Evan Reynolds

[ abjection ]

subject refuses to sleep
subject insists that he has secret knowledge of a conspiracy involving the cia and large 
         pharmaceutical companies
subject walks obsessively down the corridor in the same direction
subject refuses medication
subject does not wash or brush teeth
subject insists on talking to a lawyer
subject pulls at hair
subject stares out the window consistently
subject refuses therapy
subject rocks back and forth
subject displays writing behavior
subject continues to write
subject will not stop writing
subject will not stop writing
subject will not stop writing
subject will not stop writing
subject will not stop writing


TO the ether beyond what calyx proclivity
docile sentry becomes unbounded hitherto

TO what eye of lacrimal joy bursts apart
below not buried weeping song of shit

TO detethered centrifugal force push
out the placental bloody blossom there

TO refracted light combs curling round
the maggot frost forthwith revealing

TO synecdotal hymns shank raw flesh
napkins of wipe that stupid frown away

TO malignant bliss rocks melting in tubs
protracted from stanzaic triangulation

Evan Reynolds is a Chicago-based poet whose work focuses on the experience of schizophrenia.




Shana Bulhan

The artwork consists of two images side by side. They are horizontally flipped versions of the same picture, also edited with different colors, highlights, and shadows. The picture consists of two faces, one partly superimposed onto the other: a femme-presenting person with layered short hair (mostly chin-length with bangs), with striking eyelashes and eyebrows, also wearing a nose ring. To the side of the person's face, there is a tree-like structure (without leaves) branching out towards the edge of the picture. In the background, there are various swirls and hexagons set against stylized Lorem Ipsum text. The image on the left has a purple background; a mauve tree structure; and the two faces have blue and pink hair respectively. The face in front with blue hair has more dominant opacity, and the person's skin colour is brown. The face in back has ghostly white skin. The image on the right has a bright pink background; a dull green tree structure; and the two faces have green and pink hair respectively. The face in back with green hair has more dominant opacity, and the person's skin colour is ghostly white. The face in front has dull brown skin, but is quite faded.

Mad Queer’s Love Song

after Sylvia Plath1 

i will spend my entire life yearning for everything we couldn’t sublimate 

i cut my wrath into grief 

i don’t need a rose 
to waste a body, enter a land 

i remain ugly in the episteme of my body 

it’s mourning, and i want to kiss you in the stark.  
i seesaw your smile. didn’t i?  

how did we get to this place? 
these frenzies — i just want the suddenness of — 

(as if i could confess 
to meaty contagion  
smearing itself  
between my fingers) 

i hunker down in this mirror of self state 
dressed up to collapse, allure of i want to cut myself up like that too 
i want you (mirror) to clutch me there, that soon,  
& hate me clear as art 

it doesn’t make sense that we can’t  
kiss without bones gnashing — the accumulation of dread.  
it doesn’t make sense at all 

& could we shift this floating someday? — room stripped 
down — & then i won’t be cunt exposed like some seedy 
omission  & there’s nothing revelatory in the kiss of history  
& that too is a language beleaguered 

against an other 
box. which is to say 

will i ever? chalk boots  
through gender
will i ever? be 
red velvetine 

i trade one half of white 
for your faction. 

i measured it like 
some inexplicable cultural memory  
a newer place to dream of death 

again out of frame, meteoric 

but it’s just not a good century for a recluse 

i wanted to be loved into luminosity 
loved with the irony of history2 
effulgent and craved 

i wanted to be cunning & all i devilled  
was a sore nose, sore throat. 

& i’m so tired of teeth  

rotting then scrubbed again 
yellow seething into aftertaste. i wait 

and wait  

and wait. i slumber into 
the waiting. 

am i just a repeat of constance, beautiful at the expense of barbaric? 

i don’t know if i have made myself up 
stuck in this perpetual stage of queen jane3 
too fundamentally here to disavow 

i’m bad at groupcool groupthink  
i never whistle the world into dazzlement 

you blurred the moon for me 
catalyzed planet into desert 
& still i’m red 

for every mere mention — 

i meet you in the crux of the unforgivable  
safety was only ever a liberal coercion 

but you would never meet me — 
not in this grub of gold  
& shine. 

i made a window 
to let you mural me  
into winter 

so that in the house of your dreams  
we could disentangle ourselves,  
grocery desire cascading  
into opulent shelves.  
is this the everydayness?  

i whiten in the year of my room  
as you billow off — 
off, off.  

i dress like a pregnant shop auntie 
cheap cotton balakrishna 1527 at the hem 

i buoy and sway and arc into lumps of pink then brown 
spots under my flour bags of breasts 
off-white pushed to the edge of tan 

quiver4 pulsates at my worn wrists 
& what about the silvering dance of me?  
i want to write about you, or the creaking knees of me 

here’s the drop-ceiling of sky 
& black hairs eschewing contagion 
vegetable broth of cellulite teeming  
till i’m just a landslide of joints and cracked heels 
in free-fall 

in my head i’m doing the splits  
all over mahogany & mirrors 
i rear back my head & smile 
raise the fuck for the fount 

so i’ll scrub myself into femme,  
chop myself into butch.  
i’ll grab & punch my breasts  
into a photograph. 

i wanted to be god like you. 
& isn’t that romance? to slam my body 
against doom. as if i wasn’t dripping 
snot from my cunt. as if i wasn’t 
languishing on a toilet seat. as if i wasn’t 
splaying toothpaste on the mirror, 
burnished blood in the sink.
no, i’m all cellulite and cushion. 
i stretch into keratosis.  
we become into matter.  
detritus at dawn. 

i scorch the earth. i scorch the earth for you, 
love. isn’t that enough? 

i run into you. i run the wild into you, love. 
i fling the world into reverence. helix and jar. 
i could not have wilded you any less. 

but you can’t wield it. this wilding, this brimming. 

instead i make a crater to flounder 
i punch my souring pelvis into gratuity 
with every semi-squat i reach for evidence 
lying with pooled absence in my every tract 
so i come up & push again. to linger is an 
affront a prime malfeasance coiling itself 
around a name 

you give up on quarantine 
& marry the man  

pushing you into the ocean. 

& would you drown  
for that monument of erasure?  

if i could only paint you queer  
would you win in another continent?  

are you my crushed echo, a misgendered 
self? she walks down the road becomes a 
question mark split ragged & who’s even 
writing this aftermath 

suddenly you are no longer here. suddenly i 
want to rescue you into performance. 

i am so tired of abstraction. what is this damn 
box. no anchors anymore. clash of expected 
symmetry. you could never be ready for the 
muck of me.  

like every god your figure crashed into 
gold & what a cruise it was. what a 
fucking soirée. 

what must it feel like, hair still 
so silky, shimmering and gone. 

& maybe if i was lean like a dream, 
one black boot up against the brick. 
putrid with glitter, tracking orgasms 
like sand. & maybe if i could sway 
into every dank alley. & maybe if  
i sauntered my hips onto a stage,  
burlesque & brawn. & maybe  
if i was just girl enough 
for mystery.

no, baby, i’m the wrong one. 
what a delight it is. what a fucking cheap shot.
i’m achy without age.  
i carpal tunnel & fibroid  
my every move. every inconvenient creak 
& crack.  i lie in bed. i embellish my fat, 
strain into obscene.  

did i get lost in the invention of us? 

you only want me if i crumble into jars of leaving. 

