Category Archives: dark fiction

between the earth and the river lethe

Down by the River Lethe

 

There was nothing unusual about that day, except, in retrospect; I was more aware of his body moving closer to mine in the ascendant staircase. By the fifth floor, his stride quickened and as I passed the sixth, he edged around me as if he were in a great hurry. He swept in front of me at the seventh floor and his coat turned in a circular motion akin to the dramatic flourish of a cape. He reached into his pocket and extracted a medium-sized dark red fruit. He held it out to me and said, in a gravely articulated manner,

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.”

“What?” I stammered.

For several weeks, the heavy sound of his boots had followed me up the stairs. He always paced himself so that at least one half-turn of the staircase was between us. When I reached the seventh floor, I never held the door for him; he was always too far behind me.

The sound of his footsteps would reverberate in the hall before he entered the classroom, his shoulders bent in an awkward stoop as he walked through the doorway. He never corrected his posture after passing through the aperture; he continued a few steps, hunched as if awaiting a blow, and sat in the first available seat nearest the door.

A quick glance revealed nothing of his features. I could see that the desk was ill-fitting to his frame. His long black coat tailed on the floor, the edge dirty and stained. His clothing was a blur of blackness. He kept his face downcast, obscured by lank dark brown hair. When the class began, I averted my attention, and I didn’t give him another thought until the next week, when his presence assaulted me in the flight of stairs.

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.” He repeated his previous request, though his voice seemed a little more strained.

If the ground had opened up before me, revealing a winged chariot, I would not have been as surprised.

I looked directly into his face and searched for a hint of a smile, to let me know he was joking, but found nothing. His skin was without colour and the iris of his eye was so brown it was hard to locate the circumference of his pupil; as a result, his eyes appeared so dark I questioned the depth of his soul.

He stood patiently, his palm outstretched, unwavering.

The usual before-class noise dimmed and within moments, there was a certain stillness that could only mean that classes had begun. I hadn’t answered him and he still stood before me. Neither one of us moved or seemed to breathe.

“We’re late for class,” I finally said, “I hate walking in late.”

“Will you accept my offer?” He asked quietly, as his eyes fell to the floor. He picked at the hem of his pocket with his right hand, the left still outstretched but wilting.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’m no Persephone.”

He smiled, and his face shone with a rare light.

“Would you like to go for a walk or something? I hate walking in late to class too.”

I nodded in agreement and we began the descent down the stairs. He put the pomegranate back into his pocket, but it weighed between us, an unanswered question.

We walked out of the building and were thrust into the city street. The sidewalk was crowded with people and I started to get anxious. My therapist had suggested that I take a class, once a week, as I was making progress with my social phobias. I started to walk left and he started to walk right, but then he stopped and reached for my hand and led me in his direction.

For all his awkwardness, he appeared to negotiate himself on the sidewalk with ease. Whereas I could not walk a block without stuttering in my step and nearly slamming into the people hurrying towards me from the other direction, he moved effortlessly through the chaotic rhythm of the street.

“Have you lived in New York long?” I asked.

“All my life. I grew up over by Central Park. My parents still live there, but I don’t see them anymore,” he said, his voice edging discomfort.

“Oh.” I answered, not knowing how to respond. I thought that I could tell him about my own parents, since he mentioned his. However, I didn’t have parents, well, not exactly.

I found out that I was adopted in my early twenties, when my mother and father died in a freak car accident. But that wasn’t exactly the type of thing you would talk about to a stranger who cornered you in the hallway, was it? I wasn’t even sure why I agreed to take the walk with him. I wondered what my therapist would say. She would probably think that it was an important step for me. I hadn’t gone out on a date or had sex or even kissed someone in over two years.

After we were quiet for a while, he asked me where I was from.

“Not Manhattan.” I answered.

“I figured,” he said, “you kind of have an accent.”

Of course I had been told that before. I didn’t want to tell him where I was from or that I didn’t know who my birth parents were or that sometimes I still looked into the mirror, trying to piece together a picture of my birth mother, thinking perhaps she had the same shape lips, or the same nose, or the same pale fringe of eyelashes that didn’t seem quite capable of protecting the eye.

We entered the park at the north entrance and walked the path, past the undergrowth and grass, to the benches. I was immediately comforted by surrounding nature. The sky was darkening and there was a chill in the air. We sat down and he put his hands into his pockets. It was a little colder than I had first realized and I rubbed my hands together, careful to pull the sleeves of my sweater over my wrists.

“Are you cold?” He asked.

I shook my head in an ambivalent way, meaning yes, but no. He looked at me for a moment, as if turning a question over in his mind.

“We could get some coffee, if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I can’t really stay that long.” I said. I knew I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, but I simply didn’t trust myself to say anything.

I had been practicing my conversation skills with my therapist, but the same rules didn’t seem to apply with him. I tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. I thought about asking him, but figured we had already spent some time together and asking now would be somewhat awkward.

We fell into an uncomfortable silence. I absently kicked at the twigs and dried leaves that had gathered around the legs of the bench while he sat with his legs straight out onto the path. He stirred, crossed his leg over the other, and then, moving again, he settled into a more upright position, but remained slightly hunched over.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he suddenly said, his voice so soft that I had to strain to hear him.

“What?” I asked.

“I didn’t mean to offend you by my offer,” he said again, a little more loudly.

I began to wonder if he had social anxiety as well, because he didn’t seem much better at conversing than I. In fact, I couldn’t recall him ever speaking out in class, or answering a question, or talking to someone nearby.

“I wouldn’t say that you offended me.”

“Because that really wasn’t my intent.”

“What wasn’t your intent?” I asked.

“To offend you,” he said.

I paused for a minute, and a slight smile crossed my lips. “Oh, I thought you meant … to kiss me.”

“No, I intended that.”

He laughed nervously, which made me laugh a little nervously as well. I stole a glance at his face and wondered what it would be like to kiss him, thinking how strange it was that between two bodies, the most insurmountable wall was something as simple as touch.

He took his hands out of his pockets.

“Look,” he said, “at the moon. You can see it just behind those trees.”

He pointed in the direction of the moon, and I could see it rising low on the horizon. The branches of the trees, reaching desperately for the sky, were outlined crisply against the fading light. Looking at the trees in the park, I felt suddenly sad.

“Where I’m from,” I said, “Nature is something you live in, not something you have to find, tucked away like an ill-forgotten secret, battling for space against buildings, bricks, and concrete.”

“Everything is confined in one way or another, isn’t it?”

We had been sitting for almost an hour, our silent conversation growing more comfortable, when he suddenly said, “I want to show you something,”

He hesitated, then brushed the hair out of his eyes. Holding his arms out in front of him, he pushed up the left sleeve of his coat with his right hand, and then the right sleeve with his left.

He held out his arms to me, and I instantly recognized the disfiguration of his skin. Each of his arms were scarred badly with several deep lines, starting at various points at the wrist and continuing upwards.

“I’ve been dead for a long time,” he said, “Each time, I put a coin in my mouth, and prayed that Charon would accept his fare … but I can’t seem to leave this world.”

He pulled down his sleeves and put his hands back into his pockets. He exhaled and shifted his position on the bench.

“All my life, I’ve searched for the river Lethe,” I said.

He nodded and whispered absently, “The river of forgetfulness. The stream of death, the tributary of rebirth. I would surely wait one thousand years to be called to the river Lethe and cleansed of my memory.”

“There’s something I should…” I said, fingering the sleeve of my sweater.

“You don’t have to show me.”

He took his hands from his pockets and reached for my hand. Then he placed his other hand on top of our joined hands, so that my left hand was enclosed in both of his.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I recognized you from the moment I saw you.”

We sat on the bench, turned towards each other, as the evening fell later into night, and the moon rose high and bright in the sky.

“Can I hold the pomegranate?” I asked.

He nodded solemnly and untangled his hands from mine to reach into his pocket and extract the fruit. He held it out to me reverently, as he had earlier, when he made his offering.

I took the pomegranate and held it with both hands. It was slightly warm from being in his pocket. I held it as if I were holding a very small globe. If I accepted his offer, could I survive the months of darkness, the black rivers and bare earth reflected in his eyes? Would my mother, then, try to find me?

I brought the pomegranate to my mouth and brushed my lips against the hard rind, tasting the scent of the ancient fruit. I imagined the labyrinth of seeds and the dark red pulp hidden inside, waiting to be revealed. Then, cradling the world between my fragile hands, I turned to answer him.

 

*


selah

mother and child by Kathe KollwitzMother and Child by Käthe Kollwitz

 

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

Even though she is in the room across the hall, sleeping, I can’t sleep. She has been home for only a day. For over half a year, she has been in and out of mental hospitals. Now the tally is five times in seven months. I don’t know why she wants to die. I don’t know why nothing helps. She sees a therapist twice a week, attends a support group once a week, and I am with her every day, offering her advice and comfort and companionship. She takes “medication.” I run through the list of prescription drugs they’ve given her: abilify, zoloft, wellbutrin, risperdal, seroquel, throazine, depacote, lutuda. Then the diagnoses: depression, psychosis, depression with psychotic episodes, psychosis with depressive episodes, bi-polar depression with acute psychosis. My mind spins. I can only imagine what her mind is doing. I don’t know what all of this is doing to her. I don’t know what happened to my little girl.

