The Armadillo by Joaquin Fernandez

I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.

At eight years old, my asthma was at its worst. I remember staring at the ceiling the day after I got out of the hospital, sweating through my t-shirt, anxious and breathless and anxious about being breathless. I can’t remember if it was April or June or September, some indistinguishable month in the endless Florida summer of my childhood, but I remember the heat as if it were still pressing down on me. I was propped up on couch cushions in my twin bed, watching the brown thumb of my chubby body contract and expand, contract and expand, never finding quite enough air to clear the rasp from my wheezing.

Just like me.

My mother spoke to me, as always, in a clear, enunciated spanish, the secret ever-present language of my youth. It would be decades before I realized that she spoke a version that read as rich and educated, almost off-putting in its formality. Growing up poor, it was easy to forget that she had once been wealthy.

She put a damp cloth on my forehead, as if I had a fever. In South Florida, the fever was everywhere, I just felt it more, like a broken bellows pulling only heat with my every struggling breath. She frowned at me in a way that made me want to feel better. She hated that I hated the part that came next. I knew where she was going when she left the room.

She came back holding a big covered pot with a tight fitting lid, pluming a trail of smoke behind her as she entered. She had done this every night for a month, following the bruja across the street’s instructions to the letter. Eucalyptus leaf and Vaporub boiled for twenty minutes. Lid off, under the bed, let the steam rise through me.

Te digo un cuento?
Can I tell you a story?

She held my hand while the world went hazy. My glasses fogged. My eyes watered. My lungs burned, bright and sharp with every cautious breath. The smell was an assault. When I inhaled I could feel the parts of myself that didn’t work. I coughed. Every night, I coughed, exhilarated with relief. I could feel the steam razing the asthma out of me with every painful inhalation.

Can I tell you a story about my asthma? In Colombia?

My mother squeezed my hand and I could see her there in the house she grew up in. It was a house I’d never been in, in a country I’ve never been to. I could see her as my grandfather led her down the stairs into the basement.

Some days my breathing was worse than yours is now. But in Colombia, do you know what the cure was?

I could see the cigarette dangling from my grandfathers lips, a man I’d never meet, living forever mid-laugh in page after page of black and white photo albums.

What’s the word for armadillo in english? Is it armadillo?

When she tells me the story, I can see it, hanging from a beam by leftover clothesline. Was it even struggling? She tells me it wasn’t. She tells me it didn’t look real until her father cut its throat with a kitchen knife. She tells me about how calm he was holding the armadillo still with one hand, his other hand maneuvering to catch the spraying drip of something fully trapped still trying to run. She tells me that’s when it struggled. She tells me that it screamed until it didn’t. She never tells me why she didn’t run. When her father turns and offers her the glass, she makes sure to tell me she didn’t hesitate. She makes sure to tell me she drank it all at once, like medicine.

Do you know what it tasted like? Fresh milk.

After the story, she kisses me on the forehead and I can feel it linger for a long time after she leaves. After the story, she turns out the light and I pretend not to hear the back door click closed when she steps out to smoke her secret cigarettes. After the story, I can see her, staring at the glass in her father’s hand while it fills with blood. I can see her growing more and more certain of what will come next. I can see the little girl that would grow into my mother step forward and take the glass and know what she had to, had to, had to do.

I’ve told that story a hundred times, told it to everyone who’s ever met my mother. When I tell that story while she’s in the room, she always laughs at the end. I don’t know if she’s laughing at us for believing her. I don’t know if she’s laughing out of nervousness, like whistling past a graveyard. I don’t know if she’s laughing about a lifetime of locked up secrets or a million more impossible everyday stories from the parallel universe of her youth in a different time, a world away. I still don’t know why she never hesitated. I still don’t know why she didn’t run.

I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.


 

FernandezJoaquin Fernandez is a recovering filmmaker and South Florida native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His work has appeared in Okay Donkey, Cotton Xenomorph, Cheap Pop, and Pidgeonholes among others. He’s guest edited special issues for Kissing Dynamite and X-R-A-Y Magazine in addition to editing for the Radix Media anthology AFTERMATH. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger and on his website joaquinfernandezwrites.com.

