- Strains of the Lost Oktober by Darren Speegle
- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon by Michelle Muenzler
- Unreal Estate by Shelia Crosby
- The Oldest Man on Earth by Patrick O’Leary
- Detours by Catherine Dybiec Holm
- The Floating Order by Erin Pringle
- Destroyer of Worlds by Claude Lalumière
- Partita For Continuo by Michael Neal Morris
- Timesink by William Shunn
- The Devil Wears Combat Boots by Leslie Claire Walker
- Sallie’s Price by Terry Bramlett
- Season of the Long Now by Robert J. Howe
- The Tree Reader by Timothy Mulcahy
- Trades by Olivia Ambrogio
- The Dragon’s Tears by Aliette de Bodard
- A Plague of Banjos by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
- A Doom of My Own by Alistair Rennie
- Notes on the Dissection of an Imaginary Beetle by Jonathan Wood
- Child of Scorn by Corey Brown
- Two Coins by Alex Dally Macfarlane
- Sitting Round the Stewpot by Patricia Russo
- Remembering the World by Rachel Swirsky
- Cher Amazon by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
- Wool and Silk and Wood by Shira Lipkin
- The Electric Viola Player Wore Black by Rena Sherwood
- Now You See Her by J. C. Runolfson
- on realizing death is a man by Terrie Lee Relf
- Installation by Catherine Edmunds
- The Story by Rachel V. Olivier
- Homemade Rosewater by Rachel V. Olivier
- It’s All Relative by Penelope O’Shea
FICTION Issue #17/18
Nine Orphans For Trèves
Midday had no hue, the motion of the hull a colorless music as it parted the invisible water. The children’s noses and mouths were bound in a fine gauze to protect them from the tingefog, while their ears and necks were wrapped against the cold itself. At the helm of the two-masted vessel, Laila required no such accessories, for she was not subject to physical vestiges.
Lamps hung from the yards, creating radii of reflection in the mist. Out of one of these spheres the boy Aen’s brilliant green eyes peered. It was his day, they said; a birthday among the orphans. Laila suspected otherwise but kept her thoughts to herself, letting him to his intercourse with the fog, his evocations. Strangers inhabited this vessel and he was no different, despite the fact that she had transported him before. His appearances were random and seldom, perhaps once every two years, but it always seemed to be his birthday no matter the time of year.
Chen Zhi knew the men were coming before they knew themselves. She had watched the local news, tasted discontent on the bitter September wind. An hour before the low-flung hills swallowed the sun, she slid into her favorite cheongsam, the gray one with the mating swallows, and braided a yellow ribbon into her hair. Her mother’s jade pendant hung heavy about her neck, concealed beneath the brocade dress.
Chen Zhi waited.
They did not disappoint. Close to midnight, they crowded on her doorstep, seven of them, one for each of the town’s boys reported dead that morning.
“Careful she doesn’t turn you into a frog.”
“What?” Colin spun on his heel and looked back into the shop.
Miss Ada Crinch’s eyes shone with spite. “Madam calls herself a witch.”
Ada reminded Colin of a witch herself. Not because she was an elderly spinster, but because malice crackled round her like static.
Colin told himself it was ridiculous, as he knocked on the door of Rose Cottage, half an hour later. There weren’t any real witches. The only thing upsetting him was the thought of turning an old lady out of her home. He shuddered. Who’d be Ada’s sitting tenant? All the same, he fingered the rosary in his pocket. Just a nervous habit.
The Zoo was just over the border, nestled in the crook of a valley between lush green mountains that soared upward. The road to it was winding and ill-repaired: the cage jangled in the back. The visitor anticipated a quieter return journey when it would be full. He had come a long way; he expected the trip to be worth his trouble.
The signs he passed in his land rover were shocking: STRAWBERRIES. PICK YOUR OWN. FRESH PEACHES. FIREWOOD. HONEY.
Fruit, he thought. Smoke. Bees. He shuddered and reminded himself to wear his waders.
My wife Emilia calls me the walking lie detector. When anyone beats around the bush, I see squiggly lines. Real lines, in front of my face, that are invisible to everyone else. The lines look like a road map gone berserk. So much of my life, except my inventions, has been indirect routes or squiggly detours. My inventions are my truth; no bullshit. Working on them gave me some of the only times I’ve seen straight and clear lines.
I’ve always invented things. I’m ninety-four and my love for dreaming up new things will never change. Emilia looks at a doorbell and sees a doorbell. I look at a doorbell and I’m putting plans together in my head. That doorbell ends up part of the home security system I’m designing for our apartment.
They say methodical. One by one in the bathtub. They say methodical therefore guilty.
I save my babies in the morning. The sky very blue that morning. Like tiny hands smearing rivers down walls. The bathroom walls are too white. Whiter than the place my husband puts me when I’m not a perfect wife.
Some of my babies’ pictures hang on my walls—that’s my favorite the house the birds the sky but not the sky that morning or the sky now. The sky now raining rain I have to stare at the razor fence to see.
Someday, I will write a book. I have already been contacted. I will start with Wynken, Blynken, and Nod and end with my sad husband and a bible quote. There are so many to choose from.