Selah.

The last time, she tied her shoelaces together and hung herself from the ceiling fan in her room. I was with her only twenty minutes prior, and we talked about her goals for the day, positive affirmations, things she was grateful for. She showed me her journal; she said that she was grateful for mom, the cats, and art. She smiled at me. She said she loved me. Twenty minutes later, I heard a storm of glass crash to the floor. I rushed from my room to hers, across the hallway; she was two feet away. The light from the ceiling fan fell when she kicked the chair away. She was hanging, straining, her eyes wide with fear. First I tried to undo the knot, then I ran to my room to get a pair of scissors that I kept hidden in my drawer. There were seconds I had to leave her there, hanging, in a precarious balance between life and death. I ran back and cut the thin, taut rope with the child sized scissor, pushing her to fall onto her bed. She gasped for breath. She looked terrified, lost, shocked. She said, “I’m sorry.” I burst into tears.

Selah.

At first I blamed myself. I wondered what I did wrong. There was always too little money; I couldn’t afford her “the soil of easy growth.” Her father left when she was only a baby. I raised her alone, stayed home in the day as a full-time mother and worked nights and weekends. My mother watched her when I was gone. She was always cared for, always loved. There was never too little love; I gave her my time, my affection, my attention, all the things that money could never buy. I love being a mother. I never imagined that something like this would happen, could happen. I read countless parenting books. I read to her. I cooked healthy food. I baked cookies. I spent the little money I had on books and art supplies, musical instruments, science kits, educational toys. I encouraged her. I supported her. I love her so much. I don’t know what went wrong. What did I do wrong?

Selah.

I know I’m not alone. I see it in the faces of other parents when I have visited her in the hospital. We are searching the places we missed, the signs we didn’t know, the twisted path that has lead us here. I know she’s not alone. During all this time, I’ve seen so many teenagers go through this cycle, this revolving door. They are so young, they are so lost, their arms and wrists are scarred, they don’t know how they got to this place either. There were visits she rejected me, when she didn’t want to see me, when there was more anger than fear in her eyes. There were visits we played cards or colored mandalas, or simply talked, even laughed. There were visits when she just laid her head on my shoulder and cried. Each time I left without her, I felt a piece of me missing; my heart needed to stay with her.

Selah.

After the first time, I couldn’t look at children or babies. I’d see them crying in the store, begging for their parents attention, coddled with technological gadgets to pacify them. I’d remember Selah when she was a child; she was so happy. I looked forward to her teenage years; I thought they would be a breeze. Then everything fell apart. The relationship with her boyfriend began to appear unhealthy. Later, I would learn about the emotional abuse and the drugs, the cheating and the gaslighting, her increased anxiety, paranoia, and depression. Her self-esteem shattered, she was too fragile to pick up the pieces. She saw suicide as the only way out of the relationship, the only way to end the pain. Since then, she has ricocheted like a pinball in a sick machine, a mental health care system focused on drug therapy. At first, I wouldn’t let them medicate her. After her second attempt, I had no choice. I don’t really trust the doctors, I don’t really trust the drugs. I don’t know if they are helping or hurting. All I know is that she is in pain, and no matter what I try, I can’t seem to help her find her way out of this nightmare.

Selah.

I would do anything to help her. I have tried everything I can think of. If I could, I would take her pain and hide it deep within myself so that she would never feel it again. How many times can my heart be broken, over and over again. How many tears can I cry, useless tears, only wanting my daughter to be okay. I’ve learned just how exacting everything can fall apart at a moment’s notice, another suicide attempt, another hospitalization. I am a mirror of her suffering, her shadow as she walks a tightrope down this dark, dangerous path. “I’ll always be here to catch you,” I say. She smiles. Her face is pure beauty. But she doesn’t know that, she doesn’t know how beautiful and talented and wonderful she really is. What do you do when a person you love wants to fall? I am not a religious person, but I’ve touched my own spirituality. I pray. I meditate. I ask the universe, I plead: please let my daughter live, please let her live with health and happiness and peace, please let her feel love within herself, towards herself and towards the world. Please, let my daughter live.

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

*


the handless maiden

The Handless Maiden by Ericka Lugo

Once upon a time, a miller lived with his wife and daughter at the edge of the forest on the outskirts of a beautiful kingdom, miles away from the village. Generations earlier, a special path had been cleared for the Queen’s horses through the wood, and for many years it was the exclusive mill of the entire kingdom. However, a new mill had been erected in the village with the latest technology, employing not one but several millers, and within only a few years, the new mill had grown so large it overshadowed the little mill by the forest. The miller even lost his account with the Queen.

Hard times fell upon the miller. He had once been prosperous, even wealthy, but now he was very poor. He had once pampered his wife and daughter, and they had an esteemed position in the village. He had hoped that his daughter would marry one of the king’s court by the time she was of marrying age. Now, even the lowliest villager would not take her. His wife and daughter foraged for food in the forest and picked apples from the trees behind the mill to sell at market. The miller’s wife begged him to take a position at the new mill and put his skills to use. But his pride was too great, and he refused.

When the miller’s wife grew hot and bright with fever, there was no money to bring her to the doctor. The sickness spread throughout her body and within a week, she was dead. The miller’s daughter had tried in vain to nurse her mother back to health. At her bedside, she had solemnly promised her mother that she would take care of her father. Through her grief, she took over all of her mother’s duties, and she still foraged, cleaned, bought and made household goods, and sold apples at the market. She cared for her father the best she could, but he was inconsolable.

The miller took to drinking sour mash, and spent his days in a drunken stupor. He cried and prayed for his fortune to change. One day when his daughter was at the market, a strange visitor knocked on the door.

“Whaddya want?” The miller slurred.

“I want to help you,” the stranger answered.

“You want to help me? You can’t help me. Can’ya bring my wife back? Can you bring my mill back? Can you restore what has been taken from me?”

“Yes.”

The miller roared with bitter laughter. “How?”

“Give me what is behind the mill.”

“And then what?” The miller asked, thinking of the rows of apple trees behind the mill, their only source of income.

“Then you will have a new wife, a new life, and all the riches you desire.”

“Sounds like you want me to make a deal with the devil.”

“Only if that is what you want.”

The miller and the stranger looked each other in the eye for a good few minutes, as if trying to read the others thoughts.

“Give me what is behind the mill, and you will have your heart’s desire.”

The miller thought about his daughter, and the back-breaking work of picking and selling the apples. He imagined her good, sweet face, so much like her mother’s.

“Okay,” he said.

“It’s a deal,” the stranger said, extending his hand.

The miller took his hand, and for a second, he felt a hot jolt course through his arm. Their handshake was hard and firm, binding.

The stranger bowed, “thank you, Sir. I will go collect her now.”

“Her?” The miller asked quickly, but too late. The stranger turned on his heel and was already out the door.

The miller ran after him. His daughter was under one of the trees with the bushel next to her. His heart dropped. He watched as the devil approached her.

“No,” he shouted, running towards them.

The miller’s daughter turned around in alarm. She saw the stranger approaching her. She saw the pain and anguish on her father’s face as he rushed toward her.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“My dear, your father has just given you to me,” the stranger said, smiling.

“No I didn’t!” The miller shouted.

“We just sealed the deal with a handshake,” the stranger reminded him, and the miller’s hand flashed as if on fire.

“No …” the miller said weakly, clutching his burning hand to his chest.

The stranger reached for the miller’s daughter, but when he tried to take her hand, he realized that he could not touch her. She was too pure; she was protected. He growled with anger, then turned and walked away.

“Cut off her hands!” he instructed the miller as he rushed past him. “I will be back.”

The miller sunk to the ground.

“Father, what is going on?” his daughter asked him.

“He asked for what was behind the mill … the apple trees … in exchange for … in exchange for …” The miller couldn’t continue. He broke down crying.

“What?”

“I won’t let him take you. I won’t.”

“Who is he, Father?”

“The devil.”

The miller’s daughter shuddered. She knew that her father was in a bad sort these days, but now he thought he was making deals with the devil? She was very worried about him. She brought him into the house and made a pot of tea. She consoled him in the ways that she had watched her mother console him, with food and drink and nonsense words, then she put him to bed like a child. She found his stash of sour mash and threw it away. Her father’s drinking was out of control.

She replayed what had happened over and over again in her head. None of it made sense. She decided to stay home and watch over her father instead of going back to the market. She had returned early because she sold all of the apples she had brought and wanted to get more. There was much to do at home anyway, and she began her household chores. She checked on her father regularly; he was sleeping like a baby.

Hours later, another visitor knocked at the door. The miller’s daughter started, afraid that it was the same stranger from earlier that day, but it was not. It was a local man from the village, come to talk with her father about business. He explained that the mill in town had an overage and he wondered if her father would be interested in contracting some of the work.

“Yes,” the miller’s daughter answered for him. “He will be ready to begin tomorrow.”

