Natassja Traylor

A Field Guide to Common Edible Plants


Species: Chamaemelum nobile

Family: Compositae

Habitat and Distribution: Species of Chamomile are native to Europe, North Africa, and temperate regions of Asia. For centuries women have cultivated it in gardens around the world, and for as long as you can remember it’s grown in your mother’s garden in the Pacific Northwest. The soil content is mostly clay, rock, and compost, and you will notice the patch of yellow flowers sprouting on the side of your childhood house every summer.

Description: The chamomile plant grows up to 9 inches tall and is composed of lanky green stems that branch out to form a small bush. Chamomile spreads quickly. The seeds sprout slowly in early spring, then shoot up fast, just like you grew before the other sixth graders in the first year of middle school, like your mom bought a bra to hide your new breasts, making it quite a noticeable plant, a centerpiece to the early harvest.

Preparation and Uses: Chamomile is commonly used in tea for its calming effects. For example, at eating disorder clinics in the waiting room on tables with pamphlets that say “You and Your Body” and a canister of hot water, white paper cups. Chamomile is also used as an aid for anxiety and insomnia. Clinical studies show that ingestion contributes to a feeling of well-being, and during the week of your lowest weight you will sleep 4 of 7 nights and clutch a cup of chamomile tea. Recommended dosage is 2 teaspoons of dried herb infused with boiling water for 5-10 minutes, steep to taste. Chamomile should be harvested between late spring to late summer, before the rain makes the flowers too wet.

Red Clover

Species: Trifolium pratense

Family: Papilionaceae

Habitat and Distribution: Many species of Clover grow in varied habitats throughout the West, and you will find a patch of them near a cedar grove when coming off psilocybin in college. The purple flowers will be soft in your fingertips. You will pick a handful of sprigs and declare that you will never buy food at a store again, at least not in the summer when edible plants can be picked for free. It is important to note there won’t be food money anyway. The clover grows in unlikely places: parking lots, grassy hills, the corner store, and alleyways. Clover is common and its growing season lasts from early spring till first frost.

Description: Clover leaf is herbaceous with palmate leaves, divided into 3 leaflets with flowers of white, yellow, pink, and purple. It is common to walk through a patch from the parking lot to the outpatient building. You will often feel tension and guilt on this walk; you and your mother will before the appointment. It is normal to note “3 clover flowers” in the food diary your therapist makes you keep, and to close buds in your palm when you walk to the little hot room to wait.

Preparation and Uses: Can be eaten raw. It is possible to smoosh multiple flower buds into your mouth at the same time and chew on the sweet petals, to believe you’ll never again eat pumpkin pie or fried rice. The high protein content of clover is best digested when boiled or soaked in salt water, and a large volume of clover can be consumed after either of these processes to get the most nutrition. It is recommended to gather a handful for your pocket to eat on the walk home.

You can expect to spend time picking tiny petals from the gaps in your teeth.


Species: Mentha piperita

Family: Labiatae

Habitat and Distribution: Mint species are native to Europe, however species are cultivated in all regions of the world for its medicinal value. As an inhalant, peppermint oil stimulates the brain in moments of lethargy, for example when nodding off in class from low blood sugar. Mint is highly distributed throughout North America and prefers to grow in wet ground, though is hardy and will flourish in many climates. At every place you will ever live, wild mint will grow in abundance. You will look forward to the process of clipping the herbs and hanging bundles upside down from a string laced between the kitchen cabinets.

Description: Herbaceous perennial with opposite, oval leaves. Deep green. From July through September it bears violet flowers, flowers you won’t really remember after the harvest because they’re small and unimpressive, in and out so fast. Your boyfriend will remind you of them in passing. You wanted to be small and unimpressive once. The peppermint leaves emit a strong scent, one you will inhale every summer when you squat in the dirt in old shorts to pull weeds away from the bushes.

Preparation and Uses: Can be made into a concentrated oil, which you will rub into your temples and waft under your nose daily. Peppermint extracts are used as flavoring agents, medicine, and perfume. After three nights on amphetamines, writing, no sleep, it is recommended you step on the scale. These half-awake multi-day experiences are crucial. Steep fresh leaves or a heaping teaspoon of dried herb in boiling water for 10 minutes for the best results. You will feel as though your toes hover just above the tile floor. You will experience a feeling of transcendence. Sudden energy. Step on the scale a second time to account for an inaccurate first reading. If your hair is wet, slump it over the towel rack, head bowed, so the weight of water is removed from the total weight. Peppermint also helps nausea; it will come on in waves. Sip peppermint tea until the symptoms are relieved.

Wild Blackberry

Species: Rubus

Family: Rosaceae

Habitat and Distribution: You encounter them when jogging through the woods, along school fences, the water’s edge. You will get deep scratches on your legs from blackberry brambles when you jog through the arboretum at night and get dizzy. Blackberry is found in mountainous regions and all throughout the West. It thrives in high altitudes. By the time wild blackberry is in season in early August you won’t have brought new food into your apartment for at least a month, maybe more. Time will slip away. Expect a daily ritual of gathering breakfast in your purple-stained palms and blowing the little green worms off before eating them where you stand.

