jim genia



Four friends bake in the sun, four reservation princesses wearing sagging basketball shorts and white tank tops, waiting for something to happen, anything, anything at all to break the monotony. It is midday and too early for the spectacle of someone kicked out of the casino for drunkenness. Too early for ejection due to violence, for freak out over a social security check gone too soon. Too early, but if they sit long enough, these Shakespearian tragedies are inevitable. So they wait.

Four res princesses, in a kingdom that begins atop a picnic table outside the casino/gas station/quick-mart, a kingdom that extends beyond the overflowing trash bins and cracked asphalt, beyond the idling trucks and the cars filling up at the pumps, and ends where the parking lot becomes the on-ramp to the highway, and the highway becomes escape.

Her name is Rachel. She is 11, and already she’s acutely aware of the insufficiency of this place.

 “Dang, it’s hot,” says April Rose, and Rachel and Demora and Howa (short for Howasapa) and the wind all agree. But the wind says nothing, only blows dry and spiteful over the casino, a casino built cheap like government housing. Over the picnic table indelibly marred by the bloody vomit of Indians who traded their livers for fleeting moments of forget. Over the South Dakota town on the other side of the highway, a town already old and forgotten when it sprouted up over a century ago, on a reservation where despair reigns and the ceiling for success is the purchase of a flatscreen TV for a squalid living room, or a not-yet-repossessed pickup truck parked in a front yard, majestic in the grass like a lion on the savannah and complicit in countless DWIs. The wind blows dry and spiteful over it all.

Rachel holds Demora’s long, silky black hair in her hands and braids it meticulously, an act of kindness, an act of love. “Man… geez,” says Demora when strands get caught in her bracelet. “Don’t pull my hair out.” April Rose and Howa share a giggle. Rachel apologizes. An eighteen-wheeler groans its way out of the parking lot, kicking up dust as it makes a break for it.

“Heya,” says Demora. “My sister called that the wakpa.” She extends a finger at the highway. Rachel doesn’t know what that word means, but she knows the highway is Interstate 29, knows that civilization in the form of Fargo, North Dakota, is a couple hours north, and Watertown and Sioux Falls is an equally tedious ride south.

Rachel doesn’t know what that words means, but her friends do, because they are all darker, full-bloods to her half-blood, each born on the res and far more Indian. She envies them for the language they share. She envies them for their fathers locked away in federal pen, or dead or nonexistent. She envies them for their mothers lost to drink or pills, or simply gone. It is almost an embarrassment that her own red father and white mother reside under the same roof.

Her friends, they all know what wakpa means. But she doesn’t ask them. She doesn’t want to remind them of her differences. How much unlike them she is not.

Wakpa means river,” Howa whispers into her ear. An act of kindness, an act of love.

A woman approaches from across the parking lot, older but not yet old, with bright red lipstick, worn jeans and scuffed boots. Like Rachel and her friends, she has walked from town, a distance of a few miles but a not uncommon practice for those with nothing and nothing to do. The woman is closer now, close enough for Rachel to see the dark blue ring around her eye, close enough for Rachel to discern the remnants of violence and the shame on her face. She keeps her gaze from meeting Rachel’s and holds her head high—typical proud Native woman. The woman walks past the picnic table and reaches for the door to the gas station.

Demora calls out to her. “Auntie, buy us something to drink, hey?” Rachel knows they’re not related, that Demora has probably never met this woman before. But on the res, any older woman is Auntie, just as any older man is Uncle.

The woman finally looks at all of them. Shakes her head and says “shit” with a hiss, as if such an act would be beneath her. She pulls open the door and goes inside.

The sound of an eighteen-wheeler. The sound of someone slamming their hood down and getting back into their car. The stink of exhaust. Down the side of Rachel’s face, a trickle of sweat. The door opens and the woman is there again. In one hand is a pack of cigarettes. In the other, a paper bag and the unmistakable shape of a 40oz. She stands beside the four of them and the cigarettes go into a tattered purse. Off comes the cap. She puts the bottle to her lips, tilts her head back, and takes a long drink. Rachel watches the sagging skin below her chin move in its own rhythm. When she hands the bag to Demora, there’s a collective sound of appreciation.

Around goes the bottle. Gulps and winces at the taste of the cheap beer.

“What are you girls doing here anyway?” says the woman. “Jus’ getting into trouble?”

“Heya,” says April Rose. “Doing nothing. What are you doing, Auntie?”

“I’m about to ride the wakpa,” she says.

“Damn,” says Demora. “We were just talking about that. Why is called the wakpa?”

Another long drink from the bottle that makes the skin below her chin move, and the woman says, “Because it’s like a river. You can ride it away from here, maybe far away.” Her voice trails off, and her eyes go to the parking lot. “But you have to know how to swim, otherwise you drown.” She continues to stare, and Rachel follows her gaze. There’s a car there, a battered old Cadillac with tinted windows, parked away from the gas pumps. Idling. Rachel thinks of the coyotes that prowl the woods near home, and how children can’t play outside after dark lest one of them slink out of the tree line and drag a hapless kid away.

“Why are you going, Auntie?” says April Rose.

“Auntie Wana-yi said it’s time,” says the woman. Her voice is solemn.

“Shit,” says Demora. “Auntie Wana-yi spoke to you?”

“You seen her?” says the woman, her eyes narrowing.

“Yeah, I seen her. She didn’t say nothing, though. She was just brushing her hair.”

The woman makes a clucking sound, the sound of skepticism, but she watches Demora, and her expression grows into one of sadness. A last swig from the bottle, and she reaches into her purse, producing a cigarette and lighting it. A long drag, then another, and another. Her eyes are back to the battered old Cadillac. To the coyote, waiting to drag her away. “You girls mind yourself,” she says, her words a kind of goodbye.

Rachel watches her go in silence, watches her worn jeans and scuffed boots as she crosses to the edge of the parking lot, a tattered woman all used up, and Rachel swears to never become her. When she gets to the Cadillac, she reaches for the door behind the driver seat. Pulls it open and disappears inside. The four res princesses watch in silence as the Cadillac lumbers out of the parking lot, finds the on-ramp to the highway, and accelerates into oblivion.


They walk back to town, and Rachel catches a ride with an uncle headed out towards a distant cluster of tribal-owned houses, one of which is her home.

Outside, on the hood of a long dead car beside the house, is a wolf—Waji, her family’s pet, and their answer to the coyote problem. Waji raises her head.

Rachel greets her with a hello and a gentle rub, and walks into the house just as the sun begins to fall behind the hills to the west.

Her mother is setting the table for dinner. When she sees her, she pulls Rachel in for a hug and plants a kiss on her forehead. Tells her to wash up, let her father and brothers know it’s time to eat. Soon, everyone is seated, and as spaghetti is divvied up onto plates, her father’s voice booms.

“How was my chunksi today?” he says, using a word Rachel does know; chunksi means daughter. “Stay out of trouble?”

She tells him she did stay out of trouble. As the baby of the family, that’s the entirety of her share of the conversation. But she doesn’t mind, because she is happy.

The rest of dinner is spent with her older brothers talking and joking, and her parents laughing and chiming in. Eventually, her father asks them to sing. “Remember that tribal veteran honor song?” he says. “Do that one.” Four sets of male hands begin beating out a tempo on the table. The house fills with the sounds of tradition.

Her parents don’t work, but between the prize money her brothers sometimes win at singing and drumming competitions at powwows, the money she sometimes wins dancing in her jingle dress—plus food stamps, occasional visits to the res pantry, and whatever other assistance the tribe offers—her family survives.

After she has helped wash the dishes, her mother burns sweetgrass to cleanse the house while her father sits in the living room with her brothers, all of them focused on the Playstation. While they play, Rachel thinks of the woman and the Cadillac. Surely, if this had been her home, the woman would never have left.

When her parents go to bed, she asks her brothers what wana-yi means. Unlike Rachel, they are being taught the language of the Dakota Sioux—by the teachers at school and by her father, knowledge everyone thinks she would squander.

River, the youngest brother, older than her by just a year, doesn’t look away from the TV screen. None of them look away. “Wana-yi means ghost,” he says.



A white woman disappears and it’s a crime. A noteworthy thing. A cause for concern. But change her skin tone just a bit, transform her paleness into an earthy red, and the disappearance is a non-event. The person gone, she doesn’t matter. It is debatable she ever did. This is why Rachel never learns what happens to the woman who left in the Cadillac, why Rachel never learns where they find her body.

This is why, after months of sitting on that picnic table, watching lone res women climb into strange vehicles and vanish down the river, Rachel never knows what becomes of them. She likes to think that the bruises around their eyes have eventually healed. That they have found safety.

Rachel is 12 now, and her home has grown quiet and lonely. Her brothers are away at the Flandreau Indian School, a boarding school a few hours south on the wakpa. It was a tough decision for her parents to send them away—she heard them fight about it. But the education is supposedly better than the one offered at the Tiospa Zina Tribal School, so off they went.

The Tiospa Zina is where Rachel goes, where she takes remedial classes, because her teachers would rather treat her as stupid than acknowledge her dyslexia.

“Heya,” says Demora. “That thing freaks me out.” She is staring at Waji, who lies on the roof of the long dead car. It is fall, and the air alternates between stifling hot and shiver-inducing chill depending upon if clouds drift in front of the sun. Waji watches the tree line, panting, her tongue lolling out, while Rachel, Demora, April Rose and Howa sit on a patchwork of rusted and tattered lawn chairs.  

“It’s just a wolf,” says April Rose.

Demora makes a face. “What kind of Indian keeps a wolf as a pet?”

Howa is the same as she ever was, but Demora and April Rose have taken to wearing skirts and, on occasion, make up—habits so alien to Rachel they border on betrayal. Rachel knows Demora has been seeing a boy from the white high school in town (whose football team is inexplicably called “The Redmen”). Rachel doesn’t know who April Rose is seeing, but she suspects there is someone, too.

“Rachel!” her mother calls out. Her parents are leaving the house and heading to the van parked on the street. As usual, her father’s mirrored sunglasses make his expression impossible to read, but her mother’s tone says it all. She is angry. “We gotta go get the boys. Mind the house. Don’t cause no trouble.”

