Sky and/or Body, Unzipped ~ by Anna Gates Ha

When the meteor falls, I am watching Oona breathe. Mama hasn’t said it, but I know it is my job. To watch for earthquakes inside my little sister. To catch them, to read the fault lines of her sleep twitches.

I have a washcloth, twisted and readied in my fist. I’ve seen Mama do it before, but I worry I won’t be quick enough, that something will get bitten off. That I’ll fall asleep and miss the whole thing: eyes gone in search of something behind themselves, tongue left bloody.

So when the sky cracks open, I think it is Oona, rattling the windows, shoving a boom through my insides. As if earthquakes could escape bodies, walk into other bodies.

 

Mama says they may never leave her. Mama puts little drops under Oona’s tongue, little pills down her throat, little wires in her veins.

Mama says they’re not catching, but I wish they were. The way a sneeze comes out of you like a thousand dandelion seeds, settling and sprouting and making snot-rivers in other noses, while you get better.

Mama says Oona’s earthquakes don’t work like that.

 

When the sky splits open, so do Oona’s eyes. I am ready with the washcloth, but she just sits there, looking down at her hands, her body, which are still.  Not me, she says, running her fingers over quiet limbs.

 

The field outside our window is on fire. Oona sees it first, places her palms on the pane. It is nothing big. Smaller than the campfire Mama built for us last summer. I remember the way she cradled a lichen nest, the way her breath gave life to orange light, the way she wouldn’t let us get too close.

 

We should wake up Mama, but we don’t.

We hold our breath, unlock the back door, slide it open. I follow Oona, all shadow, toward the small flames. The grass is tall enough to hide her feet, and for a moment, I am convinced that she is flying. That she is something else. That the earthquakes have left her and in their place is a wildness I do not recognize.

 

We stand above it like witches. The lit grasses burn in little curls at our toes, and the tail of the thing lingers in the sky. I throw water from a bowl, and the thing hisses. Steam licks the air.

I think about dinosaurs and craters and ash-covered skies. Choking to death. But the thing in the field is no bigger than my heart.

Oona crouches. Picks it up. It must be burning—all that friction, all that falling—but she brings it to her chest like she were its mama, like it were a part of her once, and even in the dark, I can see the pink growing on her chest, dotted and splotched, like a galaxy unzipped.

***

Anna Gates Ha earned her MFA in fiction at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her writing, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in Harpur Palate, Watershed Review, and Literary Mama, among others.

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Two questions for Kate Finegan

We recently published Kate Finegan’s stunning “Going, All Along.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) In high school, I used to know a boy on the swim team who had an indented chest. He loved to make up stories about how it got like that, but he had just been born concave. This narrator has her body change on her, become something different — and she accepts it so beautifully. Do you think her reactions would be different if she had been like this from the beginning?
I don’t think I can really speak to how she would feel if she had been born this way because in this piece, I was really interested in exploring a reaction to physical change. Some writer-friends and I were recently discussing Kim Fu’s brilliant story “Liddy, First to Fly” (published in Room 41.4), in which a girl reacts to the emergence of wings on her ankles as everyone else is going through “normal” puberty. What struck me is how she and her friends react so calmly to this development. My friends and I felt that this understated reaction is absolutely credible. You learn that your body is going to change, and then it does change, and all you can do is look on in wonder and confusion and try to figure out how to live in this new form, even as you realize that the changes aren’t affecting everyone in exactly the same way; it’s not quite as straightforward as your health teacher would have you believe! In a way, I wrote this for eleven-year-old me, who kept waiting to look like everyone else and didn’t always accept change (or lack thereof) with grace.
2) That moment at the end, where a bobolink builds its nest so close to her heart, is so beautiful! I love that the bird chooses to stay in the end. Did you ever consider having it leave?
Only very, very briefly. This entire story was built around the image of a bird nesting inside a girl’s chest; that was the spark for this piece. I wanted it to be a love letter to the girl I was, a way of reaching out through time and saying, “There there, you’re doing fine.” One of my writing teachers, Rachel Thompson, says that a key part of revision is to write a list of as many possible endings as you can think of, to decide which ending truly best serves your story’s theme. So often, the first ending that comes to mind is not the most interesting. So, I always consider alternate endings, but in this case, the only possible ending that would serve my purpose was to have the bird stay – although for how long, who knows? I don’t necessarily think of this ending as “happily ever after” but more like “happily right now,” which I’m learning can be good enough, in fiction and in life.