Description: Blackberry consists of a tall, thorned cane with palmate-compound leaves. The 5-petal flowers are radially symmetrical, white. The blackberry sends shoots underground that sprout up around the original, creating a large bush, often invading whole areas, twisted and impenetrable.

Preparation and Uses: The Wild Blackberry is a perennial, one you’ve watched ripen since your grandpa let you step onto his knee to get the highest, largest berries. Blackberries are also used for pie, which you will admire at eye level, smell. Be cautious. Eating any amount over 1/3 of the total slice will divert comments from friends and family.


Species: Rosmarinus officinalis

Family: Labiatae

Habitat and Distribution: Rosemary is found in the Mediterranean in areas with dry rock, and in your mother’s hands when she first gave you a trowel, pink gloves, and rosemary sprigs to plant in terracotta. Your mother’s hands have always held thick bundles of rosemary, fragrant oils strong on her fingertips as she strips the stems of their leaves.

Description: Hardy perennial shrub with needle-like evergreen leaves; can turn into bushes that look like trees when left to grow thick branches, like the ones your mother and grandmother cut off and place in plastic bags to go. They will perform this ritual each time you return and leave again. You will chop the fresh leaves into tiny pieces and inhale the scent of its medicine.

Preparation and Uses: Rosemary is a circulatory and nervine stimulant that calms digestion and psychological tension, it’s what your mother puts on the roasted potatoes she warms in the oven while you drive home from college. She made food even when there was no audience for it, your father body building, you not eating; but her fingers were always covered in the sticky oily resin; the smell of childhood, the smell of your mother scratching your head to calm you to sleep and rubbing your sore limbs with her gentle cold hands.


Alternate: Usually in reference to leaves when veins are not directly opposite, but situated singly along the stem. Sometimes used in accordance with the word “methods” to indicate different approaches to treatment when formal treatment is ineffective.

Apex: The tip, or end, of a plant part. Also a high point, climax. For example, the apex of the disorder: the scale, the psychoactives, the acceptance, the delusion, the mania, the detachment from body, the cops, the call, the drop-out, the psychiatrist, the pharmacist.

Basal: Situated near or at the base. Usually in reference to “base weight”, the healthy weight the body settles at without forced dietary restriction; a natural weight. Often the base weight will seem like an impossible weight at the time of your disorder, but one day will be a reasonable place to exist.

Deciduous: A cyclical falling off of plant parts such as flowers, fruits, leaves, etc. after a definite period of growth or function—growth that came when the old leaves were so dry and tired they crumbled off the branch, and in downward dog at yoga class you won’t mind that your spandex pants are caught between the leg crease and thigh bulge. You will leave it there bunched up and focus on the posture, present in the body, cyclical, reaffirming the belief in your ability with each inhale, each time you show up for class.

Lateral: On the sides. Periphery interests that calm the mind, exist on the outside of the disorder. You will bring them into your life again and remember that you are not a disorder.

Linear: Long and narrow, for example a grass blade that you hold in your hand while lying on your back letting thoughts go.

Petiole: The stalk of a leaf, the strong part that holds up the meat of the plant, much like your legs, now thick with muscle and sweat when you climb mountain trails and cycle between cities.

Radiate: Spreading outward from a common center rather than folding inward. To open the body up to the world, to radiate your presence within it.

Natassja Traylor is a freelance writer and editor from Seattle. In 2013 she graduated cum laude from Western Washington University’s creative writing department. Her creative work has appeared in Crack the Spine Literary Journal. In her spare time Natassja walks through the woods, makes magazine collages, and studies the birds of the Pacific Northwest.

Rachel Litchman

Was it Practice?

In the treatment center in New Hampshire, when you are thirteen, the walls in your room are windowless.

The wooden floors are scuffed from heavy suitcases.

And the fire alarms—in a treatment center for trauma and panic—will not stop ringing.

You’re sleeping in a twin bed in a dark room when you lurch awake at the sound of this. You blink. It’s your first week at the treatment center in New Hampshire, and you’d much rather shut everything out, slam the pillow over your ears, and not think about the room you’re in, the plane ride that got you there, the cold air.  

But the alarm reminds you. A little red dot blinks on the ceiling. The alarms wail fire on loops throughout the night. The red light screams across the paint on the wall, grips hard at you lungs—

But what’s real? And what’s not?

If your anxiety is a trapeze suspended between imagination and reality, you’ve learned to swing back and forth between the two. You’ve gotten caught, stuck in the middle, swinging—

On one side of this trapeze are this room and this fire alarm. Your body is still and you feel the scratch of white sheets against your arms and legs.

On the other, mirrored in some unfurled memory, is trauma, is violence. The reason you’re here tonight.

You’ve spent years practicing. Jumping

from one side of the trapeze to the next.

Stop. Drop. And roll.

