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Out From The Center


A short story
By Tantra Bensko

Image for Out from the Center

We never know where to get started, because it is never obvious where the beginning is in the pathways spread circularly around us, hedges blossoming with reds, cut in shapes that suggest the other side of the ways to look at anything we might have in mind, and anything we could be surprised by in our dreams.


Because the circles extend in many directions, we tend to go in the direction of the smoke. In some of the directions we look in, the world sometimes appears to be burning up the old moments in some places more than others, and lighting up the new moments as they free themselves outwards from the core of their golden glowing. And we let it lead us.


The direction we take is like going outward from the core of all our lives into one of our beehive of quantum other lives, their compartments buzzing all around our central core. Each life thinks it is just the biggest thing. The all-important center, doesn’t it? The hedges have very different shapes in the various sections of the maze. And the blossoms are different each day with the changes of the natural unfoldment of nature, free of the human-centric ego’s attempts to hold them to one circumscribed point in space-time, and they are sometimes being more suggestive of the wafting of coils of pleasure,
sometimes more suggestive of bells, or nests, or grandmothers, or perhaps songs of the springtime,
denials of reality, nomenclature, wisps of dementia, surrealistic avenues into the next parallel reality over,
geometric philosophical constructs, garlands for dubious gods, circles of magic, chaos,
poetry of scent, calls to divine surrender, warm baths filled with petals and love, waking disheveled,
past life kisses, future life circuses, in between life danglings, or masks.


We use the mazes to induce synchronicities.


We start to feel a plot come on, interweaving, starting up sideways and downwards. Sometimes we just become them all at once.


The world is made of synchronicities whirling up against each other in tiny bundles, interwoven, impenetrable, impossible, leading back in on themselves, breaking out of linear time, entering our dreams and spilling out of them onto our ruffled shirts with pleasing stains.


Sometimes they are very obvious. Today, we are walking on the maze together and we realize there is some sort of darkening in the sky. It is taking on a tone we had not expected from the day, more filled in, opaque, taking its own presence in its own hands.


It feels angry at how people are trying to control it, flying chemtrails through it, which spew poisons to dumb down humanity’s evolving ability to sense beyond their beta-brainwaves’ analysis of the world. People are beginning to sense that our place within nature should be spread out in our spirits, within its loving continuum, rather than being artificially separate pests based only in the lowest level of the self. The governments’ attempts to stop that expansion, through chemtrails that waft behind airplanes and crisscross the sky with what naïve people who rarely look up assume are controls, has angered the sky. We are thrilled it is fighting back.


And we start to feel the grass palpably through our bodies as excitement, the ground being sensual to us, though we are simply walking along. We start to feel a stir within our sex, a warming, a mounding, a longing to lie down on the grass, face down.


The circles apparently go downward too, not just outwards. We had no idea. We are both lying downwards, our pelvises lightly pushed towards the earth with a subtle pressure, not calling attention to ourselves, but we find no reason to avoid doing this. It feels right. And we have opened the portal to the circles below the ground that go beyond what we had imagined this maze could be.


There are roots below the hedges, roots below the blossoms, roots below the squirrels and cats.


A cat falls from the sky. But we can’t see it, as our faces are downward in the anti-story. We don’t have to feel the arc of the plot, the conflict and questions. We agree that plots are based on addiction to conflict, to dramatic duality, and we are one with the continuum on nature.


We feel the landing of the cat below our noses, the thundering vibration of the quietness of it poise, the dreamlike agility they have on landing. Our skin starts to smoke the past.


We are agile when we fall from no matter how high to no matter how low. We are all the levels in between, ourselves. We just land and keep walking.


Copyright © 2010 Tantra Bensko
Photo adapted from an image by 1amgreen


Tantra BenskoTantra writes:
"I break a story out of the linear framework based on problems, and characters limited to mundane selves. Instead, here is a hive of multiple aspects to the self, and a circular interweaving and morphing of existence. Characters don’t get caught in drama, and continue on with a kind of wellbeing grounded in surrendering to the fluid nature of reality, with a positive expectancy. Characters expanding into their larger selves, existing on multiple levels, inhabiting the worlds of quantum physics and dreamy consciousness explorations remind us that’s who we are, and not just the limited self of adrenalin and ego."

Tantra Bensko teaches Experimental Fiction Writing online, and in the winter, will be offering Mystical Prose writing through the UCLA Extension Writing Program. She is the author of Watching the Windows Sleep, published by Naissance Press and has more than 120 creative writing publications. She publishes authors’ work that exemplifies Experimental Writing at http://experimentalwriting.weebly.com. She has an MFA from Iowa, and has won awards, such as Cezanne’s Carrot’s own Journeys Award. She is a proponent of Lucid Fiction.  You can reach her via email at flameflower@runbox.com.

Designer Deities


A short story
by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero

Designer Deities. The artfully hand-painted wooden sign was stuck on chipped brick beside a wooden door newly painted purple. The door opened onto narrow stairs between the gnomish side-street shop fronts of Skin, Ink (tattoos and piercings) and Crystals and Sits (rocks and cushions).


On the day Deities opened, the Crystals owner, Krystal, offered customers a basket of muffins provided by her new upstairs neighbor, each with a toothpick bearing a paper flag: Designer Deities: See the Woman Upstairs. Skin owner Nick offered a tattoo of whatever the Woman designed for you, if visually representable, for 10 percent off.


