Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Constant Cravings

Gather 'round for story time. Wednesday is here.

This week's publication comes from Maggie Bolitho, who has set the new standard for best first sentence of a bio: "I was raised by a she-devil and an ostrich in the wind-swept city of Victoria B.C and in response to that hostile environment my youth was misspent chasing something elusive in all the wrong places and all the wrong ways."


The story below was written while Maggie was living in Australia finding true love, which, incidentally, has little to do with the story's theme. Enjoy!

Constant Cravings
By Maggie Bolitho

The hunger is on her and Mem knows she should get up right away and eat something. If she ignores her appetite then in no time at all it will be a clawing, insatiable beast and her puny attempts at self-control will not contain it. Having caught her reflection in the mirror that morning, she doesn’t want to eat. Never has she been so fat.  

No food. No food. No food. She repeats the mantra. Her brain hears: food food food.

The tidy kitchen sparkles; the café press is been hidden on a top shelf to guide her away from eating. The plan is for a bowl of coleslaw with apple sliced through it for lunch, maybe a rye biscuit too, if the urge for carbohydrates is too overwhelming. The fat woman in the mirror told her she must not eat. All society’s woes come from obesity and she is the worst offender.

No food. No food.

Food. Food.


Easing herself into a chair Mem scrunches her face against the gnawing in her gut. Maybe if she allows herself a dream about eating it will be enough.

Closing her eyes, she conjures her favourites like old lovers: by smell, by touch, by sound, by the feeling in her mouth. In her fantasy world the sandwich maker is heating. Cheese, avocado, finely chopped onion, and tomato are stacked high on soft white bread and a bottomless bowl of hot chips beckons from beside it. She snacks on the salty fries as the sandwich toasts, cheese sizzling on the hot grill. Even as she summons the smell of hot smoked cheddar she wishes that lessons about nutrition would have stuck better, would have permeated her psyche instead of retreating to the part of her brain where she stores useless but un-acted upon information, like how often to wash and starch her curtains.

Some people grow up with a sense of what is good and bad to eat. Those people are intolerant of her weakness, of her thick waist and rounded belly. They damn her with their eyes.

Dreaming never hurt anyone so she ventures further into her fantasy world. Now she is eating fresh fat prawns which burst as her teeth sink into them. She pours herself a large glass of merlot and pulls the sizzling steak a little closer. It is almost buried by fried onions and buttery mushrooms.

Mem didn’t learn nutrition at all as a child. Her mother didn’t know the word, all she knew was staying alive, surviving. When you live hand-to-mouth any fleeting, sensual opportunity that blows in on the wind, relieving the grind of daily drudgery is embraced. Mem can see her mother collecting the eggs and churning the butter she would sell to keep their home together. She took in laundry and laboured over a vast vegetable patch. Once a week she slaughtered her own chooks for meat. When the eggs were plentiful and milk rich, Mem’s mother fed her children well. But such times were few. Mem’s life has been one of ease in comparison but the poverty of her childhood burns bright.

Sinking further into her chair, Mem closes the door on her mother’s ghost. Instead she remembers making shortbread for the Christmas market, the luxurious sensation of the raw, buttery dough melting on her tongue. She recalls the sweet walnuts from her uncle’s trees and the smell of macadamias roasting in the oven. On rare occasions a block of chocolate would be divided between the children, and she would savour the pleasure, crushing the squares against the roof of her mouth and letting it ooze slowly down her throat.

Chocolate chocolate chocolate
. She must not think of chocolate.

Before Mem realises it, she is in the kitchen tearing open the cupboards, scooping ice cream on top of tinned pudding. She opens the jar of artichokes that her niece left and loads them onto crackers that come from faraway Timboon, like the feta cheese she balances on top. Is it true that some people have a ‘full’ button? Where is hers? What does it feel like to know when the body has had enough?

She shovels in mouthful after mouthful. She prises the top off a jar of maraschino cherries and sucks them from her fingers. She pours chocolate sauce from the bottle right into her mouth.

Only when it feels like her stomach will burst does she stop and stagger out to the living room. Turning on the TV she falls back into her armchair, her full belly aching and expelling wind to accommodate the gluttonous feed.

“Mem?” a voice breaks the silence of the noon’s golden hush. “Auntie Mem, are you here?”

Alice calls from the porch. The TV is on but the door is locked. She tries the back door, also locked. She looks down at her little-Red-Riding-Hood basket and thinks about her father’s warning.

“If she doesn’t start looking after herself better then I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to find her a place in assisted-care living. Like it or not, the old bat is anorexic.”

Alice doesn’t believe him. Ever since Mem’s husband, the Lieutenant Colonel, died her great aunt has been a bit, well, distracted. Yes, she has lost a lot of weight, dropped four dress sizes in fact. Her octogenarian skin hangs off her like droopy wallpaper. Mem won’t discuss it. She only wants to talk about the love of her life, the man who for over sixty years called her ‘my vital spark.’

Mem still thinks she is fat and somehow has twisted things in her brain that maybe if she had been trimmer ‘the Colonel’ wouldn’t have died. The reasoning flummoxes Alice. The Colonel died from a massive coronary and, yeah, he was no string bean himself but how Mem’s former stoutness figures into his death isn’t clear to Alice. Rather than distress Mem with logic she regularly brings her assorted delicacies, homemade cakes, fragrant white bread and pots of pate. If she sits and visits for a while, her great-aunt will eat something, out of manners.

Collecting the spare key from the chook shed, she notices the birds are languid and thin. Their water trough is dusty dry and when she fills it, they come to life, flapping, squawking, and quarreling for position. Alice lets herself into the laundry and, ignoring the foul smell permeating the house, grabs the sack of pellets which she scatters around the now-raucous hens. Maybe the farm is getting too much for Mem?

Alice frowns. Has it really been a month since she visited? It’s a two hour drive each way but still, she spoke to Mem only last week. Mem was vague but not unusually so.

What is that smell? Alice looks around the kitchen. As always, the counter tops are gleaming. In the fridge she finds sour milk, tainted cream and rotting fruit and vegetables, untouched and becoming more toxic by the moment.

What is that smell?

Are those the same socks drying over the Aga?

“Mem?”

