Not once upon a time, but this very day, or precisely yesterday, or surely tomorrow, a newcomer joins the old-timers of our city who were once newcomers too. Well, that’s just the way things happen – not that theoppressive powers of a poor country imposed it orthethoughtful policymakers of a prosperous country planned it. Strangely enough, the newcomer of our story is a novelist who is not lucky enough to write in the pachyderm language of the world or even in this country’s second official language. Yet, more than other immigrants,he lives in a world of imagination and dreams of what might be possible in the land that gave the world Anne of Green Gables. I supposeyou don’t want to ask me, “Why?” Or do you?
People always say that immigrants go through a hellish ordeal in order to gain future benefits, either for themselves or for the next generation. That’s just the way things are – not that there is a pre-planned pattern for it. It’s simply the price of living in the Promised Land. Strangely enough, our immigrant writer in the honeymoon stage would be more than happy to pay any price to live in a Wonderland where he could write his novel, A Middle Eastern Double Bind, without worrying about censorship and other restrictions.
Despite the fact that our writercomes from a land haunted by magic realism, he is realistic enough to expect that it takes time to get established in a new place – no matter whether it’s hell or heaven. After all, the fact that Canada has room for all comers doesn’t mean that immigrants get treated to a red carpet. Furthermore, our writer’s ears are sharp enough to hear the first lesson: “An immigrant is an animal without Canadian experience.” So he has to forget everything other than “Canadian life experience,” which means, first and foremost, finding a foothold in a city constantly stretching to accommodate more and more immigrants. Moreover, our writer’s memory is fresh enough to recall that even in his native land, the answer to the question “What do you do?” should be anything rather than “I’m a writer.” Because if he answered that, the next question would be, “Wonderful, but what’s your job?” Our immigrant novelist decides to temporarily sacrifice the Double Bind he longs to write in order to get bread, if not butter. Strangely enough, hunger and lack of a roof over the head have a way of defeating the pen. That’s just the way things happen – not that anything’s wrong with any particular social system that doesn’t treat writers well.
Soon it turns out that what at first looks like a mere hiatus is going to become a life sentence. Our protagonist works hard, jumps from one survival job to another, improves his English as a Second Language, takes a never-ending series of evening courses, and grabs any kind of Canadian experience in the hope of getting a better-paying job and finding the luxury of enough free time to read books instead of newspapers or flyers and, most of all, to finish his poor Double Bind. Strangely enough, our hero, still optimistic, tries to write the novel in his mind while running to work or to school or while labouring at an assembly line or in front of a bakery oven. Time passes and brings about a change of status and a few extra bucks, at least to the extent that our new citizen can indulge himself in a cup of coffee in a Starbucks, read news about literary events and, if it doesn’t conflict with his work schedule, even attend an arts event — if it’s free. Yet, these aren’t the only changes. Rapidly his physical energy and health are being undermined. The more our former novelist experiences the Canadian lifestyle, the harder it is to call himself a writer and to remember that he had wanted to write A Middle Eastern Double Bind. Well, that’s just the way things are – not that the new country or even the old one has any hand in that.
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If the first lesson for the immigrant is that he lacks “Canadian experience,” the second one is that he must develop the hide of a rhinoceros. Strangely enough, the immigrant writer of our story is determined to get back on track and reclaim his literary identity. He then encounters the roadblock question, “Do you have any books published in English?” Blaming himself that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be trampled by the elephant of English, our immigrant writer summons enough energy to translate some of his works into it. From the start, our suspect writer knows that this, at best, cannot be anything other than a long shot. What becomes frustrating is that the time he squeezes in for translation means that time is stolen from finishing his Double Bind. But that’s just the way things happen – not that the policymakers of Canadian arts and culture disregard the golden “Multiculturalism Act.”
Well, if you expect a neat ending to this clumsy little story, I’m sorry todisappoint you. Strangely enough, the story of an immigrant writer whose first language is not one of the major European ones is at best nothing but A Canadian Double Bind. This immigrant, who was once a writer, takes refuge in Canada to escape from an authoritarian regime that didn’t let her be a writer by making his homeland a cage. He chooses Canada as a new home because of its fame, not only as a democratic peacekeeping country but also as a land of multiculturalism. Alas! It turns out that lack of censorship doesn’t necessarily guarantee writing and living as a writer. It also turns out that the chosen land cannot be anything more than a purgatory, if not a hell, for a writer who doesn’t write in English or French. Besides the challenges of immigrant life, which can be overcome in a way or another, this writer likely encounters a high risk of losing his professional identity. To overcome the latter, the possible scenarios are: (a) He ignores the English market and keeps writing in his mother tongue, being content with getting published abroad by small publishers with no distribution system and a tiny, random readership. He thus remains a stranger on the CanLit scene. (b) He quits writing in his first language and starts writing in English. In this case, he sacrifices his mother tongue to English and proves that multiculturalism is nothing but a myth. And, even if the writer succeeds in producing a work of quality in English, he is unlikely to compete well in the market with English- speaking, Canadian-born writers. (c) He strives to keep a balance between his dual identities and languages and chooses translation as a medium. In this case, because of the lack of institutional support, the writer has to bear his own cross and function as a translator.
Anyway, one may say, “That’s just the way things are.” — not that anybody is wrong, other than the person who wants to live and die as a writer.
Fereshteh Molaviwas born in Tehran in 1953. She lived and worked there until 1998, when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipientof awards for novels and translation. Her first book in English, Stories from Tehran, was released in 2018; and her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto.You can find her on Twitter or on her website.
“Well, gentlemen, here we are,” I said, excited and nervous to start this new chapter.
Thomas and Issac were settling in and unpacking their things.
“I never envisioned myself becoming a lighthouse keeper,” Thomas replied.
“How hard could it be?” Questioned Issac.
We had only met each other on the boat ride in. I didn’t know their past, and they didn’t know mine.
Hell, we were only on a first-name basis at this point. We finished putting away what belongings we could fit into our small bags and headed out to investigate the terrain surrounding the lighthouse.
Jagged rocks outlined the perimeter, and the lighthouse itself sat on a cliff. To describe it as dangerous would be an understatement. The view, however, was breathtaking. The ocean was oddly still and could be seen for miles. It was almost hypnotic, allowing thoughts I was trying to bury to resurface.
“It’s getting late,” Thomas yelled, breaking me from my trance.
“Let’s head back for dinner,” I shouted back.
On the menu tonight was rice and dried pork. We sat together at a makeshift table and made small talk, getting to know each other better.
“Thomas, what’s your story? Wife? Kids?” Issac asked.
“Neither. I lost the love of my life a few years ago. I haven’t been the same since, can’t bring myself to move on.” Thomas hung his head.
“You aren’t alone there. I just found out my wife has been having an affair for at least the last few months and that the baby I thought was mine is most definitely not.” Issac said, shovelling rice in his mouth.
“What about you, Ben?” Thomas asked me.
I froze. I haven’t talked to anyone about my past, let alone to people I just met on a boat.
“Actually it’s bizarre how we all have suffered trauma in different ways. I lost my entire family in a row boat accident. Throwboated out too far, while a vicious storm was rolling in… I tried so hard to get to them but, there was nothing I could do, I swear!” I surprised myself with how defensive I was getting.
The others just stared at me. Trying to conceal my trembling hands, I cleaned the few pieces of pork I still had on my plate and excused myself from the table.
My sleeping arrangement was small but sufficient, and I laid on the bed gazing at the ceiling.
I really did try to save them. I’m trying to start fresh.
Even though I could still hear my wife’s cries for help, I drifted off to sleep. As always, my slumber didn’t last long; after tossing and turning for an hour, I decided to take a walk.
The air was cool, and the wind was picking up. Maybe the waves hitting the shore would be soothing? Buttoning up my trench coat, I headed towards the water’s edge. To my surprise, the ocean was completely still. Not a wave or even a ripple. But the wind was intensifying. The hair on the back of my neck started to stand up. Then she appeared, walking across the top of the quiet ocean. It was my wife, but she no longer had a face. The outline was there, but it was all a pale white canvas. But yet without a mouth, she was still screaming!
I awoke the same way I always do, in sweat from another nightmare. It was part of my routine at this point. It’s been two years since the accident. I thought taking this job would feel rewarding. Like somehow, if I could do my part to save others out here, I would feel better about not saving my family. So in a way, I was excited to start this job to maybe silence the voices that haunted my dreams. To maybe forgive myself?
As I walked outside, I realized there was a storm rolling in. Great. This was it. Testing us to see if we could handle this job or not. The three of us strapped down anything we thought could be taken by the wind and made sure we were on high alert to warn any ships out there.
As the night passed, the wind howled, and the water still didn’t so much as ripple. Thomas and Issac didn’t question it, so I just kept this observation to myself. We ultimately saved some ships from the wreckage throughout the storms, risking our lives for strangers, but the voices didn’t stop. The nightmares didn’t stop. All three of us were damaged, lost souls just trying to feel whole again.
Days passed, then weeks, then months. The isolation on this island was harder than expected. We did our best to be good to one another but being stuck with the same people for months at a time was getting to all of us.
“It was almost like this lighthouse was cursed.”
Things started to fall off the rails the night that Thomas walked into the cold, motionless ocean. Thankfully Issac and I caught him and convinced him to come back to the lighthouse. I have never seen a man’s eyes look the way his did. So empty and unemotional. He told us a lady in the water beckoned him to follow her into the icy depths. The craziest part was that he claimed that this woman looked just like the love that he lost. He was so adamant it was her. Thomas wasn’t the same after this incident; he barely ate and didn’t rest. Just pacing the shoreline looking for his love.
We chalked it up to just hallucinations until he took his life; I mean, we can only assume. Yet again, he was convinced he saw this woman out in the ocean, and he left in a rowboat, vanishing into the night. There was nothing we could do to stop him; he threatened to harm us with a knife. In his deranged state, there was no way he made it to the desired destination.
It was almost like this lighthouse was cursed. Like the souls we couldn’t save, or the ones we had lost were calling to us. Taunting us.
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Issac fell to the madness next, kept claiming that he heard a baby crying every night. I tried to reassure him it was only the wind. We’ve had so many storms, yet the waters lay still. He, too, became distant.
I found him floating, face-up, eyes black, along the rocky shoreline of the island. I assumed he drowned. When I radioed out, dispatch said they wouldn’t be able to reach me until the morning because of an anticipated storm and that I would have to ride out the night with my dead coworker’s body.
That night the voices got louder; the wind was screaming. How was I supposed to endure this storm with a rapidly decaying body? I needed desperately to get off this island.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse- it started,
“Daddy, daddy, please help us.”
I wasn’t dreaming this time; I know I wasn’t. Again, I heard my daughter’s little voice. I wasn’t about to let this lighthouse take me down, to fall to its curse. Not like the other men, letting those unsaved souls take me away. I TRIED TO SAVE YOU, DAMMIT! I screamed into the lighthouse, my voice just echoing back to me.
Abruptly my wife was there, slowly descending from the staircase. This time she has a face, eyes hollow, skin hanging from her bones, and she’s wailing…but…smiling. An evil, horrible grin is plastered across her entire face. Before I can even process what’s happening, she is dragging me out of the lighthouse and towards the cliff. Her strength is otherworldly. I’m trying to fight her, but I am proving to be no match.
Before she throws me to my watery grave, I can faintly hear police yelling. They are coming to rescue me! I am flooded with relief. How did they find me so quickly?
“Hands up! Police!” They shouted through the wind.
But my wife didn’t raise her hands, and then everything went black.
“Was the lighthouse curse following me?”
I awoke in the hospital, grateful to have survived. What was going on? I was handcuffed to the bed. I screamed for the doctor. There was clearly a misunderstanding.“Doctor, what the hell is going on here?”
The doctor came in and curtly asked me what I remembered. In as much detail as I could, I recalled all of the events that occurred over the last several months. Starting with what was intended as a fresh start but ending in such unspeakable terror. She looks at me as if to be studying me, and then she begins…
“I have to be honest with you. That is not how the last WEEK has transpired,” she slowly began. “You see, Ben, you had a psychotic break two years ago and murdered your entire family. Then you dumped their bodies in the ocean. You were diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric hospital.
It is there that you escaped with two fellow patients Thomas and Issac. You three managed to reach an abandoned lighthouse, and that is where you hid yourselves. Ben, you murdered them too. Thomas and Issac’s bodies were found in the lighthouse. You strangled them and hid them. The bodies also showed signs that someone stripped the flesh off of them to consume. I know this is hard to hear, but please don’t try to deny it. We’ve been through this, and all of the evidence points to you. When the police finally found you, you were ready to jump off the cliff. That being said, you are now being charged with two additional murders. You are an extremely sick and dangerous man, Ben.”
I sat there numb. This couldn’t be true; it was the lost souls that took those men’s lives and my family. I lost them in an accident! They have it all wrong. Was the lighthouse curse following me?
I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples as if somehow that would help me make sense of everything. When I opened my eyes, the doctor was joined by a detective who was eyeing me closely.
“I tried to save them. It was an accident. I TRIED TO SAVE THEM DAMMIT! LEAVE ME ALONE!” I said, trying to explain to them.
I struggled against the restraints. The detective slammed his fist on the side table in frustration, but when he did, the water in the cup didn’t ripple. Zero movements. It brought me back to how odd it was that the water didn’t move by the lighthouse. She’s here. I’m not crazy!
