Q&A with Karen Storm

We are thrilled to feature Karen Storm’s The Bonsai as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Karen!

What is your favorite childhood book?

I loved adventure stories, and as I’ve walked around the last couple of days thinking about this, I always land on Treasure Island. As a girl growing up in the 50’s, it was clear that boys had the better life with more privileges and opportunities for adventure in their lives. Thus, I read books about boys. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself finding a map and seeking treasure.

What is the first book that made you cry?

The first book that made me cry was probably The Yearling. Again, the protagonist is a boy living a lonely life as an only child in the wilds of Florida. He has all sorts of adventures in the out of doors, including getting his own fawn to raise. To have to put survival before his love for the fawn was unfathomable to me at the time I read the book, in my early teens. Yet it’s a universal dilemma for people who struggle with poverty.

This brings me to another favorite, which was Strawberry Girl. In this case, the protagonist is a girl—hurrah! And again, it’s a story about a young person living in poor conditions with great bravery.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I realized that words had power the minute I learned to read. I need to back up a little to explain this. My father immigrated from Norway with his family. Our first house was behind a mansion and I remember a wood burning stove. Because he couldn’t support the family, for a while, I lived in an orphanage called Taylor Home in Racine, Wisconsin, from where I started school. In the late 40’s, reading was taught using something called the “look say” method, meaning that the child basically memorized words. I didn’t have much exposure to books until I went to school, but when I read my first Dick and Jane book, I was a goner! I could read almost instantly, and I resolved to read every book in the school library. Reading took me out of my life and into a world where brave protagonists lived adventuresome lives that turned out well. Now that’s power!

What does literary success look like to you?

Literary success. . . hmm. . . having something to say that helps people make sense of their lives, all the while engaging and entertaining them with a lively and thoughtful narrative. To provide such literary experiences for others would feel like success to me.

Anything else you would like to share?

From the time I was a small child I wanted to be a writer. My two sisters and I wrote numerous plays which we presented to the neighborhood kids, and I wrote stories and poems from a young age. But then life happened, things like needing money, wanting a family, and later needing to support that family. Soon I was in my 30’s and still not a writer. . . then in my 40’s and not yet a writer, although I kept journals and drafts of stories. . . then graduate school believing I would write academic articles. . . which I did, but they never felt like I was expressing a fundamental part of me. Finally, entering the MFA program at the U of Minnesota and writing. Wow. It has been a long journey. I want to say to others, don’t wait. Don’t put it off, if you feel called to write. Find a way, even if you can only write the first hour of a busy day or before you go to bed, on the bus or subway, whatever. Just do it.

Weekly Feature: Karen J. Storm

The Bonsai

By Karen J. Storm

The bonsai tree arrived in a cellophane package tied at the top with an unassuming white bow. To me, unschooled in Bonsai cultivation, it looked like a baby pine tree with a gnarled, narrow trunk. The aesthetic was pleasing, however, with branches, thoughtfully suspended, like a dancer’s arms. It was in a shallow bowl, and the surface of the soil was covered with colored stones. The effect was a sculpture, carved, though stunted, by human will.

The tree was a present for my husband, Gary, who’d recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I set it on the kitchen counter next to the jar of shark cartilage, a bottle of colloidal minerals, pamphlets on securing Laetrile, pamphlets on living with cancer, and numerous articles from well-meaning friends on how to eat to cure cancer. Gary had mostly ignored these offerings, although the shark cartilage came from his sister, so he at least listened to her pitch when she phoned to tell him she’d sent it. Our minister brought the colloidal minerals, promising that they would strengthen Gary and help him fight his cancer. I would have preferred a few solid prayers from someone who might have special sway with God, but the minister shied away from that. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint. Gary opened the bottle of minerals, smelled the murky liquid, and suggested that I drink it, since he was probably a lost cause.

Other plants and flowers arrived at our house, timed to his discharge from the hospital in early June. We had a U-shaped kitchen with a big peninsula that overlooked the family room, and as the “cures” and green stuff arrived, I lined them up on it, thinking I’d find places for everything all later. Gary read the cards and usually remarked something like “that was nice.” The bonsai, though, was different. We’d seen bonsais for sale at the mall, and we knew they were costly. This one looked as though it’d been cultivated for years. That impressed Gary. When he opened the card, it was from an old friend whom he hadn’t heard from in a long time. His friend’s message noted that this particular bonsai was very old and that bonsai trees symbolize long life. He suggested that if the bonsai was kept alive, Gary might also be favored with a long life.

There were instructions for taking care of the bonsai. Most important was watering, but there were no specific rules. Instead, the instructions said not to have a schedule, rather to watch the tree to see when it required water, when the top soil was slightly dry (this one had stones on the soil). You should water it with rain water, from a sprinkling can (we were in Utah, a high desert with little rain). And bonsai trees like humidity so if the air isn’t humid, you should set it over a pan filled with water. The owner should also fertilize it regularly from spring until autumn. Bonsais need a few hours of sunlight every day. Most important, the directions said that it should be kept cool, about 50 degrees. Again, we were in Utah. In summer it wasn’t uncommon to hit 104 degrees daily.

I tell you all this because Gary took the card seriously. He was a man who believed in miracles. When his cancer was diagnosed, he’d told the doctor, “I’m not like other people. Things don’t happen to me like they do to them. I jumped out of a plane, my parachute failed, I crashed to earth, and I survived.” If keeping a bonsai alive could metaphorically keep him alive, then he wanted to try.

Unfortunately, Gary was not a plant person. He was an urban development person. I, on the other hand, prided myself on my green thumb. Somehow, almost by default as Gary was absorbed with recovering from surgery, it became my task to not only keep it alive but thriving. At the time, I didn’t feel daunted by my task nor did I resent that it had fallen to me; I was confident I could make anything grow. Now, several years later, as I look in my living room, there are four orchids that I’ve had for years steadily sending out new flowers for me to enjoy. My desk and bedroom are filled with plants. I can look at a plant and sense what it needs. Plants and I are sympatico. But most important then, aside from my green thumb or anything else, what mattered was that I would do anything to save Gary, whatever it took, even tending a plant with the notion that keeping it alive would keep Gary alive.

The bonsai, however, did not cooperate. I started out hopeful, carefully following the instructions. I kept two pans with water that the bonsai could sit over to get humidity in the dry Utah climate. I placed one in our sunny living room where the bonsai hung out for its four hours of sun. Then I’d move it to a cool room in our walkout basement and place it over the other pan of water. I talked to this bonsai tree, like I do my orchids, said it was beautiful and breathed carbon dioxide on it. Meanwhile, I drove Gary to downtown Salt Lake City once a week to get his chemo pack, I nursed his nausea, propped his pillows, paid the bills, kept the house clean, called friends and relatives with updates, and tried to keep his spirits up—all while holding a full-time job. Later that summer, when it was time for radiation, I drove him to it and listened to him gripe in the car about my driving, which I translated as “I’m in pain and every bump hurts.”

Every now and then Gary would ask, “How’s the bonsai doing?” I wasn’t sure why he asked, because he hardly looked at it. His enthusiasm for the symbolism seemed to have waned. He’d given it over to me, that was certain. I’d tell him that it was doing fine. I couldn’t bear to admit that one by one needles were turning brown and falling off. First, I thought I wasn’t giving it enough water, so I gave it more. Then I reasoned that I’d overwatered it, so I cut back on water, trying to keep the soil moist and not let it dry out, all the while having no idea what the soil on the bottom of the pot looked like. For all I knew, it was sitting in water. I watched it die, little by little, and I felt my failure. Yet I kept searching for the solution, the one treatment that would reverse its decline.

Watching the bonsai wither was nothing compared to watching Gary slowly decline. He lost weight, not little by little, but almost overnight. His once round face sunk into bony hollows, with two intelligent eyes fading as he bore under the treatments. He spent more and more time in bed, and I watched how he rationed his morphine pills so he wouldn’t be too sleepy to read the paper or do some work on a project he loved.

In February of the following year, we moved back to our home state of Minnesota. Gary and I flew but we had someone drive a few of our belongings and the bonsai back for us. In Minnesota it was far easier to have sun and a cool room at the same time. We bought a four-bedroom house, and the bonsai had its own room, which doubled as the guest room. I resumed checking it daily. I not only encouraged it but also pleaded with it, live, hoping it would perk up in the different climate. It continued to drop needles. And Gary continued to shrink, his body an outline of skin, bones, and what had once been muscle.

I make it sound like I was all about loving care of the bonsai, never giving up, but I knew enough about plants to know that I’d never save it. Once a plant starts downhill, it takes a miracle to change the trajectory. I resented that. I resented the bastard—fortunately I don’t remember his name—that sent the damn plant to us. It was a plant, after all. Why did he have to imbue it with such meaning—if you keep it alive, you will stay alive. And I couldn’t believe Gary and I bought into it. Truth was, we were each grasping for a glimmer of hope. I knew there was no magic in shark cartilage or colloidal minerals and so did Gary. But the bonsai with its regal beauty, tamed by human hands, seemed to embody hope, and hope is all you have with a cancer like pancreatic, with its terrible survival rate. Short term hope for a good day when you can get out and enjoy the sunshine, maybe take in a movie. Hope for the longer term, maybe Gary could live the entire eighteen months the doctor gave as the longest survival time he’d seen for someone with the surgery Gary had had. Eighteen months meant he’d be able to give his daughter away at her wedding.

By late spring Gary was in bed most of the day. He had lived almost a year from his diagnosis. Now and then Gary inquired about the bonsai, I suspect because he knew I checked on it, still fretting over it, afraid to give up. He didn’t know I secretly cursed it, too. But then who doesn’t curse when there is no foundation for hope, even while clinging to it?

In early summer, our hopes ran out. Gary died on June 7th. I don’t remember when the bonsai died. I do remember tossing it in the trash. I had lost everything, and I didn’t need a reminder of that loss. I’ve not bought one since, nor do I plan to. An orchid might be a challenge to grow, but a bonsai is a torment, to be reserved for those who believe humans have control over nature. We, Gary and I, did not have control. We had cancer instead.

Find Karen’s Q&A here


Karen Storm, who has been writing in her head ever since she discovered the magic of words, has now put pen to paper or maybe that should be, fingers to keyboard. She writes about death and dying, the nexus of experience and self-understanding, and identity. Storm was an academic for many years with many such publications. She’s also a graduate of the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the University of Minnesota. She blogs about issues of retirement and aging at karensdescant.com

Q&A with M.C. Schmidt

We are thrilled to feature M.C. Schmidt’s Sidewalk Chalk as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with M.C.!

What is the first book that made you cry?

Charlotte's Web, for sure.

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

As a parent, I know this is bad advice. But, I'd tell my childhood self to be just a little less bookish, to experience adventure directly, and maybe get in a bit of trouble.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It varies day to day. But I think I've gotten pretty good at making myself do it, even when it isn't fun

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: M.C. Schmidt

Sidewalk Chalk

By M.C. Schmidt


At bedtime the screen door slaps, Mom and Dad off to do their fighting where Dorie can’t hear. Mom glances back but doesn’t see her watching from the window above her bed. Dad looks at his feet to step over cracks. They turn with the sidewalk where it wraps around the block, and Dorie switches to her side window where the glass has dirty outlines of frogs and rainbow and unattached horse legs and cat ears where she stuck stickers then tried to pull them off. She watches until the shed is in the way of them. She waits for them until it gets dark. 

This happens three nights in a row.

“Where’re you going, squirt?” Dad says on the morning of the fourth day.

Dorie shrugs, secret-keeping being their family’s new way.

She comes to the shed from the back alley, the opposite direction of her parents’ walks. The shed once belonged to the house on the corner until the house on the corner was torn down. Now the yard belongs only to the shed. Its double doors are bowed out at their bottoms, and the lawn is still bald in two arcing wings from their years of being swung open and shut. The shed’s black wood is weathered to look fuzzy and soft, but when Dorie pets it she finds it isn’t. 

On the side of the shed that faces the sidewalk, she draws a single, long-lashed eye with purple sidewalk chalk.

Later, at lunch, Mom says, “Eat your sandwich.”

“Dad cooks when he’s home,” Dorie says, challenging the legality of her mother’s ham salad.

“Eat it,” Mom says.

Dad comes into the kitchen. The smile he aims at Dorie is calibrated so none of it spills over to Mom. He plucks an orange from the basket and takes it to eat by himself in front of the TV. 

That night when the screen door slaps, Dorie pulls her covers over her head and closes her eyes then pushes her mind across the side yard. She opens it into the shed’s eye and, from it, she stares. When Mom and Dad appear, they stop, Dad noticing the eye and smiling, pointing it out to Mom. He mouths Dorie’s name, but she can’t hear him. Mom begins to cry, staring at the shed, and soon both her parents are acting out shouting with their arms and faces, but to Dorie they’re silent. She watches them until it gets dark, then she closes the eye and tries to sleep. 

The next morning, Dorie opens one of the double doors. It stutters across the naked dirt and leaves a rut like the footprint of a snake. Its hinges scream like a fox Dad hit once and blamed on the sluggish handling of Mom’s minivan. She finds the shed empty except for a toilet, stowed away and full of leaves and the leavings of mice who’ve used it for its intended purpose. Dorie closes the lid and sits until sitting on a toilet in an abandoned shed feels too creepy and she has to run out and slam it shut. On one door, she draws an ear—a half-peanut with a detached hole, an earlobe hoop—then goes home to spend the day in her room.

Dad stops her in the hall. “I have an important question to ask you,” he says, his face dark and serious. “If I gave you a million dollars, what would be the first thing you’d buy?”

“You don’t have a million dollars,” Dorie says.


At bedtime, on the sidewalk, Dad yells at Mom about his shop closing: “It was the absolute worst time. We agreed about that. I can’t believe I have to explain this. We don’t even have health insurance.”

“I could have picked up insurance for now.”

“And eaten up your whole paycheck. How is that even an answer?”

“I just—I can’t see how you don’t understand.” 

“I do understand. You think it’s not hard for me too? But you accept the reality of where you are and what you can handle. Or I did, anyway. I thought you had too.”

Mom turns her back to the eye, gazes across the street. She crosses her arms in the angry way which Dorie knows well. In a moment, she says, “I understand the financials. I know the struggle it would have been. And I’m not saying you pressured me. But even so, I still felt pressured. By the financials. By the shop closing. Just tell me that you get that.”

Dad’s now staring into the same distance as Mom. “Of course I get it,” he says in a voice that sounds thin, though it may be the filter of the unfamiliar ear.

“Well, that’s all I’m asking of you. Except for maybe a little patience.” Mom exhales, and it’s like she’s blowing away balloons that have gathered to force a distance between them. She begins to say, as if admitting a secret, “I keep telling myself everything happens for a…”

“Oh my god,” Dad cuts in, inflating balloons of his own.


“Are you seriously going to say that? That everything happens for a reason? Jesus, I mean—that’s so,” here he pauses, shakes his head, then bangs his temple with the palm of one hand as if dislodging the desired adjective. “Childish,” he says finally. “And right now? It’s just…it’s such a ridiculous way to think.”

Mom says nothing.

“But you know what? Who knows, maybe you’re right. Maybe everything does happen for a reason. If, I mean, the reason is that we’re cursed. Yeah, you know what? I think that’s what I think maybe: this whole family is cursed. That’s the reason all of this has happened.”

“Oh, get over yourself. Small businesses close. Now you’ll have to get a job. Boohoo for you.”

When Dad turns to lean into her, his cheek and forehead creases are emboldened by streetlight shadow. “Don’t you dare talk about the shop, or the work I put into it. You haven’t thought twice about what it meant to me. You’re too preoccupied with blaming me, after the fact, for a decision that I frankly left to you to make. I never forced anything on you. I only ever pointed out the money.”

There’s a pause. Mom’s hushed when she says, “A bundle of cells. Those were your words. ‘It’s nothing to be sad about. It’s just a bundle of cell.’”

 Dad explodes: “At the time that’s all it was: a bundle of cells. I said it because it was true. I was trying to ease your mind about doing what I thought you’d already decided you wanted to do.”

When Mom turns to him, her cheeks shine. “And, what about her?” she asks, staring straight at Dorie via the shed’s eye, “Is she just a bundle of cells?”

Dad walks away, off to where the shed can’t see.


Dorie’s whole family is cursed. Mom says everything’s fine sweetie, Dad just went to visit his brother in Arkansas. She and Mom eat a lot of ham salad.

At bedtime, Mom sometimes walks past the shed alone.

In August, the eye grows dim from weeks of rain. The ear disappears except for the hoop, like a burial artifact that shines through the dust of the body it adorned. 

There’s nothing to see, nothing to hear. In time, Dorie goes to bed without checking in on the shed. 

Mom’s away for a few days with Liz, whom she knew from college. Dorie’s babička comes to stay at the house to watch her. On the first day, they make apple pie, but Dorie’s forbidden any because she only picked at her pierogis. Babička decides to stay with them, even when Mom returns.