A woman—from my greying perspective almost a girl, really—took off her clothes and folded them in a neat pile at her feet. When she was done, she stood still, looking out toward the ocean. Nestled as I was among some large rocks in a shady nook of the beach, she couldn’t have known that I was there. I wasn’t going to shatter her solitude by bringing attention to myself.
From where I sat the young woman was in profile. She had long strawberry-blond hair and a slim body, the kind you see on magazine covers. Her cheeks were covered with freckles, and her nose was turned in a peculiar way. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice her full breasts, still firm enough to defy gravity.
But what struck me most, so much so that I felt a painful twinge in my chest, was the resigned loneliness broadcast by her posture.
At a time when mouths were for putting gum in and sticking tongues out, you laughed like a real grown up and kissed me full on the mouth. Meanwhile, our peers thought themselves big with their games. I hated kids when you and I were children; now that we are old and falling apart, children are life to me. My friends and co-workers I abhor.
I thought about this while one of those painful, spring showers fell, the world divided in half between rain that washes and wastes and the sun that melts and molests. Walking in the storm, a young girl ran across my path and nearly knocked the bag of groceries out of my hands. She stopped suddenly and mumbled a frightened apology. I told her to be careful, but I grinned because she meant no harm. She skipped away, under my false harshness, and I thought about you and felt so sad that I ate my supper without television or music.
I’m having a perfectly pleasant morning, scarcely thinking of Tom at all, until the bartender turns on the TV.
The crackle of static jolts me, and I slosh Boddington’s down my chin and onto the bar. “Hey, what’s going on?” I say, flinching away from the snowy picture.
The bartender, a stocky English woman with a red face, straightens up from under the bar, where she was fiddling with the satellite receiver. “Eleven-thirty, innit?” she says, one fist on her hip. She holds a remote control like a weapon in her other hand. “Wasps at Leicester.”
Goddamn rugby. “I don’t want to see it,” I say. It takes real effort to keep my face turned away from the screen, an insistent eye in the corner near the ceiling.
This is what Jess knows: the air in the dawn’s streaming light takes on weight, as do her limbs. Her arms hang at her sides, immobile. Her feet tied to the asphalt. It has to be the humidity, the southeasterly breeze blowing in off the Gulf that makes everything stick. Sticky.
She can’t step forward onto the grass. The dew seems like it would burn through her Docs (the only part of her that’s really hers, that she can be sure of) faster than she could breathe.
She can’t abide water. It’s all she can do just to take a shower.
Nick hunkers on the driveway. Grabs the paper, drying it off against the blue terry of his robe, his bare feet shrinking from the wet chill of the cracked concrete, blond bed-head strangled into a ponytail. Josh fidgets on the porch. He’s not allowed to go any further without Nick holding his hand. Bogeymom might get him.
Nick doesn’t look her way. Pretending she’s not there.
I sat next to the fireplace, reading Jane Austen. The woman bored me when I knew her, but two hundred years later, Pride and Prejudice still elicited chuckles. The fireplace kept my cottage warm and, pardon the cliché, cozy in the English winter.
The fire crackled and I looked up. The salamander danced inside the patterns of flame. “Yes, Sallie,” I said. “He’ll be here soon.” I lay the book aside. “I guess I should start the tea.” The fire crackled its assent, as the salamander jumped from flame to flame.
The tea finished just as the doorbell chimed. Sallie whispered from the fireplace. I shook my head. “No, we don’t know what he wants or even who he is. You may not consume him.” Sallie showed displeasure by subduing the fire’s flames. “Oh, buck up,” I said as I crossed to the door.
It shouldn’t be taking this long—two years in October—Barney thought. Two years since Yvonne hadn’t come home. Two years since the phone woke him in the middle of the night with disaster in its ring. Two years of going to sleep with a hole in his heart, and two years of waking up to emptiness.
Barney did all the right things. He consulted with a priestess, sacrificed to the gods, and wore nothing but animal skins for his season of mourning. But when he doffed his pelts for the last time, the dull numbness that was supposed to come away with them stayed.
For a long time he went through the motions: he tended his shop, observed the correct occasions at the appropriate temples—even the inconvenient and drafty Winter Mount, which he never liked, Pelagie Barents forgive him.
Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of moods when I stormed into Congress Park. To Kill a Mockingbird was slung under my arm as I sat down under a quintessential old oak tree and started reading. That was the book I was in the middle of when the bitch English teacher forced A Catcher in the Rye on me.
“Why can’t I read this?” I asked the teacher. She responded that the other book was in the curriculum and she had no choice. I flung Catcher on the floor and walked out. That showed her.
I usually went to Congress Park when I cut school. It wasn’t as if I could go home. I could just hear my mom telling me that I was just like my grandfather.
That would be only about the fortieth time I heard that one. I had no idea who my grandfather was but, to hear her tell it, he must have been a close confidant of Adolph Hitler or at least Benito Mussolini.
Small bones. They are pliant, bend before breaking. Perhaps it is impolite here to suck the marrow; but I suck the marrow. It is sweet.
My revenge will be in proving them wrong. Six sons gone, and for one girl . . . They never said it, not my own parents, but every guest left sighing: dew-eyed, hugging my mother, or sincerely squeezing my father’s upper arm. I peered up at them, pinched-face, from beneath wisps of hair, angled myself into corners where they couldn’t see me. I could have been a shadow cast, in distorted light, of my vanished siblings.
