To Celebrate the Baby
Attached is a 20 page paper, “From Feathers to Fur: Theatrical Representations of Skin in the Medieval English Cycle Plays.” It was written by Amanda LiCastro. Do you remember her? She’s the niece of Mrs. Aftel, the lady with the cats who lives on Gardiner. Anyway, Amanda is getting her PhD in English at NYU and doing some extra writing on the side to help pay the bills. I’m sorry the last one didn’t work out but it could be your professor was just being picky. That man came highly recommended, as you know. Don’t stress over it. You probably still have the highest GPA at Kappa Phi. See if you can take the Algebra II class online over the summer because I have a guy who’s a math whiz and can do the whole thing for you on his computer.
So glad you told us you’d prefer not to go to Florence over spring break before we went ahead and booked the trip. I know Paris is high on your wish list. Or would you rather spend March in the Caribbean? There’s a place called Dreams in Punta Cana where you can get massages and facials every single day.
Mom sends her love. Please don’t be mad. She went to six different stores trying to find those Steve Madden boots you wanted but no luck! They’re completely out of stock online and she couldn’t locate them on ebay either. Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t like them in brown because that we could do.
She asked me to remind you to text us what you want us to bring when we come up next weekend. We will drive your car and take the train home. The mechanic fixed the entire front end and got the dents out of the passenger side door. It honestly looks just like new!
Did your Flowers of the Month arrive on time? I know the orchid was a hit but Mom wanted to be sure you got the paper whites. They will brighten up your room. Also, your new phone got sent home instead of to school so we express mailed it to you and it should be there by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. And I put another $10,000 in your checking account, which should tide you over until break. Re voice lessons, why not if you have the time? Schedule them once a day if you need to so you’ll be ready for the upcoming Godspell audition.
Well, baby doll, that’s all for now. Stay as sweet and beautiful as you are. Remember there’s no one as wonderful as you.
All my Love,
Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, SandyRiver Review, Gloom Cupboard, Delmarva Review, Panoplyzine, Sinkhole, and
Sou’wester. Her poetry has been published in Lime Hawk, Gyroscope, Rust + Moth and Silver Birch Press. She is also a Pushcart nominee and has written five mystery novels.
The Painter’s Wife
The painter conjured her down from the painting, and fell on the floor, exhausted. He slept without dreams because the time for dreams, vivid as they were, was finally over. When he awoke, she stood motionlessly over his supine body, and her gown smelled of fresh paint. Her face was frozen, her muscles rigid, her eyes glassy.
The painter turned his head and saw her likeness still on the painting. There, she was smiling, a faint but warm smile. He turned again, and there she was, alive, but as unwelcoming as an icy rain. She couldn’t be in both places at once; though no scientist, he knew that much. He parted his lips, about to ask her to move, to stand by the painting, so he could see and decide for himself, but she lowered herself to him. She was smooth under her dress, and warming up quickly to his touch.
Now, a day later, she smiles as if she’s used to moving her lips and squinting her eyes. Her curly red hair falls, full and thick, on her pale shoulders and back, in long strands that have lost their canvas flatness and brush strokes. Her smile is an enigma with the frosting of promise. Her breasts and belly carry his fingerprints. They exchanged rings once and DNA on several occasions.
“I love you to death, if you’ll forgive me such a cliché,” she says, testing the sharpness of her nails against the skin of her hand while watching her husband shaving. She seems fascinated with sharp objects—a curious trait for someone who spent all her life inside the vulnerability of woven cloth.
The painter tried to get her next to the painting, to see them together, but failed. They never exist in the same frame. At least he can’t see them, which is the same to him. He blames himself: his studio is too big, she’s too quick on her feet, and his vision is not as good as it once was.
Nodding to her words, the painter cuts himself with the razor. He winces, but the little pain doesn’t prevent him from granting her poetic license to speak any way she wants.
She steps closer to the painting, walking softly like a cat. The painter blinks. One of them will be gone now. Maybe, all three of them, even the painting, will be gone. He’s not certain of anything anymore. Her hair and fingernails shine like a burning sun, and he brings his hands up to protect his face.
This story was first published in Fiction Southeast.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union, and he speaks English with an accent. His writing appeared in Five Points, PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. He co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton.
The Garden (a story puzzle)
Who am I in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch?
Nine…eight…seven…six ringing in the darkness. I have to get away, there’s danger back there, they’re going to cut my heart out. I flap my wings smoothly, silently in the night sky, turn, then glide as if gravity didn’t exist and hope they can’t follow me. I coast over a burning city, buildings silhouetted by flames. I bank and dive, see a red sail on a lake and a multitude of humanity, like lice, swarming out of it. Farther away I see ghostly figures lining up at a glowing gate as if there’s some escape, and that’s just the beginning—a tiny part of this vast senseless landscape—so beautiful it must be hell.
As I fly lower, soot starts to burn my nostrils and a cacophony of horns, crackling fire, and cries of agony fill my head.
I fly over a razor-sharp knife slicing apart two monumental ears, which almost stops my heart. I can almost feel it, that knife cutting me—a long slice under my breast feathers—sudden pain, a feeling of life hanging in the balance, of illusion upon illusion, of moments frozen in oil and pigment.
I fly as fast as I can, past a house made of bone held up by bone tree-trunks, a platypus monk, until I reach The-Land-of-Tortured-Musicians. There’s a guy strung up on a harp, one tied to a lute, and one squashed under it with a musical score painted on his bare ass. Some guy’s pointing at it, seems to think it’s hilarious. What did they do to deserve this? Off-key recitals? Derivative compositions?
Nearby I see a lizard wielding a sword which has a heart impaled on it and there’s a man with a hypodermic needle stabbed right through his hand.
Out of nowhere comes the drone of a buzz-saw getting louder and louder. I have to get out of here before it cuts me open. This place is boxed in by wooden columns which, for some reason, I can’t see around. I fly at a column, sink my talons in, flap my wings to get balanced, work my way around and look over it. What I see is an abyss, a plane of non-existence. But I know there are other worlds. I’m the symbol of divine wisdom after all.
