Short Stories

Short works of fiction

77th and Madison: Top of the World

The elevator was wood paneled with a dark reddish luster, and the doors were covered in gold leaf. We stepped inside and began our ascent, above the rest of the city. Madison Avenue and 77 th street, top of the world. The doors finally opened to reveal a dimly lit hallway with three doors. Mike knocked on the first one to the right. A thin girl wearing tight jeans and an even tighter black tank top opened the door. Her eyes, covered with eye shadow, seemed as though she peered out from two cavernous holes in her face.

The skin on her forearms was barely visible due to the innumerable bracelets which covered her arms.

Mike quickly brushed past her without any sort of salutation. As I walked up to introduce myself she quickly turned her back to me and followed Mike deeper into the apartment.

“Mike, did you bring me my cigarettes?” she whined as she trailed after him through the apartment and into the kitchen.

I paused a moment in the doorway to imbibe the surrounding atmosphere of the apartment. I looked around incredulously at the elaborate decorations of the house. To my right hung some sort of old portrait which could have dated back to the colonial America. The entire floor of the apartment was lavishly covered with an immaculate white carpet.   I thought that these kinds of apartments were merely myths.

I proceeded to explore the depths of the apartment in search of Mike. As I looked around I noticed a door cracked open, I peered inside and opened it slowly. There was indeterminable number of people on the bed watching a movie. I stood there for a moment debating whether or not I should I go in and introduce myself, until someone got off from the bed, walked briskly to the door and closed it in my face. I decided not to go in.   I hurried into the kitchen.

The kitchen was at least twice as large as any room in my house. Mike stood by an industrial sized fridge and beckoned me towards him. As he rummaged through the fridge he paused, and reached into his coat pulling out a pack of cigarettes, he tossed them to the floor in front of the girl with too much eye shadow. She lunged fervently for the box and began to tear it open. Mike reached into the fridge and passed me a coke, while retrieving one for himself as well.  

“I’m telling you man this girl is so rich—Just look around!” he exclaimed.

Mike spent the majority of the taxi ride uptown divulging exactly “how rich this girl was.”

Natalie walked over to Mike and looked at me carefully from head to toe.

“He looks like an icky homeless guy” she said decidedly. “What’s his name?” she inquired.

I looked up, a little surprised.

“Ben meet Natalie—Natalie meet Ben,” he said in a slightly restless way. After this cordial introduction Mike quickly took a seat in front of the television and resumed his concentrated video game playing. I smiled jovially at Natalie to show that I wasn’t annoyed, she merely looked past me. I proceeded to sip my coke quietly as we both watched Mike play Nintendo silently. As we stared out into nothing my eyes drifted to Natalie’s; those black holes in her face. She looked up at me and for a split second, her eyes begged for sympathy and escape.

“Excuse me, I need a Perrier,” she whined.

She quickly turned from me and went to the furthest point of the kitchen to get one. Mike turned to me with a look of enthusiasm in his eyes, “how ridiculous is this house?” he exclaimed enthusiastically.

Before I had a chance to answer he resumed his playing and began muttering exactly how rich and how nice Natalie’s house was. A raspy almost seductive voice called from the doorway:

“Mike! You’re here, finally it’s been so boring here, let’s go somewhere! Do something already!” she exclaimed desperately.

This voice belonged to a girl wearing a blue slip with feisty green eyes. she had a voluptuous body which filled her blue slip nicely.

“Yeah, whatever soon, just chill! I’ll figure something out” Mike said coolly. He turned to me and shot me a smile as if to say: hey look I’m in charge here.  

I stood up to introduce myself, and just as I walked toward her she walked through me and sat in my seat at the table.

“I need another cigarette. Pass them here Ashley” whined Natalie.

“You know those things will kill you” I said teasingly.

She abruptly turned to me and glared out from the black holes that were here eye sockets. She smoothly turned her back towards me once again, and proceeded to take another cigarette out of the carton bringing it to her lips and slowly lighting it.

A small, black poodle which defied Darwin’s laws of Natural selection pranced into the kitchen yapping and jumped around. Ashley picked up the dog and placed it on her lap; she took a drag on her cigarette, and subsequently exhaled a cloud of smoke into the dog’s face. The dog, assaulted, leaped down and retreated to the safety of her cage.

A small grin slowly creeped across Ashley’s faces, and faded just as slowly. It was the first sign of emotion I saw from her all night.

“Let’s get out of here, I’m like so bored just sitting here!” Ashley winced almost painfully.

“We could go to John’s house, I heard that he was gonna have people there” suggested Natalie.

“Eww I really just don’t like John, his house is so cramped and small” Ashley complained.

We all sat in silence for a few moments until Ashley finally got up and proceeded to the kitchen door; she paused and shot Mike a seductive smile. Mike quickly followed her out of the kitchen.  

This left Natalie and I alone in the kitchen together. Natalie sat at the table while I sat on the floor.

“So do you have these sorts of gatherings often?” I inquired.

Her eyes remained fixated on the wall ahead of her as she answered me.

“Meh, they just sorta show up” she paused looking a bit downtrodden “I don’t mind though, their friends of mine” she continued with a twinge of forced cheeriness in her voice. We sat in silence for several moments until Natalie went to rejoin everyone else in the bedroom. I sat in the kitchen alone. I let myself out and rode the elevator back to reality. I walked along the deserted Madison Avenue under the pallid glow of the street lamps overhead.

Best Left Silent

There’s a screaming inside my head. I know it’s me, but of course that doesn’t change anything. It’s funny, how people always talk of that dry, analytical part of you that just watches while your world caves in. Always the writers and the poets and the psychologists can say that to you in their smiling voices, honey rubbed along a wound, but they don’t know that even the ones who watch can scream. Oh, God, but they can scream so loud that nobody hears them.

Once upon a time, I woke up in bed, and saw a crack of morning coming through my curtains. Two hours later, it’s impossible to summon the fascination that a chink of light can throw you into, especially when those hours have seen you burn your reserves of goodwill for the day. After all, smiling takes so many less muscles, doesn’t it? It’s far easier on the face; not even painful compared to trying to look neutral when it’s facing you across the kitchen table as if the sunlight means something. Nobody really notices a rictus when you’re drinking coffee.

School isn’t bad as these things go, which they do. The corners of your eyes get a lot of work, naturally, and you can spend a pleasant period spying out a teacher’s sad smile: that mouth-up-eyes-down flicker that manages to lose itself on any other wayward charge. It’s not limited to the masters and matrons of wisdom, heaven knows; you know the look social services have perfected, the one that wants to help you, child, but stops just short of moving the body in any meaningful way. As long as she knows you care, you’re allowed to comfort yourself with thoughts that a girl doesn’t make her real friends ’till university anyway, and a cup of tea can solve all her problems. Bags, though, not tea leaves – too bitter for children and adults alike.

The vastly superior Garden wins a battle with the television to hold sway over time and inattention, though each one clamours in it’s own way. After all, one could watch gardening on TV, but there’s always the chance of your father coming in, and laughing at the fat smiling men leaning on spades and talking about how to sow seeds in your own back yard. He has a very loud laugh, my father, and very strong. It makes his stomach wobble up and down, as if he were breathing very fast, or hard. Or both.

Trees and bushes offer shade to fit the mood and a paradise for the scuttling beetles and centipedes, chased in and out of sight by every innocent child you can still summon to mind. Most of them look the same, though none of them look like me anymore. It’s surprising how sad that can feel. Hemlock and nightshade grow up against the far wall, lustrous green and purple providing too fine a trap for many a poor cat, intent on stroking their lithe, slender bodies though every patch of the poison they can find. It’ll make them sick eventually, of course, but for now they look healthy enough.

The sun slides away taking the sunset with it, and a million yellow streetlights spring up for those of us defenceless enough to miss her. They can’t quite make the dust motes dance the same way, but they shed enough light to cast faint shadows on the walls, until a real shadow comes to close the curtains, and leave them that way. I used to be afraid of the dark, like most children, but I had a father who would stay beside me for a while, until I discovered how misplaced my fear had been. I outgrew it, but he’s always been there when he needed me.

I’m not afraid of the dark, anymore, and I’m not afraid of the nightmares, it’s the waking up from them I don’t like. Screaming out in the dark used to bring them running, but I don’t do that anymore, not even when he’s already there. After all, why would you make life more complicated than it already is, when you can scream inside your head for hours and hours and be sure that you will never have to stop, that you will never have to breathe hard or fast or smell the hot humid air all around you, no-one will ever see, no-one will ever hear. No one will ever know. You can try and sit vigil by the streetlights until the sun saves you again, but not even they are witness to the things that bump against your life in the night. Cry for me, if you feel like, if you think your empathy can bring me some pity I don’t need, but don’t leave the light on. No one will ever know. Don’t leave the light on. No one will ever know.