My hand-me-downs have been a series of absences: This is the tree your third eldest brother used to climb . . . Here is the trophy Gregor won in school . . . We bought this cradle for the twins. They used to rock in unison. Straining my eyes at empty space as if the effort would bring them back out of the stories, make the words flesh. Human. I memorized names, awards, hobbies, mentioned them in conversation—fiercely, daring anyone to comment. I wrote them letters. I pasted their pictures into scrapbooks and diaries, I remembered all their birthdays. I was the most devoted of sisters. People sighed and gripped my father’s arm. So many sons you had . . . They paused, trying to smile at me. She’s a little thing, isn’t she? Only one?
Huan Ho sealed the last window, leaving only a crack in the shutter. Tonight, he thought, his eye on the empty streets, the neighbours’ barred shutters. Tonight he had to pass the door on the hill, or let the sickness take his mother.
She had been watching him from her bed. “They ride tonight,” she said, when he was done.
“Yes,” Huan Ho said. As on every year, the three horsemen would scour the city of Fei Weng, taking what and whom they pleased. “I’ve closed the house.”
His mother smiled, wanly. “We have nothing worth their notice.”
No riches, Huan Ho thought. The only room of the house was bare: a bed, a table and two chairs were its sole furniture. He had sold everything of value to the pawnbroker, to pay the apothecary. Not that the drugs had done more than dull her pain. The apothecary himself had admitted defeat, had jokingly said only the Dragon’s Tears could help her now. Huan Ho had not laughed. He had taken the drugs, and waited until year’s end, for the return of the riders, praying every day that his mother would remain alive until then.
When Moses left the Pharaoh, he prayed to the Lord. A great wind arose from the west, and swept away all the locusts, cleansing Egypt.
Seeing this Ramses grew obstinate, just as the Lord had foretold. He summoned Moses and Aaron before his court, and boasted loudly, “Eight plagues have your Lord sent upon the people of Egypt, and we have withstood them all. I will not let your people go. Return now to Goshen with my words, and let all Israelites weep and wail and beat their breasts.”
At this Moses grew angry. “Eight times have you begged forgiveness for your sins, Pharaoh, and eight times has our Lord been merciful. But be warned—the most awful power of the Lord has yet to be revealed! Thus says the Lord: If you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring banjos into your country. They shall cover your territory so that the ground itself will not be visible. Their noise shall fill the air, so that not even your own thoughts may be heard. They shall corrupt generations of Egyptians yet unborn, and you may cry to your progeny how ruthlessly I dealt with the obstinate Ramses!”
The Doomstane was a lump of granite prised from a quarry in the Northeast of Scotland, the same kind that was used for curling stones.
I stood on it under the expansive cupola of an auditorium that was the worst construction of the Laird’s imagination I had ever seen.
A vague orange glow radiated out of nowhere and accumulated, mostly, around the Laird. He looked like an exotic preserve in a jar of honey. A squadron of gargoyles sat stonily on pedestals that ran parallel to the circular walls, their faces set in distorted replications of my own—a show of mockery that, if anything, only trivialised the irony of fate the Laird was famous for.
I looked up at him as solemnly as my expression would allow, nodding occasionally to make it seem like I was listening. I’d been kitted out in a soiled kilt that fell too high above my knees and was bare-legged and bare-chested so that the intense cold was making me shiver. I had to fight to keep myself still in order to stop my chains from rattling. The Laird, meanwhile, was bedecked in full Highland regalia: a flamboyant tweed plaid fastened with a silver brooch pin; a sporran made from the boiled pelts of arctic hares; and a Glengarry bonnet sporting an eagle’s feather.
The graduates enter the examination theater a quarter phial after the zenith. A quarter phial subsequent, I take my place on the stage. The specimen Imaginary Beetle is laid out before me. My white hands, manicured to specification, grip the scalpel as tightly as the beetle’s pincers crush the life from its prey. Sweat spreads beneath my starched collar.
Behind me, an examiner stands rod straight. His skin is stretched tight over his face, purple-thin below his eyes, his cheek bones poised as if to tear through the papery surface. His breath comes in staccato bursts from nostrils rimmed red by ether vapors, as is the approved style.
I grasp the beetle lightly on either side of its carapace, fingers placed so as not to disturb the position of its legs. It is the length of my middle digit. I turn it over. It feels full of paper: rustling, insubstantial.
“It’s a doozy,” Chris said as he reclined at his big silver desk, the skyline of New Chicago laid out in the picture window behind him. Chris was a woman that month, but I always thought of him as a man, to avoid the hassle of changing pronouns. I’m essentially a lazy person.
“Then it’ll cost you,” I said, lighting a smoke though I knew Chris hated it. I’m a man of filthy habits, but in this day and age money can buy you replacements for the body parts you trash, I can afford two packs a day.
Chris pursed his lips into a melodramatic pout. He was not an unattractive woman, but, perhaps owing to his original status as a male of the species, he worked hard at playing a woman, and ended up with an overbearing performance that only reminded me what he really was. It generally kept me from sleeping with him more than once or twice during his female cycles.
“Ordinarily I would go to one of the younger PI’s, but for this I’m afraid I don’t have a choice.” He snapped his fingers. “Robby?”
