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Issue 17/18 – Spring 2009

 

FICTION

POETRY

NONFICTION

 

FICTION Issue #17/18

Sun’s East, Moon’s West by Merrie Haskell

I shot the sparrow because I was starving. Though truthfully, I was aiming at a pheasant; the silver snow and the silver birches played tricks with the light, and as if by magic, pheasant turned into sparrow.

When I saw what my arrow had done, I cried with empty eyes, too dry to make tears. The sparrow wouldn’t amount to a mouthful of grotty bones—and even a starving woman knows songbirds are sacred to at least one goddess.

My knees plowed into the snow beside the small creature. “How, how, how?” I fretted. “How did you become a sparrow, pheasant?” The bird did not answer, but when I reached to remove the arrow piercing its body, the accusatory glare of a beadish eye stopped me. A trickle of blood slid from its nares, and the bright eye closed.

“Do not be dead!” I cried. “I would give anything for you not to be dead.”

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Enmity by K. Tempest Bradford

Run Eurydice

She is running, has been running for some time. Running from Ariastus? No, running from the serpent she knows is at her heel, ready to strike, waiting for an excuse. So she runs. She runs through the tall grass, through the canopied forest, through the fields of flowers. Running to the music, to Orpheus, away from the serpent, though even now she knows they are the same.

She has always known. Sometimes she forgets. In the forgetting she loses small bits of herself. In the forgetting she can’t remember to care. She remembers the serpent. Had she always run from him? It wasn’t always this way.

The Wind. There was something behind her, chasing her as she danced along the water she had just separated from the sky. She ran south along the water. Something followed. The Wind. She turned, caught it between her hands and saw that it was good. She rolled it, hands moving up and down, up and down, up and down, until . . .

The Serpent. She opened her hands and looked upon it. She saw that it was good, so she gave it—him—a name. Ophion. Serpent.

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The Sandbox by Richard Larson

Claire went with her son, Sam, to the playground in the park near their apartment. The park had become the lair of the wives, all of whom stood solemnly to greet Claire and Sam as they approached. The wives owned the playground, like squirrels owned parks. Claire was not a wife, not anymore. Claire just wrote mysteries. She sent Sam over to join the other children, and then she sat down with the wives because there was nowhere else to sit.

The wives were talking about the zoo. “The zebras almost took Jeffrey,” said one of the wives. Jeffrey was her son, a fat boy whose nose was always running. “I had to physically fight them off,” the wife continued. “A crazy zebra grabbed Jeffrey’s arm and pulled him off the ground. I got his legs just in time and I had to poke the zebra in the eye to make it let go.”

“That happened to me with Danny the last time we went to the zoo,” said another wife, taking a long drag of her cigarette. Claire had forgotten which one was Danny. “Except it was the prairie dogs, and they didn’t grab him so much as try to coax him into their little field. I saw his eyes go all crazy and I knew something was up. I think the prairie dogs were chanting something, like really low so they didn’t think I could hear.”

“We have to do something,” said the first wife, patting the other’s back sympathetically with one hand while eating pretzel sticks with the other. The rest of the wives were quiet, perhaps paralyzed by images of inexplicably dangerous zoo animals. Claire glanced around the park, looking for clues. The detective in Claire’s popular novels, the beautiful and shape-shifting Madame Gagnon—known simply as Claudette to her close friends—was trying to solve the biggest mystery of her career. She would solve it as soon as Claire figured out what it was

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The Leaf Gatherer by Damon Kaswell

The first time he saw the leaf gatherer, Kyle Burton was twelve years old. He watched through the kitchen window as the man crouched low, scrounging through a dirty pile of leaves. He looked just like any other homeless man, with his ratty coat, dirty beard, and cracked skin.

Amanda, his ten-year-old sister, wedged herself between Kyle and the window. “What’s that guy doing?”

“I dunno, doofus. Maybe he dropped something.”

Amanda watched the homeless man for a minute. “This is boring. When are Mom and Dad gonna be home?”

“They’ll be home at seven, doofus.”

Amanda turned away from the window and glared at him. She looked fierce with her strawberry blond hair pulled back in tight pigtails. “Don’t call me doofus, butt-head.”

“Fine, dweeb.” Kyle danced back from the window in time to avoid his sister’s lunge, then ran around the living room they’d already trashed, keeping her out of arm’s reach. Even though he was taller and stronger than she was, he knew she fought dirty. He also knew that if he actually hurt her at all, he’d be in big trouble. But it was too easy to get a rise out of her; he just couldn’t help himself.

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Dear Annabehls by Mercurio D. Riveria

== 1. ==

Dear Annabehl:

I’m concerned about the inordinate amount of time that my 13-year-old son “Jeff” spends with himself. A boy his age should be out and about, playing with friends, participating in sports and other after-school activities. I come from a very traditional family, and I have to confess that I’m concerned that this behavior suggests that Jeff may be gay.

My husband thinks I’m overreacting. What do you think?

Concerned Tuscaloosa Mom

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Life’s Rich Demand by Trent Walters

“If you begin, you must keep on beginning.”—Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Body Snatcher”

This is how it began. Or how it ended. Maybe it never begins or ends. Either way, this is how it happened. But this couldn’t be how it happened because people don’t behave like this. However people behave, this is how Robin Chin remembered it when she stopped long enough to remember to report it because if she didn’t report it as it had happened, who would?

Who? Robin had gotten an interview with senatorial candidate Braggadocio to juxtapose against a competing interview with Sentator Picklesnap. What? It was the pinnacle of her career at the . When? At the height of the election furor.

Where? A tableau of bright, candy-cane striped carnival tents the campaign committees used to show how much serious fun their candidate was up to. They even had picnic tables lined up for an apple pie eating contest which no eater seemed to have the appetite to enjoy despite the laughter of those who had cajoled the eaters into this pickle to raise campaign funds.

Callie, Robin’s poor calico, mewed miserably after the apple pie. Robin opened up a copy of the  to keep Callie from sharpening her claws on the seat cushion. The paper opened to the middle with a full-page ad that read, “Come see a man consume an entire grocery store to benefit the hungry and prevent stomach cancer!” Robin shook her head and grabbed her purse. Some poor schmuck would have to cover that dismal spectacle. What kind of person would perform such an stupid stunt? The fool would have to be out of his mind.

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An Elderly Pirate Recalls the Death of Love by Jay Lake

Ain’t no harsher mistress than the sea. Some says the moon is, but she’s only inconstant as any woman must be. Some says the Jolly Roger is harsh, but there’s something in a man that longs to be told what to do, and there’s something in a flag that longs to tell him.

But the sea. Now there a man has to think quick, and oft times act quicker than he can think. If God made the world—and I ain’t saying He did—He made the sea to test us all.

It’s you who flee her pounding grace who I pity most.

Hand me that mug there, will you?

Fool. ‘Tis not grog. And no loss either, I’m saying. You ever drink grog?