The little mill on the edge of the forest prospered, and the miller and his daughter fell into a comfortable routine, the visit from the stranger long forgotten. The miller’s daughter had grown to enjoy selling apples at the market, so she continued, even though it was no longer necessary. Day after day, the miller’s daughter grew more beautiful, rosy and healthy. Sometimes the miller watched her and was reminded so strongly of his wife, he felt his heart swell. Sometimes, as he hugged her good-night, his body responded before his mind, and his erection was swift and hard, pressing.

Months passed, and the miller became obsessed with the idea that his daughter was his wife’s replacement in nearly every way, except one. She looked so much like her, she could have been her twin. She loved him, she cared for him, she cooked and cleaned for him. He loved his daughter, but he desired a wife.

The miller’s daughter began to feel a little uncomfortable under her father’s hungry gaze, though she did not know the reason behind it. She was a young woman, no longer a little girl, but she was still innocent. There was a man she had met at the market who said he loved her. Once, he kissed her on the mouth, and she felt her soul sing. He wanted to ask her father for her hand in marriage, but the miller’s daughter wanted to wait. She wanted to make sure her father would be okay without her.

“Father, when do you think I should get married?” she asked one sunny morning after her father had awoken in a particularly good mood.

“Do you think you are ready?” the miller asked, his brow starting to furrow.

“Yes,” his daughter answered.

“Are you telling me that you met someone?”

The miller’s daughter’s face flushed.

“Where?” he asked sharply, his mood quickly turning.

“At the market, father.”

The miller’s face grew dark. He left, returning to his bedroom. After a few moments, his daughter knocked softly on the door. He opened the door angrily, his face contorted with rage. He grabbed his daughter by the arm roughly and pulled her into the room. She stood, shaking with confusion, as he held her by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the lips. The miller’s daughter shook her head, trying to get away from the terrible kiss.

“Did he kiss you like that?” the miller said angrily.

“Stop, father. Please …” she said, caught in his tight embrace.

He pushed her onto the bed and his full weight fell on top of her. He removed his belt with one hand while holding her down with the other, then he used the belt to bind her hands above her head. She rolled from side to side, trying to get away, but he was too strong, he overpowered her. He pushed her skirt up with one hand while unbuttoning his pants with the other.

“No …” she cried, moving her body violently, bringing up her knees to kick him. He staggered from the blow, and she rolled off the bed, hitting the floor with a thud. With her hands still bound, she used them as leverage to stand, and then she ran, out of the room, out of the house, and into the woods, as far and as fast as her feet would carry her.

But she was off balance, and she tripped and fell on the path. Her father caught up with her, and found her lying helpless on the forest floor. He bent over her, and grabbed her arm. He held her steady, her hands still bound. With his other hand, he pulled the belt around her wrists higher, immobilizing her outstretched arms. In one swift motion, he drew a long sword from the sheath on his back, the sharp edge glittering briefly in the light before it fell upon her wrists, slicing through skin, blood, bone.

“Let the devil take you,” he said.

She was stunned by the blow, in shock from the loss of blood. She did not scream. She did not make a sound. A murder of birds in the surrounding trees flew up suddenly, releasing a cacophony of shrieks and caws, leaving a throbbing silence in their wake. Her hands gone, the belt loosened and fell to the ground with a dull thud. Her father released his grip on her arm, letting her fall among the dirt and dried leaves.

She cried and cried, her tears cleansing the wound. And when there were no tears left, she cried more; she was wounded, her soul blindsided, her heart broken. The devil hovered around her, but still he could not touch her; her tears had washed away even the sin inflicted upon her, and she was still pure. At one point she gathered enough strength to stand, but she could barely walk; she staggered piteously until she got caught in the thorny bramble that had overrun the path, and she tripped again, and fell unconscious.

Perhaps it was the scent of the blood, or the hand of fate interceding, but the prince’s dogs led the hunting party astray. They had been down the ragged, unused path for over an hour, and it seemed that the dogs had taken over the expedition. A sense of urgency had replaced the hunting party’s earlier joviality, and one of them wondered aloud if they should turn back.

“No,” the prince said.

“But, there’s no game in this part of the woods. We’ve been out here for hours … soon the light will be gone …”

“Keep going,” the prince said, his sense of desperation growing. His dogs had never acted like that before, and it was making him anxious.

Far ahead on the path, the dogs started barking.

“Finally!” someone shouted, and the hunting party ran to see what the dogs had found.

None of them were prepared to find a human body among the tangled bush. None of them were prepared for all the blood.

“Is she dead?”

The prince stepped forward, carefully clearing a path through the thorns and bramble as he advanced. He knelt next to her, trying to find a pulse before realizing that the young woman’s hands had been brutally chopped off. Blood had soaked through the front of her dress, but there seemed to be no other wounds. Her heartbeat was weak, but she was still alive.

“We need to go back. We need to get help,” someone said.

“I won’t leave her …” the prince said, tearing off pieces of his shirt to make a tourniquet for her wounds.

Another member of the party came up with a quick plan, and they dispersed. Two would search for the village doctor, another would alert the Queen to prepare for their return, and the last would herd the dogs while the prince carried the young woman back to the castle.

Each day, the young woman grew stronger. Each day, the prince loved her more. She was so sweet and beautiful; she was a child sent to him downriver in a bulrush basket, and he promised heaven and earth that he would love and care for her for the rest of his life, if only she would love him in return. He needn’t have worried; she had been cast from her home and into the dark forest, left for dead, then rescued by a prince. She loved him so much she thought her heart might burst.

Within a few months, the prince and the handless maiden were married. As a wedding gift, the prince commissioned a pair of silver hands to be created for her. Though her silver hands were not functional, they were amazingly beautiful, as delicate and light as a piece of lace. She imagined that they were like a piece of jewelry, an adornment, and she loved her husband’s heart for thinking of the gift. With time, she was able to manipulate the appendages like a simple machine, and she could pick up and move some items using her silver hands, albeit clumsily.

In marriage, the handless maiden and the prince loved each other fiercely. Each night, she fell asleep in his loving arms, safe and protected, thinking this must be what happily ever after feels like.

The Queen was overjoyed with the union, and the entire kingdom rejoiced when only a couple of months after the wedding, they announced a pregnancy. In the far away, fairy tale kingdom, true love ruled the minds and the hearts of the people. Outside the kingdom, however, war loomed. Though the prince wanted to stay for the baby’s birth, it soon became a necessity for the prince to oversee negotiations with a hostile neighboring kingdom. The Queen promised that she would care for the handless maiden, and write him immediately after the baby’s birth. The prince left, promising the entire kingdom that he would stay until a peaceful resolution had been reached, no matter how long it took.

After the baby’s birth, the Queen did as promised, and sent a message to her son, telling him that the baby was a beautiful girl, and that both mother and child were fine. A messenger was sent directly, but it was a long trip to the neighboring kingdom, and the messenger stopped mid-way at the crossroads, seeing a shady tree that would be perfect for a short rest. Unbeknownst to the messenger, the devil was waiting there, and while he slept, the devil changed the message to say that the baby was hideously deformed.

Upon receiving the message, the prince was surprised; however, he sent another message back immediately, saying that he loved his wife and child, no matter what. Again, the messenger took a brief respite under that same shady tree, and again, the devil was waiting to switch the message. After the note had been delivered to the Queen, she sent for her most trusted advisor. When he entered her rooms, he found the Queen in a debilitated state. She shakily handed the note to him. He read it quickly.

“This is not from the prince,” he said.

“It has his seal.”

“He never would have written those words.”

“It is his hand.”

“Something is very wrong.”

“I know,” the Queen sobbed.

Early the next morning, the Queen told the handless maiden that it would be best for her to leave the castle until she figured out what was going on. Right now, both her and the baby’s life were in danger. The Queen packed a bag of provisions, and placed it carefully on the handless maiden’s back. Then, she swaddled the baby and strapped her to young woman’s chest. They would be safer in the woods.

“A week, my sweet child,” the Queen said with tears in her eyes. “Hide well.”

“What if he can’t find me?”

“He will find you. His love for you is true. I would swear my life on it.”

“I’m afraid,” the handless maiden said.

“You are stronger than you know,” the Queen said. “I would swear my life on that, too.”

And with that, the handless maiden was cast into the woods once more. The baby was breast feeding, so she did not have to worry about her nourishment, but the handless maiden grew weaker as the days passed, and she began to run out of provisions. After two weeks, she stopped counting the days. She walked and walked, stopping only to find shelter for the night. She rarely stayed in the same place for more than one night. She was lost in the dark forest with a baby strapped to her, not knowing where she was going or what she would find when she got there.

Days, she felt brave and free, and she sang with a chorus of birds to the baby, enjoying simple, quiet moments with her child under the sun dappled canopy. Nights, she burrowed with her child close to the ground, their shelter camouflaged under bushes. Though it offered no real protection, she tried to feel safe, and she pressed her baby to her breast, her heartbeat strong and loud. Never had she seen such a quiet, happy baby; it was as if she understood that it was best to be quiet in the dark forest, to hide until it was light again.

One day, the handless maiden was feeling especially weary. She had been moving through a dry area of the woods, and had not had anything to eat or drink for days. She did not know that the devil was watching her relentlessly. He had only three chances to take her, after the deal he had made with her father, but he could not take someone so pure. Because of that, he had already lost two chances; he was biding his time, waiting for the final opportunity to present itself.