The girl with keyboard ink on her hands walks through the city, trailing words from her fingers in streaks across the brick walls.
The petals speak soft songs, teaching me the language of the river. Words in pink and pink-turned-brown, floating up from the lyril flowers that cover the riverbed; words in the creases formed when a merchant ship cuts its oil-lined path across the surface; words in the fragments left by scavenger birds hungry enough to eat anything. I hear the lyrics on my chalk-white skin, in my dark hair and across the folds of my fish-nibbled dress.
The girl with keyboard ink on her hands played with her father’s computers too much as infant, so bar-stories say. Played with them enough that something of the keys stayed on her hands and grew wells deep under her skin.
The river is full of people, but none of them stay for long. They flicker, here and gone, offering only a wink of petal-filtered sunlight reflected from the coins over their eyes before they blink away.
Approval rustles over my skin. The petals enjoy the performance almost as much as they enjoy my slow pirouettes beneath the surface.
This is a true real story, granda said, stirring the mush that we were gonna have to eat that night, and the next night, and the next too, probably. He coughed for a full minute, then finally spit out a plug of gunk. He scuffed his mess into the dirt. This is a true real story, not like the shit you hear from them liars down by Blue Street. He looked at me when he said shit. I just looked back at him. Stupid old man still thought I was a boy. This is a story about the old days, he went on. The ancestor time. Do you know what ancestor means? I sighed and took the spoon away from him and started stirring the mush myself, because the old man was like to let it burn. Granda, I said, I’m the one that reads you them old storybooks, when you say you can’t find your good glasses. He said, this is about the old days, when we had dogs.
Not dogs again, I said, but granda had no mind to heed me. He was staring out the window at the last red edge of the sun easing under the earth. Ever since they burned down the warehouses ’long river side, we got a real nice view of the sunsets. You don’t remember, he murmured, and I wanted to spit myself. Sure I remembered. I used to play in the warehouses when I was little, me and a bunch of other kids. We’d look for stuff. Nails and screws, bits of plastic not yet so brittle they couldn’t be shaped. It was dangerous, cause of the big buckled gaps in the floors, the fallen stairs, the crumbling walls, and the rats. And sometimes men worse than rats. Only granda was still jawing about dogs, not the warehouses. Time was, he said, long ago, people and dogs had a real sweet deal going. We was like partners. Lived together in the same house. Ate together. Worked together, played together. Slept together. Didn’t hardly need no blankets in winter, with a couple dogs up on the bed with you. Not that it was all sweet, I ain’t gonna lie. Dogs, they had a mind to sprawl, and fart in their sleep. Fleas. That was a pain in the ass. Oh, and their breath. The stink? Boy, you have no idea. You think this mush here smells bad? No, granda, I said, but he wasn’t heeding me at all. Just wait till you been licked all over your face by a woof-woof with tartar teeth and gums red as fire. Whew, you like to die. He took the spoon from me and dipped up a little mush, looked at it, then let it fall back into the pot. You never will, though, will you. Get licked in the face by a dog. Play ball with a dog. Hunt with a dog. Some folks still got pictures. You know, the flat kind. Photos. Snaps. You seen them?
The king is dying,
Now honor is gone
now yesterday’s dinner
now mother’s hand stroking
the ermine collar
of her deathbed gown.
(For now, the world
flat and finite
like his mind. The ocean’s
spill over four corners
like memory, disappearing.)
The king orders
a fleet of glass galleons
set out to explore
the edge of the world.
They launch, crystal sails
aloft in the sun,
through ocean spray.
(A century hence,
the world will be round
like a fruit:
one endless circumference.
Minds, too, become
deeper thoughts hidden
submerged in men’s souls.)
Ships pale, disappear,
til but one is left.
Atop the survivor’s mast
the king’s sole
peers at knife’s edge horizon.
The world tapers
stretched thin. Sky bleeds
navy, royal, azure
to absence’s hue.
(World and man
swallows its tail.
The traveler’s straight path
leads home again,
in the end. His marriage
in childhood’s castles.)
save slow cascade
of water pouring nowhere.
King’s faded schooner
balances on edge
one moment neither
within nor without.
Heavy, stern dips
mast creaks and shatters.
Submarine incubus, forbidden hero
Held under the ruinous
Weight of the water since 1838
While you grew no older
A few kilometers and 30 fathoms
Off your island home
You bore a daughter, I hope,
For if you’d had to strangle a son
How could you
Tell yourself good morning
In your athletic asymmetry?
You raised her too, I’m sure,
To never blush at sisters’ nudity
Draw a strong bow
And never blink at a target.
And if that target smiles
At her, what then?
Will she adhere to your course
And will I have more company
With which to while away
And will I see her?
There are no strong parts for women in this story;
No warrior, no queen, no sorceress.
I stand at the threshold of it
stripped of all I was before—
dancing maiden, ingenue, studious young woman learning at my mother’s loom.
The story does not allow it.
You stand before me
looking noble, eager
And I want to slap you.
I am losing you as I lost your brothers—
One beaming as I strapped your father’s sword on him
(I did not raise him to line the belly of the dragon, my love)
One waving goodbye as he left to seek his fortune
(I did not raise him to die in a tavern brawl half the country away, my love)
And now you. Now you.
I did not raise you to perish to wizardry, my love.
