Things to Worry About

Norah Vawter Parents

The author with her parents, Skip and Denise, 1985.

Things to Worry About

by Norah Buckley Vawter

Dear Mothers,

Things to worry about:

  • Worry about the planet.
  • Worry about your children’s welfare.
  • Worry about your family and friends.
  • Worry about not wasting your life.
  • Worry about kindness and love.

Things not to worry about:

  • Don’t worry about conversations you had yesterday.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think of you.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think, period.
  • Don’t worry about jogging strollers.
  • Don’t worry about jumperoos vs. exersaucers.
  • Don’t worry about getting a fancy anything unless you really want it.
  • Don’t worry about worrying.
  • When holding a newborn, don’t worry that he is so tiny and fragile you might break him just by holding him. If babies were that fragile, we wouldn’t have a human race.
  • If you had great parents, don’t worry about living up to impossible expectations of what parenting should be like. Your parents surely, surely had days when they made mistakes, maybe even huge ones.
  • If your parents were awful, don’t worry about doing everything differently to create some magical world full of goodness and light for your own child. Just do your best. There will probably be plenty of magic and goodness and light.
  • Absolutely don’t cry yourself to sleep thinking you are the world’s worst mother. You’re probably doing better than you think. In fact I bet you are strong and beautiful. I feel certain that you deserve happiness and love.
  • Don’t worry about the dark circles under your eyes from lack of sleep and lack of makeup and just being plain tired and wrung out every day.
  • Don’t worry about the fact that Mom X gives her kids all organic food when you don’t.
  • Don’t worry about what Mom X must think when you pull out a bag of Honey-Nut Cheerios and food-dye-ridden Goldfish crackers for your toddler, while she feeds her kid homemade flaxseed bread and homemade yogurt with a smattering of wheat germ.
  • Don’t worry about anything anyone posts on Facebook. Ever.
  • Don’t worry about haters in general.
  • If you had your heart set on nursing, don’t worry if you can’t.
  • And don’t you dare let any parent bottle-shame you. When you are sitting at the park with your baby in your lap, and you pull that bottle of formula out of your bag – hold your head high because you are feeding your baby.
  • If your own parents are gone like mine are, don’t worry that your kid will grow up never knowing them. They’re around – somewhere. They’re inside of you. They’re inside of your kid. They’re in photo albums and in the books they read to you, the ones you now read to him.
  • Don’t worry about how you will eventually have to explain what death is, and where Granny Denise and Grampa Skip are.
  • When your kid starts to point out “Nise” and “Skip” in the family photos on the wall, because you’ve been doing that, don’t worry if you cry in front of him. When he says, “Mama sad” – don’t worry about what to say. Something will come. And then he’ll probably want to hug you, and it will be the best hug in the world. Ever. And then you can say, “Mama happy,” and mean it.
  • Don’t worry about being the perfect mother.
  • Don’t worry about perfection, period. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, life would be a hell of a lot less interesting.

Things to think about:

  • How can I be a mother and still be a human being in my own right?
  • If I’m not happy, how can I get there? If I’m not happy with how I fit into my world, how can I fix that?
  • Am I doing my best, as a parent, as a human being, in general, etc.?
  • What tangible, specific things can I do to make my life better, or others’ lives better, and maybe even make my world a better place to live?
  • If I want to make my mark on the world, how can I do that?

Love always,

Norah Buckley Vawter

Things to Worry About Parenting

The author with her son, 2015.

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Inspired by Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Scottie, dated August 8, 1933

Norah Vawter wishes time travel were possible so she could party with Scott Fitzgerald and then talk literature. She earned an MFA in fiction from George Mason University and  has work published or forthcoming in Extract(s), The Nassau Review, and Agave. Currently she stays at home with her toddler while at work on her first novel.

Guy Davenport: A Tribute

12-Stories

Guy Davenport: A Tribute

by

Vincent Czyz

Dropping Guy Davenport’s name—even among the literati—often results in little more than “Sounds familiar …” or “Didn’t he write …?” To me, that is almost as tragic as the loss of the author himself to cancer on January 4, 2005. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Davenport bequeathed to us more than half a dozen collections of fiction, several books of essays, two volumes of poetry, assorted translations of Greek poets and philosophers, as well as an edition of drawings and paintings. How to account for the obscurity of a writer whom critics almost universally acclaim a creative genius? America, it seems, long ago lost its taste for the new and unusual in literature and has little patience for work that doesn’t hold itself upright with a backbone of what-happens-next.

Combining structural elements of essay, poetry, and narrative, Davenport virtually reinvents fictive form as he makes forays into various fields—history, aesthetics, physics, botany, philosophy, and religion among them. Made up of fragments, progressing by allusion and inference, his fanciful tales are nonetheless discernible wholes, lyrical mosaics in which language itself is as important as what it conveys.

“All at first was the fremitus of things, the jigget of gnats, drum of the blood, fidget of leaves, shiver of light, boom of the wind.” Here is a handsome illustration of Davenport’s style. I had to look up fremitus, but of course it was implied by the context. Jigget, however, doesn’t show up in any dictionary I could find. But we think of jagged, we think of jiggle and, since we are dealing with gnats, probably settle for jerky flight or perhaps erratic buzz. There are other words of this ilk: bodger, vastation, conder. And words that seem to be neologisms but aren’t (guidon, quitch, awn). Davenport isn’t showing off; he’s having fun—frolicking in language and inviting us to join in.

