Whale Fall by Bex Hainsworth

Pale jawbones form an archway,
ribs reach into a vaulted ceiling.

No stained glass or frescoes,
only a shattered spinal mosaic:

this is a simple temple
for pilgrims to receive bounty.

Crabs creep from sandy cloisters
to share in the sacrament,

a communion with hammerheads
who tear fraying white flesh

from the chalice of a skull.
They are joined by anglerfish

who carry their candles in the dark:
a vigil for the whale-prophet.

She sank through the centuries
after the hour of her death

to become food-dust in the deep.
This is her afterlife.

Yellow moss clings to the crypt of tail
and squat pectoral fin bones, relics,

headstones, settle with fossil debris
in the sea’s vast graveyard.

No choir can be heard in the abyss,
only the silent echoes of humpback hymns.

Eels congregate in empty sockets
and all souls gather for the feast.

 

Bex Hainsworth is a poet and teacher based in Leicester, UK. She won the Collection HQ Prize as part of the East Riding Festival of Words, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Visual Verse, Neologism, Atrium, Paddler Press, Canary, and Brave Voices Magazine. Find her on Twitter @PoetBex.

Betty by Didi Wood

They probably didn’t say why they were hiring but the girl who was here before you died, she died here at work, right in the breakroom, but nobody talks about it. Don’t say I told you. Don’t say anything.

Here’s a uniform. I think it was Lexie’s. She’s not here anymore, either. Obviously. If it doesn’t fit, you can try this one—it was Molly’s. That’s just a stain, sometimes they don’t come out but it’s clean, I promise. You can pin a nametag over that.

Pick one of these—do you want Hailey? Ginny? Emily? It’ll be a while before yours comes. I guess there’s a problem with the supplier or something.

Oh, my god, you really thought my name was Betty? That’s so funny! It must be left over from the 1950s, it’s so retro, right? No, I’m not going to tell you my real name—you have to guess! Here are some more nametags for you—Tammy? Libby? Ashley? No?

You’ll need to pull back your hair super tight—see mine? Just like that. Nothing escaping or you’ll get written up. I did ballet for nine years, that’s why I’m so good at it. You can use gel or spray to keep the wispy pieces in place. Make sure you take it down when you get home, though, or you’ll get traction alopecia. This one girl I knew, Sophie, she lost all the hair in front, her hairline started way back here, at the top of her head, and she had all these sores and infections where it used to be. I think she died.

Not from that, probably. I don’t think so.

Don’t worry about the smell—it’s part of the process, off-gassing or emissions or something, it’s not toxic or anything. It says so in the handbook. You won’t even notice after a while. Which is good because it’s a lot stronger in there. You’ll see.

This is your timecard. When it’s time for your shift, just stick it in here, like this—hear the sound, that little punch?—and then put it back on the rack. Try to put it in the same place every time so you can find it fast, in case you’re running late or something. But don’t be late, okay? Don’t. Here, we’ll put it—wait, let me pull some of the old ones, these girls aren’t here anymore. Abby, Chloe, Lucy… Annie? Wow, she—I—

No, I’m fine, I’m fine. Really. I just get a little, like, Whoa sometimes. Everybody does, it’s all the time on your feet, the blood gets stuck down there and then your brain’s all, Um, help? When it happens, just punch out and take a break. There are chairs in the breakroom, you can sit and put your head between your knees until you feel better. Not more than five minutes, though.

Here’s the breakroom. You don’t punch in for ten minutes so maybe we’ll just hang here and then I’ll show you where the gloves are and we can get started for real. There should be more nametags in this drawer.

Wow, check it out—Trudy! Elsie! These must be ancient. Hey, look, you can be Laurie—like in Halloween? Better start practicing your scream. I’ll just sit for a bit while you decide. Seriously, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll be Laurie next week. No, I told you, you have to guess. Just call me Betty until you guess. Did you pick one yet? Well, keep looking. We’re almost out of time.