In second grade, the fire sergeant came to your school and taught you how to do this. He showed you how to press your hand against a door and feel for heat on the other side of it. He showed you how to wave an orange shirt in the window and cry for help through the windowpane.

Help. But did you not already say this? Or did you just not say it loud enough?

In bed, you feel paralyzed. You can’t move even as the alarms seem to grow louder. How many memories crash into your body with the wail of a fire alarm? How much sound— there are boots pounding outside your door right now. Someone will come and knock any second. Tell you to get out of bed, this is an emergency—

The fire sergeant was an expert on emergencies. When he came, he paced across the floor of your classroom. He held his hands behind his back and glanced down at all twenty-three of you on the alphabet carpet and said, “Never pull the fire alarm unless of an emergency.” He had shiny boots and a silver badge.  He pointed to the fire alarm and said, No.

He said, Don’t. He said, The first offense is a misdemeanor, the second a crime.

So when it happened, how could you tell him?

How were you supposed to define emergency for yourself, and what was supposed to warrant the pulling of a fire alarm, a cry for help?

In your room, the alarms wail louder. Against boots against wood against silence. The fire sergeant pacing, the gymnast on the trapeze pacing, the silence pacing, or the man—

The door opens. A slice of light leaks in from the hallway. A woman stands there, her blond hair, her hand curled around the doorframe, the wood—

The fire—

It seems, maybe, from years of practice, you’ve never been preparing for real. You sat on the sidelines at soccer games, watching balls move around the grass. You practiced. You prepared. When a girl got injured, your coach led you out toward the field, toward the ball and told you take her place. But how did you play this game?

From the sidelines, he yelled at you.

He taught you move. He taught you run. In health class your teacher said, “Anxiety can be medicated.” She showed you a video of pills to take and—

The fire— the woman stands in the doorway and tells you to put your shoes on. She’s looking at you in bed, trying to coax you toward her, come here, come out the door—

But your health teacher— she said she could help you. She had you write in your notebook every morning about three things that went well that week: “I ate a good breakfast” (you skipped it) “I slept well last night” (for two hours) “I am safe”

(but were you?)

She never told you to carry pepper spray in your pocket. She never told you about fathers who—

She slipped a condom over a banana and said this is how you have safe sex. She didn’t tell you what amounts of trauma you were inherently born into just by being a woman. (And further, a child).

You were thirteen.

But scratch that. This is a tangent. This is the other side of the trapeze that’s not real anymore. You’re in the treatment center now and the fire alarms are still ringing. Your body is tense and there is this pressure, the feeling of a heavy weight on your chest.

The woman yells at you.

From the sidelines of the room, a heavy knocking of her fist against the doorframe. The collision of bone on wood, and you, in your pajama pants, in your panic, finally pull yourself out of bed to follow her.

Behind her, you can see a steady stream of other girls pouring into the hallway. They come out of their own double rooms and press their hands against their ears to shut out noise.

Because every girl here has experienced some degree of panic.

Because to hear alarms again is to be reminded—regardless of situation—of emergency, of fire.

You move. In the hallway the walls are windowless. In the common area, where you pass through in order to get out the door, there are bookshelves filled with novels and board games. Yesterday night, you found the book Never Let Me Go on the shelf. You read the back cover and put it back on your mental reading list. To read this, to understand this. How many manuals you’ve read about helping yourself, how many books and doors have been opened.

But why does this feel like another invasion? Why every time a closed door is opened do you feel an alarm crawling inside you again?

You feel your lungs caving in on themselves. Your heart pounds to the frantic rhythm of bee’s wings and the sirens around you buzz. Blur. You try to assure yourself that this is just your anxiety. You say, the room you sleep in is safe. The woman guiding you out the door is a helper. She will help you. She will be the aftermath savior.

But the fire sergeant? Are you forgetting about the fire sergeant, and why isn’t he here for any of this?

Does he only show up to practice?

And what use was it to go to practice when he never took part in the real game. What use was it to kick the ball around when in real life, he only came to sit down on the benches.

Practice—this fire drill is just like before. Maybe. Like the ones you did in grade school that never meant anything. Like the ones that only left you standing outside in the cold without a coat on, the ones where you had to wait until the fire department came and saved you from fake fire.

Or if it wasn’t practice, then it was an error, a faulty detector detecting carbon monoxide when really, the batteries had failed.

A systemic failure.

But they never taught you about this.

Never taught you about how to stay by the lighted glow of shop windows in the evenings, how not to venture far off the sidewalk, onto the streets, or into the dark.

Never taught you about where a man, a woman, might touch you, how to pick up the phone and cry for help or dial a number.

Never taught you about how to break silence, open your lips, your mouth.

You’ve learned these things on your own.                                                       

In the past month, your body has learned to slip on memory like a coat. You’ve learned to jump off one side of the trapeze and swing away for too long. Are you back yet? Are you coming?

You’re waiting to be caught, and yet the fall is in motion.

You step out of the fire alarms and into the cold tonight

wondering what will happen if you let go.