“C. Musonius Rufus” (out of Da Vinci’s Bicycle, now a New Directions Classic), from which the above line was taken, is one of the most beautifully written short stories I’ve ever read. In one thread of the narrative, Davenport imagines the Roman Emperor Balbinus speaking from the grave: “Then I went down to where iron grows. Down past root seines in loam like condered oakgall and down past yellow marl hard with quartz the splintered ores begin. Green, edged, with the black metal horses hate and wine sours next to, and which thunder has entered. Chill, sacred iron, bitter with lightning.” The dead ruler offers one gorgeous meditation after another while the other thread of the narrative follows the plight of the stoic philosopher Caius Musonius Rufus, who has been sent to a prison camp in Greece.

Da Vinci’s Bicycle is an excellent introduction to Davenport’s impressive oeuvre. Taking historical figures—James Joyce, Richard Nixon, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Walser—as points of departure, often weaving between eras centuries apart, Davenport dazzles page after page. In “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier” he writes “All of nature is series and pivot, like Pythagoras’ numbers, like the transmutations of light. Give me a sparrow, he said, a leaf, a fish, a wasp, an ox, and I will show you the harmony of its place in its chord, the phrase, the movement, the all.”

Harmony is perhaps the key to entering Davenport’s writing: nothing in existence is separate, each is related, and Davenport not only perceives the connections but also communicates them; they are ours if only we are willing to sit for the performance.

The four longest stories in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon create a sort of novella. Hugo Tvemunding and his girlfriend, Mariana, lead a life both idyllic and ideal: there are simple repasts laid out like still-lifes, meticulous descriptions of the meadows and forests through which they wander, innovative and prolonged sexual encounters. Davenport presents, in sumptuous detail, the Greek concept of arête—excellence of mind, body, and spirit. Mariana, addressing Hugo, eloquently sums up this life in “absolute kilter”: “…your eyes fly open at six, you hit the floor like an Olympic champion, hard-on and all … jog three kilometers, swim ten lengths of the gym pool, nip back here for wheatgerm carrot smush while reading Greek, communing with your charming freckle-nosed kammerat Jesus, shower with unreasonable thoroughness while singing hymns, … teach your classes, Latin, gym, and Greek, meet me, bring me back here for wiggling sixtynine on the bed, tongue like an eel … race off and instruct your Boy Scouts in virtue, knots, and nutritive weeds, sprint back here … teach me English while fixing supper, show me slides of Monet and Montaigne …” and, after another roll or two in the hay, it’s time to start all over again.

The collection takes its name from three daimons (“spirits who possess or guide or tempt”) or perhaps three quantum particles (one of them is named Quark) incarnated as young boys who are spotted floating over modern Denmark in an antique balloon. Bearing a message from the Consiliarii, Davenport’s concept of elohim or some other divine council, they are clever, polyglot, and charming.

 A Table of Green Fields, a collection of 10 short stories—including a veritable prose poem inspired by a single line from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal—continues in the vein of The Jules Verne Steam Balloon. Nature, sexuality unimpeded by social constraints, and Davenport’s own tireless wonder, his (implied) insistence that everything we need to be happy is pretty much within arm’s reach, run like currents through this book as well. Fremitus? Indeed, frisson, palpable thrill, sail shook so hard by the wind it sings in a kind of vibrato. Time and again in his writing, Davenport intimates that art possesses a beauty no less astounding than nature’s—he recommends both in large quantities, and woe to him who sacrifices up one in the name of the other.

Let Davenport’s writing also be recommended unreservedly. The truth is, if an author like Guy Davenport is allowed to sink into oblivion, then not only is the American soul unlikely to be spared “the inert violence of custom” (Emerson’s phrase), but it’s also unlikely that it’s worth saving.

A Review of Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals 1

A Review of Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals

By Tini Howard

Comics are a brave medium through which to tell an adult story. While some of us know of Alan Moore’s Watchmen as comic literature and saw Chris Nolan turn Batman into Oscar bait, for plenty of people comic books still bring to mind stunted writers and readers who can’t handle real books.

Sex Criminals, written by Marvel veteran Matt Fraction and with art by Chip Zdarsky, is a real book. One of the realest and bravest books out this year. Sex Criminals addresses the shame, thrill, and occasional loneliness that come with sexual awakening via a bitingly clever metaphor that lends itself to fast-paced storytelling.

Lest readers think the title’s purely referential, allow me to educate. This is a comic where one character refers to his power as “Cumworld,” and there’s a panel illustrating “brimping,” undoubtedly the silliest sex act one will ever see. Make no mistake, Sex Criminals is about sex. Strange, silly, lonely, polarizing sex. Protagonists Jon and Suzie have both gone their whole lives feeling different. While it’s bad enough feeling like a weird teenager brimming with hormones, when Suzie and Jon independently discover masturbation as adolescents, they learn of an additional magic: the ability to stop time when they orgasm. Yes. Still reading? Hang on.

