Two Poems by Nnadi Samuel

Drunk Rebel

Today, mum would probe my mental health,
& I’ll have no demons to show her.
and I’ll know she is forcing it, the way she believes in this thing.
the way she toughens breakfast with an eye for therapy.

I have nothing against unleavened bread & milkshakes:
mushroom whites that pours into my cheeks,
& the smooth chaos of it.

I just can’t bring myself to making u-turns,
trading grief for a luxury of serviette,
saying nothing of dark littluns shoving at my chest, 
as I break words into pills for a distinct good.

I have relatives staged to the peeled block next to my room,
ears straightening the walls in search of their black sheep.
I feel so worthless in their gaze,
a rag doll to middle fingers.

for those treats I didn’t go, 
I learnt to drive nuts into a plywood,
knock it into four corners to improve the sleep in my eyes.

I learnt the symptoms behind this,
what breaks inside of me.
the ruin, & how it makes me brief.

my brother knows to hype my prose poems in their queer state.
that alone is twice a therapy 
to predicting which is my favorite poison, 
when I myself bears a naked brand.

 

Stamina

smash my teeth with stone fruits/ milk the raw sugar 
from my battered mouth/ shred tongue lose like deciduous news/ 
the white forecast/ wintering in cold blood/ 
serpentine jaw at gum baptism/ a kill of incensed wet as throat piece/ 
swirl/ skip gravitational force/ words are hurled welkin aiming for different worlds/ 
rob the sky off it’s weathered punctuations/ recall the mastering of English 
on novena & forced hymns/ 
the spotty chaplet on my numb thumb is full stop enough to end this body/ 
arms stretched as in hyphen/ limbs like indentation 
plies the margin of beads to separation/ rig the bloody result/ 
splice my midriff to a narrow cut/ ballot a sound for neck care/ 
mouth breathe— till I bring susurration/ thump/ brand me a breeze gadget wield up/ 
thingamajig of due brilliance/ nameless in airier form/ 
fog my cheeks for utterance/ watch the fume self breed/ 
thrill my lungs to negative surges/ 
whatever morphs halfway/ bridged & stiffly informed in short circuits/ 
span my airwave to outlive the wreckful sirens and wailing of seaports/ 
my kind of hunchback/ studded with welts.

 

Nnadi Samuel holds a B.A in English & literature from the University of Benin. His works have been previously published in Suburban Review, Seventh Wave Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Quarterly West, Blood Orange Review, PORT Magazine, The Cordite Poetry Review, Gordon Square Review, Rough Cut Press, Trampset, Rigorous Magazine, Blue Nib journal, Stonecrop Review, The Elephant Magazine, Lunaris Review, Inverse Journal, Canyon Voices, The Collidescope, Journal Nine, Liquid Imagination, Star*Line Science Fiction & Poetry, Subterranean blue poetry, The Quills, Eunoia Review & elsewhere. Winner of the Canadian Open Drawer contest 2020. He won the Splendor of Dawn Poetry Contest April 2020, won the Bkpw Poetry Workshop Contest 2021, got shortlisted in the annual Poet’s Choice award & was the second-prize winner of the EOPP 2019 contest. A longlist of the NSPP 2020 prize, & Pushcart Nominee. He is the author of Reopening of Wounds & Subject Lessons (forthcoming). He reads for U-Right Magazine. He tweets @Samuelsamba10

Two Poems by Myles Taylor

If You Think Bodies Are Static You Have Clearly Never Had Queer Sex

We all have Google, I know: If a tree falls in a forest, it does not make a sound
because sound is made in each of our ears from vibrations. Feeling, similarly, 

requires the nerves to happen. So if half of my body dissociates
every time. If I imagine our legs otherwise. If my eyes stay open

but I feel something other than what I see. What is that?
Facts and reality are two different things. Reality is just a lot of people 

agreeing. Months of injections from now, a group of people might see me 
and the reality of me will be a whole lot different than the fact of it. 

In between & all kinds of whole and unembarrassed tonight, gin-dazed 
and asking to be both the hips and the knees, for submission to submission. 

If two people at night decide there is a dick between them
and no one else is there to see it, are they wrong? 

And can you prove it? If the only people in the room know 
what they feel, if our nerves go rogue against the night,

I am not the kind of guy who likes to ask for directions. 
Soften me. I am a muscle used too often to know how to stretch. 

if I look in their eyes and see it, is my dick a mass hallucination?
A conspiracy theory? Every ghost story involves somebody

who’ll go to their grave believing what they saw, whether or not 
there’s a rational voice they’re ignoring, or maybe listening to, 

but that can’t shake it, this tendency to doubt. I’m not doubting the ways 
my pleasure comes to me. I want to believe. Queering reality is deciding 

the options we get aren’t good enough, and doing something about it. 
I am feeling the kind of too much I am supposed to want but often get too scared

to look in the eye but today I think, I trust them, I trust them, and the world
can shatter without glass getting anywhere near my skin, your skin, our skin. 

So yeah, sex with me might haunt you. Why be born right when you 
can manipulate consciousness, shimmer like a fact in an age 

without image, age like a document pressed between two books,
the millimeter of possibility you feel in the back of your chest

when a shape passes the corner of your eye in the middle of the night.
Trying to explain why all my loved ones are trans is hard 

when you just weren’t there. There, in the room of your brain you might not have gone into yet.

 

an explanation I do not owe

I wake up with the sun glittering onto me my shower glitters so hard
you can hear it I pour coffee over giant chunks of glitter
and taste the cool of it I buy the sparkly toothpaste

so if I bleed the sink still shines foamy prom dress mudslide
and then the morning ritual of choosing between discomfort
or discomfort passing and passing and not passing

a mirror for a clean breath I am thinking about the whole
futurity thing when my favorite professor shes me
and it is almost like it does not happen

but I still wonder all class if skipping dinner
will make my jaw more angular or my body more throwable
but I survive it and do this revolutionary thing where I keep talking

talking with this voice these bundles of string lights
caught in my throat see I am told that glitter is a feminine thing

and if it is to you, that is so valid! but honestly 
I am already so clockable I feel like the closest I can get to passing 
for a thing no one has a word for is to look as DIY as my name

I cover myself in glitter because I am effectively already covered in glitter
I wear men’s everything and might as well be in a ball gown my eyes are two giant chunks of reflective confetti I speak and glitter pours out of my mouth I eat and taste shards of glass I bind and feel grating specks of plastic everywhere I walk down the street I must be covered because no one can look away but I must be so bright they can’t actually see me

If I try to be visible I get buried in the numbers of it
it’s that collection of moments that bury us in the end I’m so tired
of looking like an emergency siren there is no surgery
for a sometimes and if there was I would need centuries of sleep
to take back all the deep breaths I’ve lost my body
uses up energy buzzing in self awareness my body congratulated itself
every day it went without a cigarette before I even started smoking it’s like an inheritance

every trans person I know
knows a trans person who has died
and here I stand

in a room with no ghosts
waiting for a knock at the door

 

Myles Taylor (they/he) is a transmasculine poet, organizer, award-winning poetry slam competitor, barista, Emerson College alum, Capricorn-Aquarius cusp, and glitter enthusiast. They run Moonlighting: A Queer Open Mic and host at the Boston Poetry Slam. Their work can be found in The Shallow Ends, Academy of American Poets, Washington Square Review, Underblong, Crab Fat Magazine, Slamfind, and others. Follow them @mylesdoespoems. Photo by Clark Hartman.

