All posts by sofiacapel

2017: There was love too. SRL Foreword 23 by Sarvat Hasin

Art: Gratis


In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.
ANGELS IN AMERICA, Tony Kushner

I detest end of the year lists though I make them every year. I can never remember anything I consumed before the latter half of the year. Did I read a single book before October? Did I go to the theatre in the summer — or even worse — in the spring? It stresses me out to try to collate all that information, let alone arrange it in a hierarchy of best to worst.

But I get the appeal. There is something tempting about keeping a record of what you loved and hated: as if the best books or the worst movies you have seen in a year can sum up your experience of it. This year the worst movie I saw in the cinema was Colossal. It was June, a sticky bright London night. As we descended the stairs in the Curzon Soho, we saw Wallace Shawn leaving the cinema and giggled too hard in the dark. The movie was colossally bad. What this says about my year is that I went to the cinema a lot and have seen Clueless enough times to recognise him instantly. If you dig a little deeper, it also gives you this: it was the night after the terrorist attacks in London. The city seemed muted but it was a Sunday night. I went to the cinema a lot this year when the writing was going badly: the good movies made it better, the bad movies made it worse. Here is my 2017: I wrote, I went to the cinema and I tried to get better.

It is popular wisdom that each generation of humanity thinks the time they are living in is extraordinary. Whether they are scholars of literature or history or science, they are able to ignore the patterns of life and declare: this is the worst, the brightest, the most alchemical time to be alive. We have the ability to turn our experiences into grand plot points in the narrative of the planet, forgetting that it is a thing that has preceded us and will outlive us.

“2017 was a trash-fire” is the opinion of the internet. A conflagration of shittiness unlike anything that went before it. Who am I to disagree? If 2016 was marked by celebrity deaths, this year has been marked by dangerous politicians, by pulling the veil off sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. We’ve been on the dark end of the wheel for things that had already been set in motion: the continued carnage of war, political gaffes and then monstrous brutality, acts of violence that make humanity hard to fathom. Most days the news was so depressing it had be turned off.

There were also movies, books, meals, conversations, pieces of music so good they made me pause between my breaths, made me stop in the middle of the street because I wanted to feel them again. There was love too, among all the darkness, and the madness of hope.

Here is what I love about end of year lists: if a speck of my experience this year can be summarised by the things I loved and hated this year, by the books I couldn’t stop recommending and the songs that played so often in my head that their lyrics became part of my vocabulary, that means yours can be too. We can meet in the middle of the trash fire and trade our loves. Give me something as good as St. Vincent or Kaveh Akbar. Give me your favourite things. The obscure podcasts, the trashy movies you secretly loved, the music that moved you. Remember that there is joy in the sharing of things.  

The world is old and long and large. We can only try to get better.


SRL issue 23 will go live on Sunday 17 December. It will feature fiction by:

Fien Veldman
Kamil Ahsan
Saba Sams
T.A Barfield

and poetry by:

Dean Atta
Claire Donato
Caroline Jones

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Poetry by Iskandar Haggarty

heart pt. 1

when heart was small
still with    —— blood
like lavender

the texture of dirt
papa always said
be frugal. he

would bike to
work every
morning

without fail. 25
twentyfive twentyoddfive
years

of rain.


Iskandar Haggarty is the Editor-in-Chief of Firefly Magazine and a Best of the Net nominated poet. His work has been published / is forthcoming in Jawline Magazine, tNY Press, and Moonchild Magazine. His debut chapbook was published with Praxis Magazine this May. His favorite dessert is pumpkin pie.

Poetry by Janice Majewski

swan​ ​blood

good

//

get ‘em

———all

//

old soul dying

sit in ———womb

//

—————–breathe

just like you want to

//

————-burning

———————against

————–sound

//

no one ever

———waited here

//

luck

——hid

——away

 

 

doom​ ​sum

——you
——feed—– on
what’s the point


Janice Majewski is a poet living in Northern Virginia. Her work is forthcoming in Blackbirdand can be found in the Cincinnati ReviewEntropyReality Beach and elsewhere.

Poetry by Marcus Slease

Art: Salvador Dalí


BURNING GIRAFFE

After Salvador Dalí’s painting Burning Giraffe, 1937

Flowers devour a man. It floats and sinks. Floats and sinks. A river of red runs through it. Close your eyes. Are you only dreaming. Houseflies and horseflies hang on joints of meat teaching their young to fly. The windows sweat and sweat. Hard rain on the outside. Warm air on the inside. When you ain’t got no flowers, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no flowers, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no flowers, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no flowers, you got the blues. A burning giraffe in the distance. Sprinkle it with dew and a miracle or two. Wrap it in a sigh. Soak it in the sun. It sinks and floats. Sinks and floats. It is eternal flame and sunshine thru the rain.

 

MUSTARD CITY

Night comes and they re-enter the land of mustard. There is a mustard wheel. You can ride the mustard wheel in a glass cage to get a bird’s eye view of the financial capital. There is fancy mustard straight from the heavens. There is ancient mustard straight from the earth. There is artificially enhanced mustard. Skeleton trees and smog holes. Smudged hoof prints in the sand.


Marcus Slease is a (mostly) surrealist and fabulist writer from Portadown, N. Ireland and Utah. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, featured in the Best British Poetry series, translated into Polish and Danish, and has appeared, or will appear, in Tin House, Empty Mirror, Poetry, and Fence. His latest book is Play Yr Kardz Right. He lives in Madrid, Spain. You can find him on Instagram @jjmars24 and also on his website

Midnight in Akron, fiction by Jessica Bonder

Hear me out: What happened last night at the show was in some ways my fault, and in other ways it wasn’t. At the end of the day (I know you hate that phrase), what happened was really just me doing my job just a little too well. Come to think of it, I find it super funny – haha! – that me just doing my job just a little too well is the thing that got your panties in a hot twist, is the thing that unleashed your oh-my-goddess outrage, is the thing that got me on-the-spot fired, Get your shit and leave before we call Security, your cosmic joke of a directive, as I am Security and you just sacked me, so thanks but I’ll see myself out. What is burning a bridge but me cranking an angry bird in your morally superior faces, or trying-but-failing, realizing a broken middle finger is another one of my consolation prizes, another cheap treasure in a goody bag of hematomas, black eyes and split lips, compliments of The Pelts, don’t get too excited now, oh lucky me.

What an insult: I don’t even get to keep the SECURITY t-shirt, what really was the coolest part of this sucks-ball job, the only perk/benefit being an American Apparel crew neck, black with white across-the-chest letters spelling SECURITY, a 100% cotton permission slip to kick ass and take names, and most times not even bother with the take names part, just stick to the good part, the kick ass part, why I took this low-rent gig in the first place, a cool t-shirt and an excuse to punch flesh, why I said, Yesterday, when you asked me how soon I could start, then what size shirt I take, me saying XL but I can swing an L if need be, you saying that’s exactly the kind of positive attitude we need around here.

Hey Courtney? Fuck you.