As they drive away, Rachel thinks of how anger is the only tone her mother speaks to her in nowadays. Thinks of how her father doesn’t call her chunksi anymore.

When it is clear Rachel’s parents aren’t doubling back, Demora reaches into her knapsack and pulls out a joint. “Cocha!” she says with a grin. Everyone laughs.

In no time they are high, and the four of them point out the different animals they see in the shapes of the passing clouds.

Rachel is high when Howa talks about how her grandmother used to take care of her, but more and more she takes care of her grandmother.

Rachel is high when Demora talks about riding the wakpa with her boyfriend, how Auntie Wana-yi spoke to her and said she was ready.

Rachel is high when April Rose says nothing at all, only weeps in silence. Rachel reaches out and holds her hand. An act of kindness, an act of love.

Rachel is high when Waji jumps down from her spot on the roof of the dead car and nuzzles her hand for a rub, the wolf’s sudden presence startling everyone, eliciting screams that turn into laughter. Deep, endless, hysterical laughter.

Hours later, after her friends have long since gone home and she is sober, her parents return with her brothers. No one will include her in the conversation, or what’s left of it. She suspects all the words were used up on the ride back. But her father’s silence speaks of disappointment and her mother only calls out her name with anger in her voice and tells her to clean her room, and how can anyone live like this? “You give filthy Indians a bad name.”

Later on, when her parents have gone to bed, her brothers dust off the old Playstation. She asks River what happened at Flandreau. “We were expelled,” he says. “For fighting.”



They say it was an SUV, maybe dark blue, maybe black. They say that Demora Gray Eagle waited outside the casino on Interstate 29 for less than an hour before seeing it at the edge of the parking lot. According to a witness, she walked up, opened the door to the backseat and climbed in. No conversation. No description of the driver. That was the last time anyone saw her.

Her boyfriend tells the police they had broken up the week prior. He’s a junior at the white high school in town, and no, he has no other information to add. His parents chime in, saying if the police have additional questions, they can talk to their attorney. But the police have no more questions. No one has any more questions.

Rachel is 14 now, and old enough to understand that some things cannot be asked or asked for, like why or help.

She is also old enough to understand how after only a few disappointments everything can come apart. She knows this because her oldest brother, Enoch, is arrested for a sexual assault on a school bus, and after his conviction, he is carted off to a juvenile detention facility in a distant part of the state, where he will stay for the next few years.

Rachel knows this because her other brothers, River and Leonard, drop out of school altogether, and there are no more family dinners at the table and no more songs.

She knows this because her mother screams at her father more and more. Screams at her brothers. Screams at her.

She knows this because one spring night there is a great ruckus outside, and her father and River and Leonard run out the door with knives, shouting. When they return, River has blood on his t-shirt. “Waji’s dead. The coyotes ganged up and got her.”

No one cries for Waji but Rachel, quiet tears shed when she is alone in her room. No one cries for Enoch or Demora but Rachel.

Now the house is truly mirthless and sullen, and no amount of smoldering sweetgrass can cleanse the bad spirits.

“I hate this place,” says April Rose. She isn’t talking about where they are sleeping tonight. Tonight, while Rachel’s parents think she is at Howa’s house, the three remaining res princesses are camped out in Sica Hollow, a haunted state park near town. According to local lore, the ghosts are of white folk and the Indians who murdered them roughly two hundred years ago, so to anyone white, Sica Hollow is a place of terror; to anyone is red, it is something else entirely.

Their camp is in the middle of a field thick with tall grass, atop a plateau. Above, a canopy of endless stars; below, the woods, trails, streams and gurgling springs that make up most of the park. They don’t dare make a fire, but it isn’t cold, and anyway, it is doubtful they would mind if it was, for Howa has brought some of her grandmother’s pills. They each swallow two, and soon they are warm and fuzzy.

From somewhere nearby, the hoof beats of horses that roamed these hills generations ago.

April Rose talks about her cousins, who live in a trailer near Enemy Swim and have a child together, a child whose conception and birth sent the father to prison for a few years. When he got out, they made that trailer into a happy home—happy by res standards at least. “I hate this place,” she says, and Rachel knows she means this town. This res. This life.

From somewhere nearby, faint songs of victory, sung by Indians who thought victory over the white man was all they would ever know.

Howa stares at her hand as if she has never seen it before. Says, “I don’t want to leave my grandmother, but she claims it’s important that I go. That if I go to college and never come back,  it’s a good thing, because I’ll have chosen my own path.”

The three of them fall asleep huddled together.

Later on, Rachel wakes to the sound of someone humming a gentle tune, in the darkness on the path they took to get up here. April Rose and Howa remain deep in slumber, curled up under the blankets. Howa is snoring.

Rachel disentangles from their limbs and still neither stir, not when she slips on her sneakers, not when she rises, not when she follows the path to the sound.

She does not walk far. At the edge of the plateau, where the grass of the field meets the trees that line the sloping woods, rests a fallen log. There, a woman sits, beautiful in a multicolored dress and a shawl. She brushes her long, flowing black hair in easy, thoughtful strokes. The woman looks up at Rachel.

Rachel knows who she is.

“Hello, Rachel,” says Auntie Wana-yi.



She is in rehab when she gets the news that April Rose Crow Dog drank a bottle of Jack and a bottle of vodka, went to sleep and never woke up again. Another Indian who drank herself to death, another friend gone, and she is sure she has no more tears left to shed.

Rachel is 16 now, and bitter. Enoch remains incarcerated and Leonard has moved to Sioux Falls to start a family of his own, but River still lives at home, and he doesn’t bother to conceal the track marks on his arms. Her mother and father say nothing about that, yet when Rachel is caught with pills, she is sent away to an inpatient clinic south of Watertown, and now must deal with the hassle of outpatient treatment in Agency Village three times a week. How is that fair?

“This is what it means to be winyan,” says Auntie Wana-yi. Rachel stands outside the outpatient treatment center, waiting for her ride. The Tiospa Zina High School is across the street, and though Rachel would hate for her sometimes-classmates to see her at the place where Indians go to halfheartedly stop being the architects of their own doom, she takes comfort in the knowledge that they can’t see Auntie Wana-yi. No one can. “This is what it means to be a Native woman,” says Auntie Wana-yi.

Rachel waits for her to go into one of her stories, something about how when the menfolk would leave for hunting parties, it was up to the womenfolk to do everything to keep the camp alive, including fight off enemy warriors. The typical story of the strength Native women must have. But the Wana-yi in the multicolored dress and shawl says nothing, only watches. Which to Rachel is worse. It feels like judging.  

A Ford Escort with no front bumper and a door the wrong color putters up the street. It’s Howa, her ride. Rachel slides into the passenger seat. The car reeks of the habits of its previous owners—Howa bought it from someone who bought it from someone who bought it from someone else—but there are personal flourishes, like the leather dreamcatcher dangling from the rearview mirror, and the Dakota phrase Matuwe Sdodwakiye written in marker on the dashboard. Rachel traces her finger over the words.

“‘I know who I am,’” Howa interprets, and Rachel repeats it. Howa hits the accelerator, taking the car back onto the street.

Rachel notices a sticker on the door to the glove compartment, a fish with whiskers splashing in water. She asks if Howa likes to go fishing, if it’s a new hobby or something.

Howa looks at her like she has asked something silly. “That’s my name.”

Rachel doesn’t know what she means.

“Howa? Howasapa? Howasapa is ‘catfish,’” she says. “All this time and you didn’t know that was my name?”

In the backseat, Auntie Wana-yi shakes her head.

On the seat between them lies a thick SAT prep book, the key text for a course Howa takes three times a week at the white high school. “Am I driving you home?” she says. “If so, we have to hurry. I’m going to be late to class.”

When Rachel had asked for this ride, she didn’t realize it was going to cut into her friend’s study time. She didn’t realize how she could be harming Howa’s future, harming her own escape.

“Am I taking you home?” Howa repeats. Rachel tells her she needs a moment to think.

And so Rachel thinks about her home, and her mother and father, how their fights have cooled into a shared existence of silent hostility. Rachel is certain that if not for her, her parents would go their separate ways, and maybe that would be for the best.

She thinks about her brothers and what has become of them.

She thinks about what became of Waji. About the happiness and safety she once felt, so long ago, when she was a different person—an innocent, young res princess worried about coyotes in the woods.

Then it dawns on her.

“Heya, here it comes,” says Auntie Wana-yi.

The coyotes were in Rachel’s house all along.

She tells Howa to drive her to the casino. Her father has taken a job at the tribe’s sister casino further north on the highway, a bigger, grander place with a hotel and restaurants. Her father washes dishes at one of them. Rachel tells Howa that if she drops her off, she will take the free shuttlebus and visit him.

“You sure?” Howa asks. Rachel tells her yes, she is sure.

When the car eases to a stop in the parking lot of the casino, Rachel opens the door and puts a foot out, but then leans back in and gives Howa a hug. Tells her she’s always been a good friend.

Cocha, you’re being dramatic,” Howa says. Still, she hugs Rachel back, and when Howa drives off, Rachel watches her go.

Auntie Wana-yi stands beside her. Tucked in the cord belt around her waist is a brush carved of bone, and she pulls it out and begins running it through her long hair.

The wind blows dry and spiteful, and Rachel surveys her kingdom—the picnic table, stained and empty. The overflowing trash bins and cracked asphalt. The eighteen-wheelers, building up their courage to leave. The strangers at the gas pumps, just passing through.

At the edge of the parking lot, a battered Lincoln Continental idles.

“Why am I doing this?” she asks.

“Because it’s time, Rachel,” says Auntie Wana-yi. “There’s no strength in staying, and to go is an act of kindness, an act of love.”

Rachel stares at the Lincoln Continental. At the tinted driver’s side window, the driver she cannot see. She takes a step towards it but hesitates.

“Go on,” says Auntie Wana-yi. “You know how to swim.”

Rachel stands there for a moment, considering the words. Yes, she is sure she knows how to swim, so she walks toward the idling car, and then her hand is on the door handle.

And she is pulling it open.

