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Foreword

All Existing has come a long way in the past year. From being run by a single uni student who had no idea what she was doing to now being a two-person team who’ve finally found the tone of the magazine, we’re extremely excited to introduce Issue 3’s incredible contributors and the stunning work they’ve provided! The team adored the pieces sent to us this submission period; being able to read well-crafted literature from all over the world is such a surreal thing — we can’t quite express how grateful we are. 

 

We want to thank all contributors for trusting us with their work. As writers ourselves, we know how much time and thought goes into bringing a piece into the world. We hope you’re proud of what you’ve created, because we certainly are.

 

Now, to the readers: thank you for sticking with us for the past year as we’ve found our footing in the literary community. Issue 3 truly reflects the kinds of stories and narratives that All Existing wishes to tell, and we hope you stick around a little longer.

 

— Claire Westbrook & Sonika Jaiganesh

(All Existing Team)

Cover art by Natalie Szwec

Short Fiction

Jon Thomas V., The Purple Gift

David Hartley, Stone Circle

Lori D'Angelo, The Life Man

Bethany Cutkomp, Lake Gossamer

Poetry

Anshita Palorkar, hominem sine nomine

Charlotte Brookins, A Kiss To Wake

Charlotte Amelia Poe, i found it again

Margaret Stearns, Hallucinogenic Logorrhea

Bob King, Lemon Battery

Jacquelin Molina Guillen, Wild Women

Ojo Olumide Emmanuel, Memories

Flash Fiction

Zach Keali’i Murphy, Mariana's Headstone

Calla Smith, Bird's Nest

Elizabeth Gade, The Craving

Visual Art

Jaye Frisina, Aeriform Guardian

Mirjana Miric, Kaleidoscope

Mackenzie Ostrowski, Grow Within Grow Without

Maria Pianelli Blair, I Want You

Natalie Szwec, Untitled

A Kiss To Wake

by Charlotte Brookins

i’ve learned that the way 

for me to make my way in the world is to 

read (and write)

myself into it

parchment like silk between my fingers

ink that stains skin 

(and soul)

slits between slats

(of the No-Longer-Woods

full of No-Longer-Words)

that i will slip into like the drops of rain sliding bare fingers

wishing myself into a fairy tale

fighting for a story that has been worn with time

(donned by No-Longers)

and pages lined like a face that is old enough to tell of adventures

but not young enough to find them again

(and i will wish i was old enough to speak of them myself

but never too old to lose them)

i will dream myself to be a

(girl, fast asleep)

and find myself seeking

(a thimble)

Charlotte Brookins is an Iowa City-based writer who has been published by such organizations as Iowa City's Poetry in Public, Wilder Things Magazine, Ink Literary Magazine, and more. When she isn't writing, reading, or getting lost in the woods, she enjoys spending time with her loved ones. You can find her on Twitter at @chbrookins , on Instagram at @cbrookinswriting , and her portfolio at https://sites.google.com/view/charlotte-brookins-writing/portfolios/creative-writing.

The Purple Gift

by Jon Thomas V.

On a clear night in the desert, a meteorite fell from the stars. It streamed across the land and made its way to the soil just outside of a settlement. The people were alarmed by the space debris and frantically ran to put out the flames that the extraterrestrial stone had risen. Blooming out of the ashes of this wondrous surprise came a flower unlike any other. It was a deep purple and it seemed to shine. From the tips of the cosmic fauna came an ethereal glow that seemed to transition from a deep blue to a bright yellow. The people of this settlement were animists in faith, and viewed this flower as a gift from forces beyond humanity. And a gift must be treasured. 

 

Centuries passed, and despite great strain in the land, the settlement remained, regarding the flower they came to know as the “Purple Gift” with utmost secrecy. It was a thing of legend, and its keepers did their best to keep it as such. Afterall, these people were no strangers to the destruction of humanity. Their grandparents had been foolishly kind, and as a result, their land shrank over the years. Settlers from a far-away place made their homes on their soil, and how unequipped for these lands they were! They burned in the harsh sun, they knew not to keep warm in the cold night, they died of thirst, disease, or from their own greedy hands when internal power became a thing of desire. Such pitiful people, thought the elders. And so they were guided by their empathy, something that had always been a strength in their world. They offered aid to these Fragile Ones, teaching them how to survive in this climate that was so different from their cold and rainy homes.

 

Gratitude seems to not be a universal feat.

 

Instead of thanking the elders for their hospitality and wisdom, the Fragile Ones became Conquerors. They burned villages, pillaged, murdered. And in all the elders’ efforts, they managed to keep their Gift hidden. Any Conqueror who came to know of the myth of the Purple Gift was dismissed as superstitious, someone who must be a heretic for believing in such things. The Conquerors had their own god. They were pious, in their eyes at least. Their god was paradoxical. They claimed He would love all and provide salvation, but the people who had lived here forever had their own salvation in nature. For a god driven by love, He had claimed a lot of blood and inspired a lot of hate. The Conquerors dismissed the spirits of the land and had no interest in placing stock in the words of witchcraft as they called it. And the Purple Gift was surely witchcraft.

 

What made the Purple Gift so special was its medicinal qualities. Sure, it radiated a hue and glow that nothing in nature could produce, but when crushed into a powder and ingested by someone with any ailment, it could cure disease. The people in this reduced settlement lived long and fruitful lives, unencumbered by the burdens of cancers or terminal sickness. In order to keep the Purple Gift secret, only the village elders and chief knew of where it grew. If someone needed healing, the elders would provide complete care, and the rest of the settlement accepted not knowing where the Gift grew, for they were well aware of the Conquerors, too. But the Purple Gift came with a dire warning. It must never be planted in soil that was not stricken by the meteorite that birthed it.

 

A long time ago, there was a greedy man in the village. He wanted to strike a deal with the Conquerors and decided he would supply them with a miracle medicine. The Conquerors were skeptical of course, but they had only just evolved from being Fragile Ones, and remembered what it was like to wither away in the world. The Greedy Man decided he would try to convince the elders to allow this exchange to happen freely, but by now they had grown tired of the Conqueror’s destruction. Fearing this outcome, the Greedy Man followed an elder one night to where the Purple Gift grew. He stood in awe as life seemed to radiate off this cosmic garden. It was well hidden behind tall trees that had many human lifetimes to grow into the sky, protecting the secret that once flew from the heavens itself. The Greedy Man had heard rumors of the excellence of the flower, but seeing it in person made his heart beat quickly. Beads of sweat rode down his forehead as he could imagine the riches he could gain if only he grew his own supply. He waited for his opportunity, and when the elder had left, he snatched a flower from the earth and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He ran all the way to the outskirts of his people’s land, where he had set up his base. There, he planted his hijacked flower and waited for his garden to grow. In just two weeks time, he had his own personal stock of Purple Gifts, ready to trade off to the Conquerors.

 

He summoned their Captain, who arrived with three Conquerors beside him. The Greedy Man presented his barter and in return asked for gold, silver, and any fancy apparel they could provide him. The Captain laughed and adjusted his feathered hat. His accompaniment laughed as well, following their leader’s example, but also gawked in awe of the radiance of the Purple Gift in person. The Captain admitted he did not believe in such a thing, but seeing it with his own eyes, he understood that this flower must be the workings of his Lord. And because his Lord must have created this thing of divinity, it must not be in the hands of a heathen. The Greedy Man knew that he had made a grave error, but before he had the chance to run he was cut down in his own home. As his blood decorated the floor like a fresh coat of linoleum, the Conquerors stole the Purple Gifts and brought them back to their camp. The Captain himself suffered from a disease he had carried with him from his homeland. He tried every method his doctors could provide, but it was no use. Every morning he coughed up blood and struggled to stand upright. The pain passed as the day progressed, but before he could close his eyes, his lungs seemed to fail him yet again. Eager to be rid of this illness, he crushed up the Gift as he had been once instructed by the Greedy Man. His men watched in awe as this miracle from their One True God worked its grace. Praise be Him! Their Captain would live on with strength! However, the Captain was not cured. As the powder slithered down his rugged gullet, his face began to swell. His cheeks grew larger by the second. He grabbed at his throat, struggling to breathe, and his eyes began to pool with blood. He tried to cough, but even that failed, producing a rather ghastly choke. He staggered, knocking everything off of the tables around his home and before he knew it, his body turned a purplish hue, being completely deprived of oxygen. He fell to the ground gagging and struggling for his final pathetic seconds, and his men watched on in horror, unable to do a thing. 

 

Nobody ever attempted to steal the Purple Gift again.

 

At least, not for a long time. Today, the Keepers of the Gift live in isolation from the outside world. Their numbers have dwindled as the Conquerors laid claim to even more land, pushing them out of their ancestral home. The current elders are much more jaded than their predecessors, and have implemented a No-Contact policy with the Conquerors. It was extreme, and they knew this, because not every Conqueror was evil, but this was a drastic measure they knew they needed to take. The No-Contact ruling kept the Keepers safe, thus causing no arguments from the people who got to live long and peaceful lives. Of course, their peace could not last forever.

 

A doctor came to the front gates of the Keepers of the Gift. He had a desperation to him that emanated off of his person. He was not dressed like the other Conquerors. His clothes were white, which the Keepers knew was a way of conveying surrender in the Conqueror’s customs. Begrudgingly, they allowed him to enter their settlement after ensuring that he was alone. He was brought to the current Chief, an elderly man who had lived here his whole life as his many predecessors before him had. He sat in his home, entertaining the sunburnt man from the land of the Conquerors. From an old rocking chair, the Chief watched this man from a mighty people break apart. He fell to his knees, locking his hands together in front of him and raising his bottom to the sky pleading. He begged the Chief to hear him. He was a doctor in a small town many miles to the West. He had but one patient, a little girl who was also the daughter of the mayor of his town. She was gravely ill, burning up with a fever and unable to open her eyes. He left her two days ago on foot to reach the Keepers of the Gift, desperate as all of his known methods of science and medicine were failing. He knew she had not long for this world if she was not treated soon, and the treatment would need to be a thing of miracles. He read through every medical journal his people compiled since arriving in this harsh land, trying every single method besides one. He had read in a journal left behind by a Captain some years ago describing a medicinal flower that grew in a secret settlement, deep into the desert. It had the power to cure any ailment no matter how grave. No further entries were left by the Captain, and the legend his people had recorded in their history books said he soon succumbed to an illness of his own.

 

The Chief listened to this man’s cries for help, and inside him brewed a great conflict. On one hand, he did not trust any of the Conquerors, even as harmless as they may have seemed. His grandparents had tried trusting them in the past and as a result, they now live in isolation with a tenth of the land they used to occupy. Giving aid to this man could condemn the Keepers of the Gift, and that was a dire risk.

 

Yet, this man seemed entirely different than the Conquerors he had heard stories about. This was not a man on a pious quest for glory and riches. No, this was a scared man trying to save a child. And could the Chief truly condemn an innocent little girl to die because of his own fears? What harm has she done to this world? A child’s story is unwritten, should it get to be long in its chapters. The Chief decided. He would help the Doctor, and asked that he describe the little girl’s illness in more detail. Judging by the severity of her condition, the Chief determined they would only need to part with two Purple Gifts. The first one was crushed up into two doses of powder and handed to the Doctor in separate glass vials. The Chief explained that he should give the little girl the first vial right away, then the second one the next day as soon as she woke. If she had not made a complete recovery, he must crush the second flower into powder at once and repeat the process. Then his face grew stern, hardened from its previously cordial nature. He stressed that under no condition should the Doctor plant the second flower in the earth. Absolutely no good would come of planting a Purple Gift elsewhere, so he must be certain he does not attempt to do so. The Doctor nodded in understanding and made a dash for his home.

 

Just as the Chief had instructed, the Doctor gave the little girl the first vial of powder. Within mere moments of her taking the medicine, her fever broke. She slept soundly through the night and showed every sign of improving. The Doctor cried, and the Mayor cried too, now sitting beside his young daughter on the road to recovery. He thanked the Doctor from the bottom of his heart and called him a genius, but the Doctor insisted he was not to take credit for this miracle cure. He told the Mayor of his studies, all of his research leading him to a town far into the desert with a miracle flower that could cure all ailments. The Mayor chuckled, saying to the Doctor that such a plant could not exist in the Lord’s world, but he was grateful for his treatment nonetheless. As the night passed into day, the girl opened her eyes for the first time, the Doctor gave her the second vial. Within the next day she made a full recovery, leaving the doctor with a single Purple Gift leftover.

 

The Doctor was amazed by this flower. Its existence was a medical miracle, something he had come to understand as real but exceedingly rare. And still, what a shame. He looked at the ethereal bloom, still bursting with life in his hand even out of the soil for days. He felt his heart break into pieces. All the people he would not be able to save! In his town, he had performed a miracle, and he would never get to replicate this miracle once this flower was no longer in his possession. But marvelous as it was, it was still a flower, and a flower could be grown in the soil and would spawn others. He recalled a stern warning from a chief in a land far in the desert, demanding that he not try to plant the Purple Gift on other soil. The chief of an isolationist civilization. A settlement of people who abhorred his own people, not trusting them in any capacity. And yet, they allowed him to enter their walls. Why would they do such a thing? Could it be that in some way the Doctor was destined to come into possession of the Purple Gift? The Doctor was not devout like his peers, but he did believe in the Lord and His strange ways. Perhaps this was his calling. Perhaps he would be the one to treat his people, ushering them into a prosperous age free of disease. He remembered a chief. A man he could tell was scared, just like he was. A man, before all else. And Man is not omnipotent, He is flawed. The Doctor made up his mind.

 

He discharged the little girl from his care and went out behind his house. He tore open a nook in the dirt and placed the Purple Gift in the soil. He patted the ground and watered the radiant miracle, waiting for it to reproduce its powerful self. Within two weeks time, the Conquerors had their very own garden of Purple Gifts. To prepare immediate treatment, the Doctor crushed up several vials of Purple Gifts and summoned all his neighbors who suffered from incurable ailments. One by one, they lined out his door as he gave them vials upon vials of his miracle cure. The Mayor and his healthy daughter smiled on as their brilliant healer worked his science.

 

Across the desert, a Chief sat in a rocking chair in his home. An elder sat beside him and asked why he gave two Gifts to that doctor when he was certain it would only take one to cure that little girl. A tear streamed down the face of the old Chief as he stared into the distance. He too knew that the Doctor would only need a single flower. So he gave the Doctor two gifts. Not both flowers, but one being the medicine, and the other being a choice. The Chief was transparent with the Doctor. He told him what to do and what not to do. He risked the future of his own people to save one of the Doctor’s. And so, if the Doctor respected that risk, he would have the power to heal one more person, and perhaps usher a new era for both of their people. A child’s story is unwritten. The Chief saw a world where she was grateful. A world where gratitude was a universal feat. Maybe it was too late for old men and their ways, but perhaps a little girl could be the bridge that brings his people back to their empathetic past. 