Correct me if I’m wrong: What people say they want and what people actually want are two very different things. Completely different, are the things you expect out of this life and the things it actually serves up, like a coconut cream pie hitting your clown face. What a fool I was to think The Pelts were any different, that here was a girl band with its shit together, no drugs and an above-board manager (Gene, I’ll miss you buddy), no back-of-the-bus shenanigans, bunk bed mayhem, least not when the ragamuffins were around, little well-adjusted mistakes seemingly fine with the road tour life, not missing things like school or friends, dads whose faces they’ve never seen.

Hey Gen? Have fun telling Lilysweet where Roundhouse went, when it’s lights out and she’s crying for Goodnight Moon.

News flash: Who really loses in this situation is you. Clearly you didn’t think this through. Finding an overnight replacement, what with you smack in the middle of your Dumb Middle Americans Tour, what with your castle-in-the-clouds list of must-haves for shit-pay (Commercial Driver’s License, no crazy exes, abs), good luck with that, is all I’m sayin’. Coachella? Is gonna blow. Bonnaroo? Don’t make me laugh.

Just so you know: I left the SECURITY t-shirt on your dressing table, folded neatly between your stage props (can of mace and airhorn, what you call – and I’m air-quoting this – “bits of showmanship”), just to show you how much of a gentleman this bag-of-dicks can be, how much grace under pressure this disgusting pig-of-a-man has coming out his ears, how a lipsticked mirror message will not read FUCK YOU CUNTS or SUCK IT BITCHES, things I bet you expected from this asshole the size of Montana, but instead, when you stage-retreat, vanity-stumble to makeup-remove, won’t you be surprised – shocked! – to find NO HARD FEELINGS winking back at you, NO HARD FEELINGS with the cutest-ever smiley face, and maybe even a little heart-and-star action thrown in, because that’s just the kind of rising-above-it saint you threw away today, ladies.

Side note: Where I rubbed the t-shirt before I left it folded, is a place so dark it makes Satan blush. Take a good hard whiff. Inhale deep. Nuzzle your muzzle where it doesn’t belong, I hear you’re into that sorta thing. Talk about the pot calling the –

Here’s an idea: Why don’t you Concept Punks stick to playing your imaginary instruments and let Roundhouse do his job? Because unlike you anti-music musicians, you anti-sound soundscapists, you charade-smashing guitars non-existent, you mime-beating figment drums, you silent-screaming into microphones muted, raging sea of Peltheads left to interpret meaning, raging sea of Peltheads getting off on capitalist denial, $500 a ticket literally paying to see nothing, how Roundhouse earns his bread is not theoretical: an upside-down urinal has real world implications. To Roundhouse, a tipped-over porta-potty ain’t a Duchamp. It’s another dirty chore on his Saturday Night To-Do List.

But hey: Do what you want. It’s your call. Numb your clicker finger with raw footage playbacks. Bleed your orbs with eyewitness cell phone vids. Pump bystanders for deets until the hormonally whack cows come home. What do I care. I’m out of a job, it’s midnight in Akron and I have nowhere to go. Last place I lived was a punk house in Asbury Park, not sure if it’s even there anymore, probably it’s not. Hefty bag of a life slung over my shoulder, me thumbing on the corner of the half-mile-back Mobil, this not the life Ma envisioned for me, Ma for me nightly bedside-praying, putting in a call to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, an extra fiver pleading in the collection plate for a nice girl and me married, us homecoming to Ma’s for Sunday dinner, me and Pops watching the Giants, the girls doing the dishes, a surprise announcement for dessert, We’ve got a baby on the way!, Ma clasping her tiny blessed medal and jumping for joy, or jumping as much as Ma can jump these days, which is not much at all, what with her arthritis/bad knees.

Again: Haha! Here I am to you such a threat, to you such a danger, to you such the Big Bad Wolf in the room, oh you ladies, oh you Pelts, oh you #11’s on F Magazine’s list of Top Girl Bands to Watch 2019, oh you not even top 10 breakings, oh you actually needing talent to do thats, oh how much of a beating have your knees taken to get to where you ares, oh the hypocrisy spitting out your privilege-chapped cocksuckers, oh the poseur spittle dribbling down your safespace chins, oh the special snowflake melt in your hyperbolic spotlights, oh the chow-downing on patriarchal knuckle sandwiches, oh the biting of the meaty hand that feeds you cheating vegans, oh how can you even take yourselves seriouslys, oh do you even hear what you sound like right now, Courtney/Gen/Lisa?

Clearly you don’t. Maybe you should get your hearing checked.

(Lisa: Not you, your actually being deaf, your being the scene’s most celebrated deaf drummer, your basically being my hero, obviously, not you.)

Because tell me this: How could a man who everso loves his Ma be – in your phraseology – “a threat to the band’s physical safety,” or “a liability untouchable with a ten-foot pole,” etc.? How much of a menace can one man be, one man who catches spiders in a juice glass and sets them free, one man whose guilty pleasure is the I Love Lucy marathon on New Year’s Day, one man who knits beer koozies to calm his fried nerves, one man who to his own goddamned arthritic and bad-kneed Ma can’t even bring himself to say, without bursting into tears: I love you Deirdre, you know that, but pictures of grandkids to showboat at Tuesday afternoon mahjong, that train has left the station.

So too has the tour bus.

Red tail lights growing small on a rumbling-away rectangle is my six-month home saying hasta la vista. Diesel fumes coughed in my grill, nice knowing you. My crap piled curbside, goodbye.

Even transients get homesick, is the wedgie of a thought I can’t unpick, me for-real fired and parking lot abandoned, me choking on exhaust, on lung-clinging clouds of kicked-up dirt/dust, me huffing the burnt rubber stench of your outta-here tires, six big rubber circles hauling ass, you trucking it to the next forsaken city, the next ill-equipped venue, good riddance Pelts, y’all don’t come back, y’hear? Still: You miss the things you never had, even miss the things you hate. Take away my t-shirt and ID badge and what am I but a sadface muscle clump, asphalt hugging, highway lonesome.

Truth is: I hated The Pelts as much as I needed them. Which was a lot. I needed them because they needed me. Or I believed they did. Wanted to. So I put up with their shit – isn’t that how it works? For what do we live than someone to need and someone to hate, best case scenario, stars in alignment, that someone is one in the same? What is more a life focus than shooting your love/hate at the same target?

Wait: one in the same or one and the same?

Fuck I’m tired.

It’s been a rough 24.

What comes next: I don’t know and never did, which is maybe why the aching now, granted some of it physical, from injuries sustained during last night’s blamed-on-me brawl (unconfirmed reports: 18 injured, 1 in critical condition, 0 fatalities, NBD IMHO), but most of it not, most of it an aching something deeper, the used-up me inside mourning the loss of some missed exit twenty years ago, when a 17 y.o. me – young dumb and full of cum – fell in love with nowhere and never fell out of it. I’m getting old, is the point. Can’t do this forever.

Fingers crossed for a trucker. Truckers take pity on lost souls. They know.

What I tell myself: At least I’ve got my dignity. At least I know, in my heart of bruised hearts, that I acted in the only way I knew how, the only way that has kept me alive this long, the only way that has helped me survive this many wanton years, this many bad turns, this many unlucky breaks – what else should I expect of myself? Anything else would be unfair. What is also unfair: Dignity don’t pay for wrist splints, elbow stitches, Greyhounds back to Ma’s.