Their paths don’t cross until later in life, when they meet at a party and hook up. In that space after sex, where they’ve both always felt alone and strange, they find each other – joined in their time-stop continuum. (Remember “Cumworld?” Suzie isn’t a fan of the name either.) So, like any young, hot-blooded couple would, they use their newfound technique to commit crimes.

Sex Criminals isn’t porn, but it is full of sex. Apple has actually refused to sell it via the iOS ComiXology app due to its graphic content. (A somewhat hilarious choice, as there’s nothing in this book that isn’t in the lyrics of plenty of popular songs.) Criminals isn’t graphic novel literature, and it isn’t trying to be—but it’s far more than just a comic book. It’s both irreverent and deep; it stares in the face all of our weird societal feelings about sex and does something interesting with its tongue—maybe a raspberry or maybe a big French kiss. It’s unafraid and hilarious and real.

In issue 1, Suzie tearfully explains to readers that she uses the time stopped by her orgasm to dress and go downstairs, to say to her alcoholic mother all of the things she can’t say when time is moving normally, while Jon describes the loneliness of not understanding sexual desire for most of his young life. And then they bang and rob a bank. These people are real. Artist Chip Zdarsky never loses sight of that for a second, portraying them as beautiful and flawed, real and cartoony all at once. Every panel is stuffed full of visual jokes and commentary that encourages a laugh right when the awkward part might start. Just like the best sex.

Criminals is the story we all need—it isn’t afraid to address how we view sex workers in the same panel that it picks on the ludicrous names they sometimes choose. Is there a more perfect way to comment on we feel about sex? Perhaps not—as of early last week, Time Magazine named Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals its number one graphic novel of the year.

Sex Criminals is a comic book for literary fiction fans, something that’s not always easy to find, and hopefully not the last of its kind.

Matt Fraction, Sex Criminals, Image Comics, 2013: $3.50 (print)/free-$2.99 (digital)

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Tini Howard lives and writes in Wilmington, NC because she got the idea life would be better there. So far, she’s not wrong. For more of her writing on comics, check out her blog or follow her @tinihoward.

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own

surreal-south-09

[The following is an excerpt from the novel-in-progess by the same title. It originally appeared in Surreal South 2009.]

***

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own

by Aleksandr Tuvim

(translated by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement)

April 12

Katya is still angry with me. But what if I told her I saw my brother’s troops today, marking the doors of the infected? And that I’d seen common Joshuan citizens doing the same, without provocation or reward from the soldiers? Katya and I had fought over means and ends again, and I left to make the rounds with our conflict unresolved. I hadn’t been in the streets an hour when I saw something so low it nearly turned my stomach.

In the door of a once fine Joshua City home, three men stood over something ragged and huddled, clapping each other on the back. A black boot swept forward and there was a whimper from the pile of clothes. Then the flash of a knife blade, the snicker-snack of someone bent to dirty cutting work.

“I’ll cut his idiot tongue out,” said a skinny man on the right.

“No, wait,” said another man, large, checking his friend’s arm. “I’ve got something better.”

It was the Day of Joshua, and men like these were celebrating what should be a marker of human freedom with thuggish simple-mindedness. The large man unfastened his pants and squatted over the creature’s mouth. Across the street, a wagon waited, loaded with tied-up lepers. Their faces had gone blank from terror. They did not know their destination—only that it would not be pleasant. The soldiers meant to be guarding them were marking doors, or were distracted by the Day of Joshua festivities. I might have cut away the lepers’ ropes while their captors were occupied. But I couldn’t leave these other men to kick the creature to death. I scolded myself even as I was doing it. What right had I condemning a dozen people to save one?

I felt a familiar coldness, and knew there was only one way to be rid of it. “Stop now.”

They looked at me, their fists hanging at their sides. “Who are you?” the large man asked, taking a delighted step toward me.

“I am an angel of reckoning,” I said. “The doors you mark are your own.”

They considered this before surrounding me. I looked at the large man, who seemed to be in charge. “Before you do that, you might think about the freedom you still enjoy to walk away from all of this.”

“Sure.” He smiled. Behind him the undersized man or ancient child they had been tormenting rose to his feet. Go, damn you, I thought.

“And then I’ll have a nice chat with God,” the large man added. His friends laughed.

“You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“And we don’t care.” The first blow cracked my temple, and my ears rang, but I kicked back. I heard a cry from the smallest of them as I connected with yielding bone. My finger found an eye, worked at popping it. Another blow and I was forced to the ground. A tooth had come free, pink and glistening in the mud. Beside the tooth lay a flyer, one corner caught beneath a chunk of concrete and steel mesh. I read its garish font: Day of Joshua Parade! Come one, come all, and celebrate this great city’s anniversary! I raised my head a few centimeters. The creature was gone—no parting look, no sign of gratitude. Their leader lifted a brick, wrathful now.

I rushed him, and on the ground my hand found the brick. I raised it and slammed it down against his face; I raised it, slammed it down; raised it, slammed it down—with each blow his face was less human, more meat and dark fluid. Behind me, I heard his friends making their way down the alley, no doubt to home where they would contrive stories to explain their injuries. The man’s chest was still moving beneath me, and I wondered if that was a good thing. I heard the soldiers returning to their leper captives. I did not want to risk another run-in with General Schmidt.

