The Usurpers was made with the intention of being a critique of the greedy society in which we are living today. I was driven by bad experiences I’ve had with people. I decided to make something that reflects the people who don’t see beyond what simple matter allows them to see. At the end of the days, death is upon their greedy actions.
Sergio Riaño, aka Fractal Concepto, can be found on Instagram and on their website.
Previously published online at Burning House Press
By Stephanie Parent
My Ariadne can see the future.
(My Ariadne. This is my version of the story.)
She spins her red thread, and it twists into shapes before her eyes, hearts and nooses. It tells her that Theseus turns out to be an asshole.
Seven young men and seven maidens arrive on the island, and Theseus outshines them all. His eyes are the sky blue of someone who believes he cannot fail, who believes he has no darkness within him. Those eyes make Ariadne dream of flight.
Theseus wonders how such a creature as the minotaur, half-beast, half-man, could be allowed to exist. Ariadne doesn’t tell him the last of the halves: the monster is her half-brother. She dreams of blue eyes in the evening, but her hands twist and turn the red thread. At midnight she dreams of mazes like arteries and veins, running red and blue.
Ariadne gives Theseus a coiled ball of thread the size of a heart. She tells him the thread will guide him out of the labyrinth.
Ariadne understands mazes. Her mind is a maze that switches back on itself, with dead ends and false passages. You love Theseus, one path says. You love the brother you’ve never met, says another. Don’t trust his blue eyes, says a third.
She pictures Theseus in the maze, trailing red thread with each step he takes. The walls are tall and damp and dripping moss as though they are alive. The sky is black and distant, and he can’t see the stars. The minotaur’s breath sounds like wind passing through the gaps between stones.
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Ariadne can see the future, but she couldn’t see the sword Theseus slid beneath his tunic, how he broke the rules of the sacrifice with his blue-eyed impunity.
Theseus stabs Ariadne’s brother. The blood drips from the minotaur’s human chest to its bull’s tail, long crimson strands like threads. The blue-eyed boy turns to follow the red thread out, but the spell Ariadne wove within it is working. The far end of the string has ignited, flames flying toward Theseus till the red thread dissolves to black ash in his hand.
He thinks he can follow the ash-like breadcrumbs, but the minotaur’s last breaths blow it away.
Theseus wanders the stone pathway as the sky above him lightens to the hue of a robin’s egg. Once the echo of the minotaur’s breath has faded, he can hear each slap of his leather sandals against the stone. The sound will grow fainter and fainter until, like the thread, it stops.
In the maze in Ariadne’s mind, walls burn away, and new ones ascend, passages reformed. Her brother is dead. Her almost-lover is dead. She will never be left alone on the shore of Naxos with only a saltwater lullaby to soothe her tears. Her brother will never devour another young man or maiden. She will never again hear his roar at night, the way his cries sounded almost like the syllables of her name.
Ariadne sits at her spindle and spins her thread all night long. The next day, she will gather madder for red dye and woad for blue.
Stephanie Parentis a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.
Anliquitzchan [an-lee-kits-chan: Mother of the Dead House]: Consort to Teoteotlo. She refused to bear him a son and instead birthed the Lower Realm (Ixticayo) as a place for the dead. Infuriated, Teoteotlo changed her into a bat, banished her from the Upper Realm (Aitcayo), and charged her with caring for the dead in Ixticayo. She created Canichi to help her.
In this image, we see Anliquitzchan represented as the bat. The upper half clearly shows the ears, round head, sharp teeth, wings extended out from the body, and teats (green circles) in the center of the torso. The bottom half clearly shows the clawed feet of the legs extending out from the body and the Lower Realm (Ixticayo) exiting the birth canal. Since Ixticayo was primarily created for housing spirits of dead humans, it is represented with humanoid facial features (eyes, nose, mouth).
Mark Slautercurrently lives in Virginia with his wife and two cats. The Diary Of A Novice Investor: The Bullet Train To Wealth Left When? was Indie published in 2017. He is currently writing short stories and creating digital art. “Like life, my art tends to come from random and chaotic processes.” He is a member of the James River Writers group in Richmond, VA. He can be found online by searching for Mark Slauter. Currently, available artwork can be viewed at https://mark-slauter.pixels.com/
Hades, My daughter is not another soul to collect.
It started in the field, didn’t it? It was on the edge of our property, and she laid in the tall grass while I tended to the wheat in the next patch over. It was summer, and she was in her daze as she always was. She was traipsing behind me every now and again and singing her song in her proud and wild way.
“Persephone, why don’t you make an effort with this harvest?” I asked, looking over the villagers’ crops as they went back into their homes for dinner. “You know you are the only child of mine that can help me, help them.”