 

But the Doctor had to choose. If he chose to respect the Keepers of the Gift, he would heed the warning. If not…

 

In the desert lies a ghost town, once filled with people from a faraway land. Nobody lives there anymore, and the shadow of death lingers like an ominous cloud. Yet, beside this downtrodden dump, there is a flowerbed, with the most beautiful flower in the world. Some people call it the Purple Gift, but it has earned itself a new name:

 

The Fool’s Medicine.

Jon Thomas V. (he/him) is a writer from New York. He received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Pace University in 2023 and now works as a Project Coordinator at the independent book publisher, Austin Macauley. After enjoying a career as a songwriter for the rock bands, Fracture and Spitphyre, he now aims to master his use of words to tell a story in different mediums. He lives with his two best friends and a calico cat named Pebbles. 

Aeriform Guardian

by Jaye Frisina
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Originally from Boston, Jaye Frisina lives in upstate New York. When Jaye was little, she would skip school to go to the library, and then go home and draw on the walls. She has a long love affair with ink in all its forms, and often combines words with drawings. You can find Jaye and her latest pieces on Instagram @ThirteenthStoryArt

Memories

by Ojo Olumide Emmanuel

Imagine that:

sunshine rafts its back on the sea

and the horizon flatters itself into a wide curtain

hawks spread their wings on a hunting spree

and a boy is lost, in a world so vast, and so sea.

imagine: his only way home is the sea, daring in turbulence

his shirt was mended though crumpled

his shorts torn between the waves & rocks

his knees rattling against each other in confrontations

& his feet groping with sores. of life, he was the lone survivor-

of a broken ship, nudged to the shore by a dolphin. 

imagine he sang about home on his first night of survival

nay, arrival. survivals are volumes of arrivals. 

just like his first arrival, his mum sang of his umbilical cord, 

the one he swung between her thighs

until the dawn that wakes his sun. 

imagine, on the night of his loneliness

he courted the angel of death with many songs 

to take him [off] as the cruel sea did to the others.

imagine grief arrives bodily, sits by him

stretches his hands around his shoulder &

tells him- you are not alone!

imagine darkness meets him quietly on the grass 

in the middle of god-knows-where

and made a campfire to drive himself away  

imagine sleep is the only antidote when life begins to collide

imagine the memories he would make when

sunshine arrives the next day bearing fresh news

on his back… imagine!

Ojo Olumide Emmanuel is a Nigerian Poet and Book Editor. He is the author of the Poetry Chapbook "Supplication For Years in Sands" (Polarsphere Books, 2021). He is the winner of the WeNaija Literary Contest (Non-Fiction, 2023). His works have appeared and are forthcoming at Ake Review, Feral, Quills, Poemify, Melbourne-Culture, TNR, Nantygreen, Arting Arena and elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Nigerian Review (TNR). He is a Senior Mentor at the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation and a Mentor of the SprinNG Writing Fellowship.

The Crow Who Fell in Love With the Moon

by L Swartz

Unlike other crows, I needed to be talked about as well as talked to. That is why I had a name. They called me Incubo. 

"You're flying like Incubo," they would mock some temporarily awkward mate, literally not noticing I was flying nearby, perfectly gracefully. 

"You look as weird as Incubo," they would cackle at someone in a particularly comical stage of molting. I would strut by, my iridescent black plumage looking especially magnificent in contrast with my bright white feathers. If anyone had cared to look. 

But not all crows despise me. That is what I told myself. The loud, ignorant ones drowned out the many others who were quietly open to my splendor. I was sure of it. 

When I reached the age for courtship, like any young crow I practiced my moves. Like my peers, I ogled the unattached ones, the ones open to mating. I ruled out obvious haters, but the rest I figured were eligible. My chromatic diversity even gave me an advantage, I dared to think. I made sure my dance showed off the beauty of my markings. My mate-to-be must notice my perfection as enhanced by my flashy decoration.

I should have known better. 

"Seriously?" my number one choice snickered as I launched my dance to woo her. "Hey guys, it's Incubo! Incubo is courting me, come and look!"

All the other young crows quit their courtships and fluttered toward me to watch my pathetic attempts to mate. 

"Are you even a crow?" they cawed. "You might be a magpie or even a pigeon. Not a proper crow." 

"No one is going to mate with you," they shrieked with their wings spread for emphasis. "You're ugly. You're stupid. You're deformed and you will make defective chicks."

"Go away, Incubo," they clucked. "You're fouling everybody's nest."

I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was gasping in pain. I was in full heat and it was hard to stop dancing, even in the face of all this ridicule. Eventually, I managed to smooth my feathers and lift off and fly away with some imitation of dignity. Thus ended my pursuit of romance. 

I never approached another hen, no matter how harmless and friendly she appeared. I avoided the winter roost, with its gossip and its interlocking broods and its bloody rivalries between murders. Instead, I huddled by myself inside a shallow cavity in a dead tree. I gobbled larvae alone from a carcass I discovered in an abandoned building. 

As the days got longer and warmer, I grew to resent the sun. It exposed and tormented me. It was too much, too big and hot and dry. Its light made my white stripes dazzling. The sky, when it was clear and sunny, filled with other crows — the proper all-black birds with no names. 

Soon everycrow but me was feeding their thriving nests of young. Off the nest, they swooped together, calling out their careless, aggressive joy. They gabbled and shoved as they competed for troves of peanuts left for them by humans. 

More and more, I kept to the night. Raccoons and moles and bats and coyotes and possums were my companions. Old urine and and the petrichor of chilly mist on greasy pavement were smells that came to please me. My crisp contrast of whitest white and blackest black belonged. 

The night was cold and welcoming. It sparkled with stars. I studied the sunless sky at my leisure, and it let me.

As Luna swelled and deflated, I observed Her especially closely. You might say we became intimates, Luna and I. She was a goddess, a radiant force of nature, whereas I was a strange but ordinary crow. I wanted to belong to Her more obviously. It bothered me that I, a mere earthbound corvid, had an individual name, a particular name, but She had none — just Luna or Selene or Moon in whatever language. She was bigger and older and definitely wiser than I, yet I was never simply Corvo or Crow, but "Incubo." 

I was so disturbed by this inequity that I yelled at Luna in the deadest hour of the night. "I am Incubo!" I hollered into the sky when She was at Her fullest. "What is your name!" She did not answer. I came to believe She was silent because I was not worthy. I grew certain that She does have a name, always has, but it is private. That there are those who know Her true name, who She trusts with Her name. If I earn Her trust, I concluded, She will tell me Her name. Once I know Her name, who knows what rapturous intimacies might follow. 

Like any crow, I had an urge to seal our union with gifts: something shiny like Her, perhaps, or something velvety and dark, like the sky She floats upon. Across the velvety cold we shared, I wanted to extend my wing, to touch Her with the tips of my feathers. I wanted Her but I knew I was not ready. It was not time. 

First, I needed to learn everything about what She desires. I needed to determine the perfect gift, find it, and bring it to Her. I needed to learn Her dance, the dance She deserved to be properly courted. 

I confided all this to Her in the dark of night. I told Her over and over until I was sure She heard. She did not laugh or mock me, but neither would She let me approach Her. Not yet.

What could I give a goddess to convince Her I am sincere? What might She lack that I, a crow, may supply? How would I please a being so silent, so immortal, so scarred yet flawless?

I tried experiments. 

In the mountain town where I spent time, a train shot through the threadbare suburbs every night. Train was perfect and fast and noisy but lacked language. I decided to practice by guessing what Train would accept as gifts. First, I formed a wad of shiny wrappers into a sphere. I dropped it onto the tracks right before Train announced its approach with its whistles and its tacketa-tacketa on the older sections of track. Train did not slow down. It sped over the shiny ball I offered, leaving it intact but rolling drunkenly 10 meters south. 

I tried a pile of keys I had collected on Train. Nothing.

I carefully placed some pennies on the tracks themselves, which transformed the coins but drew no response from Train.

Finally, I arranged a series of forks between the rails. They formed a sparkling micro track within the track. I carefully positioned a dozen forks parallel to each other, exactly the same distance apart. It took me hours and I barely finished before Train rounded the corner. Train startled as soon as its headlight got close enough to reflect off my fork track. It sighed mightily and blew its horn early. I called this a success.

Train could not remotely parallel the splendor of Luna, but it did match Her aloofness. It had no love or hate for the shiny, or for any kind of gift, or for my existence. Train had no need for or perhaps real awareness of anything I offered. I was on the right track, so to speak.

Encouraged, I dared to try for a more animate and glorious being, one with a language as mysterious as Luna’s. 

Hope drew me into the heart of the forest. I knew of a thickly forested slope so steep that even the greediest, most intrepid loggers never touched it. Day or night, it was always dark and private in that forest. Perched on the lip of a cliff in that darkness lived an ancient fir I called Padre Abete. It was the patriarch of the surrounding acre of fir trees. It directly nurtured all trees nearby. I knew the Padre spoke; I heard it, but I did not understand its language. Before I was bewitched by Luna, I sometimes came here to worship Padre Abete. I liked to perch not on the Padre, but nearby on a foster tree, to listen to his rumbling stories and commandments. 

Padre Abete and his retinue were uninterested in anything shiny. What pleased them was quite the opposite. I brought the Padre fecund and aromatic tidbits. In particular, I rescued filters laden with used coffee grounds from the garbage. I deposited them around Padre Abete’s ankles. Over a period of a week or two, I built up a shadow ring of delicious coffee grounds to nurture the Padre and all his children and cousins and their young brothers and sisters. In reply, all of the firs in that grove commenced a contented rumbling purr, forming sweet, deep chords. I did not know the words, I could not make out the syntax, but I understood pleasure when I heard it.

This was a win on the first try. On the next night when the sky was clear and She was full, I felt closer to being ready. 

But I also had to work to grow stronger. I flew across wide lakes. I flew through hailstorms.

I spread my black-and-white patterned wings and let my Luna inspire dances no crow had ever danced before. 

And I sang and sang. I sang at midnight, dodging the shoes and books of dwellers of the mountain town who did not appreciate my hoarse hymns to She Who Shines in the Night.

On every clear night, I allowed myself to bask in the light of Luna. On nights when the sky wasn't clear, I sang to Her obscurity. At the new moon, I savored the sweet pain of Her absence. 

I collected every bright reflective trinket I could find. I lined them up for inspection on the edge of the roof of the building where once I had feasted on larvae. Only those ornaments capable of reflecting the light of Luna, whether gibbous or waning, did I save in a silver sack. 

Finally, I practiced flying higher and higher, carrying my sack of tokens, which I learned to expertly shift from beak to talon to another talon and back to beak. I wanted to be up where no clouds could block my view of Her. I wanted to carry myself to Her with all my gifts intact. 

"I am coming," I gasped in the thin, cold, beautiful air. "I am coming to bring you my gifts." I felt on the verge of hearing and comprehending Her. I rested after dawn, exhausted from flying high into the night, sure I could hear the pre-echo of Her call.

On a perfectly auspicious, clear full moon night, I launched off the highest branch of Padre Abete. I flew almost straight up, but in a slight spiral to maximize my strength. I expected the journey to take days. 

I was ready for it to get cold, based on my practice flights. It was coldest just above the clouds. I had the grit for it. 

She watched, nodding at my efforts. 

It got colder. Earth looked more and more like autumn leaves floating in a puddle. I had plenty of grit for it.

I got warmer. Something singed the tips of my feathers by burning or freezing. I dodged objects made of metal and objects accreted from mud and pebbles and ice. Soon, there was no air to breathe. I let myself float, not just light but weightless, and I looked at Her. Was this my worthy if lonely end? 

She purred at me. She spoke. She called. My grit answered. 

I discovered breathing was optional. My hollow bones adapted. My blood slowed in my veins. I rallied and flew faster, wanting. I burned with need for Her, for finding out what She wanted from me. For knowing Her true Name.

Free of the cycle of light and dark, I lost track of day and night, sleep and waking. Moving was easy now, and different. In the middle of my journey there was only Luna. Her muttering filled my sluggish heart and soothed the ache in my pectorals. 

She grew larger and larger as the days passed until there was nothing to see except Luna. I was a small, detached, fluttering piece of Luna. I had been lost and now I was nearly found.

When I landed, I barely made a mark. My beak let go of the silver sack of shiny tokens and they scattered across the fine rubble of Her skin. I panicked and went to gather the gifts. After leaping up too far and tumbling away, I learned to drag myself forward minutely. I followed the glittering trail of spilled trinkets, pulling them back into the silver sack. 

It took a long time. Maybe I should have left them on Her face. Hadn't I come all this way to bring them? So She could have them? How should I present myself and my gifts?

I looked at everything. I marveled. I pondered. 

Now, one with Luna, I was even more of an anomaly than I had been among crows. There was nothing like me in the regolith I stumbled through. Nothing moved unless I moved it. Nothing else was black or white, much less both. But that meant there was no one almost like me to mock me for being less than identical.

This was a sort of belonging that seemed almost familiar. I might be happy.

I became still and then I heard Her hard, droning breast. She screamed octaves below any sound Earth was capable of. 

This was better than breathing. 

At last I knew union with She who is the light that proves all darkness to be pure, including mine.

I dared to ask for more. 

First, I laid out all my shiny earth gifts on the floor of a crater so they formed the shape of crow, one with striped wings like me. 

She rumbled in approval. 

"I want light," I rattled into Her silence. "I want to be Your light, Luna." She grunted and her flesh shifted rhythmically beneath me. 

"You are nothing," I now understood Her to say. "You should not have come."

"Yet here I am," I dared to answer.

"If I give you a gift, a part of Me, will you leave?"

I did not want to leave Her. I did not want to return home. 

"Yes," I said. "If that is what You want, I will go back."

In reply, instead of any sound or sentence or tectonic punctuation, She sent a bolt of white-hot pain-bliss through me. Briefly, I felt every tiny bone in my body light up. She and I were the same.

I lost all desire to resist Her. I immediately lifted myself away from Her surface and turned toward Earth. 

My journey home was different, faster. I slid on Her light at speeds I never knew before. I was a living explosion. Earth expanded rapidly in my eyes. 