Just one last thing before I shut up and disappear, tell me something: Was I wrong? I don’t think I was, wrong, but maybe it’s time for Roundhouse to start listening.

Here’s what happened: Gen’s baby daddy showed up in the one place Gen’s baby daddy did not belong, i.e. anywhere near Gen, Gen still waiting on the restraining order, legal system so slow it should be illegal, Gen not wanting Randall anywhere near Lilysweet, Randall never ever to be part of Lilysweet’s life, Gen thus taking extra precautions, slipping me Randall’s picture, what is essentially a mugshot from his last DUI arrest, what is this Randall but a shitfaced gap-tooth, Gen asking could I keep an eye out for psycho? because we’re in psycho’s hometown and she’s getting weird vibes, and I’m sure that’s my job, and Gen’s you rock Roundhouse, and what are we but two high fives on the same team.

With me so far? Gen asked me to keep an eye out for Randall.

So what was I doing when it all started but keeping an eye out for Randall.

Like Gen asked.

So there I am, keeping an eye out for Randall and any other suspect looney tunes, what is me just doing the job for which I was hired, me standing arms crossed at the front of the pit, 250 solid pounds of intimidation and badassery, 250 pounds of me crowd-checking, fan-scanning, suspicion-scoping, The Pelts behind/above me just starting their second set, when who do I see but Gen’s baby daddy – that psycho Randall! – Gen’s baby daddy barricade-crashing Stage Left and making straight for The Pelts – making straight for Gen! – Gen’s psycho baby daddy psychotically scaling a 10-foot speaker – why it’s even there, The Pelts producing no sounds to amplify, is anybody’s guess – Gen’s psycho baby daddy looking like he’s got the outline of a gun in his pocket – OMFG! – Gen’s not even seeing Randall from where she’s air-playing her hypothetical keytar, sightlines and speaker size her view of him obscuring, all this meaning Gen – Lilysweet’s Mom! – what is she but completely vulnerable and inevitably blindsided, just moments away from being shot to death – FUCK!

Still with me?

Gen’s baby daddy showed up to the concert with a gun.

Gen’s on stage, her daughter Lilysweet’s backstage, and not even anyone with her, Lilysweet, pretty sure, I would not be surprised.

So why was I even there but to do my motherfucking job, do it and do it well, proceed to shove/push/trample every man-woman-child blocking my way to Gen’s psycho baby daddy, kick/punch/smack each and every speed-bump with a pulse, jab/elbow/headbutt any and all corn-fed hold-ups, fuck how many faceless plebs were hurt in Randall’s takedown (18), fuck how many pregnant bellies bopped (1), fuck how many toddler heads clobbered (2), fuck how many cell phones were recording at the time (200+), fuck how many starring-me videos were immediately uploaded to YouView (200+), fuck how many virtual strangers who weren’t even there leaving bullshit Comments like my actions were “excessive,” “unwarranted,” “out of line,” etc. (10,000+), fuck how bad the optics looked for The Pelts (very), fuck how many statements Gene released saying “The Pelts do not condone violence” (1), fuck how many times I had to tell Detective Kelly, look, I saved Gen’s life, saved Lilysweet’s mom, that totally grateful-looking celebrity right there? that totally adorable little girl in her arms? see? I mean, isn’t that what you Blue Bloods always say, when it comes to delivering some Grade A Justice, as uncomfortable as it is for the public to watch, Just doing my job, sir?

Oh: In case you were wondering, yes, Pelts’ concerts are “family friendly.”

Strollers, Starfux and spectacles, the sad look of punk these days.

Truth: Sometimes fists do a job better than words. What was I going to do? Say, Excuse me, please? and wait around like a tool for these très thick Peltheads to move their asses, these très thick Peltheads who sure as heckfire wouldn’t, this pit being stake-claimed standing room only, this pit being where prime stage-views were seized way before dawn, this pit being where hardcore Peltheads packed themselves sardine-tight, stood committed AF, seriously, what was I going to do, wait around twiddling my thumbs all Señor Manners while Gen gets shot point-blank? Shot point-blank by a psycho baby daddy whose job it was for me to protect her from, like, in the first place?

No. Don’t think so.

It’s textbook triage. The lives of the famous are way more importanter than the poors’.

So question: Where’s my gold star?

Randall, who I apprehended right quick and put out-of-commission, who’s now got some rando ER doc saying it’s not looking good, psycho’s vital signs are unstable, his condition critical – booyah! – who knew there was a big deal warrant out for dude’s arrest? Apparently Randall’d been running the Buckeye State’s largest meth lab, was numero uno on the National Clandestine Laboratory Register for Ohio. Explains dude’s manic energy and scarecrow frame, raccoon eyes and garden-variety mouth-rot. So the po-po let me go-go. Two slaps were the Law’s thank-you gifts – one on my wrist, the other on my back.

Friendly reminder: To all those “injured” concertgoers threatening to sue, you signed a waiver at the time of ticket purchase, dost thou not remember? Need a quick refresher? Sure, no problemo. For your convenience, I’ve got an extra copy handy, right here:

By signing this document, you surrender your right and the right of your heirs, next of kin, personal representatives and assigns to bring a court action, now or at any time in the future, to recover compensation for any injury to yourself or for your death, however caused, arising out of your attendance of The Pelts’ Dumb Middle Americans Tour, even if such claims are based upon the actual negligence of The Pelts, any contracted staff of The Pelts, any onsite vendors of The Pelts or any of the nationwide PeltPartners™, including but not limited to, Big Pat’s Tats, Swifty’s Donuts, and At Your Leisure Robot Whorehouses.

Go back to watching your Judge Judy, loserfaces, you’re S.O.L.

To the rest of you jaw-droppers, listen. I’m not heartless.

Au contraire.

Who I feel sorry for is Lilysweet.

Sweet deserves better than this. Sweet running barefoot over Christ-knows-what, Sweet’s dinner leftover 420 munchies, floor-found Cheetos and Lucky Charms, Sweet not even having a bunk of her own, a soft place to settle for naps/quiet time, each city a new sleeping arrangement, you picking up fangirls like a stray dog fleas, you loading in fuckbois like obsolete soundboards, strange and sketchy hands braiding Sweet’s knotted hair, like another fake friend is what Sweet really needs, like what Sweet really needs is another fame-clinger playing her in Candy Land, another starfucking Pelthead thinking Sweet-wooing a shortcut to Sweet’s Mom’s panties, what is more wrong in this world than the rock star life for a growing child, a growing child needing things like regular baths, good nutrition, routine, Sweet not getting any of these things, barefoot-running Sweet a childhood’s safety denied, all 250 pounds of me powerless to save her, powerless to save her save a bedtime story, a blanket and recitation the best I could provide, goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere, night after night did I keep Sweet my promise, night after night do Sweet visions haunt me still, buried alive in this unmarked grave where guys like me go, what is every sleepless toss but the manifest thunderclap of a deep-within sadness, me shaken awake by the 3 AM chorus of drunks fighting in the hall and glass shattering in the alley, me a poor man’s Buddha on a dirty mattress shrine, alone to wish, alone to pray, this:

So many times, should you have considered yourself blessed.

So many times, did I want to do to you far worse than what I did to that dude.


Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017);  Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest. Twitter handle: @jessbonder www.jessicabonder.com

 

The Ruins, fiction by Susanna Crossman

Dearest Mimi,

I write from Nana’s Breton cliff-top house. A maritime gale bellows outside, tossing sailors from ships, tearing tiles from roofs. Crash, bang, wallop. A lifetime has passed since the day I left here. Memories permeate every corner, souvenirs embedded in edifice. Branded skin. Scarred walls. I insist to myself, it is a mere building, a random locus of igneous rocks made from stilled lava, not a living home.

A decade ago, I stepped over this threshold. Don’t look back, I thought. Won’t look back. I shut the door, crossed the Rubicon. Tonight, I sleep here for the very last time. All I long to do is flee. Today was Nana’s funeral. I said, “Au revoir”; I am alone.

 

Mimi, this afternoon, I received my inheritance from my French Nana. Unbelievable. A small-town, po-faced solicitor read me her Will,

“Her Breton house is bequeathed to her University”, he declared. I sighed; I wanted the house, it would fetch a high price. He continued, “As your parents are both dead you have been left the infamous collection, The Ruins, otherwise known as The Mineral Cities. The Will stipulates that The Ruins cannot be given away or sold, individually or collectively.”

I gulped. He advised,

“Your grandmother has also provided you with a yearly subsistence allowance, so you can maintain The Ruins. You own The Mineral Cities now” he smiled; I almost let out a cry. “You must consider your responsibilities, where you will live, what you will do. The collection is priceless; the largest of it’s kind. The only other important Ruin collection we know of is held in Liberia by a Kpelle agricultural philosopher.”

The solicitor beckoned to his clerk, who handed me the large oak trunk I had seen my Nana opening and closing a hundred times, always warning me

Touche pas! Don’t touch!”

As I stared furiously at the lid, I recalled her other oft-repeated words,

“I’ve been collecting the Ruins for hundreds of years.” Nana claimed, “And before I collected them, my mother collected and her mother before her. One day, if you are a good girl, the Ruins will be yours. ”

My heart was heavy with the load of The Mineral Cities, the most ancient weight on our planet.

 

Once I had been old enough to understand, I had always insisted to Grandpa (the power behind the throne),

“I don’t want the Ruins. Ever. Just make sure Nana doesn’t give them to me.”

He had nodded, sadly, shaking his head with regret.

“Yet, they are rare annals of nature; the prescient rock story. Delightful fossils and dangerous human civitatem”, he said, trying to persuade me to change my mind.

But, I sought neither the haunting burden of their past, or the responsibility of their future. Between memory and forgetting, I grasped the latter. I held its blank page, its Corbusien newness like a square concrete talisman before me. Who wants an aesthetic trophy to destruction and collapse, the fall?

 

Mimi, the oak trunk is now in the living room beside me. Tomorrow, it should leave this house for mine. Inside are a series of wooden cases divided into square specimen sections; my Grandpa had the box made especially. Each section holds a Ruin sheathed in protective silk, like the desiccated corpse of an Egyptian Mummy.

As the gale blows around the granite house, I have unwrapped a few Ruins, held each stone. Cradling minuscule cities in the cup of my hand, the night has tipped me back and forth in time. My life. Theirs. Ours. I now own the remains of human civilisations, the Wonders of the World, overpopulated, stinking urban sprawls: an empty Manhattan devoured by crystals, the tall climbs of a Mexican church, a French chapel clinging tentatively to rock, the vestiges of the Garden of Babylon evaded by stone…

 

“The Ruins depict an architecture built from lithic matter, but the minerals sauvage are invading the cities. The minerals advance in geological time, their evolution invisible to our human eyes.”

I once overheard Nana dictating to a select herd of eager professors, invited here for a rare private viewing of The Ruins,

“The stones will always outlast us; they are older than life, their suspended information narrates the history of the earth.”

A Chinese gentleman in a tweed jacket with a mustard yellow bowtie raised a quivering hand.

“Allow me to enquire whom you believe made the Ruins originally?” he stuttered, almost spitting as he spoke.

Nana turned her shrewd eyes to meet his,

“Many petrology myths claim to tell the story of The Ruin’s creation; delirious fabrications, fabulous conspiracy theories. Do the mineral cities tell the past or predict the future?”

Nana laughed haughtily. In her hands, balanced on a piece of rare agate silica was Tokyo, one of her favourite Ruins. Mount Fuji dominated urban turf, a collision of superstructures, concrete erections and tonnages of Roman concrete blending with bitumen. Nana gently stroked four lanes melting into the invisible wind of a high-speed train. Crouched by the window, I wished she would be as tender when she brushed my hair.

She spoke,

“Some believe The Ruins belonged to Gaia (the Earth), Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the Sea). The Mineral Cities, lithic chimeras of stone and architecture, were pieces from an ancient game, similar to Chess. Others insist The Ruins were invented by non-humans, speaking substances; that The Mineral Cities are-were rare, precious souvenirs, made by mountains, predicting a future world.”

Nana raised an eyebrow, a small smile spilt across the parchment of her skin, “I also once read a theory that the Ruins were constructed by humankind as a painful reminder of the power of stone, when global warming, urban invasion and frenzied overpopulation led to devastation on Earth.”

Nana carefully returned The Ruin, Tokyo, to its wooden case,

“As a collector, I can only verify the fact that the majority of architectural aspects, that is to say the ‘frozen music’ of The Ruins, have been identified as coming from the first two millennia, a period of great upheaval, movement and conflict. “

 

 

Mimi, now the Ruins are mine, what am I going to do? Where shall I go with my heritance? I don’t want this lithic data, it testifies to the inevitability of our death. Our organic ephemerality transformed into mineral durability, our cities heartbeats mortified.

This oak chest is worth millions. It even contains a Ruin from the infamous Calais “jungle”; it is a single footprint from the years 2000, when the displaced lived in tents, were chased around the lands. Disparaged. Blamed. The Calais Ruin, the footprint, is engraved in a crystalline substance on a section of polished metamorphic rock: a marble, with a lacy folded foliation, each band of mineral, a storyline, a visible tale.

Nana would be lecturing me, waggling her gnarled finger in my face like some cranky dictator,

“The Ruin in this case is the Ruin of a Diaspora. Each line in the marble records the pulse of a displaced person, the cadence of a million itinerant souls. In popular language they called these temporary Calais homes a “jungle”, a despicable metaphorical linguistic choice, dehumanising the homeless immigrants, the exiles, as though their architectural structure was chaos and the inhabitants animals.”

When I was a little girl, I spent all my summer school holidays with Nana and Grandpa. My parents died when I was eight. The pink-granite Breton house became my home, the beach my playground. On rainy afternoon’s, I would play at the Ruins; the Mineral Cities were mine. I would hold tea parties in Regent’s Park when it opened to the public in 1835 and pick flowers from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian “pensil paradise. I skipped through Brasilia’s superquadras which Simone de Beauvoir claimed oozed “elegant monotony”; women, men and children gripped on rock, crystal and stone.

I made the Ruins come alive, sought out the human traces, architectural intentions, footprints, whispers and shadows ingrained in a wall: the aural history of Babylon, the murmurs from the domus of a heretic Cathar home and the praying wail from a Mosque or a temple.