No, I didn’t think so.

Truth be, this shite tastes worse than grog ever did, but it’s what Auntie Bone forces me to drink thrice a day. Auntie, he’s good cuss for all I’m old enough to have done for his daddy.

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Setting My Spider Free by Caroline Yoachim

Cool air swirled in through the window and carried with it the faint tapping of claws scratching against stone. A spiderling was climbing my tower.

Lilymiya stirred. She’d spent the daylight hours in her corner with all her legs fanned out across the floor, trying to ward off the summer heat. My poor spider. Her fur, so thick and comforting in the winter, was patchy and ragged. Clumps of it gathered along the base of the walls, and thick strands clung to the grimy sweat on my skin.

The spiderling appeared on my windowsill. It was medium-sized—bigger than a loaf of bread, but a hundredth the size of Lilymiya. I didn’t want it to disturb the webs that decorated my walls, so I reached up and grabbed it with both hands. The spiderling twirled its legs in the empty air as it tried to cool itself.

Mama had overburdened it. There was a chunk of dark chocolate fastened to one of its hindlegs, and Gran’s gathering box was tied to its back. The box was exquisite, covered on the outside with gray spiderleather. Gran had soaked the leather to make it soft and then carved each panel with delicate patterns. The designs were inspired by the webs of her first spider. I shifted the spiderling until its weight rested on my hip and untied the twine that held the gathering box in place.

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All the Blue in the Mirror by Darin C. Bradley

Certainly, Sera had never seen a better blue. It ringed Johan’s throat in clusters, a circle of almost-violet blemishes. Tiny abrasions rouged the flesh between them—no doubt, the rope’s hemp fingers caused those.

She hadn’t known Johan well, but she remembered others who had donned the sinner’s torque before him—none had worn it so delicately, so subtly. She recalled that Johan Vesseled only last month. Sometimes, it went poorly.

“Can you see well enough?” her teacher asked.

Sera straightened, the heads of her classmates now occluding her view of the Tree.

“Yes, madam,” she said, tugging on her coif.

Sera glanced again at the Tree: the Reverend’s acolytes were struggling to coil the rope with which Johan hanged himself. Sera hated that Saphie found Johan first—earlier, they had approached the pond as a class, yet, somehow, Saphie wandered first to the Tree, where she discovered Johan. Sera wished it were Saphie instead. After all, Saphie had already Vesseled also. No one ever climbed the Tree before.

Saphie’s golden ringlets betrayed her quivering nerves as she stood nearby, studying Johan. Sera couldn’t help but notice the boys who, rather than study the suicide as their teacher had bid them, shifted and turned, moving however they had to for a glance at Saphie.

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The Paper People by Cris Cox

I’ve seen some strange things since dad took me on in the family business, but I suppose that’s natural when you consider what we do. Ours is one of the larger stalls at the rear of the fairground, close to the iron fence that keeps people out of the graveyard beyond. We’re well away from the centre but you can see the lights and hear the music, so no one’s too unhappy when they find us. Sometimes there’s still exhilaration on their faces because they’ve just got off a ride or they’ve won something at one of the other stalls, but that soon goes when they see our price list. Most walk on as if they weren’t going to stop anyway.

One or two come over, the few who can afford it, and maybe half of them are brave enough to try the chair, its black vinyl seat ribbed and shiny and ready for them. It could be a dentist’s chair, or a barber’s; indeed it has a footrest, and it tips right back, so the customer is almost lying down. Try and get them to relax, dad told me, keep their mind off what you’re doing to them. The results are better that way, less self-conscious.

The very best results are achieved when a person is just waking up or just falling asleep, but we can’t do that very often. In a strange environment like this it takes at least an hour to get to the really interesting cycles, as dad calls them. But of course in that hour we could do half a dozen simple snapshots, and no one can afford to pay six times the fee, no matter how good the results of such extravagance might turn out.

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The Fourth Horseman by Yoon Ha Lee

They’d abandoned the horses. This was not a loss. They carried the brimstone hooves and smoke-dream manes with them.

One of the men was missing. The two women considered this a problem, but hadn’t agreed on what to do. The remaining man, amused or indifferent, awaited their decision.

They sat in a dim cafe around a table that had seen better days. Nothing without teeth moved outside. There were more spectacular ways to end the world, but they were still shuffling the possibilities. They wouldn’t get a second chance.

Jenny Hawk straddled a chair. She was a loose-limbed woman with sharp eyes and a sweet mouth. She flicked down a card, face-up: the Glass Pendulum. “That tears it,” she said. “We have to find him.”

Donatien Wolf tore the card. It landed in longitudinal shreds between them. He sat across from Jenny, always smiling—always across, because she had never trusted him, and he had never believed in trust. His eyes were pale and ravenous. “Superstition,” he said.

Jenny Hawk opened her hand. The shreds became feathers; the feathers became the card; the card returned to her hand. She spun it between her fingers. This time it showed the Mouth of Days, and Donatien Wolf looked away. “Doesn’t change what we know,” Jenny said. She knew how to make him uncomfortable, too.

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The Bear Dresser’s Secret by Richard Bowes

Early one morning Sigistrix the Bear Dresser left the Duchess and her castle. He gave no warning before he slammed the golden tricorn hat, the sign of a Grand Master of the Animal Dressers Guild onto his head and picked up his suitcase.

He gave no reason, though as he walked through the gates he did remark to Grismerelda, the Duchess’ young maid, “A Bear Dresser answers to no one.” She watched the many snowy egret feathers on the Grand Master’s hat flutter in the breeze as he disappeared into the dawn.

The Duchess was having her hair done when they told her. “Faster, faster, silly girl,” she said. “Today is a disaster and I must look my very best.” Every morning Grismerelda spent hours getting her dressed and ready.

“It’s just like a Bear Dresser to leave like this. Dear Grandfather Fernando the Mad would have known how to handle him.” She enjoyed reminiscing about her distinguished ancestors; who among us doesn’t?

She summoned her chamberlain, her guard captain and her jester. “You see what must be done,” she told them. “The bears have no one to dress them and the Great Fair is one month from today.”

“Yes, your grace,” said the chamberlain.

“He never looked trustworthy to me,” said the guard captain.

“Take my life, please,” said the jester.

“We have entered our bears in the animal costume competition from time out of mind and with a few highly regrettable exceptions, such as occurred last year, we have always won first prize. And we will continue to do so.

“Sigistrix always dressed bears for me,” she said. “His father dressed them for my father. His grandfather dressed them for mine except for those times he escaped and had to be brought back in a cage. These things were much more easily handled in the old days before they had laws.

“I expect results from you three by his evening, or I will be most ANNOYED,” said the Duchess. “And you all know what that means.”