One Hybrid by Nicole Oquendo

They, There

I hold my growing hair and imagine it braided out of sight, the way my fingers would swirl, encasing the ruin like charging a spell, except I can’t braid at all, I’m not deft enough, and 

once I asked my father’s ex wife to braid it for a trip, where I felt like a dignitary getting off the plane, with red red hair, also check out these vinyl boots, the same ones I wore to climb a mountain that week with my father, and 

she did it, I was home, but in the way you only know a place through some kind of generational memory–and what is memory anyway but all of our pain pressed so tight every new soul bounces off, pretending to be fresh, then my mother teased my hair and 

I was fresh, earned slaps across the mouth, but who knows when and how many, times charge inside the deviation in my septum I only notice winding the ring there, and 

the thing that hurts sometimes isn’t the hands, but the words, and my mother’s gasp when last week I told her I hadn’t cut my hair in eight months, her pride, while I pleaded listen, it hurts, it’s a nest, the headaches are so frequent and 

the inside hurts too, not looking like myself, wanting to look like nothing, wanting to bounce past the conversation–not a man’s cut or a women’s cut but a nothing cut, neither, please help me disperse and 

I loathe the symbolism of it all, letting down my hair like some kind of lost princess when we all know I’m wrong for that other than my mother, who still calls me her beautiful daughter 

and the gastrointestinal doctor’s assistant who checks my blood pressure without a machine to back her up, she’s something else, she sees me and 

there is it again, your hair, it’s so long and beautiful, and I spin around myself and 

die right there, another death, before the inevitable, because who can see me, they, underneath

 

Nicole Oquendo is a writer and visual artist that combines these elements, along with magical practice, to craft multimodal nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, as well as translations of these forms. Their work can be found in numerous literary journals, a hybrid memoir, and six chapbooks, including their most recent works: Space Baby: Episodes I-III and The Antichrist and I

Two Poems by Sheila Dong

The Phoenix Speaks

Last night I poured gasoline over my feathers again and lit a match. I stood in front of the mirror and watched myself go. Watched myself turning into a good riddance, 

a hill of cremation staring at its beauty.

This morning I cashed my tax refund. I’m saving up for some sparklers. Or the world’s biggest shipment of asbestos.

My history professor showed us slides of Tibetan monks lighting themselves on fire to protest Chinese hegemony. She called on me, but 

each tooth was becoming a tiny flame and I couldn’t speak. Then the fire alarm went off.

The badness in the world makes every fever I’ve had come back all at once. I want to burn away the badness in the world, but I’m self-centered. I want to care more about self-immolating monks, but I’m stuck 

hoovering my own ashes out of the carpet for hours.

The nature of my privilege: getting to wake up again. Getting to walk away from a pile of my bone dust and charred hair. The landlord might write me up for the scorch marks on my walls, but afterward he forgets me.

The nature of my problem: fashioning my ruin into a spectacle. I am afraid I have fallen in love with myself. But only the self going up in smoke, my body merging with 

fire: agony-light, valentine.

I want instead to be the candles on a birthday cake. When the flames are blown out a child rises one year wiser, sugar on the tongue.

I want to stand in the wild and let a circle of travelers light their lamps off me. They’d fall away into the night, each a petal, and I, the flower’s glistering center.

I want to be kind 

enough to deserve this fact: when fire burns, it casts no shadow.

 

The Ballad of Lan Caihe

Lan Caihe (蓝采和) is one of the Eight Immortals (八仙), deities from Chinese folk mythology. Lan is a gender-ambiguous figure and various interpretations exist of them as a man, a woman, or what we would now call a nonbinary or intersex person.

 

Lan Caihe doesn’t give a damn about the gender binary.
Shod in one boot and woozy with rice wine, 
they are ejected from the tavern for screaming

about swans and the apocalypse and the askance 
looks they get in every bathroom. The bouncer 
lobs Lan into the alley and new snow breaks

their stumbling. Their gown, tattery blue and ambiguously
cut, falls open to a chest both flat and hairless.
From a window a sympathetic patron extends 

Lan’s flower basket, taken back with a word of thanks
and a mouthful of melting ice. The chrysanthemums
within are still vibrant. The bamboo, unbroken. 

Funny, they think, how most flowers, such sigils 
of femininity, are hermaphroditic. Snails too,
frozen in their spirals for the winter. But in summer,

how often Lan would wake in the fields after a rain 
and find a friend hefting its shell over the mound 
of their ankle or fused to the weave of their overcoat. 

(Said coat, woolen and down-stuffed, bundled 
their body through the warm seasons. Only when 
the cold came did they switch to cotton 

and bare limbs.) Past the outskirts of town,
Lan climbs a hill of snow, strips naked, and sleeps.
Clouds of humid steam billow up from their body.

Lan Caihe is thought to be the least significant 
of the Eight Immortals. Year after year, they surrendered 
the coins they earned from busking, knotted in string 

and trailed through dirt until they detached.
Year after year, trees dressed in drag, stripped off green 
for crisp auburns kindling fire-tint through

hazy fields. The crowd would gather, 
at a distance, then closer, around a figure rattling 
castanets. Do my eyes deceive me? the elders would think. 

I swear I saw them sing in my childhood, yet they’ve barely aged 
a day. This is the ballad of Lan Caihe, born to confound: 
how to love the world, sprightly and dying. How to grow 

warmer with every inch of fallen snow. This is
their legend: in the end they ascended to heaven 
because a swan chose them and not because they were killed.

 

Sheila Dong is the author of Moon Crumbs (Bottlecap Press, 2019). Their work has appeared in SOFTBLOW, Heavy Feather Review, Juke Joint, Stone of Madness, and Rogue Agent, among other places. Sheila holds an MFA from Oregon State University, and likes 80s music, desolate landscapes, and the pleading face emoji. They wouldn’t mind also being called Gideon. Learn more at sheiladong.carrd.co

One Prose Poem by doris davenport

the thing about scenery is (or Sandy’s hands) 
(love poem for Mary & Sandy)

one day last November, talking non-stop, Nancy told about a meal she had to
make for a big family party, she bragged everyone could eat it – frozen meat
balls, bottled mild tomato paste mixed with generic grape jelly for the sauce
and “you’re invited” she said, as i stood traumatized silent thinking gross,
nasty, inedible, feloniously criminal from the very dead very processed
frozen beef by-product, yuk, eugh, no no no and i’d found a long hair of her
mom’s in some pickled cucumbers no no. shock and denial pushed   me

to a memory of Sandy’s hands meatballs lovingly and carefully made,

patted perfect flirting with me – her turnout – saying “Sit down; talk to Mary! Relax.
Have a drink (meaning “Stay right here. Look at me. Let me love you.”) so i had to
wander near her, deep smell her sauce slow-simmered for at least 4 hours, it  smelled
rich, inviting, pretty-delicious with real tomatoes, basil, onions, mushrooms, all
handpicked by Sandy selected by her perfect femme love for Mary her juice all natural.
Cooked in a large pot on low heat, fresh salad ingredients placed
artfully in bowls & plates so each could satisfy her own taste there in the

Fruit Belt in Buffalo, NY (Fall 1969), where most of the trees had died. Their house on
Cherry Street with one tree, a small two-story sweet house
planted in concrete and more little houses outside, but inside,
magnificent and grand. permanent and filling, since then.

 

doris diosa davenport. Pronouns: person / per (72 year old Affrilachian, working-class bi-amorous lesbian-feminist. for starters).  12 books of published poetry. Literary & performance poet, writer, educator. Born & raised on Cherokee Homeland (colonized as Cornelia, GA). My life is about the powerful transformative *possibilities* of literature and truthful communications.