Shards of Memory

The light steps of John O’Malley sank into the thick, muting cushion of snow without the faintest snatch of sound. The flakes settled softly in his wake, swirling flurries of a gentle blindness, slowly, sweetly tucking away all slips of sound in the deep caress of forgotten dreams. The late hours of evening had yet to pass over the day, and O’Malley’s worn leather soles, peeling and brown-black from the snow, halted their steady procession, paused, and settled their weight firmly to both feet, as their owner craned his head, one hand subconsciously clutching an old tweedy hat to his head, as he stared, squinty eyed through the snow at the large, red “Condemned” letters spelled out across the cracked and dusty windows of the old building. Marked out against the expansive white banks, the fresh new sign peered out from the midst of swirling snow flurries as a trace of unwanted color, in a world comfortably black and white.

A stray, still form in the midst of bustling bodies, collars up to the chin, cheeks flushed with cold, eyes beady and black, O’Malley painted a queer picture in the middle of the shabby street, an oddly clear figure frozen in time, surrounded by the grey-blurred outlines of rushing passerby. Stepping closer to the building, the sound of his own footsteps crunching in the snow seemed suddenly more solid, and, as he pressed a weathered hand to the frozen bricks of the towering old Grand Hotel before him, a shiver ran down his spine, an empty echo sounded down the street.

Hours, or perhaps minutes later he still sat, hunched against the rough stone wall, his patched, wet coat drawn up to his ears, his once fine face paled with the cold, tinged blue around the eyes and lips, pale blue eyes sunken deep into their sockets, fine wrinkles the only outline of what had once been. He had placed his hat before him, weighted with rocks to keep it from being blown away, and as he sat half in, half out of the world, a man who had once opened doors to him dropped a coin in his hat without looking at him. O’Malley remembered that man, the superb quality of his tailored suit, the look of respect in his eyes, the way his eyebrows lifted in barely concealed surprise, the quirk of his mouth as though unsure whether he was permitted to smile. But perhaps it had only been a dream after all…the days of golden arches , of strings of pearls wrapped around swanlike necks, of glittering jewels presented for his, the largest, grandest parties, the awed whispers of his hotel, present under even the most insincere and same-standard cordialities. Black Thursday as it was called had shattered those dreams…or begun them, for reality now faded into sublime, and sublime faded away with the snow.

The next morning an irritated demolition worker leapt angrily from his crane to see what had caused the delay, cursing as he pushed through the small crowd of workers around the condemned building. He stopped as he saw a man curled and small at the base of the old hotel, and paused. Soon however, the crowd dispersed, grew disinterested, resumed their tasks, and with the aid of a couple fellow workers, the body was hosted unceremoniously down an alley way, and buried in a makeshift grave of snow. As the building fell in crumbling ruin, and the carefully crafted might of the hotel crashed to the ground, empty echoes streamed down the snow-muted streets, lost on the ears of the deaf-toned passerby.

The Titanium Man

The 1st Day

On the first day of his new life in the new neighborhood, Mister Dylan heard about the Titanium Man. The Titanium Man was built entirely of metal, every part of his body! No bones, no liver, no kidneys! But he was not a robot. His was not a voice made up of controlled beeps and monographic measurements. He spoke with lucidity, like any other person would, and had hair and teeth.

When the Titanium Man goes to the window, he raises the sash effortlessly and looks out over the city. He only does this at night, when people aren’t watching. If they are, he stays out of any light. Otherwise there’d be a big outcry of, “There’s the Titanium Man!” from down below on the streets. And the grown-ups don’t want to wake the children up.

The 2nd Day

At ten years old, Mister Dylan had glasses that had been his father’s as a child but hollowed out and fitted with stronger frames. They magnified everything about his eyes, making them look dark and ringed. The one for his right eye was thicker since he had taken it out with a glue gun by mistake two years earlier. Mister Dylan could be likened to a pear in his many black spots, some on the whites of his eyes, some on his arms and knees, because he had come to fruition several years too early. His head was itself the bulbous twig of his body, more of an ellipsoid than a sphere.

Mister Dylan kept Barbies in his basement under a white cloth, a frenetic pleasure. His father was president of the local chapter of the N.R.A. and Mister Dylan would often have to play downstairs while they held their meetings, because during this busy time of aluminum and beer and loud noises, no one cared to check after him. To keep himself from being discovered, he hid behind an enormous broken chandelier that his mother had once loved, checking every so often to see if he was being watched through the oblong droplets of glass. His father was a tall, skinny man whose face moved like a wooden puppet’s. He always rested his beer on his right knee and could not gain any weight no matter how sedentary his lifestyle and how much deep-fried food he took in. His was an incidental healthiness.

Mister Dylan did not have Barbies in his room, where he invited Tom Peel. Tom Peel was known for his ability to peel little kids like skinned fruit. He was also somehow connected to everything adults weren’t.

“You want to see the Titanium Man?” Tom Peel asked.


“What’s in it for me?”

“I have some candy left over from last Halloween.”


“Twelve packets.”

Tom Peel was sold. He snorted so every pore on his face widened. He was really very ugly.

“It’s in the closet.”

Tom Peel went into the closet and rooted around until he produced a bag with a smiling pumpkin on it.

“It’ll take a few years if you want to see him,” he said.

“A few years?”

“Yeah. You have to pass some tests. To see if you’re strong enough. Then you have to get a passport. It’ll cost about five hundred dollars.”

 Mister Dylan said nothing.


“I’d like to see him before the sixth grade.”

“Pfft. That’s impossible.”

“Can’t you arrange something?”

Tom Peel froze, Dots encircling his mouth. He stared out the window. ”You trying to violate my trust?”

“What trust?”

Mister Dylan realized that Tom Peel had not been following their conversation as closely as he had. He was displacing what he’d heard in Mission Impossible and Lethal Weapon into reality, into Mister Dylan’s room.

“I don’t think you’re ready for something like this.”

“I can handle it.”

“You’re gonna need more credentials.” He chewed on a Dot, which Mister Dylan imagined was his attempt at a cigarette. “Fancy stuff.”

“Fancy stuff…something cerebral. Like Ph.D.s?”

“What the hell—?” His concentration broken, Tom Peel spit the candy onto the floor. “You new kids are all such losers. Call me when you’re ready to be a man.”

He kicked the door on his way out.

>The 3rd Day

At dinner, Dylan’s mother smokes, taking the taste from his food.


“What, Dylan?”

“Can you put it out?”

“No, honey. This is what Mommy does at dinner every night.”

She is taugt and auburn, with rosy flushes in her cheeks. If her foreface hadn’t sagged into jowls, she might have been beautiful.

“How was school?” his father asks, and Dylan crosses his feet and grins.

“I didn’t go to school.”

“Well now, that’s just ludicrous. Every kid goes to school. I learned plenty of good stuff in the fifth grade.”

“Honey,” says his mother, but she is chewing and keeps herself from finishing her sentence. She swallows audibly. ”I think you should try and be nicer to the other boys in your new school.”

It’s a cesspool. Even the paint on the walls smells of idiocy, and it’s dry.

His father cleans his plate with a single scoop of his fork. Somehow, the corn and potatoes have congealed into a magnificent shape—similar to the state of Arkansas—easy for him to pick up.

“May I be excused?”

Mister Dylan fiddles with the pink dovetailed slab that will help build Barbie’s soon-to-be workplace. She is going to stand behind the counter and serve bubblegum wads the size of her fists. They are different flavors and can be made into a myriad of shapes through a series of cheap molds, none of which Mister Dylan owns.

He drags Barbie seductively around the kitchen corners of her town home, making her leap out in her bathrobe at nothing, anticipating an as-of-yet intangible romance. She makes soup for herself and sits, her hard breasts bulging sagaciously beneath the terrycloth, waiting with the supple air of an expectant female. It calls to mind for Mister Dylan the mournful words of the late poet Pablo Neruda: “I see a barber shop and I want to cry/ How I am sick of being a man!”

The 4th Day

Mister Dylan met Cole on the playground. Cole had a broken arm, perhaps the one thing about him that made him of any interest to anyone. The cast went half the way up his arm, past his elbow, bending in an uncomfortable curve.

Cole was lucky enough to live in the Titanium Man’s apartment complex. At night, he could hear him moving from his bed and tripping over chair legs. He never cursed because he didn’t have any feeling in his toes. He ate foil for a midnight snack, and he was always hungry when there was a big moon out.

