Issue 09. Spring 2018.


Leni Zumas with Alexis M. Smith...........
Shankar Narayan...........

The Thin Place, Keya Mitra...........
The Boys in the Forest, Heather Jacobs...........
What About What Billy Wants?, Dave Roth...........
Kibo’s Cats, Sharon Hashimoto...........

Red & Black: A solidarity poem celebrating Indigenous Peoples
Day 2017
, Nikkita Oliver...........

This Was Years Before the Re-Branding of American Fascism,
Rich Smith...........

Seeds and Lily, Dimmed, Mercedes Lawry...........

About Moss...........







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Leni Zumas in Conversation with Alexis M. Smith
August 2017  ·  Digital Exchange

Over the course of three books Leni Zumas has mapped the (sometimes surreal, always exquisite) interiors of teenagers, loners, punks, witches, spinsters, teachers, and mothers. Karen Russell called her writing “sorcery,” and Noy Holland called her “an alchemist.” It’s no wonder, then, that her latest, Red Clocks, evokes both the current political and social divisions in our country and the storied history of witch hunts around the world. In Zumas’s novel, federal lawmakers have passed legislation limiting reproductive rights of women and the parental rights of those not in conventional heterosexual unions. The women of the coastal town of Newville, Oregon, find their lives splintered with the shards of their freedom—to be mothers, or not, and more: to determine for themselves the stories of their lives. Zumas writes with musical precision, from word to word and sentence to sentence, echoing the voices of women who’ve come before, both ancient and modern. Red Clocks a formally and ideologically daring novel and I can’t help but admire it unabashedly.
Red Clocks is a story of many voices. Whose voice came first, and did you know at the time that other voices would join hers?
I knew so little—almost nothing—at the beginning. Probably the first voice was my own; I thought I was writing an essay. This was seven years ago, when I was

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living in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a bunch of notes about my desire to become a mother and my ambivalence about this desire. I wondered how much of it was my own, and how much of it came from worn-out scripts for women’s lives. I was in a place of wanting something very badly yet doubting my reasons for wanting it.

As soon as I figured out I was writing a novel, not an essay, the Biographer was the voice for my doubt. There are five point-of-view characters in Red Clocks, but the Biographer’s was the first to take shape. She is a writer and teacher who happens not to be in a romantic relationship, and she is trying to get pregnant:

Can the biographer remember first thinking, feeling, or deciding she wanted to be someone’s mother? The original moment of longing to let a bulb of lichen grow in her until it came out human? The longing is widely endorsed. Legislators, aunts, and advertisers approve. Which makes the longing, she thinks, a little suspicious.

As the Biographer’s character emerged, I envisioned two other women standing near her. A triangle, unstable and vibrating. These other characters would lead, I imagined, very different lives but would be connected to the Biographer somehow—in friendship, solidarity, competition. One of these women became the Wife, the other morphed into the Mender. The Daughter and the Polar Explorer joined them slightly later.
I wondered if the Biographer was the first character to emerge. Her role in the novel—and her project, the book she has been working on—strikes me as

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symbolic: she’s piecing together an identity for herself as she’s reconstructing the life of another woman, Eivør Mínervudottír, a 19th century scientist. Fragments of Mínervudottír’s story (channeled through Ro, the Biographer) are woven in and out of the stories of the women of Newville, at times mirroring one woman’s predicament, at times another’s. Is Mínervudottír a historical figure, or is she a creation, like Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare, a woman who could have existed, but whose story has been lost or erased or arrested by patriarchal culture? Can you talk about fragmentation and women’s stories, as it relates to the women in Red Clocks? I’m thinking of a particular line from the Biographer: “After the body of Eivør Mínervudottír sank to the bottom of Baffin Bay, west of Greenland, it entered into many other bodies.”
I love that you brought Woolf in—she’s a major influence and brain-spark for me (Several of the names in Red Clocks allude to characters in The Waves.)—and for you too, I think? A Room of One’s Own throws light into corners darkened by patriarchy, and in that sense it’s a forebear of the Biographer’s project. Ro is fascinated by a Faroese polar hydrographer, Eivør Mínervudottír, who was an actual person (at least in the world of Red Clocks) and she’s frustrated that Mínervudottír barely gets mentioned in books on nineteenth-century Arctic exploration. So she writes her own book. The written history of Western culture(s) is mostly the story of white men; stories of people of color and white women come to us in scraps—incomplete, hidden, distorted, torn. “Scrap” means crumb or leftover, but it also means fight. A scrappy person won’t stop trying. The unfinishedness of a scrap, its secrets and potential, might be the very reason we want it. The fragment’s refusal to join the whole is maybe its strength.

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Shreds of the Explorer’s corpse go into the mouths of sea creatures, and shreds of her journal go into the mind of the Biographer, one woman’s narrative threading through other narratives, all of them unfinished, echoing. As I’ve heard Buddhist teachers put it, “We inter-are.” The structure of Red Clocks—a rotation of short chapters tracking each of the five main characters—is meant to enact this interbeing, switching perspectives often enough that no single view holds sway.
That description perfectly captures the feeling of reading these interwoven “scraps” of lives: the many stories become one. And I love that subtle literary allusions (I sensed Woolf’s presence, though I didn’t pick up on the reference to The Waves), also contribute to this feeling of interbeing: the biographer’s full name is Roberta Louise Stephens, a nod to Robert Louis Stevenson and his family of lighthouse builders, I assume. And Moby Dick makes an appearance (more on whales later)…

One of the delights in reading Red Clocks is the variation with which these women’s stories emerge. Though told in a close third-person narration, each woman’s individual voice comes through. The most striking, to me, being the Mender, Gin Percival’s. Her voice—maybe it’s more apt to call it her consciousness, these scraps of thought we’re privy to—manages to feel both archaic (in grammatical construction and diction) and modern (in the free-associative quality of the imagery). How did you develop and sustain her narrative consciousness? Does she have forebears in history or literary history to whom you looked for inspiration?

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Some of the Mender’s syntax and diction came from books I was reading while I worked on Red Clocks: the witch-hunter’s manual Compendium Maleficarum (1608), Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal (1818), trial transcripts, botanical histories, guides to edible plants of the Pacific Northwest. One of the first texts that inspired the novel generally, and the Mender’s character specifically, was a 1906 monograph called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E. P. Evans. I was amazed to learn that for several centuries, in parts of Europe, non-human creatures were put on trial—and sometimes executed—for crimes such as stinging a man to death (bees) or biting off a child’s ear (pig).

Gin Percival’s historical antecedents are women who’ve been harassed, punished, or killed because people feared them. Accused witches from colonial New England are obvious examples, and in early drafts I used language from the Salem trial transcripts in the Mender’s courtroom scenes. As a healer who forages for plants to cure maladies, Gin operates outside the authority of the medical and pharmaceutical industries. She’s a high school dropout who learned alternative medicine from her aunt and from library books. She is not “allowed” to dispense the treatments she dispenses, but she does anyway, like so many women who help others in unauthorized, unacknowledged ways.

More broadly, the Mender belongs to a lineage of solitude-loving outsiders, people uninterested in (and perhaps incapable of) fully joining the social order. Hers is not the story of a shunned person who yearns for a place in society; she is happy being apart, with goats and chickens and a cat as companions. Such an embrace of solitude, especially by a woman, is unsettling. People in the village are

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frightened of her, label her strange or deficient. I’m really interested in female singleness—solo-hood—and how it too often gets narrated as a problem requiring a solution (romance, marriage, death) rather than as a valid, even desirable, way to live. Like the Mender, the Biographer is content without a partner, yet many of the people around her, including her therapist, insist she would be happier if she “found someone.”
I have a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives & Nurses: A History of Women Healers on my desk right now and there’s this great quote that brings to mind not only the Mender, but also the political and cultural reality you set up in the book: “Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of Western history… For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called ‘wise women’ by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.”

Red Clocks imagines another wave of restrictions on this “birthright.” The Mender becomes the focus of the community’s fear in a time when the country has passed laws outlawing female reproductive autonomy. Abortion is illegal, and reproductive procedures more and more restrictive for unmarried, non-heterosexual people; single women like the Biographer who want to be mothers will no longer be able to legally adopt. All of the women in the book are affected by these laws in one way or another (or in the case of the Wife, demonstrate what may come to pass for married, heterosexual women). Readers will probably

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immediately think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and there is a kinship between your books. And yet, I would hesitate to call Red Clocks “speculative fiction,” because it feels not just possible in our current political reality, but imminent (goddess forfend).

I know you’ve been working on this book for years, so I wonder how much of the current political reality you anticipated as you wrote, and how much was an unhappy accident?
The Ehrenreich/English book sounds great! I don’t think of Red Clocks as speculative fiction, either. I invented a few details in the political landscape, such as the Pink Wall, but nearly every other law in the novel (including the Personhood Amendment) has been proposed, at some point, by politicians in our own world. Threats to reproductive rights in the U.S. have been rising for years, orchestrated by men who’ve held office far longer than Trump. Mike Pence is a seasoned architect of misogynist legislation. (Example: forcing women who’ve had miscarriages or abortions to pay for funerals for the fetal tissue.) Paul Ryan and current CIA director Mike Pompeo were cosponsors of a 2013 bill called the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which gives a fertilized egg “all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”

That said, I did not anticipate the bonkers shit-cake of the Trump regime. After his election I was depressed and terrified, as millions of us were and continue to be; and I was still revising Red Clocks. It was appalling to revisit certain scenarios in the novel, like the repeal of Roe v. Wade, that had felt unlikely before

8  ·    ·  

November 8 but which now seemed entirely possible. My sister called me on November 9 and said, “I’m scared your book is going to come true.”
Let’s talk about the setting of the novel. I’m always interested in how characters (and writers, actually) interact with the natural world. Newville is fashioned after a coastal Oregon community. What appealed to you about the landscape of the coast and the dynamics of a maritime town? As you said earlier, the novel began when you lived on the East Coast, but you’ve been living in Oregon for several years now. Was there something about the landscape here that fed the story? Has living in the Pacific Northwest changed your writing, beyond providing the setting of this novel in particular?
The Pacific Northwest feels blessedly removed from the hyper-productive, hyper-competitive literary culture of New York City, where I used to live. This isn’t to say that PNW writers aren’t productive or ambitious; but there’s less anxiety. More privacy, more space. I like being a writer here.

I just went back through my earliest notes for Red Clocks and found this: “Coastal town. Northern. Lots of bad weather.” I was vaguely picturing Nova Scotia or Newfoundland as the novel’s setting, but I changed it once I moved here and saw the Oregon coast. This stretch of Pacific seaboard is stunning and uncanny and a little forbidding, and it has so many lighthouses. It reminds me of other northerly

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coasts I’m attracted to: Cornwall, the Shetlands, the Faroe Islands. Stormy cold places with cliffs. The Polar Explorer grew up in the Faroes and learned how to read in her uncle’s lighthouse; I see that lighthouse as a North Atlantic counterpart to the Gunakadeit Light, a fictional beacon near my fictional town.

The trees in Oregon are important to me in a way that’s hard to describe. Is there a word for being sensually overcome by trees? The way evergreens look, sound, smell: I just want to be near them. I know for sure that I didn’t do justice in Red Clocks to the bewitchingness of firs, spruces, cedars, and pines. The natural world isn’t easy for me to write about (see first sentence of this paragraph). I admire authors who do it well.
There is that Japanese idea of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” that captures the whole sensory experience of being among trees. It’s meant to be a way to spiritually, mentally, and physically reset oneself.

I think you capture the moody atmosphere of the Oregon coast and coastal forests quite well, the way they can be both foreboding and soothing, sometimes in the same moment. It’s sort of perfect for writers, I think, the paradoxes we encounter in the landscape here. As bountiful as it is in beauty and resources, we live in imminent danger of unpredictable environmental catastrophes (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions), which primes the imagination for all kinds of weird and terrifying, even supernatural, phenomena.

Which brings me to the pod of whales that washes ashore on a Newville beach (hearkening back to one of Oregon’s most famous whale tales). Some of the

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townspeople suspect Gin is responsible for the strange happenings in their environment, almost as if their minds leap to the fantastic before looking to more obvious answers. Can you talk about the spectacle of the whale corpses? Were there were other unusual natural phenomena that caught your imagination in the writing and researching that didn’t make it into the story?
TI think I agree with Keith Waldrop’s definition of the novel: “That literary form into which you throw everything that’s captured your attention in the last five years.” I’ve been preoccupied by sea creatures and nautical lore for much of my life. The whales didn’t come into Red Clocks as plot devices or markers of ecological crisis; they came in because I love them. It was only afterward that I figured out how to link them to the characters’ predicaments.

While researching the Faroe Islands, I found a video of a sperm-whale carcass exploding. A Faroese biologist had cut it open and hit a gas pocket. This led me to another video (which you’ve probably seen, Alexis) of a dead beached whale getting blown up in Florence, Oregon, in 1970. Evidently the Oregon Highway Division thought it was too much of a hassle to chop up the body, so they used dynamite. Chunks of whale were landing on people, crushing the hoods of cars. Out at sea, the corpse would have decomposed slowly, ingested by creatures asgreat as sharks and as small as bacteria. A “whale fall” can feed the deep-ocean ecosystem for decades. Fifty years of nourishment versus a few seconds of waste.

I did wonder, at certain points, if I should include whales in the book at all. They are already so freighted with symbolism and fit so easily into a sentimental storyline: “dead whale” becomes emotional shorthand for nature’s vulnerability to

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human selfishness, and the only possible reaction is pity. I knew I might be teetering on a dubious line. But if I listened to my brain every time it warned me that something could be read in an objectionable way, I would have to quit making fiction. Also, luckily, there are models for writing unsentimentally about cetaceans, such as Charles D’Ambrosio’s beautiful essay “Whaling Out West.”

Here are a few things I’d hoped to include in Red Clocks but couldn’t find a harmonious place for:

Dolphins as psychopomps, guiding souls across the sea of death to the Isle of the Blessed.

Treatment for whooping cough, 19th century: “putting a whole trout’s head into the mouth of the sufferer and letting the trout breathe into the child’s mouth”—I found this in Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, by William Henderson, which was published in 1879.

The Mender’s incantation against the brown garden snail: “You irrational and imperfect creature, the brown garden snail, you come in droves to do damage in the ground and above the ground. The rat lung worm, cause of deadly affliction in humans, does get transported on your mucus and in your meat.”
I love that so much I’d like to end our interview there. But I want to know what’s “capturing your attention” these days, now that Red Clocks is out in the world. Have you made the leap in your mind to a new story or stories?

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I recently finished a small new story that circles around witch-burning, fame-seeking, and Detective Fin Tutuola of Special Victims Unit. Now I’m writing an essay on normative American ideas about the family, and how inadequate or outright damaging these ideas can be.

Thank you for your wonderful questions, Alexis!

Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and a World Book Night 2013 selection. In 2015, she received a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and a fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission. She holds an MFA from Goddard College. Her latest novel, Marrow Island, has been called “transporting” (Vanity Fair), “weird and glorious” (BookRiot), and “intoxicating” (The New York Times Book Review). Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she currently lives with her wife and son in Portland, Oregon.