“Why must they make their sacrifices?” she asked. She sighed and plucked wildflowers from the tall grass around her feet. “That is the unspoken agreement between them and us, god and mortal,” I said. “They held up their end, and we must reciprocate.” She sighed once more. I knew she did not care.
My most arrogant child responded with absolutely no conviction of her ability, looking at the fields around us and made them grow almost on a whim. Flowers bloomed out of nothing, as did the vibrancy of all things vegetation. Small animals came wandering behind her, deer and rabbits. Even if it is her nature, literally and figuratively, she didn’t care, and I don’t believe she still does.
And then there was you.
I noticed a dark stain in the undergrowth out of the corner of my eye, and I should’ve known better. I knew it was you, and I knew we were near your cave, your lurch into the kingdom below. I merely thought you were silently warning us not to come near, but no. No.
I looked at you and then to my daughter and noticed one of the flowers she was holding between her porcelain fingertips had crispy, wilted edges. I should have taken that image for what it was: an omen. I was broken of my fixation on the flower when she asked a question.
“Mother, who is that man?” Persephone did not face me, and I could easily define the silhouette of her face, the tip of her nose down to her lips.
I told her, “That is Hades.”
She saw what I saw, the darkness that wisped around you, a souvenir of your realm.
“God of the underworld and the dead?” This was the most focused I had seen her.
I nodded. “Correct.”
She left it at that, and we forged ahead unto another. We came back and forth between this rural string of farmlands and Olympus as farmers sacrificed their cattle and goats to turn in our favour over the next several weeks. Persephone lagged behind, my lonely child, separate from her several other siblings because of her similar ability to myself. She gazed off into the undergrowth every now and again with a slight cackle under her breath, like the ravens that plucked their claws from tree branches to fly. That’s when I knew she was already under your spell—what hex was it? What enchantment did you see fit to take my sweet child?
On one of our runs to the mortal world later that week, Persephone went off on her own accord as she did when I didn’t redirect her to help. I went on my own to other village’s fields, helping their harvest, checking to make sure each sacrifice would balance out. At the end of the day, I returned to Mt. Olympus and assumed that she had returned without me, but looking around the great feast table with the other gods, I saw that her seat was empty. No one had seen her. My daughter was gone, and the hard chill of panic entered my being.
“I wanted more. I wanted her, and I would have her.”
I went to every nymph, god, and goddess to tell me what they knew, and all leads went back to you. My suspicions were correct. You fully realized the bind you put me in. You knew that if you took her, I would not be able to retrieve her because I am not allowed to enter your kingdom. You knew all of this; you calculated swine. In fact, you are worse than swine, worse than the dirt that surrounds you down below in your realm. Crooked grins, sly hands, and a dangerous voice: you should be ashamed of yourself.
You’ve had her for too long. Bring her back to me.
I would like to start by saying that your daughter is safe if that’s your concern. Know that I apologize for not coming to you sooner to request for Persephone’s hand; please know that I have loved your daughter since the first moment that I saw her, that day in the field, and vow to take care of her for eternity.
A servant came to me earlier that day as I sat alone, just as I have since the beginning of time, in my dark, stone throne room and informed me that you and she were going about your duties to the mortals too close to my realm’s entrance. I sighed as I stood up, knowing that I would have to bear the sunlight of the waning summer day. I could have sent a servant, I could have, but my weary self needed the change from overseeing the souls. An eternity of overseeing and being bound to the bleakness of my realm has turned into one long, dark night. I’m actually thankful that I didn’t send a servant because otherwise, I would have never seen her.
I emerged from the entrance enclosed by boulders leading out unto the undergrowth and saw you both fulfilling your duties to the mortals that submitted their sacrifices. I knew of your duties, Demeter, but did not know that one of your children possessed such an innate ability to create life from her tiny, fragile fingertips. Not only did her ability enrapture me, but her pure beauty: her lengthy locks that graze over the wheat heads, but is made of golden silk, her naturalness and place among nature and life—it was instant. At that moment, I knew that she was everything I am not, a natural opposite, but a pure, youthful goddess that could bring out the best in me as I her.
When Persephone and I looked at one another, my heart stopped. Before, I was going to speak out a warning but was left utterly speechless. She must have asked you about me, and that’s when her own interest in me began. All of us walked away, but she never stepped out of my thoughts as I returned to my throne. I replayed the moments, though as brief and mundane as they were, over and over in my head. With each passing soul into my realm, I began to notice features in each of the women that could have possibly resembled her, but none ever came close. It was a fool’s wishing because, after all, no one could ever match the sheer quintessence of Persephone; that much I knew was a fact.