Why do you not see
that you already have all the alchemy you need?
Sheep to wool, wool to yarn, yarn to your nice warm clothing
wool spinning, lanolin-slick, from a cloud of fluff to one thick thread
guided by my hands, your hands
through the wooden drop-spindle.
This is all the alchemy you need—
Tree to wood, wood to spindles and tables and shelves
carved and polished, shape from nothing;
your hand and a knife.
This is all you need—
bright silk from worms, through dye
to the ribbon in your childhood sweetheart’s hair
bright in the morning light and so soft to the touch.
I raised you to be my legacy.
I raised you to spin and weave,
to know the old ways
to teach them to your children.
You see a future in your ethereal magic.
I see only a broken chain.
I love you enough to let you go.
I wish you loved this enough to stay—
me, your home, the village bonfire, your life.
I wish you could see that all the alchemy you need
is in wool and silk and wood.
I wish you could see that the old ways have their beauty, too.
I wish, I wish, I wish—
but no faeries come to grandmothers.
So I pack your bag,
books and bread and cheese
(paper from trees to books
grain transformed to bread
milk cultured to cheese
alchemy, if only you would see it)
warm woolen clothing.
A small drop-spindle,
wood worn by my hands, by my mother’s hands—
so you do not forget.
I kiss you goodbye,
and I fade back into my cottage.
What befalls me, none will know.
Stories care naught for grandmothers,
just flashing steel and quests and sorcery.
There is alchemy right here, if only you would see it.
She won’t play this viola in heaven
but she will play it in January
Both the heaven and the music
are reflected in the cold starlight
off the back of the sad-eyed moon
that shines on the cemetery
where the listeners below look up
and think of heaven in January
when her bow strokes the cross of the viola
I always wanted to do magic.
The lights are hot and bright on my face
my lovely assistant, he says
and I smile, wave,
show a little leg
the long clean lines
of a young woman in her prime.
I need a volunteer, he says
and I squint to choose a man
puffed up by his companions
who touches me as if I am like
the girl who sits beside him
in the audience.
The trick of it is, I am.
He ties me up
locks me in a box
stands to the side and watches
as I drop into the watertank
as I am sawn in half
as I float in the air
disappear from one side of the stage
appear on the other.
I walk out of my own shadow
and fall back into it,
bow with ankles crossed
bow with my hand in his.
My lovely assistant, he says
and the crowd applauds
the man who waves the wand
the man who ties the knots
the man who sits down beside
the girl in the audience
her eyes hot and bright on my face
the only one to look.
How do you do that? she asks
without moving her lips.
She cannot see I am asking the same thing,
the man’s hand heavy on hers
in a glove white as the dove
before the magician made it vanish.
She cannot see her shadow is as dark as mine
without the lights to give it depth
but she sees more than the illusion.
She sees the man who waves the wand
the man in the suit
the man who keeps count
who makes doves vanish
and rabbits appear
who lowers me into the water
saws me in half
passes the ring around my weightless body
and she looks past him.
I want to be where you are, she says
her hand a fist under the man’s hold.
I want to tell her, the trick of it is
The magician takes my hand
leads me to the edge of the stage
a young woman in her prime.
My lovely assistant, he says
the greatest illusion of all.
I need a volunteer, he says
and I choose one like him
a dove in my hand
with a little leg
long clean lines.
I always wanted to do magic.
The trick of it is this.
It’s not that he never calls,
or that he spends days—even weeks—away from your side,
but that his ideas on commitment are a bit confusing.
It’s not the scent of his youthful skin,
or the promises that pool in his eyes,
but that when he leaves, your skin burns for his touch.
It’s not that you resent his seeing other people,
or that endless showers can’t erase that memory,
but the realization that when he finally returns,
his eyes are clenched tight against the pain of nearly losing you.
The first had a tree on his head.
Grasping roots clasped his scalp
looking for any niche to explore
and enable a firmer grip.
A cat, or was it an owl? sat on a branch
two-thirds of the way up
and glared at passers-by with a baleful eye.
The second wore a crown of snails
which slimed their way around his head
in an endless gastropod version
of the infamous strip-the-willow.
Their host found that after a while
he enjoyed the massage
and hoped the music would never stop.
The third was not so happy.
His skunk looked impressive
but was having problems
holding on tightly enough
to the shiny pate of his host
who wrinkled his nose in disgust
and wondered what had possessed him.
The fourth had gathered the remains of his hair
into a pony tail on top of his head.
He’d plaited it into a flower
reinforced with wire
topped with a silken bloom
which waved as he moved
and bowed to the others with balletic grace.
The fifth impressed me the most
with a tall stone tower
windows on all sides
gaily painted shutters
a verdigris sun for decoration
and elegant architectural detailing
on the pitched copper roof at the top.
The five linked arms
and processed across the blinking eye
that bestrides the Tyne
but the bridge is too narrow
you really can’t walk five abreast
especially not with such things on your heads.
A girl on a bike came pedalling along
and tried to squeeze past
The bird-cat flew-fled
three dozen twigs snapped.
The snails forgot which beat they were on
and the grand chain collapsed.
The skunk stepped down and sauntered away
along the quayside, tail held high.
The wire that supported the flower
got a kink halfway up and wilted.
The tower ended up looking less like St Stephens
than its cousin in faraway Pisa.
The cyclist apologised
much relieved that her bike had suffered no damage
but when she tried to cycle away
she fell off again when her path was blocked
by a man
dressed like the Angel of the North
whose wings enabled no passage.
Beware the Baltic!
Flour mill no more, it was safer back then
but now art installations walk the bridge
at every available opportunity.
This happened to me
for I was that cyclist and still have the bruises
to prove it.
Little Bird hops on pebbles ’tween rocks.
Little round head and body melting into the
black, white and gray of the beach;
Little Bird cocks its head, asks me to follow
and tells me a story.
First, the Earth—
round, firm, receptive, shifting over time.
Then, the caress and stroke of each wave
as it breaks on the shore.
Now the waves tossing bits of glass, shell, pebble, seaweed, and
Now the shore shifts,
covers some part of itself and
Look at this!
And the constant roar of an all encompassing Heart—
throbbing and alive—
living it all.
The wind skips by.
Whipping up waves—
teasing bits of dried seaweed with its teeth.
Tasting and smelling and touching in constant motion
permeated by the perfume of
salt, sea, sand, wind, and sweat.
Up the cliff side
bees, butterflies, hummingbirds
vibrating to their own private music;
chasing nectar from
Beauty to Beauty to Beauty;
beside gnarled windswept trees
reaching up into a teal-turquoise-indigo-sky;
embracing clouds the color of ripe fruit,
and stars as bright as shining eyes.
Reaching down with leg thick roots grasping
rocks rounded, pitted and smoothed again
by wind, water, sand, and time.
Worshipping in the light
of a Lover’s Moon.
Ebb and flow.
Whirl and eddy.
Tracing loving patterns in the sand
and in the air above it.
Little Bird hops over sand past
shards of glass, pebbles, shells, seaweed, and
Little Bird cocks its head
and asks me to Dance.
to make Rosewater.
The recipe was from an old herb book.
Water creeping up to a boil
forced droplets through plastic tubing—
petals and water
into a small container.
Would my grandmother have done this?
Gramma gave great hugs;
laughed with her eyes,
hugged with her voice.
This while canning tomatoes, snapping green beans, making pickles, preserving fruit, jams, and jellies . . . .
Taking care of small grandchildren.
Too busy distilling life to worry about
We talked by candlelight.
You with your hands—ideas bubbling over.
You knocked over the wine.
Eyes laughing, your smile embraced me
as we watched the waiter clean up the spill.
My mouth was tight from too many frowns;
eyes tired from seeing too much.
You were trying to tell me something—
Into my small worn heart.
Distillation of meaning into a moment.
It’s All Relative
by Penelope O’Shea
Eating out alone . . . must be the most isolating thing a person can do. Makes me, I mean you, feel like a pariah or some kind of leper. It is even stranger when surrounded by diners happily engaged with their table mates, friends, and loved ones. And it is the utmost in solitude when all the diners around you are speaking in a tongue that is as alien to you as the foreign repast laid upon your table. The only refuge I’ve found in a situation like this is to play a game with yourself, creating the back story of the diners surrounding you while you shudder to haul fork over tooth and gum.
Through careful observation, it doesn’t take long to guess the relationships I am witness to, or to glean the secret lives hidden by the mirthful masks in front of you. I can tell a lot about how these people are related, just by watching. And soon, I don’t feel as alone as I did when the hostess seated me, shoved a hieroglyphic menu into my lap, and babbled some unhelpful something, probably about today’s specials.’
I look carefully at the simple clues written on the faces and in the actions of those at neighboring tables. For example, I can tell that the three ladies on my right are obviously sisters. Not only are all three of stair-step ages, but each carries the same ample spare tire around her middle. And each of those tires is wedged between breasts and hips at exactly the same awkward slope, even if they are not yet of the same radial width.
Further, those three biddies talk and laugh with similar inflections, one’s voice rising to crush the others in comfortable, well-practiced ease, only to have the next one’s rise and fall behind her sister’s. The cackles come in waves too, only varied with small alterations in the tones of differing ages. The jiggly middles and the sparkly glints in those six eyes reflect each other’s shared sense of humor.
No doubt, they are bantering ageless stories of each other’s younger, svelter days, of past summer’s flings, or silly school-girl’s faux pas only worn threadbare by the repeated tellings. They certainly look as if they’ve spent many a dinner together, eating and laughing in equal measures of ampleness.
How we are connected as people with common traits is not unlike how one dish has varied, but similar relatives. If you look carefully at the foods you really love, they are as likely to contain comparable ingredients with only slight aberrations in function or form. For example, I am unashamedly in love of a creamily dressed vegetable salad as an accompaniment to almost any meal. And my three favorites, though differing in execution, are quite alike in substance. Now, before you dismiss my observations as those of a potty, daft, and lonely ‘stranger in a strange land’ whose has spent one-too-many dinners alone, let’s look at the basic recipes for three simple dishes. You’ll soon see how similar they are.
Each of these salads will serve a group of four (which, incidentally, would serve my current table, had the other three seats simply posteriors occupying them). First, the dressing for these sister-salads begins with a singular basic recipe.