The last time had not been under pleasant circumstances. I was snatched up by his men and dragged off to an interrogation room where high-watt bulbs were trained at my eyes and I was asked a series of questions. I kept demanding to see my brother.

“Schmidt,” I said as they hooted at me and struck me with stones wrapped in wet cloth.

They must have figured out who I was, because two hours later Schmidt came striding in with his imperial air. He took in my battered face.

“Nikolas,” he said. “I can’t go on protecting you forever.”

I grinned. “How’s mother?”

He turned away, showing me the side of his face. “Kristina is sick,” he said, persisting in his habit of calling Mother by her Orthodox name. “She wishes you’d come visit her. I won’t tell her what you’ve become.”

“Nor will I tell her about you, Marcik.”

“That’s not my name.” He stood and paced the room, turning sharply on his heels each time he reached a wall. “You’re a brilliant man, Nikolas, the real genius of the family. We could use you on our side.”

“I prefer my soul intact, thank you.”

He grabbed me by the shoulder, pinching the tendon there. I might have whimpered. “You continue like this,” he said, “and there will be nothing of you left intact.”

Now, seeing soldiers in the distance, I ran down the alley, leaving my victim to live, though with the scars of his misdeeds tattooed on his face forever. As I ran, I damned myself for leaving those lepers at the mercies of the soldiers, though the joy of violence was still in me.

I turned the corner and was nearly to the Saint Leocadia Avenue entrance to the Underground, when I saw a quivering mass on the sidewalk. It was the deformed man-child I’d saved. He looked horrible, forehead split like ripe fruit and the skin of one eyelid ripped and ragged.

“What happened?” I asked, as if I needed an explanation. Those men were riding the wave of patriotic idiocy. And if it had not been them, the bone fiends looking for an easy score might have done the job, or the insane turned out of the asylums when Marcik and I were children. Remembering those days, I had the beginnings of an idea.

“Where are you from?” I asked. He grinned, revealing shockingly pink gums. His cheeks were rose-colored; his eyes shone with childlike brightness beneath the blood. “Do you speak? Can’t you tell me where you live?”

He kneeled in the dirt and with a piece of wire began to draw an elaborate system of boxes and lines. Soon I understood it was a map, charting the streets of the district in beautiful, unnecessary detail. When he began in on the trelliswork of the house where I’d found him and his antagonists, I asked him if that was where he had lived.

He pointed backward, over his shoulder, a gesture I determined to mean the past. “Your family used to live there? How many of you?”

He pointed to himself, held up his palm, fingers splayed. Five including himself. “Where are they?”

Hands behind his back, cuffed, an arm grabbing his neck, tossing him into the back of a wagon. Lepers? Himself uninfected?

“Don’t you speak at all? What’s your name?”

He stuck out a tongue scored with razor cuts, and let out a saliva-choked grunt. He looked around, saw a storm drain, and reaching down into the urine and the scum, fished out something slick and wriggling. He popped it in his mouth. He grinned, proud as an infant who’s just wet himself.

“Slug?” I asked. “Your name is Slug?”

Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a ferocious embrace. He spun me around and set me back on my feet, and when I’d recovered I asked him if he would like to come see my underground home—if he would like a new name, one to inspire fear instead of scorn. He jerked his head up and down, letting out little happy squeals.

What would Katya make of this?

***

April 13

A continuation of last night’s events: when we arrived back at the Underground, Katyana was waiting for us—or for me, at least, though if she was surprised by my new friend she did not show it. I hid the bloodier side of my face.

“This is Slug,” I said. “Our newest member.”

With a shy turtle-like twisting of his head, Slug avoided meeting her eye. I wondered if he was frightened by her porcelain mask. I myself scarcely noticed it, but I suppose the uninitiated must find its smooth, expressionless surface frightening.

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Katyana said, all faux ladylike decorum. Slug scampered back and hid behind me. He peeked out, ducked back, peeked out again.

“Is this another one of your little projects?” she asked me.

By now the other four had come out, and were standing expectantly at the tunnel’s entrance. Their bodies, emaciated from leprosy, must have shifted the path of the light. Katya gave a small cry and hurried to my side.

“Nikolas. Your face.”

“I’m fine.”

I pushed her off, but gently, so that she could see I wasn’t really angry. Without the others present, I would have enjoyed her doting, but I had my role to keep up.

“Take care that he gets set up properly,” I said.

She turned to the others and, in a tone both distracted and authoritative, instructed them to set Slug up in the pump room. When they were gone, she took my hand.

“Come with me,” she said.

She led me to our bedroom, such as it is, and set me down on our bed. She opened my medical bags, found a swab and disinfectant, and began dabbing at the mess of my cheek. I winced.

“Does that hurt?”

“Not so much,” I said. “They weren’t soldiers.”

“Still, anything could have happened. You must promise—if not for my sake, then for our cause.”

“I promise.”

But later, long after Katya had gone to sleep, I lay in bed staring up at the exposed pipes of the ceiling. They looked like the arms of a giant sea-creature, prepared to strangle us all. In the dark, I put a hand to my face and touched the new stitches, then the older scar beneath.