And she is sliding into the backseat.

And then she is in the river.


Jim Genia—a proud Sioux—mostly writes nonfiction about cagefighting, but occasionally takes a break from the hurt and pain to write fiction about hurt and pain. His book, Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts, was published in 2011 by Citadel Press. His short fiction appears in the Zodiac Review and Electric Spec. Follow him on Twitter @jim_genia.




Sonya Vatomsky

Here Are the Ones That Went

It’s Sunday and we are standing, as we do every Sunday, in the small kitchen of your apartment. There are the white-and-blue cups we gulp tea (and sometimes wine) out of. There is the Soviet kitsch rug, slightly off-centre, nailed to the wall behind the couch. An electric kettle hisses assertively on the Formica counter as an easy silence unspools in the soft space between us. Yet I have no idea where any of these things came from. You didn’t own them when you were alive. 

Today marks three months—thirteen Sundays—since I received the brochure outlining my new government benefit: how many Visits are covered, what to expect, what I should do to promote ‘accelerated healing’. In the centre of the tri-fold is a stock photo of two women laughing. I return to it again and again, searching for a sign that one of the women is less real than the other. That one of the smiles doesn’t quite reach the eyes. I want to know which one represents me and which one represents you and I want to know about laughing—alone, together, or at all. 

The first time I saw you after your death was also a Sunday, warmer than this one, slashes of blue in an overcast sky. I was feeling nostalgic in a way that was probably clinical, drifting numbly past flowers and baked goods at the co-op down the street. The situation called for ice cream, I thought. But what do you like? I couldn’t remember for the life of me. For the life of me, I whispered to myself. Ha-ha. At the self-checkout I scanned a carton of Neapolitan, literally nobody’s favourite. Outside the air was thick with possibility, like something you could climb. A trio of street performers gyrated to a hideous tune.


You live now, insofar as you can be called alive, in an unremarkable building not far from mine. It looks more or less like the other unremarkable buildings on the street, identifiable solely by the number printed above its perfectly ordinary door. Past the entryway is a small lobby: armchairs with just enough wear so as to be welcoming, curated selection of magazines on a reclaimed wood coffee table, sleek Nespresso machine. Nothing strange in here, the building is saying. Just a regular apartment complex. Alternative milks are available. Like me, the building holds its secrets to its chest. 

That first Sunday, we sat on your couch (do you think of it as your couch?) and passed the Neapolitan back and forth. You didn’t mention the flavour, though I noticed you eating more strawberry than vanilla or chocolate. I wonder if you can have a favourite ice cream now, if you can make a new one. I hope, an acidic swirl of hatred in my guts for anyone else you ever knew, that it’s the one you share with me. When I go home my heart breaks and breaks and breaks. 


There is a polar bear in my neighbourhood. I guess it’s kind of like how parts of central London have foxes. Over time, the bear has acquired the mystique afforded a specific type of outsider: volatile enough to respect, enduring enough to tolerate, unique enough to become a sort of offbeat mascot. Local coffee shops sell t-shirts and mugs printed with bear cartoons. I bought a shirt—my neighbourhood! my bear!—and never wear it, not even as pyjamas. 

One day I saw the bear on my street. She was both bigger and smaller than I imagined a polar bear should be. She stank of ripe meat and mud was clumped in the thick white fur of her paws, turning it brown. I wanted to bring her home, rinse her off in the tub, wrap her in a warm towel. Perhaps she would lap beef tartare off my outstretched hands, steal salo from the fridge when I wasn’t looking. Can bears be kept as pets? I made a mental note to check later. As the bear gazed up at me, her dark eyes blinked slowly, like a cat’s. Maybe I am kidding myself, but they reminded me of yours. 


Visits are a new government program being trialled in several postcodes. I stay informed by doomscrolling on multiple social media platforms, as God intended. The wellness community proclaims them a healthy alternative to antidepressants. Charities discuss exporting the program to third-world countries. Entrepreneurs share their strategies for leveraging this and enabling that while corporations make quiet plans to phase out bereavement leave, no longer necessary in a post-bereavement society. I do not yet feel post-bereaved. I do not feel post-anything at all. Brooding and dramatic are among the kinder adjectives friends and colleagues have reported. 

Instead, I think about flooding your apartment building until it is under an ocean so cold my heart stops beating. I think about going to the airport and flying to my childhood home and climbing in bed with my mother. I think about a line from a book that always pushes itself through the stupid crowd of my stupid thoughts: it cannot be made good, not ever. Setting my teacup down, I count my breaths like the brochure suggests. One, two, three. Somewhere around two hundred my fists finally unclench, four half-moons imprinted on each sweaty palm. 


My life is a graceless yawn punctuated by Sundays and Tuesdays. On Tuesdays I am online promptly at 8 a.m. so I can renew my benefit for another week. The government portal creates a sensation of simultaneous perseverance and delirium. I upload the Visit receipts I am handed on my way home from your apartment. I upload photos of an identity document, required weekly even though my identity—horribly, cruelly—remains the same. I mark each day on the calendar with a fat X, willing the future to slam into me. 

And then it is a Sunday, glorious Sunday, and we are together. You are pouring me tea; I am telling you about the bear. You are so, so patient with me, with my meandering anecdotes. Dashenka, you say. I describe the entire reality I have constructed where the polar bear is my roommate. It is an idyllic sitcom life: she has developed a taste for tinned oysters and cloudberry jam, I wake her in the night with my screams. In the mornings she licks my forehead gently. A wild comfort. 

I monologue until I am split open. I think, Soon the benefit will run out. Soon they will take you from me. Soon they will take you from me again and then what will I do, where will I go, whose neck will I howl my grief into? I will look for the bear on my way home, carried by the kind of inertia they teach in physics classes. I am ready to keep moving forever until stopped by an external force. 


A ribbon-cutting ceremony was announced in the newest postcode to join the program. Trucks delivered canapés and crates of Champagne. The mayor, it was promised, would make an appearance; the post-bereaved anointed their wrists with well-reviewed perfumes in anticipation. Overnight the jubilant headlines turned crass, opportunistic: Act of cruelty, or act of God? Champagne was emptied fruitlessly on the blaze and chefs wrung their hands over the thinly sliced eel with new potatoes, painstakingly shaped into a two-up two-down and filled with elderflower jelly. I did not realise flames could go so high. The smoke writhed dark and acrid against the swollen clouds. 

I walk through the ruins on occasion, when a particular mood strikes. It’s necessary to step carefully, avoiding the wilting lilies, one-armed teddy bears, and half-burned votives. What’s left of the building’s foundation is covered in consequence. Most days, a woman guards the destroyed entryway. She is still as a statue, gripping a handmade sign with steady hands. Do not resuscitate. 

Safe in your apartment, I observe your throat, watching closely for a sign of movement under the familiar skin. There’s a constellation of freckles on your collarbone, a slightly over-pronounced vein that travels up your neck to your right marionette line. What happens when I leave, I wonder. Do you wait for other friends, fall asleep? Do your feet trace a pattern predetermined by fate or science or the government? Do you have a rich inner life, or are you a hot piece of glass I pour my dreams into—that expands with my breath? 



Before you died you told me you were thinking of dying. Or thinking about the fact that a person dies, that you were a person and would thus die. ‘I went back to where we were born once’, I confess. To the unnameable city in the unnameable country. It was a lifetime ago. My mother took me to some sad building. The smell was familiar. She pointed at a whorl in the faded hallway carpet. Your uncle died there, she said matter-of-factly. Ours is a legacy of death. We drink tea; we don’t talk about the war. 

When I picture all the days ahead of me I get sick, which I mean figuratively. It is a constant repetition of the same tasks to the point that they feel, must be, useless. Wash hair. Eat toast. Trim fingernails. But the hair collects dirt and oil. The stomach growls. The fingernails grow. They say fingernails keep growing after you die. Do yours? I picture my mother in a funhouse, the mirrors reflecting a hundred mothers. Dashenka, they say together. Grow the fuck up. 

I met the bear again one evening as the heat of too much alcohol worked its way through my bones. The moon was overfed and dangerous, barely lighting the streets; gangs of mosquitoes loitered in corners and doorways like troubled youths. I took a shortcut through the co-op parking lot and there she was, pawing at an unlocked dumpster. The bear sensed me and pulled her head out, lowered herself onto all fours and stared at me cooly. I could swear there was something glinting around her neck and for a moment I was convinced it’s a friendship necklace I gave you when we were kids. Then she turned around and sprinted into the night, off to do bear things and definitely not human things, not weird reincarnation things. I couldn’t move, too drunk to be here or there or anywhere at all. 


The government is anxious that Visits win public approval. Officials hope to eradicate mourning entirely by 2030. Scientific reports about improved patient outcomes and reduced work time lost to frequent distractions are paraphrased and misinterpreted by the media. The findings are promising, politicians assert, but it’s still early days. I was asked to do an exit interview about my experience. 

The interview took place remotely and I agreed to being recorded and to the recording being shared with other government departments. My voice and face, I was assured, would be anonymised; each question bore a silence so long it threatened to swallow the entire world. 

Yes, I used all my permitted Visits. No, my loved one was not able to remember what we talked about the week before. Yes, that was emotionally distressing. Yes, I noticed that my loved one didn’t breathe. 

I stared at the screen after the call disconnected, stared at my reflection in the dark. So that’s it then. One more Sunday. I felt fully emptied of everything, a void so immense it was an astronomical condition. Somewhere, I knew, a scientist was naming me after a terrifying Greek mythological beast. 


The last Sunday I see you, I buy more Neapolitan out of hope that a ritualistic element will neatly bookend this whole nightmare. Teacups cradled in our hands, we sit on your couch, knees touching. The ice cream is uneaten in its carton, liquefying in the summer heat. A whole life-death cycle of organic dairy happening right on your counter. I briefly consider eating you, leaning over to bite off a finger and run home with it in my mouth like a dog. 

I spot the bear as I leave, sitting on her hind paws next to an overgrown hydrangea bush. My hand raises reflexively and waves hello, and although I think she nods her muzzle slightly, it’s hard to tell in the dark. The rest of the week passes uneventfully. Tuesdays and Sundays are days like any other. 

