, directly at the emissary. Four bursts of gray smoke erupted from its front. Simultaneously, four bursts of red liquid burst from the emissary’s chest, and the man staggered. The drone shot up, high into the air, fleeing the scene. The man dropped, blood soaking his suit and spilling onto the cement. The crowd screamed, scattered, and the video cut off. I stared over at Tyrell.

“The hell just happened?” I asked.

“An assassination,” Tyrell replied. “One of three, all within a few minutes, all carried out by modified delivery-drones. They targeted emissaries of major dragons.”

“Holy shit. Is this what I think it is?”

“Uh huh. Looks like the resistance just got serious.”

My eyes flickered to the boy I’d just met, listening to us intently.

“Um… Aiden, maybe you should go. I mean, leave me your number, last night was good, but you probably don’t want to get mixed up in this.”

Aiden gave me a disbelieving look.

“Are you kidding me?” He gestured to his T-shirt, which sported an image of V as Guy Fawkes, holding crossed daggers before him. Aiden grinned wildly, almost floating. “I’ve been waiting years for this!”

And so our relationship was born the same day as the resistance. I should have known it was a bad sign.

#

They hadn’t always been called dragons. Centuries ago, when those incorporeal inhuman minds were first discovered, they were called some variation of “messenger” or “muse.” Those less kindly inclined called them “whisperers.” In an effort to remove the mysticism from the language, Adam Smith referred to them as “the Invisible Handlers.”

Quickly their nature became apparent. Under their influence, country sides were stripped to their bones. Cities choked on toxic smoke. Summoners grew gross with wealth, while the commoners withered into skeletons. Karl Marx coined the term “dragons” in reference to the destructive, rapacious creatures of legend.

The first resistance started same as our current one. Small groups taking local action. Individual acts of sabotage and vandalism. Growing riots. I hadn’t been in a riot yet, but that was about to change. We’d entered mid-summer. The city park bustled with activity as I helped erect the stage for a protest concert. We’d received permits and cleared everything with the authorities, because we were still playing by the rules. We hadn’t yet re-learned the lessons of 1917. Not until buildings are burning do governments take you seriously. It takes a revolution to force them into restricting dragons. “From this day forward, you may not dump your poisonous waste into our water. From this day forward, you may not work our children.” Not because our rulers care, but because they fear. Not discernment from above, but demands from below.

Hunched over and irritable, I struggled to lock another folding joint of the stage scaffolding. The midday sun beat down on me with spite. Every single stand and brace needed to be pummeled into submission. I was an inch from flinging the whole thing overhead and stomping off when Aiden’s arms descended over me from behind.

He wrapped me in an embrace and nuzzled my hair. “Hey sexy girl.”

I exhaled gratefully, relaxed back into him. He was lean, gentle affection. With maybe a hint of firmness around the crotch right now. I smiled.

“Here to help us?” I asked.

“Anything to get the show going. I still get goosebumps when you scream. But . . .” He gestured at the cops patrolling the perimeter. “It looks like we’re gonna get shut down.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s clear. We got a Free Speech Zone designation for the day.”

It still makes me sick to think back on how compliant we were. Free speech zones? The dragons had learned to fear the power of government over the last century. Now every dragon had phalanxes of well-funded emissaries. “What is good for Genimette is good for the country,” they said. They were patient. Slowly they wormed their way into the machinery of politics. Which is how you get bullshit like “Free Speech Zones.” Maybe there’d been a time when cops served and protected the public. Now they’re thugs who serve the dragons and protect their profits.

Our band, Against Dragons, wouldn’t go onstage until 9:00 p.m., but other locals were playing nonstop from midafternoon. The music burned violent and spectacular. The cops hated it. Which meant they had to piss on anyone they could. Shouting matches erupted. Twice pepper spray hissed and they hauled off some kid in cuffs. People drifted away, not wanting to deal with the pigs. Those who stayed were on edge. Belligerent, pierced, tattooed punks, sticking it out explicitly because it did bother the police, and damn proud of it. We were in good company.

When we took the stage, the setting sun igniting the horizon, the air held a buzzing tension. Like the charge that builds inside you when a storm is rolling in, or the last pregnant note before a DJ drops the bass. I fingered my rosary as I scanned the crowd, matching my tempo to their pulse. We could use this. I pocketed the beads at salva nos ab igne inferiori, nodded to Liam. Zoe started us off with a bass riff.

The stage lights picked us out in a giant, harsh halo. As the sky grew darker and the heavens tightened around us, that tension worked itself into our instruments. It seeped into Liam’s voice. It became a part of the music. The crowd fed it back to us, boiling, pushing us to a frantic thrashing. My hand clutched at the guitar as I choked it with my fingertips. My heart raced, and we were diving straight from one song into the next without pause. Because fuck pauses, we have this burning in our throats, and we don’t know any way to get it out other than to roar it at an audience and hear them scream with us.

We smashed into our breakout song and all the riotgrrrlz and punk boys below us roared in approval. We moved as one.

There’s four words all piggies hate. They glare from spray-painted buildings and overpasses. They bleed from the shadows of hushed conversations. They’re the chorus to this song. “Death to All Collaborators.”

The chorus approached, and I stepped to the mic. Instead of looking into the crowd, I looked to the cops looming at the perimeter, and showed some teeth. I picked out one huffing like a pent-up bull. I stared him down. I screamed out my line just for him.

Death to all collaborators!

You could call that a mistake, maybe. But it had to start somewhere.

Halfway through my solo, a meaty hand clamped onto my shoulder and spun me around. The amps squealed as the notes died on my strings, and I stood eye-to-chest with a man in a dark blue uniform snorting fire.

“This show’s over,” he rumbled. “You’re coming with us.”

“Piss off, pig.” I spat. I shrugged him off, turned back with derision. My stomach clenched in terror, but I wasn’t doing this for myself anymore. This was for everyone who’d put up with their sneering abuse tonight. Put up with it for generations.

His hand shoved me from behind, hitting right at the apex of my hump. I yelped and pitched forward, but I hadn’t gone one step before he wrenched my left arm behind me and screaming pain forced me to my knees.

I twisted, shrieking, as he yanked and pinned my other arm. My spine torqued, wedged vertebrae biting into calcified discs. A zip-cuff cinched one wrist, and I knew I’d be trapped like this for hours, blind with agony. Somewhere I heard Tyrell yelling, the sounds of movement, but they were dim outlines under a flood of pain.

Sudden sharp relief. I collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath. The stage rocked beneath me. I rolled over and saw Aiden grappling with the cop. My boy was no match for the hulking man, but as he pretzeled Aiden into submission, more angry punks leapt over me, piled on. The cop was big, but not a-dozen-angry-teens big, and he tipped over under the onslaught. His hands grasped for something at his belt and heavy boots came down to crunch his fingers before he got there.

Lights flashed, strobing blue and red. Whooping sirens drowned out the music of struggle, replaced it with the music of authority. Liam yelled into the microphone, something hot and angry, and the crowd erupted. Two nearby cops jumped onto the stage to free their trapped brother and Zoe, little Zoe, strode up behind them. She held her bass like a two-handed cudgel, back and to the side. She lunged forward, swung her guitar overhead, and brought it down on the bigger pig’s head. The violent jangle of the strings breaking sounded through the park, and it was the sweetest music I’d ever heard. Bottles flew. I could barely hear the sirens over the blood-lust roar of the crowd.

Zoe picked up the mic and yelled into it. “Time to roast some pigs! Let’s start some fires!”

The crowd surged like an incoming tide, bursting around the stage at the edges, breaking over the top in fury. I knew after this we were going underground. I staggered to my feet, pushed into the nearest knot of bodies, grasped for Aiden’s arm. I dug him from the group stripping the pig’s weapons, pulled him into the lee of one of the man-height amps. I still shook with aftershocks of pain, and I needed his attention on me. He took one look at my contorted face and wrapped his arms around me, bent his head down to mine. I clutched at him and raged against a stupid urge to cry.

“Thank you,” I said. Plastic zip cuffs dangled from my left wrist. And deep inside a longing swelled, a longing I’d been beating back for weeks. It broke over my inner walls before I even knew it was happening.

“I love you,” spilled out of my mouth. My heart sank. I hadn’t meant to say it. Shit.

His eyes shone. “I love you too,” he replied, his voice soaring.

#

Six months later found us hunkered down in the blacked-out basement of Liam’s squat, having settled into the fugitive life. I sat on the floor, bent over my phone, resting my back against the wall. Aiden knelt beside me, kneading my shoulders and massaging along the top of my hump. He, Zoe, and Liam observed an informal remembrance of Tyrell in low tones as we waited. Tyrell had disappeared three weeks back, his door kicked in and his place ransacked. The dragons had him now.

Liam’s brother Marcus arrived last, a half hour late. Over an inch shorter than Liam, with more hair and less piercings. Chemical burns ringed his eyes in flaming red. He limped in, favoring his right leg, but grinned when he saw us.

“Christ,” Zoe said. “What happened to you?”

“I was at yesterday’s protest at Union Station. Brought a megaphone and said some true things.”

“And what’d that get you?” Liam asked, raising an eyebrow.

Marcus’s grin faltered. “Someone tossed a Molly, before the pigs started cracking heads.”

Liam snorted. “We should be past flinging cocktails. If this was L.A., the whole district would be in flames, and the pigs would be hiding behind barricades.”

“Next time will be bigger. Next time we rush City Hall.”

“It’s been ‘next time’ for weeks. We’re dying out there. For nothing.”

“Hey, back off. You just call us here to bitch us out?”