Two Poems by Woody Woodger

two Trans ™ Sex Workers messaging the Verizon guy ™

oh! he made a mistake, you said,
and then he corrected it.
or he’s just a really good computer,
i think. then you wonder aloud

“i just asked him why they need a credit check.
he says there will be no impact.”

like how you said my tattoo would be,
but, four days later, there we were peeling dead
skin off my underboob. i thought it was like:

1. lake steam, 2. carbonated, 3. moon
sauce, 4. puberty, 5&6. sea (scum)             weed, 7ish. Forever
21 jeans after two weeks, 8. a good two pounds

9. asymptotically attractive, but         I actually go with                                
“authentic”. you said its your ghost.           
“better be careful. Yikes! and we have to have a landline

too,” he says. a transgender plan—

it’s both, actually,
internet and Unlimited Calling across U.S.A.,
the Verizon guy ™ temps.
                                                                                                              {Life’s all negotiation}. but for a breath,

we actually see our future unclench. “that’s our landline!” you say. “babe, that’s our baby!
so if we ever lost power, and we lost our phones, you can still call
your mom and be like come pick me up.”

we, ultimately, decide                 Verizon guy ™ seems sketchy.                   
you know why. they stand on street corners, pretend                 to be construction workers.                      

Y’all ain’t got no account with US!” {today, real life’s nothing but

dialogue}. in the “Acceptable Lower Speeds Disclaimer”
section of their website they didn’t even finish a sentence. how embarrassing—
to make mistakes online. because now he’s asking did i lose you?

{our mistake was living}           “why all these mens so corny?” you say.
my tattoo was cellophane pudding skin and then “voila!”
It was irritated, and pimple; bamboozle and violence.

“is he gonna come into my screen now that i told him i’m here?”
you worry. tap{p}ed camera. “Apple does that shit.”
i agree, even though i wasn’t aware.

Wonderful. (he interrupts) Please click our synergistic “Place Order”
button and update me once you get order # ? Ok, babe?

“what bout my deals? :)”

Does not compute   ; )

cute.                 i ask, “well? did we get one? did we get a Verizon, daddy?
{life’s interruptions, seriously}
You leave a final question
cooling on your text box—
“babe, who gonna tell Comcast” 

 

Poem for Liv, # 58/37909659(:?8;7& tiiycr357;67)7

How many of these am i gonna do pretending / it helps any. / The thing that alway gets me—you
say i love you so much, people start refusing. / So let me show You: // the following is collected
from things i texted regarding, / in one way or another, You. / So, in regards to you: if your
androgyny / could just please pour out of my throat and on to my nice white converse / that be
nice. i’d be like Thank You, no lie. // and in regards to Our Jungkook: fuck me full of butterflies,
you full- / sized cherub. in regards to (definitely only) Our Dominos / fetish: ITS NOT YOUR
FAULT (*falls in Your arms // fully sobbing rose petals as Your eyes / roll clean out Your head
and over the bucktoothed dusk) / with regards: i wish i could bring You soup so You’d throw / a
fit and toss it in my face while Adriana / sneaks up behind, gives You a peck on the cheek // the
peck You otherwise wouldn’t accept but still need / and then while You Leo under Your sheets /
Adriana and i SHALL FLEE / And then She’d take me straight / to the hospital. regarding poetry:
// Lol i’ve done it all dude and yet still i bob / on the surface like a drowned, unmarked bird. /
Regarding temporal injustice: i wish You were here too! / We’d watch Jungkook do anything
until We die. // What You need regardless: i’ll draw an UWU instagram band-aid / on Your nose.
You won’t know what hit You, Bitch. // regardless: i LOVE YOU AND HERE’S THE POEM / i
(been) PROMISING!!!! / Regardless of this conversation: Erk just sent me a tattoo of a cute-
cocked UWU-fox-kin in stockings. Regarding offense, i think: / no one Venmoed me for my
likeness for this. // Regarding Our/my bong: which has just become a metonym for “cool”
smoke, and all that that means, / and which makes me puzzle my lady beard over what the breeze
in Hades’ must be like, / which is just another way to think asthmatic phoenix whose hunger
sounds exactly like ambulances / which is one of the many angles i hope never saves you: Liv, /
let us thrive / in our poem’s: the canary yellow of blue.

 

Woody Woodger is a trans/non-binary, pan, disabled, anarcho-commie, currently living in Washington, DC. Her poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, from DIAGRAM, Northern New England Review, Drunk Monkeys, RFD, Exposition Review, peculiar, and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Her first chapbook, postcards from glasshouse drive (Finishing Line Press) has been nominated for the 2018 Massachusetts Book Awards. You can find her bi-week column Pre-Op Thot on COUNTERCLOCK Magazine where she serves as Blog Editor and Poetry Reader. If THAT wasn’t enough (it was) you can find her on Instagram and Twitter @lovlyno1.

One Poem by Czaerra Galicinao Ucol

but when

1.         the uptown 6 screeches as the mango poem
            lodged in my throat beckons   to its brother
            underneath the matching yellow and orange
            subway seats. the man doesn’t notice      his
            lunch’s bruised rolling up   and   down    the
            sticky car floor. i want to tell him            but
            my tongue is a dam for my ocean. my yearn-
            ing is transpacific—i hope our cousins can
            feel it. the grease    illuminates    under hazy
            lights doing their warm-up stretches.      our
            stop comes. we keep rolling.

2.         beside the seatbelt forest,        we are beached
            on browning grass by a detergent stick losing
            purpose in the dirt. i guess we’re both stains
            of the earth. summer rays    bake    my ocean
            leaving sea salt      glinting      on my shores.
            i become hot honey.       are there even hives
            amidst the coconut trees?       even the plants
            up and over me are sweating. my hands look
            up at me and i realize i’m leaking, too. maybe
            it’s the dew of ancestors.   my limbs are dried
            palm leaves passed out in easter mass pews. i
            fold myself during the homily.
            and now—communion.

3.         computer-generated NPCs buzz in and out of mirror mazes,
                        discussing rendezvous points in neon tutus and spiked platform clogs
            that my mother would politely smile at. i envy them. instead
                        i lose my youth in the crowd, right as we pass the mariachi band outside.
            a mosh pit forms, but sadly i’ve since brittled—i shy away
                        for fear of cracking. when they leak banana milk, i dab at my eyes with
            a durian, like we always do. i look up in the mirror again.
                        i wink back. she taps me in to the dance floor.

4.         it’s hard to breathe down here,
            where the polyester and rubber
            wheeze at me. my jaw dirties in
            the muddied beer but i don’t not-
            ice until i get home. i rise and bob
            above their sticky influence. my
            skull’s about to burst at the intro,
            then i let it. fuck the dam.

            i flood and monsoon and become my own rainy season. a mango floats by. my winds
                               soprano at the foot of the stage. i change before my very eyes

 

Czaerra Galicinao Ucol is a queer Filipinx writer and educator born and raised in Chicago. They recently graduated from New York University with a B.A. in Asian/Pacific/American Studies. They are the Programs & Communications Director of Luya and a general reader for Marí­as at Sampaguitas. Czaerra is a 2020 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Fellow, with their work appearing in Walang Hiya and Talagang Pinxy. In their spare time, they enjoy cooking, listening to crashing waves, and dancing to Mitski’s entire discography. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram @czaerra.

Two Short Stories by Diana Thayer

|3|2EA|)LA|)Y

When the manuscript first arrived, it seemed like a prank.

It wasn’t immediately apparent that it was a manuscript at all. It appeared on our stoop reeking of dirt and rot. It had no return address, and every page had come from a different source: sheets torn from a legal pad smeared with fetid condiments, lined notebook paper that had been crumpled up and then haphazardly unfolded, letterhead from legal offices where the back was cramped with jagged lines and flecks of ink. But it had hints of purpose, as the front cover’s markings were spaced as if in modern manuscript format. Where I might find ‘about 1,000 words’ in the upper right, I saw loose scratches surrounding two-stroke circles, which vaguely resembled zeroes.