“Have you ever seen him?” Mister Dylan asked.

“Tons of times. But I only see parts of him, not the whole thing. Like, y’know, I catch the back of his leg going in to the el’vator.”

“So you’ve never seen his face?”

“Nope. You’re the new kid?”


“You’re kind of stupid-looking.”

Mister Dylan tried to avoid the special classes populated by the children whose test scores were stamped in gold and framed in the principal’s office. They worked in desks, which grew into rows, and rows into rooms and rooms in to hallways and hallways into colonies, all scribing the great manifestos of their fact-filled lives. Mister Dylan knew a few things about colloidal suspension and the various processes needed to produce carbohydrates in plants, but he let this information slip easily away from him, as a rock from his palm, knowing he’d never use it.

Instead, he was placed in classes with Tom Peel. To pretend he was awake he’d close his left eye and doze off, one eye settled, completely unseeing, on the rest of the class. When he looked with both eyes he was able to put into focus the miserable construction-paper attempts at Thanksgiving settlers and Indians by his classmates. When he drew his Native American he drew a fully clothed fat man in aviator glasses, smoking a cigar and smiling. He had long pigtails and a button-down polo shirt and his lips were creased heavily from living on a farm in the wintertime. His name was Forgotten Thunderbird, and he was sent in a manila envelope to the principal’s office.

There were cracks in the classroom wall, and through midday hallucinations Mister Dylan thought he could hear Cole speaking through them. ”The Titanium Man is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning. He never leaves his apartment because people will make fun of him. But I wouldn’t. I’d just try to take him apart.”

The 5th Day

On a Saturday morning, Mister Dylan watches the sweaty backside of his mother struggle in the preparation of pancakes. Outside, on the windows, there are traces of pigmented fingerprints from tag games whose chaser didn’t stop at the regulated boundaries. Maybe their house was Second Safety. Mister Dylan had experienced such a thing, when one kid was so determined to hunt him down and tag him that the chase turned into a carnivorous, unsmiling pursuit, often ending in someone getting slammed against a car.



“Can I go outside?”


“What? Why not?”

She turned around and set the pancakes down on a plate in front of him. By the look in her eyes he could tell she didn’t have a reason.

“Just because.”


“Your father and I have a surprise.”

Outside, Tom Peel’s magnificently large body worked itself over the hood of an abandoned bus. There was a volcanic noise as he landed on the other side of the machine, on the pavement.

His father came in the room carrying a little suitcase-shaped bag wrapped in brown paper.

“Do you know what this is, Dylan?”


He pulled the string off and the paper fell away. There was a box.

“Take one guess.”

“A model car?”

His father’s face dropped. He looked to his wife and she smiled wanly and shook her head. He lifted the lid from the box.

“This is an old Ford. Very old, from before you were born. I just finished painting it.” There was a note of melancholy in his voice. ”It’s nice, huh?”

Mister Dylan pressed his finger to the hood. He could see where his father had skimped on brushstrokes. There were white stripes.

He pressed harder. His finger went through the roof.

The sun seemed to peak in the sky. The pancakes hissed. His mother wiped her wet fingers on the side of her head.

“What did you just do?”

“I went through the roof. I didn’t realize it was just…”

“I’ll show you through the roof, you little punk!”

His father clenched his fingers, looking on the verge of violence. Then he pointed to The Room.

“This was for my meeting tonight, Dylan!”

His mother—how she could love him at the moment Mister Dylan never figured—pressed herself close to her husband’s shoulder and nodded at her son, dismissing him to the Upstairs.

The 6th Day

Mister Dylan, downgraded to Dylan, did not leave his room until noon on Sunday. From the time he woke up until he couldn’t take being hungry anymore, he sat in front of his mirror and gave himself an extensive haircut, resulting in the loss of almost all his hair. The window opposite his door looked out onto a wall, and the wall was covered in ivy. He opened it and pushed himself forward, his feet against his bed, until he touched the wall with his denuded scalp. His father came into his room, rolling a cigarette between his palms.

“I want you to come downstairs now, Dylan.”

Dylan lunged at his shelf and threw the Old Testament at his father’s head. His father ducked to one side and smiled. The Old Testament hit the wall painfully, so the sound rattled in Dylan’s ears.

“I’m sure happy I don’t keep the rifle with me on Sunday mornings. Otherwise you’d be riddled by now.”

He meant it as a joke, of course, but Dylan clutched his chest as his father closed the door. He felt the pulses in his hand and his heart beating faster, faster.

The 7th Day

The Titanium Man leans out of his open window onto the midnight city. He moves to get up and there is a rough squeaking noise in his elbows. He has been meaning to oil them, but it’s the sort of thing that takes time to do; first he’s got to scrub his joints and then he has to loosen his bolts and then he can oil any sockets worthy of oiling. It’s not worth it, not right now. He flashes his eyes, which are blue-gray screens, over Grant Park. He can’t see anyone moving down there. He dips his finger into the concrete sill as easily as one might dip into a cake’s frosting. He realizes just then that he needs more ice in his refrigerator, by now the pail should be nearly empty. He checks the fridge. He’s right. He’s completely out.

At the ice machine the Titanium Man detects movement. He wraps his bathrobe tighter around his waist. A child, one arm fully casted, is jamming and re-jamming a dollar into the snack machine. He kicks it, screaming at the juice button.

The Titanium Man stands astride of the machine and lifts it slightly off the ground. He lets it drop and the child’s juice appears.

“Cranberry. Is this what you wanted?”

The boy shakes his head.

“It’s got enough sugar in it for you.”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“That’s all right. Very few people can sleep. When does the cast come off?”


“You guys and your bones.” He fills his ice bucket and chuckles brightly.

The 8th Day

“I saw the Titanium Man last night. In real life,” Cole says to Mr. Dylan.

“Are you kidding?”

“Nope. He was six feet tall an’ metal, an’ he was wearing a bathrobe. He talked to me.”

“What was he doing?”

“Getting ice.”

“For what?”

“Who knows? Maybe t’freeze every radiator in the world. Or maybe he’s gonna spread it on the ground and make winter with his superpowers.”

“He’s going to use it to freeze the school,” the girl in front of Mister Dylan whispers.

“No, stupid!” another boy says, and his voice is like a hoarse catcall. “He’s gonna choose one kid an’ freeze ’em, and take them back to his house to study.”

Everyone leans close in to him, his story the most compelling.

“He’s going to unfreeze them and thaw them and take off their arms and legs and sew on a frog’s head and arms and legs.”

“Woah. A frog’s head?”

“How do you know who he’s gonna choose?” asked Mister Dylan.

“Oh, you know it,” the kid’s braces were shining with cunning. “You have a dream about it, and when you wake up, you’re in his hotel apartment and your head’s on the other side of the room.”

The little girl shuddered and began crying. On the forestage of his mind, Mister Dylan could see himself being cut apart. His limbs were distributed liberally to guests at a dinner table, and at the table’s head was the Titanium Man.

The 10th Day

Mister Dylan assembled a plastic family: Barbie, Ken, their houseguest Kiko. He had been rehearsing his speech for three days. They looked expectant for his delivery, especially Barbie, her arms extended in a permanent embrace. Mister Dylan smiled kindly at the three of them, children of his imagination.

“I don’t want to search for some purpose to playing. The lives I have made for you are as realistic as they will ever be. We exist, all of us, in solipsistic chasms of emptiness—each of us feels his or hers more poignantly than they do others’. You’ve had to add on to your basement because of flooding, pay for collagen injections, loosen your belts around Christmas time. And while this is a dismal request, I want you all to go on living my life after I am done living it. I haven’t grown or changed in two years and am unlikely to grow five inches in a night; you, with your unchanging faces and toned bodies, you can safely occupy my space, if only for the sake of living, as your presence is felt as deeply by anyone here as mine ever was.”

Mister Dylan wiped some drool that had leaked down onto the side of his chin and watched the numbers flip on his clock. Steadily, 8:43 gave way to 9:12, and only the nine and the one changed while the two was somehow wrung from the three. He pulled apart his blinds and looked down Milwaukee, toward where the Titanium Man’s apartment building was. As the night came on, he could feel a cloud forming around his vision, but fought childhood to keep it up.

The Titanium Man lived three blocks away. Walking there was almost like floating. He went in through the building’s lobby and crossed over to the staircase. There was no one else on the bottom floor. He learned from a map that there were seven floors, and the Titanium Man’s apartment was on the third. 2054 was the first number off the stairs.

“Hello?” he called, too loudly, and there was only a quiet humming. Then there were soft red lights from under the door crack, the metallic unlinking of chains. The knob turned, and Mister Dylan was overcome with a giddy, intoxicating sensation—so much that he couldn’t tell if he was actually alive or had ever been—and he shut his eyes tight to keep himself from waking up.