& you fight for this solitude of 
near-death.  oh, how i’d wrest it from 
you — 

how i want to dive  
into every reptile coat 
of an attempt 

so i wander within like a bruise has taken hold 
of me like sugar like god 
lost in marginalia 

choose me. i’m begging you my bruise 
choose this shade of me 

1 Plath, Sylvia. “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” Mademoiselle, 1953. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/sylvia-plaths-mad-girls-love song-from-mademoiselle#

Quote from the following novel: Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. Vintage, 2000. p. 12.

3 c.f. song: Bob Dylan. “Queen Jane Approximately.” Highway 61 Revisited (Album).  

4 c.f. song: Lonas. “Quiver.” Quiver (EP). 
Shana is shown, from the shoulders up, before chrome shelving and colored cloths. Shana has light brown skin and inchlength straight black hair. Shana wears semitranslucent oxblood cateye glasses, and a dark grey or black crewneck shirt.

Shana Bulhan is currently attending the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where they are also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Feminist Studies. Previously, they studied Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College. They grew up mostly in India, but they have been living in Western Massachusetts for more than a decade now. They recently won an Academy of American Poets Prize selected by Bianca Stone. Their work has appeared in Meridians, smoke + mold, the Asian-American Literary Review, The Felt, Datableed, and other publications. For more information, please visit their website, www.cruxate.com




Paula Harris

the weight of pain

in 1945 Dr Lorand Julius Bela Gluzek of Cleveland, Ohio
developed a dolorimeter which could measure pain in grams
so maybe the weight I gained on antidepressants
wasn’t from sadness and an increased appetite
but my organs and glands – thyroid, pancreas, lungs, 
adrenal glands, ovaries, stomach, hypothalamus – 
each getting heavier from the consumption of black bile

the weight of the water inside the mouth of a blue whale
can weigh more than the whale itself
so if I dive into the ocean and convince a blue whale to swallow me
I will leave my sadness on its tongue and be weightless

Paula Harris lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where she writes and sleeps in a lot, because that’s what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award. Her writing has been published in various journals, including Hobart, Berfrois, The Rialto, Barren, SWWIM, Diode, Glass, Aotearotica, and The Spinoff. She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric. website: www.paulaharris.co.nz | Twitter: @paulaoffkilter | Instagram: @paulaharris_poet | Facebook: @paulaharrispoet




Lexus Root

Content warning: forced medication, needles, blood, death, parasites, unsanitary, sex, body horror