It wasn’t unusual for a journal like ours to receive awful submissions: works so rote they seemed machine-written, works that lacked the awareness to even achieve roteness, and the occasional incomprehensible word-spew. I had grown accustomed to dropping such things in the recycling before writing a neutral thanks-but-no-thanks letter to the author, but I had never seen anything like this.

Because it stank, I threw it in the dumpster behind our building. On a telephone wire above me, just outside my second floor office, a trio of crows began to bark loudly as I walked away. Crows love trash, so, I didn’t think about it.

When another such mess arrived the next month, I wondered if we had a stalker. Nobody in the office reported anyone following them, though Hilda joked about an ass of an ex who she called, “About as eloquent and aromatic as that!” So I threw it out again and got back to reading the usual tripe, but the worry that those indecipherable texts put in me outdid anything else we received that month. As a horror journal, most of our submissions came down to personal anxieties that authors externalized, distinguished primarily by craftsmanship. We would laugh, “What’s that staring up from the bottom of the stairs? Lurking at the edge of the forest? Stomping about the neglected attic? Why, it’s a Jungian archetype!”

It was the third manuscript that I first tried to read. Relative to the previous two, some of the marks on this one had become legible. I could make out ‘A’, ‘N’, and other block letters, though the author clearly had trouble writing circular characters like ‘b’ and ‘d’, so much so that I still couldn’t discern full words. I decided to keep this one, and zipped it in a plastic bag to contain the smell.

The fourth arrived later than the others, a couple weeks after a month had passed. In that time, I worried the mystery would end unsolved. When it showed up on the stoop, I sighed in relief before retching at the scent. This time I could make out enough words to get the gist of at least some of the sentences. They concerned people fighting over treetops, arguing about bugs, and learning to fly. I wondered then if the author were someone who our sham of an educational system had failed to make literate, but who nevertheless wanted to write so badly that they scrounged for whatever paper they could and emulated literature upon it. Learning to fly was a not uncommon coming-of-age metaphor, which indicated a narrative awareness that struck me as promising. I imagined someone grungy and shy, furiously dreaming of something different, somewhere else.

I still couldn’t read the manuscript end-to-end. The few sentences I could understand were far and few between, so I stuffed it in a bag and placed it in the drawer where the second one had remained.

By the time the fifth arrived, through a combination of improved penmanship and my own adjusting to the script, I managed to put the whole story together. For a couple of hours I sat at my office chair and read it, turning page after page as I pieced together the chicken-scratch handwriting. The title, I finally understood, was, “Breadlady and the Broken Wing: A Horror Anthology.” Within, five stories ranged from a bird dying of having eaten a poisoned millipede masquerading as a harmless caterpillar, to a bird that broke their wing when they fell from the nest only to become a capable groundling and the menace of many a neighborhood cat. In one story, a human identified as ‘breadlady’ spread a mind-controlling bread that turned birds into bored office workers. Every story centered on birds, crows specifically, and it was as I finished it, when I glanced out my window to reflect on what I had just read, that I saw those three crows from months ago. Maybe they weren’t the same crows, but…

One of them was holding a pen in its beak.

 

The Ratworm

Do you want to know how magic really works?

You think to yourself that magic isn’t real, or maybe it’s a secret undiscovered. Maybe it’s something we already do, like computers or rocketry or some other mortal fancy. Do you want to know what it really is? It’s so much worse. Sometimes it’s unbearable, like I can never close my eyes, like I can never truly sleep because even in my dreams there I am adrift in the ice floes of some dreadful neverwhere, and always it is calling to me.

You’ve seen hidden orders and schools for wizards in books and movies. You think we take care of our own, keeping our mysterious ways in something like peace and seclusion. You don’t understand what it means to be ground to dust. Ways survive, but most affected remain abandoned in the imperial murk. There the way finds you, and its strangeness comes unbidden.

My childhood was full of ghosts. Someone or something lurked in every closet and crawlspace, in every empty room and darkened window, waiting. I swore I could feel their eyes on me. To describe it as an overactive imagination would underestimate the scope of the sensation. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand who I was meeting in my dreams, young people, old people, people I had never known–people I learned were dead. My parents thought it was cute.

“Hey Jimmy,” my dad chuckled to a local grocery clerk. I was six at the time. “My kid says she saw your grandparents in her room.”

We lived in his grandparents’ house. The Sternbeckers had built it themselves from decommissioned ships, and the atypical measure of their beams gave the house a sense of being misshapen, like rooms were at once too large and too small. The old couple appeared in my room and in my dreams regularly, but never maliciously. They sat and watched and smiled, holding hands even after everything.

“Oh really?” Jimmy chuckled, “What did you see?”

“I saw them,” I shrugged. I tried not to think about them as it scared me when I did. “There’s something funny about your grandpa’s right eye, like it’s wet or shiny.”

He blanched. “W-who told you that?”

I shrugged again. My father asked, “What do you mean?”

Jimmy stared at him like this was some kind of bad joke, but he saw no humor in my father’s concerned expression. He leaned in and whispered, “Grandpa Robert lost his eye in the war. Are you sure she’s never seen a photo of him?”

The way Jimmy avoided me after that made me feel like I’d done something wrong. I didn’t want to be seeing ghosts, but they visited me night after night, their translucent bodies phasing through the furniture of my bedroom, their eyes that glowed like dim stars locked onto mine.

But by then I was already a witch. It came with the territory.

I met the witchmothers in my dreams before I knew to be afraid. Three spindly women, one in black rags and veils, one in a drenched white shift, one in a moss-green dress. Their faces were hard to see, as though they were shifting or perhaps altogether blank. Many other children, three-year-olds identical to myself, scampered about the floor of the room, splitting into other selves as they fell, crawled, or wandered, before all of them faded and only I remained.

“Would you like to play?” the woman in black asked, extending a bone-pale hand to me. I took it, not knowing the significance of the act. We walked not two steps before they sat me down for tea. Around us a forest had replaced my room. My stuffed animals were arranged all around a wooden stump dressed in an ivory silk tablecloth, their empty eyes looking nowhere. Old-growths watched over us, thick with fern and vine, and the only light came from the bright moon directly above us.

I felt safe with them. We played hide-and-seek, dress-up, make-believe, and even my toys joined in. Stuffed bears pretended to be kings but I reigned as queen. After a while, the witch in green said my name.

“Joanna.”

Everything froze but the other witches, who gathered around me and blotted out the moon.

“Would you like to be a witch?”

I didn’t know what that meant and I was too scared to ask. A witch? But I had already answered the only real question. Now I was just afraid of the consequences. So I ran.

As soon as I turned around I was back in my house, scrambling down a hallway that stretched out the farther I fled, and behind me they were following me, floating at my pace without otherwise moving, like statues I could not escape.

I found a corner and ducked inside, appearing back in my room again. I hurled myself into the closet and hid under piles of clothing and forgotten moving boxes. Daylight was streaming in the windows and coming under the closet door until their levitating legs obscured it.

“Too late?” one asked. Another replied, “Too late.”

They moved away and only the third remained, until she too admitted, “Too late,” and I awoke.

After that they became fixtures of my nightmares. I would wake up, frozen, and see the woman in rags pointing at me with a burning gaze. In basements and forgotten rooms I would hear the woman in white screaming, and in the deep woods the green witch peered from every tree whenever I was alone. But they weren’t any danger to me. What I learned was far more dangerous were the police who could shoot a disheveled man for speaking gibberish. “Schizophrenia,” was the cause and justification. Local newscasters blithely quoted the officer saying, “I feared for my life,” and that’s all there was to it.

I was across the street, seven years old and holding the hand of my father, leaving a bookstore with a gift for my mother. I knew when I met his dying eyes that the strangeness would kill me, sure as day, sure as it had killed him. After that I stopped telling people about my experiences. To an extent I even stopped believing them myself.

But the strangeness never really leaves. It never lets you go.