In the autumn, someone will call animal control and the neighbourhood bear will disappear. People will argue online about who made the report, this is why we can’t have nice things, and others will share increasingly improbable sightings: the zoo a few towns over, Blackpool pier, a nightclub in Ibiza. There are still nights when I will wake up screaming, but mostly I will sleep the eight hours the brochure suggests. And I will forget this year, little by little, and that will be not just OK but in fact quite great. The future will roll out in front of me, a mouth hungry with feeling. 


Sonya Vatomsky is the author of SALT IS FOR CURING (Two Dollar Radio/Sator Press, 2015) and the chapbooks MY HEART IN ASPIC (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and AND THE WHALE (Paper Nautilus, 2020), which won the 2019 Vella Chapbook Contest. Sonya’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian Magazine, and more. They were born in the former USSR, live in Manchester, England, and tweet at @coolniceghost.




Jess Silfa


Enrique woke to a scraping, pounding, and a sigh. Even with his eyes closed, he recognized the sound of the mortar and pestle. He recognized the sound of Dolores’ desperation, too, even from another room. He sat up in bed, moved his legs over the edge, and was still for a moment. Then, despite the ache in his groin, he went into the kitchen to find her.

On the kitchen table were an assortment of things; honey, annatto seeds, wine, and molasses. And the mortar and pestle. And, of course, Dolores, looking as pained as her name. He knew she was bleeding again. He could always smell it before it happened: the ripening of her ovaries, the thickening of her empty womb. He never told her when she was ovulating, but he didn’t need to; she knew her body better than any other woman he’d ever been with. For those few days of her cycle, she was pregnant with possibility and so happy. But she was rarely pregnant with anything else. The bleeding would come, and the annatto seeds would be back on the table. It was a recipe she called ancient, though she didn’t know how old it was. He knew she got it from her grandmother, who likely got it from hers. Did the Taino crush annatto seeds beneath rocks for what ailed them? Enrique thought they must have.

Before turning to Dolores, he poured himself some juice and offered her a sip. She shook her head.

“Is the bleeding that bad?” he asked, gesturing to the items on the table.

“No. But I’m still anemic, and that won’t help…” Having a baby. She didn’t finish the sentence, but she didn’t have to. Their entire life had been about babies for the past two years. And they had one, a baby, for a while. For what felt like a second. Then the bleeding.


Once, early on in their relationship, Enrique found a spot of blood on the bathroom floor. He pointed it out to Dolores so she would mop. Instead, she laughed at him and rolled her eyes. “You’re bothering me over a spot? Boy, that’s nothing. I’ve got an ocean inside of me.”

Dolores wasn’t sassy like that anymore.


Enrique sat across from her, spinning the bottles of honey and molasses. “What’s the difference between these anyway?”

“The sweets?” Dolores paused her crushing motions. “Molasses has a lot of iron, but it’s thick. Busy.”


“Complicated.” Dolores scrunched up her face. Enrique could tell she was trying to find the right word in English. “Complex.”  She smirked, pleased with herself. “It’s complex.”

“And the honey?”

“Just sweet. Thinner.”

“Are you going to do this forever?”

Dolores looked at him through her bangs. He wanted to push them out of her face but feared she might bare her teeth if he got too close. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s good for me.”

It’s futile, Enrique wanted to say. Instead: “What does the wine do?”

“It’s fortified. Plus, it helps with the taste.”

“We could be getting drunk with this, you know?”

“Is getting drunk going to help?”

Carlos had been conceived while they were drunk. It wasn’t the time to bring that up. Enrique pointed to the mortar and motioned for Dolores to hand it to him. “Let me help with that.” He had never made an iron treatment or ground anything but weed, but he wanted to help. Dolores smiled—a genuine smile—then pushed the mortar across the table. With every roll of the pestle, he thought of ways to tell her.

I was so worried.

The doctor said another pregnancy could kill you.

It was a quick outpatient procedure.

The vasectomy can be reversed.

Enrique knew he’d never say that last one, even if he said the ones before it. He kept crushing and pounding until the annatto seeds were powdered and stained his hands a delicate, translucent red.


Jess Silfa is an Afro-Latinx, disabled, nonbinary writer from the South Bronx, currently living in Nashville. They have received a Displaced Artist Fellowship from Vermont Studio Center, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Ricardo Salinas Scholarship. They are working on a novel about a community rocked by the war on drugs and a chapbook about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women and infertility.




Meara Carlin

Death’s Gambit

I.      The Pawn

They called us the Golden Hour 7. They said we were the forgotten youth with wasted potential. So, we lined up like ducks in a row ready to prove we were worthy of glory. They gave us grey wool with seven gold-plated buttons, a uniform sewn just as hastily as the war began. Seven buttons for seven men. A sense of pride would uplift our posture adorned in the scratchy uniform. The gold-plated buttons stitched down the middle used to glint when the sun hit them just right. Now, we barely had any left. The empty spaces where they once sat only elicited a reminder of all the ways we lost them. 

The sky was weeping the day Alden showed up to camp, like the Earth knew it would soon fold him into its arms. Alden was fourteen. The youngest of us. We all still remembered his mother’s grief-stricken face as she dropped him off at camp because he was too young to drive. Her face, sunken with hunger and years, had haunted us all. But her face has been replaced in our nightmares. Now all we saw was Alden’s face, frozen in agony. What used to be a round, youthful face filled with wonder was now but a husk of a human being with eyes dead to this world. His face so covered in dirt we could trace the path of his tears all the way down his neck. There was no time for us to mourn the boy who met death too soon, who shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. We continued on. Alden added to a long list of people that would join our nightmares. 

They told us we would be respected—tunnelers always were—but we were the lowborns. They put us where we couldn’t be seen, ashamed that the likes of us could win them a war. We crawled beneath the Earth, where they thought we belonged. The wails and thudding of shovels could still be heard, waking and dreaming. The walls of our manhole-sized tunnel glistened with promises of blue skies and fresh air, but they never seemed to come. We entered as the Golden Hour 7, but left as four—and soon after, even fewer. The voices in our head and obsidian Tether in our soul were rooted deep. At first, the tether was small, breakable even, but the more we disobeyed the more it grew. The obsidian splintered off, taking control of everything. Not just our arms and legs, but our lungs and stomachs too. We fought the tug and the sharp pull of the instructions from Command, but the Tether would just dig deeper causing our vision to black out from the pain. It wasn’t the only thing we fought. The grey wool started killing us all on its own, suffocating us with heat and mud. We started counting the hours, the days, the weeks until they would allow us to claw our way out into the sunlight. Scratching tally marks into our skin like prison walls. At golden hour on the eve of New Year’s, the voices urged us forward, the timers were set, and the explosives went off. The Tether pulled our puppet bodies through the motions of our final attack. 

We had heard the stories of units pushed to the brink of exhaustion with the sole purpose of making it harder for them to fight Command when they sent them into the enemy’s hands. The enemies that remain faceless and nameless, so when we look them in the eyes, we don’t see their families when they’re finally embraced by the Earth once more. We were sacrificial pawns, unable to even move without their okay. So, as we rushed forward against our will, we were bathed in mud, blood, and the last rays of a violent sunset. We never allowed ourselves the comforts of being grateful we were alive. We knew we were all already dead. 


Sara used to say, “It’s a necessary evil.” At least that’s what they told everyone. The streets of our town were littered with posters telling us our country needed us. The posters were always colorful with catchy slogans that pulled us in, like the promise of a good warm meal. They lied. And it wasn’t just a simple white lie that rolled off the tongue. This wasn’t a lie told between friends to keep the balance neutral, or one told from mother to daughter to preserve her dreams about how the world could be. No, this lie was heavy. It burned the tongue and throat of the speaker and swirled around in their gut, churning unpleasantly. It clung to the speaker like an oily second skin. They swallowed it down and spun their straw into golden words that were whispered into the ears of the vulnerable, into the ears of the powerful, into the ears of the masses. And soon enough, the lie became the truth. It started to burn less coming out, and just like snakes, they eventually shed their oily second skin. We were told what we were doing was honorable. We came from the home of the brave, didn’t we? The brave and free. That’s what we were, but they lied. They took us away, broke us down, and whispered, “It’s all for the greater good.” We preemptively strike, thinking we’re in charge of this chess game, except we weren’t even playing. We were just the pawns and they were making war for fun. 

They spoke through a personification, trying to disguise themselves as one of us. “We want you!” They wanted bodies in the field to wield destruction. No responsibility, no consequences in this life. Men sat lavishly, equating lives to green dollar signs, leaving the role of dying to the poor. Our blood was made of diamonds to be sold. Everything slow and heavy, made ready for extraction. Shuttled like cattle onto the kill floor. Whether it was jungles, deserts, beaches, the field always ended up shining red. Once our bodies were no longer of use to the lavish men, we were thrown out. Our blood no longer precious. We went from invaluable to expendable. Our lives were valued by how well we could die. How well we could kill. There was no after, only before. Whether dead or not, we were ghosts either way. They lied to us and we paid the price.


II.    The King

We lied. It was a simple lie, really. One to keep the cogs oiled and moving. It used to keep him up at night until he realized how simple it really was.

Knowledge isn’t power.

Money is power.

Supply and demand is power.

Power is in resources.

We advertise, and it’s distributed to the brainwashed masses in the form of motivational slogans. It’s a fair exchange, preferable. He used to want the credit, the glory that was brought to kings and emperors when they won a war, but times were different. So, we hid our work in plain sight. We targeted the weak within our own country, telling them exactly what they needed to hear. They were the most loyal when their will was finally broken. It was simple really.