Rachel Litchman will be attending University of Wisconsin at Madison in the fall of 2017. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Hippocrates Young Poets’ Prize for Poetry and Medicine, the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, and The Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers. Her essays and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado ReviewNew SouthThe JournalSolstice, and The Louisville Review, among others. She is currently a member of the RAINN speaker’s bureau.

Kirstin Allio

a way to ask and to answer

                         Here’s my mother in June 1968,
                         a stranger,
                         as my father describes her,
                         at her own wedding.

My father claims
he didn’t recognize her.
In the pictures
she looks like a big doll.
Like she’s wearing somebody
else’s hair, this funny dress,
appliqué daisies.

The wedding was in her parents’ living room
in Kenosha, Wisconsin,
a place she’d never lived,
a ceremony conceived
by her mother,
a Foreign Service wife
whose debilitating migraines
were the symptoms of occluded feminism.

In this version of the story.

My father brought out the worst
in his mother-in-law. It was mutual.
He maintains that he and my mother knew
none of the wedding guests
by their first names.

                                                                 I’ve seen the plasticky photos                    
                                                                          only a couple of times.                     
                                                                     They’ll disappear for years,                     
                                                                        resurface as if in a dream,                     
                                                                                            vanish again.                     

                    At least that’s my impression,
                    perhaps because I don’t recognize
                    my parents either.
                    My father in a suit—anathema.
                    My mother with a hairstyle—incognito.
                    The photos were never made into an album.

All my friends
had snuck their parents’
photo albums into their bedrooms.
Social status was late nights
poring over young mothers in flower
crowns and faded Levis,
Fu Man Chu’d fathers.
I was always on the outside.
I didn’t think my parents even knew
the term photo album.
This essay fills forgotten corners.
My parents were vegetarian,
but omnivorous in their innocence.

The term hippie was so embarrassing
to my grandmother
that she couldn’t bring herself
to use it, let alone
name my mother.
And my mother,
in the same mold,
modest, decorous, even prudish,
never said she was one.

Although aside from the anomaly
of that wedding,
my parents certainly fit
the profile.
How much easier it is to write
them as types, recognizable.

Here’s my mother at the end of 1974,
nine months pregnant,
in drawstring meditation pants,
her own woodblock-printed tunics.
They’re yoked like peasants,
working a thousand-acre sheep farm
in remote, interior Maine,
snow to the eaves
of the woodstove farmhouse.

These earliest memories of mine are idealized, and vivid.
There was a fortress of wolf-woods
behind the farmhouse and the fields.
My parents had a couple of cows and horses too,
a goat named Cyrus,
a silent silver cat and a fierce,
harness-trained Husky.
Of course I remember the names
of my first cat and dog.
But there have to be some boundaries.
                      Keep the characters few enough
so they don’t need names
and privacy is a non-issue.

                    Here’s my mother at the long trestle
                    table my father built without
                    a single nail, plotting her order
                    from the Johnny’s seed catalogue.
                    She’s a warm blond with poreless
                    skin and a few freckles, blithely
                    patrician. Beautiful.

I sat on this essay
for months,
trying to find the right qualifier
for beautiful.
To have a beautiful mother
is to be on intimate terms with Beauty itself, Plato.

               But my mother herself has always conflated
               it with vanity and materialism,
               disparaged any woman who cultivates—
               fusses, was her word—
               her appearance.
               My father too.
               I didn’t know,
               until I was an adult,
               that he found any woman

                    My father raised barns, yurts, sheep;
                    my mother was a weaver, gardener, bread-baker
                    with unabashedly frizzy hair
                    (she did believe in the hairbrush.
                    I didn’t see my own curls
                    until I was a teenager)
                    and an avid if gentle singing voice.
                    They played Early Music, lutes and recorders,
                    with a commune farther up the same dirt road.
                    Both my sister and I were born on Indian bedspreads
                    in the living room of the farmhouse,
                    which makes the whole thing
                    seem easy to categorize. 

                              Soon enough, back-to-the-land met Eastern Religion,
                              and we left Maine for California. Warmer weather
                              is always better for gurus. Worldly possessions tied to the roof-rack,
                              roadside camping, as if motels were somehow secular.
                              My mother kept house in the car out of a cardboard box
                              from a liquor store dumpster that would, in the end,
                              hold up for eight trips across the country.
                              When we got to the Bay Area
                              we lived communally in order to serve a “Living God,”
                              a supposedly enlightened human.

                                        Then came Waldorf,
                                        all sheeps-wool and beeswax,
                                        a vegetable kingdom purity
                                        that prohibited popular culture
                                        and machine technology.
                                        And elevated innocence,
                                        which I think now
                                        was the main draw. 

Are folks
(to use the word my parents
would have used then)
 intrinsically part of their generation?
Are they helpless in its current?
And what about a generation of outsiders:
are they all outsiders together?
Of course plenty of hippies were joiners,
lovers, commune-dwellers.
My parents were those things too,
which confounded me.