Plateau 1001

            Now is afternoon and the waves wash quietly on the lake Pawnee’s lips. Children cry at the edge of this cool reservoir, some hard line between land and water, a boundary at once uncrossable and enticing, beckoning onlookers to drop on in, fall, dissolve. Sunglass-sporting and through-the-shadows-of-visors-creeping women are laughing and pointing in our direction, toward two bodies planted firmly in the sand, fixed to one another.
            “They are laughing at me,” I say to Giovanni, weakly, stumbling over myself, snaking my hands through the damp sand, hoping to find something to grasp onto. Gasping for air, the chest constricts. My resting blood pressure is 142/98, but I can tell it is higher now, at or approaching crisis; untreated hypertensives have a way of knowing these things. Best understood as spiritual, knowledge of how the rust is moving comes naturally. The force under which it circulates… this stuff is easy to discern. We can imagine how far the blood would spurt if we removed the arterial walls, made naked the surrounding flesh; this process determines our blood pressure without the use of a cuff. I threw mine away three months ago, flushing a bottle of eplerenone in the process, the doctor’s words ringing in my mind, Take this twice a day, it will help. If only it were not placebic.
            Gio takes my arm and says, “No, they aren’t.” I can tell he’s lying by the way his chin moves as he speaks, barreling to the left, his left not mine. The ultimate sign of deceit. All liars move their chins this way when they speak, one trait among countless others I’ve picked up on. “They are not laughing at you, come and sit down,” he says. I realize I am standing with my arms crossed against my bare chest, facing the women. Another sign of lying, it is known, is demanding that one closes a physical gap, some attempt at repairing the broken sacrament, skin touching skin increasing serotonin in the cleft, dopamine. Chemical concealment.
            I sit down between his outstretched legs, laying my head on his body. He works his hands into my shoulders, stained with those small, red bumps, the ones inherited from my mother. People start to stare at us, staring this time not at me in particular, but at the closeness of two men, of male intimacy gone public. What is wrong with me, I want to ask him, why am I this way, why am I so defenseless and broken, why is the world centered on me but in the most denying ways, but the answer to each is clear. “They were laughing at me,” I repeat, “but I trust you.” I attempt to convince myself of this. My hands, working through the sand, catch on something sharp, and my mind turns now to syringes. Long acting injectables are reserved for those who need antipsychotics, but who forget or refuse to take their medication. Creating a localized mass in the body, intramuscular, deep, raw, that gel finds itself implanted and absorbed over time, a month, three months, it depends. My haloperidol decanoate appointment is three months overdue as the foam rolls rhythmically over itself, back and forth, in, out.
            “Amorito, do you want to go swimming?” he asks while patting my shoulders and standing up. The sand, brown and clumpy, falls off his body, returning to the source, hourglass-like in form and function. Some amount of time has passed, but how much is unclear. The women are no longer there, the sun has moved in the sky, the foam coating the edge has changed shape, flatter now. The snaking of time yet again escapes me. “Come on, you’ll love it. To float, become nothing at all. Emptiness in the middle of everything, the center of a wide-reaching circle.”
            The day and my body slip away as I swim, the low waves reaching the shore and the sun receding past the horizon, brown and aching. “Let’s make a fire, Gio,” I say as we pass in breaststroke. “As tall as our house, let’s make a fire hot enough to scorch the dirt and melt down our rings, hot enough to pierce through the sky’s skin.” We approach the waterfront, soaking still, and as if under a trance, time flashes by once more: the wooden platform finds itself built in but a moment, our bodies as ants trickling around the artifice. Soon ablaze, it swells to a diameter wide enough to swallow both our bodies whole, large enough to consume and make into ash my heart.
            And the smell. Gio and I met at an Omaha acreage, a support group for HIV-positive men, with the fire shimmering blue-hot, crackling, the burning sap giving off that almost-sweet smell I recognize in the fire just ahead of me know. He said to me then, “You look nice for a dead man.” We were being torn apart from the inside, but he carried himself with an air of confidence unlike any other, his shirt crinklefree, his back straight. The kind of posturing learned only through the rough obedience of private school, Catholic, or maybe preparatory. “When did you catch this miserable bug?” he asked, and I told him the story of seeking, of catching, seroconversion alone in a dorm as those so-worn sounds of life were extinguished deep into the evening. That night, my eyes ran dry, the blood pounded against the temples, and on every beat, the vision blurred as so many halos, circular yet jagged. “In algebra,” he told me, “the simplest object is a group, and his complicated partner is the ring. There, as here, navigating groups is simple, but when it comes to rings, it all falls apart.” We talked as the night stretched itself into the pale blue of day, going home together, hand in hand, laughing and full.
            “Is everything okay?” he asks me. “You’re losing yourself again.” Now I am staring into the gargantuan fire with my face all wet and my tongue salty, the night sky black, punctuated with so many stars, a weblike structure expanding every which way. I nod, grab a lob to sit on, one outcropping of twigs just barely hanging on to the base, and I start to open my clenched jaws.
            “I have pinworms,” I say. “Enterobius. I haven’t seen any directly, but all of the signs are there: itching in the shadows, insomnia, appendix pain. I have a pinworm infection and I’ve known about it for a year, maybe more. Every month or two I buy all the available pills, but I throw them away. I can’t bring myself to kill them, and even though they’re unseen, there they are. If you listen close enough, you can hear them sucking at the side of the bowl, gurgling and splashing in the water. I am being eaten alive. It’s a bit scary to admit it, but anti-pinworm medication is just like trizivir. These pills just make them lie dormant, waiting for a moment to reinfect, multiply, to take you over again. It does nothing but destroy a few and make the rest stronger, killing you faster in the end.” He looks in my eyes in that Gio sort of way, his head cocked, his eyebrows dug in something deep.
            But this drops away, and suddenly I am thinking about the blades in our medicine cabinet. Feather is considered the most effective brand. They are aggressive, those slabs of stainless steel: the sharpest consumer blade available. They are so strong that every time I run the razor over the back of my head, I nick myself. The scalp has a rich blood network supplied by five thick arteries, three from the external and two from the internal carotids, nourishing the white psoriatic skin and thinning hair, and whenever I make a pass with the handle, these vessels just start to seep. All these cuts accumulate and start to paint the back of my shirts as so-vibrant watercolor. Sometimes, I run my tongue on the stains, to bring them out, to repair the underlying fabric, to return the natural hue. This fails. I find myself vomiting immediately, the metallic taste overwhelming, dull. But the first time I shaved my head at the age of twenty, the age my father was when he, too, first shaved his head, I forgot to do the neck. Gio held my head in the pit of his elbow and said, “You forgot to get it all. Let me do it.” He turned me over and applied clearance-rack shaving gel, my face laying in the divot of the sink, water flowing over and around my body, the follicles softening, open. With one stroke, the entire epidermis sloughed off, and with it the band of skin underneath. Blood gushed out and filled his hands, soupy, hot, spurting and so very thin, quickly hardening into something gelatinous. Thick. Mealy. The steam, or maybe it was the smoke, filled the air, hotboxing the two of us in my own filth, the body spoiling, releasing fumes, toxic and overwhelming. “I am so sorry,” he said over and over. “I never shaved with a razor like this. I wanted to help you.” Contagion spilt. He tightly wrapped my neck in bandages, licking his fingers as he grabbed new spools to contain the damage. Contagion spread.
            “Let’s go home, amorito,” he says as he throws water over the still-raging fire. “You are tired. I can tell you’re not feeling well. Let’s grab our bikes and go.”
            I run ahead of him. “Catch me if you can!” I yell back, my feet slamming against the packed dirt of this great hill, repetitive predictable. It takes all of a minute to get to the bike racks, and I breathlessly unlock them both, waiting for him to arrive.
            His body now comes into view from beyond the crest. “Did you miss me?” he asks, running at me and jumping into the saddle of his bike, pedaling without waiting for a response. I nod anyway, and so off we ride, the red-flashing lights behind us, the white luminescence ahead.
            With the wheels tucked in deep, rutlines snaking past the cedar and oak, I have a hard-on. Spokes clicking. Each tick is some sort of relief, the whirring, wobbling of the metal a kind of assurance. It is a reprieve, the passage of time, calculable by the counting of loops. One’s body as a spring stopper for doors, a generalization of the bikemetal’s murmur. A great cycle. Push and be pushed, brought to climax. And I ride eastward in hope of a life never promised to be mine, in the form of a double-layered stopper, the turgid body with this peculiar outgrowth, cancerous by function if not by form. Truthfully, a life of happiness, fulfillment, was promised to nobody, but especially not a vein-marked boy with a trembling cock growing by nothing but subtle movements of the flesh, of the man biking on my side. Just beyond arm’s reach. Tanned calves and the tapering off of the waist. Evading twigs and leaves with grace. Pouncing.
            We stop after an hour of this, pushing ourselves and the bikes into a clearance not much larger than a house, a grove of trees, ferns, bushes swaying in the wind of so-full night. “Sometimes it feels as though I have died and inhabit a rotting body,” Gio says. “My heart and lungs are filled with formaldehyde and I am dead or dying and the world continues spinning on its axis without me. Arnold Pyle died 47 years ago. I painted him, and my painting is showcased at the Sheldon.”
            The plains are rustling. Native grasses and wildflowers bloom over and beyond the horizon. Purple, I think to myself, illuminated in the moonlight, but I can’t quite remember what they look like in the dappled sun. Withered from drought, probably, this year was as hard as they come, but radiating color anyway. The great expanse unfolds. “I wrote a letter to him before he died. It’s all stored here.” He points to his temple. “The great repository.” A beat. “What are you thinking about?”