 

Didi Wood’s stories have appeared in WigleafSmokeLong QuarterlyJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Rattle & Rue,” originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, was chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019. You can find her on Twitter @DidiWood and online at www.didiwood.com

Three Digit Numbers by Ross McCleary

Dial:
          101 for Police (Non-emergency)
          111 for NHS (Non-emergency)
          112 for Emergency (EU-wide)
          113 for Emergency Biscuits (Sponsored by Richard Osman)
          123 for the Speaking Clock
          203 if dissatisfied with the status quo
          256 for the Speaking Clock’s disappointed mother
          277 to purchase a book on starting an MLM
          326 for feedback on your CV (Spoiler: it’s not good)
          333 to foment insurrection in the workplace
          360 for an accurate count of the number of breaths you’ve taken since midnight
          431 to speak with someone who can tell you why you dream of owls so often
          434 to overhear people in your office talking about you (Sponsored by Ginsters)
          496 to overthrow the system
          540 to learn what your manager really thinks about you
          559 for a count of the total number of steps you’ve taken since you were born
          599 for feedback on your Poetry (Spoiler: it’s not good)
          615 to be informed about where all the hidden microphones are in your house
          647 to become a departmental informant (Prizes to be won)
          668 to install an interim government
          701 for a new invasive thought to replace the one you’re currently having about how everyone you know is a spy and secretly hates you
          729 for when you regret overthrowing the system
          779 to be targeted by snipers on the way to work so that you’re killed and don’t have to work anymore
          800 to learn how many hours you’ve spent looking at porn
          819 for when your regret metastases into a deeper malaise
          858 to electrocute yourself
          965 to erase that memory, you know the one
          966 to have someone explain why your feelings of guilt are both valid and selfish
          967 to flee the country
          998 for a therapy appointment to deal with the unplaceable guilt that manifests in its most insidious and unmatchable forms after the clocks go back and the nights draw in like a vampire with its teeth inches from your neck
          999 for Emergency Services
          000 to apologize, profusely, forever, for everything

 

Ross McCleary is from Edinburgh, Scotland. His work has appeared in Structo, Litro, and Extra Teeth. He believes in repetition and Carly Rae Jepsen.

Everything Works Differently in Darkness by Kaj Tanaka

Sometimes when I get sad, I think about how Raven created this world from a pebble for his convenience. He’d been flying through the eternal night carrying a pebble and he needed somewhere to land, so he dropped the pebble into the water and—boom—the world. It doesn’t need to make sense. Everything works differently in darkness.

It’s sort of like: there’s a jacket, okay, and pretty soon someone comes along and picks it up and now there are two people—the original space inside the jacket and the person who came along to notice it. I guess I’m saying even if you seem to be alone, you probably aren’t.

Most of my friends are parasocial friends. By that I mean my friends are social media people who I watch on my phone. I know all kinds of things about them, but they know nothing about me. Like this one woman—she smiles a lot and puts things into her backpack. Or this other couple—they clean up messy houses and talk about movies they have watched together. Or this other person—they go on long and aimless and mostly silent walks through a city on the other side of this planet, a city I will probably never visit.

Raven was hungry—that is Raven’s deal. Raven wanted something to eat, so he dropped a pebble and pretty soon boom he was chilling in a hot tub and the room was filled with casseroles and eclairs—AKA the world. Raven created the world out of necessity. Lots of people don’t get that creation isn’t about beauty or truth or whatever, it’s about an urgent need to exist.

Recently, my neighborhood experienced a major power outage because the wind has been unusually high this year. When the power goes out, my internet also goes out, my parasocial relationships disappear, and I am thrown into aloneness not unlike the dark Raven flew through before he created the world.

When I get very very sad, I remember the Raven thing is only a story. You can’t drop a pebble and make the world. You can’t call the disembodied space within a jacket a person. And a person you watch on the internet isn’t really your friend. These lies are cousins, which is why I grouped them together here.

I once had a real friend who tried to live only on packets of ramen noodles. She succeeded for a while, but then she ended up with a serious case of the shakes—her entire body, she said, seemed to be trying to vibrate itself into its constituent parts. This happened for seven days. During that time, she disappeared, and when she finally came back she told us she said, “shaking uncontrollably alone in my apartment,” which is what I think about when my power goes out because I have been going through a version of the same thing, maybe for years.

I think: I am shaking myself apart into my constituent parts.

