A Nearly Beautiful Thing by Cathy Ulrich

There’s a ballerina your husband’s been fucking. While you’re at home, he meets her in hotels. She soaks her feet in oatmeal baths. Her feet are battered, torn. It would make you sorry to see them. Afterward, she wraps them in gauze. Your husband lolls on the hotel bed, watching Animal Planet.

While you’re at home, this is what your husband is doing. Lolling on the hotel bed, watching a special on bear attacks. He sees reenactments of a bear dragging a 10-year-old boy from a tent, a bear breaking through the window of a 91-year-old woman’s kitchen. He hears the word mauling, he hears encroachment, he hears territory. In the bathroom, the ballerina dries her feet with a hand towel, drains the bathtub. Bits of oatmeal cling to the base. The maids will hate that when they clean in the morning. The ballerina thinks, briefly, of wiping up the oatmeal with one of the towels.

The ballerina isn’t a bad girl. She is very young, a corps de ballet dancer. She’ll never be the prima ballerina, never dance Odette. She has an audition for a featured part tomorrow. She has practiced for months. Your husband tells her good luck when she mentions it to him hesitantly. The ballerina dips her head, nearly smiles. The ballerina is very beautiful when she nearly smiles. She wiggles her ugly toes before she wraps them in gauze.

While you are at home, the ballerina nearly smiles and becomes beautiful. Your husband kisses her chin, which she doesn’t like, kisses her throat, which she does. The ballerina sighs. The ballerina rises up on her wretched feet, falls back onto the hotel bed.

She doesn’t think of you, or, when she does, it is as an abstraction, the frigid wife. Your husband didn’t say frigid, but the ballerina thinks of wives as being cold things, thinks of ice and unyielding bodies.

You are at home. Your husband leaves the television on while the ballerina pulls her top over her head, while he kisses her navel, while they fuck. The television is the hum of park ranger chatter, statistics, bear growl.

The ballerina arches beneath your husband’s body, thinks of Prince Siegfried, thinks of swans, says yes, more. She knows your husband likes it when she says that. You know it, and all of his old girlfriends too, yes, more, such a simple little phrase. Such a nothing little phrase.

While you’re at home, the ballerina says yes, more, arches her body, and you trace your finger along the stem of a wine glass.

The ballerina rewraps the gauze around her feet after she and your husband are done, shy of him seeing her feet. She sips a glass of water, wonders how clean the cup could be, even with the sanitary seal over it.

Your husband kisses the ballerina’s wet mouth. Your husband says the usual things, makes the usual promises. The ballerina nods, says of course, of course. The ballerina isn’t holding her breath. The ballerina is familiar with the things men say.

She thinks of her aching feet. She thinks of her audition tomorrow, the shine of spotlight, the scuff of stage.

She says: I should go.

She says: I have a big day tomorrow, shoves her gauzed feet into some oversized sneakers, kisses your husband on the temple. He’s watching Animal Planet again, habitat, attack, bear, bear, bear.

Good night, says the ballerina.

Good night, says your husband, closes his eyes, listens to the delicate sound of her steps, the click of the door, the growl of a bear.

You are at home, tip over empty wine glass, watch it roll across the table, and wait for it to fall to the floor, and shatter.

 

Cathy Ulrich saves newspaper briefs on bear attacks because there is something really, really wrong with her. Her work has been published in various journals, including Little Fiction, Former Cactus, and Pithead Chapel.

Feral Genes by Ailey O’Toole

When I was a child, my mother
ripped out all my teeth to keep
me from destruction, hoping
to lead me away from the desire
to ravage myself. But the hunger
crawled its way through my body.
I ran right through myself, tendons
flexing with this newfound inhabitancy,
me hiding away in my own musculature.
Later, I am crumpled up in a
corner of myself, the rivers
of my blood coursing with
ruin. I was given this lovely gift,
this body, and I destroy it just
to prove I do not deserve it. I
thought I was different enough,
had separated myself enough to
not become all the things my
mother always told me I would be.
Just like her. Hunched over in
the infrastructure of my own spine,
I’m realizing that it was always
meant to happen this way. Teeth
or no teeth, the need to demolish
has been passed down to me from
womb to womb by generations of
wolf women. Hard as I try to delineate
myself from this heritage of
obliteration, this is who I was
always meant to become.