The hairs on my arms start to stand, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see what is left of my wife peering around the hospital curtain. Faceless again.
“SHE’S HERE! BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME!” I screamed at everyone in the room, desperate for her to stop tormenting me.
Security was called.
Then darkness again.
Brittany MacBeth is a daycare provider by day. By night, she is a writer. Her passion is to dive deep into people’s imaginations, forcing them to think outside the box of ordinary. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with her husband and three kids.
No one knew where they came from. It seemed they just appeared out of nowhere one day. It was hard to tell at first, but it turned out there were seven of them. Orphans, all of them, though we never did find out if they were all from one family or, if not, how they came to be together.
When they showed up that day, just as the last snow of winter was disappearing, the town went wild. I mean, you’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty strange sight to see a string of orphans, all in clothes that didn’t fit properly, suddenly appearing out of the clear blue sky at the edge of town like some ragtag band, and then setting up camp. That’s what my daddy called it – “setting up camp.” But I never did see any tent or anything.
To tell the truth, no one actually saw where they settled after they arrived. They must have built themselves some kind of a shelter deep in those woods because that’s where they disappeared every night. They never let anyone close enough during the day to follow them. And, you better believe that no one was going to follow them into the woods when it was pitch black, and you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face.
Folks in town didn’t exactly welcome strangers with open arms. They usually kept pretty much to themselves and regarded outsiders as intruders, to be treated with suspicion and mistrust. That suited the orphans just fine since it was obvious they felt the same way about the folks in town.
In the beginning, a few of the women clucked about the orphans being “savages” who should be dragged into town, given a good scrubbing and forced to go to school like the rest of us poor miserable kids. They even went to the mayor about it. But since no one in town really wanted the orphans in their midst, the idea died a quiet death, and the orphans were left to themselves.
My family lived on the edge of town, as close to the woods as was possible while still being considered part of the town. My mama said it was positively spooky having those “wild Indians” living so close to us. Daddy just laughed and told her to stop being afraid of poor, homeless children. Mama told me she better not catch me near any of those “barbarians” or else. But I used to sneak out of my bed when I knew she and Daddy had fallen asleep, and I’d creep outside and look around, trying to see if I could see anything in the moonlight. I never could, but boy did my imagination run wild.
I imagined what kind of a home the orphans had made for themselves in the woods and what it must be like not to have any adults around to make you listen to them and tell you when to go to sleep, and what it must be like inside those dark, forbidding woods, and what kind of wild animals must be watching and waiting… I’d finally go back to bed, too wound up to fall asleep, and I’d walk around the whole next day like a zombie. Mama always looked at me suspiciously on those mornings, but she kept her mouth shut, thank goodness.
Although we lived on the outskirts of town, we did have a few neighbours not too far away. The closest was the cat lady. That’s what we called her since no one could pronounce – or even remember – her real name anyway, and she was always taking in strays. All of us kids thought she was the most ancient lady in the world. She never paid any attention to what anyone said or thought, although I wonder if she even knew. Most of the people in town called her “eccentric” when they were being polite.
One of the cat lady’s peculiarities was her habit of waking before dawn every morning and taking a walk down to the woods. People felt that no person in her right mind would go alone to those woods, especially when it wasn’t fully light. But the cat lady had been doing it for as long as I could remember, and nothing had ever happened to her. Secretly, I always wished I could join her. And, rumour had it that the cat lady was bringing food to those “barbarians” on her pre-dawn journeys.
I sure hoped that the rumour was true because I wondered how in the world the orphans were managing to eat unless they were just living on tree bark and acorns. I guess other folks were wondering the same thing, and it was making some of them awfully uneasy. Actually, it was as if they were looking for any excuse to make themselves uneasy about the orphans. It was like they knew, deep down, that they should be doing something to help them, but they didn’t do anything, so instead, they decided that the orphans were trouble and that something had to be done about them.
Rumours started flying that the orphans were stealing food from the grocer or from “honest, hard-working folks’ homes.” The mayor’s wife swore she had set a hot apple pie to cool on her window ledge and only left the room for a minute. But when she came back, the pie was gone, and she insisted that she saw one of those “ruffians” racing down the alley, carrying her fresh apple pie. Didn’t matter if it was true or not. She was the mayor’s wife and elected herself to be in charge of all the moral behaviour in our town.
People started grumbling and told the mayor that he better do something about the orphans. Of course, they meant that he better get rid of them, but no one would actually come out and say that. And, he was getting all that pressure from his wife, which, knowing her, must have been worse than being tied to a chair for several days straight and listening to someone’s nails scraping up and down a chalkboard the whole time. But he couldn’t just go and kick them out of town. Although, as I said, they weren’t really in town.
So, he decided to give them some kind of an ultimatum. Since he didn’t know exactly how to contact them, he decided to leave a note pinned to a tree at the edge of the woods. He brought the sheriff and his deputy with him since he didn’t want to go near those woods alone. The note said the orphans should appear at the courthouse at 2:00 PM that Friday. Word spread, and people took bets on whether or not the orphans would show up.
Friday came, and I’d never seen that courthouse so packed. Seemed as if they’d stuffed the whole town in there like one big can of sardines. Just as the clock struck 2:00, the courthouse door opened. There were the orphans, all seven of them, dressed as raggedy as ever but looking like they had scrubbed themselves as clean as was possible for them. The oldest led them in. Looking at them, their ages probably ranged from fifteen on down to maybe two.
It was the littlest one that you noticed right away though – he had the face of an angel, and his curly hair was so blond, it was as if the sun itself had come to rest on his head. As they walked in, they all looked straight ahead, and I swear, I’ve never again seen all of those gossips and loud-mouths from town so quiet.
The orphans marched themselves to the front of the courthouse, where the mayor (who was also the judge) was waiting for them. He motioned for them to sit down, but they stood. The mayor was obviously uncomfortable, and he kept clearing his throat. Finally, he came out with it. Basically, it was a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, but it all boiled down to the fact that since the orphans were all minors, someone needed to take care of them. The mayor said that they couldn’t go on living in the woods – it just wasn’t natural – and besides, rainy season was coming on, so what would they do then anyway? And, if they couldn’t find someone to take care of them, they’d have to move on; it was as simple as that. He sat back and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The whole town seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking who in the world would want to take care of a pack of orphans.
But their relief was cut short when the cat lady stood up. She said she’d be happy to take the orphans in if they’d like to stay with her. Somebody yelled out that these weren’t a bunch of her damn stray cats. The cat lady ignored the outburst and told the mayor to let her know what she had to do to make things legal.
The mayor slumped down in his seat like she had just punched him hard in his gut. His face looked kind of greenish-blue. The cat lady walked over to the orphans and asked them if they’d like to come live with her since she wouldn’t mind having some human company for a change. The orphans didn’t hesitate. It’s like they had this instant bond with each other. They saw something in that old lady that they recognized and instinctively knew they belonged with each other. And they had probably figured out that she was the one who was leaving them food every day. The oldest boy nodded his head, and that was that. The cat lady said he knew where to find her, and she turned and walked out. The orphans followed, like seven little ducklings.
When the door shut behind them, it was suddenly like the 4th of July in that courtroom – sparks were flying, eyes were flashing, tempers exploding. But there was nothing they could do. Not legally, anyway. Well, they consoled themselves; the cat lady lived so far on the edge of town that it really didn’t matter much since no one ever had much dealings with her anyway. Some of the ladies still clucked about how the orphans should be forced to go to school. No one really cared as long as they kept out of sight and stopped stealing food – although it had never been proved that they were actually taking food from anybody.
So the orphans moved in with the cat lady, and I was glad because the rainy season came on like a bat out of hell, and I would have worried about them if they were still living outside in those deep, dark woods. They seemed pretty happy with the cat lady. I’d see them every once in a while, and they all looked sturdy and healthy, and I was relieved I didn’t have to worry about them anymore. The town seemed to have forgotten about them, too.
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I think the orphans really loved that old lady. After they moved in, they did everything they could to help her. I heard that they cleaned up the house, took care of the yard, repainted the outside, and helped her take care of all those cats. No one knew exactly how many cats she had since she was always taking more strays in. Whenever you passed by that house, you could bet that if you saw one of the orphans, there’d be at least one or two cats with him. The strays were adopting the strays. That’s how I liked to think about it, although which strays adopting which strays was still a question in my mind.
As the year wore on, I saw my daddy smiling less and less. Mama started looking more and more like my sister, always putting her lips together real tight, with the worry lines digging themselves deeper and deeper into her face. I knew something was up even though they kept telling me that everything was just fine. But Daddy got paler and paler and weaker and weaker, and I think I knew even though nobody said anything. It took a few months, and then one day, he was gone, just like that. But it wasn’t really just like that.
My sister invited us to stay with her and her husband in town for as long as Mama needed to “readjust herself.” I didn’t want to go. I had never liked my sister – she was always so prim and proper and never smiled at all. Even Mama admitted that she considered herself lucky to have married her off in the first place. But somehow, she convinced Mama that it would be good for her to be in town with other people around, so we went. I guess Mama was lonely with just me for company.
But I was never so miserable in my entire life as I was living with my gnarly old sister. And, I hated living in town – I never thought I’d miss those giant, spooky trees at the edge of our property that led into the woods, but I did. The only decent surprise was that my sister’s husband turned out not to be half bad. That really surprised me since I had never had much respect for him, marrying my sister and all. But after a while, we even kind of got to be friends, and life there wasn’t so bad after that.
No one knew how long she had been dead, but somehow it was discovered that the cat lady had died. The orphans had buried her and all; they just hadn’t bothered to tell anybody. Which kind of makes sense when you think about it. I mean, who would they tell? But it was found out, and it turned out that she had left a will, all signed and notarized. Only problem was that she had made it out before she met the orphans and obviously forgot to change it before she died. The house and everything she had was left to some nephew who lived several hundred miles away in the big city. Of course, the will also made sure that the nephew would take care of all her cats.
So, the lawyer contacted the nephew. He arrived in town with the most expensive shiny black car anyone had ever seen and the most beautiful wife you could possibly imagine. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks as that car passed them by and pulled up in front of the lawyer’s office. Later that day, the nephew and his wife drove out to the cat lady’s house. The orphans and the cats were all there to greet them. The wife was horrified and asked her husband if there wasn’t something he could do to get those “filthy vermin” out of that house. And she wasn’t talking about the cats. The husband said he’d work on it.
Word was that the wife decided the house was “quaint” and said she thought it would be quite a lark for them to leave the city and move into the house. She stood in front of the seven orphans and all the cats and ordered them to be out of the house by the next day – or else. The nephew reminded her that the cats would have to stay. On their way back into town, they passed our house, which was all boarded up, and they decided on the spot that they wanted to buy it in order to own all the land between the two houses. Mama didn’t want to sell at first, but they offered her enough money to fix her for life, and since times were as hard as they were, she didn’t have much choice.
The next week, after settling all of their business in the city, the nephew and his wife moved into the cat lady’s house. They found all the cats still there, but the orphans were gone. The nephew’s wife wanted to get rid of all the cats, but since that was part of the will, she was more or less stuck with them. But she did the very best she could to “encourage” the cats to run away. And, I guess the cats knew they weren’t wanted, and eventually, they did run off. Some found homes in town, but most just disappeared. The nephew’s wife decided to keep one little kitten which she thought was just the “cutest little thing.” It was just a little fluffy baby and didn’t know any better, so it stayed.
The nephew hired men to tear down our house. I snuck by one day to see for myself. It looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it, but it was hard to feel sad since it didn’t even look like my house anymore. It didn’t look like anything recognizable – it looked like the woods had taken revenge on it for trespassing, and now the woods were reclaiming it as their own.
The nephew and his wife didn’t associate with the people in town more than was absolutely necessary. They preferred to bring their friends in from the city. They were always having big parties that seemed to last for days on end, and every once in a while, we’d get a glimpse of another shiny black car as it roared down Main Street on its way to or from their house.
Now that the weather was getting colder again, I was curious to know how the orphans were doing. I figured they were somewhere in the woods, although no one ever saw them anymore. We lived too far away now for me to sneak out at night. But I worried about them. And we had one of the bitterest winters ever that year. The air was so cold it hurt just to breathe. And the snow was piled so high I was afraid I’d disappear into a giant drift one day and never be found. As much as I hate to admit it, it was actually a relief to walk into my sister’s house after being out in that awful cold.
About that time, the rumours started. I guess the orphans were having a pretty bad time of it, alone in the woods in the middle of that bone-chilling weather. It seems that they figured the nephew might want to help them, that he might have a heart, so they came to him, only asking for blankets and food and that kind of thing. And it wasn’t like the nephew was broke – he had plenty. But the wife would have nothing to do with them. She chased them away with a broom whenever they showed up. Or she slammed the door in their faces. Soon, rumour had it that the orphans were doing poorly – that they were thin and sickly looking, and some were having trouble walking. And that the littlest one had gotten a cough that just wouldn’t quit.
One day when there was finally a break in all that snow, the nephew and his wife decided to take a drive since they were getting cabin fever stuck alone in that house all that time, except for the orphans showing up. But when they got to their car, they discovered that the tires had been slashed. Now, there were lots of people who resented them and all their money while the rest of us were dealing with such hard times, but they immediately blamed the orphans. And, if they had done it, I sure wouldn’t have blamed them.