When I got back to the clouds, there was air to breathe. I did not breathe it. Everything around me was frigid. I was neither cold nor warm. 

I found my way to the roost I had been excluded from. No one noticed me, so I opened my beak to announce my presence and my status. 

Instead of the cacophonous squawks I had once spoken, I felt another jolt. The roost lit up with a blue light. Branches fell and so did the crows who had been huddled on them against what I realized was a storm. A few crows — the ones I had been looking directly at, the ones I recognized from my previous life — fell onto the ground in lifeless piles of smoking feathers.

I had not intended this, but it did not destroy me to destroy.

"Lightning! Flee!" screeched the oldest crows, and the entire roost — what was left of it — rose as one. All of them flew away from me as fast as they could.

Fascinating. I rose up and and jumped from cloud to cloud, making thunder as I went. I followed the murder until it dispersed into exhausted families and terrified individuals. I stopped my pursuit then. 

Luna, my goddess, the source of Light and Wisdom, had made me Lightning. 

I am brief but immortal. No one mocks me. You are welcome to fear me.

After a bad breakup with Seattle, L (they/them) lives in a house overlooking Lazarus Island, which appears and disappears in the drowned river mouth of the Nehalem River as it pours its sorrows into the Pacific Ocean. L feeds every crow, raccoon, Steller's Jay, and goldfinch in Tillamook County. L shares indoor space with their queer spouse of 25 years, 4 cats, 1 dog, and 1 40-year-old lilac-crowned Amazon parrot who hates L. Find L's daily apocalypses and occasional dragons within their Plot Spittoon. https://plotspittoon.substack.com/

How To Brush Your Teeth

by Devon Neal

The way it was explained to me,

our teeth are like smooth stones

collected at the feet of forest trees,

mossed by the grime of our day’s meals,

the acid-rain puncture of sugar,

and as we sleep at night, the fetid scent

attracts jittering insects with jagged legs,

horned and pinching, mandibles grinding,

to inspect every crevice in our damp mouths—

spined legs across our tongues,

antennae tickling along our smooth palates.

So brush long and thorough; bristle away

the soft sheen of lichen, let the floss tick

between the bones of the undergrowth.

Keep the night air clean and fresh,

mint repellant burning away strange wings,

your teeth lit with the soft glimmer of moonlight.

Devon Neal (he/him) is a Kentucky-based poet whose work has appeared in many publications, including HAD, Livina Press, The Storms, and The Bombay Lit Mag, and has been nominated for Best of the Net. He currently lives in Bardstown, KY with his wife and three children.

I Want You

by Maria Pianelli Blair
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This piece first appeared in The Mersey Review.

Maria Pianelli Blair (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist born in New York City and based in New Jersey. A public relations director by day, Maria spends her nights dabbling in ceramics, printmaking, embroidery, and analog collage. Her collages, fashioned on everything from cardboard to playing cards, marry contemporary imagery, found vintage materials, and magical realism. Maria's work can be found on Instagram (@sunset_sews) and Etsy. She has been published in several art magazines, and featured both galleries and virtual exhibitions.

The Craving

by Elizabeth Gade

The first significant event of something amiss that was noticed by the community of Bethlehem was when Mary, the vegan, began butchering her own meat. The first slaughtered animals were a trio of screaming fatted geese she bought from the farmers market a town over. She shoved them into the hatchback of her dented Subaru like a gaggle of gossiping teenage girls, shrill and shrieking. When she slit their throats on the front lawn the next sunshine-soaked fall afternoon, she was secretly relieved and thrilled, though nothing showed outwardly beyond her usual smirk. Much to the horror of her suburban neighbors who just so happened to witness the whole unorthodox sacrifice. The blood was rich and glossy, and Mary ended the whole gruesome ordeal craving candy apples. She wanted to sink her teeth into something shatteringly sweet and instead settled on dragging the old charcoal grill from the depths of the garage. Mary lit the coals and grilled a large portion of the rich goose meat, waving casually at the neighbors across the way. She went inside and ate it alone, over the kitchen sink with her hands while her husband lingered awkwardly in the door, clearing his throat over and over but saying nothing, mouth silent and open. Mary’s lips were shiny with grease and her face was flushed, she didn’t look so different from everyday Mary, but there was something there. Something expansive. And hungry. And quick with a knife. 

Elizabeth Gade is a rural Minnesota bisexual poet and human trafficking survivor. Writing is her radical way to connect with survivors. Her poems have been published in View Magazine, The Elevation Review, 300 Days Of Sun, Other Worldly Women Press, Exist Otherwise & more. Her self-published debut poetry collection "Fawn and Freeze" is available on Amazon. Elizabeth created LEO Literary Journal, an online journal dedicated to women writers affected by incarceration, addiction and/or domestic violence. www.LeoLiteraryJournal.Weebly.com She is creator and host of Survived To Write, a survivor led writing circle for human trafficking survivors. Connect on Instagram @ElizabethGadeThePoet and @SurvivedToWrite

Wild Women

by Jacquelin Molina Guillen
For Mary Oliver

After three days of being the only two women 

Rafting on the Snake River among men

Silently judging our choice of cheap beer, 

We made our way to the Tetons 

Which are often overlooked for that 

Timid geyser up north in Yellowstone.

Crowds wait hours to watch its immaculate 

Ejaculation for a beat and a breath

And then say “oh, is that it?” 

But we wanted to behold those mountains

Hanging from earth’s chest like 

Large and wonderful breasts lactating 

Water into fresh lakes to swim in. 

 

As we drove to the park we collected

Animal sightings like relics. 

First, there was the black bear 

Seated in the arid grass unperturbed 

By the people gathering nearby,

Then the mother grizzly guiding her cub 

Over the hill away from traffic. 

Naturally there were herds of bison,

But never like before, and the doe we fell

Upon after I said I felt akin to its spirit. 

 

You said you were more like the wolf

Running on the silty earth naked footed 

Sleeping under the moon’s drifting sky, 

Wearing a heart devoted to play. 

With this came the medicine of abandonment

Fear became illusionary transient thoughts

Opening a trail toward enlivenment 

And we were brave enough 

And forever willing to trek it.

Dirt collected beneath fingernails,

Hair became untamable hives,

Skin darkened from the touch of sun. 

Oh, how the open desert loved us

As we became reacquainted with the animals

That house our spirits, remembering how to 

Nurture the connection between wild and women.

Jacquelin Molina Guillen (she/her/ella) is a Mexican American poet from Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on her deep reverence for nature and has been published in Metaphor, [inherspace] Journal, Pacific Review, and Bicoastal Review. She has served as an editor for Metaphor and a reader for Poetry International. Inspired by her poetic heroines, she recently dropped out of her creative writing program to pursue a life of greater authenticity and passion which fuels her work. She is currently preparing to publish her first poetry chapbook this spring. You can keep up with her writing and newsletters at her Instagram: @becominggrass 

Lake Gossamer

by Bethany Cutkomp

Mama swore the lake was alive, that sentience churned within its silt-bottomed sludge, extending through the veins of inlets and creeks. Greed once tainted its algae-crusted water, a desperate kind of hunger that grew stronger with every interaction.

“If you press your ear to the soil, you can hear cravings pulse through the tree roots,” Mama said over a starving fire.  “Just the faintest whisper, begging more, more, more.”

More loose change. More handwritten secrets. More dried flower petals, former love letters, drops of blood. The land had no preference. As long as an offering touched its water, Lake Gossamer returned instant gratification or misfortune at random.

Ambiguities stemming from this age-old myth surfaced through the mouths of locals. Proposals and breakups have played out along the shoreline. Wealth and debt have struck households within hours of wading through soggy reeds. On the walk back through a thick maze of trees, visitors have recovered lost items. Injured themselves. Disappeared, even. All erratic impossibilities carried a common denominator: an exchange with the water.

Mama’s smoke-watered gaze flickered between me and my best friend Lilith. “Keep your distance, girls. Lake Gossamer gives and it takes. Making contact with the water is fair game, and you do not want to risk what you’re not prepared to lose.”

Miniscule gaps between my spine quivered, triggering an embryonic urge to curl in on myself.

Lilith’s bony fingers wrapped around mine but I batted them away. Entering middle school this autumn made us far too old to shudder at the make-believe.

Camping at Lake Gossamer had been a tradition since Lilith and I were five, but all that our water-adjacent trips gave us were bug bites and sunbaked skin. My friend’s white-blonde hair tangled like Spanish moss. She wove wildflowers into my thick braids. Smudges of dirt and clay kissed our foreheads and cheeks while climbing trees and flipping over rocks. As children of the outdoors, we controlled our own feral metamorphoses.

Later that evening, wet hair sandwiched between ear and polyester, Lilith whispered, “My dad says the lake just gives us parasites.”

“Yeah.” I kicked her with my mud-crusted foot. “And it takes our shoes.”

We stifled our giggles with palms clamped over our mouths. Although we’d just successfully returned from sneaking off, we kept our voices low. My heartbeat contorted and flickered through my ribs like open-air flames. I still had a difficult time processing what we’d just encountered along the lakeshore.

Half an hour earlier, Lilith and I had crept away to a secluded inlet where solid land bled into water. We took turns scrubbing campfire smoke out of our hair, discussing which of Mama’s stories seemed plausible compared to others. While sweeping my flashlight along glassy ripples of black, I tripped upon a sight that made my organs shrivel.

A bipedal figure lurked in the underbrush, glassy eyes reflecting the passing cone of light. My esophagus closed up mid-conversation. When I did a double take, the entity stared back with perturbing stagnancy. I whipped my light away, muscles twitching from a fractional glimpse of almond skin and hand-stitched clothing.

“Mama?” I whispered.

A force against my own judgement drew me forward until the moon’s reflection lapped against my calves. By the time I’d came to my senses, my feet already sank into a thick sludge. It took Lilith’s assistance to free me, costing me one of my grass-stained Nikes.

“What? What did you see?” Lilith prompted.

I raised my beam again, illuminating a mere void of trees. “Nothing.”

When safe inside our tent, my sleeping bag swished under frequent fidgeting. Every time my eyelids slid shut, my legs jerked from the sensation of cool water up to my knees. I rolled onto my side and, beyond my own pulse thrumming against the pillow, heard feeble voices seeping through the earth.

More, more, more…

“Estie?” Lilith mumbled.

I jerked awake. “Hm?”

“What if your mom is right? About the myth, I mean. What would happen to us?”

Shadowed by nocturnal discourse in the trees, her hushed tone summoned goosebumps across my arms. I thought of my mother in the woods. I couldn’t place it but, in that second of eye-contact, something felt off about her appearance. Disproportionate. Animal-eyed.

“Well, we didn’t offer the water anything, so it has nothing to take from us,” I said, unzipping my sleeping bag and squirming inside. One leg under, one leg sticking out—just the way I liked it.

“Smart thinking.” Lilith snuggled closer like she did during sleepovers, her forehead nestling the space between my shoulder blades. “G’night, Estie-bestie.”

Her touch sent a tingle through my epidermis to my core, triggering a Pop Rocks sensation within my chest. That had never happened before.

“Night, Lil,” I murmured.

During breakfast the next morning, Lilith’s parents asked me about my missing shoe. I lied that, while on a late-night trip to the bathroom, I threw my shoe at a raccoon rummaging through the dumpster.

Mama shook her head with a smile. If that was her spying on us in the dark, she didn’t mention it. To save myself the thought of what else could have been out there, I never brought up the encounter myself.

 

****

 

Lake Gossamer calls to me with the subtle persistence of a bug-bite itch. Although we’re sleeping in the same campsite as we did as kids, nothing is the same as it used to be.

Lilith and I are no longer the knobby-kneed girls that played fairies and hide-and-seek in the woods. As it did many things, post-adolescence stole that bond from us. Before we’d drifted apart, we kissed at the edge of the water. Out of curiosity, Lilith reasoned. Just for fun. I agreed with her for the sake of keeping our friendship, though conflict churned within me. Lilith was my first and only kiss, a feral gentleness I’ve longed for ever since.

While I’d been out of state for college orientation the following summer, she started dating a Lake Gossamer park ranger named Marco. I’d only met him through pictures, but he tamed Lilith’s wild edges into a soft girl that latched onto his company with haste.

What did she see in that boy that she didn’t see in me? Was it because he was a boy? Was it because I wasn’t enough in her eyes?

I faded out of my best friend’s life with the weight of an exhale. 

This past year, Marco faded out, too. Physically, with a devastating permanence.

Creaking footsteps rouse me into consciousness. The door to Lilith’s family trailer groans open and shut. My pulse climbs with each minute that passes. Something’s wrong. I rise and swing my legs over the side of the mattress, nearly hitting Mama in the bunk below.

She stirs. “Where are you off to?”

“Bathroom,” I murmur, strapping on my sandals. “I’ll be back.”

Her hand lurches out and grabs my sleeve. “Don’t go out there. Please.”

A fist of apprehension punches my empty stomach. Out there carries a heavy implication.

Almost a year ago, shortly after I returned from university, Lilith’s partner Marco didn’t return from his shift at the lake. That stretch of transition was a blur—me unpacking my belongings while our town organized search parties. Lilith was unreachable, an inconsolable ghost. Any attempt at contacting her only put up a thicker wall between us.

The sheer volume of Lake Gossamer made for a multi-day search. Every passing night further solidified a putrid, unspeakable thought in our minds. Marco wasn’t coming back. If he was out there somewhere, it would only be a matter of time before he turned up half-digested by an unforgiving land.

When divers found his body tangled in the reeds, skin bloated and discolored, they ruled the fatality as an accident. A tragedy, but one nobody could have prevented. No reason to shut down the campsite altogether. No point in fearing a stagnant body of water.

Still, Mama has her own suspicions, and she won’t let me hear the end of it.

“I’m worried about Lilith,” I admit.

“Leave her be, love. Grief comes in many forms.”

“I have this terrible gut feeling,” I say. “Something bad is going to happen if I don’t go out there.”

Mama lets go of me. Pauses. Sighs.

“Lake Gossamer helped bring you into this world, Estrella,” she says. “I worry that it will take you out just as easily if you’re not careful.”

My fingertips go cold. “What?”

“You were a high-risk pregnancy. Doctors told me that I had low chances of a healthy birth and I didn’t know where to turn. In my third trimester, I made a bargain with the water. Please give me a chance, I asked. And then you came into the world—my greatest gift.”

“What did you offer in exchange?” I ask.

“Trust,” Mama answers. “I gave up hope that everything would be okay, that your father would come back and raise a family with me, that I had everything under control.”

Although her voice is thick with slumber, her words ooze with a kind of honesty that has fermented through years of being kept a secret.

