Erythrophobia By Jameson Croteau (2017)

From out in the outfield dirt, the crack of the bat was the only indicator a ball was rising up before dive bombing, back through the crepuscular sky. Jimmy turned and chased the echo of the sound. Go foul… Go foul… The ball, draped in a cloak of clouds, seemed to carry by a will of its own, as if an invisible hand had wrapped around it and guided it over the fence. In the dim light, Jimmy called foul.

The ball, long bruised and threadworn from one too many of Erik’s ‘fastballs’ being lifted into the stratosphere, hop-skipped along the rhubarb forest and disappeared — as quickly as it had appeared in the darkening sky — to Jimmy.

“Nice going, Ricky!” Erik stood indignant, hands on hips, as the group of eight gathered. He didn’t need to say it was the last ball they had, but he did anyway.

“Pitch better,” was Ricky’s only response. He tossed his glove and his bat — which he had carried all the way from home plate daring Jimmy to be lying about the foul ball — and found his foothold into the chain-link fence.

Jimmy started up after him, feeling a bit guilty that at the crack of the bat he had wished it foul instead of fair.

Erik looked around once.

“C’mon you wuss,” Alain seemed to be talking through Jimmy as he turned over the fence—he was a far better climber than Ricky. “It’s just the Patch.”

The rhubarb forest had as many nicknames as it had tall tales. The crimson weeds swayed with the dead breeze. Four years ago, legend spoke, a young girl, Sara, had gone missing. The only thing they found of her was the tattered remains of her pink and blue-polka dotted dress. And even more recent, the cops had been called, half a dozen months back, to clear out some meth-heads. They ended up running into a couple of teenage Cambodian drug dealers. Nothing more harmful than pot, but the cops had found their drug abusers and found a nice warm cell for their criminals.

The rest of the group had found their foothold and heaved themselves over the fence. Jimmy was busying dusting himself off, when Ricky grabbed a half sliced bit of rhubarb and bit into it.

“Disgusting.”

“It’s bitter,” Jimmy said rather matter-of-factly. No one owned the Patch, as far as Jimmy knew. And for good reason. Whoever had planted the rhubarb must’ve not realized how terrible the taste was. It was enough to send you and your covered wagon back south for a far better settlement. Alain said the Patch had been there since before Papa was born. The way the stalks grew, twining into each other, bending and groping, reminded Jimmy of the sickle-legs of a hungry red spider. The stalks had grown —
surprising in the thin Mill City soil — taller than they should have. The green leaf tops provided in the din, a penumbra umbrella, which would make the ball all that much harder to locate.

Erik stood on the other side.

“You coming?” Ricky tossed his half chewed stalk through the fence. Red was on his lips and on his fingers.

“Not my ball. Not my problem.” Erik’s voice quivered weaker than the breeze.

Ricky gave a red tooth smile, “Erik’s afraid boys. Pitches like a girl. Hits like a noodle. And is gonna wet himself like Jimmy. No offense, Jim.”

Jimmy grimaced and grew red. He deserved it though. It was on this field, four years ago, on opening day, even before he had met Ricky or Erik, where he peed his pants. It was his first ballgame and as he sat on the bench waiting for the bottom of the fifth — he was to get on the field the first time, and play shortstop (he would—after his coach had thrown enough dirt on his uniform to make mud — never get to play at short again) — he had pissed himself. It wasn’t the nerves, he would determine later, but the fear of losing his opportunity if he had gone into the Patch to urinate.

“I ain’t going in there. My pa says never go that way. He doesn’t even want me to play at Ducain. Says there’s crackheads and creeps in there,” Erik said. Firm. The boys watched him turn around and head to the only dugout with a working bulb.

“Alright, Jimmy,” Ricky said, taking leadership, it was his hit after all. “Which way did my Babe Ruth land?”

More Ashburn than Ruth… Jimmy thought, but he didn’t say anything. He was thinking about what Erik had said before stomping away. The moon light, under the level of the rhubarb leaves, was dwindling at best, but the summer air reminded the boys that it wasn’t dark enough to call it quits.

On their hands and knees — annoyed only by the occasional spider and Tim’s sneezing — the seven boys covered as much ground as they could.

Jimmy split up from the group. There was pride to be found in finding. Another ball meant another at bat and there still was a chance to take victory away from Ricky.

In between the upturned roots of two rhubarbs he found the ball, it had been walloped and disfigured, causing Jimmy to pass it over twice, before seeing it from the backside. The inner cork had been exposed. It looked more like a yarn ball than anything else. Jimmy tossed it up and down, hearing it whistle through its opened seams. He brought his ear closer to the ball, as if to catch the source of the whistle, but the noise, despite the non-moving ball, didn’t seem to grow any fainter. Another stale breeze brought gooseflesh to his arms.

He hustled, more than he had in the game admittedly, back to the sound of his friends.

“I got it, guys.”

The prized trophy, roughed up beyond recognition, didn’t seem to inspire any cheer in the rest of them. Ricky was busy, near the fence of the field, with a rhubarb—as a conductor’s tool—pointing this way and that. His wicked grin, lopsided and impish, found Jimmy’s eyes.

“I can’t believe,” he said, unable to take a breath, “We’ve never thought of it before. Jim what time do your parents want you home?”

“Uh… nine?” Though Ricky didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good. The Patch is it. The perfect place. Look at how the hill lies, how the plants grow tall and twisted. There’s room here, Jim. The most perfect game of hide-n-seek of all time.” He cackled then, like a magician revealing his final act. “Tell ‘em Tim.”