“No.” Liam straightened. “I have something to show you. We can still get our shit in order before they eat us alive.”

He led us to the next room, also blacked out. He flicked on a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, and something glinted on the floor. A thick line of metal lay on the cement. My eyes followed it, bending smoothly, arcing around the whole room. The line of metal grazed each wall, encompassed where we were standing, and returned to touch itself. A very large circle. It looked faintly yellow. Like gold.

We were in the center of a summoning circle.

“Liam, what the fuck is this?” I asked.

Zoe gaped. “Where did you get this much gold?”

Aiden inhaled sharply and jabbed an accusing finger at Liam.

“You’re going to summon a dragon? Are you insane?”

Liam looked Aiden in the eyes and spoke calmly, as if he’d rehearsed this. “Dragons are a tool. They are a goddamned amazing tool which we’re leaving lying around out of ideological purity, and it’s costing us lives. If you’re willing to kill a man to save your species, you should be willing to use the dragons against each other.”

“No.” Aiden stated flatly. “Too dangerous. They get out of control. Always.”

I spoke up now. “We haven’t had a single politician who isn’t owned by a dragon for . . . hell, longer than I’ve been alive. You can vote blue or you can vote red, but you can’t vote against the interests of Auramagos. You want to add us to that equation too? Remove even us as an option?”

“In a gunfight, the side without a gun loses,” Liam replied. “You can rage about how unfair that is, but if you don’t pick up a gun, you just guarantee that the other side wins.”

“Bullshit,” Aiden spat.

“Cells on the west coast have already summoned some,” Liam stated.

That shut us all up. He gave it a second to sink in.

“You haven’t wondered how they’ve been doing so well?” he continued. “They’ve been using these things for a while. They call them Dragon-Eaters. They’re advancing the struggle, and we’re dragging them down. We’re killing the resistance.”

His words hung in the room. The circle of gold held us in its grip like a tourniquet.  A bronze bowl rested against one wall, the athame inside it lay in wait. Overshadowing them, a tall wooden crucifix held a beautifully carved corpus of Christ, twisted in agony up toward the heavens. His eyes gazed at me from under the barbed crown, asking me how much I was willing to give to make the future better. How much of myself would I sacrifice for the good of others?

Liam’s brother spoke up first. “I’m willing to die for the resistance. I don’t want that to be for nothing. If this is what it takes . . . I’ll do it.”

Zoe nodded. “If this is a mistake, it’s not permanent. We’re the summoners, we can always banish it.”

Aiden looked back and forth among us in dawning disbelief. “Oh no . . . you guys aren’t buying this. You can’t be buying this.”

I opened my mouth to agree with him. A mental image of Tyrell being tortured stopped me. “We can’t let them keep getting away with it,” I said instead. “If we’re defeated, it could be generations before people rise up again. Maybe never. I can’t live in that world.”

Aiden stared at us, a fire in his eyes. His breathing came heavier. His hands clenched into fists.

“You unbelievable idiots. You’re damned if you go down this path. You’re all damned, and you’re doing it to yourselves.”

“Aiden, we’re losing. We have to try.” I extended a hand, not used to his opposition. He jerked away from me.

“No. Fuck this. I’m outta here. Damn yourself by yourself.”

He turned and stormed out. The door creaked slowly in his wake, as if buffeted by the fury of his passing.

“He’ll come around,” I told the group, ignoring the pinch of doubt in my guts. “I’ll bring him over.”

Zoe and Marcus murmured agreement.

Liam began the summoning. He knew exactly what he was doing; he’d been preparing for weeks. Within minutes the athame sliced over my palm. The blade split the skin neatly, drawing a perfect red line that wept into the bowl. It mingled with Liam’s, Zoe’s, and Marcus’s. I stared at it as Liam worked, a buzzing in my head. Or was it in the room? It shifted, doubled, spawned low hums.

The gold ring thinned, evaporating, and the air grew heavy with an alien presence. Not just the air. Everything grew heavy–my clothes, my body. Breath came hard. The light from the bulb distorted and played over the walls as if filtered through choppy waters. A foreign mental process shoved against my mind, pushing my thoughts in unwelcome directions.

I glanced at Zoe. Under the distorted light her spiked hair looked like tarantula tufts. Strange shadows shifted behind her, giving her the appearance of having extra limbs. I saw a spider whose life consisted of the constant knitting of webs of emotional dependence, until her entire identity was a tangled social net and the upkeep it required. She crept into the lives of others, insinuating herself under the guise of extroverted friendship. Only by manipulating people did she accomplished anything.

This was the first gift of the dragons–the dragon sight. It strips away the facades we monkeys erect to make ourselves feel noble and pure. It reveals that we are simply biological constructs, responding to incentives, executing crude survival strategies. I looked to Marcus. I saw him whither into little more than a fluttering shadow. Unable to make his own way in a confusing world, he leached vitality from his brother’s desperation. Dark tendrils slipped from his lethifold form, grasped after Liam, hanging onto another’s life since he couldn’t direct his own.

Liam had become a shimmering mirage in the wavering light, almost not there at all. His defiance paled into the flailings of a man who couldn’t compete with his peers. He was plain, so he mutilated his face with pounds of metal. His voice couldn’t soar, so he screamed and growled instead. Everywhere that he couldn’t excel, he carved out his own pool of excess. He couldn’t even fight the revolution with his natural talents, so he’d do it as a dragon-summoner.

I’d lived in a dream world where people ran on ideals. The dragon sight stripped that away, showed us our true motivations. I refused to look at myself.

As we gazed at each other, the light stabilized, and the droning hums and buzzes shifted. Wove together. They coalesced into a scratchy whisper–the dragon’s murmurings, the second gift. The invisible presence hooked its claws into my psyche. From now on, a part of it would be with me, always. My chest swelled with power as the creature spoke. It began–

If you wish to prevail against dragons, this is what you must do . . .

#

We kept our dragon sight suppressed most of the time. Permanently living in a world stripped of its masks would have driven anyone crazy. I did use the dragon sight on Aiden later that week, though, after five days of him refusing to take my calls or respond to my texts. I’d have done it sooner, but I had trouble tracking him down.  I saw an insubstantial, hollow-boned thing that lived vicariously through the emotions of others. He rejoiced when I took my pleasure from him. He exulted in my passion when I raged against the dragons. But above all, he was addicted to the concentrated distillation of emotion that made up primal music. Soaring high in that jet stream was the only time he felt alive.

Immediately I found a new drummer for Against Dragons. As we released new music, Aiden spiraled in closer around me, pulled by a gale of desire, until all I had to do was reach out and pluck him back in. I got what I wanted, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. I’d seen him as a biological construct responding to incentives, rather than a person. I didn’t use the dragon sight on him again.

#

Months later, I sat on the remains of a couch in the remains of an apartment, my guitar in my lap. I fingered the strings absently. Sunlight streamed in from glass sliding doors, still intact, that led out to a balcony twelve stories above an alley strewn with trash. From the kitchen came the smells of Aiden frying us eggs. I pondered, examining the dragon problem, again. For their entire existence, dragons lived only as long as they produced wealth for their summoners. Failure to do so meant “banishment.” Death. A single unprofitable year could kill a dragon, regardless of how great the rewards for sacrifice would be five years down the line. With incentives like that, no wonder they scorched the earth to achieve the results we demanded. They were only responding to the survival pressures humanity had placed on them.

A pang of regret cut me, knowing that I couldn’t discuss this sort of thing with Aiden anymore. He wouldn’t even talk about our Dragon-Eater. He couldn’t rejoin our cell, not being a summoner. Fortunately he was extremely valuable as the leader of my sub-cell, as our part of the resistance had flourished in the months following the summoning. Recruiting had skyrocketed. It became so much easier when we saw what motivated people, what kept them loyal, what they could be pushed to do. The dragon sight let us estimate what each member could contribute, how much they were worth. It brought us successes–devastating guerrilla strikes with very acceptable losses on our side. Success was the biggest draw of all, I couldn’t believe how quickly our ranks swelled.

Even the smattering of recent failures were easily turned into rousing stories of sacrifice. Nothing fired up our people like a strong martyr.

Aiden emerged from the kitchen carrying two plates loaded with greasy eggs and sausage. A niggling irritation scampered in my mind, scratching away at the corners of my brain like a rat. It nipped at my thoughts, but every time I looked for it, there were only tattered worries and rodent droppings.

Aiden’s eyes caught the sunlight, sparkling cerulean blue. I smiled. They brought me back into the living, breathing world. He didn’t smile back, but I didn’t mind.

“Hey sexy boy,” I greeted, and set my guitar aside. He sat down by me mutely and handed me a plate. I finally noticed his distant expression, his troubled brow. A weight of guilt smothered my hunger. How long had he been like this? I’d been ignoring him again, fretting over last week’s barely-salvaged disaster.

“Did I keep you up too late last night?” I asked.

“It’s not that. I woke up dreaming of Zoe again.”

“Oh.” I crossed myself. “Shit, sorry.”

“I keep trying to picture her last moments.” His voice came timid, as if scared to confide in me. That hurt. I pushed down the urge to use my dragon sight. “I wonder if she was terrified when she ran for the explosives. Was she already shot and bleeding out? Or did she detonate them defiantly, triumphantly? I think I like that better. I can see her with a detonator in hand, yelling at the top of her lungs that they’ll never take her alive.” A slight smile twisted his face. “Took a hell of a lot of pigs with her.”

I nodded and ignored the piece of me searching for an answer that would make it better. Instead I forced up the core of dread that had been smoldering inside me for weeks, hot coals of regret. They burned me when I spoke. “It wasn’t a fair trade.”