“These are not fables you’re playing with, Estrella,” she continues. “I can’t lose you.”

I digest her warning with sincere deliberation. As much as I want to linger on the safe side of anecdotes I’ve been told since I was a little girl, the trepidation chewing my stomach lining urges me to take the risk.

 

“I love you,” I finally say, “but I won’t be able to live it down if I can’t save Lilith from herself.”

Mama rolls over to face the wall.

I creep out into the damp morning and ease the trailer door shut behind me with a click. Daylight hasn’t quite woken the woods yet. I navigate by muscle memory, retracing an unmarked route through thick vegetation.

Fatigue plucks faces from the trees, scowls sculpted out of warped trunks and shadow. I pick up my pace, plowing through layers of dew-kissed spiderwebs. Low hanging limbs graze my biceps, wooden fingers coaxing me forward. There is an eagerness within its touch, a gesture too sentient to blame on the breeze.

Our secret inlet is overgrown with greenery. A pungent heaviness hangs in the air, a kind of dread that pierces my sternum.

The water ripples from a disturbance in the distance. I recognize my friend’s nightgown and white-blonde hair consumed by the shade. In the low light, she resembles the water sprites she used to sketch in the margins of her homework.

“Lil,” I call out.

She turns toward me. There is an uncanniness to her gaze, a hollow-eyed fixation that haunts me. She’s lost, treading water while dreaming. Exhaustion transforms her head into a bobber that dips beneath the surface.

The world blurs to slow motion as I bend over to peel off my sandals. I feel like I’m still asleep, cradling reality and nightmare in opposite hands. The same lily pads and duckweed that consumed Marco’s body graze my ankles. My calves. My thighs. When I dip beneath the surface, disembodied voices worm through my plugged-up ears.

More, more, more…

Clods of algae cling to me like leeches. Lilith’s arms are stained green with them. Once I pull her onto a half-submerged tree limb, I swipe back wispies plastered to her forehead. She stiffens at my touch, scooting further down the branch to put distance between us.

I deflate. “Whenever you feel strong enough, we should head on back to—”

“It’s too late for that,” she interrupts. “The water wishes to trade with me.”

Her tone is sharp with misery. Bereavement has sculpted her into a girl I barely recognize.

“Not you, too,” I blurt, which comes out ruder than I intend.

Lake Gossamer gives and it takes.” Venom drips from her recitation. “It wasn’t a coincidence that I met Marco after you left me behind. This lake made a bargain with me. Love in exchange for friendship.”

Rubbing the scrapes on my arms doesn’t sting as much as her words. “Lil, I didn’t—”

“Y’know, as much as I hated losing you, I convinced myself that it was worth it.” Her voice pinches. “You should’ve met him. He filled gaps that I didn’t even know I was made of. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with him, but then it happened all over again.”

“This lake took him away,” I venture.

“Permanently.” Lilith pulls her knees to her chest, wobbling. “I’m still waiting for something in return, but I don’t know what could possibly repay this kind of loss.”

A cold hush sifts through the woods, caressing the underbrush with a wordless whisper.

I trace the cellulite on my thighs for the sake of moving. “I hope you know that despite everything that’s happened, I’m still here for you. I always have been.”

Lilith bristles. “It’s like we barely know each other anymore.”

I want to scream and shake her by the shoulders. That isn’t true. To know her is to love her, and I have loved my best friend since the days of skinned knees and missing teeth. Through every giddy sleepover, every field trip, every basement party, Lilith’s company has radiated a comfort only twin flames can sense. Maybe I’ve spent so much time hating myself for factors I have no control over that I forgot how to be that same kind of comfort in return.

Closing the space between us, I embrace her. Lilith withers at my touch. Hot saltwater drops roll down the bridge of her nose, fusing with freshwater remnants.

“Give me up,” she whispers. “Please.”

“I can’t do that. You mean too much to me.”

And then I kiss her. Not out of curiosity. Not just for fun. My chapped lips melt into hers, just like I remember. The timing is inappropriate and I know that makes me a terrible person, but I cannot let her go again. Not when I know the stakes.

Lilith coughs in surprise. A gush of murky water fills my mouth, tasting of silt and rot. Huh? I choke and peel away, but her pruning fingers snake around my neck and tighten. Hard. Squeezing with a rope-like strain.

My hands fumble for her wrists and flinch at a pulp-like consistency. I force my eyes open to a blur of distortion: a yawning jaw and mossy flesh drooling off the bone.

There is no air to scream. I buck my legs and Lilith uses the momentum to shove us both off of the branch. The world tips sideways, colliding in a disorienting splash that burns my nostrils. I gargle against tendrils of algae coiling around my mouth and eyes.

Who is this girl I’ve known my entire life? What has she turned into?

As I fight to orient myself, I hear a flat object slap the surface. Then another. Lilith’s grip weakens. Free from her vegetative shackles, I kick until I breach with a gasp and grab for a supportive branch.

Someone shouts in my peripherals, “Estrella, get out of there!”

Mama paces the shoreline, stripping her feet bare to toss in her own sandals after mine. I’ve never seen her so disheveled by desperation. Was this the same unconditional love she poured into this myth to wish me into the world?

“But Lilith,” I sputter, recoiling from those leafy fingers looping around both ankles. “She’s—”

“That isn’t your friend, love. It’s a mind trick—a lure into the water.”

A dormant memory unfolds in fragments: Lilith and I sneaking off to this inlet as kids. Spotting a lone figure lingering across the water. Recognizing features of my mother treading the border of uncanniness. Finding myself knee-deep against my own judgement.

I consider all of those unfortunate souls that were drawn in by temptation and lost bits of themselves in return. Perhaps there is a reciprocal understanding between man and myth, that certain longings may never fully be quenched.

Mama starts to say something else, but Lake Gossamer tugs me by the feet and swallows me whole. Instant submersion puts excruciating pressure on my sinuses. The harder I writhe, the deeper I’m dragged. Suspended in the belly of an aquatic entity, my shrieks come out as bubbles.

If giving up mere trust is what brought me into this world, perhaps the abstract can keep me in it. My oxygen-starved brain grasps Lilith, my lure. Since that childhood late-night excursion, I inadvertently traded my best friend with a crush. That is evident now, but Lilith has moved on. I am no longer her Estie-bestie. As long as I yearn for a girl that doesn’t reciprocate the feeling, I am nobody.

To know her is to love her and, if I cannot love her, I know what I must give up.

Go ahead, I direct toward this liquid greed. Take it.

And it does.

 

****

 

While Mama cradles my sopping head in her lap, a young woman with a nest of white-blonde hair and a dirt-streaked face tramps into the clearing.

“I came as quick as I could. The rangers are on their way and my parents—” Her expression softens. “Oh, Estrella.”

She crouches and peels back clods of algae suctioned to my skin. I stiffen, flinching out of her reach. Who said this stranger could touch me? How does she know my name?

The girl winces. “What? Did I do something wrong?”

“Estrella?” Mama studies my face for hints of context. “What was it that you gave up?”

“I don’t remember.”

This is the truth. My mind sifts through silt and reeds, remnants of a major sacrifice I cannot recall.

An uncomfortable silence settles among us. All that remains is a gentle lapping at the shore, a subtle beckoning: more, more, more.

Bethany Cutkomp (she/her) is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys catching chaotic vibes and bees with her bare hands. Her work appears or will appear in Alternative Milk Magazine, Hearth & Coffin, Wireworm Magazine, Exposed Bone, The Hooghly Review, Bullshit Lit, Mag 20/20, and more. Find her on social media at @bdcutkomp and on her website at https://bdcutkomp.wixsite.com/portfolio

hominem sine nomine

by Anshita Palorkar

in my trade, we’re wary of strange folk

keep our wits close and knives closer

 

“no more than your name!” he hollers,

that raggedy rabble-rouser

 

forty-second time at my tavern,

I've been countin’

 

he asks of my patrons each day:

“won’t you care to know

what wisdom falling trees scream?”

 

‘nuff to turn heads. perchance

he hears an aye, declares:

“a modest price, friend.”

 

“I ask for no more than

your name to be mine.

a souvenir from your land.”

 

mad as a march hare, that one

but business is business ‘round here,

he brings in quite the crowd

 

dunno ‘bout this wisdom hogwash

but I sure love a pretty penny.

Anshita Palorkar (she/her) is your friendly neighborhood purple prose enthusiast. She is a data science and engineering student from India and leads the literary society at her college. When she isn't writing or awestruck by a pretty graph, she's probably scheming the heat death of the universe. Her work has appeared in Soft Star Magazine, Sour Cherry Magazine, and miniMAG, among others. Find her on Instagram/Medium @asomewhatchaoticpoet.

Food Chain

by Mackenzie Ostrowski
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Mackenzie Ostrowski (she/her) is a queer multimedia artist based in California. Steeped in the rich tapestry of Southern Gothic aesthetics and influenced by diverse folk art traditions worldwide, Mackenzie's creations explore the realms of identity and nature. This entails creating art across a variety of mediums, including traditional and digital illustration, ceramic making, and fabric works. With a commitment to storytelling, she weaves narratives into her creations that beckon viewers to engage with her pieces from multiple perspectives. You can discover more of her artistry by following @houndsbone on Instagram.

Lemon Battery

by Bob King
For Chris

We got paired up for our 7th grade science
fair project, & you weren’t exactly sure what
you wanted to do, but you were certain you
wanted to pull electricity out of a lemon—
to what end, to be determined. You’d read
about it in the back of a Rolling Stone or
Mad Magazine, you couldn’t remember which,
but lemons contained juice, pulp, seeds,
& electricity inside them & we were going
to exactly be the 12 year olds to extract all of it—
only, our sense of engineering was slightly worse
than our understanding of electroconductivity,
friendship, or faith, how something so unseen
yet empowering could be lurking inside
something so wet & degradable, with its
parts deconstructed in front of us on your
mom’s cutting board, castoff rinds spilling
not back into the hastily cut open net bag
but instead onto the countertop, the linoleum,
so we enlisted your Grandpa Vince & he
convinced us it wasn’t enough to extract—
once extracted we had to do something with
that new power, so he used several of his
Standard Oil pliers, & soon enough,
mounted to a scrap 2”x10”he shaped
a couple paperclips precisely into stanchions,
their bases tacked to the reclaimed pine,
the mini towers topped by two circular mounts
through which the axel of a third paperclip
like a gymnast could spin—electrified—if
we did it right, if we connected the leads to
the copper coin & zinc nail plunged into
the harnessed sun of our lemon electrolyte.
We didn’t impress, didn’t win any prizes,
but it worked, & your grandfather’s smile
behind his pipesmoke & Harry Carey glasses
made it worth it. And that’s what I was
thinking about when I awoke today,
predawn, trying to convince myself back
to sleep, chest down on the mattress
one arm up to the left, cool outside the covers,
palm splayed big & wide, trying to let every
nerve ending feel, like a negative transistor
clip searching for its zinc electrode—
& on the other side, my right hand splayed
somewhere up under the pillows, searching
for another terminal, searching for the possible,
hopeful calming vibrations of Earth through
& under all that flesh, cotton, springs,
floorboards, time’s passage, these attempts
at soothing, down through the concrete
foundation, soil, bedrock, mantle, all those
nerve endings through the outer--& now I
can almost reach, hair now standing on end—
the glowing inner iron core.  

Muscular Faith: On Five For Fighting's "Superman (It's Not Easy)"

by Bob King

It’s not that you’re faster than a locomotive,
but that you—on a perfectly groomed pitch—
can run really fast in short bursts, even with
the ball at your feet. You cannot leap tall
buildings, but at Mineola Prep you made it
to the hotly contested regional quarter finals
in the high jump, & not that you’ve ever tried,
but you’re pretty confident that once you got
the practice in & the physics down, you
could be pretty decent at the pole vault, too.
Outside of those oceanographic nine months,
you cannot breathe underwater, but there’s
a Brazilian lizard that dives into the Amazon
River to escape his land predators, & when
the lizard exhales, he forms a bubble about
his head, a diver’s bell he can breathe inside
for up to 15 minutes. If you put your mind
to it, you, too, could increase your lung
capacity—once you knock off the Okay
just one cigarette
because it’s been a really
hard week.
Who doesn’t need an escape
hatch from this perpetual fight or flight
mode? And in Britain Phys Ed classes
began late-Victorian Era because young
lads needed physical strength to match
their lessons in religiosity. Building
generations of holistically fit young
men not-so-subtly disguised the societal
misogyny & would, like a wax record,
warp toward eugenics a mere half century
later. And it’s not that you’re clairvoyant,
but you look around, you see millennia
old grudges resurfacing, buildings easier
to bound when they are rubble, half the world
on fire, half drowning, & you don’t want to
minimize anyone’s suffering as they desperately
try to maximize their own superpowers, but
sometimes you get this overwhelming feeling
that, even still, things are going to be okay.
Like the final stroke of most plotlines, things
will work out. Or because you’ve again ceded
too much power to faith, & not enough to
the necessary & good & humble hard work—
peace more difficult than revenge—they won’t. 

 

Inspired by “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting (2001), The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt (2006), “Personism” by Frank O’Hara (1959), & Life on Our Planet, Netflix (2023). 

Bob (he/him/his) is a Professor of English at Kent State University at Stark. His poetry collection And & And is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in August 2024, & another collection, And/Or, is forthcoming in September 2025. Recent nominations include 3 for Pushcart Prizes (from LEON Literary Review, The Hooghly Review, & Paddler Press) & 2 for Best of the Net Anthology (from Blue Flame Review & The Gorko Gazette). He lives in Fairview Park, Ohio, with his wife & daughters. X/Twitter: @KingRobertJ Website: bobking.org

Bird's Nest

by Calla Smith

Some corners of the city seemed perfectly designed for a particular purpose. The old stone house where the café was built, surrounded on all sides by trees, was one such place. Vines twined up the walls, and in the springtime, the sidewalk was covered in a carpet of fallen flowers that filled the air with delicate perfume.

Once the doors were opened in the early hours of the morning, the enticing smell of hot ovens drew clients into the cozy saloon like bees to honey, and the entire neighborhood soon embraced the new business as though it had always been there.  

One cool spring day that still smelled of rain, a lost bird wandered in and sat on the floor looking quizzically up at everyone having a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat. The waitress took extra care while it was underfoot, and no one else paid any mind. Eventually, it flew out again, and that was the end of it.