            “I’m thinking about what you said,” I say. I take in the view, the air, the way the wind feels as it beats against my sweat-soaked shirt.
            “What do you mean?”
            “What you said, about Pyle, I’m just thinking about it.”
            “I didn’t say anything.” Now with the cocked head, the brows set deep on the face. “Are you okay? Do you need some of my water?” The wind has stolen all the heat from my body, and I start to shiver.
            “No, I’m okay. Just daydreaming. Home.” I point.
            He nods, turns around, and starts to pedal as I follow. The calves stretching and retracting. Constriction. About twenty feet ahead, too far to talk comfortably, but close enough to hear if you listen close. “Sometimes I wonder how long I have been dead,” I hear him say. “How many reunions have been lost to the annals of time, empty or emptying. Struggle in these times. Mythologizing unlike any other.” But this is how we ride, huffing as the Fuji and Canyon dart beneath us, between our stretched bodies.
            As his body runs away from mine, the distinctive wobbling of the bike sends me back. The first time I held a man was the summer I turned eighteen. I rode my bike with a buggy behind me both ways to school, under the same sun along the same path, winding and growing along Salt Creek to the east of downtown Lincoln, marshy and muddy, that he rode to and from work. Silent and meditative, we rode alongside one another until he flagged me down and pulled me into the darkness beneath these great, swaying, cottonwood trees, the popcorn shade to which I am allergic. And with me sniffling and sneezing, he dug his fingers into my collar, pulled it and the belt off until he left my body exposed, wiggling out of his worn clothes, soon connecting together as one. He told me, “You know, I’ve never done something like this, I’m straight.” And while slipping back into my skin I thought, Yes, me too. Once a week we would stop at that enclosure, bathe in the darkness and silence and it was all I imagined it would be. Come and go and cum and go, feeling and being felt, seeing and being seen.
            Yellow light. A mirror reflects a coffee table with a pitcher of water. We are not on our bikes anymore but rather home. “What’s happening with you?” he asks, appearing to my left, our bodies facing one another. A gift only in name, we are sitting between the arms of his father’s old sofa. Torn apart, in shambles, it was destined for the dump. Pictures of us hang on the smoke-faded walls, an image of wholeness. Gio and I smiling in Wien, in Las Vegas, wrapping our arms around one another, merging the bodies, kissing cheeks and giving thumbs up. The frames are old, found in my mother’s attic, the kind given away rather than sold at garage sales. The paint is stripped, the wood is flaking. Whenever I run my fingers over the rough edges, splinters embed themselves in the skin, puncturing the boundary, spilling blood and creating a site of infection. Bacteria, viruses, fungi grow and multiply. It is something wicked, the way they are able to grow without impediment: the clumps of biology traveling throughout the arteries, veins unable to contain them, totally ineffectual, diseased and burgeoning. He puts his soft hands on my knee, one, two, three times, patting and reassuring me, rubbing the oil of his palms deep into my skin, so deep that he replaces my blood’s plasma with his. Chimeric, I am now a parody of myself and Gio, grappling with two destinies at once, all for the price of one. I can feel the DNA shifting, the nucleotides warping whenever he touches me, as though the polysaccharide ladder is being caramelized. I am liquid, overflowing myself.
            And now I am not here, but in the cloudy reaches of memory. The first time I was held by a man was my sophomore year of high school. With the sky burning, he took me out to the country to watch the sun devour itself. “Anh,” my boyfriend said, a Vietnamese term of endearment for men, “you are the light of my life.” The corn waved altogether in unison, as if in anticipation, the way it seems to move just before rain nourishes its so-repulsed roots, knowing. Two boys on the wide-open prairie, I thought, utterly exposed. He took me in his arms, holding me as though I were a child in need of comfort or consolation. “I want to kiss you,” he whispered in my ear. I want you to kiss me, too, I thought. I want you to kiss me and bite my lips, eat my tongue, I want you to suck up the roots that lie beneath the teeth and digest me, I want my throat to be exposed to the sun as you leave me here all alone, I want you to cannibalize me, I want to be made an object made legible only through consumption, I want my identity to peel away and be forgotten, I want the skin to melt away as I am made invisible, I want you to spit in my mouth and build me up as a garbage receptacle, I want to be called a Republican as some kind of revenge against those who hurt you, I want crows to find me and rip me to pieces and I want you to be the proximate cause, to be my first. But instead, a tractor rolled up behind us and we flew off back home, our mouths untouched until we were in my driveway, masked in darkness and the smell of cottonwood, moving quickly to evade detection. “I had a good time,” he said, planting a kiss on my lips, rubbing into my chest and my ass, as I rubbed his hard cock through his jeans. “I had a good time and I want to do this again with you.”
            The yellow comes back into view. I can hardly remember what he said, so I wait a minute to develop a response. Gio’s face is warped in that so-Gio way. “There’s nothing happening,” I conjure up, my chin moving to the left. My senior year of college is upon us and I teach single-variable calculus, the study of change, what lies beneath a line. Boring, machinic, an overreliance on the straightforward applications of arithmetic, the subject is worthless. The subtle tricks of abstraction ignored, falling in favor of a prescriptive regime of power. “I’ve just been stressed about school, work. The semester is almost over and they haven’t learned anything. I am worried about what the future holds, living in a time of pandemic, of loss and disease.”
            “You know that’s not what I’m talking about.” The clock strikes 5:27 and his eyes meet mine. “And we have lived in pandemic our whole lives. What have you been thinking?”
            “I haven’t been thinking of anything,” I offer, my mind wandering elsewhere. The spring I turned fifteen, people started reading my thoughts and putting others in my head. Proof is abundant, everywhere, we are so steeped in it. I’d think of a sequence of numbers, and immediately those around me would perform a series of actions to confirm they got the message: two sneezes, one dropped pencil, a dozen spoken words. They would blush whenever I thought of something risqué. Implantation occurred irregularly, so it was always a surprise, but my mindwriters would make me think about formulas embedded in the faces of clocks. Looking at the façade when it is precisely 12:36 says nothing other than the sum (and even the product) of one, two, and three is six. Six carries a special meaning. Baked into the fabric.
            “I’m exactly as I always have been, just stressed, overwhelmed.”
            Overwhelmed, I think. Last winter, Gio’s skin turned translucent and flaky. The bags under his eyes sunk deep into the sockets, as though there were no bone supporting the muscle, nerves. The veins were bulging against his taut skin, wrapping around the cranium, the fascia of his throat, making his body a sickly quilt of off-whites and purples and blues, more alien than man. His tan had receded, replaced with ghostsheet. After a few days of this, I asked him what was wrong. That Gio stare, before he relented. “My mother called about a week ago,” he said. “I told her about you and the rings,” he could not bring himself to say engagement, “and she blocked my number. I am disgusted with myself. After all of my schooling and training, after all this promise, I live with a man in a small house at the center of a conservative Nebraskan town where we get stared at, and since I was deathfucked as a teen, my own cells kill themselves because of some rogue and treatment-resistant recombinant dual strain hiding in the brain, destroying any hope I had of being a thinker, of ruminating on the questions lying in the intersections of math and love, or of having a life worth living. The future has been taken from me, and now my past is out of reach, too. Nothing of worth has ever existed or remains here.” He pointed down, bursting into tears. “Nothing here.” I took him in my arms and rubbed his back. I wanted to tell him, No, you have nothing to be disgusted with, or no, our house is big enough for both of us, and when you get cold and want your distance, it’s big enough for you to sulk silently and out of view, or no, this disease does so many despicable things, it makes us weak and nauseous and vulnerable and makes the body falter, but one thing it does not do is empty you of value, or no, the virus may lie dormant in the brain but it does not disrupt yours, yours is too full to ever be emptied. But instead, I said, “I am so sorry, my heart. I am so sorry. I am so sorry,” as he filled my shirt with tears and snot.
            “Things are not okay with you,” he says. He stands up to turn the radio on low, NPR or some other talk station about the upcoming election. There is something afoot, the broadcaster says, and this is deeply unnatural behavior, never before seen. “I’m worried you’re falling again. Every time this happens, it takes something deep and intractable for you to get help again. It’s an impossible ask, like asking a kid to be introspective, curious.”
            “Unplug the radio,” I say. (My speech has been slurred since infancy, tripping over itself, fluid and meandering, the letters melting into one another, r’s finding themselves misplaced, appearing from nowhere. On our first official date, Gio asked me to repeat every sentence. “It’s kind of cute,” he said when we got back home. “The slurring, I mean. Unable to find stability, language itself becomes incoherent. Most gays have a strong command of language because they’ve got to, sibilance maybe being the exception. But slurring is something faithful. Like the muscles in the mouth and throat have been displaced, altogether too human. A great regret of mine has always been my decision to repair my speech in elementary school. I was forced to go, but I could have resisted, I could have kept the malleability of the letter beneath the teeth, along the tongue, intact.”) “Please just unplug it.”
            “Why?” he asks. “There’s nothing wrong with the radio. Just background noise while we talk.”
            “They’re listening in,” I say. “There’s nothing benign about it. The transmitter behind the dial. It sends and it receives, both at once, constructed with enough bandwidth to allow information to be sent back, forth, a single beam of particles but sending, receiving, all at the same time. Radio as a double-stranded helix, moving through space, time. When radio was first invented, Marconi allowed for it. It’s built-in to the science, the frequencies.”
            “They’re not listening in.” His chin twitches.