Satisfying herself that the only rotten thing in the kitchen is the contents of the refrigerator, Alice pokes her head into the living room where Mem is frozen in front of the TV. Her head has fallen to one side, looking away from Alice. A drool stain marks the front of her old cardigan.

Asleep. Alice walks over and puts a loving arm around the emaciated old lady before the horror hits her. She snatches her hand away.

Mem is icy cold, her dreams of eating and drinking having rendered her incapable of doing either. Having finally slipped out of her uremic coma, the fantasies of her stuporous state have eased her to the other side. The once tall, voluptuous woman is now a skeletal corpse, her face locked in a grinning death mask

Monday, October 26, 2009

In The Year 2000

Remember the hilarious bit that Conan O'Brien used to do on his pre-Tonight Show show called "In the year 2000..."? I think he still does it, but unfortunately for Conan, I cheat on Letterman for NO ONE, so I don't know for sure. Anyway, the sketch always featured Conan and a sidekick predicting ridiculous and over-the-top circumstances that will happen in the "space age year," 2000. (A personal favorite: In the year 2000, Ted Kennedy's head will be placed on Mt. Rushmore. Not a statue... his actual head.)

These comically grim predictions weren't so different from those given at a reading/panel I went to on Sunday at The Mysterious Bookshop (which is a really cute bookshop in downtown Manhattan that focuses on mystery and suspense novels). The reading portion of the event was by Vincent McCaffrey, who was promoting his new novel, Hound. The main character of the book is a book-lover of yore who has become highly skeptical of the future of books. Timely indeed.

During the panel discussion, called  "The Future of Bookselling," but could have just as easily been named "Curmudgeony Old People vs. Idealistic Youth," I saw that Vincent, a former bookseller, must have modeled his main character very much after himself. As intelligent as I found him, I must say, I did not agree with hardly anything he said. It was as if the invention of e-books were a personal betrayal, and the thing is, I know that other people probably feel this way too. Still, it's hard not to write someone off as outdated or (at best) sentimental, when he begins a discussion, led by the fabulous Stephanie Anderson of WORD Bookstore, with this question: Will books even exist in the future? - cue La Bamba chanting, in the year 2000... in the year 2000...

Luckily the two younger booksellers, Jessica Stockton, who just opened Greenlight Bookstore, and Christine Onorati, who owns WORD, answered Vincent's question with a resounding YES! As an optimistic youth, I was reassured, but also disgusted that his question was even posed in the first place. What you do you all think? If e-books take over physical books completely (which, by the way, won't be in any our lifetimes anyway), does that make them not books? I still like buying CDs, but if I download all of the same songs off of iTunes, I wouldn't say I haven't bought the album.

The panel continued to discuss independent book-selling. Living in New York, as I imagine in many places on either coast, it's sometimes easy to forget that most people might have access to a Barnes and Noble (physical access, that is), but may not have an independent bookstore. Still, and remember that I'm one of the idealist youth, I'm not convinced that other parts of the country wouldn't support indies, so where are they? One panelist brought up a good point that many people like the idea of independent stores, but their economy simply can't support them, so they end up going to Wal-Mart or B&N. Non-coasters out there, if you exist, please give me your thoughts or let me know what your favorite independent bookstore is.

The older booksellers remained convinced that indies just won't make it in our crazy technological world. Now that B&N has an e-reader, there's no stopping them on all fronts. But, the young remain hopeful and as Jessica from Greenlight noted, booksellers are going to start seeing many different methods of bookselling and publishing. What's important in order to stay relevant is to cater to as many outlets as possible until there is something resembling an industry standard.

In other words, prepare for chaos. Because it's Y2K all over again.

Now, don't get me wrong; I don't expect them to have the answers because it's impossible to know how to deal with something that hasn't happened yet. The important thing is that they are thinking ahead even if they can't actually plan ahead yet.

I don't pretend to know any answers either, but I do know that the end won't be nigh if we just prepare for the change to come. And I can't wait for the day when, after spending countless nights in our bunkers with duct tape and bottled water, awaiting impending disaster, we wake up and realize we're all still alive - and more importantly, so are books.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

780 Riverside

Have any of you seen Where The Wild Things Are yet? Please go see it if you haven't. It was beautiful. Just beautiful.

And speaking of beautiful... today's publication comes from Ruth E. Dominguez, who is sharing with us an essay she wrote for her grandmother. I thought this piece was so vivid in its descriptions and honest. I hope you enjoy it too.

Ruth is a published author of non-fiction, short fiction, and poetry.  She holds a B.A. in Latin American Studies and Performance and a M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology.  Ruth says that teaching language has given her a love for words, and her many wonderful students have given credence to her will to write.


780 Riverside Drive 
By Ruth E. Dominguez


      In the bedroom that is pink and has two bed,s where I know my mother and aunt slept, I am reading patiently and writing words in note form. 780 Riverside Drive is nestled in city-ness. City noises, city traffic, and city people in their city people apartments are hives in this large hive island. 780 is muffled with old oriental carpets, dripping faucets and pipes, oriental screens, couches draped with blankets, smell of medicines and vitamins and pharmacy products and bubble baths, rust, dust, and some mildew. Walking down the long hall, each footstep is measured from creaky floorboards and the front room window sends in chilly fresh air from the Hudson. Sometimes when the building manager, who will at times greets me in the large echo-y and pillared foyer, has the heat set at a high temperature, I go to the front room window, which is above a radiator, and feel the cold air. 
      This is a task I must accomplish. I must copy words in note form onto individual note cards and each note card shall have a page number and a reference. The note cards should be numbered. And later, the note cards will be organized according to an outline. I will decide what will go with the main Roman numeral ideas, what will go with capital letters, and smaller ideas with smaller letters.
      I was taking on this task in the suburbs of DC and feeling some sort of writer’s block, have asked calmly and maturely if I can stay with Grandma during this vacation and get some reading done and work accomplished. I imagine perennial change of space will sharpen my mind and maybe 780 is drawing me north. I can see views of Manhattan in my mind, lit windows in the night skyline, peaceful and buzzing. I can imagine myself one day, author in New York City with a black, old-fashioned typewriter, fluidly churning page after page. I can see myself as a 12-year-old avant-garde.
      I have vague memories of my mother’s note cards written when she was completing her PhD thesis when we first moved to the suburbs and, though these are mostly from her recounting those days, I feel I can remember riding in the child’s seat above the back wheel of the bicycle on the way to the local library in the town center. I remember the textured, plastic note card boxes that kept note cards organized in their idea-organized containers.
      This is something really adult and in my grandma’s, I feel certain I will write this very adult project. I feel certain that in the life threads of continuity I will accomplish this. I feel sure I will one day eat creamed onions and green beans, all the while surrounding me are hat boxes and shelves of books and drawers of treasures that attest to time passage—old stamps, hairbrushes, coupons, and other artifacts of living. Archaeology is living in drawers stacked on drawers (some deep black walnut, some cardboard decorated in flowers from the 1960s or 1970s) of beauty products, papers, letters, booklets, recipes, hairpins, Christmas tree lights, photographs, and these are clues that tell me what has passed in this space, this honeycomb, sweet and rich in texture. Things become artifacts when the have stood the test of time: war and peace, birthdays and anniversaries, stormy weather and natural disasters. People become old when they reflect on what is around them and see continuum. I am getting old and my grandmother in the front room is older. I will be a numerous young one slumbering in the pink bedroom, reading from a bare-bulb lamp light, and wondering at who and how I will be when I am older.
      Near 780 and also facing the Hudson, is an old city graveyard where a famous author is buried. The graveyard is sunk low, fenced, and gated. Sometimes, during family visits, we walk around the graveyard on the sidewalk that borders and goes along the busy street. The bodies in graveyard are like the city people in their city people apartments, muffled, stirring, and noisy.
      I am quiet and fastidious in my work, and my Grandma doesn’t say much while I am working.  My child’s hand tires with the writing I must do on every note card. Taking notes means re-recording ideas, and I am suddenly a monk scribe with a careful quill and a steady mind. How is this possible?  I am wondering, that I will transfer this information into 10 pages of writing, typed? That I can produce a paper. That my words will be adult, scientific, serious, and conclusive.
      During dinner or lunch, my Grandma tells me stories. I get very hungry and eat while ideas float in my head.  She has taught school and knows gossamer webs spun with child’s reading. She knows I am simultaneously listening, wondering, processing, and remembering and that my small hands are tired from writing very neatly and patiently. She knows I will slumber deep, in my dreams the ideas I have read will appear absurdly and foolish and take on supernatural qualities, that I will wake early and read page after page, careful and intent.
      Over twenty years later, I am in another city café, drinking another cup of city coffee, writing.  I am organizing ideas, residing in the hive of my mind, in motion, diaphanous and gossamer. I am finding my way in a long hall, carpeted and creaky. Circulating among the rooms are children’s voices, running in and out of the parlor like liquid honey; the turning of keys in front door bolt, the closing and opening of bedroom doors; old beauty books instructing a perfect eye-shadow application of 1970s standards, read while freshly painted nail polish dries; ironing, hemming, curlers fastened among cold creams and moisturizers, hair sprayed; dreams of jelly fish and cold Atlantic waters; books read and newspapers folded and checks written and accounted; the last dying breaths of my grandfather laying in the front bedroom, bottles of medicines on the night-table next to him.
      My Grandma is no longer in 780, but another city apartment, where the hall is shorter and the kitchen meets the front room. I can see the books and papers on the table where she sits. I am hoping she is remembering stories from the archaeology around her. That she will reflect that she has attested to time and that she has taught that labor and industry will yield well-earned bread. That in the continuum that is my life I have gained much in learning from her.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where The Doves Fly

Before I begin post today's story, I'd like to remind/alert everyone of THIS CONTEST!, brought to you by my fabulous and ever-inspiring colleague, Nathan Bransford. Submit your first paragraph, have it be judged by his genius, and possibly win fun and exciting prizes. The witching hour is tomorrow (Thursday) at 4:00 (PACIFIC TIME) - so hop to it! 

And now, back to the task-at-hand. Today's publication is from a first chapter of a YA novel, WHERE THE DOVES FLY. The author, Weronika Janczuk, has immediately placed herself among the gifted teenage authors who never fail to impress me (S.E. Hinton is the most prominent that comes to mind). Weronika is seventeen years old (!) and likes to spend her time "writing novels and short stories, editing her school newspaper, interning at a publishing company, reading, listening to great music, and daydreaming of imaginary worlds." She hopes to attend a NYC-based university and to find an agent for her novel. Go read more about her at http://www.weronikajanczuk.com and try to remember what you were doing at seventeen. 

Where The Doves Fly
By Weronika Janczuk 


June 1985
Warszawa, Poland 

      Mama comes home when it’s dark outside, the sun fallen beyond the forest outside our window. She sets her basket on the floor under the hanging jackets in the hallway and stumbles into the kitchen, exhausted after working all day as a laundress, now barely able to stand on her feet. 
      “Tata hasn’t been home yet,” I tell her. Most likely, he has headed straight for the bars.
      “Krzysztof’s in bed?”
      “Yes.” My toddler brother is asleep, full after drinking an entire bottle of powdered soy milk. It was so old that I worried it might make him sick, but our father doesn’t give us the zlote for groceries; he doesn’t care, too drunk during the nights and too overworked during the days.
      We spread Mama’s pension on food to keep the three of us, particularly the baby, nourished. There is never enough for more, rarely enough for me to pass the health exams in gym class or for Mama to feel strong.
      She runs water from the tap into a pot for her tea. “How was school?”
      “Like always.” I return my gaze to the essay in front of me. It’s difficult to concentrate on my slanted cursive.
      A bus passes under the window, its engine bursting with energy as it roars, distracting my thoughts. Mama’s spoon clatters on the counter when she sets it down, and I jump. I wonder if Tata listens to these sounds when he leaves work or walks home from the bars. He isn’t human enough for that, I think. But I don’t really know him—our only conversations are disagreements; not once has he spoken of his hopes and dreams, or his perspective, carved by time—so maybe I’m wrong.
      I tap my pen against the table twice before I speak. “I’d like to enter the art competition.”
      “You know you don’t need my permission for that.” Her voice is low, a mix of exhaustion and agitation.
      “I’m not asking for permission.”
      I watch as she takes her teacup and sits on the bench across the kitchen table and to my right, further from the window, closer to the door. I think she’s listening for Tata to turn his key in the lock. “Then what do you want, Anna?” she asks.
      “I need money—for the entry fee.”
      “What is the point of entering a contest if you have to pay?” Her head is tipped downward, her eyes fixed upon a piece of splintered wood in the table.
      “They need to hire qualified judges, they need money to rent out the gallery. And for the prizes.” Mama knows what art means to me; she must realize that this is important to helping me realize my dream. “Do you think . . .” I swallow. “Do you think that Tata would give me the money?” I can still see my teacher Mr. Czarnetski’s face when he told me I was genius and that I should enter this contest. I want this, need this. It could change my life; it could change our life.
      Mama sighs. “How much?”
      “One hundred zlote.”
      Mama draws in a sharp breath and any tiny hope I had dies. “One hundred...”
      “I know it’s a lot.” My voice is low.
      “Do you think you can win?”
      “Yes. Teachers tell me so.”
      She looks directly at me and her eyes are dark, cooling coals against her skin. “Well, then you have something to fight for. Ask him.”
      “But—”
      “He’ll only beat you harder if you get the money out of me first.” Mama’s voice is disconnected from her body, robotic, as if she is trying to forget these words are hers. With an almost unnoticeable shake of her head, she begins to bring her cup back to her lips. “Ask him, if you want to risk it.”
      I nearly hate her for what she says, but I know she’s right. I have to try.

      He stumbles through our front doorway in the morning. I have not slept well, as usual—my stomach cramps and the itching in my fingers have kept me up for the hundredth night in a row. I am at work on the canvas that stands upright in the living room. I hide it if I am not working on it, because when Tata flies into a rage he doesn’t only hurt Mama and me, he breaks any possessions in our apartment that get in the way. He has never hurt Krzysztof, and I pray that day never comes, that we can protect him if it does.
      I am at work on a self-portrait, and in this one I do not abstract myself—the shadows of the girl glancing out the window are the same gray as mine, as is the tilt of her head so that her gaze is directed away from the light. I tap my paintbrush tip rhythmically at the center of my lips to help myself concentrate, and almost jab myself in the cheek when the silence is broken by the metallic click of the first lock. My shoulders tighten in anticipation.
      The door opens and Tata walks through, tripping as he crosses the threshold. It’s easy to tell he’s been drinking. He can’t hold himself upright, but I know that, due to some uncanny ability, his thoughts are alert and sharp, perhaps even sharper than when he is sober. Alcohol is his adrenaline.
      I let him settle near the television before I set down my paintbrush. I keep my eyes on the canvas, unwilling to look at him. If I see his tiredness and the wrinkles of his face I might let my barriers down and even feel pity. I would feel pity if the anger and pain didn’t come first.
      “Are you hungry?” I ask, my voice so soft that it is not even a whisper, but it carries through the soundless night to his ears. I hope not to wake Mama or Krzysztof, who are both tucked into Krzystof’s room, one in the crib, the other on the floor, the door locked from the inside. Mama and I made a silent agreement a long time ago that if I end up getting hurt it is a result of my own decision; I am an adult, after all.
      Sometimes Tata will command me to bring him tea or pierogi, dumplings with meats or fruits, easiest—and cheapest—to make. I intend to beat him to it, but his only response is a guttural groan.
      I can’t specify how many minutes pass before I spread my damp hands—glistening with sweat—down my skirt. “I was wondering if you could give me some money, Tata.” I clear my throat, then bring my voice lower: “One hundred zlote.”
      The last time I made such a direct request, I was fifteen, and I asked for money to buy a ticket to Mińsk to attend a free art show—any art show being a true rarity, the work of the damn Communists. I can still remember the burning leather of his belt against my back, and the bruises Mama got in her attempts to stop him. Neither of us left the house that weekend, and the week after Tata forced me into doing more in the apartment, despite my homework and side work as a typist.
      He groans again. I turn around as he stretches his legs, bringing his hand up to his head as he leans it back. I see that the muscle in his right cheek is throbbing, a pop from his skin every time I glance at him.
      He says nothing, and I hurry to add, “It’s for the city art competition—I would get more money in return if I won.” I hate myself for pleading. He doesn’t even blink before he says, “No.”  
      “Tata . . .” I am powerless, seeing my chance at something that might change my life disappear at the hand of my father. “Please.” My voice escapes as a whine, grinding even on my own nerves.
      As he stands, I realize how serious is my mistake in pushing it this far. When drunk, he is intelligent, and also vulnerable to mood swings. “Ask me one more time.” His voice is slow and threatening, a tone I have never heard, and I suddenly feel a level of fear I’ve never experienced.
      I swallow and take a step backward without realizing it.
      “You dare ask me for so much?” He growls and swings one hand toward me. I take another step back. “You want to take one hundred zlote out of my pocket? You selfish pig.”
      His slap cruises along the bone in my cheek, jolting me where I stand. Tata brings his hand back up to swing again, his face filled with rage. As if he wants to kill me.
      In one instance, something flips inside me. From the bookshelf I grab the vase Mama received from her mother. I swing it, in its glassy glory, toward Tata’s face. It hits him full force, shattering. Some pieces cut my hand; some fall to the ground and scatter, reflecting the light. Where others pierce his face drops of blood appear and stain his hands when he reaches them up to touch his skin.
      For the first time in my life I experience a stunned silence. He sits down heavily.
      And then I step back, away from the glass and blood, only to see Mama’s pale face as she turns away from the doorway. I watch as she heads for the front door, probably to find the nearest neighbor with a telephone.

      I do not go to school. I sit on the chair in the living room and wrap myself in the hand-knitted blanket that Mama made for her and Tata’s first apartment. The threads are loose and have lost their color, just like her life with him. The irony depresses me. Though my fingers tingle with the urge to paint, I can’t bring myself to finish the portrait. I stay sitting, wrapped in the blanket. It doesn’t keep away the cold.
      Janina, the neighbor below us, knocks on the door in the afternoon to tell me that Mama called from the hospital to say that Tata’s injuries are minor.
      “Anything else?”
      Her gray hair doesn’t move when she shakes her head.
      When I move to close the door, she looks me in the eyes and I see something there, something beyond the emptiness of the old. Pity, perhaps. 
      Krzysztof wakes then and I set him on the floor and, as he stands, hold him by his fingers. Ten minutes into our exercise he releases my fingers and takes his own first step, wobbly, deficient still in this new skill of his.

      I’m not sure how, but the police becomes involved, and the officer that visits the hospital room decides I acted in self-defense. He doesn’t have enough evidence to put Tata in jail, not even for a night, so five hours later he returns home from the hospital and we are left to tend to him. I am sure that Mama does not love him anymore; I am not sure if she ever did. When I tell Mr. Czarnetski that I’ve decided the art competition will be too much work, and when I stare at the ceiling in the evenings after finishing my homework, I can’t help but think of how many good things we could have bought with the money won—I can taste carp on my tongue, and the waft of chocolate tantalizes me.
      The endless amount of free time now that I’m not painting additions to my portfolio is brutal, but I cannot bring myself to lift a brush. For the first time in weeks I sleep for more than four hours, but my sleep results from an overload of worry about how Tata will retaliate once he is able.
      He soon heals fully and goes back to work, and the art competition deadline draws nearer.

      I consider stealing—I really do, sitting down at the table in the kitchen with the light bulb above me flickering, casting shadows on the table and the window, wondering if I could slip the money from Tata’s wallet as he slept. But I know that once the money were in my hand I would feel obligated to spend it on tangible goods, extra food and clothing, things that the arbitrariness of an art competition can’t guarantee. The sense of desperation in my chest grows; it is an unrest that lets me think that something must change. Soon.
      I officially withdraw my application from the city. I don’t want to lie to Mr. Czarnetski, but I cannot tell him the truth. 
      Mama comes home on a late Sunday night and heads straight to the cabinet above the sink for an aspirin. Her skin, already oddly colorless under the kitchen light, seems paler than before.
      “Are you all right, Mama?”
      “Fine.” She steadies herself by placing both hands on the counter in front of her.
      I blink, the rest of my body still.
      Seconds later she groans and runs both hands down her back to the indent above her bottom, then digs her fingers in to massage the skin there. “I fainted at work today.”
      “You . . . fainted?”
      She gives me a smile, but the edges of her lips seem to pull down. “It’s hard work. Happens sometimes.”
      The conclusion is simple: “You’re not eating enough.”
      “I’m eating fine.”
      We both know that her words are a lie. Tata’s day in the hospital and his need for help the few days afterward meant she didn’t work, so her pension was reduced. She eats less than both Krzysztof and me.
      “This must stop.”
 “It’s okay, Anna.” When she sees my brows, pulled inward, she places a hand on my shoulder. “It really is.”

      Instead of taking her usual cup of tea in the living room, she tells me that she feels a migraine coming on. She’s never had one before, so I doubt she knows what it feels like, but I don’t have the energy in me to ask.
      Though I am tired, I remain in the kitchen long after she goes to bed and wait again for the metallic click of the locks along the front door. The minutes on the clock move faster than I expect because I get lost in thought. Krzysztof begins to cry in the early morning, so I leave my untouched textbooks on the table and go for him. When I lift him out of the crib, his small hands cling to my neck, and he tucks the smooth curves of his face under my chin. I pace in my bedroom, lulling my brother to sleep, but even after half an hour his eyes are still wide open, staring at a point beyond my shoulder.
      It is almost like he is contemplating—what, I cannot imagine.
      I am hesitant to put him back in the crib, worried that the screams most likely to follow would wake Mama. I bring him with me to the kitchen and set him down on the floor, and he walks from one end to the other, pausing at the cabinet doors, opening them with his fingers, still sloppy, but more nimble with every try.
      Tata is early by his standards, stepping past the front doors as the clock hits one in the morning. His footsteps, rapid along the hallway, grow louder as he approaches the kitchen. I’m sure he wants to know why the light is still on. His mood swings are incredible—on some days, he’ll appreciate the light and come have a cup of tea, wordless; on days like this, he’ll have a reason to attack me.
      Experience has taught me it’s not worth it to hide, and there is nowhere for me to run. It is as if he can smell me, the smell so powerful that, although it seems to disgust him, he follows it still. I run my fingers over the smooth hair atop Krzysztof’s head as he sits at my feet, mumbling the few words he can say—baby, mama—and pray that Tata will not hurt him.
      “Why the hell is the light still on?” Tata steps into the kitchen and watches me, his hands fiddling with the newspaper he carries.
      “It’s a beacon for you,” I say.
      He swallows—not the nervous kind of swallow, but the let-me-think-about-how-to-kill- you swallow. A tic. “Money. Again?” Tata doesn’t move from his position by the door but his hands clench and unclench. The saliva in my throat dries and I must force my mouth to open.
      “We need more money for food, Tata.”
      “You think I don’t give you enough, is that it?” He moves to the table and sets his palms face down in front of me, moving his face so that I can smell a waft of vodka as he exhales. He looks older than his forty-five years, droopy skin below his eyes. “How dare you?” he whispers.
      “You forget that you don’t give us anything.” I tell myself that it’s now or never, and say the words I thought I never could. “You’re not a very good father.”
      Tata’s face takes on an inhuman red tinge. His cheeks, usually the color of his skin, a blend of Eastern European white with the tan of a laborer, become a shade I’ve never seen on him. He takes a step to move around the edge of the table so he can approach me at a closer distance, but the moment he reaches the corner of the table his body freezes. I watch in disbelief as he falls forward until his hands are wrapped around the wooden edge of the bench. I can see the veins through the paleness that floods through his face, washing away the red, and the throbbing of his blood as it runs through his body.
      He falls to the ground with a groan.
      Krzysztof begins to crawl toward his body, now shaking, sweat gathered along his hairline, but I sweep my brother into my arms and watch with wide eyes, straining against the skin of my face, as he grows still.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Playing Favorites

Everyone has their favorite author, favorite book, favorite genre, or even their favorite opening line. I'm not talking about grand and often pointless debates of what is "the greatest." I believe that a person can simultaneously recognize that his or her favorite might not necessarily be the "best" of something. (e.g., my favorite Harry Potter book is #3 while it can be argued that either #4 or #6 are "the best.")

All that aside, I've been thinking about favorite paragraphs. These are the paragraphs that I just had to read over again immediately, and then again even after I've moved on. Here is my list, which I won't call my "all-time" list because I never know what I might read tomorrow.

Favorite opening paragraph: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson - accomplishes everything an opening should: establishes the narrator (who happens to be my favorite type of narrator, the wise-beyond-her-years, outcast youth) while letting us in on the darkly comic story we're in for. 

Favorite ending paragraph: "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" by Michael Chabon - like most things Chabon writes, this particular ending makes you wonder how one person can create such a brilliant group of sentences, all at one time. 

Favorite general paragraph: In which Raymond Carver describes a hideous baby in his short story, "Feathers" - if Carver didn't have fun writing this, then I doubt he's ever had fun in his life.

Does anyone else have favorite paragraphs? If so, please share!

Enjoy the long weekend,
Sarah

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bright Moon

I am pleased to bring you a bit of fantasy on this windy Wednesday (and if you are not in New York, you'll have to take my word for it - it's windy!). This short story, "Bright Moon," comes from Marilyn Peake, who is the author of three novels, numerous short stories, and has been the editor of several other books. Her work has been nominated for various awards, including the 2007 Silver Award from ForeWord Magazine, and 2008 and 2009 EPPIE Awards (which is sadly no longer called the "Eppies"), of which she was among the winners. She was also a contributor to Perseus Book Group's "Book: The Sequel," which is very clever and fun, and you should probably go buy it. In the meantime, go learn more about Marilyn (after you read her beautifully fantastic story) at her website: http://www.marilynpeake.com

Bright Moon
By Marilyn Peake

          The baby was cute.  The Zhou family found her, naked and shivering, in a thicket of bushes next to the stream winding its way like a singing ribbon across their farm.  That night, they named her Ming Yue, meaning “Bright Moon”, as the cool white illumination of a full moon rained down from the heavens and filled their home with light.  Observing her bright blue eyes, they later nicknamed her “Ming”, meaning simply “shining, bright, clear”.  At the time of her discovery, they assumed that she had been left by parents too afraid to transgress the one-child Planned Birth Policy.
          Cheng-Gong, their toddler son, had been the first to find her.  Wearing coveralls more stained with mud than their original beige dye, he had been digging in the soil for worms as his parents worked their tiny farm.  Aware of both butterflies and faeries flitting to and fro upon the wind, his hearing and other senses keen and developing every day, he heard a baby's cry and wandered off to find its source.  Running as quickly as his little legs would carry him, he ignored his parents' shouts warning him to stop and come back.  Following after Cheng-Gong, they eventually came upon the tiny baby, kicking her legs and wailing within the deep grasses of the thicket.
          Jia Li, the mother, picked up the fretting infant, cheeks red and slick with tears, and held her close.  To her husband, Quon, she spoke furtively, “Someone left her, probably hoping we would find her.  We should keep her.  The government allows us only one child without penalties, but we didn't have this baby ourselves.  We should be allowed to keep her, don't you think?”
          As Quon smiled, the leathery, sun-baked skin of his thin cheeks and around his glittering black eyes gathered into wrinkles.  “Yes, yes, we should keep her.  Last night, I dreamed that a dragon had climbed down from the mountain caves above our farm, carrying a golden cup in its mouth.  Then I woke.  That must have been a message from the gods that this infant was on her way.  She is a very special gift.”
          For a moment, Jia Li's wizened face softened and filled with a soft radiant glow.  Then, remembering her responsibilities of motherhood, she realized the baby needed clothes soon and Cheng-Gong needed an introduction first.  Kneeling down, Jia Li showed the infant, now happily cooing, to her son.
          Cheng-Gong reached out a chubby little hand and patted the newcomer on her shiny golden head.
          "Momma, her hair is gold.”
          Quon thought back to his dream of the dragon carrying a golden cup in its mouth.  Jia Li wondered if there had been male visitors from abroad, perhaps Europe or the United States, within the past year.  She tried to remember, wondering if the baby might be the result of an illicit union between a local Chinese woman and some blonde-haired man.  So much the better if that were true, she decided, because it was less likely that the woman would ever try to reclaim her child, especially if she already had one, as the Chinese government would never allow two children without fines and other penalties.  Briefly, she remembered a local man hung from a tree for failing to pay the fine after the birth of his second child, a fine as large as one year's earnings; but she tossed the thought from her mind, feeling certain the child's golden hair would somehow protect them.
          After gazing into the dark glimmering eyes of her new brother, Ming Yue was carried into the small farmhouse of the Zhou family and swaddled in brightly colored, tattered blankets.  That night, she drank sweetened goat's milk, waved her arms and babbled incessantly while her older brother danced rings around her with entertaining antics.
          As the full moon rose high in the sky, stars twinkled and winked and planets sparkled like diamonds, Mr. And Mrs. Zhou rose repeatedly from their dreams to feed their crying infant.  The next day, Jia Li stayed inside the house with her children, too tired to handle the risk of being sighted by nosy neighbors or government authorities. 

          Three months after Ming Yue's arrival, as his mother was changing his little sister's clothes, Cheng-Gong pointed to her back.  There sprouted tiny, sparkling, light blue feathers.  Suddenly released from the confinement of the tiny undershirt, they fluttered and flapped, completely out of sync with each other.  The baby giggled and smiled at her mother.
          Jia Li stared at the feathers that had suddenly sprouted; then wrapped her daughter in an undershirt, a heavier flannel shirt and dark green coveralls.
          Later that day, as the family worked their small plot of land, the baby, confined to a handmade baby seat, cooed and waved her arms as though communicating with unseen forces.  Wrestling with his own mixed feelings of delight and envy toward the intruder, Cheng-Gong carried on negotiations.  He tickled his new sister's belly, rolled on the ground, danced all round her, made funny faces and sang songs.  He approved her reaction, increasing his animation as the baby's face shifted into a myriad of expressions in observing him: baby blue eyes widening in fascination, narrowing in concentration, happiness filling her face as she burst into fits of laughter.
          After lunch, Cheng-Gong returned to one of his favorite activities: digging in the soil for earthworms.  Finding a particularly long, fat, and wriggling one, he carried it over to show Ming Yue.  Her eyes squinty, lips pursed and chubby cheeks tightened in concentration, she studied the creature intensely.  Disappointed that she didn't smile, Cheng-Gong carried the squirming annelid away from her, placing it on a long, thick piece of grass, trekking after it as it crawled away, putting his hands on his hips and addressing it, “Go, worm, go;” then squatting on his muscular little legs to examine the looping invertebrate whenever it stopped to rest.
          Ming Yue stared.  She caught the essence of her older brother's glee around the periphery of her vision, but she zoomed in mostly on the worm that had been taken away from her.  She furrowed her sparse blonde eyebrows to watch the worm glide from the succulent leaf onto the dirt, then slither away through forests of grass and wheat.
          Jia Li looked up from her work, tending the cabbages.  “Cheng-Gong, mind your sister!”  Not used to the responsibilities of older brothers or the tone of alarm in his mother's voice, the young boy kicked dirt on the worm; then stomped over to where Ming Yue sat and stared.  “What are you looking at?”
          In response, Ming Yue pointed a chubby finger toward the fields.
          As Cheng-Gong turned around, he witnessed worms poking up everywhere from loosely crumbling ground.  Beneath the surface, worms glistening with slippery hues of red and brown shimmied and zigzagged their way through mud, leaving a vast network of tunnels in their wake.
          Before the toddler could run to grasp the emerging treasures, his father screamed from across the fields, “Jia Li, take the children inside!”
          The woman ran across the field, tripping over cabbages at the plot's edge, scooping up Ming Yue and pulling Cheng-Gong along by the hand, dragging them to safety inside their home.  Resisting the strong tug of his mother, the toddler yanked back at one point, fell down, and surreptitiously strong-fisted two clammy worms into his pants pocket. 

          That evening, while his mother cooked dinner, clouds of smoke obscuring the fat river rat roasting in the pan with cabbage and other vegetables, Cheng-Gong pulled the worms from his pocket and dangled them in front of his sister.  Alarmed that they appeared shriveled and lifeless, he looked to his sister's face for her reaction.  When she pouted and quivered her lower lip, Cheng-Gong snuck over to the front door, opened it a crack, and tossed the worms outside.
          Looking up briefly from her work, his mother admonished him, “Cheng-Gong, close that door.  I don't want your little sister going outside.”
          Sensing a change in air pressure, cooking smoke swirling and leaving through the front door, and a cool evening wind entering like a welcome guest, Ming Yue cooed and babbled.  As her glistening blue eyes studied the sliver of outdoors visible through the opening between door and frame, three large monarch butterflies flitted inside, flapping their lightweight gauzy wings painted with dazzling stained-glass partitions of brilliant orange, black, gold and white.
          In the morning, the Zhou family discovered that their cabbage plot held twice as many cabbages as the night before.  Quon told his wife that they had simply miscounted. 

          That spring, the Zhou farm blossomed in explosions of brilliant colors and dewy greens, tendrils crawling across the ground and looping over wooden fences, petals popping wide to reveal their fertile centers.
          Ming Yue learned to walk.  Her wings grew long and luxurious feathers, changing from sparkling light blue to shimmering violet.  Inside the home, her mother let her wear clothes in which her feathers protruded through holes in the back.  When she tried to flap her wings while walking, Ming Yue invariably fell over, disintegrating into screams of rage and disappointment.
          While her parents reached out their arms and encouraged Ming Yue to walk to them, Cheng-Gong liked to hop up and down, telling his sister, “Fly!  Fly!”  His parents always made him stop. 

          As Ming Yue moved from babyhood to toddlerhood and her brother became a young child steady on his legs and inquisitive about the world around him, sweeping changes came to China.  Bitten by the capitalist bug, large groups of people moved to cities, seeking and then demanding better lifestyles.  No longer growing their own food and wanting more meat now that they could afford it on their city wages, they happily paid farmers for diets rich in variety.
          The Zhou family planted more cabbages and wheat, and began raising pigs for slaughter.  All around them, farms began to flourish, mysteriously more fertile.  The improvement in growth and production spread in large semicircular rings around the Zhou farm, with their land at exact center.
          Across the stream from where Ming was found as a baby, however, the rice paddies filled with mysterious red-tinged water, and the crops failed.  The owners, riddled with rashes and stomach ailments and feeling haunted by starvation, contacted the government authorities for help.
          They arrived in the form of one tall, muscular military man in full uniform.  After witnessing the pustules, lesions, and skeletal bodies of the owners, he backed away from them, saying that he would inspect their property and the land surrounding them.
          Sitting on a small hill overlooking the rice paddies, he noticed a definite red tinge, darker in some squares than others.  Green stalks of rice poked their heads above water, some now as pocked with disease and withered as the farmers who tended them.  Sunshine splashed down on the flooded fields, bringing out glints of copper, orange, and red in places where only greens, mud and translucent water had once glimmered.
          Resting his chin in the palm of his calloused right hand, the man studied the puzzle before him, his thoughts jumping back and forth between the dying land and his girlfriend back home, with her thick, long, glistening black hair.  He hoped to solve the problem quickly so as to return home as soon as possible.
          When the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the water suddenly took on a more menacing, deeper shade of red- -the color of blood.  The man jumped quickly to conclusions, hypotheses leaping into his brain in rapid-fire succession.  What if the skeletal family had been murdering people and burying them in their rice paddies?  Would that eventually turn the water red?  He decided to write a report requesting an investigation.
          The following week, a small group of soldiers descended on the wooden hut where the rice farmers lived.  By then, the grandfather had died from a lethal combination of starvation and old age.  As the family members prepared to bury him on their land, the military accused them of murder.
          The next day, father, mother and two children dangled by ropes wrapped tightly around their necks from a huge, leafless tree, deep black branches spread out against a light blue sky.  When the wind flared up, the ropes squealed and the feet of the dead kicked up to dance to their own funeral march. 

          Sighting the bodies swaying in the breeze as she worked her cabbage patch, Jia Li dropped her farming tools, snatched up her children and ran through the whispering green fields to her house.  When Quon followed after her, she told him to shut the door.  
          “They had two children in that family over there.”  Pointing at the wall in the direction of the rice farm, her face contorted by terror, specks of morbid imaginings flitting across her mind, she continued in a crazed voice, “One was a niece, but the government didn't know that.”  
          Looking over at her children's wide eyes, she turned her back to them and whispered to Quon, “We need to keep the children indoors from now on, at least until we're sure the government's lost interest in how many children families have around here.”
          Quon agreed.

          One month later, the remains of the bodies not pecked apart by birds or devoured by insects and wild beasts were ripped from the ropes and thrown into the stream.  The government left the nooses in the tree as both reminder and warning.  At sunrise and sunset, they dangled ominously- -dark circles of eternity, set ablaze by the burning sun in shrieking shades of red and orange.
          After the soldiers disappeared and did not return for a full week, Jia Li allowed her children to play outdoors, but only under very close supervision.
          Two weeks later, the stream turned red.
          It started slowly, as it had in the rice paddies.  Metallic tinges of copper, orange, and red reflected back the sun, flashes resembling tiny robotic fish tumbling along with the babbling brook.  But then the water thickened, turning into viscous red-brown muck.
          Quon kept his fears to himself that perhaps genocide was taking place upstream, nasty by-products of blood and excrement traveling down through the waterways.  He rationalized that perhaps this would serve as potent fertilizer, rather than a source of illness and threat to their livelihood.
          Afraid that the water itself had turned to blood, Jia Li pulled a wooden box from a secret hiding place in a hole in one of the walls of her home.  Lifting the lid, she grasped a statue of Baosheng Dadi, a gift from her grandmother who had long ago practiced Chinese folk religion.  Baosheng Dadi, Life-Protecting Emperor and divine being, had great power over life and health.
          “Ming Yue and Cheng-Gong, help me set up an altar to Baosheng Dadi.”
          Cheng-Gong reached for the tiny statue, rolling it around in his hands to inspect every angle.  “Was he a great soldier?”
          “No, he wasn't.  He was a great doctor, a wonderful healer.  Now he's a god who watches over health and life.  We should make a pretty altar for him and say some prayers.”
          Setting down the statue and grabbing a broom, Cheng-Gong pretended to be a brave soldier, shooting imaginary bullets from the cleaning tool.
          Ming Yue picked up the statue, studied its well-worn edges; then helped her mother place it on an upturned wooden crate and surround it with fruits, vegetables and flowers from their farm.  Then Jia Li and her children prayed for protection from the blood-red water passing through their farm. 

          A few weeks later, Ming Yue appeared deathly ill: limp, unable to move, barely able to speak and white as snow.  After saying a brief prayer to Baosheng Dadi, Jia Li ran to find Quon working in the fields.  She begged him to fetch Shan Wu, a local woman and mystic healer.
          “I can't do that, Jia Li.  If anyone finds out, it will put our family in grave danger.”
          Jia Li placed her hands on her hips and felt her face grow hot.  “It will be much more dangerous to let an approved doctor know that we have two children.”
          Quon studied the ground, oblivious to the plants slowly shriveling and turning rust-colored as far as the eye could see.
          “How sick is she?”
          “I'm not sure she'll make it through the night.”
          With pounding heart and sweaty fists, Quon went to find the healer. 

           The old woman, thin and gaunt of face, wiry hair tied back into a bun, eyes sparkling with intensity, passed her hands over the angelic girl with pale blue eyes and golden hair, trying to restore balance to her chi or life energy.  Rolling the girl over and pressing her fingertips across her back, she became alarmed and pulled off her sweater.  There, poking through two holes in the back of her undershirt, were two lavender wings streaked with dingy lines of rust, flimsy and dropping feathers.
          Shan Wu looked at the mother with wide eyes.  “This child is a faerie.  How could you not tell me that?  Had I used acupuncture needles on her, I would have killed her.”
          Jia Li ran her hands through her hair.  “What do you mean?”
          “I mean, this girl is one of the faeries, and metal is toxic to them.  Her body and feathers have absorbed too much metal.  You can see by the rust in her wings that she now has metallic feathers.”
          As Jia Li wept, the mystic healer rolled Ming Yue onto her back.  She covered her with a blanket, then sat down next to her mother and grasped her trembling hands.  “I'll do what I can.  The water around here is saturated with metal particles.  I'm sure that's what's making Ming Yue ill.  I'm only human; I don't have power to heal fae.”  Looking into Jia Li's confused eyes, she explained, “It looks like there's blood in the water around your home, but it's not blood.  It's a mixture of metals and other poisons.”
          For a brief moment, Jai Li's eyes filled with blank, uncomprehending stare.
          As the sky turned jet-black and stars flickered like diamonds against it, Shan Wu and Jia Li took turns ministering to Ming Yue.  Quon and Cheng-Gong slept fitfully.
          When the morning sun crawled up into the sky and splashed the heavens with pink and gold, Ming-Yue's spirit left her body.  The child lay dead; her soul returned to the chaos that long ago gave rise to faeries.

          Miles upstream, the owner of an iron-ore mine puffed on an expensive cigar and overlooked his enterprise.  He admired the deep red soil from which he made a living.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Getting to Know You

Where have my manners been? I've been so caught up in trying to get the word out on this blog that I've forgotten to ask about YOU, my followers, my readers, and (dare I say?), friends. So let me start off by asking: how many of you have been published? Sending out queries? When did you start writing? Or, do some of you not yet consider yourselves writers? When does one make that distinction, do you think? For me, I think you're allowed to call yourself a writer, even if you haven't been published, once you think of writing as more than a hobby.

I used to call myself a writer, to the point where I've even answered the question, "What do you do?" with "Well, I'm a writer, but right now I'm working in a coffee shop." Which brings me to my next question, how many of you have used that exact phrase before? Today, though, I do not consider myself a writer. Like many MFA graduates, I used my degree toward getting a job I could have gotten without the MFA, but thought it sounded fancy. Writing as a career choice took a backseat to my actual career, and now if someone asks me what I do, I might answer, "Well, I used to be a writer, but now I'm a full-time publishing assistant.... who also still works at a coffee shop."

The cool thing about all of these writing/publishing/editing blogs is that writing no longer needs to be solitary (well, as solitary). I like the idea of writer's communities being formed, but what do you all think? Do you think these websites have improved your own writing? Even though I don't really write anymore, I must admit that the reading more of these blogs, and starting my own and seeing your submissions, have inspired me. I even recently dabbled in fiction last weekend! But so far that's remaining safely hidden on my laptop.

A few more things I'm wondering this morning:
Did Friday creep up on anyone else? I think this week went by FAST!
Is anyone participating in NaNoWriMo this year, or has participated in previous years? Please tell your experience/how you're preparing because it sounds intense!
How excited are you for this? my answer: "extremely!"

Hope I didn't bombard you too much; I get a little overzealous sometimes.

Enjoy your weekend!