A strong knock startled us. The front door swung open and Liam stepped inside, eyes hard. His brother Marcus followed, as well as a man I didn’t recognize. The dragon whispered inside me–he’s brought along extra muscle. Something is going down.

“Liam?” I asked as he closed the door behind them. “Who’s this?”

Liam pursed his lips. His eyes moved to Aiden, his face darkened. That pestering rat at the back of my mind started scurrying again.

“Jo, why haven’t you been freaking out about our failures over the last month?”

I hesitated, felt the dragon’s cunning prodding my thoughts. “Our estimates are off. We’re absorbing the data and adjusting our probabilities. It happens. We’ll just have to be more conservative for a while.”

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

“They’re off in a consistent way,” Liam said. “It looks like chaos at first, until you change a simple basic assumption. Then it becomes a predictable flaw.”

Aiden’s hand came to rest on my hip. “What are you trying to say?” he asked.

Claw, claw, claw. Bite, bite, bite.

Liam pierced me with a stare. “You should be able to see it.”

The rat in my mind leapt at his words, and rapidly everything tumbled into place.

Don’t look at the data in one pool–split it into two populations. The operations I’m not involved in, failing and succeeding roughly at the rate expected.

The operations I do have a hand in still succeeding often enough, but at a lower rate. Those that do succeed get us less supplies, less info, or cost more lives than expected. Enough success to keep us in the game, but costly enough to slowly bleed us dry.

He was right, I should have been the first to see it. The data is explained if I’m a mole, working with the old dragons to rot us away from inside.

But if they were convinced that I’m a mole, I’d be dead right now, came the whisper. The fact that they were here, appealing to me, was evidence they’d reached a different conclusion.

A chill spread from where Aiden’s hand rested on my hip. Ice crept up my spine and sunk claws into my chest. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I turned around to look at Aiden.

“What’s up?” he asked, confusion in his eyes.

I looked through the dragon sight. Before me sat a man who only ever saw my hunched back as part of what made me who I am. I wasn’t ugly to him. That was rare enough, but out of all the men who weren’t turned off by me, how many would I be compatible with? How many took sex the way I loved to give it? How many would be caring and sweet, and love my bitchiness and aggression? How many could know all of me, and love me anyway?

No one else. I couldn’t lose him.

So when I’d realized what was happening, I’d suppressed that knowledge. I knew, somewhere, what he’d done. The knowledge skittered in my mind like a rat in the walls. Hiding from sight but sometimes heard fleetingly, hatefully.

I didn’t see Aiden below me. I saw my own lies. I’d endangered the resistance with my selfishness. Destroyed resources. Lost advantages. Killed Zoe.

“Oh, God no.” The words escaped like smoke rising from my lungs, trickling from my mouth. I stepped back, back, until I stood pressed against the wall.

“Jo, are you ok?” my lies asked me, concern in his voice. He sounded ignorant, innocent. He lies well.

I closed my eyes and banished the dragon sight. Around me the sounds of three men stepping forward, laying hands on Aiden. A brief struggle I couldn’t watch. My eyes burned.

“Jo, help me! What the hell? Get off me!”

I opened my eyes and gazed at Aiden, bent over, arms wrenched behind him. Confused, pained.

“Why?” I asked. But I already knew. Biological constructs running off simple incentives. Aiden secretly working with the dragons for months? That kind of bitter dedication only came from someone deeply wronged.

He drew a shallow breath. “Like you care,” he said quietly. “You declared humans don’t matter. Dragons are the true players in the world, humans are just the pieces they play with. Even you admitted it. Even you. I hope you burn.”

We studied each other. He looked so fragile, bound up by angry friends. It hurt to see him like that. To see that in the end, he had been driven to the dragons, too. Aiden had realized that you could only seek vengeance upon a summoner by turning to a dragon of your own. When it came to something he truly, desperately wanted, even Aiden had succumbed. And I had set that precedent.

“Get him out of here.”

The other three wrestled him out the sliding door, onto the patio. It overlooked a dozen floors of empty space, terminating in concrete far below.

Aiden struggled, thrashing. “No! Jo! Stop them! Please, Jo!”

Slowly I shuffled up to him on the balcony. My hands trembled. The words scraped my throat on their way out:

“Death to all collaborators.”

They heaved him over the edge, and for one infinite split-second he hung in the air, surprise still on his face. Then gravity took him.

He fell, screaming, shattering the serenity of the sky. As he plummeted something bulged under his shirt, something large and swelling. The shirt shredded at the shoulders and downy growths burst from his back.

Long graceful wings, thick with snow-white feathers, erupted from the flesh. They snapped open, spanning yards across, and caught the air in a full embrace.

I should have been terrified. I should have recoiled in horror at this invasion into our material realm. The dragons had found a way to affect physical reality. The war was escalating, and there was no knowing where it would go now.

Instead I sank to my knees in gratitude, choking on sobs of relief. Tears spilled down my cheeks. I watched Aiden through a liquid blur as he swooped up, up into the endless blue sky, free of me finally and forever.

I haven’t seen him since. I am grateful. The war grows bloodier, and our world grows bizarre. Yet I still craft the most volcanic music I can at night. I scream it into the sky, my personal siren songs. Sometimes I think I can see Aiden’s figure far above, suspended from outstretched wings. I imagine he can hear my violent hymns, and I wonder how he would answer my rage. My accusations, my inquisitions.

When the dragons are finally ground to dust, I fear I may snare him and find out.

 

 

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Squid Soup

August 5th, 2018

by Salvatore Difalco

 

A long black hair was floating in Charlie Squillaci’s bourbon. He stared at it for a minute, honing his disgust. It was powerful. Tender music whining over the speakers—a Roy Orbison love song—angered him. He summoned the waitress, in red velveteen to the upper thighs. It was well into May; he tried to puzzle out the reasons for the selection—other staff wore other costumes, none red, none velveteen, but nothing came to mind. When he told her that he found a hair in his drink, she smiled.

“A hair?”

“That’s right. May I get another drink?”

“Ew. Sure thing. Your friend is late.”

“Yes, he is. Observant of you. When he comes, please bring him a vodka martini with two olives.”

“I can do that.”

“And please, take this away.”

She grabbed the defiled drink and moved on with small but quick steps, as though her ankles were bound together. A person’s walk says so much about them. What did hers say? Charlie didn’t like this cocktail bar, not really. The Tiffany lamps grated, as did all the old wood and threadbare bordello broadloom. The hair in his drink punctuated the dated, dirty vibe. But it was convenient, and quiet. A place that drew little attention.

By the time he finished his second bourbon his shoulders relaxed and he had a nice buzz happening. Sinatra came over the speakers with The Best Is Yet To Come, and it was fine. The liquor bottles lined up behind the bar glinted and whispered in their secret tongues. A throbbing green magnum held his eye until Penny brought another drink and stood by his table as if waiting for him to comment on his friend’s tardiness or some other nothing. Maybe she suspected he was one of those people who say they are waiting for a friend, when actually they are simply too embarrassed to admit they are drinking alone. Charlie had been guilty of this in the past. Not this time, though he wasn’t waiting for a friend per se. To call Ricky Carbone a friend was to denigrate the people who were his friends, not to say there were many.

A couple argued at at a booth across from his table, a blonde woman and an older man with silver sideburns. Charlie tried to ignore what they were saying, but sometimes that’s impossible. Sometimes people insist that you acknowledge their drama, validate it. The woman scored good points. The man had cheated on her numerous times. He’d made promises. He’d been verbally abusive. Three strikes, as far as Charlie could tell. The man defended himself by talking about his insecurities, money troubles, work problems, his ex-wife and kids.

“You never see them!”

“But I pay for their damn private schools, don’t I?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Then don’t talk about it anymore.”

The woman covered her face with her hands and burst into tears. Charlie was hoping she wouldn’t, that she’d stay strong and tell this idiot to go fuck himself; then again, weeping can’t be avoided at times. You just have to let it out.

His cellphone buzzed and he checked the message. Ricky was here. Where was he? Charlie swung his head around too quickly, setting off a momentary swirl of vertigo that made him grab the edges of the table. This happened now and then when he moved his head too quickly or when he stood up abruptly. Maybe something to do with blood pressure. He shut his eyes and took a moment to regain his equilibrium. When he opened his eyes, Ricky stood by his table in a full-length black PVC coat salvaged from the Matrix wardrobe department.

“You could have found a better table,” he said.

“The booths were occupied.”

Ricky snapped his fingers. “No clout here?”

“It’s not like the old days, paisan.”

“I hear you, Squid. I need a beverage pronto. Got stuck in traffic. This city’s gone to the dogs. You can’t make a move without some dickhead up your ass. I was telling Julie—you know Julie from Darrigo’s—I was telling him he better not get too comfortable this summer. It’s gonna be a hot one. It’s gonna be a heat wave like you’ve never seen before. You’ll be frying eggs on your Cadillac hood, I told him.”

“We talking global warming?”

“Global warming, ha.” Ricky rolled his eyes. He shouldered off his coat and draped it on the chair back. “Global warming my ass. Global warming.” He snapped his fingers for service.

Charlie noticed with annoyance Ricky’s freshly manicured fingernails, shining like polished shells. The lengths people went to beautify themselves.

“She’ll be here shortly. I ordered you a martini.”

“You know me too well, Squid,” Ricky said with a gap-toothed smile.

Charlie wanted to get right to the point. He wasn’t interested in getting shit-faced with Ricky or sharing confessions. Penny showed up just as he was about to start barking like a dog. He snatched the martini and downed it in one swig.