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The Truth in Violet by M. E. Parker

Since the day Albert Montague announced his plan to construct a truth extraction machine from nothing more than a nine-volt battery, a coil of copper wire, a blood pressure cuff and his laptop computer, Violet followed him everywhere he went, except the bathroom and the doctor’s office where he had his feet scraped two weeks ago. She monitored his comings and goings taking careful notes on the people he spoke to and when. She even knew that he ate grits with peach crescents over a half pint of cottage cheese on Tuesday and skipped breakfast Wednesday to have his cholesterol checked by the Pharmacaide testing van parked between Coleman’s and the snow cone stand.

How else could she understand a man whose goal was to extract truth, a man who wanted to undress a liar, open all the windows and rummage through the underwear drawers ferreting out tidbits of a story from under the mattress and behind the dresser? She envisioned a man with bushy sideburns, Albert in a tweed suit, armed with a truth extractor spelunking in her closet, mining for truth with a pick axe in the shape of lady justice. He’d throw chunks of thought-ore onto a conveyor belt that would deliver it into his machine, magically deriving pure truth from the muck. But she couldn’t imagine what a “truth extractor” would even look like or why it would require a nine-volt battery. Violet needed to observe Albert Montague and find this device, learn how it worked, the entire process, even the psychology involved, if she had any hope of preparing a defense for its mechanisms, because the prey that observes the hunter unseen is rarely slaughtered.

He had made progress recently. She could feel it. Albert Montague was getting close. He labored in his garage with aluminum foil pressed on the windows, sometimes until three in the morning, or all night like he did last Saturday. He parked his car in the driveway, keeping the garage door closed, only cracking it open to sweep it out.

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Grandfather Paradox by Katherine Mankiller

JUNE 23, 1994

Ann stuffed her blood-spattered clothes into the next door apartment complex’s dumpster. He wasn’t dead, but it was harder to get a knife through someone’s chest than she’d expected. Maybe he’d bleed to death before someone found him. She didn’t care either way. She was a juvenile, so it wasn’t like she was going to fry.

She walked. The YMCA was open. She locked herself in the men’s room, curled up on the floor, and fell asleep.

The next morning, she stopped at an IHOP and told a grey-haired waitress, “I don’t have any money, but can I have a cup of coffee?” The waitress must have felt sorry for her: she bought her breakfast. Afterwards, she went to Safeway and hid a steak and a bottle of beer under her coat and walked out. And kept walking. Someone had a barbecue grill in their back yard. She took it, and the charcoal, too.

What she could really go for now was some mushrooms. She should swipe some Kool-Aid and find a cow pasture. Or maybe she could rob a veterinary clinic. Anything to get the thought of him touching her out of her head, and that beer wasn’t going to cut it.

Steak and beer. Almost luxurious.

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The Death of Sugar Daddy by Toiya Kristen Finley

Laffy Taffy—July 7

“Quit digging, girl!”

This was before all of the cryin, before that black hole started suckin me in, and my wrist wasn’t so bad back then, neither.

I didn’t mean to scratch that hard. Momma had her back to me, but she heard anyway. I pulled my sleeve over the bad spot on my wrist and went at it again. My nail wasn’t sharp enough through the dress, though.

“Keisha.” This time Momma turned all the way around. Folded her arms. Ms. Bentley’s boyfriend watched Momma shuffle her hips and scratched under his chin.

“You know how impetigo spreads?” Momma said. “Now stop picking at your wrist before it gets raw.”

This wasn’t no mosquito bite, though. I couldn’t leave it alone, neither. But there was nuthin wrong with my wrist, far as I could see. I rubbed it down with lotion and put Vaseline on top of that. All that did was give me greasy skin. My wrist still itched. I wanted to get home so I could try alcohol like Momma used when I got chiggers on my legs, but Momma liked to hang around after weddings, even for people she didn’t know. This girl was the niece or granddaughter of somebody Grandmommy used to go to church with. That didn’t mean Grandmommy thought she had to come and drag me along. At least Momma wasn’t makin me wear them real lacy dresses no more. All the other 11 year olds—and some of the 10 year olds, too—had relaxers, and they could run a comb through their hair without worryin about breakin any of it off. But I was stuck with twist ties and barrettes. Momma got the hint I wouldn’t bother with em no more at the last weddin when I kept shakin my head and clankin those dumb barrettes together. Today she finally pressed my hair.

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The Column That Held Up the Sky by Matthew Wanniski

Once I saw the Column that held up the sky. I wasn’t exactly looking for it, I just stumbled upon it one afternoon in spring when my dog got loose and was running amok on the other side of time. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s quite a feat of engineering, a marvel of architectural skill, like Brunelleschi meets Frank Gehry. It’s also not nearly as big as I thought it would be, considering the task for which it was set. You could walk around its base in the time it takes to sing “How Many Miles to Babylon.” Simply put, the Column didn’t seem able to handle the full weight of Heaven. Yet there it stood. Some people believe it was put there to hold down the earth, but they’re just superstitious.

I’d seen the Column before, but from a distance, never as close as on this day. From afar it looks immense, dwarfing Everest. But the closer you get, the smaller it grows, like one of those optical illusions. I hear the guy who built it likes that kind of thing.

You’ve heard about the Column, haven’t you? No? Let me refresh your memory: The Garden of Eden, way back when. Adam and Eve with their heads in the clouds, bumping them on the sky (an unexpected side effect of Creation. Nobody said it was perfect). That’s really why they left, you know. Something had to be done, so rather than junk the whole endeavor, it was decided the best thing to do would be to prop up the drooping firmament. The Column has stood there ever since, like the cane of Atlas.

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In the Gingerbread House by Barbara Krasnoff

“Here we are, darling. Look—isn’t it exciting? This is where all the actors are when they’re not on the stage!”

Isabeau’s Papa and her big brother Willy have just taken her to what they explained is the backstage of the Berlin State Opera, and Isabeau (named, her mother told her, after a beautiful medieval Bavarian queen) doesn’t like it at all. She is just four years and six months and five days old, and although she is trying to be brave, there are too many strange adults around, some wearing bright costumes, some wearing ordinary clothing, some with their faces stiff and strange under heavy makeup. “Why is that man wearing lipstick?” Willy asks, and Papa says, “So he can be seen more clearly on the stage. He’ll take it off before he goes out of the theatre. Don’t point, Wilhelm, it’s rude.”

Isabeau definitely doesn’t like it here. It’s loud and frightening. She wants to go home, which has deep carpets, and the servants speak in quiet tones, and she can play with her bunny and her music box, and listen to Grandmama’s pet bird making comforting noises in its sleep.

“This way, Isabeau,” and her father steers her gently through the confusing mass of grownups. Her brother, who kicked her under the seat when she started to cry during the third act of Hansel and Gretel, now stares around wide-eyed. Perhaps, she thinks, he won’t take the head off her new doll like he threatened, because he is now obviously very happy with this strange adventure.

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Jointed by Loreen Heneghan

Spanning the distance between your soft hip and mine is a large brass hinge. It’s been there a long time.  We walk with a double limp whenever we go down to the supermarket.

Metal shifts against the threads of my muscles. I ache where the brass was bolted to my hip, but the feeling is so familiar it’s almost comforting.

Sometimes, when we are out with friends, you swing yourself toward me until our bones creak. Then we might look each other in the eyes—but only slantwise. I crane my neck and we kiss.

Lately, it seems that you only do this in public.

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The Improbable Legend of Quick Johnny by Chris Roberson

Many myths and legends have grown up around the origins of the malicious non-entity known as “Quick Johnny,” each more implausible and surreal than the last. As is the case with all legends, however, there is a kernel of hard fact beneath the onion rinds of fabrication, which in its own way is more implausible and surreal than any imagined tale could ever be.

“Quick Johnny” is the sole offspring of an otherwise unremarkable boy named Cully Andrews. Young Cully was the youngest of four brothers, born the Seventh of November, 1945, six years the junior of the next youngest. As is customary in any such arrangement Cully was the target of habitual torment and endless pranks by the serried ranks of his older siblings. Far less outgoing and athletic than the rest of his mother’s brood, Young Cully soon gained a reputation as a bookish, withdrawn child, who preferred the company of books and his own imagination to the other children in his neighborhood. As he grew older, however, he developed—as all children do—a need for companionship. Turning then to the pages of his family library and his own overactive fancy, Young Cully solved the problem neatly: he simply created a companion.

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The Spaces Between Things by Matthew Kressel

David was in love with his aunt Masha. In the months after his father died, she came over for dinner often. While she ate, he’d watch her chest rise and fall, and for long, uncountable minutes he’d stare at the soft, pink skin of her arms, wanting to run his fingers along her smoothness and squeeze her until he fell asleep. He’d stuff forkfuls of mashed potatoes into his mouth and listen to his mother and aunt talk freely and harshly about people David barely knew. He’d study Masha’s green-within-green eyes, the chocolate folds of her hair, the funny way in which her nose curved just a little bit at the tip, as if God himself had laid a tiny imperfection upon her just to remind the world that she wasn’t an angel. But what most captured David’s attention, what his eyes wandered to as they’d finish dinner and move to the couch for coffee and cake, was the thick, brown leather belt that hugged her waist.

He knew the feelings in his body were the beginnings of manhood. But he was told that boys were supposed to like breasts and lips, butts and legs. And he did like those things—yet he couldn’t help but cross his legs when he saw her stomach bend under the thick leather strap, and nightly he dreamed of her smothering him as the heavy brass buckle pressed painfully into his groin. He pretended to listen to his mother and aunt, learning to nod his head when they looked his way, until he became skilled at predicting the paths of their eyes, at avoiding their gazes. And when the spell of conversation held the women in its thrall, when his mother’s words grew slow and stupid with wine, David stared deeply into the folds of Masha’s belt, studying the images stamped in its sides. He saw flowery jungles with fruit-bearing trees, a dozen birds hanging from limb and sky, and tufts of wavy, leafy vines that tangled throughout. Often, as the women talked, he imagined himself floating inside her belt, unable to escape its secret pull, forced forever to wander under its hot sun and glimpse out at all the world from the two-dimensional confines of her waist.

It was warm and safe there.

And so when his mother said, “Grandpa’s not doing very well. I need you to stay with your Aunt Masha for two weeks,” David nodded his affirmation as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. That year was 2056.

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POETRY

An Affair in Babylon

      by KJ Bishop

I’m the ache of harlot’s morning

I’m the rake of ninety years

His red light in the river-distance

Her famous echo clenched in mountains:

Find me in the fate of horses

in the bawling cradle-rumpus

in the ashes of the bandit

thief of all her diamonds.

Tell the caudillo I was with him

in the harebell lake of childhood

at the back of men and women

dancing on the journey out:

All our songs were peacocks, engines

all our bodies fast, spasmodic

all our crutches rocking-horses:

jaguars plundered our shackles.

A glass locomotive

scorpion-baron of lucid desire

brought our sisters and brothers

from places upcountry:

Sweet-smelling devils

competing in scandal

buried in uniforms

measured in miles

occult, decisive

sick with rebirth.

(Mother Catastrophe

rode on a spinning wheel:

said she was always

asked to these things.)

Mine is the mess on Holy Mountain

mine is the cataract of the Buddha

mine is the wedding in prison:

In ajna the pain of a piñata

blindness without relief.

In the lockup sweating rhinestones

gold teeth go swell with silver groin

and nearly sprained a tongue

calling me superman, truant centipede

a charm against the slop pail

& the friable spine.

Calling me friend, offering sanctuary

this knave emeritus

has a name at last.

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The Chiromancer by Pat Tompkins

I tell you what

you want to hear.

Most palms say little,

callused or cold.

I explore your face

before I study what

lies in the lines:

head, heart, life, fate.

I read your maps:

eyes, skin, hair, clothes,

indiscreet as cell phones.

What is absent talks, too.

I polish the rough,

a manicurist.

My task: deciphering

the digital code.

I speak with planets

and translate ambitions.

Most want the usual:

wealth, reassurance, hope.

What matters is not what

I think but what you do:

Pay for answers and clues

I am here to provide.

Let me see that scar.

A radical wound,

pierced through, crudely healed.

Show me your other hand.

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October by Nina Alvarez

The brandied thin shell of October,

Blintzes and crepes, menus, biased windows

Showers staining tea and bright drops

Silhouette of sun, snapping heels

Over the steel-studded roofs of this street

In some absent search for an aperitif

and olive branch

Baying like a wolf at the city moon

inside a similar body, closed systems

and wild sturdy semblance of suffering

and all the Spanish drag queens, abysmal love,

terse, argumentative, numb, belligerent,

born to unfold their blankets for sleep.

I had resistance, the painful bride,

Hunched under a soulless canopy

Forging intelligence in turbid bed conversations

Treating myself to a coup d’état

What is this bored familiar trimming-

Pointing, leaning over, or idling

C’est moi, I say more, flying

On heels, and toes, pointed and contracted,

These feet, canons, functions, and geosystems

Blinking to the system’s love, the heart breath fondue

Flung from the vain homo-chicks of the slums

Arcane and scalded sluts and sisters of windows

The bound bandana slung and smelling of liquor.

Thin to the touch, bar players, melting girls

The talk of the terrible game of rent-to-pay

Of ample bosom, pretty not pussy, miscellaneous touching

The body’s thoughtless style

Think of the sturm-und-drang, German Requiem

howled from a bass, and college debts

over the bath mats, by door jams, hiding eyes

apparent in dreams, what is owed to the hard fathers,

who inherit our births and our deaths, and collect

the fullness of our lives in a stained box

and cannot bear to creep, though they must keep it hidden.

In the delicate lace their wives chose for their daughter’s wedding

I am walking, shifting, freezing, forgetting.

They appear too thin for night, too fat for day.

In the Kissinger and the Klossoski and the Klempt

The bitten tight leaves, and the unbuttoned young

Starting to turn in on themselves, to curl and crisp.