It became nonstop, especially as I realized that above my very head that the mortals were persisting in making their sacrifices to you and your daughter for an excellent harvest. That’s when the idea came.
“Furiae,” I called to my three main servants. “Inform me when Goddesses Demeter and Persephone come within close proximity of my realm.” And they did as I asked.
The next time you both came to a string of farmlands that curved in and out beside the undergrowth. I watched you both as I stood in between spindling ancient trees, thinking of what I would say, how I would ask your permission, how I would properly introduce myself to the lovely Persephone. When you both were close, I attempted to call out as a greeting, but a crow flew right past me and nearly made me fall over. It squawked as it flew away, and I noticed Persephone laughing; that was that crackling you heard in her laughter. If my minor embarrassments are works of enchantment, then I would hate to see what you think of my actual powers.
But that bird was perhaps a good omen because, without your noticing, she waved to me, greeted me with a warm, honeysuckle smile that spread a feeling over my being like none I’d felt before.
I wanted more. I wanted her, and I would have her.
As I had instructed days before, my servants called to me to rise above to the mortal land of sunlight, and though I always despised doing so, now I had an absolute purpose. This time, as I strolled through the dark shrubbery and trees, there she stood (of her own free will, mind you) on the very edge of the field and the undergrowth. She knew of the boundary I could not cross and that I cannot cross into the field as it is not part of my realm, only the undergrowth of my entrance and no more. She was waiting for me.
My heart pounded. “Hello,” I said.
“Hello.” Her voice twinkled with warmth.
“I realized that perhaps deeper beneath her beauty, she had iron underneath, a deep, churning metal that made her empathetic.”
We stood in silence, looking each other up and down. Then I took her hand. I couldn’t feel myself reach out to her, and yet her small, doll-like hand was placed perfectly, fitting in mine like two halves of a broken stone tossed around by the blackened sea then somehow washed up next to each other. It was so sudden, even for me, that I thought she would scream for you, run away, or use her powers, but she did none of that, just smiled on and continued to hold my hand back.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, not taking my hand away.
“Why are you apologizing?” she asked. Then, I took my hand back at my side.
“You-You’re incredibly beautiful,” I said. “I never meant to stare or pry, but you have the most graceful powers I’ve seen among all of the goddesses.”
I couldn’t believe I said it. Where is all this spontaneity coming from? I thought. But I knew it was her; she brought that out in me.
“Well, many thanks, indeed, Hades,” she said my name with an emphasis.
Then she stared at me, bore her pale eyes into my soul like a cat that doesn’t want to blink at some moving, interesting thing. I chuckled a moment.
“Aren’t you afraid of my darkness, dear?” A slight smirk.
“Oh, no,” she said. “You haven’t had a chance to see mine.”
My smile loosened into a line. My heart thudded like great shrine drums.
“I must be going; my mother keeps a watchful eye on me constantly.”
The summer cicadas crescendoed their filmy calls.
She took a few steps close to me, so incredibly close that I could feel her slight breaths from her nostrils. Then she kissed me and tasted like strawberries, something too sweet that I couldn’t take. I almost trembled.
As she broke away, she said, “I will return in a fortnight, and I wish to visit your kingdom.”
She glided away with the wind undulating in the wheat as her locks trailed behind her like a lioness’s tail. I thought hard to believe that such a young goddess, She glided away with the wind undulating in the wheat as her locks trailed behind her like a lioness’s tail. I thought hard to believe that such a young goddess, or any goddess, for that matter, would have any interest in coming to the underworld of their own will, let alone for a ‘visit.’ And then, as I returned home and gazed over the lands of my kingdom, I realized that perhaps deeper beneath her beauty, she had iron underneath, a deep, churning metal that made her empathetic to who I was, what I was ruler over. It seemed she understood that not all darkness is bad because she seemed to have a bit of it in herself. For as fast as it was going, I felt that this had to be destiny, that we were meant to be together. We brought out a different side in each other that was perhaps better for the both of us.
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When a fortnight was upon us, I came above once more and waited. I saw you heading over to a field at the foot of the mountain, out of my reach to call you, and though I should have, it almost felt wrong at this point, like you should not have known. There was something in Persephone’s voice that last time I saw her that internally warned me of that.
Though I saw you, Demeter, I could not catch sight of your daughter across my line of vision. I focused in on a black speck over yonder and thought that it was a crow. Something yanked the sleeve of my robe, and my love had found me.
“We must hurry,” she whispered. “Let us go to your realm.”
She pulled me to walk beside her, and I was astonished at her eagerness to join me. I took one last look at you heading for pearly Olympus as we walked to the entrance of the underworld, large gray boulders leaning on each other in such a way to create a small mouth for souls, etc., to journey down.