But the next day, it came back with two comrades. One of them even found a new spot on a table to oversee the people coming in and out, and the cook snuck out a piece of stale bread. This was an invitation for disaster, and soon, five or six small beaks were pecking, and the table and floor were covered with crumbs. Conversations were drowned out by the chirps and songs that quickly filled the air. It took the staff some time to chase them all out and restore the place to its regular cleanliness.

The next morning, when they came back to open, they found they had left a small window in the kitchen ajar, and a row of sharp brown eyes and ruffled feathers were waiting to greet them with a demanding chorus of squawks. Whenever they thought they had managed to chase all the birds outside, another one seemingly appeared out of nowhere. They could never close the door to keep them all out, and the day was given over to a chaos of chirps and small bodies hurtling through the air. The winged animals grew bolder and bolder as their numbers swelled. They sat across from customers as though demanding a tribute from their breakfasts.

That night, the windows were simply left open, and they were all hoping that the captivity would bore their new friends and things would return to normal.

But the next morning, they could barely open the door without being engulfed in bluebirds, swallows, and sparrows. There was even a raven perched on the staircase upstairs. There was no way they could open with so many small bodies blocking the way at every turn, so they simply left the door open and the sliver of the city to be reclaimed by the flocks that would no longer be confined to the old gentle trees.

As the staff and manager left it all behind, they even murmured to each other that was the way it always should have been. 

Calla Smith (she/her)  lives and writes in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She enjoys reading, cooking, spending time with friends and family, and continuing to discover all the forgotten corners of the city she has come to call home.  She has published a collection of flash fiction “What Doesn’t Kill You”, and her work can also be found in several literary journals such as Cosmic Daffodil,  Bottled Dreams, and Hearth & Coffin among others. You can find her on X (formally Twitter) @CallaSmith4 and Instagram @calla.c.smith.

i found it again

by Charlotte Amelie Poe

In December you disappeared; turn of the year calls for turning inward and the joyous warmth that only a housefire can bring finally whimpered out, ashes raining down and smogging the sky and everything in the room. Say to yourself, little ghost boy, what did you learn from facing the end of the world and digging it into the very core of you? It felt so big, stuffing it inside, but it fit so perfectly it might as well have been made for you. Like a fox slinking off to die, you remember too bright headlights and the sudden impact, and then nothing, for a very long time. The winter – 

drags

like every frosted morning might never come, the sun shy and all washed out, more grey than yellowest yellow, and then the dark, again, a few hours to bask and raise your face to the heavens and breathe in, before it steals away again, settling over your very bones like moss and lichen and you, you, ghost boy, you lay down and feel the forest creep over you, deep and dark, and in the distance a fox calls, and you think – 

oh

it has not yet slunk off to die, it still calls, desperate to be answered, and maybe, in between the void spaces of sleeping, you yearn in the same way, my sweet ghost boy, and I’m sorry, I suppose, that nobody speaks the language of these coldest months in the way that you need, December a curse, December harsh and unforgiving, and when the year turns over, you sleep through it, waiting for the dawn – 

new

like the most fragile, breakable thing. And god, ghost boy, you want to smash it to pieces. And they light the candles for you, kindling to get that housefire burning again. And you speak in tongues until the words reverse again and you are back to the start and to the end and in all the places in between and it is new and old and you are here you are here you are here and –

maybe

it will all be okay after all.

Charlotte Amelia Poe (they/them) is an autistic nonbinary author from England. Their first book, How To Be Autistic, was published in 2019. Their debut novel, The Language Of Dead Flowers, was published in September 2022. Their second memoir, Conversations With Monsters, will be published in 2024. Their poetry has been published internationally.
Instagram: @smallreprieves
Website: charlottepoe.com

Grow Within Grow Without

by Mackenzie Ostrowski
Screen Shot 2024-04-20 at 6.47.44 PM.png

Mackenzie Ostrowski (she/her) is a queer multimedia artist based in California. Steeped in the rich tapestry of Southern Gothic aesthetics and influenced by diverse folk art traditions worldwide, Mackenzie's creations explore the realms of identity and nature. This entails creating art across a variety of mediums, including traditional and digital illustration, ceramic making, and fabric works. With a commitment to storytelling, she weaves narratives into her creations that beckon viewers to engage with her pieces from multiple perspectives. You can discover more of her artistry by following @houndsbone on Instagram.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest

by Paul Hostovsky

If a man falls to his knees in a forest

and there’s nobody there to hear

his soft weeping

and the trees are all standing around

not doing anything

and the animals have turned back

to what is their own

and the insects are loitering in the doorways

of his eyes and ears and nostrils

rubbing their hands together

with gusto

 

does it make 

sense to sing happy birthday

in a room with noisemakers and conical hats

and streamers and balloons above a white table

where a man is sitting

weeping on his knees in a forest

like dysentery among the desserts

like the suicide hanging

beside a burst pinata

the laughter and shrieks of children

mixing with birdsong?

Paul Hostovsky's (he,him,his) poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and the Best American Poetry blog. Website: paulhostovsky.com

The Onset of a New Dawn

by Soumi Roy

He has reigned for centuries. 

He was impenetrable, unparalleled—the valiant Asura king.

That was at an end.

As the immortal lies dying on the floor of his cindered castle, his murderer meet his lips in an urge of seduction, he remembers the demigods and devas that had died upon his sword, just as he was about to do at the hands of one of their own. His broken insect wings sprawl beside him, a once mighty symbol of his power now rendered obsolete. 

A sharp pain cuts through his abdomen, and he feels the warm rivulets of blood spilling from the wound. The world around him begins to blur as he stares up at the looming Gandharva, their vajra raised and unyielding. The edge is tarnished with the dark blood of the fallen king.

"How does it feel to die?" they inquire, their voice lilting with a curiousity, though their eyes betrayed a deep, unfulfilled yearning.

"I've never felt such peace." The Asura's breath is shallow, each exhale a whisper.

"How shamefully astonishing," they reply, their slender fingers tracing the scarred neckline of the once mighty demon. These fingers, which once strummed the sitar at his court, are now a testament to the strange turns fate can take. "A dying demon speaks of salvation?"

Irony pervades the moment, as both knew all too well. He, the conqueror of Swarga, scourge of earth, and victor of Patala, now lay vanquished on the floor. He, who fell for a certain parrot-winged Gandharva, lured into their light. They became his bane, his downfall. 

“Yes, a demon dying in the arms of his beloved speaks of forgiveness.” The Asura smiles sorrowfully. The Gandharva’s hooves shifted, grinding rocks to dust, unable to name what burnt in their chest. This is what they had yearned for, to see their tormentor tormented, reduced to less than a slave beneath their feet. They had dreamed of this moment when lying in his arms, every kiss given a promise, a step to lead here. But then, why does it hurt? “Tell me, love, do you forgive me?” the fallen king asks, searching their eyes for a glimmer of hope.

But the Gandharva remains silent, words deserting them in this moment of unfathomable pain. Love, they realize, is more ferocious than death. Its way of killing is slow and painful, searing the heart and leaving scars that never truly heal. 

"Do you recall the time we first met?" The demon's smile fades, replaced by a look of remorse, as he gazes up at his beloved Gandharva. His eyes are dim. Lost in the enchantment of old memories—or perhaps death has finally come to claim him.

Of course they remember, how could they forget? The battle cries, the pleas for mercy, the day the Asura king eradicated half of the divines and semi-divines, from the devas to the nymphs. He chained down the rest and cast them into an endless pit of Patala. And yet, on that fateful day, something unexpected occurred.

Against all odds, the demon king had laid his eyes on a delicate court singer. He cut their wings, plucking each of their feathers out. Their wings had been the brightest, each feather a brushstroke of emerald, azure, and amethyst. The colors of the world were reflected in their iridescent plumage—and he claimed it all for his own. He caged them, and loved them like a little pet bird.

They had believed he loved them, anyway. It was love that defied logic, a twisted perversion that His "love” had demanded possession and been violently beautiful and brutally tender. It was love nonetheless. 

Either way, it doesn’t matter, not now when the end is so close. They had lived on spite alone, crafted each smile with poison, thought of vengeance with each kiss. Their plans are yielding fruit now; his destruction is near. They should have no thoughts of love.

Still, their heart twitches. 

In the hushed intimacy of their chamber, they stroke the strings of the sitar, while the Asura's calloused hands tended to the remnants of their wings, where a few feathers stir. 

"The gods, how grand and vain." The Asura king's words resonate with a deep bitterness. "They used our kind to churn ambrosia from the sea, tempting us with false promises, only to deny us our rightful share. And when we dared to demand what was rightfully ours, they slaughtered us and cast us into the dark abyss of Patala. Is this not unjust?"

"But you have defeated them," they whispered, feeling the weight of his emotions, his desire for retribution. But as they looked upon the demon king, thinking of his own fallen brethren, they couldn't help but wonder - was his revenge any more righteous than the gods' atrocities?

"It was time for my kind to see the sun," the demon king continued, his voice filled with a bitter sadness. "Is it our fault that we are born with bat wings and horns and tails? Is it our fault that the apsaras spit on our very existence, deeming us unworthy of beauty and love?"

Their hand trembles as they hold the Asura's face, the roughness of the scales beneath his eyes cutting into their palm. "But I love you." 

"Grant me one chance," the Asura heaves, as if he knows the weight of his sins. “A chance to be redeemed?”

“Then? What will you do then?” Their voice trembles. “Kill the remaining humans, hunt down every last god? Burn down more territory and rain blood from the sky?” 

"None of that," he says, his words a whisper on the wind. "I want to be with you. If not, then release me from this tattered shell forever." 

"Alok," a voice calls from behind, the sound cutting through the silence. Alok. The name, their name, means light, now a mournful reminder of what they have lost with each passing year spent in captivity. As they turn their face towards the speaker, a realization dawns upon them. They understand now the plight of the Asuras, the anguish of being denied the simple joys of basking in the sun and breathing the fresh air. The weight of this understanding pulls at their heart, threatening to consume them in the same darkness that once enveloped their captor. But they push the feeling aside, pull themselves away from the moribund demon at their feet.

In the halo of twilight, the king of the heavens stands tall, triumphant after reclaiming the earth and sky. This is Indra, the brilliant one, his halo shining bright with divine power. Alok feel a tinge of jealousy; their own light has long since faded.

"What are you waiting for?” Indra demands. "Kill him."

"Yes, my lord," the wingless court singer says, their voice low and hesitant. The demon king smiles beneath them, giving a remorseful and tired slant to his blue lips. 

"You're not hesitating, Alok, are you?" Lord Indra’s brows drew together, skepticism lacing his words. He casts a glance towards the demon king, knowing all too well the fragility of the heart. "Remember, Alok. This is the moment you've been waiting for, the moment you were named for. It's time for you to finish what you started. It's time for you to bring back the light." 

"He's right," the demon whispers, a shuddering sigh escaping his lips. "Put an end to this, my love. I don't deserve to be saved, nor do I deserve your forgiveness. Not after everything I have done." He closes his eyes, tears slipping out to mingle with the blood on his face.

Alok feels rage and sorrow for their fallen comrades, brothers and sisters, and friends; humans and demigods alike. They also feel the weight of loss, the burden of grief, and a strange agony that they cannot name. It twists and churns within them. 

Alok raises the Vajra. The demon king's breaths are ragged and shallow, each exhalation closer to his last. One more strike, and the once-mighty demon will be gone forever—and yet, their hand trembles.

Then, the demon king reaches out and grabs their weakened hand, yanking them down towards him. Their lips crash together one last time, a kiss that's as cold as ice and as hot as fire. One last time. 

And the cold metal slips through his flesh. 

A deep heave of pain, a breath of release, and his lifeless lips fall away from theirs, eyes closed in a peaceful slumber.

In that moment, the fire in their eyes, too, dies.

Their hand falls to their side, the bloody sword loose in their palm.

Lord Indra walks up beside them, his grip firm and congratulatory on their shoulder. "Well done. You've freed us, all of us," he exclaims. Alok is a hero, a liberator, true to their name. “Come, Alok. It’s time. Everyone is waiting.”

"I will be there in a moment," they whisper, and Indra nods his understanding, leaving them alone beside the deceased demon king.

Standing tall and resolute, Alok feels a sense of calm wash over them. With one last look over their shoulder at the fallen king, they turn and calmly walk out of the door towards the terrace.

Alok does not cry. It's not what he would have wanted to see.

They gaze down upon the burning empire below, the acrid scent of smoke invading their nostrils. Alok lifts their face towards the sky and witnesses the fiery celebration of victory, the new dawn of freedom pouring its soft incandescence over the earth from the east.

Alok stretches their arms and leans out, falling weightlessly like a feather, a wingless bird to their death.

Isn’t that what they’ve always wanted, to take the flight of freedom?

They are free now, on the onset of a new dawn. 

3.png

Soumi Roy is a queer, neurodivergent author, hailing from Kolkata, India. She is an alum of the Tessera Editorial mentorship program, and her desi romance novella, A Tangled Truce, was published in Love All Year’21: A Holidays Anthology. She is currently represented by Antoinette Van Sluytman and Natalie Lakosil at Looking Glass Literary & Media Management.

Mariana's Headstone

by Zach Keali’i Murphy

The trees are bare enough to see the squirrels’ nests. Frederick scratches his gray mustache and squints his weathered eyes, wondering how a creature could rest on such a fragile bed, at such great heights, amidst winds that could carry away a thin branch.

 

During the spring and summer months, Frederick had spent every morning taking care of his beloved Mariana’s gravesite. He’d bring a pair of scissors in his back pocket, get down on his hands and knees, and make sure there wasn’t a single blade of grass out of place. A fresh set of daisies, strategically placed in a vase next to the headstone, would add a hint of delicate sun to the roughness of the stormcloud-colored granite. 

 

With winter on the way, Frederick knows it’s going to be a lot harder to keep Mariana’s headstone clear. The snow doesn’t care about the names it covers, and wool gloves just aren’t enough to warm up hands that have been cracked for forty years. The daisies will shrivel up quicker, if they don’t disappear first.

 

Frederick stands in front of Mariana’s headstone. He envisions himself lying peacefully in the plot next to her. When Frederick and Mariana got married, they’d always hoped that they wouldn’t ever be without each other for long. But when each minute feels like an empty lifetime, a day feels like another death. 

 

On the way home, Frederick’s walking stick taps against the sidewalk like a ticking clock. His walking stick has seen better days, but so has anything that has traversed the grounds of time. His back seems to hunch more with each step, his frown burrows deeper, and every breath becomes a bigger job when the cold air enters his lungs. The new neighbors whisper to each other from their porch, and Frederick turns away. It’s hard to face the world when you’re mourning your own. 