“Bring another,” he said, chewing the olives. “Please.”

“Nice to see your friend arrived safely,” she said with a sparkle in her eye.

“We’re touched by your concern,” Ricky said.

Clearly, he resented the insinuated conversation that had taken place before he arrived. He wiped his lips with his hand and wiped his hand on his trouser leg. He looked mean even when he was happy. It was just one of those faces.

“So, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?” Charlie asked.

“Easy, Squid. Let me have another drink and relax a little. You’re in a fucking hurry? Haven’t seen you since Martino’s stag and you’re itching to split? Don’t insult me, man.”

———

They drank. The place got busy and louder than normal. Someone was celebrating a birthday at a big central table, surrounded by back-slapping well-wishers, a few sporting paper party hats, all imbibing to excess. A cake with hissing sparklers arrived to broken applause and slurred cheers. People sang Happy Birthday in widely varying registers, at different tempos, swaying. Charlie’s head started spinning and he had a hard time hearing Ricky, who was telling him how an uncle of his had two families, one here and one in the old country.

“How the fuck did he manage it?”

“What’s that?” Ricky said, cupping his ear.

“How did he manage it!”

“Lots of lying. Uncle Frank could lie to anyone without batting an eye.”

“Guess that goes without saying.”

“He had three kids here, younger, and four older kids back in Sicily. He’d fly back and forth every few months. For work, he’d say. He was importing cheeses from Italy. And he was running numbers in Buffalo, so he had a few bucks.”

“Did his wives ever catch on? What about his kids?”

“Yeah, he got charged with bigamy, sentenced to a nickel in upstate New York. The kids eventually all met up and still connect at reunions and such. Uncle Frank, God rest his soul, died in the joint. Some skinhead shanked him in the showers just a few months before his release. He’d been put up to it. Which brings me to the situation, Squid.”

“Situation?”

“I meant mission, yeah—your mission, Squid, should you choose to accept it, hahaha.”

Charlie smiled but wasn’t amused.

The couple in the booth had been quiet for a time. But now the woman, recovered from her crying jag, had more to say to the man with silver sideburns. Ricky’s eyes opened wide as her voice rose above the bar chatter and music.

“You know what you can do with your apology!”

“Simmer down.”

“Simmer down? You fucking prick!”

The man said something under his breath.

“What did you say? Repeat that! I dare you to repeat it!”

The man mumbled something else, and a crashing of glasses and scuffling ensued, fleshy slapping sounds, grunting. Then the woman violently bolted from the booth, handbag under her arm, a camel shawl flailing from her hand.

After a good pause, the man with the silver sideburns followed her out, head bowed.

A delighted Ricky munched some ice cubes, a habit of his Charlie had always disliked. Made him shiver watching him.

“These people,” he said, “these people don’t know how good they got it. Takes nothing for it all to go south, know what I’m saying? Take your eye off the ball for a second and poof, it can all go up in smoke. You gotta maintain, know what I’m saying? You gotta stay sharp, watch your back and so on. You never know when the bogie man is coming for you haha.”

Charlie gave him nothing. He didn’t want him to think he was his yes man. He didn’t want to pump up his tires. He let him ramble on, munching his ice.

“Like when an animal gets slaughtered,” Ricky said, in the middle of one of his digressions. “You can be cruel about it, and you’ll taste the stress in the meat, swear to God, or you can be humane. And then you’re eating tender, know what I’m saying?”

Penny stood by their table, smiling with her small white teeth. It must have been difficult to keep smiling relentlessly, a real test of one’s mettle. Then again, maybe something happens to the face muscles after a time; they set like a mask, just freeze into that thing.

“Buddy-boy,” Ricky said, “another drink?”

“I’m good, but you go ahead.”

“What I want is a porterhouse steak Chicago-style with a side of rapini.”

Penny said, “Can’t help you there. We only serve finger foods.”

“If I wanted fingers,” Ricky said, popping an ice cube “I know where to get the real things, know what I’m saying? None of those processed jobs. I’m talking flesh and bone. You know what you can do with those processed jobs.”

“Very funny,” Penny said, maintaining the smile.

“He does stand-up part time. Makes the people laugh.”

“That’s when I don’t make them cry,” Ricky said.

Penny smiled even harder and moved on.

They finished their drinks and paid the bill. Charlie left Penny a huge tip, hoping she would find her way out of the darkness.

———

Ricky insisted they stop at the Tulip in the east end for a bite to eat. They served a quality steak there, but no rapini. Ricky ate with appetite. Charlie picked at his T-bone. It was okay, but he wasn’t that hungry. Ricky still hadn’t stated precisely what he wanted. Charlie suspected it was something bad enough for him not to spell it out. You never knew who was leaning in.

They paid and Ricky told him he’d be in touch soon.

“I’m cabbing it, Rick.”

“I can give you a lift. What’s with you?”

“I’m gonna cab it.”

“Have it your way, boss. I’ll be in touch.”

Ricky walked off, hands in his pockets, head bent as though he were looking for loose change on the sidewalk. Charlie hailed a cab and gave the turbaned driver his address.

———

Charlie removed his shoes and socks and relaxed on the sofa. Sometimes you needed context. You needed details to fill out what by necessity had to be left blank. Then the bigger picture presented itself as a natural extension of the details, however minimal. You filled in the rest with your imagination. That went without saying. And it took some imagination to flesh things out. But with zero details, one was left thrashing like a fish on a dock.

He listened to Bach fugues, soothing in the evenings. He’d first discovered Bach in Kingston Penitentiary of all places. A lifer had turned him on to the Brandenburg Concertos. His cellphone buzzed. Tina. He didn’t feel like talking. He’d been avoiding her. Not that they had anything going on. A few drunken wrangles. But she’d been calling him every few hours for two days. Maybe it was important. Most likely it was nothing, so he ignored it. She left a few garbled messages. Something about “they” were going to get him with the numbers, or at the numbers. He had no idea what she was going on about—the numbers. What numbers?

All that remained were specifics. And then a decision. A simple yes or no. That’s the way it worked. He went to his bedroom. He opened the closet door and searched for a locked wooden case among his shoeboxes. He kept the tools of his trade in the case. They’d gone untouched for several months. He had been semi-retired, gently refusing gigs. He didn’t need the money. He had no debts, no wife, no kids. He was free of any entanglements—at least most of them.

His cellphone buzzed again. Ricky sent a text. It was simply a name: Iggy Macaluso. Iggy, or Ignazio, used to be a regular at the poker games staged at the Benvenuti Social Club, a real donkey. A big mouth. For a guy from Palermo, Sicily, where reticence was the ultimate mark of character and manly virtue, this Iggy babbled like a village gossip. Names, places, scores, nothing was sacred with him, nothing beyond blathering about. He had the earmarks of someone with a limited mortality. At least in Charlie’s circles.

The way Iggy played poker and the way he shot off his mouth rubbed Charlie the wrong way, and he wasn’t the only one. But that was besides the point. If he were to act out all his disgruntlements and petty beefs, overpopulation in this world would be solved. The idea that we’d all get along one day as we march arm-in-arm toward a glittering future was stupid. There would always be bad men and women, annoying men and women, and there would always be people solicited to quiet them. One separates vocation from inclination or preference.

———

Charlie had done some reading in the joint: Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, Camus, whatever he could get his hands on. If he understood nothing before reading these great thinkers and writers, he had an inkling afterwards. For one thing, he understood himself better. Any guilt he may have felt was expiated: he wasn’t committing random acts of violence; he wasn’t running people over in a van; he wasn’t shooting up malls and knifing strangers in the street. Charlie Squillaci was a professional. People throw that term around lightly these days, professional this, professional that. But Charlie was the picture of professionalism.

Another text arrived from Rick: Seven and Seven Lounge.

The joint was in the east end, near the city limits, but he’d never been there before. He got in his nondescript grey Buick and set off. It was a mild May evening, dusk slowly purpling the city, neighbours out enjoying their freedom: he envied them to a degree, strolling with loved ones. He had no partner, no siblings, no steadfast friends—just a few cousins scattered far and wide. Perhaps a handful of people would attend his funeral, when that day came. And it could come at any time, such was his caste. Did he despair about this? Not really. Very little is needed for a happy life, as Marcus Aurelius observed. It is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. Perhaps he had missed out on some of these beautiful life things. On the other hand, he had found his true calling, and had pursued it with passion. Not many people could say that.

He drove east and within minutes darkness fell. The glare of oncoming headlights blinded him. He turned his head too quickly and felt a tickle of vertigo. He pulled over to the side of the road, put the car in park and tried to regulate his breathing. He had to get this thing checked out before it became a serious problem.

———

He must have dozed off. When he opened his eyes a man was peering into his passenger window. He started. Then when he saw the fingerless gloves and filthy face, he understood it was a homeless man begging for alms.

“Get the fuck away from my car,” he said.

The bum gestured and made a sad clown face.

Charlie reached to his console.

The guy backed away from the car, hands splayed at his chest. Then a bright flash lit up the car windows.

Charlie shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the homeless man was gone. This wasn’t good; he’d never passed out in his car like that without being shit-faced. He’d heard of inner ear infections fucking with a person’s equilibrium. Maybe that was it. Or he was getting too old for this life. Maybe that was it. The Squid had seen better days. The Squid was washed up. Time to put him out to pasture.

He thought of another thing Marcus Aurelius had said: You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. Ha, Charlie pitied the poor bastard who thought he had his shit together, his inner strength and all that, but who could not foresee or imagine events that in the end were unforeseeable but inevitable, as if following a secret code or hidden pattern permitting no deviation.