Because she naturally had my permission, Persephone was able to enter, but before setting foot in the darkness, she stopped, making me halt with a jolt.
Her face was inscrutable, but I could tell she was thinking hard about something—I assumed the decision she was making to join me in my realm, the choice to stay with me. I would prolong the ‘visit’ as much as I could so that she would want to stay. I stood next to her on the precipice of the darkness and turned to her.
“I tell you such fine music waits in the shadows of hell,” I said.
She took that in with such deep eyes with small glints of black, then took her steps inside.
So, Demeter, your child decided on her own to come with me into my home. I believe she loves me as I love her. It is a shame as I hear the world above has decayed that Persephone’s hard work has gone to waste in order to transform into a wasteland, creating autumn and thus frightening the mortals with their now dead crops. My love has taken the spring and summer with her, and she doesn’t seem to care. She has taken to the darkness, and I believe that she showed her proclivity to this place when I saw the deepness of her eyes, the small inherent darkness that she let me peer into and allows me to peer into now as I show her my duties and all of the lands beneath your feet.
As I said before, I apologize for not asking you before taking your daughter’s hand; she has apparently taken mine on her own. She wears strength and darkness equally well; the girl has always been half goddess, half hell.
Whether or not you believe Hades is none of my concern, but you must take it from me before you wreak havoc onto the mortals’ lands: I am the queen of this realm now. I don’t know why you aren’t surprised by this newfound situation. I was bored of your world, Mother, always bored. You say that what I have is a gift and that it should be shared with those mortals that sacrifice for us, but I disagree. Before I left for this world under your world, the mortals would sacrifice more and more, and we would give more and more. I know it is the agreement, but they do not know hardship, never have. I have nothing personal against them, but I believe that without hardship, how would anyone remember what the good was? How would anyone know that there is a light at the end of a struggle, that there is hope?
I know about these things because you have had me under your thumb since you knew that my abilities matched your own, possibly even surpassed them. Your powers have always been great, but we both know that they wane, and I can make all of the abundant flora and fauna faster and greater than you ever could have. It would seem that even the mortals depend on me more than they do you. You’ve consistently wished me to use my abilities because you know that you will retire, and it will be my time to take on the duties every year for eternity.
You’ve never let me out of your sight or go beyond your general area. These same rules applied that day in the field, but there was something different. He was something different. Hades looked at me like no one had ever looked at me.
“He was handsome, but not in a way that I had seen before.”
Though darkness surrounds him, there was something enchanting about the depth at which he gazed upon me, not that I was just another beautiful face, but that I was something more. Those flowers I picked the day we saw each other were already crisp with death, and it was something so outside of myself, so outside of my knowledge that I knew he had something to offer me—a way out.
I went to him several times, made him mine, enraptured him until he felt it even at the base of his spine. I told him I wanted to visit his kingdom, but I think we both knew it would be much longer than a visit and would involve so much more. As I took his hand and made him lead me to the actual entrance, I did doubt myself. I had never taken a leap like this before, and I wondered if it was worth it.
Then he said to me,” I tell you such fine music waits in the shadows of hell,” and I knew I had to make the plunge. So I did.
His world was all blues and blacks, filled with stone and smouldering spots. I only saw the souls from a distance, but it wasn’t until we boarded the long wooden ferry with the skeletal, hooded Charon that I decided to look into the luminescent river. They looked like cobweb faces, ethereal and almost like stringy tissue swirling around in some potion of a cauldron. I thought it almost looked beautiful. Hades beamed at me.
His personal chambers were filled with music. The Furiae, three female servants, sung their songs and played on ivory flutes to a tune that was so drawn out and sharp that its melancholy almost made me cry. His other servants welcomed me with a feast of meagre food, but it was food. A small roast of a bird, fruit, and wine.
“My dear, what do you think of this place?” he asked me.
As I looked up at cracks along the stones of the walls and the torches that lit every so often between the ribbed pillars, I felt both uneasy and excited.
“I’m not sure,” I said, honestly. Then images of the sun, the warmth of the day, and the flowers I would pick day in and day out. My eyes started to water.
Hades rushed to my side from the head of the table and held my hand, perfectly fitting into his.
“My dear, my dear, it is not so dreadful here,” he said. “Come, I will show you.”
We walked from his stone temple back to the ferryman, but he had another destination in mind this time. We sailed across the glowing river in silence until we came upon the mouth of another cave that had a light at the end of it. With a smooth grind onto the flat rock shore, Hades jumped out first then plucked me from the boat. As we headed into this cave, the unknown source and strangeness of the light made me anxious.