“You gonna get yer own god, Nick? The Woman gonna give you a discount?” Bleeper peered down at his skinny bicep as Nick filled in the new, spiky, sky-blue star above the red and gold dragon he’d put there last month.


“Haven’t thought about it.” Nick focused on skin. “Might. You?”


“Nah. Who’d go and buy a god? I mean, you can get one for free anytime you wanta go sit in a church.”


“Not free. Think about it.”


“Huh.” Bleeper appeared to think about it. “You don’t hafta put nothin’ in the collection basket if you don’t want.”


“You owe a god your soul, Bleeper.”


“You believe in souls and that… stuff?”


“Gods do, evidently.” Nick set down his tools and disinfected the shoulder. “Looks good on you.”


“What? A god?”


“The star, Bleeper. That’ll be a hundred even.”


Bleeper paid with crumpled bills and took his tank top and tattoo out into the July sunshine.


Nick hung out the “I’m next door” sign and strolled up to Krystal’s. He ate a muffin and twiddled its toothpick flag, leaning in the shop’s doorway, enjoying the click of the bead strings stirred by the shop’s old ceiling fan, inhaling the incense. “Hey, look! Somebody’s going upstairs.”


Krystal trotted to the door just in time to see a pale girl with long, straw-colored hair and a nice vine tattoo around her ankle closing the purple door behind her. “Isn’t that Windblossom’s sister, the one visiting from—where is she from?”


“Kentucky? I don’t know. Yeah. I think her name’s Maryann.”


Krystal stood on the sidewalk. “Watch the shop for me, Nick? I, um, wonder. If I just went up there…”


But when she got up into the dark hall that separated the god shop from upstairs storage rooms, she found a note on the Deities door saying to come back in an hour and/or sign up for an appointment on the large calendar next to the door with a pencil on a string. Two names were already there for the next day: Susanna O and Ghost Rider. Krystal pressed her ear to the door but heard only simple harp music.


Back in her shop, Krystal sat down with a customer who wanted a pinkish beach pebble made into a bracelet, and Nick went back to his own place, pocketing the muffin flag. Both often leaned out their doors, and both happened to do so when Maryann came willowing out the purple door with a soft, meditative smile.


She saw them and twirled on the spot so that her long hair and gauzy skirt swirled around her. “It’s… it’s wonderful,” she sighed. “It’s… elevating. Krystal, can you put this in a pendant for me?” Maryann held out a long, clear, quartz crystal shimmering in the sun. Krystal recognized it as one she’d sold last week to the Deities woman, Jen Batiste.


Nick stepped up to her. “That’s your, um, god?”


“Goddess. And no, of course not!” Maryanne tossed her hair back. “A god could not be confined in a piece of rock! This holds the sound from when I sang her name for the first time as she came into being! It’s like, you know, every vibration is preserved in the rocks of the Earth forever. This is just to remind me of her. A touchstone.”


Krystal peered into Maryann’s palm. “Um, sure. Come on in. You, like, want a cap or a wire wrap? Come look and get some ideas.”


Nick shrugged and went back to his shop. Maryann left about an hour later with her goddess crystal nestled in a silver wire vine on a silver chain. Minutes later, the Woman came out the door and set a blank signboard leaning against the wall on a plastic tarp. She took out a jar of wine-dark paint and in a short time had a new sign drying in the sun:

Designer deities
minor deities,
fully accordant with
First Commandment rights.
By design,
they cannot come before
any other god.


Krystal admired the graceful lettering, done so free-handedly. “Pretty, Jen!”


Nick mused over the wording. “So, you’re trying to do what here?”


Jen grinned. “Just setting minds at ease. I expect visits from pastors and church ladies. Want to let them know I’m no competition. This’ll hang just inside my door, where they’ll hesitate.”


“Huh. Think they’ll believe you?” Nick shook his head.


“Their belief is nobody’s business but their own.”


Nick laughed. “Unless they make it yours, right? Good business!”


Jen stood up. She was tall and tan, or perhaps of African-American ancestry, or Mediterranean, or Indian… she didn’t fit into any ethnic niche.  She had long, curly black hair and green eyes, and was long-legged under a slim sleeveless dress of some soft, un-dyed weave.


“Even then, it’s their belief, not mine. Always their own.”


Nick’s brow creased. “So how does that work?”


Jen smiled. “I ask. Sometimes I have to ask a lot to get at the core of it, what’s really in there, what someone really holds deep and acts on—which is not always what they think. Like, for instance, I ask whether they want a god to make them feel good or feel guilty.”


Nick’s head came up like a startled deer’s. “That’s a choice?”


Krystal grinned. “How about one to make my boyfriend feel guilty?”


Jen looked very serious and very kind. “My deities are highly local. They work only on you, nobody else.”


“So…” Nick stuck his hands in his back pockets. “You can’t make a god to create world peace, or make someone fall in love with you, or stop global warming, or make someone famous buy a million-dollar tattoo? What good is a god that can’t do that?”


“Come up and find out.” Jen grinned at him.