Continuing east, he drove for some time in a daze when he realized he’d forgotten his destination. Odd. What was it? The Zulu Lounge—no that was in the west end. Heaven and Hell? No, that used to be a strip joint. He never brought his cellphone on jobs, so he couldn’t check the message. And he never wrote anything down. It was all in his head.

He drove on, struggling to fill in this sudden memory gap. Nothing came, zilch. How was it possible? It felt like the part of his brain containing the location had been surgically removed. Driving wasn’t helping, so he pulled over into a gas station. He sat there and played back the day in his mind. Iggy Macaluso—yes, he remembered seeing his name in a message. But the location—a blank. And while he knew he had the power to revoke this horror, by thinking positively, he nevertheless started hyperventilating.

He exited the car, hoping the cool air might clear his head. He walked without direction, passing darkened storefronts and shuttered row houses. He didn’t see a soul. He kept walking with no sense of direction or purpose. His thoughts narrowed in scope, focusing on the pavement in front of him and nothing else.

Finally, he passed a diner, dully illuminated, the windows thick with grime, the sign—Three Square Eats—aslant. He opened the door to a jingle of bells and stepped inside. A few drab men sat at the counter, hunched over coffees. The waitress, in a species of nurse’s whites, grimaced when she saw him. He sat at a booth across from the counter. She hurried over with a glass pot of coffee and filled the cup on his table without asking if he wanted it. She was young, maybe twenty-something, and thin. Her hair looked like charred straw. 

“We’ve met before,” she said.

“We have?”

“Yeah, at the Exhibition, back a few years.”

He looked into her eyes: a dullness there disqualified any ill intent.

“Yeah,” he said, “maybe.”

She stood there with the coffee pot for a time. She wanted him to say something to validate her remembrance, but he was having issues in that department.

“So, you remember me?” she said.

“Sort of. I meet a lot of people in my line of work.”

“And I don’t?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“I’m just saying.”

One of the men at the counter laughed to himself, his shoulders rising and falling. It alarmed Charlie for some reason. Why was he laughing? What did he not know or understand about this joint and his place in it? His head swirled: he needed nourishment.

“A piece of pie, please.”

“We have apple and blueberry.”

“Blueberry, a la mode.”

The waitress walked away, clutching at the small of her back. For a moment Charlie thought he saw something jabbing out of her spine, a metal rod perhaps. She turned and caught him looking. He averted his eyes, pretending to gaze out the filthy windows into the lifeless street. He figured a munch of pie might get his blood sugar back up and improve his cognitive functions. He couldn’t remember the last thing he ate.

He was in difficulty. It wasn’t just a state of nerves. An overpowering dread fell upon him like a black cloak. He considered calling Ricky on a pay phone, but if he admitted he’d forgotten the location, word would spread like wildfire. He’d be ostracized, or worse. He knew too much.

The waitress brought the pie with a scoop of beige ice cream.

“Enjoy,” she said.

One of the men at the counter looked over. Charlie couldn’t see his eyes. They were either set very deeply in his head or the dim lighting explained it, but he couldn’t see his eyes. The pie tasted of nothing and as he forked it up he noticed that his hand was a pale shade of blue. He put down the fork and studied his hands: an unmistakeable shade of blue. He looked around to see if a coloured light was shining somewhere. Except for the slabs of dark red defining the upholstered booths and stools, the place was black and white, with infinite shades of grey.

He finished the pie. The waitress poured him more coffee. Her arms were like bleached sticks. He pitied her, but also feared her.

“Finding yourself in the ranks of the insane,” she said, leaning close, “do you stay put and make the best of the company given, perhaps even improving their lives, or do you escape?”

“I would choose to escape,” Charlie said. “People rarely change.”

“Do you think you can change?”

“I think I have changed.”

“I agree. I think you have changed. I think you are changed.”

But all of this was making Charlie’s head heavy. He almost wanted to rest it on the table, but resisted that impulse. He needed to get back on the road.

“Is there a pay phone? I forgot my cell.”

“Nah. But you can use ours. No long distance.”

———

Ricky wasn’t happy. He started yelling at Charlie. He had never yelled at him. It was too late, he said. Iggy was gone.

“What do you mean gone?”

“He left town.”

“When did he leave town?”

“Couple of hours ago.”

“So I would have missed him anyway.”

“Wrong,” Ricky said. “The timing was planned. It was perfect. Now—now it’s too late. Something wrong with your head, man? Tell the truth, Squid. You didn’t look right to me. You didn’t look right at all. Your eyes, I could see it in your eyes. Unsteady.”

“How do I make this right?”

“Like I said, Squid, it’s too late.”

He rang off.

As Charlie walked back to his table, the man who’d been laughing at the counter grabbed his wrist; he tried to wrest it free, but he held on.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t belong here.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Tell them I want out of here. Tell them I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Charlie wrenched his arm away from him and returned to his table. He finished his coffee and gestured for the check.

“Oh, that’s just Pernel,” said the waitress. “He’s harmless. But he knows the score.”

“He does?”

The waitress flared her nostrils, took a deep breath and burst into tears, something Charlie had not anticipated. What was odd is that while tears flowed down her gaunt cheeks, she remained perfectly still, composed even, her face a mask.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m mourning,” she said.

“For whom?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Nothing was obvious. Charlie’s head ached. He felt queasy. He rubbed his temples.

“You should stay here,” she said. “This is a safe space.”

“Safe? Safe from what?”

“Do I have to spell it out?”

“Stop it,” he  said, anger welling in his chest.

“You forgot the numbers, Squid.”

“The numbers? What is it with these numbers? And why you calling me Squid?”

“You forgot the numbers.”

He’d had enough. He quickly paid and exited. He thought he heard her calling behind him, but didn’t turn around.

The streets were completely deserted. He stood there trying to situate himself. Everything looked unfamiliar, the storefronts, the street signs. He felt strange, detached from his body, from the experience of being there. He moved toward the car on unsteady legs. He was surprised he remembered where he’d parked it.

Just as he approached the car a sudden bang startled him and he tweaked his neck. The dizziness came on strong this time. The entire street wobbled and tilted. He had to hold a parking meter to gather himself.

Time was passing, its current strong. But he was caught in a whirlpool. He could feel himself being spun into its vortex, sucked into its frothing core. He staggered to the Buick, opened the door and got in. He was exhausted. He could barely lift his arms. He leaned his head against the headrest. He could hear music. Where was it coming from? Was it Roy Orbison? Roy Orbison? Roy Orbison?

———

He must have dozed off. When he opened his eyes a man was peering into his passenger window. He started. Then when he saw the fingerless gloves and filthy face, he understood it was a homeless man begging for alms.

“Get the fuck away from my car,” he said.

The bum gestured and made a sad clown face.

Charlie reached to his console.

The guy backed away from the car, hands splayed at his chest. Then a bright flash lit up the car windows.

Charlie shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the homeless man was gone. This wasn’t good; he’d never passed out in his car like that without being shit-faced. He’d heard of inner ear infections fucking with a person’s equilibrium. Maybe that was it. Or he was getting too old for this. Maybe that was it.

He thought of another thing Marcus Aurelius had said: You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. Yet, Charlie pitied the poor bastard who thought he had his shit together, his inner strength and all that, but who could not foresee or imagine events that in the end were unforeseeable and inevitable, as if following a secret code or hidden pattern permitting no deviation.

 

 

 

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Cloud Walker

July 29th, 2018

by Martha Hubbard

 

It takes a certain kind of crazy to love a land as harsh and unforgiving

as North Eastern Finland.

 

Tulli filled her lungs with knife-sharp air, “It’s so beautiful,” she shouted, letting her joy carry the sound over the rocks, lichen, tiny blue flowers, over baby snakes just emerging from their eggs, and any stray rabbits or foxes that hadn’t run away at her approach. “I love spring. Even if it only last two days.”

The East Finnish tundra, under a sky that hung as heavy and oppressive as granite, glowered back at her. Sullen pockets of just thawing snow dribbled like incontinent babies. In south facing rock cervices, tiny artic flora poked careful heads into air that whispered fanciful promises of sun and warmth to come.

Above her head, a spear of cobalt pierced the murk. Like her Grammy making pancakes, it swirled and pulled, incorporating the grey into itself as the sky cleared and the first sunshine for a month splashed across the bog, creating a field of glittering green and red. “I love it, love it, love it,” she sang, a Northern fairy, skittering across the rocks.

҉҉҉

Later, she would remember this day as her last moment of true happiness for a long time. A month short of her 15th birthday, her father announced a decision that would ruin her life.  The village shaman wanted her for his wife. Marrying this young was unusual but not unheard of up here. But she hadn’t been consulted. Too bad! The old man had just buried his third wife. He required a new one – quickly. With a brood of screaming brats to be cared for and the autumn mushroom gathering just over the horizon, Shaman Jokkonen was inclined to overlook the usual niceties. And, he liked young flesh.

Trying to be fair, Tulli acknowledged that the arrival of the mushrooms might be the key reason for pulling her from her father’s drunken embrace. While mushroom hunting and preparation was women’s work, not everyone had the skills to hear the voices of the magical fungi used in the smoke lodges. These shy, finicky creatures didn’t allow themselves to be seen by just anyone. From early childhood, Tulli had shown exceptional talent for finding the amanita muscaria – essential for achieving the most ecstatic trance states. It was not surprising that the Shaman wanted her under his control.

This day, she had been on the open tundra watching clouds and sun perform their summer pyrotechnics until well past supper time. As she neared their tepee, Isä was pacing in front. “Where have you been?” her father snarled.