 

As Frederick approaches the walkway of his deteriorating Victorian house, he looks up and witnesses a squirrel falling from the birch tree in his front yard. The squirrel lands on the firm soil, pauses for a moment, frozen, then springs up and darts across the street as if nothing happened. 

 

Frederick steps into his home which doesn’t feel like home anymore. He hangs up his scarf, caresses the sleeve of Mariana’s old coat, and sighs. After making his way up the creaking staircase to his bedroom, Frederick lies down in his bed and stares at the ceiling. A gust of wind rattles the shaky windows. The height of his loneliness makes him feel dizzy. He contemplates whether he’ll ever be able to get back up again or not. He closes his eyes and wishes he could be like the squirrels. 

Zach Keali’i Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories appear in Reed Magazine, Maudlin House, The Coachella Review, Raritan Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Flash Frog, and more. He has published the chapbooks Tiny Universes (Selcouth Station Press) and If We Keep Moving (Ghost City Press). He lives with his wonderful wife, Kelly, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

My Disease Reimagined as a House Centipede

by Elise Scott

Wicked
limbs hitch
like fifteen sets
of kinked fingers;
flex, ripple, and sink
in quick, cryptic synchrony.
It sits; it picks; it knits 

its kinetic canticle 

like a key that
cracks me
open.

I feel the
way it whispers,
skitters up the thin
skin at the back of my
neck, feel the prick as it
ripples in and sinks, clicking
like cracked knuckles, rattling
in my veins. It clings to my ventricles,
its almost liquid tick, tick, ticking, picking,
tickling, tricking the rhythmic music
of my autonomic system,
quickening me.
Sickening
me.

I

fall. 

Look,
now i lie
fallow like the
unplowed ground
and it hovers, invisible
and vivid. At my aorta, it sits.
It is shadow, still, silent, cinching
up the hush to slip around itself.
it settles down, soundless,
a texture, undetectable
and low, crouching in
the slow opening
And closing,

Daring
me to
rise.

This piece first appeared in Quibble Lit.

Syllabub

by Elise Scott

(ˈsɪl.ə.bʌb) noun: 

cream curdled with

alcohol or with acid, 

and then sweetened; 

a British drink or dessert 

dating back to the 16th century.

 

Things like this can only

be seen

through bars. She scrapes bitten nails

 

across her scalp. There are cages

and cages. Hers is gilt, hairpins

arcing over a perfect mirror.

 

Anytime she begins

or ends,

though, she remembers the sheen of steel:

 

how not just lives but whole communities are

caught and swallowed in these vicious, clanging maws,

and for each soul stolen, swallowed, money drifts

 

lazily down instead

of ash.

The mayor of her crystalline town laughs and

 

rolls in it; he fills his hat & suspenders, and with

his wealth, he buys baubles and notions for all the fine

ladies he so adores, the ones like her. The ones who

 

catch their tears with ice-white

fingers

and knit elaborate cages. Bars you never see.

Elise is a liberal back-woods bootlegger and an artisanal vegan cheese-maker. They write from their lived experiences of fat-positivity, queerness, disability, mental illness, and moving through carnivorous shadows. They earned their bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke and their Master’s from Capella University. Elise is a full-time writer/mom in Connecticut, where they live with one tiny daughter and nearly two hundred pounds of fur-family. Their poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Minutes, High Shelf, HerStry, Knee Brace, Black Sunflowers, and Quibble among others. Find out what they’re working on at http://elise-scott.com or say hi on twitter/x at @buttonjar1

Stone Circle

by David Hartley

A stone circle appears around my navel. Seven standing stones and one henge. The uprights are embedded in my flesh and sting a little when I try to tug them out. The henge stone is loose and slips when I breathe too shallowly. I lie as still as possible. 

The line of hair from my crotch is a kind of pathway. My belly button, an altar. A beam of sunlight travels its way across the end of the duvet and the hem of my boxers. It will soon spill down to my skin before gliding on to the stones. There must be something planned. 

My crotch grows itchy. I have to fight hard to not scratch it. It must be the revellers, I think, with their preparations in full swing. I try to picture them. All I can imagine are cartoonish images of robed druids carrying flaming torches and wearing masks made of wicker. I realise that’s probably quite offensive. I know nothing about the ancients. I feel we should all know a lot more about our ancients. But it’s too late for all that.

I let the fantasy flow out a little more. I picture the druids again but this time their robes are blood-soaked, and they wear animal skulls on their heads. The strongest carry the sacrifice. A pregnant woman, trussed on poles, gagged and unconscious. They take her to my navel. They wait for the sun to find the henge. They cut the baby from her, hold the child up, umbilical to umbilical and...

I close my eyes. I reach along the mattress and, for the first time in many hours, I find your hand. I curl my fingers between yours and calm myself. Eventually, I doze.  

****

 

The stones are still there when awaken. The sunbeam is now much closer. It cuts a diagonal across the pubic pathway, mere minutes away from touching the southernmost stone. No sign yet of the druids. The itch is almost unbearable. Perhaps I should scratch it. Perhaps that is my judgment: stop the slaughter before it even begins. But that would mean they all perish, woman and baby included. I may be all-powerful, but I doubt my ability to accurately scratch. No. I must wait until the ceremony is underway before I intervene. They are bound to emerge soon.

I wait. I stroke my thumb along your thumb. The sunbeam tickles the edge of the southernmost stone. I grow agitated. Surely the ceremony should be starting? Surely this marks the first moment of the ritual? My breath quickens and the flat stone of the henge almost falls. I nudge it back into place, try to calm myself. But something is wrong. What are they waiting for? What do I need to do?

A thought comes to me. Perhaps they cannot squeeze out of my boxer shorts? I’m wearing a new pair, so the hem is still tight. I should lift it so they can stroll through, but I worry about bringing my hand too close and scaring them. There is another way. I’m not happy about it, but it seems like the neatest solution. 

I give your hand one final squeeze and let go. I close my eyes again and settle in with some very specific memories. Of course, I am absolutely not in the mood, but the ancients are relying on me, and I can’t let them down. I picture you in my favourite position: on top, wearing only your locket. I don’t know what it is about that locket, but it got me every time. The way it swings and hangs down, how the gold matched your hair. At first I had been embarrassed to tell you, but you thought it was sweet and it became a fixture. If any one thing symbolised our passions, it was that locket. Even though it contained a picture of your grandmother. I tried not to think about that.

The locket. Hanging down, then resting on your chest. Your hair cascading like twin streams of a waterfall. My hands wherever I wanted to put them, which was everywhere. Your smile, knowing. Your eyes, full, teeth biting your lip. It is soon done. I am erect and the hem of my boxers is lifted. 

The way is open, and out they come.

****

 

I find your hand again while I watch. My heart sinks a little. They’re not druids. They’re not even ancients. The tiny people who meander up my belly are tourists. Old couples, families, a pair of new parents pushing a pram. Blokes on their own, sidestepping and stooping to find the best angle for their fancy cameras. Three people in wheelchairs, one young lad on crutches. Some are grouped together led by tour guides in matching sweaters. 

They all keep their distance from the stones. Some of the kids try to dart over but are shouted back by embarrassed parents. This annoys me the most. I want them to go into the circle. I want them to touch the stones, say prayers, tell jokes, and take selfies. I want them to stand in my belly button as the sunbeam passes over. Why can’t they? What harm would it do? 

Ripples of gentle laughter come up from the groups as the guides quip their way through scripts. The tourists are taking terrible pictures and getting in each other’s way. As the sunbeam draws close to the henge, they all begin to gather on my diaphragm to watch. I just want to flick them, one by one. I want to remove all their clothes and nudge them into orgies. My eyes hunt among them for a suitable sacrifice.

My throat catches. I see you. Worse. I see us both. 

****

 

At the back of the group, on the ridge of my bottom rib. We’re holding hands, just like now. Then you let go, sit down, and rub your temples. The tiny version of me is glancing down at the tiny version of you, concerned, but he doesn’t want to miss the glorious moment at the henge. The sunbeam is touching the rightmost henge stone now and soon it will spill through the gap and show him, and enlighten him, and illuminate him... 

It all comes rushing back. I remember this moment, what happened next. 

The tiny version of me pecks a kiss on the tiny version of you and jumps down off the rib. You are left behind. You watch me go then bury your head in your hands, the migraine claiming you like some possessive underworld god. The tiny version of me hurries back to the crowd because he wants to hear what the tour guide is saying, he wants to experience it all. It will be a solstice moment, a once-a-year phenomenon, the sunlight piercing through the sacred gap and anointing all it touches; healing them, we’ve heard. The gathered tourists hustle to be in the beam, the tiny me muscling into the middle. Back at the rib, the tiny you shakes as she sobs through the pain. The beam won’t reach you there and nothing will be healed. 

We should never have gone, I think now. The headache was developing before we left the hotel. We should have stayed inside, missed it. Surely the whole thing is hokum anyway. But there I am, straining onto my tiptoes. And then the sun moves behind a cloud and the beam fades out. 

Throughout the crowd, tiny shoulders slump.

****

 

I look away. To the window and the traitorous cloud beyond. I move my hand to your wrist, hoping against hope for some miracle to occur. All our rituals, from then until now, have been nonsense. The only true thing is chaos. But chaos can be miraculous, or it would not be truly chaotic. Everything is possible when chaos reigns. And if you were to pulse again beneath my palm, the rhythm of it would quake through me, shake the ground beneath the stones and topple them. And later, when all of modern time is said and done, someone or something will come along and stand them up again. And they will fill my navel with waters and bathe there. And another will join them, and they will make love, and they will stay there, grow there, and string their laundry between the stones. And they too will pass on, and the stones will erode to nothingness, and the ground beneath them will fall into mulch and become something new.

I look back. All the tourists are gone. The sunbeam has returned but has passed far beyond the stones. The only figure now is you, but on a different day. You’re wearing that red raincoat, so this must have been a recent trip. I remember a few months ago when you took yourself off on a mysterious weekend away leaving me at home to fret through the lonely hours. 

The tiny version of you approaches the stones, touches each one, then strolls away on an aimless meander. She stops at a place with no real meaning, just shy of a freckle. She stoops down, digs at my flesh, takes the locket from her neck, and buries it. So that’s where it went. 

She climbs down the side of my waist, hikes across the mattress and ducks under the duvet. I think I feel the tickle of her hair as she strolls past my hand. 

I let her go. I let you go. I take a deep, deep breath and let it go. 

The stones fall. They are just funny little fragments now, flinty and meaningless. I scoop them up and swallow them, one by one, like tablets. 

David Hartley writes strange stories about strange things for strange people. His collection Fauna was longlisted for the 2022 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is currently writer-in-residence in Tartu, Estonia, but is normally found in his home town of Manchester. On Instagram, he's @DHartleyWriter.

So Sharp, So Soft

by Maria Pianelli Blair
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Maria Pianelli Blair (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist born in New York City and based in New Jersey. A public relations director by day, Maria spends her nights dabbling in ceramics, printmaking, embroidery, and analog collage. Her collages, fashioned on everything from cardboard to playing cards, marry contemporary imagery, found vintage materials, and magical realism. Maria's work can be found on Instagram (@sunset_sews) and Etsy. She has been published in several art magazines, and featured both galleries and virtual exhibitions.

The Life Man

by Lori D'Angelo

In one life, Mary Beth was a dancer. In another, she was a Spanish teacher. In another, she led yoga retreats. She knew this because The Life Man had come to town and let her try them out. 

At first we thought The Life Man was just another con man vagrant. Like the man before him selling college test-prep secrets that he failed to deliver. But then several things happened that made us change our minds. 

The first was Winfred's death. The Life Man told Winfred's mother that, in one life, Winifred died at 15, in one she died at 37, and, in another, Winifred lived to be 82 years old. 

“Take me to the one where she lives to be 82,” Winifred’s mother said. 

“As you wish,” the Life Man responded, and he asked her to step into his booth. 

It wasn't so much as a booth, Winfred's mother later said, but a portal. It took her to another world that was very much like this one but in another dimension. A dimension where things could be very much the same but still very different. In the dimension that The Life Man took her to, Winifred did not die of her illness at the age of 15. Instead, she lived to be a mother and a grandmother. She gardened and learned to bake layer cakes. In both lives, she faithfully journaled. 

“What was different in this other life?” Winifred’s mother asked. 

“In the other life,” The Life Man said, “on the day she was supposed to go see the specialist, he got sick. So she went to see a different doctor. The other doctor started an experimental treatment. At first, and for about a year, it did not appear to be working. But you and she kept on. Then, one day, you noticed some small differences. Then, the next day, even more. Until slowly and gradually she got better.” 

“Couldn't we have done those treatments here?” Winifred’s mother asked. 

The Life Man shook his head. “No, they needed to have started when she was eight. In this life, her illness had progressed too far. There was nothing that you could have done to save her.” 

“Couldn't you have come before?” 

“No,” The Life Man sorrowfully, “I can only come when I come. I don't have control of the where, and I'm not even sure of the why. Does it comfort you to know that in another dimension she is alive?” 

“Yes, Winifred's mother said, “but it also makes me sad. I'm envious of the version of Winifred's mother that gets to see her grow up.”

“But,” the Life Man said, “if she grows up, there are other things you won't get to do.” The Life Man seemed to have a knowledge not just of the past but of the future. 

“Like what?” asked Winifred's mother with genuine curiosity. 

“I can't tell you this future. I can only show you the others. Was that one enough?”

“Yes,” Winifred's mother said. “I suppose it was.”

After that, Winifred's mother seemed more peaceful. 

The second thing that happened after The Life Man came that made us believe in him was the incident with the dog. 

We all knew that Barry didn't treat his dog right. And we all thought that something should be done. So we were surprised at first when The Life Man offered to take Barry to another dimension free of charge. There were others of us, in fact most of us, who deserved it more than Barry did. 

But our skepticism dissipated after Barry returned. He was like a changed man. “What did you see in another life?” we finally asked him. 

“Someone broke into my house, and Thumper didn't try to stop him. In fact, after they beat me, he growled, but not at them. At me. He bit me when I was already bleeding. I can see now that I deserved it.”

A couple months later, there was a break in at Barry’s house, but Thumper, newly loyal to Barry, who now fed him gourmet dog food and took him to doggy daycare, prevented significant property damage and saved Barry's life.  

Finally, there was the matter of Mildred whose husband Tom had mysteriously disappeared one night. In another life, he returned. Mildred went to that life to find out what had happened, what was different.