                                             But my parents themselves                               
didn’t think they belonged                              
in any cultural context.                              
Their outsiderness was original, singular,                              
and it trumped everything.                              
In my memory                              
they’re a little credulous,                              
a little vain about it.                              
Something I know now                              
is that people only respond to a story                              
if they recognize it.                              
I believed for a long time                              
that my parents were unrecognizable.                              
And how shrilly I desired them to be universal.                              

I’ve suffered the compulsion to close-read, and often condemn
my parents for almost as long as I can remember,
as if they were my bible and I were a ravenous non-believer.
I’ve wasted years and tears demanding
that they be non-contradictory, rational, up-to-date with the truth.
I imagine ushering in an omniscient narrator
who knows exactly how to cross-examine them
in order to place them at the scene of the crime.
The crime of their own contradiction.
But is it possible the contradiction is simply the child
growing up to be the adult daughter?

                         My grandmother haunted my first house in Providence.
                         It was her ghost who woke me
                         when the washing machine broke during a late-night load
                         and the basement flooded,
                         when the baby was at the top of the stairs
                         working the rungs loose on the landing.
                         Her own marriage had prevented her
                         from finishing her Ph.D. in economics,
                         some time before 1940,
                         and the birth of my mother, in this version of the story,
                         precipitated her first nervous breakdown.
                         I imagine how my grandmother felt herself
                         to be an outsider too: a math-smart woman,
                         unusual if not an oxymoron of her time,
                         a Californian who married New England blue blood,
                         and then, according to my grandfather’s postings,
                         a wife and mother in South and Central America.
                         It’s worth noting that it was she who loved to travel.
                         At Christmas she disseminated folk trinkets from foreign lands:
                         carved boxes, woven belts, bangles.
                         Her signature style was a souvenir t-shirt, men’s small, 
                         sashed smartly at the waist.
                         And it comes to me now, it seems connected,
                         that she was the first person I knew
                         who got a personal computer, in the early 80s.
                         She had inherited her mother’s house in Laguna Hills
                         by then and that’s where I remember seeing it,
                         on the roll-top secretary.
                         It utterly failed to spark my interest.

My grandfather’s signal Christmas gift
was a New Yorker cover he’d saved over the course
of the year, having deemed it of particular
applicability to the recipient. Call Central Casting
for dead white male, no offense to his ghost,
even before he was one.
The son of a vanilla-distilling,
prep-school-founding line,
he was tall, talkative, square-jawed,
Ivy-Leagued, wry, and confident.
He squeezed our skulls
to give us “credits.”
 He was a born orator
but he could mutter something dicey,
with perfect Brahmin diction.
He was also sentimental.
Walk, Shepherdess, Walk,
that Girl Scout hymn,
we’ll find the ram with the ebony horn
and the gold-footed ewe,
could render him weepy.
I’m pretty sure he considered himself,
albeit humbly, the consummate insider.
No wonder my father couldn’t get along with him.

                    After her nervous breakdown
                    and hospitalization,
                    my grandmother was forced to send
                    my mother, a toddler,
                    to live with her mother,
                    my great-grandmother,
                    in California.
                    I’m stumbling over all these words
                    with mother in them.
                    My mother has said that my grandmother
                    of the men’s small t-shirts
                    was both ashamed and resentful.
                    And then when my mother tried to resist
                    the conventions and formalities of her parents,
                    she recognized and loathed
                    the adult daughter
                    in herself
                    in a similar way.
                    This is how the adult daughter is unbecoming
                    on me: belligerent and babyish,

For a long time
I did indeed complain
about my fringy childhood.
I felt stunted, and mortified
by my culture handicap.
Where my parents had made
the choice to opt out,
I was born weird.
Or so I charged.
It seems embarrassing now.

                    But by the time I caught up,
                    the organic milk my mother had pulled from velvet teats
                    through formidable Maine winters
                    was available at Walmart,
                    and there were biodynamic jams on Amazon.
                    Yoga was stretchy, sexy pants
                    (although yoga still reminds me of a certain
                    lungi-wearing guru
                    and his mushy, bared stomach),
                    and at least in coastal, urban enclaves like Seattle,
                    cool school kids, my kids’ friends,
                    had traded TV cartoons—
                    epitome of the fast,
                    loud, and funny world
                    I was shut out from—
                    for computer programming on Saturday mornings.

                              And my mother had grown toward the center
                              of the culture too. She for whom Simon and Garfunkel
                              had too much bass, she who sang rounds
                              without a trace of irony,
                              purchased rolled oats and brown rice
                              in hundred-pound brown sacks
                              from the co-op, had apparently joined
                              the iHuman race without a backward look.
                              Here’s my mother in 2009,
                              her hair practically standing on end
                              as she simultaneously tracks my sister’s flight
                              from LA to Seattle where we’re gathered for Christmas,
                              checks out a sale on wool sweaters,
                              a psychology blog,
                              some blistering New York Times comments.
                              In my childhood,
                              newspaper was another word,
                              like photo album,
                              of which my parents were innocent.
                              But now my mother has facts at her fingertips,
                              here she is fogging up the tiny screen with her hot breath,
                              swooshing her finger pad
                              up the Pacific coast
                              between speed
                              and height
                              and cloud temperature.