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day (2017)
Nikkita Oliver

Red and Black stand
on a shore of White expectation
fragile and salt-watered

hear the flood rush

they wanna know of the land
want Us to teach them
how to feel better
about the condition of Our Mother
how Her womb tears at the seams
to give birth to their seed of force and industry
want you to teach them to protect the water
they will not miss till it is gone away and bottled

want you to give up your 3 sisters
wanna commodify them
sell them back to Us
when We are hungry & thirsty
wanna hear of the fish and birds and trees and plains and mountains
but don’t wanna honor the treaties to protect them

want you to tell them
how you come from bear clan or elk people
but can’t seem to remember my people lived long before enslavement

14  ·    ·  

want Us to act like We weren’t stolen
like this land had no name
before ill-fitting mouths chewed the sound out of it

want Us to carry Our stories like rocks
but expect Us not to break their windows
when We tell them

wanna hear about Our struggles
wanna know how my people survived the middle passage
wanna make oceans of Our fears
in textbooks about the past
but sail past us in the present

wanna wash away your trails with Our tears
act like We ain’t never been pit against each other
want Us to forget
how when Our bodies washed up on your shores

you heard Our heart beats
We felt your rhythm
knew We came from different lands
but the same Mother
wanna take Our children at gunpoint
call it boarding school
call it jail
call it policing
call it welfare

15  ·    ·  

call it history
but We still
call it murder
call it genocide

ask Us to tell Our stories for entertainment
but shame Us when We tell them for survival

for celebration
Our stories are for Us
Our stories are for Our children
in their presence Our stories become warnings
can’t understand why Our tongues
sound like whiplash
like sword and shield
like bow and arrow

like how Our stories in Our mouths
set fires in the hearts of millions & men march
that’s power

Our stories are powerful
We must tell them even if they break a few windows
sometimes because they will break a few windows
open doors and unlock hearts

like how this poem ain’t just a poem
it’s a battle cry We did not start but We intend to finish
We pass the baton like a rite of passage

16  ·    ·  

ask Our children to run a race they aren’t supposed to win
but We won’t let them lose
lest We be finished entirely

can’t understand why We talk so loud
reverberate so proud all over everything
We made
this body a reconstructed drum

Our heartbeats Our mother tongue
We speak in sacred rhythm
so they cannot understand us

my sisters
let us dance like Our mothers
like Our mother’s mothers
like Our mother’s mother’s mothers
let us give birth to liberation
in Our dancing bodies

you put on your jingle dress
i will wrap my aso ke round my head
together We call the drummers
and they bring the singers

and We round dance
and make noise
till We aren’t afraid
they might hear Us

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so tired of being afraid
they might hear Us

as Our Mother quakes
beneath Our feet echoes
a heartbreak
she’s chosen to bear
you, the Land
desperately wanting to touch Our souls
when We miss Our roots
when We can’t get grounded
yet been grounded so long
We can’t remember
how to fly away

when the seasons change
pray We remember who

We are

from the land
from each other
distance relatives
from the same mother

Red and Black stand
on the shore of White expectation
fragile and salt watered

18  ·    ·  

We do not give in to the flood
rather We give to live with each other

Red & Black meet
and the shore feels a change
in the tide of Our solidarity

Nikkita Oliver is a Seattle-based writer, teaching artist, attorney, and organizer. Her writing has been published in the South Seattle Emerald, Crosscut, The Establishment, Last Real Indians, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger. Holding a J.D. and a Master of Education from the University of Washington, she serves as case manager for Creative Justice, an arts-based alternative to incarceration. Nikkita has been named one of the Seattle Met’s 50 Most Influential Women in Seattle and City Arts Artist of the Year. She has received numerous awards including the University of Washington Women’s Center Woman of Courage Award, Gender Justice Power Award, Seattle King County NAACP President’s Leadership Award, and the Seattle Office of Civil Rights Artist Human Rights Leader Award. In 2014, she represented Seattle at the National Poetry Slam as the Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Champion.

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The Thin Place
Keya Mitra


Years later, Kat and David still couldn’t pinpoint what attracted them to Overtoun Bridge that day. They were aware of the bridge’s reputation after all—dogs had been committing suicide there since the 1950s. The ill-fated canines, usually retrievers like their dog, Marilyn (a golden), leapt from a spot between two parapets. Strangely enough, the dogs usually jumped on one of the few sunny days there in Dumbarton. So Kat and David had usually avoided the bridge during their strolls with Marilyn.
Earlier that week, during a regular checkup, their vet had told them about yet another suicide. As Dr. Gray took Marilyn’s temperature, he described the mangled dog, a black lab, brought in by his owner. Euthanasia had been the only humane option.
Dr. Gray usually had to put down at least one suicidal dog a month, although in some cases the poor animal had already succumbed to injuries from the fall. “Usually long-nosed dogs take the leap, so maybe they’re just going after the minks living underneath the bridge’s arch—or the smell of urine the minks use to mark their territory.”
Or maybe the explanation was less simple. “Overtoun,” Dr. Gray said, running a brush over Marilyn’s golden coat and diligently picking out fuzz, “is Celtic and means the thin place, the meeting place between Heaven and Earth. Personally, I don’t believe in all that. But some do.”
Kat placed her hand near Dr. Gray’s on Marilyn’s coat and felt the rise and fall of her breath. David raised an eyebrow at her. She put her hand in her pocket.

20  ·    ·  

Dr. Gray passed his hand over Marilyn’s body, as though healing her. He pressed on Marilyn’s stomach and bladder. Dr. Gray was pasty and frail. In conventional terms David was far better looking—lean, tall, and so dark that strangers occasionally confused him for Kat’s brother, even though he was white, not Indian.
But Kat loved Dr. Gray’s ability to inhabit each moment fully. His movements as he took Marilyn’s pulse and opened her mouth to check her teeth were deliberate and gentle. Nothing stood between him and his patients, the earth, the now. Marilyn felt it too; after the exam she rested her mud-stained paw on his wrist, soiling the sleeve of his white button-down shirt. When pried away from him and driven home, Marilyn always howled for hours.
Dr. Gray traced the white star on Marilyn’s forehead. “Your head contains the heavens, my girl,” he said. His touch, at that moment, was only for Marilyn.
He gave the dog a final pat. “Maybe the jumping has to do with their sensitivity—always absorbing the emotions of their owners. In other words,” he said, winking at the two of them as he exited the room, “don’t take her to the bridge when you’re feeling grumpy.”


The Saturday after that appointment, David and Kat veered from their usual course. They weaved through the streets of Dumbarton, hand in hand, with an urgency they hadn’t experienced since they fell in love. They tramped through the streets as though possessed. Kat felt the acceleration of David’s pulse in his palm. Her fingers trembled in his.
Then there they were, standing on the Overtoun Bridge. The sun, given the rare opportunity to show itself, blazed with fortitude. The trees and

21  ·    ·  

vegetation surrounding the bridge had acquired shades so lustrous that they defied classification. The granite walls surrounding the bridge were sheathed with ivy and blended in with the surrounding foliage. Kat presumed the vegetation made it impossible for most dogs to gauge the height of the bridge.
Kat, hypnotized by the sound of the water trickling through the boulders below, was blind to the 50-foot drop. Oak and aspen trees dominated both sides of the pathway and stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. The sun almost never penetrated the dense crown of leaves, but today it shone through them so they, too, were illuminated.
The shadows on the pavement swayed in rhythm to the subtle tremor of the leaves and the movement of birds hopping from branch to branch. This is what it means to step outside yourself, Kat thought. This is what it means to merge. It was a sensation more powerful than sex, the force pulling her forward into the union of sun, leaves, and shadow. Her hand was warm inside David’s. He, too, was transfixed. Kat stepped forward.
“Maybe we should head home,” David said, but Kat barely heard him. Her left hand clutched the leash. Then Marilyn yanked her towards the parapet so swiftly that Kat stumbled over herself, skinning her knee.
She would relive this moment again and again. Had she, distracted by the splendor of the world ahead, slackened her grip on the leash? Did she linger too long on the bridge, long enough for the spirits haunting Overtoun to possess Marilyn?
In the moment she felt only a force, too overpowering to resist, dragging her across concrete. Her face scraping against the pavement. Her body being pulled halfway over the bridge. The glimpse of water threading through moss-covered boulders. Then, David’s voice. Desperate. “You have to let go.” His arms around her waist. Marilyn’s careening to the river below in a stream of brilliant gold. Kat’s certainty that she too was falling before David yanked her upright, his arms tight around her stomach.

22  ·    ·  

It was only after she was standing, trying to steady herself, that Kat saw the sickening stillness of Marilyn’s crumpled body on the rocks below. “Wait here,” David said faintly, as though speaking to her from a great distance. Kat’s blood trickled steadily to the ground. The skin had been scraped off her knees, hands, chin, forehead. The blood she’d shed comforted her; at least she’d suffered with Marilyn.
David made his way down to the stream. Kat had no idea how he retrieved the body. But moments later he was standing at her side, holding Marilyn. Kat squealed as Marilyn’s eyes flickered open. She embraced her girl. When she finally let go, Marilyn’s fur was matted with blood: Kat’s, or her own.
Kat followed David as he carried Marilyn the two miles from the bridge to their home. His back was muscled and broad. The illusion of strength it conveyed had made her fall in love with him, just as David had fallen for her waiflike body, and the false frailty it conveyed. “One hand,” he marveled the first week of their relationship. “All it takes is one hand for me to pick you up.” They clung to these illusions to keep their bond alive.
By the time they arrived home, David’s coat was covered with Marilyn’s fur. It had fallen out from the shock to her system.
Their four-year-old daughter, Maya, wept for hours. “Her eyes are gray now,” she sobbed. She combed through Marilyn’s remaining fur. “So is her skin.”
“Her skin was always gray, baby,” Kat whispered.
“But her fur hid it. It was better when it was hidded.” Maya held the loose tufts of fur with her fists and commanded: “Stop falling out!” She inspected the bald spots. “Will her hair grow back?”
Kat rushed to her side and buried her nose in Maya’s downy bed of curly brown hair. “Of course it will, baby girl,” Katrina murmured, pulling Maya onto her lap.

23  ·    ·  

“She’ll be just fine,” David chimed in, placing a hand on his daughter’s shoulder.
But it wouldn’t grow back, Kat knew, just as she knew that Marilyn, despite their best efforts, would never be the same.


After a grueling night at the emergency vet, David reached for Katrina in bed, and they made love. Usually Marilyn, who always slept between them, was so offended by their love making that she’d punish them with barking and pawing during the climactic moment. But this time she barely stirred.
They’d adopted her for the same reason they’d conceived Maya. Against all reason they believed that the dog, then the child, would solidify their love. But then, over time, Marilyn seemed to replace Kat as David’s dream woman. She was fixed. She never menstruated; she took her shits outside. And she accepted his stretches of silence.
How could Katrina compare? Marilyn was the most docile bitch a man could ask for.
What sustained their marriage was what had come years earlier. The first time they’d made love, ten years ago, their foreplay consisted of laughter.
“I have to shake the bananas out of you,” David said. He was her only lover.
“I’m a monkey,” he said, “and you’re a banana tree, and I’m gonna shake all the bananas out of you.”
Kat hadn’t understood entirely, but she lay still as he climbed her like a monkey. His body rattled against hers wildly, and she laughed into his hair, clutching his back.

24  ·    ·  

What stuck with her wasn’t the lovemaking that followed, but the fact that he’d sensed that she needed to be shaken free of her burdens. With the primal shaking of the bananas, something in her became dislodged. As she laughed in his arms she recalled what her mother said when Katrina asked, as a teenager, why her mother stayed married to a man who’d been depressed since moving to the States from India 20 years earlier.
“It’s never the now that sustains a marriage,” her mother said. “It’s the recollection of the magic that came before.”
This moment, Kat thought as David shook her free of her bananas (or the bananas free of her), will last us forever.
“I’ll always shake you free of your bananas,” he whispered.
How did he know? Kat wondered. She’d hadn’t yet told him about finding her father dead when she was fifteen, then searching for her mother, only to find her huddled in the jet tub in the master bathroom. She’d never talked about her mother’s childhood, either—the afternoons she spent playing with cloth dolls in her closet because she was the youngest of twelve and her own mother, too harried to treat her children as separate people, instead herded them from one room to the next as she completed chores, tying down the most mischievous kids to chairs to keep the household under control. Kat hadn’t confessed to David that not one but two of her aunts committed suicide. Or revealed her mother’s breakdown after a third died from alcohol-induced liver failure. We are cursed, her mother had sobbed, and the words never left Kat’s mind.
She straddled him. “Keep talking dirty to me.”
“I’m not kidding,” he said, wrapping his arms around her slender back. “If I can make you laugh for the rest of your life, I’ll be content.”
Long after David had fallen asleep, Kat stayed awake, lying on her back and stroking what was left of Marilyn’s fur. Kat wrapped her body around Marilyn’s and shook gently. Marilyn moaned, and Kat wept into her patchy skin. Marilyn would never be shaken free. Not on this earth.

25  ·    ·  


They got Marilyn from the shelter days before Maya was conceived. Marilyn was blonde and voluptuous, with a wobbly walk—both innocent and sensual. “She’s Norma Jean reincarnated,” Kat said to David when they adopted her. Whenever Marilyn, as a puppy, transitioned from the usual canine panting and lunging to that slow, ass-wagging, sultry strut, Kat said to David, “Do you want to see her?”—just like Marilyn Monroe.
After the incident on the bridge, Marilyn never strutted again. Her steps were timid. She’d discovered that you could stop living while you were still alive.
“When will she start being Marilyn again?” Maya cried. “Why is she so tired?”
Kat knelt by Maya. Her daughter’s hair was sleek—not rough and textured like hers—and slipped through her fingers. Kat marveled that hair so fluid had been, in part, her creation. Her own mother’s hair had been as untenably thick as her own. “She’s still Marilyn. But she might be tired forever, my baby.”

Kat insisted on a fifth canine acupuncture session, though David had grown weary of their trips to the vet after his work. He stared straight ahead on the drive home and placed his hand over Kat’s. Kat imagined him counting the seconds before he could let go: One Mississippi, two Mississippi
They had left Maya with a sitter, not wanting to upset her further. At home Kat’s fingers were usually buried in Maya’s hair or clasped around her belly. Without her hands resting on her daughter now, Kat felt unmoored.
“It’s just no way to live,” David said. Kat turned to face him, waiting for him to elaborate. He didn’t.
There had been a time when David’s smile was both devastatingly familiar and enigmatic. She met him on a plane from Cali, Colombia to Cartagena.

26  ·    ·  

He spent nearly ten minutes gaping at an advertisement in the airline magazine for plastic surgery in Cali, one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world. The ad consisted of a woman broken apart into fragments, each of which could be manipulated into more perfect body parts.
“It’s assuming that people want to be broken,” David said, as he noticed her glancing at the advertisement.
“They must want to be broken,” Kat said matter-of-factly, “or else the ad wouldn’t sell.”
“Would you pay to get yourself cut into a hundred pieces and made into some perfect being?”
“I got lucky,” Kat said. “I’m broken, and I never had to pay a dime for it.”
There had been a time when Kat could make love to David and feel the shiver of completion. She believed that he could bring her to completion in every area of life, that she could forgo her need to study history and pursue a doctorate. Self-discovery felt overrated when she was with him. But he—they—hadn’t been able to obliterate her emptiness.
“Do you think her fur is gone for good?” Kat asked on the way home.
David nodded sadly. He patted her thigh. Stay here, something in her cried. Then maybe we can save this. He removed his hand.
“Why did we move here, David?”
It had been for his job, of course—the pay he was receiving as a financial analyst in Scotland far exceeded the salaries he’d earned in Colombia, Japan, and the U.S. But even when he got the offer, she’d shuddered at the thought of moving somewhere known for its fog and persistent drizzle.
Perhaps the real question was not why they’d moved, but why they stayed. At first they laughed for hours at the name of their new city: Dumbarton. Dumb-ur-ton. Dumb-arton. Dum-bar-raton? We’ll be out of here before we know it, they convinced each other.