When the handless maiden came across a small pond, she nearly cried, she was so thirsty, and she bent over the fluid surface to drink. The baby, swaddled and attached to her chest, saw something shiny in the water, and lunged forward to reach it, falling head-first into the pond. A pain she had never known seized the handless maiden as she plunged her useless silver hands into the water, to save her child. When she pulled the baby out from the depths, the handless maiden nearly fainted from shock; her hands were no longer silver, but flesh and bone.

She knew that no matter what happened next, she would survive.

When peace had been restored between the kingdoms, the prince returned home to find his wife and child missing. He searched the woods day and night, but he could not find them. The weather began to turn, and dry leaves fell from the trees. He found one of his wife’s silver hands washed up by the edge of a pond, and he began to fear the worst, but he would not leave the dark forest without them.

He had found her once before, unconscious, wounded and broken. He would find her again. But when he saw the apparition before him on the path, a beautiful young woman singing to a baby, alive and whole and happy, he thought he must be dreaming. He approached cautiously, but the woman sensed his presence and looked directly at him. She was no longer the handless maiden, or the miller’s daughter, or even the prince’s wife. She did not need to be saved. Everything had changed. Still, he reached for her hands, and brought them to his lips, kissing her palms and the tips of her fingers. Nothing had changed; her heart was the same heart, and he loved her.

He picked up the baby, took his love by the hand, and together, they left the dark forest and returned to the castle, where they all lived happily ever after.

*

the handless maiden by doncella mancaThe Handless Maiden by Doncella Manca


kill your television!

kill your television bw by shanti knapp

 

Yaron sat alone in his room, watching television. No one knows what provoked him. He mentioned that it was fucking with his head. Grasping the bulk with his arms, he picked up the television and ripped the plug from the wall. He staggered from his room, across the hallway and into the living room, where, it was told; he appeared suddenly like an avenger, like someone reclaiming something.

The three or four people left in the living room gaped at first, and then shouted their encouragement. Someone tried to help, but Yaron shrugged him off. Yaron did not falter in his movements, though his arms strained against the weight. He was followed into the kitchen, where he shouted “Open the god damn window!” Someone did.

The revelers gathered on the fire escape before helping Yaron back out through the kitchen window, still clinging to the television. It was as if the television were some sort of odd growth against him, so that when he thrust it forward, over the rail, it seemed that, for a minute, he was throwing part of himself to the ground below.

There were only a few seconds of free fall before the television made impact. The sharp crack and the sound of shattering glass cut through the silence of night. A few seconds after releasing their collective breath, everyone laughed and shouted in triumph. Yaron laughed with the rest of them. He laughed so hard that tears sprung to his eyes. He laughed, fighting the unbearable urge to break down and cry.

Yaron threw the television out the kitchen window as dawn gave way to day on Wednesday morning, before Diane had the abortion, before Thom od’d, before I told James I was leaving and he painted all the red doors in his apartment black.

Yaron was the one who started it all. It was he who broke the thread. He threw the television out the window on Wednesday and was gone by Friday, without a note or word of explanation; the only clue lying in the balding grass in the back lot of his apartment. The empty shell of the cracked television was left to lie in shattered glass, dirt and weeds until the landlord cleared it away in May.

Tuesday night started no differently than any other night in our small college town. Diane came over after her evening class. She was one of the few who actively attended school; the rest of us had either dropped out or graduated. I was decidedly in the “dropped out” category, in my room listening to Iron Butterfly, contemplating the creation of being and non-being, when my roommate knocked sharply on my door and announced Diane’s arrival, saying “Jesus, open a window.”

Diane walked in and smiled as I handed her a joint. She took it between her thin fingers and sat down on the floor cross legged, inhaled and handed it back to me. Diane and I knew each other well; we had lived together in the dorms before I left school and moved to an apartment off-campus. “I need you to come with me to Yaron’s,” she said.

“Now?” I asked. I hadn’t left my room in the three days I had been off work, and I really wasn’t in the mood to go anywhere.

My room was my refuge, my safe haven. I had painted the walls forest green, and because I was inept with a roller, ragged green edges that looked like grass surrounded the parameter of the still-white ceiling. I had plans for the ceiling, and I used to lie on the floor, looking up, imagining what I would paint. When I moved out, the ceiling remained white, only slightly imprinted by the will of my imagination.

“I don’t want to stay that long,” Diane told me, looking into the window above my mattress and smoothing her long dark hair, “I need to talk to him about something. Besides, he told me he has something for us.”

Diane tilted her head to the side. “Please, Kim… I really don’t want to go alone.”

She looked at me plaintively, her beautiful face drawn in a mock pout of sadness. “I promise we’ll just go, I’ll talk to him for a few minutes, then we’ll get the stuff and leave.”

“What do you have to talk to him about?” I asked. Yaron was in love with her and she knew it, yet; she had no interest in pursuing anything with him, even though they were sleeping with each other. She told me that she had no interest in the politics of domesticity.

Diane sighed and blew out a couple of lazy smoke rings, each perfect O hanging in the air between us.

“I can’t tell you right now. I need to talk to him first. Then, I’ll tell you. Okay?”

“We can’t just leave,” I said, “You know he’s going to want to smoke with us.”

She sighed again, this time more deeply. “You’re right. So, we’ll hang out for a little while.” She stretched and stood up. “You ready?”

“Is anyone else going to be there?” I asked.

I was hoping that Yaron would be alone, but it was unlikely. He lived with three other guys, one of whom was Thom, and I had been avoiding Thom since that night of the party, when he lured me into his bedroom with the promise of seeing his photographs. I had heard that he was a really good photographer and I suppose I was naïve, but I really didn’t expect him to push me onto the bed the minute we walked into the room.

Diane thought he probably didn’t even remember that night; he was so drunk. But I could never forget the violent blue of his eye, the way he held me down on the bed. He made me nervous. He said I was just like him; we were twin souls, searching desperately for meaning in this blurry and overexposed world.

“I’m sure it will be the usual.” Diane said. “But we’re not staying long. Okay?”

“I really don’t want to see Thom.”

“I know, I know,” she said. “You’re paranoid. Thom’s a cool guy. I don’t know why you don’t like him.”

I didn’t tell Diane the extent of what went on in Thom’s room. Sometimes, she could be insensitive about such things. If it was just sex, she would have understood. But it wasn’t just sex. We didn’t even have sex. We kissed on his bed in the blackness of his room and talked about dreams, nightmares, emptiness. Mind expansion, self-destruction. He wanted me to save him, when I couldn’t even save myself.

“It’s not that I don’t like him.” I said.

“Well, even if he is there, he doesn’t share the same part of the apartment as Yaron. So… don’t worry. Besides,” she said, looking me over, “it will be good for you to get out.”

I nodded and crushed out the joint in the ashtray, placing it in my pack of cigarettes. I stood up and turned off the record player while Diane blew out the candles.

We left the incense burning and I shut the door to my room. My roommate gave us a dirty look when we passed her bedroom. “Don’t forget your key this time,” she called out to me.

“Okay Mom,” Diane replied.

Diane and I started laughing. We barely made it out the front door. She tripped on her long skirt and I walked into the bookcase; we were that stoned. Before I closed the door, Diane asked me, quite innocently, “Do you have your key?” and we fell into each other, laughing again.

Outside, the night was clear and cool. It was almost spring and the snow was just beginning to melt. The sheer contrast of being outside sobered us a little while we walked the six or seven blocks to Main Street. Main Street ran the length of the town, and housed numerous bars, restaurants and random shops. Yaron lived only a block away from the restaurant where I worked.

As we got closer, Diane broke our silence and asked tentatively “So, what’s going on with James?”

I took out a cigarette and lit it before I replied truthfully, “Nothing.”

James was my boss. We had been hanging out before his ex-girlfriend the pharmacist came back into his life. She rode up to the restaurant one day on a loud Harley, bearing prescription drugs. I had never seen her before, and I was surprised that she was so different from James. James was a quiet man, who gave free meals to the residents of the outpatient mental health clinic nearby, in exchange for a few lithium, valium, artane, whatever.

The first time I hung out with James, we barely spoke to each other. He asked me to smoke with him after work. He seemed really cool and shy and nervous and within an hour, he had a seizure. I hadn’t known he had epilepsy. I stayed with him the entire night with his head on my lap, afraid to leave or go to sleep. I had memorized the features in his face before he woke, and when he did, we loved each other. Or, I thought we did.

“He’s still with the ex-girlfriend?” Diane asked. Cruelly, I thought.

“I guess she’s not his ex-girlfriend anymore. I don’t know.” James said he loved us both. Theoretically, I could understand. I just wished it didn’t hurt so much.

“I always thought he was really strange… Do you have an extra cigarette?”

We stopped at the corner and I extended my pack to her. She lit the cigarette and we stood, smoking, watching people spill out of the bars and onto the street. The area was loud and disjointed with several conversations going on at the same time. I closed my eyes. It had been getting harder and harder to leave my room.

“Are you ready for this?” She asked and I nodded weakly in assent.

