Letter from the Editor
Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
We are here and we are shrieking; can you hear us?
The Long River Review is an organic being. It is good for your body, and it is made out of feelings. The poems, stories, essays, and artwork you are about to digest were composed by voices of this generation that are trying profoundly to feel. In reading these creative works, I suggest visual digestion; let your synapses get a little sloppy between lines and allow your palate to bloom in lexical delight.
As editors and readers, we are trying to feel, too. When we selected pieces for publication, we chose the ones that moved us most. We found the strongest voices and put them on these pages. Although we didn’t set out looking for a themed issue, you may notice a wavering strand of something holding these voices together. Everyone is falling apart a little. You will read about mental disarray, loss, threesomes, and asylums—of dreaming, spells, war, and tea leaves. There is a collective, honest voice here, and it experiences everything to the fullest extent. As artists, many of us have suffered; we are amidst an economic depression, and a myriad of crimes against humanity are hitting our souls hard. It is art that feeds our souls, and so I offer you up this morsel.
I do a lot of shrieking, and I try to bloom as recklessly as possible. I’m still searching for the heart of the night. You’ll be hearing more from me, but if you don’t, remember that I was here.
The Wallace Stevens Poetry Prize
The Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award
The Long River Graduate Writing Award
For the best piece of writing in any genre by a graduate student
Michael Pontacoloni, Poetry
The Long River Art Award
Sandy Honig, Photography
Gloriana Gill Art Awards
Caroline Palumbo, Photography
Sarah Parsons, Illustration
- Editor in Chief
- Managing Editor
- Poetry Editor
- Poetry Panel
- Fiction Editor
- Fiction Panel
- Creative Nonfiction Editor
- Nonfiction Panel
- Translations Editors
- Interviews Editor
- Copy Editors
- Blog Editors
- Public Relations Directors
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 1st Prize
Emptiness in Harmony
I went for a walk. There was no dusk. No change
of clothes for the street, the trees, the sky;
a second skin, different bones.
The mottled asphalt kept coming as long as I walked.
I thought about conversations, about talking,
about moving my jaw and flapping
a piece of fat flesh around my mouth, about the sounds
I can make if I just let it wag, let my saliva run,
growl, try to turn my throat inside-
out. I pictured the house, how when I turned around,
turned my back to the dark and going road,
made my feet move, I would come back
to its face,
windows lit like eyes
on either side of a slender nose
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 2nd Prize
Falling to Pieces
I fell to pieces today in the kitchen,
where a shard of me got stuck
in my older brother’s toe.
I asked him if it hurt and he said no;
I asked if I could have it back and he said
and scampered away
to compare it to the other bits of me
he’s hoarded over the years.
I’m going to fall to pieces tomorrow in the bedroom
somewhere in the void between the sheets,
and you’re going to do the same.
We’ll look at the pieces and trade with each other
and if you end up with the green of my right eye,
I’ll take your irrational fear of socks and say
and we can work on putting each other back together,
stronger for the glue.
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 3rd Prize
Euphemisms for Going to the Bathroom
it is not the rust boiling
beneath the paint, the black mold
singed into the grout, and
seared into the ceiling,
that makes it difficult—
to use the bathroom, those first
few weeks of college, when
we wear euphemisms
for personalities and only
pee with the faucet
running—we try so hard
beneath the flickered haze, yellow
but we cannot pretend to be
anything more than flesh,
rippled and exposed—
each scarred and pockmarked
stall is a confessional, the thick
curled paint a weary witness
to every complaint and revelation
of the body, these sounds of
biology, the body functioning—
admissions that we
—smell, fail, and are the same
essential person we have always been—
the gut declaring to the pale
ankles next door—
our anatomy pleading the truth,
that we are human.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 1st Prize
Herbie the Elm Tree
Loosely Based on a True Story
David Bishop craned his neck to see the snow still glittering on the large boughs of an Elm tree. His eyes climbed the thick trunk that split into three, all the way up to the highest branches. They looked like hands, reaching their thousands of delicate fingers toward the sky. David Bishop imagined, with a light, rusty scoff, that if the Elm were allowed one more year in the sun, the very tip of its twigs would finally scrape the ceiling of the world.
But when he looked down at the ugly caution tape girdling the immense base of the trunk, he remembered what day it was.
His ancient sigh filled the mournful silence and was absorbed by the thin blanket of snow still covering the neighborhood. His dry, calloused fingers tightly gripped the rubber handles of his walker. He knew Herbie had to go. The young men would arrive within the hour to take the hundred foot tall tree down, limb by limb. It was for the best. If the tree, severely weakened by Dutch Elm Disease, were left to stand, it would pose a threat to the small neighborhood to which Herbie was anchored. A bad winter storm would be enough to snap one of his titanic limbs, which could easily slice through a roof.
But in the winter, with his branches as barren as all of the other trees in town, he didn’t seem ill. In fact, he was the most majestic of them all—a living tower in a tiny town full of tiny houses, and tiny people. The only sign of his crippling weakness was his leaves in the summertime, which reliably turned yellow and withered into crumpled brown corpses.
The chill Maine wind lifted the silence, and swept it along the street. It whispered between Herbie’s boughs. A laugh emerged from the tinkling of frozen twigs, and Herbie slowly, fondly waved at his old companion.
David closed his eyes and listened to the familiar voice.
The same ethereal laugh used to call David Bishop out of doors when he was a young boy at the turn of the century. Every afternoon he would drop his school books home and spend hours running and screaming with the other neighborhood boys. In the warm weather, they kicked an old soup can full of holes that was once a shooting target up and down the street, and in the winter, they assaulted each other with snowballs.
But regardless of the seasons, Herbie stood sentinel at the end of the block, wearing whatever foliage suited the season, and he of course, was always a tremendous source of entertainment for the boys. They swung with scrawny monkey limbs from branch to branch, and the summer leaves swished coolly against their feverish skin. Herbie was a home, a jungle gym, a shelter from and a place to store snowballs. He was anything the boys wanted him to be.
However, the silent, looming Elm was not always Herbie. The tree was just a tree, like so many other Elms that arched over the neighborhoods, until one hot day in July 1917.
The boys quickly tired out after a sweaty, wordless game of kick the can and stood there motionless, their tiny chests heaving up and down.
“Let’s go sit in Mr. Hanson’s tree,” Robby Clark said. He was the oldest, a fifth grader, and what he said was law. The boys, including David, nodded soundlessly and ran down the street, sweat glittering in streams down their red faces.
When they reached the giant Elm’s base, the boys nearly climbed up onto the lower trunks, when Robby stopped them.
“Wait! There’s a dumb girl stuck in the tree.”
He then tossed his head back and yelled up to the jade ceiling of the tree.
“Hey kid! Are you stuck?”
“No!” a little voice like a bell rang down from one of the highest boughs. David couldn’t even see her she was so well camouflaged in the jungle of branches.
“Well then get down, this is our tree!” Robby yelled irritably.
“Don’t make me come up there and get you!” Robby threatened.
After a stubborn silence, Robby clambered angrily up the tree, but part way up its tremendous height, he slipped and scraped his legs badly as he slid back into the Elm’s lap. Defeated, Robby stuck out his lower lip, furrowed his sweaty brow, and summoned his band of boys to another shady spot nearby.
But David, intrigued by this strange little girl he couldn’t even see, hid behind the base until the voices of the boys disappeared into the thick, humid air.
Carefully, he crawled up the maze of branches. The ancient, moss covered boughs were so large that they didn’t even budge under his meager weight. As he grew closer to the green sky above, he finally saw the ruffles of a pale yellow dress sticking out from behind a natural cradle formed by the junction of two branches. Two little legs, browned by the summer sun, were propped up against the opposite branch. She was whispering something that David stretched his neck out to hear.
Snap! went a twig crushed beneath his small, red hand.
Suddenly, with a whirl of sandy blonde hair, a small face appeared.
“What are you doing here?” she trilled like an angry mother bird whose precious nest was just disturbed. The girl had a rather ordinary, oval face with a weak, v shaped chin, and tiny lips that pursed together into a thin pink line.