I was eight, Marcik ten. Father had died in the Barbarian War, and it was just the three of us now—Mother, Marcik, and I. Marcik and I shared a pallet smaller than the one Katyana and I sleep on now. We breathed each other’s air, guessed at each other’s thoughts, and stepped gingerly over each other’s boots and moods. At times it was comforting, but mostly it was stifling. I was the younger brother—and I knew even then that I was the braver, the stronger, the smarter; Marcik’s being two years older afforded him the official title “man of the house”. When Mother needed something from the market, I had to accompany Marcik, because she trusted me to get it right, but it was Marcik who carried the money and did the purchasing. “It makes him feel older,” Mother said.

And it was I who had to hold Marcik when thunder rumbled on the horizon, or when the insane roamed the streets at night, piercing our walls with their tinny laughter—but next morning he was all orders-given and orders-obeyed, a natural soldier before he ever became one.

One evening, as Mother was serving up the pickled cabbage heads whose smell I’d grown to loathe, Marcik came bursting in, nearly stripping the door from its rotting hinges. He had a paper and was waving it like a captured flag. For a minute, I thought it might be an exam from primary. I felt a twinge of annoyance: there were already ten or twelve such exams plastering the walls—Satisfactories mostly. My Outstandings were received with a pat on the head and shoved in a drawer to mold. I was set to be a doctor, while he was still engaged in boyish games. I watched Mother to see if she would scold him for being late.

“Carnival’s coming,” Marcik said. “May we go, Kristina? May we?”

“Let me see.” I grabbed for the leaflet, but he ducked behind the sewing table. I struck a spool of thread and it went unraveling across the floor. Mother bent and gathered it up. She laid her hand on Marcik’s shoulder. He grinned at me.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

He pouted. “But it’s only five pence.”

“Unless . . .” She turned to me. “I know you were saving for that watch, Nikolas.”

“Compass.”

“It would mean so much to him.” She gave me her adult look, the one that said Humor him. For me. Marcik studied a crack in the ceiling. He wanted to say something, but knew it would not be to his advantage. I swallowed and nodded yes.

“What do you say to your brother, Marcik?”

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

She drew him around to face her. “Look him in the eye.”

“Thank you, Nikolas.” His glance slid off me with an oily quickness, and he went to the bedroom looking for all the world as if he had been punished. Mother squeezed my hand and smiled at me.

The next morning, we were off in our Sunday best. The carnival was ten blocks away in an overgrown cricket field. The ticket-taker seemed unsurprised to see boys our age, though I did detect a strange, carnivorous glint in his one good eye when I asked directions to the Puppet Palace. The other eye was made of glass, a milky thing that wandered in a dark socket. Marcik stared dry-mouthed and refused to give him the ticket until I pinched his arm. He hit me and I elbowed him off.

Marcik wanted to test out the firing range, so we did that, taking aim at targets no bigger than teaspoons. He could barely shoulder the rifle. We were out another five pence, and for our troubles were awarded a second-rate inkstand. Then he wanted to see the Mermaid Lady, who turned out to be an ordinary, not even pretty, woman in a sequin dress with papier-mâché fins. Wearying of these gaudy amusements, as well as the pretence that Marcik was in charge, I told him we were going to the Puppet Palace.

But at the door to the Puppet Palace, he hesitated. The grinning maw of the Puppeteer hung over an archway draped with strings, so that it seemed we might become actors in the grisly drama.

I grabbed him by the ear. “Don’t be a baby.”

I was determined to enjoy myself. We’d spent over half the money I’d saved that summer, and the puppet show had been the chief attraction for me when I saw the leaflet. I silenced Mother’s voice in my head. I pushed him down a shadowy corridor into a crowded, musty room. Rows of rickety chairs were set up before a box-frame stage. The light was dim but not menacing, and the Puppet-Box was unimposing. I prepared to be bored. The lights dropped off and a cavernous voice filled the stands.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the announcer began. “Creatures big and small! What you are about to witness will shock and amaze, horrify and thrill! It is not for the faint of heart. Those without courage are advised to leave.”

Marcik was gripping the arm of his chair. A red glow emanated from the cracks between the floorboards of the stage. Despite myself, a cool track of nerves ran along my arms and back. The sensation was pleasant, this mild fear I knew to be unattended by actual danger. The question of why people would pay for this sort of entertainment struck me briefly. It didn’t come to me in those terms, of course, but now I marvel at the price people are willing to pay in order to be scared, to be reminded of their imminent and perhaps horrific deaths.

The Puppet Master appeared, a stooped figure in a robe and pointed black hood like an executioner’s mask. He addressed the audience in a hiss, his mantis-like head swiveling in its hood. Marcik was halfway out of his seat, looking around toward the exit.

“Sit down,” I whispered. “I’m not leaving.”

Marcik hunkered back in his seat.

“It is said by races older than ours,” the Puppet Master was saying, “races who possess a knowledge beyond the reach of our feeble science, that the Puppet Master may control more than what lies at the end of his strings . . . that he may, in his tugging manipulations, get at something in the very soul of man—a Puppet soul within us all—and in doing so wield absolute control.”