27  ·    ·  

“It was the path we chose, Kat,” he said. She hated it now when he used her name. It accentuated their estrangement.
Kat glanced out the window. The lush greenness and the lifeless gray of the landscape coexisted in placid passivity. Why had she stayed here, with David? Why had she never ventured out from the safety of his cover?
They passed a spaniel crouching on a verdant patch of green. His owner had turned away in deference as the dog defecated. The spaniel’s body was taut. His head was arched solemnly to his sky. A bird? Kat wondered. A cloud? Did he want to escape into the sky, and how far could he peer into it before he became aware of all that was unseen?


“It wasn’t my fault,” Kat said to David in their couples’ counseling session, a few months after Marilyn’s first fall. “I wasn’t leading the walk. I had no idea where we were.”
“The poor dog” David said. “She’s miserable.”
Their therapist, George, met her gaze. He was wrinkled, pale, reserved. He ran a callused finger over his chapped lower lip, as though his recognition of the slight injury, and his ability to resist healing it with balm, was proof of his enlightenment.
“Not your fault,” George repeated. “Can you expand on this, Kat?”
Kat turned to David. “Why are we here?” She asked quietly. “It’s already over.” He’d insisted on the couples’ counseling.
David said nothing. Kat sighed, then said to George: “At first I thought that it was coming so close to death that traumatized Marilyn.”
Ever since she found her father’s body, death, to her, was horror. They’d had time to prepare for the inevitable—she and her mother—but nothing could

28  ·    ·  

prepare her for the expression on her father’s face when she found him in bed, staring at the ceiling mid-gape. He’d never had the chance to complete the expression.
Shortly after her mother had died—mercifully, six months after her dad—and Kat had graduated from college, she moved to Latin America for three years. She married David. But the horror never ceased.
“And now?” George asked. His eyes, she realized, were not unkind. “What do you believe now?”
She paused. “It’s being brought back that killed her spirit. From a place where she could cross over,” she whispered. “The beyond.”
When she glanced over at David he wept freely, his head trembling in his hands.
“You can leave now, my love,” Kat said gently. “We both can.”


Her father had told her about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when they visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar with her mother after the third grade. They spent six weeks in India every summer in spite of the unrelenting heat. India brought her father back to life.
They stood in front of the gold-plated temple floating atop the pond of nectar, a man-made pool, at 4 a.m. Half-awake, Kat followed the streams of people entering the temple in silence. She began to sway to the rhythm of the chanting inside the temple by the Sikh gurus. It began each day at the break of dawn and continued late into the evening.
“The name of the city,” her father whispered as they merged into the line to enter the temple, “comes from Amrit, which means ‘drink of the Gods.’ A magical drink, that has the capacity to induce hypnotic states and deep spiritual enlightenment.”

29  ·    ·  

The line moved, steadily. The temple was mirrored by the water so it seemed twice as grand. The gold gleamed so brightly that it seemed for moment that Kat was encased in it. She was undisturbed by the bare feet and black nails of the elderly couple standing in front of her as she stepped through the gateway and into the temple. An emaciated woman with grubby hands offered her a morsel of food. She ate it, despite her fear of germs.
The chanting grew louder. Kat’s brain was coated with gold; flecks of it passed before her even when she closed her eyes. For a moment as she stood inside in the midst of gold walls, floors, ceilings, she wondered if she herself was emanating the golden light. Following the others, she touched her forehead to the coolness of the marble and prayed.
Her mother did the same, and afterwards they sat on the embankment outside by the pond surrounding the building. In India she tied her hair back into a wifely braid though she wore it straight in Texas, where she worked as a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office.
“Such spirituality surrounded by violence,” her father mused. Even then he must have been dying. He’d been pale during that visit, though they’d thought nothing of it.
“How do you mean?” Kat asked, peering into the water of the pond.
He placed a hand on top of Kat’s head, as though blessing her. He was one of a few cardiologists at the time who believed in natural healing. “Just five minutes away, at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919, the British General Dyer opened fire on 20,000 Indians who were protesting peacefully at the park. Many of them were coming here, to the Golden Temple.”
The order was given, he explained, and General Dyer’s troops stooped to fire. Their boots crunched on the grass.
Then, the medley of shots. Women and children colliding in a futile attempt to escape. In the midst of the chaos, a well. Women peering into the abyss. Then jumping.

30  ·    ·  

“2,000 were killed,” her father said, “and over 100 others died in the well.”
“But why would they jump if they knew they would die?” Kat asked.
The goldfish in the pond were abnormally large, with buggy eyes that fixated on her.
“Maybe they knew that if they leapt they’d be victims of no one but themselves.”
“Really?” her mother rebuked him. “At a place of such beauty, you tell this story?”
“I have to tell the story here,” he said. “Even here, Sikhs were massacred—innocents bled to death by this very river. Do you see these patches of marble, where the coloring is different from the others? The newer marble is used to cover up the bullet holes from the massacre, to create the illusion of peace. The same is true of Jallianwala Bagh. The ground where the massacre took place has been covered with iron, concrete, stone; now, it rests six feet under the earth tourists walk upon.”
Her father spoke like a guru. That was his way. Kat stepped gingerly upon the ground, as though the dead might pop up at any moment. “Did fish live in the pond when the Sikhs were killed here?” Kat asked.
“I’m sure some did,” her father said.
“Did they swim in the blood?”
“They probably stopped noticing it after a while. Fish experience reality very differently, Kat.”
“Poor fish,” she said.
“Not these fish,” her father said, with a slight smile.
“No. But their ancestors swam in blood. And that’s almost the same.”
She mouthed to the gaping orange fish: I’m sorry, Fish. It peered back at her.
I’m sorry.

31  ·    ·  


When David finally left her—not for another woman but for the relief of solitude—she took Marilyn back to the bridge and watched her leap to her death.
Marilyn, trembling, surveyed the mossy banks below. Kat pulled Marilyn away only once when she darted forward, but she knew nothing would keep her girl from taking the leap.
This time, no mossy embankment broke Marilyn’s fall. The plunge was a straightforward crash from life to death, fifty feet from the bridge to the Overtoun Burn.
Her body dropped like a load. Flashes of Marilyn’s unearthly golden coat—what remained of it—punctuated the air. Seconds later Marilyn was ninety pounds of corpse blocking the current of the river. The current paused, then forged past the dead weight. The white star on Marilyn’s forehead glistened.

“It was one of the top ten moments of my life,” David once said, “taking you to meet Marilyn.” He’d surprised Kat by taking her to the shelter on an anniversary of her father’s death and hung back as she dropped to her knees to greet the first puppy that tottered toward her. Marilyn had the coloring of a chick—aside from the star.
“Why hello,” Kat said as Marilyn stumbled into her arms and rested her weepy black nose against Kat’s chest. “The world is brand-new to her, David,” Kat marveled. She kissed Marilyn’s snout. “She’s going to make the world new to us too,” Kat said, her eyes damp.

As Kat gazed down at her beloved Marilyn’s corpse, she recalled the last words she’d spoken to Marilyn: “You have a choice in the matter, girl. You can do it the way you want. The time is now.”

32  ·    ·  


Kat tells Maya the story of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre 11 years later, soon after receiving her doctorate in history at Rice University in Houston, Texas and beginning a position as an adjunct professor at a nearby community college. After the divorce David, surprisingly, granted her sole custody of their daughter in exchange for a promise, in writing, that she would attend therapy sessions weekly for at least five years.
The legacy of dog killing has not followed her. Neither David nor Kat could bear to tell Maya the truth about Marilyn’s death. Sometimes Kat believes she has no legacy at all. Yet she has regained something of her spirit.
Maya is fifteen now, and Kat usually sees her only during meals, in the car, or in the pool outside their apartment in Montrose. Today Maya wears a red bikini by the pool. Setting her towel on a lawn chair, Maya curses the scorching pavement, shifting her weight from one bare foot to another as though playing hopscotch as she limps toward the water.
Once in the pool she sighs, delighting in its warmth. She floats on her back, and Kat marvels at the weightlessness of her daughter’s hair—brown with blonde streaks now. Maya’s cell phone, buried inside the towel tossed on the chair, rings incessantly—her boyfriend. Henry Howdy. Or Howdy Henry. Or maybe Kat has just invented the Howdy part; she is in Texas now, after all.
Kat drifts alongside her daughter on her back in the pool. She asks Maya if she ever heard the story of the Amritsar massacre. “Yup,” Maya says. “Gandhi. Seen it, done that. Is this really pool talk, Mom?”
“There’s a reason, my love, that certain stories are retold. With every new generation, the past grows more layered.”
Maya says nothing. Unlike Kat, who blocks her eyes from the sun, Maya exposes herself fully. How has a daughter of mine remained so buoyant, so light?

33  ·    ·  

“I know the story needs to be told,” Maya says finally. “But I can’t find hope in it anywhere, when I think about the children drowning in the bottom of that well.”
Kat removes her hand from her eyes. She gazes directly into the sun’s center. Is it coincidental, she wonders, that dogs leap from the bridge in Scotland on those rare, unclouded days?
She imagines what Marilyn must have seen on the bed of moss during that first fall, soothed by the streaming of the water through the boulders. The mossy embankment, saturated with minks, then the grandiosity of the bridge looming above, brought to life by the ivy crawling upon it.
“We lose hope,” Kat says to Maya now, “when we peer into the darkness of that well. But imagine how beautiful the world might have looked to those who survived the fall when they looked up at the sky from the well before they drowned.”
“That’s pretend,” Maya says flatly.
“Everything is pretend.”
Jallianwala Bagh. 1919. Kat clutches the hand of a four-year-old Maya. Her daughter’s hair is clipped back with barrettes shaped like frogs. Kat hears gunshots rage around them; she sees an elderly man carrying his grandchild on his shoulders falls to his knees. Then he lies motionless in the grass from the bullet lodged in his back. His grandson waddles toward them, splattered in blood and wailing, before he too collapses. His death is mercifully swift.
Dozens flail in the well below. Kat stares into it, clutches Maya in her arms, and leaps. After the fall, Kat’s vision is clouded. Her back is broken. She reaches for Maya and nestles Maya’s back onto her stomach so her daughter can leave the world while resting in the soft familiarity of her mother’s embrace.
“Can you still see?” She whispers to Maya.

34  ·    ·  

Maya nods. There is still now. Kat places her hands on either side of her daughter’s head to raise it above the water. Tomorrow the sky will be clouded with smoke, with the bodies of the dead, including Kat and Maya.
“There is still now,” Kat whispers and shuts her eyes to the world.
But Maya, still among the living, rests her arm on her mother’s still hand. She peers beyond the darkness of the well into the radiance of a sun that never falters, even as dusk approaches, in its determination to illuminate the beyond.

Keya Mitra is Associate Professor of English at Pacific University, where she teaches creative writing and literature, with an emphasis on fiction and postcolonial literatures. Mira has held numerous accolades, including a Fulbright Fellowship to India and a Distinguished Story citation in Best American Short Stories 2017. Mitra’s fiction has appeared in the Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, Arts and Letters, The Southwest Review, Best New American Voices, Aster(ix), the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, and many more. Her nonfiction has been published in Gulf Coast and the American Literary Review. Mitra holds a PhD and MFA from the University of Houston.

35  ·    ·  

An Interview with Shankar Narayan
Interviewed by Dujie Tahat, April 2018  ·  Seattle, WA

Lee Herrick, Fresno Poet Laureate Emeritus, describes Shankar Narayan’s poetry as “wholly original and loaded with compassion, intellect, and lyric interrogation… fiercely talented and equally humane.” A former fellow at Kundiman and at Hugo House, Narayan is winner of the 2017 Flyway Sweet Corn Poetry Prize, and his chapbook, Postcards From the New World, won the Paper Nautilus Debut Series chapbook prize. His work seeks to explore “identity, power, mythology, and technology in a world where the body is flung across borders yet possesses unrivaled power to transcend them.”

Narayan is a 4Culture grant recipient for Claiming Space, a project to lift the voices of writers of color, and draws strength from his global upbringing and his work as a civil rights attorney for the ACLU. In Seattle, he awakens to the wonders of Cascadia every day, but his heart yearns east to his other hometown, Delhi.
So first things first, Shankar, from immigrant to immigrant, how disappointed were your parents when you told them that you were going to be a poet?
That’s funny. My parents were okay with it because I was also already a lawyer. Of course, my being a lawyer also didn’t necessarily thrill them until I’d been

36  ·    ·  

a lawyer for a while, because, in India, lawyers were people who set up desks on the grass outside the Supreme Court, and they just offer to write affidavits for people who can’t write as they’re going into the courts. So my parents didn’t think that that was a very prestigious thing, but they got used to it. I think they would rather have had me be a doctor or an engineer, like most Indian parents would like.

I think they’ve made their peace with that, and they’re happy that I’m doing what I’m doing. They’re slowly starting to understand writing and poetry as being an important part of my life. But it’s always an ongoing process with them. And of course, part of the challenge also is when you write about things that are very personal and involves family or the immigrant experience. In Indian culture, some of these things are really not talked about that much, and so that can be a source of friction. Your parents may not want you hanging out the family laundry in public.
Certainly that’s a phenomenon that extends beyond the immigrant experience, but I’ve experienced something similar. It feels almost like immigrants tend to write more personal narratives in reaction to that friction. The instinct of immigrant families is to be really private and to be closed, but then writers who come out of that put that out in the public—almost shamelessly so.
Maybe one explanation is that for immigrants, at least, the personal is always political. There’s not really a way to separate them. For me, I didn’t necessarily ask

37  ·    ·  

for this. I think nobody really wants their body to be the subject of political controversy, and yet the very presence of an immigrant body in a place where the prevailing narrative is that it doesn’t belong—it is a really explosive political thing. So in some ways, just being in a place—and surviving and persisting in a place—is an act of politics for an immigrant.

It always amazes me when writers, especially writers who are white, say, “Oh, you know, I don’t write about politics. I don’t write about that stuff. I keep it out of my writing.” I don’t think we’re really given that choice as immigrants because our entire personal stories are inherently political, just by the fact that we are immigrants.
Does every artist then have the obligation to be political? If you had your druthers, and you didn’t inherently have to write politically, would you not?
In an ideal world—which is not the one we’re in—everybody could write about what they wanted to write, and the choices of the immigrant writer wouldn’t be seen as inherently right or wrong. Part of that phenomenon is seeing the immigrant writer as a representative of all immigrants, or the Indian writer as representing all Indians, or the black writer, on and on. There is certainly value and power in being able to free writers to write about what they want, and I certainly think that every writer should be able to write about what they want. I also think that, in a world full of power imbalances and where only certain

38  ·    ·  

people have the privilege to be able to write about certain things, this is a time when people who are on the advantaged side of that platform have to be aware of it. In some ways, I am. I’m a man. I live in America. I have access to all of these spaces where I can get messages. I think that it is certainly my obligation to write about things that aren’t being written about, and to bring issues to light that aren’t being written about, often because the subjects don’t have the privilege to do that.