“Come out and play”, I whispered to my imaginary playmates.

 

“Look Nana” I said proudly, at the age of nine, surrounded by the bricks and toys from which I had constructed my own Ruins,

“Running under Manhattan is an invisible token subway, at 8th- NYU a tiled squirrel munches on an acorn”.

 

Mimi, throughout my childhood, even during school-term, the Ruins were forever present. Nana made recordings of her voice to send me to sleep. The Nurse at school played them to me at night, particularly when I was crying and missed my parents. In tones, as bewitching as the returning sea, Nana recited a lament of rocks and stones,

“Igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock: Arkose, Marble, Shale, Greywacke, Dacite, Gossan, Granite, Laterite, Latite, Pumice, Skarn, Tonalite….”

Yet, as I got older, I began to wonder who Nana loved more, the Ruins or me. She was so patient with the discrete layers of stone, the ordered relics; I was a living, unpredictable human being. The Ruins became a bore, indoctrination, a wedge of decomposed matter. After all, I told my pre-teen self, the stones were made from dead living things, The Ruins were vampires, sucking the life from our veins…

 

I remember a day, down at the beach; I must have been twelve, nearly thirteen. The sun was shining. I was trying to read a book on transparency; I have always been interested in glass. Nana was talking on and on about the Ruins, her voice sounded like a drone, an irritating fly I longed to squash.

“Our obsession with the permanence, the timeless of stone, la pierre, is related to our own human fragility. The intimate structure of this matter has fascinated us since the first two flints lit the first fire. Our world began with stone. Its geological vocabulary has shaped our limbs, our landscape: aggregate minerals held together by chemical bonds. A stone is always perfect even when it is split in two, a geologist will consider it as chemically whole. Buildings are ruins from the day they are built, death inserted in their very foundations. Human’s are always imperfect, doomed to disappear”.

I clenched my fists, wishing she would shut up about death. Three years previously, both my parents had died, her own daughter; didn’t she care?

“But they are just a silly load of stones. Just stones. Pebbles.” I muttered at her, and she stood, and swift as panther, raised her hand and struck my face.

“Never speak like that”, she said, without a hint of disarray.

She hit me so hard I flew backwards in the sand. Lay, incredulous. Terrified. I ran back to the house, willing myself not to cry. In a mirror I saw the marks of her fingers, red lines on my skin.

“I will not forget this. I will not forget.” I vowed.

 

Later, Grandpa tried to explain,

“Your Nana loves you. But, she was born into a city destroyed in the war, walked to school between the bombed buildings, the torn, blackened, half-standing remains of a town. A landscape slashed into unrecognisable pieces. She always told me she didn’t think human beings deserved this earth. And –“ Grandpa coughed, “When your mother died, our only daughter. Something snapped inside her; she turned towards the stone. She’s never been able to look away”.

 

 

However, Grandpa’s words were not enough. They could not contain the rage that rose in my bones. At the age of eighteen, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Nana had become delirious about the Ruins. Every night, she would padlock herself to the oak chest,

“They are coming for my Ruins”, she would rave at Grandpa and me, “They are going to try to undo the stone. She”, Nana would designate me with a long, bony finger, “ Is the leader of their gang. This girl has subterfuges, lies, tricks and traps. She must be surveyed; she wants the rocks, the minerals, she does not understand”.

 

Mimi, in the end, I left for University and never came back. I burnt all my bridges calcified the past; bought only new things. I now live in a clean, transparent urban apartment. No photos. No books. No dust. No remains. All glass. I see through. I do not look back.

 

Mimi, I shall have to finish this letter here. Dawn is breaking night from day, splitting pink into my horizon; the storm has died down. I’ve spent the night thinking about the collection. I wonder, should I take the Ruins with me, or shall I toss the stones into the sea? Set them free. Let them roll.

 

From the living-room window, I glimpse the beach below. I once spent summer days, crouched beside the dunes, constructing intricate sand castles. While Nana concentrated on reading large volumes of History and Greek Philosophy, mineral cities emerged from my childish fingers. Ten digits and a palm assembled rock particles, dug moats, inserted shells and seaweed into granular walls, hands producing houses.

Did you know that at the end of each day, after le diner, Nana would take me, hand-in-hand, running back down to the beach and encourage me to jump on all the castles?

“They are ephemeral. Utterly ephemeral”, she would whisper, as I jubilantly kicked down sandy facades and crushed ramparts, destroying my creations. I hear her voice now, her learned tone, falling into the pink shell of my ear like the sweet crackle of a needle on vinyl, “Ephemeral, from the Greek ephemeroi, creatures of a day. This is the premise of humankind, for our cities, our homes, to tip from a gleam of happiness to the mighty blow of fate”.

 

Love to you Mimi,

Cassandra.


Susanna Crossman is the co-writer of the French hospital roman, Le dessous des Cartes (LEH, 2015). Her short fiction is recently published or upcoming in The Creative Review, Litro, Dangerous Women Project, BlueFifth Review, Visual Verse… and has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. Her regular hybrid collaborations with visual artists and musicians have led to artists books, readings and video-poem performances in Britain, USA and France, most recently the on-going project Les Ruines: Cités Minérales with Anne-Sophia Duca (FR) When she is not writing, she works internationally as a clinical arts-therapist and lecturer. She is currently collaborating with the film director Gilles Blanchard on the film-theatre project ‘ Camille Claudel’ (FR).

Cures for Lilac Blight, fiction by Merry Mercurial

When I was fifteen years old, my English teacher sent a piece of my writing to the Times and it was published, giving me the same sort of short-lived but ravenous fame that responds to all things grotesque. My mother had already read that piece and several others by the time, in college, I handed over what I called my first novel. It was about a family from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the widower father, a generally beloved former governor, the mother out of the picture from shortly after the birth of the youngest (as my own mother would eventually point out, my stories rarely featured mothers, my character sets serving as a sort of social experiment in the stunted psyches of motherless children), the children – both daughters, one grown and the younger somewhat grown also, depending on who you asked—she was a freshman at an in-town college, studying alongside her hapless, effeminate but straight boyfriend to one day be doctors.

Her life changed, as the lives of young, educated, reasonably wealthy white people will tend to, on a trip to Africa. With orthodox ignorance, my mind imposed a unifying blot over Africa—at first. Finding this unacceptable for anyone but especially for me, I spent the next several months writing nothing but coaxing along my embryonic appreciation for, specifically, Ethiopia, taking notes on the popularity of its open-air markets, the blue-and-white mini-bus taxis of Addis Ababa, the soft lilting sound of the Amharic spoken there.

I was loaned expensive full-color culture and language books from a returned-missionary couple I had the good fortune to meet while working at a sunglasses store in the mall, a job my mother had strongly encouraged I take after I’d explained I was taking several months to adequately steep myself in Ethiopian culture. I will always remember that after I’d pored over these beautiful, and pristinely kept, books and filled major chunks of no fewer than three notebooks with trivia from a guidebook compiler’s perspective, I returned the books to their owners, gushing over the chance to achieve a more nuanced view of how poverty and poor health snaked into this region, as opposed to assuming some blanket destitution. The husband of the couple nodded as though he were with me word for word, leaned in as though to share an important secret, and said, “You know what it comes from, don’t you?” I did not. So he spelled it out for me: “S-I-N.”