But before he could say yes, no, or maybe later, a woman walked up wearing a tan raincoat with the hood up, on this sunny July day. All Nick could see of her was her clenched hands and her legs in gray hose and what he thought of as lawyer shoes, dressy black leather with sensible heels. Nick had no shoe fetish, but he noticed things. Details about his customers gave him an edge in pleasing them with his images. The hooded woman didn’t speak or look around, but went straight to the purple door, opened it, and went up.


Jen shrugged. “Guess I’d better go meet my new client.”


Nick sat on the sun-faded bench outside his shop. When Ms Raincoat left, she walked briskly to the corner, gazing at what looked like a coin in her hand. She went to jam it hastily into her pocket when the light changed, but it slipped away and rolled back down the sidewalk, headed for the gutter and its storm drain. Nick lunged up and grabbed it. It looked very old, crudely minted, with what looked like Latin above the unrecognizable face.


The raincoat woman snatched it from his hand. “That’s mine!”


“Yes, Ma’am. I wanted to catch it before—”


She whirled away up toward Main, her heels tock-tocking with considerable authority.


“Huh. Wonder what that god does.”


Nick thought he was talking to himself, so he jumped when Jen answered from beside him. “More than she expects, I’ll bet.” He hadn’t heard her come out the door. “Better than she expects, too. She’s better than she thinks.”


“So… “ Nick wanted to ask about things like “better” and “more,” but couldn’t quite think how to do it. “So, what do you charge for a god?”


“Sliding scale. Depends.”


Jen seemed perfectly at ease standing on the sidewalk beside him, watching sparrows fluttering as they arrived at their messy nests up under the old eaves. Silence stretched. Nick fidgeted. “Um. So, would you like some ice cream? I’m going for some. They’ve got really good pistachio.”


The next day, Nick watched a red-haired teenager in a denim miniskirt and then a burly biker carrying black leather slung over his shoulder go in the purple door and come out an hour later. The girl was singing something that sounded medieval and the biker was tossing what looked like a small chunk of melted-then-hardened metal up and down, catching it perfectly every toss.


For the rest of the week, Nick and Krystal speculated about the two or three people per day who went in the purple door and came out variously smiling, frowning, gliding, or striding away. Late on Friday afternoon, after most businesses had closed, a nervous-looking middle-aged couple hesitated outside the door, reading the simple sign and touching the letters, but then they walked away. The street seemed very quiet.


“Nick.” The voice floated from above. Jen’s face peered down from a small window that Nick had never seen opened.


He closed his shop, opened the purple door, and went up into the dim stairwell.


It seemed to take a very long time to get up the steps. There were a lot more than he thought there would be. At the top, a skylight he hadn’t known was there let down enough light to see the door where Jen was standing. She beckoned him in.


The moment he crossed the threshold, he heard a soft chanting—not church chant, not oriental ohm-ing, not anything he quite recognized, maybe one voice, maybe more, not even maybe human voices, maybe more like distant trumpets with words in them, but not words he knew. He looked for the sound system, but didn’t see it. The chanting seemed timed to his breath, to twine around in his center, to ask questions that he answered without knowing what they were.


He stood in a short hall, noticing that Jen had hung up her “minor deities” sign. The chanting was unutterably beautiful and immeasurably perplexing.


After an un-guessable time, he stepped forward into a room that seemed both empty and filled, both narrow and wide, that seemed to shift corners and colors and contours when he looked back and forth, as if he had forgotten what it looked like by the time he looked back. The walls were white. The walls were blue. The walls were a warm flame-orange. There were windows everywhere. There was only a skylight high above. There were candles. No, torches. No, thousands of fireflies. No, stars. No, a wide fireplace.


Drugs. Must be drugs in the air, Nick thought. Kinda nice. Yeah. No. He felt clear and sober. Awake.


A window like a wheel rotated in front of him. In stained glass, the images at the four cardinal points were a crown with scepter, a sword with shield, a harp rising from flame, an apron beside a bowl.


Nick felt himself on a throne, his head crowned in light, power like a bolt of lightning in his hand, thousands of bright souls before him, chanting beyond the fire that burned in a stone circle. But he could not breathe.


Out of the fire reached a muscled arm of red-hot iron. It held a sword by the blade, hilt toward Nick, that glowed white-hot, the metal glory of trumpets sounding, shining. Yes! He knew it for his own. With this, he could make right in the world. But his hand fled from its heat and would not grasp.


He stood inside the fire with a golden harp in his arms, the chant arising more beautiful than words from its strings, flowing into lines of ink, flowers on flesh, art of the heart. Yes! That was Nick, truly a maker, an artist. But he was so thirsty!


The apron lay folded across his arm, and the clay bowl, just the size of his two hands, brimmed with clear water. He poured it out into a cup held by a naked child sitting in the ashes, whose tears had long dried into tracks on her dusty face, and he thirsted no more. Here I am, he said.


He stood in Jen’s upper room, the walls white, the only sounds the gentle purr of tires on Main Street and the twittering of sparrows. The window showed the warm light of near-sunset. In his hands rested the clay bowl.


After a while more of silence, Nick almost whispered, “He’s… he’s not in the bowl.”




“Um… what’s his name?”


“Up to you.”


“Me?” Nick gazed into the bowl. “This is… this sounds so awful… um… but his name is Nick.”


Jen nodded.


“And he’s not a god.”