The orphans kept trying to get some kind of help from the nephew and his wife. But the wife was so upset about the slashed tires that she screamed that they were dirty filthy animals and they should be rounded up and shot, and that one day they just might find a shotgun right between their eyes…
Winter wore on, and rumour now that the orphans were slowly starving to death, if not freezing to death. It was too cold for them to make it to town to try to get anyone else to help them. I asked Mama if there wasn’t something we could do for them, and she said not to believe all those rumours since no one ever saw them anyway. I told her I was worried that they were going to starve. She told me to stop talking so much and to go do my homework.
A few days later, we heard sirens heading toward the edge of town. They were able to save the house – just an upstairs bedroom was damaged since that’s where the fire started. The rest of the house was fine. The nephew said he couldn’t imagine what caused the fire since no one ever used that room. The chief said it looked like faulty wiring. The wife went into hysterics and screamed that it was those “seven devils” in the woods, and she wanted justice to be served. And she became even more hysterical when she discovered that her precious little kitten had disappeared. They tried calming her down and told her there was no evidence that the orphans had anything to do with the fire or the kitten. But she knew what she knew, she said.
Next day, the orphans showed up. From what we heard from my second cousin, who was working part-time as a maid for the nephew and his wife, the oldest boy was carrying the littlest one who had become too weak to walk. The wife saw them coming, threw a bucket of ice water in their faces, and started screaming about them starting the fire and stealing her precious little kitten. Even though they told her they didn’t know anything about her kitten, as they turned and left, the wife screamed that they were going to pay for what they had done.
The next day, when the wife looked outside for her newspaper, there was her darling little kitten scratching at the door. She shrieked with delight and let the kitten in, not noticing the orphans shivering at the edge of the woods. As the day drew to a close, she was happier than she had been in ages, relieved that there had been no visit by the orphans. When the nephew arrived at his home, he was awfully surprised to get a big kiss from his wife. She told him she wanted to throw another party, that she needed something “terribly extravagant” to take her mind off all the awful trauma she’d been through. The nephew agreed, anything to keep her happy. So she called all of her fancy friends and told them to come over that Saturday night for the party to end all parties.
She was so busy that week ordering everyone around and getting ready for her big extravaganza that she actually forgot about the orphans and the fact that they hadn’t shown up at all ever since she had thrown that ice water at them. On Saturday, she got herself all dolled up, and the nephew was happy to have his beautiful, carefree wife back to normal.
In town, we knew something big was up when we saw lines of shiny black cars making their way down Main Street. We had never seen anything like this before. There was so much music and fun that I’m sure I was able to hear all the celebrating from my room. I was up half the night imagining what it must be like to eat all that fine food and wear those fine clothes and not worry about going hungry…
I guess sometime the next morning, the wife realized that her precious kitten was missing again. She told my second cousin to help her look in the yard and all through the house, but there was just no sign of her little darling. The nephew said that all the noise had probably scared it away and it was probably hiding somewhere, but that it would surely show up now that all was peaceful once again.
The wife had trouble sleeping that night and woke up very early the next morning. It was a dull grey day, the kind where the clouds are hanging heavy in the sky, making it clear that they’re up to no good. The nephew and the guests who had stayed were all still sleeping, and so was my second cousin, who had stayed overnight to help out. The wife went downstairs to get the paper. She opened the door and then she screamed. A scream like you hear from a wounded animal, everyone said. A scream that could wake the dead. The nephew and the guests, and my second cousin ran to see what happened and found her frozen at the doorway. They looked down, and then everyone saw. Lying on the doorstep was the littlest orphan, carefully wrapped in a worn, torn blanket, as dead as can be. And, tucked into his arms was the little kitten, fast asleep.
The doctor came and gave some kind of sedation to the wife, and then the nephew drove the wife back to the city, never to return. They had their belongings sent to them. Rumour has it that the wife had to be put in an institution for a while. The nephew tried selling the house but had no luck. So it just stood there neglected, at the very edge of the woods. The orphans could have moved in at that point since no one would’ve known or cared. But they just kind of disappeared. I couldn’t really blame them.
Every once in a while, I gather up my courage and head down that way. It’s hard to tell now that there ever was a house there. Just like my house, the woods reclaimed something that never belonged there in the first place. When I’m there, I always stop right at the edge of those woods, where there are only a few moss-covered trees before the dense growth takes over. I’ve never been able to enter those woods to find out their secret. But I still do wonder whatever became of those orphans.
Nancy Machlis Rechtmanhas had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Academy of the Heart and Mind. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper and writes a blog called Inanities.
In 1983, the last spring of my mother’s father’s life had arrived. I dashed home from school, my legs spinning like the pinwheels my grandmother bought in the clearance bin at K-mart. My “snowbird” grandparents had arrived earlier in Michigan than expected. The car engine was popping, indicating they had not been there for long. I grasped at my left shoulder. My arm was less sore than two days ago when I pitched a doubleheader. My father, who had once tried out for the New York Yankees and was told to try out again if he grew 4 inches, rubbed rubbing alcohol over it to ease the pain. Can’t believe we lost one of them because Pam Marko dropped an easy fly ball. I was to pitch two more games tomorrow.
The Florida oranges my grandmother brought in were considerably better than the care packages of cheap nylons and antiquated bile-coloured 70’s hand-me-downs from my much older cousins. I remember leafing through the many photo albums my grandmother produced of each of them with masking tape labelled: Beth, Gene, Linda, Jon. Strangers who shared my DNA.
My mother sat at the kitchen table guarded, deflated and smiled obligatorily for the photograph my grandmother took. Grandma Roop was always taking photos.
“My father was a fall down drunk.” my mothersneered on more than one occasion.
We called him Bubba. When we stayed with my grandparents on the weekend, he told my grandmother meekly, “I am going to go downtown for a while,” meaning the Down the Hatch Bar. We all knew it. Bubba asked for a bear hug while I peeled an orange. He smelled of cigarettes and aftershave. The red letters W-I-N-S-T-O-N were visible in his breast pocket of the ever-present beige shirt.
“Want a Budweiser, Don?” My father asked him.
“I’d like to watch Katherine pitch.” my grandfather said earnestly before I even put my books upstairs in my room. Nobody called me “Katherine.” The adults were looking at each other, searching. He began wheezing, and his handkerchief had faded spots of pink on it, like the plastic flamingos in their front yard. As he stretched his back, I could see the most worn hole on his belt was not the notch he was using now.
As my father, grandfather, and I retreated to the backyard, the sun was bright, but a chill in the air caused me to cross my goose flesh arms. I noticed my grandmother did not follow us out with her camera, although it was armed and resting on the kitchen table. She sat closer to my mother, who was hugging herself. As we passed the driveway, the smell of the budding lilac bush was a sweet and welcome change from the salty and unforgettable odour of old snow and exhaust. The retreating snow was now confined to cotton balls hugging the base of the house. My father squats down his 5’ 8” frame, his legs strong despite his 53 years, ready to receive my pitches.
I began to warm up, and my grandfather stood with his hands on his hips near my father…..
My father was a fall-down drunk. I had to take my mother to the hospital once.
The grass had some dew, and a breeze parted my hair despite Aqua Net’s best effort. I began to gradually throw harder until the softball whooshed from my hips. I was throwing mostly strikes with my usual fastballs and curveballs. The harder I pitched, the harder my father returned the ball to me. It popped in my glove, and a whiff of leather came. As the sun began to level, my arm stiffened up. As I wiped my acne-riddled temple of sweat, I announced, “Whew, well, I think I’m done here.” I placed my glove under my armpit and walked back. I paused and waited for the men. I could hear them talking and nodding when they glanced at me. My grandfather hiked up his pants and proceeded towards the direction of the house.
I had to take my mother to the hospital once. My brother had to walk me down the aisle.
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My father cupped his hands and said, “Ok, Kath, I want you to throw your changeup now. You know, like we’ve been working on in the gym?” The wind was picking up as my grandfather shielded his eyes and retraced his steps cautiously.
“Dad, I have to pitch tomorrow,” I said. I could see my breath now. “Doesn’t matter. Changeups are just like warming up,” he said blithely, “or, I guess in this case, winding down.” “Come on, Bubba wants to see this,” he whined in an almost childlike tone, and my grandfather just shrugged. The changeup was not in my arsenal because I knew only one gear. Hard and fast. It seemed impossible, Houdiniesque, as if to say, “ok, I am going to make it look like I’m throwing hard and fast but am really not. Ta-Da!”
Most of my pitches were now veering out of the strike zone. One went over my father’s glove, and I could see the back of his head shake as he retrieved it from the Wagner’s lawn. The ball was now wet from the dew. My father’s throws back became wilder. One errant return throw caused me to bend my knee to the ground to stop it like any decent fielder would. I longed to be the fielder that I once was. Upon rising, I had stained my Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans.
“Goddamnit!” I said, fingering the stain like a wounded insect.
Did he hit my mother too?….. Or worse?
My father looked stunned and stammered for a bit. He lowered his voice like the way he did when a neighbourhood man came into our garage and asked his permission to borrow a tool. “Christ, Kath. It’s just a stain. It can be washed out. Come on, now.” he said, punching his glove. I then spiked my glove to the ground and sat on the damp grass with my hands on my knees, and looked towards the sky. It looked hazy, a lethargic yellow.
My grandfather slowly lumbered towards me and held up his palm to my father, like in the old photo my grandmother took of him pretending to direct traffic in front of a Model-T; He had been smirking with wavy hair like a Greek God.
I’m going downtown for a while. I pictured him waddling into the bar.
“Aw, Kath, you did just fine. Just fine, gal. Yes, sir.” he said breathlessly. I looked at the slivers of grass on the toes of his shoe.
“See, the way you are throwing now, you don’t need no changeup.” He then whispered, “that will come when it’s ready to. But only if you want it.” This lowered my gaze.
He bent over and picked up my glove with some effort. I stood, and he took out a Zippo lighter which read “Local 1292” from his pocket, concentrating on lighting his cigarette from a pendulum flame.
“Besides, things could be worse.” Smoke emerged from his nostrils like factory pipes. “Your grandmother could be out here taking pictures,” he said. I laughed. He then handed me my glove. “Thanks, Bubba,” I said meekly. “You bet,” he replied.
I noticed a fresh deep scar above his head. The funeral director could not cover it up completely when he died that summer, once softball season was over and the grass turned brown.
Katherine Hoffman is originally from Michigan and is a recipient of a Detroit Free Press writing award. She has lived in Oregon for the past 24 years.
Welcome to the House of the Lord, everyone, and especially to each of our little critters who were able to join us tonight.
I’m Pastor Lambert, and I’m so glad you’re all here for this momentous Sunday evening at Open Arms Fellowship. Shortly, we’ll be taking a vote that could shape the very future of our congregation. A vote, I pray, which will determine once and for all how we are to interpret and respond to the unprecedented presence of these little critters, as we’ve come to call them.
A few quick reminders: If you’re a guest tonight, we’re so glad you’re here, but we do ask that only tithing members cast a vote. We also ask that everyone switch off your cell phones and any other recording devices, as sadly, in the past, there has been the occasional sheep in wolf’s clothing who sought to exploit the least of these among us. As God’s People, we must always speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Amen?
To our members, I’m delighted to see so many familiar faces. The trials we’ve faced these past six months would’ve long since run off a people of any lesser faith. We’ve witnessed the seeds of discord take root and grow amongst our little flock, splitting us into warring factions: The End Timers versus the New Edenists. The Environmentalists versus the Evangelists. Those who believe we’ve been entertaining angels versus those who say we should be exorcising demons. Not to mention the Purgers.
Most of you have chosen a camp, and more than one camp has sworn to leave and form its own church if tonight’s outcome isn’t to your liking. We who should be the united body of Christ have become as divided as the body of the Levite’s concubine.
But take heart, Church. The Lord works all things for the good. And the Spirit has blessed me with a message tonight that I believe will melt the hardest heart. Beginning with a word of personal testimony about how the Lord has been sifting my own heart like chaff ever since the day little Aardie there first crawled out from under Sister Dovey’s skirt.
Sister Dovey, with your permission, I’d like Aardie to join me on stage at this time.
That’s right, Little Buddy, come on up here. Isn’t he something, folks?
Six months have passed now since we first met this brave little guy. We were in the middle of an altar call when, with every head bowed and every eye closed, someone let out a holler like a spirit-filled Pentecostal. I opened my eyes to see half the church jumping on the pews and the other half scrambling for the door. All because this rascal here had slipped away from Sister Dovey unnoticed and plucked one of young Miss Lory’s toenails clean off. But for all the commotion he caused, the poor critter was more scared of us than we were of him. Deacon Finch found him later rolled up in a ball inside an offering box.
In my office, Sister Dovey told me through tears about the cold winter night when she found on her doorstep a critter with a slender body, a horned shell, dozens of insect-like legs, and a long thin snout. Seeing as that fit the description of the thing presently scratching around in the offering box on my desk, I had no reason to doubt her story. When Sister Dovey had seen how the critter whimpered and shivered, she took it in without a moment’s hesitation. She couldn’t tell me what it was, where it came from, or when it got a hankering for toenails, but she knew the poor soul needed help. What we do to the least of these, we do to our Lord. Amen?
So, Sister Dovey found herself with a new pet, one she thought best to keep out of sight, considering its unusual appearance. But the first time she left it alone, it gnawed a hole straight through her front door. She returned home to find it wandering in the street, just asking to get run over. The next time she went out, she tried caging it, but its pitiful howls broke her tender heart. It wrapped itself around her calf when she let it out and didn’t let go for hours. That’s when she made the switch to ankle-length skirts. For months, she went all over town with a bizarre creature clinging to her leg, and no one was the wiser. That is, until the Sunday morning, it was tempted by Miss Lory’s polished pinky nail.
Sister Dovey hadn’t quite finished her story when Sister Wolff stormed in, demanding to know who was responsible for letting a wild animal loose in the House of the Lord. She’d worked herself into one of her famous tizzies, but this time I couldn’t blame her. After all, are we not to be good stewards of God’s generous gifts? And thanks to Sister Wolff spearheading our Nehemiah Rebuild Campaign, one of those gifts is this beautiful sanctuary in which we now gather. Our legal team hadn’t even reached a settlement with the contractors yet, and there were already bloodstains on the brand new carpet.
I was half-inclined to oblige Sister Wolff’s request and call animal control right then and there. Of course, it didn’t help matters that earlier the same morning, every last blossom in the church flower beds had been either trampled or eaten by that troublesome goat. You know the one, that speckled brute who’s always “escaping” from the Methodist preacher’s place down the street. Why that man insists on keeping goats in the middle of town is beyond me. But then, you can add that to the long list of things I don’t understand about Methodists. Amen?
Sister Dovey begged me not to take away her precious little critter. Said she never meant for anyone to get hurt, least of all a child. I’d sooner arm wrestle the devil than doubt her good will. Sister Dovey has taught children’s Sunday school ever since we first left Blessed Assurance to form our own church eight years ago. Those of you who were with us then know the faith that step required. But we did so in a Spirit-led response to their unrepentant sin, namely haughtiness, intolerance, and elitism. So, you’ll understand my predicament when Sister Dovey declared that if her little critter wasn’t allowed to return to this church, then we shouldn’t expect to see her again either. I couldn’t let that happen. To cast out a faithful member for merely being different would contradict our core values. On the other hand, Sister Wolff was also threatening to leave if she ever saw the thing within 100 yards of this building.
By God’s grace, we reached a compromise. Sister Dovey could bring her little critter to service on one condition: it remained caged and outdoors. Sister Wolff raised concerns about the rumours that might spread once passersby started to notice the strange breed of rodent on our front lawn. But we must fear God over man. Isn’t that right, Sister Wolff?
Our little covenant, however, didn’t even last a whole Sunday. I had barely begun preaching when we heard some neighbourhood boys laughing and throwing rocks at the poor critter. Not ten minutes after Deacon Finch went out and ran them off, I was interrupted a second time when that speckled goat kicked over the critter’s cage, so I asked Deacon Finch to bring it into the foyer. But when no one could hear my sermon over the critter’s constant squealing, like the judge to the persistent widow, I conceded and asked Sister Dovey to set the cage on the pew beside her. Sister Wolff objected, of course, but I said at least it was no longer on the lawn.
The very next week, young Jay came to me after the service and asked if he could pet “Aardie.” That’s what he called the little guy since, as you can see, while most of him resembles some kind of giant horned centipede, his head looks just like an aardvark’s.
Now, naming a thing is no trivial matter. Adam’s first task in the garden was the naming of God’s creations. Naming Aardie wouldn’t change his wild nature any more than Adam had changed the nature of the beast he called Lion. But a name reorients relationship. Adam was the Master of that which he named. The Lord also reveals to us our true names. Did he not change Abram to Abraham? Jacob to Israel? Simon to Peter? Saul to Paul? Was the sinful nature of these men changed the instant they heard their new name? By no means, but it signalled a change in their relationship to the Lord, who would in time make them into a new creation.
I had only begun explaining this to Jay when I saw that pesky speckled goat pooping on the sidewalk again through the stained glass. I went straight to my office and called the Methodist preacher, who I knew was done preaching since he’d moved up his service times in order to beat us to the best lunch spots, but he didn’t answer. Back in the sanctuary, Sister Dovey was holding her critter in her lap as children petted him and fed him sacrament wafers. As soon as I heard her call him “Aardie,” I knew he’d spent his last Sunday behind bars.
Aardie’s emancipation was a difficult transition for many of us, myself included. He left droppings scattered all over the building, which, though small, smelled like twice rotten eggs. Isn’t that right, Aardie? Who’s a big stinker? He chewed up mic cables, ate a hole straight through a box of sacrament wafers, and even bit off half a dozen toenails before we implemented a strict closed-toed shoe policy. On the bright side, this puts an end to Sister Wolff’s complaints about the youth wearing sandals to service.
Not that there was any shortage of complaints. But little Aardie here was never bad; he just wasn’t housebroken. Were you or I so different once? Yet, He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Amen? And look at Aardie now. Why he’s better behaved than some of your own children.
Nonetheless, I suffered my doubts. I hadn’t thought I could afford to lose Sister Dovey, but now she threatened to drive away a dozen other devoted members. Seeking some means of casting out the pet without offending the owner, I took to locking myself in my office for hours on end to plead with the Lord on bended knee.
I even stopped by the church on a Saturday for an extra session in my War Room. It must have been a divine appointment because as I entered the building, I saw a goat’s rear end dart into the sanctuary. By the time I fetched a broom, though, the darn thing was nowhere in sight.
I found instead Sister Robinson practicing the organ, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with an anointed passion. Drawn by the heavenly sound, I wandered down to the front pew where I saw something I couldn’t quite comprehend: Sister Robinson was playing with a third arm! As I watched, I realized the “arm” was actually the fur belt she wore every Sunday, but somehow extending from her waist and striking the keys with incredible fluency.
When they released the last chord, Sister Robinson looked over at me and, thinking she’d been alone the whole time, her eyes went as wide as those offering plates. I stared back in silent awe, struck dumb with unbelief like Zechariah. Peering out at me from her midriff was none other than Harriette: her furry, hawk-beaked serpent.
By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to Harriette and her musical gifting, but imagine my reaction at the moment. There I stood, as trapped as the Israelites between the Egyptians and the Red Sea. If two church members had been hiding secret pets, how many others might be doing the same? If I continued to allow Aardie to openly attend services, others would inevitably feel their critters deserved the same treatment. Aardie was already such a handful; a service with even three or four such critters would be utter chaos. Sister Wolff would have an aneurism.
On the other hand, if I forbid Sister Dovey to bring Aardie, she’d leave the church. And what if Sister Robinson decided to follow suit? Who would play the organ then?
I went straight to my prayer closet, prostrated myself before the Lord, and cried out for discernment. I’m here to tell you, folks, God answers prayer. While locking the front door on my way out, I dropped my Bible, and it fell open to Luke 8:17: “For nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest.”
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The next Sunday, after preaching on this very passage, I gave an invitation for any who felt led to walk down the aisle and make their secrets manifest before God and His people. After some encouragement, Sister Robinson came down and unwrapped Harriette from around her waist. Touched by her example, Sister Kite stood and raised her sunhat to reveal a bat-winged toad nesting in her hair. Brother Rook also came forward to confess the growth on his back, which we’d spent months praying for, was, in fact, a three-tailed spider-cat lying still and flat beneath his blazer. Standing alongside those three brave souls and their little critters, I declared that from that day forth, no one else’s secrets need remain hidden.
Church, be careful what you pray for. I soon met Sister Martin’s gator-snouted jackrabbit, Brother Drake’s leaping shark-toothed koala, and Sister Swift’s scorpion-tailed chameleon-eyed ferret. These were only the beginning.
Each Sunday brought not only new critters but new catastrophes. Ripped skirts, nipped heels, and soiled seat cushions quickly became the least of our concerns. The Fifth-Sunday Potluck was ruined when a unicorned greyhound knocked over the serving table and shoved her pig-shaped nose into every last dish. Miss Lory’s baptism was postponed after an iridescent dragon-scaled swan took a dip in the baptistry and left behind a few twinkling floaters. But no incident caused more fuss than finding Aardie inside Brother Crane’s casket, feasting on the man’s toenails, not that he had any further use for them.
I confess I was a hot mess. I may have kept it together on the outside, but my soul was being tossed about like a ship at sea. My inbox overflowed with irate emails. Even non-church members were calling to schedule meetings. Many “concerned citizens” felt our pet-friendly policies were emboldening our members to bring their little critters out with them wherever they went: stores, restaurants, schools. Then came our first viral video: Harriette’s organ playing. Dear Lord, the YouTube comments! That, in turn, brought the protestors, some of whom are outside waving their picket signs as I speak. But it also brought from far and wide new members who had either been rejected by more narrow-minded churches or had never before found the courage to bring their critters into the light.
Take Brother Heron over there. The first time I saw his scalpel-feathered turkey, I heard the devil whisper, “You can’t let that thing go swinging its foot-long blades up and down the aisle. Think of the children.” Then, I noticed the patchwork of bloody bandages beneath Brother Heron’s shredded slacks. Did our Lord not have compassion for the poor and downtrodden? Was it not the dirty, smelly, and covered with sharp edges for whom he shed his blood? Here was a man willing to do the same for a lost, defenceless animal.
So, we used our Good Samaritan fund to buy Brother Heron a pair of NHL-certified shin guards. We even drove a service team fifty miles out to his house to install a plexiglass border around the base of his walls and furniture. You’ve never seen a man so grateful. In the fires of persecution, it was testimonies like his that kept me pressing onward and upward.
Yet the pressures from without were but a mustard seed compared to the storm brewing within our walls. When the Founding Forty unanimously asked me to serve as your lead pastor, I vowed to protect this flock from the petty bickering which led our predecessors astray over at Blessed Assurance. Imagine how it grieved my heart to witness you already breaking into factions. Factions who were looking to me, a small-town preacher without a single hour of seminary credit, to settle the debate. Who am I to separate the tares from the wheat? It was all I could do to keep track of the newest positions from one week to the next.
The Delusionists were quickly silenced. After all, we’ve all seen the little critters bleed and draw blood. Then, the End-Timers gained traction, claiming just as the paired animals arriving at Noah’s doorstep signalled the coming flood, our little critters were a sure sign of impending doom. In contrast, the New Edenists argued these were prototypes of the creatures that would fill the New Heaven and Earth. On the other hand, the Environmentalists believed the critters were physical manifestations of man’s perversion and exploitation of nature. The Evangelists said these were fallen creatures who, like men, needed to hear the Good News. Some cried demons, while others called them cherubim. Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John. Are not the heavenly beings from these prophets’ visions all depicted as chimerical beasts?
Eventually, all this arguing and fiddle-faddle boils down to one question: Do these critters have souls or don’t they? If they have souls, they can be saved. And if they can be saved, they can be members of this church. That’s precisely what we’ve gathered to determine this evening, whether to treat these poor critters as equals or inferiors.
It would seem each of us has landed firmly on one side or the other, with the exception of those few anonymous cowards, The Purgers, who seek to remove these critters not only from our pews but from the face of the Earth. I’ll never forget the Wednesday night two animal control officers marched into a prayer meeting and hauled poor Aardie away in a net. You’ve never heard such a heart-wrenching cry. It took Brother Rook, the best lawyer in the county, a full week to get little Aardie here back in the loving arms of Sister Dovey. We still haven’t discovered who is responsible for these so-called acts of purification. But rest assured, the Lord knows.
The day those men came for Aardie is the day I decided to turn my prayers into action by leaning into my spiritual gift of getting folks involved. In this case, getting critters involved. I trained the grazers to weed the gardens and trim the hedges. I taught Brother Heron’s turkey to pass out communion. Even made the switch from crackers to bread so we could stick a bite-sized piece on the tip of each scalpel. I placed water bowls and treats at every entrance and built an outdoor play area with plastic baggie stations at my own expense. I wrote the curriculum for a new Connections Class for members and their critters. I even organized a drive-through Live Nativity featuring the most diverse cast of “barn animals” you’ve ever seen. I dare say it was an evangelistic success, and not just because Sister Larkin’s giant scythe-bladed mantis decapitated the plastic Baby Jesus, causing yet another video to go viral.
But as attendance and new memberships increased, so did the gossip and name-calling and, eventually, the hate crimes: Church members fired for posting photos with their critters on social media. “Exorcisms” performed by drenching critters with oil and tying crosses to their tails. Some even went so far as to kidnap poor Hariette. Praise God, she turned up alive and unharmed, hiding in Sister Wolff’s barn.
Through all this, those relatively few of you who actually had your own little critters repeatedly asked me to pray for you to just be left alone. How you yearned to sit in church again without feeling sized-up or singled out! Never have I felt like such a failure as I did in those moments. I began to believe the Lord had abandoned me. But when I look back on this season from Glory, I know I’ll see only one set of footprints in the sand. Amen?
The Lord’s sovereign plan was only revealed to me this past Friday evening. I was enjoying a divine meatloaf with my lovely wife and daughters when I beheld through our dining room window a transient gentleman rummaging through our garbage cans. I was always eager to care for the poor; I fixed him a doggy bag, threw on a coat, and stepped out onto the porch, locking the door behind me. After all, I had my girls to think of.
The transient gentleman took the bag of food and asked if I could spare some cash. Mind you, this man’s appearance made it evident he couldn’t be trusted with any amount of money, so I offered to take him grocery shopping instead. But he refused, saying he couldn’t ask me to leave my family at dinnertime—a sure sign he was only after booze and cigarettes.
I said God bless and goodnight, but he forced a cough and asked if I had a winter coat, he could “borrow.” I took the opportunity to inform him of the church’s Good Samaritan ministry and invited him to stop by during business hours. When he asked if he could come inside to warm up, the Spirit alerted me to his evil intention. You’d understand if you’d seen the way he was eyeing my girls through the dining room window.
Just then, I was distracted by the all too familiar bleating of a goat. Would you believe it? The very speckled goat that’s been terrorizing the church grounds for months had strolled right onto my front lawn.
I promptly escorted the transient gentleman back to the curb, warning that if he set foot on my property again, I’d be forced to call the authorities. Then, I went for the goat. I shooed and shouted and shoved, but the stubborn brute wouldn’t budge. So, I pulled out my cell phone and called the Methodist pastor. I demanded he come to retrieve his goat, but he said all his goats were accounted for. When I pressed him on the matter, he asked me to describe the animal.
Examining the beast by the porchlight, I noticed some peculiar features that had previously escaped me due to his history of running off before I could get close. Instead of two nostril slits, he had four. His tongue, ears, and tail were all slightly forked. His horns and hooves were made of something like jagged obsidian. Even his speckled grey coat had an unnatural sheen. In fact, other than the characteristic horizontal pupils, nothing about this goat was normal. Not too proud to admit when I’ve been wrong, I began to wonder whether this beast really did belong to the Methodist pastor. Or anyone, for that matter.
Tongue-tied, I stared at the goat for some time before noticing the dial tone blaring in my ear. I looked about and saw the transient gentleman rifling through my garbage again like a dog returning to his vomit. I kindly asked him once more to move on, but he said he wanted to clean up his mess first, which I didn’t believe for a second.
I turned back to the goat and, exasperated, grabbed it by the horns. They slipped right through my grip, and I fell flat on my backside. My hands throbbed with pain. Both palms had been sliced clean open. Behold, the scars!
The transient gentleman asked if I was okay. I stood and told him I was fine, but he started toward me across the lawn anyway. Being a man of my word, I got my phone back out to call the police, but it slipped out of my bloodied hands and onto the grass. I tried but couldn’t manage to pick it up. Seeing it was a brand-new Pixel—donated by an anonymous church member, of course—the transient man went for it, no doubt hoping to pawn it for drug money. I shouted at him to stay back, but he kept coming.
At that very moment, to my everlasting surprise, the speckled goat stepped to my side and belched a giant fireball at the man. The blaze hit so near his feet that his sneakers caught fire. He kicked them off and ran down the street as fast as he could, his shoes still smoking in a charred-black patch on my front lawn. He wasn’t seriously injured, thank the Lord, but he’ll think twice before assaulting another man of God.
While I stood amazed by what I’d just witnessed and the goat stood chomping away on my St. Augustine, my own blood dripping from his horns, the Lord said to me in an almost audible voice, “Fear not, for unto you is given this night a goat.”
It’s true, folks. I, too, have a pet critter of my own. I’ve had him all along but been too blind to see it. I named him Rev since he breathes fire to devour his enemies like the two witnesses in Revelation. He’s here tonight. Would you like to meet him? Come on out, Rev. No need to worry. He’s perfectly safe. See that? Even little Aardie likes him.
Brothers and Sisters, I tell you my story so that you might fully understand this confession: I have broken the command of Matthew 7, verses 1 and 2. I have judged. I have meted with an unjust measure. While outwardly, I appeared to be an advocate for these critters, in my spirit, I was more concerned with keeping up appearances than with seeking God’s sovereign will. I feared losing members and influence. I was bitter toward these animals for the conflict and inconvenience they created. At times, I was even jealous.
That’s right, I’m a sinner saved by grace, just like the rest of you. But His mercy is new every morning. Through Rev, He has shown me that these critters are not to be feared, despised, or envied but rather embraced. They are powerful heavenly beings, sent to aid us in our righteous endeavours and to deliver us from evil. To treat them as anything less would be to blaspheme the Holy Ghost. Therefore, I’m asking every member here tonight to vote in favour of granting to these God-sent critters full membership, with all its rights and privileges.
Deacon Finch will now distribute the ballots while Sister Robinson and Harriette lead us in singing “Just as I Am.”
Brothers and Sisters, the votes have been counted. Of our 145 members, 72 voted in favour and 73 against. The motion has failed to pass.
Settle down, folks. Settle down.
I confess I’m disappointed. I would have thought the wondrous signs I shared with you were enough to dispel every shadow of doubt. But who am I to judge? Even those who heard Jesus’ teachings firsthand were ever hearing and never understanding. We must bear with those of weaker faith as we continue to pray and–
Excuse me, Sister Wolff, but you haven’t been recognized to speak. I’m sorry, but you’ve had plenty of chances to make your case, which you’ve taken full advantage of. Please sit down. I have a few closing remarks before we dismiss to the Fellowship Hall.
Why, Sister, what in God’s holy name? Put Aardie down this instant! Why must you insist on causing a scene? You’ve argued for months, and now you’ve gotten exactly what you wanted. What more could you hope to accomplish by these theatrics?
Calm down, Rev. Everything’ll be fine.
Put that knife away, Sister Wolff. You have our attention. No one has to get hurt. What is it you want to say?
What do you mean just the beginning? Extermination? Now, wait just a minute. This vote was whether to grant the little critters membership. Murder was never on the table.
Stay back, Sister Dovey. I’ll handle this.
You’ve been secretly leading the Purger movement all along, haven’t you, Sister Wolff? I should’ve known. You kidnapped Hariette. You called animal control on Aardie. You’ve been trying to get rid of him ever since that day in my office. And now you want to finish the job. I don’t know how Satan has so filled your heart, but don’t be deceived into thinking tonight’s vote indicates anyone else here will go along with this wickedness. Or was this always your plan, no matter how the vote turned out? Either way, I can’t let you do this.
Rev, do not let her harm that animal.
Listen to me. There’ll be no violence in the House of the Lord tonight. You’re going to stand perfectly still while Rev gets Aardie and brings him to me. Understand? Don’t move an inch. Remember what happened to that transient gentleman. That’s it. Nice and–
Lord have mercy. There’s nothing left of her but a pile of ash.
Has Aardie been harmed, Sister Dovey? Not a scratch. Hallelujah. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God has spared him from the flames.
Church, you know, I would never suggest this under normal circumstances as it technically contradicts our by-laws, but in light of this miraculous sign and seeing as we’ve just lost a member, it’s only fitting that we recast the vote. The Lord has spoken in a mighty way here tonight, and it would be a sin to deny you the chance to respond in obedience.
Deacon Finch, would you please pass out a fresh round of ballots?
Ryan Shane Lopezis a teacher with an MFA in fiction from Texas State University. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Hypnopomp, Deep Overstock, Porter House Review, Lunate, Fudoki, Patheos, Bodega, and The Bookends Review. He lives in Texas with his wife and their two daughters.Find him on Twitter and Instagram.
“Alright!” he roared, taking to his feet. “You arrogant weasels don’t want to believe me. Well, look for yourselves!” His lips quivered. “Go on!” He gesticulated. “If you come back without seeing it, fancy me a liar until the day I die.”
“It’s not the day you die,” Christopher wisecracked. “It’s the day you lie.”
Abraham—shoulders stiffening—stomped his foot and said, “I’ve said it, and I will repeat, look for yourselves if you doubt me.”
“We don’t doubt you,” Theodore said. “We know you’re as full of hogwash as my pockets are of cash from my Royal Flush.”
“You won’t be as lucky next time,” Christopher said with a wink.
“None of us will be if we stay here much longer,” Abraham added. “Go outside and see for yourselves. Then mock me.” He held his hands over his chest.
Theodore clapped tauntingly. “You are more Shakespearean by the moment.”
Christopher said, “Well, what do I have to lose?” He started for the door. “Truthfully, I’m curious what surprise you do have waiting for us. You may very well be up to a shenanigan, but it’s not a giant space spider.” Opening the door, he stepped outside and disappeared.
Twenty minutes passed. Christopher Watson had not returned.
“Where exactly is your spider?” Benjamin asked, smirking. Adding after a pause, “I’m curious where Christopher is hiding. You’re both in on this scheme.”
“Two bullshitters are better than one,” Theodore joked.
Abraham grimaced. “He was as surprised as you two when I told what I saw. God, I hope not, but I think there is a much more dire reason he hasn’t come back.”
“You are persistent,” Theodore said.
“The most persistent people live in psych wards,” Benjamin said. Momentarily, he glanced to the side, where Theodore and Abraham noticed a curiosity seeping onto his face. “Where is your spider? Are you creative enough to imagine a location?” He snickered.
Abraham grunted at the laughter invading his ears, and perhaps at the thought of the extraordinary sight he had supposedly seen. Cocking his elbows, Benjamin squinted at the host of the poker party, whose eyes were peeled back in either terror or theatrics. Benjamin started for the kitchen. Abraham followed behind before coming to a sudden stop. Benjamin’s hand cocooned the doorknob as the host finally answered the question: “In the backyard, over the embankment sloping to the prairie.”
Benjamin turned, powerwalked to the backdoor, and twisted the knob. The loose latch plate caused the door to shake. Halfway outside, he cast Abraham a quizzical look. “When I return, we are writing ‘Schizo’ on your forehead.”
Nobody was certain if he reached the backyard. But after the passage of forty minutes without Benjamin Robbins reappearing, Theodore was sure something was amiss. Clearing his throat, he approached Abraham.
“Alright,” he said, wearing a crooked smile. “What precisely is going on, lad? Perhaps everyone but me is aware of whatever devilish scheme you’re pulling.”
Suddenly, Abraham’s shell-shocked anguish transmuted into cheerfulness. He patted Theodore’s shoulder. “Guilty as charged,” he confessed, extending his arms in an I’m-under-arrest gesture.
Theodore shook his head disappointedly, defeatedly. “You sly sonofabitch.” He frowned, contemplated, and then, deciding to not let his friends get the best of him, flipped the frown. “Well played, Abraham. But when I count my poker money, I’ll be reminded who the real winner is today. Now, if you will excuse me, I must see where everyone went.”
With that said, Theodore opened the backdoor and shuffled to the outside world. The sun was sinking, and for a split second, Abraham saw fear written in his old friend’s face.
“Curiosity kills the cat,” Abraham said to the empty house. “Works like a charm.” Cruel laughter escaped his lips.
Alone he sat, he and his eyes that moved like loose buttons. Six minutes ticked by. He dialled a phone number. After one ring, a sinister and dry voice on the other end answered: “Done.”
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(Story continued below)
Abraham Crawford grinned and ended the call. The poker pals had been neutralized by a giant man in a green ghillie suit. No more condescending guests who always rubbed in their victories. Abraham was the real victor. The whole pot was his for the taking. The giant had found the cash in Theodore Elrod’s pocket and transferred it to an envelope for Abraham. Retrieving the whole pot was part of the arrangement.
He lifted the lifeless body as blood dripped onto the plastic sheeting under his boots. Theodore was lined up with the rest of the dead on a wide table. Their corpses were beginning their final journey, a journey through amputation and immersion in hydrofluoric acid.
Abraham stretched across the couch. The money would not arrive until the next hour. But he did not have them killed for money. He had them murdered for the sake of victory. Eureka flowed through him. He clapped his hands, smirked, and laughed. A glass of whiskey was poured. His head nodded in self-congratulation. He sat looking at the crack in the wall. Somehow, it had expanded during the last half hour, nearly widening enough to fit an index finger inside. The sound of scurrying travelled out of the wall. He leaned forward, peering into the enlarged crack.
A leg no wider than a hair appeared, glowing bright green. The crack opened more; the rest of the body surfaced. The creature was a baby version of the spider Abraham had fabricated to hoodwink the annual poker players. But it was real.
He held a hand over his throbbing heart. His knees buckled. The sweating—earlier caused by an unhealthy, overweight Abraham walking across the yard to converse with the hitman—returned. The huffing and puffing also came back. His earlier acts manifested as involuntary responses in this irony of horror.
The scurrying intensified. More spiders appeared from behind the crack. Handfuls spilled across the wall, some reaching the ground. He dashed through the hallway adjacent to the kitchen. Turning right, he saw an army of the little creatures charging for him. He turned left and climbed the stairs, pursued by a noise resembling crunching on wood. There was no reason to look. He knew they were behind him. Heart beating a drumroll, he reached the top and opened the door to the spare bedroom. His body shivered as he shut it behind him.
He rubbed his red face, then his wet hair. The spiders would reach the threshold in a few seconds. He opened the window beside the bed and jumped.
But after falling two feet, he became entangled. Abraham looked around. The silk glowing blueish-green cut into the deepening twilight, providing substantial lighting for viewing the surroundings. He was in a web covering the entire exterior of the house. Abraham, stirring maddeningly, heard movement. The footfalls grew louder. He tried wiggling free, but the silk’s elasticity and high tensile strength prevailed. The more he moved, the more entangled he became.
“Help me!” he screamed. “Please, God! Somebody, help me!”
A large mass rose onto the roof of his house: a thirty-foot spider made of a pile of eyes polka-dotted purple and green, eight spiked legs of bioluminescence, a blueish green triangular body, antenna ears with hammer-shaped tips, a tail curved like a hook, and fangs of shining crimson.
Abraham shrieked, squirmed, pulled, and pleaded to no avail. The colossal arachnid wrapped him in silk until his screams deteriorated to murmurs. He lay petrified, immobilized, a prisoner on death row awaiting his injection. The fangs struck with brute force, painting Abraham’s silky coffin bloodred. His body remained alive, but its functionality was dead. Not even a finger could be moved. And when the venom took effect, his guts liquified like those of his victims during their acid baths.
Stars woke up to view the scene. The howl of a wolf pierced the night. The hills seemed to rise.
The universe wore the judge’s robe.
Paul Leehas written fiction for years and served as a columnist for a newspaper. This work, however, is his first published piece of fiction. Growing up, he watched innumerable horror films and shows, including The Twilight Zone and countless slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s. The frequent viewing and reading of such stories bloomed an interest in sci-horror and dark fantasy storytelling. Elements of all three are blended into Something’s Out There.
I woke up and wanted to die. My back was one big area of pain. I remembered that joke one of my work-mates once made: When you’re 50, and you wake up with your back hurting and your head hurting and stiff joints, you know you’re still alive. So I got up with a felt age of 56 by my estimation. I shuffled to the bathroom with my eyes still closed for a wake-up wash and other morning necessities. A base level of alertness achieved, I proceeded to coffee-making to complete my daily mini-evolution. As I sat staring into the hot magic potion, the pain lessened, and the ability to form coherent thoughts asserted itself with one firm realization: The mattress has had it. It’s time to invest in a new one because I am definitely not old enough to establish my status of being alive by the presence of back pain. As a result of that decision, much of my day was spent researching the options available to purchase a new mattress, get it delivered, and the old one picked up for recycling, preferably all in one go. By dinner time, I was ready and placed an order. It was with a sense of smug loathing that I went to bed that evening, knowing the nights of uncomfortableness were numbered.
Four dreamless nights later, the arrival of my replacement mattress was announced. I got up extra early to strip the bed of all its content, laying bare the offending old mattress. The doorbell rang moments after I was ready, and my shiny new mattress was wheeled in by a friendly delivery guy. He picked up the old mattress effortlessly. I waved him and it goodbye at the door. It’s been real, time to move on. I was disproportionally excited, freeing my new acquisition from its plastic wrappings. It unrolled itself, seemingly breathing a sigh of relief as it stretched out in its new home. I smiled and then wrinkled my nose at the new mattress smell. No matter, an open window day would take care of that before I went to sleep that evening. The ninth floor wasn’t particularly prone to window-based break-ins.
So that evening, I got home and made my bed, a breeze of fresh air around me. It was too cold to keep the window open overnight. I closed it just before going to bed. My nose detected a fainter but still noticeable smell in the room. It was bearable, but I still hoped it’d go soon. The smell was a small disappointment. Fourteen hours of fresh air ought to be enough for the wrapped-in-plastic odour to dissipate. Then again, I was too tired to dwell on the thought. My new mattress virtually hugged me when I laid down. It was surprisingly firm but very comfortable. I felt wrapped in homeliness and security as I fell asleep. I slept without waking through the night, but it was no easy sleep. Nightmare after nightmare flashed scenes of horror through my sleeping head. As soon as I escaped one unpleasant scenario, a new one started up. Yet I could not wake up, as if those nightmares kept me trapped inside the dark side of the night. My alarm eventually rescued me. There was no sign of pain in my back, a fact I appreciated and celebrated with an unusual level of alertness that first morning. Somewhat unfortunate because the next thing I noticed was the smell again. Still there. Another open window day.
Physically my felt age has dropped considerably. Mentally, however, I must have turned 80. That’s the only valid explanation for the level of obsession dedicated to thoughts about an everyday item like a mattress. I was significantly more excited than I ought to have been about the effect of a comfortable mattress, and that completely erased the nightmares. Anybody who asked would be told I had a marvellous night’s sleep. No mention of disturbing scenarios in my head. I all but skipped home, looking forward to bedtime. Outside, a storm started brewing as I got ready for bed. Definitely had to close that window now, or it would blow off its hinges. The fresh air held out a moment longer than the smell re-conquered the room. At this point, that’s becoming annoying. It couldn’t possibly take more than two full days of airing. It’s been several years since I purchased a mattress, but I do not recall the smell issue being a long-lasting one. Maybe I forgot, much like the nightmares from the previous night.
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Hugged by my mattress, the smell lingering, I fell asleep and returned to a land of nightmares. Nightmares I couldn’t wake up from. Nightmares I couldn’t quite remember after waking up. Still, like the smell, they linger inside the room, inside me, with a sense of uneasiness. The day outside seemed to match me with its greyness, its rain, its wind. Not a day to open the window, unfortunately. I felt just a little disheartened by it all. My wonderful, comfy new mattress and the painless sleeps overshadowed by a bad smell and unpleasant dreams I couldn’t seem to banish.
I slowly went about my day as if still dreaming. I wondered why something couldn’t just be good without a damper for a change. When I got home that night, I almost felt like crying. The weather still prevented any longer-term window opening, and the smell gained in intensity. I vaguely even considered sleeping on the sofa, but that would be ridiculous. There was a perfectly good, brand-new mattress on my bed after all, and the smell was just annoying, not unbearable. So, once again, I fell asleep with a smell in my nose that I wished hard would go away. Falling asleep wasn’t the issue, though. I was exhausted enough to fall asleep swiftly. And then I was wrapped in a sense of dread that I couldn’t escape. I tried hard to wake up. I tried hard to remember. But there was no content to the nightmare. It just felt like a continuous scream. Silent and frightening. I could not grasp the nightmare to get over it. It held me but refused to reveal itself.
So with each night of uninterrupted sleep, I grew wearier, more sluggish, yet more restless. And more annoyed with the silly, bad smell that refused to leave as much as the nightmares did. Wasn’t it possible to design a packaging system that wouldn’t cause a bad smell when you unwrap the item you actually want to use? Fair enough, a new t-shirt you just wash and the smell is gone, but a new mattress? Nothing I or anybody else could do but wait. Impatience grew to the point of regretting the old mattress was gone and became my default state. The storm passed, and it got warm enough to keep the window open through the night. That helped with the smell. It didn’t help with the nightmares. I was sure they would pass eventually. Maybe they were even an unconscious reaction to the smell. I was sure the smell would go as well. I was sure it would be gone by the time the temperature dropped to demand closed windows again. I was sure reality would chase the lingering dread away.
Yet not sure enough to refrain from sniffing the mattress. The smell hadn’t gotten worse, but it also never got any better. The first big stench left, but it never got replaced by fresh, odourless air. Every time the window was closed, the smell was there. Coming out of the mattress, into the room, into my nose, into my every thought. After plain air had failed, I moved on to air fresheners. Every time I lowered my head to the bed, the scented air left my nostrils, and I breathed in the smell coming out of the mattress. Exasperated, I fell asleep disappointed yet again. Mentally exhausted, I woke up again after yet another faceless fear haunted my dreams. After air fresheners, I sprayed the mattress with some supposed upholstery cleaner. I put fresh bedding on. I went to bed, smelling the smell. I wondered if my nose got damaged. I hired a cleaner under the guise of a deep, seasonal clean. She commented on the smell and asked if the bed was new. Not the bed, just the mattress, I said, defeated. My mind lost track of time, of how long it’d been.
I lay in bed. Awake. Annoyed about the smell that didn’t go away. Afraid of the nightmares that do not stop. Out of ideas. Out of solutions. Stuck in helplessness. I drifted away to sleep and felt the dread grabbing hold of me. I refused to let it. I would not sleep if sleep is not safe. I focussed on the smell that annoyed me that only went away when I slept. So tired. Half asleep even. Yet, still conscious. Still smelling the bad smell, not frightened by nightmares. I almost felt physical hands reaching out as the nightmare tried to lure me into sleep. Claws reached out to my subconscious and told me to forget the smell. To rest. A sensation like falling. Soft and gentle at first. Then I felt engulfed by fear again. I wanted to scream. I didn’t. It’s more of a sharp intake of breath, but this time it was not soundless. It was real. It pulled me back into the world. Awake and surrounded by the annoying smell. I opened my eyes to see nothing but darkness. My heart was pounding. I breathed in. Slowly. Deliberately. Willing myself to calm. To stay awake.
I stretched out my arms and legs. I stroked the mattress all around me. A token of the real world. I turned and buried my face into the soft mattress. Instantly my nose was assaulted by the smell. How can it still come out of the mattress? It’s been forever. My hands stroked the surface. I moved. I smelled different parts of the mattress. The bad smell is the mattress. All of it. Like a dog, I pawed and sniffed all that is beneath me. The smell entered my head. It got worse and worse. I could not stop myself. I tried each corner of the bed. It all smelled.
I sat on my knees, disgusted by the smell, still stroking the surface. Then I felt it. A bump. Right in the middle of the middle. My soft, new mattress had a hard bump in it. I tried and tried again. It’s most definitely there. I kept clawing at the hard spot as if to smooth it out. It remained. I did not stop clawing until finally, the fabric ripped. My eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to make out something bright and hard in front of me. Something that did not belong into the inner makings of a mattress. A sense of panic rose from my stomach to my mind that may have been lost. I kept clawing at the edges of the ripped fabric. It never occurred to me to get any tools. It never occurred to me to switch on the light. The thing in front of me grew out of the mattress as I ripped the fabric away. I moved inch by inch further down to the foot of the bed. The bright mass did not stop. There was more and more of it while there was less and less of mattress that once encased it. My eyes saw enough. My mind refused to process the information. Bit by bit, I slid down the bed, ripping apart the mattress, exposing something within. Finally, I ran out of bed. I had to step down from it to tear the last bit of mattress away. I stepped back, my hand touched the wall behind me. In front of me was the distorted figure of a man. Trapped in silent screams of agony. Rotting away in my mattress. My breath comes in sharp, desperate gulps. Rooted on the spot at the foot of my bed, I was unable to move. Then I screamed, and there was nothing but darkness.
Nancy Schumann is a German writer based in London who writes poetry, short stories and novels on various topics in both English and German. Her works have been published in both languages. Nancy’s particular interest, in fiction and academically, is female vampires. Nancy’s masters’ thesis on female vampires through the ages formed the basis to Take A Bite, which traces female vampire characters in folklore and literature. For further information, see www.bookswithbite.in
Kiki’s mother warned her to be careful when she was pregnant because the aswang was watching from the trees in the jungle. All Filipinos knew that the scariest creatures lived deep in the jungle where no one ever went, and then they walked out looking like one of us. They were shapeshifters who ate the flesh of fetuses. Kiki rolled her eyes and promised that she would say her prayers, wear black and add more garlic to her chicken adobo to ward off the aswang that wasn’t native to New York City.
Kiki met her husband, Georgi, on a Tuesday night at a Chelsea café. As a professional matchmaker, she saw the irony of needing to go on dating apps for her own dating life. She could help 40-year-old White American divorcees, and the odd 29-year-old with gout find the loves of their lives. Still, there she was on another lonely weeknight at a café instead of a bar because the guy wanted to get coffee instead of an extra dirty martini.
“Here’s your matcha latte.” He handed her a warm, recyclable medium-sized brown cup of foaming green bliss.
“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “I love matcha.”
“Is it because you’re Asian?”
She sighed. She thought because he was a foreigner that he would understand the subtleties of race in America. She wondered if he got away with being so clueless because he was foreign. She wondered how many people assumed he was actually White American because he was tall, handsome, and pale in that acceptable way.
Kiki knew that she had an easy choice of finding an array of men—some desirable, most were not—on dating apps. She was a hot, young, single Asian woman. Although most decent-looking, youngish, single men in her area called themselves liberal and progressive, they succumbed to everything from cheap pickup lines (can you love me a long time?) to, “but where are you really from?” FROM MY MOTHER’S VAGINA, YOU MILK SOPPING, OVERGROWN BOY.
She was used to years of brushing off casual racism. The comments were subtle. She knew how to wipe off their comments like she was a towel, and their words were only droplets of water. Kiki knew that men like Georgi didn’t mean any harm. They didn’t know any better. She straddled between feelings of an obligation to educate him and to chalk it up to dating as a young Asian-American woman.
Their wedding was on a Saturday afternoon on the elevated High Line, a freight rail line that became a public park. The onlookers gawked at them as Kiki and Georgi huddled in a semi-private corner of the High Line that should have been of no interest to these tourists. The corners were filled with old grass and uninteresting buildings that had changed from a hip restaurant to a clothing boutique to a bodega over the past few years.
Kiki didn’t mind the stares of the 60-year-old Midwestern couple and their detached 14-year-old hobbling along, trying not to walk into other tourists. She didn’t mind the stares until they kept staring, looking her up and down as if she was the tourist attraction. Looking at her against the city backdrop next to her European husband, trying to figure out which of them didn’t belong here. Kiki figured she and Georgi deserved the stares because they chose to have a wedding in a public venue and if they wanted privacy, well, couldn’t they have just had it in the privacy of their one-bedroom 750 square foot apartment?
The Midwestern wife from the crowds holding a DSLR camera piped up, “Are you almost done?”
Kiki and Georgi’s officiant whipped her head back and glared at the stranger, “They’re in the middle of getting married. The one picture you’re going to take of this very NYC bodega and never look at again can wait another ten minutes until we’re done here.” She smiled apologetically at the bride and groom and quietly mouthed, “Sorry.”
Kiki smiled awkwardly because she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to get mad? Was she supposed to laugh it off?
She was pregnant a few months after their wedding. It was a Sunday, January morning, before her weekly brunch date with her mother. It was the January, a few months before the pandemic came.
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Her family was sheltered in place for months. They took safe haven in their home partially because they wanted to protect themselves from the virus and because they wanted to protect themselves from the uneasy public’s reaction to the people who embodied the virus. To the average onlooker, people that looked like Kiki looked like they were from Wuhan. Because of that, Kiki and anyone who looked like Kiki were to blame for social distancing, loneliness, and disease.
She was already taking precautions as a woman. She didn’t walk down dark alleyways. She looked behind her periodically when she walked. She carried her car keys wedged in her hand like she was Wolverine to swipe at any grabby man.
As much as Kiki wanted her whole big and loud Filipino family with her in the birthing room, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had Georgi by her side and napping periodically on a red vinyl sleeper chair. She was one of the lucky ones when some other women had to be completely alone at the beginning of the pandemic. At the very least, she had her husband running on coffee and nerves, pacing back and forth around the room.
He held her hand when she gave birth. She sweated and screamed through her N95 mask. When she pushed, he pushed too. He wanted to commiserate with her. She appreciated his gesture, although he’d never fully understand. He could be an ally, and he could sympathize, but he never really understood.
She still thought about the one bad date she had during her single New Yorker years. She met a guy at a networking event, and he asked for her business card, and since she worked at home and worked for herself, her business phone was just her cell phone. So the guy had her number, and he wanted to meet her on a Friday night after office hours for a pair of old fashioneds.
“Extra ripe cherry.” He winked at her as he handed her a cold glass with one of those abnormally large square ice cubes.
“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “These abnormally large square ice cubes always wigged me out, but there’s something calming about just looking at the cherry in this brown liquid.”
“I feel like this drink represents you.” He raised his glass. “Cheers, y’know, because you’re like this little cherry in the brown.”
Before she could say another word and before he could explain any further, he leaned in to kiss her. She put up her hand. She blushed, shaking her head, “No, I can’t. We can’t.”
“I…I just started dating someone.” She was three weeks into dating Georgi at the time.
“And who is he?”
“I met him on Bumble. He’s nice.”
“You met him on Bumble? But aren’t you a Matchmaker? Like you can’t find a nice brown guy on your own?”
She furrowed her eyebrows, “What makes you think I’m dating someone brown?”
He rubbed his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. “Please don’t tell me he’s White.”
“Yeah. He is. Not White American, but yeah, he’s White.”
“Like from Europe? Wow, so he’s REALLY not going to understand you.”
She wanted to throw her drink at this guy. “Why not?”
He put down his glass and started waving at the bartender for the check. “Because he’s not like you and me. You’re an Asian woman. I’m Black. I can understand you in a way that he NEVER will.”
“That’s not true.”
He kept his eyes down on the check as he signed the check. “You’ll see.”
When she laid awake at night with her hand on her pregnant belly, she wondered how she was being a good POC ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. What would happen when the news cycle decided it was no longer important? Were people really going to change?
A few months into motherhood, after her young half-Asian, half-White daughter was brought into the world, #StopAsianHate bubbled to the surface. It was all over Facebook, Instagram, and her family group text messages. She wondered if her daughter was going to have to worry about this a decade from now. She wondered if her daughter would “pass” for White enough in this country or if her almond-shaped eyes were the dead giveaway for being spat at.
Kiki couldn’t be sure which was safer: walking to the pediatrician appointments twenty blocks away from their apartment, taking the subway five stops away, or spending $60 both ways to hop into an Uber/Lyft/Via and hope she didn’t get raped. Or catch COVID. Did she need to invest in getting a car? What was the point of being a city girl if she needed a car?
Whichever option she chose each time, and she switched up her options each time to not leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for a potential stalker/assailant/Asian hater, she had to be hypervigilant. It wasn’t just herself she was looking after. She was looking after a defenceless child. Then what if she and baby Bisera Del Rosario Dachkov were hurt? Who would cook Georgi’s dinner? And all that hospital and insurance paperwork. He was no good at all of that. Her husband needed her.
But then, even when her family was in a different state and their friends hadn’t seen them in months (last she heard, her best friend from college grew a philosopher’s bread), somehow she found relief in the distance. Having the time apart to drown out the noise from others’ opinions and cautionary tales of danger, real like on the news and imaginary (sorry, Mom) like the aswang, allowed Kiki the space to form her own opinions. She was one person in a city of millions.
If something happened to her, they’d call her the 28-year-old Asian-American mother and professional matchmaker because she wouldn’t just be a 28-year-old American businesswoman and mother. The world, for better or worse, would have needed to know she was an Asian mom.
All Kiki felt was fear. Some days the fear weighed down on her like a brick being thrown into her glass window. She couldn’t replace fear with hope, love, and determination, but she could make room for those sentiments.
She took a breath when she remembered to breathe. She thought that because her parents were the ones who were foreigners and because she was born and bred on US soil that she was one of us. Race in America continued to be a taut, tight rope we walked across.
Kiki wondered if she could get away with being so admittedly sad. Kiki wondered if she could get away with navel-gazing for so long until she had to do something other than feeling so sad, so lonely, so angry all the goddamn time. Kiki had to do something because she was here, and she was alive, and she was just brave enough to do something. Even if that something was small.
Even if she only started expanding her matchmaker business to include other women, other AAPI women on the fringes who didn’t just want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Even if she only started volunteering on boards and asking to be a part of their diversity and inclusion program to see more women who looked like her and more women who didn’t. Kiki had a mouth to speak, and if it were only a few words she would say that would fall upon a few choice ears, it was better said aloud than not said at all.
Kiki dreamed of a world where her daughter wouldn’t become numb to years of remaining unseen. While Kiki’s mother warned her of creatures that didn’t exist, Kiki imagined warning Bisera of the real dangers. Because all minorities in America knew that the scariest creatures were the ones who told them they loved their clothing and their food and their people of caramel persuasion to push a pin into a country they never actually planned to visit. They were coworkers who went to lunch with us at Panda Cottage and asked us if the beef with broccoli or the sweet & sour pork was better. They were friends who showed us off as their token brown friend.
Kiki wasn’t going to keep rolling her eyes and saying her prayers, hoping people would change. She needed to change. She needed to say to whoever was going to listen that she had enough, that it wasn’t enough for people to love her food but hate her. When she still didn’t feel the courage to push through, she looked down at Bisera with her long eyelashes and eager coos, so she could be the Asian mom she always wanted to be. Free to love, laugh, and be angry, taking up space in their corner of our world.
Kelly Ann Gonzalesis an Executive Matchmaker and Dating Consultant. Her published works include short fiction publications featured in Penultimate Peanut, Write Launch, Rigorous, Change Seven, and elsewhere.
Naomi had planned to stop for a date shake that morning, at the turnoff to the high desert, before she journeyed on in the hope of adventure or a hamburger and a couple of beers, whichever came first. Still, she got sidetracked by the hand-painted sign: CAHUILLAGIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. A blood-red arrow pointed toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Naomi turned left abruptly and zipped past a stand of sage bushes with blue-purple flowers. She stained the blacktop with rubber tread marks.
A couple of miles down the road, a large tumbleweed rolled in front of her car; she veered to miss it and nearly hit a rabbit. Naomi slowed down fifty feet from the shop, a small faded pink stucco house. She parked her car on gritty dirt and went inside. She was greeted by a middle-aged Indian woman, dressed in jeans and a denim work shirt, a white streak tinged with vestiges of green dye shooting through her black hair. The woman wore three gold chains, one of which sported the name Linda, written in script.
The woman paused the old episode of Cheers she had been watching.
“May I help you?” she asked, smiling.
“I’m just looking,” Naomi said. There wasn’t much to look at — a few geodes, dust covering the amethysts and topaz and quartz, and some beaded bangle bracelets, a good supply of Concord grape-coloured bandanas, a couple of packaged tee shirts, also grape-coloured, and a reach-in refrigerated case filled with soda, beer, bottled water, and snack products. Naomi picked up a tee-shirt.
“Linda?” Naomi said, “Can I open this?” Naomi asked.
Linda, who had resumed watching her episode, looked down at her necklace and back up at Naomi. She waved her hand, sure, and turned back to her screen. It took Naomi two minutes and a broken fingernail to open the tightly-secured shrink-wrapped package.
“Shit,” she said, putting her finger in her mouth and biting off the rest of the nail. The Indian woman turned around.
“That’s a good colour for you with that yellow hair,” she said, pointing at the half-opened shirt package.
“Yeah, I just — Naomi stopped speaking as she shook the shirt out to view it. “Ooh. That’s pretty,” she said. “A dream catcher, right?”
Linda nodded. “It’s good luck,” she said, and she turned up the television.
Naomi pulled a credit card out from the depths of her Forever 21 plastic purse.
“Cash only,” Linda said.
“But I need the cash for — ” Naomi began. “Good luck?”
A few minutes later, Naomi walked out of the Cahuilla Gift Shoppe wearing her new tee shirt and three bangle bracelets and carrying two bottles of Budweiser and no cash. She had thought about the bologna and cheese snacks and the bottled water, but the bracelets were great, and she could buy food later, with her nearly maxed credit card. Besides, a drive like this one, an adventure, deserved some beer. She looked at the bracelets on her wrist and sighed with satisfaction.
Naomi drove on until she saw another sign: NO TRESPASSING. Since there was no immediate place to turn around, she ventured farther, hoping the used Toyota her folks gave her for her twentieth last year was up for the task. When the highway narrowed, and the shoulder disappeared, Naomi’s upper lip began to sweat, and she bit down hard on the lower one. Her back stiffened as the paved road ended without warning — now, there was no way to turn around without the risk of spinning her wheels in the desert sand. Naomi found herself driving over an almost barren field, fording a surprisingly robust stream — she was getting scared and feeling dizzy with the bounce of the ride. She hoped the Toyota wouldn’t roll over or get stuck. Then. Cows. Right there. Sweat-like bee stings in her eyes as she drove around them, as they ignored her, perhaps miraculously. Finally, a road, and it seemed to circle back in the right direction.
Just a couple more miles, she told herself. She picked up her phone to get the GPS happening, but there was no reception. How long had she been driving? She knew it was past noon because the sun had been high and seemed to be on the ebb. If only she had paid more attention at Girl Scout camp. Orienteering, they called it.
I need to calm down, she thought. Naomi pulled over to the side of the road. She put her head down on the wheel and counted to sixty before she twisted the cap off of the first bottle of beer.
“Oh god, what is that?”
The light was getting dusky, the sun going down. The beers had helped her nerves and given her the confidence to continue on. Still, after a half-hour of passing nothing but a couple of empty houses and an old Chevy parked by the side of the road, Naomi was shaking with anxiety. When she finally saw living, breathing people standing behind a two-foot-high stone wall, next to what appeared to be a church, she gasped with relief at the thought of help. As she pulled up next to the building, Naomi heard a drumbeat and chanting. She shut off the engine and got out of the car, faint with hunger and a vague need to pee. She took a step forward toward the gathering of people — maybe there were twenty — and lurched slightly to the side. She leaned against the car for a minute to get her equilibrium. When her breathing became steadier, and her eyes were able to focus through what she realized were tears, she saw one of the men in the group place a shovelful of dirt on the ground. No. On a grave. Naomi gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth to cover her shock, the bracelets adding to her distress with their jangling.
She put her hand on the door handle of the Toyota, ready to get back in and drive away, to take a chance on finding a way out of this maze.
The drumbeat stopped, the chanting stopped. The man with the shovel looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. An old woman with fire in her eyes said something to him, visibly spraying spit. The man handed the shovel to the woman and took long strides to the cemetery gate. He opened it and continued over to where the little car was parked.
Naomi closed her eyes and bowed her head — the dream catcher appeared on the inside of her lids.
The man spoke in a soft voice. “Do you know what it is you are interrupting?” he asked.
Naomi shook her head no without lifting her eyes. She could see the cuffs of the man’s black church suit and his polished black shoes.
“Yes,” she said.
The man said nothing.
“I — I am lost,” she said, too quietly for him to hear.
As the man looked over at the group, Naomi raised her head and looked at them, too, the mourners. The women wore circular skirts and turquoise jewelry. The man with the drum wore feathers and beads.
“It was my grandfather,” the man said. He spoke in a near whisper. “He was respected. The old woman looked up, displaying a face carved with lines of grief and anger. “That’s my grandma,” the man said, gesturing with a nod toward the woman, who was exhaling storm clouds. He turned to face Naomi directly.
Naomi let out a single sob, a sound that had been jailed and came limping, strangling, to freedom.
Before she could think of what to say, a simple question, how do I get away from here? The man pulled Naomi’s passenger door open.
“Get in,” he said.
She did, a numb reflex, and before she could logic together that she was no longer in charge here, the man got in on the driver’s side, revved up the engine and sped off.
“Where are we going?” Naomi asked.
“I’m getting you out of here.”
The tears slowed, and Naomi hiccupped for breath. The fears of the day washed over her. She had wanted an adventure. She hadn’t wanted to die. She took a ragged breath and turned to her new chauffeur.
“Thank you,” she said, with adrenalin-fueled self-assurance.
The man said nothing.
Naomi remembered the Swiss army knife she carried at all times, the knife she used to show her friends how cool she was, how prepared she was — she had learned that much in Girl Scouts — how she could always cut open a package or open a bottle of wine. Especially that, open a bottle of wine. She was so thirsty.
“I’m going to get a cigarette out of my purse,” Naomi said to the man. She was sure he didn’t want any false moves, that he wanted to see her hands at all times.
“I thought it smelled a little smoky in here,” the man said. He laughed. “May I have one too?”
There was only one Marlborough Light left, and she knew it. Naomi dug in her bag and found the cigarette pack and the knife, pulled them out together, palming the knife so that her captor couldn’t see it. “Oh,” she said, “there’s only one. I guess you could have it.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m Red Feather. You smoke it.”
“Naomi?” she said, with a little girl question mark.
Naomi looked at Red Feather’s face, only turning her eyes. He had large, sharp features and a deep dimple on his chin. She couldn’t read his expression. “I’ll put my window down,” she said, and as she searched for her Bic lighter, she thought about dropping the knife back into her bag. She didn’t, though — she kept it palmed as she pulled the lighter out. She lifted up one butt cheek and put the Swiss Army knife beneath her thigh, lit the cigarette. At the first inhale, she had a little coughing fit.
“You good?” Red Feather asked.
Naomi nodded through her cough, and when it subsided, she said, “Yeah,” and she tried again. “Where are we going?”
Red Feather didn’t say anything for a good minute. They were still on dirt, no pavement to be seen ahead, and as they went over a bump and the knife dug into Naomi’s buttock, Red Feather said, “My Grandpappy.” He shook his head. “He would have liked you.”
Naomi didn’t know how to take that. “I’m thirsty,” she said.
Red Feather laughed. “When we get to Yucaipa, I’ll buy you a Coke.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said, sitting up straighter. She could feel the oblong knife shape. “How far is it?” she asked.
“Coupla miles,” he said.
Naomi licked dry lips. “But where? Where are you taking me?”
“Away from the Rez,” he said. Nothing more.
Naomi snuffed out her cigarette in the car’s ashtray. Neither Red Feather nor Naomi said anything else until they got to a small white aluminum-sided building with gas pumps out front and a sign that said EAT/TRY OUR FAMOUS PEANUT BUTTER PIE. Red Feather pulled the car up in front of the pumps. “You’re out of gas,” he said, turning around and walking into the building.
Naomi climbed over the divider and got in the driver’s seat, the knife falling to the floor. She turned the key and hit the gas, then looked at the empty gauge. She turned the car off and got out, grabbed her credit card and inserted the nozzle into the neck of the gas tank. The tank was full when Red Feather came out of the place, carrying a can of Coca-Cola.
“Here,” he said, “Now get in your car and go back to L.A.”
Naomi raised her eyebrows. “San Diego.”
“I was close, wasn’t I?”
“Off by a hundred miles and a lot of bullshit,” she said.
Naomi turned the key, and the car started. They looked at each other again. She turned the key the other way.
Red Feather and Naomi walked into a bar.
The white building was a truck stop, really, not a bar, no alcohol served — The Trading Post, it was called, and it was frequented by both locals and tourists.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Red Feather said. He waved to the waitress and a skinny old man sitting at the counter and led Naomi to a booth.
She didn’t sit down.
“Where’s the —‘’
The waitress pointed to the back of the place, and Naomi walked quickly to the restroom and went inside. I’m crazy, she thought, but she was really hungry and really thirsty, and here she was. She peed, washed her hands, and checked a pale image in the warped metal that served as a mirror. When she came out, Red Feather and the waitress were talking.
“It’s a crying shame he’s gone,” the waitress said, and she wiped a tear.
Red Feather nodded. He turned to look at Naomi.
“Naomi, right?” he said. “This is Little Pammy.” Little Pammy was not little. “I’ve known her since I was little.”
“And since I was,” Little Pammy said, and she laughed, her chin like Jello.
“I think you’re beautiful,” Red Feather said.
Little Pammy snorted. She looked Naomi in the eye and said, “He didn’t think that when he and his drunken buddies raised hell in here last week,” she said. “I told them to go back to their government-owned land.”
“That was harsh,” Red Feather said.
“You know we don’t allow no booze in here,” Pammy said. She winked and walked away.
Red Feather called out to her back, “Two peanut butter pies, please.”
Pammy turned and eyeballed Red Feather, dressed in his funeral suit, raised one of her pencilled eyebrows and blew a rusty red corkscrew of a curl from in front of her face up to her hairline, where it somehow managed to stay. Red Feather shifted in his seat, took off his tie, shrugged small, mouth twitching to smile.
Naomi dug into that pie the second she got it, a hungry wolf pup. She had gulped half the piece before Red Feather picked up his napkin and dabbed at the corner of his mouth, eyebrows raised to indicate that there was something at the corner of her mouth – Naomi lifted her napkin and wiped pie goop away, and some whipped cream. She crumpled the napkin and threw it down on her pie slice.
“This place doesn’t even sell beer?” she said to Red Feather.
Red Feather stood up, seeming to wrestle with his demons. “Wait here,” he said and went out the door. Naomi watched him talking on his cell phone, not sure what to do. She took out her wallet — she would pay for the pie and get out of here. She looked up and saw what seemed to be her destiny — a CASH ONLY sign; she was beginning to rummage in the plastic purse for loose change when Red Feather took the phone away from his ear and came back inside.
“Um, this is awkward,” Naomi said to him, “but I can’t pay for anything. I don’t have any cash. I call myself ‘cashless wonder.’ I don’t carry it because when I have it, I spend it, but I better go, I better get back home, I better — ‘’
“I can pay for your pie, don’t worry,” Red Feather said. “My — he raised his hands and made air quotes — drunken buddies gave me a bunch of cash this morning because I let them borrow my truck.”
“I owe you,” Naomi said. “I feel like I owe you.” She screwed up her mouth.
As they spoke, a young guy in a Lakers jersey and baggy pants placed a white paper bag on the lunch counter next to a toothpick holder, turned and smiled at nobody in particular, and left. Red Feather strolled over casually, took a toothpick, put the little stick in his mouth and picked up the paper bag with his other hand.
“You’re not in my debt,” Red Feather said, back at the table and opening the bag. He pulled Styrofoam soda cups, lidded and full of beer, out of the sack. “I was thirsty too.”
“Oh god, what is that?” Naomi said, feeling the saliva come into her mouth, like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
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Another paper bag came a half-hour later, and then another.
“I’m gonna call you Little Paper Poppy, ” said Red Feather. “Because you don’t have money, like those kids that sell those poppies.”
“No, seriously,” said Naomi, “I cry when I get those, you know, those little beaded things in the mail. And the pictures of the kids, the poor kids who don’t get enough to eat, the — ” She stopped, blew her nose on a napkin.
“Like I said a few minutes ago. It’s not your fault. And for the hundredth time, the ceremony was almost over. Grandpappy is okay with us having pie.”
The last few sips of beer had taken Naomi visibly over the line into wasted drunk territory. She moved her foot under the table, so it touched Red Feather’s foot.
“Whoa, I’ve got to use the facilities,” he said, getting up so fast he knocked over a ketchup bottle.
When he returned, Little Pammy was sitting at the table, holding Naomi’s hand. Naomi was crying. Little Pammy looked at Red Feather. “Did you want your check?”
Red Feather stood up. “Yes,” he said. “Please.”
“At least let me —” Naomi reached for her bag, then remembered the no-money thing.
Red Feather put his finger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he said.
She wanted to kiss him, she wanted to — she wasn’t sure what.
Red Feather threw a twenty on the table, put an arm around Naomi, and guided her outside, lifted her into the car.
Naomi passed out as soon as they started moving, and when they got to the reservation, Red Feather parked the Toyota in his truck’s space — and left the kid in her stupor. He covered her with a blanket, dropped her knife into her plastic purse, which he placed on the other seat, and cracked a window.
“It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed.”
“Little Poppy.” Red Feather was shaking Naomi awake. It was almost dawn. She lay under a blanket in the passenger seat of her car. A light rain was falling, rare in this part of the world. “You had best get your sweet self out of here.” Red Feather fished her keys out of the crevice between the car seats.
Naomi felt a cosmic disconnect as she took the car keys out of his hand. Her brain was packed in bubble wrap, and she was afraid if she made the wrong move, the bubbles would begin popping and cause her head to explode. Naomi once again climbed into the driver’s seat in a trance, pushing the purse to the side, and started her car. Red Feather pointed. “That way,” he said, “straight, all the way. Up over that hill.”
She saw where he was pointing and understood his urgency, although the reasons did not come to mind. She smelled beer; her stomach was slush. Her bladder felt like a football. Vomit rose like lava – she gulped it back. Head pounding, vision skewed, Naomi tried to speak. Thank you? Is that what was required? Words did not come.
Naomi started the car. It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed. She straightened the wheel just short of driving off the shoulder and lurched away. She tried to lift her leaden hand to wave. Body not working. She made a peace sign on her thigh, where nobody saw it.When Naomi crested the hill, Red Feather turned around and walked home.
“Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering.”
In a parallel universe, Redfeather’s drunken buddies had been matching Naomi’s beer consumption. One of them, Big Al, had been ranting most of the night about the blonde that fucked up Red Feather’s grandpappy’s funeral. When they saw the little Toyota, Big Al revved up the engine of Red Feather’s truck, skidded and squealed out after it. Dogs began to bark.
When Naomi heard the truck roaring behind her, the barking, when she glimpsed the men in the truck in her rearview, when she heard them shouting and laughing, her cobwebbed brain became a little clearer. She pressed her foot down on the gas pedal, and the little Japanese car jumped and began to go as fast as it could — the speedometer read ninety.
“White WOMAN!” one of the guys shouted. “Get your white ass off my land!”
“Gonna rip you up, honey!” someone else yelled. Laughing.
She squinted to keep from seeing it double, the sign up ahead — CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. Linda. Linda had been so nice. Another minute to get there, and then to the main road. Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering. Fear had her right where it wanted her. Maybe she didn’t deserve to get to the road. Maybe she had to pay for the sin of trespassing. And for interrupting the sacred — Jesus, God.
Naomi’s mouth was dry; her lips were stuck together; her tongue was thick and covered with moss; bile rose in her throat; she was about to wet her pants. She said a prayer, not even sure what prayer it was, maybe the one the alcoholics say, the serenity one. She fingered the dream catcher on the front of her shirt. It was for luck, good luck, perhaps the thing she had started out to find.
She was so thirsty.
Isabel Wolfe-Frischman’sfiction has been published in The Listening Eye, Paterson Review, and others. Her photographs have appeared in Trajectory and Olentangy Review. She has fiction upcoming in the fall issue of Fugue and a personal essay in a winter edition of Streetlight.
She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. Dream-whispers creep past and float in the air, disappearing forever. She crawls down, down, down, spindly legs at awkward angles, down the tunnel of my traumatized trachea. Into my belly to lay her eggs. She does this nightly, and I can’t stop her. I try so hard but to no avail. When I wake, the eggs have hatched, metamorphosed. I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.
Sometimes I can ignore the lead butterflies, but they start making new slices and scrapes into my fibrous flesh when I do. They rise up sometimes, up and up and into my throat, abraded by their mother the night before. Then they begin to pull, dragging my breath down, down, down. I begin to fold back into myself and retreat. I fold in at the corners to collapse into myself. A tiny square. I’ve refolded so many times the paper is tissue-thin, like a butterfly’s wings, powdery and torn slightly around the edges.
When I fall into a fitful sleep, the lead butterflies rise back up, this time stopping in my lungs. They wrap their sticky dream threads around them, hijacking my breath. I awake, at the edge of panic, frenzied dreams still dripping from my eyelids. My heart is in my throat, a bass drum pounding out an erratic, desperate rhythm. I fight to retake my breath from these invaders, but the more I fight, the weaker I get. They flutter suddenly, all over, invading. My throat, lungs, stomach, their leg-knives digging in. The fear rushes up, up, up, from dark places and spreads.
We wrestle the lead butterflies and I. I wrestle for my breath, closing my eyes to will away these unwanted visitors. With each breath, I push them down, down, down, once again. To die in the darkness. I win, momentarily.
But in the night, she comes again. She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. And I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.
Heather R. Parker is a freelance writer, editor, and poet from Georgia. Her work has been published by Nightingale & Sparrow Magazine, Goats Milk Magazine, Analog Submissions Press, Between Shadows Press, Friday Flash Fiction, Clover & Bee Magazine, 365 Tomorrows, and others. In her spare time, you can find her doing yoga, taking long walks in the woods, birdwatching, or picking flowers in sun-dappled meadows. You can follow Heather’s writing on Instagram and Fictionate.Me.