Sparrow Haibun by Kim Ellingson

For a short time, I was gorgeously exhausted from grief. My body rejected food. My hair fell out in thick plumes. People said, My god, you’re glowing. There was man I loved, who said, I wish you were less. I closed my mouth. I stayed silent and hungry. I lost a cup size. My skin stretched taut, thin as tissue paper. My mouth became a refuge for endangered birds. Soon, my size five prom dress fit my once size ten frame. There was no occasion to wear it aside from washing the dishes and taking out the trash. The man I loved said, look at those shoulder bones, look at those pretty closed lips. When my protruding ribcage received an ovation, the sound nearly drowned out his voice when he said, I choose her.

How can I eat when

a sparrow dies every time

I open my mouth?


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Kim Ellingson is from Token Creek, Wisconsin. She holds an MFA in poetry from Antioch University, and her work has appeared in Five:2:One, Prometheus Dreaming, Cagibi, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Omaha.

The Ravine by Genia Blum

KIEV

In September, the foliage turned yellow and red. Bodies fell, clothed only in fear, into the ravine, the pit, the abyss.

Naked flesh on naked flesh, warm blood, excrement—hell stinking beneath sand and earth.

All night, the bonfires flared, smoke rising into God’s desolate kingdom; a hundred thousand souls and more, tracing runes between the stars.

MUNICH

Every evening after Vespers, as altar candles flickered, pious sisters hunched over stacks of newspapers in the cloister’s vaulted hall, scissors opening and closing, snip-snip, click-clack.

They’d warned the children not to play in the verboten ruin that separated Schloss Nymphenburg from their reinstated convent school. Lucifer could snatch them up and drag them to an inferno under the crater where an Allied bomb had hit the palace. The attack destroyed the royal chapel, converted by the Nazis to an infirmary, and Mater Sekundilla had perished, as did a nameless patient who’d survived the Eastern Front.

The school’s lavatory was an unlit purgatory: wet floors, no soap or towels, no toilet roll, only unfinished wooden boxes filled with squares of inky newsprint—reminders of the trivial deprivations of the recent war.

Wimpled nuns worked their rusty shears, and Jesus glared from His crucifix on the wall, begrudging His forgiveness, tallying each snip-snip, click-clack.

WINNIPEG

The name escaped my parents’ throats with a soft, fricative “G.” They’d christened me “Evgenia” in a ceremony at Saints Vladimir and Olga Cathedral, but always addressed me by the diminutive “Genia,” with the inflection that led people to assume they were mispronouncing the far more common “Jeannie.” My schoolteacher called me that in class, which made me feel pleasantly ordinary. She also suggested my parents stop speaking Ukrainian at home, warning them of the foreign accent I’d acquire. Never. My mother bristled. We lost everything else.

After the war, my parents rescued consonants, vowels, a trail of syllables. They spoke and prayed in their mother tongue, worshipped their God in a church erected by immigrants, and denied the concept of collective blame.

The hymns and litany of the Divine Liturgy resound in a gilded nave; the sun pierces stained glass windows exalting rulers and saints, The Blessed Virgin of the Cossacks, Kiev’s Golden Domes.

Illuminated by colored light, dust ascends into incense-filled air: ashes from across the ocean, from the ravine, the scar, the abyss, where flakes of white bone remain.


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Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian writer, translator, and dancer. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals, both online and in print, and she has received several Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. Find @geniablum on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website: www.geniablum.com.

What We Omit by Victoria Buitron

Someone asks me if I’ve ever fallen on a hike.

The question conjures the sounds my body has made when I’ve lost my footing. A sudden scrape of boots on loose rock, the clash of hiking poles pinging against each other, the grunt from my chest once I realize what’s happening. I remember my last fall on Hunter Mountain. I’m descending on an October day, close to the summit, where the ecology differs from the trail’s first thousand feet. Here mushrooms the color of fog with splotches of pink line the path, and beyond them the damp moss reigns like bright algae, taking over most of the downed wood. Before the fall, I stop to stare at a worm-like creature, covered with white fuzz, making its way on a thin twig. Then, I’m on the ground, my butt wet and poles stiff at my sides, the throb of recently broken veins spreading.