I was seventeen when I met the Ratworm. I opted out of high school as much as I could. A cruel society trains cruel people, so I hid in hoodies and avoided them. I spent time alone in the miles of forest and ruin between the school and my house, through which I had traced a rough path that I took to avoid the bullies on the bus. The forest isn’t just trees, of course. It’s underneath the city, breathing and waiting. Every root that cracks a sidewalk is a reminder that it will reclaim all it can, that we persist through a force of will that someday will break. This forest was a facet of that; a limb of something deeper. Rough paths were carved from the hillsides, and elsewhere broken bridges spanned trickling streams. Sometimes a ruined, rusted wreck of a car would glint from the bottom of a ravine dense with brambles. Sometimes you could find the stone foundations of buildings lost to time. Sometimes they disappeared.

It was in that nameless stretch under a golden-crimson canopy that I found a creature, a rat with the hind of a segmented worm, wailing among a patch of an invasive ivy. Where it thrashed the leaves had spoiled and rotted, but I didn’t notice. It was hurt, or looked hurt. I reached out to touch it like a fool, for a fool I was. It sprang upon my hand and bit hard. Everything had frozen. It pulled me down, and it was moving through the ground, despoiling the soil as it descended and dragged me with it. I screamed as damp earth and old roots parted and a void of light and sound rose up to meet me. Then I was in its lair.

It was cold in the nothingness, in the stillness. My eyes and ears strained to detect anything, and eventually I heard the distant crunch of a foot on snow. It was snowing, I saw in a fleeting glimpse, as though I were only seeing one frame of a film. A creature was walking toward me, like a blur in space the size of a person. Bigger than a person. Much bigger. Another frame and I saw it was getting closer. I could feel the ground shake with each of its terrible steps. I couldn’t move. I was numb all over.

“Oh my god,” it said, in a young woman’s voice. A young woman I knew. “Are you hurt?”

Tracy?

As if in response a deep, wet chortle bellowed in my ears, sourceless and enveloping.

“I see what you want, little one,” a cacophony of languages said. I recognized less than a dozen, and there were countless in its depths. “I can give it to you. Will you give me your terror?”

I tried to will myself to move, to struggle and resist this thing’s control as much as I could. But I had already answered the real question. Now I was just afraid of the consequences. The blur, the absence, reached for my face and covered it, smothering me.

I woke up in a cold sweat the next morning, already late for school. But I felt different. I felt… confident. I had a faith in my reasoning that hadn’t been there before. I believed in myself. I felt good about my body. I liked who I saw in the mirror. It was eerie, but I wasn’t about to complain. I even decided to wear a skirt.

On my way to school I tried to find the spot where I had seen the Ratworm, but what had been an expansive patch of ivy had become a steep and ferny slope. At least the invasives were gone. I called it a dream and moved on, no matter how much of the day before I could not remember.

Weeks passed. My grades improved. I even befriended a guy named Terrence. He was big enough to put the fear of God in any gaybasher in town and as warm and kind as a heated blanket. He did put the fear in some, which was how we met. One talked shit, I spat, he spat, I hit him, he hit me, and then Terrence threw him fifteen feet.

“Great form,” I said.

“Thanks. You should see me at the caber toss.”

We bonded during detention. Of course I never told him about the strangeness, but he liked my awful poetry.

Tracy’s name was one of those things that I learned before I knew it. I met her in shop class the next quarter. I didn’t recognize her voice until we were paired for a group project, to produce a metalwork art piece for display together.

“Hi,” she put out her hand, “I’m Tracy.”

I went cold as I realized who she was. “I-I’m Joanna.”

“Good to meetcha,” she said, and shook my hand firmly. Gosh she was tall.

While she welded pipes together in the shape of a log cabin, I wondered what the Ratworm meant by, “what I want.” I hadn’t known Tracy when it confronted me. How could I want anything to do with someone I didn’t know?

“You really want to make Baba Yaga’s house?” I asked.

Beneath her face shield she replied, “Baba Yaga is goals. Uh, hell yeah, I want to roam the world in a magical chicken-legged house with a million cats.”

She made me laugh. “You’re right. That’s awesome.”

Terrence understood right away.

“Joanna. You’re gay. It’s fine. Hell, she’s probably gay.”

I felt ridiculous for thinking, “But a horrible absence in space knows I like her too!” but the truth was I was nervous about the reality of my feelings. It was one thing to like other women, but it was another to go about pursuing that in a town full of violent homophobes. Even my parents didn’t know I was gay. They figured I was just anti-social. So instead I mumbled something about wanting to keep my grades up and not wanting to get distracted with college on the horizon. He just mhmm’d.

As snow fell in late January, I dreamed of the Ratworm again. I stood before it, the size of a flea, and it was snickering. It cackled with jagged yellow teeth and looked at me with swirling depthless eyes. I wasn’t just a flea, I was a stalk of wheat, and around me a field of other souls bound in other stalks wailed and cried. The Ratworm stood like a human now, wielding a great scythe and cutting us down by the swath. It swept, swath, swath, swath, until it hacked me down too and I awoke with the creature’s mirth rattling in my ears.

Although momentarily shaken, a newfound esteem spread out from my chest as if through my veins. Suddenly I didn’t care about gaybashers. There were places a woman could go to live a true life, with enough grit and luck. I thought, maybe I could even stake a place here and turn the tide on the local bigots. There was nothing anyone could do to shake me now. I decided to go for it.

“Tracy,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could. She was assembling the left foot of Baba Yaga’s house by melting together pieces of an erector set. “Would you want to hang out together sometime?”

She put down her tools and flipped up her face shield, “Sure, sounds like fun. Like what?”

I looked outside and saw the snow accumulating on the ground. It was unusual to get so much around where we lived, but for days it had been piling up inch by inch.

“How about we go sledding?”

“Yeah, that sounds great. When and where?”

“How about Hillman park? Saturday at, uh, eleven?”

“You’re on.”

I danced my nerves out in a bathroom stall, trying to contain my glee. Terrence gave me a high five. As creepy as the Ratworm was, I couldn’t complain about how my life was going. I tried not to think they had anything to do with each other.

On Saturday, I met Tracy at the park carrying a steel saucer. She stood at the top of the hill waving around a wooden sled painted red. Blossom had been written on its side.

“Howdy slowpoke,” she waved. “How are you doing?”

“Great!” I beamed. “And you?”

“Peachy. Thanks for suggesting this. I can’t remember the last time I went sledding. Here I go!”

She threw the sled down, leapt atop it so it rested under her torso, and raced down the hill. She whooped and hollered as she sped, until she turned hard and skidded to a stop at the bottom.

“Your turn!”

I sat down on my saucer and pushed off. I gained speed quickly on the steep hill, but then the wind gathered at my back and pushed me even faster. A bump twenty feet from Tracy sent me flying and I floated through the air, bewildered, as the sled fell to earth. I sailed into the branches of the trees at the park’s edge, where it gave way to a ravine within the stretch of woods between my house and the school. Tree limbs scratched me and took my gloves and hat. They whipped at my arms and legs as I crashed through them until with a crunch I landed on the ice beneath the snow. There were two layers of ice over the ravine’s creek and I broke through the first, plunging my whole body into a depression of crushed ice and packed snow. My legs felt funny like they were suddenly very far away and it hurt to breathe. I heard Tracy shouting from the top of the ridge.

“Oh my god!” I remembered those words. “Are you hurt?”

I looked to my right and there was the blur, growling like an animal and trudging toward me. I struggled just like I had in the memory. I understood why the Ratworm’s lair had felt so cold, now that I was laying half-undressed in a frozen crick. I could hear the Ratworm issuing its harrowing guffaw as it approached, before long-fingered hands rose from the snow and reached around my shoulders, wrists, and ankles. They grabbed onto me and pulled, and the water beneath the ice swallowed me with a splash.