Now of course you have to be really careful about that. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re usurping the voice of some other group or exploiting it. And I’ve seen plenty of examples of that as well—in some cases, by very well-meaning writers who wanted to do something good. Part of why they didn’t do it well was because they failed to work with the communities whose voice they were trying to lift. So I’m very conscious of the process mattering as much as the outcome.
I want to talk a little bit more about that process. In the Philippines, a lot of artists view themselves as cultural workers. That’s the framing around which they perceive their work, which I really love because there’s a lot of work that happens ahead of putting pen to paper, or paint to canvas or whatever. What does that work look like for you, day-in-day-out, before you ever arrive at the point that you want to write a poem?
A lot of it is about my lived experience. But I’m also lucky in that I have a day job where I advocate on behalf of a lot of different communities. It goes way back for

39  ·    ·  

me. In college I was certainly an activist. And then in law school, I did a lot of work in prisons. I not only represented people who were in prisons, but I led a group that brought together incarcerated individuals with people from the outside to essentially have a weekly discussion. I learned a tremendous amount about what happened behind those walls that was usually completely hidden—by design—from the rest of society. I was able to grasp a really deep pain and sorrow about the lives that were being thrown away and these incarceration settings. I would never purport to speak for those people, but certainly I think have the power to be able to raise up that what’s happening to them is at odds with our values. Just doing that work on a daily basis gives me at least some insight, and actually brings me in contact with those people.

Another example is in the work that I do now. I’m working on technology and liberty issues, which is the future of the world. Technologies are essentially being deployed in a way that differentially impacts communities of color. We’re often not the people that build them. We’re not consulted in how they’re built. They often incorporate biases that we’re on the wrong end of, and they often rely on historic data that we’re also on the wrong end of. These technologies are rolled out, and they have these hidden biases. Yet everyone thinks they’re neutral and that they’re going to solve the problems of our biased world. That’s a real challenge.

So in my job nowadays, I come face to face with technological dystopia—whether it’s in the form of massive data hemorrhage or widespread surveillance or lack of checks and balances on government actors or the power of big tech. I filter all of those influences in terms of how they impact my own individual body and mind. You can get some really powerful writing out of that, but also just the process of building solidarity with groups. We do a fair bit of organizing around this work. It’s empowering to have those conversations.

40  ·    ·  

I’d certainly have things to write about if I didn’t have my day job. But I’ve got a lot more because I do the work that I do. For me, these things are impossible to extricate from each other. The creative process is part of the process of living is part of the process of being an immigrant in America is part of the process of caring about justice in this place.
Maybe I’m asking the same question three times now but I’m curious, from your own perspective, what is the relationship between your politics and your poetics?
Oh boy. It’s really inextricable because I think my poetics are a different way to approach and process what happens to me in the world as I fight these various fights for a better world—for the people and the animals and the planet that are on the wrong end of those equations. I started writing because sometimes you just need an outlet. As it turns out, it’s really an effective way to process everything that’s happening. Your mind is wiser than you are. It’s able to make a lot of connections when you really let the brakes off—in ways that I don’t really often get to do in my day job. As a lawyer and advocate, you’re not allowed the freedom that you can take in the creative space to grapple with those issues. For me poetics is an act of surviving politics. You need that different space. When you’re able to engage creatively with these things it makes you a better advocate. Your brain just grows and yourself and your spirit just grows as well.

It helps you find yourself in your own feet in the struggle—which again goes back to survival, but it also goes back to a sort of self-actualization. There’s this Hindu

41  ·    ·  

concept of Moksha, and the idea is: you get closer and closer to liberation with every lifecycle. And, for me, poetics and the act of creating is one way that I make this life everything that I think it ought to be. I feel like I’m a lot of steps closer to liberation because I’m a poet.
Obviously for you, your identity is wrapped up in your politics, but do you think that it’s true or necessary for identity to inform poetics?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way for everybody. But then again, identity is crafted in so many different ways. I came to this country as an adult and nothing can really prepare you for the way the United States is. There’s deep structural racism and inequity here that’s really embedded in ways that are very different from any other society. India has virulent anti-blackness, for example. Dark skin color is really deprivileged. But the way that the power structure interacts with individual bias is very, very different from what it is over here. So, in some ways, the process of writing has allowed me to grapple with the differences.

My identity is as an Indian and my identity is as an American as well. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in not only identity but the trappings of identity. The process of developing identity is part of the stuff of what you create about.

In some ways your question has a chicken and egg problem embedded in it because what makes your identity if not your creative process? I can’t imagine

42  ·    ·  

extricating those two. At the same time, part of what we have in this society is an erasure of whiteness because it’s always the default. It’s not considered its own identity. It’s very interesting to think about a white person sitting down and starting to write. Maybe that person may think they’re not writing their identity, but of course they are because their identity is all around them. It just happens to be the dominant one in this society.

Part of the enterprise of survival and creation here is trying to become a whole person. As immigrants, we’re always in that struggle. We’re always told that we can only be one part. We are essentialized into the brown person in the room. For Asians, we’re all supposed to be the model minority. We are all tailed by all these stereotypes that follow us around about what we’re supposed to do and what we’re supposed to look like.
Constraint is an interesting concept when it comes to the idea of the immigrant. There are a lot of ways that that resonates—at an individual level, and structurally. In terms of craft, what’s your view of constraint around form specifically? What’s your relationship, as a poet and immigrant, to that constraint?
I do some form writing, but I’ve never loved it. And I think you’re right that there is a connection. Going back to my life experience and forming my poetics, there were very specific ways in which my immigration status constrained me from

43  ·    ·  

doing a lot of things. From 1993 when I came to the U.S. to 2010 when I got a green card, I felt like I was always on thin ice. I still do. I don’t want to say that that’s gone—it’s just lessened in degree. But I felt that thin ice in every interaction. It was underlined by this idea that you could be packed up and funneled out of the country. So even if you got in a bar fight when the other person was being aggressive and rude and they were clearly wrong, you have to walk away from that. Any interaction that could escalate, you know you can’t engage. You have to think about every single thing you do. And that was a very constrained existence.

Maybe it’s for that reason that I really like to allow my poems to find their own forms. I don’t pretend to know what the form of a poem is when I’m writing. And my poems often change forms when I’m not satisfied. It’s what you might call a poem’s self-actualization. Is this the form the poem really wants to be in? It feels like trying to free the poem, so that it can communicate across constraints. I would rather the poem find what it wants itself to be.

It’s not that I don’t write in forms. I occasionally do. But the particular forms I choose are often the forms that have resonance for me across borders and boundaries, like ghazals. Ghazals are a good example. I love writing, not necessarily strict ghazals, but ghazals in the form. It’s a big part of my life just as popular entertainment. I listen to ghazals the way other people listen to pop songs. I love the poetry of them, and that informs my writing—it’s probably why I like to write in couplets a lot.
If self-actualization as a human is asking yourself a series of questions, are there a specific set of questions that you ask of the first or second draft of a poem?

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There’s a complicated alchemy that goes into a poem that you get better at over time. It’s not because you’re a better poet with a capital P or a better writer with a capital W. It’s just because you know yourself better. And so to the extent that the poem is a manifestation of a collaboration between yourself and the world, you’re uncovering those things that make the poem work.

A lot of what I do is by feel. There are many ways to write about one thing. I often write poems about the same theme or sets of themes seen through different lenses or even seen through the same lens in a totally different form. And I don’t feel that I necessarily have to choose “the best poem” because there are many ways to say the same thing. But among the questions I ask myself: Is it all here? I decide what’s in and what’s out. And if I go back and it doesn’t feel right to me, and I feel like there’s something else that needs to be said, I will I will bring that in—maybe by even having another session where I generate more material to go back to the poem.

I ask also whether the poem sounds good. A lot of my work is driven by sound. I see it as sanding and smoothing, so I often read poems out loud. If I trip over a word or if I’m having trouble even after the third or fourth reading, I’ll just go back and change the line however I’m saying it rather than try to continue to force something.

I also think about the truth of the poem. Not whether it’s literally true or false, but really the underlying philosophy of it, and whether it feels true to my own spirit. And sometimes, I realize through that question that I wrote something that

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was actually at odds with what I intended to write. That can be illuminating—because often my intent really doesn’t matter. The poem is telling me something more true than what I had intended. That could be one result or, conversely, it could be that there is really a different poem to be written there, and so I’ll try to find that.
You’re a lawyer in your day job. Do your poems lay out an argument? What are you trying to do with them in a structural sense?
I fear I may have erred using the word intent in that last answer. It’s not necessarily that I go into writing with an intention. In fact, I think it’s important to strip that and let your pen flow. But necessarily what comes out is going to be a lot of things that I’m concerned with—including things from my day job and my life, things that worry me, things that I want to memorialize. There are a lot of different kinds of poems I write that bring in those pieces in different ways, but I’m not really putting them together with the intention of crafting an argument or even with an intention of creating a collection of poems around a certain set of things.

I do write series of poems. Sometimes, I’ll just spark my own creative process by deciding I’m going to take these five myths, these five technologies, and these five pieces of Hindu scripture, and I’m going to draw a random web between three sets of these things and I’m going to write about that. I’ve given myself an arc, but

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I haven’t predetermined what I’m actually going to write. I don’t see it necessarily as trying to put out arguments that support my work. But in practice, to the extent that being a poet is part of being this whole human being, my work and my poetry are inextricable.
Many people think of law as a word game—certainly the way laws are created and interpreted and maybe the entire body of jurisprudence. I think a similar thing can be said about poetry itself. How do you draw a connection between the two? Do you ever apply one kind of logic to the other?
I think lawyers and poets do require a similar skill set. The more articulate and the more creative you are, the better poet and the better lawyer you’re going to be. There are very rigid ways to look at law, where there are statutes, and you’re supposed to stay within the bounds of those statutes and take that to the court, and if it’s not there, it’s not there, and if it is there, it is there—and someone’s going to uncover the objective truth. But for me, my favorite forms of lawyering are creative. You can draw more things out of those statutes. You can actually interpret the arc of them to stretch into the future that we don’t even know yet. I’m occasionally a litigator, but a lot of what I do is actually advocate to build structures of law for the future that will allow us to deploy technologies in ways that are fair, transparent, and accountable. That’s an exercise in creative thinking that’s really a lot of fun, that requires melding so many different things, that requires keeping a lot of things together in your head.

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And it is true that less creative lawyers are just not as good lawyers. And I’ve actually seen law students I’ve worked with just be completely constrained by the extremely narrow legal education they’ve received. They think, “Okay, well the court said this about the Fourth Amendment, and therefore it’s over. We can’t do it.” And a creative lawyer would look at that and say, “Hey, here are these ways to try to move the doctrine forward. How do we get from here to there?” To do that, you need those synapses and neurons that are unconnected to start to connect with one another. You need to be articulate, and you need to be able to bring people along as well.

The other thing that is also important for me in poetry is although I’m creating my works in solitary ways, I’m also using them to connect my experiences to the experiences of other people. And so building a poetry community has been one of the things that’s been really important to me about writing. Now that I have it, I can’t imagine life without it.
That rigidness of interpretation that you were talking about—the strict law school education—I think that’s related to something I’ve been thinking on a lot lately, about people who think they just don’t get poetry.
That’s a lot of people.

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Right? I think a lot of that has to do with how words are just inherently imperfect. They’re imperfect containers, and they’re completely dependent on context. There is this backward-looking and forward-looking thing that’s happening, where words never do quite what they were intended to do. So, it’s funny for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I just don’t get what it’s saying.”
As if as if there’s one answer. And I want to be clear, you don’t have to teach law that way—not to beat up on lawyers. Every field has these challenges just in different ways. I also work with a lot of technologists, and they have a lot of blind spots around values and ethics because we’re only just starting to incorporate those into a technologist curriculum. But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we when we try to make something so rigid that we can’t break out of the confines of that.

My law school education happily was not like that. I didn’t necessarily learn all that much black letter law. We didn’t go and study statutes of law. We mostly argued about the philosophy of law and what it ought to be. And actually, I think that served me pretty well. To pass the bar exam I had to take a separate Bar Course, you know, but on the whole, I think that’s a better deal because it allowed me my creative freedom. And it’s unfortunate when I see young lawyers that don’t have enough of that and feel like they’re just stuck in a box and can’t think beyond that.

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What is the role of place in your work?
Boy, place is really central and foundational to my work. Every time I see one of those contests about the poetry of place, I don’t know what to send in. I could send in all of my work.

I think so much of my work is about this very strange idea of diaspora and how we are connected to all of these people that have come before us, and are still out there in different forms and ways. Again, going back to the immigrant body and whether the immigrant body should even exist in a particular place—how does this world and these rules around bodies, and rules around particular kinds of bodies, impact an individual. The very act of trying to live in two places.

There are immigrants who come here who just sever their ties to where they came from. And then there are immigrants who never really entirely come here. They know they’re going to go back, and they never really make that investment. I’m really a 50/50 person. And there are not that many of us. For me, I can be Indian in India and American in America. And that takes a lot. Part of my poetry is exploring how that is even a viable enterprise. Is it inevitably going to burn up the person who attempts it given the rules of the world that we have? And if you do it, how can you do it in a way that’s sustainable?

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Also, there’s this amazing place we live, here in Cascadia. Delhi is an amazing and unusual place, and Cascadia is also an amazing and unusual place. I love both of them really, really deeply. I know both of them really deeply. They are so different from each other, so you can get a lot of really strong poetic energy out of the shared love—and the immense, intense differences—between these places.
On this idea of diaspora, I’m curious whether you view yourself as having no place, or all places, as yours? Or is it somewhere in between?
My nature is not to believe in borders.
I have always wanted to erase borders. Not just governmental borders but all kinds of borders. More recently, a lot of my work has focused on the borders between bodies—the borders we impose on ourselves in our interactions with other people. So for me, my spirit is certainly an all-places kind of spirit. It doesn’t mean that

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particular places aren’t more special to me, but I do think that it’s important for me to embrace everything because that universality is, again, one step closer to moksha.

Yet there are days when I feel like I have no place in the world, right? So there’s always that flipside of being in America and not being American enough—which manifests itself in all kinds of ways, over and on top of the usual racism that every person of color faces in this place. In India, of course, it’s the reverse. You’ve become Americanized by going to America, and you’re never going to be Indian enough. And, of course, who presumes to tell you that you’re more or less Indian? There are so many little ways in which that gets illustrated. A lot of my relatives live big city lives that are similar to big city lives anywhere, whichever border they are located across. And it’s not clear to me, talking to them, what makes them more or less Indian other than just physically being in that place—which is its own important and complicated thing.

There’s a lot there to unpack about that, but my dream is a borderless world where we’re free. And we don’t have to worry about whether you can come back if you cross.
How do you reconcile a borderless world with also drawing poetic energy from a particular region? What are some of the aspects of a region or a place that define it then?
I mean, these places have never been defined by borders. And the proof of that is just the fact that these borders haven’t always existed. These borders have moved

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around. We drew these lines—by we, I mean the people with the privilege and power to do so—and you can see immediately how arbitrary they are.

In India, someone drew the line of partition. People just fell on the wrong side of it, and huge numbers of people died just because that line was drawn. Over here, some of our states literally just look like squares—literally lines that take no account whatsoever of the natural body of the earth. And that’s a really unfortunate thing as well. That arbitrariness is certainly one reason why these political borders have always seemed questionable and fake to me. They never seemed like they were important to pay attention to, and certainly for me, it’s always been very random—like watching sporting events, for example. People cheering for a tennis player just because they happened to be an American tennis player as opposed to someone else. And then, how the rules change if that tennis player happens to be American and black—maybe the rules shift if they’re playing a white player. So that’s particularly interesting.