“How are things, squirt? Are you being good for Mom?” Dad asks. 

Mom’s phone feels oily against Dorie’s cheek from all the time she spends scrolling and swiping. “Mm-hmm,” she says.

“Is mom being good for you?”  

Dorie doesn’t answer and doesn’t answer until the phone call from Arkansas is over. It’s awful, she thinks, feeling forced to deny him. 


Babička runs the house with Dad gone, feeding them and forcing Dorie into the bath too early and pulling hard on the girl’s wet hair when she brushes it out. To the strangely dry-sounding rhythm she makes with her brush, Babička tells stories of Mom as a girl, how she’d always wail when her hair was brushed out. Tears of pain come into Dorie’s eyes but never, ever into her voice.

At bedtime, a month since Dad left, weeks since Babička came to stay with them, days since Mom returned home, the old woman explains, in her broken way, their family’s curse: “Do you ever hear story of a drekavac?” she says.

Dorie shakes her head.

“From the time she was baby, your mama was weak in her will. Crying all the time, this and that.” She assures the girl with a small and gnarled hand on her shoulder: “Dorie is more stronger. I never say of you, ‘why is Dorie so fragile,’ the way I do of your mama at this age.

“American women, the drekavac don’t know them, only Slovenians. But it know me from when I come here. I bring its spirit here with me. My own mama lose three babies in Slovenia and all become drekavac: little babies lost to darkness, crying all night, teeth grown sharp and gnashing. Teeth that kill sheep and cow for injustice done to them. Make mischief, screaming for baptism to god that they was denied, watching me even when I leave for here.

“Your Mama put a hole in her heart, and the drekavac find that hole and climb inside, and wail from it. And, poof, Papa leave. And, poof, everyone sad.”

This is the end of Babička’s story. No moral or prayer or reason why things will be better. No suggestion of how to end the nightmares the story inspires. Dorie thinks she might hate her grandmother even more than she hates Mom for making Dad leave. Her nightmares become so bad Mom begins forcing Babička to walk with her at bedtime to save Dorie from stories of old-world superstition.


There’s a piece of pink sidewalk chalk in Dorie’s pocket. She leave’s through the kitchen when Babička’s at the sink, ignoring whatever it is the old woman says to her.

On the shed, Dorie first refreshes the eye, then the ear. Then, below the eye, she draws a large, pink oval and fills it with teeth that look to her like the type that gnash. She steps back from the shed, appraises her work: a one-eyed drekavac.

At bedtime the screen door slaps, Mom and Babička off on their walk. Dorie watches them from the window above her bed then from the side window with its affixed sticker pieces and glue. She crawls into bed in the dark then seeks further darkness by pulling her comforter over her head. She pushes her mind through the side yard and into the shed’s eye and ear and its brand new mouth. The sound of her heart seems to spread across the comforter in dull waves of sound that roll off her body in every direction. She’s begun to cry, with rage more so than sadness for the absolute injustice of life. Hardship laid on her by the very people who were meant to protect her, or at least not prevented by them. Under her covers, she opens her own mouth now. With teeth sharp and pink and menacing, Dorie listens to the shuffling shoes of the approaching women, and she waits. 


M.C. Schmidt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University. His recent short fiction has been published by Litro, Every Day Fiction, Dime Show Review, and The Book Smuggler's Den. He has work forthcoming from Abstract Magazine.

Q&A with Allen Whitlock

We are thrilled to feature Allen Whitlock’s Self-Rising Dough as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Allen!

What does literary success look like to you?

I have to entertain or engage at least one person. I also need something I feel is unique in the story. I have one test-reader especially in mind and sometimes she makes me listen to her reading a passage she loves, excited and animated back to me; then I’m in heaven. Also, profits from sales should at least cover expenses, then could say it is no longer a hobby. On that last point, I have not achieved literary success. On an academic path (which I am not on) success could be a teaching position or speaking at conferences.

What is the first book that made you cry?

I thought I wouldn’t know this, but it was Black Beauty. We had a copy in the house when I was growing up, probably my older sister's.

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

I would have ignored criticism, not of my writing skills, but of my chosen subject matter and type of story. The writers I loved as a young teen were Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, and Freud. I found them all engaging. There was a sense that they were taking you along with them on a journey. In a soliloquy, are you not discovering the character’s thoughts while he or she is thinking them? Freud made you feel that way as well—that you were discovering along with him.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Too many times where I talked myself out of getting beat up or in trouble. This often involved lying… does that count?

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

I think some genre novels are not underappreciated because they have a huge readership, but they are underappreciated for their sophisticated insights. So, Dune, and Asimov’s Foundation Series.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing energizes me and editing exhausts me. However, I was editing all day on an old story where I wasn’t sold on the last half. It was a long story (some 7,000 words) and a more satisfying series of motivations and events came to me as I was working. That, although it was editing, was energizing. Creating is energizing. No matter which though, you do hit a wall at some point and need to take it up the next day.

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Allen Whitlock

Self-Rising Dough

by Allen Whitlock

My first memory in life was of my father standing at a scarred block of dark wood, holding a chicken. He grasped its head, a camping axe raised high, and then exposing a surprisingly long neck, he brought the axe down. Freed from both grasp and head, the body ran around the yard—eponymously, one might say—flapping white wings splattered in red blood spurting in time with its still beating heart. I watched the chicken as it fought against the pull of gravity, splayed wild legs bracing this way and that, wings seeking balance until the end. 

It was 1954, and I was three. Our street sat within a misbegotten jink outside the city limits line on the northeast side of Portland, Oregon. On a map, it looked as if the cartographer got bumped while drawing an otherwise straight line. It was a rural island at the edge of a large city. Chickens were common, as were ducks, and at least one goat that I knew of. We had a detached chicken coop on the far side of our one-hundred-and-fifty-foot-wide lot which itself sat mid-point along Alberta Court, a thousand-feet of straight dirt road. The over-sized block was ringed with lots and the center filled with grassy fields, small orchards, and wild blackberries briars the size of houses. A long bike ride would take you to real neighborhood, the kind you saw on TV, with sidewalks, picket fences, yards with grass, and homes with a second story. 

When bored I’d look down the long street each way waiting for something to happen, anything. In the summer I’d watch the heat ripples, hoping for a desert mirage of fabulous treasure or piles of food as I’d seen in cartoons and vultures circling—even carrion birds waiting for me to die would have been a welcome change. I hoped to see any movement, even for a car to drive by kicking up dust, so that I could pretend it was a rocket. I’d grab handfuls of dust and run, arms outstretched the grey-brown dust streaming from my loose grip like contrails; pretending I was a jet. I was alone a lot, but sometimes there were kids, mostly boys and we’d throw rocks at a telephone pole, or each other, or chuck a large rock straight up in the air with the admonition to “think fast!” 

Dogs roamed free; some were nice, some would tree you until the owner called them off. The humans received more supervision. The neighborhood was rife with characters, bound for or just back from prison. 

Inanimate objects were unregulated, and yards held broken refrigerators, junk cars, engines, transaxles, wheel hubs, and other dysfunctional car innards. For some reason, there were several fifty-five-gallon steel barrels in the back yard, next door. We had one. We called it The Burn Barrel, as in “Toss it in the Burn Barrel,” when there was any flammable garbage. 

The large lots accommodated large trucks. To the right of us, the garbage man and his trucks, to our left were the Ketchum Carnival people and their trucks, rides enfolded like flightless butterflies at summer’s end. 

Across the street were The Cabins, low-rent shacks stacked five deep with their flat black-tar roofs and sided with fake red brick made of the same gritty material as roof shingles. They shared a common driveway bordered on one side by a high wooden fence. If someone needed out, they had to get their neighbor to move their car. If you were brave enough to walk down that driveway, you might see a thick paper notice from the Sheriff’s department adorning one of the doors. I witnessed a few dramatic arrests, marked and unmarked cars screeching to a halt, car doors already flying open. Even later, in the hubris of invincible adolescence, I rarely ventured down that narrow dark drive alone, where each step forward, even with the promise of the easy cut-through to the next street, felt like dry ice dropped down the back of your shirt and each step felt like the molasses step in a nightmare. Those who live there seemed doomed. 

All the people on our street came from somewhere else. Races and cultures mixed like refugees from some unseen natural disaster. Many houses on our street came from somewhere else: a WPA worker city called VanPort, halfway between Vancouver Washington and Portland Oregon that was flooded out of existence. After the waters of receded, the shacks were moved to higher ground. We lived in one.

My father was often away, either a distant road construction job or the VA hospital for a nervous disorder. A Captain in the great war, he flew his little P1, a precursor to the Piper Cub, with the Big Red One, spotting enemy artillery as a liaison pilot. The stress of war, or a nasty head injury, for which he received a Purple Heart, or perhaps just the nature of the man left him jangled and angry. He was handsome, although short, with jet-black hair, pale skin and blue eyes; a peculiarly Irish trait I’ve noted. His deep voice was full of curses, complaints, and frustration. I’ve joked that I got my extensive vocabulary from two sources: the dictionary, and helping my dad fix the car. There was the constant threat of an unexpected eruption of curses, banging, or a thrown object. But we were never abused, my mother never hit or disrespected, and they never argued angrily. 

One hot July day, I among a mix of four or five boys, the oldest probably eight or nine and I was four. We were running from one yard to the next, barefoot and careful not to step on bees (our yard was a field of dandelions with lawn grass interspersed) when one of the older boys spied the ice truck. The Cabins all had iceboxes at that time. One of the older boys called out for everyone to hide because we were going to steal ice from the truck. I hid with another kid, behind a shrub. We waited for the call from the boy who’d put this mission together. I found this thrilling. As soon as the iceman was out of sight, down the dark driveway of the cabins, we ran to the back of the truck. One boy boosted another, and he handed down pieces of ice that had been broken off the blocks. I received mine, a watermelon wedge as beautiful and as clear as glass. The iceman’s curses sent us flying. 

The following Halloween we were, again, as was typical, all out on the street. It was just after sunset on a moonless night—there were no streetlights. One kid was going on about how, the night before, the pumpkin he had carved had been stolen from their porch and smashed. There was a local plague of the same crime, and they suspected it was the work of foreign elements. As it grew darker, we could barely make each other out. Someone saw the silhouette of some kids as they ran between us and porch and window lights. 

“It’s them!” one of us called out. “They were on my porch!”

We ran down the dark street in pursuit. When I caught up, I saw that two young boys in the grip of four or five of us. I was enraged. It’s the pumpkin smashers! I ran at one and gave him a push. They’d already been shoved and slugged, not a few times by the time I got there. Then, out of the darkness stepped an adult just in time to see my contribution. It was a nicely dressed woman. She said, “What are you doing?” with some intensity and my insides froze. “Why are you attacking my boys?” She pulled each to her and examined them. One had a chipped tooth from falling down face-first upon something hard, perhaps a rock in the road. 

“Look what you’ve done!” the woman cried.

“They’re smashing pumpkins. I saw them on my porch!” someone yelled.

“We’re collecting for UNICEF!” Her voice was angry but steady. She held up a clip board and showed us the boxes that had been knocked out of her boy’s hands. They disappeared again into the darkness, and we dispersed. I walked home crying. 

Young as I was, I only grasped the meaning of our wrong from her tone, and I have ever since been terrified of mobs and mob thinking and guarded against ever finding myself in one, feeling that self-righteous anger, and harming someone, only to discover that you’d harmed a good person. When I hear the word mortified, this event comes to mind. After this, I could hardly stand to see mob violence in movies, even when it was torch-carrying villagers tracking down the Frankenstein monster. 

When we got older, among the boys, the gathering place was Terry's back yard; next door. Terry's dad, the ex-prizefighter, ex-boxing gym owner, ex-Brooklynite and current garbage man greeted us boys with, "howz youze guyz do'in" or as a jab with a laugh as "youz girlz.”  His name was Reynold, and he had us call him Renny. Terry’s mother, Stella was another New Yorker, high wired, and a chain-smoker who seldom left the house. Prominently displayed on an end table in the haze-filled living room was an autographed photo of the actor famous for his gangster roles, George Raft, cigarette in hand, white smoke curling artistically. 

They seemed to have no religion, but they were Masons and Renny was intrigued with arcane knowledge. He would tell us things like that the body replaces itself every seven years. He knew where and when we could look for Sputnik. It was a time when everyone took for granted that flying saucers were real. Renny had the current magazines and tried to keep up on the latest information. The UFO’s used anti-gravity, he told us, and magnets. There were so many reports I felt it only inevitable that I would see a flying saucer. 

The trash Renny sometimes brought home—still in the truck when the trip to the dump was more convenient the next morning rather than the end of that work day—wasn’t the normal house garbage of coffee grounds, banana peels, and chicken bones—but rather downtown garbage. It was the junk that department stores threw out and that was now to become a child's wonder. We tried to find a stunt or use for every load. One day it was monofilament fishing line, reels and reels of it for God know what reason it was garbage. So, we spent days stringing it like spider webbing in Terry’s basement (a claustrophobic area under the outspread octopus arms of an oil heating system.) We’d turn out the lights, making our way in a grand circuit around the central furnace imagining giant science-fiction tarantulas were after us. 

One other time it was a dump truck full of mannequins. We dressed a boy-sized mannequin up in some of Terry’s clothing and then hid with it behind a car. Waiting for traffic on our street took patience, but we scared the crap out of a few motorists by tossing the dummy out in front of them. Then we timed one badly giving the driver little time to react. The screech of brakes and strings of cursed threats let us know we’d crossed some line with that stunt. 

One day it was out-of-date Pillsbury, Pop’n Fresh dough. Those are the tubes that pop open in a spiral when whacked against the edge of a counter. White dough puffs out—you bake it—simple. There were many more cans than the neighborhood mothers would ever use and, in the heat—for it was hot that day—some were already popped and oozing dough. We were twelve or thirteen at the time. We thought first of opening them all, making a pile, letting it rise, and then jumping on it from the roof. There was a lot, but there wasn’t going to be enough for that. We sat on Terry’s back patio, and someone had the idea to electrocute it, to see what would happen. We always had lamp cords laying around—many things brought home had motors, but no cords and we’d attach cords to various half-destroyed animated window advertisements to see them move or to combine them hoping for something cool, perhaps robot-looking, or to make some Rube Goldberg thing. When, I stuck bare wires in a lump of dough and plugged it in, nothing interesting happened, it didn’t come to life, blob-like and try to eat anyone, it just burned a couple spots in the dough. We hefted ever-expanding pieces of dough while we talked and thought about what to do with it. This quickly evolved to flinging bits of dough at each other. For a substance that looked so light, it was in fact quite heavy, and there was a satisfying WAP! when a handful size lump hit an unsuspecting friend in the side of the head. As with a boxing glove, that looked soft until it hit you, a pound of dough could also ring your bell. Soon it was all out war with every man for himself as we spilled out into other yards. Kids from up and down the street joined in—the word had spread like margarine on a hot Pop’n Fresh Crescent Roll. At day’s end, exhausted dough-caked children returned home and the sun set upon a scene that could have been in some science fiction fungus-invasion movie. Dough hung from and on all possible objects, from telephone wires, car doors, fences, and I’m sure, a few dogs and cats. As the sun set, it took on a lovely, subtle pink glow cast, cloudlike and self-rising. It fell, in glops for days after.

On days when no interesting refuse appeared, the trucks themselves were great fun and we'd ride in the back on a pile of broken display cases, old mattresses, and God knows what, to the dump. It was the dump, and it was only called The Dump. When Jesus says Hell, the word is Gehenna, the name of the city dump in his town. Similarly, we didn’t sweeten it by calling it a land-fill, and Renny was a garbage man, not a sanitation worker. We rode in the big blue Vogel Bros. Garbage Service trucks, teeth jarring with every bump. If you could pile up and climb a stack of junk to see over the cab, letting the road wind hit your face, so much the better, there was a stench in the back of the thing from accumulated garbage, no matter what you hauled. Used tissues from the ladies rooms of department store bathrooms stuck to greasy black muck or floated free like butterflies. We'd jump around where there was room or climb up to see the road ahead with someone sure to challenge you for the spot and start an impromptu King of the Hill in our iron box—most surfaces rustless and paintless, shined due to constant wear but black with gunk in untouched crevasses. We struggled, legs bracing this way and that, trying to stay upright as the truck rattled forty-miles-per-hour down a bumpy two-lane toward a distant flock of sea gulls rising, circling, landing, and rising again as we rolled towards them. 


Allen Whitlock was born in Portland, Oregon in 1951 and has a BS/BA from Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has studied acting and writing at Portland State University, Western Oregon State College at Monmouth, and Grand Valley State University. Allen has survived playing in '80s Portland rock band and far too many odd and often dangerous jobs. He now lives happily in Grand Rapids with his partner Dr. Judy Whipps and their chipmunk-fixated dog Hailey. Allen is the author of two self-published books: collected short stories, "If I Should Die Before it Wakes," and the novel "The Last Border," and soon-to-be-published novel, "Toanan, the Heretic."