I don’t know how long I was in that water. I tried to swim back up but up had disappeared. My air bubbles fluttered away in random directions. The hands had abandoned me to the pitch black depths and its forceful currents. I thought I would drown down there until I felt sand under my fingers and realized my eyes were closed. I opened them and saw a beach, a muted and sooty silver coast under the full moon above. I heard screaming and it wasn’t my own. I looked up to see the witch in white, howling in her soaking shift. She had her eyes trained on the sea, at a funeral pyre atop a raft that blazed with green flames. The whole horizon burned in that limey tint. It seemed like the only color anywhere.

I stomached my fright and shouted, “What’s happening to me? What do you want from me?”

No reply. She just shrieked like a gale. It froze my blood, but I was too fucked up now to stop asking questions.

“Why are you screaming?”

At this she closed her mouth and turned to face me. Her face flickered, and I noticed then that it was many faces, shifting back and forth as though they were superimposed.

“I am grieving,” she said, with echoing words that pushed me further into the sand. “Everything has already happened. Everyone who ever lived is dead.”

She helped me to my feet, pulling me up with an emaciated hand, and I realized I didn’t hurt anywhere. It occurred to me that I might be dead.

She met my gaze as we stood face to face, her wholly-black eyes like realms of void unto themselves. This is what she said:

Grief crosses time.
One can grieve for the past,
The present,
Or the future.
Grief protects us and strengthens us,
Heals and restores us.
To find resolve
You must pass through grief.

A vision welled up in her eyes and leapt out into mine, drilling into my awareness. I saw life and death, entangled for eons through acts mundane and horrible. I saw war and torture, of old and of times not yet passed. I saw the still unborn dying for yet unimagined causes. I heard their last moments, every last moment. It overcame me and I fell to my knees, covering my face in my hands. It was too much. I had seen the future and it was a nightmare. I cried. I begged. I refused. I cursed. I wept. I grieved for all that ever was and that would ever be, and for all the atrocities festering in that limitless expanse. When I accepted the future, I saw clearly. I saw the woodland inland of the beach, and it beckoned to me.

The leaves of tall oaks and maples filtered the moon into scattered beams that offered no illumination. They plunged like spears into the gray earth, and in the hungering absence between them I became caught. Vines and briars rustled around me until I tripped on one and it wrapped around my foot. It dragged me as though something were on the other end of it, gathering it like a rope. The Ratworm. Once I had stopped, barbed strands of ivy curled around my wrists and ankles and I heard the fiend slavering above me.

“I can help you escape,” it boomed in that voice-of-voices, “But I will need more, morsel. I will need your spirit.”

Another voice whispered:

A wicked worm sews a wretched crop,
Plowing debts and mulching debtors,
So what it trades, it trades again,
Ever gorged on regrowing flesh.

A shape flickered through a moonbeam. A woman in black.

I understood then. I had to banish my own fears. I had to banish the worm, and I felt it respond. Not the blur, but a thing in my gut, come alive where before there had been nothing. It rose in my esophagus and into my throat, repulsed with every ounce of strength in my body, until I spat a rat-faced millipede at the blur.

“You’ll never take me alive, monster!” I yelled.

This made it lurch back, and the light appeared to throb as it wavered. It needed me terrified, but I had put away my fears. So it roared in my face, sinking me into the foliage rotting away beneath me. I roared right back and tore myself from my thorny bonds. Bleeding from deep gashes, I rushed after the figure.

I crashed into a clearing and amid colorless ferns I sobbed from the pain. Tears flowed and flowed, but the moon never moved and I never grew hungry. Finally the stinging subsided and a hand reached out to me. Hers: the witch in rags. After pulling me to my feet she lifted her veil as dark and light as a midnight whisper. I saw the past, the face of every foremother and the product of their eons of love and concern. That was why their faces shifted. Here at the end of time the spirit of them all still watched over those who came after. She showed me the immortal spirit inside of me and the body of it that spread across all time: a living glacier that bent and twisted, reflecting moments backward and forward like snatches of brilliance bouncing off of icicles. I knew nothing could ever destroy that spirit of which I was a part, that though I might die, my acts would echo as all acts do, and here that echo stood before me as this bedraggled witchmother. I understood then that I must care for all life as it had cared for me, and all the wood opened.

I marched through the deepest thickets, each step confident for I knew where I was going. Brambles did not cut me nor vines entrap me. The towering old-growths and ancient mycelia sang their songs through the soil and the moonlight spread color wherever I looked. I came out of the wood onto a bog, its wet loam saturated with life. No creature buzzed nor croaked nor called but the air was humid with the essence of them, the amalgamated force of their having existed. I stepped into the muck, down into it until it sucked at my feet, and I heard the calls of countless dead, countless dying, countless still to live. They clamored and bawled, murmured and whimpered, swore and threatened. But here they were past, and I for living was stronger than the spirit of death that bound them. Drawing myself from the grime, I arrived at my destination: a great and gnarled willow, alight with lamps tied to branches, left in nooks, and embedded by the dozens into the mossy ground about its base. A place for worship, here after everything.

The tree did not speak to me. It said nothing, did nothing, made no act or motion. It did not care for the living. I did not understand this spirit of the willow, so I sat with it in contemplation. I allowed the essence of life that flowed through the bog to suffuse me, and I saw the span of all life. The future and past and present crushed together like shards of crystal and rock into an aggregate of cascading strata, parallel and perpendicular, spiraling in and out–a braid of threads that spread like a web in all directions, reaching farther than I could imagine but reaching only so far still. Life will end, and in that moment so will death. This was the lesson of the willow:

Life and death are one.
Never alone but intertwined
In birth and death and rebirth,
The cycle that entraps them.
Through everything flows multitudes,
Inhaling and exhaling,
Returning to themselves.
Through so doing does the whole transcend
The distinctions of mortality.

I took the lessons of the witchmothers and awoke.

Tracy was carrying me up the hill. I was freezing. She was drenched, repeating, “Oh no, oh shit,” over and over. Paramedics loaded me into an ambulance. They asked me questions I didn’t understand, as though I had left my words in that other place. Yes, I knew my name. I knew the year. I knew my address. It came back to me, word by word smuggled through chattering teeth. I was alive. I was back in the present.

A fractured tibia, cracked metacarpal, a few broken ribs, a concussion, hypothermia, plenty of bruising–nothing modern medicine couldn’t handle. Tracy met me at the hospital, still panicked.  “Holy shit, Joanna,” she gasped as she saw me awake, covered in casts and bandages, “What the fuck. You fucking, what.”

It took her a minute to catch her breath. She sniffled and cracked up, angry at me and finding that feeling ridiculous. Once she had steadied herself, she said, “I had to climb down that ravine to get to you. Water had welled up through cracks in the ice and you were just about steeping in it. You were so blue and still that I thought you might be dead, but as I got closer I heard you mumbling, like you were only half-conscious of me. Of anything. So I called 911 and carried you out. After that, I… I was so scared, I ran here.”

“I was mumbling?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she waved her hand, “It’s like, talking in your sleep. Nothing to worry about.”

We stayed like that for a long time, her laughing, almost crying with relief, as I smiled wearily, bashfully. My ribs hurt too much to say much more than, “Thank you.”

Eventually my parents arrived. Tracy introduced herself but then hurried from the room. When I returned to school, she signed my casts. For about a week we spent our lunches together, talking about anything that crossed her racing mind. Her exuberance about everything life had to offer inspired me, and I listened attentively whenever she would expound upon a new interest. She was planning to attend a trade school after graduation in hopes of becoming a blacksmith. Terrence wanted to major in classics. I just wanted to spend time with them.