But for me the energy really is in the land, the people, the animals—whatever your view on whether the Earth has a spirit or soul—the planet and its features, Cascadia, the mountains that surround us, the trees, the sky. I like to take my motorcycle around on forest service roads and find really, really big trees. It’s an incredible thing to explore here and an incredible privilege. In fact, soon after I came back to writing a few years ago, I took a motorcycle ride up to Alaska, and I was able to really physically see so much of the entire Cascadia bioregion, just by riding from place to place, stopping wherever I felt like, and talking to people in those places. I was able to talk to first nations people on the Canadian side and Alaskan natives on the Alaskan side, and see the political contrasts of how they had been treated. All of those things enhance your understanding, and they give you a sense of the big picture and also give you power to speak about these things. So for me, it’s not as much about political boundaries as it is those beings that that live in those spaces—maybe to take it full circle.

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We’re talking about place now and we started off talking about immigration—being an immigrant and the immigrant experience. There is a certain privilege in being able to choose the place that you end up. So what about this place made you decide that this was it?
I have a bilingual poem which goes back and forth between Qawwali, talking about someone making a pilgrimage to Mecca, asking the prophet to fill their bag, and interspersed English lines, and one of them is, “Perhaps this is why you loved the Cascades before you ever saw them.”

When I came to this place, it was just like a revelation of love that I’d always had. I thought, Wow, this is an incredible place. It was probably no more complicated than that. I just fell in love the moment I came here. I really love Cascadia. It’s an amazing place. It’s just beautiful and open. It felt like it connected with my soul in a way that it probably connects with a lot of people who choose to live here. And, there’s that drive to connect with nature. I’m a very outdoorsy person, and I’ve always been since I came to the U.S. I went to college in Maine—did a lot of hiking, climbing, canoeing, and all those things. And when I came out here, my eyes got really wide because there’s so much of that. But I think that also connects to my drive to preserve these things, and my alarm that they’re going away.

It’s probably also not unconnected to the fact that I come from a place where it’s difficult to take a breath. I can see how literally the act of breathing in Delhi is chopping years off the lives of my friends and my family—and in fact, probably in just the month I spend there every year, chopping years off my life as well. There’s a contrast there. And in some ways, the impulse to find a very different place is one reason I ended up here.

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Thank you so much, Shankar. You’ve been so generous with your time. To close, do you have any upcoming work you can tell us about?
I would be very happy for folks to read my upcoming chapbook Postcards from the New World, from Paper Nautilus Press. It meditates on many of the themes that we’ve discussed. There’s going to be a launch reading at Hugo House on April 25th too, which will be a lot of fun. And then stay tuned for what looks like two upcoming collections: one is called Animal Border and one is called Circuit Breaker. I think they’re both going to be very interesting and very different from each other.

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This Was Years Before the Re-Branding of American Fascism
Rich Smith

But already everyone was relieved to finally stop pretending
to care about art. It wasn’t serious like journalism.
Couldn’t cure the cancer in the blood, couldn’t eat much of it
without getting sick. And what was art—really? Practice
on purpose? Practice as purpose? Bad? A lot of it was bad.
More pleasure in the act of dismissing it for the crossword, anyway,
and no one could argue with that. So at the conference by the sea
it was decided to rid the species of the impulse. Now,

did they like the cloud-softened light upon the sea?
Yes, they liked the cloud-softened light upon the sea.
They even liked the way it looked upon their breakfast.
But did they want to describe it? No. Did they want
to pay someone for the service? Less so. Did they like the idea
that the cloud-softened light upon the sea was really a word
in their private conversation with the light and the sea
and upon-ness and the surrounding trees for that matter,
a command with no commander,
one of the only things in the world not telling them to go to bed?
Yes, they were beginning to, having just suddenly relaxed
for the first time in a while.
That’s when the wingtips goose-stepped in
and started forcing them to hate their colored pencils,
and flattering them into thinking we weren’t children in our trousers.

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“It’s a luxury!” Their gold watches screamed.
“It’s a luxury!” They repeated, as their haircuts grew more serious.
“It’s a luxury!” They said, as the body-softened light began to leave us,
and the sea set to boiling, and the clouds started hardening,
and the trees all cussed in French.

Rich Smith is the author of All Talk (Poor Claudia, 2014) and Great Poem of Desire and Other Poems (Poor Claudia, 2013). Based in Seattle, he covers books, theater, and national politics for The Stranger.

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The Boys in the Forest
Heather Jacobs

It is early morning in the middle of March when the boys leave home with their knapsacks, meaning never to return. In the town square, a lone hay cart clips past. A woman raises her arms repeatedly in the air, scattering geese. The only other movement is a fountain’s gelid dribble, and in its pinched, ungenerous flow, a reminder to the boys of the cantor’s insults, and the sting of his birch rod on their legs.
An epidemic of fever grips the town. The friends leave hurriedly, not stopping for anything, though they wish they had more than bread, hard cheese, and a skin of diluted wine for their journey. For all other needs, the boys carry a small sack of silver groschen. Georg, who at seventeen is nearly a man, counts the contents of their purse; the money must stretch, improbably, the half-month it will take them by foot to reach the monastery in the North where a choral scholarship awaits them. The younger but stockier, Sebastian, smuggles in his pack an item of value only to himself—an organ manuscript of Buxtehude he has copied by hand.
Reaching the town wall, the boys pause before stepping beyond. The woods exhale a scent of rain and rot. The change in the air dampens the boys’ faces and heralds a domain they have explored since the time they could run free—of mosses and fungi and cool springs, and the small, preyed-upon beasts of the woods, among which they now count themselves: the dormice, the shrews, the spotted fawns.
The boys enter the forest, a spirit more palpable than the Holy Ghost. Their voices carry ahead of them as they walk. Their breath steams. The trees are bare and snow lies in patches along the sides of the cart track.

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The boys press deeper into the forest, where the ground itself seems to recall those long years of war—plague, famine, the slashing of the woods. Yet the great beeches remain, and in their shadows grow the yews and hornbeams and the tough little children of the larger trees. Georg claps his hands loudly, as if to ward off ghosts. More than cold, it is fear he must keep away. His cheeks are red. He sings chorales and tavern songs alike in a strong, mellow countertenor, while Sebastian’s clear soprano laces harmonies. Singing like this, they cover good ground. Georg, taller and longer-limbed than Sebastian, swings his arms. Sebastian tucks his thumbs into the straps of his knapsack. They sing until the wine is gone, until their mouths are dry.
On the eve of the second day, they arrive in the town of Sebastian’s birth, where his much older cousin Christoph greets them. They thought to stay the night, bathe, take on more provisions, but when they see a small regiment of the family’s cots camped around the stove, and the children limp with fever, the boys know they must continue on. They refuse the boiled barley Christoph’s wife offers, watching instead as she gratefully feeds it to her babies. But they do accept a pair of warm stockings each. Christoph, the great organist, not even wearing clean linen himself, apologizes for the state of his household.
“Dear cousin, there is no need,” Sebastian says. Christoph kisses their foreheads. His lips crackle with heat. “Go with God,” he says.
In the twilight, the boys pass beyond the town wall and soon come to the churchyard where both of Sebastian’s parents are buried—first mother, then father. In the distance another mourner holds a torch, its flame strangely comforting, the intimation of another season, the hope of warmth. Georg begins

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to sing, and Sebastian takes up the hymn. The boys offer their farewells. They will never come back here.
When they enter the forest again, it seals around them like a letter.
The wind is cold and at night the muddy tracks freeze into miniature peaks and valleys. Rain seeps into the loam and turns to shafts of buried ice that the boys kick at with the toes of their boots. By midday the ground will warm to mud again and they will be ankle deep. Walking from first light to last, they consider it a great stroke of luck if they spot a cottage in the evening, and find the courage to knock on its darkened door. For the doors are always dark, and wary faces peek out, if anyone answers at all. Inside, huddling near as they can to the fire, the boys sing for their suppers, eyes turned heavenward, to the herbs and sausages hanging out of reach in the beams. They sing hymns of their childhoods and bawdy quodlibets with equal fervor. Anything to entertain. The boys and their hosts are poor and stringy as old mutton, yet they learn it is still possible to break a stony countenance with a song.
Where there is no village, the boys make a fire. Sebastian, Georg notices, is possessed by certain melodies. He unrolls the organ manuscript and studies it in the firelight. “What do you expect to find there?” Georg asks. Sebastian does not answer. “You’d better put it away,” Georg says. “It’s gathering to rain.” Sebastian agrees, but not before the manuscript is ticked with sleet, his youthful script smudged.
The boys sleep poorly, in turns, one of them always staying awake to poke at the fire. The ground is lumpy with roots, harder than the benches on which

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they used to sit reciting their Latin, under the glare of the illustrated beasts from their history lessons, hung on the school room walls. They shiver and dream of Cerberus, and wake often to the cries of wolves. Finally at dawn Sebastian gets up to relieve himself. His fingers, which only a short time ago danced over the harpsichord in his brother’s house, are damp and blue. He stands at the base of a massive trunk, half dozing on his feet as he lets out a warm, voluminous stream.
When he opens his eyes, a wild boar stands not ten paces away, rooting the air with its snout. Long white tusks curl outward from its jaw. Sebastian’s dagger is with his breeches, down around his knees. He speaks to the boar in the softest of tones. “Please,” he begs. “Please, do not harm me. Let us agree to go our separate ways. You see I have a bit of life left in me yet.” The boar breathes one loud huff and holds its ground. Sebastian avoids its eyes. He looks, instead, at the boar’s ear, and at its thick pelt. “What a beautiful coat,” Sebastian says. “Where did you get it? You must be very warm. But I am not jealous. Only admiring. Don’t mind me; I’m nothing but a chorister, a poor orphan.”
Sebastian cannot avoid the boar’s stare now. But instead of challenge, he finds only indifference there. At last the creature turns away, taking the full measure of time to do so, and disappears into the fog. After some moments, Sebastian reaches down and carefully retrieves his pants.
A week passes in the forest. On the day of his fifteenth birthday, Sebastian comes upon a pheasant hanging in a tree. Its neck, caught in twine, is elongated; its beak points towards the sky; its wings droop away from its body but do not open. With his dagger, Georg severs the noose and lets the bird fall into his arms. “Soft,” he says. “Feel.”

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Sebastian strokes the bird with one finger. The feathers are small and form a dense covering over the supple breast. “What do we do with it?” he asks.
“What do you mean?” Georg replies. “We eat it.”
Such music in the forest! The boys sing morning, noon, and night, even as their voices wear rough with cold. The trees answer with a slow, appreciative drip-drip of moisture from their branches, and the woods applaud with snapped twigs and quivering shrubs and the occasional regurgitation of some form of human life—a horse and cart, whose occupants might toss them a few pfennig or a crust.
Late one afternoon, they startle a girl their age gathering firewood. The tops of her ears turn crimson when the boys approach. “Miss, do not worry,” says Sebastian. “We are children of God.” He has spoken to no one but Georg for so long, his own voice sounds foreign to him in the presence of a stranger. Georg interrupts: “Children of God who also need to eat. We are choristers, Miss. Traveling to Lüneburg for that purpose. We are hungry and freezing. Will you offer us food and a fire?” The girl answers with a nod and thrusts her load of kindling at Sebastian’s chest. He curls his arms around it and staggers a few steps. The girl laughs, though not cruelly. Sebastian watches her ease with Georg, a smile turning her cheeks to two shining apples. He strangles the bundle he is carrying until the smaller pieces begin to splinter. Georg ignores him and follows the girl right behind, whistling, watching the swing of her skirts.
She leads the boys to a hut in the woods. There they dine with her family. The father, a huntsman, wears a moldering wolf skin across his shoulders, making them appear broad and bulky. He says nothing but follows the boys with his dark eyes, while his wife greets them, sweeping feathers from the hearth into the fire. She covers her mouth when she speaks, hiding the gaps in her teeth. Her hands are raw and flecked with down.

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The girl offers bread, beer, and a plate heaped with boiled potatoes. She has pinned up her hair to reveal her slender, pale neck. Is this a trick of the Devil? Her parents are brutish and coarse, yet the girl is as lovely as the starry white flowers that carpet the forest in spring. It is either the work of some spell or of time. How much more powerful and capricious the latter, Sebastian thinks.
After the meal, the girl joins them in the singing. She knows their childhood hymns, and it is enough to lift the boys’ spirits to the sky. As they begin to feel at ease, they slip into their usual fare of folk songs with more than a tinge of low humor. The girl laughs again—a melody all her own—and the huntsman runs the boys off to sleep in the goat shed.
They wake early when the huntsman comes to milk the family’s goats. The boys know it is his daughter’s job to do the milking. The father’s face is deeply shadowed. The boys dress quickly and pack their bedding while the huntsman watches. They depart in the barest light. “Keep away from my pheasants,” the huntsman calls after them.
The boys enter the forest once again. For the first time, they walk in silence. At a good distance from the hut, Georg mutters, “What a codpiece.” Sebastian smiles. “We didn’t even learn her name,” Georg whines. “That’s probably the last girl we’ll see up close for years, eh, Sebastian?” But Sebastian has stopped, while Georg keeps walking. “It’s been so long since I last saw you,” Georg sings, “and your red lips and your tarty arse…” Sebastian lets his friend get ahead of him. Through the trees he hears, “Pucker up, my darling… This dagger won’t sting… Come on, Sebastian! You’re a little bit in love with her, aren’t you! Sophia! Yes, she whispered it to me!”

63  ·    ·  

Sebastian trails Georg, then rushes him and hooks him around the neck. He kicks at the back of Georg’s knees until both boys fall onto the path. Georg thrashes and manages to clip Sebastian in the chin with the back of his head. Sebastian’s teeth clack together. Georg pulls free and kneels on Sebastian’s thighs and begins punching him in the ribs. Their breath comes in clouds. Sebastian’s lip is bleeding. His pack sprawls on the ground next to him, a corner of the precious Buxtehude sticking out, torn. He is crying, pleading with Georg, trying to block the older boy’s fists. Something has happened to his friend on this walk: He has lost all his scrawniness and now he is not only taller, but stronger, too. The opposite has happened to Sebastian: He finds he is bled of everything.
Georg stops punching and sits back. “What did you attack me for?” he pants. “I was only joking.”
Sebastian lies in the path, the ground cold under his back.
“You poor bastard,” Georg says, rising to his feet and brushing off his dirty clothes.
Sebastian gets up, too. He recovers his breath. Sophia. Invented or not, the name is something perfect, inviolable. He charges Georg again and shoves him against a tree trunk. It knocks the wind out of the bigger boy, but Georg is quick enough to bring up his knee between Sebastian’s legs. Sebastian doubles over and retches into the bushes.
Georg pats his friend on the back, hauling him up. Sebastian spits. Georg puts his arm around the younger boy’s shoulders. “That’s the end of it, then. You’re warm now, aren’t you?”
Two weeks, and they have not yet reached Lüneburg. They are thirsty. Sebastian is coughing.