“Where I usually am this time of year. What’s your problem?”

“Come inside. There’s something … something important I want to talk to you about.” He turned and stalked into the darkness, where he dropped his fat backside onto a bench. “Bring me a coffee, so we can talk,” he barked.

“So, what’s this about?” demanded Tulli, ignoring her father’s command and grabbing a strip of dried reindeer hanging from the pole beside the door.

“Tulervo,” he coughed, using her full name, always a bad sign. “You know it hasn’t been easy for us since your mother passed over. I have often wished I had taken another wife to help you grow into a proper woman.”

“As I have equally often told you, I’m glad you didn’t. What’s different now?”

“Lately, things… financial things and other…have become more difficult.”

“You old goat. You want to get married again.”

“No! I mean not yet. But…” Tulli’s father blushed, took a deep breath and jumped straight into the icy pond. “I had a visit from Shaman Jokkonen today. He wants you for his wife. I agreed.”

“You did what? Are you crazy? He’s old enough to be my great-grandfather. And he’s disgusting.”

Tulli was so angry she was pacing the perimeter of the tepee like a reindeer looking for an escape hole.  Everyone knows he skulks around in the sauna touching up the younger girls.”

“Do not speak disrespectfully of our senior councillor.”

“I don’t care if he’s Santa Claus himself, I won’t have that smelly old man touching me. Putting his rotting thing in … Argh! Isä, why have you done this to me?”

“Tulli, come sit down. Your pacing is making me dizzy.” He patted the bench beside him.

Tulli placed a tentative buttock on the ledge opposite her father, nearer the exit flap.

“Please understand. It’s not just for me, it’s for all of us. The community needs your skills in finding the mushrooms. We depend on them to see our correct path. It’s time you began to do your share.”

She took a deep breath and studied the roof hole in the top of their summer dwelling. Smoke drifted in lazy circles, as if reluctant to go out into the evening chill. “Father, I’ve always done my share of the mushroom ceremony, so why do I have to marry that foul-smelling, old child-molester to do it.”

“My dear child, he’s not that bad.  OK, it’s not the marriage I would have wished for you… but… Jokkonen’s wife died this spring….”

“Third wife and all three dead from child-birth and kidney failure. Is that the future you wish for me?”

“It’s not so simple. He needs someone to find and prepare the fungi and a wife. Everyone knows you are the best. The village and the shaman need your skills”

“We agree about the mushrooms, but why me? Why – wife – me?”    

Well, also… we … our family has … some problems … there have been promises made …”

“You’re selling me to that rutting, old buck to pay off your debts!”

“Tulli! It’s not like that,” her father stammered, his face, the colour of the embers in the hearth fire.

“Then tell me. Make me understand how you can sell your only daughter to a disgusting monster old enough to be her grandfather.”

“You are insolent,” he shouted. “Just like your mother was. She learned respect. You will as well under the tutelage of our shaman. As his wife, you will bring great honour to our family and our clan.”

Unable to tolerate any more of his porridge-mouthed, self-justifying bullshit, Tulli rose with as much dignity as she could muster and walked out of their tepee.

“Come back here. I’m talking to you.”

Outside in a sky transfused with darkening lilac, the midnight sun was nudging the western edge of the horizon, a ruby disk just disappearing below the crown of the earth even as it re-emerged vermillion and golden a few kilometres to the East. His sister moon, transparent, almost invisible in the white sky, tagged along behind her bigger brother. Only one star could be seen at this time of year. High above all the drama, blue Venus floated serene in her majestic dominion over the sky.

‘How many places in the world can you see the sun rise and set at the same time,’ Tulli wondered. As angry as she was, this magical occurrence never failed to astonish her.  Bowing her head to the triple gods of light, Tulli said a prayer for strength to do what she must, and to receive the wisdom to know what that might be. Then she ran like a rabbit before dogs to her grandmother’s lodge. Grammy was sitting before the fire, a cup of beer in her hand and another on the bench. She had been expecting her.

“I figured it out,” Tulli said without preamble, “Growing up means…”

“Growing old, as well…” the crone huddled by the fire interrupted.

“… relinquishing, one by one, the things you believed you couldn’t do without when you were younger.”

“Aye – and the longer you live the more of life’s pleasures you’ll learn to do without.”

҉҉҉

The following Saturday night, Jokkonen slithered over to sit beside her in the sauna.

“Good evening my little one. How nice it is to see you here.”

“I’m not your dear. Your arrival has just ruined my evening.”

“Don’t be that way, pigeon. When a couple are to be married they must speak sweetly to each other.”

“I don’t wish to marry you. You will never hear a sweet word from me.”

The dim fog of steam and sweat inside the sauna had developed a thousand ears. Everyone in the village of Snowhill knew that Tulli resented being sold off to the old man. Many agreed with her that he was a disgrace and that the village needed a new shaman. All were curious to know how this would play out.

“But I need your special talents, little bird, so we shall wed and you will make me the happiest of men.”

“What you mean is: the only thing that can raise the flaccid stump between your legs is the thought of young flesh beneath your stinking body. And take your bony hand off my thigh,” Tulli hissed, loud enough for people sitting nearby to stop pretending they weren’t paying attention.

“Your father is right,” he said, rising from the bench, his penis dangling limp and flabby. “You need to learn respect for your elders. You will meet your responsibilities to your clan. We will marry in the summer.”

With that he stormed out of the sauna lodge. ‘Me and my truth-telling tongue,’ she thought.

҉҉҉

After that disgusting night Tulli removed her possessions to her grandmother’s home. There wasn’t much; things were not really important to her: only her tempered steel flick-knife, the four-winds hat that had been her mother’s, a book of scientific plant names a Swedish botanist had given her for guiding him, and a reindeer-skin pouch that hung on a cord around her neck when she gathered mushrooms. All else, her father, to whom she was not speaking, could keep. Her clothes? He can sell them to pay his damn debts. 

At the end of July a very embarrassed Jussi Salo came to see her. “Ah Tullervo, are you busy… can you spare a moment?” he said poking his head around the flap in the opening that kept the mosquitos out.

“Yes, Jussi, what do you need?” He had been a friend of her mother’s and was a decent man. But he was also a colleague of Shaman Jokkonen.

“Well, you know, I think … hope … that your wedding is scheduled for two weeks hence – at the full of the moon.”

“Yes, I know,” she sighed. She was not going to pretend to be pleased. Unfortunately, the pull of duty dies hard. “What do you need?”

“Usually, for the wedding celebrations, the bride’s family provides some of the refreshments …”

“Yes…?” She knew what he meant. There was no way she going to make it easy for him.

“We… the men and I …  in the wedding party that is … were hoping that you, as the best mushroom gatherer in the village, could give us some mukhomor* for the after-party…” his voice trailed away and he hung his head, unable to meet her eyes.

“You know how miserable I am about this. Yet you want me to provide the mushroom mash for your party – to supply the instrument for my own defilement?”

“Tulli, we don’t like this anymore than you do, but it’s tradition.”

“Tradition! Sometimes I think we should pick tradition up by the neck and feed it to the bears.”

“You may be right, but not now – not yet.” He stopped talking. They sat together sipping Grammy’s wild roots’ beer while Tulli digested his request.

“Do you want dried or chewed mash? How are you planning to use it?”

“Dried would do. We’ll get our wives to do the chewing. Then we can collect their pee and mix it with spirits. Won’t need that much to make a good party.”

“I’ll bet… If I agree to this, will you do me a favour?”

“Sure Tulli, if I can.”

“Make sure the old goat gets plenty – more than his share.”

Understanding lit up Jussi’s face. He smiled, “That won’t work forever, you know.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll get through this one night at a time.”

*Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is a basidiomycete mushroom, one of many in the genus Amanita. … The mushroom was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of far Northern Europe, and has a religious significance in these cultures.

҉҉҉

The day before the wedding, Tulli gave Jussi a generous present from her own stock of dried, hallucinogenic mushrooms. Everyone, especially the wives, had been delighted with the chance to sample this rare drug. They masticated it thoroughly, very thoroughly, washing it down with home-brewed beer, giggling and laughing, collecting their urine in reindeer horn jugs to mix with vodka for their men.

“Once they’ve finished with that,” Tulli smiled to herself, watching them dance and whirl. “The old goat may find his wedding night doesn’t end quite as he planned.”

After the hand fasting ceremony, the village wives led her to the shaman’s lodge. There, they took away her maiden clothes, dressing her in the traditional bridal shift of soft reindeer skin. They had prepared the marriage couch with sweet smelling dried grasses on top of fragrant pine branches and watched as she crept under the coverlet woven with fertility symbols. Wishing her luck of her wedding night, they left.

Hours later, nearly dawn, Jokkonen stumbled into his lodge. As Jussi had promised, he was very drunk and sweating profusely from the effects of the mukhomor. “Wake up, my little dove, your stallion awaits,” he trilled, flopping onto the mound in the centre of the bed where he expected Tulli to be.

“Stupid old fart,” she whispered from her perch in the far corner as he slammed into the human shaped rock pile, she had fashioned there, his engorged penis banging into the stones.

“Bastard daughter of Otso,” he screeched. “You’ve broken my wand.” Collapsing into a ball on the floor, he clutched his member, moaning, tears running down his cheeks.

Tulli laughed. She laughed until her sides hurt from the effort. “Our Finnish granite too hard for you to mount, old man?”

“What have you done? You are a disgrace to our tribe.” He rocked from side to side, rubbing his groin.

“And you are an old fool who needs to keep his hands off the young women of our tribe.”