I remember going home and sharing the encounter with my mother, and asking her just whose sensitive ears she thought he was accounting for in spelling out a three-letter word.

“His inner child’s,” she said. Then she asked if I’d accumulated enough data that I could barrel forward with the writing itself. I told her, honestly, that I did not know. There was something that felt classically witless about osmosing data intended for tourists, even a great mound of it, and then considering myself equipped to recreate that world; there was virtually no chance that someone from the region would do a double-take between my book and the vivid Ethiopian landscape outside their front doors—that minty smell from eucalyptus trees wafting in—in an effort to figure out which was real.

Probably understanding that I was on the brink of suggesting I needed to go to Addis Ababa, spend as many months—at least—inheriting its three-d visuals and rhythms as I had spent reading about it, my mother said, “Russo, I applaud your efforts to learn about a place before you go acting the expert on it, but maybe I’m missing something. You told me your story’s set in Harrisburg.”

“It is,” I told her. I told her the majority of the action stretched from Harrisburg to Lancaster—Amish country—but that this adventure taken by the youngest daughter—I had named her Clarissa, the elder sister Janie—sparked a desperate need to establish her own life somewhere far, far away, a motive that would drive a course of action that could easily seem haphazard, insane even, if I could not show readers what those qualities were that compelled her to leave.

My mother answered me, “To go, you mean.”

I agreed; we were saying the same thing, I thought.

“Because people tend to be excited to go somewhere, but you’re saying desperate. If she’s desperate, then she’s desperate to leave, right? To leave Harrisburg?”

I would not agree to this because I hadn’t accounted for it in my story; in my story, Clarissa’s life wavered between fine and magnificent. She was not unhappy to begin with so hers could be a purely positive motivation, something I had rarely seen represented in book form and wanted to accomplish in mine. It would be a feat of art, a fitting follow-up for the boy whose story had been published in the Times at fifteen, which by this point was several years ago.

If I remember correctly—my memory synthesized of a high, caustic smell and the image of abused cotton balls littering the dining room tabletop—my mother was doing something it was not unheard of for her to do: removing nail polish she had just put on because she’d grown irritable waiting for it to dry. My mother was a naturally beautiful woman, and not without her customizing touches, not insistent upon leaving alone the looks god gave her, but she wouldn’t abide rituals that handicapped her for any length of time. With her chemical scent wafting across, she frowned and asked me to tell her what my story was about.

                      Life,” I told her.

“Any one part?”

I told her it would be too difficult to summarize but have realized in the time since it would not have been; it was simply that I knew my mother herself had a natural-born sense of story and could have instantly felt out the holes in mine. I also wanted to postpone her knowing the story until she read it, hoping that my style could sell its tattered heart in a way that I couldn’t by pitching it to her over cotton balls that appeared, from her red polish, to be unevenly marinated in blood.

The night I had come home after my fight—this is what I called it: a fight—she had stopped midway through applying a different shade of red. One that didn’t look as nice on her, which isn’t to say it looked bad. It’s only that my mother’s skin was naturally a warm cinnamon (she’d flipped the conventional New England tableau in adopting a poor white baby) under which murmured a subtle tangerine shade, particularly near the end of the schoolyear when the sun could be counted on for more than light, and it meant that an orangish red didn’t complement the tone of her hands quite the way other shades of red did.

Not that she had any particular sun-glow that year; the sun hadn’t been making special efforts. In fact, as I recall, a late winter storm had cold-salted the air in a way that sent us indoors for most of what we otherwise would have handled outdoors. For instance, when it came time for my partnered book report with Tristam Jessic, we at first talked about meeting up on the courtyard at school to get down some initial notes but then it had snowed and snowed, and he had said: I have a treehouse. And for somebody like me: enough said. Handsome football player with a treehouse, where he stored books for school along with weird rare books in what I took to be home-hewn crates? For a while I was glad it had snowed.

And even though I liked blue-red shades better than orange-reds on my mother, in the trashcan, the cotton balls she’d used to rake off her polish looked delightfully innocent. Next to the hemic washcloths I discarded there they were like mums strangely vased.

 

I did eventually leave my book for her to read, once she had convinced me that my months of research were sufficient for the grand three sequenced scenes that occurred outside Pennsylvania. I left it on her bed accompanied by a long disclaimer note, trying to at once explain the story before she read it (having reversed my policy on this completely and without cause) and acknowledge and thereby distance myself from any flaw I could imagine her finding in it. When I returned home later that evening it was with a sense of dread. An unfounded sense.

I knew my mother to be steady, reasonable, and constructive in her criticism; I knew it was how she was with her students. More than once on visiting her classroom I’d witnessed students older than me humming around her desk, waiting respectfully for Ms. Reasinger to take a break in making dinner plans with her son so they could say, in breathless sprints, things like Miss-Reasinger-did-you-have-a-chance-to-read-my-short-story and Miss-Reasinger-I’ve-realized-my-theme-isn’t-clear-until-halfway-through, and they would always smile nervous smiles and apologize to her—for having burdened her with their stories, for their callow and butterfingered approach to writing—but, strangely enough, their self-deprecation seemed to come from a place of absolute security. They could let loose a bluster of self-mockery and insecurities not because she would coddle them, assuring them nothing they’d ever feared regarding the limits of their talent could possibly be true, but because in her was a sort of gentle sieve. There was no advantage to her in tearing anyone down—widely published herself, she was jealous of no nubile up-and-comer. She was ever accurate. Solidly fair. Regularly pointing out what was executed well in books she didn’t like and highlighting passages that could have been improved by x, y, z in books she adored.

Beyond my mother’s essential justness and intelligence, there was the fact that she loved me—more than I think I knew how process, to a degree that I knew nothing about at that age. It would be some time yet—I would be a parent myself, in fact—before I would understand her love for me encompassed both a gentle corrective nourishment in the direction of success and a violence.

It may be only excuse-making now, but I’d like to believe if I had fully understood what I was to her, I may have been less concerned, or more, about her reading the manuscript I’d left on her bed. The story’s title was Lilac, after the nickname given to the younger sister, Clarissa, by the elder, Janie, who in the absence of a mother had become a surrogate second parent to the girl. In the story, after Clarissa takes a trip to Africa with her boyfriend, who serves a sort of remedial social function for her and does little else, she applies for and is, almost instantly, accepted to a program that would involve a two-year course of studying in the heart of Ethiopia and volunteering along its extremities. The window of time for not only her response but her departure is as short as such windows tend to be in fiction. Here is her problem: she needs her sister to say it’s okay. Her sister’s approbation is her own private law; to shuttle off to Africa for two years without it unthinkable. And actually, her true problem is this: Janie is not home.

Janie—a cop, an undercover cop in what I somehow imagined to be Pennsylvania’s robust organized crime unit—is on assignment rooming in the mansion of an evil man who’s set up a sort of assassin brothel in the fringe of Amish Land, and she could easily be there for months.