It was a small and singular thing. In the other life, Tom had not stopped at the Shop and Stop to get Mildred roses. In this life, he had. In this life, he loved her more. In that life, the other Mildred got to have her Tom. But her Tom wasn’t as good as this life Mildred’s Tom had been. 

“He doesn’t even clean the drainpipes for that poor Mildred,” this Mildred said. “If that were my Tom, I would want him to be dead.” 

The fact that he had died doing a good deed, being a good man, convinced Mildred that she should be grateful for the Tom she had and not pine for the lesser living Toms in parallel universes. 

After those three acts, we were convinced. We were more than convinced. We were ready to shell out our own hard-earned money for The Life Man to show us what was and what could have been. 

The first one to pay for The Life Man’s services was Barry Battaglia. Barry’s girlfriend, Angela, had died due to some weird, rare bird-flu. This was no surprise because Angela’s immune system was shot due to some respiratory illnesses that she caught as a baby. 

“I want to go to a universe where Angela doesn’t die of the bird flu,” Barry said. 

Apparently, Barry wasn’t specific enough because The Life Man took Barry to a universe where Angela instead died of the regular flu. Sensing that that ending wasn’t what Barry had in mind, The Life Man spun his Life Wheel and offered Barry a two-for-the-price-of-one visit to a third universe. In that universe, Angela didn’t die. Instead, she lived a long and miserable sickly life, coughing and hacking everywhere she went. 

“Is there a universe where Angela both lives and has a healthy life?” Barry asked sadly. 

The Life Man looked at his wheel, as if he could discern meaning from each of the squares on The Price is Right looking spinnable contraption. 

“I’m sorry, Barry,” The Life Man said. “If you want, I can offer you a refund.” 

The Life Man offered a 12-hour-money-back guarantee. But the money-back guarantee came with a catch. If you asked for your money back, The Life Man took your experience back too. 

“Let me think about it,” Barry said uncertainly. Because, on the one hand, he would have liked to have believed that there was a universe where Angela both lived and thrived. On the other hand, it was kind of a relief to know that there was no such universe. No matter what Barry had done or not done, he could not have saved Angela from the damage of genes and circumstance. 

“I’ll get back to you,” Barry said, and he walked off.

Michaela had a different request. “I want a life without Frank,” she told The Life Man. Frank was Michaela’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, the man she thought had ruined her life and destroyed her chance to live the American dream. 

“Are you sure you want to see this?” said The Life Man hesitating. 

“Yes,” Michaela said with certainty. “There’s nothing I want more.” 

When Michaela got to the other universe, at first she thought there was some mistake. Frank’s picture was everywhere. He owned a car wash. He was an apartment complex landlord. He even was partial owner of a roller rink. 

Michaela thought, okay, Frank still lives in this universe and lives well, but where am I? 

It turned out that, in that universe, Michaela lived alone in a small one-bedroom apartment where she made low-quality latch hook rugs and chain smoked. Her masterpiece, a watermelon, which she had planned to frame, had been charred by cigarette smoke, and so it sat there on the coffee table imperfect and unframed. 

Michaela left The Life Man’s booth stunned. She thought that Frank had been holding her back, but apparently it had been the other way around. 

But no encounter with The Life Man was as memorable as Sherry’s. It was because of Sherry that we think The Life Man left us. And, for that, some of us still blamed her. We thought it was unfair that we had never had our turn. Though Ramona Garrison, the most generous among us, said that maybe it was for the best that he left us. It prevented us from spending all our money on never-to-be-fulfilled dreams. But, argued Tonya Tricalo, whose daughter had left for Phoenix one summer day and had never been heard from again, it was our money to waste as we wanted. What good is having money if we can’t do at least that? 

The details of Sherry’s experience were unclear. At least to those outside her immediate circle. Perhaps she had told a friend, though it wasn’t me. But I was curious, and I couldn’t let my curiosity die. It kept festering like a sore that wouldn’t heal, so I positioned myself outside Sherry’s bedroom window, and, when darkness came, I threw a rock up. This seemed like a good straight out of Shakespeare move to try. 

I don’t know who she thought I was or why she came to her window. But there must have been something or someone she was still looking for in the night. 

“Hello?” she said, her voice a mix of excitement and fear. 

I hesitated before answering. 

“Sherry,” I said, “it’s me, Melinda.” 

“Melinda?” Sherry questioned. “What are you doing out here in the dead of night?” 

“It’s only 9:20 p.m.,” I pointed out. 

“Well, now that daylight saving time has ended,” she said defensively, “it seems like the dead of night.” 

“Can I come up?” I said eyeing the elm outside her window with both desire and hesitation. Despite my three disastrous years as a top-of-the-pyramid cheerleader in late elementary school, I had never been much of an athlete or a jumper. 

Sherry, sensing my hesitation, said, “You know you can just come in through the front door.” 

“Okay, right, great idea,” I said as if she had just invented the eight-hour workday and/or the automobile. “Should I ring the bell?” 

“My parents are out on a date,” Sherry offered. “So no need.” 

I was a little disappointed when I realized my Romeo outside the window act had mostly been unnecessary. 

Sherry offered to get me a Coke and turned on a streaming service. We couldn’t settle on anything to watch. So she put on a Liam Neeson movie, which was indistinguishable from any other Liam Neeson movie that we had ever watched. There was a bad guy, and Liam Neeson had to stop him, single-handedly. No one else could do it because no one else was Liam Neeson. 

“I was wondering,” I said finally, “about The Life Man.” 

“Oh, that,” said Sherry with disappointment. 

“I also just wanted to say I like the smell of your perfume,” I added deciding to seize the moment. It smelled like vanilla and cinnamon and the air after a light rain. 

Sherry let me kiss her, and though I didn’t ask about The Life Man again, she started telling me about him anyway between kisses. 

“The problem,” she said kissing me hard, “was all my lives were black. Not just some, but all. I visited at least five. I took people’s souls and devoured them. And what was left was just a void and a blackness. I think that’s why The Life Man left. Because my lives were too dark.” 

“Oh, is that all?” I said, like she and this revelation didn’t scare the shit out of me. “That’s nothing.” 

“You really think it’s nothing?” she said surprised.  

“No, I think maybe it’s love,” I added recklessly. Right now, I realized, Sherry could take me and devour me, and I wouldn’t care. “Perhaps you just didn’t stick around long enough to find out what came next?” 

“Or maybe,” she responded, her voice hard and cold, “after that, there was just nothing else to see.” 

Lori D'Angelo is a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Recent work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Bullshit Lit, Chaotic Merge, Ellipsis Zine, Idle Ink, Litmora, North Dakota Quarterly, Rejection Letters, Thin Veil Press, and Voidspace. Find her on Twitter and Bluesky @sclly21 or Instagram and Threads at lori.dangelo1. She lives in Virginia with her family.

Was It, Or Not, Another Life?

by A. Daniyal
For Daniela R. (1989-2010)

Was it, or not, another life?

Few traces left,

Some faded bracelets on wrists,

orphaned rings on fingers.

 

If I wash off me

layers of dust

from years previous, 

must I feel guilty?

(Oh, if only it was that easy.)

 

I wonder

If there’s any sense

in living one day

and the next day 

just going away

like nothing happened ever.

 

What is the advantage

Of having neither past nor future,

existing in a forever present?

How should life be

If lived as one's present

and not as a duty,

From where does this courage rise

to seek a never before seen world,

a different world, 

a better one, maybe.

 

I don’t have meaning

if uprooted from my meaning,

It’s as if I were dreaming,

a part of projection 

of an imagination

a bit too vivid 

too juvenile,

hence too damn volatile 

and fleeting.

 

I am questioning

whether between all this 

there was one,

even one connection

Or was it a totally different life

and I, a completely different person.

 

   No, 

it was not another life,

It was this one!

lived with a mysterious consistency

and with such insistence,

And it has been an energy

that was never created

or ever destroyed

It simply rotated

year after year, 

project by project,

discipline by discipline,

And I swear to the above Heaven

(whether you believe there’s a Heaven

or there is none)

That whenever, if ever

we should once again

find us made up of same substance

or synchronized on the same frequency

then, there is no doubt 

that we shall meet again.

A. Daniyal (he/him) was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up in a small town in northern Italy. His work has been published in The Polyglot, The Imagist, CommuterLit, among others. He lives in Montreal.

Alternate Route Advised

by Pam Avoledo

The expressway has been under construction for three years. Exits are expected to open at a gradual pace after a months-long delay. Sarah, who lives on Williams Street, adjacent to the service drive, has reported a constant whirring: “It continues even after the workers have gone home for the day.”  She has spoken at city board meetings, demonstrating with a vibration in her voice, shaking her arms for emphasis. The board members thanked for her time and asked if anyone else had something to say. 

 

She has made repeated calls to the regional department of air pollution. Lisa agreed it was bothersome and she’d get back in touch with her. Trent suggested a white noise machine to block it out. Diana advised her to try hypnosis. Sarah guffawed and told Diana she was out of her mind. She matches bicycles, hats and steel drums in a game on her phone at 3 a.m. and wins several levels. She clicks “Don’t Ask Me Again” and watches another episode two hours before she has to get ready for work. But after missing some steps on her staircase, Sarah gives in and schedules an appointment with a hypnotist. Sarah imagines a lake in British Columbia as her voicemails to the state department of air pollution go unanswered.

 

Alexis, a graduate student in North Carolina listens to the morning show DJs discuss Sarah as she scrambled eggs. Kevin and Matt believe she wants attention. Bethany thinks it could be possible but sides with Kevin and Matt. Only Melanie thinks Sarah’s telling the truth. Alexis  reads the article about Sarah and texts her fiancée, Johanna, this has to be true.

 

She skips class, buys some digital recorders online and places some clothes in a suitcase. For a week, Alexis positions the digital recorders a mile down on the service drive. She scrapes every jagged wave of the beeps, honks and sirens, tweaking the volume and generates a report, which tells her it’s inconclusive. 

 

Alexis, about 12 miles away from Sarah’s home, makes a wrong turn while she thinks of what her next step should be. Her car wobbles and she calculates the cost of repairs in her head to at least $1,000. In the strip mall parking lot of half-closed stores, she gets out of her car and winces as the rumble escalates, smearing the area into a discarded palette. Natalie, in her Valu Time apron, leaves her row of carts and asks if she’s all right. Alexis, clearing her throat, nods her head yes, and asks how often it occurs.

 

“Every day,” Natalie answers, “it’s been like this for about six months.” Alexis stumbles as she opens her car. Natalie points to the store, telling her they have a chair at the pharmacy and she’ll get her some water. 

 

Natalie directs Alexis to James, a resident of the area who has been looking for information about The Rumble. Alexis gives him her research and says she’d like to be involved. Alexis helps him form a team, including Johanna, and they divide up the increasing workload of complaints, sound waves and findings across two states. Within three years, they were able to get the attention of Anne-Marie, a congresswoman, whose re-election is led by her the tagline in her ads to “get rid of the rumble.” Anne-Marie later appears in a documentary, The Rumble, explaining how she approved grants which funded government research. The documentarians, Thomas and Vanessa, drive by Sarah’s home, as they film. In a voiceover, they note that squirrels, rabbits and birds have disappeared from the area. Their documentary gets picked up by a streaming service and through word of mouth on social media, people, including former resident and current  reporter for local WYZK, Carly Rhone, discover Sarah’s initial complaints and asks: ”why were they ignored?” She later wins a Peabody Award for in-depth journalism and becomes a weekend anchor for NBC News. 

 

The walls of Sarah’s home waver, as they usually do around the time of night during the rumble’s appearance. It had overpowered her neighbors, who had placed for sale signs on their front lawns. But for Sarah, The Rumble could no longer intimidate her. It had become a faint, inconvenient quiver she could feel within her feet. 

Pam Avoledo's work can be found at pamavoledo.com. She/her. Twitter: @iwantmypopcult

Hallucinogenic Logorrhea

by Margaret Stearns

My soul shrinks in my body;
it becomes own transcendental kingdom,
I run my hands along the carpets, the walls, my scalp, and EVERY strand of hair,

watching as the room gets a LITTLE BIT BRIGHTER, then dimmer again as I feel the

weight of my own eyes
EVERYthing spins slowly, but not for long-
I never know my own limits

I’m seven years old again and elizabeth jo is spinning me on the merry-go-round

faster! faster! faster!

i huddle, white-knuckled and ever-condensing, struggling to stay as still through the chaos as i can

all at once, i hit CRITICAL MASS-

and

let go

for a brief moment, the air cools and satisfies me, and i can’t feel the way my

stomach lurches

or my         hands        go     numb

hastily,         i

fall

from

Grace

I never liked the taste of playground mulch

 

It’s too much, too fast, too sour all at once and I can’t take it
Can’t take the spinning, the weight, the imperceptible paws on my shoulders, holding

me down as I am sputtering and hacking,

choking down the fast and fleeting smile fading from my face

the chills and the panic are interminable and I worry that my lungs will collapse and

blood will rise up out of my throat and down my chin

It has been too long since I have felt the ground beneath my feet and not long enough

that I’ve gone without hearing the whispers

Margaret Stearns (she/they) is a 19-year-old queer poet from New Jersey. She is currently a sophomore in college, studying communications. She has been featured in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, and her debut chapbook, "Sap Semantics," was recently published by Bottlecap Press.

Kaleidoscope

by Mirjana Miric
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Mirjana M. (they / them ) are a digital artist and writer from Belgrade, Serbia. Their work focuses on exploring the juxtaposition of various elements through mixed media of photography, double exposure, textures and light. Their work most often explores concepts of duality and has appeared in “Gulf Stream Literary”, “The Good Life Review”, “waxing & waning”, Vocivia, Broken Antler, Spellbinder, New Limestone Review magazines and other places. They authored 3 poetry collections. You can see more of their work at their blog olorielmoonshadow.wordpress.com or get in touch on Twitter (@selena_oloriel) and Instagram (cyanide_cherries)

Konrad's Journey to the Land of Nothingness: A Nihilistic Fairytale

by Janine Muster

Life without Kasimir was lonely and empty. Life without Kasimir was dull and grey. Konrad twists, twirls, and shakes Kasimir’s golden pen for the millionth time. ‘Nothing,’ he thinks, ‘absolutely nothing,’ a stack of white napkins in front of him. Konrad has good reason to believe that this pen is magical. After all, it was the only thing that was left of Kasimir, and Kasimir was full of magic. If only Konrad could figure out how to make this pen work, then maybe Kasimir would come back. 