The buzz saw’s closing in. I leap, find myself where nothing exists, not even me, then bam, a wooden column comes flying at me. I sink my talons in and swing around it into The-Land-of-Naked-People. They’re all dancing, swimming, sticking flowers up each other’s asses, and making out in glass globes and giant muscle shells. I alight on the first perch I see, which is atop of a pink scalloped stand with human arms and legs frozen in dance. This place is filled with birdsongs, laughter, and the perfume of flowers and fruit, all the sensual delights. I fluff up my down and settle in.
Then I realize I’m a bit peckish. I swivel my head 180° to the right and see a number of giant berries here and there. The trouble is I’m a carnivore, a predator of the night, and the only small prey I spot is a rat in a glass tube. Then I swivel my head 180° to the left. There I see six naked people picking apples from a tree. One of them is carrying giant strawberry.
“I’m starving!” the strawberry man cries.
“Let’s have a banquet,” one of the women says.
I call out “hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo,” hoping they’ll invite me. But just then a faint voice starts echoing in my head saying, “scissors, clamp.”
“Let’s have roast fowl!” one of the men shouts, then “scalpel!”
Someone hands him a huge knife and he comes running at me.
I take off just as he lops off a few of my wing feathers and fly across this land of many creatures, two lakes, a pond, and constructions made of rose quartz and blue marble. People here seem to do whatever amuses them no matter how senseless, like crowding into a red teepee-tree and doing weird things with giant berries.
Soon I reach another wooden column, sink my talons in and shoot across the plane of non-existence, then grab onto a new column and swing into a much calmer place where there’s hardly a sound.
At the centre of this land God is introducing Eve to Adam, which would explain why there are no other people here.
This place has blue and pink constructions too, as well as a pond and a lake. I alight on the edge of a round hole in the rose quartz central fountain. It seems to be made just for me, so I fluff up my down and get cozy.
The place is conspicuously lacking oversized berries, but it does have a lot of small prey—bunnies, lizards, and a bunch of little buggers I can’t identify. I’d go out and kill something but I’ve totally lost my appetite.
This has to be the dullest land in the world’s I’ve visited. There’s nothing to do but stare at a ocelot tormenting a newt. It’s unbearably quiet too, just the sound of the water trickling from the fountain. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears getting louder and louder. It seems important to listen to it. Suddenly—I suck in a breath—it just stops! All that’s left is a dull ache under my breast feathers.
I don’t know what to do so I just nest here and wait for something to happen. It seems like an eternity. God keeps introducing Eve to Adam. The ocelot continues to torment the newt. It never gets dark.
Finally, I can’t take it anymore. I fly out of my hole and back to the wooden column I crossed over before. I dig my talons in, traverse the plane of non-existence, then I’m back in The-Land-of-Naked-People with all its laughter, chatter, and birdsong and realize this is the only place anyone can possibly exist. It’s so crowded it’s hard to find a bare spot so I alight in a shallow pond and sink into its warm water next to a familiar looking boy.
He’s frowning at me with worry, so I say, “hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo,” and give him a gentle peck on the cheek.
He lights up with joy and puts his arms around me which feels so good my heart starts beating again, then--
My eyes open in a glaring white place full of beeps and drones. Things are foggy. I have a strong urge to pull out a tube that’s lodged down my throat. I try, but my hands are tied down. Then… Oh! Everything comes into focus—the recovery room. I’m a forty-eight-year-old medieval-art-historian heart-transplant-recipient. I notice my wife and son standing there. He has his hand over his mouth and she’s crying, but she’s crying for joy.
Sheila Martin: "My first novel, The Coney Island Book of the Dead, An Illustrated Novel, recently won the 2017 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize. In addition I have pieces in the current issues of four literary journals: Ginosko (#19), Earthen Lamp Journal (Volume II, issue 1), The Legendary (#69) and Volume 1, Brooklyn. I also have an unpublished novel that takes place in an art school for which I am seeking a literary agent."
She jumped out the patrol car’s backseat, indifferent to being let go with just a warning and angry that they kept the spray-paint cans when they picked her up on the other side of town. They’ll probably use them to paint their kid’s bikes or wagons, or some stupid table in their garage.
The air smelled like rain, so she hurried to the closest bus stop and rode until reaching an area where it looked like the cops would have more serious crimes than graffiti to worry about. She laughed when she jumped off, stepping down almost straight into a hardware store. The itch surfaced as soon as she reached the aisle that mattered. Her fingers trailed along the cans, tapping the caps when she came to a favourite colour. She couldn’t help it. It’s not like there were regular art supplies at the foster home she’d been dumped in this month. Or any of the other foster homes in any of the other months for that matter. Mr. and Mrs. Foster were just as interchangeable to her as she was to them.
“Can I help you miss?” an elderly, aproned employee asked.
The way his shaggy white eyebrows arched made her feel guilty. Not like she was going to try and lift something – more like, why wasn’t she at school this time of the morning? She was almost eighteen, but not quite; the last thing she needed was this old geezer calling the boys in blue.
“No thanks. I was just looking for a clear coat,” she said with a toss of her hair that made her look like every other idiot teenager. “It’s for an art project I’m finishing today at school.”
He walked away and picked up a broom that leaned against the wall. She watched him sweep for a moment then walked down the next aisle. Rifling through her pockets, she came up with a dollar in quarters and three nickels. Not enough for even one can. She wasn’t a thief, no way. She walked toward the entrance. When she reached the part of the floor that tripped the automatic sliding door, a large yellow cardboard sign advertised stacks of blue electrical tape - two for a dollar. She picked one up and rolled it around in her hand, then picked up another and made her way to the cash register. The man stopped sweeping and came over to check her out. She smiled at him sweetly and like she often did with strangers, wondered if he could be her grandfather.