Q&A with Jasmine Griffin

We are thrilled to feature Jasmine Griffin’s Bye Bye, Blackbird as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Jasmine!

What is the first book that made you cry?
The first book that ever made me cry was, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. That woman could tell a story. She had this way with words and the characters were so well developed. I was emotionally invested from beginning to end and it was one of the works I can truly say that inspired me to want to write.

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
As a teenager I would probably say that I should've believed in myself more and invested in myself more as a writer. I think I was afraid in the beginning. Even with the support of family, friends and teachers. I didn't believe I could do it professionally or anyone would want to read the stories I had to tell. It took me a long time to build up my confidence and embrace the fact that I am and always have been a writer.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Too many! I am one of those writers who gets ideas and starts them and then gets stuck and stops. The project I am working on now though is something that has stuck with me for years and inspired by my grandfather in a lot of ways and I feel like it is just as much his story as it is mine and so I want to finish it and bring it to life in a way that he and my grandmother would've been proud of.

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Jasmine Griffin

Bye Bye, Blackbird

by Jasmine Griffin

The alarm on Peter’s phone sounded, a calming violin melody signaling that it was time to move Josiah from his prone position on the bed that they shared. If Peter left him in one spot too long he’d get bed sores and it’d be that much more painful to move him when it was time to bathe him.

Peter stood from his customary spot on the left side of the brown leather sofa they’d gotten from Ikea, and walked through their shared apartment. He passed the wide array of flora that he hated but made Josiah feel more one with nature, lilies in a vase on the kitchen island, ferns hanging from hooks coming out of the ceiling, and succulents scattered about on books shelves and counter tops.

He walked down the narrow hall, with black and white framed photos on the walls, pictures they had taken on their last vacation to Mexico. Peter made his way into the bedroom that he’d shared with Josiah for the better part of five years. The bedroom itself was fairly sparse, there was a dresser, a television mounted on the wall, the bed at the center of it all and a record player and stacked crates carrying Josiah’s record collection sitting at the far end.

They’d gotten the sheets on the bed long before Josiah had been confined to it. They were red, flannel, and ugly. They’d been gifted to Peter and Josiah as a house warming gift by Peter’s sister Sasha as a joke. Josiah had said that Peter reminded him of the Brawny paper towel man, resulting in him forever being labeled by his sister as a “gay lumberjack”. Since then she’d gifted him with a variety of flannel items, including but not limited to a thermostat, a pair of boxers and flannel printed headphones; he was still unsure where she’d managed to find those.

The nurse would be there soon and Josiah always liked to be awake and sitting up before she came. He didn’t like to seem like an invalid, even when he was. Were it not for Josiah’s wishes, he might’ve been in the hospital even now. Josiah had been adamant about remaining home. It wasn’t just because he hated the sterile cold chaos of the hospital, or hearing the cries and screams of strangers when their loved ones met their end. It was mostly because of Josiah’s mother.

Josiah’s mother, Mrs. Maybelle Annaliese Washington, who made Peter refer to her by her full name even in everyday conversation, was one of those bible thumping, big hat wearing, scripture quoting Baptist church types. They’d both known that if Josiah had gone to the hospital, his mother would’ve taken over his care. Not only would Peter lose any say, but he would also be barred from seeing his partner, no matter how ill Josiah became. So home it was.

Peter attempted to extend an olive branch of sorts and invite Mrs. Maybelle Annalise Washington over for a visit for dinner. However, Mrs. Maybelle Annalise Washington, saw Peter only as the little lost white boy that was the reason that her precious Josiah had strayed from the path. While Josiah could still be spared from the flames (Hallelujah! Amen!), Peter was a lost cause, and was bound to meet his kind when Lucifer called him home to hell.

Peter chuckled to himself as he entered the room. When his time came, and he did go to meet his maker, Satan or otherwise, his sister would likely line his coffin in flannel.

Peter noted that the Miles Davis record that he kept playing even when Josiah slept had reached his favorite song, “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Peter’s smile grew. “Get up lazy bones! Your song is on!” He rounded the bed as the words left his mouth.

There was no answer. When Peter’s eyes landed on Josiah he was laying stiffly beneath the red flannel cover, he didn’t look himself. That wasn’t saying much, however. Josiah hadn’t looked himself in months, he’d lost weight, in his body and his face, his brown eyes that were at the moment closed, had a sunken look when opened, and his skin that had once been a rich brown had taken on a grayish hue that made Peter cringe each time he saw it. Still, in Peter’s mind, Josiah was ever beautiful, even in his suffering.

Peter knelt over Josiah’s stiff form on the bed. His body looked more rigid than restful, the smile froze on Peter’s face. “I guess you’re sleeping in today. They said you’d be tired. Sleeping’s good.”

Peter placed a hand over Josiah’s and found the brown one beneath his cold. The smile stayed frozen on his face.

“Jojo you’re freezing. You should’ve told me. I would’ve turned the heat on.”

Peter rubbed Josiah’s hands with his in an effort to warm him with the friction. He rubbed and rubbed, the chill stayed. He would have to turn on the heat.

“I’ll be just a minute, Jojo. We’ll get you warm.” He leaned down to brush a kiss over Josiah’s lips. It was just a brush of skin against skin like their first, a light touch. Goosebumps rose on his arms like that first time, but unlike the first time, Josiah’s breath didn’t ghost over his skin.

Peter stood. It was no matter. Josiah was asleep. Breath came lighter in sleep. What had he been doing? Right, he had to turn the heat on.

Peter moved to leave the room when the record in the record player began to skip, playing the same notes again and again and again. It was Josiah’s favorite. It couldn’t be broken, he had to fix it.

“I can fix it. I can’t fix it. I can fix it.” He chanted. He would turn on the heat and fix the record.

Peter stayed frozen to the spot at the foot of the bed, a smile stuck on his face, and then the pounding came at the front door.

The nurse was here. He would have help. It would be fine. He would fix it.

Peter moved back down the narrow hallway, and towards the door. He moved quickly but his mind seemed to have gone blank, numb. When he answered it, it wasn’t the nurse on the other side. It was a short plump dark skin woman carrying a lasagna, Mrs. Maybelle Annaliese Washington.

“You asked me to come so I’m here. Least you could do is invite me in. Ain’t got the manners nor the morals God gave you, I see.”

The record continued to skip in the background as she kept talking. Peter stopped smiling.


Jasmine Griffin is an avid reader and emerging African American queer author. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. At present, she’s also writing on her first novel, Blackbird at a Crossroads, which incorporates African mythology, African American folktales and Southern Crossroads lore. She enjoys reading paranormal, fantasy, historical and speculative fiction. Her favorite authors are Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. LeGuin. A Cincinnati native, she resides in Amelia, Ohio with her feline familiars Honey and Oliver.

Q&A with Ayshe Dengtash

We are thrilled to feature Ayshe Dentash’s Escape as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Ayshe!

What is your favourite childhood book?
I found it hard to decide whether it was Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson or Danny, the Champion by Roald Dahl. I’ll go with Double Act though. I loved reading the story of a set of twins who were so identical in appearance yet so dissimilar in character. As someone who felt so different from everyone else at school and home, the book helped me understand that it was OK to be “unusual.” 

What is the first book that made you cry?
There are so many books that have made me sad, like Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame, but I hadn’t cried until a couple of months ago when I read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, a non-fiction book about the writer’s account of how three generations of her family involuntarily suffered under a political regime. The writer’s mother’s unconditional love for her daughter touched me deeply. 

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I have two cats, Morgan and Daniel (both female). The first is named after Morgan Freeman, the latter after Daniel Bryan, a professional wrestler (my husband’s idea). Daniel is not very easily manipulated, she’s always eager to do as she pleases. Screams at the top of her voice when she’s getting her claws trimmed, growls when she sees a male cat, and has certain hours in the day when she just goes to her room to rest by herself, body and soul. I consider her an independent woman. So, she’s definitely my spirit animal.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK, home of playwright William Shakespeare. I’ve also been to Westminster Abbey, eternal resting place of several writers and poets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, T.S Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, and William Wordsworth to name a few. Also, I had the chance to stay at the Lake District for a week, where I absorbed the beauty of the luscious green hills where Williams Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge took long strolls together. 

Anything else you would like to share?
As a writer born to parents from Cyprus, my short story Escape was inspired by the oppression women have had to endure on the island for centuries. I lived in Cyprus for 12 years and experienced the oppression first-hand. I believe every woman deserves freedom, and that change can only come if stories of oppression are spread honestly. The women in the story are fictional representations of Cypriot women in the past and the present. And I hope I am able to show all domestic abuse sufferers that their current situations, which may seem to them permanent, can in fact be changed. All that is needed is self-belief and self-worth. 

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Ayshe Dengtash


by Ayshe Dengtash

She walked out of the wooden hut, her face smeared with blood and her hands dripping with sticky placenta fluid. She could still hear her mother’s murmurs, and was not entirely sure whether they were resonating into the cold Boltasli night from the open window just then, or whether they were the sounds of pain and fatigue that had emanated from her mother for the last few hours; the sounds having adhered themselves into the inside of her ear. 

She thought about her mother holding her breathe while straining; the veins on her temples and neck protruding as if on the verge of near explosion. She could clearly recall the noise of grinding teeth and drawn out sighs; things that made her feel that she’d never be able to speak to her mother again. Her mother’s relentless exasperation fit in perfectly with the way she had described death to her two years ago, when her granddad had passed away with his eyes still open and his tongue hanging out of his mouth, as if to show everyone that he had given up on even the most natural things.  “Don’t believe people when they tell you it’s peaceful,” she said. “Everyone is scared of it. And everyone will make it known that they are scared when it is happening. Even those who don’t believe in God will call to him, begging that they be taken away smoothly, hoping that everything would be over sooner rather than later.” And sure, her mother had been calling to God repeatedly, but Fatima could not quite understand what it was that she wanted from him and so she presumed that she, like all the others dying, wanted a peaceful transition from this world to the other. When the whole process was over, and a hairless pale baby had entered this world, she was relieved to see that her mother was still alive, breathing heavily but thanking her over and over again for doing what she had observed her mother do several times when the young women of the village called out loud that they were “ready”. This girl who had pulled the baby out by its spindly slimy legs and held her mother’s hand was twelve-year-old Fatima.

Fatima’s mother, Shengul, was a taxi driver’s daughter. She grew up in a city called Lefkosia, in an apartment that had been built straight after the war to accommodate families that had lost their homes and women who had lost their husbands, the backbones of their families. Women, at the time, found themselves to be widowed very early on in their lives with children of all sizes, too much energy, and a not-so fully formed awareness of the severity of the terror that had taken place around them. Shengul was one of the lucky ones. Her father had managed to make it out of the war alive and in one piece, and although he came back telling stories of how he’d killed mercilessly and fought bravely for his country, thanks to Uncle Behcets’s loose mouth, everyone in their immediate family knew that he’d done none of these things because he was very much overweight and couldn’t bend his fat fingers to hold a fork properly, let alone a weapon. Shengul’s mother was a housewife prior to the war and a mediocre tailor during and after it. She often narrowed down dresses for women who gave up on eating from grief and worry and melted away into walking phantoms with hollow eyes and souls. And so Shengul had been brought up wearing skirts that started long on one side and gradually shortened on the other and trousers that were too wide at the calves and too narrow at the thighs, popping loudly almost every time she sat down. She hated that she had to position her hands over the burst patches of her clothes at awkward angles, her fingers splayed apart and her thumb tucked in, because she wanted boys at school to like her, but they never did in the way she wanted them to. They looked at the uncomfortable positioning of her fingers and immediately thought she was paralysed in both hands, had multiple sclerosis or something, and so they all stayed away from her because marrying a person with disabilities, although not forbidden on paper, was illicit in the minds and hearts of the people of the Boltasli who thought that a line tainted by disabilities was a line tainted forever. And so, she had married Fatima’s father, Mehmed, who was a decade older than her and snorted every time he spoke because of a broken nose—he had been a fiery young lad— that had been neglected and therefore had healed incongruously. 

Fatima wiped her hands on her flowery dress, which left behind a pink sludgy streak, and watched her brother, Ali, run towards the house, down the highest hill in the village. She then heard her mother’s exhausted voice telling someone that the worry was over now, that everything would be OK. “We are going to be OK together, you and me. You and me,” she said. Her mother spoke like this sometimes, separated herself from those around her, desired to isolate herself from everyone. She would, for example, say that she was going to go far far away by herself one day, not for good though, she’d tell them, just a few days, just by myself, away from this. Fatima never understood what it was she was trying to get away from. She was happy with her life, her mother tending for her and bringing her all that she needed and more, and her father, whom she didn’t like very much, was home just the right amount, a couple of hours a day when he’d bring her sweet treats: shiny hard sweets of all colours, as well as scrunchies for her hair.  

“Where’s mum?” asked Ali, shaking his head to free his eyes from his sweat-infused hair. “She dead or something?”

“What do you mean she’s dead?” blurted Fatima. “Of course she’s not. You know she’s not and you’re always saying things like that.”

The day was coming to an end, the sun peacefully setting behind Ali concealed his features behind a dark shadow. Fatima tilted her head to one side and knit her bushy eyebrows; her way of trying to understand whether he was proud that he’d annoyed her. He always seemed to be saying these things about people, placing them in the realm of the dead. Whenever he saw Musteyde Nene walking slowly in the village all shrivelled and gaunt from old age, he’d say that she should die already as there was no point on living if even a simple thing like walking was so hard. When Fatima and her mother writhed in pain that one week of a month, prodding their pelvic areas firmly with the tips of their fingers, lying in foetal position for hours on end, and drinking all sorts of herbal teas to relieve themselves from the burden that they felt was too much for their bodies to bare, he’d tell them to just kill themselves then if their lives were that bad. Ali always felt that every problem in life could be sorted by death. 

“Me and Baba were waiting for you to come and tell us that the baby was born.”

“It is,” said Fatima, rubbing her fingertips against each other and causing small flecks of dried blood to fall from her hands like miniscule rose petals. “You better go let him know.” She inhaled and felt the Boltasli dust stick to the back of her throat. “It’s a girl.”

Ali gave her a solemn look, his eyebrows low almost covering his blue eyes; the kind he usually had when he had nothing to say but knew that he had to fill the silence somehow. Fatima noticed that he was interconnecting his fingers on either hand and rubbing his palms vigorously against each other as if he were cold, but Ali was never cold, even when heavy snow struck Boltasli two years ago for the first time and the water froze in the taps he hadn’t worn socks. 

“At least you have a friend now,” he said after a while. “You were always moaning that you had no-one, always complaining that we were too fast for you, but you see you can look after her now, feed her, clean her sloppy shit. I know you’d love that.”

Fatima opened her mouth to say something, but all she managed to blurt out was a couple of sounds; lone vowels that were generally reserved for expressions of agony. Then before she knew it, after laughing out awkwardly, Ali started running back towards the hill. 

“I’m gonna let Dad know,” he shouted, his voice bouncing back towards her from the barks of wrangled fig trees, whose branches danced in the warm Cyprus breeze. 

There was a story that Fatima was told time and time again, since she was very young, even before she was able to talk, before she was able to walk. Every girl in the village was told this story and it was only the boys and men who told it, while the girls would nod passively, their mothers occasionally disrupting the ongoing speeches to assure their daughters, to listen to what was being said to them, because if they didn’t bad things would happen. They’d fall into bad hands and find themselves in irreversible situations that no one would be able to take them out of because they’d have “dirtied” their bodies and tainted the family name. 

This had happened to, Ayesha, her cousin, her mother’s sister’s daughter to be precise. She’d run away in the middle of the night one day, with a guy from the village who was also her father’s brother’s son. When the first rays of the morning sun started making themselves visible behind the olive-tree dotted mountains, and Safiye, her mother, climbed up the two flights of stairs to her bedroom to ask  her to help prepare the filling of the pumpkin borek before she set off to school, she noticed that she wasn’t there. Her room was tidy, her bed made, and a cup of water which she normally brought up to her room every night lay on her chipped bed-side table, devoid of the outline of her plump lips. When such a thing transpired, and a girl just happened not to be in bed in the early hours of the morning, a single thing came to the minds of the residents of Boltasli. Everyone knew that they’d have to be a wedding soon, and that nine months later the squeals of a new-born would be heard in every corner of the village, echoing in the fields. And that is, of course, what ensued in the case of Ayesha. She was found in a barn on the outskirts of the village, her legs covered in patches of smudged blood which she had tried to wipe away, sobbing relentlessly, while Mustafa, the boy she’d run away with, tried to comfort her, his arms wrapped around her, his chin resting on her head. They’d been chased away by the village Muhtar, a man in his late fifties with a face the colour of sun-kissed tomatoes, who was both Ayesha’s and Mustafa’s grand-uncle; their father’s father’s brother. Now, this Muhtar was said to be a very close friend of raki, and so most of the time, if not all, he had bad body coordination, throwing his right leg too much to the left, his left too much to the right, always on the verge of falling. So, when the men of the village told their wives, who were making round sourdough loaves in preparation for the approaching cold winter months, that the Muhtar slid off his belt, and managed to swing his belt so consistently that when Mustafa was hit once (in reality the belt barely brushed him as was the intention of the Muhtar) Ayesha was whipped twice, the women said:   

“Good. It’s a woman’s job to protect her honour. A man can’t help it when a girl smiles at him like that. How can he say no when a girl leads him on like that? Why should he?”