            I am in the bedroom now. There is no light peering in from behind the curtains, so it is unclear how much time has passed. I move to light the woodwick candles, the kind that crack with force as they burn away, as the headlights of some small car flash by.
            I remember now the taste of being exposed in the backseat of a green sedan, windows all fogged up in the eleventh grade, being held by my friend until we both got hard and touched one another, soft and supple and, all at the same time, turgid, a man coming around on a bike, shining a light in the tinted windows, underwear and belts all loose in the cabin, the buttons of dress shirts bulging, so very exposed in the white, white light, jumping back to the front seats and speeding off, being chased and chased until we lost him, stopping for a moment, laughing until our bellies and groins ached, and, resuming where we left off, he ripped the fat from my sides and made me into something new, unrecognizable and full.
            Gio is standing at the door with his head titled. “Follow me,” I say, and time slips away once more.


            Today is the day of reckoning. Soon his body lies narrow between the outer reaches of mine, between the downward-facing palms, as sweat fills the air, an ocean thousands of miles from any seaboard, salt permeating through the skin, accumulating in the liver, kidneys, deposits forming crystals whose only purpose is to break off into the blood, passing through the urethra as daggers. The first nude photograph I bought was when I was seventeen, one of James Bidgood’s. It swung on the inside of my handle-less closet, visible only to me, able to be viewed only through the destruction of another handle, the repurposing of the old crystal knobs found in drawers throughout the house, in pursuit of something more. Sat in front of a circle of mirrors, Bidgood’s model has his pants infiltrating the corpus, pulled tight, the interior reflected in and made coherent by the exterior. A thousand lonely nights were spent with the two of us staring into the eyes of the other. 
            Gio is now of the turned guys and has a gaping hole in his chest and from it leaks the fluid that makes up the night sky, black ink, sweet and high and warm: dark, rotten, fragmented blood, torn by sunlight and heat and the art of holding someone close, piled up, and it is awful, the blood, low and thick and grainy, running out of this poor boy’s chest in a continuous stream in thick, ragged clots, ones with bits of hair and teeth and the nails he bit and swallowed over the years, some painted, pastel and smooth, running on and on, and when I penetrate the skin to best enter that abyss, pools of light congeal and run down the horizon, blotting out the fire-warmed blackness behind, the remaining ribs creaking as he breathes in and out, trickling starlight, falling around burst arteries and through cracks in bones, until the boiling and frozen and black and dead blood mixes with my purity, and I take my hand, pull the skin taut and the jaws open, reaching in to grab a memory of the two of us, and douse myself in the newly-refined gasoline, flammable and warm with the smell of sepia, of being kissed on the cheek at a middle school dance, thinking to myself, what will history say of this, a turned guy getting stoma-fucked while he rots and falls apart at the seams, the perineal raphe of this walking corpse disintegrating and leaving exposed stones to twist and starve themselves, what will history say of the self-immolation of the healthy one, burning it all to feel warm and to feel frozen and to feel rotten tissue rubbing against cold and living flesh, and I stop thinking, continue to envelop myself in melted tourmaline until history slips away, the vastness and the density of it all splattered across my chest, softening the peach-light hair, the two of us trading commodities at a loss, secrets on how best to hold a man, how to make love with tears in your eyes, how to ignore the way that your body is falling apart and the way it resists crumbling, and soon the two of us have our chests held against one another, life and death imparted between the two of us, the infection and the cure, one a chariot and one a jockey of this electric thing, watching the scent of necrosis and renaissance fog up our thick-brimmed and square-framed glasses, and I feel my outer layer of skin start to slough away, tasting the possibility of recovery-as-loss, or is it loss-as-recovery, until the buds fall off as bubble wrap, so many pockets of air and saliva cracking apart the muscle as the water-starved air presses it, warps it, transforming the flesh quickly to dust and then nothing, washed away, the black blood and radiant light quickly moving by osmosis, eliminating movement and the cut-across, seeping into the bones of the living, breaking and folding and cracking them, sucking the marrow out and replacing it with the warmth and allure of becoming phantasma, bloody and shredded apart and broken and mended and whole all at once, blood and vomit and an ocean spread out in all directions, a spectacle draped in black on a great circle around the body, a spectacle contained in the body, which serves no greater purpose than as a site of trauma, and it all slips away. I run my arm over his side of the bed, feeling air and air alone.

Lexus Root is a poet and scholar of queer studies living in Lincoln, Nebraska.





Content warning: unsanitary, eugenic ableism, gore, ableist & anti-sex worker slurs reclaimed

we do not grant you title here

after htmlFlowers // grant jonathon‬

abhorrence of
violated future-lost revileds
dripping prophets of abled demise 
carriers of glib disease 
whoring our bodies to medicine while we
gutter roll the streets on our backs
begging violence from an emptied moon
that loves us through her fever
a buried ocean
that has forgotten how to sing her emptied wife through
birthing bloody fecal prayers
your funerals after endless apocalyptic hemorrhaging
the beetles and maggots consuming what you called you after 
funerals have gone out of style and we all
rot in the remnants of streets
gutted and fetid
fish caught and sliced and
when oil slicks slip from our sclera
vicious snapping commodities devoid of capitalist gain
commodifying our snarling survival until we take you     into
our writhing underbelly    into
our oozing cunts     into
our hovels built of bone and gristle
intestine colon viscera festering under the sink piled     into 
your throat
all you hoard putrefying
all you press distant creeping close—
pink insulation sticky with nineteen thirty-nine consensual homicides in your attic
drywall peeling parting from grey sludge hidden between 
your world and what you
have graciously granted us
while we
overstay our unwelcome beneath your heavy feet
plastic doll heads filled with molding toothpaste
corvid skulls unearthed still gripped in tangling milkweed roots
algae growing 'round the edges of your eyes nostrils aorta vertebral foramen
well , come 
into this unsprung mattress
 , empty handed con man ,
if your answer sates our shrivelled cripple gut—
what offal bring you
 ,  to please our whoring hearts ?

q is shown on a gray background, from the upper arms up, in a grayscale image. q has pale skin, and hair of lightcolor, slightly longer than shoulder length, and shaved short at the side. q's hair is held forward in curls to cover the right side of the face; q looks up and to the right. q wears a dark ribbed knit v-neck sweater, and the black strap of a top is visible at the neck.

q is a white queercrip dykefag artist, sex worker, and death doula, primarily living, working, creating, and dying on the land of the Ts’elxwéyeqw tribe of the Stó:lō nation. A formerly-homeless high school-dropout, its workshops and writing are grown from joy and spite found in Mad queer disabled and ill community.




Tilde Acuña


Tilde Acuña teaches at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature – University of the Philippines, where he completed an M.A. Philippine Studies thesis about komiks as a symbolic act in Philippine society. His visuals have been published in Kritika Kultura, Tomás: Literary Journal of the Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, UP Forum, Bulatlat, Pingkian, among others. He is the author of Oroboro at Iba Pang Abiso [Oroboro and other Notices] (University of the Philippines Press, 2020), illustrator of Marlon Hacla’s book-length poem Melismas (Oomph Press, 2020), and co-editor of the anthology, Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines (Gaudy Boy, 2021). “Dharmachine Delusions” previously appeared in Plague 2 (2012), edited by Fidelis Tan.




Richard Calayeg Cornelio


Right until the Year of the Flood, we lived in a hundred-year-old house in the city center, a dusky affair with high, vaulted ceilings and walls made of real pine wood; eight drafty rooms upstairs that dripped history as it dropped slates; a grand staircase flanked by wooden balustrades and with dry, worn steps that still managed to hold out for years only because we had the fiddly science of shifting our weights down pat; and, my favorite part of the house, a spacious rooftop that looked out to the whole neighborhood, where I sneaked off to most afternoons dreaming of marrying our next-door neighbor, Mr. Isaac, till I wept in a fury of tears and defeat and everything turned carnation, mauve, pearl amethyst with the inexorable dusk.