For my friend, her case of the shakes was just the wake-up call she needed, and after that, she went back to eating other foods besides packets of ramen noodles.

During the power outage, there was a knock on my door. I waited in the darkness, listening, and when I pulled back the locks, outside in the night a disembodied space hovered in the hallway outside my apartment, looking at me expectantly.

The emptiness in my hallway resembled somehow the dark space you find inside a jacket. But now, lacking a form to contain it, it spread its wings as far as I could see, swallowing up everything. The disembodied space looked hungry and tired. I opened my mouth, and—boom—the world. I know it doesn’t make sense, but everything works differently in darkness.

It never occurred to me that in this version of the story I might not be Raven, I might be the pebble. Imagine my surprise.

 

Kaj Tanaka’s fiction has appeared in New South, Hobart, The New Ohio Review, and Tin House. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf’s Top 50. Kaj lives in New Mexico. Find him at kajtanaka.com.

A shortlist of cheeses and wines I would take home for free when I worked in the Specialty Department at Whole Foods by K. Degala-Paraíso

Sancerre: a French wine so light and crisp, it lands somewhere between spring water and God. Small chunks of bougie cheeses, sloppily wrapped in butcher paper: a sliver of Le Fromager, a double-cream brie so clever and smooth, it could seduce the sternest person you know; a corner of Rum Runner from Wisconsin, sticky and sweet and stuffed with crunchy salty bits; fresh, herb-coated capricho de cabra; stinky Camembert; a simple-yet-elegant goat gouda; garlicky Boursin. The parmigiano reggiano crumbles when you slice it, and I abruptly remember how the world crumbles beyond this ranch where we  temporarily live: a pandemic, a coup, videos of anti-Asian hate crimes every morning, a global death count so high it’s almost desensitizing. Almost. And sometimes — sometimes my grief gut-punches me so hard my ribs go numb. Sometimes, my broken hand is in such cheddar-sharp pain, it blinds me. But here, in the tall grass under the apple trees, in the split-second when that orange globe hangs right above the treeline, you’re gently placing a rosemary cracker slathered with brie on your tongue, and you close your eyes before you chew, and I remember how much I love you, and — for just this moment, I believe that everything will be alright.

 

K. Degala-Paraíso (she/they) is a Filipinx-American experimental writer with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Pitzer College. Her work has also appeared in miniskirt magazine and PANK Magazine. She teaches creative writing through GrubStreet. When she’s not writing, you can catch K. wreaking culinary havoc in the kitchen and follow her online at www.kdegalaparaiso.com.

1000 by Rob Roensch

I have been as tall as I will ever be for one whole year. I will never be as tall as my father.

This spring is no surprise and, for the first time, barely a relief. Our flooded, muddy bank of the Far River and the new green leaves mean the return of life; they prove the strength of the circle that cages us.

In our first summer, touching the skin of the mother of my son was like seeing lightning through closed eyes. Now she is in the earth, with my son, who never saw a storm, or a morning. The stories say I will see them after I die; I will never see them again.

The night before my father died, he talked in his sleep, which he did not do. The words he spoke were nonsense.

Or they were in an older language, from the other world.

The stories say that on the far slopes of the mountains beyond the Far River are black forests and lakes of ice. There live men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, and women beautiful as snakes, all banished from this fertile valley by God.

The mountains are real. From anywhere in our valley, I can see them. The rest of the stories is only as real as the monsters that haunted my dreams as a child.

Prayer, the acknowledgment of the presence of God, used to be my mother’s voice singing in the dark. But there is only one world: smoke, torn grass, a handful of cold water. Fog, first dawn-light. The only path is to work and, later, try to sleep.

And yet, this one blank morning, I do not follow the men to the fields.

I stand on our bank of the Far River and watch the mountains carve themselves visible against the day. I cannot find the prayer.

I had been told by my father, with the threat of a fist to the temple, never to attempt to cross the Far River until I was as tall as he was. He knew I would never be as tall as he was.

So I enter the Far River.

The hand of the current sweeps me up and for a moment I am lifted and carried, a child. But then I’m pulled down, wrong, hands squeezing my lungs, the river pressing against my mouth, and I’m smashed into stones, and I could let go.

I do not let go.