Going, All Along ~ by Kate Finegan

Just the right one swelled and grew; the other turned inward and sank, deeper and deeper, a mole’s nose, pink point digging its way into her chest. Other girls stuffed their bras with socks; she wondered if what they meant was this. The process wasn’t painful, thumbs pressed into wet clay, but she worried for her heart. She awoke to wings against her sweaty sheet, bass thrumming, whole body a subwoofer, her heart a drum inside a singing bowl, ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh. She ran to the toilet, hung her pounding head but nothing came. Cold tile kissed her knees, night’s breeze against a humid morning. The house hummed around her; the lawnmower and the weedwhacker—her parents were outside so early. Ba-buh-ba-buh-ba-buh. A drumbeat into battle, an auditory talisman, I-am-I-am-I-am. Back in her room, she undressed completely, lay atop her sheets, and felt summer air swirl within her basin. No more socks, no more pretending. Her mother sent her to a doctor and sent her to a shrink, but the girl wouldn’t think of changing, and besides, there was no pill for this. The bowl became a burrow, bored straight through, front to back. So her mother shut the blinds, pulled curtains tight, begged her to stop, please these topless days in the backyard, running fast to feel the rush of wind, falling, exhausted, on the teeming grass; she slept outside that summer, would forget to find her bed. While her parents were at church on Sunday, she dozed in late-morning sunlight until a bird cheeped from her chest. With tucked chin, she saw its bubblegum-pink beak, looked into its dark, dark eyes and knew it wouldn’t scratch her. She pulled up handfuls of grass, scattered them across her stomach, ran her fingers through her hair and offered up shed strands. The bird built its nest, settled down on the solid ground beneath her body, cozied up against her heartbeat. When a male nearby called bob-o-link-bob-o-link, there was a stirring in her chest, a rustling of feathers. She breathed deep, willed her bobolink to stay—I, just wear my Wings—and gave thanks to feel it settle.

***

Kate Finegan lives in Toronto. Her fiction chapbook The Size of Texas is available from Penrose Press. She is assistant fiction editor of Longleaf Review. Find her at katefinegan.ink or on Twitter @kehfinegan.

Two Questions for Erik Fuhrer

We recently published Erik Fuhrer’s magical “Spider Plant.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story.

 

1) I love how your writing makes the unusual seem so … not mundane or commonplace, but not unexpected either. Like you’ve created this world where of course a magician removes their head and leaves it behind. How do you manage that trick of making the unreal seem so natural?

I usually start each story I write with an image that gets stuck in my head. For this story, it was the image of hair growing like a spider plant. Once I have the image, I begin to build a narrative around it. I must have also had an episode of the X-Files, in which a magician rotates his head 360 degrees as a final act, in my thoughts while writing, as I am reminded of this episode every time I reread the piece. Television shows like the X-Files often balance absurdity with reality so masterfully that I usually totally buy unrealistic premises like the one described above. I think my writing is very much influenced by this type of visual storytelling.

2) The magician’s body walks home in the rain, and there’s that great moment, “each drop feels to the magician like swallowing used to feel.” Was that always the description for that moment, or had you considered anything else?

This line was always the description there. I am very interested in the juxtaposition of sound and image when I write. This line grew from this juxtaposition. I can also feel the image viscerally in my throat when I reread the piece. It’s as if my entire body played a part in the creation of this line.

Spider Plant ~ by Erik Fuhrer

A magician removes their head during their final act. After the curtain falls, they leave the head on a stool on the stage and walk home. It is raining outside and each drop feels to the magician like swallowing used to feel. Only now it is as of their entire body is swallowing. Meanwhile, the head is packed up with the rest of the stage equipment and placed in a bucket of water in the storage room, hair growing like a spider plant in the low light.

***

Erik Fuhrer is the author of Not Human Enough for the Census, forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. His work has been published in Cleaver, BlazeVox, Softblow, and various other venues. His website is erik-fuhrer.com.

 

Two Questions for Lynn Mundell

We recently published Lynn Mundell’s warm “Our Bright Lights On.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love the powerful imagery in this story — the glow that lights the way toward hope. How did you come up with this particular idea?

I was thinking about how there is so much sadness in the world right now that it can be hard to remain optimistic. But somehow people still have faith, and that having a baby is one of the most hopeful things you can do. Then I wondered if it is harder to make a family now, with so many stresses.  At the same time, I take a yoga class that can be very rigorous. I always speculated my teacher was ex-Army. (He says no.) Somehow the two were conflated and it was a paranormal prenatal yoga class!

2) The moment with Nan is so heart-wrenching, leaving the reader so worried that something is wrong, and then so relieved when her belly begins to glow too. Did you ever consider a sadder ending for Nan?