You Know This Has To Be True, Or Else You’ll Dissolve, Too by Hannah Grieco

Your four-year-old holds your cheeks tightly in his tiny hands and whispers, “Kill me, mommy.” You shake your head, no, never. You pull away and he screams, “I WANT TO DIE.”


Later, a diagnosis appears and you hate yourself, your parenting, everything you ever did and said that fragmented your child. You go back in time and place your hands over his. I will love you forever, you whisper. I’m your safe harbor, you say.


It takes years. It takes setting yourself on fire. It takes being almost positive you won’t live through this. It takes living through this. It takes emptying your charred body of all it knew and fire-proofing the remaining shell. Now you are ready to learn, to forget what you were taught before. Now you remember how to breathe, to walk, to smile cracked lips.


Your daughters wait at a distance, watch you burn and reemerge, your face the same but different. They mirror how you stand. How you hold out your arms. How you bury your dread and stay intact.


Were you ever a good parent? Was there one day you did this right? Where you held them close and whispered and it was enough, it was good, they felt loved?


You wake up in a panic, your youngest asleep curled into you, your dream about her older sister clogging your throat. The four of you stood in the backyard of a house you never owned. Your middle child screamed and tore out her hair. She slapped you across the face. She pulled a gun from her pocket and shot her big brother while he begged her to love him. She ran into the woods and you knew you would never see her again.


You pour water into the bowl of cereal. You burn the toast. The last thin thread connecting you to this kitchen, this house, pulls tight and then tighter. It will break any second.


You take your children to school, stopping for doughnuts on the way. The powdered sugar on your son’s upper lip is so perfect that you reach for it with the tip of your pointer finger. He ducks at the last minute and blows you a kiss. Offers you a bite, even though it’s his favorite, even though he’s starving.


For every down there is an up. For every dark hole, a ladder reaching toward a distant ball of something shimmering. You know this has to be true or else you’ll dissolve, too.


You listen as your children eat dinner and talk about their day. They laugh, tell stories about friends, complain about school. You hold your breath and incise this moment into something fleshy that now grows inside you. You repeat their words out loud to yourself so they don’t fade, but they are gone the next day. You poke the swollen scab to remind yourself that good things happen.


You kiss your husband for the first time in months.


You and your son in his big kid bed at 3AM, your phone and his iPad blending blue light, two islands, his hand on your arm. A bridge. He is hallucinating again. The meds aren’t working again. You kiss his forehead until he collapses, boneless, his mouth open, into an infant’s sleep. You close your eyes, at last, and lean back against the wall.


This morning you wake up to a love poem typed by young fingers into your phone. Your son gets dressed for school, recites the poem as you read it. He smiles like any other kid. Your daughters run in and hug-attack him, three human pups rolling around the floor, squeals rising until you back out of the room and go downstairs. You turn on the coffee machine. You pack their lunches. You are not empty, you whisper as you pour coffee. People don’t dissolve, you say as you stir in sugar.


hgrieco

Hannah Grieco is a writer, advocate, and teacher in Arlington, VA. She can be found online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud.

 

No Such Person by Alina Stefanescu

“There is no such person over the long term.”
–Alain de Botton

I.
When I leave my college sweetheart, it’s with conviction in the sweetness of his heart. He’s good in a world where goodness is held against men. He’s my best friend.

He tells me our cats curl their fuzzy bodies into the absence my shadow leaves on the couch. He texts photos of my former butt-marks with kitties inside. The cats thrive.

I leave behind Romanian oil paintings, heirloom tapestries, rattan chairs, CD collection, French sheet music, countless novels that carried me through adolescence.

“Have you lost your marbles?” my mother wonders. She loves him. He is the best.

“I left my marbles,” I say. This is a mantra: an action asserted contra what was left.