I thought that perhaps this was too fast, and I made a hasty decision with a man that I thought I could make assumptions about. But as he held my hand and we walked further down the tunnelling path, we came unto a clearing of a green pasture seemingly with its own sunlight. There was a forest just beyond, and I thought we were back above ground in a place that was warm and familiar to me.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“This,” he said. “is one of the many lands of my kingdom. Not all souls linger in the river; many end up here, in the In-between.”
“The In-between,” I repeated.
“Many souls are confused on where to go, what decision to make, what change needs to be made.” It was as if he knew what was going on in my mind.
Soon, off lingering by olive trees were fully-embodied ethereal souls, walking around like he and I. They noticed us visiting their land and waved to us, and we did the same. I looked up at him, his dark circles protruding from under his thick eyelashes and thought he was handsome, but not in a way that I had seen before. He was handsome when I first saw him, but he looked beautiful in this artificial underworld sun. A monster trapped in a beautiful body.
From this kind gesture, I knew that I made the right decision. He made me feel at home while I was transitioning quickly to these strange, new surroundings. He knew I missed certain aspects of the world above, the one I knew so well with light and sunsets and land. He took me to a special place down below that would always remind me of above. Perhaps it was through this and more that he did love me, and for that, he became more than a way out, and I then loved him, too. This place will never even be Olympus filled with glorious banquets at the long, shining table with all our gods and all our family, but down here, it is enough because Hades is my family now, and he has all of the festiveness, but in his own way. I think I bring out the light in him as he brings the dark in me. We are strangely the same.
“Encrusted in all the darkness is his bright eyes that are the same colour as the wheat fields above. It’s enough home for me.”
Mother, I was not abducted; I wandered down into his shadowy land of my own volition and fell in love with him.
Therefore, there is no reason for you to rage unnecessary havoc on the mortals above as my absence has already damaged their crops. The Furiae told us of this as we sat at the long stone slab dining table. It had been some weeks since I made my venture, and we were sitting for another meal of a different roasted bird, fruit, and wine.
“My Lord and Lady, Goddess Demeter has brought to the attention of the other gods of Lady’s disappearance from the upper worlds. Goddess Demeter has been denying the mortals’ sacrifices as well as causing famine and disease.”
“Of course you didn’t tell her, as I suspected,” Hades sighed.
“I have told you of my mother!”
He rested his hand on mine. “My dear, you are still such a young goddess, and you still have a mother that loves you. I will send a scroll and do my part, but I’m afraid you must return to her. We have no purpose if no mortals are left alive. You have spent your time here, but you let the mortals have their time of rebirth, their spring unto summer.”
Panic set in. “Hades–”
He lifted a finger. Beside him on a golden plate were blood-red pomegranates sliced down the middle with their numerous jewelled seeds exposed. He grabbed one half with his other hand and gave it to me.
“Eat, and you will always come back to me,” he said. “She can have you for a little while, and it will do you some good, but do not fret because you are mine, and I am yours.”
Mother, I wanted pomegranates, I wanted darkness—I wanted him. I plucked the seeds of my own accord, and Hades did not place my crown upon my head; it was me with my own hands.
Before I planned my departure, Hades had been writing in his scrolls, occasionally burning them because he doesn’t think they’re any good. He never tells me what he’s writing, but I can tell when he doesn’t like something. Encrusted in all the darkness is his bright eyes that are the same colour as the wheat fields above. It’s enough home for me.
He showed me that in the coldest of places, we can make a wonderful home.
Until I return,
Leslie Benigniis a current MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio though she originally heralds from Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published in Perhapped Magazine, :Lexicon Literary Journal, and Athenaeum. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Like it is to all children, bedtime was oppression to the boy. Banishment to his bedroom so soon into the night with teeth brushed and pyjamas donned was almost too great an offence to the inexhaustible kinesis of youth. How could he possibly be expected to wind down with the ontology of that constantly whirling in his body?
So then, the stroke of nine P.M. turned into something that needed to be shrewdly negotiated into a perpetual extension of fifteen minutes more: to the end of the half, to the end of the chapter, to the next commercial break, please, please, please. If this strategy were met with opposition, then the boy would be forced to push it further and implicate his elder siblings, claiming for the sake of fair and equal treatment that, if they got to stay up, then he should be allowed the same God-given freedom. But his narrow miss of their God-given teenagehood was what usually sunk his case. The final verdict was always a kiss planted on the top of his head by his mother, followed by a sympathetically amused ‘sleep-tight-don’t-let-the-bedbugs-bite.’ By that point, there was no use in looking to anyone else for a bailout; the boy’s father made sure to exclude himself from all bargaining sessions, preoccupied as he was with the Cowboys or the Celtics or his nightly beer sweating in his insurance broker grasp. Thus, the boy had the floor no more.