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“You can’t lose your voice,” Georg admonishes. His eyes cloud over with concern. Sebastian rests by the side of the path. “Wait here,” Georg says. “Let me go and look for a cottage. I’ll be back.”
Sebastian hands over the sack of coins. “Did you tie this knot?” Georg asks. He works at it and reaches in and pulls out a handful. “How is it we’re left with only a few pfennig?”
Sebastian pats at his pockets as if the coins might have migrated on their own. “I don’t know,” he says. “A hole must have torn when you beat me.” Both boys look back at the path they have tread, but no silver shines there.
“It was that prick of a huntsman,” Georg says. He hurls curses into the forest. The trees absorb his voice. Nothing comes back. Finally Georg commands Sebastian to wait while he searches for water, something to eat.
Sebastian has no choice. Alone, he listens to the trees. The sound is like thousands of insects eating, clicking their mandibles. For a long time he tries to locate the noise, but it is all around him, overhead and in the ground. Is this how the trees sing? Their leaf-buds swell and then burst. Minutes later, shade spreads over him, and the air smells sweet, like fresh bread. Before the sweetness fades, the leaves blaze and fall and blow away again. Sebastian begins to hum a melody, a little Fantasie of his own that mimics the forest, the movements of heavenly bodies, flight patterns of birds. Having no quill or parchment, he tries to remember. But it is no use; the notes are lost to the canopy. He tilts his head back, stretching his neck, and his jaw pulls slightly open. Like the trees, he drinks the sky.
Near dark, Georg returns with bread, water, a little smoked meat.
“How did you?”

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“Shh,” Georg says. “God will forgive.”
The boys eat and drink. They walk and the forest stands still.

The woods thin, opening to fields of winter wheat. The boys’ faces are long and solemn, their coat hems caked with mud. Still, they sing. They will sing until all the air has gone out of the world.
Then, from across the fields, comes an unfamiliar sound. Georg hears it first. He puts out his arm to quiet Sebastian. The boys listen. Wooden wheels, the jangle of a harness, the dotted rhythm of hooves—a draft animal at a brisk walk. The driver hums in an old but sturdy baritone. Sebastian and Georg chime in with the tune, singing it back loudly to the only other company on the road. The driver rounds a bend and they are relieved to see a farmer with his horse and cart.
Georg thumps Sebastian on the back. “Look alive, friend.” The boys stand up straighter, in the middle of the track, causing the farmer to jerk up on the reins. The old man clears his throat, a rattling to rival his loose-bolted wagon.
We are choristers, the boys explain. Expected to take up our places at the St. Michael’s school in Lüneburg. We have walked from Ohrdruf, two hundred miles to the south-east.
The farmer rubs the front of his smock, as if the mention of the journey has made him hungry. “But you are at least another day from Lüneburg,” he says. “If I take you the rest of the way, will you sing to keep me and my horse company?”
“Yes, sir!”
The boys climb into the cart, pushing aside bags of seed and crates of last fall’s withered vegetables. The farmer passes them an apple that escaped his wife’s

66  ·    ·  

saucepot. It smells of root cellar but its skin is still brushed with red. “Oh, Sebastian,” Georg says in a falsetto, holding up the apple, “carry my wood for me, murder my hideous parents, take me away and give me lots of ugly babies.” Sebastian snatches the fruit and cleaves nearly half of it in one bite, releasing a concentrated, sweet juice. Georg protests, then begs, but Sebastian is already sucking on the musty-tasting core. Bits of skin and seed stick in his teeth. He leans back against the side of the cart and closes his eyes. The sun shines on his filthy face, through his eyelids, a warm red glow.
“Beets and cabbages drove me far away,” Georg sings. “Had my mother cooked some meat, then I’d have stayed much longer.”
“I’ve not been with you for so long,” Sebastian’s voice joins with his friend’s. “Come closer, closer, closer.”
The boys leave the forest and enter the town. They cut along narrow streets and alleyways, no longer following cart tracks and footpaths, but the guiding spire of the Michaeliskirche. Women in doorways shake their heads, curl their lips and whisper as the boys walk by. What sorry rascals! How can they go about like that? Look at their shoes!
It is the start of Holy Week. The boys make their way to the church to present themselves to the cantor. They rub their faces clean with spit, drag fingers through their hair, remove burrs from each other’s sleeves. If they are lucky, they have timed their arrival well—the cantor will overlook their appearance and welcome their voices for the Easter choir. They find the old monastery and the library, where the cantor is summoned to meet them. Seeing the state of the boys, his nostrils flare, his eyes bulge, and his wig begins to rise, as if he’s been squeezed. When his face recomposes itself, the wig settles with a puff of powder.

67  ·    ·  

“Well,” he says, “have you your traveling papers in order? A letter of introduction at the very least?”
“Yes,” says Sebastian. “Honorable sir, it was posted a month ago. From my brother, organist at Ohrdruf.”
The cantor sucks in his breath, but says nothing.
“You should have received it by now,” Georg says, beginning to redden.
“Most esteemed sir,” says Sebastian. “Would you please be so gracious as to conduct a brief search for this letter? My own brother sent it. It will have his seal.”
“I might have seen something like that pass through here.” The cantor scowls and disappears through a doorway, leaving the boys to shiver in their damp clothes.
“Why don’t you offer to lick his arse?” Georg whispers, when the cantor has gone.
Sebastian inhales the scent of paper. On the shelves are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts—like the one he stole at night in his brother’s house, to copy without the elder’s notice, slipping his hand through the lattice on the cupboard and rolling the parchment to extract it. He rubs his frigid fingers together. “Keep quiet,” he says to Georg. “Or do you want to walk all the way back home?”
Georg’s head droops. The boys hug themselves among the stone walls of the monastery. They breathe shallowly, careful not to disturb anything in the hushed library. The walls breathe with them, magnifying the sound of rain outside, the distant tremble of an organ in the sanctuary, and, at last, the swish of the cantor’s robes as he returns. There is the trace of a smile on his lips, and his eyes are shining.
“We did not know when to expect you, young masters,” the cantor explains.
“We didn’t know when we would arrive,” Georg replies.

68  ·    ·  

The cantor sets down a folded letter and a registry where the boys sign next to their names and their proposed salaries for the Matins Choir:

Georg Erdmann, 12 groschen
Joh. Sebastian Bach, 12 groschen

When they have signed, the cantor snaps the ledger shut. “You will report to the chapel tomorrow morning,” he says, wig twitching. “But first, you will want a bath.”

A note from the author: Several books were indispensable in the writing of this story. For details of Bach’s life and environment, I am especially grateful for John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Also essential were The New Bach Reader edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, Journeys of a German in England in 1782 by C.P. Moritz, and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The lyrics to the folk songs in this story are from a movement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the translations I used, in slightly altered form, appear in the Schirmer’s Library edition of the music.

Heather Jacobs is a prose writer and musician. Her writing has appeared in The Lumberyard, Fugue, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Spartan, and elsewhere. Her work has received support from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, Can Serrat International Art Production Residency, and Artist Trust. She lives with her husband and son in Seattle.

69  ·    ·  

What About What Billy Wants?
Dave Roth

Contrary to Belle’s fears, taking her dad back to visit his farm isn’t about killing him, it’s about bringing him back to life. If you take Billy at his word—and a word is about all he’s got left—he’s happy. He’s used to his routine at his assisted living facility. Wake up, breakfast, walk, sleep, lunch, sleep, dinner, sleep, repeat. I’m the one gnawing my knuckles watching him slip away. It’s a joke they call this assisted living. It’s more like a carnival freak show: pickled specimens in fright wigs and spotted skin slumped in wheelchairs or shuffling their walkers across the lobby.
“How are you this morning, Eleanor?” Angela chirps from the front desk. And Eleanor or Gladys or Joe or Billy or whoever happens to be scuffling by grunts some gibberish as if Angela’s greeting is a distraction from some urgent mission. When I lean over the registry to sign Billy out, Angela whispers, “Don’t know why people want to live so long, die so slow. Three score and ten, the Lord said.”
“If they knew it would be like this, maybe they wouldn’t,” I say.
“True,” she concedes. Then, as if realizing she has slipped out of her head cheerleader role, perks up and adds, “You and Billy have a blessed day.”
I don’t tell her that if I had my way I’d free them all from their zombie lives. I’d love to be Chief Broom to Billy’s McMurphy. But I don’t have the pillow option so I’m thinking outside the box of the living dead. This is my Plan B to Billy’s glacial meltdown: a trip to the country to breathe some life into him.

The drive is nearly five hours. Belle sits in front and Billy has the back seat to himself. We try talking to him, but conversation isn’t his strong suit. He spends

70  ·    ·  

most of the ride lying on his side, hands under his head as a pillow. It’s nap time. I ask Belle, “Do you remember Hank Bremmer’s description of your dad’s stroke?”
“That was a long time ago,” she says without turning to face me.
“I know, but it really got me. They were talking and suddenly it was like the words fell apart in Billy’s mouth. He’s standing there trying to reassemble a bunch of jumbled syllables and then he drops like he’s been shot.”
“Why bring this up?”
“Because right after that was the last time we were up here. I felt bad for Hank. He said Billy was lying there with a what’d-you-do-that-for look on his face.”
“What are we doing?” Belle asks, her eyes still forward.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Tell me again what we’re doing.”
“We talked about it.”
“He’s been asleep in the back seat for over three hours. Remind me why dragging him off to the farm is a good idea.”
“Bringing Billy home is the least we can do for him.”
“No. Letting him die quietly in the assisted living facility is the least we can do for him.” She finally turns toward me. “This is something else. What is it?”
“Ah, come on. This trip is the first right thing we’ve done for Billy in five years.”
“Five years ago maybe he could have appreciated it. Now he won’t even know where he is.”
“I don’t believe that. It’ll do him good. You’ll see.”
Belle sighs, leans against the car window and closes her eyes.
“We’re giving Billy a chance, babe. A chance to get back a little bit of what he’s lost.”

71  ·    ·  

She joins Billy in stone silence. I envy Belle the distance she’s put between herself and her dad’s dying. That’s not really a fair thing to say. Makes her sound mean. She’s just protecting herself. I know it’s breaking her up. Belle loves Billy despite all the tears and teeth-gnashing over her mom. It was Ruth who wanted the cancer kept quiet. All Billy did was respect her wishes. Like he had a choice. Like Ruth left any wiggle room between what she wanted and what she expected him to do. If somebody was to ask my opinion—and in over twenty years no one ever has—I’d say Belle is madder at Ruth than Billy. It’s not so much that Billy didn’t do more, it’s that Ruth didn’t let Belle do more. But piss runs downhill and when it comes to Belle’s feelings about losing her mom, Billy always seems to be at the bottom of that hill.
I know Belle’s not asleep so I say it again, “You’ll see.”
Without opening her eyes, she says, “It’s not a leaky roof. You can’t patch this up.”
I decide it’s best to leave it at that for now.

I stand on Billy’s back porch and take in his hundred acres of crop fields and pasture. The 150-year-old farmhouse sits on three suburbanized acres that run north to south from the dirt road out front to the fields beyond the backyard, and east to west from the evergreen windbreak to the patch of wild flowers—and Ruth’s ashes. Billy and Ruth never so much as planted a vegetable garden on this farm. Billy made handshake agreements with his neighbors and they worked the fields and grazed the pasture. For Billy, retirement was about fundraising for the new YMCA, playing the farm country golf circuit, and Rotary Club and church activities. The only farm-like task that ever interested Billy was mowing the oversized lawn that surrounds the house like a green moat. I smile picturing him in his industrial grade earmuffs rumbling around the yard on his tractor mower.

72  ·    ·  

It was absolute solitude with a pure purpose. A man lost in a world all his own. A country monk on his John Deere.
Billy spends his first day back proving Belle right. We sit him up in his recliner on the sunporch with a view of the property and the birdfeeder. It’s a clear day, there’s a thin blanket of snow on the ground. The snow stripes the gray tree branches and the feeder is a frenzy. But Billy spends most of his time with his chin on his chest, asleep. I decide to take him on an afternoon trip to the woods at the top of pasture. I tell Belle I want to sit for a while in the hunting blind with my bow—maybe a deer will wander by and wouldn’t it be nice to take some venison home with us? I say I’m taking Billy to give him a taste of what he’s been missing, everything we took him away from.
“If this doesn’t pry his world back open,” I say, “nothing will.”
“You’re serious,” she says.
“It’s nearly freezing out and you’re going to take daddy up to the woods?”
“Why not? I’ll bundle him up. We won’t be long.”
She shakes her head and gives me her look; the one that says here’s my chance to recognize how idiotic my idea is. When I don’t concede, she says, “Promise me this is the end of it. That we’ll go back tomorrow.”
“Deal,” I say. Actually, I’d like to give Billy more time, but I know better than to press my luck. If this goes well, maybe she’ll change her mind.

I ease the tractor up the logging road like I’m pulling precious cargo. I’ve got Billy propped against a U of hay bales in the flatbed utility cart swaying behind me. The pace wants patience, which I normally reserve for my time in the blind waiting on turkey and deer. But this isn’t about hunting. It’s not bow season, something I counted on Belle not knowing.

73  ·    ·  

We pull up to the forest edge and I swing the tractor a hundred and eighty degrees so Billy’s facing the trees. I cut the engine and the sudden quiet surprises me. I close my eyes and let the winter’s calm settle me before I walk back to attend to Billy. I’m preparing myself for a tedious trek, Billy’s version of walking having been reduced to that of a toddler. If the old man has taken any pleasure in surveying the familiar Pennsylvania farm country from his straw throne, he doesn’t show it. His gaze is still pointless, his jaw still sagging under the weight of years and dragging his mouth into a weary droop. I part the hay bales and he wriggles his butt to the edge of the cart. “How’s this for executive parking, old man. I’ve got you a front row seat a couple of hundred feet in. Think you can make it?”
He works out his answer. He raises his chin; the sign that he’s found the word. “Yes.” I’ve heard robocalls that sound more human.
“Good answer. You’ve got about six inches to the ground. You ready?”
I grab a handful of coat under each arm and pull Billy down. His legs stiffen and take his weight. “Good to go?”
I load my left side with gear and take Billy’s upper arm in my right hand. I’m confident he can make it to the treestand. Three inches of snow drape the woods in seasonal stillness. It’s heavy but not slick, leveling the ground enough to make Billy’s shuffle a little easier. Only his labored breathing, like the gasp and puff of hand bellows, breaks the white silence.
“Here we are, Billy. The top of Royal Slough Farm. You picked one hell of spot to retire. A considerably better than average slice of Willie Penn’s sylvania.”
He doesn’t seem to register what I’m saying. He just gasps and puffs.
“You know it’s almost thirty years since Belle first brought me up here to meet you and Ruth? You remember that?”