The turn of the millennium was almost here, and doggedly I took stock of the years before I turned eighteen and worried day and night that the world would end before my love even realized he was madly, foolishly, rabidly, infinitely in love with me. I was sixteen and saw love as one would a hidden treasure buried deep in the seafloor, but I made no efforts at all at dredging up the treasure and fancied myself a princess to whom troves and bullions and king’s ransoms came simply of their own accord. 

Mr. Isaac was a tall, hollowly thin man who looked like he’d whittled away pounds in the name of scholarship, which was probably true, for he taught at the state university, was revered and liked by many, except perhaps when he wore his favorite green parka with a green beret, green pants, green pullover, and thankfully brown shoes—and, really, it was all you could do not to think of puke and not to torch to shreds all the sickeningly green stuff in his wardrobe. He’d only recently moved in from the States and I could distinctly recall the day he first stepped on the neighborhood, partly because it was a foggy night then and from out of the wafting whiteness he emerged, like an angel sent from heaven, and waved hello to me when he caught me peering down at him from the rooftop. But of course, I remembered it for in those days we were made to believe that ghosts roamed the streets at night to steal strong-willed little girls away, and I hadn’t known until then that ghosts had outrageously awful fashion sense.    

My brother Jaypee liked to joke about and make a meal of my calf love every chance he got. Five years my junior, he was just being quite the airhead, nudging or poking me so violently at the side I almost fell off the curb when we passed by Mr. Isaac’s, a turn-of-the century monstrosity, a door up the street from us, on the way home from school in the afternoons. If it was my lucky day, Mr. Isaac would be there in a wicker armchair on his screened porch, on his lap a heavy hardbound book, horn-rimmed glasses slipping a fraction down his nose. He squinted terribly, and Jaypee was forever and a day wagering our babies would for sure come out so squint-eyed, just like the father, that they couldn’t tell a two from one, and sooner or later I’d need a pair of glasses, too. The clown would double over with laughter, his eyes lighting up and crinkling till they looked like slits on his face, and my heart would crawl pounding out of my throat as Mr. Isaac looked up in wonder, saw us kids walking by and wished us a good afternoon. My gut turned so watery I thought I’d swoon.

A couple of times Jaypee wrestled off his clown shoes and, in some old fit of sobriety, asked me however I fell in love with a man probably half as old as Father. And so I told my brother about that one time I was on my nighttime walk, having stolen out of the house while Mother and Father plodded through the hills and valleys of slumber, the row of streetlights throwing down my shadow on the asphalt, turning everything the color of foil. Why I felt lonely then, I didn’t now know, and the tears I remembered but didn’t know what for. I walked, then trotted, then ran across five blocks as the wind whipped against my face and wafted dry the tears spilling down my cheeks like runnels. I ran and, before I knew it, Brownie, the neighborhood dachshund, was drooling close on my heels, so I ran, ran for dear life, and who should I run slap into but Mr. Isaac of the horn-rimmed glasses, in a green dashiki upon whose misplaced patch pocket I cried, cried, wouldn’t stop for all the world.

He walked me home under a cluster of stars peeking through a cloud-curtained, velvet sky. We heard the distant toll of church bells striking the witching hour of ghosts and night wanderers, of lovers and dreamers. Dead leaves littered the sidewalk. We walked in silence and gazed into the few houses still lit, paper lanterns flickering in the dead of the night. At a street corner was a flame tree low enough for us, Jaypee and I, to swing on its branches till they snapped, back when we were kids and goosey, and whose crusted bark we’d peeled off with penknives or forks in the dopey hope of making a pasty aspartame. Now it was strung aglitter with capiz lamps, like moths of paper spun from fire. And through the leaves I saw Mrs. Espino in a lonely corner of her parlor reading by the measly light of a gooseneck lamp, hunched over a magazine like a question mark. Upon the dusted mantelpiece was perched the framed photo of her husband, who had a year ago headed for the hills.

Why? asked Mr. Isaac, and I told him how the Espinos had let in a couple of outsiders and fed them for well over nine months, before the Lopezes from across them found out and informed the constabulary on them. Then the two of us walked on alone with our thoughts, passing Bermuda lawns and dark porches. The moon-silvered path gave way to a rustling carpet of fallen leaves under the dappled shade of a sprawling weeping willow. Finally, he broke the silence and told me of some faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to choose who they wished to rule them, free to live, free to love—and it was all too good to be true, like walking into an enchanted land of glittering trees and gold-paved paths and irresistible cherubs giggling behind billowy white clouds. 

There was in the air the strong scent of calachuchi. I liked to imagine that he stopped in his tracks and broke off a stem of the flower to loop behind my ear, under a tracery of bowery boughs that made for a cathedral and the moon that made for a chandelier. But the clouds had blotted out the moon, our steps growing fretful and wearied, and we just walked on in comfortable silence. I’d walked this street many times, knew by heart where the sewer grating was, into which I’d dropped in my haste and frivolous inattention perhaps a hundred-peso coins, now sludge-caked, lost forever. I knew the old, old man, though not by name, who owned the only brownstone in our village, and yet spent nights slumped by the post that held our street sign, hissing and muttering and wheezing. I knew the lady with a bottom half heavier than the top, who, every night she took her rust-colored mutt out for a jaunt round the block, seemed to glide instead of walk. I knew she talked to the dog during these walks, but I doubted it had the willing ears to share her sorrows. I knew the Mendozas sent their son not to a boarding school abroad, and that the Abads never liked long hair but wanted to save on monthly haircuts, and that the Villanuevas weren’t agnostics at all but simply disdained giving oblations to the church. And I knew that in a heartbeat I’d hear not the trees rustling against the wind, nor the soft swish of my jammies, nor the rise and fall of his breathing beside me, but rather the persistent thuds my heart perched in my throat making, threatening to plunge out and spill over.

And that was how I knew, with the certainty of all prophets, that I’d already lost my heart.

Every hush between a breath and the beginning of the next was infinite, full of possibilities, and I treasured each as we shuffled our way to our front yard. I found it incredible that only forty-five minutes had passed since I’d rammed into him, for it seemed to me forever. The night breeze hit my bare, thin arms and I felt like hugging him, as if he were a post and I might be blown away. I walked up our front steps, thanked him, meekly, wished him a good night, and we both retreated into the shadows with the knowledge that tonight was all the beginning of everything and nothing.


Hours of summertime found me up on my rooftop, surrounded by books I’d checked out from the library, and there I looked over at my old schoolyard and whispered farewell heard only by oblivious gods. I wanted to leave the featherbedded life I had in the village, to explore the city beyond green lawns and ballparks, and this longing I felt as I leaned over the railings ringing the roof and wanted more than anything to grow wings, fling myself down, and sweep scythe-like through the clouds, like an eagle testing its halters and pinions for the first time. But I didn’t need to wait long, for in a month I was boarding the train, zipping through the city to get to a university far away from home.

In the meantime, my mother, as you’d expect of a woman who puttered bristling with mops and brooms around the house, subjected me to endless lessons of embroidery, laundering, cooking. Now, Mother was the perfect mother—never would you light upon a breadcrumb on the lacquered table, a spot in the kitchen, a stubborn stain on the tablecloth, a coffee ring on the broadloom rugs, a mismatched button in my Sunday dresses, a fallen eyelash on her perpetually floury face or a twig stuck in her shiny bouffant hair. One time, upon seeing the row of drawings tacked on my bedroom wall, she told me it would be really better next time if I colored inside the lines, but I never yielded and she was almost close to tears when she saw my next batch of sketches, ghastlier than the first, with the Cray-Pas straddling defiantly the penciled lines. All the time Mother was nearly apoplectic.