The grandfather clock struck midnight. Four dings boomed through the room, bouncing off each mahogany-covered wall and landing in his lap. His tailor-made suit and crystal glass full of Pappy Van Winkle were illuminated by the yellow lamplight that dimly shone on a table in the middle of the room. It cast shadows on the walls that curled inwards, threatening to swallow him whole. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought. The only thing properly lit in the room was the ivory carved chess board in the middle of the table, the Smith-Morra Gambit set up in full view. He always played white. It brought him a sense of comfort; after all, he was playing for the greater good. Black could set a Siberian Trap, he thought, but he knew they wouldn’t. They were weak and unskilled. The opening had begun and it would succeed. All he needed was his blood diamonds, his soldiers, his pawns. Invaluable pieces of a war machine. White must make sacrifices to open up the playing field. His tunnelers would set the stage, and their offering would ensure a successful attack. He picked up his white pawn, slowly moving it forward, feeling a Tether deep within his soul go taut. Once the ivory hit the board, he felt the Command go down the line to his tunnelers. And now, all he had to do was wait. He had all the time in the world to play. 

The shadows seemed poised to strike him as he stared and stared at the endless possibilities carved into pieces of ivory. Not a single thought except the construction of destruction. The man in the tailor-made suit sat and pondered. He may have seen the ever-lumbering shadows surrounding him, but he didn’t feel their hunger. Didn’t feel the cloaked figure patiently waiting for him. As he moved his pawns around, no consequences befell him, making war just for fun. But the figure waited their turn to see him eternally burn.


III.     The Queen

Good and evil aren’t black and white. What people don’t understand is that evil gathers in masses. Like bloodhounds on a scent, it gravitates towards people that sing its praises. But no one is born evil, I should know. The occasions I saw pure evil, it came in through the mind. It spread like rot, contaminating the mind first, then the heart. And when it finally stopped spreading, there was nothing left. The eyes of its vessels are always vacant and cold. Apathy written in permanent red marker across their faces. They morph their features into those of empathy, mimicking the behaviors of others to hide in plain sight. Through these experiences, I have come to understand that man is the cruelest of animals. Evil swirls around them without any interference. It infects, spreads, and triumphs while men sit and watch.

I drift through the world, noticed and unnoticed. Many wail and scream in my presence. Some are relieved, and some feel nothing at all. My job is an unpleasant one, but necessary. There isn’t one soul in this world that I don’t meet in the end. Some days I hesitate allowing them as much time as possible. On a few rare occasions, I rejoice because they deserve it—the agony that will follow. I clean up mess after mess of theirs, waiting in the shadows to finally claim them. Savoring the day when terror floods their veins.

I grant as many wishes as I can to their victims, knowing it will never make up for the pain they felt in life. Many strangled hopes whispered in my ear following the tune of, “Take them instead of me.”

“Spare me.”

“Help me.”

This is often accompanied by a chorus of loud gunshots or explosions in the background. Sometimes there’s screaming and sometimes there’s just silence, the darkness already doing their job and clocking out before I get there. I sit on the sidelines, listening, trying my best, but it isn’t my job to help them. All I can do is grant them a little more time, but even that is never enough. War is a craven, fickle thing brought upon by craven, fickle men. If given a decision between war and compromise, they will always pick war. Never ones to pass up the easier option. So, I sit in the shadows that curl inward, ready to devour, watching the man in the tailor-made suit move his ivory pawns across his playing field. He always plays white to make himself feel better, but he knows full well that those pawns are people. People that I have had to collect. I see him pretend, playing at being me. And never have I felt hunger so consuming. 

I remember the boy buried deep beneath the Earth. Tick marks carved into his arm. His blue eyes, once bright with love for the world, are now dull and decades older than they should be. His mud-splattered face interrupted by his trail of tears. He feels me coming and he turns to me with a smile that shouldn’t be as bright as it is.

“Will it stop hurting?”

I nod. His shoulders sag with relief.

“I thought I was already dead. In hell, or maybe purgatory,” he swallows, his breathing becoming shallow. “You’re less scary than I thought you’d be.” Time is up, and I do something I’ve never done. Like the cooling breeze of a fall afternoon, I whisper, “You already lived through the punishment of this life; now, it’s time for after.” His eyes close with the ghost of a smile still on his lips. The pain eases out of his body as I snap the obsidian Tether, allowing the boy to be collected in peace. Many millennia have passed and I collect without word or complaint, but even I can be haunted. And when he is finally laid to rest, I take the steps two at a time, spiraling down into my rage.


I have all the time in the world to wait. And I don’t have to wait long. The man in the tailor-made suit brings his last sip of bourbon to his lips. Not even a second later, his left arm starts to shake as he clutches at his chest, trying to suck in a shaky breath. Beads of sweat start to form on his temple as he gasps like a fish out of water. The man struggles, unable to call for help. I soak in his pain, savoring it like the last crumb of food. The terror in his black eyes like rays of sunshine poking through the clouds on a rainy day. I glance towards the grandfather clock: four past twelve. I begin to step forward, morphing myself into a depraved nightmare, wanting to taste his fear. My rage charging forward with teeth yearning to cause him the same pain he caused that boy. The shadows follow me, humming in my wake.

And when the clock strikes five past midnight, I smile. Only on rare occasions are the deserving’s time cut short, served to me on a golden platter. So, yes, I smile. Because this is one of those few rare occasions.


Meara Carlin is a second-generation Muslim American. She grew up in a small town in Virginia and recently received her B.S. degree in Geology from The College of William and Mary. Although a science major, writing was always a passion that accompanied her throughout her life, including everything from journaling, to scientific writing, to screenplays. She hopes to continue her journey into the world of creative writing.




Dan Shields

Chrestomathy in Stainless Reduction

Here’s Pap, sweaty and slagged. Back home from another day on the floor, retrieving Grandma’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking from the cupboard. His own aching back gives him as hard a time as the language on the pages. “If I’d have known a shallot was just a goddamn fancy onion, I would have pinched a fat one from Nick’s roadside stand rather than drive fifteen miles to the Giant Eagle in Cruikshank,” he says. Spare a thought for the teenaged employees at the Giant Eagle in Cruikshank. Stacking paper towels in the late afternoon, watching a pair of overalls covered in asbestos approach with an ingredients list for quiche Lorraine.

Fifty years of this: Grandma wakes up at 4 a.m. She makes them both breakfast before they leave for work—him at the steel mill, her at the injection clinic. He eats a pan-fried egg then packs his lunch—a ham sandwich, warmed over the arc furnace. “All these recipes up here,” Grandma says, touching her head. “All this talent.” Pap claims the world isn’t any less dangerous when it’s predictable, and change is like a cold breeze blowing through a cracked window. He insists their lives are hard enough without introducing little whirls into them. “Yes, yes, my darling. I understand,” Grandma says. In the evenings Pap presses her feet. Lets her be the patient for a change. He asks her, “left arm or right?”, and kisses the spot where she points. His appetite never wavers, for fried eggs or otherwise. I imagine him hunting the house for cracked windows, slamming shut the mouth of time.

What Death lacks in tenderness, it makes up for in courtesy. It takes Grandma by the hand. It escorts her to work, and when she can no longer work it keeps her company on the living room sofa. It shows up in X-rays, biopsies, and MRIs and says, “I just thought you’d might like to know that this is where I’m headed next.” Death helps her choose the best photos. The one where she and Pap are at the swim club as kids, and her hands are cupped, pouring water over his slick blonde locks. The one where he’s giving her a piggyback through the threshold of their house, her bridal gown cascading onto the empty wooden floor. Death helps assemble the album. When it is complete, Grandma gives it to Pap and says, “Remember it like this.” I imagine him confused at the transparency of Death’s work. Every day he wakes up and there Death is, in bed with him, breathing softly as the day before. Whispering good morning with a wounded voice. Good morning, Death, he thinks. Perhaps if I made you breakfast . . .

That album is on my lap now and I’m flipping, flipping. There’s a photo of Pap and Grandma dancing at the Lion’s Club for a church fundraiser. He’s dipping her impossibly low, verve bursting from the Kodachrome. There’s another one clipped from the local paper—she’s kissing his cheek outside the Giant Eagle in Cruikshank, and he’s dressed as Santa, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. Here’s one of him alone, wearing work overalls outside his house, hands behind his back and smiling. Looking like borrowed peace.

I imagine Pap retired, pricing out trailers in the classifieds. Looking for something a few hammer swings away from a chicken coop. He cooks his own eggs now, after all. Scrambled, shirred, over easy—why pay for them anymore? Every Sunday he invites me over to try something new, something he wishes he’d have let Grandma try when he could. But more than anything I imagine him happy, covered in scale on his last day at the mill. Right before the rollers jammed and shot a white-hot cobble into his chest, into his wrought iron heart, a French omelet recipe sealed in his pocket. Finally free of change, Death, and this slaughterhouse country.

I flip to the last photo in the album. There’s Pap and Grandma, young again, sitting on the front stoop of their house at night. Snow shovels in hand. A stolen moment between digging out their cars for work the next day. His arm is around her and she’s tilting her head back, marveling at something right above them. The quiet, or the falling sky, or how the sky was accumulating ceaselessly beneath their feet. This is the coveted world. The one he sees when he closes his eyes, the storm in the gears building up behind him. Thinking about how nice the eggs poached in red wine were settling in his belly, right where they belonged. Returning to the stoop on that night, and how her breath felt so warm in the raw atmosphere. How eternity was big, but it had a shape he could just make out on the road. How, through his mittens and her coat and their layers and layers of sweaters, he could still feel her pulse humming in her waist, going on and on without end, like the gentle white earth unfolding all around them.


Dan Shields is from Middletown, Pennsylvania, home of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of 1979. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver, WAS, Sky Island, and others. Find him on Twitter @DanDotShields.




Eun Jung Decker

A repetition of longing

In the ocean with my grandmother, who I never met

Do you know what halmoni means? Because I did not. Even as the cold water somehow sealed me in, locking the sun and air away as I sunk. Even as a vague burning began to rise deep within my ribs. Even as I opened my screaming mouth, foam from my lungs mixing with the churned ocean, replacing air with water, eyes straining in their sockets. Her surprisingly strong hand (did I mention how little she was? Even as I was dying, I thought to myself, huh, she is tiny) grabbed my wrist and dragged me to the surface with the determination of a mother leaving a store with a tantrumming child. Suddenly still, I watched the back of her head as her long ponytail trailed her. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the clothing surprising me for some reason more than her appearance at that moment, she did not look back at me but tightened her vice around my wrist as the ocean tossed us around. The brine in my mouth turned to barley, the waves became current, my battered lungs letting out the last of the air in perfect bubbles as we approached the surface. I watched the bubbles wobble in tired disinterest. 