Foiled, he would sulk back down the hall to his room, sprawl out under his covers, stare at the posters on his walls in the dark until the images started to disfigure, listen to the even-paced murmur of the TV still going in the living room. Sometimes, in an attempt to put his encumbered energies to use, he might close his eyes and splice together a highlights reel of the school day’s happenings. He considered the kickball game that had dominated recess. He considered the chicken tetrazzini the cafeteria had served for lunch. He considered the silent reading period when JP Walburn caught a salamander by the sink in the back of the classroom and managed to keep it hidden in his desk for the rest of the afternoon without getting busted. This recollection he liked best. It naturally led to a rumination on what else might be successfully stashed in the inner compartment of one’s desk: a terrarium of playground wildlife? A box-sized jungle habitat? A whole miniature scientific ecosystem?
Sooner or later, as always, the purpose of this mental exercise would backfire on the boy. His eyes would droop. His mind would grow foggy. His breath would even out into a soft, buzzy snore, and an enemy slumber would prevail.
Sleep was a sneaky and potent incapacitator. Sleep was a heavy hitter and a fleet runner. One instant, the boy would be holding a clear thought in his head, and, the next, he was being jolted awake by the inopportune honking of his alarm clock, the whole night having already trundled past without him even knowing it. Only occasionally did its tranquillizing power wane halfway through the night, interrupted by a bad dream or a sick stomach or, more commonly, the excesses of whatever liquid the boy had last downed before being sent to bed.
Those halfway spells were the ones sought after at sleepovers and campouts—the silliest of hours. They gave off the same feeling as did standing on one’s head to the hilarity of one’s friends, blood rushing down and delirium filling up like helium. But alone in a pitch-black room, entombed within the stuffy heat of one’s blankets? In that case, one and two and three in the morning were odd, quiet tourniquets of time existing in their own freestanding dimension, belonging neither to the old day nor the new one ahead—only to the no man’s land in between.
On one such occasion, what did it for the boy was the bottle of Yoo-hoo with which he had washed down three Oreos for dessert during the evening cartoon block. Even though he had taken care to empty his bladder before begrudgingly hitting the hay, his body must have nevertheless hoarded water, because he awoke abruptly from a deep sleep to pressure in his gut, and, of course, when he studied the digits on his clock with scrunched eyes, it was no earlier than two-thirty. Strange magic indeed.
The boy shuffled down the hall, past his brother’s room, past the linen closet, past his sister’s room, and to the bathroom. The house was as still as the night outside was, disrupted only by the tonal music of the toilet bowl. The boy was careful to keep one arm slung over his eyes to ensure that he stayed primed for sleep against the better wishes of the hall light shining in through the doorway. Once his relief was procured, he reached for the flush lever, and that was when he heard the noise. It was coming from elsewhere in the house but carrying down the hallway right to his ears: a slow and rhythmic creak-crick, creak-crick, creak-crick.
“You’re like a watchman?”
The boy stopped and listened. It sounded like a frog’s two-tone belch or the squeaky hinges of a trunk lid being worked up and down. He didn’t think to call out for his parents as if it was in any way probable that the two of them might be busy oiling up the living room furniture in the wee hours of the night. He didn’t think to arm himself with a weapon either—his sister’s nail file within arm’s reach on the bathroom counter or the can of deodorant to wield as a pepper spray. Like a bloodhound dutifully tracking the scent in front of his nose, the boy hiked his pyjama pants up and sought the noise out himself, curious yet alert on all fronts.
When he stepped ever so lightly into the living room, he saw amongst the shadowy arrangement of sofa, chairs, coffee table, and a television set that a man was sitting there. In the weak reaches of the hall light, the boy determined that he was dressed in a deep grayish-green, with a wide-brimmed hat and a long trench-like coat and boots—like a homemade Halloween costume of Zorro, minus the mask. The noise in question was coming from the rocking chair that the boy’s mother usually read her historical fiction novels while his father snoozed in the La-Z-Boy while waiting for the sports segment of the nightly news. The man was rocking placidly in it with one leg propped on the opposite knee, and the creak-crick, creak-crick sound carried on even as he raised his gaze and caught the boy frozen in the doorway.
“W-what are you doing in my house?” the boy asked, his voice shrunk down to a whisper.
The man didn’t startle. He smiled wryly, never once stopping his rocking. “Ho, ho, ho, I’m Santa Claus,” he answered not in a whisper but a low and rough-shorn voice. He let the joke settle without reception from the boy and then stiffened up slightly. “I’m on the job, mister sir. What about you? What are you doing up with the bats and the beetles at this hour?”