I want to answer with Of course I’ve fallen. It’s like asking if I’ve ever had a falling out with a friend. Haven’t we all? I withhold my gut answer in case it’ll sound too curt, but before I can speak, my almost-response evokes another memory that swoops in hastily and leaves just as fast.

I’m in the country I was born in, before I’ve ever climbed a mountain, when I only understand boots as a fashion choice and not a means to protect the feet. I’m in the parking lot in the town of Durán, Ecuador—after its yearly music festival—staring at my best friend in the back seat of a van as she tells me there’s no space. I’d mentioned weeks before that I needed a ride to our town after the concert. I didn’t merely say Save me a spot. I laid out the plan. I’d be going with some high school friends, but they all lived in the town I went to school in, not in the town I lived in. I asked her to let the driver know I’d pay the roundtrip fee although I was just hitching a ride back home. She assured me she’d spoken with him, but on that night, she snuggles in the back seat next to her boyfriend and tells me it’s not her call. There’s no space she says. I know the Ecuadorian coast is always warm, but in my memory I’m wearing a light sweater and still feel a profound chill.

The van speeds away like bikers would swoop by me on trails in years to come. Panicked, I walk around, calling others with the slim data I have left on my Nokia phone. Then, a familiar face, the son of somebody my father knows. Hi, I’m Victoria, I know you I say. I’ll pay you all the money I have. Just don’t leave me here in this parking lot, I almost say. I get in the truck—a stranger among boys and men. The silence is piercing, as if they know there’s been a recent end to my most profound friendship. As if I would shatter if they ask me more than my name. She left me. She left me. Half an hour later, when only the headlights on the highway light the path, I wonder what would have happened if the man driving didn’t let me fit in between him and another boy in the front seat. I picture myself ambulating in an empty parking lot, hiding in the shadows, waiting for an uncle to make the hour-long trip as I stumble between fear and anger and sadness.

I know what it means to lose touch, even to ghost, but this is my first falling out. We fall out like a fledgling plummets from its nest, we fall out like how the rubbish manages to tumble from the trailhead garbage bin in a harsh wind, we fall out like how a dead tree thumps on dense snow during a storm. She left, continuing on the path in front of me without looking back. We still see each other; that same week she’s in my house. Not because I’ve invited her to talk or because she’s there to apologize. Our families are friends, confidants, kinfolk, and years will pass with us unable to avoid each other. I’m never able to retrace the steps to how it was before, unwilling to make space for her again.

I’ve fallen I answer. I’ve fallen hard.


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Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Entropy, Bare Life Review, Bending Genres, and more.

The Breakfast Triptych by Alexandra Kessler

I.      The first thing I remember is disgust. As a child, breakfasts of my lazy mother’s undercooked bacon while Arthur played on PBS Kids. I could eat happily while the animated characters talked, frolicked, Arthur’d, but could not bear to do so during commercials, where real human actors drove Hondas and digitally penetrated Floam. My bacon was made from the stuff of the people-actors—meatfatgrease—and it was like I was eating them. Jellied bites of the dull woman spooning Dannon yogurt into her clammy mouth. I chewed her tendons, the look in her dumb eyes, pleading. Covered my plate with paper napkin until the safe, textureless cartoon people came back. The ones without an appetite for themselves. My neighbor, very fat, stood shirtless in his front yard, staring directly into the sun. Frying. I studied art history in college and once went to Madrid to see Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych at the Prado. In Spain, there is special meat. Jamón ibérico de bellota. Pigs who only ever ate acorns. In the Triptych, silverywhite bodies squirmed and helixed. Twisted into spooky shapes by their avowal to fleshy consumption. But the figures themselves were clean, lean-limbed, pellucid. The devouring is acceptable if you are beautiful. I bought a ham and egg sandwich from a boy behind a counter and he watched me eat the whole thing, standing there in the store. I threw it up on the curb. In the left 1 panel of the Triptych, Adam touches his toes to God’s toes and God holds Eve’s wrist. Linked organs. Constant digestion. I bought another sandwich and could not taste acorns, only the lame salt of myself.