Keeping hold of my wrist with one hand, her other hand curled under my chin, delicate and knowing, tilting my head toward the looming sun. As the surface gave way to air, she hooked her finger along the back of my mouth, searching for sea and retirement, and then brought my whole body against hers, her tiny hands patting my back, humming gently as she waited for water to rise from my throat, and I gasped those ragged first breaths of someone who forgot to breathe. As my breath slowed from gasp to rhythm, she let go, her warmth turning into memory on my skin. 

Eyes that looked like mine stared through me through time. You are not done, she whispered in my air in a language I did not know. We have not come this far to lose you now. 


On the earth with my grandmother, who I have never met

I inherited these three dimples from her that only appear when I purse my lips just so (rarely) or force myself to smile (less often these days). Three dimples, a fading ellipse, trail down the side of my chin, pointing us up or down. I inherited these three dimples and the ability to run full steam into a burning house and gather what is precious to me, forthcoming scars and all. 

I was running amid familiar flames, and she grabbed my wrist in her unending way. The now and suddenly familiar ache blooming in my shoulder as I closed my eyes.

“That fire is not for you,” she whispered, her breath skimming only my sweat-soaked ear. 

The fire is now sliding its tongue against a charred knife blade as I begin to slow. The heat pushes the moisture from my body, my slick arms a mirror in which the blaze disintegrates and reorganizes. I look at her, maybe for the first time (though I saw her once before and a thousand times before), and see three dimples, a fading constellation on the side of her chin. My breath settles as I trace lines along her forehead, a repetition of longing, and peer into eyes dark like the ends of time. 


Everywhere with my grandmother, who I have never met

My grandmother plucked at a lone guitar string and sent it shivering into the cool, dark expanse between then and now. She sent a note that only I could hear, a note that sent my spine straight as I sat at my desk and rain pitter-patted on that Friday morning. 

My grandmother speaks to me in a language I cannot understand but feels like home. She wants to tell me about a child left with wolves and a house on fire. She wants to tell me about soft, crying bodies under hard men, something about a space above your body you can go to in order to survive.

Her fingers comb through my unbrushed hair, occasionally touching my shoulder blades where wings used to be, as she gently pulls apart tangles. She tells me about a child that laid in her arms that lit up the sky and a heartbeat free in the wild wind. She begins to braid my hair, a rhythm of closing in and letting go, as she tells me about a land that is warm and curves around her body like a mother’s hand. 

We watch a small, brown bird glide overhead as twilight and dawn tangle through our hair, and she tells a story of forever in a language I do not understand yet but am starting to hear. Her words somehow make their way through and stick, building me a house. Mun is door. Ib is mouth. Ttal is daughter. 보 금 자 리is our home.


Eun Jung Decker was born in Korea, adopted to Minnesota, and found home in Southern California. She is one of those people that believes passionately in our shared humanity, even when, you know, everything that happened in that past 6 years happened. She loves to write in different genres, sometimes at the same time, with wildly varying degrees of success.




Jace Brittain

The Polycarpists and their mouths

Was down on old highway 395, they said, a car aflame and just driving along. As much fire as there was Chevrolet. This was after the thing with Claudia Trach, Lisa Trach’s oldest—such a tragedy, there where the white cross still in the dirt and always the bouquet flowers dying, blowing, and becoming part of the brush. So because of that and now this, people think like one-thing-after-another. The word about. Jawing away. But what Mr. Avery reminded them was: no collision. From his place up Via Cantamar, Mr. Avery said he had watched the car wind up 395 blazingly bright, pretty much—on that dark night—the only source of light this side of the freeway. Be hard to say what was wrong besides the car being on fire. Consistent across all accounts was something to the effect of, Engulfed in flame. Not smoking and a little glow, not hot tongues licking from under the hood, no: entire. Wild. A fireball.

A couple boys parked for some midnight chow who saw it roll past the Nessy Burger said the car stopped at a stoplight and then went at the green accelerating slowly the flames large enough to obscure even a glimpse of the driver. If there was a driver, repeated Margaret Godert who had not herself seen the car. I felt it in my teeth, knew it was a fire and thank the lord it was only the car dry as the canyon is this year, there’s nerves you know run from the lungs to the teeth, haven’t you ever heard that? It’s a famous feeling.

The oldest Brae-Landry sister awake with her chronic pins-and-needles witnessed it, she said: as close as you and I are standing, and she was certain there was no driver. Up the hill away, almost to Gopher Canyon, she saw it. And she was just as certain it was teenage Epicureans—as she said: behind it all. Can’t you see—there’s always been talk, small town west. Lips moved by corruption, the things which move in the brush. Things from before.

Naturally, the giggling that followed didn’t slow her down, in fact, naturally, she went on something of a tear positing and spitting and connecting dots as far flung as the collapse of the community center’s roof, the gastrointestinal troubles epicentered at the Greek Chicken, the freeze which uselessly dropped so many avocados from their branches, all those cracked concrete chimneys folks had to have removed at such expense, burst pipes, strange men door-to-door offering to repave your driveway, dead birds floating in bird baths, the coyotes those coyotes, the gas prices, and thirty plus students at Mae Ellis who were pathologically unable to stop crying.

Hearers snickered. Audient to such things as these and saying, how peculiar, without ever setting their minds to wander the paths—the obvious paths!—from one to the next.

Christians! Contagious crying and you laugh, she said, call yourselves Christians and contagious crying makes you laugh. Are you an Epicurean, Hugo? They knew where she went to church and they knew where she went to church before that and why she left that church and vowed never to and so on. Those that knew her, really knew her, laughed along only nervously.

Ivan heard it from Alex Lee about Mrs. Brae-Landry being on the news and thought it would be good for a laugh, but they really let her talk longer than he could recall any one head on the morning or evening local. No footage of the car—just the old bat flapping her kisser, wasn’t it in someone’s power to cut her off anyways, so he changed the channel. Comes the thought he didn’t watch the news much anymore or TV at all. An odd occurrence not to have been texted a link. Did Alex watch the news? Or had she simply passed on a tip that someone had given her? What were these channels—anyways—these channels, what were these movies and commercials, what were these products being hawked, where were the handsome hairdos, and what were these channels on which: for example, a woman who threw oranges at two men on an escalator, an ad for a burger with animated livestock, a student who pulled a knife in shop class on other students grabbing at each other’s testicles and such things, people stretching their mouths behind the reporter for the camera opened wide for the camera. 

Johnny’s older brother told them and told it a little witchy so Gilbert, Johnny’s best friend ignoring Johnny’s texts pleading to come with, he drove alone to where some said the car had later rolled to a stop and burned up. Shaking nerves himself, Gil set his buzzing phone to silent and slowly with reverence walked the boundary lines of a blackly burned rectangle. After mending fences with a gift of dino chicken nuggets, hot plate, he repeated to Johnny that he had not disturbed the square. Johnny tried to fit as many dino chicken nuggets in his mouth as possible, a feat that returned the meal to mush. Gil laughed. They kissed each other’s dino chicken nugget slick lips so quietly in the basement even though things weren’t so secret anymore.

By now, the idea of the burned square held as much intrigue as the inflamed stories of the night of. Kids went out there. Weird part of town, nowhere safe to park. No sidewalks. Bit by a dog while kicking the dirt near the small burned square where some said it, the car, had settled and completed its immolation, Randall Krieger the little shit deserved to be bit by a dog some said. Nobody not even a mother can talk sense into that kid so everybody who had ever tried took pleasure in the nonsense he cried at the dog’s behest. Mutt held on too. Locked on till Clark showed up, but Clark more or less let him split, made a racket and didn’t fire his gun. Drove the bastard Krieger to the hospital, but wasn’t about to wing a local hero, man or beast. When the nurse asked about the look of the animal, Clark hemmed and hawed a little . . . foamy, he said. Rich dark fur but mangy, yeah, mangy. Wild bloodshot eyes and what’s the word: rabid. Earned that Krieger extra time with their instruments.

Thing is, Norma Dover told a friend, I’ve seen that dog again and again there, where the brush is burned to the car’s cold rectangle, and it’s clean and it’s smart and it knows something about it all. I’m thinking I’d want to be dosed up with something somehow spiritual just as much as medical.

Who had told Vincent about the burned square, he couldn’t recall. Car sized; a rectangle burned black on the roadside. He recovered from the scene a hubcap pulled from beneath ashy soil he dusted clean like an archeological find one of those old spokey looking things of a style he’s sure is now considered tacky. It was imperfect. Burned a bit, with spokes fused some at one end or the other of the radius. He told only Joe, oldest pal, and otherwise denied its existence to the folks to whom Joe’s wife had spilled. It leaned for a while against the wall on the mantel, but such a traditional place of pride seemed to diminish the object’s secret powers and after he relocated it to a shelf of no note in a dark closet, he felt a strength in the rundle return.

Jenny Jacobs sorta forgot about the car but the oldest Mrs. Brae-Landry mentioned it in her living room when Jenny Jacobs was visiting. Once they were seated, she set her tea to the side and looked at her notes and stated her premise again: we’re supposed to ask people who’ve lived in the community for a long time, like you, about what you think has changed. In the community.

The woman talked at length. The house was busy, Jenny couldn’t stop seeing while she listened: the wallpaper and its patterned bougainvillea, framed photographs of family members and pet rats as well as postcards with sweet mottos about pet rats, cherubic statues and crystal candy bowls and crystals, stars made of sticks strung together—at one point, a younger Brae-Landry sister, of course also technically elderly, came through dirt-caked mumbling and drooling cursing the critters that consume everything living and green. Might have been the sister that a few years ago got everyone at the First Methodist on Church Row so worked up for prating a whole little cadre of old ladies into utter devotion to that Polycarp who had heard and recorded the accounts of the disciples—a convincing kind of directness maybe, after all: from the mouths of! A saint who, apparently nonflammable, had to be stabbed to death. What a medium, she’d say, what a channel! A little off, if you saw her, the younger, walking to the Ralphs, you might point and say something. Some of Jenny Jacob’s classmates thought this assignment was bottom tier.