A hundred dead and dying flowers occupy the shelves in Alma’s garage. Many sunlit mornings push past her window and beam in hot amber bars against her curling wallpaper. They coax her to the nursery, where she meticulously searches for the most colorful, healthy-looking plants. Petunias, violets, pansies—especially pansies—each blessed with the delightful promise of continual budding, would jerk and twist in their crates in the back of the car, waiting for their debut to new soil. Her son decided her future for her, so the foliage will now sit for a bone-dry day on the shelf; another, another.

Cathy makes her tea at six o’clock each morning. She has never been to England and hates her “first generation American” title. She speaks with an English accent acquired from her parents, dead and gone, reads etiquette books from cover to cover, writes on fancy stationery to old acquaintances who seldom return a word. Her house seeps lace, buckles under the weight of gaudy chandeliers, drowns in inherited china used once a year when her brother and his family visit for Thanksgiving. He does not speak with an English accent.

Judy pours God onto the road every morning with rice flower and colored spices in the hopes of dispelling negative vehicular energy. She powerwashes the house once a month; she prays; she reads all the important books and follows their words humbly and blindly. She sleeps in a bed with her boyfriend who never kisses her and three spiders who kiss her often. “And I’ll take this,” she says, handing the clerk a small wind chime. She picks up peacemakers wherever she finds them: incense, candles, lavender bath balm, a book of inspirational quotations compiled by Roger M. Baldwin, Ph.D. She keeps a modest home, whose roof shelters a wild daughter, a growing son, her boyfriend, and herself. The wind never blows too much around her house. She spends most of her time as a counselor at the retirement community. She works at the quilt store. Sometimes she makes quilts inspired by the work of Picasso, whose art she greatly admires. She believes above all things in happiness derived from the simplest of pleasures: the song of a sewing machine, brightly patterned fabrics, Mr. Fuzzy the cat, the perfect color of thread. She takes Paxil to see the colors brighter. The staff of the Annex, the restaurant next door, believes her to be positively imbalanced. Judy’s daughter is moving to Feather River Junior College up north, she says. It’s up north, west of some cattle ranching town that no one’s ever heard of, she says. Now Judy moves all of her quilting things into her daughter’s old room but she forgets one thimble, which sits in the corner, occasionally illuminated by the headlights of her son’s truck as he returns from another lost rodeo, or sometimes by the moon.

A visiting singer would have thought that the weekly carolers were the highlight of Alma’s week, but nobody knew for sure. “Page 33!” she would plead, and the high school good-doers would dive into a bland and overdone rendition of “Red River Valley.” Toward the beginning of their visits to the Acacias retirement home, she would ask only once. But days and their magic, miserable work forced her to ask twice sometimes. The second time through, the students would only sing the first, third, and last verse. To the singers, the shortened version always sounded funny and cheap, and maybe it sounded funny to Alma too. Maybe that was the taste in her mouth on the rainy night that she didn’t wheel out into the entryway to hear the singers. The singers didn’t know that she felt hung up by the dwarfed version brought-to-you-by-Alzheimers-by-old-age-  maybe-just-by-wanting-to-hear-the-whole-song- twice-to-hear-the-whole-song-just-once. In fact, when the wailing ambulance pulled out into the rain, they didn’t even know it was Alma.

A Tragedy in Two Parts

I’m still sitting on this wall, the brick chill cutting through my jeans. I take a swig of beer, wipe the condensation from my hand onto the dark denim, watch the smoke from my cigarette curl into the dark woods before disappearing into the sky. I am aware of the club behind me in the same way that I am aware of the seven foot drop under my dangling feet; it’s there but I’m not going to fall.

Footsteps on the patio behind me. It’s probably just another couple come to take advantage of one of the picnic tables. I place my beer down on the wall next to me ignoring them with a forceful drag on the cigarette. I don’t smoke.

She’s suddenly there, on the wall with me, and for a moment I’m afraid she’s upset the beer can, precariously balanced on the old, crumbly bricks. But no, there it is, safe on my other side. We sit in silence for a moment as she contemplates her intertwined fingers and I continue to watch the dark woods in front of me. I finish my cigarette, stub it out, light another. I don’t smoke.

She’s looking at me now. I can feel her eyes on the side of my head.

“I’m sorry about… I’m sorry.” I do not respond. What response is there? I could tell her I’m sorry too, or that I’m not sorry and neither is he, so why should she be? Or that he was… is… a bastard, or that inside I’m crying but I don’t cry so… but she’s speaking again. The cigarette is shaking; highlighted by my apparent verbal incapacity, I can feel her attention focused on it. I don’t smoke.

“I hate men.” This said quietly, but with a strange, lightning vehemence that captures my full attention instantly. I glance at her sideways with a laugh that might have passed for a cough. It could have been a cough. I don’t smoke.

She’s looking at me again, but I’m back in the woods. If I turn my head I will be able to see her eyes and then I will know what she means. But it’s her move in this strange game we’ve been playing, and I remain still. I feel her look away again. Pass. Her disappointment is palpable, and I wonder what she wants from me, why she cares about my reaction, or lack thereof. I wonder how much she knows. I make my own move with a quick flick of the cigarette. I don’t smoke.

“I don’t like men,” she says again, even more quietly, if that’s possible. I grunt noncommittally before inhaling another lungful of smoke. The red embers glow violently in the night before fading to dull gray ash. I don’t smoke.

“No, I mean it. I really don’t like men.” Louder. She gets her desired response. I take the cigarette out of my mouth with the hand previously reserved for beer and look at her. It’s her turn to look at the woods now. When she turns her head, too suddenly for me to pretend not to notice, to look away quickly. Our eyes meet, green on more green. We both know that I know what she means. The next move is mine.

I should say, me neither, and pretend not to know what she means, turn back to the forest and my cigarette. I should say, me neither, and lean in, close my eyes, close the shallow distance between us, close this game. I should leap down seven feet and she should follow, and whatever happened then would be between our self-control and our fate.

But I don’t believe in fate, and I don’t smoke.

I look away from her. “Don’t we all,” I say ruefully as I stub my cigarette out. I swing my legs over the wall, start to leave and turn back. I do not look at her as I collect my beer from its ledge, down it, and crush the can. The metal crumples easily against my hand. I leave her sitting on the wall as I return to the glaring lights and pervasive bass booster, to my drunk and currently–conspicuously-cheating-in-a-corner boyfriend. Without taking my eyes off the unabashed gratification in front of my eyes, I sit down on a stool, take out another cigarette, and ask the bartender for a light. I don’t smoke.


“Her hands are like icicles on the horizon,” he said and took a drag of coffee. She nodded blankly at him, barely registering the observations that swayed his tongue and flavored his mouth.

“Do you see how she’s shaking?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the porcelain doll ordering dinner across the room. He fumbled down distractedly to the table, found his plate, and devoured a fry in the half-reflective way that dressed all his actions.

To this, she murmured a vague, “Mmhmm…” It was enough of a reply to fill the empty space he controlled over the table, but still enough to be noncommittal and inattentive. She reached through the maze of their cups and plates to spear a French-fry from his plate. She shifted her weight. The chair rocked under her, threatening her already uncertain balance and attempted grace in one blow. She shifted the feet of the chair, hoping to find some sort of equilibrium, but again the seat rocked under her, still precarious.

“Look at the angles to her face,” he went on, working his words around mouthfuls. His eyes never wavered in their stiff critical stare of wonderment and interest. “There’s just something about her that screams vulnerability.”

“Hmm.” She swallowed the hot, gritty remains of her tea. Her cup clunked as it hit the table, jolting the settled objects, but his attention never strayed from the Raphael-wonder. She picked up her croissant, then lowered it back to her plate seeing the tanned lines of her knuckles holding her fingers in place. She turned her palm up and followed the trained lines that traced her destiny.

“You really have to wonder about people like that,” he continued in the silence. “How they think, how they feel, how they see the world. Don’t you ever just wish you could go up and introduce yourself to a stranger and learn their entire life story?”

She repossessed her croissant and took a voice-saving mouthful, nodding her head disjointedly in case he possessed the consciousness to glance at her tongue-trapped tangle on the other side of the table. She sneakily slid her feet out of her shoes and flexed her toes in their freedom under the tablecloth-tiered table. The ache wrenched in her bones and her thoughts drowned in the haze of mid-stride wonderment, but not before the emptiness and pain of dismissal.

“I guess it’s time to go,” he said finally, still not moving his unblinking eyes or shifting his stranger-struck body.