II.
The first sign: an ache in the breasts, a tenderness. I have a new man now, but no kitties. Other fellows showing interest. A few dogs. More mammals than one should manage without calculus.

I have a new mantra: “All balls in the air.”

If this is a game, I’m not playing. If this is a set-up, I want to be surprised.

The bra holds my breasts like fresh bruises.

The new man says pro-life. Another man says lesser evil. All men say civil society will take care of it.

I keep the balls in the air, glance around the lobby and wonder, “What civil society?”

Where there is a child, I see a woman attached. Kids are like urchins poised atop mommy rocks and men are like Starburst. Men are like candy, not stars.

Next comes nausea. A sign urges consumer choice. A man laments liberal media.

A darkening of nipples. A different man says job creation. Some men say down-sizing is the future is necessary. Men say what it takes to make America great again.

I lean in–that’s what. I lean into the toilet. What bubbles from my mouth is collateral damage. Or baby thighs, fetus eyes that can’t see the shell they’ve bloomed inside.

III.
“She can’t really be pregnant.”

“Of course she can’t. But she is.”

“Now she’s fucked herself in your mother’s pussy.”

They speak in Romanian, using expressions that don’t pass through customs without gaining weight, without becoming baggage. In my native tongue, the most potent curses are attached to mothers.

The green light of my grandfather’s hearing aid is on. That’s good. He doesn’t know I’m pregnant yet. I imagine his mother’s pussy is still safe.

My grandfather collects communist stamps from the Socialist Republic of Romania. The images are vivid studies in motherland myths, how leaders make complicity popular. Pop culture moves propaganda into hive minds.

On these stamps, the nation is a young mother bearing bread loaves, daisies, and babies.

The man brings an unlicked stamp to his nostrils and inhales the sticky side. It’s pure, untainted, high-value.

IV.
I stay with my childhood friend in her Georgetown mock Tudor. She has a son and a recent divorce.

“Who knew they could be lanky at six?” I wonder.

Her brown eyes thicken with boxed pinot. “I didn’t know anything,” she admits.

As she speaks, a moth flings its gray body against the glass doors. Reggae seeps into the yard, soft enough to sound belligerent.

I head down M street to procure sashimi. Taxies and bureaucrats light the dusk with dull car horns. On the sidewalk near the park, a doe nibbles oak leaves. Her eyes lift, meet mine, in the middle of this furious city, and I know we can live through anything.

V.
A silver locket lacking a photo inside the heart. It was autumn. A leaf fell from the dogwood, orange imposed across the red of his sports jacket.

I brushed the leaf from his shoulder. Laid the locket in his mouth. Said: “speak.”

“It tastes like metal,” he whispered.

VI.
When I left him, the interlude between day and night tangled like underbrush at the edge of a forest. A blur of various light, cats, special pillowcases, embroidery floss, his best soup, our french press that traveled to Paris. The fur and muscle of dark was muzzled by these memories.

Today is April 14th, one day after my birthday, one day after the sweetheart’s birthday, also the day Mayakovsky took his own life. Like a ride-or-die poet, Mayakovsky’s last letter was a script that undermined life.

I want to make love to every human in the hour before their suicide. I want to be the last salt they taste, a final sweat, a swear word.

VII.
Instead, I marry the mammal I can’t forget.

I tell him: “When I leave you, red and pink valentine hearts will be awning the pharmacy aisles.”

He thinks the plot is strong, but the characters need developing. He’s right.

I sit with the notebook and untangle the arms of an unwritten story.

He accuses me of functioning under the availability model for marriage.

My lawyer friend accidentally had sex with a transient man, a regular known round the parks for his avid vagrancies. She didn’t realize it until she volunteered at the Sunday Night Soup kitchen.

“That was just a story. Not your real friend,” he says.

“Are you sure? I miss her. I really like her. As a person.”

“That’s your thing, isn’t it, Alina? Liking people you make up to suit a story?”