I enjoyed Marcik’s palpable terror. It served him right, acting like my better. Some man of the house he was. Couldn’t even watch a puppet show without pissing his britches.

The Puppet Master ripped off the hood. It was the ticket-taker from earlier. The eye had been removed and all that was left was the socket. He stared directly at us, and there was a dizzy moment when I felt I would be sucked down into that hole. His head swiveled on to other audience members, but the image of that meaty absence was seared in my imagination.

“Does he tug at you?” the announcer asked. I had nearly forgotten he was in the room. Marcik made a sad little spasm at the sound of his voice. I put my hand on his arm to reassure him, though I ought to have let him suffer alone. He recoiled and made for the exit. He stumbled out, trying to retain some composure.

I considered following him, already envisioning the real dangers outside. At the same time, I was pleased in a way I almost didn’t want to admit to myself. It was the pleasure of seeing everything go according to plan—as if I had known Marcik would bolt and I would have the slow joy of being alone with the Puppet show, as if I’d known he might be kidnapped or lost in the carnival forever when I didn’t go out after him. I forced the image of Mother from my head and watched the Puppet master manipulate his puppets into a wonderful play.

I found Marcik sitting on a discarded plank of wood just outside the entrance to the Puppet Palace. He was no longer crying, but his face was streaked and his eyes puffy. When he saw me, he came lunging in a fury of snivels and balled fists. We fell back against a tent post, and something metal scraped down the side of my face. I curled up on the ground and eventually he tired of hitting me. He stood and wiped his nose. He looked at the gash down my face and at the blood I could feel warmly pouring forth. But I looked back in perfect calm. His tears proved who was who between us.

“I’ll hate you,” he said. “I’ll always hate you.”

He kicked me one last time and then ran off, into that city of bells and whistles, drunk bodies, and light. I stood and brushed myself off, wondering how I would to explain all of this to Mother.

***

April 15

After my behavior, I worry that Katya is still angry with me, but I know she will forgive me even this. I held a meeting with the others to properly introduce them to our newest member, the seventh head to make the body complete. It seems fitting that his name is Slug. We are all less and more than human here: the Seven-Headed Lions, Slug slithering in his gutter, and now most dreaded creature of all, the Puppet Master. A shadow to keep the children awake at night, a special message to my brother. We will not lie down, and neither will anyone else—not while soldiers walk the streets, not while the lepers are herded into the backs of wagons. I knew nothing of Slug, but that did not stop me from telling his life story, which if not strictly true, ought to have been. Katyana stood in the back, her expression inscrutable beneath her mask.

“My brothers,” I began, “carriers of the torch of New Jerusalem, tonight we welcome a new member. What you see before you, this sad sack of fear and downtroddeness, was not always this way. Once he stood proud, walked the streets with bright and clever eyes, son of two, brother of six, comrade of all. But his house was ravaged, his family snatched up and taken to the leproseries – General Schmidt’s so-called treatment centers. Well, what is a good citizen? One who looks away or one who stares suffering straight in the eye? After today, they will not be able to look away any longer. I present to you, the Puppet Master.”

Slug, who had learned his cue well, slipped on his holocaust cloak. Black from head to toe, his face buried in the hood, he presented an awesome spectacle. Even I forgot for a moment his pathetic flesh. He ducked behind the curtain of the puppet box, began manipulating two dolls—a dapper devil and a beautiful, pale angel.

The devil beckoned to the angel, but she had already turned her back. She sat in a corner of the puppet box, her shoulders slumped in sad reproof. Katyana stepped forward and grabbed Slug’s wrist. He shrank from an imagined blow.

“Nikolas,” Katya said to me.

I followed her into the antechamber and grabbed her roughly. “You are always free to leave,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”

She pushed me away. “I wasn’t hurting him. I can’t say the same for you.”

“You like me like this.” I pulled her against me. I kissed her on the lips of her mask, then lifted the mask and ran my finger over her perfect chin. “You can’t get me out of your blood.”

She grabbed her studded whip. I bent over the table, raised the shirt on my back. “Whip me.” The sharp heat spread from my ribs to my spine. “Whip me,” I said. “Make me warm.”

In a dark corner of the room, I thought I saw a pair of watching eyes.

***

April 16

I might have written more yesterday, but from Katya’s shifting and sighing, I sensed that the candle was keeping her awake. We’d established a delicate truce, and I was loath to disturb it. I set down my notepad and stood over the cot, watching her sleep. She’d removed her mask and her eye glowed in the moonlight. Her cheeks were a jungle of scars. I liked her best like this—uncovered and unprotected. I went into hall, threading around the slumbering bodies on the floor. As I passed the pump room where I had installed Slug, I noticed light angling out. I eased back the door.

Slug hunched over the puppet box, talking in a low voice. Yes, talking, though I couldn’t make out the words. His back was to me, but there was a warped mirror leaning against the wall. I could see the angel and devil. Slug’s whisper grew distinct.

“‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Not ‘ladies and men.’” On the table was a rusty straight razor; I often used the room to shave. He picked up the Puppets and rubbed them against each other, in a wild, copulating dance.