We walked a few more feet down Main Street and stopped abruptly in front of Yaron’s door. Diane rang the bell and he buzzed us in. I walked up the long stairway behind her, trying to discern who was there by the voices we heard shouting over music as we ascended the stairs.

Yaron greeted us at the top of the steps. He looked really happy and really drunk. The army green hat that he always wore was askew. He extended his arms and yelled “Diane!” before embracing her in a vice-like hug. Diane hugged him back much less enthusiastically, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Hey, Kim,” he called out to me and I smiled my response back to him.

He put his arm around Diane and led her to the left, which I knew to be a bad sign because Yaron’s area of the apartment was to the right. The left side held the kitchen, living room, Ed’s room and Thom’s room. Diane looked behind her shoulder at me, with one of her “I’m sorry” looks. I had no choice but to follow as they entered the living room, where about ten people were sprawled out over the two couches and the floor.

Several people were involved in a heated discussion about the nature of explicit environmental and structural racism. The air was stagnant with the smoke of cigarettes and marijuana. Beer cans and bottles of liquor crowded the surfaces of the room. Books were stacked precariously on the coffee table.

“You all know Diane …” Yaron interrupted. He introduced Diane to the few people she actually didn’t know. It was hot in the living room. Something loud was on the stereo, a bong was being passed around and Thom sat on the floor in front of the only clear spot on the coffee table, cutting lines. I spotted him just as he turned to look at me. He smiled and gestured for me to come closer. I shook my head. “I know you want to,” he said, almost whispering, before bending down.

I did want to. He was offering me a path that would only lead further and further into darkness. I had spent nearly three days in seclusion, trying to figure out a way in which to live. I had already figured out all the ways in which to die.

“Yaron… it’s too crowded in here,” Diane said, pressing herself against him to whisper in his ear. “Let’s go into your room.”

Yaron nodded. With his arm still around Diane, he began to walk out of the room. Diane reached out and grabbed my arm, “You too, Kim.” Yaron looked crushed and I felt bad for him. Not bad enough to stay in the living room though. He looked at me and I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say “what can I do?” No one said no to Diane. I think he understood.

It was so much quieter in Yaron’s room. We went into his room and he put on Black Sabbath. He turned the volume up as the first dark chords began to fill the room. We sat on the floor while he took out about five bags before handing them to Diane to choose. She decided on two before handing the bags over to me.

“What do you think, Kim?”

“I weighed them before… they’re all about the same.” Yaron said, “I think that one has bigger buds… that’s why it looks a little smaller…”

“Either one,” I said to Diane, handing her back the bags. “I can’t decide.”

“Okay, we’ll take the one with the buds.” Diane reached into her pocketbook to give Yaron the money. He waved her away. “Don’t worry about it.”

Diane looked at me for help, but I wasn’t giving any. She sighed before saying okay, then “Well at least let’s smoke from this bag.”

Yaron took out a packet of rolling papers from his pocket and handed them to Diane before sitting down next to her, nonchalantly. Diane tossed the papers to me and said “Kim, you roll it…” Yaron reached over and tucked a piece of hair behind Diane’s ear. Diane said “Move closer to us, Kim. You’re too far away.”

I moved closer to them. We sat with our legs crossed, so that our knees touched, forming a triangle, a warped trinity. “Wait.” Yaron said, before he stood up and walked to his closet. We watched him return with a bright yellow blanket. “Let’s clambake.”

Diane reached out to help him with the blanket. Yaron sat back down and we resumed our trinity position. We each took some of the blanket and put it over us. The light in Yaron’s room filtered through the thin blanket, and the yellow of the blanket became golden. “It’s like sunlight!” Diane said.

“I feel like I’m in another world.” Yaron said, dreamily. And it was true. Under the blanket, we created a gauzy, bright yellow, golden world. Yaron and Diane held hands. We smoked the joint, close under the blanket, telling stories from our childhoods, trying to define a perfect world.

“What the hell…” A voice cut through our laughter. We looked at each other, caught, and then we began laughing again. “Yaron? Are you under there?” That made us laugh even more and we gasped for air through the smoke. We threw the blanket off us and a cloud of smoke visibly dissipated in the air above our heads.

Thom was standing at Yaron’s door. He stared at us for a second, smiling and shaking his head. “I’m not even going to ask… Listen, Chuck just brought over some acid. You guys up for it?”

“Yeah, man.” Yaron said and extended the joint to Thom. Thom walked over and sat down on the floor beside me. “What about you?” He looked at Diane briefly and then his gaze rested on me.

“No way. I’m really fucked up.” Diane said. She looked at me and then added, “In fact, we should probably be going soon.”

“I know Kim will say yes, won’t you, Kim?” Thom said. He looked into my eyes, and I could feel myself falling into the seductive abyss.

“No.” I said. “I have to work tomorrow. I’d still be tripping if I took it now.”

Diane stood up and told Yaron that she wanted to use the bathroom before we left. They walked out of the room, leaving me alone with Thom. I felt the heat rise on my face. I wanted him to leave. He didn’t leave.

“Every time I see you, you won’t even talk to me.” Thom said, moving a little closer, so that we were sitting face to face, our knees practically touching. “Joe used to tell me all the time about this girl in the dorms who was just like me. Then I met you, remember? We were waiting on Dave’s porch, talking about shit, and you said that you wanted to experience everything, and I said you were just like me … Why are you afraid of me?”

I didn’t answer him. I was afraid of him, of his need.

“I’m sorry if I freaked you out that night.” He said, pulling the band out of his long hair. His hair fell like a black curtain around his shoulders, unnatural and imposing against his pale face and clear blue eyes.

Before I had time to answer him, he kissed me. I had been numb for so long I didn’t recognize the space between us expand and contract, or that my body moved according to his. I didn’t know how it was that my breath caught under his touch, against my more logical inclinations. All this, and I kissed him back, breaking my heart so he wouldn’t have to.

I heard Diane and Yaron and pulled away from Thom. He bit his lip. I stood up and walked over to Yaron’s records.

Yaron and Diane were arguing outside the door. “Please, Diane … I don’t want you to…” Yaron’s voice lowered so that I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence; his voice rose again, angrily, “What about what I want?” before softening into a desperate “I love you.”

“I’ve made my decision, Yaron.” I heard Diane say, accenting his name with finality.

Diane walked into the room purposefully, her face flushed.“Kim, are you ready?” I was.

Yaron entered the room after her, looking as if he had been punched in the stomach. I looked at the floor. Thom asked if Yaron still wanted the acid, and Yaron did, so together they went into the living room to finish the night with a trip. I followed Diane down the stairs. No one said goodbye.

 

 

*


how the raven stole the sun

RAVEN11

 

“How the Raven stole the sun” is based upon Native American creation myths, specifically the Haida story, in which the Raven is responsible for bringing light (the sun, the moon, and the stars) back to the world, and is transformed in the process.

 

In the beginning, the world was in total darkness.

But it was not always that way.

In the beginning, the world was filled with light. All of the animals, the trees and plants and flowers, and the whole of the earth, thrived. In the beginning, there were no human beings, save for a man and a woman who had lived together from the beginning of time. What the woman longed for most in the world was a child; however, she could not conceive. The man and the woman grew old as their prayers for a child went unanswered. The woman’s sadness was so great that she could not share a world of light when her own world was so dark. One day, in revenge or anger or disappointment, the old man took the light from the world and hid it in a box, thinking that now the world would share their pain.

After some time, the earth began to die. Nothing could grow in the absence of light. The eagle had seen the old man climb into the sky, so they knew he was holding the light. All of the animals had a great meeting, to discuss the ways in which they could persuade the man to return it. The light that they could make, fire, was not enough to illuminate the earth, and too much of it would burn the world. They had pleaded with him, begged and cried, told him that their families, all of the trees and plants and flowers, and all of the life on earth, was in danger. But the old man said that he did not know where the light was. They tried to break into the humans’ home, but the light was so well hidden that not even the smallest insect could find it.

Finally, the Raven stepped forward. She said that she would transform into a human infant, since what the humans wanted most was a child. Perhaps then, if she lived as one of them, she would be able to find the light. And so the Raven changed, and the animals wrapped her in a nest of dead leaves, and left the baby at the old man and the old woman’s door.

When she was found, they cried with joy at the unexpected gift, and took her in. Years passed, and the baby grew from an infant into a child. The child was curious, always getting into things, but she filled their life with joy. The old man and the old woman loved the child so much, they promised that they would give her anything her heart desired. One day, the child stumbled across a locked box, and she brought the box to her father and asked if she could open it. Because he loved her so much, he could not say no, and the old man said that he would open the box, but the child could only take a peek inside.

After releasing the lock, the old man lifted the lid of the box slowly until a shimmering sliver of light filled the room. The child gasped, a look of absolute wonder crossing her face. Suddenly, the child transformed into a giant white bird, the Raven, and she quickly seized the ball of light in her beak and flew out through the smokehole in the roof towards the sky.

Higher and higher she flew, the ball of light hot in her mouth, slowly charring her snow white feathers black. Still she flew, and a piece of the light broke off, staying fixed in the sky as the sun. She kept flying, even though the light was scorching her, burning her; she flew halfway across the world, and another piece of the light broke off, staying fixed in the sky as the moon. Still, she flew, only a third of the light left, held fast in her beak. As she crossed the great ocean, the last bit of light fell, and shattered into tiny pieces, bouncing off the reflected water and into the sky, punctuating the darkness with stars.