While I have written many sad things, I realized recently that too much of what I read is sad. I almost wonder if that has become our go-to as writers. It brings the drama that we want, but it also leaves the reader with a heavy load. It can be hard to write happy things without them seeming saccharine. But for these women I wanted to show that while they are losing heart with so many worries, their babies are determined to give them joy. Nan’s concerns are the greatest of all, so while even her baby may have started fading and losing hope, the others will coax them through it. This speaks to the other heroes of the story. While the babies are lighting the way, women are caring for each other. There’s a lot of sisterhood going on in this story.

Our Bright Lights On ~ by Lynn Mundell

The women are on their backs, splayed in Fish Pose, when Layla’s pregnant belly lights up.

She is envisioning the raging blaze in her home state when heat spreads across her stomach. In the yoga studio’s gloom, she alone glows like an oven light in a dark kitchen.

“Shh. Phones off, Layla.” No one believes that Shanti is the prenatal yoga instructor’s real name. She seems ex-military. With her hands on her wide hips, she glares down at Layla. Angry Sarge Pose.

Meaghan’s belly lights up next. “It’s not my cell. It’s my baby.” She’d been imagining shelled peas, the tender little balls in one bowl, their protective shells in another. How at the U.S.-Mexico border one is the children, and the other the mothers from whom they’re separated. Now tears escape into her scrub of hair. She rests her hands over the light growing from under her ribs, which floods her with warmth and something else it takes her moments to identify. Peace.

The women’s bellies switch on, one by one, like two dozen porchlights. Tamar’s flickers. Her nephew had been at a club when shooting broke out. He’d hidden in a dark corner while others died. But he was alive, the young man she’d once held as a newborn. She remembers his birthmark that had eventually disappeared. How it had been on his left cheek and shaped like a mouth. How her lips had met it in a kiss. How the magic of a love like that still can’t protect someone. As Tamar falters, her light comes back on. Grows strong. Like the other women, she smiles, even as Shanti clutches her phone, dialing 9-1-1.

Only Nan’s belly is dark—the sun behind a raincloud. “Is my baby okay?” she asks no one, or maybe everyone.

“Where’s my light?” Nan is curled in a ball. Her husband left her in her fifth month. She has told the women that somewhere within her, her baby knows and is broken-hearted, too.

The other women roll onto their sides, then struggle to sitting. From there they crouch and stagger to standing, as Shanti has taught them. Some help up others.

Shanti has put on her aviator sunglasses; the room is that bright. She rubs Nan’s back too vigorously, until Tamar stills her hands.

There is so much to anguish over, so many daily poses to assume as though everything is okay in the darkening world. But right now they gather around Nan. Their babies shine on her insistently, like flashlights searching for a tiny object, until in response Nan’s belly switches on and they all clap and cheer.

The women put their hands on their illuminated wombs. They luxuriate in the warmth. Even as the familiar wail of a siren draws nearer, they let go of all that is broken and of the threats they can’t yet see. They hold on to something made with so much hope that they want to believe it might actually light the way.

***

Lynn Mundell’s writing has appeared most recently in New Flash Fiction Review, Atlas and Alice, SmokeLong Quarterly, Thread, and Monkeybicycle. She is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology: Nothing Short of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19). Learn more about her at http://lynnmundell.com/.

Two questions for L Mari Harris

We recently published L Mari Harris’s heartbreaking Mona and Maribel.

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) I love the relationship between the two sisters, how they protect and care for each other. Do you think their relationship would be different had they grown up under different circumstances, or would they still be as close?
You will always find the tiniest bit of autobiography in my fiction. I am an only child of an alcoholic household. While there is some level of dysfunction in every family, some are decidedly more damaging than others, and I am attuned to spotting kids today who are holding onto secrets and stress and unhappiness. So this story is an amalgamation of what I observe in other family dynamics today, along with a few memories of my own floating in from many decades ago. Now, to answer your question after this long preamble, I’m not sure if Mona and Maribel would be as close as they are if they didn’t have these circumstances to navigate. But I do know their love for each other, how they protect each other, how they have something warm and solid to grab onto on those nights their mother is deep inside the walls of her own unhappiness and on those endless days their father is off living another life with another family, is me popping up, wishing I could have had a sister to grasp all those decades ago.
2) The scene at the Burger King is so great! I love this line: “They wanted to ask him if they could live with him and his other family, but it came out sounding like Can we have more fries?” What made you select a Burger King for the setting of this scene?
I hope Burger King corporate doesn’t come after me for this answer, but I specifically chose it because you can usually find one in small towns (I don’t specifically name place in this story, but for me, it’s small-town Nebraska) that are slowly falling into disrepair, just like this fractured family has fallen into disrepair. And this leads me to why the dad takes his daughters there. I would like to believe he truly cares about and loves his daughters, but actually expending the energy and money to help take care of them isn’t something he’s concerned with. He makes it plain he has a new family (all sons, hmmm) to support as well, even as he cloaks it around how much he misses them. Taking them out to somewhere more expensive is not something he’s about to do. Even though I don’t state it, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to hear him saying they can have what they want as long as it comes off the value menu. These girls are hungry. For food. For their parents’ love and nurturing. For wanting happy lives that continue to inexplicably be just out of reach. But they don’t know how to verbalize their emotional needs to their father. They do, though, have the words for an easier need to vocalize, which is the physical need for food. There’s something very human in that moment for me.