When I open my eyes I am lying in the mud of the far bank of the Far River. I hear the cry of my son’s mother wishing to die, and the cry of our son wishing to live; it is the same cry. It is my voice.

But I am in the other world.

I lift myself, part by heavy part, to my feet. My head rings, but I am whole. I am as close to the mountains as I have ever been. I know I will reach them. I will know if the stories are true.

Before I have taken the first step I see, in the near distance, massed like too many birds in a tree, men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, watching me, my death in their eyes.

But if monsters are real, then so is God.

 

Rob Roensch is the author of the story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt) and the novella The World and the Zoo (Outpost19). He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.

Summer shame by Jax Bulstrode

i think we should criminalize golf / i’m making a pros and cons list for buying the haunted house down the street / starting a petition for mangos to not have that seed / in the middle / i think we stop denying ourselves pleasure / especially the mango eating kind

i’m going to seed bomb the neighbor’s front lawn / join me / i’ll make burgers afterwards and drip sauce on my bare toes / you don’t mind do you? / a mess?

we are old enough now / to know how to swell into summer / into silver rings, drink stolen gin / meet me on the back porch / we can compare mosquito bites and cut our hair short

back to the mango thing / how would we do it? / remove the hard bits / the shame part?

 

Jax Bulstrode likes to write poems, cry, and preferably do both while taking a bath. Jax has had work published in Verandah Journal, Gems, Plumwood Mountain, and Blue Bottle Journal. She is from Naarm/Melbourne.

We Thought It Was Lost Forever by Eileen Frankel Tomarchio

The rewind button, remember? Popped off the remote when you threw it at the TV that time? I was rubbing the nubs where your toes had been while you watched a nature show. All those sea walruses crowded on stony cliffs, tumbling in slow motion into an Arctic sea, their writhing hulks like bodies in a bag. Bellows so loud that next-door pounded the wall. It was telling, the way you curled your hands into yourself after the throw. I know you wanted me to think it was a neighborly fuck off! that missed the wall, or a shot at me for not rubbing hard enough. (I never could rub hard enough to relieve the numbness one minute, choke the stabbing sensation the next). But it was those walruses, wasn’t it? Their odd cave noises in open air. They must have sounded to you as if your own pain were being fed through a landline a thousand miles long, across a continent, coming out on those cliffs a garbled, whiskered lament. 

I remember thinking this was a perfect chance for a big-picture talk. The kind you couldn’t stand and that I hated hearing myself say. Some facile link from the panicked beasts to melting sea ice to forest loss to palm plantations to the processed oil on the list of ingredients in the Fig Newtons and Tombstone Frozen Pizza you loved to high A1C levels to neuropathy to gangrene to amputation to stuck in a chair watching nature shows. Except I could imagine your side-eye too well, hear your You learn that stretch in yoga? Then something about how I’d rather dump the world’s problems on you than, say, get together with my sweet, funny cousin with MS, or make a donation to the local Catholic Charities, or bake you a tray of dream bars for the freezer, just to have on hand, the only pleasure left to you, so why would I deny you unless I were the cruelest sort of daughter?

It was easier to spare you the talk and go hunting for the remote behind the TV. I lingered in a crouch back there, feeling weak from the surround-sound of walruses and sad violins. For months afterwards, you controlled the rewind with blunted toothpicks until it got too hard to finesse. You resorted to the pause button a lot, just to absorb, catch up. You’d always been a mindful viewer, doubting everything you saw and heard that you couldn’t go back and watch again, see right, hear for sure. But in the end, you stopped bothering even with the pause and kept the TV running live, believing too easily the things you barely caught or filled in wrong or just wanted to believe.

I’ve got it in my hand now, the rewind button. I found it at the edgelands of the carpet with some mouse droppings and a cracked Metformin pill. It snaps right back into the remote. I press it a bunch of times. A reversed Lester Holt un-reports the wildfires out west, scrolled script pages in his downturned prayer hands, the straining flames sucked back into the ground. When I release my thumb, the rewind stays stuck at triple-speed, the backward programming a slapstick blur. But I don’t fix the jam with a toothpick, a ballpoint pen, my teeth. I leave it alone. I hang here in your chair and close my eyes and let rewind send me back to before you had to go into nursing care. Back further to before your amputations. Further still to the days I rubbed your toes with your favorite palm oil-laden Gold Bond. To you and the neighbor chatting over tea, trading door wreath tips. To you pushing your cart through the grocery aisles in sunny flip flops, before the mobility scooters. To you making me vow never to move back home, no matter how sick you ever got, and me lying when I said I promise. To my last summer before college and a Sunday afternoon we watched TV together, me breaking off half a still-warm dream bar to share, both of us making happy eating noises while walrus families lolled on plentiful ice floes in healthy seas, before they were forever lost.