She mumbled affirmative and followed through with her purse. The crowded bag jostled against her hand in the fruitful search for cash. Dumping the entire contents out for the finding and usage of a pen, she scrunched up her eyebrows, figuring the total into halves.

“Mind getting this one for me?” he asked, raising himself up to gather his belongings before heading out the door. Still his attention wandered over to the daisy, blooming at the opposite table. “This was fun. Let’s get together again sometime soon, OK?”

She fell back in her seat, drowning in the whirlpool of inattention. Establishing their funds, she turned to see herself in the shadowy glass window reflection, and saw herself slipping away.

Mother Tongue

My name is Jiniku but everyone calls me Joey, including my parents. My father is American but my mother is not. My mother grew up in a country whose name I cannot pronounce correctly. She was educated in French and Latin, Spanish and German, and when she went off to college, she did not learn in her native language. She went to college in Paris, studied in Berlin. She spent a year in Rome and visited Madrid. She wrote letters home to her parents in an alphabet that I cannot read. I believe once her parents died, she never spoke in her native tongue again.

My mother wrote all day, but never showed anyone what she wrote. She had notebooks she would write in, and a typewriter to straighten out the final copy. Once a page was typed, she ripped it from its notebook and lit it with a match. She left it on a flat stone to burn.

When she had typed pages, she put them in a box. This box was deep under the bed that she and my father share. Once, many years ago when I was very young, I went into their room when they were not home and pulled the box out from beneath the bed. I lifted the top and found two neat piles of typewritten pages. One pile was poetry. I lifted the top page and held it before me. It was written in French.

There were many poems and stories in that box, some in Latin, some in Spanish, some in German. I searched through both piles carefully. There were none in her native tongue. There were also none in English.

I closed the lid and never looked in there again.

My mother never spoke in her native tongue after boarding the train that would take her to Paris. At home, she spoke only in English. Who knows what language she thought in.

There were only two words that she ever said in the real voice, with her real accent, real tongue. I heard her say them only three times in her life. She taught them to me one might as I lay curled on her lap, sweating with fever.

Jiniku,” she whispered, stroking my forehead with her cool hand. “Jiniku.” I focused on her voice through my fever, realizing that something had changed. She was speaking from a part of her that she had not opened for a long time. She took my hand, unraveled my fingers, and placed my palm over her heart. “Juriszu.” She stared out the window. There was a long silence. I could feel her heartbeat, which was calmer and considerably slower than my own. “My name,” she said at last, speaking once more in English, “means ‘dark ocean.’ And you, Jiniku, my precious little one, yours means ‘life.’” She looked out the window again. “‘Ji’ is the word for a happy birth. One where everyone lives and there is little pain. ‘Ni’ is a tree that had its roots spread far and whose branches shelter all. ‘Ku’ is the essence. The spirit. You have this all-encompassing life.” She placed her hand on my heart. “The first and last letters of our names are the same,” she said. “Don’t forget that, Jiniku.”

At that point, my fever rose and I lost the sound of my mother’s voice. I could faintly hear ambulance sirens but could not remember anything of the three weeks I spent in the hospital.

I remember nothing of those weeks, but my father said my mother never left my side. She slept on the chair and she bathed from the sink in my bathroom. At night she would stand by the window and look out at the stars. She could feel my face and place her hand against the cool glass leading outside.

When my mother became ill with cancer, I took a vacation and flew home. We had never been what you might call close, but we both understood that we loved each other fiercely. So when I heard that she was dying I left without a moment’s hesitation. I called, asked a friend to watch my apartment, and obtained up a leave-of-absence form from the office. I had the kind of job where you could take a vacation and not have it matter too much, except that you wouldn’t get paid. When I filled out the leave form, next to the blank that asked for an amount of time, I wrote “three months.” That’s how long the doctors had given her to live. I was back at work in less than nine weeks.

The second time I heard my mother say something in her native language was when I was sixteen. I was in my sophomore year of high school, and though everything seemed to be going well, I felt like it was all sliding out of my grasp. I felt in control and then something would happen—a breakup, a bad grade on a test, an argument with my parents about something trivial—and I could feel myself digging my fingernails in deeper and deeper but still feel my control slipping through my fingers. And that was how it started. With my fingers.

At first I just made small half-moons on my calves, pressing my fingernails in hard until they bled. Things spun out of control faster and faster and soon I used my army knife to slice the skin on my arms and shins. At school instead of going into the bathroom to cry I would lock myself in a stall, take a pin and pick at my skin until it bled. Few people noticed my cuts and when they did I would lie and say I fell. I can’t imagine that they believed me, but whatever they knew, they never said a word.

One day I came home to an empty house after a miserable afternoon —it’s strange, but now I can’t even remember what was so miserable about it. I couldn’t see straight; my head ached and my heart hurt and I started to have trouble breathing. I went to my room to find my army knife but on my way, I glimpsed the knife my mother uses to cut vegetables sitting on the counter. I can’t remember what I thought. I picked up the knife and touched the blade. It drew a small droplet of blood on my fingertip. I sat on the linoleum floor and rolled up my pants leg. When it cut, it cut fast and deep. Army knives take coaxing to hurt you and make you bleed. This fell straight into my skin without resistance and when it came away I could see my bone. I screamed.

That is how my mother found me when she came home: sitting on the floor with her huge kitchen knife in one hand, blood spilling out of a gash on my shin, screaming. She called the ambulance and wrapped my leg in a towel as tightly as she could. The blood seeped through. I screamed. She wrapped her arms around my head. “Jiniku!” she cried. “Jiniku, why do you do this to yourself?”

I have this memory of my mother from a spring day when I was four. There was a lot of sunshine that morning, and I had woken up from the light dancing on my pillow. I padded, sleepy-headed, into the living room, where I sat at the table to a bowl of oatmeal my mother had left for me. It was still warm. I looked out the window and saw her gardening in our yard. She was wearing worn-out and faded jeans with grass stains on the knees, a button-up shirt that had belonged to my father. In one hand was a gardening fork and a straw hat rested on her head, covering her long black hair.

When I saw her, she looked up at something in front of her, and I saw in her sharp profile a nose that looked like it was cut from stone. She looked up suddenly and awkwardly, cocking her head. Her shirt was crooked and one of her pants legs was up too high. The hat began to slide. She made a shooing motion with her wrist, and that is the moment that I saw her, really, for the first time. That still awkward, still small person was my mother.

For the last seven weeks of her life, my mother lay in a hospital bed. I watched her hair fall out in clumps and the fat melt away from her body, leaving only bones and skin. I watched her eyes turn red, her tongue swell up from the medication. Toward the end she began to breathe in gasps, as if just the taking in of oxygen would soon become too much for her frail lungs to bear. It was on one of these days that she used my real name for the last time.

Jiniku.” she whispered, motioning me to come closer. I scooted my chair up nearer her bed. “Here is something important.” She stopped to breathe, and then continued. “I’m going to die soon—”


“I am not so foolish. I know I am dying.” She stroked my hair with her hand. “This is why I am telling you—I left you something.” She coughed. “It is in the closet in my bedroom, behind the dresser. Move it to the side all the way, and you will see a hollow. It is for you, in there.” I nodded. She looked at me. “We love each other,” she said. I nodded again. She looked at the ceiling. “The shame.” Her eyes searched the ceiling, and then she fell asleep. My father returned and I went back to my hotel.

One week after my mother told me about the space behind her dresser, she died. I was not there at the end; there is no dramatic retelling of last words or such sentimental things as grasping loved ones at the critical moment. My father was sleeping in the chair next to my mother, and when he awoke, she was dead. There is nothing more that that.

The funeral was held at the grounds a mile from my parents’ house. It was sunny but the air began to chill. Friends of my mother I had not seen since I had moved away came and offered their sympathies. There were flowers. There is not much more to say.

I stayed with my father in the house for two weeks after my mother died, to help, to mourn. He mostly sat staring into the distance and I made the meals and cleaned up some. My father couldn’t bring himself to touch any of my mother’s things.

One day I went into the closet and shoved the heavy oaken dresser aside, marveling at how my small mother had ever managed such a feat. I exhaled heavily, wiping the perspiration from my brow. And then I saw what she had left me. She had left me notebooks.

These were notebooks that I had never seen her write in. The pages weren’t perforated for easy tearing; she had not burned any of them. I lifted one and opened the cover. One of the yellowed pages I saw her small, clear handwriting, but I couldn’t read any of it; it did not use the Roman alphabet. I opened every notebook and all of them were the same. My mother left me twenty-seven notebooks of writing in a language that I cannot read or understand. She left me the story of the life in her own native tongue.