And this is the story of how the Raven stole the sun, and brought light back to the world, though it turned her snow white feathers black as the darkest night, forevermore.

 

raven-steals

 

The photos in this post are from ‘Raven Steals the Sun’ – a collaboration between photographer Jeff Elstone, scarf designer Taiana Giefer and artist-milliner Selina Elkuch, based on the native Haida myth of how the Sun came to be. For additional photos, please click here.

 

*

 


into the woods: an interview

black heart magazine

Many thanks to Laura Roberts and Black Heart Magazine for the fun author interview in which I talk a little about my book, Into the Woods, some of my influences and inspirations, what I’m typically doing on a Friday night, and assorted other topics!

Into the Woods: An interview with Michelle Augello-Page

intothewoodsMichelle Augello-Page is the author of Into the Woods, published in 2014 by Oneiros Books. We recently had a chance to ask her a few questions about her literary influences and inspirations. Here’s what she had to say.

Who are your top 5 favorite authors or influences, and why?

It is very difficult to limit my favorite authors or influences to five! So I will choose 5 that immediately come to mind at this moment in time:

Angela Carter – My favorite book by her is The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. The stories in this collection are rough-cut jewels: sharp, brutal, beautiful. The first story I ever read by her was called “Reflections” and everything about it touched me to the core of my soul, knowing that even though I wasn’t there yet, this was where I, too, lived as a writer.

Carl Jung – I’d say that his body of work has influenced me a great deal, and has given me a deeper sense of understanding and connecting the links among psychology, dreams, archetypes, storytelling, and life. I love Memories, Dreams, Reflections and The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

Adrienne Rich – Her book of Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 is one of my most beloved books, and was my first introduction to Rich’s work and (by extension) to poetry itself as a life-long pursuit, a journey rooted in but also transcending the cycles of time and change, an imprint of the “depth and breadth” of one’s personal and creative life. I also love Diving into the Wreck and her sexuality/gender focused political essays.

Margaret Atwood – Her prolific body of work is impressive and varied, and I love that she continues to evolve, stretching even beyond herself. As a writer of fiction, short stories, poetry, and essays, she refuses to be locked into a genre. She has cultivated her own uniqueness, which only grows deeper and more refined with each creation. My favorite books by her are The Handmaid’s Tale and Power Politics.

Stephen King – One of my favorite books about writing is King’s On Writing. Growing up, I devoured King’s books. He has such an ease to his writing that really draws you in, while telling some of the strangest, most horrific stories one could imagine. He is a master of both storytelling and balancing dichotomies. My favorites are The Dead Zone and The Eyes of the Dragon.

What type of writing fuel do you prefer, and what – if anything – do you feel this contributes to your creative process?

My writing fuel is tea, coffee, music, and visual images. Many times when I write I listen to music through headphones, which provides a sort of background emotional undercurrent, a tether, and helps me block out all other worlds except for the one I am writing.

What inspired you to write your latest book?

I was inspired to write my latest book by fairy tales, mythology, language, transformations, relationships, love, and sex.

… to read the rest of the interview, please click here!

And be sure to check out the rest of Black Heart Magazine for a wealth of great stories, poetry, author interviews, reviews, and more!

 

Black Heart Magazine is an independent online literary magazine, transmitting tenacious text around the world at the speed of wifi. Since 2004, our site has been combating clichés and skipping straight to supercharged stories with a simple catchphrase: we heart art.

Join us, if you dare.

We publish the best in short-form modern literature, from pulp and literary fiction to poetry, along with all manner of literary commentary to keep readers informed and entertained.

 

Laura Roberts also recently published the Best of Black Heart, a collection celebrating 10 years of fiction, poetry, author interviews, and more indie literary mayhem! Check it out! x


the gift

Anya looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

The afternoon light warmed Anya as she rocked in her chair, knitting. She was waiting for the one thing that would make her life complete and bring her full circle – the birth of her first great-grandchild, who she knew would be a girl, and who would be called Anya. The touch of the wool was soft and giving, almost as soft as the down on a baby’s back, and she longed to hold that child with a sudden fierceness that surprised her.

Closing her eyes, Anya descended into memory. She had died while she was being born. This was one of the first things she learned about herself, and it was at the core of her understanding who she was, for death had bequeathed her with a kiss, a curse – a gift that would follow her throughout her life. She thought about birth, about the entry into this world, and thought it cruel that the womb only held a child for nine months. To be that loved, wholly and completely safe … the thought brought a smile to her face. Then she thought about the children who were not wanted, who were not safe even in their mother’s wombs, and she could not make sense of it. It made her heart hurt, and her eyes winced with pain.

Anya opened her eyes again and thought she might have fallen asleep. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed several times. She thought about giving away the clock; it was useless to her now. She resented the ticking of seconds and the long, hollow chimes announcing each hour. She preferred to live by season, by the shifting light of each day. She woke when the birds began their morning song and the sky broke through its veil of darkness. She knew it was night when the light turned dark and the sun shattered into stars.

A knock on the door alerted the arrival of a visitor. The knock was a soft scratching, the sound reminiscent of the way her beloved stray used to return home in the evenings, so cautious, quietly insistent, eager to be let in. Anya smiled, knowing that it was Hope, the little girl who lived next door.

*

“Come in, child,” she called out, and listened for Hope’s hesitant footsteps as she walked through the kitchen , down the hallway, and into the sitting room. Anya sat up a little straighter in the chair and put her knitting into the basket beside her.

“Hello,” the girl said, peeking her head into the room first, as if she still wasn’t sure it was okay for her to enter.

“Don’t be shy,” Anya said. “Come, come,” she waved her closer, “should we continue where we left off? Or do you want to start from the beginning?”

Anya reached back into the basket and pulled out two decks of cards. She swung out the side table so that they would have a surface to play upon, then began shuffling. Hope pulled one of the chairs forward and sat down across from her. Two decks, 13 cards each, 7 hands. They played a game that Anya had made up long ago, and she changed the rules each time. The last time they played, they had only gotten through five hands, and Hope was losing badly. Anya had watched the girl compose herself as tears stung her eyes and she tried and failed and tried again; she was learning.

“Let’s start from the beginning.”

Hope’s feet swung in anticipation, her toes still not quite able to reach the floor. She looked around at the paintings and drawings Anya had made, always fascinated that the old woman had created such vibrant, strange art. Her eye traveled across the objects Anya had acquired from her travels all over the world. Hope often asked her questions about them, and sometimes Anya would respond with stories from her life. Hope listened, spellbound, as the hazy summer sun set in another time, lost in Anya’s memories, dreams of comrades and friends, artists and lovers, years of war, challenges, changes, new beginnings.

Hope took a deep breath and felt more calm than she had all day, all week even. The sound of splashing from a neighbor’s pool, laughter, and young shrieking voices carried across the wind into the room.

“Don’t you want to play with the other children?”

“No,” the girl answered.

She didn’t want to tell Anya that Chrissy wouldn’t allow the other kids to talk to her this week. She didn’t want to tell her that “this week” was going on the third week in a row. Ever since Chrissy caught her playing with Adam when it was his week, she’d been furious with her. Hope wasn’t trying to play with him. Adam came over to her when she was sitting outside, reading by the tree. He was so lonely, he was crying, and she never liked that game anyway; she thought it was mean. But no one else besides her would dare go against Chrissy. For the past three weeks, even Adam averted his eyes and pretended Hope didn’t exist.

“I like playing with you.”

“And I like playing with you too,” Anya smiled. She loved this little girl who appeared one day at her side door, eyes as big as moonflowers blooming in a dark, neglected garden.

“But it’s important to have friends your own age.”

The girl didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to have friends her own age. She wanted to have friends like the characters in the books she loved to read, but she never met kids like that in real life. Chrissy wanted to make everyone in the neighborhood hate her, and she didn’t know why. They used to be friends. Chrissy said she wanted to be her best friend in the world. Then, she told all the kids her secrets, right in front of her, and laughed as if she was telling them all a joke. She told them that her parents always fought, that she wished she could live in a book, that she was waiting for her magic to appear. She told them that she still played with baby toys, even though she was twelve years old, even though those were the toys Chrissy had always wanted to play with when she came over, and they had made up complex stories with those little people and tiny houses.

“Amelia and David used to be my friends, but they moved away.”

She thought about her old friends, Amelia and David. They used to play a lot together. Her basement was their own private world, and Hope’s mother never bothered them. The first rainy day that they all played together, David said “I like to kiss girls” and Amelia said “I like to kiss girls too.” Hope had smiled at both of them and said, “that’s okay, I like to kiss girls and boys.”

After Amelia moved, it was just Hope and David. David liked to play superhero, and he used to tie her up with her jump rope, like in one of those saturday morning cartoons; he was the hero and the villain, and she was the heroine, captured, bound, waiting to be rescued. He liked to play cops and robbers and when he caught her, he’d put her in jail, then punish her with chinese tickle-torture until she laughed so hard she could barely breathe. He liked to play family, and he always wanted to be the dad. He insisting on taking care of the babies while Hope went to work, and cuddling all together when she came home.