They go to the outsides of themselves again, at the end

Heavy, flying up to their little edges, solidly sad

And yet fecund, yearning for something.

Heaviness is not inability to travel.

It is an exaltation, a self-conscious yet

Slow turn against the turning inward,

And in the dark of South Street,

Bodies abridged and bundled by this uncertainty.

Here is a blood stain, a blond hair

And here the wind is a way home.

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Bathing the White Stone by Elizabeth Barrette

Miska longed for a child

but had none of her own.

So she took a white stone

to the creek and bathed it,

singing a sweet lullaby.

Then she took the stone

back home, wrapped it

in swaddling cloths, and

laid it in the cradle.

When the moon turned,

Miska grew great with child.

That winter, she bore a boy

with smooth white skin

and hair black as onyx.

Piotr grew tall and strong,

but rarely spoke or laughed.

The village girls tried to get

his attention, but to no avail.

Piotr preferred the forest,

and solitude, and the quiet

little stream under the trees.

In time, he moved away

to University where

he became a great sculptor.

It was said that he saw

things in the stone that

no one else had seen –

but that was not true.

His mother Miska had

seen the same –

forms and faces –

and so it was no surprise to her

when Piotr brought home

a solemn model who confided

to her mother-in-law that she

could not bear a child.

Miska simply smiled, and

told her not to worry –

and after the wedding,

took her daughter-in-law

down to the stream

to bathe a white stone.

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Isles of Dream by Marly Youmans

THE SKY DOOR

And it has been so long since I lowered this pen

In ink the shade of sky… The rain is splattering

On mallow and sea oats and on the vanishing trick

Of mist and ocean waves. A thousand dragonflies

Jag past, hurrying on to some great sheltering tree

That shines in the storm-light, all gems and isinglass.

In clouds that are also ink—not a peaceful white

But blood expressed from lapis lazuli—one door

Of sky remains beside a few white steppingstones

And looks as sweet as spring forget-me-nots in grass.

I wonder, if I knock, will someone let me in?

THE GHOST CRAB’S WOMAN

The paper lantern of moon is lit,

And the clouds are in attendance.

They are reflected shimmerings

On the wet sand beside the sea.

So much for setting.

The ghost crabs

Go skittering along the shore,

Fall abruptly sideways in holes.

They are white like the August moon

And as flimsy, their dead torsos

And legs tossing in the sea foam.

One is greater than the others,

With lustrous claws in the moonshine;

They might be fine mother-of-pearl,

Formed in a nacreous shell of dream.

See there, the ghost crab is dragging

A little woman by one arm—

Her eyes are an unblinking black,

Her hair spun from obsidian

By dwarves whose names she’d never guess.

Now she is dragged by those rare strands

Into the ghost crab’s secret hole,

Where slowly he undresses her

And gives her all his twiddling love

Till what’s left is a bone that gleams

Like a grinning sickle of moon.

THE GULLS

A hundred gulls

Sit and stand on one leg or two

Around the old man in the chair—

A handsome fellow,

With downy gray hair fluffed by breeze,

With his hooked and aquiline nose.

“You’re popular,”

I say; he nods.  The black eyes shine,

But he’ll never tell his secrets.

THE MOON ON THE STRAND

At dusk a boy and girl took sand and made

Images of turtle, star, and dragon.

And when the gibbous moon rose from the sea,

It was observed to be a surprising pink

That matched the color of adjacent clouds.

Sand animals awoke in the moonshine,

And turtle and dragon ate up the star.

Its arms hung down like petals from their jaws.

The sister leaped onto the dragon’s back,

Her younger brother on the turtle’s shell;

They flew toward the pink blossom of the moon.

Their mother had gone for a dawdling walk

And did not know, for just then she had passed

The last marker and found the endless sands.

The older brother slumped inside the house,

His face blue-lit, playing with his machines.

Their father lay asleep upon the grass

And now was dreaming that his darling wife

Wore nothing but a wreath of moonflowers.

(In metaphysical ways, this was true.)

The grandfather was dead and could not help.

Only the grandmother was left to see

The children swoop up to the clouds of stars.

Grandmothers are more clever than you think.

She clambered to the sky and brought them home,

Riding dragonback behind the sister,

And then she went to the infinite sands

To fetch her absent daughter by the hand,

Without asking what she had seen or dreamed

To make her eyes the color of the sea,

Her ears like twin shells murmuring the sea,

Her mouth as cold and dumb as depths of sea.

MEMORY OF YOUTH

“What are these for?” Z repeats,

A little angrily. She is

A girl as hard and sharp and hooked

As a thing made for catching fish,

Although she never brims her pail.

I look at all the years of words

And see just flotsam and jetsam—

I burn every page and scrap,

A holocaust of living dream,

Every poem of my youth.

I am a woman, twenty-one.

The smoke and ash go up for hours.

Yet I

Begin

Again.

“What are they for?” Z asks with scorn.

This time I say they’re for the soul

That longs to hold the earth and sky

With all its mounting clouds and birds,

The yaupon foxes and raccoons

And ghost crabs scuttling into holes,

Enormous smears of moonshine, bright

Against the endlessness of sand.

I say, “The soul’s a seine for fish

Like running rainbows, ice, and fire—

On mountains underneath the sea,

I have caught magic in my net.”

AFTER STORM

Everything is washed.

When sea and sky return from mist,

The shrimp trawlers have been erased.

A cock-eyed rainbow

Blesses the wheeling birds

As half-wild cats come to the porch

And children to the sand and waves.

The dragonflies

Copter from hidden groves,

Their million mazy paths of flight

Inscribing mystery on mild

Emptied clouds

And all the floating heaven.

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Kimono Monochrome at Midnight by Linda Ann Strang

Her heart is a nightgown fastened loosely.

The throb of a nightjar slips a hand

of sound all the way down to her belly,

where an incubus is the cold ring in her navel—

the stud piece of the Arctic.

Night cries want to unpick her seams,

carry her away to where her moon man

parks his chariot—carved from a single pearl—

too close to the curb of the atmosphere,

liberate from the chain and stem stitch

full-blooded nightingales for the Emperor—

in each larynx the diamond ink of starlight.

But tighten the belt of her dreams,

and waive all west of the moon

and princess possibilities that never were.

Her ears become caverns of ice candles:

a thousand sirens shrink to the failed flare

of a match. There’ll be no third degree burns

on Cupid’s torso tonight. Midnight slips

in through the ticking of its own keyhole,

cyan tongued as a nun in martyrdom,

needle-eyed as a daily habit.

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Fabula by Linda Ann Strang

I enjoy a metaphor mixed lover.

I swallow marble: god or cake.

I’m mad about tops and tails

and speed on the uptake,

any transmuting silent swan with guns

that sport a lion’s legs,

the orgiastic glaze of kisses

on a pair of gunpowder kegs,

the pinwheel grip of dark hands

around cherry tipped pastry breasts,

a spawning frog’s haunches

at home in the snowbird’s nest,

a pricking taste of hedgehog,

crown prince or gingerbread king,

some cuddly kitten, purring—

hardens into scorpion sting—

the lip licking fox that ends

in a feather flurry of black cock,

and—yes—the embryo cuckoo that flaps

in my lowly grandmother clock.

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Nonfiction Issue #17/18

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LANGAN

Can you tell us about what inspired this novel?

House of Windows came about because I was teaching Henry James’s late, great story, “The Jolly Corner,” to my Honors English class at SUNY New Paltz. The narrative of a middle-aged man haunted by the ghost of the man he could have been, it was the story of James’s that first turned me on to his fiction, back when I was an undergraduate. More recently, James had been the catalyst for a number of my stories (e.g. “On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt”), and when I re-read “The Jolly Corner” this time, I felt the urge to write something of my own in response to it. I didn’t know what that was going to be, however, until, over dinner with my wife and me one night, friends of ours told us a story about a man who had disowned the son of his first marriage after re-marrying a much younger woman. The thought of a father disowning his son had a powerful effect on me, and it was either later that night or the next day that I imagined a story about a father who couldn’t be haunted by the ghost of his son because the man had disowned him.

At the time, I was deep into what I thought was going to be my first novel, and I had reached a point in it where I felt the need to take a break. I was scheduled to read the KGB Bar’s “Fantastic Fiction” series in Manhattan in a couple of weeks, and Ellen Datlow had advised me that I would be better to read a complete short story than part of a novel, so I decided I would put the novel on hold and dash off this story about the man unable to be haunted by his dead son. I had the idea that the piece would be a kind of sequel to my first story, “On Skua Island,” in which a group of friends gathered at a house on Cape Cod listens to one of their members tell the story of his encounter with a malign supernatural force; I liked the prospect of revisiting the framing device of friends assembled at the Cape House to tell a new story. In fact, I imagined this new story might be the next in an eventual series (an idea I still entertain).

Once I started the piece, though, it took off and kept going, until I realized that this, in fact, was going to be my first novel.

Were there other haunted house stories that inspired your novel? At times I had a sense of Danielewski’s House of Leaves; have you read that book?

I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I have yet to read House of Leaves, just as I am to confess to the fact that, not long after the novel came out, Danielewski did a reading at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I was taking classes for my Ph.D., and I did not attend it. I do own a copy of the book that I page through from time to time . . .

I’m a big fan of the usual suspects, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King’s The Shining chief among them. There’s a marvelous scene in The Shining where Jack Torrance fits himself inside a dollhouse replica of the Overlook Hotel that’s in the hotel’s playground; that still feels very important to my conception of the novel. I also return to “The Jolly Corner,” in which the narrator searches for the ghost of that other self in the empty rooms of his childhood home.

When Veronica is telling her story to the framing narrator, how did you judge how much time the conversation was taking? In the first section, I was getting to the point where I started to think, ‘How late have they been up?’ when you broke into a new chapter. Did you read it aloud to have a sense of how long it would take?

Actually, there was a point where the entire novel was the product of one night’s storytelling, until I realized that this would strain the reader’s credulity well beyond the breaking point. I split the narrative at what was roughly its mathematical middle, and later calculated that, assuming two minutes to read each manuscript page out loud, this would allow each section of Veronica’s narrative to be told in a single night.

There’s a point about two thirds of the way through the novel when Veronica’s mother calls. While the call is not, fun, shall we put it, it does break the tension of haunted house story that you’ve been developing. Did you feel a need at this point to break the tension, or do you feel it adds another layer to it?

I’d like to cheat a little and say, “All of the above.” I wanted the call from Veronica’s mother to serve as a pause, if not exactly comic relief, yet I also wanted it to leave the reader with the sense that there’s no one Veronica can turn to, that she really is in this mad situation with her husband on her own. Beyond that, I wanted this call and the previous call from Veronica’s mom to provide a little perspective on her character, to suggest some of the reasons she is the way she is.

How difficult was it to write from the perspective from someone very different from you (i.e., a woman marrying a much older man)?

You know, Veronica’s voice came to me pretty much right away, and once I had that, the rest took care of itself. There were plenty of mornings I felt she was dictating her story to me.

Do you have any children? How does that (having or not having children) influence your writing of a book with such strife between father and child?

I have two boys, the older of whom is eighteen-going-on-nineteen, the younger of whom is, as he likes to put it, five and seven-eighths. In general, I find that having kids makes my life much richer than it would be otherwise; even the bad times are better than they would be without Nick and David. Although there were some intense moments during my older son’s fifteenth year, there really wasn’t anything to compare to what Roger and Ted (the father and son in the novel) undergo.

That said, my own father and I had a frequently contentious relationship throughout my teens and early twenties, and while he didn’t disown me, that experience no doubt informs a lot of the book, especially, I think, its attempt to portray the extent to which our personal baggage makes these kinds of conflicts almost exponentially worse.

There is a lot in the novel about art and artists. Did you ever study art?

Throughout grade-school, my great desire was to draw comic books, a passion that was encouraged by a very kind art teacher. I actually won first place in a local art contest when I was in seventh grade. However, the high school I went to had no art program, and that, coupled with my discovery of Stephen King’s fiction, steered me towards becoming a fiction writer. All the same, I’ve continued to read comics, as well as to draw, and I still nurse hopes of creating my own comic at some point in the future. Beyond that, one of the professors with whom I studied at CUNY, Mary Ann Caws, is a major scholar of modern art who brought a lot of it into her classes, which is something I’ve continued to follow up on my own.

I found all the history of the house very interesting. Was there anything you created that you left out of the book?

No, although there were a few details in the book that seemed as if they might lead to something else, later down the road (i.e. the history of the painter Thomas Belvedere and his correspondent, Rudolph de Castries; the strange book Dickens picks up in the Parisian bookstall).

When you have a new idea, do you know ahead of time whether it will be a short story or a novel?

Pretty much everything I set out to write starts off as what I call a story, which is to say, I imagine it’s going to take somewhere around forty pages or so to accomplish. (I suppose you could say it starts off as a novelette.) Occasionally, I complete something at that length. More often than not, however, I wind up writing long, between fifty and seventy pages. And upon occasion, the story keeps on going, and I wind up with a novel. Now that House of Windows is coming out, I have been trying to think about my next novel; although, since I have about sixty percent of the novel I interrupted to write House, I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’ve been trying to think about my third novel.

What makes this book different from your other work?

While I may yet be too close to the novel to answer the question accurately, I think it’s not so much different from my other stories as it is an extension of certain trends already at work in them, particularly in terms of its representation of character. It’s my feeling that, if you’re working in horror fiction, you have to create characters who are compelling enough that the audience will care about them, so that when the bad things happen, it has a real effect on the reader. I worked hard to make Veronica and Roger, the central characters, sufficiently developed that their fate(s) would matter to the reader.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

The most challenging thing about the book for me was to keep it from moving too much in the direction of the conventional. I could see how the narrative could veer into the story of frightened young woman married to (dangerous and) crazy older guy. I didn’t want Veronica to be a victim, nor did I want Roger to be a villain. I wanted them to be and to remain complex. In addition, rather than the plot closing down as the book progressed, with various possible explanations for what was happening in it falling away until only the real reason was left, I wanted to keep things in play, wanted to keep introducing new possibilities until the very end, so that in some ways, the narrative would refuse closure. That said, I still wanted a novel that would be readable and compelling.

What were you trying to accomplish artistically and thematically with this book?

I’ve already given some specific answers to this question, but I would say that, more generally speaking, I was trying to write a book that, were I to be struck by a car and killed the moment I finished it, I could be satisfied leaving behind. I wanted to write something that would invoke the traditions of James and Dickens, on the one hand, and King and Straub, on the other.

You were recently taken to task online by Nick Mamatas about your story collection: any details you can give us about that?

Nick very correctly pointed out that, in the Acknowledgments page of my collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, I had failed to include his name among those people I had thanked, a rather egregious omission considering that he was one of two people to recommend to Sean Wallace of Prime Books that my stories would be worth collecting. However honest my mistake, I greatly regretted it, and hastened to fix it on my blog, as I’m happy to here. Mea culpa, Nick!

I should note, as well, that Nick came to the collection’s vigorous defense after its mugging, ehm, review at Strange Horizons.

Which do you find more difficult to write, short stories or novels?

Each is an exercise in stamina.

What writers are the biggest influences on your work?

A number of the writers who mean the most to me, today, are writers whose work I despised when I first read it. Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Henry James: I encountered the three of them my junior and senior years of high school and hated the lot of them. Only over the course of several years did I come to appreciate the genius of each of them, to the point that they’re among the writers whose work I continue to return to.

I had a much less-complicated relationship with Stephen King, my encounter with whose fiction my freshman year of high school activated me as a writer, and Peter Straub, who confirmed my sense that this was the stuff for me. Also in high school, my encounter with Theater of the Absurd my senior year was immensely important: Becket, to be sure, but even more so Albee, the sheer fury of whose work amazed and excited me.

While I suppose everyone whose work you spend any amount of time reading exerts an influence on you, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the overwhelming impact reading The Sound and the Furymy freshman year of college had on me; it sent me off through Faulkner at a gallop. Absalom, Absalom still seems to me an Everest of American literature. I also plunged into Samuel Delany’s novels in college, which I loved for their combination of exciting, readable adventure stories with all kinds of crazy pyrotechnics. When I returned to writing horror fiction in my late twenties after having been away from it for the better part of a decade, it was Delany’s work, along with Straub’s, that helped convince me it would be possible to work in a popular genre and still achieve literary effects.

More recently, which is to say, in the last seven or eight years, I’ve been impressed time and again by the fiction of Lucius Shepard, Elizabeth Hand, and Jeff Ford. Of writers of my own approximate generation, Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, Michael Cisco, Nathan Ballingrud, Glen Hirshberg, and Sarah Langan all write work to whose quality I aspire.

At any point while writing this book did it change from what you originally set out to write?

Well, by the time the KGB Reading I mentioned a few questions above took place, I was already forty pages into the narrative, and had realized that it was going to take longer than I’d planned. I thought that meant it would be about eighty pages. It wasn’t until I was approaching the hundred-and-fifty-page mark, though, with still more to write, that it really started to dawn on me that what I was writing was on its way to becoming a novel.

What five novels/works would you recommend to a new reader?

I’m going to narrow the focus of this question to works I’d recommend to a reader new to the darker end of the fantastic spectrum, some of which I’m drawing from things I’ve taught and had a positive reaction to. In no particular order, I’d suggest Jeff Ford’s The Physiognomy, Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, Glen Hirshberg’s The Two Sams, and Sarah Gran’s Come Closer. If these whet your appetite for more, then I’d go on to Laird Barron’sThe Imago Sequence, Sarah Langan’s The Missing, Michael Cisco’s The Divinity Student, Lucius Shepard’s Eternity and Other Stories, and Steve and Melanie Tem’s The Man on the Ceiling.

What’s the last book you read?

Cherie Priest’s Those Who Went Remain There Still, a fine and exciting short novel that is about her best work so far and that I enthusiastically recommend.

Any teasers you can give us for what’s next?

I’ve published a couple of long stories in recent anthologies: “How the Day Runs Down” in John Adams’s The Living Dead and “Technicolor” in Ellen Datlow’s Poe. An even longer story, “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky,” will be in John’s forthcoming vampire anthology, By Blood We Live. Two more stories are currently making the rounds; with the other three, this is just about enough to form a new collection. In the next few months, I hope to complete a long, original piece that will round out this collection and allow my agent to start shopping it around. I also have invitations to contribute to a couple of anthologies that I must get started on. Then there are the half-dozen or so incomplete stories I have to finish. And that second novel, which is about a pair of widowers who make a fishing trip to a haunted stream . . .

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SAMPLING THE ASPIC: Viva la Revolution

by Penelope O’Shea

Around . . . and around . . . and around again.  All this twirling makes a girl know she needs a drink.  Something easy and comfortably summery and, dare I say it, with a twist?  Ok, how about this?

Coconut Cuba Libre

In a tumbler, over crushed ice, pour:

1-2 oz. coconut-infused Rum

Juice of ½ lime, plus throw in the drained skin, for good measure

Top with cola and stir.

What better antidote than that to the incessant twirling!  Simple and liberating, especially if you are compelled to have a second in order to use up that other half of lime.  What better way to use it, avoiding its otherwise inevitable perish among the remnants at the bottom of the crisper drawer?  In my imaginings, I drink both draughts greedily.

I have never realized all the dizzying circular movements involved in taking air with a small child at an amusement park.  Ok, yes, of course I know that the rides often go in circles, but I have not planned to partake in any . . . .just merely watch the spectacle of a child’s intestinal fortitude with both my feet planted securely upon the ground.  Let the child do as children do in these places . . . and let the likes of me alone.

Unfortunately, when one is given temporary custody of another’s child, it is impossible not to be caught up in the whirling cyclone of activities that children bring to this place.  As I sit here bench-bound, avoiding the drip, drip of a techno-color summer ice concoction I’ve been asked to “save” and awaiting my charge’s return, I am mesmerized by the undulating of the propeller.  Not on the nearby ride, but on the nearby head.

The circular motion makes me wonder what adult in her right mind sends a child into youth-oriented amusement culture in a beanie, especially in the 21st century?  Anyway, it is said beanie’s rippling rotor, along with that small child’s obvious anguish at the forced conveyance of the offending headgear atop his sweaty cranium, that made me long for that drink . . . in fact, I had one drink for me and another in sympathy for the child, even if it was only in my imagination.  As I watch it whirr dizzyingly above his forehead, I feel as though perhaps I’ve gotten into the bullet-shaped, claustrophobic compartment after all and am now hurtling and spinning out of control.

Amusement parks provide several kinds of stomach churning challenges.  Beyond the amusements, I too, always think of issues gastronomical.  After going around and around this park following my supervisory obligations of providing sustaining and healthy food for the tot, I have found little to convince me that these options exist.  Everything that is not fried in past-prime oils is smothered in goopy processed cheese food or coated with tooth-achingly sweet syrup.

My idea of summery food is lighter, breezier and easier on the eyes, palates, and ambitions of the cook . . . something like:

Confetti Latino Dip

½ green bell pepper, diced

½ red bell pepper, diced

1-2 diced jalapenos, keeping the seeds and membranes if you like the heat . . . if not, deseed

½ red onion, diced finely

1 can black or pinto beans, drained

1 c. frozen corn, thawed

5-6 Roma tomatoes, diced

1/3 chopped cilantro

1 clove minced garlic.

Chop everything and place in a serving bowl.  Stir to combine.  Then, right before serving, add:

2 avocados, diced roughly

½ c. Italian dressing

1T. lime juice

Salt, to taste

Serve with tortilla chips that can stand up to some substantial scooping.

Of course, this is probably not part of the impish bacchanalia of child’s amusements, but it sounds as good a respite to me as the imaginary drink felt on its trip past my lips.

My charge and I have now come to another ride . . . one which the child believes to be absolutely necessary riding to count the day a success.  As I gaze at the tilt-a-whirly cars, I can only think of how their movements mimic that of my own stomach as it fights past the half of the youngster’s chili cheese mess I was left to consume while the child took a spin on the Ferris wheel.  The rumbling and tipping remind me of a washing machine, struggling to churn a thick mass of canvas and denim work clothes . . . old clothes, which immediately make me think of a Cuban comfort food of the same name:

Ropa Vieja

1 ½ lb. flank steak, cut into strips across the grain about 2-3 inches wide

6 oz. jarred sofrito sauce . . . .I know, you can make your own, but why bother when there                                             is good stuff already made for you?

2-3 carrots, shopped into rough 1 inch coins

1 bay leaf

1 beef bouillon cube

Place all these things in a heavy soup pot or in your slow cooker.  Cover meat with water and simmer for about 2 hours, if you are using a stove.  If you are going the slow cook route, cook on low setting for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.  No matter how you go, be sure the meat is tender and falling apart when the time has elapsed.  Drain the meat and carrots from the pot, but reserve some of the cooking liquid.  Pull the meat apart with a couple of forks, until you have a nice pile of shredded tatters and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, place 2 T. olive oil and sauté until translucent and beginning to color:

½ green pepper, cut into thin strips

½ red pepper, also in thin strips

½ onion, cut into thin half-moons

1 finely diced garlic clove

Deglaze pan with 2T. cooking sherry, scraping the brown from off the pan as you go.  Add:

1 c. diced canned tomatoes (I often use one that also had green chilies included)

½ tsp. ground cumin

1 c. reserved cooking liquid from cooking meat

Cook your veg mixture until the whole lot begins to meld together and creates a hot, saucy consistency, about 5-7 minutes.  Then add the shredded beef and carrot pieces to the sauce and cook another 2-3 minutes.  Add more cooking liquid if the mixture seems dry . . . you don’t want a stew, but you do want some juices to swathe your beefy vegetable mixture.  Right before serving, stir in:

½ c. green olives with pimentos, sliced in half lengthwise.

Serve the dish with black beans and rice, plantains, and a healthy sprinkle of cilantro over everything.  Give everything a squeeze of fresh lime juice, too.  ¡Sobroso!

Comfort food musings help calm my insides while I watch the child descend the dizzying ride.  It is only when the little sprite stops at the lazy spinning of the carousal that I find refuge.  It is the one revolution in this bustle that does not make my stomach rebel.  It is easily sweet, and yet calming in its innocent, predictable circling of stationary circus creatures.  Perfect . . . much like:

Dulce de Leche Fondue

1 ½ c. sugar

¾ c. buttermilk

½ c. butter

2 T. light corn syrup

1 tsp. baking soda

1 T. coffee-flavored liquor, butterscotch flavored liquor, or coconut liquor

Combine these ingredients in a heavy 4 qt. sauce pan . . . it looks too large, but you will need room for the mixture to expand over the heat.  Bring ingredients to a boil and stir as it boils for 7 minutes.  Remove the mixture from the heat and add:

2 tsp. vanilla extract

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Mix in the final ingredients and place mixture in a fondue pot to keep it warm.  Dip shortbread cookies, dense cake (like pound cake), chocolate, nuts, fresh coconut, fresh fruits (bananas and apples are superb) or dried fruits.  This is a wonderful, finger friendly way to end a meal with friends.

Perhaps one easy go-round on this ride will straighten this day’s topsy-turvy and set my mind to right before I take the wee thing back to its mother.  So, I choose the safety of the stationary chaise lounge cart, for my one revolution.  It will take little time to get my fill of circling and to proverbially ‘get off this merry-go-round’ of amusements.  But, until I come back around again, you eat, drink and live heartily!

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BLINDFOLD TASTE TEST

with Will Shetterly

What is your favorite food?

Only one? Pizza.

Is there a childhood food that you miss?

Because I can’t find it or recreate it? No. But I kind of miss the joy of eating foods that don’t taste good to me anymore: soft ice cream, oreos, grilled velveeta sandwiches . . . Okay, I am content to miss that, because other foods give a comparable joy now.

Is there anything you eat that no one you know eats?

Wild rice and salsa. Not ashamed of it. Just haven’t heard that anyone else does it.

Is there anything you won’t eat?

Soft tomatoes and ketchup gross me out. It’s a childhood thang.

What is your favorite restaurant?

Only one? Right now in Tucson, it’s either Poco and Mom’s or Pico de Gallo.

Is there a favorite food you can’t get where you currently live?

Tucson is great, but there isn’t that one great Chinese restaurant that most cities have. I suspect Phoenix must steal the great Chinese chefs.

What food is better at home than out at a restaurant?

Anything Emma makes. Especially biscuits and shortbread and sourdough bread.

(When) Where was your most memorable meal?

The Bakery, in Chicago.

If money was no object, what would your food splurge be?

Oh, I know that joke! French toast in the Renaissance! Nah. I would go to New York City and spend a week eating at cheap restaurants.

What’s your favorite literary food scene?

Hmm. Jack Aubrey eating a disgusting pudding.

Who are your cooking influences?

My father, who liked to cook.

What is your favorite drink?

Apple cider.

If you could invite any three people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

Emma, because dinner would be less fun without her. Einstein, because the guy’s politics were as smart as his science. And Twain, because he was a guy who appreciated an evening telling tales.

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