II.      Pete and I make fun of his wife. She’s a chef, and ugly. Pictures of her on his instagram— her greasy little eyes. Her smile like a happy face finger-poked into the meatloaf to make a stupid child laugh. It was never about her being beautiful, Pete says. He’s maybe embarrassed, but I understand: she’s kept him fed. I stand on her kitchen counter with my bare feet. Drink her half and-half. I play with her knives. I’m gonna slice you into pork chops, I say. Lick the blade. Pete laughs, but his body is scared. He says, get down. Years ago, he was mugged and stabbed while stumbling drunk down the street eating a 7/11 bacon egg and cheese. He is writing an essay about it, and I want to take him to Spain. I show him the wikipedia page for Bosch’s Triptych. He looks at me instead of the painting. Puts my thumb in his mouth and bites. His pointed canines dent me. His wife keeps her knives so sharp that you don’t even feel it when they cut you. Pete says he loves me. That he could swallow me whole. His wife is away, filming a cooking competition show called Bringing Home The Bacon. Pete and I get a week alone together. I worry that we’ll pickle but I risk it. He grabs the knife from my hands and holds it against his belly. He’s drunk. I’ve gotten so fat, he says. Plumped up for the slaughter. His eyes are sad and varmint. I just wish I had met you first, he says, and it’s worse for all of us that he means it. The first night we spent together I said I wouldn’t make him breakfast in the morning. I never learned to cook right. Good, he said, I’m sick of all the fucking breakfasts.

III.      Pete’s wife comes in last on Bringing Home The Bacon. Dead last, cut the first round. Your handling of this meat, the judge said, lacked a hunger for trancendence. She didn’t have enough time, but this is the game. She thought she’d carmalize edges, maple glaze, cook all the way through. She doesn’t understand how it’s so easy for other people. The chef who beat her, licking his wet lips. She drives away from the studio. It is late at night and early in the morning. Her raw face in the rearview mirror, oil-burned hands. On the side of the empty road, a 24-hour diner. She eats a plate of eggs and bacon while watching commercials on the streaked wall-mounted TV: husband and wife share some Tropicana. Sunny suburban kitchen. On her phone, no calls from Pete. The waiter brings her an extra side of bacon. Why not, he says, it’s just between you and me. Out the window, the sun rises. She feels the tilt of the world. The waiter watches her, the diner fills with their bodies. Dense and rare. It’s a new day, the waiter says, you have to start it off right. Her stomach shifts. She’s not hungry anymore, but she chokes it all down.


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Alexandra Kessler’s short stories have appeared in such venues as JoylandJuxtaProse, Maudlin House, The Boiler, and Pigeon Pages. She was the recipient of the 2014 Lizette Woodworth Reese Award for Fiction, the 2016 Ross Feld Award, and the 2017 Lainoff Prize for Fiction. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthology nominee. She lives in New York City and is at work on a novel.

Instructions for Fucking Your Postpartum Wife by Megan Pillow

1)  First, get the groceries. Get the baby when he cries. Get a clutch of flowers, and make sure they’re the wild ones. These, the ones that waver when your car wings past, the ones that seem to be stretching toward you with every stem and every filament.

2)  Forget your hands, your mouth. Forget that ancient come-on that you used back when it was just the two of you. Grab her breasts while she’s cooking, and she will become a stinging nettle. Put your hand down her pants when she’s washing the dishes, and she will become a man o’ war. If she lets you, touch her hair by hair and inch by delicate inch. Expect nothing.

