You find yourself in your junior high milk room-turned-dark room on a Saturday morning being taught to process film by your 8th grade science teacher. (His suggestion.)
You are crying because the prior afternoon your dad cuffed you so hard that the space before your eyes became a black-and-white checkerboard of spots. You willed yourself not to faint, kept your head up, eyes forward, and walked to your room, where you closed the door and laid down until morning.
You are enveloped in the pungent odor of metallic solution emanating from a silver tray. You are, instead of comforted, given your first French kiss by this balding man. His hands slide beneath your lavender tee as his wife and two eldest children come into focus in the developing fluid. Apparitions entering into black and white, the Mrs., so young then, sits on a park bench, toddler at one knee, baby clasped in a white blanket in her arms, and smiles into the lens, into her future.
Janine Harrison wrote the memoir/guidebook, Turning 50 on El Camino de Santiago: A Solo Woman’s Travel Adventure(Rivette Press, 2021), poetry collection, Weight of Silence (Wordpool Press, 2019), and chapbook, If We Were Birds(Locofo Chaps, 2017). Her work has appeared in Haiku for Hikers, Veils, Halos, and Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, Not Like the Rest of Us: An Anthology of Contemporary Indiana Writers, A&U, Gyroscope Review, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at Calumet College of St. Joseph and serves as a Highland Arts Council member. Formerly, Janine was a Highland Poet Laureate, an Indiana Writers’ Consortium leader, and a poetry reviewer for The Florida Review.
I sometimes lie on a hammock in my garden. My “yard” I call it because I’m American now. And I look up at the trees above the hammock and at the house and the windows. I feel quite alone at these times. I mean not alone as in “lonely” but cut off from the world around me, in my own world. Undisturbed. And while lying there, I sometimes listen to an audio book. Today it was a book of short stories by an old friend, Christine Schutt. We haven’t been in touch for years. Two stories stayed with me. One was about a woman who lives in the suburbs with her husband and teenage son. At the beginning of the story, she has just come back from a day shopping in the city. She is waiting on the deserted station platform. It’s dark. But neither her son nor the husband is there to meet her and no one picks up the phone when she calls home. There are no taxis. So she decides to walk. Decides it really isn’t too far even though she is carrying bags full of clothes she bought for her husband’s birthday. The story is just about her walk. It ends before she arrives home.
In the winter, I often sit in the family room with the lights off listening to books. This winter, I listened to Maggie Gyllenhaal read Anna Karenina. Her voice is relaxing. Often so relaxing that it put me to sleep. I was sorry when it was over. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s face is familiar to me from films, so it was easy for me to picture her in her studio speaking into a microphone, the book open on a device like a kindle or on her computer screen. I imagined her leaning forward slightly.
A still life is a painting of things not people. But the term makes me think of people too. For instance, I think of myself as a still life because I’m still alive. Funny how the word “still” can mean different things.
Today, as I sit alone in a dark corner, I look out at the trees in my garden.
Nigel Paton is a teacher at a high school in New Jersey. Nigel’s writing has appeared in Tiferet: Journal – Fostering Peace Through Literature and Art. He can be seen and heard at poetryarchive.org. He spent part of this summer, 2022, at the Edinburgh Festival, happily revisiting the fringe where his play about Mervyn Peake was once performed.
The inside of the ice-cream truck is a hot dark closet with syrup air that gags. We are rumbling around a New Jersey cul-de-sac and no one can catch us. My six-year-old fingers are soft worms straining to hold onto the slippery silver rod above. The floor shakes, but my bare legs do a clumsy dance to stay standing. The man in the white uniform driving looks back at me and smiles. I wonder if my big sisters can see me. The ledge of the slide-open window is too high to peek over. The tinkling bells and cries of the neighborhood children outside, the radio voices of Diana Ross and The Supremes inside cannot drown out the sound of my blood pounding: This is the bravest thing I have ever done. …baby love, my baby love / Been missing ya, miss kissing ya.
We stop so hard I must grab the bar with both hands. I bump up against the freezer with sticky red popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, and fudge bars. I cannot wait to see the faces of the others clutching quarters in their hands, when I pop out of this ice-cream limousine. They have never been inside, like me. I will spring out in surprise.
But the only face I see is my father’s.
What is he doing here? He is never here when we buy ice-cream. He is away “on business” when we buy ice-cream, when we ride bikes, when we go to Brownies, when we have back-to-school nights. When we wake up because our mother is crying, smoking and drinking from the jug of red wine on the kitchen table. My father’s eyes scare me; he looks like a killer. I am afraid he is going to hit me. But he lunges past, at something white behind me.
A. Cabrera’s poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, Ravensperch, Best Travelers’ Tales 2021 Anthology, Deronda, and other journals. Their work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company.
There’s singing and then there’s Freddie Mercury. Out of the deep and deepening well of sound just there in him as if music like a swarm of bees searching for home at last finds it in him, pours into him, seeps into every molecule of bone and marrow, shimmers the blood flowing through every capillary, flumes up into his throat and rushes out to buoy me on the exhilarating, turbulent sea of Bohemian Rhapsody, waking my fallow griefs, fruiting them in every bare note of a capella then oozing into ballad then punching up my flagging spirit with fisticuffs of opera and hard rock then wafting ever so slowly like a collapsing mylar balloon sinking back and hovering over the reflecting well of sound in him and submerges there.
Biographer David Bret puts Mercury’s deep, throaty rock-growl nudging a tender, vibrant tenor to life, then scaling a high-pitched, perfect coloratura, pure and crystalline, in my ears, and for a moment I hear the small shatters of broken glass on kitchen floors, the throb of tired feet and stubbed toes on a narrow trail. I draw a breath of musty, fragrant air, duck my head into a dust devil whirl of exhilaration and then I’m wrapped in the chill of lost ways and then lifted in crazy joy, into the mosaic of a stained glass window sunlight beamed through the pinwheeling colors splashed onto a stone cathedral floor.