Calling on her wiles—charming but decisively unsexual—as the lanky, golden-hearted, video-game-playing, doe-eyed youngest of a glad-hander, Clarissa wheedles someone in Janie’s department into letting on where Janie is and then she goes to her. To her credit, she does not go planless: she knows well the perils of those soporific Lancaster highways, especially in the rain, and she has lucked upon a rainy day for driving. She crashes her car into the gate of this crime lord’s home, knowing exactly how innocent she looks and also, for the record, not fully understanding what it is he does; taking him for a glorified drug dealer, which is natural enough in light of her belief that her sister is a vice cop. Communication, you will see, is not this family’s strong suit.

Figuring she will charm her way in—hers the type of relaxed, slightly arrogant magnetism still more associated with boys—she also figures she will bump into her sister at some point, let it be known that she has to go to Ethiopia to fulfill her purpose/dream so that her sister will not come home to find her gone and, in a heartbroken panic, fly across the Atlantic looking for her. Then she will be on her way. Her innocence could tame an ogre.

I am able to admit that what happens next, while horrible, is not especially inventive: not trained in harboring her true identity, as her sister is, Clarissa can’t distinguish between the man’s seemingly harmless and truly harmless questions and does not detect the danger to herself when he has her car whisked away for repair, invites her to dinner while she waits. While clever enough to have retrieved her car registration from the glove box, she has not taken into account how easy it would be for a man of technological means to have her identity traced backward from other features.

When they return to his minimalist chateau, he guides her down a long hall, doorless except for the shut entrance to a room at the very end, and along their walk makes it obvious to her that he knows. But from there, what can she do? She has no training, no potent muscle tucked into her slender frame. He is older, broader, male; he tutors and employs those who murder as a way of life. In the room he calls an oubliette though it is indoors and level with the rest of the home, the asymmetry of their fight becomes plainer still.

I will spare you, as I did not spare my mother, the details of how he tries to persuade her to tell him why she is there, and who else may be there. It’s only important to know that her sister became aware of Clarissa’s presence in the house only after she was imprisoned and the crime lord had invited his many boarders to view her; she had a decision then to make: speak out right away, blowing her cover and very likely having her sister, her partner, and herself slain in a heartbeat, or stay quiet as she works diligently behind the scenes to get word out of the now-locked-down estate to end the sting, surround the place, bury him.

In this, I would later explain to my mother, I was shooting for a parable of moral conundrums not unlike those of The Crucible: one path feels right, down the other lies the only realistic possibility of survival. It was to be philosophically awake but gray, with a vaguely Dante-like structure and a full digest of flower symbolism—the crime lord’s house girdled by Mister Lincoln roses (hence the only name he is known by in the story: Lincoln), from which, at one point, he fashions for his prisoner a Christian crown. At another point he walks her through his garden, whispering her name in a premeditated if not wholly faked display of affection, erasing both Harrisburg and Ethiopia in the heat of his breath.

 

Harrisburg and Lancaster had been easy to research by comparison to Ethiopia, as one would imagine. One Saturday when it was neither warm nor cold enough to go the ski lodge, I mentioned that I wanted to see that cut of Pennsylvania up close, and my mother—her fingernails painted completely this time, in a shade close to frost—shut whatever she’d been reading and said, “Then let’s go.” So we went. We drove straight from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we navigated the tight city streets with some difficulty but eventually found parking. As we walked around the town—down the sunlit corridors of its famous Strawberry Square complex, down its halfway artistic streets booming with eateries and drinkeries—my mother pointed to the capitol building, directly across from where we were standing at the moment, and observed, “Everything is wedged together in this city.” She didn’t add I don’t like it, but I understood that she didn’t.

We stayed the night in a hotel because we understood there to be some possibility of touring the Governor’s Residence the following morning; that night in our room, my mother asked if I’d gotten what I needed. I looked out over the tidy city streets and shrugged. While she asked me something—I would have to catch up with the question after my daze had run its course—I had an unprecedented thought which, between the height of our balcony and a day spent almost fasting out of an indecisiveness over which café looked most representative of the Harrisburg Experience, struck me with a sickening gravity: she should be writing this; it would be a better story if she were. She would be able to hover her hand in a mutant gesture over the city, and whatever it was trying to say would rise like heat, gather like magnetic splinters, press itself firmly into her palm. And while it did none of this for me, the city did mutter, letting me know at least that I was correct. It had something to say.

When I zoned back in, I gathered she had been asking me this: What part did the retired-governor father play in the story? Any? Did the father at least have an impact if the mother had to be dead?

“He delivers this big, important speech to Janie,” I told her, “at the hospital, before Clarissa comes homes.”

She said, “Good lord, Russo. You’re putting the girl in the hospital?” She knew only the outline of the story at this point; that was as much as I knew also though. It was with on-the-spot rashness that a critical piece of the story’s infrastructure, and its resounding moral question, occurred to me. I talked aloud from the excitement of having at least half of an idea that—and I suddenly knew this—fit the story’s needs.

Before, I’d known only that the sisters represented moieties of some inchoate whole, and that the younger got hurt—badly enough that her father had to come to the hospital, where he was prompted to give an Important Speech. The other piece cascaded down, and I shared it with my mother: her sister would be in a position to stop her from being hurt, but it would be unwise for her to do so. Her sister would have to choose between ending her pain in a heartbeat and letting it go on as she acquired resources to truly free them both; in this possibility, I saw morality, philosophy, art, roots of a literary structure beginning to push through the earth.

My mother saw something else. “How would she be able to think straight,” she asked me, “knowing that every minute she is not rescuing them, her sister is being hurt worse?”

I said, “Well, that’s just it. That has to be her motive. She has to take this horrible reality and make it her reason to think clearly.”

My mother’s mouth hunched to the side as she considered this. It was thrilling to me that already, through the gauze of something I was about the business of creating, she saw people—two sisters with the holy power to make and break one another. She then told me that something else occurred to her: if Clarissa was hurt, not by accident or genetics but in a violent way, the image of her sister watching it happen without intervening would logically stain her mind long, long after they were free.

We left Harrisburg early the next morning; I decided I didn’t need to see the Governor’s Residence. I was excited to write. And though my mother was clearly pleased to see a step in this direction, she also said, “I will remind you of this moment if you ever talk about going to Ethiopia again.” But Ethiopia didn’t matter to me now, not in the way it had. Neither did the continent of Africa on whole. Nor the sisters even, when you got down to it. The story thrummed in this one question: if it had once appeared to you, vividly, that someone you loved stood aside and stared while you were in drastic, increasing pain, could you trust again—or was the ending sewn into the experience?

 

When I worked up the nerve to enter the house, I found that my mother had read my book, and that our house otherwise looked exactly as it had when I’d left that morning. I believe she had made herself a slice of sourdough toast with avocado spread—a favorite reading snack of hers, and one that left a distinct watermark on our white plates—and at least one cup of coffee. No lights had been turned on that I had not turned on that morning, so half the house was a web of crepuscular hallways that would make even skeptics suddenly fear the presence of ghosts.

Instead of turning on every light in the house, as I wanted to, I sat down across from her at the table. Between the fixture lit up directly overhead and the light that strayed in from our automatically timed exteriors, this one spot resembled a bulb of sorts, casting a muted glow into the kitchen, the den, the few steps leading up to the first landing. Her expression when she looked up at me from the paper sheaf, across which her wrist stiffly lay, was sedate and meditative—and, I thought, tired. I could not and would not face the nightmarish possibility that she had been crying.