The boy suddenly remembered the hunting knife that his brother kept atop his chest of drawers and considered bolting back down the hall to fetch it. Instead, he said, “Um . . . if you broke in, I’ll call the cops.”
The man feigned offence. “Mister sir! What a gross misunderstanding of what I am! That kind of thing is what I’m here to prevent. So I have not broken into your house, no, no; I’m guarding your house. And what a nice house it is. Always a pleasure to guard.”
He rocked on. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the time along at an awfully sluggish pace. Apart from that, it was so quiet that the boy couldn’t even hear the faint bell-chatter of crickets or cicadas coming from outside. It was as if he and the man were the only ones awake on the planet, having awkwardly run into each other during the night’s programming gap.
“You’re like a watchman?”
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The boy stepped forward into the living room, and, as soon as he did, the man pinned him in place with the beam of a flashlight that had been concealed in his coat sleeve. Then, with a soft chuckle, the man turned the beam up into his own face, illuminating a stubbly jaw and sparse but deep-cut wrinkles and gray eyes and long, curly, wet-looking hair. Like a flame confined to a lantern, the light was blocked by the sides of his hair and the brim of his hat from reaching the ceiling or spreading outwards into the room.
“Of sorts,” he replied, face pale and bright, expression bemused. “There are hazards. There is a call.”
“You do this every night?”
“I make my rounds.”
“How do you get into people’s houses if you don’t break in?”
The man smiled. “Up on the housetop, click, click, click, and down the hatch. Don’t all children know that one? Or else I walk through walls. Works well enough for ghosts, don’t it?”
Now the boy was insulted. After all, he was no baby; the Santa record had been set straight for him at the ripe age of seven, as his sister’s idea of revenge after he planted her failed math test in their mother’s sewing kit to be found out. Thenceforth, all other holiday and seasonal mascots promptly lost their credibility: the Easter Bunny, Cupid, Jack Frost, even the Tooth Fairy. As the logic of the fiction went, these pleasantly conceived night visitors were permitted free reign of one’s home and possessions, so long as they left thoughtful treats in exchange for cookies or carrots or juvenile incisors. But what was the darker equivalent of such? A drop-in house caller with no mythos to abide by and no goods to deposit under a tree or a pillow, who therefore had open access to any plunder of the boy’s household that might pique their interest? The boy was the only man of his house currently conscious. He supposed he had some guarding of his own to do.
“So you’re here to keep burglars away?” he asked, sharpening the question to a point.
“Burglars indeed. Skeptical, are we, mister sir?”
The man’s tone was mildly jocular, but his face sobered as he sheathed the flashlight beam in his coat sleeve once again and leaned back into the shadow.
“The night is so old.”
“You’re at that age, I suppose. Bombastic age it is. Bumps in the night become just squirrels in the attic. You start to need answers for everything, and, worse yet, you start finding them.”
The boy had no clue what a ‘bombastic age’ was supposed to be, but he couldn’t help but wonder what was so disappointing about seeking the truth of things? Growing up was a process rooted in a proud tradition of fact-facing. And, yes, organically and sensibly, the boy had started to come around to his mother’s even-toned insistences, not the least of which involved the scratching noises beyond his bedroom ceiling, which she assured him were nothing more than a rodent problem his father was too lazy to call pest control about. What was so dissatisfying about having answers? Along with the authority to heckle those of your peers still invested in their fanciful childhood lore, answers were essential passes into adulthood; any sixth-grader waving a magnifying glass over his chest in hopes of finding an even a single sprig of hair knew that. Answers were the things that saved you when you were confronted with the fearful kryptonite of any age. They performed the necessary maneuver of ‘bringing the situation back down to Earth,’ as the boy’s mother was fond of saying.
“You mean ghosts and Santa Claus?” the boy said, chuckling with as much seniority as he could simulate. “Is that what you’re talking about? You know, I’m not so little.”
Of all the boy’s statements thus far, that last one seemed to sit strangely with the man. Back and forth, he rocked in the boy’s mother’s chair while his eyes glinted with sharp intrigue. His mouth twisted as if he were humouring the boy with a smile, but there was a pocketed sadness in the final form that it took—an apology, even. Not for spurning the boy’s maturity, but for something beyond the control of both of them. It was the same way the boy’s parents held their mouths when he parroted a joke he had picked up from his brother, the suggestive meaning of which he did not fully grasp then but undoubtedly would someday soon. It was the way children held their mouths the very first time the joy of taunting drew tears from the taunted, the seminal moment when pleasure turned to regret in the yet-undeveloped realization that they would be hurting people too fast to stop for the rest of their lives.
Although the man was now hidden completely in the shadows, his voice was still very much present. “But the night is so old, mister sir,” he said. “The night is so old.”