“‘Yes, pretty Katya. Whip me. Make me warm.’” He looked around nervously. “Nikolas will be mad. ‘Dumb Slug,’ he’ll say. ‘Can’t learn his lines.’ ‘Ladies and men.’ No, ‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Puppet men. Dumb Slug.”

He picked up the razor and before I could stop him, drew it slowly, almost lovingly across his tongue. I stepped inside and grabbed him by the shirt collar.

“So you talk, do you?” He shook his head fiercely, and he shrank from expected blows. “Come outside.”

He followed me up the ladder, whining like a sick dog, and I felt a rush of sympathy for him nearly sufficient to stop me. I raised the manhole cover and when I was satisfied no one was watching, I pushed him out. It was not dark. In recent years, the night sky of Joshua City has gone a washed-out, chemical green—a sickly, unearthly color set to hem us in, to smother us in the quietest way. Slug shivered in the glow. “Nikolas,” he said.

“Go home,” I said. He didn’t move. A cold wind blew over me, and I wondered if this was right after all. “You heard me. Leave.”

He stood and took two steps forward, his arms outstretched, palms first. In his hands was the razor. He offered it to me. “Nikolas,” he said, “Slug love.”

On the ground was a length of metal, something from the old railroad bridge, and I picked it up and swung it at him. He turned and walked away, stopped, looked back at me. He moved on, bare feet dragging in the dust. I dropped the railroad tie and ran after him. But he was scampering through the foundation of an old building, over a mound of bricks and used vials, on all fours, into the shadows. After a while, I made my slow way home, to what I call home, not looking up from the ground.

I recognized Slug’s shuffling gait behind me and smiled. I slowed to allow him to keep up with me. I left the manhole cover half-open after I entered the Underground. Hiding in the shadows, I was pleased to watch Slug make his way down the ladder and back to his small quarters where Katya had ordered his bedroll to be made. I wondered how I would explain myself to her.

***

Aleksandr Tuvim is widely recognized as the foremost author of Joshua City, indeed of all the Seven Cities and Outer Provinces. Formerly the Municipal Poet Laureate and the head of the Academy of Arts, Tuvim is the author of numerous books, including The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, We Are Messenger, and From the Dread Gospel. Imprisoned for crimes of opinion, Tuvim spent time doing forced labor. He was later pardoned by General Schmidt and returned to prominent status.

Gunbroke

seth

Gunbroke

by

Seth Abramson

South is adventure, north cold but also shelter,
and in the west
an end. It is south then north then west, the trail.
East is finished. To tell it right
it must be half in green
ignorance and half beneath the groan of a wheel
still turning and stained by smoke. The tone of it
is that everyone’s been turned out from somewhere
by someone,
and afterward crossed a place they ran wire across
and a place they built a rotwood storm-closet,
and pounding atop where a mass grave was made
too small and then on to a place
nothing startles the horses.
You can put a pistol to one and leave it shrugging
in a stand of alfalfa
and not one other moves near or away. And then
south of course
are long plains of plain men and plain women all
hatless and gunbroke. Blood livens them
to themselves, their own hard lips, their own cold
singing. They build a city to hold it, and somehow
that lasts.

***

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two previous poetry collections, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). Currently Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014), he is also a contemporary poetry reviewer for The Huffington Post and a regular contributor to Poets & Writers magazine. He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets 2008, Poetry, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, and Harvard Review. A former public defender, he is now a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The above poem is reprinted from Abramson’s collection Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013) by permission of the author.

Electromagnetic Compatibility

front BurnThisHouseCVR

Electromagnetic Compatibility

by

Kelly Davio

I am the conduit of all transmission.
The basebands of noise radiate from my skull.

I hear the faint buzz when I bend a knee
all the way to one hundred and eight megahertz.

My right hand taps the cool rhythm
of amplitude modulations; between the joints

of my smallest toes, a call-in talk show
pushes along my connective tissues.

Top-forty hits in mono and stereo
bisect my stomach, love handles jiggling

the fifty-two stories from local news breaks,
three weather reports, and a sponsorship message

from Lucky Charms. Their delicious magic
pulses, circumnavigates my navel.

A teleconference connected through my veins’
satellite rattles the back of my neck.

I shimmy shoulders, show my displeasure
when I tire of rasp in a haggler’s voice,

cast a web of white noise through my spine.
When I’m through with public broadcast pledge drives,

I listen for the red giants’ white signal,
static issued from billions of years of brilliance

from the center of the molecular bang.
All of it vibrating, all of it humming in bones.

***

Kelly Davio is Managing Editor of The Los Angeles Review, Associate Editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal, and a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has been honored in Best New Poets, and she has published poems in journals including Gargoyle, The Cincinnati Review, Bellingham Review, Pank, and others. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers’ Workshop, and teaches English as a second language in the Seattle area. The above poem originally appeared in the Cincinnati Review and is included in Burn This House.

Medusa Song

up on blocks

Medusa Song

 by

Mary Akers

She scrambles the eggs while the baby howls at her knees. To drown out the racket, she hums as she jabs her fork into the yolks. She enjoys the way they spill their yellow color and swirl into the whites. She matches her tune to the schook, schook, schook of the fork against the bowl, then does a quick side-step when the baby lunges for her legs.