But the Ratworm wasn’t done with me. In the dreams where I saw it, it whimpered hungrily, and I would chase it away. Then I started to see it in the woods again, perched like a crow with beady little eyes that whirled with a cloudy yellow substance. It would bark and call, so I would shoo it and watch it fly away. Then it came to the school, its skittering claws dragging its segmented hind around the halls and beneath our desks. I had to pretend it wasn’t there, that it wasn’t racing about amid our feet and gnawing on shoelaces, until it found me in the bathroom.

When I heard it open the door, cold rushed in and all the sound went out. I was frozen to my spot, the sink’s running water motionless over my soapy hands. Its steps thudded on the tile but there was no echo even in that small room, as though we were actually in some much larger space, somewhere else.

“I cannot let you go, morsel,” it thundered, “You already answered the real question. The only question.”

As it spoke the stalls behind me became obscured in the mirror, like a thick sheet of ice lay between us, and frigid frost-lines grew on the glass.

“Now you are just afraid of the consequences.”

Sound and motion returned and I pulled my hands away from the suddenly-scalding water. Then I heard the fire bell and smelled the smoke.

The bathroom door-handle singed me when I touched it so I dunked my jacket’s arm in water and opened it to a blaze outside. Classrooms had become infernos and down the hall, far too far away, I saw students fleeing the building. Elsewhere I heard their cries.

I closed the door. I wasn’t getting out that way. No one was. So I smashed the bathroom window and climbed down a tree outside. With my casts I fumbled the attempt and broke my hand again when I used it to brace my fall.

Tracy and Terrence both died in there. The boiler had burst and started an electrical fire, which spread via sawdust that had accumulated in the building’s vents. Flames plumed from every vent in the building, except the women’s bathroom on the second floor where I had been washing my hands. Where the Ratworm’s freezing aura had kept it at bay.

This is how magic works. It isn’t something you beseech or summon. It comes for you and there is no stopping it. It gets what it wants one way or another, and all its gifts can be taken away. Strange and alien things plumb the depths of possibility, toying with the denizens of precious and forgotten presents. I could never beat the Ratworm and it never imagined that I could. It commands eons of legions, living through the hate in their minds, trading fear and anguish and greed for power, power, power, but the witchmothers will never stop thwarting it. They chose me out of love. It chose me out of hunger.

All you can do is try to understand the forces that have chosen you, and try to resist their calls.

 

Diana Thayer writes software, fiction, and essays from the cozy reaches of the Pacific Northwest. You can find her works deep inside of technical arcana and obscure databases, and glinting in the eyes of curious crows. Read more at her blog.

One Poem by Derek Berry

chandelier

            after antonio salviati

i buy the floral robe from target, buy the matching skirt, but at the new year’s party, everyone keeps saying the word kimono. they ask if i’m in drag, despite my unkempt beard. the only makeup a slash of sloppy eyeliner. i wanna say something smart. i wanna quote judith butler.

in 2018, rupaul—host of the television show drag race, the most influential and widely watched program featuring the art of drag—revealed he would not accept openly transgender contestants to participate on the show.

the candelabra, invented during the medieval period, is replaced in immense spaces (abbeys, chapels, feasting halls) with chandeliers to provide better illumination, but also as a symbol of wealth. their crystal an opulent wink.

the first time i ever attend a drag show, i am trying to impress a girl. she calls me confused when i tell her about kissing a boy. on stage, the queen lip syncs ke$ha because it is 2012 & everyone lip-syncs ke$ha.

in the soviet union, some factories were assessed on how much material they used to construct products, and often chandeliers from those factories were overweighted, threatening always to crash onto the heads of the dancing pairs in russian ballrooms.

the drag queen threatens to topple in ten-inch killer heels. she’s a glam-dammed double dare in a dress. she dances in torch-lush ritual, the dirty stage of the club become atlas for desire.

the first time i hear the word genderfluid, i hear also the story of a teenager found in an alley, two bullet holes in the head, gagged and hooded with a trash bag, body doused with bleach. his name was kendarie.

the chandelier hanging in the columbia museum of art is a crown of colored glass, curlicued with flowers pink-dawn tinged. hand-blown and hotworked in the 1880s by antonio salviati. the glass is a fireworks-splatter of red, orange, blue.

drag, before paraded by mostly cis men in rupaul’s shadow, was developed in the ballroom scene by trans women and gay men and nonbinary people. these were ballrooms without chandeliers, but still plenty of light.

seven summers ago, i meet a huddle of gay men in an apartment in havana. i know nothing yet, have read nothing, and say the word “philosophy,” believing it means thoughts i have when consuming magic mushrooms. the elderly host teaches me about poetry and tells me about his dead boyfriends.  the havana flat overlooks the malecon. an opera singer serenades the elderly host. the singer’s voice is fragile and gorgeous as flint glass.

as a child, i cannot stop wondering when a piano will fall from the sky, like they do in cartoons, and crush me. i am not safe here, not anywhere.

i am too old to still be afraid of becoming whatever i am. i am too old to be learning new things about my body.

the first time i hear the word gay, someone describes a boy tied to a fence post and beaten to death. his name was matthew.

in 2012, i’m not very good at grammar yet, so i actually don’t know the difference between what a pronoun or adverb mean. when the drag queen sashays across the stage, i do not syntax desire into genderfucked sense. i am pure spectator, all eyes and awe.

when i visit the columbia museum of art, i sit on the floor and imagine dismantling the artifice from the ceiling, shattering flint glass until elegance becomes dangerous. each shard a translucent dagger sharp enough to hold to a throat.

in the state house of south carolina, men make laws to make miserable the lives of trans people. those men have names. they have addresses.

i put on the dress—brittle, glittering, taboo. hang me from the ceiling, dripping crystal, & i’ll wriggle. never the colorful bait or the hook. i am the fish flopped on the dance floor, like the question of names and pronouns and what’s really under the skirt.

i promise to curse strangers into inarticulate stutter.

months later, i learn, the opera singer is dead. shot in the street. i don’t know why. his name was daniel.

nothing beautiful is safe for long.

in the cartoon about falling pianos, the instrument is also vessel for symphony.

in the museum, in the right context, the chandelier is kept safe behind the stanchion, displayed and gleaming. in another context, the chandelier is just well-sculpted sharp glass.

i sweep confetti after the parade has passed. a storm of glitter and sweat drenches the city.

i want to be brave when my boyfriend holds my hand, but i keep thinking about the men in the denny’s parking lot beating him to death. i want to eat scrambled eggs and not fear anyone’s hand around my throat.

at the party, i try to quote judith butler and say gender is a performance i’ve never been super good at. i tell them i have been dreaming about becoming a chandelier instead.

ablaze, far from here, & safe.

i am searching for one place that feels safe. 

 

Derek Berry is the author of the novel Heathens & Liars of Lickskillet County, as well as the poetry chapbooks GLITTER HUSK & BUGGERY, winner of the 2020 BOOM Chapbook Prize. They are also the recipients of the Emrys Poetry Prize, KAKALAK Poetry Award, & Broad River Prize for Prose. Their recent work has been published in Zingara Poetry Review, Sandhills, ANMLY, Raleigh Review, Jet Fuel Review, & elsewhere. They live in Aiken, South Carolina.