It was her eyes that startled young David into silence. It seemed they took up most of her face, for they were unusually large. They were the same blue-green that he had seen one summer by the shore, when a violent storm had come and whipped up towering waves that foamed and beat mercilessly against the sand. She even carried the scent of lightning and rain weighing down the air.
“Um…I like to climb trees,” David stuttered.
“Me too,” the little girl beamed, her tempest blue eyes softening with the rays of her smile. David smiled too, a tension releasing his stomach when he knew the storm had passed him by. “What’s your name?”
“Emma,” she said, thrusting out a twig arm. Her fingernails were stuffed with bark and moss bits. His were just the same, and he smiled even wider at her. They shook hands.
David vaguely remembered their first conversation, but not the details. He remembered her smile and how freely it bloomed across her face, and he remembered her laugh, a light, tinkling sound not much different from the leaves that brushed her hair. Where images and subjects of conversation long past had faded, the essence of his feelings remained. She was an endless beginning, a fervent spring of life, and he could not grasp her.
David Bishop did not know if all the days they spent had merged into one continuous afternoon in July, but during one of those afternoons, whether it was the first or not, he discovered the giant Elm had a name. He caught Emma once, with her hand over her mouth, whispering something fervently to a large knot in the trunk that could very well have been an ear.
“What are you doing?”
“Talking to Herbie.”
“The tree, silly,” she rolled her eyes.
What an odd thing to do. Why on earth would she do something so foolish? It was just a tree after all. David had expressed this logic in so many words, and Emma just laughed that wind chime laugh of hers.
“Why not talk to him?” she said, lying fearlessly on her back, her arms draped like limp ribbons over the sides of the large bough. The expression in her eyes, the waves, and the light trapped within, slipped through his fingers. “He’ll always be here. Everyone else will die. You will, I will. But Herbie…he watches over us, and he’ll always be there to watch over us.”
“You think so?”
“I know so,” she smiled certainly, looking up with adoration at the flourishing canopy of emeralds above. “And if I tell him everything I know…maybe I never have to die.”
An ambulance in the distance shook David Bishop from his reverie. Emma’s words still rang in his ancient ears, traveling across the century in seconds. When the frigid silence resumed, he thought over what she had said. How odd that Emma would say such a thing. She had only been seven years old that summer afternoon.
But her mother had been ill, he remembered silently. Sick with a disease that threatened her life. Of course mortality would have been fresh on her mind…
With a rough grunt, Bishop shifted his position. His back was starting to ache, and he was aware of every gnarled, arthritic joint in his body.
He could not keep his eyes off the caution tape wrapped around Herbie’s trunk.
After several long moments studying the too familiar pattern of the roots, he shifted his gaze as if he’d caught himself staring at the sun and focused on his comfortable, dirty old leather shoes. The glare of the snow stung his eyes, but he preferred that to the sight of Herbie in his final hour.
He was distracted from his fog by the sun glinting off of his wedding ring, a wide band of gold encircling his thick boned finger. He allowed a smile to return to his cold features.
David was sweating in his carefully chosen suit, even though it was an unseasonably cool afternoon in May. He nervously straightened his tie and clutched the little velvet jewel box hidden beneath his lapel. His heart pounding sickeningly hard with anticipation, he walked with stiff shoulders over the fresh cut grass to Herbie. From below he could hear, ever so softly, the sound of Emma’s voice floating over the gentle breeze.
Lodging his foot in the first crevice of the tree, David called up to her.
“Yes?” she sang down from above, as if she’d known all along that he was coming.
“Could you come down for a moment dearest? I have something I’d like to talk about.”
“Well, why don’t we talk up here?”
“But dearest, can’t you see I’m not dressed for that?”
“Oh poo, wearing a Sunday dress never stopped me. Now come up, or we will have to continue shouting.”
“David Bishop, I thought you liked climbing trees…” she chided him from her perch in the canopy.
“Well, I do, but…”
“Or perhaps you have grown up to be a ninny…”
With that final tug, David climbed as carefully as he could all the way up to their familiar cradle in the dome of jade. Some of Herbie’s pink and pale green clusters of seeds framed Emma’s face, which beamed with jubilant beauty at him.
His jaw froze.
“So what did you want to talk about?” Emma pressed curiously, taking his hands. He relaxed at the sight of her small white hands scuffed with dirt, and her fingernails, though long and elegant, still packed to the brim with moss.
What on Earth would he say to her? What could he say that could possibly encompass how he felt? Not just his love, which she knew already existed, but her centrality to his world. How whenever he held her, he could not enclose her with his arms, no matter how tight his embrace. How her eyes spoke of something unspeakable, something beyond the two of them. Could he really put a ring around those eyes? Would it really mean that she was his? Would he ever try to put a ring on a wave, or a bolt of lightning, simply because they made him speechless?
Her hand was so easy to hold, but it was nothing more than a beautiful limb. At least he could put his ring there.
He ended up stuttering something about how he had always loved her and how he always would.
When he presented her with the ring, a small diamond that he had spent nearly a year saving for, the sunlight streamed from her face and she threw her arms around him—a full, complete embrace that he could never return to such an angel.
They had spent so many years of their lives together that David barely remembered what it was like to be without her. Their marriage rose and fell, swayed to and fro at the whim of the times and the places they lived. Emma, in the earliest era of wedlock, wanted more than anything to have a baby. She constantly pondered aloud whether or not she would be a good mother and what she would do if something ever went wrong. It was the only time that David saw her not only uncertain, but ridden with anxiety.
Emma sank into a silence that chilled their world when her doctors confirmed that she could not have children. She often stared into nothing, did not want to look at or speak to anyone, and bit her fingertips raw. She could sit for hours without making a single sound. Even the ocean that once raved in her eyes was frigidly still.
David decided one day that they had to move immediately. He did not want to stay in that tomb of an apartment any longer.
When he found that the Hanson’s old house was for sale, he instantly took it. He didn’t tell Emma where they were moving to, only that she had to help him pack everything. Her expression hardly changed at the news. She was no more attached to the dingy apartment than he was, so she wordlessly packed everything she owned, even the little colorful rattles and outfits she had bought for the baby that wouldn’t come.
When they pulled up to the familiar house at the end of the street of their childhood, the somber cloud that had settled over Emma’s face lifted for the first time since the dreaded news.
“This is our house?”
“Surprise, Emma,” David grinned.
Without another word, she got out of the car and walked slowly over to Herbie, looming majestically over everything like he always had. It was autumn, and he was aflame with brilliant yellow leaves that burned against the cool blue of the sky.
Her smile washed away the circles beneath her eyes, and color returned to her sallow cheeks. It brought David back to life.
Emma sank against the tree, embracing the enormous trunk, and when the wind greeted her she laughed, dancing in a whirlwind of gold.
She used to sit on the porch, swinging back and forth on her favorite bench swing, and watch the children come and go. The smile never left her face, and under the constant warmth of that smile, the children played, their limbs growing as they ripened, then eventually they fell from the tree and never returned. But there was always a new crop of children to replace the ones that grew up and moved away, and Emma enjoyed watching them just the same. She had all the children she could ever want.
Herbie’s coat of leaves turned, then fell, unfurled from their tight capsules, then fell again, year after year, and Emma’s blonde locks faded to grey.
The sunlight on her face never faded away.
“David, there’s something wrong with Herbie,” said Emma one summer afternoon in the 1950’s, what year exactly, David couldn’t recall. Her eyes were wide and she seemed very concerned.
“What do you mean? He looks great. He’s bigger than ever.”
“He’s sick, dear,” Emma insisted. “Come see.”
Outside, Herbie stood sturdily against the wind, which whipped the clouds clear out of the sky, his leaves rustling and dancing wildly. His roots seemed to grasp the earth even tighter and deeper over the years. It seemed they could lift the whole neighborhood, maybe even the town if he fell over. But that was impossible. What was a gust of wind to Herbie? He could take a hurricane, David thought, scoffing to himself.
But there was a shock of autumn leaves burning against the summer green at the crown of the tree, and with each gust of wind, the dying leaves flew away in a gold stream.
David studied the branch with his eyes. It wasn’t broken.
“It was Dutch Elm Disease,” said the gardener at the kitchen table, his dirty hands folded over the shiny clean wood. A lot of Elms were being cut down because of it. Not just in Maine, but all over the place. Did Mr. and Mrs. Bishop not see how every single elm on Elm Street had been cut down just a few blocks away?
“We did that,” the young man said, “at quite a reasonable price.” Then he laughed. “They should rename the street.”
Emma’s jaw hung limply as the gardener prattled on. When he offered to cut the tree down as soon as possible, she was unable to speak. She only bit her index finger and stared at the table.
David’s heart was torn at the very idea, and the sight of his wife’s agonized face forced him to speak without thinking.
“Is there anything we can do to save the tree?”
After an uncomfortable pause, and a few cracked knuckles, the gardener winced. Yes, it was possible, but very inconvenient. It would take constant limbing and sprays, and even then, the tree could still easily die. Why not just take it down now and save all that effort?
It was hard for David to believe that he had spent over fifty years trying to fix that tree. He couldn’t count all the hours he had spent toiling, the repeated sun burns that permanently browned his arms, the different brands of sprays that poisoned the air he breathed, all the limbs he had sawed off, hacked into smaller pieces, tied up and bundled, and hauled away. David still suffered from a permanent back injury he received while removing one of the higher branches. He had stood on the ladder at such an angle that it tipped and sent him toppling to the ground. Whenever Emma recalled that story, she always ended it with, “Thank God you didn’t break your neck.” There had been flares, remissions, feelings of relief, and then he would once again be fighting for Herbie’s life.
When Emma became sick and spent weeks recovering from chemo, David hacked even more mercilessly at the diseased branches. On the day of her funeral, he let the crowds of black-attired mourners mumble and weep in his home, while he, still wearing his black suit, tended to Herbie. He would not go into the house, even when a summer rain cloud burst open over Yarmouth. He only closed his eyes and let Herbie’s young wet green leaves caress his face and hands.
The leaves were gone now, and they would never return. The last that David would ever see of Herbie would be a tall, mangled carcass wrapped in caution tape. Then he would be hauled away, piece by infested piece.
For a moment, David did not know how he was standing. His legs felt nonexistent, useless. A tired ache spread from his knotted shoulders to his arms. His neck struggled to keep his head aloft, and David became aware of the finite nature of his heartbeat. A stinging in his eyes forced him to squeeze them shut. He did not want to be present to witness the destruction of a lifetime of devotion. More than anything, David wanted to rest his aching bones in his bed and sleep through the whole thing. Perhaps then he could attribute the quaking earth to some forgettable nightmare.
The moaning wind returned just then to rustle through the jungle of branches still reaching in vain for heaven, and a small voice tinkled from above.
He’ll always be here…
“You were wrong, Emma,” David Bishop scoffed bitterly. “Herbie’s going to die, just like you and me, and then that will be all.”
His hands began to shake uncontrollably, and he clutched the rubber handles of his walker until his knuckles nearly pierced through his brittle paper skin. The wind only blew harder and the tinkling voice of Herbie soared across the sky.
And with this voice, David realized, came others.
Slowly turning his stiff neck, David caught sight of a young couple with three small children bouncing in a jubilant wreath around them. They walked radiantly down the sidewalk, both smiling reverently up at Herbie, who seemed to wave cordially at them in the wind. The couple smiled politely and waved to David Bishop, who was dumbstruck by the sight of them.
The children began to run in circles around the tree, making motions to climb the trunk. The mother took two of the children firmly by the hand, while the father did the same with the last.
“This is where I used to play when I was a kid,” she said proudly, pointing up to the canopy of the ancient Elm. The children grinned, their eyes shining in the winter sunlight as they awed at his splendor.
“Did you and Mommy play together?” the tiniest girl asked her father with a finger in her mouth.
“All the time,” the young man beamed, and ruffled her light angel curls.
While they told the children stories, the wind blew in more from every corner of Yarmouth. They issued from the mouths of grandmothers, couples, mothers. Young and old alike, the townspeople returned to the tree, which had nurtured them all beneath his boughs. Many of these people shook David Bishop by the hand and marveled at all his hard work. Still others stared in awe with tears glazing their eyes, and others with contented smiles. A crowd of young women formed a ring around Herbie’s girth to give him a giant hug, and another, all alone, kissed him on the rough bark. People came with posters that screamed in bright magic marker, “We love you, Herbie!” and with them came the local news crew to film Herbie’s final minutes on this Earth.
David was awestruck by the crowd that had so quickly formed around him and Herbie. It seemed that his own two heavily freckled and arthritic hands had sown all of them over the past fifty years. He was the father of all their stories. Warmth spread from his chest outward, and David smiled.
As the wind gathered Herbie’s adorers closer, the gardener’s trucks rumbled in from afar. The people began to whisper with anticipation, and they all stared at the workers as if they carried scythes instead of chainsaws.
But David would not look at them. A sharp pang tore at his heart, and he stared once more at Herbie, studying his every beloved branch. His eyes settled at the very last on Emma’s favorite perch.
Closing his eyes, David pictured her face, beautiful to her last days, to him at least if to no one else. She had smiled with such acceptance and caressed his tear-streaked face with bony hands. It seemed that she had been perfectly at ease to die in the bed they would no longer share.
“This isn’t the end,” were the last words her breath would carry, and she slipped away with certainty still fresh on her lips.
A faint, feather-like tap roused David from his memory, and when he looked down at his hand, all the tears, the laughs, the rumbling engines, and the reporter’s loud voices fell away.
Resting lightly on the back of his hand, as if the wind had delicately placed it there, was a single seed encased in a fibrous membrane. It was perfectly intact, though dried out and fragile from the cold. Carefully, David cradled the Elm seed in his hands, staring at the tiny marvel speechlessly.
“Excuse me, sir?” a tiny voice sang beside him, and David looked down to see a very young girl of about eight or nine staring with large brown eyes up at him. She had long, messy blonde hair that ended in uncertain curls around her elbows. “What are you holding?”
“It’s a seed, from this tree here. It’s the very last one.”
When he looked at the seed and again at the little girl, who was standing on her tiptoes to take a peek, a flood of hope surged through his veins.
Firmly taking the girl’s hand, he placed the precious seed carefully into her smooth pink palm. Before the engines could drown out his voice, he said,
“Take this to the largest field you can find and plant it right away. Can you do that for me?”
“Okay!” the girl beamed, and with purpose she ran, a needle through a fabric of people. David smiled broadly after her, even after she disappeared from sight.
The engines growled deafeningly loud, and men in neon yellow vests pushed the crowds of people away. Mothers pulled their children in close, and couples held hands.
And Herbie stood majestically over all of the tiny people, watching peacefully as the little men rose upon their stained metal cranes to begin dismantling him. David stared directly at him, certainty heavy set on his brow.
When the saws screamed to life, he felt one sweaty hand firmly grasp his left, and a dry, wrinkled old one clutch his right. He saw that everyone was holding hands in a giant circle and shouting things incomprehensible over the monstrous machines. He was with them all, but mostly, he was with Herbie, and in his head, he saw the little girl running, leaping over fallen branches, her hair flying in a stream of gold behind her. He was running with her through the vast woods that surrounded the field, and he knew that she was clutching the seed safely against her quickly pounding heart.
“This isn’t the end,” he whispered. David was certain that Herbie heard him. He was neither sad nor afraid when the saw first met the wood.
Out in the field, a sprout rose to the call of the first robins and stretched out its fresh green leaves in the spring sun.
Marco in the Forest, Dreaming
I’d been breathing in the toxic aftershave of some stoner I never wanted to know this well for the past half-hour, and it drained me loveless, took back all that I tried to get from him and more than that. He left in the morning without saying a word, and it was like some transformation reversed upon itself, like I was normal and good and sweet again, not this fag-monster.
It was no good searching my memory for a name for him. The name was a gone thing, a disappearer, and so was I. Let’s pretend he was a Marco, and I sacked him. I pushed him to the ground, greased his crease, and gave him a royal treatment he won’t ever forget. Except, the sad, unremarkable thing is, I didn’t. He passed out before anything of sexual worth went down, and I practically wept I was so horny. That’s the real heartbreak.
But that’s not the story, couldn’t possibly be. The real story is how I was walking from my dorm room down to the gas station that same night to pick up some Twizzlers and a Coke for a long night of studying, and—what do you know—there was Marco, tied up under one of the streetlights in the small parking lot, his arms twisted behind his back, his face as sweaty as a lopsided mango.
“You okay?” I asked.
No response. I checked to make sure he was breathing and he was, so I left him there to go get those Twizzlers I talked about, and maybe some help if I could find it. I pointed Marco out to the cashier at the gas station, and she shrugged. Another druggie low-life, she seemed to want to explain. She said she would call the police if I wanted. Outside, Marco fell over and planted his face in the concrete. It looked like he was trying to struggle out of whatever cuffs were on his wrists. He looked like a marooned whale, but skinnier, maybe a whale whose skeleton collapsed on itself and was left to rot for a month. I tapped my fingers on the counter and she dialed 911 with a little roll of her eyes. They were acid green. Shitty night for her, too, I guess.
Back in the parking lot, Marco was shivering pretty hard, and his breathing had become erratic. I thought maybe he needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but apparently that’s not helpful if he’s already breathing. I tried anyways, and it was disgusting. He tasted like smoke and ass.
“Best night of my life,” he whispered hoarsely, “Can die happy, baby.”
“Shut up,” I said, “we got an ambulance coming for you.”
“No ambulance, please… I’m fine…” His voice trailed off and he fell limp and started to snore. It was a wet snore, so I pushed him away from me and stood up. I brushed my hands on my jeans and decided I was done with him, with all of it. If it was possible at that moment, I wanted to become a shadow in the trees of some mountain somewhere. Gay sounding of me, probably. Vague, absolutely. That’s part of why I wanted it. Then God might never find my soul and smite me like the haters say He will. I’m practically a shadow already. I started to walk back to my dorm, which was all the way on the north side of campus.
I didn’t want to feel any shame, but I did. I couldn’t stop picturing his face, his steely black eyes, his skeleton cheeks, the thin veiny skin stretched over his jaw bone. It’s like I could touch him and he might dissolve, he might melt into me. I did a full turn at the traffic light, looking like a queer stiff, and went back. Marco was crawling slug-like towards the crabgrass that fringed the lot. He’d pulled his hands loose and when he finally collapsed, they were spread out wide to either side of him, but his feet were still bound, and it looked like the skin around his ankles was lacerated clean off. I noticed blood on his shirt for the first time.
I approached him. “That your blood?” I asked.
He looked at me like he was trying to recognize something in my face. “No ambulance,” he repeated from before. “Get me away, away.” He pointed to the crabgrass pathetically. His arms were all sinew.
Sirens wailed in the distance. The cops were used to this kind of thing on campus, so they were quick. He looked at me frantically. I didn’t think it would be hard unbinding his legs. It was just a twine rope. The knots didn’t look that complicated, but fuck if I know anything about knots. I started working at loosening his feet from there, but he gave a low moan, so I stopped.
“That hurts. Jeesus,” he hollered, “what the hell.”
I pulled him up and balanced his weight against my shoulder. It’s true, the best thing for him was to go to the hospital, and I knew it. But I also knew what they’d do to him if they found drugs in his system, especially if they were as bad as I thought they were. He’d probably get kicked out. Well, maybe not, but he’d get in deep shit. Maybe he’d lose a scholarship or something.
“I gotcha, Marco. No problemo.”
Our method of going along was slow and unbearably stupid. I’d walk a few steps and he’d have to hop along, using me as a pivot. He was so out of it, though, that it was mostly me dragging him. We couldn’t go along the roads because the police were out looking for him, so we went through some sketchy forest paths that I couldn’t be certain took me in the direction I wanted.
The whole thing sucked. It’s not like I’m a super-athlete or anything; I can’t go dragging men around campus with my super-muscle arms. I work out twice a week for barely any time, and sometimes I run, and that means I have limits. That makes my efforts run into uncomfortable endpoints. About ten minutes in, he fell asleep on me again, the jerk. He started drooling on my shirt sleeve and I was just about ready to toss him into a ditch on the side of the path and let wolves feed on his frothing, miserable corpse. I set him down and finally managed to pull off the ropes binding his legs. An unconscious man can’t complain. If I weren’t right in the middle of it, it might have been funny.
Since he was so skinny and small, even compared to me, I tried to put him on my back like I remember my dad doing for me when I was a kid. I wrapped his arms around my neck, and clutched at his legs. You’d think it wasn’t so hard, but you’d be wrong. My grip kept slipping, and my back felt like it was going to snap. My lungs were dragging air. I had to stop twice for Twizzler breaks. How embarrassing.
Finally, I got him back to my dorm. I plopped him next to the door so I could swipe in. The halogen lights bled through his hair and across his thin nose. He looked like paper. People walking out looked at him smugly and said something about a wild night. There was a guy and a girl and the girl asked the guy to help me bring Marco up. I was grateful she did, but the guy was annoyed. The things a guy will put up with to sack a hottie boggles the mind. It’s a force in nature you can always count on.
“Have a good night,” he said, and dumped my douchebag in front of the door to my room. The hall was supremely quiet. It was a Friday, so most kids were out and about. I unlocked my door, and pulled Marco in by the cuff of his shirt. He muttered something in his sleep.
My computer screen glowed faintly blue in the corner, and I opened a window to try to get rid of the smell of overcooked ramen and dirty laundry. I took one of my pillows and my blanket and tossed them on the floor for him to sleep on. My bulldog poster had fallen down again, so I took a moment to tape it back into place. It didn’t stick, the piece of crap. I decided it was a bad time to study.
I turned off my computer, switched off the light, and then crawled into my bed, resting my head in my hands. Marco would wake up and I’d learn his true name first thing. He’d probably be grateful for everything I did for him. Maybe we’d eat breakfast, or maybe, finally, I’d get to screw him. Only the morning could tell.
That night I dreamed I was a woman, and I was white, and I was beautiful, and beautiful men from miles around died for my attention, but I didn’t want any of them. Their vows of love grew so tiresome. I preferred to walk into the forest with just a nightgown on, to walk those terrible paths again, and my whole body was this piecemeal of suffering! The men all followed me in. I saw their silhouettes racing between the trees on every side of me. They were as naked as emotion, raw and powerful and sleek. The sunlight pattered down through the over-story, dilute as milk, and milk-white, too. And I just kept going on like that, so beautiful, so desired; I felt cheap and ugly. I knew if they caught me, they’d bind me, too. They’d tie me up and beat me to pulp with their praise and devotion, and then I’d be the one laughing stupidly under a streetlight at some shitty gas station, practically dead.
I woke up and the draft from the window froze my ass frigid. My nipples were diamonds. I was a man, thank god, and still short, and callow, and only half-white. The morning sunlight filtered in through the bug screen, erupting swirls of dust into glinting blazes. My pillow lay ruffled on the carpet. My blanket was a tussled mountain next to my computer chair. I found some bloody tissues in the garbage, but no note or anything that could be construed as a thank you in any form. It wasn’t heartbreak, exactly, but something was broken, that’s for sure. I imagined him somewhere vague, crying maybe, wishing death on the people who’d hurt him; wishing death on me, too, for saving him.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 3rd Prize
Children of the Earth
They took to the water because it left no tracks. Footprints in the snow would have betrayed us, Cora thought. They were wise to use the raft, before the river encrusted with frost and became impassable. She ran a hand over its tough plastic—patched, colorless, and second hand as the clothes they wore. Yet, like those clothes, it kept the water away. Chance had found it one night, entangled in the reeds that bordered the House where he so often retreated, unearthing the small mud-creatures buried there for what pleasure they could grant him. Cora never bothered to stop him anymore. If he could find solace in their tiny bursts of vitality, so be it. She wasn’t any better—just more fortunate in that no one else could see the objects of her machinations. Disturbed by this train of thought, she returned to the contemplation of the raft.
It had been Jamie—the third of their crew—who proposed they mend the thing using scraps of leather and plastic and make their escape. “We can sail to the battle-grounds!” he had declared, the brightness of an idea glinting in his eager eyes. “We’ll find him there! I’m sure we will! You think so Cora?”
She knew they would not be looked for; Gid would simply wait for them to return, cold and hungry like every other time. Still, her own eyes were hidden when she answered: “Yes.” To the grounds.
And so they fled.
“We almost there?” Cora called to Jamie from her place at the rear of the raft. The snow and the cold surrounding them dampened her voice so that it sounded little more than a whisper. He was precariously poised at the bow, the wind cutting his already diminutive figure to its edges.
“Yes, I think so. The screams been gone for a few months now, but I can still place…” He trailed off, scrutinizing the distance. “Only a half an hour more, I’d say.”
“Well, if you say so, oh mighty one,” Chance muttered, pausing with their one salvage oar to grin and wipe the scant sweat from a chilled brow. “Just don’t fall in, George. That water’s cold and the redcoats colder.”
Cora chuckled at the jest. Standing foolishly in their tiny boat, the boy did resemble the long-dead general, one of many heroes he wished he could be. Jamie regained his seat, a sheepish smile stirred by his bravado.
Cora cast a fond look at Chance. He’ll make sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously at least, she thought.
“Tell us again,” Simmy, the last one aboard, lisped as she extricated herself from her standard place in Cora’s arms to switch to Jamie’s, “of home. Tell us what you remember.” The three children huddled together for warmth and gazed at the girl with a familiar and desperate hunger quite unrelated to the vacancy of their stomachs. Cora herself simply felt cold.
“Of course,” she said, and began. “I remember, from long ago, there’s a land far, far away from this place, beyond the waters and the seas, there’s home. Magical it is, filled with forests old as the hills and lakes like looking into a mirror, and even the snow itself is warm, like a blanket to the earth. Bees hum, and cuckoos and blackbirds sing. Here we lived, the three of you all very small, and me and one more to take care of you, in a little stone house nestled amid every kind of flower and plant you can imagine, like honeysuckles, and daisies, and—”
“Mistletoe!” They called out in turn; new ones invented each time Cora told it.
“All kinds,” Cora continued, her eyes wide to match her fellows. “There’s a path leading up to the house, lighted with little candles so we never got lost. Once inside, the fires always burning and the rug in front of its so soft and nice it’s like lying on clouds. The cupboard’s never bare, neither; always filled with bread and cookies and—”
“Beer!” Cora rolled her eyes at Chance’s suggestion; that was part of the ritual too.
“And so we were well fed, and well loved, and happy.” She paused to let them ponder the strangeness. No mention was made of others who might occupy such a place. There were limits even to their imaginations. When she resumed, however, her voice was much darker, and hoarser, like wind traveled miles over barren land.
“But then,” she proceeded, “he came. Foe: a monster, the maker of fear, the maker of harm. He cast us out, and would have killed us all if not for that other, the bravest and best—Cal.”
“My brother,” Simmy whispered to herself. She looked at the blood flowing through delicate veins of her wrists with awe. Jamie pulled her closer and touched his forehead to her hair.
“That’s right. A real one,” he murmured. Cora nodded.
“Without him, none of us would have made it. He fought Foe so we could get away. He died so we could live. Homeless, alone, and frightened, but we lived. We wandered for ages, through woods and waters, until we found the House. We’ve stayed there ever since, missing home, missing him. Until now.”
“Until now!” Jamie boomed, slamming his fist against the raft, alight with fervor. “Things are different. We’re gonna find him, and kill him, and that way…”
“We can go back,” Simmy finished for him. “Home.”
“The hunt is on,” Chance growled. “and we won’t stop until he’s dead.”
“Once Cal is avenged, and Foe finished; we can rest,” Cora assured them, raising a blue but steady pinky to her comrades. “Not before. We will never stop, never give up, until it is finished, and we home again. Swear it!”
Each could see their breath, issued from chapped and bleeding lips, being swept into a colorless void so cold their very lungs hurt. A silent litany rebounded through Cora’s head, her own personal vow: we will survive. I will get them through this. We will not give up. We will survive… “Swear it!” she demanded. Three other fingers rose up to join hers.
Four lost children—the eldest of which was just two years past being able to count his age on both hands and the youngest still able—joined in an exchange of blood spilled for blood kept, and promised murder.
“We swear,” they said as one.
* * *
“We’re here! The grounds!” Jamie called at long last, stirring Cora from a fitful doze. Simmy, slumbering peacefully in her arms, awoke at once and sprang atop Chance’s shoulders for a better look.
“Look, Cora! Look!” the girl cried. “You see it?”
“Not with you in front of me, you little monkey!” Once Simmy was safely removed from her perch and Chance’s sore neck apologized for, Cora pushed her hood back far enough to peer at the riverbank and the shapes looming there: towering apparitions, glinting with unknown and vaguely malicious intentions in the day’s fading light. The greatest of the eidolons flowed around the length of the grounds in vast, serpentine ridges, supported by giant, snow-bound cross sections as thick as tree trunks and hard as steel.
“What a monster,” Chance whispered a wide jack-o-lantern grin of what Cora knew to be excitement splitting his face; another would have guessed terror. “This must be where the screams come from. I wonder who slew the beast. The spine…the ribs…” He traced its outline as if painting mountains. “Or maybe,” he nudged Simmy, “it only sleeps.” The girl gasped and wrapped an arm around Jamie, who rolled his eyes.
“Dead or alive, the grounds hibernate for the winter. It’s always silent now. We know that.”
“There are others too,” Chance continued. “What’s over there? A ship?”
“Aye, captain,” Cora growled in her best pirate voice. They could just make out the hull wrecked far beyond the shore, as useless as the stiff oars dipped into the snow by a skeletal crew. “I wonder how it got so far inland.”
“Maybe the dragon snatched it up.” Simmy suggested, eyeing the ridges and shivering pleasantly. “Looks big enough, anyhow.”
“And there’s a castle!” Jamie cried, gesturing to a colossal gothic edifice guarding the center of the grounds like a crouching animal, alight with menace. “Bet there’s loads of good stuff in there!”
“Hey Cora,” Simmy said, pulling at her coat sleeve with one hand and pointing to a mammoth spoked circle erected beside the serpent spine. “That’s a giant wheel, isn’t it? What’s it for?”
Cora closed her eyes before answering. Tracks…a ship…a drop… “It’s a water wheel, you know…to power everything.” Simmy nodded and patted her shoulder.
“I think so too,” she said. She glanced at the fence, titanic and impenetrable, encapsulating the grounds. “But how do we get in?”
“There, just ahead!” said Jamie. “That’s where the rafts come from. It’s some sort of…waste disposal system, or maybe an escape shaft.” He was right. A thick, red pipe jutted out over the water, as wide as the raft that bore them, unguarded and unwatched. She followed its progress up the steep embankment leading to river, where it dipped and soared in tandem with the land. Other rafts, deflated but vibrant in color, were corralled at the top. Cora patted their own fondly, the once deep red far faded into a pallid pink; still, it floated.
Chance steered them towards shore, cursing under his breath as he secured the raft beside the opening. For a moment, Cora thought to tell them to keep going, farther from the House, far away from this place before shaking her head. It never occurred to her they would not have listened.
Jamie was the first to clamber into the gaping maw, breaking away the icicles that pronged the edges of the pipe like fangs. Simmy went second, aided by Cora just behind her, and Chance went last. As an afterthought, he hurled one of the jagged pieces of ice at the raft, puncturing it. With soft rush of air it began to sink—one final gurgle, and it was gone.
“What are you doing?” Cora demanded. “That was our way out!”
“We’re not leaving, remember?” Chance aped, grinning. “Not until this is over, and then there’ll be no need to sneak. Besides, we don’t want Foe knowing we’re here yet.”
Cora glared at him for a moment before assenting. Not that she had much of choice, she thought. Slowly, painstakingly, she and the others fought and clawed their way up the slick, tenebrous slope. More than once Simmy lost her footing, sending both her and Cora tumbling down into Chance’s battered embrace. If not for his stubborn strength and Jamie’s aid from above, the slide would have bested them. Finally, however, after much struggle, frustration, and muffled swearwords, they emerged, birthed into a world beyond any of their reckoning. Simmy was the first to find her words.
“Wow!” She gasped.
This is the place, Cora thought. Right here.
“What a mess,” Jamie exclaimed. “If not for the”—he gulped but looked to Cora, drawing strength—“b-bodies…it’d be beautiful.” The carcasses of which he spoke were scattered everywhere, hanging from small booth-like structures and spilling to the ground: strange, colorful creatures with huge, exaggerated eyes and blunt paws. Trash, too, littered everything, a staunch breeze sweeping bits of paper and wrappers into miniscule whirlwinds before spattering them pell-mell across the landscape.
“Well come on then,” Chance said. “Let’s look around.”
They made their way into the grounds, skirting where these beings lay most numerous. Despite the clutter, distinct paths interspersing the great eidolons and the humble, more prolific huts made for easy travel. Upon closer inspection these cells revealed an array of purposes, from target practice (with rather childish, garish guns, Cora thought) to ration allocation. The intention of some none of the children could determine. “The point of keeping so many empty bottles I’ll never understand,” Chance complained about a particularly obtuse agglomeration.
The road they followed eventually lead them to huge iron-wrought gates guarded by demon-faced gargoyles and sealed tight, impenetrable to all of Jamie’s and even Chance’s lock-picking skills. Brick barracks marked the entranceway, arched like stone bridges; nothing proceeded without the knowledge of their somber walls and glowering windows. A magnificent ash tree dominated the center of the courtyard in front of the gate, bearing a plaque hewn with large, ornate letters.
“What’s it say, Cora?” Simmy asked. She peered close to read:
“Delightful is the land beyond all dreams,
Fairer than ought thine eyes have ever seen.
There all the year the fruit is on the tree,
And all the year the bloom is on the flower.
“There with wild honey drip the forest trees;
The stores of wine and mead shall never fail.
Nor pain nor sickness knows the dweller there,
Death and decay come near him nevermore.
“The feast shall cloy not, nor the chase shall tire,
Nor music cease for ever through the hall;
The gold and jewels of the Land of Youth
Outshine all splendours ever dreamed by man.”
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Prose
“Why can’t I remember?” She lay with her head in her hands, elbows dug deep in the artificial dirt, stomach flat out, smeared with polycarbonate dew, imitation pollen, the color of grass stained in her clothes and wisps of synthetic willow in her hair.
The boy shrugged.
“You can,” he said. “You’re just forgetting right now.” It was what he always said—it was all he knew to say. He lay back, his head by her feet, and stared above at nothing in particular. You couldn’t see the dome, not unless you traveled to the sides, and that could take days.
The garden was all recorded cricket-song and scarce remnants of substitute sun. The stars had yet to turn on, but there was no anticipation for it—just trust, based on myriad nights spent there, together like that.
“No,” she said after a moment. The boy glanced toward her and saw only a blur, a shape of dark matter, darker than the dusk around them but featureless. He wished it were light enough to see her eyes—just that small comfort. When she spoke it felt eerily of a spirit’s voice, some nameless god speaking from nowhere.
“It’s like, the little things, sitting here, chasing robbits in the tall grass, swimming in the plastic-pools, it’s all pictures that don’t go anywhere. They’re vivid, like dreams you can’t shake. But the important stuff…” She trailed off. “It’s just questions.”
The boy wondered what it would be like not to remember. He’d never tell her, but he was jealous. She could’ve hurt, maybe even as bad as him, and it was all gone, snuffed. It was some kind of magic, like erasing scars. The boy lifted his fingers lightly against the air, as if it were something tangible that might sense his need, and travel the little ways between them.
“You know why?” he said suddenly, sitting up and leaning forward over his knees. She didn’t move, but he felt her eyes come back to him. “It’s too big.” They let the words alone, out there in the dark amongst the robugs and synthetic weeds, thinking on them quietly. Their eyes traveled up as the boy’s last thought joined the night.
“Some things are just too big to be thought of.”
Tom had grown to hate spending time with her as much as he liked it, but probably more. It gave him that sickness inside that only a few certain other things gave him—his yearly review, getting on stage to give a speech, visiting a sickly relative—and he felt entirely wicked and worthless every time no matter how much he knew he was helping her.
Because he didn’t really know. It wasn’t like you could ever ask them. The whole practice was based on trial and error and hope, and the further he got in it the less he trusted anything or anyone.
He’d signed up voluntarily—that was the worst. They had his name there, the signature and the date, his school records and parental consent, his clear criminal record and probably dental records too. They had everything, which meant they had him, and the only alternative was to go back and start at zero, pick a different career. He wasn’t about to do that, not after five years. Sure he’d written his life off at fourteen for that all-important accolade, job security, but he wasn’t that smart, and it wasn’t that hard, and it had made sense at the time.
All you had to do at the start was be a friend.
And if he had to admit it, actually and truly had to, he wouldn’t start over anyway, considering everything, because it would mean leaving her.
He’d been in the practice a little while before he was assigned to her case, and he’d been told she had a lot of time on him—eight years to be exact. She’d been brought in at six years old on undetermined release, and he hadn’t understood at first what that would mean, what eight years in the pod could do to a person, but he found out soon enough.
“Your face is dirty,” she had said to him. That, as far as he could remember, was the first thing she had ever said to him. She had been sitting up cross-legged in the manufactured grass under a manufactured tree, and her stare was dynamic and eerie—two bloodstones with the green and red, though he’d only ever seen imitations. Her hair fell lank against her temples and down over her arms, long and full with faded vibrancy, carrot-colored but frayed like hay. He remembered thinking it was refreshing to see a girl like that, not done up in the new styles of eyebrow-tattoos and hair-sculpture.
That was only his gut reaction though, because soon after he decided it was unnerving. Long after that he decided it was both.
He’d told her they were freckles—the brown flecks—not dirt, but she hadn’t listened. It had taken him a long time that first day. For hours she didn’t look at him. Eventually she had begun singing a song he couldn’t recognize, and when he tried to ask her about it she only got louder.
But they had said it would be like that initially. He was entering her territory, after all.
It only grew harder from then, though. As they aged it became almost unbearable to fit his role, her one social interaction in the universe, paragon of humanity in her safe space. It was unreal. Most days he felt he would break down and tell her because to do anything else felt like an immense lie. He couldn’t contain himself—not when he’d first learned her background, her entry-story, and not any time he thought about it after. They told him at seventeen, the appropriate age to be told things like that, the age the company determined he should be able to handle it.
“Their trauma isn’t your trauma,” his instructors had said, and he wrote it on his hand, in his notebook, on his bathroom mirror. Her trauma isn’t my trauma—he would whisper this to himself on his rides home, back to solid, real ground and the company of rational and unaffected people. But still, it got him just the same, and every time he closed his eyes against her past it made him want to die. Well, that or kill something over and over. He couldn’t imagine what it would make her feel.
He didn’t want to hurt her, no that wasn’t it at all. He couldn’t even entertain it. They’d become, as he thought of it, jokingly and only to himself, two peas in a pod. There were days when all he wanted to do was lie there forever in escape, share stories safe under her invisible shield and pretend that world was the only one. She could ask him what this or that was called and he could teach her how to swim or handstand, and they could braid the grasses together to make hats and animal shapes to hold up against the sun for shadows.
They could stay always in limbo.
Yet there were days quite the opposite when he wanted never to come back, never to see her wide stare and be stirred, think what if, or why?
He knew telling her was a bad idea and that in her fragility she could only handle so much. He had to know it because he’d been told repeatedly throughout his training and reminded frequently thereafter. She was in a dreamworld, a place she was safe, and that was its function. His job would not stay companion forever. He would make the vital transition, as they all did, from friend to barrier. That, he’d been told, was the objective of this life he’d chosen.
It was just hard to see her so oblivious, so alone. That she couldn’t remember the beginnings of her life, or any life at all outside the pod, was enough to choke him awake at night. He would lay there in a cold sweat, back out in the world and away from her container, and think, “I should be there,” or, “I should tell her.”
He almost did, once. It was in that moment he was trained for, that moment she would finally come to ask him about his family, his life outside her world, and he would have to lie to her. There were variations of what he could say, you could call them almost infinite, but none of them circled anywhere near the truth.
“Do you come here by choice?” That was how she had phrased it. That alone he could turn over in his mind for hours, days. Did he come here by choice, what kind of answer could he offer to that? Eventually, to ease her suspicion, he told her that he did. She had nodded and he had thought that would be it for a while, thought maybe they would climb the tree-molds or tend the bionic horses or dogs. After all, this was no place for questions or wondering.
Before he could suggest anything, however, she had stretched flat and turned to him.
“Does that run in your family?” He’d been caught off guard.
He said only, “What?”
“Always saying the right thing?”
He hadn’t known what to say, and she must have noticed she’d shocked him because he remembered her smiling, a thin and meager grin, before she turned back to watch the simulated clouds pass along. He had shifted to his back too, stared up at the clouds too, but nothing was ever so calm as that. She knew. She knew something. She knew he knew something.
He had felt it strike up in him like two atoms colliding, a black hole forming there in his ribcage to suck everything until he had nothing left but that knowledge, that truth. He had to tell her.
“Abigail,” he had said, because that was the new name they’d assigned her, an A for her pod orbit with the Ashleys and Amandas. She had looked at him waiting, a little unsure, a little too sure, and he felt it all collapse inside him.
“I have to tell you something.” He was almost there. The company mantra, the one phrase echoed in his mind, a pounding, beating chant of Do Not Get Attached, Do Not Get Attached. She had watched him and gone from wonder to worry, sat up and pulled his hand to hers, the fingers entwined.
“What is it?” she’d asked. He remembered hovering, tethered to the artificial earth by only her grasp. He wanted to pull her up with him, show her the rest of it, the vast rest of it that stretched and consumed and enchanted. He wanted to hold her and rock her and pet her hair as she learned the horrors of humanity, as he told her of her father’s sins, how he locked her in the basement, raping her, hiding her from the world and her mother who knew and did nothing. He wanted to catch her tears on his shoulder as he explained about his brother, the drugs, the missing person’s case, about his father and mother turning against one another, forgetting all about him. He wanted to explain sex to her, explain movies and school and shopping malls, but more than that he wanted to show her the infinite ways of being alive. There was love, there were babies, there were dreams and ambitions and discovery!
There is more than this pod, he wanted to shout, more than this counterfeit nature! There is real sky, real grass, gritty and disgusting earth to squish between toes and dig under fingernails! There is more to people, more than this therapy, and I, he wanted to scream at her for dramatic effect, am more than your therapist!
Her eyes were wide and her bottom lip quivered. She was so helpless it made him dizzy.
Do not get attached, they’d told him. There was a whole chapter dedicated. He’d studied it diligently. Anything more than attachment, especially that much-more-than-attachment feeling, was not mentioned.
“Tom,” she said, “You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”
A robeetle crawled up over his leg, the electricity fading in its eye-lights as it went dead on his thigh. He picked it up, feeling the cool metal encased in his warm and shaking palm.
“Nothing,” he said, because everything was.
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Poetry
Sóng Lúa 1966
I have bled many children into this earth.
Felt their bodies go
heavy and silent within me—I have cradled
hunger and death in my belly—and placed my still-born children
in the rice paddies
of Veng Tau, but it is easier this way—
to give my children from one barren, scorched
womb to another,
than to watch their bones grow too heavy
for their flesh, their skin stretched like silk
over stones—the empty
bloat of their bellies, white and dimpled
like the moon swaying in the wheezing haze
over the Mekong.
It is easier this way, to give my children
to the rice fields, than to watch their naked skeletons
stumble through the village,
as the bomb-cracked air burns their flesh
and they dive dead into the paddies. Their bodies
like so many pale and hard
grains of rice ebbing limp in the water,
moving without direction of north or south—
I know nothing
of this war, but the way that napalm blooms
in the skies like apricot flowers for Tet
and the thick heat
of the petals as they settle into the horizon,
the metal storks that scatter these blossoms—
cast the dirt
into the tired air as they leave behind the blushing skies.
I know nothing of this war, but the way my footsteps
and with no echo into the dust—slap of flesh
against earth silent.
“Sóng lúa” is a Vietnamnese phrase that describes the way the plants in the rice paddies sway in the wind.
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award, 1st Prize
The wheelchair did it. For three months I had managed to shirk reality, from physicians to outpatient programs, but when I stepped from the van in front of Boston Children’s Hospital, reality took my shoulder and made me sit.
I can walk, I said.
No, you can’t, the orderly replied. You’re too sick.
This wasn’t sick. Sick was when you coughed. I feel fine, I said.
You’re not fine, she explained. You lost a lot of weight. Your heart’s at thirty bpm. It should be seventy.
I’m not dead, I said.
You will be if you don’t sit awhile.
Her last word offered some relief. This isn’t permanent, I thought. They want you to play the game, so play. I can stand up to use the bathroom. They can’t tell your bowels not to move. The bathroom will be your standing zone, your gym. Toilets make great spotters for curl-ups.
This is how an eating disorder speaks to you. Anorexia in particular finds the workout in everything. I was not bulimic, bathroom notions aside. My parents worked for the food I ate—it would do them nothing to serve it to porcelain. Even then I thought it odd that a shred of nobility could endure the throes of this selfish illness, but that is what the disease does, crossing tendrils with your former self and burping some honor. It will find comfort in hospital bathrooms.
Will my room even have a john? It has to, I thought. They treat other sicknesses here. Some of them demand quick relief.
The orderly wheeled me into an examination room. Strip to your underwear, she said.
I removed my socks last. Hospital floor tiles are cold to bear while you fumble a shirt, and in my emaciated state there was no foot muscle left for insulation. I climbed onto the table, lay down. I straightened my back. The body paper ripped beneath me.
We need a new ream anyway, the orderly said, opening the closet.
I imagined wrapping myself in the torn length like takeout. Maybe someone would eat me in my manila frame. A chicken nugget. Without ketchup. Without honey mustard or sweet and sour sauce. Sorry, the hospital ran out. This is how an eating disorder speaks to you.
The nurse came to do an electrocardiogram. She had trouble with my body hair. It was falling out now, tuft by tuft, but that did not keep it from resisting the metal leads. She produced a razor, shaved squares on each of my limbs, applied conducting gel like seed in the bare white plots. I lay back, stared at the ceiling.
Unclench your fists, the nurse said.
I had not even realized I was doing it. Before the hospital I would sometimes stand at my bed for an hour or more before it crossed my mind to get in and sleep.
This should only take a minute. She turned a knob. The click of the machine.
I don’t mind the cold, I said.
You’ll warm up. How long has it been since your last meal?
I ate a granola bar last night.
Have you had any water since then?
I had a glass of water, too.
The rest of the minute was silent. I did not want to talk. Even that could be exhausting. It had been a long time since I had eaten brainy fats.
A beep. Printer noise.
Twenty-seven beats per minute, the nurse remarked. You’ll be here awhile. At Boston,
I mean. She took a pair of glasses from her pocket.
I’d feel better if you had some water.
She studied the spreadsheet until the orderly came back. She would not leave me in the room alone. A urine bottle swayed from the arm of my wheelchair. There would be no bathroom-gym, no walking. They would make me pass from bed, run the deep yellows through software.
I will not drink anything, I thought. I can save myself the degradation of that bottle. Thirst exchanged for the illusion of dignity. This is how an eating disorder speaks to you. I was fifteen.
My parents were not ghosts in all this. They were there to admit me, there to admit to themselves that it was not possible to care for me anymore. They stood beside me at the EKG, walked with the orderly as she wheeled me to my room. For all its conceit the eating disorder never pushed them out of sight, but that was about all it dared forfeit.
My father once handed me a bottle of Gatorade. Have a drink, he said. You need the electrolytes.
I said nothing. I did not drink.
Ryan, please, he said.
We looped like this a few times. He gave up.
Even then I knew my father was worried, but it was my only thought. He left the bottle on my bedstead. I put it in a drawer.
That first night in the hospital my parents bought me dinner. We ate in my room. The intravenous swayed in its saddlebag. We had pineapple and pita chips. Flavors exhumed. Like laundry you neglect to wash, but it is your stench and that makes it okay.
The guilt came an hour later. It came for the slightest things. I had just eaten a normal dinner.
My heart’s racing, I said.
My mother clicked the nurse button.
It’s not racing, my father replied. It’s coming up to speed.
You’re orthostatic. The right speed feels faster than what you’re used to.
I shouldn’t have eaten that.