And the men said: “True. That’s just how man is built, to take all that he is offered. What kind of a man would he be if he didn’t?”

So, when Ayesha and Mustafa reached the village, her head bowed down, his fingers reaching for her fingertips, they were each taken to their own respective houses. Ayesha’s dad, Ahmed, was apparently waiting inside, not daring to go out lest someone verbalised their disgust at the sort of daughter he had raised. When she walked in, some said that he had something between a frown and a smirk on his face; upset about how the people would view him, “the whore’s father” they’d call him “what kind of a man is he if he can’t even control his daughter” they’d blurt to one another whenever they saw him and even when they didn’t. But he was also glad his daughter had chosen to be with his brother’s son. In fact, he’d always hoped that when they reached the height of their puberty and his daughter was ripe enough to be able to give birth to a male heir, that they’d get together somehow. He hadn’t imagined the humiliating events that were taking place right then of course; his thoughts comprised of a bouquet of purple carnations and a box of sweet Turkish delight. He would have acted all coy at first, going as far as saying “no”, because a woman could never be too eager to be handed over. When he heard that his daughter had chosen Mustafa , the villagers said that Ahmed was unable to contain his excitement as the family fortune: the fields of olive and carob trees, the only well in Boltasli with an infinite fill of water, and the small house that their grandfather’s grandfather had built was going to stay in the family. Ayesha and Mustafa were married off in a large wedding in the square of the village a month later, after their fathers had sold their most precious cows to pay for the huge pots of foods that were to be distributed on the day: buttery steaming pilaf, tender lamb seasoned with bay leaf and black pepper, and crispy potatoes with seasonal greens that were drenched in olive oil. Ayesha cried under her veil that day. While most people thought that they were tears of happiness, her younger sister Sirin, whom she confided in afterwards, told her aunt that she was crying because she hadn’t had a Henna night like her friend Nurten who had had hers the previous month. 

Fatima did not have to be reminded why this was so because she’d been told so many times about how Henna was only for the pure, the untouched, the ones that did not mingle with the opposite sex before marriage. Fatima thought back to Ayesha and recalled how she’d given birth to a baby boy less than nine-months after the wedding; a baby so hairy one could not tell where his hairline ended and his face began. Ten-months later she bore another baby, this time a daughter, as furry as the first. It was sometime between the birth of the first baby and the conceiving of the second that Mustafa started coming home late, with bruises on his neck so large and brown that it was as if he’d been attacked by leeches. His breath was so heavily infused with alcohol that the baby who was asleep every time he came home would take a single whiff at him and wake the whole village up with painful bursts of shrieks. After the second baby was born, Mustafa would come home less frequently and Cevat, a middle-aged man in the village who worked in the steel factory in a town not too far away told his wife (who’d told Meliha, who’d told Shefika and so forth) that he’d seen him coming out of the brothel, his shirt’s buttons undone and his fly open. 

Ayesha left not too long after with a flattened cheekbone and eyes so swollen that she’d reached her parent’s home only by retracing her steps from memory. When she climbed up to the doorstep, unable to see whether anyone was home, she called out first to her father and then to her mother, the latter of whom came out and started beating her own thighs mercilessly when she saw the state of her daughter. 

Ayesha listened to her mother sob.

“Don’t do it mum,” she said. “I’m home now. He can’t do this to me anymore. I’m home.” 

Her mother ushered her in, gently touching her shoulders for fear that they too were as damaged as her face. 

“Husband,” she shouted, “husband! She’s here. Ayesha...he’s done it to her again. Come down and look.” 

“It’s OK ma,” said Ayesha, trying to grab her mother’s hand that she kept ruthlessly hitting against her chest. She couldn’t bare the idea of her mother harming herself or even getting slightly upset because of her. “I’m home now mama. We’re all safe, me and the children.”  She hugged her mother, placing her chin on her shoulder and inhaling the chemical smell of the commercial detergent she always used.  Her face hurt whenever it touched her mother’s warm neck, but she didn’t care. The stairs creaked, and then her son, whom she’d placed down by the front door in a bamboo basket, let out a cry. When the child stopped screeching her father spoke: 

“What are you doing here?” Ayesha didn’t know why he was asking this question. Couldn’t he tell by just looking at her? “You need to go back to your husband,” he said. 

“I can’t,” said Ayesha. “He’ll kill me this time.” 

“We can’t look after you here. You must have done something for him to do this to you. Men don’t just beat their wives for no reason.  You ran away with him and you didn’t ask us when you went away all those years ago, and now you want help? You chose him, you have no choice but to put up with him. Especially for your children.”  

The men made the rules in Boltasli. No matter how much Ayesha’s mother pleaded with her husband, hitting his chest, slapping her face, and tugging her daughter by the arm, shouting and sobbing that this was “her home too,” that “this was where she belonged not in some monster’s house,” her father could not be persuaded. He stood there, at the foot of the stairs, his arms crossed over his chest, looking ahead of him, as if deliberately trying to avoid their gazes. Ayesha left that day: heartbroken but not surprised. In fact she was a little surprised at herself for taking this step, for thinking that she could go back to a house that she had run away from, for even contemplating that there might have been a possibility that her father would feel sorry for her when he saw the state she was in. This never happened in Boltasli It hadn’t happened when Esma went back to her parent’s house six months ago, nor when Fadime did two years ago. Why would it happen to her? Ayesha walked out of her parent’s house on that particular day, leaving her son behind but taking her daughter with her – wrapped around her back with an old bedsheet – because a female baby was a heavy load in Boltasli. It had several invisible, yet solid weights attached to it: chastity, honour and relentless responsibility. You had to find the time and energy to always have one eye on a female child, to see where they were at all times, whether the wind had blown their skirt too much above their ankle, whether they had changed the style of their hair (this always meant that she had her eye on a young gentleman in the village), whether her eyes were moving too quickly in a crowded space. Male children were simple. They were born, they grew, they chased girls, they reached old age, and then they died. That was it. 

Ayesha never returned back to that house that day. A week later she was found inside a shallow well in a barren field not far from the village; her body blemished with deep purple cuts where a knife had been inserted twenty-seven times. She’d fought back, her mother had told everyone. Her middle finger was sliced to near severance and her long nails were filled with the swarthy flesh of her murderer. “She was brave, my girl”, her mother told everyone after the discovery of her daughter’s body, and she continued telling everyone that her daughter had stood up to her killer until the day she died six months ago from complications that arose after she’d broken her hip following a fall in the kitchen of her house. The moral of the story, Fatima was told, was that a daughter should never betray her parents, never cause her father’s head to bow with shame, because fate would turn around and punish her; as was the case with Ayesha. Fatima never understood how this was the moral of the story. How was it fate that had punished Ayesha? Surely it was her father’s fault for not taking care of her, and her husband’s fault for taking a life that only God had sweetly granted her. Fatima thought a lot about these matters, trying to imagine if Ayesha would have still been alive if her father had helped her ,or if she hadn’t run away in the first place, but she decided that if it wasn’t Mustafa it probably would have been somebody else.  Most girls ran away with their loved ones in Boltasli. There must have been a reason for why these girls desperately ran away into the arms of those who would later claim their lives. These ideas would churn in her mind, but she would never talk to anyone about them. She didn’t know why.  

Fatima wondered if her baby sister would be told this story and whether she’d question the morality of it as she herself had since the day she’d been thrown at the garden wall with the back of her father’s hand when she’d attempted to save her mother from his merciless punches. She never understood how her mother could stay with someone who treated her that way, someone who broke her teeth and pulled out her hair as he dragged her from the sitting room to the kitchen to show her the big pot of soup which she’d added too much chilli to, or the cup she had accidentally chipped. But she knew why she had to stay: because of them, her children, and money and her lack of it. She had no skill and was not even good at cleaning the house, as she tended to only scrub the bits that were visible because she never understood how dust could get to covered places. But when the whole village did their big bayram cleaning once a year, she watched them lift their vases and scrub under them vigorously and she realised that she was wrong; that dust could get under things that hadn’t been moved for months. So, while everyone completed their clean-out by the evening, she would still be moving furniture and dusting and sweeping until the early hours of the morning. 

Fatima’s mother never spoke much, and when she did, she only uttered a few words at a time (Yes, no, maybe, maybe not). Fatima would hear her moaning to herself, murmuring that she had had enough and wishing that He (God) take her away soon to the afterlife, which although she wasn’t sure existed, she guessed could not be worse than what she was experiencing then. Her mother was a fair woman with silky blonde hair and big eyes the colour of the morning sea, her father, a stumpy man so brown one would think that he’d been forgotten out in the sun as a child. And these were not his only bad qualities.  He was also nearly bald with a few clumps of hair dotting the top of his head like forlorn twigs trying to survive in the desert, and a double chin so large that it hung off his face as if it contained a thousand pebbles. It was as she stood outside in the middle of the front lawn of her home, thinking about all these things that didn’t matter, when Ayesha realised there was an unusual stillness around her; the calm before the storm as some might put it. She ambled towards the door, trying her utmost best to stifle a cough that had started to tickle the back of her throat, so as not to disturb the silence that had suddenly enveloped her surroundings. 

“Mother?” she whispered as she extended her head around the crumbling wooden frame of the door. There was no one around. The minder that her mother had given birth in was smeared in blood, some areas splattered with purple lumps resembling chopped liver. The spot where her mother had sat, screaming out the name of the Lord and all her ancestors, bore the marks of her bottom, and a single white sock that Fatima had knit for her baby sibling lay on the concrete ground, sprinkled with crimson blood. 

“Mother?” Fatima shouted once more. “You there, mother?” A single drop of water fell from the tap into the stone kitchen sink, disturbing the silence. Then, something caught her eye. There, on the dark-brown wooden table lay a white napkin, the salt-shaker laying on top of it. From where she was standing, she could see that the napkin was covered in what appeared to be black smudges. As she ambled closer they transformed into thick undefined letters written with what looked like coal, thinned and sharpened; the kind that her mother used to draw around her almond-shaped eyes, enhancing her hazel pupils she was so proud of. Fatima picked up the napkin, and gazed down at it, skimming through the writing. There was the word “pain” that caused a constriction in her heart because she knew what had happened. “Mother. Mother,” she shouted again looking around the house, at the spotless kitchen that her mother had cleaned just before giving birth, at the empty spot on the shoe rack behind the door where her mother’s only pair of leather shoes had been, and then back at the bloody minder. She gazed down at the napkin once again and noticed that the sweat of her palm had almost smeared away the last two words. 

There’s too much pain. You’ll not understand. You never have. I need to go.

T ke Car.

Fatima read the letter a few times, trying to understand whom her mother was addressing. Who was it that had hurt her? That had made her leave? Had it been her? She tried to think of all the things that she had done wrong for the last few weeks, occasions when her mother had opened her eyes so wide Fatima thought they would pop out any second, roll down the large hill the village was situated on and finally fall into the river at the bottom where they would be carried off to places that she had never been. Her mother never shouted, she preferred gestures, using her body to tell Fatima when she wasn’t happy with her; squinting or glaring, wagging a finger, or pinching her neck so fiercely that white patches would form where the blood ceased to flow. To other people she never showed any emotions. Whether she was angry, upset, or disappointed, she always looked the same: deeply fatigued, slow in her motions as if she was always on the verge of using the last drops of energy her body could generate. 

Fatima heard the rhythmic sounds of muddy footsteps resonating from a distance and then gradually getting closer before ceasing near the house. She swung around and saw that it was her brother standing in the doorway. He was breathing heavily, clutching his chest to catch his breath and rocking back and forth. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. Clumps of mud fell from his shoes onto the concrete floor and broke into a thousand pieces. Rain had started to fall, pattering against the aluminium roof of the house and releasing the fresh smell of wet grass. 

“Mother’s gone,” she said, shaking the napkin. “She left a note.”

“I know,” Ali said, still panting.

“You’ve seen the note?” asked Fatima. “You couldn’t have seen it. I was here the whole time.”

“Not the note,” said Ali. “Mother... Uncle Cevat caught her trying to run away through the olive grove up there. He ran after her and grabbed her and brought her back to Father.”

Fatima knew that this was far from good. She thought about Ayesha and her dark end, then tried hard not to imagine her mother in the same situation. She tried to convince herself that the situations were different. While Ayesha had run away from her parents, her mother had simply just run away from her husband and her child. While Ayesha was a young girl, her mother was a grown woman. 

“What’s going to happen to her?” asked Fatima. She looked at his face and couldn’t help but notice the bulge of purple vein on his right temple. “Is she going to be....”

“Shut up,” said Ali, walking towards the kitchen. He picked up an empty glass bottle from the clutter of many next to the rickety oven, placed it in the sink and opened the tap. He turned around and yanked his trousers up from the waist as the water overflowed the bottle and loudly drained into the sinkhole. “Let me know if you want something,” he said whilst removing the cork from the blue olive oil dispenser and jamming it into the bottle that was now filled with foamy water. 

“Where you going?” she said. 

“The neighbour,” said Ali, but Fatima knew that he was lying because his left eye was twitching, which meant that he wasn’t telling the truth. 

“You’re not going to the neighbour,” said Fatima. “Tell me where you’re going.” Ali grabbed the bottle and strode out of the kitchen towards the front door and Fatima followed, but once he had reached the outside, he started sprinting and she couldn’t keep up. “You’re going to mum.” She gazed behind him, the water bottle shining as the sun’s strong rays reflected off it. “You’re going to mum,” she shouted. 

Her brother’s eagerness to leave the house assured Fatima that her mother was somewhere in the village and that he was on his way to see her. She pushed her mother’s note into her dress’s pocket, and then walked out, contemplating where to go first. Where should she ask of her mother’s whereabouts?

She started walking towards the village square, regretting her choice of shoes: they were her brother’s old sandals, at least two sizes too big for her, and a large whole on the left sole meant that her pinky toe touched the ground. She had barely made it a quarter of the way when she saw her uncle’s wife, Nurten Yenge, hanging the bedsheets she washed every week and speaking to someone out of Fatima’s view. 

“Nurten Yenge,” she called from across the road, waving. Her Nurten Yenge pulled off her red headscarf, wrapped it back around her head, brought it round under her chin and tied a knot. Then, she took a few steps backwards and closed her metal front door. 

“Fatima,” she said quite nonchalantly. “What are you doing here?”

“Mother’s missing,” said Fatima. “I don’t know where she is.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” said Nurten Yenge, picking up her laundry basket. “Where’s a grown woman going to go?”

Fatima thought about whether to tell her auntie what had happened, but then decided against it. Her auntie was a loudmouth, always able to tell you exactly who had walked past in front of her house at which particular hour, or which couple in the village had had a rowdy argument at what time. She knew all that went on in the village. Once she had told her neighbour that her husband was sleeping with another woman and that she should be on the lookout for a love-bite just above his right nipple, and when he did come home, tipsy and joyful, she pulled apart his shirt and there indeed it was; a small purplish blotch. Fatima shook her head and was about to leave when she heard a sound from inside; a moan so painful that she could only imagine it coming from a cat who had gotten its tail trapped. She took a few steps towards her Yenge’s door. Her Yenge had started throwing the pegs into the plastic laundry basket with such force that some leapt out landing on the concrete floor. Fatima slid her legs closer to the door. 

“You better go on your way, looking for that mother of yours.”  She grabbed onto the door’s handle. “She’s a disgrace. Go tell her that. She has no face to come back.”

Fatima was about to tell her auntie that she was wrong, that her mother would not do something without good reason. Then she heard the same muffled sound.

“What’s that?” asked Fatima. Her auntie glared at her, her eyes so widely open that Fatima couldn’t look at her for too long, as the bulging eyes reminded her of her father’s glare before he would lift his arm and let it fall on her bony back. 

Her Yenge banged her elbow on the metal door, then shrugged, as though this simple gesture was enough of an answer to Fatima’s question. The intensity of the wind rose, the brittle leaves of the almond tree in front of her Yenge’s house rustled, and a single raindrop fell onto the tip of Fatima’s nose. “Mamo,” she managed, an endearing word she used for her mother. “I’m here.”

Fatima looked down at her own bruised right toe nail (she’d hit it on one of the legs of the wooden table the day before when trying to run away from her brother who was chasing her with a belt swinging over his head, eager to punish her, as he’d heard from his friend Sami that she’d been looking him straight in the eye) and then at the morbid expression on her Yenge’s face; at the way she pursed her lips and lifted her pencil-thin eyebrows. 