“I am your husband now. You must obey me,” he whimpered, tears still tracking his cheeks.

“No chance, old man. If you even think about trying to come near me, I’ll tell the whole village how you spent your wedding morning crying like a baby.”

As she bent to exit the lodge, Jokkonen jeered at her back, “You’ll pay for this, I promise. When the time of the smoke lodge comes, I will have you – my way. You will know then what it is to be possessed by a true man.” 

Outside, the eastern sky looked like it had been in a fight – several. Angry red gashes intercut with purple bruises scoured the horizon. ‘The Gods are angry,’ she thought, slipping quietly into her grandmother’s lodge. ‘At whom,’ I wonder. 

҉҉҉

In the weeks after the wedding, Tulli hid at her grandmother’s, escaping into the forest when her father or Jokkonen came sniffing after her. She refused to speak to either of them and Grammy had thrown her own son out of her home when he came to drag Tulli back to his.

One bright morning at the end of August, Tulli woke and sat up in her nest of branches and skins. Sniffing the air like lakkapoika, she caught the sharp scent of winter stealing in from the East.  That smell told her, as it did every bear child, it was time to go into the forest to pick berries and mushrooms for winter drying and salting. Grabbing her collecting tools, she swished out her mouth with a swallow of coffee that was always in a pot by the fire and scuttled out of the lodge. In her hurry to get away from the village, she forgot her usual caution. As she hastened toward the forest path, Jokkonen loomed up before her. He had smelled the change in the air too.

“Soon, my wild girl. Our time is almost upon us. Have a good look out there. The better your harvest, the better it will go for you when I come to claim what is mine.”

“Get out of my path. I will do my duty to my people. I will never submit to your foul touch.”

“We’ll see about that my little dove. I’ll make you my wife, and I’ll make your friend Jussi hold you down while I do it.”

She ran, wishing she could fly, stretching out the distance, carrying her away from Jokkonen’s old man stench, the sound and smell of him chasing her. At last, the susurrations of old, green pines, drove out his evil laugh. Slumping onto a fallen branch, she buried her head in her hands. “I will not cry, I will not cry…” over and over until her pounding heart slowed and she could think clearly again.

Opening her eyes to plead with the trees for help, she looked across the forest floor. A magic carpet of amanitas, glowed red and gold in front of her.

Like a privileged few of her people, Tulli was adept at predicting the weather by reading the signs from the forest. A heavy burden of berries on certain trees meant a long and difficult winter. Early appearance of certain mushrooms was a worse omen. 

“Dear Akka, no. Not so many, so early … Hard winter will come soon. My people need to know so they can prepare. I must help them.” As hateful as it was, Tulli could not ignore her duty to her village. “Jumalaita, God of the Sky,  you who control the winds and clouds, help your children. Give me strength to do what must be done.”

  Falling onto her knees, she collected the mushrooms reverently – they were a sacred gift – tears dripping as she laid them one by one in the basket.

As she finished, a beam of sunlight pierced the clouds, illuminating a cluster of speckled yellow fungi. The Cloud Walker (Psilocybe violettata) – the rarest and most powerful of the hallucinogenic mushrooms. This was the first time Tulli had ever seen more than one in the same place. 

The Gods had spoken to her. “Thank you. I will do what must be done.”

When she returned from the forest, Jokkonen was waiting for her. Without a word she handed him her collecting basket. As she turned to walk away, he grabbed her arm. “Is this everything?”

“Of course. What else would there be?”

“What’s in here then?” he sneered, snatching her leather pouch. “Ah, the Cloud Walkers. I knew you would find them. I’ll take care these until the first smoke lodge. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to them before that – would we?”

҉҉҉

That night, news of Tulli’s extraordinary harvest delighted the community. Even though Jokkonen said nothing of the dangers predicted by the great numbers of amanitas, it was immediately decided  to hold the first grand smoke lodge the following Friday. There was just enough time for Tulli and the shaman to make the traditional, three day fast, purifying their bodies to receive the prophesy-inducing fungi. On the night of the smoke lodge, Tulli would chew the fungi until they were tender and the worst of the poisonous elements had been purged. Then she would pass the now safe mash to the shaman who would continue to masticate it until visions appeared.

By Friday Tulli was weak and dizzy from lack of nourishment. Even Grammy would not defy tradition to sneak food to her granddaughter. As the sky deepened towards sunset, Tulli waited in the anti-room to the lodge. Strangely, not at all nervous, she felt certain that something momentous was about to be decided. A village elder – not Jussi – Tulli noted – carried in the basket of sacred mushrooms. Jokkonen had chopped and scattered the Cloud Walkers in with the amanitas.

‘“What a deadly little cocktail you’ve prepared,’ she thought.  Expecting something like this, Tulli carefully flicked the chunks of yellow to one side, preparing a mouthful of only amanitas. When these were ready, she sent them out to the waiting elders. Twice more she sent out a portion of mukhomor containing only amanitas. Soon Jokkonen would realise she was holding back the Cloud Walkers. It was time. Taking a deep breath, she shoved a handful of the yellow fragments into her mouth and chewed furiously.

Three days without food, and preparing the amanitas, had opened her completely to the effects of the potent Cloud Walkers. Inside she heard Jokkonen screaming – his visions terrifying and bleak. Continuing to chew, Tulli ran out of the lodge into the centre of the village, where she swallowed the mash. 

Burning, freezing, sweating, tears running down her cheeks, her ears were filled with…. with pine trees… singing. They are singing to me. “Hello my friends.” The entire forest was greeting her. The din of people screaming faded, now visions began to arrive.

She looked at the sky. ‘I want to go there,’ she thought. A staircase of clouds unrolled in front of her. Up, up into the sky she walked, to Lintukoto, the  Bird House, Home of the Gods. When her head poked above the edge of the cloud island, she saw Old Ukko, sitting by his fire, smoking a pipe, waiting for her.

Below, she could still hear Jokkonen screaming. “You stupid, stupid girl, what have you done?”

“Make him stop, please,” she asked politely. The anguished noises ceased. “Thank you.”

“No problem, my child. Welcome.”

“Thank you. Why am I here?”

“I think you know.”

“Maybe.”

“Try me.” Ukko took a long drag on his pipe.

“My people need a new shaman, one who will use his powers to protect us.” 

“That’s correct my child. Your old shaman has defiled his calling by trying to hold onto his position long after his powers have declined.”

“Perhaps if he stopped lusting after young girls he’d have more energy for his true work.”

“He is trying to recover his manhood from their flesh. Many men do this.”

She shuddered, remembering the touch of his fingers on her thigh.

Ukko recognised her motion and asked, “Do you believe he can be reclaimed?”

“Probably not,” she sighed, sinking onto a log near the fire.

“Up here, we don’t believe so either. Are you willing to have him removed?”

Tulli thought hard about her answer. This was probably the most important decision she had ever been asked to make, “For the good of the community, yes.”

As she gave her assent, a bolt of lightning crashed through the clouds.  Fire encircled the silently screaming Jokkonen, transforming him into a flaming pillar. It consumed the old man completely, then crumbled softly into a pile of ash.

“Oh, Ukko!”

“No regrets, my child. Never look back.”

“OK, but who will care for them now?”

“You will of course.”

“But we’ve never had a female shaman…”

“There’s a first time for everything, Tulli. The world outside your village is changing. There are dangers, terrible dangers, war and pestilence are rising from the East.”

“Yes, I saw that. I hoped it wasn’t so.”

“To survive, your people will need a shaman with wisdom, education and a wider view of life.” He smiled, “Come and sit closer. I will tell you something about your calling. Then, there are quite a few others up here who want to meet you.”

Tulli remained for seven days and seven nights in the clouds while the Old Ones instructed her in the ways of the shamans. When she returned to earth, she found her people asleep. They had been resting while she was preparing to lead them. As she walked through their circle, touching each known and beloved cheek, they woke. With cheers and rejoicing the people of Snowhill welcomed its first shamanka.    

 

Swans blaze like snowflakes,

on a freezing lake of glacial cobalt.

 

 

*Historical note: Twentieth century Finland would face devastating famine followed by two world wars in which armies from all sides fought in and over her territory. After WWII ended, Tulli’s village of Lumivara (Snowhill) would be formally annexed to Soviet Russia, where it remains to this day.

Otso – a bear, also Bear God

Lakkapoika – cloudberry child

Shamanka – female shaman

 

 

 

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Watch

July 22nd, 2018

by Nathan Alling Long

 

We are the perfect inversion of the world around us.  It’s on stage, in our makeshift dresses, in our women’s boots, in our make-up, where we are most free, most like ourselves. Off stage, outside the theater and dressing room—that is, under the gas lamps, on the streets and in public spaces, we are less who we are.  That is where we wear the face, where we act our parts.

On stage, we invert all the rules.  We dance in boots, click our heels, and even kiss.  The crowd laughs and cheers.  On stage, Homer can shyly hand me a flower and audience sighs at the sweetness of the moment.  On stage, I can rub his long red wooden nose and say “Oh, What a nice nose you have.  It’s so large and …red.”  And the children all laugh because, who would like such a large red nose?  And the adults all laugh because they know, even if they won’t admit it, I am talking about something else entirely.

We sing songs about spring, about toy trains, about rain.  We are the singing clowns, Harvey and Homer.  And when we sing a duet about sailing a boat made for two around the world to find a land where we belong, all the married couples hold hands and smile and the love-sick girls cry, thinking the words are meant for them.