But she was inclined to listen to old ladies and was generally inclined toward their accoutrements, their stories, their ceremonial insistence on offering food, inclined to help where she could too. It really wasn’t much—changed a light bulb, removed from the oven cookies of which she was then invited to partake, things such as that. On a visit the following winter, Jenny used a strangely hooked tool to loose the catch on an old fashioned flue in the Brae-Landrys’ chimney. Although the fireplace seemed long out of use, it was a simple turn and a satisfying click. All it took. Unseasonably cold and a bug going around—people were convinced—on the very chill of the wind, or so said the mayor, an unelected volunteer of an unincorporated township. In any case, the oldest Brae-Landry expressed her gratitude again and at length: how nice to sit in that glow again. 

As Jenny sat scraping clean a second bowl of homemade ice cream, the oldest Brae-Landry opposite stroked gently a soft brown and white rat that had scuttled up onto her knee. Do you remember, Jenny, the car aflame and driving down old highway 395? She nodded—of course, she was also aware how the story had changed, how the list of witnesses had grown long improbably including so many of her classmates, how the height of the flames had grown as well as, in some cases, the number of fiery drivers and the number and fierceness of their devilish eyes, some indeterminate shifting colors to the glow cast in the canyon, descriptions of a tentacular being with biting, reaching beaks to nip passing pedestrians, and how dull it became to listen so quietly to all these really identical variations. Nodded, a wandering eye, and a muttered word about the habits of liars. This sister Brae-Landry liked Jenny and said so often, and she wanted to help Jenny and said so often, threatened spells, offered the powers of her speech. 

The woman lowered the cup from her lips, smacking energetically. Any calumners among your peers, Jenny? Or—slanderers. Do you have bullies, Jenny Jacobs? They’ll prey on your sweetness, I’ve seen it. Heard such things when they can’t recognize what’s powerful.

No. The rat closed his eyes and flexed his claws and wriggled in such a way on the fabric of the woman’s skirts that the sound that replaced the silence seemed like the lapping flames. Just an association maybe. No, Jenny insisted.

Mrs. Brae-Landry set the rat on the floor, and it disappeared beneath the furniture, and the woman writhed over to kneel in front of young Jenny Jacobs and say:

If ever you have such foes, little sister: say to me their names and I’ll see to it they live long and talkative lives in this town.

The TV, a newish flatscreen, which Jenny had helped to wire up played an old game show where contestants had to guess someone’s job. An applause sign that hummed neon, maybe. The host was growing frustrated with the obvious. Before long, the township had no mayor at all.

Up the road, a neighbor who mostly kept to themselves had begun to wave at Jenny Jacobs on her way. This neighbor’s hedgerow, obsessively maintained, afforded such a view of comings and goings. To themselves they had begun to note the time, almost accidentally, the regularity of it. Waved to each sister Brae-Landry when she passed too, always solemnly, discretely, day after day—without record.


Jace Brittain is the author of the novel Sorcererer (Schism 2022). Their writing, poetry, and translations appear in Dream Pop Journal, Apartment Poetry, Snail Trail Press, Deluge, dadakuku, and others. In collaboration with the poet and book artist Rachel Zavecz, they run the small press Carrion Bloom Books. Twitter: @jacebrit, Instagram: @ jace_brittain.




Mialise Carney

We Are Not What Divides Us

In the van at night, I watch my husband play poker on his phone beneath the blanket. I watch like most women watch, silent and allowing, unwilling to enter another fight as if we weren’t in the desert in a discount van to leave his desire for luck and chance behind. We’d told our families that we sold our two-bedroom, with enough land for future children to grow, so we could travel before settling down. How delightful it was, my husband had said, to shed our earthly burdens. He’d bet everything, even my retirement, on the cards that never turned up in his favor. I close my eyes and wait for the desert to cleanse us both.

In a gas station, we learn of the Father. A leader of a community of devout men, devout to the earth and its harvest more than to a higher power. My husband would never pass on the opportunity to meet such a fruitful man, so we get directions scrawled on a napkin that I interpret even in the dark. I am happy to visit a commune, to stay at a place without cell service and to meet someone who can help my husband find our purpose.

When we arrive, the Father opens the front door to his home and gladly welcomes us in. A black hole of dread opens in my stomach when, in the front room, I see an ancient beige desktop monitor set up on a betting screen. No matter where we drive, it seems, we always end up closer to trouble than further away. 

After introductions, my husband sits down with Father eagerly to play. Father is a silent figure, dressed in a white smock dotted with dirt or some other earth-stain. I’ve never seen a man look like he’d be more at home on a stage, his gestures too wide and his voice too big, hesitating after speaking like he is waiting for applause or a laugh or a groan, which I, in my discomfort, oblige.

I chew my fingernails as my husband wagers what little we have left: pocket change, his wedding ring, a traveler’s check from my mother I’d hid underneath the passenger seat of the van. He comes close to winning each time, and I feel the odds almost turning in our favor, but Father always, humbly, comes out on top, clicking to flip over his better hand.

It is drawing close to midnight when my husband’s shoulders sink pitifully and he says, “Father, I’m all out of money. I have nothing more to lose.”

Father shifts in his seat, the wooden legs creaking on the floor. “A man with such a beautiful wife is still a very rich man,” he says.

My husband kisses me on both eyelids and then bets me on his hand. He clicks and clicks and I watch and listen to the fake sounds of a casino tinkling through the speakers. It’s dry and warm as an oven in the front room but when he loses me, I go cold and wet all over.

The Father leans back in his chair, crosses his ankle over his knee so I can see the bottom of his foot, calloused but surprisingly clean. He tells my husband he can stay for the night but will leave me behind in the morning.

 “I lost my love, my lovely,” my husband says, kneeling to hug me around the waist.

 “You can’t have loved her so much if you wagered her like pocket change,” Father says. Husband weeps into my stomach, I hold his head and stare at our three clear figures reflected in the large windows. I feel only a sorrow so expected and heavy I want to lie on the ground and be buried beneath its weight.



In the morning, I wake to my husband tying his shoes, propped up close to my face on the mattress. I watch his thin fingers fumble with the knot. When I ask him to promise that he will return for me, he kisses my forehead and leaves through the door.

I stand behind Father and watch as my husband climbs into my van, our van, the van I bought off Craigslist when I decided I wanted to travel, to get away from my home and my life before my husband pleaded that I take him too, that we could find our love again on the road. I believed him because I wanted to be loved, so I got out of the van and handed him the keys that he now starts the engine with while I look on over Father’s shoulder.

Father holds up his hand in one solemn wave, but I can’t see my husband’s face in the glass, and I don’t know if he’s looking at me, if he’s crying or stoic, if he knows he has made a mistake. The tires churn up rocks that skitter across the path as he pulls away. I remember the feeling of driving the van home for the first time, the way it shuddered on the highway and I was jittery with adventure and then desperately trapped by my own fear, the huge unknowing that stretched before me like rows of shark teeth. I was so aware of my fleshiness and all of the ways I could get hurt going it alone. I hope my husband feels that too now, the danger of freedom, of being just one body adrift in space. I hope this fear will bring him back to me.

I meet the Brothers later, after I am shown the kitchen in Father’s home and how to cook his favorite breakfast: oats, thick with goat milk on the stove. After I’ve cleaned up, I follow Father out to the fields behind the house. He calls them fields, but they’re not quite fields as I know them—I’ve driven through stretches of wheat, shifting like dancers in the wind, so careless I wanted to pull over, lie down, and wrap myself up in rustling. These fields are bare-cracked desert that flake up in fine clouds when I stamp over it in my sandals, and I wonder how they could prophesize anything will grow.

Men sprout slowly into view, dotted across the desert in denim pants and jackets, deep blue faded to a near-white. It’s so warm that the blood in my hands pool by my sides and I can feel my wedding band, department-store silver, tighten around my skin.

 Father removes his hands from their tuck in his sleeves and gestures towards the men who take off their hats in welcome. “This is our livelihood,” he says, so solemnly that a shiver tickles the underside of my biceps, the weight of this mission holy as a church. But I don’t see anything living, beyond the men, for miles.

I shade my eyes from the sun, my moist forehead sticking to the curve of my hand. “Father,” I say, “What livelihood? I don’t see.”

A man, who Father introduces as Brother Seven, approaches me with a long-handled rake. “Don’t worry, Mother. Father teaches us all how to see.”

I take the rake in my hand and little splinters prickle my palm. My chest tightens with the way he calls me mother. It feels heavy in a different way, like the prayers I’ve whispered into my knuckles on a walk home alone late at night. Father pats me on the shoulder. I emit radio waves, extend out across the plains, around the earth and up and out into the universe. I imagine how they’ll never stop traveling, they’ll only grow weaker with distance and time. “Go now, my child,” Father says, “Brother Seven will teach you the way.”



While we work the fields, Father sits on a lifeguard tower above the desert. It’s a classic tower, white and wooden, paint whipped and chipped from the beating sun and storms. He holds a rusting umbrella in his right hand and binoculars in his left, and he watches us as we rake back and forth. I wonder, with him being so far above, if he can see something we can’t, if we’re making our own little messages for someone much bigger and higher to read.

I rake quick lines like I’ve been told, but by the time I’ve reached the end, the wind has smoothed my effort, like I’d done nothing at all. When I grow frustrated, Brother Eleven smiles so knowingly I want to crush a small animal between my hands. He tells me that it happens to us all. I watch his metal rake grind, twinge, and bump off rocks and other small things hidden beneath the surface. I think this work will never be done.

It’s only been a few weeks, so I try not to worry, I need to have faith that my husband will return for me. He’s never lost me on a game but he has left me behind at a table as an IOU. He hasn’t left me this long, but it’s different now. I was the last valuable thing he had to lose, and I imagine him, sweating at a poker table, waiting for luck. This faith keeps me from collapsing in despair underneath Father’s gaze.