“I’m satisfied anyway. How much do I owe you?”


“Already paid for.”




Her hand was gentle on his shoulder as she guided him out the door.


When he got to the street, he stood for a while, enjoying how the red sun made flame shapes between branches of the young tree shadows across the street. He went in his shop. A woman came in, wearing black lawyer shoes, but no raincoat. “I want to talk to you,” she said.


Nick cradled the bowl in one hand. He took the gallon jug from his small refrigerator and poured the bowl full.


“Would you like some water?”


She scowled. “What makes you think I’m thirsty?” A brief track of ash-black mascara traced down from the corner of one eye like a dried tear.


“I just… look, I have this bowl…"


Copyright © 2011 by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero
Story image: Still life with tibetian singing bowl and plums  © Daria Kozlova


Cheryl writes:
In recent years, I’ve begun to see no boundary dividing divine from material. I was reading an interview with author Neil Gaiman (American Gods), in which he said that if he were not writing he’d like to design religions. That set off the awakening in my core that told me a story was rising, and I thought, why not go one better and design deities? I knew the perfect side street in my hometown for the deities shop, and from that place, this story unrolled almost like a dream.

Cheryl Wood Ruggiero writes and teaches in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in CALYX, South Carolina Review, Wolf Moon Journal, Pebble Lake Review, The 2River View, The Potomac, The Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Floyd County Moonshine, Abyss & Apex, Potion, and The Editorial Eye, among others; her poetry chapbook Old Woman at the Warm Spring is forthcoming in February 2011 from Finishing Line Press.  She can be reached via email at cruggiero@vt.edu.  (Photo by James G. Ruggiero)

Cirque Psychologique


A short story
by Nancy Stebbins

Hey you, boy! Hey, boy! Hey, misfit!  A loose memory taunts you, jittering at the edge of your consciousness. It’s there the moment you wake up on the cold ground, the back of your head wedged between the juggler’s shoulder blades. At least you hope they’re shoulder blades. All around is absolute darkness, as if the circus tent has swallowed the night sky whole, and no one—anywhere—can see the moon. Or Betelgeuse. Or jugglers.


Great glittering balls of hail rained down in the middle of the night, battering the metal railway cars. That’s why everyone, from the acrobats to the lowly roustabout, is sleeping on the ground under the big top, packed together like cigars in the clown’s metal tin. (Warning: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes it’s an explosive device.)


There’s snoring in all directions. Someone nose-whistles in their sleep.


The juggler’s name is Erdly. He’s the only one in the show who calls you by name. The others call you “college boy” or “temp,” but that’s okay because this job at the Cirque Psychologique is the best gig you’ve ever had. It makes you, even you, feel sane. Feel sane you even. Sane even feel you.


Once you asked if Erdly was his first or last name, and he said he didn’t know. “Names don’t matter here,” he said. “We have different ways of thinking about ourselves.”


Your legs are fetus-folded to your chest. Two knees rest against yours. They’re prickly like steel wool, and you hope they don’t belong to Loose Leonard the Jungian Contortionist. You don’t like to touch Loose Leonard even if he does sing falsetto like Prince or an angel.


Erdly doesn’t juggle balls or bowling pins, or even chain saws, like a normal juggler. His specialty is superegos, egos, and ids. The ids are weightless, and so slippery they shoot out of your hands if you hold them too tight. “Flippin’ ids,” he’ll say, but you can tell he likes them by the way he honks their little noses.


You don’t mind the ids, either. They’re cute, like daisies with faces, wearing baby Nike tennis shoes. It’s the superegos that bother you. They’re small as kiwis, but unbelievably heavy, like that dark matter that weighs a million pounds per teaspoon.


“Where do these come from?” you ask.


“Organ donors.” Erdly says the ids come from children and cartoonists. Superegos come from those people who live in towers, watching for forest fires.


“The egos?”


Erdly is practicing his contact moves. “Normal people like you,” he says, shifting a blue bouquet of egos to his right hand. Lately, instead of saying your name, Erdly calls you by your initial. He’ll say, “J, can you spot me?”


Or maybe he says, “B, can you spot me?”


One of your tasks, when the train pulls into a new town, is to unload the steamer trunks. They are heavy. You are strong. When no one watches, you lift the lids and peek inside.  It seems that you could build a woman out of all the bits and pieces in those trunks: feathers, sequins, gold lamé, netting. Sometimes there are whips.


“Be careful opening those things,” Erdly warns. It’s the day before the hail storm. “You spill emotional baggage on yourself, it never comes off.” His satin shirt is unbuttoned halfway to his navel. On his chest is a line of tattoos—women’s names—each crossed out like a mistake. The line continues as far down as you can see.


Earlier in the day, you spy Loose Leonard. He’s bent over backwards, his hands walking forward between his legs. The day is hot and clear. It’s hard to imagine that ice will fall from the sky tonight. “I had a dream,” he calls. Loose Leonard always wants to tell you his dreams, but you don’t like to hear them. They’re dark and gloomy, their essence like black clouds that continue to hover above your head.


You open Anita’s trunk and crawl inside, wallowing in it, hoping her emotional baggage clings to you. Erdly says, “Don’t fall for her.” He offers to set you up with Noni the Needy or Zola, whose body image shifts like a fun house mirror. “A nice neurotic gal,” he says. “That’s what you want. Someone dependable.”