In the morning, it’s hard to tell the difference between a dream and a desire. I wanted that Woman they advertised.
Desire inflames hope. I let the man hold my hand. “We can make this work,” he says.

He looks fabulous in my Che t-shirt. I let myself imagine the next part. Imagine men become solid mammals waking to diaper babies. Let myself want more than he promised. All of it.

I want to shepherd a revolutionary love through the strip malls of Alabama. I want a beloved community. And I do. I do. But when I pass the Victoria’s Secret, the eyes of those angels own me. And I want that Woman that flies off the American shelf.


 

AlinaS

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama. Her poems and prose are recent or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Mantis, VOLT,
Cloudbank, Prairie Schooner, NELLE, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor of Pidgeonholes, President of the Alabama State Poetry Society, and co-founder of the Magic City Poetry Festival. Her first poetry chapbook, Objects in Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) won the ASPS Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her first poetry collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus (Finishing Line Press, 2017) included Pushcart-nominated poems. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize and was published in May 2018. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com or @aliner.

Fishing in Ketchikan by Samantha Peterson

Baranof casts its magic over us on a grey Friday morning in June. It starts with a cut, knife angled under its fin, fish still wriggling on the wooden table as he peels away the meat. Flop-flop, as he flips it over, mouth open in a big gaping O- like it might say something. But all we hear is the wind and the water lapping at the rocks and the boat near the shore. He tosses the bones, tail, head in a bucket by his feet. No more stirring, just scraps.

“Food for the eagles, later,” he says, his hands wet, clumps of guts glistening like jelly.

I’d had trouble reeling it in, my palms sore from their grip on the rod, forearms burning, the feel of its tiny teeth still on the tip of my finger from when I’d held it, thumb packed into its mouth.

“Yelloweye Rockfish,” he’d noted, and we’d admired the bright blood-orange of its body, head spines long like flames on its back, the golden color of its eyes wide-wide-open.

“That’s a good-sized catch” he’d said, tossing it into the hatch, and I listened to it bounce, the heavy thwack of its tail against the hard wood, wrestling for breath.

After, we eat our catch by the fire; potatoes, tomatoes, fresh aioli spread out onto our plates, hot coffee, flames thawing our feet still stuck firm in their boots. I scrape my dish clean, suppress the urge to lick it, tongue craving every last trace, mouth full with the taste of pepper, garlic, butter, wild. Across the beach, I watch the boat nod from the water, white meat swimming in my gut, full now, happy. Clouds wrap the sky in gray, but under the small wooden shelter we glow, warm bits of blueberry crumble still stuck on our lips.

When it’s time, he throws the bloody bucket in the boat, the gentle purr of the motor pulling us farther from shore. We watch him throw the carcass to the eagles, wings back, talons sharp, bowed like hooks. We sit like that-still, drifting- the white-brown body descending, the quick whoosh as it grabs at the small head sinking before soaring back up into the trees, carrying its catch deep out into the wild where it belongs.


 

SamanthaPic

Samantha Peterson is a freelance writer and medical biller from Scottsdale, Arizona. She graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and is currently in the process of relocating to Juneau, Alaska with her husband and their dog.

In Foxfield by Kara Oakleaf

There are hundreds of plants and flowers native to northeast Ohio, and I think each one must be covered in thorns.

My mother leads me, my husband, and our four-year old through the grasses; she knows this place better than we do, but it changes between her visits and there are few markers to guide us. We’ve already taken one wrong turn, wandered down the wrong path until the slope grew too steep, too shaded by trees taller and older than what we’re looking for.

I’ve told my daughter we’ve come to visit a special stone with her grandfather’s name on it. I didn’t say ‘grave.’
My father’s ashes are buried on the hillside of a sprawling nature preserve, a spot unrecognizable as a cemetery. There are no arched headstones, no groundskeeper mowing circles around the graves, and no cut flowers. There is only wild, green growth. The grass is tamped down along narrow paths where other footsteps have passed, but we can see across the hills and valley, and for now, we’re alone.