74  ·    ·  

I give him a chance to answer. It’s takes a while to fire up those slumbering brain cells.
He stops, raises his chin. “No.”
“No? Well I’m not very memorable I suppose. I don’t blame you. Hank Bremmer still pastures his cows on that hill we rode up. He and his boys still rotate corn and alfalfa in the field below the house. And once in a while the Amish still thin out the dead wood up here. You remember the Bremmers, right?”
He stops. “Right.” I’m not sure if he remembers or if he’s mimicking me.
The pale sun is well above the humps of the hills that mark the horizon like a line drawn by a drunk. The sky’s still a powdery blue. We have time. He’s moving along pretty good again, developing a pattern now: about every twenty steps he stops and looks around like he’s sniffing the air to orient himself. Each time, I offer some variation of You’re doing great. Keep it up… then squeeze his arm and he reanimates. He’s so cooperative. No complaints. Here I am walking this helpless codger through legit cold to a place that before long will slip into darkness disrupted only by a sliver of waning moon and he responds by shuffling along beside me like a played out circus bear.
“Hey Billy, remember that time we were having a couple of beers over at Pete’s Tavern and I asked you about Belle when she was a kid?”
He stops to answer. “No.”
“You’re doing great. Keep moving. Try to walk and talk. There you go. Anyway, you told me a great story that night. The bear story. Remember that?”
He stops again. He’s digging into this one. I may be on to something here. His chin lifts and he says, “Yes.”
“No kidding? That’s great. Remember we were talking about how Belle reminded you of Ruth and you said it was this look they both have. You said Ruth never needed to argue you into changing your mind. All she’d do was give you that look and you’d know whatever you said was exactly wrong. Then you’d correct yourself, she’d agree and you’d move on like that was your idea all along. Remember that?”

75  ·    ·  

He huffs what seems like it could almost be a laugh and says, “Yes.”
“You do? No shit. Remember what you called that look? You can stop if you need to.”
He stops and stutters, “M-m-m-ama b-b-b-b…”
“Mama bear stare. That’s right. Damn, I knew it. There’s still a bulb working up in that old attic. So I asked you why you called it her mama bear stare. Remember what you told me?”
“You laughing or crying, Billy? Looks like both.” A tear rolls down his cheek and the corners of his mouth keep their droop, but the sparkle in his eyes looks like the stuff of happy thoughts. “I love that story. Loved the way you told it. Let me see if I’ve got it right. You take a bag of burnables out to the fire pit and you’re about to strike a match when four-hundred pounds of she-bear busts through the windbreak. You freeze, ready to crap your pants, and she gives you a look that says if you two tangle you’ve got no chance. Then, calm as can be, she continues her she-bear sashay across the yard and disappears into the hollow. And that was the mama bear stare, right?”
Billy lifts his chin and announces, “Right.”
“Love that story. Hold up a second and let me dry your face. It’s getting too cold out here for tears.”
I wonder how much he really remembers about me coming up to hunt deer and turkey in his woods and paying him for the privilege by helping with odd jobs around the farmhouse. We talked a lot over beers at Pete’s. At least I did. Billy has always been a man of few words, even fewer after Ruth died. But most were words worth listening to, some even worth remembering. I’m thinking about one time we visited after Ruth had been gone a few years.
“Remember what you told me about bears and the Indians?” That one stumps him. “No,” he says, without lifting his chin.

76  ·    ·  

“You said if you skin a bear what’s left looks almost human. You said the Indians considered them brothers. Remember telling me that?”
“You did and I looked it up and it’s sort of true. Short and stocky with long arms, but yeah, almost human.”
I also remember how, after telling me that, he’d stopped and gazed into the deflating head of his beer. How he’d seemed as far away as I’d ever seen him. I let him sit there, wherever he was. Then, after maybe ten seconds that felt longer, he looked up and winked. I didn’t ask what was floating around in that beer foam and the topic never came up again.
“Remember what you told me you liked about the farm after Ruth died?”
No hesitation this time. “Qu-qu-quiet.”
“Damn. That’s right. I can’t believe you remember that. It’s quiet.” He spent twenty years up here with that quiet. Pre-stroke solo Billy was self-contained and content, two qualities I find particularly admirable.

We finally reach the treestand with a couple hours of daylight left. We don’t need more than that. I just want Billy to have a taste of that quiet again, to feel the hug of the world one last time. I set him up with a folding chair at the backside of the tree facing the sun. I put a thermos cap of hot cider in the chair’s cup holder. I open the bag of Belle’s still-warm oatmeal raisin cookies and put it in his lap. Belle made it clear she’d baked them for him, not me. I get mine when I bring him back safe and sound.
Billy’s view takes in the valley behind the farmhouse and the high opposite ridge with its lineup of ghost-white windmills. I watch as he scans the landscape, impassive as a searchlight. Mechanical sounds drift up from a fracking platform down in the valley, the most obvious being the trucks’ shrill backup beeps. They sound like small birds arguing. When Billy was last here, the fracking towers

77  ·    ·  

weren’t. Scrawny steeples lit up like Christmas trees with trucks coming and going—I’m pretty sure that before his stroke the sight would have stirred something in Billy, at least some conflict between what some up here see as great loss and others as unimagined good fortune. I’m guessing pre-stroke Billy would be pissed off at the gasmen. But what’s gone is gone and Billy’s one of the gone things. All the towers and concrete pads and pumps mean now is a monthly royalty check that pays for his space back at the human terrarium. Lousy trade if you ask me.
“Nice view, huh?” I say. He doesn’t respond so I ask, “What’re you thinking about?”
Wait for it. He’s working on it. “Nothing”
Nothing. I can’t decide if it’s the worst-case scenario or the best.
“Nothing, huh? That’s hard to do, you know. Makes you a Zen master or something, right?”
Those guys with shaved heads and red robes sit around for years hoping to find Billy’s mindless bliss. Here’s an idea. Looking for enlightenment? Have a fucking stroke.
“Right.” Billy smiles.
“You smiling? That’s a good sign. In my experience, you can’t smile at nothing, Billy. You must be smiling about something.”
“Right.” He lifts a cookie to his open mouth.
“Billy, you mind if I share something I’ve been thinking?”
Through his mouthful of cookie, he mumbles, “No.”
“No you don’t mind or no you don’t want to hear it? Whatever. I’m going to tell you either way. What I’m thinking is I owe you an apology, Billy. What I’m thinking is I’m sorry.” He shoves the rest of the cookie in. I brush crumbs from his stubble. His jaw rolls the cookie like a cow working cud.
“Back when you had your stroke Belle and I came to stay with you for a while. Remember?” His mouth is too full to answer. “What I remember is you told us you were fine. You weren’t walking great and you had this aphasia thing

78  ·    ·  

with your speech, so we were worried. We figured you needed help. But Belle wanted to give you the choice to stay up here. Hire somebody to help you out. I told her I thought that was a bad idea. I knew if anything went wrong we’d get the call and that would mean driving up here to deal with it. If you fell or had another stroke, whatever. And it’s a long drive and Belle would have to take time off work… Anyway, I told Belle she should talk you into moving into a place down by us. Someplace that could care for you and we could keep an eye on you. It was my idea, Billy. But I knew if she said it you’d agree, Belle having Ruth’s eyes and all. You know, the look.”
I have no idea how much of this is sinking in. The cookies are getting more attention than me.
“Here, have some cider to wash those down.” He takes the cup in both hands and does as directed. I slip it out of his laced fingers and return it to the cup holder. His eyes follow the cup and linger there. I kneel right in front of him.
“Billy, I want you to know it was me who said you shouldn’t have a choice. Belle said, What about what Billy wants? I want you to know that. And I want you to know I know I was wrong. You should’ve had a choice. That’s all. I’m sorry.”
He looks like he’s trying to decide if he wants another cookie or more cider.
“That’s all I wanted to say. That I’m sorry. Okay?”
He looks right at me and that dimwitted grin comes back. “Okay,” he says.
“Okay.” I straighten his Eagles football cap and flash him a thumbs-up. He returns a half-assed thumbs-up. “I’m going up in the stand to have a look around. You enjoy your view, the cookies and cider, and thinking about nothing. Okay?” He smiles his mute smile. There’s something in there. Something either he can’t figure out how to tell me or I’m not hearing.
I climb into the blind, wondering if he gets it. And, if he does, does he forgive me? What a fucking stupid question. He can’t forgive me and shouldn’t. When Belle and I brought him back here from the hospital, there was no reason

79  ·    ·  

to believe he wasn’t fine. Slower, maybe not as stable as before, but what had he really lost? Words. And with Ruth gone who was there to talk to anyway? We sat with Billy on the sunporch. Belle made my case for moving. He tried to say how he felt about leaving the farm, but the words got stuck and he dropped his eyes and shook his head. Then he looked into Belle’s eyes and agreed to move. I’d sealed Billy’s fate, shrunk his world from a hundred acres to a hundred square feet.
Two days. That’s all it took to pack Billy’s clothes and keepsakes, to secure the house and make arrangements with the Bremmers to keep an eye on the property. We folded up his life like a pup tent. Now I’m pounding my forehead with my palm like maybe I can knock the memory loose. Like maybe I can unremember, undo the last five years.
“Hey Zen master, you still there?”
I can’t see him but I can feel him working it out. “Yes.”
“You happy, Billy? Belle says you told her you’re happy. Is that true?”
Longer pause than usual. “Yes.”
“I don’t mean right now. I mean back at your new place. Are you happy there?”
“Yes.” No hesitation that time.
“Really? I’m struggling with that, you know. I mean you pretty much have four walls, three meals and a bed, Billy. Not a lot going on there. Doesn’t seem like a recipe for happy.”
Long pause. Then he says, “I’m h-h-happy.”
His voice is louder and more insistent, like he’s pissed that I’d challenge his answer. Happy. What I want to tell him is, Your underwear is a diaper and you can’t even wipe your own ass. You’ve got a whole lot of nothing to think about. Talking to you is worse than talking to a Magic 8-Ball. So how do you come up with happy out of that, old man? But what I tell him instead is, “Okay, got it. I’m just saying if I was in your shoes, I’d have a problem with a slow fade out in a

80  ·    ·  

place like that. But I get it. And I’m glad you’re happy. I am. And I like that it’s your choice, you know. You hear me?”
“Yes.” That one came quick.
“I want you to know that if you want to come back here, we can work that out. We wouldn’t see you very often, but if you’re going to fade out why not do it here surrounded by all this, right? What do you think?”
Another long pause, then, “Happy.”
“Happy. Okay, Zen master, it’s your call.”
Five years and a few billion lost brain cells change everything. Belle’s right. His roof’s been leaking so long his mind is molding. Billy and I sit in silence separated by the tree. I close my eyes and try to think nothing. Try to put myself in the old man’s head. No thing. No think. Shhh. But I can’t even free my mind of the thought of Billy.

I open my eyes and realize the dusk is settling in, blurring details, collapsing the woods. We’ve lingered too long. Some of the return trek will be in the dark. Just when I’m ready to climb out of the blind, there’s a rustle in the thicket behind me. Something big. I can’t see around the tree to check on Billy or see what’s in the thicket, but the sound is still there—like a slow, burrowing animal. “Billy, there’s something in the brush to your left. Stay still, okay?” No response.
I drop out of the blind and skip rungs going down the ladder. When I get to the base of the tree, his chair is empty. The thermos cup and cookie bag are on the ground.
“Billy, where’d you go? Talk to me, Zen master!” I give him the required response time but get back only the rustling of bramble and leaves. I snap on my headlamp and light up a path in the snow from the chair to the brush. No blood. No struggle. No animal tracks. Only handprints. Human hands and knees.
“What the fuck, Billy. It’s a little late for hide and seek. You don’t want to worry Belle. Come on out of there.”

81  ·    ·  

He doesn’t respond and the thicket swallows my lamp light. I need the tractor headlights. I shuffle across the snow scanning the ground for hazards. Bythe time I reach the tractor, the sun is a slim crescent behind the hills. I swing the tractor in a hard arc, almost losing the hay bales in the process. They rock back into place and settle as I straighten and steer into the wood. I pick my way between trees. Half-way there the cart’s right wheel catches a sapling and the tractor almost bucks me out my seat. I reverse and the cart jackknifes. I jump down and pull the cotter pin holding the cart to the tractor. This is taking too long.
When I finally get back to Billy’s chair and light up the thicket, there’s still no sight of him. “Billy, where’d you go?” The sound of the tractor buries any response. I try to settle but can’t seem to get enough air and my heart’s trying to beat a hole in my chest. I’m still blind to what’s happening in the brush. I have to light it from the other side. I track the edge of the thicket to a spot I can drive through. With the snow and dark I can’t tell what I’m driving over. I take a chance on a hard-left into some low bramble and bust through. Circling back up the other side the tractor lights pick up a trail that disappears into a hole dug under a fallen tree. “You in there, Billy?” I can’t get the tractor any closer. I leave the engine running, the lights aimed at the hole. I drop to my knees to get under the brush and crawl Billy’s trail. Branches claw at my back. The warm must of decay rises from rotting leaves. The snow shivers a dull ache into my fingers and knees. “How’d you do this, Billy?” I make it to the hole and my headlamp lights it up. He’s curled up on his side, twigs and thorns stuck to his jacket, his hands a pillow just like in the back seat of the car. “Geezus Billy, what are you doing? You can’t nap here. We don’t know whose house you’re squatting in. Crawl on out of there. We need to get going.” Nothing. “Ahh Billy, you’re not dying on me, are you? Don’t do it, old man. I’d never live that down. Belle will kill me, and you know I’m not exaggerating.” I think I hear a grunt. “What was that, Billy? Louder. I can’t hear you.” Nothing. I scramble back to the tractor and cut the

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engine leaving the lights on. I crawl back to the hole, close my eyes and try to block out the sound of my heart. “Talk to me, Billy. Billy?” The night is suddenly a racket. Where there was silence now there’s flapping wings, cars whooshing, snow dropping, trucks beeping, branches snapping, an owl hooting, the pings of the tractor’s cooling engine.
I’m going to need help pulling him out and loading him back onto the hay bales. The Bremmers. I’ll cut through the pasture. I can have them back here in twenty minutes. It’s cold but not so cold. If I hurry I’m sure Billy will thaw out just fine. But I don’t hurry. I wait, warming my hands with wet breath while considering the fetal image before me. I lean my head against the opening. “It’s your call, Billy. What do you want?” Nothing. I can’t hear the bellows of his breath, but I see the slight rise and fall of his chest. The path back to the tractor is easier this time, broken in. I shut off the lights, slump onto the steering wheel and wait for my answer.

Dave Roth’s work has appeared in Passager Journal, The Ithaca Journal, and Stanford magazine, among others. Following a thirty-five year career in media production, received his MFA from Cedar Crest College in 2017. Previously based in Seattle, Dave now lives with his wife in Pennsylvania.

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Mercedes Lawry

The quiet is an egg I hold
in my cupped hands, thumbs
softly tapping as if life
still pooled inside. I am taking
what is fragile and giving it
teeth. The sky is static blue,
smoke-scorched. The fading garden
droops, cracks, as seeds are propelled
like pent-up school kids.
Sweet peas, lupins, poppies,
I gather what I can, sort them
into jars and plastic tubs, label them
for the long winter. Peppers still ripen
to lipstick red, announcing their bite.
September scrolls russet and gold. Caught
between seasons, I yearn for rain
yet dread its blunt, endless chill.
This is when memory comes from behind
to demolish what I thought I’d built,
distance between what I’ve lost
and the tame murmurs of an ordinary day.

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Lily, Dimmed
Mercedes Lawry

If the lily is wounded by rain,
petals collapsed to blurred alabaster,
splendor now sagging,
though more tender in its diminishment,
you might reflect on the notion of time
in the botanical world, which will fuse
with time known to a bee, or a crane fly,
a hummingbird, even the stray cat
roaming for prey. And if you
are the gardener toiling in the dirt
with a sore back and an abundance of hope,
you may see the dimmed lily
as unfortunate or ephemeral,
though probably cyclic, even beautiful
like wet paper made with cotton
or papyrus or mulberry leaves.