Anita is The Woman Who Cannot Be Insulted.


“How can she stand all those insults?” you ask.


Erdly says, “One day she’ll explode like those stupid clown cigars. I’ve seen it happen.” He tosses a bunch of ids up in a cascade. “It ain’t pretty.”


That night, the insults from the crowd are vicious—name-calling in Latin, Shakespearean insults. You’re worried about Anita, even though her eyes, behind the red plastic circles of her glasses, remain dry. After her act, you follow her to her trailer. She goes inside and closes the door. A terrible yelping begins. You peek through the window. Anita is snapping at her bare feet with a leather whip, alternately laughing and crying. It’s as if she’s two people who can no longer live in the same body.


Later, before the hail starts, you tell Erdly, “I’m so confused. I love her. I’m frightened of her.”


He unbuttons his shirt all the way, takes it off and throws it at you. “Look at this, boy.” He points to a row of five names tattooed down near his navel:







“Hey, boy,” he says, “maybe you can stay on. I’ll teach you juggling.” He tosses you an ego. “Careful,” he says. “They’re more delicate than they look.”


Now, in the dark, the pine-tinged scent of the Erdly’s cologne mingles with the smell of dirt and hay, and the salt-musky odor of unwashed bodies. You reach back and feel the diamond-patterned embroidery of his satin shirt. Yes, definitely shoulder blades. Definitely Erdly.


You remember how he’s been calling you “boy,” and know that it’s your name you’re forgetting. You hug the blue ego to your chest like a hot water bottle, smiling, feeling less sane than ever. “Normal now, am I?” you whisper to the sleeping juggler.


You wonder what Loose Leonard is dreaming about.


Copyright © 2011 Nancy Stebbins
Image adapted from Juggler/Malabarista © Pablo Sánchez


Nancy writes:
"This story originated more than a year ago from an unlikely prompt: 'write about garbage,' which started me thinking about a woman who could not be insulted, no matter how much (verbal) garbage was thrown at her, and how that quality would be so rare that the woman could have her own sideshow act. Other questions followed: What insecurities would she have? Who might fall for her? And what would a psychological circus be like? It sat for a long time, and then I pulled it out in June and rewrote it from in second person from the roustabout’s perspective."

Nancy Stebbins is in her last semester at the Pacific University MFA program. Her stories have been or will soon be published in SmokeLong Quarterly, decomP, St. Ann’s Review, and The Los Angeles Review. She lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband and their many (four) teenage children. She is a psychiatrist.

Darwin’s Butterfly


A short story
by R. I. Sutton

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell      


The story goes that the esteemed scientist, Charles Darwin could not stand the butterfly. For by its vivid beauty, by its brilliant raiment and languid flight—in short, by its very existence—this small and subtle creature threatened the bedrock of his life’s work.

Such is the nature of the small and beautiful, to slip past the snares of the mind and reveal the moment as it truly is—as a gift, as intervention.


It was the chimneys that stirred him the most—the way they seemed brutish, almost reptilian against the leaden sky, when he knew them to have been the nurses of his youth. Beneath them his family had grown and gathered; about them were formed some of his closest memories. But now standing before him, as razed and dirty as a blacksmith’s furnace, was his family’s kitchen stove where, on long ago winter days, the cook had warmed and fed him between meals. And there, across a mound of fallen bricks, stood the drawing room hearth, where his father had smoked his pipe before the fire. Yet now, but for these pillars thrusting here and there like giant sleeping smokestacks, all was dust, all was ashes, for the fire had taken care of all.


He blinked and sniffed the saline from behind his eyes. He had thought he would be all right, that he would look upon the ruin as he would a beetle pinned beneath the glass. But he had not accounted for these memories rushing to engulf him, had forgotten the stupor of the senses on the brain. And now, as these ghosts flitted between the wreckage like dispossessed moths—his mother warming her pale hands, his brother scaling the stairs—he wondered if he might be losing his mind.


It was not the first time he had wondered. Lately his dreams had become strange, disturbing his sleep, and his thoughts seemed to wander odd pathways. Those little happenings to which he had in the past given not a second thought had taken on whole new significance, preoccupying him for hours. Only this morning his little granddaughter had confounded him with something she had said and he had been thinking of it ever since.


She came to sit on his lap as he read by the window, content to watch him scan the morning paper. And then, after sitting quiet for a time, she sat up and cried, “The moon, Grandpa—I can see the moon!”


“Where?” he asked, squinting through the panes of the window.


“No, not out there,” she said, “here.” She held his hands before his eyes, straightening his knotted fingers with her own. It was to his nails that she pointed, to the pale pink crescents rising from their base. “See here,” she said as she pointed from his little finger to his thumb. “Here the moon is waxing, and here,” she said, stopping at his thumb, “it is full. And there,” she said, drawing her finger over his right hand, “it gets smaller and smaller until it disappears!” She smiled as though she had shared with him a wonderful secret. “All the faces of the moon, Grandpa,” she said, spreading her hands over his, “—they’re all here, on our fingers and toes! Isn’t that amazing?”