Two Poems by Talia Wright

i can’t stop feeling this feeling

my aunts & my mother
are all so nervous! i think
i am too! this house
of nervous! women!
when one of us
shakes,
we all shake! my women
cousins––they nervous
too! like black cats
––all frightened and small! all
left out in night! nervous!
all wide eyes & trembles! no
milk to come back to! only
barren homes! only dust
& moonshine! molasses
thick & heavy like
the pain in our shoulders,
our lower backs are nervous!
so nervous! they start growing
roots! we so nervous, we grow
in place!
we are nervous, oh yes, oh,
we cry! we cry
cry! we nervous cry! nervous
cry so hard our skin
cracks! yes, they lied, they
lied, our skin cracks! right down the
middle! nervous forehead
lines! nervous laughter! nervous
rocking! back &
forth! we rock so hard
they call it dance! they name
a genre after it! ha! rock
music! rock music
makes us nervous! we nervous
women! we all in
the house pulling moon
down with laundry lines, nervous! tugging,
tugging, tugging,
nervous! we are
not thieves, we are nervous! we only take
what is rightfully ours because we are nervous! scared
of the dark, nervous! didn’t even know we
are the dark, nervous! with the moon
in our bedrooms, rope around our fingers, eyes
easing closed with sleep, we dream we are not
nervous! anymore! we dream we are pregnant
without growing nervous! in our
bellies!

 

TIME IS ABUNDANCE

THE NIGHT  I MAKE ALL MY TEETH GOLD, I ALSO
GIVE BIRTH TO TIME. I HOLD TIME IN MY ARMS. I TELL TIME
MY FAVORITE NURSERY RHYMES. THEN, I HOP INTO MY NEW CAR
AND TAKE TIME TO THE FARMER’S MARKET. SURE, SHE A LITTLE YOUNG FOR STRAWBERRIES
AND SHIT BUT EVERYBODY AT THEIR BOOTHS THINK TIME IS REAL CUTE, AND THEY ALL WANNA
HOLD HER. BUT TIME IS TOO PRECIOUS FOR STRANGER ARMS AND CANDY SMILES. SHE IS MINE, I
GAVE BIRTH TO HER, AND WE HAVE A LOT TO DO TODAY.

THE NEXT THING I DO IS GO TO TARGET. AS I AM EXCHANGING MY DIAMONDS
FOR KITCHEN TOWELS, TIME STARTS TO GROW LEGS. TIME LEARNS TO WALK. THE CASHIER
SMILES, TEETH GOLD TOO, SAYS, “OH THEY GROW SO FAST DON’T THEY? MY TIME JUST WENT
TO COLLEGE”––I STOP THEM MID-SENTENCE, MY ANXIETY TURNING DIAMONDS BACK TO
COAL IN MY PALMS. TIME WIGGLES OUT MY ARMS AND RUNS DOWN THE CLEARANCE ISLE.
 FUCK.

I CATCH TIME IN THE MAKEUP SECTION, TRYING ON MAYBELLINE. I GRAB HER HAND AND TELL HER I’M NOT BUYING THAT TODAY. TIME BLINKS AT ME, SAYS THAT SHE’S ALREADY GOT A JOB AND SHE DON’T NEED MY MONEY ANYMORE. I DON’T THINK SHE’S SO CUTE ANY LONGER. I SAY TO HER: I GAVE BIRTH TO YOU, YOU ARE MINE,  AND WE HAVE A LOT TO
DO TODAY. LET’S GO.

THE NEXT STOP IS A BEAUTY SHOP ON 95TH STREET, AND WE ALL KNOW HOW LONG
THAT SOUTH SIDE CHAIR SITS. AS I’M WAITING WITH MAGAZINE AND MELTING ICE OVER COLA, TIME BUYS HERSELF A BOOTH. SHE DYES HER HAIR, THEN SHAVES IT, AND THEN WATCHES IT ALL GROW BACK AGAIN. I STEW IN MY SEAT, MY COLA HOT, ICE INTO WATER, READING FINISHED. I THINK EVEN THE GOLD
IN MY TEETH IS STARTING TO SLIDE WITH AGE. MY SILVER WATCH TICK, TICK, TICKS AS TIME GOES ON TO LOC HER HAIR, GET A DEGREE, AND THEN CUT IT ALL OFF AGAIN.

BY THE TIME I AM IN THE CHAIR, TIME IS APPLYING FOR HER MFA. I BEG
HER NOT TO LEAVE ME, NOT TO GO TOO FAR––WHAT WOULD I BE WITHOUT HER? MY HAIRDRESSER
YANKS HER WIDE-TOOTH COMB THROUGH MY HAIR AS I WEEP. TIME ISN’T LISTENING WHEN I BEGIN TO
COMPLAIN TO MY STYLIST.  I GAVE BIRTH TO HER, I AM SAYING BETWEEN HICCUPS. MY STYLIST DANGLES A GRAY HAIR BETWEEN MY EYES. SHE IS MINE, I TAKE THE HAIR INTO MY HANDS. AND WE HAVE A LOT TO DO
TODAY.

FINALLY, AT HOME, I AM PREPARING DINNER WITH MY SHOES OFF, MY BRA OFF, MY HAIR DOWN. I’VE GOT BREAD BAKING IN THE OVEN, AND FILET MIGNON ON THE STOVE. TIME IS NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO ME WHEN I TALK ABOUT MY PLANS FOR THE WEEK. I AM WORRY STRESS WRINKLE TEARS. SHE IS PLANS TODAY, GONE TOMORROW, NOT LISTENING ANYMORE. SHE SAYS I OWE HER MONEY, REACHES HAND OUT PALM FLAT, I PURSE MY LIPS REAL TIGHT SAY GIIIIIIIIIRRLLLLLLLLL. YOU GOT A LOT OF NERVE.

IT HAS BEEN QUITE A DAY AND I CAN’T BELIEVE TIME IS RUNNIN’ HER MOUTH AT ME LIKE I DIDN’T JUST BIRTH HER FROM MY FLESH. LIKE I DIDN’T CARRY HER, FEED HER, BRUSH HER HAIR IN THE MORNINGS. LIKE I DIDN’T WAIT FOR HER AND WAIT FOR HER AND PRAY FOR HER AND WISH FOR HER AND I AM TELLING HER THIS WITH MY GOLD TEETH SLAPPING EACH OTHER AROUND IN MY MOUTH, MOUTH SHINNING WITH WEALTHY ANGER, BECAUSE I HAVE THE TIME TODAY. I FORGET THE FOOD AND MY DINNER GOES UP IN FLAMES––STEAK INTO ASH, BREAD TO DUST, TIME TO
 WASTE. WHEN I TURN TO  SILENCE MY SCREAMING ALARM, TIME GRIMACES AT ME.

IN THE MINUTES IT TOOK TO EXTINGUISH THE FLAME, TIME HAS PACKED HER ENTIRE ROOM UP INTO PLASTIC GARBAGE BAGS. SAYS SHE’S LEAVING ME TODAY, SHE CAN’T LIVE WITH ME NO LONGER. I AM SUFFOCATING AND MEAN. I ASK TOO MUCH OF HER. SAYS SHE DON’T GET A BREAK. I STUTTER AND ANGER. I OFFEND AND TAKE BACK. I DON’T THANK HER. I DON’T HONOR HER BOUNDARIES. I DON’T SAY I’M SORRY. I ASK FOR MORE THAN SHE CAN GIVE. SHE IS JUST A GIRL, SHE SAYS TO ME.

SHE WALKS OUT THE DOOR. SHE GETS IN HER UBER. I STARE OPEN MOUTH. I GRAY AT THE TEMPLES. MY
TEETH GOLD FALLING, MY FINGERS ALL WRINKLY. I SHAPE A CANE OUT OF DEAD TREE AND ATTEMPT TO CHASE HER DOWN. ALL THE SAME I AM SAYING THAT SHE IS MINE. I GAVE BIRTH TO HER. AND I STILL, TRULY
HAVE A LOT TO DO TODAY.

 

Talia Wright (they/she) was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago. They are a poetry/prose writer and 2019 Pink Door Fellow. They have been published in In These Times, Changing Womxn, Hooligan Magazine, and more. Their work is informed by blackness, the great migration, and spending summer afternoons dancing under their grandparents’ Mulberry tree. Follow them on instagram @cherub.jpeg.