When Chrissy’s family moved into Amelia’s house, Hope invited her over to play. David said “I like to play doctor” and Chrissy said “I like to play doctor too.” But when David started taking off his pants for a check up, Chrissy didn’t want to play anymore. She said that they were dirty and that she was going home. Chrissy’s mother told all the other mothers what happened. None of the neighborhood girls were allowed to play with David anymore, including Hope. Then, he moved away too.

“I wish I could go somewhere new,” Hope said.

“You will, someday,” Anya said, laying down her cards in a perfect spread.

Hope hadn’t even put down her hand yet. She gave her cards reluctantly to Anya to count. She would have to re-do the hand, while Anya moved on to the next one. Hope bit her lip. Anya would get double the points for this hand, while she got zero. She would never catch up.

“You can still win,” Anya said as if reading her thoughts, then began shuffling the cards again for the next hand.

“What’s that?” Hope asked, her eye catching the rainbow of colours in the knitting basket on the floor.

Anya smiled proudly. “My first great-grandchild will be born soon. I’m knitting a baby blanket for her … It’s my gift.”

“It’s beautiful,” Hope said wistfully.

“Do you know how to knit, child?”

“No …” the girl said. “Would you teach me?”

“Of course,” Anya said. “Next time.”

*

Alone, a wave of deep sadness and bittersweet nostalgia passed over her as she thought about her life, her endless dance with death. Anya knew that if she was damned to eternal return, she would have no regrets. She had lived a full life. She had lived as an artist, a wife, a mother, an independent woman. She was proud of the work she had done. The love of her life was an army man; she had lost him in the last war. She had lived more years without him than she had with him, but she still loved him as much as the day she had married him. He had blessed her with three beautiful children who brought her so much joy. Her life had been filled with love; she had amazing family, incredible friends, passionate lovers. Now, all of her friends and lovers were gone. Now, her children were all grown, with families of their own. Now, her eyes and hands didn’t work the way they used to, and she hadn’t been able to paint or draw in years. Now, she was alone.

There was a knock at the door.

Since becoming friends with Hope over the summer, she had grown used to having a daily visitor. But Hope only came in the afternoon, after lunch. She listened again. It was not Hope’s knock. This knock was impatient, forceful, angry. Anya got up from her chair and slowly made her way into the kitchen, to see who it was.

A girl about Hope’s age stood outside the screen door. She looked like a corn-fed child model, blonde and blue eyed and rosy cheeked, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The girl smiled.

“Can I help you?” Anya asked.

“Can I come in?” the girl asked, pulling at the door. The door did not open. The door was unlocked.

“Why are you here?” Anya asked bluntly.

“I know that Hope has been coming here. I’ve seen her. You let Hope come in. Why won’t you let me in?” the girl pulled at the door again.

“I’m sorry child … there is nothing for you here.”

“You are teaching Hope, aren’t you?” the girl said angrily, nearly spitting out the words.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Anya reprimanded herself for leaving the side door open. All that stood between her and the girl was a flimsy screen. She felt the frailty of her old woman’s body betray her only for a moment. Then, her eyes burned. She put one hand on her hip, and the other on the knob of the heavy door that stood ajar, ready to close it.

“I think you do.” The girl held her eyes, and Anya felt a chill run through her bones. “And I’m telling you to stop. Because if you don’t stop, I will make you stop.”

“Are you threatening me child?”

“No,” the girl said, still smiling. “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”

“Go home, child. Don’t come back here.”

A woman’s voice pierced the silence between them, calling out into the quickly darkening sky: “Chrissy! Chrissssy! Come home!”

The girl rolled her eyes then called back in a sweet sing-song voice, “coming!” She glared at Anya one last time and left.

*

Hope’s mother kept the blinds closed so that no sunlight would enter the house. They didn’t have air conditioning so the absence of sun made the inside of the house about 10 degrees cooler than it was outside. Still, it was hot.

Hope sat with her brother in the dark at the dining room table, but they did not talk to each other. Her brother watched television with a focus he only seemed to have when the tv was on, which is probably why her mother always kept it on. Hope finished her sandwich and drank the last of her milk before she asked her mother for permission to go to Anya’s house. Hope’s mother was sitting in the shadowy kitchen alone, smoking again. It seemed that the bitter-sharp scent of tobacco, smoke and ash, remnants of fire, had become part of her mother’s moody silences since her parents stopped fighting. Now, they only fought when her dad came home, and that seemed to happen less and less often these days. The silence seemed just as loud.

“Hope … Miss Anya is a lovely old woman, and I know you think of her as a friend but –”

“She is my friend!”

Hope’s mother inhaled her cigarette.

“Do you want to take your brother with you?”

“No,” Hope said quickly, but seeing her mother’s eyebrows rise, she added, “Miss Anya is going to teach me how to knit. He’d be in the way.”

“I know how to knit … I could teach you.”

“I’ve never seen you knit.”

“Well, I used to knit. I’m sure I remember how … My grandmother taught me … Grandma even knit the blanket you loved so much. Don’t you remember?”

“Grandma made my blanket?” Hope asked.

“No … my grandmother made it. Your great-grandmother. She died a long time ago, right after you were born … I know I’ve told you about her a million times. Don’t you remember? You were named after her …”

“Oh yeah,” Hope said. “So can I go?”

“All right,” her mother exhaled noisily. “Just be home for dinner.”

“Will dad be home for dinner?” Hope asked.

Her mother didn’t answer at first, and in the pause, Hope regretted asking. It had just come out, she wasn’t thinking. Her mother crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and immediately lit another one, retreating further into a cloud of smoke and the shadows of the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” her mother said.

*

Hope peeked outside the window. The sun was blindingly bright. She wanted to make sure that no one was outside. Anya was her secret friend, and she wanted to keep it that way. After making sure that the coast was clear, she would go outside quickly, then run across the lawn and through the hedge of rose-of-sharon, which led directly to Anya’s side door. It only took a minute, since the houses had been developed side by side and were very close together, but that minute had Hope’s heart racing.

When she arrived, panting from the mad dash and sweating under the hot sun, she knocked tentatively, then waited until she heard Miss Anya call, “Come in, child.”

It was as if hearing those words had a magical calming effect on her, and all of her problems just disappeared. She always entered the house reverently, cherishing the quiet peacefulness of Anya’s space. It was so unlike her own house, with her parents fighting and her brother whining and the television always on. She sometimes wondered how she was even able to read with all the noise, but books remained another sacred space, and when she opened one, she seemed to fall into another world.

Anya was in the sitting room, knitting furiously. She was trying to decide whether or not she should mention the other girl’s visit, but when she saw Hope’s face, so eager and trusting, she decided not to worry her. She beckoned Hope forward hastily.

“Come now, we haven’t got all day,” she said.

Hope sat in the chair across from her. On the side table were two knitting needles and several balls of yarn in different colours.

“How is the blanket coming along?”

“Good … good …” Anya said, “I haven’t got much time left. The baby’s coming very soon, sooner than they think … go ahead child, choose the colour you like, and I will show you what to do.”

Hope picked up the balls of yarn. They were soft and light and each one had a slightly different texture. One was glossy and black as a raven’s wing, another was pink-purple and reminded her of the big blooms on the hydrangea bush in her backyard. She chose the blended green and blue wool, because when she held it in her hands, she imagined she was holding a small globe, a miniature planet earth.

“I see,” Anya smiled, “you want to recreate the world.”

Hope laughed. “Are you going to teach me how to make a blanket?”

“Hmm … you have time for that yet. I think you should make something simple, but useful, to start. A scarf would be nice … you could wear it all winter, and if you make it long enough, you’ll never outgrow it.”

“Okay,” Hope agreed.

Anya finished another row and when her hands were free, she took the yarn from Hope and began whirling the thread around one of the needles.

“Beginning is the hardest,” Anya said.

Hope watched her measure each stitch on the needle, making sure the width would be good for a scarf. Then she showed her how to use the other needle to push through and behind each loop, twirling the yarn across the top, pulling the needle through the front, and then easing each stitch from one needle to the other.

“And when you get to the end,” Anya instructed, “you begin again.”

“Got it,” Hope said.

Anya placed the knitting needles and yarn into Hope’s outstretched hands, then resumed her work on the baby blanket. For awhile they worked in silence, the only sound being the gentle scrape of needle against needle, the whirring of Anya’s handiwork, and Hope’s slow but steady progress.

“I think it’s really nice that you are making a blanket for the baby,” Hope said. “It’s a wonderful gift.”

“Oh, I’m glad to do it,” Anya replied.

“My mom told me that my grandmother – no, my great-grandmother – knitted a blanket for me when I was born. I don’t remember her though. She died after I was born. Her name was Hope, too …”

Anya stopped knitting, a split-second pause.

“That blanket was my favorite thing when I was little. I remember that I used to sleep with it, like it was a stuffed animal. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep without it.”

“Do you still have it?”

“Of course!” Hope said. “But I never sleep with it anymore. I mean, almost never. I mean, sometimes … but only when I have bad dreams or if I really, really can’t sleep.”