“You better go,” her Yenge said. “Your mother’s where she deserves to be. No woman gets to run away from their husband like that. When you get married one day, you just don’t decide to run away.”

Fatima thought of her mother writing the note, slowly drawing the words out one by one, her hands quivering as she struck the line of the “too”, then again when she dotted the i in “pain”.  Then she imagined her own hands doing the same, her lips trembling just like her hands, the inside of her palms shiny with sweat. She imagined that purple mounds concealed her mother’s beautiful hazel eyes, that her lips were crusty with yellow pus, and that her hands were sliced in several places, deep scarlet cuts glistening in the afternoon sun. She imagined the same for herself, the wounds of her hands stinging from the salt of her sweat, the yellow pus bubbling on one side of her lips. 

The hinges of the metal back door squeaked and then shut loudly with a clang before footsteps were heard in the house: small baby steps. 

“Humeira. Is that you?” shouted Yenge from inside. The footsteps ceased. 

Then after a minute of silence: “Yes.” It was Humeira, auntie’s youngest daughter, the one who’d fallen off a tractor when she was only a baby which had left a large dent in the centre of her forehead. 

 “Don’t open the door,” shouted Yenge. The metal hanging peg which she had been holding in her grip fell and tinkled towards Fatima, stopping only when it hit the tip of her shoe. Before her mother could say anything else, Humeira opened the door. Fatima felt her heart constrict and her throat tighten as if a large object had been wedged there restricting her breathing. She forgot words, the ability to speak, and not even sounds escaped her open mouth, from which only a single streak of saliva dripped down. 

Fatima ran, and felt her sandals crumbling with every stone she stepped on. I shouldn’t be running, she thought. Why am I running? Where am I running to? She was running away from the hands that had distorted her mother’s face. She was running away from the voices that would obliterate her mind into a sloppy mush. She was running away from the glares that would cause love to coil inside of her like a frightened caterpillar. But where she was running to, she had no idea. She just knew that she had to cross the field in which her mother had been caught and then she’d be running to safety, to freedom. 

English translation of Turkish words

  • Boltasli – a small village in the northern half of Cyprus; an island in the Mediterranean. 

  • Lefkosia – also known as Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. 

  • Nene  –  grandmother. Also a general word used by the young to refer to the elderly. 

  • Baba –  father

  • Borek  – A pastry with a sweet or savoury filling, using consumed at breakfast. 

  • Muhtar- a senior member in the government; one in charge of a village in Cyprus. Every village has its own muhtar. 

  • Raki – a popular spirit, made of aniseed, consumed in Cyprus

  • Bayram – a religious holiday of Islam. 

  • Minder  –  a piece of furniture that is a mixture between a sofa and a bed. 

  • Yenge – auntie, generally used to refer to close male relative’s wife. 

headshot 1.jpg

Ayshe Dengtash was born in East Street Market, a council estate in South-East London, in the UK to immigrant parents from North Cyprus. When she was 10, her parents and herself migrated back to North Cyprus where she completed her secondary school studies. She later went on to study English Language and Literature at Eastern Mediterranean University. Subsequently, she earned a scholarship from the European Union to undertake a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham in the UK. After completing her MA studies, she moved back to North Cyprus where she worked as a translator and editor at a small newspaper. Eager to continue her studies, she set off to the UK once more, taking up odd jobs (working as a cashier for two years, and a freelance content writer for a year) to fund her PhD degree in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She completed her degree in early 2019. She currently lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two cats, where she teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. She has previously been published in Newfound and The Journal. Writing is her greatest passion, everything else is just a chore.

Q&A with Brittany Balin

We are thrilled to feature Brittany Balin’s Nice Mommy as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Brittany!

What is your favorite childhood book?
My favorite childhood book is My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I found a copy of this book among my stepmother’s belongings as a child and was immediately enthralled. Having a child for the sole purpose of being an organ donor for an older child with cancer is a situation I am sure no person would wish on even their worst enemy. The book enriched my life perspective by including chapters written from the point of view of each of the main characters providing readers with several different experiences and life outlooks. This writing technique is what lead me to become a Jodi Picoult fan overall. I would also recommend her books The Pact and Nineteen Minutes. They are very entertaining and life enriching reads as well. 

What is the first book that made you cry?
The first book that caused me to break down in tears was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I could feel the pain of the characters right off the page as I shared in both their triumphs and losses. The most painful scenes in the book for me were the revealing of Baba as Hassan’s biological father and Hassan’s assault at the hands of bullies in his quest to locate Amir’s kite.

What is your writing Kryptonite?
My writing kryptonite is being able to write pieces that focus on purely the beauty in life without all of the ugly. My viewpoint has always been that suffering is life and life is suffering. In order for us as people to truly love and embrace life, we must take both the beautiful and the “ugly.” A little bit of both or perhaps moreso the ugly is where my writing tends to lean. 

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
My favorite under-appreciated novel is Hate List by Jennifer Brown. This is another novel that takes a terrible tragedy and truly analyzes it for what it is and isn’t by diving deep beneath the surface to show the events that lead up to the disaster as well as what happened after.

Anything else you would like to share?
As an emerging writer who has a passion for both writing and reading, I would love to encourage anyone else who has any desire to write, to settle down and do so no matter how infrequently it ends up being. Writing is an art, an expression of the human form put into words. Each of us is only helping to make the world a richer place by sharing our own perspectives with others. We should all feel free to contribute to the human conversation of life. 

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Brittany Balin

Nice Mommy

by Brittany Balin

I slathered two slices of toasted rye bread with organic unsalted peanut butter. Fresh cherry preserves went on the other two slices. It was the crack of dawn and Nathan, my husband, expected to be awoken to breakfast in bed like any other morning. Breakfast was the same as usual. It consisted of peanut butter which was a staple in our household. Nathan worked at the local peanut butter factory in town and got free jars of the stuff to take home every week. He didn’t like spending money on food so we had to make due with the free goods he got from work. Breakfast involved peanut butter. Lunch involved peanut butter. Dinner involved peanut butter. We went through a jar of peanut butter a day in our house for the four of us- Nathan, myself, and his illegitimate fraternal twins from a previous relationship, Arthur and Phoebe. When God was rewarding us and money was good, we got peanut butter sandwiches. When God was testing us and money was tight, we got peanut butter and cream crackers or peanut butter and bananas. The past few weeks had been going well for us so Nathan had instructed me to pick up some fancy bread from the supermarket to make proper sandwiches. 

I poured hot water from the kettle to make Nathan’s tea. He loved tea and hated coffee. Every morning, I prepared a large mug of piping hot spearmint tea with two and a third tablespoons of brown sugar. It had to be exactly two and a third tablespoons of brown sugar. Any Balin 1 more or less meant that I could look forward to Nathan smacking the mug out of my hand and scalding hot tea splattering all over my face and chest. Things had to be done and they had to be done correctly. There was absolutely no room for failure in this household. 

“Clover, where the hell is my breakfast? Are you stupid or something? It ain’t that hard to make a sandwich,” Nathan’s voice boomed through the house. 

“Comin’!” I surveyed my appearance in the hallway mirror to make sure nothing about me was out of place. My frizzy auburn spiral curls were pulled back into a side ponytail. My sepia brown skin glistened in the overhead fluorescent light which caused it to appear greasy. I swiped at it, but that did nothing besides further muss my already wild, bushy eyebrows. 

“Don’t raise your voice at me, whore! I pay the bills in this house. Don’t you ever forget that. I’ll slap you and your ugly face back to Bonaire where you can live in your own hut. Understand me?” He scratched at his long, scruffy beard. His gray almond eyes burned a hole through my face. 

“Yes, baby. I’m sorry,” I bent over to set the plate on his nightstand, but he snatched it out of my hand before I had the chance to. He then proceeded to snatch the mug of tea out of my other hand as well. 

“Get out of my face and wake the two little bastards up,” He growled. 

I took six steps to the left and kicked the blow up mattress on the floor as hard as I could to wake Arthur and Phoebe. Nathan instructed me to kick once to wake them up. If they didn’t budge, I was to kick again. If they still didn’t wake up, I was to douse them with scalding hot water from the kettle. They hated being doused with hot water so they were sure to bolt awake before I could kick the mattress a second time. Arthur gazed at me guardedly through his own gray almond eyes. He looked so much like his father that sometimes it scared me. When I looked at him, it felt like I was looking at Nathan. The only difference was that I answered to Nathan and Arthur answered to me whenever Nathan put me in charge of him and Phoebe. Arthur knew this. He knew our routine so I did not have to verbalize what was on the morning agenda. The newspapers we provided for them to use as blankets were to be stacked neatly and placed underneath the blow up mattress until it was time to go to bed again. They were then to bathe and dress themselves before coming to the kitchen for breakfast. After that, it was off to school and I was a free woman until Nathan came home with them at four o’ clock. 

I sauntered back to the kitchen to prepare their breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was peanut butter mixed with garlic powder spread over the linoleum kitchen floor to spell out the word “bastard” in large capital letters. Nathan wanted them to know what they were. The garlic powder was my own addition. I thought it would be more pleasant for them than the cayenne pepper Nathan had told me to mix into it. Cayenne pepper was too spicy for children and at the very least, even illegitimate children should be allowed to enjoy a good meal. “Get in here, you little pieces of trash. Clover made your breakfast. You better eat it all or else you won’t be getting dinner tonight,” Nathan said as he pulled a navy blue wool sweater over his head. He was barefoot and I could see that he had a fresh blister one inch in diameter on his heel. His work boots usually caused him two or three blisters a week. The extra money we were forced to spend on food for the children really should have gone towards buying him a new pair of work boots instead. 

The children crept into the kitchen as I turned my back to prepare their lunches for school. I toasted four slices of rye bread and layered them with peanut butter and cherry preserves. Nathan stood over me and grabbed the knife from my hand. He raised his foot to the sink and used the tip of the knife to poke a hole into the blister. I placed the plate of bread slices below his heel so that the liquid from the blister could be evenly distributed onto each slice of bread over the peanut butter and cherry preserves. 

From behind us, Phoebe’s shrill whimpers filled the room. She was a weak-willed child and often cried over the most mundane things. I turned around so I could see for myself what was going on. Phoebe’s eyes teared up as she licked the chunks of peanut butter Arthur had scooped up off of the floor with his fingers to feed her. They were both seven years old but their relationship seemed to resemble one of father and daughter rather than that of brother and sister. 

“Lick the floor clean,” Nathan smiled at them. “I know you’re both hungry as sin.” 

Phoebe started crying and Arthur tried to hush her. 

“Shut up, you ugly whore,” Nathan slammed his fist into the wall. “I want that floor licked clean.” 

Arthur scraped up the last tangible bits of peanut butter off the floor and fed them to Phoebe. Then, he licked the floor making sure that all traces of peanut butter were gone. I tossed him a dish towel to wipe his saliva from the floor. I tried to keep the house as clean as possible just the way Nathan liked it. I waited patiently as he scrubbed the floor furiously and thought of what I needed to do for the day. The walls needed to be washed and the toilet scrubbed. Dinner had to be ready as soon as Nathan and the kids walked in the door. Today was Tuesday and I also needed to set aside time to watch reruns of Mork & Mindy. That show was so incredibly nostalgic to me and had captured my heart from the first time I happened to catch an episode on television. I would redo my nails as I watched the show to kill two birds with one stone. The glossy taupe color I painted them over the weekend had already chipped terribly. I certainly couldn’t walk around as Mrs. Nathan Gomez with chipped nails. 

Nathan planted a kiss on my cheek snapping me out of my daydream. “Be good. Don’t leave the house and don’t answer the phone unless I tell you to do otherwise.” 

“Yes, honey,” I said watching Phoebe sling her red knapsack over her shoulder and trail out of the house behind Arthur. She turned back to look at me, her eyes pleading for something that I couldn’t make out. Did she want more garlic powder in her peanut butter tomorrow morning? Less? Maybe she wanted ground coriander instead of garlic powder. I couldn’t read minds so I had no way of confirming what exactly it was she wanted. I studied her freckles. Today, they were more prominent than usual. They were cinnamon dots speckled across her tan skin matching her cinnamon colored mermaid waves. Her hair swished from side to side as she walked. It reminded me of a swinging pendulum that was ticking away the seconds until they all returned home. 

Once Nathan’s blue Hyundai disappeared down the block, I snuck into his liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of good Napoleon brandy to have with my morning milk. All it took was three ounces of brandy added to eight ounces of whole milk to make my day. Suddenly, the sun seemed brighter and when I looked at myself in the hallway mirror, I saw a full bosom and curvy hips staring back at me instead of my usual flat chest and gangly thin frame. In this mirror world, I was an old money American girl married to an old money American boy. I was no longer the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant mother who had fled Bonaire with her ten year old daughter to escape an abusive husband. I was no longer a gawky giant with slugs for eyebrows. Nathan wasn’t two inches shorter than me anymore either. He had never gotten Holly Rahman pregnant with the twins at sixteen. Holly and her family had never taken off on a flight back to Jordan and abandoned the twins with Nathan to escape the shame of teenage motherhood. We were just perfect. 

By lunchtime, the buzz from the alcohol had worn off and I was back to just being me again. I stealthily placed the bottle of brandy back in the exact position I had taken it from. I even replaced the lost volume of brandy with three ounces of water. Nathan did not take kindly to women who drank. He was haunted by memories of his alcoholic mother who would frequently run back to her home country of Switzerland leaving him to care for his disabled father. Mr. Gomez had originally come to America to receive treatment for burns that he sustained in an industrial fire back in Tijuana, Mexico. Due to his injuries, he had limited mobility and relied on his wife and kids to help him with many everyday tasks. Nathan believed that women grew lazy and disrespectful when they drank. The scent of alcohol on my breath would lead to me being thrashed into the wall with handfuls of hair torn from my scalp. I brushed my teeth, gargled with mouthwash and got to cleaning. 

Nathan and the kids arrived home just as I had finished painting my nails and plated the peanut butter and cherry preserve sandwiches for dinner. I poured everyone a glass of milk and took my place at the table while they took off their shoes by the front door. My taupe nails sparkled in the overhead light to match my beaded taupe dress. They had been clipped and filed with the nail clippings tucked meticulously into the children’s sandwiches. I was a spoiled housewife at the tender age of twenty. I had it good, much better than my mother did after coming to America and having to work two jobs to support us. She never accepted a man into her life again and we suffered for it. The bills were never paid. There was no one to fix things around the house or take out the garbage. There was no one to protect us from break-ins and robberies. It was entirely my mother’s fault. She had abandoned her husband and middle class life for single motherhood and poverty in a strange new country. The only thing she accomplished was robbing us both of a stable lifestyle. I, on the other hand, was highly blessed and had no interest in changing the way things were. 

Nathan gulped down some milk. “Let’s play a little game. I’m going to give you two little dunces forty five seconds to finish your dinner. Any leftovers go in the garbage, you understand?” 

“That’s too short!” Arthur balled up his fists. 

“Forty seconds,” Nathan smiled from ear to ear and glanced down at his watch. “And your time starts now.” 

Arthur and Phoebe shoved their sandwiches in their mouths trying to make as much of it fit as possible. Nathan chuckled until Arthur started to hiccup as he tried to swallow the enormous lump in his throat. He coughed and gasped for air. Nathan laughed even harder as Arthur’s lips turned blue and he slumped over in his seat motionless. Phoebe began trembling and her eyes welled up with tears. Amber liquid leaked from her chair into a puddle on the floor. Instantaneously, she soiled the floors I had just worked so hard to scrub and polish. 

“Nathan, Arthur isn’t moving,” I said. 

“Get up, greedy hog,” He kicked the leg of Arthur’s chair. Arthur lunged forward at the table and then rolled onto the floor. His body was flaccid dead weight. 

“Something is wrong,” I stood up. Nathan yanked at Arthur’s hair, but he still didn’t move. “Call an ambulance. This little bastard is going to cost us a couple hundred dollars. We won’t be able to afford bread for sandwiches next week.” 

I ran to the house phone to dial for emergency services. They were at our door before ten minutes had passed. Arthur never got up. He wasn’t breathing and could not be resuscitated. He had choked to death on his sandwich. Phoebe was inconsolable. That night, Nathan had to clamp his hands down over her mouth to stop her wailing. It eventually quieted down from an eardrum shattering screech to a barely audible whimper as she stopped trying to push him off and fell asleep. I took the liberty of covering her with plenty of newspapers so she would at least sleep warm now that her brother wasn’t here to use his set of newspapers. Her hair was matted to her head with sweat and her skin was sticky to the touch. I examined her face and noticed that she was right between Nathan and I concerning phenotype. She could easily pass as our child unlike Arthur. In the three years I had been with Nathan, I had failed to fall pregnant despite trying so many times. I had never been on birth control and we never used protection yet it didn’t appear to be part of God’s plan to bless me with a child at the moment. Furthermore, Holly was out of the picture for good and was never coming back. She had abandoned the kids to save her reputation amongst her own community. Nathan was the one with the good heart who took the children in and provided them with housing, food and an education. We were meant to be a family after all. 

Arthur’s death was ruled accidental as it should have been. Nathan explained to the doctors that Arthur often rushed when eating in order to have more free time to play board games. This time, his rushing took a fatal turn and ended with him choking to death. Only he and Phoebe were at the table at the time the accident took place. Once I got wind of what was going on, I rushed over to swat his back to help him cough up whatever he was choking on. However, I was unsuccessful and didn’t know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Left with no other choice, Nathan dialed for an ambulance. During the wait for the ambulance, Arthur fell unconscious and never woke up again. We received sympathy from everyone involved. Nathan and I were only twenty three and twenty respectively. We were doing the best we could, but sometimes accidents happened. There was simply nothing that could have been done to prevent Arthur’s death. 

After the funeral, we treated Phoebe to breakfast at the local diner and told her she could order whatever she wanted. I smoothed out my pleated chiffon skirt as I took a seat next to her. It matched my nails which were a beautiful juniper color. Phoebe had been dressed to match me, too. She had two pigtails with juniper ribbons on the ends and wore a juniper choir dress. We looked like mother and daughter to the public eye with our family patriarch sitting tall and proud in a freshly steamed suit. 

“Would you like to try the country fried potatoes with gorgonzola cheese? You can have a stack of blackberry pancakes, too,” I reached over to pat her head. 

Phoebe’s body stiffened and she looked at me with wide eyes. 

“Do you want to tell mommy what you want or are you not hungry?” I tried again. This time, Nathan cleared his throat. 

“I want the potatoes and the pancakes, please,” She said in a barely audible voice. 

"It’s please, mommy,” I corrected her. 

“Please, mommy,” She repeated with glazed over eyes. 

I smiled and waved at the closest waitress. “Hello, miss, we are ready to order.” 

The waitress, who appeared to be a few years older than me, studied us curiously. “Look at those gorgeous clothes. Are y'all coming from a little get together or somethin’?” 

“A funeral, actually,” I corrected her. “Our son just passed away.” 

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” She frowned. 

“That’s alright,” Nathan interrupted adjusting his tie. “He’s in a better place now.” 

The waitress opened her mouth, but no words came out. She tucked her platinum blonde hair behind her ears and stared down at her notepad. “So what can I get y'all to eat?” 

“Our little girl will have a stack of blackberry pancakes and the country fried potatoes with gorgonzola cheese to go with it. My husband and I will also have a stack of blackberry pancakes each, but bring us two slices of banana bread and two poached eggs as well. We’ll all have orange juice. Thanks, dear,” I smoothed out my skirt once again. 

“Sure thing, ma’am,” She collected our menus. 

I watched her disappear behind the double doors to the kitchen before turning to Phoebe. 

“You’re having a good time, aren’t you?” 

Phoebe’s bottom lip quivered. “Yes.” 

“Yes, mommy,” I tapped her shin with the toe of my silver kitten heels. 

“Yes, mommy,” She said. 

“Do you want me to be a nice mommy or a mean one?” I asked. 

“A nice one,” She said. 

“Then you have to be a good daughter and do what I say. Good things happen to good little girls and bad things happen to bad little girls,” I clasped my hands. 

“Okay. I will be a good daughter, mommy,” She sniffled. 

I reached over to pet her and she flinched. I knew it was going to take more work to train her. We could be the perfect family if she got her act together. Now that Arthur was out of the picture, she would be much easier to subdue. She could sleep with us in our bed to get more comfortable with the idea of me being her mother. Holly was never coming back and I was not going anywhere. Phoebe could easily pass as my daughter with Nathan and I had no issue with mothering her for the foreseeable future until God blessed me with my own child. I was certainly ready to fulfill God’s intended role for me as a mother and homemaker. 

Note To Reader from Brittany

This story was written to explore the mindsets of people who abuse children. Concerning the protagonist and stepmother Clover, I took the angle that she witnessed her mother being abused by her father as a child which established such behavior as normal to her. The fact that her mother financially struggled after leaving her father made her believe that women could not survive in the world without support from a man. She is desperate to be taken care of and even though she still lives in poverty, she feels safer now that she doesn’t have to work and she has a husband to take care of her. She is desperate for love and security and sees Nathan’s children, who are also desperate for love and security, as her competition. Concerning Clover’s husband Nathan, I took the angle that he resents his children for being born and forcing him to take responsibility for his actions after their birth mother abandons them. He also takes out the trauma of his childhood on his wife and kids. One issue I ran into while writing the story was the conundrum of making such monstrous characters appear human with their own trauma and insecurities. I find the actions and attitudes of both characters in the story to be reprehensible. I certainly do not condone such atrocious behavior. 


My name is Brittany Balin. I am a student at Stonybrook University and an English major. 
I enjoy writing as it is one of the few areas in life I feel comfortable expressing myself. Prior to this wonderful opportunity to publish a short story, I have published poetry in my University’s literary magazine Spoke The Thunder. I have always dreamed of being able to contribute to the literary world but wasn’t sure if it would come into fruition. I am happy to say that even though it may not be easy, pursuing one’s passions should never be put on the back burner. 

Q&A with Troy Allan

We are thrilled to feature Troy Allan’s Holy Fools as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Troy!

What is your favorite childhood book?
To be honest, I was not a “book worm," as a child. My brothers and I spent a great amount of time outdoors exploring craggy creek bottoms and hitting the baseball with my dad. However, although books were not high on my priority list, the theatre was. I cannot recall a time in my childhood I was not sitting at the feet of my father while he directed. Above everything, it was the theatre that caught and held my attention as a child. My first time on stage, and I am digging as deep as I can, I played the role of a child in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, The King and I. It must have been 1977 or ‘78, I was in preschool. Like many artists, writers, actors, or poets, I can trace every moment of my first experience with the art. I smell the metal-like stage make-up, the heat of the stage lights on the top of my blonde head, and the singing of the company combined with the crisp applaud of the audience. I see the bright costumes that flow as if sprinkled with fairy dust. But, more than anything, I recall thinking: this is magical! I spent most of my adolescent years reading plays and memorizing lines. So, perhaps the question should be, what was your favorite childhood art memory and I would answer: it was playing the role of the courier in Sherman Edward’s, 1776, and singing, “Mama, Look Sharp.” I was twelve-years-old. 

What is the first book that made you cry?
When I think of books that have stirred strong emotion, I think of books like Richard Adams’s, Watership Down. There is something special about the way Adams illustrates the struggle of the human condition with the group of wild rabbits searching for a home. This resonated in my soul as a young boy. Books that anthropomorphize creatures have a special place in my heart, and I believe it is because of the connection I have to nature. Maybe this explains why Annie Dillard’s, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is so moving. 

How many hours a day do you write?
I don’t have a set number of hours I write. When I find the muse, I go to work! But, I hardly ever write more than two hours at a time. Most of my writing comes in the afternoon or early evening after a full day of teaching, thinking, and engaging with the world. I write as much as I can every day. 

If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
That is easy. Read. Read. Read.

Anything else you would like to share?
My son is a visual artist, and we work together in his studio. I see the joy art brings to us. I would encourage everyone to support the arts—literature, visual, music, theatre- the world needs more artists and programs that support the arts. I believe we all struggle with the human condition and through art, we can come to understand the journey and perhaps even find God. 

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Troy Allan

Holy Fools

by Troy Allan

But there always exist in society some men and women
 whom the Fool touches, who respond to the Fool.
For the Fool awakens the Fool in others,
but in many the Fool is stifled or sleeps. […]
The Fool is the essential poetic integrity of life itself,
clear and naked, overflowing in cosmic fun;
 not the product of intellectual achievement,
but a creation of the culture of the heart.
A culture of the genius of life. […]
It is the joy of the original Adam in men

-Cecil Collins 

It occurred to me, perhaps in the last few days, that holy fools walk in our midst. Like ghostly images that float in and out of view, the holy fool seems to crouch around every corner. But, in my smugness, I will often step by with my nose caught in the air. For me, the term holy fool conjures figures of Eastern Orthodox aesthetics dressed in dirty rags that sit with clasped hands in the cold. But I realize this is perhaps wrong. Cecil Collins’ painting of The Sleeping Fool, affirms a fool not from the Orthodox tradition, but as a person, not unlike myself, with eyes closed in contented reverie neither asking for or seeking attention. And as Priscilla Hunt adds holy fools “make the hypocritical Christian uncomfortable enough with his unexamined faith to recognize and honor Christ in the holy fool.” When I stop and examine my life, the holy fool turns me inward to my ridiculousness and produces humility. That is, I see the holy fool as a mirror.

It was just past two when my family and I finished our burgers and fries at Burger Meister on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California. We voted to escape Pacific Grove, and make the two-hour trip north to the East Bay. Before we left, I received an email regarding a five hundred dollar rent increase. I don’t have an extra five hundred dollars a month for rent. I worried as I looked at my children, our home, my wife. As if I received a blow on the chin from a heavy weight fighter, the request rocked me off my heels and I felt thrown against the ropes with no place to turn. “How could they do this?” I asked. In a desperate moment, I suggested we should “get out of town for the day.” I assumed “getting out of town” would take my mind off of things, ease the blow. But, by the time we arrived in Berkeley with the traffic, the expensive of gas and the “How much longer?” murmurings from the backseat, I was in a worse place than before we left. I began to lose my vision. But, “the Heavenly Father desires that we should see,” said Ruysbroeck, “and that is why He is ever saying to our inmost spirit one deep unfathomable word and nothing else.” But what is that word? Today, I think the word is “frustration” or perhaps a better word, “disappointment.” Why, I wondered, was God teaching me this word today? After parking, I fed the meter and spotted my reflection in the car mirror. My face was long and my shoulders drooped. It was as if I could not stand straight. I did my best to act happy by pointing out some Buddhist art in a store window, but my daughter took my hand and asked, “Daddy, are you okay?” I don’t remember if I answered. From across the street, I saw a teenage girl holding her dad’s hand and I feared or wondered what kind of day he was having. He looked happy, but what was under the façade? Could his daughter see through him?  “Will you hold my hand when you are a teenager? I inquired. “Yes, Daddy, of course.”  

The streets in Berkeley were bare that day and they stank of a strong flowery perfume. Most of the students had gone away for the week and the locals were indoors although the sun was sparkling. Spring rested on the city. The blossoms on the trees looked larger than normal. The city overgrown with grass and tall weeds added to my distain. Heavy winter rains produced a rich growing season unlike years past. The rains encouraged the seeds that had laid dormant in the cracks of the pavement. The encouragement to flourish must have been intense as the city looked like vegetation would overwhelm it any minute: a dystopian future where the weeds and grass eat the vacant city. “Doesn’t the city care about this?” I challenged. “What a wreck! I guess it matches all the garbage and homeless camps along the freeway.” And like the grass and weeds, my happiness was overwhelmed by my poor attitude and frustration with the world. My attitude needed weed killer.  

We went to Burger Meister only because our favorite place in Berkeley, Farm Burger, a cool farm-to-table joint with a convivial atmosphere had closed. I would have rather gone to Farm Burger, but Burger Meister would have to work. We push through the front doors and hustle past the homeless camp out front. A smile meets me at the counter. Nice, I thought. The smile was a development from how the day was going. But suddenly, after I ordered the meal, the girl with a grin attached to her face, handed me the bill for sixty dollars. I stood with my hands in my pocket. My eyes met the girl’s. Burgers and fries for sixty dollars? I had kept everything back until this stage and like a garden hose with a kink, the pressure was too high and I broke open at my weakest point. “Sixty dollars, are you kidding me?” The girl at the counter in her black pants and stained red shirt carefully spelled out, “Yes, Sir, sixty dollars and fifteen cents… please.” 

I had no affection for Burger Meister and was ready to leave before we had sat down. Before I paid, I turned and looked outside past the streaked glass, past the weeds, past the grime, and noticed the homeless. I felt disoriented in a battle between feelings of fortune and hopelessness. What could I do to help those on the street? Turning back, as if awakened, I jammed my debit card into the card reader and punched in my pin. I didn’t include a tip. The young woman handed me the receipt along with a number attached to a stand. Her smile vanished. I deserved the frown. I had earned it. It was not her fault. She had not set the price of the food, told the landlords to raise the rent, or turned the street into a homeless encampment. Why? Why did I do this? It was as if a heavy blanket was being placed over my soul. Simone Weil explained, “where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.” Now that I think about it, I was being overtaken by affliction. I should have looked for beauty. 

Burger Meister, a Berkeley icon, distinguished for its avocado bacon burger and hand-cut fries, was nasty. The employees had not swept the floors, greasy prints marked the windows and food spotted the old tables. The windows looked as if someone, after eating their burger, ran for the exit, but missed the door leaving a greasy trail from the top to the bottom. Someone in the kitchen sounded as if they were working to fire up an old Ford pickup truck. I guessed if the greasy floors and dirty tables didn’t make us sick, the cook in the back would. I thought about the year we lived in Berkeley and how my attitude was different today.

In 2015, I studied comparative religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. My family and I became acquainted with the busyness and difficulty of the city. And although we would play rock-paper-scissors to determine who ran to Safeway’s for ice cream, we enjoyed our life in the city. It seems we always came into contact with the most fascinating people. For example, a shaman once asked me if she could restore my knee as she saw I walked with a limp. “I’ve been watching you for months,” she said. She tracked me for what had to be a mile but I finally outwalked her. And once, there was the day a man used the park bench as his toilet while engineer students from The University of California, Berkeley, played a muggle version of quittage. With old broomsticks between their legs they would chase each other through the park. There was the ancient Asian woman that ate paper and there was a small company or tribe of shady homeless guys that lived in front of Popeye’s Chicken. While wandering to find lunch, we watched a man in a clown suit yell a sing-song profanity rap at a teenager who had mounted a tree. And, let’s not ignore the supermarket cart full of creepy oversized Frozen dolls that seized my daughter’s attention. “Look, it’s Anna and Elsa!” This, I suppose is what makes Berkeley such a fun place to live and visit. To me, it is what happens when Jeopardy meets Survivor.

But today, things were different the city was ugly. It confronted me, even backed me into a corner. Everything looked depressed, dirty, maybe designed to destroy me. In front of Burger Meister was a homeless man with his butt sticking out of his underpants. And after our lunch, I knew I would need to navigate this mess with my family. We ate our sixty-dollar grease and left the restaurant. Near the man with his pants off, I saw two men sitting at a retaining-wall debating the purpose of the man with the “white ass.” I stood at the door and listened. “Why would he hang it for everyone to see?” they asked as they looked my way. The everyone they spoke of included my children. Once again, I took my daughter’s hand and quickly moved by the man. If you can imagine a family on a bear hunt but instead of sticky mud, it was a white naked ass. 

The image disturbed me: a grown man lying on the ground with his trousers off. “Why was that man’s butt out of his pants?” my daughter asked. In response, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head I thought I might have a stroke. I had no real answer. “I don’t know, because, I guess, he doesn’t know better,” I said. But I think the man does know better or at least knew better at one time in his life. I guess I should have done something, but what do you do with a man and his naked ass? I could have dropped to my knees in prayer or maybe, like Annie Dillard suggested, we just keep walking and when my left foot hit the sidewalk I shout, “Glory,” because what else can I do?  

I walked and my walk was heavy, weighed down by worry. I kept a hold of my daughter’s hand for a long time, as if she was holding me up; as if I had just jumped off a merry-go-round. There is only one thing that can save this day, I thought. As we walked up the street, we were setting a course for our last and final destination: the vegan cinnamon roll bakery.

Then I saw them, the holy fools, but this was not my initial impression. More fools begging for my money. At least these guys have on pants. From out of the vegan bakery window, I watched the two young fools. They performed a sophisticated dance. It was not a dance like you may think, there was no music, just movement. The man nearest the bakery stood at a planter used as a table. He arranged two Starbuck cups in front of himself and in front of the other man. He then put a glass, a little larger than a shot glass, on the table. From his backpack he removed a clear glass jug with water and placed it on the makeshift table. The man on his right, the man wearing the long purple trench-coat, drew a sandwich from his grey duffel bag and with graceful movements unwrapped it. I say sandwich, but it was like a flatbread grilled cheese: maybe a panini. 

The man nearest to the window, wearing a dirty faded black sweatshirt, grubby acid washed jeans and worn-out converse shoes, took the empty glass and turning it over cut circles in the sandwich. When he would cut, the other man would distribute the circle sandwiches evenly between them. The leftover crust was ripped apart and each man given his share. Once the cutting and dividing ended, the empty glass became the center piece and filled with water. The ritual ended and the men ate and drank. They took turns with the water glass, without once touching the cups from Starbucks. Thinking back on the incident, the exchange seemed to be a kind of i holy street communion.

 I noticed the man in the purple coat had a wonderfully strange hairdo. His har was dragged in from both sides to the top of his head and then braided with pendants which drooped in front of his face. It reminded me of a deep-water angler fish, something you would see in a nature film. Although I could not hear what the men were saying, I sensed they were debating something significant. In my imagination the men were rehearsing a play or discussing the latest Facebook feed. Maybe discussing a prayer? But my shadow self took over and imagined them speaking of how to get their street corner back – their hunting grounds. Perhaps they were scheming to take my money when I left the bakery. Maybe they wished to steal my daughter and sell her like an incident in a movie I once saw. I was sure whatever they were planning was inappropriate. Simone Weil was correct. Imagination clogs the cracks through which grace might pass. I seem to always think the worse and yet God continues to forgive me. 

So, at that time, because of the force of gravity pulling me into the muck, my mind placed these men in the ranks of homeless beggars: riffraff off the streets. I was already angry at the world and these two were my new targets – easy prey for someone feeling down on his luck. But something was unusual. Something was not adding up. The men appeared not to ask for money or to bother other people. I found their ritual and their clothing odd, but fascinating. They were standing in the tall grass waiting for something.  

“Sir, your order is ready,” came the reply from the girl behind the counter. Her voice, alarmed me and jolted me back to reality like the girl at the burger joint. “I have one regular cinnamon roll, one Chia flavored cinnamon roll, and one package of mini cinnamon rolls. That will be…” 

“Please, don’t tell me the total,” I said with a smirk. “Here is my card.”

“Sure… Thank you for coming in.”

“My pleasure. I’m certainly hoping these are good.”

“Absolutely! Here, let me give you a paper bag to carry all of that.” A free paper bag in California is a big deal! A very big deal. 

“Thank you. That is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has done for me all day.” There was some light being let in from under the blanket edge.

“Your welcome. I hope your day is amazing!” She handed me the bag. 

I took my free paper bag and cinnamon rolls and walked out the door. The air again was strong, you could nearly taste the blossoms, it was bitter.

“Daddy, what did you get?” my daughter asked as she caught at my pant legs nearly knocking me over.

“Cinnamon rolls!” I held up the bag as if I had killed dinner for a hungry tribe.


I took her hand and prepared myself to walk by the two men. I believed they would beg for money or say something about my daughter or make a vulgar comment about my wife or maybe even hang their butts out of their pants. I was bracing to tell them to get lost or… and I am sad for what I am going to say, but I was going to tell them to get a “fucking job!” I don’t usually curse, but I was charged with lightening and I had had all day to prepare for this moment. My eye captured the eye of the man nearest the bakery. He quickly chewed his circle sandwich and struggled to speak. He held up his hand in a thumbs-up expression and half swallowing, came the words that transformed my day. Exactly as Dillard points out, that her entire life she was a bell, but never realized it until at that moment when she was lifted and struck. This was my ringing. The words that made him a holy fool and made me realize just how selfish and hypocritical I can be.

“Nice hair cut man!”

I did not know what to say. The only remarks that came out of my mouth in a collision of emotions was “Thanks, man.” I tried to process what else I could say, I looked at his hair, it was nice too. But I couldn’t find the words – I was so shocked by his kind sincerity that I felt time stop. It was as if the man was sitting in contented reverie. 

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” 

Time started again. We walked past the men and my son ran to my side “Dad, you try’n to flex on me?” He laughed a little teenage laugh: the kind that makes me swell with joy. “Did you hear that, Dad? They like your haircut!” I hand my wife the white paper bag and take both children by the hand. Through the tall grass, as if continuing our bear hunt, we march side-by-side down the street. As if we were walking with Annie Dillard, we shout, “Glory!” and “Amen!”   

Troy (1).jpg

Troy Allan is a professional Chaplain, Essayist, and Professor. He holds multiple graduate and doctoral degrees in Pastoral Counseling, Comparative Theology, and the Humanities. He is currently finishing an MFA in creative writing with a forthcoming book of essays: "Why Must These Things Be?" Troy and his family enjoy world travel, the outdoors, and quiet time watching movies and reading books. Troy currently calls Pacific Grove, California home. To read more about Troy visit his website at www.troydallan.org or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/troy-d-allan

Q&A with Ryan Goodwin

We are thrilled to feature Ryan Goodwin’s Another Man’s Place as part of our weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Ryan!

What is your favorite childhood book?

The first novel that really inspired me to become a writer was S. E. Hinton's "The Outsiders". I fell in love with the characters and the easy going approach Hinton took while describing such a beautifully brutal era of childhood. I was even more amazed when I found out how young she was when she wrote the novel and it took this otherworldly thing, a novel, and made it tangible and touchable. Her success gave me hope that maybe one day people really might care what I had to say about the world. In short, that book changed everything for me.

What is the first book that made you cry?

I'm not certain I can detail the first time a book made me cry, but I do know I cried like a pinched infant when Old Yeller was shot. It was the first of many dog deaths both real and fictional that pulled tears from me.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

My first screenplay was an adaptation of "The Giver", written on notebook pages in multicolored pens in 8th grade. That book woke up a part of me that had been asleep. It really showed me the teaching and healing powers fiction can have on a young mind. When, in the novel, you first see the color red in a world of grayscale, there's no going back from the realization of how deeply a well constructed story can infiltrate your mind. I'm still in awe of the talent and purpose coursing through that novel.

How long on average does it take you to write an essay/flash fiction?

I wrote the first draft of "Another Man's Place" in one sitting. As soon as the connection between those three moments of my life was realized, I just ran with it until I felt I didn't have any more to say. It took hours of editing and benefited from many great conversations and critiques before it reached a final draft, but that first draft was maybe three or four hours of all out, fingers can't keep pace writing.

Anything else you would like to share?

I am lucky enough to have a great support system and a lot of very talented writers and readers looking out for me and encouraging me at every step. I am and will always be grateful for that.

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Ryan Goodwin

Another Man’s Place, by Ryan Goodwin

Baby was lying in the tall grass a foot away from the far side of my mom’s front porch. For a moment, I thought she was being lazy. I called her name. She raised her head slowly, straining to look over at me. Her eyes were wet and dark. My stomach slid into an icy pool. I went and sat next to her in the grass. She lay there and let me pet her for a few minutes. I could feel the slowness of her breathing as my hands ran across her belly and chest. I thought of my older brother Nathan. He was in Austin, probably in class on UT’s campus. I looked back at Baby. Her eyes melted into me like a question: Where is he?

Baby was Nathan’s dog, always had been. There was no doubt the two had a connection, a way of understanding each other, that Baby didn’t have with any other human. She was his dog. He was her boy. For the last three years she had lived for summer vacation, for winter break, for any long weekend when he could come home to her. She was waiting for him now.

I went inside and put some milk in a bowl. I filled a second bowl with soft dog food. I sat both next to her and pet her for a few minutes. She seemed comforted by my presence, but I felt like an imposition, like my being there was making her try harder. Baby was a very vain, dignified dog. She was the only female dog my family has ever had, but she ran the show. None of the four male dogs she lived with at one time or another ever scared or intimidated her. She ate first. She was petted first. She was the alpha dog. Watching her struggle for breath was undignified. As much as she wanted me to stay, to pet her and speak softly in her ear, I could feel she wanted to be alone. She wanted silence.

I found my dog Tex in the backyard. He was so nervous and upset he was shaking. I sat next to him for a moment and talked to him like he was a child. I told him to give Baby her space. I told him to be strong and to be sweet. I told him I would be back as soon as I could. He just sat there and shook.

I checked on Baby again and left the house. It was senior skip day. I went to a friend’s house, sat in his pool, drank beer with my buddies and flirted with the girls in our grade. In the intensity of the moment, knowing we would soon drift apart, they flirted back. They gave us the attention they had purposely denied us all through high school. For that day it was like junior high again. They forgot about the older guys, the college guys they were dating or trying to date. We reminisced about our pasts, we reminded them we knew them better, knew them more intimately than any older guy could. We had been there for all of it, when they were brace faced and flat chested, when they were Tom Boys and softball stars, when they had their first kiss at recess in the sixth grade. For that day we were all friends again. We dropped the hard feelings we had developed for each other the last four years. We pretended the more we drank and flirted the slower time would progress, the more the earth would stop spinning, the longer we could avoid our futures. I drank and tried to forget about the world out of sight. I forgot about Baby.

I drove home around eleven o’clock that night, still slightly drunk and sunburned to the core. My mom was out of town for a teacher’s workshop and when I pulled into the yard none of the lights were on. I got out and called for Baby. She didn’t come. Tex started to bark and whine. I felt a chill in my stomach again. I found a flashlight in my car. I found Baby in the spot I had left her. She wasn’t moving. She was cold. The bowl of milk was half gone, the soft dog food sat untouched.

I walked out into the yard and felt the darkness around me like a tangible force. It started to rain.

I found the shovel and dug the grave next to where my first dog Shadow was buried. Shadow was like a father to Baby. He taught her the ropes. If Baby was Rocky, Shadow was Mickey.

The headlights of my mom’s car cast bright strips of light across the yard, illuminating the rain as it fell around me in fat, shiny drops. Tex stood next to me, shaking and whining, occasionally sliding a paw across the dirt. He thought he was helping. Tears built up in the corners of my eyes at the thought.

I put Baby into two black trash bags and carried her to the grave. Tex began to howl. He smelled her again and again, maybe mistrusting his nose for the first time in his life. He prodded her with a paw. I pushed him away. He ran to the opposite end of the yard and cried and howled up at the rain and the moon. I told him to shut up.

I dropped Baby into the grave as gently as I could manage. I looked behind me, at the road leading away from the house. For a moment, I thought I heard a car. My ears pricked up slightly. I leaned forward, my eyes searching the darkness for the outline of a vehicle, hoping I would see it, hoping through the blackness of the night and the wetness of the rain I would see him, my brother driving home, guided here by some sense of dread, some connection with the universe that had signaled to him like a radio wave to come home. There was no car. Nathan wasn’t there.

I looked back at the grave, at the trash bags covering Baby’s body. I had a profound feeling of being in the wrong place, of steeling my brother’s closure.

“I’m sorry girl. I’m so sorry he’s not here. He loves you so much. I love you, too.”

There was no response but a gust of wind. My wet t-shirt slapped against my body. I realized I was completely soaked. Rain was building up in the bottom of the grave, gathering in reflective pools in the curves and folds of the plastic trash bags.

I slowly dropped the first shovel full of dirt on Baby, as if I didn’t want it to hurt. I realized how stupid that was and began to cover her with an urgency I can’t explain. When the grave was covered I pounded it flat with the butt of the shovel. Then I sat down and shook in the rain. Tex howled up at the moon next to me. Water collected in the shovel, turning the dirt smeared across its blade to mud.

She climbed into the backseat and motioned for me to join her. I hesitated. I could feel the note she’d given me years ago during a church service folded in my front pocket. She’d asked if I would hold her hand because she was sad. I did as she asked and kept the note.

Now, years later, the fondness of that memory, its innocence, battled the current intensity of feeling flooding my body and mind that only sexual desire can produce. I watched her pout out her lips. I watched her index finger point my way and curl slowly back towards her. Once. Twice. A third time. She patted the seat next to her. I climbed into the back.

For three years I had waited for this moment while she sporadically dated my best friend. For three years we shared short glances, momentary lapses of faithfulness and loyalty we never completely committed to but could never fully avoid. For three years I waited for a moment when my loyalty was no longer justified, when her faithfulness was no longer warranted. And after three years of waiting, here we were.

She swung her body across my legs and sat in my lap. She looked into my eyes with a brief spark of confusion. I brushed her hair behind her ear. She grinned at me. I thought I had never wanted to kiss any girl more than I wanted to kiss her then. I thought she was both the most intriguing girl I’d ever met and the only girl I’d ever known was absolutely wrong for me. In that moment, just before three years of sexual tension ended in a slow, soft kiss, I realized we could never date. We’d kill each other. We’d scratch and crawl at each other, tear open each other’s most insecure wounds, hate each other for all the small things that reminded us we weren’t right together. But, just as we kissed, I thought we could do it. I thought it just might be worth it. If we really wanted to, we could tell the universe to get bent and try anyways. We could survive the brutal fights, the endless wear and tear of our personalities clashing for the moments like this.

Her hand found the side of my face. I felt her fingers slide into my hair. She pulled gently. The kiss ended. She bit my lip and pulled away, grinning, licking her lips. Her palm rested against my cheek. We were both breathing hard, surprised by the kiss, surprised it hadn’t fell flat after three years of build-up. I placed my hand around her waist. She smiled at me, not her sexy, playful grin, but her real smile. I turned slowly to kiss the soft belly of her wrist, and I could feel her pulse against my lips.

That clear, unforgettable moment ended and drifted into a half-felt montage of tangled limps and heavy breaths. Who’s to say who stopped first, but one of us did. Then we were just two confused teens in the back of a car, wishing the rest of the world didn’t exist to judge us, wishing that we didn’t feel wrong and that it wasn’t over, whatever had just happened between us.

There didn’t seem to be enough air in the car, or enough enjoyment in our awkward laughs. Our hands continued to find new places to rest, a knee, curled around a waist, intertwined together, but they never rested long, and soon one of us suggested we leave, suggested picking this whole thing up some other night, like we’d start right back where we were, but we never did. Probably never will.

She was still leaning against her car door when I drove away, maybe not really ready for me to leave, maybe not wanting to get in the car and be reminded of our mistake. I could feel the note folded in my pocket. I shoved my hand in it and felt the crinkled paper and watched her disappear into the darkness behind the cloud of white gravel dust swirling behind my car. I felt folded and confined.

I looked down at my uncle in his casket. I had only spoken to him a few times before his death. He had always been an asshole to me and my brother. He hated my father and allowed that to stop him from putting any effort into getting to know his older sister’s kids. Most of what I know about him comes from my mom. She always told stories about them as kids, about how close they were. I knew from an early age that she couldn’t stand to talk about how he was as a grown up, how he was as a man.

I looked down at my uncle and felt like I didn’t know him at all. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, a part of his visitation, one of the last people to see his face, one of the people gathered to send his spirit off with recollections of shared memories, one of the family members to guide conversation, to shed light on him in a way that illuminated only his best qualities. I realized, as I looked down at him, that there was only one reason I was there, my mom.

I leaned over my uncle’s lifeless face and whispered, “I wish I had known you.”

I walked away from the casket and watched briefly as my youngest cousin said his goodbyes, crying and shaking with the raw, pure grief of someone whose life, in that moment, is being drastically changed by the realization that death is unexpected, unfair and permanent. I turned to face the back of the visitation room. My mom and her younger brother stood by the back door, my uncle hunched over, crying with unadulterated pain, my mother trying to console him, short bursts of pain sliding on and off her face as she patted his back and whispered into his ear. My uncle’s wife, my aunt, went to them. She hugged my mom, said something that made them both smile. Then she turned and pulled her much larger husband into her chest. He crouched over and fell into her with the comfort only spouses can display. My mom backed away. She had no one to console her in that way, no man to hold her like he had a thousand times before, providing comfort and protection just with the familiarity of touch.

My mom turned slowly and spotted me. In that initial moment, when her eyes met mine, when her body aligned itself in my direction, when I realized she would walk my way, that I would walk her way, that we would meet each other with a hug, that she would collapse into my arms, that I had been chosen to console her, I felt anger. I felt anger and I hated myself for feeling it.

My mom took a step toward me. I rushed forward. She fell into my arms, her face laid against my shoulder, her tears pouring into the fabric of my black shirt, her mascara smudging against my neck. I clutched her tightly. I held her and tried to become stone, solid, immobile and unwavering. I tried to be a man, not just a son. I tried to be a man because my mom had raised me to be one. It was her that taught me to be strong, to control my emotions and pain so I could help others. She had shown me how to do those things by doing them, by always being there for me, by being able to turn off the world and her problems, her stresses and worries and focus in on what I needed her to be: a confidant, a consoler, a medic, an instructor, a friend. But now, in my state of panic, I was bewildered to discover it was now her that needed those things.

I became immobile, a stone. I was unwavering and strong, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t enough. I was just a boy, a boy that had never felt true loss, a boy that had never stared down at the vacant face of someone he had watched grow up, someone he shared a thousand memories with. Holding my mom as she mourned I wanted Nathan to come, to take her from my arms, to hold her, to say something meaningful and wise. I wanted anyone to come, anyone that could make her okay, that could ease her pain. I didn’t want to be a man. I wasn’t sure I knew how.

Then, holding my mom as she mourned, I realized there was no one else. There was only me and her. So I continued to hold her. It didn’t matter if I was ready. This was my moment to repay her for everything, to be there when she needed me. So I held her and she grieved.

Over my mom’s shoulder I watched my uncle squeeze the back of my aunt’s shirt into a tight ball with his fist. I saw his knuckles turn white and felt the desperation of the squeezing as his face twisted with pain. He squeezed and ringed the small section of fabric because it was real. It could be held and manipulated. It could be controlled.