She wandered a few blocks in one direction, then another, looking for an inconspicuous target. The main avenue ran north and south, so she turned right at a light and headed east. A few antique stores and galleries dotted the street, but you could see auto repair and construction supply businesses encroaching into what probably had been an arts district not too long ago.
The abandoned building cried out to be something more, with its rounded corners and glass block windows. She looked around to make sure no one from the neighbouring businesses had a reason to come her way. Confident, she walked around the entire back wall and placed her palms against different spots as if she were feeling for a heartbeat.
She worked randomly, furiously ripping the blue tape into short and long pieces. The work evolved minute by minute. She reached up and then quickly crouched to the ground, leaving one thought unfinished and moving to the other end to start something completely unrelated. Her fingers hurt from rubbing the strips down into their shapes hard enough to make them stick.
Shadows began to cast over the building from the low hanging clouds, which suddenly appeared. Her stomach growled. She stood up and stepped back, wiping away a tear and wishing she still had her cell phone so she could take a picture. With no money left, a bus ride back was out of the question. She started walking back toward the main road to thumb a ride. The Fosters would be angry when they got another message from the high school that she hadn’t been in classes. Five months. She’d be eighteen in five months. Out of the system and free to go wherever she wanted. She’d heard graffiti was considered an art form in New York City - maybe she’d go there and teach them what you could do with blue electrical tape.
Vicki Roberts is a writer and graphic artist who lives on Florida's east coast. Her first novel, Oldsters, was published in 2017. In between writing short stories, which have been published in various magazines and anthologies, she is at work on her next book, The Year of Gwendolyn Presley Flowers. Her life selfishly revolves around literature, music and art. Catch up with Vicki at https://iamvickiroberts.com
The Birthday of the Infanta
As a girl, I went an entire day once without eating to walk with the Duke in the Queen’s perfect, geometric rose garden, my waist no larger than the clasp of his hands. When we walked in the garden, the Duke kissed me, a brush of his whiskers near my face drawing me into his world of tobacco and male scent. This man who would give me fifteen children and become my comrade for decades, was older than my oldest brother Diego, but I did not mind. He was polite, and I knew marriage to be my duty; besides, I thought in my child’s mind, he will die and then I will have my children to play with and a palace to dance in, where I will strew rose petals of every colour in the rainbow.
It is alive in me today, this time so long ago in the past. Is it because I am dying? I watch my breath travel in and out of my ancient lungs and know that soon all this will end. The wise men say that when we die, we return to the place of our birth, though the priest told me I will travel to heaven or hell, according to the life I have led. And what of that life, which will be my fate? As a child, I thought nothing of death, only the future that lay before me like some great green meadow, the sun on my young skin, with no thought of what comes after.
You may marry a man or the Lord Jesus, my dears, the Holy Mother told us. She was a good woman, kind in her black robes and paper-white skin. At night when the convent was silent and only lit by the moon, a girl named Maria showed me her playing cards and laid them around us in a circle. She giggled so in the moonlight, yellow curls on her cheeks. My God, how beautiful she was! An angel does not describe her fairness. We each chose a different card, mine snarled with a snake and a shining star, hers with the Lord Jesus. So that was our destiny—I would take the path of the world and the serpent, she of God. We brought our lips together to seal our fortunes and swore to be friends forever. I held her face in my hands and looked deeply into her eyes.
“You are my sister,” I said. “I will love you as no other. I swear to this.”
We pricked our fingers and tasted each other’s blood, though by the time I walked with the Duke in the garden, I had forgotten her.
For a girl of my station, the preparation for marriage took months. I prayed often as the nuns instructed me in my duties—to my children, my husband, God. After my walk with the Duke in the Queen’s garden, there were more prayers and recitations. I was so famished that day, forced to wait until the sun sank below the mountains and my servant unwrapped my engagement dress from my body. How good to be unsealed from that coffin of lace and feel a breeze against my naked skin. I took a sip of chocolate, my first food of the day, one chicken wing, a basket of cherries. My mother said I was too fat and needed always to allow the Duke to encircle my waist with his hands. Other girls were more slender, their breasts small.
Once when we played at the ocean, I saw Maria’s breasts silhouetted against the sky, and her beauty left me breathless. I could have been taken for a boy, were it not for my head of brown curls and small lips. Still, in the garden, the Duke said I was a bird, a starling or a humming bird. “I am marrying air,” he said. For the hundredth time that day, I wondered if I would be frightened when he came to me, or if, like a sea captain, I would ride the waves of my destiny into very old age, when Maria and I would meet again, never breaking our promise of love.
I saw my future husband one last time before our vows, on the day of the Infanta’s birthday, when gifts from all the royal courts of Europe were opened and my brother’s painting of the Infanta unveiled. I wore the same dress that day, black lace cinching me tightly at the waist, ruby jewels around my neck, and when the Duke gazed at me, I felt excitement for this new world I would inhabit, led by the serpent and the flesh.
But now, when I remember that day, I think mostly of my brother’s painting of the Infanta: the tiny child in her white satin dress standing out hard and straight from her body, dogs and dwarfs playing at her feet; the King and Queen at the door, anxiously peering inside. Diego’s canvas was huge, rising all the way to the ceiling, and he had put all of them in it, including himself. “Why not?” he told me. “They were here each day when I painted the picture—the musicians, the dwarfs, the King and Queen, Las Meninas, the ladies-in-waiting. It was a carnival. Why should art end simply because of a picture frame?”
“Quieres que tu chocolate, ahora senora?”
A girl stands before me with a pitcher of steaming chocolate and I nod. I have come to the palace one last time, to sit in my place before my brother’s painting and ponder its meaning. So much has changed since he painted it. Philip is dead, I am in my eighth decade, and Spain is no longer the centre of the universe. Once Philip’s empire stretched three billion hectares to every corner of the earth, but no longer. The English have supplanted us, though the fame of my brother’s painting only grows. Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez, knighted to the court of Spain for his service to the King. Painters as far away as Italia and Inglaterre come to view it, to study his greatness and learn from his work.