Our conversations worried the subject:
me, betrayed, and her,
stammering excuses
I knew were superficial,
meant only to appease me.
Her distraction when we were on the phone/but she was also on the computer,
I hissed to my husband,
was like talking to friends home with young children,
the adult sentences spliced with toddlerese.

My younger son had a year
of speech therapy, at six,
after growing out of mild deafness,
and the therapist’s highest praise
was that he was “stimulable.”
I was unnerved, at first,
by the mutation of the word,
but then I adopted it greedily,
to describe my mother.
Where had her austerity gone?
Her outsiderness?

I knew I was being reactive.                                        
Emotional, and controlling.                                        
My mother let me be                                        
who I wanted to be:                                        
I had no right to hold her                                        
to some outdated righteousness.                                        
But I felt like my whole childhood                                         
was at stake,                                        
like she was rewriting                                        
my history.                                        

I originally wrote this essay
with a rather too-neat ending.
My parents had returned to New Hampshire
after another fraught holiday visit,
my sons had gone back to school,
and I could finally hole up in my writing room, my “home office.”
I hummed with the deep pleasure of solitude.
I sat on the floor
(there were few chairs
in my childhood),
covered with a couple of black-sheep brown rugs my mother wove in the 70s.
Maybe it’s a double standard,
but I cherish those rugs,
and one or two forty-year-old sheepskins,
beyond reason.
The literary solution came to me:
my mother’s iPhone
was a room of her own,
something she’d never had
as a young wife and mother of her era.

                             The trick to these personal essays
                             is to find your voice
                             that sounds just like everybody else’s voice.
                             It lasted about a week,
                             my cute feminist ending.
                             But then the metaphor wobbled
                             (metaphor, or just dragging Virginia Woolf
                             out of the water) and loosened.
                             The essay loosens.

                                                          The other morning I watched          
                                                          a washing machine shake itself          
                                                          to pieces in two minutes          
                                                          and forty-two seconds          
                                                          in a back yard in Australia,          
                                                          on Facebook.          
                                                          At the end the drum danced around          
                                                          on its cord for a while.          
                                                          The cheap metal sides lay          
                                                          in the grass.          
                                                          The motor whined          
                                                          and then the video stopped          
                                                          and I thought that the only way          
                                                          to redeem those two minutes          
                                                          was to gather them up,          
                                                          and answer them.          

I have to back up a little
to make the next turn.
Not so far back
as my parents’ wedding,
but coming from a wider angle.
Our first few months in Seattle
I sent breathless,
hyperbolic missives back east,
announcing pop-out mountains
and soaring evergreens,
pre-historic fernbanks
and blackberries
like blackberry cobbler.

Not far from where we lived in Capitol Hill,                                       
I climbed to the top of Lakeview Cemetery.                                       
The usual topographical hierarchy:                                       
founding Kinnears and Nordstroms                                       
up there, land-grabbing Dennys;                                       
Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee,                                       
side by side.                                       
I could reach out and touch the ivory                                       
facets of two separate mountain ranges.                                       
I was awed;                                       
I was also complicit,                                       
determined to impress myself.                                       

                     But soon it was winter
                     like a dripping cold mop-head.
                     (This time in my life seems ready-made
                     for baroque description.)
                     No mountains for months,
                     and in the cemetery,
                     people dying far from home,
                     eternal estrangement.
                     “Woodman of the World.”
                     Korean gravestones with all-weather
                     color photos of the departed.
                     A coral stone inscribed in Greek
                     except for “Going Home,”
                     in English.
                     The Lees’ shrine littered with tangy cash offerings.

Maybe I’d come west too late. Microsoft peaked, the gold rush city
sold out to suburbia. I thought my husband’s job
at the Gates foundation entitled me to deliver sullen,
even crackpot comments at dinner parties:
Why don’t all the Microsofties come out of early retirement,
try their hands disgorging Bill’s fortune?
Why didn’t anybody tell us the Olympic Peninsula
was strip-logged and haunted?

I began picking
The tasteless Tudors.
People were aloof,
No sandy beaches.

Somehow I found a few mom friends
who braved my geographical rancor.
One day, a professor-acupuncturist-woodsprite in a green raincoat
invited me to go for a run.
She asked, rather quixotically,
if I’d been to Denise Levertov’s grave yet.
We trotted up the hill of the cemetery.
It wasn’t hard to find the poet’s resting place:
a charcoal bar of stone with a pale,
wave-licked rock
seemingly balanced on top of it.
Nothing like the surrounding stentorian monoliths.
Cemeteries, like American cars, are no paragon
of design thinking, I heard myself quipping.
What if all the gravestones
were as ergonomic as iPhones?
My friend changed the subject by identifying the Giant Sequoia
that sheltered us, and I could feel myself softening.
Moved by companionship, I made a confession.
My once-hippie mother
(too unwieldy to say she never called herself a hippie)
was now the president of her family burial park,
a bona fide Olmsted in an historic village outside Boston.
The WASPiness of it, I heard myself groan,
and the materialism of death.
My friend giggled.
You’re a long way from home, aren’t you, she offered.