I did not tell my father about the notebooks. I packed them in a box with my mother’s dresses and jewelry and took them back with me. I hung up the clothes, arranged the jewelry in my own dresser drawers, but the notebooks I left in the box in my closet. I think they are a challenge from my mother; a challenge to her daughter to learn the language of her mother and read what she had written to me. Maybe these are journals she had kept since she left home; how can I know?

I have signed up for a language class starting in a couple months. I think I will go and see how it works out; a friend of mine knows the instructor and said she is very good. The first thing I will learn is how to write my name. I think I had seen my mother write it once, and I copied down somewhere and lost it. But I think I still remember what it is. I think it’s the first word on every page.


She suspects she has only ever had one true affair with the knife, and all those since have been meagre attempts at regurgitation, petty rivalries born of intention and tainted by the anticlimax of recreation. She sits daily watching the synthetic roses, virulent with red, fluoresce persistently on the porch. Moth-bitten, with broken stems and a hairline crack running the length of the ceramic pot that marks their station on the brick step. She sits observing their activity, disassociates herself from the solemn sermon their blushing heads deliver, ducking in the wind. Waiting for something to happen. She has lost, or perceives she has lost (and looks for death on the horizon because she fears she has lost) the ability to make things occur. How useful youth was in the day-to-day creation of happenings. Now she has displaced the seasons, and the pleasant expanse of nothingness, a featureless backdrop, assimilates itself to her emotionless countenance, as she welcomes the weather.

Her father’s house, in the Polish town. Its healthy walls, its strong bone structure. She found it easily, buried knee-deep in the liquid winter, and enquired of the locals as to whether anyone currently resided there. They regarded her, not more obliging than they were wary, with the heavy, knowing gaze of people carrying the burden of the past—both pervasive and private. Her accent was rusty, the native tongue had long since been liberated—a stray cut loose from its derelict cultural confinement. She spoke in dislocated dialogue; the secure, prosaic language of dinner parties and familial get-togethers. Of pleasantries exchanged between well-wishing strangers. Broken German from an elementary textbook. How she hated the sluggish tongue, the barren vowels that tripped reluctantly from the lips, imprisoned by the teeth. The English language seemed a positive ballad of elegant syllables. She had wished never to hear these sunken verbs again. She had tried to forget it all, but they spoke with a dramatic flourish, demanding that she remember, their tone didactic and intense with purpose. Those primitive villagers, deeply set in their archaic ways, the spit in the palm. Such old gestures seem a blessing on unimaginative bones, bones of gypsy ancestry; wrapped in incense and adorned with elaborate jewellery. She briefly caught the delicate, sickly scent of patchouli and lavender, an odour that seeped from their pores, travelled on the breath and suggested unrelenting hardship and wisdom and infinite strength.

She walked self-consciously, away from them, shielding herself from their accusatory recognition, feeling a pariah, a fugitive. As though wearing the flag of her inheritance on her lapel.

Her father died when she was ten, as did most fathers in the war. Fathers, and men. It was never a thing to be fussed over, death is the most reliable thing about life, everyone knows that. And they had dared to glorify it, morph it into a gross celebration. Stripped it of its austerity and depth. Spoke of souls and eternity. She could not allow for this, and carried the weight of his demise with her for so many years, never daring nor feeling inclined to lay it down. To dismantle it. What else can be born of death but sorrow? What else can be born at all?

She retreats to the stairs and pauses to consider the black telephone crouched on its haunches, ready to pounce. To announce. People don’t much come up to the house, it is miles away from the assaulting imposition of neighbouring cities. She doesn’t receive visitors warmly, and all prospective suitors dispatched by well-wishing relatives invariably retire back to their distant homes after an evening of her company, unsettled and discouraged, for she has created for herself a feminine mystique that cannot be penetrated by mere mortal man. She appears in their perception brisk, evasive, and preoccupied. She concentrates on cultivating a solid, scarlet heart to beat a constant rhythm against the world of the dying. She is keeping death out in the physical sense, assimilating herself to the prospect of solitary eternity and forming no attachments.

Sometimes she feels an inexplicable longing for the anonymity of the city, where such informal tools of misinformation as gossip and hearsay are not so readily employed. She envies them their compartmentalized lives, regimented working hours; those unobtrusive strangers who would submit to anything to avoid confrontation. A positive conglomeration of drifting, nameless particles, condensed within the thriving nebula of the city, where one could get smaller every day and very likely disappear.

But the suffocation. She politely declines, preferring to spend her days in the soft sunlight, arranging the weary roses.

She attempts to sweep away the misguided bugs with a few hesitant gestures of the hand. Soon blue saline solutions will wave a salutation to such foreign guests. Her light fingers graze the frayed edges of their heads; the bloody inks are particularly exciting in the sunlight. When the thought of blood transpires, the dizzying swell of the heart’s diastole and systole rises in her chest, a pressing undulation. So perhaps it comes as no conscious surprise when, upon brandishing the pruning sheers in order to trim the petals of their half-eaten siblings, she clips her finger instead of a stem, loosening a sizeable flap of skin over a current of blood. She resists the urge to suck the wound, but stares at her finger, suddenly regarding it as one does an unfamiliar object; a digit not attached to herself. How exquisite a ruby red the blood appears to be, and how warm against the skin. It is amazing how, upon mutilation, a body part becomes something external to the person to which it belongs, merely a treasured belonging. She stares at the finger for so long that it ceases to be a finger, in the same way as a word fails to register in the consciousness as legitimate when it has been repeatedly vocalised. Perhaps there is a separate self that exists beyond the body of physical composites. She puts down the sheers and rearranges the flowers, marvelling over her secret discovery.

Oh, Father. Now is but a moment passing. When does the future become the present and the present become the past? When do the living become the dying, and the dead become the forgotten? The brutish become the commemorated for the death that cleans the slate? Where does the tongue become the throat, and the voice become the word? The heart cease to be the person, but something bigger altogether?

In Arms

The helicopter flew into our forests two days ago, chopping the air like a large dragonfly with gauze wings splayed, plastered in metal and broken. We heard it in the dawn and I wiped the dew wet inside my ears so that I could hear it again, chopping the air through our trees. The men jumped up, and so did he, hush-hushing the fear and surprise. I forgot to breathe.

We found it today, sunning itself, its shadow short in the high hours of noon, waiting. By the time I got to it, running, yelling, victory in my ears, the men had already gotten to the pilot. He drooped over the side of the rusted door with a small red hole on one side of his head and a large splash of black death yawning on the other, his army uniform scattered in green shaded shreds. A bullet can take away a lot with it; it comes in like a thief and leaves like a drunkard.

I climbed onto the top of the metal creature, beating its green head with my fists, thinking it would crush in like a tin cup, victory in my ears. But no, the enemy would be stronger, I hurt my hand, there was blood on metal oozing, I did not care. I had wrestled a beast and put it to its death. I broke my red glass bangle.

*  *  *

I used to wake up with the taste of his dreams in my mouth. They say that if you are in perfect silence, you can hear air beating inside your ears. I could hear his voice beating in my mind even if I were dead. I lost myself to him without knowing, and one day I panicked; I could not find myself. I could not remember what I used to be like before. But then I did not care. I was in him, he was my home, my soul. I could have heard him even if I were dead, but it was he who died. He took my heart with him warm in his mouth, and I never saw him again. Occasionally, I hear my heart beating in his mouth, and then I know he is near. I believe in ghosts.

There are dense trees on both sides, and we follow a narrow path cutting through the leafy heart. It runs straight ahead and ends in a burst of golden light. The sun is setting. We have been told that the path falls beyond that point, and down on the other side is the river. But to me, it seems like I am walking into the sun. It is warm, but Sita is coughing by my side, her thick hand banging her chest every time. The dew seeps into our skin as we sleep on mud and leaf grounds, and the cold has grasped her body. Her thick frame shakes with the rattle of her lungs. We know it is more than a problem of her health.

“The herbs are not working, Baini. I took both leaves and the root. I don’t know what more to do.”

“We will deal with it, Didi. If Comrade Ram does not let you go to the front, I will stay behind with you. We can tend the lights.” I say it even if I don’t want to. We don’t like to wait on each other here. We don’t like to feel. I want to be at the front of the line. I want to hear victory in my ears. But then again staying behind would be a greater sacrifice, a higher duty. If she coughed, the enemy would hear. I will not let them hear.

*  *  *

I miss her sometimes. She comes in my dreams, and while I am dreaming, I feel her weight in my arms. I believe in ghosts, but I know she is alive. I can feel her soft skin, her roundness, her light heaviness, my daughter. She suckles at my breast and I push her away. I must not feel. I have a higher duty.