He’s humming now, collecting minors and majors, pulling out useful detritus from his storied life as he draws out a velvet chair, directs me into it, and settles me at the groaning board of the feast. The late summer dusk chorus of crickets starts up and I do not shut the windows all night.
Paula Marafino Bernett
Paula Marafino Bernett’s poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Louisville Review, Margie, Nimrod International Journal, Rattle, Salamander, Tar River Poetry, and Whiskey Island, among others. Her lyric essay “Digression and Memory, The Handmaiden Effect” and a companion essay “Four Hands Improvising on a Piano” appeared in Fourth Genre. A lyric essay “The Smallest Leaning Begins …” was published in Eastern Iowa Reviewand Birdcoat Quarterly published “Lady Mondegreen Rises from the One Who Was Laid Upon the Green.” The flash essay “How a Person Becomes a Body” was published by Gigantic Sequins and nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MaLa from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM. She lives in NYC with Chance, her beloved Chessie.
That’s what the man says. He says, It’s toast. You can get another opinion if you want, but I can tell you for sure, like ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure, it’s toast.
This tree, a Hong Kong orchid tree (or more properly, Bauhinia × blakeana) is the showpiece of our small yard here in Florida. A willowy head of lime-green tendrils that explode each “winter” in fuchsia flowers as big as my hand. Planted by the previous owner, but tended fiercely by me for three years. So unlike anything in our yard in Oakland, all summer dry flax, firepoker, rosemary, sage.
Another tree man says, You never want to say never, but…
Of course I see what they see. The wound on the trunk. How the smooth gray bark has peeled away. How some of the tree’s insides are now outside. How ants teem. I also see the lip of bark callousing the wound’s circumference to shrink the exposure as weeks go by.
A third “expert” chimes in. Says, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ll have to remove it. He suggests a few trees he says are better suited for the small space: a dwarf powder puff, a desert cassia, a golden dewdrop. All lovely, I’m sure, but we love this tree.
He adds as an afterthought, I’m guessing you won’t miss it though, they’re so terribly messy. He is right. It is terribly messy. But he’s wrong to think we won’t miss it because he doesn’t know about the tiny birds. How they came for those fuchsia flowers that first December, day after day, buzzing, hovering, lingering to drink more, sparkling green and black, tiny ruby flashes. How they reminded us of home, of the ones that buzzed the Mexican sage and nested in the crook of the plum tree outside our kitchen window.
Two years now since the experts’ pronouncements. The tree leans heavily, half its crown missing. I’ve splinted the lowermost trunk, propped the weight of the lean with a two-by-four wedged atop the patio. A brick-colored fungus stacks small shelves on one upper branch. But the tree still sprouts tender green leaves from stems reaching for the sun. I tell myself, it wants to live!
It’s August now, the crepe myrtles blooming, big and pink and crepe-papery. These blossoms will be smooth green berries by September and the cardinal pair will come to nibble them. Then two more months, maybe three, depending on the rains, and the orchid tree will put on its show again. We have been here long enough now to know the routine. We fell in love with the tree that first December and again each year after and now? Now I feel responsible for it. I feel responsible for the little birds.
We see the tree is, in fact, dying. Of course the experts were right. But as we watch it each day and August moves toward September, we say to each other, Just one more year.
Deborah Sherman is a writer, photographer, bird nerd, and cat servant from Oakland, California. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College where she served as Editor of the graduate English Department’s literary journal, 580 Split. Her essay “Tale of the Bufo” appears in Hippocampus Magazine’s March/April 2022 issue, and her micro love story “The Fling” was included in the 2018 anthology Short on Sugar, High on Honey published by Flash: The International Short Short Story Press. She currently lives in Delray Beach, Florida, with her husband and two cats, and is working on a collection of essays about place, impermanence, and possibilities. You can find more of her work at deborahsherman.com.
Zero is a beginning and one is a beginning too. I was once a zero and became one after one year. It was then I began to walk and talk. Early, they said, but for me not soon enough.
At five I was flying, off to other States, which gave me a taste for adventure. When I was only one decade old, I spent most of my time in the woods, eating wild plants and hiding, having developed a knack for hating indoor school, which continued for many more aggregates.
At 16, I became what they call a professional (got paid) and at 1 and an 8, left home for good. Off to the big city of New York to become a ‘real’ actress, where I mostly stumbled and stopped flying. I found it difficult to maintain flight throughout my 20s and 30s with so many men telling me what to do. Directors and producers all had so much to say, like lie down and don’t tell anyone.
At 3 followed by an 8, I found God, only later to discover it was a cult. This was after 16 grueling years of hardcore belief. I was now in my fifth decade ‒ 5 followed by another 5. At this point, I fell in love and rediscovered I had a body with desires. This sent me flying again, back into my body and remembering I hated school, however disguised.
Now in my 7s followed by a zero, seven decades, I mostly live outdoors again, riffling through weeds, kissing peonies, writing essays, and witnessing too much death. Friends and otherwise. But I still have love, my body, and trees.
I may live to a one followed by two zeros. Ten decades! Back to one, followed this time by two zeros. Hopefully I’ll still be in my body on hands and knees in the dirt. Or, lying in the earth, scarred and resting, with all those zeros and ones spent.
Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Critical Read, Adelaide, Epiphany, Memoir Monday, Anomaly, Westerly, Channel, Capsule, Tiny Molecules, Sky Island Journal, Hotazel Review, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and lives now in the hills of Vermont.