Angry and sad, Konrad looks at the white napkins. If he listens closely, he can hear them laugh. He can hear them mock. Konrad knows that napkins neither laugh nor mock. It must be an illusion. Maybe he had too many drinks. He still had a bit of white foam from his last sip of beer in the corners of his mouth. ‘In times of despair, consult the pen,’ thinks Konrad, a glass half-full in front of him. ‘It might lead you to Purpose,’ he mumbles while he rolls the pen between his fingers. None of it made sense. 

The bar man swipes the counters, careful not to disturb Konrad. Konrad is his last costumer for the night. Since Kasimir was gone, Konrad has become a regular at the pub. Like most nights, he drinks beer, and he stares at napkins and at Kasimir’s golden pen. Silently, the bar man proceeds with his closing tasks. He shines the glasses, mops the brown, wooden floor, and tucks away the chairs. As the lazy piano stops playing and the bar man turns off the lights, Konrad knows it is time for him to go home. 

Konrad steps out into the stormy night. The cold creeps into his bones and freezes his sunken cheeks. He lifts the collar of his shabby, grey coat and wraps an ugly, yellow scarf around his neck to protect his face. It hasn’t been warm since Kasimir left. 

Almost automatically, his feet carry him to the guest house where he rents a small room just below the roof. The guest house is not far from the pub, but Konrad has lost his ability to walk with a skip. Everything takes him longer now, is much more effort than it used to be. When he finally dragged himself home, his fingers are so cold, he can barely move them to unlock the door. 

Konrad hurries inside. He climbs over the millions of books that fill his room: small books, big books, books with hard cardboard covers, books bound in leather, books with gilded edges, books stacked from floor to ceiling. 

Konrad has flipped through each book many times, but they were all empty, void of any words. ‘If only I could find the right words to fill these books again, then I could make myself and others happy,’ mumbles Konrad just before he falls asleep, the pen still in his hand. Konrad twists and twirls until the golden pen finds rest against his lips, and for the first time since Kasimir has left, he sinks into a deep sleep. 

 

****

 

Once upon a time, there was a young lad named Konrad who was as happy as he could be and who would always walk with a skip. On his way to work, he would usually whistle a lighthearted melody and carry a wide smile on his face. Konrad worked for Kasimir, the owner of an unusually comfortable bookstore that always smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon. Konrad was Kasimir’s assistant. He organized books and dusted shelves until the playful jingle of the doorbell would announce a visitor. Kasimir’s visitors came into the store with legs so tired they could hardly walk and with hearts so heavy they could barely stand. Konrad would hurry into the kitchen to put on the tea kettle, while Kasimir, through his round spectacles, would look intensely at his visitors. Then he’d begin to tell a story. 

Kasimir’s stories were full of magic. With every word, Konrad could see how hope would rise in the hearts of Kasimir’s listeners. It was as if they finally found what was buried deep insight them. Konrad especially liked when Kasimir talked about a little, gnome-like creature called Purpose. Stories about Purpose made Konrad skip higher, whistle louder, and smile an even wider smile. “Soon, you will be the one who lightens people’s hearts with stories,” Kasimir had said many times, and Konrad had laughed. No one could ever replace Kasimir. 

Kasimir had a golden pen always tucked behind his left ear, and it was impossible to discern how old he was. Depending on what Kasimir was telling, his face would change. With wrinkles on his forehead and around the corners of his eyes, he would look like an old man who was full of ancient wisdom and deep knowledge. In the next moment, his skin was smooth again, and the youthful sparkle in his eyes would make Kasimir look like a young man just before he goes off into the world for the first time. Most peculiar about Kasimir, however, was his long beard that would change colours with his mood. When Kasimir was happy, his beard would shimmer like dark-green, pumpkin-orange, mustard-yellow, and rustic-red leaves that gently sway in the autumn wind. When Kasimir was immersed in deep thoughts, his beard would look like clouds that slowly move across a calm summer sky. Surprise brought splatters of deep purple and black. Kasimir was like no other man.  

One winter morning, it was so cold that the sky had settled for a bluish pale pink and no birds or rabbits could be seen, Konrad came to work to find the bookstore empty. All that was left of Kasimir was his golden pen and a note: ‘Dear Konrad, please take the books! Even though you might not see them, stories still exist. You have to find the right words to fill these books again. P.S. In times of despair, consult the pen. It might lead you to Purpose.’

Konrad took as many books as he could fit into his little room below the roof, but when he tried to read them, he found that their pages were empty. He couldn’t even remember any of the stories Kasimir had told. A few days later, the store was gone too. Although Konrad had enough books to open another store, he doubted that somebody would want an empty book. He had tried very hard to write, and to fill Kasimir’s books again with his own stories, but there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. He had not been able to find the right words. So, he started to go to the pub. Maybe there was no Purpose after all.

 

****

 

In the morning, Konrad wakes up to a little, gnome-like creature in a black tuxedo poking him with a dark-brown dress cane. Through half-closed eyes, Konrad looks into a black-and-white-striped face with sharp teeth on either side of a large mouth, and pitch-black, dishevelled hair sticking out from underneath a top hat. The little creature can barely look over the rim of Konrad’s bed. Its red eyes are glowing in the dark. Just as Konrad starts to wonder what this little creature is doing in his room; it points its cane at the golden pen in Konrad’s hand.

“Purpose,” Konrad smiles, “what took you so long?”

“To your service, Sir,” says Purpose and tips its hat. “Purpose can only come when, despite great despair, hope and longing still exist, and when in their interplay a truest wish emerges.”  

Konrad examines the little creature with great curiosity. He did not understand what it was saying. “I’m not sure if I can follow,” Konrad finally confesses. 

Purpose strokes its chin and rocks its little body back and forth. “Very well, Sir! Then I will try again.” It was not the first time that Purpose had to explain itself twice. “Although you felt sad and angry, and you spent all your days in a pub, you did not give up. Instead, a wish developed inside you, the wish to create stories just like Kasimir. I found you as soon as you were able to pronounce your truest wish.”

“Is it possible for you to bring me to Kasimir?” asks Konrad. “I miss him so much.”

Purpose shakes its head. “No, Sir. Unfortunately, I cannot bring you to Kasimir because I do not know his whereabouts. He was our intern, and it is not commonplace for us to monitor our interns once they are done. To the contrary, it would contradict our philosophy. Those who are free to leave, are free, and we will keep it that way. Freedom is what is important.”

‘If Purpose is not going to bring me to Kasimir, then what is the little creature doing here,’ wonders Konrad, ‘and what did it say? Kasimir was an intern?’ 

“Count Nihil hired Kasimir,” explains Purpose as if it could read Konrad’s thoughts, “to work at his bookstore. There, Kasimir wrote stories and helped people to find their truest wish. He accomplished this task with great satisfaction. He even found us a replacement,” says Purpose while it points its cane at Konrad. “It will please you, Sir, that Kasimir recommended you highly. The sooner you begin, the better it is.” Purpose looks at its pocket watch. “The people in your town need stories. Their hopeless, empty hearts are getting heavier by the minute. You see, once their time with us has come to an end, our interns are not only free, they are also allowed to take their stories. We now need new ones, and we want you to write them for us.” 

Purpose lights a pipe. The smell of its tobacco, cloves and cinnamon, pleasantly distracts Konrad, but then a concerning thought emerges inside him. “How will I be able to write? Kasimir’s golden pen doesn’t work. I cannot find the right words.”

“In the Land of Nothingness, where Count Nihil reigns, there is the River of Ever Flowing Words. I am here to bring you to the river, so you can refill the pen. It is recommended that you dip the pen in the waterfall closest to the Oak of Unfulfilled Dreams. It will provide you with the best material. Once you refilled the pen, Sir, you will have no issues in finding the right words.” 

“When should we leave?” While Purpose was still speaking, Konrad jumped up from his bed in new-found excitement. 

“We have already left, Sir,” says Purpose. It is not the first time that the little creature finds its travel companions confused. “Welcome to the Land of Nothingness!” 

Konrad now finds himself standing in the middle of a wide-open meadow, which feels wet and soft underneath his bare feet. He can hardly see anything through the thick layers of fog, except for a couple of leafless trees not too far from him. He listens intently. The land’s stillness is disrupted only occasionally by the ghostly hooting of an owl. Konrad takes a deep breath. He smells wet grass and moss, but there also is a hint of cloves and cinnamon.

Purpose stretches out its arm, and the cane starts to shake vividly in its hand. It waits patiently until the cane stops shaking. Once the cane clearly and unmistakably points to the right, Konrad and Purpose start walking through the fog. 

“Will I meet Count Nihil?”

“I would not count on it, Sir,” responds Purpose in all seriousness. “He is a shapeshifter,” Purpose continues to explain, “just like the Land of Nothingness. It is different to everyone. I have brought many interns here, but it has never looked the same. That is why I have the cane. It helps me find the right way, Sir.”

“Where is the Land of Nothingness, Purpose?” There are many questions in Konrad’s head. It is hard for him not to ask them all at once. 

“The Land of Nothingness is inside you, Sir. There is a Land of Nothingness inside every person,” says Purpose. 

Konrad is still trying to make sense of what the little creature said as he hears someone or something scream loudly. It is so violent and piercing that Konrad wishes he was deaf. The noise creeps into his body, into his bones, and then settles deep inside his heart. It makes Konrad feel so sick and weak that it was hard for him to speak. “What is this noise?” 

“This noise, Sir, is the scream of people who lost their truest wish as they walked through the Land of Nothingness,” explains Purpose, “or, one could even say, these are the people who never had a truest wish. Now they are trapped inside the Oak of Unfulfilled Dreams. They scream because they are angry, but nobody can help them. Hope is lost on them. Our stories can inspire and encourage, but everyone still needs to find what thrives them on their own. On the bright site, Sir, we are almost there.” 

Konrad’s truest wish becomes stronger the further away they move from the Oak. The fainter the screams get, the better he feels. Konrad stops walking as a large river opens in front of him. It carries broken pieces of ice that all float down a massive waterfall. The waterfall is as loud as the screams of the people who have no truest wish, but it is a noise that Konrad enjoys. 

“You have to dip the pen into the waterfall, Sir, but please be careful!” 

As soon as the golden pen touches the water, Konrad’s legs lose ground. It feels as if he was pulled into a large vortex made up of all the colours, sounds, smells, and feels that exist in the world. 

 

****

 

As Konrad wakes up, he can only see blurry shapes. He searches along the floor and finally finds a pair of square-shaped spectacles. Now with clear vision, he looks down on himself. There is a long beard attached to his face that wasn’t there before. It shimmers in bright pink with white lines that spread out from the middle. It looks like a popped balloon, and it seems to be Konrad’s colour for surprise. 

Looking around, Konrad finds himself in an unusually comfortable place filled with books. As he breathes in the air, he catches a hint of cloves and cinnamon. Konrad’s beard changes to the white of freshly fallen snow in which the warm light of a lantern is reflected, Konrad’s colour for happiness. He takes the pen from behind his right ear and begins to work. He writes until the playful jingle of the doorbell interrupts him. 

A young man comes in, whistling a lighthearted melody. He skips more than he walks. With the widest smile on his face, he points at the piece of paper in his hand. “I found this attached to the window of your store. You are looking for an assistant?” 

“Yes,” says Konrad as his face changes from gullible youthfulness to ancient wisdom, “these books could use some organizing and the shelves need dusting. It would also be nice to offer a cup of tea to our guests when they come in here.”

 

-The Beginning Of The End-

Janine (she/her/hers), who is originally from Germany, moved to Edmonton where she completed her Master of Arts degree in Sociology. She still calls the Canadian Prairies her home. Janine works here as a grant writer for a hospital foundation, and she is the dedicated servant to a cat named Sylvia, which includes managing her Instagram account @sylvia.the.moustache.cat. In her free time, Janine writes fiction and makes collages. Her creative work has been published in On the Run, Star 82 Review, and Antonym. You can visit Janine @nina_muster for pictures of lost objects, hidden treasures, and the occasional collage.

The Question Is Why We and Never I

by Sam Rasnake

“…we are going upwards. The path is a spiral…” 

– Herman Hesse

“…and he climbed, and he climbed, and he climbed…”

– Joseph Jacobs, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” 1860

We climb a twisting dark 

as if no sky could claim us, 

and we drift on the winds. 

 

The shifting world below 

our feet never settles, so 

home is the dream we follow. 

 

Always moving, knowing 

the cold is coming. We don’t

find the quiet, though

 

we spend all waking hours

looking here, picking up

there, searching blind alleys,

 

hoping for silence, wanting

only stillness – but it stays

away. The noise, a relentless 

 

booming inside our heads, 

bullies every thought into 

submission until the last 

 

one’s dying gurgle leaves us 

numb, empty, quashed. Silence 

hides where we knew it

 

would be. Still, we don’t find it. 

If finds us. “Tell me more about 

your beautiful life,” it whispers.

On the Edge of... Something

by Sam Rasnake

– a pantoum

 

“most profound advice from my first piano teacher: 

‘take care of every note’ 

let no note go astray

let no note be ignored or trampled or stinted

grant every note, however seemingly subordinate,

your attention 

an ethics takes root in that injunction” 

– Wayne Koestenbaum

 

I follow every note, every word spoken.

The earth and sky respond as if in a song.

From my tongue the shifting universe opens

an irresistible black, and I move through.

 

The earth and sky respond – a haunting song –

so I listen to the voices, more distant now, telling

the irresistible black, “Let them move through,”

and since I don’t have a choice – I never did –

 

I listen. The voices, more distant still, tell everything.

The truth doesn’t matter. It’s the telling that opens

like a dream – and I’ve no choice but to see myself 

dreaming, then falling, then waking – then stillness.

 

Since the truth doesn’t matter, let the telling open

my closed eyes and heart. It’s true, my life has become

a dream – always falling, always waking – then stillness.

In the silence, there’s beauty in what remains unsaid.

 

I close my eyes and mind to what life has become.

I listen – beyond the spoken – for what is not spoken:

the silence. There’s something beautiful in the unsaid.

The universe opens to me, but its tongue doesn’t speak –

Sam Rasnake (he/him) lives in the shadow of the Cherokee National Forest. His works. nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, have appeared in Wigleaf, Drunken Boat, UCity Review, Southern Poetry Anthology, Best of the Web, and Bending Genres Anthology. He was and editor of Blue Fifth Review from 2000-2018 and has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley. Sam is the author of three chapbooks and four full-length poetry collections, most recently, Like a Thread to Follow (Cyberwit, 2023). Follow Sam on Bluesky @samrasnake.bsky.social or Twitter (X) @SamRasnake.

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by Natalie Szwec
CostaRics_red.heic