Corey Davisis a young emerging writer living outside of Jackson, Mississippi, USA. Davis is currently working on their first novel. You may find them on Instagram and Twitter.
I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.
There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges.
That part I remember.
The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.
I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers.
All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.
So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,
I wondered who they really were.
The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.
Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.
Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold.
I never want to hear bad news from people I love.
It’s the softness that kills.
I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,
your eyes looked just like the moon.
I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,
the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.
Please let me carry you down to the valley,
where your feet can touch the floor.
Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.
Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.
I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air.
They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me.
I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.
I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.
I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.
Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too.
As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in.
Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.
I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet.
And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.
I don’t know which place is worse.
The same woman comes in in the evening.
I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.
She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.
I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles.
“I was in those shining buildings.”
For the first time, the memory ends.
And now there is the after:
Vincent yelling for me,
Dragging me inside,
Carrying me to the car.
Playing my limp fingers like a piano.
When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.
He tells me,
It’s the elevation.
You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay.
Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.
Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish.
The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy.
I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home.
There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway.
And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.
Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.
When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt.
This is the thin air I’m used to.
My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes.
I look up, not down.
Down is where the sea of hands and feet are.
I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.
I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow
and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans.
I guess it wasn’t enough.
I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below.
He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.
All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster.
I know what it’s like,
breathing in those clouds.
Across the way, over the water,
I was in those shining buildings.
I was there long before I met you.
Wouldn’t it be nice,
to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?
“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
A place without bare, bending trees;
no dirt or dead grass;
no splintering sandalwood.
So that’s where he takes me.
With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,
He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer.
Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.
I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows.
Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway.
All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life.
Vincent nudges me, saying,
El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.
So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver.
I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel.
I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.
We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser.
I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.
I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating.
I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark.
The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.
I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.
I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.
Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,
Look at the wind,
asking not to be forgotten.
It’s twirling the trees just for you,
sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,
his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.
There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.
I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.
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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.
Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.
I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.
I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window.
Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.
I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.
Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.
I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.
I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me.
It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass.
I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,
Please, take me in.
My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”
Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway.
“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”
I pace the backyard.
It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.
I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.
Claw marks, really.
Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down.
Vincent comes back.
He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through.
Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”
I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”
He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”
I frown, and he laughs.
Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”
And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.
I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.
But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did.
So I could be worse things,
Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge.
That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.
I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.
“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”
He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.
I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.
How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that.
Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back.
So I sit in the tub now.
And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break.
He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder.
I’m standing on the ocean floor.
My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.
I see myself twirling toward me.
The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,
Come back to me, my love.
I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen.
The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows.
I hear a whisper saying,
Don’t you miss me?
And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me.
I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land.
When I wake up, I tell Vincent.
I tell him the story before the story.
The beginning long before the beginning; he knows.
Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.
The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning.
We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips.
And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get.
I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed.
Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.
They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.
My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.
“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”
It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.
I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh.
I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place.
I coughed up water the whole day.
And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”
Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.
It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises.
“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”
I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.
I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them.
I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed.
Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.
I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.
Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away.
I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.
Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.
I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.
But it’s just the wind.
“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”
oh no, please.
And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.
I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs.
We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.
Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef.
We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.
We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me.
Back in my summer valley,
Our car is flying through the streets.
And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street.
Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.
There are no other cars out, but we still stop.
Vincent says, “Maybe, years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”
And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,
I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.
So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams.
Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.
Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Orange Blossom Review, Funicular Magazine, and EcoTheo Review. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He can be contacted at matthewjandrews.com.
Painters paint the paintings that they should paint
Because they are the paintings that they do paint
The worth of the doing is found in the doing
Transcendence is shovel-gripped, cerebral labor
My bones sharpen through the cloth of my bleeding visage
If you are a vault, you must also be the key
What is sagacious gifted bullion without
Its scriptural prodigious tailwind
Eating words with an open mouth
The crumbs of preciously bled stones fall to my lap
This is what I sing to you and you don’t hear
This is what you want me to sing, and I am too shy to
British scholars would say we don’t share the table
Cloudy guru would say you sit at his table
Pull out your chair when you approach plated lawn trimmings
The lawn being your responsibility to water
Do not shun the thornier blades
Growing an apology is not pleasant horticulture
Her smile this is a rooting of veins
Drink it in and the ice cubes of her with it
My bones are certainly metallic with their screws
But I keep chewing on all more expanded than I
John Maureris a 26-year-old writer from Pittsburgh that writes fiction, poetry, and everything in-between, but his work always strives to portray that what is true is beautiful. He has been previously published in Claudius Speaks, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Thought Catalog, and more than fifty others. @JohnPMaurer (johnpmaurer.com)