I run backwards with my rake to catch up with Brother Eleven. He’s the youngest Brother, with a soft, freckled face and a preference for overalls, the jean still dark blue and endearing. My rake snags a rock and jolts up, twisting the muscles in my wrist. In the tower, Father blows his whistle. I slow down.

I ask Brother Eleven why he joined the Brotherhood.

“Same as you,” he says. His breath comes fast and quick, whistling somewhere in his throat but he smiles calmly, like they all do, like I’m a younger, simpler sibling.

“On a bet? Is that why Father keeps a PC in the doorway?” I ask.

“No, Mother Three,” he says gently. “I mean it was destiny, same as you. It doesn’t matter how we got here. Only that we’re all here together now.” His face is round and warm with the work. 

“I understand, Brother, but where are you from? What is your family like?” I ask. I want to know what he dreamed of being when he grew up, his favorite color, his real name. I want to know all the little pieces that make him up.

We reach the end of the plot. Brother Eleven turns and starts back down the row, but I stop to catch my breath. Over the grinding of his rake, Brother Eleven shouts, “We are not what divides us.” His powerful knees pump out at the sides, propelling him backward, his taut arms pulling evenly. “We are what brings us together.”

I twist the rake in the hot sand, resist the urge to bite my hand. This is our solemn prayer, an everyday anthem like the pledge of allegiance I had to say hand-over-heart every morning in class. I also do not fully understand what it means or how it binds us together.  Father blows his whistle. I spit into the dirt. I turn and pull my rake through the field. Under my breath, I savor my divisions, juicy like an overripe peach: Florida, loud but loving, marine biologist, forest green, Rowan.



In the pit, I lie on my back and shield my eyes from the sun. I miss the trees more and more each day, real trees, not the bent and gnarled Joshuas that mark these fields like crucifixes. I miss the lime-green wide stretching canopies that knit together to shield whole ecosystems from the sun. In the pit, I can feel the earth on my bare arms and calves. Whenever I dig deep, I find a coolness I crave and can’t always understand that the earth has a core, that somewhere deeper inside it’s bright and hot like the sun. The earth too has a heart.

The Brothers stand above me in a ring and pray. I can barely tell them apart because of the brightness, their shifting jean-blue shapes, and only Father in his white smock and glinting glasses stands out. Father was the one who told me I would be baptized today, a celebration and acceptance into the Brotherhood, a formal relinquishing of my sinful divisions. I told him I had already been baptized, I was a good Catholic girl, but he shook his head and smiled the all-knowing smile that told me I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t ask any more questions to try to. They like me best when I don’t know.

The chanting slows and the humming reverberates against the shallow walls of the pit. A slick film emerges on my skin. The sound reminds me of 14th century Gregorian chants I listened to on YouTube back in college, before I met my husband, when I still wanted to know what it felt like to be held.

Father leans over the pit, his head blocking out the sun. “I will now ask you three questions,” he says. I nod, my hair rustling in the sand. “Do you believe in the one true purpose?”

I nod.

“Will you live and serve the Brotherhood, with light and kindness in your heart?”

I nod.

“Will you turn away from sin, renounce your name, and obey the Father for the rest of your life?”

I nod and feel a drop of his sweat land against my top lip. Then, the chorus rings out, “Father, thank you for giving us Mother Three and her light for the rest of our days.”

They throw in handfuls of hot desert sand, bouncing sharp against my bare legs, arms, face, and I close my eyes and my lips tight together to keep it from working its way in. I do not believe what I agree to, but how could I say no? There is only desert for miles.

Sand works its way into my mouth, dry and a little salty, crunchy between my teeth. I wonder how long they will keep throwing it in, and how long I will be in this hole and if I will crawl out myself or if someone else will reach in. And I imagine my baptism from their perspective and can feel the sand in my fists, and for a moment I’m terrified that I’m being buried rather than coming into a new life.



I am not surprised when Father informs me of our marriage. At night I sit beside him while he gambles online. He sits in a wooden kitchen chair and I sit cross-legged on the floor, working my way through patching the Brothers’ clothes. In the first few weeks, I had to teach myself how to sew, and now I can patch all types of problems with only the tiniest little scar left behind as witness. I watch the screen as best I can for my husband’s username without poking my fingers. I imagine him, searching the infinite lobbies, playing and betting and folding until he finds the Father. Until he can play and prove how good and loyal he is, and then I can go back home. But I know this is a fantasy; I have no loyal husband or two-bedroom home.

The needle slips into my thumb and I hiss air out of my two front teeth. Father turns to look down at me, pressing his palm into my scalp. I suck the blood on my finger. “My child, we will be wed. And then you truly will be Mother, as the Brothers have taken to calling you.”

Mother Three is what they call me, and I’m not brave enough to ask what happened to the other mothers, and if they’re counting up or down. Sometimes I walk by my baptism pit out back in the fields behind the dormitories. They never filled in the singular pit, and it’s the size of a body. Out there alone, I swear I can feel the other mothers turning below my feet.

“But Father, I’m already married,” I say, stretching the fabric between my thumbs. “You won me from my husband, remember?”

Father shifts in his chair and looks above the clunky monitor. There is an embroidered fabric rendering of the American flag and over it, in uncertain red stitching, reads: ᗯE ᗩᖇE ᑎOT ᗯᕼᗩT ᗪIᐯIᗪEᔕ ᑌᔕ. It looks like a child’s hand, or like my own stitching when I first arrived here. I try to picture the Mother’s hands, I wonder if they’re dry like mine, dappled with scars like mine, if the same needle I now patch socks with too slipped from her control, jammed up into the tender flesh beneath her nail. Some nights I feel more like the other mothers than myself.

“What husband?” he says, “You were grown in the desert, by the brotherhood, like the rest of us. We harvested you from the field together. This is our livelihood.” He steeples his smooth fingers before his face, purses his lips so the corners of his eyes fall. I do not think he is praying. I think he is only pretending to be a man of deep thought.

I do feel grown in the brotherhood, out in those fields every day, dragging the rake back and forth over the sand. The desert is in me, I cough dust and my skin is cracked like salt flats, my bleach-blond hair growing out a reddish brown. Sometimes I wake in the night to a prickle in my hip, the underside of my foot, behind my shoulder blade, and when I touch there, I pull out cactus thorns like gray hairs.

Father returns to poker. His wanting eyes shimmer, the animated cards reflected upside-down in his glasses, distorted and hungry. I hate the desert and my Brothers, the Father and our livelihood, and the senseless repetition, playing the same games and the cards that never turn up in my favor. Father grumbles and goes all in, I poke my finger with the needle. Blood puddles up and I squeeze it out onto the fabric, glistening and cough-syrup red. One husband was enough, I think. I will never be married again.


Transcript of 911 call placed on Tuesday, September 21, 2017 at 14:09pm

Transcribed by James Marlboro, Dept. of Public Safety

Dispatcher: 911, what is the emergency?
Caller: Hello?
Dispatcher: This is 9-1-1. Are you in need of fire, police, or EMS?
Caller: Um, I don’t know, I didn’t know who to call.
Dispatcher: You have to speak up, ma’am. I can’t understand you. Why are you calling?
Caller: My husband lost me but he hasn’t come back. And I waited awhile but I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s coming back.
Dispatcher: (typing) Are you presently in danger?
Caller: (pause) No, not like that. But the wedding is soon and I’m in the middle of nowhere and I have no way to get out.
Dispatcher: What is your location? 
Caller: With father, on the farm…I’m in the desert, and (inaudible)
Dispatcher: Ma’am you need to speak up. Can you explain to me again how this is an emergency?
Unidentified person: (unintelligible)
Caller: Uh (pause). Never mind, I have to go. 

Ended by caller at 14:13pm


The night I leave the Brotherhood, I am afraid. I’ve watched enough true crime and lived long enough in the world as a woman to anticipate all the violent ways leaving can go. Father has been good to me, mostly, because I did what I was told—I obeyed my husband’s forfeiture, I paid his debt, and I cooked and cleaned and kissed and raked and gave up my clothes, my name, my sins. But even when I am lying beside Father in our bed, I fear that as soon as I slip off the creaking springs, he’ll sit up, knife in hand, ready to hold me down. Since my husband left, I had felt powerful in playing the good wife, stoically accepting my fate. I’m afraid of truly understanding what it will be like to be owned.

Father does not stir when I get out of bed and put my shoes on. My heart beats so quickly I tremble, bump into things, my hands unsteady enough that it takes five tries to unlatch the door. Then I’m outside, the cool night air tickling my skin like ghost hands, my neck prickling with expectation of being caught. I walk into the darkness toward where I think my husband and I entered so many weeks ago, in the opposite direction of our fields, of my Brothers. I don’t look back but I imagine the night like a black hole swallowing the ranch, the dormitories, then the fields with my baptism pit, gaping and empty, until I am alone.

In the darkness, I feel weightless like I did that time I drove the van home, when the true freeness of my life cracked open like a nut before me. I was so afraid of leaving and testing the Father I didn’t anticipate the fear of being out here in the desert alone at night, the flat vast expectation of the earth and the choices I will need to make. I feel the same terror of the endless responsibility for my body, keeping it clean and fed and alive and happy, when all I want is to stop growing in space, to crawl back somewhere quiet and safe.

The desert shifts below my feet, uncertain and slippery so my ankles ache from trying to keep stable. Only my husband ever made me shrink down, I fit nicely into his comforting palms. I want him again, I want to know with a yearning so deep if he tried to reach me like I tried to reach him. I want to know that he has never felt so empty, that he hasn’t found something better to fill his palms. I want him to stumble upon me in the dark and guide me home by the hand. 

My foot catches on a rock, sending a vibrant wave of pain through my knee but I don’t fall, I keep walking forward. It will be dark for many more hours but I hope when the sun rises I will have caught up with that shifting horizon, and I’ll peer down and see a whole city, wide and shining before me. But for now there is only darkness, the howl of night creatures, and the feeling of growing, the electric fear of my body stretching too far. 


A message caught between radio stations while driving through the desert at night —


Mialise Carney is a writer and MFA candidate at California State University, Fresno. She is the senior fiction editor at The Normal School and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in swamp pink, Booth, and Barren Magazine. Read more of her work at mialisecarney.com.