On a rainy Saturday a few weeks later,
I took my husband and sons
to visit the cemetery.
The boys looped
and scattered,
whipping up a game
of find-the-oldest-gravestone.
The mountains weren’t out,
but we reached the top
and there was still a sense of vista,
of being relieved of details,
yet able to see everything.

                                          This happens too fast in the essay,
                                          but I don’t seem to have the chops
                                          to control it.
                                          In real life the moment of discovery
                                          was like a key change,
                                          the music.
                                          My older son called out to us.
                                          I could see he was staking out
                                          something important.

It sounds too clever by half, but it’s true:
just a few steps from Denise Levertov’s stone,
my son had found my mother’s ancestors.
The very same ones
who should have been in the burial park
out east (as they say in Seattle),
over which my mother now presided.
How could I have missed them?
Kitty-corner to the poet,
with an unimpeachable family stone
and footprint stones set around it,
my mother’s father’s family,
those insider New Englanders.
Standing on their plot,
their turf,
I imagined for a second
that I had a sort of right to it.
Did it mean
that maybe I wasn’t
such an outsider in Seattle?
That maybe I could drop
the attitude and find common
ground here?

                                          The boys stuck close, reverent.
                                          We read the names of their forebears.
                                          Hanna, Elizabeth, Hiram.
                                          The latest date was 1962.
                                          Just as quickly I felt abandoned.
                                          So they’d come and gone.
                                          Or they’d died out,
                                          so far from home.  

My younger son had frozen toes in his REI sandals,     
and it was time to finish up the adventure.     
The title of this essay is from Levertov,     
the last line of a poem called “Immersion:”     

Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer.                                                                                

In the late afternoon I called my mother
in New Hampshire. A slightly accusing tone
crept into my voice, as if she’d planted them
there, the Pacific Northwest branch
of the family. I imagined the family tree
spreadsheet at the last reunion I attended.
Let’s say a hundred feet of card tables
in the small-town church basement.
I’d teased my mother:
We’re related to everybody!
We are, she’d coolly retorted.

She cross-checked the Seattle names
in her family tree binder.
I restated that the last one
was buried five decades ago.
They didn’t exactly multiply
and prosper, I insinuated.

Here’s my mysterious     
mother, shapeshifter.     
(doubled by the Episcopalian     
song beloved of my     
Birkenstock Buddhist,     
genealogy keeper,     
iPhone adept.     

Oh, she said,     
then tossing it off,     
They all married Boeings.     

                                                               Marriage again:
                                                               my mother pointing
                                                               to her ancestors’ savvy,
                                                               how they homed in,
                                                               joined up with what was then
                                                               Seattle’s royal family.

It comes to me that writing a personal essay
is like writing a fan letter
to the person you wish you were.
The idea is to make yourself,
against some odds, sympathetic.
The inherent drama: can you reveal yourself
and then transcend yourself
before the eyes of your readers?

Here are my parents now,
in the middle age of old age,
at seventy,
universal in their idiosyncrasy.
Maybe they’re not hypocrites,
after all, just up for change,
like those pioneer ancestors,
and it’s the adult daughter
who will always be outside
their closed circle,

                                                                                    trying to find,
                                                                                    in her own words,
                                                                                    a way to ask
                                                                                    and to answer.

Kirstin Allio is the author of a short-story collection, Clothed Female Figure (Dzanc), and a novel, Garner (Coffee House), a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from Brown University’s Howard Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Her fiction, essays, and poems appear most recently in AGNIThe Southern ReviewSeneca Review, and Conjunctions, and forthcoming from Prairie Schooner and Fence. She lives in Providence, RI. 

Kathryn Hargett

The Myth of Oracle Bones

I say his name like a car crash. I say it again, let its syllables rebel against my tongue. I name him Holofernes, Tereus—a boy I can mold to swallows, a boy whose head I can spar around in my hands.     


In dreams, my teeth are walnuts falling into my hands, my gums red icing. I lick them sugar-clean. I strip off my skin and box it into small, neat squares, hang them on trees in the backyard. I compartmentalize and preserve my organs in formaldehyde, labeling them by size and corruption. Every part of me he has touched—sterile at last.


After the assault, the closet opens like a mouth, shoves me out in a wad of spit. For hours, I sit on the carpet, kneading my bones like rosaries, my body unwoven. He has slid my head through an ice chipper again. It hangs in strips over the couch, the light bulbs, the air hockey table. Soon, I will be  reconstructed out of grease and ox bone. I will jackal on all fours, slouching through the day with my claws scraping the floor. I want to be dangerous. I want to be a killer.