3)  Imagine that you, instead, are the one who gave birth and every day is marked and made by baby. All day, the kick of his doughy little legs into the soft of your stomach, the cry after cry, the endless shushing and burping over the drone of the home improvement shows in Toronto or Waco or Orange County. There is love, there is love, so sharp and unceasing that you feel the cut of it all the way to your bones. There is also the constant weight of him, the yank and the clutch, hour after hour. You have become the glassy window the baby smears his lips against, the railing on the stairs where the polish has all worn down. Deep beneath the press of him, deep beneath the blade of your love, you know you are never free, you know you never will be.

4)  Let her sleep and sleep and sleep.

5)  If there is a bird, sing to it. If there is a children’s television show playing, turn it off. If there is open sky, if there is open air, make love to the both of them first. Fill your lungs. Tuck the shine under your skin. Take them to her as an offering. Let the breath and light begin to bring her back.

6)  Consider the people she’s told you about. Consider the people she hasn’t. The chiropractor who cried as she fucked him. The barista with the two different-color eyes who bit your wife’s fingers when she came. The doctoral student who told her he was married right after he put the condom on, who she’d liked a little more in that moment because it was the first honest thing he’d said. The neighbor whose testicle she’d found a mass in while giving him a blow job, the neighbor who said she was lying and who slapped her hand away.

7)  Consider that she is circling the edge of it, a dulling, a breaking down. Consider that she has been here before, the penny clutched in the hot of a hand, the worn brass doorknob, constantly turning.

8)  Imagine doling out your skin, your hunger, your hurt. Imagine what she has done with her worn-out body to keep you fed.

9)  Consider the people she fantasizes about while breastfeeding in the peach-soft light of morning. Consider the people who will ask no questions. Out there, somewhere, there is a someone who won’t pass her like she’s a piece of furniture on their way to go play video games. Out there is a someone who will tell her for a solid hour she is beautiful, no matter how soft her stomach, no matter what underwear she’s wearing. Consider, consider that those someones are just a text, a call, a handful of houses away.

10)  If she lets you, lay her down.

11)  Let her tell you where. Let her say that the only antidote to too much touch is more of it where the hands of a child will never go. Spread her legs and run your tongue along the inside of her thigh like a blade of grass, like the blade of a knife. Whisper between her legs you are the gloss over all of the universe, you are the fire and the light, you are everything, everything, burning. When she shivers, bury your tongue and your fingers inside her. Let her clutch the pillow. Let the roar and rush of her breath tell you the tempo that will take the pain away.

12)  And if her body is a house, then it is still haunted, and you must enter it slowly.

13)  And if her body is a sanctuary, then you must worship the whole of it.

14)  And if her body is the nucleus of the atom of your love, then you wait for her to beg you. You wait for her to tell you yes yes yes. And then you fuck her until she feels new again, until she is burnished, until her skin is gleaming.


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Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in, among other places, Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Believer, Passages North, TriQuarterly, and Gay Magazine.

The House on Hwy 18, Probably October 1999 by Brett Biebel

When I was 12, my dad spent a week camped out in the backyard. My brother and I would bring him Hamburger Helper and these little packets of ketchup we stole from the McDonald’s down the street. We’d talk about spaceships. Constellations. The night Ritchie Valens fell from the sky, and he said someday he’d show us where it happened, and we could leave flowers, and he’d never done it, but the drive really wasn’t all that far.

Except, that fourth night, we didn’t bring him anything. Could only see his shadow hunched over inside of the tent. My brother had found a dirty magazine in the dumpster behind the gas station, and we sat on his bed looking at it. Some of the pages were torn out. One of them had an ad for Campari. The women looked like they were from California or Florida or some place with lots of fruit and no snow, and my brother said someday his wife was going to look like that, and maybe mine would too. Only uglier. With fewer teeth. Definitely smaller tits. Then he said who was he kidding, and I wasn’t ever getting married, and his pal Lamar told him I was probably gay. I said I wasn’t. He rolled his eyes. I watched them moving around inside his head and realized he looked nothing like Dad, that it was only their laughs that sounded the same.