He thought of her face now, of how the light had gone from it as he had pulled his hands away and said, “They are Lunulae, child—the nails’ new growth. Beyond their name—from the Latin ‘luna’—they have nothing to do with the moon, nothing at all…”


It troubled him, recalling this, but for the life of him, no matter which way he turned it, he could not think why. He looked at the girl now, picking among the wreckage with a broken tree branch. He had insisted on bringing her against his wife’s wishes, had thought it would be a valuable demonstration of the transient nature of things. His wife had worried that the spectacle would frighten her, but as he considered the girl before him, as incongruous as a dove in a war zone, he recognised in her neither cognisance nor fear. Rather, she wandered through the ashes like a comber at the beach, alert, relaxed—indeed, entranced by it all.


Seeing her so carefree reminded him of his own youth—here on the estate. He and his siblings had been allowed the run of the place; they were free to roam anywhere except for the walled kitchen garden, which was the province of the cook. Here they could enter only when the woman was around to keep an eye on them, for she did not trust them to leave the household produce. But the reason she gave them was different. He could still see her in her great white apron, as rigid as a guardian before the stove. She wore the key to the garden on a chain about her neck, and here it stayed unless one of two occasions arose—unless she was entering the garden itself or talking about it.


“How can I be sound of mind with the garden open an’ you childes in it, lost as lambs a-fleein’ from the Lord?” She leaned over him, the hefty key poised like a sword. “There be fell things in there, Lad,” she said, her eyes fixing his with their deadly certitude, “—fell an’ beautiful things. Tis no place for elders, much less wee-uns.”


It had been his favorite place that—the kitchen garden. He recalled the cool darkness of the fig trees, the burgundy glow of the plum. He remembered the orchard during the summer, the green and gold and red of it beneath the dreaming sky. Within those walls the rose had grown by the vine, the herb among the fare; there the beds had ambled, not marched. By night he would climb the wall and gaze down into it like an exile at the border of a forbidden land. He would watch the moonlight meeting the shapes of the fish in the pond, would imagine things in the dark and pensive places. And when he would leave to return to the house, in spite of the fruit gathered with his pilfering stick, he would leave dissatisfied, for the way inside was always too far down.


He looked up from his reverie to follow the fire’s course eastward. The ash pooled at the foundations of the house like a seething black hole, dwindling just short of the sturdy garden wall. The high oaken door to it was closed, and, he imagined, had not been opened for many a year, yet he knew that life continued within, for trees rose above the wall, reckless in their freedom, and the ivy swayed on the bricks like many beckoning hands.


Sensing someone beside him, he looked down to see his granddaughter there. “Was this your home once, Grandpa?” she asked.


He gave her what he hoped was an easy smile. “Once, a long time ago, Child, yes.”


“What happened?” she asked.


Her expression seemed felicitous, sad. He wondered if she had learnt it from his wife. “The caretaker’s fire got out of hand…burnt the place to the ground…” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice; clearing his throat, he turned away.


“No,” she said, shaking her head, “I mean, why did you leave?”


“Oh,” he said. He adjusted his feet on the powdery ash, trying to hide his irritation. The child did not seem to see the destruction about her, cared only for the sentiment of the place. He regretted bringing her here, regretted his own hopes for broadening her capacity. “I left when I was about your age,” he explained, “—for boarding school. When I was old enough to live on my own I stayed on at university in the city. This place became mine when my father—your great-grandfather—died but I had no use for it then. So I hired the caretaker.”


“You must have been sad, Grandpa,” she said, “—when you left this place. With the stables and the trees and all the pretty gardens, you must have missed it so much.”


He looked around the grounds and considered, and as he did a great weight seemed to settle upon him so that his two feet and his walking stick together felt like a tripod upholding the sky. He saw that where once the ancient oaks had risen beside the coach-way, now remained but charred and broken stumps. And there, where in his youth had spanned the green sweep of the estate, now swept a black and wild allotment. Finally his gaze came to settle once more on the walled kitchen garden, and as it did the place took on a soft quality, as though he saw it through a fine mist of rain.


He was about to answer the child, to dismiss her, when a memory came to him. After his mother had died his father had become adamant that boarding school was best for a boy of his age, refusing his pleas to be tutored at home as the girls were. And so, in his misery he had fled, running past the cook to hide in the kitchen garden among the branches of the fig.


The cook came to stand beneath the tree with her hands on her hips. “‘Tis a queer thing,” she said, “with the fig a-moanin’ an’ there being no wind! ‘Tis a sad tree indeed to sob an’ wail so…”


“It isn’t the tree,” he yelled, “it’s me!”


“Och, but is there a childe in it then?” she called. “An’ here I was thinkin’ Adam an’ Eve returned to pluck his leaves for shame! Come down, Childe, come down an’ tell us what’s wrong.”


“I’m not coming down,” he yelled, wrapping his legs around the trunk. “I’m staying right here—forever and ever!”


He shook his head to clear it and looked down at his granddaughter. “Yes,” he said finally with a brittle smile, “…yes, I suppose I did.”


He was wondering how he might distract the child when he felt her suddenly clutch his hand. “Look Grandpa,” she cried, “look!”