 

Ailey O’Toole is a queer poet and bartender who writes about feminism, empathy, and pain. She hopes everyone who reads her poems feels less alone in their struggle. Her work has previously appeared in The Broke Bohemian, After the Pause, Ghost City Review, Rising Phoenix Review, and others. She tweets at @ms_ocoole.

No One Holds a Grudge Like a Crow by Marisa Crane

You wake up to the cawcawcaw of the crows outside. They still hold a grudge against you for that one month Lynx made you foster a cattle dog mix. He barked at the crows every time he took a shit, and they haven’t forgotten. Crows can remember individual faces. They pass this information down from generation to generation. In many ways, they are smarter than your own family that can’t even manage to call once a year. Somethingsomethingsomething about the June bug coffins lining your windowsill. They freak people out. Even over the phone. They can hear the June bug ghosts wailing.

Cawcawcaw, only louder this time. You muse over who you might be to the crows. “That imbecile with the evil dog” or perhaps, “That super cool guy we simply cannot pardon for his wrongdoings. No matter how rad his Saved By the Bell crewneck is. Yes, we mean it. No matter how rad.” You roll over and grab the notebook you keep on your nightstand for moments such as this and add the latter to your long list of crow speculations. You consider how the president may wind up pardoning himself before the crows pardon you.

You tried to make the crows forget. You started wearing a beanie whenever you left the house. They went crazier than ever as if to alert one another. A few even dive-bombed you and stole your beanie. It was a nice beanie too. Lynx had crocheted it for you. A pretty baby blue hue that calmed your tap-dancing neurons. After the crows stole your beanie, you started painting your face. First like a June bug, because why not? They didn’t like that. They took large dumps on your Welcome mat. Swirled like soft serve and impossible to fully clean up.

When you painted your face like the pink Power Ranger they cooed and fluttered their feathers. Yeah, they liked that shit. You thought you’d finally won and then what you think happened is one of the elders slammed down his gavel and said, “No, he is guilty regardless of his beauty.” Then one of the crows jimmied your bedroom window and broke in and stole the photo of Lynx that you kept on your nightstand.

Your last reminder of her.

The crows remember when you finally broke it off with Lynx. They remember it as well as you do.

You recall quite clearly covering her body in stamps. She just lied there and let you. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like love is only love if you drive that person away. The crows gathered at the windows and pecked the glass with their black beaks.

It was a Sunday so you set her on the counter by the door where you wouldn’t forget her, but on Monday it was raining and on Tuesday you were late for work. On Wednesday your horoscope warned against taking chances and on Thursday you got into a fight with the sky. On Friday you worked from home and drank whiskey far too early. On Saturday you scribbled the return address on her chest, in hopes that she’d be sent back to you, but it’s been more than three years now and the mailman got a new job so he wouldn’t have to continue disappointing you.

You climb out of bed and put your robe on, wrapping it tightly around you. You examine the June bugs, take roll call. Sylvester, Frangelica, Bryant, Nuchi, Manuel, Zane, Eva, Bo, Jian, Arnold. Everyone is present and accounted for, their exoskeletons perfectly intact. You are envious of their armor.

You take a deep breath, pull your hood over your head, then walk out the front door. The elder crow alerts the others of your presence. Cawcawcaw cawcawcaw, a new urgency in their calls. You shadow-box the air, daring the crows to challenge you. One by one, they begin to surround you. Left, right, uppercut, right, right, you dance around your yard like a more agile, less sad version of yourself.

The crows fly in circles around you, so fast that you can’t see the individual birds. Just the dark blur of their hostility, like a tornado.