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Brett Biebel teaches writing and literature at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. His (mostly very) short fiction has appeared in Chautauqua, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Masters Review, Emrys Journal, and elsewhere. 48 Blitz, his debut story collection, will be published in December 2020 by Split/Lip Press. You can follow him on Twitter @bbl_brett.

Before the Apocalypse, the Loss by Kara Vernor

Mom bought me Wilbur Mohammad’s Geo Metro for eight hundred dollars, an electric blue stick shift, a flea of a car. Wilbur’s down the road from us, and I’d been seeing that car in his front yard my whole life. It’s like her to give me what I can’t say I need.

The backseats are flipped forward and weighted with my duffel bag, two backpacks, stuffed Walmart bags, and a milk crate of my books. I’m about to drive 2,203 miles. It might well be the first time this car rolls over the Duplin County line.

Mom and I are propped against the driver’s side looking at our front porch, the unlatched screen door all the way open and tapping against the house. Beyond the door is the couch where she caught me having sex with my first boyfriend while she was supposed to be at work, recording for the family court. I heard her weeping that night in her bedroom like she was the one who had something to feel sorry for. When I woke the next morning, there was a box of condoms under my pillow.

But no matter where—porch, living room, or kitchen table—when I have said what I need, she hasn’t heard it. I told her I want to breathe air that doesn’t reek of hog bowels. You can’t Glade the whole outdoors. I told her I need to plant beans in soil that isn’t saturated with hog shit after every hurricane when the sewage lagoons at the industrial farms overflow. I begged her to make a new home with me, this woman who hears and refuses to hear, who tells me I’m beautiful when my face is knobby with pimples, who holds my cold feet against her warm stomach in winter. My Uncle David tried talking to her, too, swore he had room enough for the both of us in Tucson.

“You could get sick here,” I say again and grab hold of her hand at my side. Her fingers and mine are the same: long with inelegant knuckles. I tell her just three days ago there was another baby who was born blue.

“You’ve got your A.A. and you’re headed off to start your life, and you want to take me with you?” She shakes her head like she’s seen it all, like nothing makes any sense anymore. Same as when she insists the water is fine. The Earth isn’t getting hotter. The value of the house she bought all by herself hasn’t dropped because of the smell.

On the way to Arizona I sleep in efficiency motels. I ask a man at a diner to buy me a bottle of vodka and I dance for him on the orange bedspread in my room, my body limitless. I stretch on the side of the highway when I need a break, and the semis pull their horns. I watch out the window as fields flip by, the ones growing crops that feed the animals people eat without thinking. I drive with the window down an inch to let in the fresh air, and I listen to the rustle of my earrings, the ones I made from the shards of a conch shell mom dropped on the floor of the thrift store after she’d put it to her ear and heard a howling.


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Kara Vernor’s fiction and essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, and her writing has been included in The Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. Her chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.

My Husband Bought a River by Mileva Anastasiadou

But now he is drowning.

He bought that river for me. He wanted to feel my pain, to know me better, he claims, but he’s on the verge of falling apart, because he can’t handle water, not like I do. He used to be calm, composed. I was the wreck up until now and he’d do his best to keep us together, he was the glue that kept the edifice standing. Collapse is the new normal and the glue can’t do much now, now that the ship we’ve been sailing on is falling to pieces. In fact, he wished to show me how good he can be, an expert at everything, he wanted it all.

But now he has nothing.

Husband holds on to me, like I’m his anchor, an anchor buried deep in the waters that drown him. He’s not familiar with waters that run deep, he’s dead frightened, shouting and yelling, but I can’t hear him, I’ve been drowning for long, I’m used to drowning, to endings, to danger. He’s been hopeful for long, afloat, but he can’t buy safety, he can’t swim now, now that the river is his to handle. He’s been the optimist, the joyful, the happy one.

But now he is desperate.