Timmy, rotund and ropey, opened his mouth. He coughed once, “I saw-

“A shack,” Ricky finished for him, clearly unimpressed with Timmy’s theatrical skill. “Boarded up, but accessible.” Ricky thwacked the rhubarb baton across his palm. “If you’re clever.” He added for good measure. Moonlight, though only with the help of the watercolor sunset back uptown behind the mill horizon, showed the red dripping from Ricky’s mouth.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” Jimmy risked a pick at some of them.

Ricky gave his eyebrows a raise. ‘So-what’ the look dared.

“Poisonous.” Jimmy snatched his own hand away.

Timmy leapt from the stalk he was holding in his hand. “Maybe we shouldn’t play then…”

“Nonsense,” Ricky threw his stalk at Timmy. With his red hands he looked like an Indian demon.

“Don’t be an Erik,” Jimmy cracked his neck, they wouldn’t have been in this situation if it hadn’t been for his terrible pitching. His knees were scratched from finding the ball. He wanted nothing more to go home, or to play ball. But he wasn’t ever going to say no to a mad genius Ricky idea. It was perhaps, unknown to him, his one way of sticking it to his brother. For all the fame Alain Chartier had in Mill City he didn’t have a best friend half as clever as Ricky.

“You just don’t want to be spooked. There’s nothing out here but your imagination. I should know.” Ricky’s words swayed the other boys. It was his confidence. No one, Jimmy knew, had a sliver of the authority Ricky spoke with. His mind was always working, absorbing, reading. You learned to trust him.

Timmy agreed to play. If the big man fell, the others did to. Soon, rhubarb straws were drawn. And rules made. Home base was the other side of the fence. But that was for faint at heart and rule changers. In Mill City hide-n-seek, it was one versus all, no take backs and full force tagging.

Ricky — though Jimmy almost assumed he cheated it — was the man out. He was the seeker.

Without speaking, Ricky turned round, faced the fence and began counting. The six of them bolted through the Patch. Timmy took off as far from the shack as he could. He turned back towards the fence a bit into his run and dove beneath two stalks. William made a beeline for the shack. A tattered thing, Jimmy saw as he ran past. It had a broken window, glass long removed and a flickering bulb. Foolish, Jimmy thought, it’d be the place Ricky would check first.

Jimmy kept moving leaving his friends in the stalks behind. By now, Ricky would have stopped counting. He always got giddy when he got up near twenty.

Past the shack and the view of the fence, past the last few stalks of rhubarb, dead and dying, Jimmy found his hiding spot. An old railway had carved itself into the hillside. It turned up and headed behind the field going away from the city and the Merrimack.

It was an old railway, rusted in most places; it had thick treads—once used to transport textiles to the expanders out west—they were high enough for Jimmy and his pinprick frame to completely disappear. Jimmy made his home between the cool rails, summer had seemed to forget this part of Mill City. Fall foliage, perhaps from years past cushioned his covert bed. He settled down, his rhubarb stalk, long and jagged dug into his palm. And he waited.

Darkness came. And with it noises. These were the type of sounds that came when you were alone. A shift of gravel. A half-wail of wind. Half a moment into his hiding, Jimmy regretted going so far away from the field. The hide-n-seek blues, he called them, came as they always did, settling like a rock into his stomach. Minutes seemed to elongate like a table with infinite leaves. He wasn’t sure if moments were hours. Had he been such a good hider that he’d never be found?

The gravel cracked again. His left hand tightened around a loose stone between the tracks. He risked movement, turning with one eye upwards. He saw the sky and the stars. They peered down on him with exigency. The gravel shifted once more. Sliding across the terrain as if weight was placed on it. If Ricky had found him here, a minor impossibility, he’d have to catch him, an even larger unlikelihood.

A boot on the tracks. Heavy.

Jimmy bolted. His toe caught on the rail lift and he stumbled. Turning he saw a not-quite-dirty white shirt and a man.

And while his face, with taut cheekbones, paper lips, and an angular chin, remained hidden by the darkness. Jimmy saw, through it, a sharp haircut, neat and unparted, and below, two eyes. Wide and circular; brown with orange and without pupils. The man lumbered towards Jimmy. His body moving without joints as if pulled forward.

Jimmy pivoted and ran. This wasn’t the type of run to beat out a double play at second, it was the type of running that silenced the world. He cut through, with arms and voice wailing, brush and rhubarb leaves.

He crashed then, tumbling head into sternum, chipping a tooth, as he ran smack into the seeker. Ricky coughed once, getting up. He had his cackle smile on now. “Wrong, Jim. You see. I’m supposed to find you.”

Jimmy found his breath stolen by a gloved hand on his heart. He was hit at once with a lung full of dizziness and a head thick with spasming coughs.

“There’s something-”

Ricky smiled dimly looking down at the rhubarb in Jimmy’s hands and the hives running up and down his friend’s arms. Ricky was still red with his late night snack.

Jimmy pulled away, tugging at his friend, but Ricky, taller and stronger wouldn’t move. “Fair is fair, Jim. Timmy is seeker now. Got him first. I got the best hiding spot.”

“Shut up Ricky! There’s someone out there.”

The smile curled back. “What do you mean?” Ricky found his feet. Jimmy pointed back into the darkness from where he had come. It was harder to speak than he thought. His index finger rattled. Ricky turned.

Together, in the gloom, they heard the shuffling of a man. The eyes, glowing like an animal’s at dusk, followed them. Ricky took a step forward. Jimmy grabbed his shoulder, but his friend seemed not to feel it.

The figure moved closer. His eyes still, unflinching, drank both the boys in. He moved his hands up, covered from wrist bone to fingers with red. The thin lips didn’t move, they coated themselves in a sticker red than Jimmy had seen before by the tracks.

Ricky stumbled forward, hands reaching weakly for the man. But Jimmy grabbed him by the waist and turned him back towards the fence.