She is what we had, me and him. I remember how I used to see sunlight in the cracks cutting through the door, my parents asleep in the next room, and I would pick my doko and head into the golden green hills, chopping firewood, cutting cattle grass, feeling the ground cold brittle fresh with my bare feet. I used to cut whole days, climb trees with my axe, enter bushes shoulder-high with my sickle. And at the end of the day, wherever I may be, on whichever hill or on whatever tree, he used to find me. And he would carry my doko for me all the way back every day so that my back would not tire and grow crooked like that sickle, he would say, you are already as mean as that sickle, now I don’t want you to be as ugly as it, pointing to the sickle tucked at my waist. And I laughed inside, but I pretended to be angry and I continued to be mean. He only smiled.

He loved to talk and his eyes would look far away, past the trees with sunlight playing among the leaves, reflecting off the leaves like water; he would look into the sky blue with clouds like ghosts, white ghosts in distorted shapes, and he would talk. He talked about the king who had forgotten us. He brings back the stories of our fathers, the story of the young king who walked these same paths and talked to the villagers and how grand a feeling that was, to know that the king thought of them all the way out here from Kathmandu, and thought about them and thought of them strongly enough to come all the way out here where the roads were mud, paved at the last minute, and the steps up the hill were broken, patched up for his purpose. The Queen lifted the chins of the little village girls offering her flower garlands and patted their heads, “but she never took off her gloves, see,” he would say, and I would say, “maybe she was cold, my father said it was nearing winter,” and then he would laugh, “no, no, I am sure she does not wear her gloves in Kathmandu .” And then he would be silent.

At other times he would think of his sister, and I could hear his thoughts, and there would be ghosts and darkness around us in the golden light of afternoon. He would think of the big man with the blue cap and black boots, in charge of the largest building within four valleys. The big man either sat in his office with a grimy towel hung on the back of his chair, dictating, ordering, farting; or he sunned himself in the yard outside the police station, boasting, belittling, laughing; sounds of the tortured floating in from the overcrowded jail. He had a villager flogged once for making love to a goat. But then he went ahead and made love to my husband’s sister while she cried and screamed in a faraway field, wishing for the God on the buffalo to come charging by and take her to Death. When my husband marched up to him and spat on his face, he had him flogged too, all the while laughing at the sounds of the tortured floating up the hill. They found my husband’s sister two weeks later, her skirts soaked to the hem, swaying from the highest branch of a handsome tree, crows caw cawing in her hair.

When they came one night, infiltrating minds with their red flags and slogans, he left with them.

“Wife,” he addressed me, and it sounded like a coronation, “I cannot forget.” He took my hand and squeezed it into a red glass bangle. He felt our daughter’s cheek with the back of his hand. And then he was gone. Gone to address the ghost of his sister in the sky, gone to undo all the injustices in the land, to flog the enemy, the politicians with pregnant bellies and constipated faces in Kathmandu, the King, the crown. He went with his eyes dreaming and left me with a raw nipple, daughter in arms.

*  *  *

They did not miss out the details of his death. They laid them down, mouth to mouth, ear to ear, spreading through the village, spreading up to me with daughter in arms, he was shot in one leg first and then when he was crawling they shot him in the other and then in the head all from the air you see the enemy was in the air and of course who can outrun wings though he was fast so fast he was our best our hero. My husband became the village hero, and they came with flowers strung in hands, silent yet proud, knowing yet not knowing, telling me bless you your husband was a great man , telling my daughter in her cloths with her small oiled head shaping the mustard-seed pillow, your father was a great man a man of honor let him live forever. And then they returned, the ones in the green camouflage, with guns slung over stiff shoulders, red stars in their eyes and slogans in their mouths. One of them marched straight up to me sitting on the steps before my empty hut with my daughter in my laps, and he marched so sudden and violent I thought he was going to strike me. I drew my daughter to my breast. But then he stopped in sudden break just before my knees, stamped his foot hard on the dust ground, one hand rising to salute me the other raising his gun shooting in the air may your husband live forever. My daughter started shrieking in my arms.

Then there was emptiness and silence. I could not hear my heart beat, and so I replaced it with the heart of my daughter. Where are you with my heart in your mouth , and I looked up to the skies and searched for him among the white figures slipping through blue. I searched whole days away, but the silence nibbled at my mind, and I could not hear him and I could not hear my own heart and with nothingness in my ribs I went back and put my ear to my daughter’s small chest. I listened to my daughter’s heart with the widow’s sari cold and white over my breast.

I hid the red glass bangle. I was supposed to break it, actually, supposed to fall to my knees upon hearing the news, crying, wailing, tear at my hair, then grab a handful of soil and rub it into my hair, rub out the red powder of marriage lining my scalp, tear away the red beads of marriage around my neck, break the red bangle of love around my wrist. I did everything but break the bangle. I kept it under my daughter’s mustard-seed pillow, her head just nestling within the circle. What future do you have here, I asked, what future with your father dead your mother out of her mind your village torn and shredded, meat to the dogs?

*  *  *

I was not alone. The husbands of others died, the brother the fathers the sons. Weeping wailing why why why then silence, the birds dead in the trees, the cattle asleep on their hind-quarters, the wind motionless numb. Only the infants cried out in their sleep.

Then they came back, a whole army of them, red banners sailing in the sunset like clouds in the sky, ghosts of victory, slogans warm in their mouths, the throb of blood in their ears. There were gunshots and the infants in the village screamed and the dogs barked whined tails hiding assholes, scampering into the hills. And then for the first time, I noticed the women among the numbers, young girls of fifteen looking smart and in control, and I realized it was them with the world in their hands. One of them came up to me, daughter-in-arms, and I looked curiously into her glazed eyes, thinking she was blind, wondering how she could have walked so straight and with purpose up to my knees.

“Comrade,” she addressed me, and I thought women looked like fools in men’s pants, and the newness of the word made me giggle. There is a rumor stringing through the village, a rumor that these makeshift uniformed people call each other “Comrade,” an English word, Angrezi. They say that you can call anyone Comrade, a friend or brother or father. This girl, a green cap with red star above her eyes, her gun so comfortably crossing her back between stiff shoulder blades, her legs in men’s pants, was addressing me as an equal. I blushed, shifted my daughter’s weight from one arm to the other, blinked up at her shaded face with the sun like a golden crown behind her head.

“Comrade, you are a widow. This is what the corruption of Kathmandu has gifted you. A newborn fatherless child. We are not dogs, Comrade, we are not dogs, what do these people think? How long can we be oppressed? How long are they going to steal from us, steal from us with so little, steal the earnings of our sweat and blood? They murdered your husband, Comrade, they murdered his sister. They will murder you and then they will murder your daughter. Rise, Comrade, Rise!”

She raised her voice with every word. I thought she was mad, her eyes looking glazed, blind, unfocused, like something polished. My daughter awoke with a whimper.

“Rise, Comrade !”

I did not know if she wanted me to get up to my feet or join the ranks. I looked up at her again with the sun behind her red star, and I felt fear, felt the power of this young girl with slogans warm in her mouth, her ease with the gun, the confidence lining her back.

She was younger than me, but her presence made her older.

I should have addressed her as Baini, but I said Didi instead.

“Didi, what of my daughter?”

“What of her?”

And then I knew. Nothing of her, nothing for her, not here, not now. I saw myself and the bundle in my laps in two polished mirrors, my image in white, white on polished black, tattered white thinking where to get the next meal from daughter-in-arms, the failed potato crop rotting in the fields behind, where are you with my heart in your mouth?

I left my daughter at a neighbor’s house, and there were young tears on the old woman’s dried up face as she took my child into her bony arms caked in mud. May victory be yours, she said, and I walked away without turning around, the green men’s pants falling from my waist, the sound of my crying child falling away from my ears. Then there was no sound at all.

*  *  *

The women were worse than the men. They all had polished eyes, and in the beginning, I could not tell why. Some would train whole days, decapitating sandbags with sickles, and the sand would burst in a white fountain shooting up to the sky, and I would remember his words, you are already as mean as a sickle, I don’t want you to be as ugly as one. The others would be quiet, listless, weeping secretly, their tears washing into dew in the cold nights, but red stars rising in their eyes in the morning. Some of them were too young, just wrenched out of their mother’s arms, because when those in the green camouflage came to recruit with their unbargaining demands, parents decided that sons were too valuable, and sent their daughters instead. Let our sons work our fields, let our daughters fight the war. But there was more in this war for a woman.