Over the years you grow old and fragile inside that tornado. Your punches turn to gentle waves, your feet become cement blocks. The crows lose their voices and the only thing you can hear is Lynx telling you that the stamps were expired. That she’s here and everywhere.

 

Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Pidgeonholes, and Drunk Monkeys, among others. She currently lives in San Diego with her fiancée. You can read more of her work at www.marisacrane.org. Her twitter handle is @marisabcrane.

with an empathy so fatal #44 by Darren C. Demaree

the children want to be
aggressive

with their empathy
they want to hold

the rooster of each day
so they can show you

the rooster of each day
they’ve already asked

for tattoos of that rooster
on their chests

i told them if empathy
is an alarm if you think

empathy should be
an alarm then i find

no fault in you making
that permanent

the minute you’re eighteen
until then i’ll keep

buying orange to red
markers for your early

morning routine

 

Darren C. Demaree is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently “Two Towns Over,” which was selected as the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press.  He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal.  He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry.  He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

Agonal Respiration by Caleb Michael Sarvis

Spencer and Josie are hosting a house warming party. I bring Dakari, because Megan’s left him and we arrive close to the end. I meant to arrive on time, but we saw a fox when we stepped out of our Uber and followed it briefly into the woods. It watched us from behind a fallen tree and we passed the boxed wine back and forth, content to wait for its return. I would have offered my meatball of a heart had it meant one caress of that fox’s tail.

It never did, and now we’re shirt-stained and late.

Spencer and Josie bought their place in Bartram, a newly-developed area of town surrounded by forest awaiting more destruction. It’s an end-unit townhouse, succulents planted underneath expensive rocks. When we step inside, familiar teeth play cards around the dining table. Spencer asks us to take our shoes off, Josie recommends a glass of Garfield’s sangria, who I recognize to be the husband of the woman I love. In the coming weeks, I’m supposed to raise their newborn baby because neither wants to be a parent. He and I’ve never met, and I don’t think he knows who I am. She and I decided the adoption over pizza.

I realize Garfield looks exactly like me, only beardless, with different eyes. His eyes are all white, no pupil, and I’m not sure where he’s looking.

Josie’s plastic wings shake as she deals the cards. I avoid the Sangria, though Dakari’s finished off our box, and my thirst is only worsening. For a while I was sober, but I can’t remember the value in that.

The three other friends leave, they’ve been there for hours. Dakari deals and Spencer asks me how I’ve been. I tell him my new job has a lot of free snacks, plenty of dead time, and I can swear as much as I want. Spencer nods, he was a copywriter long before I was, is part of the reason I fell into it. I’m supposed to have edited this novel we’re going to publish through our small press, which I haven’t, and he’s avoiding asking me about it.

“How do I get a job like that?” Garfield asks.

“You have to be an artist,” I say. Dakari snickers at this and throws me a thumbs-up, shoves grapes in his mouth.

“You could be an artist, Garfield. Just have to become a little less practical,” Josie says. The wings she’s sewn into her shoulder blades look weathered and torn. She needs to replace them, just as I do my windshield wipers, but I imagine the process is plenty more difficult. Josie believes she is a fairy – has chosen to be a fairy – and doesn’t want any children of her own. Spencer waves it off, thinks her youth currently speaks for her, and like her youth, this mindset will fade.

Garfield pulls a pill from a zip-lock bag. He washes it down with some of his sangria. There isn’t much about him I dislike, I guess, other than he’s married to the woman I love. He shuts his eyes, smiles, and returns to the conversation. Creases slowly fade from his brow.

“Everything will be fine soon enough. Just a waiting game now,” he says and collects his cards.

“Game isn’t over,” I say.

“Evidently, you’re mistaken.”

I’m worried the baby will have his blank eyes, his smug stillness. How will I ever trust it? Dakari is out of his seat, dancing without music. Josie laughs and takes the hand he offers, teeth marked purple. Garfield pulls cigars from his shirt pocket, motions them towards Spencer and me. We join him on the porch.

The smoke is chalky and stale. I’ve never been good at this.

“How does the world look to you?” I say.

Spencer peers over his shoulder, watches Dakari and Josie.

“Different than you, I imagine,” Garfield says. He can puff rings, tiny and large. When he relaxes, smokes normally, it scoots from his lips like a seahorse. “How does the world look to you?”

“Hard to explain.” But it’s not. The world is a finely-painted aluminum ball. We’re the afterthought of someone else’s lunch. I spend most of my day wondering how to peel it all open. I won’t say this aloud. Instead, I say something stupid, like, “Babies are an art.”

“Hmm.” Garfield’s eyes appear to be made of the same smoke he spews into the night.

Spencer laughs at this, cheeks fat with drink. “My intuition only works in hindsight. I think I’m broken.” He sucks on his cigar, blows a large cloud to the sky, “She had me cut slots in the back of all her shirts.”

We sit in silence, listening to the minute crackle of our burning cigars. Smoke leaks from my mouth, a foggy sort of drool. I don’t believe in souls, but I imagine mine to be a little droopy, heavy with nonsense. I forwent efficiency in exchange for meditation long ago. No turning back now. A fox, perhaps the same as before, trots around the man-made lake behind their townhouse. It appears present, immediate, hungry.

Dakari knocks on the sliding glass door. We turn and see his face, eyes in bloom, face sagged. In his hands, he holds Josie’s wings.

Spencer opens the door, takes the wings from Dakari, then runs up the stairs. “Josie!” he says.

Dakari grabs three beers from the fridge, joins us on the porch.

“What happened?” Garfield says.

“She went to get comfortable. Her dress got caught, so she pulled harder.”

The fox returns, begins its second lap. I feel for it, the chase. Perpetual.

We drink our beers, content to watch the lake and overstay our welcome. Garfield’s voice grows soft. He tells us he doesn’t want to go home, that it doesn’t make a difference, either way.

Spencer’s returned downstairs. He has blood on his hands, his shirt, no concern for us. He’s flushed, hair slicked back. He washes his hands in the kitchen sink, returns upstairs. He leaves the water running.

Dakari finishes his beer, orders an Uber. “Beach bars?” he says. I think he might be asleep.

Garfield walks backwards, away from us, towards the lake, leaves his cigar and beer behind. When I think he’s looking at me, his eyes are lunar. “Make sure you do it right,” he says. The fox approaches lap three, fearless. When it passes, Garfield takes off after it, a pacing sort of trot, and my chest swells like the Hindenburg.

 

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Mastodon Publishing 2019). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Fjords Review, Eyeshot, and others. You can read his column on FX’s Atlanta at barrelhouse.com.

Ashes than Dust by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

“Let go said the
What.
Let go said everything.”

–Brenda Hillman, “Split Tractate”

 

A fox sprinted across the dark driveway:
orange spark that trailed through the headlight’s spot.

You register this sighting as a totem. Then,
drive on into the life you’d written one way,
then revised due to characters disappearing.

In the nightmare. No, in the dream. (never
sure when it’s called a dream or a nightmare.

My son says it’s only a nightmare if
you wake up screaming
) there’s a dead body

being consumed by a writhing nest of
black and white snakes. They are re-writing what was lost.

When you wake you decide you would rather
be ashes than dust. You’d rather blaze out
like the fox, like a fur of sparks in the night,
than be left to rot, be untold.

By now, you thought time would have righted the swerve.
Thought your tires would have found tread. Instead,

you live in an echo chamber where owls
call and call, asking for forgiveness.

 

Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Interrupted Geographies is her third collection of poetry. It was featured as the Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection for July 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, was selected by Ross Gay to win the 2012 Trio Award. Her second collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, was published in 2015. Her work has been published in publications including San Francisco Chronicle, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet’s Market 2013, Women’s Studies, and Chicago Quarterly Review. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.