Remember the angst, the panic attacks, impending doom knocking at the door, for no apparent reason. Now there is a reason, I tell him. Now fear is justified. Justified fear is less frightening, it lessens anxiety, makes sense, soothes the pain, blessed are those who can breathe underwater, who walk proudly in chaos and all is back to normal, my kind of normal, now that the earth does not feel like home, now that we’re both drowning and life is beautifully terrifying.


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Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist from Athens, Greece. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as Litro, Jellyfish Review, Flash Flood, Moon Park Review, Okay Donkey, Bending Genres, Open Pen, and others.

Safety Drill by Cortney Phillips Meriwether

On the morning of the final bus-safety drill of the school year, Gina Thornton felt sick to her stomach. They were supposed to always dress appropriately for bus drill days—no slip-on shoes, no dresses—but she forgot about Ms. Sharon’s announcement. Or maybe she was talking to Colleen and didn’t hear it. Or maybe the two-way radio crackled at the wrong time. Either way, Gina Thornton was wearing a skirt.

Their bus, Bus 720, always got the best safety rating in all of Willow Creek Elementary. It was a real point of pride for the northside kids—everyone took the drills very seriously. This was partly because they loved Ms. Sharon and partly because jumping off the back of the bus was a thrill. One time, their rating was so high that Ms. Sharon let them listen to Q94 during the ride home instead of the usual Sheryl Crow tape.

That day, when Ms. Sharon flipped the alarm, the other students stood up, ready to go. But Gina’s bare thighs were melded to the thick gray-green vinyl of the seat. We have to go, Colleen told her, looking down at Gina’s skirt with a wince. It’ll be over quick, Colleen said. Just jump.

The two designated fifth grade boys unlatched the back door and hopped out first. And the one who wore the Scottie Pippin jersey over a white t-shirt at least once a week? He’d once spent an entire bus ride trying to snap her choker necklace and pull her hair. He always called her Va-Gina. Now she was expected to stand above him in her skirt? Let him grab her hand and elbow? Help her jump to fake safety?

Colleen went first, bending her knees and reaching out to the boys as they reached up to her, effortlessly floating down and landing softly, guided by their grip. And so Gina moved to the edge, trying to tuck her skirt between her knees as she squatted, not looking at the one in the red jersey, even when she realized too late that the hand supposed to take her elbow and lift her forward—the same hand that reached between the seats and pinched at her neck that first and last time she wore the choker—was up her skirt and cupping her underwear before she even realized she was in the air.

The ground hit harder than the last drill, the impact shooting up through her knees, but Gina took off running like she was supposed to, reaching the sidewalk next to the bus loop faster than she ever had. Ms. Sharon glanced at her, barely seeing her before looking down to her clipboard to check her off. Got you, she said. You’re safe.


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Cortney Phillips Meriwether received her MFA in Creative Writing from NC State in 2012 and has been working as a writer and editor ever since. Her work has been published by Wigleaf, CHEAP POP, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She serves as a reader for Fractured Lit and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and son.

Blind Wolf Teeth by Michael B. Tager

For my AARP birthday, Bea took me to Surprise Valley. “We’ll find some hot springs,” she said as the 447 crested into the valley’s basin. “There’s supposed to be horses. Like Assateague Island.”

“Those are ponies.”

“Same thing,” she said.

“Those are ponies.” I put venom into the word like I was trying to kill something, and Bea sucked her teeth and let me alone while I watched the vast mountains. I wanted to feel something, but all I saw was emptiness and the Law and Order marathon I was missing and Bea’s blue vest that made her look like a Walmart greeter. She’d almost popped me when I told her that, but she still wore it.

I muttered passive aggressiveness, affronted at the idea that ponies were the same as horses, but really I just didn’t want this to be my AARP birthday. I resented everything, from the ache in my jaw to the wildflowers, creeks and hills. Somewhere out there were towns filled with people who weren’t getting older, and roaming herds of horses under the sun that thought they were free.