Diego was ambitious. To qualify him for knighthood, a tribunal of the Inquisition had first to investigate our lineage, to show no Moorish or Jewish taint. The ordeal took seven years—the auto-da-fé waiting—that yearly spectacle where heretics are burned alive to cleanse the faith. Today people gather in greater and greater multitudes to witness the pitiable sinners. It is Spain’s holiday, to which knights and representatives of neighbouring cities are invited, the windows of the houses closest to the burning reserved for the most wealthy. The autos last from seven in the morning till deep into the night. I went only once, where I saw two sodomite lovers burned alive. Those gallant souls could not touch, but they looked into each other’s eyes and remembered the time they had shared, knowing that love like that is always worth death. Later the Tribunal flayed a child alive for refusing to bear witness against its parent.
Our family was proven spotless, thank God. Philip was glad. He told my brother that he once saw a Medici cardinal torture a mouse on a tiny rack for stealing cheese, and after that he wanted none of it. He would be the Planet King: his dominion stretched to every corner of the earth, and besides, he was the fourth Philip just as the sun was the fourth heavenly body to encircle the earth. He surrounded himself with artists and dwarfs, filled his castle with dancing bears and giants imported from Russia. Every spring theatricals were held, and my brother was given a private residence in his court. Philip admitted all to celebrate the birth of the Infanta Margaret Teresa, from scrubwomen to lepers, and now she was five.
On the day of her birthday and of the painting’s unveiling, all were in attendance: the dwarfs, the lepers, the ladies-in-waiting, even a family of gypsies that lived outside the castle and had been invited to read the Infanta’s birthday fortune. The woman predicted only rosy children and gold-tinted clouds for the child. How could she do otherwise?
A servant pulled a cord and a curtain slid to reveal the canvas. Philip stood before it for several seconds, then asked Diego for a small brush dipped in red so that he might make a final flourish, painting his family’s coat of arms on the chest of Diego’s self-portrait, knighting him in the painting as he would soon do in real life.
Slowly a smile spread on Diego’s face, and he laughed. He grabbed Doña Isabel, one of the Meninas, the ladies-in-waiting, bent her backwards, and kissed her. It was clear they knew each other well. For the remainder of the afternoon, she sat on his lap as he and Philip drank wine and ate from a celebration table heavy with all manner of food and libation.
Four years later, my brother died of a fever. He accomplished so much in his lifetime: over one hundred canvasses of royalty and humanity and this masterpiece of the King’s child that stares at me each day daring me to decipher its meaning: why does Diego show us this world inside his canvas that is like the real world and at the same time not? It is a hall of mirrors. He has put himself in the centre of it, brush in hand, peering at me from behind the back of a huge canvas as his subjects do as well: the Infanta, the Dwarf, Las Meninas, the dogs. A nun and others cluster about.
There is no separation between art and life, Diego once told me. Is that its meaning?
Behind all of them, reflected in the glass that Diego put at the rear of this invented world, are the Infanta’s mother and father, King Philip IV and Queen Isabella of Spain. How Philip loved his daughter. Though the gypsy gave her endless decades, she only lived to twenty-one, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, before dying from the birth of her sixth child. Her husband who adored her was beside himself with grief. And I have outlived them all.
I will leave this body soon, this shelter that cloaks my soul. At night I do not sleep. The girl has moved my bed next to the window, so that I can gaze at the moonrise and watch the transit of the stars.
A year after my marriage, I saw the young novices walk toward their vows, their pale bodies dressed in white, faces lifted to God. The girls chanted as they walked, looking into their future, toward all I would never know. I was not jealous, for was not my path equal to Maria’s, and does not all life lead to God? But now I am not so sure, and I wonder if Maria’s life was not the luckier, spent in her devotion. The Duke was a respectful husband and we enjoyed each other. I will speak of it frankly. The seas we rode together were warm. He gave me so many children that on my celebration day, I am surrounded by generations—the smell of leather boots and young boys’ tousled hair; the frothy petticoats of girls.
But what is that next to the mystery of the universe? There is a natural philosopher in Italia, I have heard, who has looked at the heavens through a special device that tells him the earth is not the centre of all there is, that instead we are no better than any object in the sky whirling in the blackness, and if that is so, only God can explain our meaning. The Tribunal does not burn him, but they have imprisoned him and destroyed his work, and still he will not recant.
Diego told me once that he painted the picture as he did, because his purpose was to capture the truth of the girl in the studio, the dogs, the dwarves, Las Meninas, rather than concoct a deception. What we see is sacred, he said, because it is true and where truth is, God is. Truth, he said, is a reflection of the divine.
Judith Dancoff’s fiction and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Tiferet Journal, Alaska Quarterly, Other Voices, and Southern Humanities Review. Her stories in Tiferet and SHR were both awarded best story of the year, and she has received residencies from Hedgebrook, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and an upcoming residency at the Djerrasi Resident Artists Program, June 2018. She holds an MFA in writing from Warren Wilson College, and an MFA in filmmaking from UCLA.
The Birth of Athena
Look at that spackled face. The starched curls. The lah-de-dah veiled hat. And that rose! That rose is a second entity, Athena sprung fully formed from Zeus’ head. That’s the way it is with roses. One second they’re as tiny as a baby’s puckered palm. But turn around to water the azalea, or admire a cardinal, and boom! There’s the rose already world-weary and reeking of perfume. Listen. Don’t admire the woman’s lace collar. Or her perfectly tailored jacket. Or the purse white-knuckled in her hand. Behold the blot of red that sits atop her lips like a bloated heart. There’s a smirk beneath that layer of paint. And it’s for you.
Tina Barry is the author of Mall Flower, poems and short fiction (Big Table Publishing, 2015). Her work has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2016, Drunken Boat, The Light Ekphrastic, and Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, among other journals and anthologies. Barry lives with her husband and two cats in the village of High Falls, NY.
This house is full of spaces, but here under the kitchen table is best. When he’s scooched right up against the skirting board nobody is any the wiser. He can stay undetected for hours as long as he is careful of the radiator. Not because of the heat - it is never switched on even in the depths of winter - but its hollow metal echo will give him away if he knocks against it.
There’s Mam now. He likes the way the puffs of dust swirl around the black tiles and are chased away by the gust from the kitchen door as it opens and closes. Clouds of dog hair and toast crumbs tumble and dance before disappearing into the gap between the washing machine and the fridge. She’s not closed the door properly, you need to grip the handle and keep pulling until the lock snicks otherwise it will swing open again and the dog will get out into the hallway and be up the stairs before you know it. Today it doesn’t matter about the door. From here he can see Barney’s tail hanging over the side of his rubber dog bed and if the radio wasn’t on he’d probably be able to hear the wet snuffles of his deep-sleep breaths. Occasionally, a claw scritches against the tiles as his back-leg twitches in his sleep. The dog won’t be making a break for it this afternoon.
Mam’s at the sink. The hem of the tablecloth obscures everything above her calves. The tap hisses as she fills the bowl and there’s the chatter of china as she clears the breakfast crockery from the draining board. She’s barefoot. She stretches, revealing one sole, dark with dirt from the kitchen floor. These bloody tiles, she says often. I don’t know what the council were thinking. The black gets everywhere.
The oven light blinks on. It’s still early but she must have turned the dial to preheat it. She’ll start chopping veg soon. The window in the oven door is smeared with grease. Once, for dinner, she had served up thick slices of bread coated in a dull sludge that smelt just like the oven as it heats up. Fussy little sod, she’d said when his lip quivered. Dad had laughed. Baap re, he’d said. No wonder your empire crumbled if that’s the best you could manage. Not wanting to upset Mam, he’d taken a large bite but his throat refused it. Gagging, he’d managed only to hold the claggy mass in his mouth until they’d both been looking the other way and then he’d let it fall back out onto his plate. Chewed, it looked no different. Sorry Mam, he’d said, his tongue coated with grease. It had clung to the back of his teeth. Well, there’s nothing else, she’d said and had scraped his plate into the dog bowl.
Sundays are best. He sneaks in early to listen to her preparing dinner. Sometimes she sings along with the radio. He can see her feet tapping. But not today. On Sunday, there is chicken and proper roast potatoes. And boiled. Once there’d been mash too and Dad had said, Baap re woman, who has the stomach for three kinds of potato? But he’d eaten it all the same. There had been flecks of gravy on his shirt collar until bedtime.
Most days after school, some of the bigger kids from the other estate will follow him part the way home shouting, Oi Mowgli, what’s for dinner? Once he’d shouted back, Beans on toast, and they’d thrown stones at him. But on Sundays, there are normal vegetables. Carrots and peas and thick wedges of parsnip that nobody touches. He knows that in every house on his street everybody will be sitting down to a similar meal.
Dad comes in now. One large brown toe pokes from a hole in his sock. Any tea? he says. Mam does not answer and Dad says, Baka? He watches as Dad crosses the kitchen. He stops with one foot either side of Mam’s. Whali, what’s all this? he says. That poor boy, Mam says in a thin voice. Just sixteen. He knows what boy she is talking about. It’s been the talk of school. That was far from here, Dad says as if that makes a difference. They said his own mother couldn’t identify him, she says. He’ll need dozens of operations and even then. His face. That poor boy.
He’d seen the pictures in the paper. The boy used to look just like him.
At the pond round the back of the Sports & Social Club, he’d sometimes lose hours staring at himself in the filthy water. His translucent image in the surface had his Dad’s features but Mam’s tone. It made him dizzy. Once, a couple of the bigger kids from the other estate had crept up behind him whilst he was dropping large stones into his reflection. They caught him watching his face his own face as it rippled and reformed. Briefly there were four faces, each the same pale shade, shimmering on the surface. Then one of them said, Can you swim, Jungle Boy? And shoved him hard in the back. The pond was chest deep and the mud had sucked one trainer from his foot as he splashed his way back to the bank. When he got home, Mam had chased him straight back out the door, his wet sock slapping at the street. You get back in there and search for it, she’d said. They’re near new those shoes.
Simeon Ralph is a writer, musician and lecturer. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. Originally from Essex, he now lives in Norwich.
Story of a Snow Child
We will meet in front of the station. The snow fills the air like white rain and the dogs on leashes walk with high steps, shaking their paws to loosen the snow that hangs in dense white beads in their paws. He will come soon, and then we will step through the doors into the warm station and board the train and leave. Forever.
Lila, Lila, he had said. How can you say it is too much too fast too far? It is love and love sets us free. We will leave this place and make our own life in a little house in a green field in the country.
I am not a fool. It is winter, and the world is covered with snow, and there are no green fields in the country right now. Yet I am drawn to him like a magnet is drawn to a pole, and I cannot abide one more day in my house where the walls are gray and the old woman sits in the corner by the fire, cracking nuts and eating the soft white meat of them with her teeth like gravestones.
I know, I know, she said yesterday, peering at me with gray eyes swimming in damp yellow pools. I know what you’re thinking, and let me tell you, it’s worse than anything I could cook up. Then she cackled, as if she were auditioning for the part of wicked witch at the opera house.
You’re not my mother,” I snapped. That used to bother her, but this time she just cackled again and said, “I made you from a pile of snow and you will never be warm. Your heart is black ice cut from the river, from the dark part near the bank, where the frogs sleep. ”
I threw a ladle at her then, because she made me mad, but it went wide--it shouldn’t have, I have good aim--and clattered against the stone wall.
She wants me to be a figure in a story, an ice girl who wants warmth. But I will show her. My flesh is as real as her’s, and I will give it to warmth and passion and fire and then she will see that my story is my own.
I will live in a green field in the country. I will pick flowers and milk cows and sweep my bare wood floor every morning. I will have a baby as warm as the breath of my love, and he will have golden ringlets and blue eyes.
My love comes to me in a red cape, red as fire, red as love. When he holds me, his skin is chilled on the surface but warm underneath, snow and blood. I put my cold hand in his and when we enter the station, I gasp in the sudden heat, but I pull him forward with me, pull and pull and pull until we reach the train.
Mary Rees lives in Alabama with her three boys, three dogs, and two walking fish. She holds a Ph. D. in Literature in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine and the Mississippi Review, among others.
Looking in the Glass
As Robert stared at Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the image of the nude body of Robert’s married lover Cheryl kept distracting him and slipping into his thoughts.
‘Stop thinking about it!’ he said to himself.
The thought of their affair was like a drug. He closed his eyes and said a few times to himself: ‘Stop feeling her body, stop thinking about how you want her, stop the yearning, let go of the pleasure. Look at The Large Glass!’
His inner turmoil and efforts to dispel Cheryl from his mind resulted partly because Robert’s brain had three other forces demanding his attention: God, Maryanne and his thesis advisor. Both the seminary life that he had previously pursued before his present studies, and the need for the spiritual in his life, had not lost their appeal. But the image of Maryann, the girl he met while studying at the seminary, intervened as well. “I adore you,” he could hear her saying, “because you’re a good person” with such “high morals,” pursuing theology and philosophy to help people. Maryann did not drink or smoke or take drugs, and refused to have sex before marriage, thus a stable choice for a man of the spirit. But after he switched to his graduate program in music and met Cheryl at a party, he was mesmerized by Cheryl’s rebellious nihilism, love of art and music, and not least her adventurous love-making. Robert started to ignore Maryann, did not return her calls, and made up excuses while Cheryl introduced him to the sybaritic life, even though he believed that these constant carnal thoughts and lascivious habits of her life-style were not the healthiest path to spiritual bliss; and, yes, he wanted spiritual bliss too.
‘Nothing wrong with sex,’ he told himself, ’but my god, take it easy, boy! And remember, you fool, she’s married.’
More than once, he screamed to himself, ‘What are you doing?’
When he shifted to his spiritual state of mind, which, without either woman present, was easy to do sitting alone in this room facing The Large Glass, at least for a brief period, so easy that the work seemed to make a little more sense; but he couldn’t articulate why. Duchamp was an atheist, Robert knew, but Duchamp did believe in some kind of spirituality, possibly theosophy, and his copy of Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art he filled with notes. Perhaps The Large Glass had a group of spiritual symbolic triggers that were affecting Robert somehow on an intuitive level. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hold on to those moments of communing with the infinite long enough to stop the flood of images and emotions from Cheryl’s enticements and the titillation of her soft and warm body.
The expectation of sharing a bed with her tonight was driving him so mad he couldn’t concentrate. And he needed to concentrate because there was a third force needling him, his thesis advisor. Somehow he had to determine the connection between The Large Glass and the composer Liszt. Find the link with The Large Glass, his advisor said, and you’ll have the topic for your dissertation. For two hours he had been looking at it, staring at every aspect, and still he could not understand what The Large Glass or Duchamp had to do with Liszt or his music other than Duchamp and Liszt both had less than satisfying relationships with women. Nothing else was coming to him. There were plenty of interpretations of The Large Glass and he had tried to read all of them, though his advisor had pre-warned him that research would be of little help, since the interpretations often did not agree with each other. The Large Glass, she said, was the best way to understand his topic.
‘Really? Not so far.’ And this was his third visit. ‘What was she thinking? What would a work completed in 1923, thirty seven years after the death of Liszt, by an “artist”—he apologized to Duchamp who hated the word—who only wrote a couple of pieces of music and created very few works of “art” and always preferred to play chess, have to do with Liszt? Who even knew Duchamp wrote music?’
Regardless, he had to come up with some kind of explanation before dinner because she wanted a topic. Otherwise she had threatened to drop him. What he had written so far, she said, had not captured the true Liszt.
“Do you understand the man at all?” she growled in their last meeting in a tone that would diminish anyone’s confidence.
The Large Glass, she warned him, would be the final catalyst.
‘Really? This work? This nine foot strange amalgam of wire, dust, paint, foil, cracks, and varnish?
‘Let me go through it again,’ he said to himself, then repeated the same ideas he had continually mulled over for hours: Duchamp said The Large Glass depicts the erotic encounter of the “Bride” in the upper glass with the tiny figures of the “Bachelors” in the lower plate, the “Bachelor Machine.” One writer thought the whole work was a humorous exploration of systems of philosophy, physics or mathematics because of the mechanical and mathematical stuff going on in the lower pane. Others saw the “Bachelor Machine” as a conceptual depiction of the punishing of celibates who were frustrated by the inability to reach the “Bride,” entering the machine to satisfy themselves. The “Bachelors” of the lower pane were so tiny compared to the “Bride” in the upper pane that it seemed as if many of them were necessary for one of them to succeed in overcoming the devices and reaching the single “Bride.”
Robert could feel the bachelors’ frustration implied in the barrier between the upper and lower panes, connected only by the cracks caused in an accident when the work was moved. I like the cracks, Duchamp said, now it’s complete. Robert had to admit the cracks somehow fit. Was that the universe at work? He kept reminding himself what Duchamp said about retinal art. Go beyond your eyes; see “with the mind,” not the eyes.
As he sat there in the last hour “with his mind,” it occurred to him that perhaps his advisor was not only interested in an interpretation of the art work, but in Liszt’s experience with women and other artists, particularly when Liszt traveled to Italy with his lover, the married Countess Marie d’Agoult. On his Italian journeys Liszt did view many art works, but one painting, the 1504 painting Lo Sposalizio of Raphael in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, especially interested Liszt. The painting depicts the wedding vows of Mary and Joseph in front of a chapel. The design of the work, its ideal three-dimensional perspective, and the serenity of its tone, were a revelation to Liszt. It so fascinated him that he pondered it for a long time, entranced both by the mastery of technique of Raphael, but also the potent expression of the spiritual. It was to Liszt such a perfect balance of the spiritual and the aesthetic that it inspired him to compose a piano piece, Sposalizio, in order to say musically what he felt from the experience and the work.
Liszt’s Sposalizio was another catalyst for Robert and proved that his advisor may indeed have a plan. When Robert first worked with her, she asked him to listen to, analyze, and write a summary of his reaction to Sposalizio. Robert wrote that in three carefully constructed sections Liszt tried to capture the beauty and feeling of a holy relationship. In effect, Liszt composed a musical mirror of Raphael’s design and reverent homage to the holy wedding and to art itself.
Recalling this discussion with her when he summarized Sposalizio, Robert then took the leap he thought perhaps she wanted him to take. The reverence and structure of Sposalizio were not only an indication of Liszt’s respect for the holy event and for Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio, but of a deep need in Liszt’s life for spirituality. Expressing spirituality musically was his way of being spiritual when he could not manifest it in his life. Clearly Liszt saw in this holy marriage painted by Raphael something quite different from his own illicit relationship with Marie, who ran off with him while still married. Their passion and fascination faded when Liszt constantly toured and left her with three children he fathered, two of whom would die tragically before they reached thirty years old, an event that brought guilt as well as sadness for the rest of his life.
As Robert looked through The Large Glass thinking about Cheryl and his conflicted feelings—‘do I really want to keep up this sexual escapade with Cheryl?’—he seemed to look through it and yet be a part of it in his reflection, he began to connect Duchamp’s work with Liszt’s numerous attempts at relationships—many superficial, almost all only based in lust—and appreciate why Liszt’s creation of Sposalizio could be cathartic. Liszt always wanted to be the artist-priest, spiritual and ascetic, but he failed again and again throughout his life, never reaching the “Bride” of The Large Glass. Instead he achieved an ignominy from the failure of so many relationships before and after Marie. The flesh would always beckon him, he would hesitantly say yes, however much its pleasure brought consequences.
Robert looked at a photo of Lo Sposalizio on his phone for a few minutes, then closed his eyes and placed its image beside The Large Glass and its “Bride” while listening to a performance of Liszt’ Sposalizio. All of it coalesced. Purpose and technique conjoined with content. If only art could be life, Liszt and Duchamp must have thought, and Robert agreed. If only he could free himself from these feelings about Cheryl.
Raphael’s wedding of the Virgin was the perfect model, and the relationship a holy relationship, but Liszt knew that he would never come close to it in his own life; his own relationship with Marie was not pure, not proper, not honest, and filled with more and more conflicts, worms eating away from the inside, a sign of problems to come. As Liszt had studied Lo Sposalizio of Raphael in Milan, Robert believed that Liszt realized that the piano work Sposalizio was for him not only a music of celebration and spiritual yearning, but also one of regret and then shame, because he could not restrain himself from continuing his torturous needs and escaping the trap he himself had built.
After Marie, Liszt became involved with another married aristocrat, the Russian Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, but this woman had high spiritual and musical expectations for him, convinced him to stop touring and concentrate on composition, went to enormous efforts to divorce her husband but still, according to her own testimony, Liszt could not restrain his addiction for other women—Liszt had a notorious fling in Weimar while Carolyne was trying to legitimatize their relationship—so Carolyne withdrew and declined to marry him.
In the years following that day of rejection in 1861, coincidentally his birthday, in a period when he lost two of his children, with so many signs that he was not leading the life he truly wanted, he finally was able to make a more determined turn toward the spiritual. He took a small apartment at a monastery in Rome, and was ordained. After 1865 people called him Abbe Liszt, his turn toward the spiritual finally taking hold.
As Robert analyzed these biographical details, where the themes of marriage and dysfunctional relationships alongside Liszt’s need for a spiritual vocation constantly appeared, Robert had an epiphany. He realized that the themes of marriage and relationships were expressed in many ways in Liszt’s work, Sposalizio expressing the holy and perfect model of Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio, themes also possible in The Large Glass. But there were other equally significant expressions. Just prior to the time before he knew that Carolyne would not to marry him, Liszt composed Mephisto Waltz No. 1, a piece that expressed the other aspect of his character that had so often derailed his personal life and was clearly not evident in Sposalizio.
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 painted a musical interpretation of a section of Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust, a poem of 1836, in which the Devil performs on a violin to cause salacious havoc at a wedding feast, driving Faust to a seduction that he had refused to do initially but finally relents and runs off into the forest with the innkeeper’s young daughter. Once again it was another musical picture of a wedding, but on this occasion, it was not a holy affair. Instead Liszt unleased one of his most flagrant depictions of lust and abandon, an unrestrained evocation of how the Devil can trap men and women with his lurid and bewitching ways.
Listening to Mephisto Waltz No. 1 after Sposalizio was for Robert almost a frightening experience, like entering two conflicting realms of existence, as if he had crossed back into Dante’s Inferno after Paradiso. The aggressive, throbbing and unrelenting 3/4 rhythm of Mephisto Waltz No. 1 draws the listener on an exhausting and out of control train ride, with no relief, luring her or him into a state of frenzy that appeals to the senses, and creates by the seductive sounds and melody a rush of hormonal, hypnotic energy, like an aphrodisiac under whose thrall no one has control.
The weird fact, Robert thought, as his own inspiration for his topic now came to life, was that Liszt, even in his late period, when he was composing other spiritual works such as the oratorio Christus, could not leave this Faustian theme alone. Three more piano interpretations of the Faust story appeared, all called Mephisto Waltz, all different, but all full of conflict, unusual harmony, wild interludes, and strange sounds, as well as the Faust Symphony based on Goethe’s Faust.
As Robert listened to Mephisto Waltz No. 1, still staring at The Large Glass—which, not surprisingly, in light of his advisor’s advice to view it, also could be interpreted as a Faustian tale—still looking at Lo Sposalizio of Raphael on his cellphone, he for the first time experienced by means of Liszt’s life and art how powerful was Liszt’s ability to express these two contrasting sides to his character. Robert could feel in Liszt’s struggle the pain of never fully honoring any relationship due to an almost feral pleasure in succeeding in new conquests and yet desperately wanting to overcome the forces that plagued him.
As for The Large Glass, the “Bride” awaited and Robert remained still one of the “Bachelors” hungering for fulfillment that only the “Bride” provided once he had passed the spiritual tests in the lower regions and left behind the wild ride of Mephisto Waltz No. 1 with Cheryl and came closer to the purity of Sposalizio and Lo Sposalizio in his relationship with Maryann.
One fact was clear: He now felt ready to have dinner with his advisor.
D. D. Renforth
Renforth has published fifteen stories and poetry in 2016-2017. Renforth’s long poem (253 lines), “Prometheus Laments” is forthcoming in the Straylight Literary Review. Renforth graduated from the University of Toronto (Ph.D.), but also holds an ARCT from the Royal Conservatory in piano performance and was given a scholarship in art.
Moonlight and Melancholy
In a short time, Bemis grew to hate the painting. He had bought it at one of those art auctions on a cruise ship, and only later did he learn that the auction house was under indictment for peddling forgeries. Carol had told him he was crazy to spend that kind of money on shipboard, where it was impossible to verify anything. They were sitting ducks, didn’t he see that? Now it turned out she had been right, and the painting hadn’t even arrived yet.
When it did, he unwrapped it and took a good, hard look. It was a painting of a clown sitting on a bull’s back, right up behind the horns. The clown had a sad face and was looking off to his right, as if listening for something. The bull had lowered its head slightly and was staring straight ahead at the viewer, looking like it was about to charge. Its horns flared out and up, one of them traversing a large, round moon the painter had hung in the corner of the painting. The whole thing was washed in blue, to suggest moonlight.
Bemis remembered reading the identifying label on the ship a fraction of a second before looking at the painting itself, and being charmed by its name, “Moonlight and Melancholy.” Even then, he thought it predisposed him to like the painting. But what did that matter? What mattered was whether you could live with it on your wall, and as he stared at the bull with its sad voyager in the bright moonlight that seemed beyond question. The label had a red dot on it, which meant that a bid had already come in. It was for forty-seven hundred dollars, the auction agent told him when he asked. He would have to do better than that. Carol was not there. She had left after lunch with the snorkeling party in a zodiac that zoomed off into the distance and then disappeared. She wasn’t interested in second-rate art, as she called it. She wanted to see the coral and tropical fish the area was so famous for. Bemis felt exactly the opposite way. He didn’t care if he never saw what was under the sea.
At the auction, the agent told him all about the artist, whose work was beginning to turn up in museums in the States and Europe. It usually sold for a lot more than forty-seven hundred dollars. The agent had papers to show that. Bemis put a bid in for forty-seven fifty, figuring that someone else would better that and he’d be off the hook. But no one bid any higher, and when Carol came back she told him he was a sap, and when he showed her the painting she just stared at him. He could tell she was trying not to say anything hurtful.
Bemis had been so excited about the painting, but now it seemed a dead thing, now that he had it home. It had no light, it was blue, and mottled, like fish skin. He wondered if it was even the same painting he had seen aboard the ship. He propped it on the hall table, turned toward the wall, and only then did he see the sticker on the back that said “Studio 23,” and the phone number. He dialed it, and a woman who identified herself as Brenda answered on the other end.
“How can I help you?” she asked, in a beguiling voice.
“I have a painting,” Bemis began. “I think it’s yours. It has a sticker on the back that says Studio 23.”
“Could you describe the painting to me?” the woman asked, and when Bemis did she said, “Oh yes. Moonlight and Melancholy. A fine work by”—and here she mentioned the artist whose name Bemis already knew. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m not sure,” Bemis said. “I bought it on a cruise ship. I think it may be a forgery.” He could hear a crackling sound on the line when he said the word “forgery.” It sounded like the signal might be fading. “Oh no, sir,” the woman said when she came back. “Studio 23 stands behind all of its paintings one hundred percent.”
“What is Studio 23, anyway?” Bemis asked.
“We are a clearing house for fine reproduction oil paintings,” she answered, reeling off the words with practiced fluency. “Our artists copy only the best of what is licensed for copying. If you like, I can put a brochure in the mail to you.”
“What about”—and here Bemis mentioned the artist’s name. “Did he paint this or not?”
“Oh yes, of course. The original,” the woman answered.
Bemis felt like an idiot as he asked, “The original? This is not the original?”
“Oh no,” the woman said, her voice deepening with what sounded like genuine compassion. “I hope no one misrepresented Studio 23 to you. We handle fine reproduction oil paintings.”
No one had said a damn thing about Studio 23, Bemis wanted to tell her. He never heard of it until he turned the painting over at home and saw the sticker. And even the sticker didn’t say anything about reproduction oil paintings or licensed copies. Just “Studio 23” and the phone number.
“Sir,” Brenda was saying. “Sir?”
“Yes,” Bemis managed to say. He felt groggy and half-drowned.
“Sir, I want to assure you that you are in possession of a first-rate work of art. Hardly anyone owns an original, you know. Almost everything you see is a copy. If you’d just let me send you our brochure.”
“No, thank you,” Bemis said, because he didn’t want to be rude, and then he hung up. He had a lot to think about. In the meantime, he was not going to look at the painting. There were so many things he didn’t care if he never saw again, things riding out into oblivion away from his caring. Here was another. Only, he thought perhaps if he left the painting on the hall table, where no one would disturb it, turned toward the wall, he might see the Studio 23 sticker with the phone number whenever he passed, and hear Brenda’s beautiful voice saying, “No one owns an original, sir. Everything is a copy.”
Michele Stepto lives in Connecticut, where she has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years. In the summers, she teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Her stories have appeared in NatureWriting, Mirror Dance Fantasy and Lacuna Journal. She is the translator, along with her son Gabriel, of Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.
Editor's Note: This image was chosen by the editor to illustrate the story. The inspiration for the writer's story was an imaginary painting, not this one.
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