In the chaos of flight, the two of them bolted, elbow to elbow, up the rhubarb hill, dashing through the Patch. Ricky pulled ahead, he was faster that day. The rhubarb grew taller as they came to the fence. Ricky was halfway up when Jimmy jumped on. Ricky rose to the top, straddled and looked down. Jimmy, didn’t look behind him. He didn’t risk it. He saw only Ricky’s red teeth and his hands gripping the chain-link top tighter and tighter, until they were crimson all around his fingers. Jimmy winced.

Together they turned over the fence and landed on their equipment. Erik was there, running towards them. Jimmy found his bat and held it in a stance towards the fence. Ricky’s legs wanted to run. He wanted to run. But they waited, staring into the rhubarb. Nothing moved, except the glint of two heavy eyes. Brown and orange moving in the Patch, watching them with the grace, depth, and hungry rapacity of a lioness.

Jimmy gripped his bat, shuffling hand over hand at the handle. He couldn’t even fight Alain off of him, what chance did he have against that.

The eyes didn’t blink, they moved from stalk to stalk. But the man never stumbled closer. He let his figure hide behind the Patch.

“What are you guys doing?” Erik’s voice was about as fearful as Jimmy felt.

Together Ricky and Jimmy turned back to the Patch. The eyes were gone.

“Where are the others?” Jimmy said. Though the voice didn’t sound like his. It was harsh and laconic.

“They went home,” Erik said, “Too dark to play.”

Jimmy breathed in and then out, hearing Ricky do the same. “C’mon” Jimmy looked over at his friend. Ricky’s neck was red, his cheeks flushed from their spiriting, and as Jimmy said “Let’s go home.” Ricky puked up a mixture of red and grilled cheese. It was thick and sloppy. It came out in waves and seemed to poison the grass, steaming in the night.

Jimmy tossed Erik the ball and half-carried Ricky to the dugout exit, taking the path that would drag them furthest from the Patch.

*

They were silent on the way home. Jimmy had come in fifteen minutes past his curfew to an empty house. He wished the porch lights had been on and his father sitting in the chair, reading the paper. Even if it meant being grounded.

They had stopped only once, on the way home, as they jumped from street light to street light, flinching at every cloaked figure, to let Ricky, whose pace, for once, was quick enough to match his motor mouth, to rinse the red off his hands and mouth.

Home had arrived like a surprise. Jimmy’s legs felt like they had barbed wire tied around them. Everything ached, especially his head. His tongue was swollen, from misuse or the rhubarb he was unsure. So he didn’t even get to say goodnight to Ricky as he slunk, in silence into his house.

His door slammed shut. And Jimmy waited until every light in the house flicked on before moving to his place. Erik followed after, “what’s his problem?”

“Shut up.”

*

Jimmy was surprised to find himself awake the next morning. He had expected, in the night that he would turn over and see the hungry eyes just outside his window, but the last thing he remembered was cleansing the image from his mind as his head hit the pillow.

He turned the shower on, careful not to submerge his head in all the way. As he lathered up his hair, his heart turned. He couldn’t dare to close his eyes. Every time he did, it was as if the window would blow open, cold air billowing in from somewhere. When behind shut eyelids, every floorboard in the house creaked. So he left the shower, shampoo dripping from his hair.

At the table, his father sat with breakfast. He gave Jimmy, after the boy had toweled himself off, a look over, wet his fingers and patted the boy’s hair down, before shifting his plate of eggs over to his son. His father went back to the paper, using the same wetted fingers to move to the next page. Jimmy saw more of his father’s eyes and brow than any part of him.

Alain, taller than them both, burst his way through the frontdoor. Heavy bags sat under his eyes, which told the story of another late night romp. Their father gave his eldest a cursory glance.

“Jan wants the car today.”

“Fine.” Alain said. He knew better than to argue. Roland had yet to say anything about the missing beer in the fridge downstairs. The football star collapsed into the lawn chair next to Jimmy. He gave the boy’s hair a ruffle, undoing all that his father had done moments before.

“Stop it,” Jimmy said. Alain tagged him back with a half-strength fist to the shoulder. Though his brother was holding back it still bruised him.

Alain tapped him again. “C’mon little bro. Where’s the rise? Show me those silver mittens.”

“I told you to stop it.” Jimmy’s voice came out hoarse. Alain gave his father a look over the newspaper. The Sun was his father’s permanent shield. A shield against in-laws, neighbors, and children.

“Woah, someone’s upset today.” Alain picked at his younger brother’s wrist. Shaking the tiny twigs by the stem. His eyes squinted, “What’s this?”

The rhubarb stain, and cuts all along his arms flared fresh red on his skin. “I was out playing last night.”

Their father looked over the paper, putting it down. Alain seemed unperturbed and took a mouthful of Jimmy’s eggs.

“Where?” Usually Roland cared little what his children did as long as they were outside, came home in time, and were safe. He had long stopped caring where Alain made his stomping ground. But he and his wife still had hope for their youngest.

“Baseball field.”

“Lakeview?”

“Ducain,” Alain answered. “Looks like rhubarb.” Jimmy shot his brother a daggerous glare.

“Jim…” his father warned, “We talked about going to Ducain late at night.”

“Well, there were highschoolers at Lakeview.”

“I don’t know,” Roland turned over the page, “Ask them to play, then.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes at the impossibility of that statement. He wanted nothing more than to make a beeline to his room. But he couldn’t stand being alone. As he turned to leave the plate for Alain to ravage, his appetite tainted from the now heavy smell of bitter rhubarb in his nostrils, he saw it on the back page of the Sun which his father had just turned over.

Even in the black and white he saw the colors of the night before. The orange and brown, captured forever, without lust or sympathy in the confines of print, was the mugshot of the man from the night before. His hair was the same. Perfectly cut. His mouth, more wormy than he remembered seemed to turn red as his eyes scanned the picture. Above the artists’ rendition was the word Wanted. Jimmy didn’t want to read anymore.