“And it helps you … sleep?”

“Yes. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. They took it away from me because they said I was too old for a baby blanket … I cried so much they gave it back. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. It’s in my closet. Sometimes just knowing it is there is enough.”

“Yes,” Anya said absently.

“I know this will sound silly, but when I was little I used to pretend that it was a magic blanket. I thought it would protect me from bad things.”

“No, that doesn’t sound silly at all.” Anya cleared her throat. “I’d love to see it sometime, if you don’t mind.”

Hope hesitated. She never took the blanket out of the house. No one had ever asked to see it, not even the kids she had told about it before she learned to keep certain things to herself.

Anya continued, “I always like to see the work of others. Not too many people knit anymore. It’s an art form, really …”

“I will bring it next time,” Hope said. She never took her blanket out of the house, but she would make an exception for Anya. She thought that Anya was the best friend she had ever had, and she felt her heart swell.

*

Dusk turned to darkness. Anya watched her reflection shape and form in the window. She was an old woman. Just that afternoon, she had been a young girl, almost thirteen, the same age as Hope. Each year was imbedded in her; she was not just the age the current year accounted for, she was each age up to and including that year. She was twelve. She was forty-two. She was ninety. The calendar in the kitchen delineated time into small squares and numbers. It was like the clock, another false construct.

The baby would not know to arrive on a specific day. She would come into this world when she was ready. Later, she would learn the day and month and year. In school, the child would learn to tell time, and as an adult, she would live by time. Later, much later, Anya thought, the child will turn her back on time, when the cycle reverses itself, when she lives closer to the womb-state, when she is dancing.

*

The tentative knock at the door alerted Anya to the girl’s arrival.

She prayed that Hope had remembered to bring the blanket. All night, she had dreamed about it, vivid strange dreams that dissipated as soon as she woke, nightmares that kept waking her in a cold sweat of panic and confusion. When the sun rose again, the one thought in Anya’s mind was Hope’s blanket. All day, she had anxiously waited for her.

“Come in, child,” she called, but when she heard the footsteps in the hallway, she knew at once that was not Hope’s footfall.

Too late. She had invited her in.

The girl strode into the room. Blonde, blue eyed, rosy cheeked. The girl who had made Hope’s life so hard. The girl who could not open the door without her permission. The girl who made her blood run cold.

“I told you to stop teaching Hope.”

Anya did not pause; she continued knitting furiously, the blanket exploding with a rainbow of kaleidoscopic colour.

“I told you not to come back here.”

*

Anya wasn’t answering the door. Hope knocked again, slightly louder, thinking that maybe she had fallen asleep or something. But that had never happened, and the heavy door was open, as if waiting for her to arrive. In Hope’s arms were the knitting needles, the yarn, and her baby blanket. She looked around furtively. At least a minute went by and Anya still didn’t answer the door. Hope began to worry. What if Anya fell? She was very old … She thought about going back home, maybe her mother would know what to do. But as soon as she turned to leave, another voice inside her told her to go inside. The voice told her that Anya needed her help.

Hope opened the door quietly. She walked straight to the sitting room, and when she entered the room, she was so shocked, she stopped dumb-struck. Chrissy was in the room, leaning over Anya.

Anya was struggling. Her voice was muffled. Her arms and legs were flailing uselessly, her old woman’s body overcome by the young girl’s strength. Chrissy had something over Anya’s face.

Hope dropped the things in her arms and ran into the room, shouting “NO.”

Chrissy turned, surprised, still holding the throw pillow in her hands. Anya gasped for breath, a horrifying, wheezing sound. Hope flew across the room and into Chrissy, pushing her away from Anya and knocking her to the floor.

“Miss Anya … are you okay?” Anya shook her head, pointing desperately at Hope, behind Hope.

Hope felt her hair being pulled, pulled so hard that her body jerked backwards. She spun around to face Chrissy, and Chrissy began to hit her. Hope remembered the time that Chrissy had given her a black eye. All she had done was win the game they were playing. She had played fair. But Chrissy didn’t like to lose. She had thrown the game board across the room and started punching her. After, Chrissy told her to lie and say she got hit with a ball while they were playing catch. She said that if she told the truth she would hurt her even worse. She said she had a knife, and that no one would believe her anyway.

This time, Hope was not afraid.

She lashed out blindly, punching, slapping, clawing, kicking. Tears streamed down her face, as if every blow she inflicted on Chrissy was hurting her, too. From far away, she heard Chrissy sobbing, crying “stop, stop.” But Hope did not stop. She thought for a moment that she would never stop, that she could beat Chrissy for the rest of her life, that she could cross the line from defense and protection into cruelty. From far away, she heard Anya calling her name. She stopped. She grabbed Chrissy by the arm and pulled her out of the room, down the hallway and into the kitchen, where she held her at the door.

“You’re lucky I didn’t take that pillow and do to you what you were about to do to Miss Anya. You’re lucky I’m not calling the police right now.” Hope dug her fingernails into Chrissy’s arm. “But if you ever come near Miss Anya or me again, you’re dead.”

She pushed Chrissy towards the screen, swinging the door open, shoving her through the threshold while releasing her grip on her arm, causing the girl to stumble and fall on the broken sidewalk.

*

Hope closed the door and locked it with the chain, then walked slowly back to Anya. She felt sick. She was shaking. She was crying. Places on her body were sore and her head was pounding.

Anya was sitting in the rocking chair, holding Hope’s baby blanket, cradling it in her arms. When Hope entered the room, she looked up. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“Chrissy will never hurt you again,” she said, “But there will be others. Others will try. No matter how much they hurt you, they will never break you. You are strong, stronger than you may ever know. Come here, child.”

Hope pulled a chair close to her, and sat down. Anya spread the blanket out between them, so it covered both of their knees.

“Touch it,” she said, and Hope did. A feeling of calm washed over her. She sighed deeply, releasing all the tension inside her.

“You are gifted, Hope.”

The girl looked at Anya in confusion. Anya continued, “that is why Chrissy hated you. That is why others will try to break you.”

“I don’t understand … Do you mean … I have magic?”

“Not exactly,” Anya laughed. “But nevertheless, there is magic in the gift. Your great-grandmother’s gift is woven into this blanket, she gave it to you. Have you ever noticed that you feel things very strongly? That you are extraordinarily sensitive, not just in your heart, but in all your senses – what you touch, what you hear, what you see?”

“I don’t know … people do say I’m too sensitive, sometimes.”

“Did your mother ever tell you about the circumstances of your birth?”

“Why?” Hope asked. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

“What did she say?”

“She said that … the umbilical cord was wrapped around me neck a lot of times. She said that my heart stopped beating. The nurse thought I died. But I didn’t die – ”

“You died, Hope.”

“No, I didn’t. It was a mistake. The nurse made a mistake.”

“You died. You died while you were being born, and then you came back to be born again. You lived. Your spirit, your soul, was so strong that death could not take you. People who have experienced life and death so quickly have a special kind of knowledge, a vision, a gift. As you grow older, the form your gift will take will become clearer, and you will have a responsibility to trust that gift, no matter where it takes you. It will not be easy. Sometimes it will feel like you are living in an entirely different world than the others. People will sense your difference, your strangeness. Some will hate you for it. Some will love you for it. Your life will be more difficult because of it. But your life will also be richer, fuller, filled with incredible beauty. The gift may pain you, but it will never fail to protect you. These things work both ways.”

*

Hope told her mother that she wasn’t hungry, that she’d rather stay in her room instead of coming down to dinner.

“We’re eating together, as a family, and I don’t care if you are hungry or not, you are going to sit with us.”

When Hope entered the dining room, she saw the table set for three. Her little brother was already sitting down, filling his plate.

“I thought you said we were eating as a family,” she said.

Her mother’s face fell; the assertive composure that she had held only a moment before crumbled, and Hope felt a stab of pain.

“We are,” she said quietly, her voice quivering.

Then she looked at Hope and saw the bruises and scratches on her face. She reached out to her, asking “Hope … what happened?”and the girl burst into tears.

Her mother put her arms around her and held her close, the way she used to hold her when she was little, that completely. And together they cried, for all they had lost, for all they were going to find, and they stayed in the embrace for a long time until Hope’s little brother said in a surly voice, “get a room,” and they laughed and laughed, pulling him into their wild, joyful hug.

*

Everything was changing.

Only a week later, Chrissy was gone. When the moving van came, it seemed almost too good to be true. The neighborhood kids stayed indoors, peeking from their windows, watching to see if it was really true. No one gathered outside to say goodbye, the way they had for Amelia and David. After the moving van pulled away from the curb, the kids emerged from their houses one by one. No one talked about Chrissy. They played games they used to play when they were little – freeze tag, kick the can, ghost in the graveyard. They laughed loudly and ran in the street, wild and free. Then school started, and Hope became very busy very quickly with new classes, new teachers, new friends. By the end of September, Anya told Hope that she was going to stay with her daughter for awhile; the baby was coming early, just as she had expected. Hope didn’t want her to go. She hugged her tightly before she left, hoping that Anya knew how much she loved her, how grateful she was to have known her. Hope knew that she would never see her again, at least not in this lifetime.

Everything had changed.

Hope looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

*