To the disease anything is a binge. It ascends from the otherlands and reminds you that nutrition makes you think. Pineapple and pita chips, the heralds of memory. I did not want to think about the past, about what preceded my hospitalization, but the calories were already churning and for that, the disease said, I was Lot’s wife.
The nurse came.
My heart’s racing, I said.
She checked my monitor. It’s faster, she replied. The right kind of faster.
I feel bloated.
Do you have to use the bathroom?
I had not swallowed a drop at dinner. Yet even this achievement, I realized, could not absolve the water in pineapple. My bladder had shrunk in the past few months. A cup of fruit was enough to fill it.
If you do, I’ll have to ask your parents to leave, she added.
There was a john across the room, door ajar. From above the sink a dim light shone down, lacing the walls with the wax glow of a confessional. I wondered how far my IV could stretch.
I can’t use the bathroom?
We’d like you to use the bottle.
I’ll have to stand.
You’re on bed rest. Lean over the mattress.
The nurse handed me the bottle, drew the curtain.
In the ninth grade I was offered a lead role in my high school’s spring show. I got it in my head that a lead needed a jaw line. I went to the gym, did without dessert. That was January. By March my skin started to turn yellow. I stopped sweating. On doctor’s orders I wore a heart monitor under my shirt, the tangle of cords like chicken wire down my chest.
The bottle cap unscrews, the nurse called. Let me know when you’re done.
I lifted the gurney, leaned over the side of the bed.
I had been onstage two weeks before. I still wanted to be there, I supposed. If only to exploit my liberty to stand.
This is how an eating disorder speaks beside your right mind. It wasn’t often that we thought the same things. When it happened it felt wrong for all the right reasons. A moment of solidarity, then confusion as the disease scraped for a reason to disagree with its host, keep its balance.
The monitor clicked and sounded a change in bpm. The bottle filled.
Footsteps. The nurse. You okay in there?
I turned but could not see the screen from where I lay. The tone did nothing to indicate the direction my heart had chosen to swing. The bottle filled. I’m here, I said.
The Aetna Undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Award, 2nd Prize
Food for Thought
I just left my oatmeal bath. There is plain yogurt on my face and cucumbers over my eyes. Lemon juice coats each strand of my hair. I keep slipping because I have an abundance of sea salt and olive oil rubbed into the soles of my feet.
I am a walking, perishable billboard for Wholefoods Market.
I’ve tried it all. I heard that yogurt would give me clear skin so I made myself a mask of plain Colombo. Instead, I smelled like cheese. I did not resemble the glowing model (with microscopic pores) featured in an article from one of many well-known women’s magazine about natural remedies (I’m sure the airbrush tactics they use are all natural, too). Another time I made a deep conditioner that consisted of olive oil and vinegar. The olive oil to provide moisture and the vinegar to add shine. Basically, I added salad dressing to my hair. Afterward, my hair sure looked shiny… and greasy. It also smelled like the dye you use to dip your eggs in around Easter time. I also tried a fruit avocado mask. I broke out in hives.
With this organic-vegan-probiotic-nonhormonic-ecofriendly-costcutting craze America seems to be jumping into, Birkenstocks first, I can’t help but wonder why we’re putting food on our face, in our hair, rubbed into our skin, and soaked under our fingernails, all for the sake of beauty.
When I go to the supermarket and peruse the magazine racks, I rarely find a magazine aimed at women that doesn’t stress the importance of staying thin, eating healthy, and looking fabulous. Though this is not a new craze, something that seems to have taken off in the last decade is the need for all natural.
Pictures of sunkissed, barefoot, beach-haired goddesses stare back at me from magazine articles aimed at stressing the importance of natural ways to be gorgeous. When I was a teenager, I’d study the pictures, trying to figure out what it was they were doing that I wasn’t. When it said to mash up strawberries, mix them with honey, and apply it to my face, I did so with enthusiasm. When highly qualified experts told me that the green tea I normally drank should be soaked, cooled, and applied under my eyes to reduce puffiness, I woke up earlier than my alarm clock, so I’d have time to sit in complete darkness, smelling of chamomile (in my mind, tea was tea, no matter green, chamomile, or Lipton).
Then, I was left with nothing but questions: do I apply the teabags before or after I apply the refrigerated cucumber slices? And for how long must I remain immobile due to my temporary blindness? Page 84 of that 2006 issue seemed to leave this out.
It has become so easy for us to jump on the au natural bandwagon. We can bathe in milk to ensure moisture, wash our hair with egg yolks to promote shine, and scrub with sugar to exfoliate. We can make a berry paste to decrease pore size and use banana peels to heal warts. Whether you are eating it or applying it to the many regions of your body you deem it fit, organic has become equivalent to ambrosia for the gods.
I’m not against the idea of using food as a healthy substitute for expensive shampoo or lotions. But, I cannot help but wonder: where will the line of beauty standards be drawn? It dawned on me as I sat with freezing cold yogurt on my face that I was doing this because I thought it would make me pretty. In the article that preached about yogurt’s magical powers to make me stunning, the woman looked dapper. That’s really the only way to explain her. Even under the perfectly applied white layer of yogurt (if that is what really was on her face), her skin still glowed and her eyes still looked refreshed, as if perhaps, she was still wearing makeup. In a way, she looked unnatural. Her experience seemed as unrelated to mine as swans are to elephants. The yogurt I applied to my face was cold and chunky. When I dabbed it on my skin, it was runny and smelly. When I washed it off, my skin was a blotchy pink.
It took a few minutes, but finally I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
There is a difference between wanting to be healthy and striving to be pretty. I can make my body a buffet, rubbing different oils and fruits all over myself, but I’ll never have that computer program that allows me to airbrush even the slightest flaw. And even though the women in the magazines can prance around in meadows all day, never wilting in the humidity, and dancing to the sweet tune of all that is organic, I know those photographers must have doused the area with bug repellent before and cropped out the AC-blasting trailers from the background.
Using food for a beauty regimen is a great way to save money and get similar results as expensive products that are sold in salons and spas. But, beware: there is nothing natural about the process it takes to do many of these practices. Though you might be using a safer product than chemical-ridden spa treatments, you will still look just as strange. I gave up my yogurt facials after a week. It wasn’t for me. I didn’t give up washing my face though, and I think soap and water is doing just fine. I may not have the same pore size as the model featured in Cosmo, but I don’t think she does either.
Today, I just do whatever feels right. I’m not one for feeling like my favorite kind of potato chip, but if you feel better about yourself after shampooing with vinegar, go for it. If honey heals blemishes, get sticky. But read articles and ads about natural and organic ways to get beautiful with a grain of salt—unprocessed, unbleached, sea salt of course.
The Long River Graduate Writing Award
Sometimes Another is Within One
So it goes with banana and plantain: Each
distinct, but not from a distance.
Lobster and crayfish; apricot, peach.
When I graduated to adult from junior-
sized hockey sticks I used the same curve
but the blade was longer, wider.
How in a set of silverware
the table spoon contains the tea spoon.
Or coffee spoon, to be fair,
as I used the curve named for Paul
Coffey who, legend has it, would bend his feet
into a pair of skates three sizes too small.
He had to cut the laces after every game
just to peel the boots off.
The curve that bears his name
has a legend of its own: big tusk,
long tooth, banana bend,
a nearly anomalous meniscus
in the ice-core of illegality. With it
I first could lift the puck from off the ice.
Now I trigger it
just beneath the crossbar.
I can’t recall
at what age my wrist shot went
from lobbing arc to powerful,
I see them all as rifled off the ice, age
regardless: whippet and greyhound; four-ten, twelve gauge.
But truly rifled, the way the puck spun.
The arm of a Mandelbrot:
Sometimes another is within one.
I played hockey this winter for the first time
since high school
and it felt about the same:
I won many face-offs but scored few goals.
Our games were late at night.
The goalie and I carpooled.
I was faster than most other players
and on my team were a bartender, a line cook,
two teachers, two lawyers;
the rest I don’t remember.
I tried to analogize my high school teammates:
I know two became plumbers.
In the locker room we mock-propositioned the rink girl and swore
about children and loans.
We had Whaler’s jerseys and I wore
the same-sized skates. We hardly won.
Sometimes I pretended my parents were watching.
Sometimes I hold bananas like guns.