About the Author

Ryan Goodwin lives across the lake from New Orleans with four dogs and a cat named Harvey. He Is an aspiring novelist and screenwriter and his flash fiction piece, "Earl and Paula at the End of the World" was published in Permafrost. 

Q&A with Cristy Dodson

We are thrilled to feature Cristy Dodson’s Sylvia Plath Said More In 30 Years Than I Will In 60 as part of our new weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Cristy!

What is your favorite childhood book?

My favorite childhood book is Corduroy.

What is the first book that made you cry?

The first book that made me cry was Where the Red Fern Grows, and I was on the school bus when I began to cry.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual or healing practice?

I think both writing and reading are healing practices. Even in classes, I right down my point and read it off the page once I have it down. Writing allows me to form connections that I would have never seen otherwise.

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?

The ethics of writing about historical figures is a tough standard to pin down. I think the best we can do is to hold ourselves to higher standard when writing about people who are no longer here to speak for themselves and write based primarily on facts and primary sources.

Anything else you would like to share?

This is my first time being published.

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!

Weekly Feature: Cristy Dodson

Sylvia Plath Said More In 30 Years Than I Will In 60

by Cristy Dodson

“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting 

to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath died after having placed her head in an oven with the gas on. She was 30 years old. She was 9 years older than I am now and she was gone.

In the fall of 2017, I took my first literature class at the University of Tennessee, American Literature: Civil War – Present. I only read one book. I have always railed against being told what to read, but I made an exception for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. My older sister had read it before and recommended it.

She said, “It’s right up your alley. Plath committed suicide after she wrote it.”

My sister tends to get me depressing books (the last one I received was an anthology of Death Poems). I don’t know if I’m really as morbid as she thinks, but I suspect I might be. I have always been interested in suicide, at least since I first understood what it was. I can remember being young and reading a book with this word I didn’t recognize. I asked my mom what it meant.

She said, “It means he died.”

I, of course, responded, “Well why didn’t the author just say that then?”

She said, “Suicide means he died, but he killed himself.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a definition of a word I didn’t know that has ever hit so hard. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone die on purpose? Why would they leave all their friends and family behind when they didn’t have to? Wouldn’t they miss the sun and the ice cream man and when a dog takes a good, long lick up the side of your cheek? I was young, and I couldn’t understand leaving this world for the unknown. As I grew up, I got it. 

“The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence 

of silence. It was my own silence.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s first known suicide attempt happened when she was 19. Sylvia swallowed her mother’s sleeping pills in excess and crawled under her house. She lay in the dark crawl space for three days. Can you imagine three days, suspended between life and death, lying in the dark underneath the home where you lived?  I can or at least I think I can. To be below the life you knew on earth and lost in some transient space? It seems peaceful. In that place, on the edge of death, she was also on the edge of life. I think I’d find comfort in that subliminal space. I hope she did.

Sylvia was 19 in the crawl space of her family home. I was 19 reading The Bell Jar in a pre-requisite literature class. We only spent 2 days on the novel, and when my class talked about it, they focused more on Plath herself – and they crucified her. Classmates tossed out that “she was selfish” and “there’s no good reason to commit suicide.” Someone even said, “I don’t understand why she would go that far, it’s not like she was raped or tortured.” Every terrible comment reverberated through my mind. 

She wasn’t raped, but she was invaded by a depression that she had no control over. And she was tortured. Electroconvulsive therapy. Insulin shock treatment. She was hurt so much trying to be “fixed.” Nobody in my class even had the decency to google her. They didn’t want to try to understand her choice. They wanted to condemn it – to condemn her. 

I sat in class that day and didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend her. I couldn’t even force myself to stand up and walk out. I did nothing, and I still think about it. Sylvia Plath, and the countless others who have thought about or committed suicide, deserved more from me. They deserved more from all of us. I didn’t have control over what everyone else did, but I should have made myself do something. Plath deserved better. I deserved better. 

Plath said later that she believed she had died on that first recorded attempt. She thought the blackness surrounding her was “eternal oblivion.” But those students in my class? A few of them said that she went to hell. That suicide was a sin. I don’t – I can’t – believe that. There has to be something better on the other side. I hope when Sylvia finally did end it in 1963, she found that eternal oblivion she was searching for. Or maybe she found something better.

“I was supposed to be having the time of my life.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

When I was 10, I was prescribed my first antidepressant, Celexa. I can remember going to sleepovers with my pill box tucked away in my bag. At my friend Keylee’s house, the other girls would run downstairs when Keylee’s mom, Tina, said that breakfast was ready. I’d wait until they had all left the room before digging around for my medicine. I would walk downstairs with a little orange pill hidden in my palm and wash it down with swig of milk as other girls gossiped. Normally they didn’t pay attention, but Keylee’s mom did once.

She said, “What are you taking Cristy? You’re too young to be taking pills for your health.”

“Oh, it’s just an antidepressant, Ms. Tina,” I responded not even knowing what that really meant.

Her eyes narrowed and she said, “I don’t believe in that,” before walking off.

I didn’t really understand what she meant for a while, but Keylee told me later that her mom didn’t believe depression or obsessive compulsive disorder were real illnesses let alone believe in meds to treat them. Her viewpoint made me question if I was just being dramatic. I thought that maybe I was just making things up, that I was wasting my parent’s time and money for no reason. But the drugs did help. Celexa changed something in me, something that willing myself to ignore my problems couldn’t change.

Unfortunately, depression is much like the old adage that “what goes up must come down.” Medicine stop being effective. Symptoms change. Nothing works forever. Sylvia Plath is as good a representation of this as anyone. She attempted suicide, wrote a thesis, received a Fulbright, married, went back into treatment, had two children, wrote Ariel and The Bell Jar, and committed suicide. There was a lot more that happened, but she had bursts of creativity and spans of hopelessness. Nothing was constant. Neither her children nor her writing could save her in the end; that last low was too much. 

Eight years after receiving my first prescription, I came back down. Summer 2017 was not as big a low as Plath’s, but it was such a low in relation to my own mental health that my parents found a new prescriber. And she was worried. I was emotional, didn’t have any energy, and I had no appetite. I lost 25 lbs. in one month which is how I ended up with two new drugs on top of my Celexa. Wellbutrin and Rexulti were added to the mix. That was the closest I ever got to feeling even a fraction of what I imagined Sylvia Plath felt over and over. I thought about suicide in an off-hand way, but I never planned it. I made jokes about it, but I never once attempted it. Later that fall, my therapist told me that my nurse practitioner was overzealous in her approach to my depression. She said, “I knew you were never gonna do it.”

“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all

along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I often wonder what made her so sure, if something made me fundamentally different a woman like Sylvia Plath. I have never gotten to the point of attempting to take my life, but I am not sure that I couldn’t. My therapist was there telling me she didn’t believe I would have done it, and I was seeing Tina, Keylee’s mom, in her place. I was brought right back into that dangerous headspace of doubting what I knew I felt. Depression began to seem like something for people to discredit others with, like something that wasn’t real. I wondered if I had been making it all up. I thought that if it happened again, I wouldn’t try to get more help. It seemed like a waste of time and money if I was “never gonna do it” anyway.

Plath did do it. She did it even though she and the people around her were treating her depression like something real. I could take that information and use it to support Tina’s argument of not believing in treatment, but it has started to mean the opposite for me. I believe that because Plath lived her life between attempts, treating mental illness as valid does matter and treatment is important. The fact that Sylvia Plath didn’t survive but that doesn’t make me want to try to get better any less. It makes me want to try more. People who are ignorant to mental illness will always exist, but I’m going to trust what I feel despite them. Even when it’s hard and sometimes it’s incredibly hard.

“I told him I believed in hell, and that 

certain people, like me, had to live in hell

 before they died, to make up for missing

 out on it after death.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

My professor for my first Writing Poetry course was Dr. Kallet, one of those people who wants to fix you rather than relate to you. I was in her last poetry class before she retired from the University, and I often wish she had retired just one semester prior. Each week had to write a poem under a new topic, but overall, we were told to write what we knew. I knew depression. I wrote about being in that headspace even as I was doing better, but that didn’t always come through. One week I read this:

“Answers in Space”

I like to think of the stars

as cracks in the armor

of our night sky.

I like to think of the planets 

as failed attempts

at creating the Earth.

I also have cracks

that are filling with sand.

I have failed attempts.

I am also a mistake of man.

I stand upon this piece of space junk,

calling out to the moon,

and the stars to my scars

answer me back.

The cosmos is broken

and so are you.

I chose to write about depression, but it was, and still is, hard to write mental illness without getting pity back. People read a sad poem, and they think it is a cry for help even when it isn’t. They can’t separate experience from a person overall. Kallet was like that.

She said, “What are we going to do with you? I do the poetry readings at the memorials for the students that commit suicide at UT. I don’t want to be doing yours next.”

I had never had a teacher be so tone deaf to a situation. My classmates said nothing and looked like they felt unbelievably sorry for me. I emailed her after class and told her I was not a spectacle for the class to pity. I ended that email by writing: “Every single person in that room knew what you were doing to me except for you. But you don’t have to worry about losing a student because if I can make it through the days like today, I can sure as hell make it through the rest of them.” 

That was one year ago. Last week, Dr. Kallet was in the paper for doing a poetry reading at a memorial for a student who committed suicide in his dorm room. I’m sure she read something lovely.

That same student’s memoriam section in the UT email headed “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month” was a few sentences long, halfway down the page. It said nothing about who he really was, but I wondered anyway. I wondered what led him to that choice. I spent time searching for his social media profiles and his obituary. At the end of all that searching, I found nothing. There wasn’t a trace of him. The answer of why is hardly ever given, but I’m always searching for a piece of it.

When I read The Bell Jar I went through the same process, a process I’ve now done with countless other suicides: I went down the research rabbit hole. I searched through everything I could find about Plath, her life, and her death. I learned about her cheating and abusive husband, Ted Hughes. I read that Hughes’ partner Asia Wevill killed herself and their daughter in an oven 6 years after Plath killed herself in the same way. Every part of Sylvia Plath’s story that I found has been absorbed into my consciousness. Even knowing about her relationship with Ted Hughes and the violent treatments she received in the name of healing, I still can’t know why she did it. People are always trying to boil events down to one singular cause, and they hardly ever find one. Tragedies are hardly ever because of just one thing. It’d be easier to understand if they weren’t, and I think that’s why I keep searching.

I took an Intro Psych class where I was told that women attempt suicide more often than men, but men’s suicide rates are higher. Men succeed more. A male is more likely to choose a more violent method, to really die. When Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, she put her head in the oven. That was her last attempt, her only success. I want to know what it was about that time that was different, if she wanted it more that time.

“If you love her", I said, "you'll love

somebody else someday.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Lady Lazarus” is a poem that appeared in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel published two years after her death. The middle section is as follows:

…And I a smiling woman.

I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.

What a trash

To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot—

The big strip tease.

Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands

My knees.

I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.

The first time it happened I was ten.

It was an accident.

The second time I meant

To last it out and not come back at all.

I rocked shut

As a seashell.

They had to call and call

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell…

“Lady Lazarus” is Sylvia Plath. I can feel her reaching out and taking my hand when I read it. I feel the honesty, the choice. She told everyone what was going to happen, we just read it two years too late. And I feel like that’s the point. She didn’t want to be saved. I love Sylvia Plath and, because she has given me that love, I’ll love someone else someday. 

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped

as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Learning of different methods, different tragedies, makes me think about if one way of death is inherently sadder than another. I know that deaths of mass murderers are generally less sad, but what I mean is death undeserved. I think of my classmates in my lit class and how they would likely say that suicide isn’t sad, just selfish. I think of soldiers dying, terrorist attacks, school shootings, plane crashes, and even death from old age. There are countless ways to die by chance and much fewer ways to die on purpose, but for me I don’t think either is worse. I can’t rate tragedy. And suicide is tragedy like any other. I don’t believe that choice takes away any of the sadness. 

While I don’t believe in claiming one death as sadder than another, there are ones that hit me harder. A few weeks ago, I was on a bus reading a news story on my phone. A student that had survived the Parkland shooting killed herself. I read further down the page and it said she had PTSD, that she had enrolled in college but was scared to be in a classroom. I got to the end and it said that she had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. All I could think about is how hurt you must be to choose to kill yourself using the same weapon that turned your world upside down. That choice reverberated through my mind and I felt tears trickling down my cheeks, saw them hitting my screen. I am morbid but, being affected by something like that, I think it’s important.

“I felt wise and cynical as all hell.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Despite my fascination with the subject, I have only seen death once. In high school, I played soccer on a field surrounded by telephone wires. I remember the afternoon that a bird hit one of those wires. We heard the crackle of electricity, looked up, and saw it crash through the air. While girls laughed or screamed, I ran towards where it had met the ground. There were feathers littering the grass, surrounding a corpse, still steaming. There was nothing left to save.

The truth is, I wasn’t really running towards it in the hopes of saving it. I knew it was dead the second it hit that wire. I just felt the inescapable urge to see its death for myself. I believe that death isn’t a grand extraordinary thing, it’s momentary. You take your last breath, die, and you’re gone. It’s the missing of that person, that animal, that’s hard not the dying itself. I don’t know if anyone missed that bird, realized he was gone, but I felt the need to give him more than a passing glance. I needed to see what I’d been obsessing about for so long.

I looked death in its vacant eyes, and it was nothing spectacular. It was as mundane as living.


Cristy Dodson is a student majoring in English at the University of Tennessee. She wants to be a writer/social worker/publisher/english teacher/lawyer/comedian/business woman/speech writer etc. She's 21 and just trying to figure it out.

Update regarding submissions

Some of you may have noticed that our forms include a fee at the moment. Here's whats up: We hit 90% of our Submittable capacity on May 7th. This is a great problem to have as a baby literary journal! But, also a bit of a challenge as we are committed to ensuring everyone has access to submit, regardless of means. 

I've given this some thought, and have decided to ask you to help me, help others. If, when the forms are fee-optional, you can afford to spend the $3, please consider paying it. My hope is that writers who couldn't submit to a journal with fees, are still able to, but don't feel like they have to rush and do it in the first few days of a month (this will become more important as we align dates with the calendar). We will switch to fees required when we hit 90% of our cap. 

Fine Print: Entries are read blind. Whether you pay the fee or not will have no bearing on whether your piece is accepted. We are a volunteer-led nonprofit, which means we don't have paid staff, and we don't use nonprofit funds to buy stuff for our volunteers personal use. The funds you pay through Submittable are used to operate this little nonprofit - web hosting, submittable, legal fees for setting up the nonprofit, and similar business expenses.

That said, while we are a nonprofit, Submittable fees are not tax deductible as a charitable donation. More on that later!

Thanks, as always, for your support.

Keep writing,


Q&A with Terry Barr

We are thrilled to feature Terry Barr’s Cold Coffee as part of our new weekly feature series. As part of our weekly features, we are interested in learning more about our authors, and hope that their experiences will help to empower other writers. Please enjoy this brief Q&A with Terry!

What is your favorite childhood book?

My favorite childhood book was "Beautiful Joe: A Dog's Own Story" by Marshall Saunders. I found a copy of it a few years back in an antique store. I loved the book, narrated in first person by Joe himself, because it showed compassion and alerted me to how inhumane people can be toward animals--and also how loving.

What is the first book that made you cry?

Probably "The Call of the Wild" made me cry. I loved Buck and hated to see him go wild in the end. Now, I like his "choice."

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don't be afraid to be funny. Not everything is deadly serious when it comes to writing.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

When i was five and visiting a friend's hose, I wanted to show them that I was disappointed that I couldn't stay for supper. I really wasn't disappointed, because my friend's mother was a terrible cook, and mine was terrific. Anyway, to feign disappointment, I said "Dad blame it." My friend's mother turned abruptly and scolded me about using "slang." I didn't know what I was saying then, just repeating what I had heard at home. This same family, though, made no bones about using "Ni***r" for black people. Very enlightening for a small boy.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have one book that I'm currently shopping around. At least one more beyond that.

What does literary success look like to you?

Those moments when I am reading an essay to an audience--any size audience, any place--from one of my two already published books (from Third Lung Press of Hickory, NC).

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

In the sense that I go deeply inside myself, lose track of time, and find details and memories coming from some hidden part of my mind, yes, I do find writing "spiritual." I think doing yoga is spiritual, too, but that's as close as I ever get to anything of that nature.

Do you hide any secrets in your work that only a few people will find?

Not really. I change names, but anyone who knows the story, or rather who lived the story alongside me, can reasonably figure out who these "characters" are.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Regarding the essay published here, I still like to find old diners, even if the coffee is not "gourmet." There's a place in Bath County, VA., called The Country Cafe. They serve Maxwell House, and it's delicious. It tastes like a memory that I enjoy re-experiencing.

Submit here to be considered for future Weekly Features!