*

Jimmy waited until his father was done with the paper. He stole the page he needed and hustled the three blocks to Ricky’s house. It took eight knocks for Ricky to come to the door. There was still red coloring his friend’s hands. Bags sat under Ricky’s eyes, they were a purplish color, which was about the only color on his face.

“What do you want Jim?” Ricky said not unkindly.

“Check this,” Jimmy unraveled the paper. Ricky’s eyes studied the wanted poster. Ricky looked then, to have grown gills. He choked back something. “We could turn him in.”

Ricky eyes wavered up to Jimmy. “No.”

“What do you mean no?” It have never occurred to Jimmy that he would be the more adventurous of the two of them.

Ricky swiped the paper, ripping it down its seams. “I don’t want to see that again. I don’t want to think about it. That thing out there was…. It wasn’t human.”

Jimmy couldn’t find words. Ricky closed his eyes and then snapped them open immediately. He went over to a trash can and gagged. “Are you alright?”

The color drained further from Ricky’s face. Red was between his teeth. “I’m fine.” Steel came back to Ricky’s voice.

“How about we call the police?” Jimmy suggested. His fingers playing with the two ends of the paper in his hands. “We don’t have to go back to the Patch. We can catch him from here.”

Ricky nodded wearily. Together they went into the kitchen, Ricky braced himself against the wall and plopped into a seat.

“We’ll be heroes, Rick” Jimmy dialed 9-1-1 on the phone. The two halves of the wanted poster sat on the table. He studied the face. Red creeped into the black and white squiggles, curling around his mouth and then down to his hands. The eyes grew scarlet too, one on each slice of paper. They held Jimmy still.

A flatline voice broke him from the newspaper: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Uh,” Jimmy started, pulling himself from the image, “The Sun ran a wanted poster for a man today. I think-” Ricky smashed his head against the table, his arms sliding the paper onto the ground. His body went limp. “Oh god!” The phone slipped from Jimmy’s hand, thudding on the table.

“You didn’t eat the leaves did you?” The realization came soft to Jimmy’s mind. It should have been a thunderstorm conclusion, but it entered into his mind as a drizzle in May.

Ricky looked up at him. His eyes faded. Red mucus pooled out of his mouth in heavy chunks. The bile was rancid, a concoction of sweat and stomach acid. It ran red all over the newspaper. Jimmy felt around at Ricky, trying to shake him to recognition. “Damnit. What do I do?”

Jimmy’s mind raced, curling back to the man in the Patch. His eyes seemed to watch Jimmy now, even in the kitchen of Ricky’s home. The glare’s oppression gripped his heart and turned it meek.

Jimmy grabbed the phone. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” the dispatcher responded immediately. “You need to calm down.”

“My friend. He’s sick I need an ambulance.”

“Talk slow. Where are you? What address?”

“271 Mapleton Street. Mill City.”

*

Three months later, Jimmy dug his cleats into the dirt between first and second. He pounded, with his right hand, into the webbing of his glove. Across the way, in the no-man’s land between second and third was not Ricky. He had never signed up for Fall Ball. The Ducain Field was empty without him.

Jimmy once he had learned Ricky would be fine—a stomach pump later had gotten all the bile out—thought things would go back to what they were before. He had been wrong. Ricky didn’t play ball anymore. Didn’t go anywhere near a baseball diamond. Didn’t even stay in the yard for after-school recess.

Two days after Ricky ‘recovered’ Jimmy thought it wise to call 9-1-1 again. He told the dispatcher what he had wanted to in the first place. That the man was out there in rhubarb patch. Cops scanned the place for days. But found nothing.

Last night, when he was feeling the odd bubbling mixture of bravery and stupidity behind his ribs, Jimmy went out there, to see for himself. Alone, he spent the better part of the night in the shack, finding nothing but needles, creaky-door whistles, and a red drenched torn-away piece of a t-shirt. He supposed bringing the man to justice would save Ricky.

“Strike!” the umpire called. Sending down another Mill City Rebel. Their red jerseys were the color of the leaves now. And as the half-inning ended and Jimmy’s team trotted back to the dugout, he turned back to hear the dying wind slice through the Patch. From behind the left field foul fence, the scarlet stalks waved at him. And as the game finished, an hour later, his eyes went back to the Patch. And by a product of fear, or, what he truly believed, hope, he saw another pair of eyes amongst the dark forest of red.

*

A few months later, Ricky would leave Mill City for good. Whatever he had seen out there, the doctor’s had said after Jimmy’s questioning, was affected by the rhubarb vitriol in his system. Jimmy knew deep down, that out in the Patch, something had been broken in his friend. There were no more half-crazed plans, no more mad scientist cackle, there was just lazy eyes and dulled wit to replace what Jimmy had once clung to.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.

Crumbling Walls By Kristina Reardon (2017)

Long River Graduate Writing Award, Winner (2017)

“Petra, she say there be bones,” my grandmother told me, pointing beyond me to the old castle on top of the hill. The frame of the old, Slavic structure was about as beautiful as a decaying tooth with jagged corners. A revolting brownness permeated the place. Even so, my mind produced an image of a young girl in a long skirt, two braids down her back, eyes squinting, as my grandmother and I climbed the switchback path up to the castle. My Petra was in a translucent sepia, superimposed over the scene in front of me.

Until this moment, Petra was unknown, a half-sister whose name had disappeared from my grandmother’s oral history in the same way her plane’s trails of smoke had evaporated when she came to America: invisible as clean glass. Yet I was starting to think that things could never truly be gone, that even smoke trails became part of the nothingness we swallowed when we opened our mouths to breathe.

“Bones,” my Petra said, pointing. I imagined the soft stone walls of the castle crumbling when my breath hit them, when I got too close. This was not the kind of castle that had flags and polished stones. No, this was the kind that of castle that was molded together using brick and mortar into squat rectangles and squares on top of hills with hay bales in front of them — the kind barons would have taken over by the 1940s. The kind that a baron did take over by 1943. Even stepping near a hay bale was supposed to have been a gift, an honor; this is what my great-grandparents told themselves, I knew, as they scrubbed floors and led cows to graze when their children were gone, working someone else’s land.

“Ana,” my Petra said, and I saw her ghost-like figure in front of me, pulling on the low pocket of my grandmother’s skirt. “Ana.”

The castle would have risen before them back then, just the same as it did now, only its crumbling would not yet have been so complete, before the bombs; its repairs would not have required yellow and orange tape, pictorial signs from the government in Ljubljana, which was funding the project, telling those who walked by: this castle will be restored to its former splendor.

“Ach, vhat is this, splendor?” my grandmother asked, ignoring Petra as we passed the sign, walking up the hill’s goat paths, places where cars and carts could not go, only human legs, and even then just barely. The castle was high above, but not so high that you couldn’t climb there amidst the row of stumps that used to be fruit-bearing trees — trees cut down long ago, violently, and with an ax, I guessed, judging by their jagged remains. The castle was high enough that midway to the top of its hill, you could see the lambs below but could not hear their soft sheep noises, their almost donkey-like, mountain-sheep braying.

“Petra, she say there be bones,” my grandmother said again, this time pointing beyond me, as if she could not see my Petra. We moved our legs up higher on the steep parts of the hill, and my knees hit my chest. My Confirmation cross swung uncomfortably in the July heat. I had to wait a moment, wait for her to catch up to me, as her unsteady feet tangling in the roots beneath us. My grandmother’s face hardened when she moved her legs. She was breathing in so hard her nose looked pinched, and a Slovenian face hardening is an unpleasant thing. In the three weeks we had been in Slovenia, I’d gotten over the fact that in family photographs, I was the only one who smiled. But really, I wanted to know: what was the harm in smiling all the time? It made things look ever so much more pleasant, and I wanted to believe that even in the time of the old black and whites, the photos that dotted my family’s walls back in the U.S., that there must have been something, amidst all the trouble, to smile about.

“Grandma,” I said, tugging at her hand, the way I might have done years ago as a child, even though I was twenty-three. “Smile, be happy, we’re still moving. Just smile.”

She turned her head toward me, as just now we were reaching the castle’s base. Small drips of sweat fell from her still-black, but thinning, hair, and the sweat fell into the long lines beside her eyes. She opened her mouth and gritted her teeth.

“Now you be happy?” she said.

“Sure,” I said, wanting to pull the corners of her mouth upward. A smile was more than an open mouth and teeth stacked on top of each other. For goodness’ sake.

“You know, people no need-it to smile all the time if they be happy,” she said. “Sometime, they like-it keep to selves, vhat they be happy. Nobody need-it know.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Stara baba!”

Joj, Lila, Američanka!” my grandmother said, raising her hands above her toward the sky, revealing the stains under her arms. It was hotter than anything out here. She always called me Američanka, when she was teasing.

“A stara baba no have-it no teeth!” she said. “I have-it teeth. Vhat they teach you in school?”

I laughed, but I wanted to say: give me a break, seriously. But you didn’t say things like that to a grandmother, especially not one you’d checked out of assisted living with your mother’s permission, not approval, and took to her home country, one last time. Or actually: just plain old one time, not one last time, just one time in the forty years she’d been refusing to speak proper English in Rhode Island. No one else had wanted to come.

“Why?” my mother had asked, as a piece of her dyed-blonde hair got stuck on her cheek, as her expression froze. “Why?”

No one would ever understand my reasons for coming, I knew. Not even Grandma Ana, though I thought, now, that she probably had the closest shot — what with having made the decision to leave Yugoslavia behind, rendering most of it so forgotten in her memory just to survive. I’d left my sophomore year of college to come to Ljubljana, a place I’d visited family countless times before, and wandered the city, counting the stones along the Ljubljanica River. As if their numbers would add up to something that made sense. As if that was possible. But like a mathematician with imaginary numbers, I was still trying — still hoping that I could find something in my past, something intangible, so I could line it up and solve in a neat equation, so my future would come into view. But with a mother who was too young to remember, and relatives who didn’t always have the answers, taking Grandma Ana back to Slovenia had seemed like the only solution.

She was wheezing a bit now, as we sat, backs against the lower crumblings of the castle. I’d never guessed that returning to Slovenia would put so much strain on her — in the sense that it was possible for her to withstand any strain at all, as she rarely walked around in Rhode Island. We paused, glancing at the castle we’d finally reached: its walls still stretched toward the sky, all three stories. Nobody ever bothered to mention that castles, real, legitimate old castles — which were different from palaces, a fact none of my friend back home seemed to grasp — were just kind of glorified stone fortresses. Stone walls, bare insides: cold, dark. I’d walked through enough of them with my grandmother on this trip to know that.

“OK,” I said, as she breathed deeply, taking off her glasses and placing them in her lap. “So why did we come here?” We’d been to visit every relative, every neighbor she’d remembered, walking down winding roads to small houses in the villages, clusters of a dozen houses; cutting brush away in the woods from paths that my aunts and uncles didn’t remember existed, to find a pond that resembled a looking glass, with the clearest water you ever could see; stopping on the side of the road to pause next to a near trickle of water, so that she could tell us that, sixty years prior, this had been called Nežika Falls, which no one remembered but her, until she overturned a piece of rotting wood under a pile of leaves which bore that name.

“Why here?” I said again, waiting for my answer, wondering if would come in Slovenian or her half-English.

“You no remember? Vat I tell you about Petra?”

I thought back to the bottom of the hill. Yes, Petra. My great aunt, her sister. I’d been constructing their story in my head, my grandmother’s youthful self joining Petra halfway up the hill, visible to me from this vantage point.

“Petra say me: Ana, there be bones inside. Ve go there.”

Yes, my aunt, my teta, Petra would have had brown-red hair, I decided, like me, and she would have looked like my younger self: long, thin Slavic nose, but with skin that was too olive colored, and lips that were fuller and brighter, eyes that were bigger, than any good Slovenian’s — so different, in fact, that she would have been called a gypsy when she was being bad, just like my grandmother had called me when I’d maybe not so accidentally dropped her large, lazy, allergy-inducing cat off the porch when I was ten.

I imagined my grandmother’s story: how she and Teta Petra would have held onto each other’s hands as they walked along the dirt path to the castle, stopping to bless themselves at the open wooden boxes on poles — birdhouses sheltering crucifixes —that were at the end of each path that led out of the village. How they would have kissed their mother good-bye as they left, leaving her to do all the cleaning and the milking and the gardening and the cooking, and the men’s work outside, besides, as their father went door to door with his cart, peddling old jewelry he’d bought at the market in Ljubljana. How they would have come, with all the other village children, to the baron’s castle — some old man, claiming royal blood, who would rather live in the cold darkness of a crumbling stone wall than make an honest living for himself. How they would have rushed onto the hilly grounds, holding burlap sacks, collecting apples from the trees. I imagined the hill dotted with children, all young like my grandmother had been, all holding their sister’s hands, too, boosting each other up higher to reach the fruit on the top of the tree. The images of Petra and my young grandmother were bursting into color in front of me, as they ran a panting zig-zag toward the castle.

“If you even eat one bite, they take-it vhip and they smack you,” my grandmother said, as her hand made fast, harsh contact with my cheek.

“What?” I said, as I flinched, and my eyes started to water, more from the sharp, unexpectedness of the slap than from anything else. The scene in front of me faded back into translucent colorlessness. “What in the world?”

“Next time, you vatch,” she said, her way of apologizing while also saying, of course, that she hated when I daydreamed her stories to life, as if the words she gave me were not enough, instead of realizing they were everything: the fragments I used to piece together a moment in her history, as if somehow it was vitally important to understanding mine, my history, what I would leave on this earth for some future granddaughter to find. What paths and waterfalls would be forgotten all around me? What could I uncover, someday on the coast of Narragansett, some forty years into the future?

“And, if you no be good, all kids say they throw you in vith bones,” my grandmother said, finally telling me what little ghost Petra had been alluding to. “They take-it those Turks, what they be invading for hundred years, and they keep-it their bones, in cellar.”

“There are bones inside there, Ana,” I saw wispy ghost Petra say, as she tugged on my grandmother’s arm, my grandmother, who was a silent, unmoving cut-out from a black and white photograph from her First Communion: wearing a white dress and buckle shoes, with a large bow in her short white-blond hair.

“Come on, Ana!” Petra would have said, dragging my grandmother along, up the hill, as they paused between groups of children, sneaking between trees, when the baron wasn’t looking. There would not have been soldiers, or any other kind of rule enforcers; only the baron, a sickly old man who wore an overcoat even in the summer, who lived in the old castle more due to squatter’s rights than to a bloodline. But the hint of something royal was enough for the villagers to send their children at his request.

“I want to see the bones,” Petra would have whispered, as they finally reached the end of the row of trees, and looked around to see where the baron was. He would not have been in sight, of this much I was sure. They would have dashed up the goat path — this baron, for all his laziness, would at least have had goats — until they reached the top of the steep hill, the bottom floor of the castle. The baron would not have been in sight, this much I had to believe, as the girls peered between the stone bars of the cellar windows, as they laid on their stomachs, small grains of sand and tiny pebbles under their tummies. They could not have known that the only offense more punishable than eating an apple was approaching the castle. Petra saw the bones, she must have. There must have been skeletons with skulls and femurs and joints and knuckles and toes and rib cages, all scattered together; maybe she saw the piles rise into human form, walking toward her. Maybe she saw that; maybe that’s what made her less aware than my grandmother as the baron approached, whip in one hand, the other hidden behind his back.

My grandmother could not be blamed for pulling away from the window; she must have seen what was in the baron’s other, hidden hand. She was only ten years old, Petra eight. Who can be blamed at the age of ten for pulling away for a moment in shock and fear on a day when you were only supposed to be picking apples? Who can be blamed for running down the goat path as fast as her legs could carry her? Who could know that a sickly old man would approach Petra, still on her tummy, still staring straight ahead, and swing his ax down on her back until her body was lifeless?

“I never no see cellar,” my grandmother said, as she stood. “That be why we come here.”

I sat, unable to rise, as wispy ghost Petra disappeared in front of me, her face somber as her body folded in half, her torso and head hitting the ground. I waved my hand in front of me to clear the mist of her feet, still planted, in the rough soil, and her skirt that somehow still hung over her legs. She faded from color to black and white to sepia tones in front of me until she was gone.

My grandmother reached toward me with her hand, as if, in her plump frailness, she could lift me. I wondered if in this spot Petra died, or if it was just over there, beyond the corner, or five feet away, or twenty. My grandmother had never told anyone in America, not even my mother, that she’d had a sister; I’d have doubted the accuracy of her story — old women are prone to fabricate tales at the ends of their lives, I knew — but for the fact that we had seen her headstone, still carefully tended, with flowers and candles, in the village below.

My grandmother was humming now, as she pulled her hand away, and began walking past me, so that I could only catch the first phrases as she began to softly sing:

Ona mene čese da kri iz glave teče
Ti si mene česala na čelo poljubila, mamica moja…

I translated the words roughly in my head as I found the strength to stand:

She combs my hair till blood runs from my head
You combed my hair and kissed my forehead, oh mommy of mine…

I recognized it as an old folk song, one that step-children sang about their stepmothers, and remembered, for some reason, the fact that my cousin had told me that sometimes it wasn’t sadness or wars that kept people in Slovenia from smiling — that it was the fact that they were mostly all missing a few teeth and didn’t have braces, not like I’d had, lucky American.

“Wait, wait,” I said, as I rose, for some reason wanting to call my grandmother simply Ana as her sister had done.

My grandmother paused in front of me, as if she were waiting, and then turned around and began walking back down the hill.

“I no remember,” she called back. “I no remember vhere she vas.” Her eyes were fixed in front of her, down the goat paths, down past the line of stumps.

“It no matter,” she said, and she continued back down the hill, saying only: “To je to.” It was the typical Slovenian ending to a story: That is all. It meant: no more questions. It meant: that’s it, that’s all that happened. It meant: there’s nothing more to say.

I didn’t know in that moment if the ache in the back of my throat was because Petra died, or because my grandmother couldn’t remember where, or if it was because, before she’d said to je to, she’d said that the reason they’d come was to see what was in the cellar, really. Or if it was because, after forty years, when she came close to the crumbling castle, she turned and walked away. As if to say, no one owes you forgiveness. As if to say, there are reasons, in Slovenia, that we end stories with to je to, and, despite the fact that you have never lived here, you are half-Slovenian, you know. You ought to consider that ending once in a while; it’s how we move on.

But I was putting words into my grandmother’s mouth. She was walking down the hill, and wispy Petra ghost was gone. I turned, reached back toward the castle, tracing with my eyes the place where the bottom stones met the dirt until I found a small window with columns, nearly halfway around. I knelt, hands and knees on the gravel, and lowered my head to the ground so that I could see whatever was waiting beyond those crumbling walls and look it straight in the eye.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.

UConn Creative Writing Contest Winners!

Congratulations to the 2017 winners of UConn’s English Department Creative Writing Awards!

Keep an eye out for some of these pieces in the upcoming 20th anniversary edition of Long River Review this spring.

The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prizes

Prose Winner: Breanna Patterson, for “The Times”
Honorable Mention: Stephanie Koo, for “Where Do Birds Go to Die?”

Poetry Winner: Emma Kraner, for “Uffizi Gallery”
Honorable Mention: Emma Kraner, for “Dissection”

The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction

First Place: Lilia Shen, for “The Picasso House”
Second Place: Sten Spinella, for “Angus”
Third Place: Jeremiah Dennehy, for “Constance”
Honorable Mention: Brianna McNish, for “In Another Life”

Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest

First Place: Anna Ziering
Second Place: Brian Sneeden
Third Place: Jillian Cundari
Honorable Mentions: Akshayaa Chittibabu and Samantha Bassman

The Aetna Children’s Literature Award

Winner: Jameson Croteau, for “Moon Bound”

The Aetna Translation Award

Winner: Matthew Ryan Shelton, for “Transubstantiation”
Honorable Mention: Matthew Ryan Shelton, for “Etched Away”

The Aetna Creative Nonfiction Awards

Undergraduate First Prize: Noah Bukowski, for “Guilt Treatment”
Honorable Mention: Kiana Cao, for “My Home, Your Home”

Graduate First Prize: Nyanka Joseph, for “Marrow and Mopping”

Long River Graduate Writing Award

Winner: Kristina Reardon, for “Crumbling Walls”

Congratulations to all winners!
Long River Review would also like to extend a very special congratulations to our staff members.

For more information about UConn’s creative writing contests and how to participate, please visit the department website.

How to Surive an Attack from an Ex-M15 Agent: Eleven Steps to Getting the Most out of Your Writing Workshop

By: Jameson Croteau

people-coffee-tea-meeting.jpg

(Creative Commons/ Google Images)

Someone told me— right before my transatlantic flight—that Englishmen hate confrontation. Flash forward to my writing internship in London and I have an ex-MI5 agent, veins popping purple through the Skype window on my 16-inch laptop screen, about to burst from my criticism of his second to-be-published novel. His vitriol, hardly avoiding curses, were being hurled across the internet, burning the connection lines along the way. I think that I had touched a sore spot in his relationship with his work. I had probed, innocently I can’t quite say, the motivation of the protagonist. And now, I was going to pay.

“I don’t need an American twig without a degree commenting on my work.” He had said (read: screamed) to my advisor as I was shuffled safely away and out of the screenshot.

I could’ve been gentler, sure, but I was convinced that his main character didn’t have a reason to go back to the Falklands midway in the third act of his sprawling Paris thriller. This mishap, though scary at first—the distance over Skype between myself and the ex-MI5 agent felt about as sturdy as a printer paper shield—confirmed to me the importance of being a successful workshopper. Had Mr. ex-MI5 been a bit more receiving of criticism, I assure you that he’d be a better writer. All it takes is some etiquette and the right mindset to progress. This being said, here are my eleven steps to acquiring the most from your workshopping experience.

Step 1: Breathe

Inhale deep. Hold. Exhale.

It’s as simple as that.

Every writer has anxieties about their work, regardless of that person’s level of experience (or lack thereof). Once you hit submit, your work is in a state that won’t change until after you hear the feedback from your peers. Therefore, there’s nothing left for you to do but sit back and ride the wave that you just created…hoping that it sends back a ripple or two.

Step 2: Breathe

Yep. Do it again.

Now put down your papers, your notebooks, your laptop and let your work breathe. For the purposes of the workshop, you and your art have just been through a somewhat messy break up. Give it time before you start sending it late-night pining texts.

Stephen King in his memoir of the craft, On Writing, suggests a six-week period of breathing space before working on the second draft of a piece. I won’t say your break has to last that long, but allow yourself space so that you can return to your work with a fresh eye. You want to be able to let your critics’ comments rattle around in your head before you see what sticks. Then, hopefully, you’ll be back at your desk with some new, evolved ideas and a fire in your gut.

Step 3: Shut Up and Shut It Down.

The workshops that I have been a part of tend to thrive when they are open discussions with one caveat: the writer’s whose piece is being critiqued is not allowed to talk. Sure, this rule is broken all the time, but trust me that the less talking that the author does during the critique of their piece, the more likely they are to get an honest opinion.

It comes down to the fact that if your work is a finished product you will be willing to let it stand on it’s own. As an author, you will never have the luxury of standing over a reader’s shoulder to explain the reasoning behind your choices. You have to be able to let the voice in your prose or poetry stand on its own.

Part of this process involves shutting down your ego. Even the greatest performers crave criticism. There’s no way to grow if you aren’t open to your work being deconstructed, analyzed, and put back together. Take the time to go over everyone’s comments and concerns from the first-year creative writing student, to the “Guy in your MFA” types, to the perennial published author, and even to your grandmother (though be sure to have a saltshaker on hand). Your audience will always differ, and you’ll never know who out there is going to pick your book up on a whim and starting reading. It’s impossible to appeal to everyone, but make sure that your voice and your work are as traveled and viewed as possible. To make this happen you have to be both humble and accepting.

Step 4: Find Strangers

As hard as it is to separate yourself from your work, it will be even harder for your fellow workshoppers to do so. Finding a talented and driven group of writing strangers is a nearly impossible task, I know. At this point, the experience that you’ve had workshopping is probably with friends or in a classroom setting. However, it is paramount that you receive the frankest (and therefore helpful) comments possible. Nothing makes a workshop blander than an audience who wants to rip your piece to shreds but is afraid of hurting your feelings. Therefore, submit your work to people who don’t give a damn about you. Your work will thank you for it.

Step 5: Write Everything Down

It seems straightforward, but I hardly see anyone ever do it. I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember the sentences I sketch in my head during a shower by the time that I get dressed. Write everything down. Even if you don’t believe it applies, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if the commenter didn’t read your piece all the way through. You’ll want notes when your trying to develop your second draft. Even if you feel like the comments aren’t what you initially intended, these suggestions need space to settle in your mind. If you take notes, you won’t need to go memory fishing weeks later to remember what the “Guy in your MFA” said that could actually be a practical solution the issues that you’re having with your work.

**Semi-pro tip: if even one commenter spends more than 20 seconds talking about a particular aspect of your piece, that section needs to be given a more comprehensive look over.

Step 6: Tally and Rally

After I’ve accumulated my notes from workshop, I’ll jot down the sections that need to be improved and make a tally. I look for similarities in my peers’ comments, and make a note of what keeps reappearing.

This is the point where you should start asking questions. If things aren’t clear in the workshop, they won’t be clear when you go back to work on your piece. Once you’ve gathered your data, start where you got the most “hits” (be it time spent or number of mentions). If it’s a point of contention, consider that section further. You don’t have to get it right, but at least coming at these points from different angles will increase the chances of something about your own work being revealed to you.

Also, the best way to receive a good workshop is to give great ones in return. The next few tips we be about leveling up your workshop game.

Step 7: Be a Doctor

Other than learning how to stare down a PO’ed ex-MI5 officer, the most valuable tidbit that I learned during my internship in London was to “be a doctor.”

Good workshopping, in my opinion, requires you to do three things:

1). Find.

2). Diagnose.

3). Prescribe.

Never be the person that says “Sara isn’t a believable character.” You shouldn’t even say “Sara isn’t a believable character because she has no identified motives.” Be the person that clearly states “Sara isn’t believable, but I suggest doing x, y, or even z to help pin down her character.”

Even if the author doesn’t take your idea (and most times they won’t), they will be forced to think about it. And this process will usually spur some new, more creative thought that will benefit the piece as a whole. Going the extra mile with your suggestions will make your comments more reliable and note worthy. And ultimately it helps the writer, which is always the end goal.

Step 8: Reciprocate

Guy Kawasaki , famous for being Apple’s Chief Evangelist, writes in his how-to startup book: The Art of the Start 2.0, that reciprocation is paramount for creating an enduring company. He goes on to write that trading one resource or activity for another doesn’t create lasting relationships. Trading creates work that must be done, whereas reciprocation creates work that ought to be done. It establishes a relationship as well as an obligation.

So be like Guy, go out of your way to pick out the best few or the most active members of your workshop and go the extra mile for them. Take their piece and do a line-by-line edit. Start a conversation with them about their piece and in turn—while I can’t guarantee they’ll do the same for you—when it’s your workshop slot they will be more mindful about your work.

Step 9: Be Frank and Constructed

Be a writer’s best friend. Shoot them straight, but be pithy and contained. Your comments lose value when they start to rant and become jumbled. A simple tactic I learned in high school that still works well today is that you have to comment on four things when reading a piece: the most and least interesting bit and the most and least convincing. This is the bare minimum I do. Every piece, no matter how terrible or how perfect, will have something that can be represented by each of these four points.

Once you have found your points, expand on them as far as you can. This will allow you to be as real as you’re able to while giving feedback that is structured and straight forward. It works because it clearly states where the writer succeeds and where they had some slipups. And it’s short and simple. Remember the trimmer the vessel the more it can carry.

Step 10: Be Thankful

We have to admit it, writers can be an overbearing bunch, even to each other. If we’re lucky enough to have someone out there look at our first draft drivel or monster manuscripts, say thanks. They just may do it again.

Step 11: Don’t be an angry MI5 agent. Please.