Creamy Salad Dressing Starter
½ cups white salad dressing (the one like mayo, but not, though it shares that same first letter)
2 T. real mayonnaise
1 T. milk
1 T. white, champagne, or white wine vinegar
2 tsp. sugar
1-2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper (I’d think about 30 turns of the pepper mill)
1 tsp. dry parsley (or 1 T. of freshly chopped)
1 tsp. dry dill (or 1 T. freshly chopped)
This is the basic starting spot for all three salads. I always mix up the ingredients in a glass measuring cup or in a coffee mug, as my mother did before me. There is just something about the whirring, clinking din of a spoon’s rapid revolutions in that small, pourable space that seems gratifying. Taste as you go and adjust the seasoning once you’ve combined the cream and again when mixed with its intended veggie benefactor.
You may need more of this or less of that, depending on your taste. The outcome you want to maintain in the process will be the consistency of slightly whipped heavy cream; something that can be poured easily but that will still cling cloakishly to its vegetable partner. Once you’ve created the cream, you are now ready for the applications.
The first of my top three salads is:
Cucumber Side Salad
1 large English or 2 medium regular cucumbers, sliced wafer-thin (I use a mandolin, [the food slicer, not the stringed instrument, pigeon] but use the guard and watch your fingertips!)
1/3 large, sweet onion, such as vidalia, sliced thinly like the cucumbers
1 portion of salad cream, using above recipe.
Slice your cucumbers and onions together. Apply your cream, mixing until everything is covered. Allow salad to sit for about ten minutes before service. This is a superb accompaniment to any summertime meal, as it is light and tangy and goes well with grilled meats.
The second salad is a close relative of the first.
1 small head of green cabbage, cored and sliced finely
1-2 carrots, grated on a box grater
¼ small head of red cabbage, cored and sliced finely
½ sweet onion, sliced paper thin or diced finely
1 portion of salad cream, using above recipe
I cut the cabbages “across the grain” with a knife or mandolin to get fine floss-like pieces. Discard any thick rib bits. If your strands are long, run a knife across them to create 2” – 3” pieces, which will make for easier mastication conveyance. Add the carrot and onion. As the season merits or my mood strikes, I like to add equally sized pieces of fresh, raw asparagus, jicama, golden beetroot, or even tart apple to the party. Any firm fruit or veg can be added or replaced at your inclination, so long as it will go with the flavor of the salad cream. Mix your slaw with the dressing until everything is blanketed. For interest, you could chop and add any green, fresh herb (mint is nice) or a handful of chopped nuts or seeds (pecans, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts) or dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, cherries or blueberries). To be honest, the basic salad is always great with fried chicken, but with all the extras, it is almost a meal onto itself. Add a bit of cold, shredded chicken and, along with a crusty bit of bread and a beverage, you’ve got a hearty, but light meal. As with any salad, the more volume you add, the more salad dressing you’ll need to coat. In cases where your greed causes you to add lots of extras, increase your amount of dressing to 1½ or 2 portions.
Finally, the third salad never fails to please. Potato Salad
2-3 lbs. of small red or yellow potatoes, all about the size of large walnuts or cut into pieces of this size.
Place potatoes in a large pot and cover completely with cold water. Bring potatoes to a rolling boil until they are tender enough to put a fork through. I’d say it will take 10-15 minutes.
At the same time, make hard boiled eggs for the salad. You need:
2-3 large eggs
Cover completely with cold water and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, cover the pan with a tight lid and turn heat down to its lowest setting. Leave eggs to simmer for 10 minutes. And for God’s sake, set a timer to remind you to remove the eggs from the heat (as well as check the potatoes); if you refuse this simple device you WILL have green yolks! When the timer sounds, place the pan with the eggs under the tap and let cold water run over the eggs for 1-2 minutes or until the water stays cool in the pan when the tap is turned off. Leave the eggs stand in the cool water for a few minutes.
By this time, the potatoes should yield to a fork, so remove them from the heat and drain off the water. Allow the eggs and potatoes to cool to room temperature. (OK, I cheat and place these together in the sieve after about ten minutes. I put the sieve over one of the cooking pans and place the whole lot into the fridge for about an hour and get them to cool a bit sooner.)
Once all is cool, slice the potatoes into bite-sized pieces in a large bowl. Crack and remove egg shells. I find this easier to do under running water. Here’s another tip, my little pumpkins: older eggs will peel easier than fresh ones. Cut the peeled eggs into pieces similar in size to the potatoes and place in the bowl. Then cut up and add to the bowl:
2 ribs celery
2-3 green onions or ½ sweet onion
2 T. chopped dill pickle or dill pickle relish
2 portions salad cream
¼ cups yellow mustard (blend into cream before pouring over veg)
Once all your chopped portions are together in the bowl, add the mustardy cream and mix carefully to incorporate, but so that you don’t massacre the egg. Add other herbs to the salad dressing, if you like, or a bit of heat with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Because of the blandness of potatoes, this recipe will likely need a double portion of salt in the dressing, but boiling them in salted water can help, too. Even sprinkling salt directly onto the salad as you stir can achieve the right flavor. Taste and see what you think. Add and taste until the correct saline-potato marriage is achieved.
And speaking of marriage . . . looking to my left, I catch a glance of a long-married and long-suffering couple, gumming the remaining leaves of salad in their respective bowls. Both are far more intent upon their plates, hunched with both age and concentration, than they are upon each other. It is clear that their salad days, as well as those greens before them, are long gone, though they continue to fork aimlessly at the dish. I find, it is true that the more time loved ones spend together, the more alike their winkled, knarled selves become. These two are living proof of that. However, their is an unspoken ease and simplicity here; each knows the other so well that neither need speak at all.
Ironically, they represent a certain food truth, too. Often, our favorite foods, which we seek in times where no spoken comfort will suffice, share similar traits. For instance, take Sloppy Joe’s. They are simple and satisfying, and their composition lends itself easily to other dishes. Let’s start with a simple recipe for making these sandwiches.
1 lb. hamburger
½ onion, diced finely
1 rib celery, diced finely
½ bell pepper (any color) diced finely
1 minced clove garlic
Put all of these ingredients into a skillet and cook until the meat browns and the veg goes a bit soft. Once done, strain off the liquidy fat and discard. Put the skillet onto low heat and add the seasoning.
Comfort Food Seasoning Mix
½ cups ketchup
2 T. yellow mustard
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper (freshly ground, about 30 turns)
2-3 T. brown sugar
1 T. fresh or jarred salsa
½ tsp. worchestershire sauce
Add all ingredients to browned meat and aromatics and turn until all is covered and heated through. Taste and adjust seasoning with more of whatever in the list appears lacking. Scoop greedy spoonfuls onto whatever bun or bread you like. I always put a thin layer of butter on the bread, just so that the sauce doesn’t soak through before I can get it all eaten . . . just a tip for those who don’t relish eating a Sloppy Joe between two orange sponges.
Now let’s take that application in another, relatively simple direction. Who doesn’t love spaghetti and meatballs? And the next recipe will get you there with minimal fuss.
Start with the exact meat and veg mixture as above. Place items in a large bowl. To the party, add
1/3-1/2 cups bread crumbs (store bought are perfectly fine or whiz up a couple slices of day-old bread in a processor and use the resulting fodder)
To this, add:
One portion of the comfort food seasoning mix, shown above, except leave out the brown sugar entirely, and instead add:
1 tsp. Italian seasoning (or about ¼ cups chopped fresh herbs like basil, parsley, oregano, etc)
Get in that bowl with your clean hands and make the squidgy mess into a homogeneous mix. If the mixture feels a bit too wet to form balls, add a bit more bread crumb; if it seems too dry, add another squirt of ketchup. Once you’ve got a mixture that will adhere, make walnut-sized balls and put these in a greased (or spray-greased) 9 x 13 oven safe casserole. Don’t worry if they fit tightly
. . . they will cook down. Once you’ve formed all the meat, drizzle a small can of tomato juice (an individual 4-6 oz. one) over the meat, so that everyone gets a little drink. Place the casserole in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
When the buzzer sounds, open the oven and you will find smaller balls that have given up a certain amount of grease. However, your little tomato shower will have been soaked up, so the meat will be moist and tender. Drain off as much of this greasy residue as you can. (You could strain with a colander, but as it is unnecessary and potentially messy . . . just do your best here.)
Spread the meatballs evenly across the pan once drained and pour at least 36 oz. (1 ½ jars or your own concoction) over the meatballs and place the pan back in the oven for another 30 minutes. While you wait, get some salted water to the boil and make your pasta according to package directions. Great with simple garlic bread or bruschetta (see issue #14).
And, if that little transformation isn’t clever enough for you, here’s a take in a totally different direction.
Yankee Baked Beans
2 cans (approx. 24-32 oz.) Great Northern beans (drain and rinse the can’s juices away)
If you really want to soak your own dried beans overnight or boil them until they are tender, that is your right. But it will likely take another day’s preparation to get them as soft as the canned variety and the whole house will have that gaseous, beany odor that might make you swear off the recipe before it is finished. And I find that using the canned ones means the cooked beans don’t have as great a “presence” after they are eaten and digested . . . but you do as your internal organs and budget merit.
You will also need:
½ lb. bacon, chopped finely, cooked until brown, and drained
½ onion, chopped finely
Place all these in an 8 x 8 casserole. Then add:
One portion of the comfort food seasoning mix, above except leave out the salsa and add instead:
½ cups maple syrup or
1/3 cups molasses
Combine everything until you have a mixture the consistency of stew. If you need more liquid, add both syrup and ketchup so that the taste remains balanced. Adjust any seasoning, as you feel necessary. Drape a slice or two of uncooked bacon across the top, if that makes you happy. Cover and place in 325 degree oven for at least 1½ hours. The longer the beans cook, the thicker the stewy part will get and the more the beans will open and meld into the goo. You could bake this for 3-4 hours, so long as your oven is at low heat. These will stay hot forever! Enjoy with picnic food or during cold weather with an oven-baked ham.
See, the secrets of good food are often as intertwined as any family tree; and often more pleasing than interacting with another person. But, by teasing out the small cues that make ingredients ‘speak to you,’ it isn’t long before one little grouping of individuals can tell your palate several stories. It isn’t unlike what I’ve done to endure another solitary meal in a room full of strangers. Good thing this vacation is nearly through; I’m looking forward to quiet dinners alone in my own home. No matter the variety of foods or friends that occupy your next table, I wish that you always drink, eat, and live heartily!