 

Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small New Jersey suburb. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Lit Mag, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.

The Lure by Gretchen Rockwell

The first lander on Venus lasted fifty-three minutes.
It survived long enough to send pictures back and verify
the world was waterless—that humans could not survive
there. The strange yellow images look like something
from a fever dream, cloudy and corrosive. Venus
flytraps are brightly colored, the better to attract prey.
Their sensitive tendrils stroke the air, know when
to clamp down and when to stay agape. They smell
sweet, surely—the better to draw smaller life in.
The flies don’t know any better, misstep, and then
it’s over. The snap of the trap moves too fast for us
to understand. We know the plant can remember
when it has been touched, that it holds the memory
of motion for more than a few seconds. They evolved
from sticky traps. Some theorize life on our planet
came from Venus ages ago, carried on an asteroid,
contributing to the rapid rise and fall of so many species.
Some believe there may still be life in the Venusian atmosphere,
hidden high in the sulfurous clouds. We still don’t know
what the dark streaks mean, whether they could be
microorganisms or simply swirling greenhouse gases.
As I nudge a struggling bug towards my flytrap, I remember
Venus is the brightest thing in the sky besides the Moon,
it is our sister sphere. We won’t be able to resist going there,
to consider building cities in the clouds. Even if we know
it will kill us. We can never leave the unknown alone for long.

 

Gretchen Rockwell (xe/xer/xers) is a queer poet who can frequently be found writing about gender, science, space, and unusual connections. Xe is the author of the chapbooks body in motion (perhappened press) and Lexicon of Future Selves (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) and two micro chapbooks; xer work has appeared in AGNI, Cotton Xenomorph, Whale Road Review, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find xer at www.gretchenrockwell.com, or on Twitter at @daft_rockwell.

Starburst: A Dispatch of 100-Word Stories by Julia Halprin Jackson

Take care

After the cicadas stop humming, after the moon flushes the sky clean of stars, we hear it. A thrashing, a clanging, a hurtling, is whirling towards us from below the campground. You pace on the pulsing soil. “Don’t worry,” you call. “I’ll take care of it.” The earth is loud. Insects gather at my feet. Then I notice it: the ground has seams. Stick your finger in and up it rips, soil and roots and worms, concrete foundations, wooden beams, gravestones. “Don’t!” you say. But my fingers are hungry. I pull back the earth beneath your feet. I take care.

No vacancy

Night falls over Crater Lake, that blue gully with its mouth open to the heavens. The man and woman approach the summit as the rain drops like marbles. The campgrounds are full, as are the chalets; there aren’t any hotel rooms this close to the crater’s rim. What if we could make it to the island? she says. It’s probably vacant. When he doesn’t answer, she puts the car in reverse, aims for the rim’s biggest lip. Floor it, he says. Rain steers them down, down. The sky has never been more vacant. They push the stars aside. They land.

Ways to fall in love

One bought me glucose tablets. Another held my hand while we biked. Another took me to see the seals in the snow. One left a birthday gift outside my parents’ gate, close to midnight on a day I thought he’d forgotten. These are all the ways I’ve fallen in love. But this one unrolled the country and we hiked right through it. He vacuums. He lets me drive his ATV. This one woke me that night I’d fallen off the bed, wet and shaking, and didn’t mind that I’d broken his glasses. This one is afraid of the right things.

Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles lurk under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Someday these might come in handy, you say, patting my belly. You reach for the door but I stop you, saying, Let’s leave it open. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone, a trail of grease staining the floor.

Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people—PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

 

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern, and elsewhere. A graduate of U.C. Davis’s Master’s in Creative Writing program, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer.