Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Foraging Asparagus

By Cynthia McVay

I rush back from St. Croix in early April to my home in the Hudson Valley because I can’t miss spring. I look forward to the cheerful daffodils and aromatic hyacinths pushing up near the house, but, really, I return for the soft pussy willow, the dogwood blossoms embracing the field, the apple trees’ smear of pink on the hill, the maple’s red leaf buds against the crisp blue sky, the delicate bright green leaves of the poplars, the haze of Hudson Valley light at dawn breaking over the field. It is also prime time for foraging the fleeting fiddlehead ferns—which have only a week’s window before they unfurl and become toxic—and wild asparagus. I look at my photographs and Instagram postings from the previous year and time my arrival to accommodate all those delicate gifts of hope and bounty and culinary delight that comprise mother earth’s annual reawakening. 

Once I’m home, foraging provides a valid excuse to go for a walk, to be outside, reacquaint with the property, check on things. To take Dexter on a jaunt. There is something immensely satisfying about eating off the land, off my own land. I am fortunate to have several extraordinary meadows and ample woods, which are particularly generous in early spring when the garden still sleeps. Friends plant and tend to productive gardens, reap trunks full of tomatoes in July. My clay soil nor the deer are worth fighting—I have tried—and so I let nature decide what she will give me. And there is something about finding food rather than shopping for or even growing it, making a plate of tender wild greens particularly precious.  

I admit that foraging is a bit of a misnomer for what I do at this point. I know, for the most part, where to find the delectables. I discovered an enormous stand of Ostrich fern years ago, and so I make a beeline to that spot in the woods after hitting the stream for watercress. My secret, inadvertent crops become destinations on my walks. I scour the field and forest floor on my way. Sometimes, I am lucky to stumble across unexpected dividends, which become part of future rounds. 

I have a half dozen places I seek asparagus. However, because they are spread over acres of the field, it is hard to remember exact coordinates. Every year I tell myself that I will map them, but I don’t. The Christmas tree (complete with red bulbs) each asparagus spear becomes when it grows out would serve as a marker if John, who bales my field, didn’t take them down with the grass. So, in a way, I still have to re-find the asparagus each year. The sense of discovery still holds.

I harness and leash Dexter since he can’t be off-lead, what with all the distractions—turkeys and squirrels in the distance—before we head out the door. I put on my tall black Hunter boots to reduce the possibility of being fodder for ticks and poison ivy, but both pose significant risks. In mid-April, the meadow is still low. The spears are visible. I push away the grass and poison ivy with my toe and break the stem off at the ground. Just a month later, the two-foot-high grass obscures the asparagus. By that time, if I find asparagus above grass height, it is gargantuan and—save for the last foot—inedible. By the end of May, the grass is three-foot—Dexter can barely get through—and most of the un-found asparagus has likely gone to seed. 

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A few weeks ago, I waved a handful of asparagus in front of Dexter’s nose and said asparagus! Hoping to train him to sniff them out. And he does, especially when we are close, in an area I know has yields. The problem is, he seems to like asparagus, or at least he likes seeing me riled up. If he gets there before I do, he nips off the top, treasured inch. Noooo, Dexter!  I hold him close and am cautious in our approach.

To be fair, half of my asparagus harvest actually comes from my garden. I transplanted some from the field a decade ago, and it has spread among my perennials. But even in the garden, discovery is involved. The delicate helmeted head doesn’t come up exactly where I look, that is, where it was before or where I planted it. From the same underground root system, or perhaps the result of a previous year’s blowing red seed, it pushes up behind, through, under other plantings a foot away. While I visit the field daily, I check the garden twice on a sunny May day; it can grow six inches in a single afternoon. I keep an eye on coy Dexter to make sure he stays away from that part of the garden. And I rarely plan even weekend getaways during this time. A long weekend can mean the asparagus will grow out and go to seed, the season is over, curtailed.

I place whatever I’ve harvested in a glass with a half-inch of water until I am ready to cook them, generally when there’s a critical mass. The asparagus continues to grow, sometimes another foot if I wait a day or two. It’s comical and a little creepy, actually. These are not twenty stems of equal length and girth in a purple rubber band. Each spear has a character all its own, bulbous or slender, curled, crooked or bowed. 

I grill, roast, saute or boil them. I have had to become inventive in their preparation, as for weeks, they are a diet staple. I throw them into a risotto with ramps and fiddleheads or savour them alone. My latest favourite dish is asparagus roasted in olive oil and sea salt, then cut into bite-size pieces, tossed in their cooked oil, French feta and juice of half a lemon. Magic.

When people set out to forage, they are usually after the big five, like on a safari: fiddleheads, morels, truffles, chantarelle, ramps. Many other abundant and invasive edibles with high nutritional values interest people less, such as nettles, watercress, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, elderberry, milkweed, and walnuts. And people love to eat flowers in salads or waters or teas. I have a hard time sacrificing peonies, pansies, lilac and roses. Asparagus is not generally on the list, it seems. Perhaps because it is uncommon, or not really wild, but feral, having escaped domestication. Sometimes I wonder if someone a century ago grew asparagus here in the upper field. I heard that there used to be an asparagus farm in the Hudson Valley that was chopped into a housing development. Asparagus pushes up in their lawns between above-ground pools and trampolines. I ponder how many of those homeowners recognize— or are oblivious to—their good fortune.

Foraging has become a bit of a rage, almost a competitive sport, in part driven by the foodie movement and reconnection to nature. I sometimes wonder where people are foraging. Public parks? Private property? A friend-chef texted the other day asking if she could come to forage my property. I think she was after morels, which I haven’t seen much in the past few years. I didn’t want to sound or be stingy, but I’m keeping it for personal consumption if I find a cherished morel. She had been out foraging with someone else who found forty pounds of morels. Forty pounds sounds almost wrong, an assault. I found only three morels this year. I soaked them overnight in salt water to extract the bugs, drenched them in flour and sauteed them in bacon grease, black pepper and garlic. I served them with a clean palette of boiled asparagus and savoured every morsel. Spring.

Cynthia McVay divides her time between St. Croix and an old orchard in the Hudson Valley, where she writes, forages and makes art. Cynthia’s work has been published in Orion, University of Pennsylvania Gazette, Chestnut Review, DASH, The Ravens Perch, 2019 Orison Anthology, Ragazine, daCunha’s Anthology 2, and Eclectica. Her work was the winner, the 2018 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction; performed in the UK as Editors’ Choice winner, daCunha’s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at

Your Mother and her Technicolor Idioms

By Connie Millard

“I caught him red-handed, that bastard,” your mother wails during her nightly call to your grandmother. 

In your room, you sprawl on a mattress on the floor and remember the night she confronts your father about his affair, her small frame wobbling from alcohol and momentary triumph as she waves the damning picture so close to his face, it slaps him across the cheek. 

She rails into the receiver that life is unfair, that a tramp with crooked teeth stole him, that she is stupid for marrying him so young.  Well, now she’s stuck with you, and who’s going to want her now.  She drones on like a half-dead bee trapped in a house, lumbering and erratic, but her stinger still sharp.

You slip on your headphones and jack up the volume.  The pulsing bass matches the thumping of you heart as you work to ignore the familiar tang of stomach acid in your throat, bitter and meaty, filling you up like the dinner you miss that night.

“No way.  You’re like apples and oranges,” she claims the time you ask to move with your brother to your father’s house.   

“We are the girls; they are the boys.  He belongs with him.  You belong with me,” her arm chops the air, severing you from them in desperate authority.

“Remember, it’s you and me against the world.  It’s our anthem,” she pleads, fixing you with a wild stare, her watery blue eyes partially hidden by her hair, once a stylish auburn crop, now shaggy and gray.  She and grips your hands in an unescapable vice as she sings the Helen Reddy hit, her slurred voice cracking,

“When all the others turned their backs and walked away,
You can count on me to stay.”

You do stay.  Because you have never been without your mother before, not once in your twelve years.  

“You yellow-bellied brat.  Get out here and talk to your grandmother,” she shrieks, shards of her wrath hitting you like shrapnel.

Your bedroom door explodes, and you throw the covers over your head, burrowing under the blanket to hide from the monster, praying that if you squeeze your eyes shut and chant, she’ll disappear. Like an exorcism. Go away.  Go away. Go away.

“You ungrateful slob. I said, get over here.”

You say you are tired. You say you have a stomach ache. You say you will talk to Grandma tomorrow.  

Please, Mommy.

But she is strong with vodka and rage and rips the blanket off like a band-aid of an unhealed wound, leaving you raw and exposed.  She grabs a fistful of your shirt and yanks you from the bed, where you hit the floor with a thud.  She drags you along to the kitchen and reach the phone to croak, Hi Grandma.

“Oh, so you think the grass is greener on the side, Missy?” she says when you explain that you called you father while she was in the bathroom.  You cannot look at her face.

You are leaving, you say.  He is coming for you

But, you are afraid.  Afraid of your father, who does not speak to you in the affair aftermath.  Who does not contact you when you move hours away to your aunt’s house to make a new life, only to be evicted six months later thanks to your mother’s drinking.  Who does not leave an address, so when you return, you wander the streets for days, an inept but dedicated stalker, until you finally spot him, and he gives you a hug and his phone number.

“I begged him to stay, begged him until I was blue in the face.”  She sobs and squeezes your arm so hard you know it will leave an angry bruise, a black and blue imprint on your skin and on your heart.

“Fine. Go.  I don’t need you.”

But she blocks the stairs and, when you slip under her, throws her short, plump body against the door.  You use your bags to pry her away, and she latches onto your sleeve and tugs, sucking you back in, to stay, to imprison. Fueled by adrenaline, you wrench the door open.  The gush of air shocks you both. And now she kicks and shoves you outside, out of her life.  Into the rain.  Into the dark.  Into the waiting headlights.  And you rejoice because you are free, and you are no shrinking violet.

Connie Millard is a full-time working mom of three who once made it to the final callbacks for the reality television show, Worst Cooks in America.  After much practice and perseverance, she now spends her time writing stories in between stirring risotto.  Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Potato Soup, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Ink Fiction Drabble Anthology, among others.

Three Words

By Kaleena Madruga

Describe yourself in three words, Khal says. He prods the growing fire with an unravelled wire hanger.

Um, I start, pulling my blanket a little tighter over my shoulders.

Abrasive. Creative. Driven.

Good ones, Chris says, nodding.

I don’t think you’re abrasive, Suzanne offers kindly. I shrug.

I have created a misty kind of coat; it envelopes my tougher memories, the sad ones and the bad ones, making it hard for me to remember things exactly as they may have happened.


Some people know about my divorce and some who don’t. There is also one, Chris, who knows but does not wish to know. So I keep to myself most of it, good and bad, but there are jolts like a metal stick against wood amidst the heat that hit me when I am unprepared.

I fell asleep most nights alone, before and after, before because I was actually alone, during because my ex-husband worked later, and after because I had no choice. I remembered moving into a dingy, ugly, unhappy apartment and thinking that I would be ok if I could fall asleep that night. I did fall asleep quite easily, but I was not ok. Sleeping was the only thing I was able to do with a relative routine for two years. But I have been abrasive long before this.

I often talk to my therapist about how masculine my house was. My father, my brother, my mother, my pets. Looming, loud, competitive, confident. Dark hair, dark skin, dark fur. Masculine. I asked for a canopy bed, purple walls. I had tangled hair that refused to be brushed smooth; my mother had to spray it with a detangler, yank the comb through. My skin, covered in thick Portuguese hair, became dry in the heat, eczema scabs up and down my arms and legs. I craved softness, quiet. I’d ask my mom to teach me how to do makeup, and her face would twist like she’d tasted a lemon. I don’t wear makeup; she’d say and toss her hair behind her shoulder. I don’t need it.

I was and still am obsessed with feminine beauty. I dye my hair blonde and blow dry it straight. I whiten my teeth, shave my arms and legs and feet, and my face and my pubis. I rub lotion all over myself, inject my forehead to make it smooth. Every day I put on makeup. My underwear is lacy. I am the ugliest I’ve ever felt in my life.

Standing in a dark bar trying to reconcile after the cheating, I am drunk and holding onto a pool cue with its base pressed into the ground for balance. My misty jacket of protection disables me from remembering exactly what I said that night, but my ex-husband leaves alone, tears brimming in his eyes.

After it was over, I only sought out men with girlfriends. I didn’t cry or ask for help. I wanted to prove that what happened to me could and would happen to anyone. Two years later, I was a sick and bruised skeleton. I developed something close to shame, but there’s a better word for it I haven’t found yet.

I treat my body like it’s as disposable as I feel. I pump it full of alcohol, allow it to stumble, to be handled, unloved. I talk to myself like a nemesis; I punch my mirror and let it break on my hand. Disgusting, I say to the shards of my reflection and my blood. You are disgusting.

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If you can figure out a way to get fucked up every day and ruin all of your relationships, you have to be pretty creative. I am dependable and eloquent enough with my words to maintain a job as a freelance writer. I make just enough to buy enough bottles of wine every night to send me into a coma. 

Years later, I attempt to turn everything I hate about myself into a collection of stories to be sold and held and read. Creative.

I find Chris at a small table on a Tuesday morning because we are reading the same book. I am pleasant enough, but I have not loved anyone in years, and I certainly haven’t touched anyone that I got close to liking, including myself. Even though I am shiny and new, my insides are still sick and decayed, healing but slowly. I am grateful that I now live somewhere with seasons, as I can attach imagery to my innards. My outsides are spring, blooming. My insides are winter. Dead.

But I try, I try with Chris because something inside the dead forest of my winter tells me that he is worth it. And while I am terrified of love and even more terrified of myself, I let him in. Time passes, and I begin to see myself in different ways. I finish the things I’ve started. I treat my skin and body better; my insides bloom. 

You are very bright, so creative. My boss says to me. We are speaking over the phone, so I wince like I’m about to take a punch. She never says but. She just leaves it there. Bright and creative.

Are you a creative person? Suzanne asks Chris.

Not at all, he laughs, puffing smoke out of his mouth.

That must be hard, she says, considering her hands. She is so creative that it must be intimidating.

Whatever pride I had is shoved back into a drawer and saved for myself. I remember that my grandmother when she was alive, used to sew. 

I sip my beer and nod, re-writing this whole story in my head.


I can tell you that I know what it’s like to want to die, to hope that you will just drop dead, so you don’t have to do it yourself. 

But I can also tell you that I know what it’s like to want to live. To really live, to feel everything with such an immense magnitude that you could turn it into something beautiful if you held onto it instead of trying to wash it away.

I will tell you that I gathered up everything I had and tried to save my life because of these two feelings happening inside me all at once. I can say that the wanting to live felt bigger but much scarier. I can tell you that I held onto the armrest of my airplane seat, shaking on my way to a new life, still very much afraid of my old self. I had two suitcases and was sitting in a pad filled with blood from the baby I’d aborted two days before.

I cannot say that I figured anything out or that everything is ok. When people tell me I am brave, I tend to diminish those words, wave them away in the wind. I did the things I had to do because I didn’t see any other way. I am not brave because if that plane had started to go down, my grip on the armrest would have remained the same.

I do not say any of these things tonight, with my friends, or ever. I hold onto them, and I look at the stars. I take my three words, and I hold onto them; they are mine, I like them.

Kaleena Madruga received her BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She lives in Chicago.


By Bill Vernon

Although the biggest elephant in the world is loose in the building, I voluntarily check-in at the reception desk. A wall clock insists it is exactly 7:17, which I write down by my name then enter the lobby where about 20 residents are present. Some wear street clothes, a few bathrobes, two moves with walkers, the others are stationary, sitting, three crowded onto a love seat facing a large glass cage in which brightly coloured birds flit back and forth. The bird chatter carries clearly to me, but I think it must be amplified from such a distance away.

Four hallways spoke off this circular room, this hub, to other sections of the “Home.” I veer right toward the hall where bedridden 75-year-old Jane lives in SW113. The white paper gift bag I carry, with bright red, blue and yellow balloon designs, is for her.

When a television erupts with rapturous cries from people winning money on a game show, it distracts me enough to bump a wheelchair accidentally. I apologize, “Excuse me,” but the person in the chair doesn’t hear. She’s propped up with pillows; waist belted onto the chair’s frame so that she can bend over her lap without falling to the floor. I step forward to go on, but the woman’s profile stops me. 

The shape of her head. Can it be?

“Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound.”

“Yvonne? Is that you? Yvonne?!” No reaction. I repeat the name and touch her shoulder.

She slowly straightens up, unfolding in sections, her head finally coming up and back so that her eyes open upon me. My God, it is Yvonne! 

She stares at me blankly, though perhaps half asleep, not yet fully awake after dozing. 

I say, “Bonjour. C’est moi, Bill,” which I try to pronounce the French way, Belle, as she always said it.

I audited four semesters of her French classes 15 years ago. We were colleagues for 30 years, attended faculty meetings, served on committees together, and chatted many times. I expect my pronunciation to evoke her beautiful smile, her perky sense of humour, her easy laugh, and it’s all that remains in my mind. 

Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound. Something like a crusty dab of mashed potatoes is on one cheek.

I go down on a knee, so we’re level. “Ca va?” 

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Her eyes stare without recognition. Did she have a stroke? Wouldn’t I have heard? No. I’ve heard from none of our mutual friends in a decade. Maybe she’s drugged. I’ve seen many people humped over as she was because of that in other facilities. 

I babble about people we both know, things we’ve done in the past, how the school has changed since we taught there. That goes on for several minutes, stimulating no response. I finally pat her clasped hands, tell her it was great to see her and return to the reception desk, which of course, refuses to tell me much. 

I’m not on its list of Yvonne’s visitors, not a relative, and an unnamed daughter is the facility’s contact person. I can leave a note for the daughter if I want to. I decide no, not today. I don’t know Yvonne’s children; I don’t want to intrude. I’m also afraid to learn how bad off she is.

My purpose for being here takes me to Jane. She opens my gift, thanks me, eats a “fancy” chocolate from the box inside, says yum, then asks who I am. I’ve been asking that myself. 

I say, “Bill, your husband of 50 years,” and chat with Jane without much connection. When her eyelids begin drooping, I kiss her cheek and go; almost run, in fact. 

“The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind.”

Yvonne is slumped over, probably asleep, when I hurry back through the lobby. To work in a place like this would be difficult. I couldn’t do it. To live here, to be a resident? I don’t want to think about it.

From the parking lot, agitation directs me to the nearby interstate highway where the snow has melted, clearing the asphalt for rubber tires. I ramp down onto it, race along its nearly empty three lanes, reach over 80 mph at one point, cover six miles in minutes, then take the first exit. It’s not a fugue. I know I’m doing it. I’ve chosen to do it, and I’ve chosen to quit doing it. I also know driving that way is dangerous and stupid, I could have wrecked and hurt other people, so I feel guilty.

Keeping active guards me from dwelling morosely on negative matters. I daily walk five to eight miles and lift weights. Action is my habit but an antidote to nothing. It does produce a centrifugal force, a spinning center that throws loose things like dilemmas out to the edges and off. Its Coriolis effect deflects approaching problems away from the outer edge of my spinning. 

Deflecting and expelling work most of the time, but not now. The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind. Nor Jane. Anything seems better than sitting around, listening to the clock tick. 

In my garage, I turn off the engine and lights, sit in the dark, and imagine driving Route I-75 to its end, taking Canadian roads as far north as I can get, then hiking into the bush, sitting down, and letting the Arctic winter have its way. 

Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it in Dayton, Ohio. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.