Some times when we’re performing, I look over at Homer, and I see that big red nose he carved of balsa wood, and I think of how lucky I am to have found him.  I think of our nights together, of the night ahead, and I feel so happy I could cry.  But crying would cause my make-up to run, so I don’t.  I look away, at my mandolin, and concentrate on placing my fingers by the right frets.  But sometimes, even that triggers my desire.

I think about a few years back, in some ninety cent hotel, as we were sitting naked on chairs, working out a new children’s song I’d written about having to go to bed, how Homer started laughing out loud.

“What?” I said.  I thought he was making fun of my lyrics.

“Harvey, look at our instruments!” he said, lifting his guitar.  “Mine is long, without many strings, and yours is short, with so many strings.”

We broke out into laughter.  They were just like our other ‘instruments,’ his long, but less hairy, mine shorter but with thick curls.  We’d been together almost five years by then and had never noticed! 

***

We met on the streets of Manhattan.  It was December, 1914.  The war in Europe had just begun that summer. Homer was standing on a corner, watching the carriages and cars pass, waiting for the officer to signal the pedestrians to cross, when I walked up beside him.  He was handsome and wore a suit with a matching yellow tie and handkerchief. From that alone, I knew who he was, what he was.  But he didn’t look my way.

So I asked him, “Do you have the time?”

He turned to face me and we looked at each other one, two, three, four, five seconds, and in each of them, my heart pounded faster and harder.  Our entire courtship took place in those seconds.  In the first second, he recognized that I was not a threat.  In the second, we confirmed we were not ordinary men. In the third, as we both remained open and kind toward the other, Homer’s eyes glistened and the tiniest smile stretched across his face.  In the fourth, we each revealed to the other our strength, to stand in a crowded Manhattan street, with others now looking, and an officer just feet away from us; in that second, I think we developed a deep admiration for the other.  In the fifth, we expressed our love, our understanding how rare and fortunate it was that we had discovered each other.  We headed forward, across the street, and into the future, together. 

The other pedestrians already began to move, and though I think we could have stared at each other for hours, we were smart enough not to risk losing what we had just found.  Homer lifted his arm and pulled back his coat sleeve to reveal a wrist watch, the first time I had seen one on a man.  It was delicate and small, as though it were made for a woman.

“It’s ten minutes to ten,” he said, then he started walking across the street, knowing I would follow.  He tipped his hat to the officer, who gave us a scowl, and when we had reached the other side, Homer turned to me and said, “It’s about time for tea, I believe.  Would you care to join me?”

I was on my way to audition as a pianist for Chautauqua.  But I knew there would be a long line of musicians, and though I’d gotten my hopes up all week at the prospect of getting out of New York and traveling the country, the world had changed in the last ten seconds.  “I would be delighted,” I said.

“A tea house,” he asked, “or perhaps my place? I make a very nice pot of tea.”

“Yours,” I said, before I could reason or doubt myself.

“I’m Homer,” he said then, and extended his hand like a gentleman.

“Harvey,” I said and shook his.  But I could not look again into his eyes, for he was so handsome that I feared I would melt there on the street.

Homer lived in a tiny fourth floor tenement on a dead-end lane off 21st, which was, as he pointed out, equal distance between the Manhattan Gas Works and the theater district. “The center of all the energy in the world,” he said and winked.

The room was cold but he started a coal fire and filled the kettle.  He said he shared the place with another boarder, who, fortunately, was not there. I glanced around the room.  There were few possessions, but they seemed of good quality.  The table had two silver candle holders, and the tea pot appeared to be made of fine china.  I could see that Homer was a man who’d grown up very differently than me.

Despite how confident I’d felt on the street those five seconds, I suddenly grew nervous.  I stood by the single window, wiped coal dust from the glass, and looked out over Chelsea.  How different the world looked from four stories up.  And as long as I remained there, I reasoned, I did not have to think about what was happening, about how many changes I would have to make in my life to share in his future. 

I’d grown up in Iowa and had come to New York on the advice of my piano teacher, an older man who liked to hold my long fingers in his hand and speak enviously of the span of notes I was able to play.  But I was not happy in Manhattan.  I lived in a basement room, a place I would never take anyone to, and played piano in a basement bar for a dollar a night.  I did not have money to eat out and often ate just bread with thin slices of salami all week for lunch, and scraps from the bar kitchen on nights I worked.   

As I looked out the dirty glass at the alley below, I felt again how much I missed the fields and spaces of the mid-west, missed the comfort of home, of warm meals, though I did not have enough funds to return.  A fear suddenly overtook me. I had imagined my only hope to escape the city was with a traveling show.  What if the Chautauqua audition was my one chance?  What if this encounter with a stranger was nothing more than the devil leading me down a dark way?

As Homer prepared tea, he talked about his watch, which he noticed I’d admired.  He told me he was related to a Countess from Hungary, the first woman known to wear a watch. 

“Is that hers?” I asked. “On your wrist?” I looked briefly at him. His face seemed to shine so brightly, to speak of possibilities I had all but dissolved within me, that I had to look away.  I felt wrenched between two worlds, of escape and ecstasy.

“Oh no,” Homer said.  “Hers was speckled with jewels.  This I bought at a pawn shop.  It belonged to a society woman who passed away.  I wear it as a reminder.”

“Of what?” I said glancing at him again.

“Of how little time we have.  Of why we must live happy and gay.”

I turned from the window then.  The coals were glowing and giving off a heat and I came up close to them, suddenly feeling a chill.

“Yes,” Homer said, “here.”  He took off his coat, draped it over my back, and patted my shoulders, as if to hold it down in place.  The gesture was so kind and gentle, a touch I felt instantly was something I’d longed for my entire life, something I had never found, not even from my mother or father, at home.

“I cannot live here,” I said.

“No,” he said softly. “It is only temporary.  We are meant to explore America, like Whitman.” 

How did he know so much, so instantly?  I fell in love with him then, deciding to no longer doubt.  Homer would later give me a copy of Leaves of Grass, one which contained the Calamus poems, and we would often read them to each other in bed while on the road.  But that day, we drank tea and shared the stories of our lives. And as the sun set, Homer locked the door, so that his roommate could not come in without knocking, and he took me to his bed.

***

It was less than a month before we joined a traveling show.  Homer did not play an instrument, but he could sing, and more importantly, he commanded the stage.  I played the mandolin, and eventually, bought him a guitar and taught him to play. We slept together every night, under the auspices of sharing costs, and no one said a word.  We traveled the States, read Whitman, and made our secret, ecstatic love at night.

***

There are times, of course, when we are given looks, when we do not come off the stage of our lives swiftly enough and take up our daily role on the streets.  Sometimes I imagine I’m still standing by the window in his old room in Chelsea, and I haven’t noticed that someone has opened the window and gotten behind me, ready to push me out. 

More likely, it will be by accident—a door left unlocked, a witnessed kiss—and all this will end.  The watch will stop.

Until then, as the song I wrote for the children goes,

We will sing and we will play

We’ll be happy, we’ll be gay,

We will dance in the streets,

Til it’s time, til it’s time,

Til it’s time to go to sleep.

 

 

 

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Meet the 2018 !Short Story Contest! Finalists

July 15th, 2018

 

Nathan Alling Long lives in Philadelphia and teaches creative writing at Stockton University.  His work appears in various journals, include Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Crab Orchard Review.  His fifty-story collection The Origin of Doubt (Press 53) is being released Spring 2018.  He can be found at https://blogs.stockton.edu/longn

 

Martha Hubbard’s students tell her she’s led an interesting life. The evidence seems to support this. Teacher, writer, mother, life-long student, promiscuous experience seeker, Martha has run a parking lot company in NYC, a Greek restaurant on Crete, been a dramaturg & stage manager in New York City’s Off-Off Broadway theatre community, English language teacher to culinary students and now is semi-so-so retired on an island in the North Baltic Sea off the coast of Estonia where she agitates for shorter supply chains between local food producers and consumers, and guides unwary visitors around her island, mostly in summer. Somehow in the middle of all this she finds time to write.

 

Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books. His short story collection MINOTAUR is due out in 2019. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eneasz Brodski lives in south Denver, and has a number of meaningful relationships of many varieties. He was raised in an apocalyptic Christian sect, and while he’s left that behind, it still colors much of his writing. In his ever-dwindling free time, Eneasz produces an audio fiction podcast at www.hpmorpodcast.com. He’s always willing to strike up a conversation with anyone in dark clothes and eyeliner.

 

 

Jessica Dalton’s work has been published in Postcard Shorts, HOOT, Pure Slush, The Copperfield Review, CommuterLit, and Kzine. She lives in rural Virginia, and makes a living, of sorts, in the local agriculture scene.

 

 

 

 

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2018 !Short Story Contest! finalists now announced

July 8th, 2018

 

We are most proud to present

the Finalists for

the 2018 !Short Story Contest!

only on defenestrationism.net .

 

 

GO STRAIGHT to the CONTEST

— you may pass go, if you so choose,

but only one finalist will collect our

Top Cash Prize– 75 smackeroos

GO STRAIGHT to the CONTEST

 

 

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Submission now closed for 2018 !Short Story Contest!

July 1st, 2018

July is upon us,

meaning two things:

ravaging heat across the Northern Hemisphere, but more excitingly,

the defenestrationism.net 2018 !Short Story Contest! 

 

Submission has closed, and our team is now reviewing all the wonderful potential finalists.  We will announce these finalists early next week.

 

But remember, there is no judgement in defenestrationism reality.  No story can fail, it can only be made more finished.

 

So slather on the sunscreen, lovers of literature, don’t forget to breath, and keep surfing through for the

2018 !Short Story Contest!

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Guidelines for the !Short Story Contest!

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