Mona and Maribel ~ by L Mari Harris

Once, Mona’s little sister Maribel almost touched the moon. Maribel pumped her legs harder and harder, sailing higher and higher on the playground swing, until the sky turned to ash and the rain pummeled down. Mona watched Maribel’s toes inch closer and closer to the moon, their little shirts and shorts stuck to their little bodies. Mona tipped her head back, stretched her mouth open, and fed on the rain. They knew they should head home, but Maribel chanted Almost…Almost…Almost and pumped her legs harder. Mama would be asleep on the couch anyway, one leg slipped to the floor, her hands opening and clenching in her sleep, like she was grabbing for something bigger than she could hold.

Once, Maribel’s big sister Mona pulled her into their closet, tucking a blanket around their bodies. She told Maribel to sing any song she could think of. Maribel sang Katy Perry songs, mixing up the lyrics, while Mona braided her hair. They switched, and Maribel sang sweet softness at Mona’s neck, roping Mona’s hair over and around to the tips. But they could still hear their mother’s faint mews—Stop, Brad, oh Brad, please stop. That surprised them. They thought this guy’s name was Brian.

Once, Mona’s and Maribel’s real dad came through town and took them to Burger King. He asked them if they liked school. Yeah. He asked them if they’d liked the Christmas presents he’d mailed to them. Yeah. He asked them if their mama was being good to them. Yeah. He said he wished things could have worked out differently, that he missed them to the moon and back, that he gave what he could but he had new mouths to feed now, too. They wanted to ask him if they could live with him and his other family, but it came out sounding like Can we have more fries?

Once, Mona and Maribel found their mama sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, a cigarette ember casting a faint glow along her jaw and cheek as she raised the cigarette to her lips. They shared a glass of water as their mama told them how bone-deep tired she was, how stuck she felt. How she tried so hard and just spun her wheels. How she wished their lives were different, that all it would take was just one good one to come along. Mona and Maribel hugged their mama and told her they loved her. Oh, girls, it’s just not the same kind of love, now, is it? They guessed not.

Once, Mona’s little sister Maribel whispered she wished she was old enough to run away. They could go to the moon for real and eat the expensive Kraft Mac & Cheese whenever they wanted, until their tummies couldn’t hold another bite. Their real dad would buy them little pink fishing poles and take them fishing with the boys he called their brothers. Where they wouldn’t have to remember which one was Brad or Brian or Chet or Marvin or Glen. Mona took Maribel’s hand and they tiptoed past mama on the couch, down the cinderblock steps that tilted a little deeper into the dirt every year, around the tree that pushed the sidewalk higher and higher until it broke open, roots rising to the stars. Mona whispered back, This way…This way…This way.

***

L Mari Harris splits her time between Nebraska and the Ozarks, and works as a copywriter in the tech industry. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in or are forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, cahoodaloodaling, Gravel, Lost Balloon, MoonPark Review, Silk Road Review, among others. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

Two questions for Jules Archer

We recently published Jules Archer’s eerie “Contents of a Letter Found on a Stained Bar Napkin.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

 

1) The attempted murderer in this piece has an M.O. similar to the BTK killer. Did you have a specific murderer in mind when you wrote this piece?

Ooo, yeah, I could see it being similar to BTK. Actually, the serial killer I had in mind when I wrote this was the Golden State Killer (Also the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker). At the time, I was reading the book by Michelle McNamara, then watching the news coverage when they captured him, and it was just something he did — lurking in the room — that chilled me to my core. I mean, I could probably take a knife. I couldn’t take someone staring at me in a pitch black room.

2) I love the last line and that image “as close as a ghost,” which for me, almost transports this story into a dreamworld, where the napkin writer imagines they survived, but maybe didn’t. Do you think this story is true? Do you think they really came so close to being killed?

Thanks! I worked long and hard for that last line. I definitely think there’s an airy, dissociative part to this piece that makes it feel almost not-quite true, but it’s true. The girl got away. And hey, isn’t that so beautiful to say these days?