I haven’t been back since the burial, when the spot we’re looking for was at the center of a large clearing. But the landscape has shifted since then, and nothing, nothing is recognizable. The world has grown up around this patch of earth where we marked his life, covered it with wild, shifting plants and flowers. Now, we’re wading through an overgrown meadow thick with raspberry bushes and prairie grass, parting thorny stalks that pierce my fingers no matter how carefully I try to grip only the tip of a leaf. Around us, the air is alive with the hum of bees and tiny insects. Weeds and wildflowers reach past my knees, sometimes taller than my daughter, and my husband guides her away from the thorns. Every few feet, we stop so she can watch the butterflies flitting around the flowers, their long tongues dipped into the center of an aster.

She’s old enough now to ask questions about him, the grandfather who disappeared from the world while she grew inside me, readying herself for it, cells in bloom.

When she was an infant, I dreamed of seeing the two of them together, as if everything were normal. But then, he’d ask me her name or how old she was, and I’d go silent, stunned I’d never told him these simple, essential facts. For whole, long seconds after I woke, I would not be able to grasp the reason they’d never met.

Back then, I thought I had plenty of time before she’d ask about him. I believed it would be easier now, but when she wants to know why he died, my throat closes around any possible explanation, and no answer will ever feel sufficient.

<>

My mother and I comb through the wilds while my husband holds my daughter above the thorns. Each time we think we’ve found the spot, we step around and over the plants, pulling vines to the side, the thorns catching our skin. I’m unprepared for this landscape; it’s summer and my calves and arms are exposed, now covered in almost imperceptible scratches, pinprick droplets of blood rising to the surface. A line of stems catches my back and snags three thorns through my shirt and into the skin. I hold still while my mother pinches the tip of the stem between two fingers and pulls. One at a time, the thorns break away from my skin and the fabric of my shirt, and we keep searching. We search for so long the trip feels like more of a quest, one we might not complete.

<>

I tried to explain this place to my daughter before coming, that it was special place to remember her grandfather. But when we first arrived, she looked out the window for a moment and then told me, “I still can’t remember him.”

She had expected a memory, some impossible memory, to appear in her mind when we got here, and it felt like I’d already failed her.

Finally, my mother finds a stand of wild bergamot, waist-high purple blossoms reaching into the air, and knows we’re close. I nudge the raspberry brambles around them in different directions, and then a bit of sunlight falls on the ground and across a piece of stone. Only a corner is exposed, but I know it. Brick-red, a flat rock lying nearly even with the earth. It’s been swallowed by a tangle of plants and grasses growing live and wild around it. My husband finds his way back to us and steps into the thorny vines, pressing them into the ground until there’s the smallest clearing and we can see part of his name, carved into rock. Enough to show this spot of earth to our daughter.

For days, I’ve steeled myself, knowing I’d be here with her. I don’t want her to see me upset, because I don’t want her to stop asking about him. I need these moments, when I can still bring him into her life in some small, insufficient way.

We tell her his name, pointing out the letters etched in stone and for a just few minutes, she sees something of him.

I want to stay longer, but there’s nowhere to sit in this tangle of shrubs and vines. But we’re here, she’s seen it, and I’ve stayed calm. It’s enough, and it isn’t.

We step out of the thorns to leave this place, this strange and overgrown place that looks nothing like a cemetery but seems to understand something of grief – how massive and wild, but so often invisible it is in the face of the living world. It is a kind of reassurance, to return years later to a part of the earth that makes you wade and dig and claw your way through tangles and knots of vines before finding what you’re looking for. Even the thorns catching your skin with every step are a reassurance, a response to a question you hadn’t spoken aloud.

Yes, they tell you. Yes, it is still supposed to hurt.


 

Kara O

Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Nimrod, Stirring, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, as a finalist for Best Small Fictions, and appears in the Bloomsbury anthology Short-Form Creative Writing. She received her M.F.A. from George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival. Find her online at karaoakleaf.com.