In thermodynamic terms, all organic tissues are composed of chemical energy, which, when not maintained by the constant biochemical maintenance of the living organism, begin to chemically break down.


I try keeping plants around the house. I line herbs on the kitchen window where we sometimes watch rain collect in the driveway, but it hasn’t rained in months. I name them biblical: Jonah, Constantine. I water the basil daily, keep the fly trap submerged. The cilantro flowers within weeks, small white blooms with coriander hearts, and the basil blackens at the root. Dead leaves collect around its feet like hair.


Except there is no before the assault. Of course, I’d like to imagine myself soft and domestic: something without teeth. A girl in a white dress banging spoons on the kitchen counter. A girl sewing lattices into silk, never sticking herself with the needle. But I know I have always walked like a wild dog, with my shoulders hunched up and cut geometric-clean. There have always been hands.


In alchemy, putrefaction is the same as fermentation, whereby a substance is allowed to rot or decompose undisturbed. In some cases, the commencement of the process is facilitated with a small sample of the desired material to act as a ‘seed.’


The best dreams are the ones where I cleave the air with switchblades and shriek until my throat becomes butchered meat. In these dreams, I am an Amazon, a body of steel traps. I am the bad guy. I pull out my hair and cut off my breasts and beat my feet against the earth until it pings back to me. But more often than not, my dreams are nothing but closed doors— a dead nightingale plummeting to the ocean—his hands in my mouth—voices growing in the dark—


I plant succulents in my bedroom, set them in glass globes on the bedside table. I stare at them for weeks, waiting for the pillars to break through the dirt. Only two ever sprout—tiny green tongues—and the agave never germs.


The only thing I know about him are loci, places that orbit around him like gnats in the summer: Texas, basement, backyard, abdomen. Often I find myself locked in the closet again and my throat closes, a boy running his tongue along my neck. My intestines unwind like yarn in my palms. He’s there—he’s there—the boy with gunsmoke fingers. They tell me I’m paranoid; go back to sleep.


My therapist tells me that I should sit in the closet with a necklace of human teeth and knead my knuckles until they blister.


The approximate time it takes putrefaction to occur is dependent on various factors. Internal factors that affect the rate of putrefaction include the age at which death has occurred, the overall structure and condition of the body, the cause of death, and external injuries arising before or after death. External factors include environmental temperature, moisture and air exposure, clothing, burial factors, and light exposure.


Sometimes I walk into the attic and pull out trash bags stuffed with my old clothes and I press them to my face, feeling the fabric against my cheeks. I was so young, so birdlike and toothless. But I cannot bring myself to calling them my virgin dresses.


Soon, weeds sprout from every crevice of my bedroom, and vines cover the walls. They’re everywhere, from the cracks of the bedframe to the soft flesh of my cuticles. Call me Max—call me Beast. I want to be a killer.


The hardest part is his facelessness. I cannot scale my hands over his nose or dig my nails into his skin. I couldn’t gouge out his eyes if I wanted to. Instead, my thumbs scry dirty sheets, the black wound of the closet, the leaves of oak trees.


My therapist tells me that I ought to carry a shotgun.


The visual result of gaseous tissue-infiltration is notable bloating of the torso and limbs. The increased internal pressure of the continually rising volume of gas further stresses, weakens, and separates the tissues constraining the gas. In the course of putrefaction, the skin tissues of the body eventually rupture and release the bacterial gas. As the anaerobic bacteria continue consuming, digesting, and excreting the tissue proteins, the body’s decomposition progresses to the stage of skeletonization.


Everywhere I go, I walk holding my organs outside my body. I orbit around the house spewing prophesies from the folds of the tissues: I predict my mother’s death from the curve of my liver— the birds held like a caduceus in the dog’s soft maw. Soon, they rot like tangerines and return to the earth.


Almost all of my plants have died or are in some form of decay. The fly trap’s head has blackened to soot, and the basil has withered and fallen away. I return home one morning to find my cacti dark and lying on their side in the terrarium, and for a while I stare at my dead plants, their tombs lined in a row on the windowsill.


The virgin uterus is the last to putrefy.


Thought: I am a bad survivor because the assault made me into roots, bitter and knuckled. I mean, I have never melted easy on the tongue. But now I find myself moving through the underbrush with my ears flat against my head, with my arms cocked back and ready to strike. I pass the men with their pith helmets and muskets, and I want to tell them that I am a cannibal, that I am evil, that if anyone touches me again I swear to God, I’ll kill them, I will, but I don’t talk for days. I smile ugly. My laugh makes everyone uncomfortable.

Kathryn Hargett is a college kid from Alabama, Pushcart-nominee, and Kundiman fellow in poetry. Her work has been recognized by Princeton University, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the National YoungArts Foundation, the Alabama Writers Forum, the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, and others. She is editor-in-chief of TRACK//FOUR, a literary magazine for people of color. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, |tap| magazine, The Blueshift Journal, A-Minor Magazine, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She tweets @taipeisausage.