Ah, I was a lost cause. Several times, I almost sewed my finger into the embroidery hoop I was sticking my needle in and out of, and another time I burned my right wrist against a scorching skillet and doltishly dropped the pot cover which shielded me against the sizzling slobber of the milkfish I was frying. I sang so off-key, thunderclouds brooded over the neighborhood and might spark lightning at any moment. I danced like a cockroach shimmying to some epileptic beat. I sat harum-scarum, scratched my thighs repeatedly, for my petticoat was itchy and miserable to move around in. My hair was a hornet’s nest, and so many sucking lice spawned eggs in it that Mother nearly singed it all off in frustration. It came to a point where I feared Mother had asthma, for every time I picked up a needle or yarn, I could hear her breathing heavily through her nose, muttering prayers.

How can Mr. Isaac love you, taunted Jaypee, when you can’t even do a simple hemstitch? But in those sweltering days Mr. Isaac hardly crossed my mind. Our high school valedictorian had confessed his love for me, and for weeks I delighted in baking dry, bricklike coffee rolls he’d dumbly scarf down, blue in the face, and in bossing him around. Rogel was stocky and sprang up and down on the balls of his feet when walking to keep up with me, for I was at least six inches taller and had legs miles long. Yet, to his dismay, I never slouched around just so he’d feel tall. Together, we strolled around like mother and son in the afternoons, during which time I had to listen to his incoherent litanies about how siphons worked, about air pressure and law of conservation of energy and gravity governing the rise and fall of bodies. But it was summer and all around me were chain-link fences; how I wanted to break through them all. During his stump speech one late afternoon I cut in on him and talked about a faraway place where people were free to leave the city, free to explore the world outside, and all the while Rogel, mouth agape, looked at me as if for the first time.

That was how things ended between us, and if it was my reward for tormenting him then there was something to say for sin after all. I’d considered talking to Father about boys, but quickly dismissed the idea as he was in over his head already about the rumored recent trespass of outsiders, who had left behind a human flotsam of sleeping bags and broadsheet pages they must have slept under, in front of the church. People promptly went to the pound and took home pit bulls, frothing at the mouth, ready to pounce on and maul to death the unsuspecting outsiders, if it came to that.

There was also the smell that had been bothering the entire neighborhood. We’d suspected it issued from the Dizons’ kitchen, where every Friday they cooked daing and tuyo, but who smugly denied such a thing and insisted it was some exotic species of red salmon from the Mediterranean. The oppressive stench hung like a thick, stale fog in the air. It got into everything, into our clothes and our hair, as if it were just wagging its tail right under our nose. When the wind picked up, the air seemed to drift with its tendrils reaching into every window and clinging to the drapes and couches and jumping right in the shower with you. It was too much, and one day my mother came up with one of the prize statements of hers, which made you want to either throw yourself in front of an oncoming train or flush your head down the toilet. This is the smell of our sins, she declared, and suddenly I felt guilty to death, and on my knees prayed three Hail Mary’s to atone for my sins.

Five airplanes swooped dangerously low over us, one morning. They rained upon us drops of lavender-smelling water that lasted for quite a while. The long-parched earth breathed lavender, and we went about the village smiling and sniffing like crazy dogs. It was on one of these afternoons that I caught sight of one encyclopedia I’d long ago forgotten I owned, its dog-eared pages peeking through the latticework to our crawl space. Jaypee, when I told him this, let me in on his discovery of a knothole in the mango tree in our backyard. It contained, among other things, rolls of thread and a plump pumpkin pincushion which, I recalled, miraculously disappeared in my sewing box. I knew Jaypee had already put two and two together, for though he was plain silly most of the time, he was still my little clever brother who once made a hair-dryer out of a mixing bowl and a smoothing iron, never mind it had burned my scalp for one minute and nearly electrocuted the living daylights out of me.

It remained our secret. A look passed between Jaypee and me over dinner when my mother complained of missing tomatoes and even kaning baboy, and the three gold-rimmed plates exported from Germany just a year before, that unexpectedly she’d found near the garbage pail out back. We’d decided, too, not to let whoever was sheltering in our crawl space know that we knew. Dolorously, I’d go to school every morning and in the shadows of my mother’s shrubbery I could almost believe there were eyes regarding me, stealthily, and I let them. Classes had started out pretty grim anyway, and even inside the classroom my mind would float far out beyond the eight-hundred-foot walls hemming us in and wonder what about outside that made some people there encroach on our city. My professors were beldams who scowled down at us with the kind of murderous frowns that could freeze to death a flock of birds mid-flight, and always one of them, Mrs. Prieto of dressmaking thrice a week, would catch me mooning around and shower upon me the wrath of gods. Sighing, I’d run up away with my fancy sequins and balls of yarn and tambours, needles gleaming silvery in the sun.

The state university was far from what I’d imagined. The libraries, worse than our village’s, only allowed girls in if they were given an instructor’s permit. It had been almost two months into the semester before I mastered at last Mrs. De Castro’s signature, which resembled less a humanly scrawl and more a doodle of a three-year-old rabbit if it were taught writing. But there, in between shelves and shelves of books, I never read up on whipstitching or how to make truffles or bonbons. Endlessly, I read about the rise and decline of nations, structures of power and systems of oppression, till my head felt so full and overripe it might snap from my neck any second. I was dizzy with facts. At dinner I’d try to conceal the blush creeping up my cheeks, the twinkle in my eyes, by tucking in my shoulders and feigning boredom. But Jaypee knew me so well, and would say, in a slightly amused tone, Look at Theresa, Mama, Papa! She looks like she’s finally kissed Mr. Isaac! 

And yet Jaypee’s words wouldn’t be true until the last week of the semester, when, as a sub, Prof. Isaac supervised the freshmen’s field trip somewhere outside the city, as was school tradition.

By this time I was almost seventeen and had gotten over my infatuation with our next-door neighbor. I passed him in the hallways and felt not a single flutter of butterflies in the knots of my gut. He was still the tall, hollowly thin man I’d first fell in love with, the man who loved the color green and wore horn-rimmed glasses. I remembered nights up on my rooftop fantasizing scenarios with which our walk that one cold night outside, me in my nightshirt and pajamas, he in a dashiki and faded cutoffs, could’ve ended differently. I’d conjured moments from that encounter to a place he told me about, some faraway, perhaps otherworldly land of glittering trees and people blissfully basking in freedom. And these thoughts whirled in my head on our field trip, as the bus shuddered, hurtled forward, into an unnerving tunnel-like darkness, then into a glare of light, out of the city.

Outside was the city in a shambles. Out the bus windows, we saw men and women walking around on the street—dejectedly. It was a blur of charred buildings and pitched collapsible shelters, belly-down splay of topless men and children in sewage lakes. At some corner the shuttle dislodged us, and so hesitantly we stepped off onto the rutted street. Mr. Isaac took the lead. There was the reek we knew all too well that now assailed our noses, coming from everywhere. We walked a long time. We watched kids no taller than my waist carry to and fro buckets of water and scurry after cigarette packets tossed on the sidewalks, which abruptly fell off to give way to filth and mucky pools of greywater. I glanced that way, saw five naked children, dongs dangling and fannies flashing, bickering over a can of water from a sawn-off drum, others screaming and running freely after skeletal dogs through treacherous alleys and winding side streets. And when I glanced this way, I saw houses stacked upon one another, cobbled together with tarpaulins, canvas, corrugated tin, wood, rusting iron, jutting out, caving in, pitching to the left, toppling over to the right. Under a scraggly tree, a frail, old woman was peddling to us her banana cues and turon swarmed by buzzing flies, in a feeble, world-weary voice. Grinning shrimpy kids followed us down the rocky streets. We walked along shanties and saw yet more garbage strewn around, and I felt sick to my stomach. All along the way curious faces peered around doors, through broken holes of windows, wanting.

Many of us, in our pristine dresses and polished shoes, slumped over a gutter and retched. A group of women in flimsy dusters scowled at us, for down the road flowed a rivulet of our vomit, reminders of what sumptuous meals we’d had for lunch, mixing with the white soap suds of their laundry, with piss and mud. We were crying. We were guilty. I craned my neck up, wished I hadn’t. Overshadowing the street was a mountain of trash frantic with rats. Pickers smeared their elbows and knees climbing the slope with crooked two-foot poles, indifferent to the stench cloud crowning the summit. A child squatting on the edge of a cliff, a sheer drop from death, wasn’t about to jump off but was only defecating for all the world to see. Grimacing, he wagged his flyspeck prick at us.

The smoky mountains sprawled like a slumbering giant all around, as though walling away the city’s high concrete borders. Through the crack between the mountains ran a river the color of carbon black. A trio of girls dressed in filthy ragged clothes combed the water’s surface with their fingers. One of them picked up a rock under the meagre palm fronds, skimmed it in an arc across the river.

Beside me, my classmate, a girl who coiffured her long, silky hair for six hours, was nibbling the ends of her braid as if to muffle her cry. I looked over at Mr. Isaac who stood a little apart from us, his face contorted with what I guessed was sadness. A girl trudged by, heavy jute-sack bag slung over her shoulder, barefoot, the scabs on her knees sucked on by flies and malarial mosquitoes. We walked on in muted horror, over potholes and dried, crumbled dog turds, past hummocks of refuse, blood-stained tampons, broken whiskey bottles, balled-up soiled clothes, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by some typhoon, papers, stinking leftover meals and excesses, sailing crazily along the gutter.

And then it was over. We filed into the bus, shaken. We were too weak to speak, let alone move in our pillow-ticking seats. Relieved, we breathed in the stuffy, frigid air inside. We groaned when the bus made as if it were stuck in the muddy road, but a heartbeat later it hissed and moved forward. I looked out the window and saw a woman pocked with ghastly open sores, her eyes glued shut by dirt, by pus, in her arms a baby, who seemed dead but for the jerk of its arms, reaching out. I reached up as if to clutch the air. Then I turned away, closing my eyes with an almost physical pain.

But I had no sooner made forty winks than I bolted awake at a tentative tap on my arm. In front of me, bent on his knee, was Mr. Isaac. All around us were empty seats, and out the window I saw the familiar tree-lined avenue of the campus grounds. Somehow the sun had slinked off onto the horizon, behind treetops, and I had in my sleep kicked off my shoes, now nowhere to be found.   

It wasn’t the first time I walked shivering and barefoot on asphalt in the deepening twilight, but it was the first time I did so with someone beside me. Mr. Isaac and I, we passed under a row of streetlights, our shadows gamboling on behind us. How old do you think are these trees? his voice interrupted my thoughts. They’ve been here forever, I said, older than we are. In the cool linger of the night they took on a deathless look and I knew at once they’d be here, their roots firmly planted in the soil, long after I’d kicked the bucket and been fodder for creepy-crawlies that would pamper the earth for another rambling copse of trees and wilderness. Overhead was a thick canopy of leaves formed by branches twining themselves together as if for comfort, and I looked down at the intricate curlicue shadows they impressed on the asphalt, like tea leaves boding a future both unmapped and untrammeled. I told him this. But they don’t matter, he said, his eyes sparkling, because shadows occupy space but don’t have mass. I smiled at his lame attempt at humor.

Why? I asked, and he and I both knew what I was pertaining to. 

I want you to know what’s out there.

What for?

So you’ll know at whose expense you’re enjoying all your privileges now. All your freedom.

But I’m not happy. I’m not free. Far from it.

We’re all born unhappy.

We were hosting outsiders under our house, did you know?


Yes, they’re a family of three. I saw the child one night. She was six, seven, I don’t know. I saw her bent over a book I’d dumped many months ago. She was crying for some reason, and so I walked up to her and threw my arms around her. In a minute we were both crying like crazy. We only broke apart when we heard someone cough behind us. It was the mother, I think. I ran into the house. The next morning, I peered into our crawl space and saw nobody. Like they were never even real.


His breath rasped the wind and bit off the end of my name. I felt cold. I rubbed my palms together and pressed them to my cheeks. I walked ahead of him and saw by the rusty gate swinging crookedly on squeaky hinges a trash can knocked over. Trash, I thought, it’s following me around. The plastic bag inside was split open, unravelling crumpled papers, cigarette butts, plastic pull tabs, used coffee cups that bled shamelessly onto the sidewalk. The dented lid was thrown halfway across the grass, and I was about to pick it up when from behind me Mr. Isaac gripped my arm, wheeled me around and kissed me lightly on the lips. I could feel my heart had leapt to my throat, because everything was just all too perfect in such an imperfect world. I pressed my hand on his face and it came away wet. Sobbing, he took my hand, and kissed it to his lips, held on to it for a long moment.


Early in the evening of the day the walls were toppled, our neighborhood became a great blue void, dotted by arms flailing and heads breaking through the surface like ants swimming in a child’s glass of water. The pillar-like trees were swept by so fast that they came off the earth in a tangle of roots and branches. We’d scaled the slope of my roof and stood on its beaten shingles surveying what remained of the city. Houses were crashed in the rage of water as black as the sky, which for months had emptied on us a deluge so unappeasable in its fury, to drown the guilty and innocent alike. As if they were only a pyramid of cards, or houses made out of matchsticks, buildings and telephone lines detached from the ground with a sound I’d never forget—Krr-r-ssh—until they tipped and sprawled defeated under the filthy surf. We saw all manner of things afloat in the water: splinters of wood, pieces of plastic, felled trees, rafters, roofs of houses, dead bodies, my brother —and, really, among the remnants of our vanquished lives, how could we differentiate at all what was trash and was not?

It was only four nights later when we saw the moon peek through the sky, dim at first, then bright and clear, full of promise. It smiled at me and there was a feeling of peace in the air. I leaned over the battered railings of my rooftop, in my sundress drenched, and felt the air heave the smell in from the water below. It seemed only a minute ago that I dreamed to grow wings and soar afloat in the sky, but now the black naked sea beneath looked inviting. One single step towards the void, one single step to cease all the desires that attended living. I saw my body below. I held my breath. 

Richard Calayeg Cornelio majored in materials engineering and is working on his master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His research interests include social movements, the political economy of development, authoritarianism and democratization, and political ecology. His essays and stories have appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, Kritika Kultura, Philippine Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. He has won the Palanca Award and the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Literary Contest several times. He writes news and features for the Philippine Collegian.