I thought about telling her all that, maybe apologizing for my tone, but I could tell she was done listening to me.
Eventually, we parked by the trail markers. “Get out, you old fool,” Bea said, rummaging in the back for canteens, tents, trail mix and who knows what else. She was always over-prepared. On our honeymoon, I brought a backpack with a couple changes of clothes and my razor. She brought two suitcases, the second filled with all the shit I’d forgotten.

Maybe I rely on her to be my memory, but I have other qualities. I know where to find the salt and how much olive oil to use, how to prune the roses and how to get the knot out of her back that visits just under her shoulder blades.
Bea waited patiently while I did frou-frou Yoga that I had to admit soothed the fire in my back muscles to a low broil. I can lift our grandchildren and run after the ice cream truck, but the kinks come out slower these days. At my checkup last week, the doctor said I’ll eventually need a new vertebrae and maybe new teeth. No wonder I have the grumps.

Eventually we walked towards the mountains and muttered at one another, not real conversation, just a reminder that we were alive. Over the hours, other hikers passed or sometimes we passed, and we waved and nodded and they nodded and waved, speaking the silent language of the out-and-about.

“I have to admit,” I told Bea while admiring the sky, “I feel better.”

“Happy birthday, fool.” She put her arm around my waist.

We stopped at a clear lake alongside a young family. The woman looked too young to be a mother, but she breastfed and texted and admonished her brood simultaneously, so she was clearly old enough. We got to talking and the middle child told us about the wild horses. “Some have fangs.”

“What do you mean?” I squatted despite my legs’ protest. Children deserved to be looked in the eye by their elders.
She played with the bead at the end of her braids. She glanced at her father, who nodded. “Some horses have teeth-like fangs in the back of their mouth but they’re just blind wolf teeth.” I could tell she didn’t quite know what she was saying. Neither did I.

“Like wisdom teeth? Those come in when you’re older,” I offered.

“Ok,” she said, and lost interest in me because where we were bugs crawled and clouds lived in the sky.

On the second leg, we passed mostly young folks, though one couple had whiter hair than us. They jogged in spandex, wiry muscles defying the sun.

Bea whistled when they faded into the dust. “We should take up running. Or squash. I used to play squash.

“I didn’t know that,” I said, thinking about the dusty barbells in the basement.

“You don’t know everything about me.” She winked, and I remembered why I loved her.

At our campsite, I roasted corn and chicken in our open fire while Bea rubbed her feet and asked my opinion of the day.

“Best birthday in years.”

Bea grinned and she patted the ground flat in order to lay down and put her head in my lap. While the food cooled, I stroked her hair in the dwindling light. My left hand snuck under her arm and rubbed her breast. She giggled and said, “What in the world are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Depends on what you think about it.”

She laughed and her eyes sparked in the firelight. She took my hand and led me to the tent.

Later, half-asleep, I stumbled out of the tent in my jockeys to relieve my bladder. I hoped I didn’t glow in the light of the full moon but also, what did I care? I walked some distance and looked around and saw nothing in the emptiness.
Mid-stream, I heard a snort and heavy footsteps and I turned.

The palomino regarded me with ancient eyes and pawed the ground. Its mouth hung open. Its teeth were cracked and a deep yellow. Some were missing. I reached out a hand to touch it, but it snuffled at me and flared its lips.

I stepped back and tried to calm it. “Shhh.” Its knees quivered and it did the little dance horses do in order to sit. I could see its eyes, filmed over with cataracts. I knew it was a wild animal, but I stretched out my hand again, out of a need for connection. It whinnied but didn’t stop me. Its nose was warm and soft, and I felt its heart beat slowly.

In the light of the moon, I saw a single tooth in the corner of its mouth shaped like a jagged tear. “Hello there,” I said, surprised at how steady my heart was, how calm I felt in the face of an ending life.


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Michael B. Tager is a writer and editor. His work can be found at michaelbtager.com. He is mostly vegetables.