Her first question was surprisingly safe: “I may be glossing over a detail,” she apologized, “but why is she ‘Lilac’?”

“I may not have made it clear enough,” I allowed. “It’s symbolic. Well, in the governor’s family, there’s the flower garden and that’s always been her plant. But lilacs can easily get ‘lilac blight,’ where one minute they look fine, the next they look like someone’s taken a blow torch to them. It happens especially if there’s a long rainy, mildewy time, or if there’s been a late winter frost.” The latter point dovetailed with my story only insomuch as there was rain; the factor of rapid disease was what mattered.

She nodded. “So, the symbolism’s even,” she said, “it makes sense. It works.” She wasn’t one for rewording an already-clear point unless she needed to stall. “Some of the visuals you used were very compelling.” Her hand absently shuffled the loose edge of the manuscript, but she did not glance down at it. “Like the gazebo out in his rose garden.” I noticed she was searching for more positive things to say and my heart dropped; however, she found one: “I noticed the Dante structure.” I had known she would. It was only because of her that I knew of the existence of such a thing. All the same, you don’t grow up observing your mother make praise-criticism-praise sandwiches when communicating with other adults, her managerial style a research-based one, without knowing what to expect when she wraps up her first suite of flattering words.

It should be noted I had prepared to defend this novel as PhD candidates will defend a dissertation; I was not ready to learn from what she had to say. Having her in my head might, I thought, have automatically prevented me from leaving in any bloopers. If I wasn’t thinking of her voice itself when I wrote, and I certainly was not with this horror/romance/coming-of-age tale, I was thinking of what errors she might find and either expunging them from my writing or preparing to explain why they were okay as-is this time.

It was frequently her voice I heard as I critiqued others’ books, in the form of the book reviews I occasionally wrote to establish that my “writing career” had not shot to the heavens but there exploded at age fifteen, and as I once had in book reports. For instance, I could almost hear her walking me through my talking points the day Tristam Jessic and I took notes for our shared book project in his treehouse. I remember that I was taking him through these thoughts that may have been mine but were etched in her tone, her mannerisms of speech, when he acknowledged the validity of everything I was saying with a statement that arrested any further words at the bottom of my throat: “See, I knew it was a good idea to request you.”

It was news to me that I’d been requested. Our English teacher, Ms. Ransom, had linked us apparently out of her own wisdom—just think of what fragile literary wunderkind Russo and big silent footballing Tristam could bring out in each other—or, with a mind toward this exact same misalignment of qualities, her bored sense of humor. Now I thought of him loitering after class, his face bakery-warm from a chronic shyness that differentiated Tristam from other members of the clannish Jessic family, and saying more to the floor near Ms. Ransom’s feet than to Ms. Ransom herself, “Could I be paired with Russo?”

I had forced him to confess to it again. “You requested me?”

But before we could unfurl whatever logical endpoint was bound up in his having requested me and having then invited me to literally his private room in the trees, his brother had come home. His brother, Drake Jessic, I would soon realize was the treehouse’s original proprietor; it had become Tristam’s only in a process of default when Drake had enrolled in college, the first but not the last Jessic to go on a football scholarship.

 

In critiquing my book, I thought my mother might point out that one has to be careful with the portrayal of violence in literature, not only because with it being a nonvisual medium, readers can more or less refuse to look at what you’re asking them to if they’re squeamish, but also because of the Compassion Cliff, as I thought of it—the cliff off which, if a character falls, the reader will back away from, figuring It’s too bad, but she’s gone now. There’s nothing I can do to help; all I can do is save myself.

I was prepared for that argument as well as for, I thought, the one she actually presented me with. Or started to. “Russo, honey, it’s not realis—” I heard her stomach growl; not even avocado can make a hearty meal of toast. Her fingernails were a blanched magnolia-pink as they played at her mouth.

“It’s a bizarre scenario, I know,” I said. “But aren’t you always saying certain things have to be exaggerated in fiction so they’ll have the same emotional impact that something subtler would have in real life?”

If I’m honest, I believe the one or two times I’d heard her make mention of this phenomenon (certainly, then, not “always saying” it), she had been talking about movies—how dramatic lighting and soundtracks could be warranted by a moment of tenuous emotion—but she did not bother correcting me.

She said, “Oh sure. Some things call for exaggeration.” A critique hewn down to stating general facts. I could not describe the way in which she was talking to me except to say I was being handled, and it sent scorpions through my veins. It was hard to accept that, about her own son’s novel, my mother had no more to say on the topic of exaggeration. As we’d been driving back from Harrisburg toward Portsmouth, I’d just begun describing, in the broadest strokes, some of the hyperbolic horrors that would befall my main character in order to ask this question—this central question of trust—when my mother wanly smiled and asked, “Russo, do you know how hunters gets so close to deer?”

I did—or I knew what she attributed it to—because I’d overheard this piece from her lecture series before. Portsmouth may have been a decimal of sophisticated commerce but the area at large was not without its more rustic pursuits; my mother knew how to reach her audience so she sometimes spoke about literary style in terms of hunting. Hunters got close to deer through subtlety. Layer by layer subduing themselves until their once-assertive humanness was thoroughly muffled—until they looked, smelled, and sounded like the woods.

I had heard her make this point often enough, and from an early enough age, that I ought to have caught it much sooner. In being inherited by Tristam Jessic, it may have become a treehouse; under Drake Jessic’s stewardship, the structure had been something different.

And even though the realization made me feel instantly sick—the sort where you have to cover your mouth to pin back your stomach—in terms of the fit between setting and dialogue, this was a majestic one. In a treehouse, many of the words that had been said once Drake found us—faggot . . . teach you to leave my brother the fuck alone . . . cry for that nigger mama of yours—had seemed excessively rough, almost gory. In a former hunting blind, they were, at least, not as violently unsuitable.

 

She had followed me into the bathroom with her handful of orange-mum cotton balls, which hit the trashcan before I’d even retrieved a washcloth. She said nothing as its terrycloth ridges in immaculate cream touched up the scourge of fresh bruises all across my face. Then she said, “What—”

And I told her, “Just a fight. Somebody said something.”

She said my name, quietly. She reached without connecting to my arm. She almost cried but, perhaps understanding that this is not something I was equipped to deal with—not then, not ever—didn’t. In the mirror she caught my eye.

 

She’s the reason I started writing—of course. When I was younger, she read to me not just impulsively but obstinately; she dared the world to interrupt this time of ours. She read until our cheeks were rosy with characterization, epic journeys. She was a believer that reading, with its focus on the interior life, could foil the world’s roiling focus on the exterior, and when she told me this, that there was a cure and we held it at our fingertips, I understand that if she didn’t exactly believe it was true, she did believe in her own magnanimous will and its power to speed along the process of whatever she hoped, one day, would be true.


Merry Mercurial is a writer, editor, and reviewer who lives in North Carolina with her daughter. Her short fiction has appeared in, or is slated to appear in, Crack the Spine, Front Porch Review, and Literally Stories, among other journals. Find her online at MerryMercurial.com.