Mercedes Lawry has published two chapbooks, There are Crows in My Blood and Happy Darkness, and has poems in such journals as Poetry and Prairie Schooner. She held a residency at Hedgebrook and has received honors from the Seattle Arts Commission, Jack Straw Foundation, Artist Trust, and Hugo House. Her forthcoming chapbook Small Measures will be published in 2018 from Twelve Winters Press.

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Kibo’s Cats
Sharon Hashimoto

All the way home from Tuck’s Auto Repair, Alice pointed out the new buildings. Seattle was getting bigger. High rise apartments and condos were springing up all along the light rail line. Restaurants like Ichiban were gone. So was the old variety store with cheap fishing supplies, cheap tennis shoes, cheap everything.
Yaeko was gone, too. How long now? Kibo, sitting in the passenger seat, had to count forward from 2005, the year she’d died, to figure it out. It was the same year he’d lost his best friend to a car accident on the floating bridge—he’d gotten a lot of use out of his one good suit that year.
As his sister pulled into the driveway, Kibo felt a jolt in his tail bone—he was glad for his seat belt. Alice wrestled with the steering wheel. “Stupid potholes!”
That was just like Alice to blame the road for her own bad driving. If he mentioned that she had been tailgating or had missed a turn, her lips would mash together in a straight seam and give him a withering look. Never mind that it had been Kibo who taught her parallel parking way back in the fifties. He was the responsible firstborn; she, the spoiled baby sister. It was hard not to think of her as the girl with two pigtails sticking out from the sides of her head. When he looked at Alice now, he saw the same things he saw in his own mirror every morning: crow’s feet, age spots, a flabby double chin. They were both old.
At least he could count on her. Family was family, after all. She’d left George at home in front of the television, watching the PGA Tournament. George was all hot air, and he ended his sentences with a fake high laugh. When George was around, everything was about George. If Kibo was sitting in that living room, he’d be listening to his brother-in-law brag about a 25-foot-long putt made eight years ago.

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Kibo bit the inside of his lip. It was hard to be nice to George. Alice must have been pretty hard up to marry him.
Alice stomped the brake and the car lurched to a halt.
“Thank you,” Kibo said loudly and carefully. Alice was the real reason things got done. But something about his expression of gratitude hadn’t sounded right—awkward somehow, forced. He stared straight ahead. His green house with the peeling white trim felt lonely without his car. There was no getting around it: he was going to need his sister’s help with transportation for a little while. How could he take a chance with a new-fangled loaner? Who else could he turn to? He and Yaeko hadn’t had any kids. Just the cat, Yuki.
He wondered if Alice had heard what he said or if he needed to repeat himself. She could hold a grudge for a long time.
“Your lawn needs mowing,” she said, her gaze sweeping from the holly tree to the borders of the cyclone fence.
Kibo winced. Her own yard was neatly mowed and trimmed, a Japanese maple shading the porch. But Alice paid someone to do it. She was the type who worried about appearances. He never bothered. The camellia bush was overgrown because Yaeko and Yuki had always looked forward to the spring when robins nested inside.
A black and white cat slid from a warm patch of sun to duck under the side gate, a puff of dust in its wake.
Some cats, Kibo knew, had a sixth sense about people. This one was smart enough to get out of the way. But not the patchy brown cat with the tattered ear on the fence, or the short-haired calico, pregnant again, staring from under the shadow of the stoop.
Clearing his throat, he answered, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do some yard work tomorrow.” He knew it was the answer she wanted to hear. Instead, he’d be in the kitchen, drinking black coffee and flipping through the newspaper. Yaeko and he used to read the daily advice column out loud.

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If he really needed to, Kibo told himself, he could get around by bus, but the stop was a half-mile walk all uphill. He didn’t have a bus schedule. And how many quarters was he supposed to drop into the fare box? It had been a long time since he’d caught the bus—back when he was working at the watch repair store, living in an apartment attached to Yaeko’s parents’ house.
He decided he could put up with Alice if he could keep her outside of the house. He didn’t need anyone telling him what to do.
After fumbling with his seat belt, Kibo couldn’t find the door lock.
Alice spoke in her no-nonsense tone. “You pay Kenny. I’ll send him over.”
Kibo had no interest in paying his sister’s grandson to mow his lawn, but he nodded anyway. Kenny was the kind of boy, she thought, who needed a job, not a handout. Kibo could remember his own teenage days when he’d work in the strawberry fields with his father, the old man saying not to take a lunch break or else the boss man would think they weren’t good workers.
There was no use arguing. Only then did Alice pop the trunk, where the two fifty-pound bags of dry cat food lay crowded between her emergency lantern, blankets, and water. Those cats were going to eat him out of his Social Security check. At least he’d found a coupon in the newspaper. For my neighbor, he’d told Alice.
Some things never changed. Kibo slung one bag to his shoulder, thinking that Alice still saw him as her big brother—but the bags were heavier than he expected and he had to lock his hands together, awkwardly kneeing it forward one step at a time.
Alice wasn’t laughing. Her eyebrows pinched together. She’d stopped dying her hair jet black, and now it was a cap of white with bangs too short on her forehead.
Kibo stood with one hand leaning against the carport post, the bags of cat food at his feet. “I’ll call you when my car is ready.” He bent over, stopping to take a breath. When he spoke, the words came out one at a time. “You. Can. Go. Now.”

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Alice held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your house key.”
Kibo didn’t like the way she was looking at him. Something was wrong. All morning, Alice had nagged at him like he was a little kid. Even though he had set the alarm clock for eight o’clock, he’d still overslept. He was used to taking his time shaving and brushing his teeth after feeding the cats. At least he had set out a golf shirt and a better pair of jeans, not the comfortable old khakis with his beat-up belt that he wore every day. After Yaeko had died, he’d found the bag of old underwear she meant to give to Goodwill and decided nobody could see what he wore under his clothes. The worn-out cotton was good enough for him. It was so soft, so comfortable. But there hadn’t been time to wash the dishes still lying in the kitchen sink or wipe off the dining room table. “Nah,” he said, straightening up, one hand still on a cat food bag. “No need. George is probably missing you.”
Alice opened and closed her extended hand. “C’mon,” she said, “I don’t like the way you’re all out of breath.”
Kibo shook his head and walked slowly to his front door. Sometimes, it was just easier to do what he was told. He reached into his jacket pocket, handed over the key, and followed his sister into the foyer. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw two tomcats sniffing the bags of cat food still propped up against the carport post.

Kibo’s favorite part of the house was a place in the living room where he could see the birch framed by picture windows in the living room. Yaeko used to sit there on the sofa, an afghan tucked around her as she read her crime novels; Yuki, the white cat, nestled on her lap. He sat down hard in the brown recliner and shrugged off his jacket. The upholstery had holes, but it was comfortable; the cushions molded to his body. Alice had gone straight to the kitchen and brought him a tepid glass of water. He sat, counting his breaths until he reached one hundred. Gradually, his heart stopped pounding and he felt a little better as the late afternoon sun flooded the living room.

89  ·    ·  

Water ran from the faucet. His sister was in the kitchen, cleaning up. The refrigerator door opened and closed. Kibo frowned. He didn’t want Alice to throw anything out—the milk (which was past its due date but not tasting bad yet) or the hoisin sauce Yaeko had bought so long ago. The sun felt good on his face. If his sister wasn’t around, he could lie down and take a nap. Alice was such a gasa gasa girl, like their parents used to say, constantly moving. But it was pleasant to hear someone else in the house.
“You have ants in your sink,” Alice yelled at him.
Opening his eyes, he imagined his sister would use a paper towel, trapping the insects against the stained porcelain and squishing their bodies before rinsing them down the drain. He leaned his head on the recliner and looked out the window into the yard.
In the long grass, little trails led downhill to three weakened parts of the fence where the cats slipped under to his neighbor’s back yard. Kibo checked the crook of the birch to see a half-grown kitten, all short black fur with long white whiskers, watching a bird higher up in the branches. Only the tip of the tail flicked back and forth. It was the same kitten with the rheumy eyes he had tried to clean, the one who wove around his ankles in the early morning when he put the cat food out. Kibo didn’t know how long the kitten had to live. It was the last of the litter and looked sick with its big belly, but it had been the biggest, the smartest. He’d buried two others of the litter, victims of the increasingly belligerent raccoons. The carcasses had been gutted open, the strings of their intestines hanging out under a cloud of flies. Just last night, he’d seen the hulking mound of a mother raccoon with her four cubs, their sharp eyes reflecting the light over the back door. The drinking water he put out in a large stainless steel bowl had been muddy again.

Alice came out of the kitchen carrying a sandwich on a plate. “Peanut butter and banana,” she said. “That banana was starting to go bad.”

90  ·    ·  

Kibo cleared away newspapers and old Reader’s Digests from a spot on the coffee table where she could put the plate down. He didn’t think the sandwich would taste very good, but she’d even gone to the trouble of cutting the crusts off. The banana surprised him. He hadn’t expected how it would keep the peanut butter from sticking to the roof of his mouth. “Good,” he said with his mouth full.
Alice sat down across from him, one hand patting his knee.
Kibo took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. The long held note of a cat’s meow broke the silence.
“Come live with us,” Alice finally said. “The kids are all grown up. The house is too big without them, but I don’t want to move away.” She paused, then added, “George has always liked you.”
That’s what you get, Kibo thought. Being married to George, Alice could only shake her head at her husband as he bragged about the free chicken wings he took home from the all-you-can eat buffet. Alice must be lonely, he figured—even with her church activities, the grandchildren, her friends. Kibo knew he was. He wondered where they’d put him. There was the kid’s room in the basement with its own bathroom. It was the farthest away from George. For a moment, he considered that he wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning.
He must have made a face because Alice was getting up. Kibo turned his attention back to his peanut butter and banana sandwich, afraid his sister was going to hug him. He choked on a mouthful. Gently, Alice patted his back. “Just think about it. Will you do that?”
Kibo reached for his glass, taking a long sip instead of answering. He kept drinking until the water was gone. He could hear four or five other cat voices joining in. Their chirps started off soft but ended louder, more demanding.
Alice drifted away and began pulling off the dead leaves of Yaeko’s spider plant that hung in the corner. Sometimes, when Kibo couldn’t finish a bottle of water, he’d dump the remainder in. Only because Alice was here did he notice

91  ·    ·  

that the plastic pot had split its seam and a new sprout was pushing its way out. She tested the soil between her thumb and middle finger; Kibo knew it would be dry. Then he frowned as she noticed the cats waiting outside. He could feel their eight or twelve faces turned up towards the window.
“Where did you get all these cats?”
Kibo could see his sister’s eyes flicking back and forth, growing bigger. “They come, they go,” he said, brushing crumbs off his shirt. “Not all the same ones.”
It was the way each cat looked up at him, their heads cocked, their meows calling for food. Coming home one night, the reflection of his headlights in a cat’s eyes made him stomp the brakes, and the car had slid. Had he hit the animal? Was it bleeding, maybe dying out in the dark, in the thicket of blackberries by the road? He had put out a cardboard box with a beach towel by the back door, just under the eaves of the house and out of the rain. The next morning, the cat was in the box with two kittens.
He should have called the Animal Control people. But he knew what would probably happen to them if he did. Didn’t they deserve to live? He should have found them homes but the babies were already too quick for him. And there was that look they all gave him, half begging, half crouching as if afraid they’d be struck, ready to run, but still frozen with hope.
A can of tuna fish, a small bowl of milk. Feeding the cats leftover food he had around the house hadn’t been too much trouble at first and he’d told himself the cats would eventually wander away or that he could always stop. From the window, he had watched how many litters of kittens pounce and tumble over each other? Their tiny puffed-up backs and tails always made him smile.
Alice tapped the window with the back of her knuckles. “Hey,” she yelled, rapping harder. “Go away!”
“Why did you do that?” He couldn’t imagine the cats doing any harm.
“Look there,” Alice said, pointing. “At the edge of the patio, under your juniper. Raccoon. A really big one.”

92  ·    ·  

Kibo swiveled his chair like a little kid, holding one sticky hand up so it wouldn’t dirty the cushion. For a moment, he felt a flicker of fear like he’d been caught. What he saw out the window wasn’t anything unusual. The cats were keeping their distance from the raccoon as it clawed the dirt in the garden, searching through old cast-off peanut shells from when Yaeko used to put out seeds and nuts for the birds and squirrels. But it was really the cat food he put out every day that the raccoon was after.
What was he supposed to do? Kibo couldn’t sit outside with a shovel to club the raccoons. He didn’t like cleaning up after the masked pests or rinsing out the muddy water dish. Somehow, being nice had become too much trouble. The cats and raccoons had worked things out—the raccoons ate first and the cats got leftovers.
Alice sighed. “Our neighbor had raccoons in her chimney! They pulled off roof shingles and left their mess everywhere. Her whole backyard smelled.” Alice picked up the folded paper towel she’d brought with the sandwich and nudged Kibo’s arm, handing it to him. “This could grow into a bigger problem for you.”
Kibo felt a sudden chill down his spine. He pushed himself up out of the chair for a better look, imagining holes dug around the window siding. Pest control people would put traps and poison in his yard. Looking out the window, a young raccoon was grooming its tail next to the fence. Only the black kitten showed any sign of worry, backing away towards the door. The other cats sat dozing around the base of the birch tree or plumped up with their paws tucked under like brooding hens. Kibo didn’t see anything to worry about. “That’s nothing,” he said.
Alice rested both hands on her hips.
He thought of how the raccoons raised themselves onto their hind legs, making themselves bigger. Kibo knew what his sister was thinking. Alice was trying to help. For a moment, he remembered her little girl fingers swabbing a gash on his hand. She was trying to be kind, but her know-it-all attitude annoyed him.

93  ·    ·  

Kibo wasn’t worried. How long had he taken care of himself? To make his sister feel better, he’d let Alice invite him over for dinner on special occasions—like birthdays and holidays. In November, maybe they’d go to her church’s bazaar. He might even let her clean out Yaeko’s old clothes, still hanging in the spare bedroom closet.
“You’d better go,” he said. “George will be waiting.”
Alice began to pick up the plate and glass, then decided to leave them. She gave a snort of exasperation.
His sister’s body was still half-turned toward him. From the shadowed side of her face, he could see light reflecting from her pupils.
He’d caught her in a rare moment when she was between actions, with her hands hanging at her sides. There was pity in his sister’s eyes.
The sun broke through the shade of the birch tree in bright golden coins. When Kibo closed his eyes, he could still see the sunlight, like red splotches against his lids.

Sharon Hashimoto has published a chapbook, Reparations (1992), and a collection of poetry, The Crane Wife (2003), which won a Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Her poetry and fiction have appeared widely in journals such as Poetry, Asian Pacific American Journal, Rambler, Crab Orchard Review, and Shenandoah. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the King County Arts Commission, and Artists Trust. Born and raised in Seattle, Hashimoto earned both her BA and MFA from the University of Washington. She teaches writing at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington.

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About Moss

Moss is a journal of writing from the Pacific Northwest. Published both online and in print, Moss is dedicated to exploring the intersection of place and creative expression, while exposing the region’s outstanding writers to a broad audience of readers, critics, and publishers. Since its debut issue in the summer of 2014, Moss has received praise for its sharp design, strong editorial hand, and its commitment to supporting new and emerging writers.

Moss was founded by Connor Guy, an associate editor at a publishing house in New York City, and Alex Davis-Lawrence, a filmmaker and creative producer based in Los Angeles. Both were born and raised in Seattle.
Connor Guy
Alex Davis-Lawrence

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