Blinking his eyes to clear them, he glanced up to see that the sun had found a portal in the cloudy sky. But what was strange, what he had not noticed before, was the thing it illuminated—a multitude of white flowers had somehow broken through the thick crust of ash. As the breeze caught them they glimmered in the afternoon sun, for all the world like stars shining in the ocean of night. And then, as he stared more closely and more closely still, he saw that the ground itself glittered, for embedded in the earth were a million points of light. He felt as though he stood upon the speckled night sky, as though the boundless universe stretched on and on around him. But with this wonder came a queer sense of vertigo and he stumbled, leaning heavily on the child. As he righted himself the sun disappeared once more, smothering the illusion before his eyes.


Brushing the child’s hand from his, he bent to examine the earth. “Ah,” he said, “ah, yes…” He plucked a flower and a handful of ash from the ground and held them before the girl. “The light is refracted from particles of glass—from the windows shattered by the heat. And this,” he said, shaking the bloom, “is chickweed—very hardy, but worth little to all but the bees.”


“And the butterflies?” asked the girl, and as he looked he saw that, indeed, a host of fluttering shapes danced the blackened field below.


“Yes…” he replied, dropping the flower at his feet, “…and the butterflies.”


He watched the child run off in pursuit of them and allowed the ash to trickle through his fingers. He felt immeasurably tired, like a stronghold that had been under siege for far too long. He wished to surrender, to throw wide his gates and lower the drawbridge, but to what, or whom, he did not know. Like a bird that had been caged for far too long, he was suspicious of all outside, though the door stood open and the way was clear.


He sighed and brushed off his trousers. He did not like this strange turn his thoughts had taken—birds and strongholds, symbols and metaphors. It was not logical. He did not like to think he had been wrong.


And then, so unexpectedly that he stood stricken for a moment, the rest of his memory came to him, so clearly that it seemed to have happened not a minute before…


The cook stood beneath the fig, her hands on her hips. “But you canne be stayin’ up there,” she said, “—with the wren out an’ he bein’ so fine.”


“I’m not coming down!” he shouted, turning his face from her.


“Well Lad,” she said, dropping her hands, “suit yourself…but as for me—I’m goin’ to catch me a wish. He grants them, you know—the king of the birds…”


The cook had barely left the fig’s span of branches when he was down the tree and beside her, peering through the leaves. “Will he grant more than one?” he asked as they came to a thicket of raspberries growing along the wall. After watching for a moment and listening to the sweet trickle of birdsong, a glimmer of movement caught his eye. And then he saw it—a tiny bird of impossible blue.


“Well,” whispered the cook, smiling at the wren’s dancing course, “that depends on whether you can catch him more than once…”


“Catch him!” he cried, his voice so loud that the bird startled and fleeted away. “That’s impossible!” And then, before he could stop it, before he even knew it was coming, he was crying, and the cook’s arms were around him, and he wept into her breast.


“Now you listen to me, Lad,” she said. “I know you don’t want to leave here, an’ that’s fair. But as to comin’ back—that’s up to you. An’ when I say catchin’ the wren that’s what I mean—when you’re far away an’ alone, all you need do is think of him an’ you’ll be here, back here in the garden with the trees an’ the birds an’ all the happy flowers all around you.”


“I don’t believe it,” he said, pulling away, “—it’s not true! There’ll be crowds and buildings and horrible paved streets…I’ll want to die.”


The cook smiled and as she did her eyes grew vague, as though she saw beyond him, to somewhere far away. “I know what you mean, Childe,” she said, “—believe me, I do. You see, you’re not the only one who’s had to leave a life behind. But I’ll tell you a secret if you promise to keep it to yourself, an’ that’s this. In my grandmother’s time it was the way of our people to hide great wisdom in verse. So that, wherever we went—even be it an ocean away—we carried our home with us, in our hearts an’ in our heads. An’ so,’ she said, ‘goin’ back was as simple as a song—or a poem, if you liked.”


“Like a prayer?” he asked, remembering the one he recited before bed.


“Aye,” she said, “just like a prayer.”


“Will you teach me one?” he asked.


His hands tightened on his cane and he frowned. Here his memory failed him for though the cook had taught him, though she had gone over it with him, again and again, he could not call up the details. All he knew was that the verse had been rustic and crude—probably some extract from an old peasant hymn—that there had been something in it about the onslaught of winter and the desolation of the land…and something about the wren…


And then it came back to him—the final couplet.


“For those whose sight in God doth dwell,

The wren is in the garden, all is well.”


God—the idea hung in his mind like a star in the night sky. For him, trying to think of such a thing as God was like trying to grasp an ungraspable concept like that of infinity, of space. Whenever he tried he felt himself hurtling as though through a void—a feeling he imagined synonymous with death. He could not imagine how one could have the kind of indelible certitude that the cook did; it seemed to him naïve, yet in a strange way, profound. All he knew was that, when it came to the existence of God, he did not know. He did not believe that anyone could know—could not see how one could ever know…


He looked at his granddaughter and felt immediately at ease. The child had again assumed her tree branch and her search among the ruin. He smiled as he again saw how inconsistent she looked—like a ballerina in a rubbish dump. She was a comfort to him, this girl, in spite of her carefree ways. In fact, he mused, she was a paradox, for it seemed to him that it was because of her happiness, her spontaneous delight, that he both loathed and loved her presence. He felt old when he looked at her but she made him feel young; he was incensed by her idle lack of logic but she caused him to dream. She pulled him this way and that as though he was a ragged piece of cloth on a swift autumn breeze. And he never knew where she might lead him.