His little fat hands grasp the air, throwing him off balance. He totters on his heels for a moment then sits hard and rolls back sideways, bumping his head on the floor. He stops crying abruptly and flails his arms in the air like a big bug stuck on its back.

Cynthia knows she should pick him up, comfort him, but she’s too deep in her own need. She won’t look down, even, because if she looks at his face all twisted up and desperate for her, she’ll have to pick him up, and she just can’t do that motherhood stuff right now.

She used to love the feeling, everyone needing her so badly. She would peel and seed John’s oranges when she packed his lunch. She cut the crusts off his sandwich out of pure love. And when the baby fell asleep, she’d sit and hold him just as long as he would let her.

But John Junior is walking now—into everything—and he’s gotten so clingy. Her friend Alice says that John Junior is feeling separation anxiety. Every time Cynthia leaves the room he thinks she’s gone forever, just disappeared. Secretly, Cynthia wishes it could work like that—two steps into the bedroom, and poof, she’s in another life, another world.

She used to love her life. She looked forward to every day. Cynthia can’t even say when things changed. Maybe it was back when she suspected John of sleeping with his secretary. Maybe it was after John Junior was born and she couldn’t seem to do anything right.

John and she had never fought before. Well, sometimes, but it was always more of a disagreement and once Cynthia apologized it would be over. It never spilled out into the rest of her life.

Now things seem to get all tangled up, till she can’t separate them, one from the other. She feels like that woman with snakes for hair, only all her problems are tangled up there too, squirming and writhing around, hissing on top of her head.

She figures that must be why John isn’t home yet—imagine living with a woman who can’t comb her hair for the snakes. She tries calling his office, but that snooty Angela answers, so Cynthia puts on a different voice and pretends to be one of John’s clients.

“Mr. Albee promised to show us a home today, is he in?”

She smiles because she knows Angela is too dense to figure out it’s her. She’s careful to keep the smile out of her voice.

Then Angela says, “Mr. Albee hasn’t been in all day, Ma’am, may I give him a message?”

She says it real sly-like, with extra emphasis on the ma’am, until Cynthia is really getting sick. The eggs look disgusting and she feels so nauseous. Then she’s throwing up again, retching in the toilet, and thinking, God, please don’t let me be pregnant, but she’s known it for a while. Add another snake.

When she’s wiping her face, John calls and she thinks he says he’s at work, but it’s hard to hear for sure over the baby. Liar. She just called there. Cynthia doesn’t want to yell at him, but she feels it rising up in her throat like bile, and she wants to stop it but the words are pouring out all over the place like vomit, sour and steaming.

She hangs up and tries to finish supper, even if it is just eggs and toast. After John sells a house they’ll have steak. She puts the baby in his crib, and over the monitor she can hear him banging his head against the bars. She goes to the door and watches, fascinated. His eyes roll back in pleasure. She tries banging her own head once on the doorframe before she remembers the snakes. No sense getting them all riled up.

Then she hears the eggs frying too hard, and sure enough, they’re brown when she stirs them, and the toast needs scraping. Schook, schook, schook, the crumbs fly all over the sink, sticking to the sides. She thinks about that woman who drove her kids into the lake and cried about it on national TV. What a terrible person, a horrible mother. But the snakes hiss, “Yessss.”

She’s barely gotten the toast buttered when John Junior starts up again. He’s poopy, too. She can see it rimming the edges of his diaper. What with the snakes and the baby it’s really all just too much for her and she carries him out to the pickup and puts him squish onto the seat and she leaves supper unfinished and she’s really going to do it this time because she just can’t take it any more.

Halfway to the lake it starts raining. John Junior is sitting in the floorboard playing with his toes and the wipers are keeping time in the dark, schook, schook, schook, marking off the seconds till it’s done.

Cynthia pulls right up to where the lake meets the road, and there’s no one around, so she gets out and goes over to the water’s edge. The baby watches her; his face against the window, nose flattened, big eyes shining white through the dark.

The water smells dank and fishy and it’s way too cold when she sticks her head in. Cynthia is on all fours holding her breath and she thinks about how she must look—rear in the air, head in the lake. She doesn’t get up, though, and her chest starts to ache from needing to breathe. Her head is throbbing, and her throat spasms, her body trying to force her to breathe. But she won’t, she won’t, and she can hear the schook, schook, schook of blood in her head, looking for oxygen.

When her body starts to relax and she’s feeling like she could stay down there at the bottom of the lake forever, she jerks her head up hard, throwing back her shoulders, landing on her back at the muddy edge of the lake.

And possibly the baby is crying in the truck, but he’s safe enough, and she remembers that his diaper needs changing while she watches drops of rain fall silver through the night and feels them sting her cold lake-water face as she listens and waits and hopes the snakes have drowned.

***

Mary Akers’ debut short story collection, WOMEN UP ON BLOCKS, won the 2010 IPPY gold medal for short fiction and she co-authored a non-fiction book (ONE LIFE TO GIVE) that has sold in seven countries. She is Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. and co-founder of the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology. She received a Pushcart 2012 Special Mention and has published a book of short performance pieces for use in high school dramatic reading competitions (MEDUSA’S SONG AND OTHER STORIES). She blogs at http://www.maryakers.blogspot.com