The first night I was passed around five men, meat to the dogs. All the time I thought of him, never doubting that he had not enjoyed some female Comrade, imagining all five men to be him, to be his purpose. And then I landed up in the arms of Comrade Ram, and he decided to keep me. I became exclusively his, and the others fell behind, left me alone. I was content. I knew things would be worse at the front.

I have heard stories of the front, heard how they throw in the youngest girls first, how they are torn up by the bullets, their braids in the air like falling leaves. I have heard how the men get crazy sometimes, how the hunger and pain make them lose their minds, how one girl was attacked by twenty and how she died stars in her eyes. But I push the thoughts away. I live for the purpose.

*  *  *

We walk into the sun. The forest parts, the river bursts forth below. It is blue like a piece of sky that lost its way and I think this water must be the only thing that I compare in beauty to my daughter’s eyes. The line stops. Everyone starts pointing, fingers shooting in the air from the person in front to the person behind, and I can imagine Comrade Ram in the very front of the row being the first to lift his finger. “That hill, there, and then there, see?” The towering Comrade in front of me turns and points and his black bandana with the red star blocks out the sun.

The two hills rise like breasts and the river flows in between, a little to the left after the monsoon. The villagers say they woke one night after the rain and found that the river had shifted, lifted up and moved by the wind as if it were a young girl’s ribbon, blue, curling, whispering. It left behind ugly rocks like giant teeth grey and broken. Some ways down, where it grows fat with water and gets wider, rests the town, rests another police station with its building the largest in seven valleys except for the cinema hall. We are going to burn that station tonight, run at it from both sides, across the river, down the hill, gaining momentum, faster, faster, break through doors windows roofs slicing the blue men inside with our sickles our drunkard’s guns firing staccato under the stars, his purpose.

I readjust the gun between my shoulder blades, looking at the hills.

*  *  *

I remember the first time I held my gun. They had wiped the police station five villages away clean of life, leaving behind smears of blood in patterned designs on soil and cement, animal designs and pictures of birds, and they looted the guns from the storerooms and they stole the bullets in sacks. They had a bonfire that night with laughter, victory in ears, and all the guns were thrown into a pile like a construction of sticks. They ushered us in, the new recruits, wide-eyed and wondering, throbbing in my guts, and we stood single file, a stringed necklace around the pile, eyes blinking, ghost breaths escaping white in the cold.

“These are your arms,” Comrade Ram announced and it sounded like a coronation, “These are the weapons that belonged to the other side. Now they are ours. We have taken them, and now we shall use them to wipe out the evil tightening its grip about our throats. Rise, Comrades, Rise!”

He picked the guns up, one by one extending them firmly to our faces.

“Long live the Republic! Long live our Brother!”

I took the stick in my arms, arm in arm, and was surprised at its weight. I cradled my weapon, feeling its corners, feeling the newness, the coldness, my daughter of wood and metal. It was one-eyed and when I looked at it, it looked back long and hard at me with its circle of darkness. When I let it rest by a tree and turned around, I felt its eye on my back, its single black eye unmoving, unforgiving, watching, waiting, daughter-in-arms.

*  *  *

The line splits in two, Comrade Ram shouting out orders in front, and one split end extends towards one hill, the other towards the other. I follow Comrade Ram, close by his heel, down towards the river. The water is high, moving in waves like white muscles and blue veins, and we step into the wetness, the cold slicing my feet till I forget they are mine. I slip my gun off my shoulder, raising it high in the air above my head. The men’s pants get soaked, put on weight, and my legs are dragging against the power of the water. We move slowly, single file, taking in sharp breaths as the numbness moves above our knees. I enter a current and the force is too great, I fall on my knees, the water forcing its tongue down my throat, lapping around inside, feeling for my heart, retreating from the emptiness. The gun is held like a trophy, untouched, untouchable. I remember the story of how the Lord Krishna was carried as a baby across an expanse of water, and how the waves leaped up to his feet dangling off the edge of the basket, how even the water wanted to touch the Holiness in the flesh, how that almost drowned the one carrying the basket below. I think of my daughter. Her feet are pink underneath like spring blossoms.

I pull myself up, my purpose in my guts rising upwards, moving along my spine. I reach the other side and lower my gun slowly to the ground. My arms are sore and I am breathing hard, knees bleeding, blood sticking thick and black to pants, shivering in the black blue mist of dusk. Comrade Ram looks at me in the growing dark, and I cannot tell what is in his eyes. He shouts hoarsely at the others still in the water we are fighting a war here, not taking a swim. Long live the Republic!

Comrade Ram thinks of our Brother while he makes love to me. Our Brother, who gave up his position as a respectable man in Kathmandu to live underground, fighting for change, for rebirth, our purpose. Our leader. Our protector. Our war. I don’t know what our Brother looks like, but I am thinking he must look like Comrade Ram, shadows in his eyes.

We trek up the hill in the dark, black branches reaching to me like snakes and fingers, shadows taking the shapes of trees and bushes and death. The bora sack, wet and heavy strapped to my back is icy in the wind. My lower back is hurting, and I can feel the blood double-gush out of my uterus. The bora is slowing me down, but I do not dream of taking it off. It will be needed later to carry heads like melons, bouncing against the back of my knees as I run.

We set up our positions behind the trees feeling in the dark, listening for animals and ambushers, hearing insects surprised, touching snakes and wet frogs on rough bark like chapped lips frozen. Sita is coughing behind the tree next to me, and I can hear her muffle her sounds from the ears of Comrade Ram and the enemy, banging her chest, covering her mouth, choking herself in the cold darkness. We wait, motionless, soundless, in position, the river roaring far away below, the sound lifting up, and I am thinking the river covers the sounds of Sita. The enemy will not hear.

After a time so long, my legs numb in their wetness below me, the lanterns are turned on. I see them first on the other hill, someone from the other group turning the light off and on, blink, blink, blink. Then Comrade Ram turns on our lantern from the top of a tree, the light replying, blink blink blink. Other lights go up. Five lanterns talk to each other on two hills, across growling river and yawning space. The conversation ends, Comrade Ram jumps like a cat off the tree in the darkness; we are ready to move.

*  *  *

My feet rush beneath me, swift, soundless, sure even in the dark, my lungs screaming, branches rushing at me, leaves grabbing at my hair, the wind stinging my eyes. We clear the forest, the hill. I hear the others, and the sparse lights of the village grow in size on this side of the river, I can see shuttered shops and quiet houses as we enter, street dogs waking in fright, barking, growling, whining, tails covering assholes scampering into the hills. People wake up in their houses but they do not move, remaining lights going off, eyes waiting, watching. We run at the police station, and they are ready for us; their guns go off first. There are drunken bullets in darkness and screams of the dying, but we break through, into the largest building in seven valleys except for the cinema hall, my gun jumping staccato in my arms, dislocating my shoulder, my sickle slashing, feeling warm blood and it is almost comforting in the cold. I cover for the others, and Comrade Ram is ordering all the while from the front. On the way out, I see our dead, red stars in disarray in the blue blackness, and I pick up after the Comrade in front chopping heads with his khukuri. It reminds me of Dashain, how my father would tether the goat and clear its head in one quick fall of arms. The Comrade in front sacrifices our red stars for victory, his khukuri falling heavy in the darkness. We do not let the enemy enjoy the dead of our numbers, so we take them with us, take their heads because their bodies are too heavy, take their heads so we can never be recognized. We are ghosts fighting in the blue blackness, and like a strong wind, we bring change, lift things up and leave them someplace else, shifting things, twisting directions; nameless, faceless. I run downriver and then up the hill, blood warm in my hands, heads in the bora bouncing like melons against the back of my knees.

I reach our base behind the trees, my feet sure, my directions perfectly mapped out even in the darkness. There are voices of survivors around me, rising and falling, weeping, laughing, whispering, the river gushing in the background. I see the familiar shape of a body slumped against a tree and I go to Sita. As I approach, I see the whites of her eyes, rolled up and backwards in her dark face. Her cheeks are puffed out and I realize someone has stuffed cloth in her mouth and taped it in. Her hands are extended behind her body, tied in a backward embrace to the trunk of the tree. I am trying to decide whether she was too loud or whether the men lost their minds, lost control of their bodies, lost their senses and decided to take it out on her. I don’t know. We don’t question here. We don’t feel.

I sit against a tree, the bora by my side. I feel my wrist, feel the emptiness where the red glass bangle had been. I think of my daughter, feel her light weight in my arms. She must be sleeping right now, her breath coming slow and peaceful. I lift the gun off my shoulders and fling it some distance away. It falls with a metallic thud. I feel lightness, my shoulders relaxed, my breath steady. I hear a sound and I realize it is my heart, beating close to my ear, thud thudding in the blue blackness. I believe in ghosts.