As he watched her, she stooped, picked something from the earth and straightened. And then she was running towards him, an object glimmering in her hand. “Grandpa,” she cried, “look what I found!”


It was a key.


Copyright © 2011 R.I. Sutton
Originally published in issue 19 of Zahir
Photo Singing House Wren © Gualberto Becerra


R.I. writes:
“‘Darwin’s Butterfly’ came to me at a time when I was warring with what I perceived to be the wrongness of the world. I was vacuuming the floor after a day in my mind behind enemy lines when I suddenly realized that what I was needing was not to be ‘right’ in opposition to the world’s wrongness, but to look beyond the conflict and see what was true. The smoke shifted from black to gray and drifted into the sky, and here was this confused, sad old man scratching among the wreckage of his past.”

R.I. Sutton’s fiction has appeared in Kalimat and Zahir and was nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Central Victoria, Australia, and is currently working on her first short story collection, A Phantom of Earth and Water. You can visit her website at: www.risutton.com

A Vertical Life


A short story
by Tantra Bensko

Kundra began eating miracles at age 13. She learned to heal then, from a distance, instantaneously, even those she never met. She wondered even if sometimes the birds that hit the window panes, which she lovingly held in her hands, had sometimes hovered between life and death until she sent them miraculous waftings of intensities of light, holding them to her heart, and then they flew away.

That was what she wanted. To fly upwards. She was not entirely a comfortable denizen of the horizontal world. Miracles were her sustenance. Keeping others alive kept her alive because otherwise, she would have languished in the world of plots and desires, the mundane material longings her friends expounded upon in their stories of wanting this and getting that, the arcing up of suspense and desire, the falling back down of satiation.

She instead flew upwards out of the illusion that we are encased in separate bodies and limited perspectives, and she stopped eating physical nourishment almost altogether. She was already very slender but became a fragile line of smoke, as food became slightly foreign to her body, and miracles more fulfilling. She ate the light of consciousness, filling herself with it, expanding past the boundaries of the flesh, her eyes upturned, her smile huge, mysterious.

She touched others with a finger pointed across space. And they felt lit up, expanded, blasted with divine love, as if they could levitate. And they shuddered.

She would often look at herself in the mirror then, puzzling about the whole idea of being alive, as she curled her red hair, trying to make it behave in the morning before school, before she took the long walk to the bus, in the harsh Indiana wind, in the dark as her ride was so long to the school, in civilization. By the time she got to school, the curls were mostly gone. She felt silly. She wanted instead to be curling the sky. She decided not to pander any more to the plot line of wanting boys to like her, and she never kissed even one boy until she went away to college.

At age nineteen, it was the commercial for a breath mint that made her decide to have sex, though she found television completely foreign. “How’s— Your– Love-life?” was the refrain she would hear on television as she walked past it. “How’s your love life??”

If I have sex, she pondered, then I can have a separate life, magical, in a red velvet room of its own, with a whole expanse of reality just around it, painted in on the fog of expectations and discernments?

So, looking at herself in the mirror, her waist a mere eighteen inches around, she would bend over and regard the line that her back made, and the way it was echoed but transformed in the lines along her front of her belly. She decided another life on top of the one she already had would be lovely to explore and create. That was the key—on TOP of her regular life. She could stack it up and see farther from it, be closer to the sun inside it. She decided to make love.

Making love was flying through the conduit of geometric shapes, tunneling through a mandala of the spine and out above her head into the sun, expanding beyond the idea of being two people, outside the idea of being in a story, but outside the idea of even humanity itself, into the glowing beating of everything itself. But she longed to find a man who would also fly out of the plot of life, and rise up with her along his own spine into the Kundalini of miracles.

It was another musical line related many years later that helped her decide to makes plans to leave that first man she had made love with, became pregnant with, and married. It was a song about dolphins and she and their son, Cody, sang together hugging each other close, he a tall six years old.

She wanted to rise up in the ocean like a dolphin, and move on to a life in which she was allowed to continue up out of the water and into the sky, good bye, good bye.

She wanted to create another life for Cody to fly to himself, a life in which one could move vertically as well as horizontally, but not as part of a plot arc, the rising and falling of desire. She wanted to fly up into the sky and catch the food of miracles with her mouth. She wanted to crack open the blue of the sky and look beyond it through the brightness of the sun, where we are told not to look directly. She wanted to go through it to the other side of the container of this reality. She wanted the next life she created for them to have no artificial boundaries at all.

She sat at night in the darkness, her pragmatic husband and trusting child asleep, and looked upwards with her eyes, behind closed lids. She would see concepts take on the forms of geometrical patterns of light and she would tunnel up through them, the euphoria of rising up through the levels of herself through her spine, and above her head, upwards and upwards, her eyes straining upwards in her head, closed, but filled with mandala tunneling, meaningful patterns of nearly as much golden light as one would see staring into the sun. This was what fed her and made her grow.

She made arrangements for how she would divide up the time with Cody. And she left to the sound of The Monkey’s “Porpoise song,” “goodbye, goodbye,” to wander the bare earth, to sleep on the red rocks, be one with them and with the lightning. To be what she thought of as a Tantric monk.

In the wilds of Arizona, she maintained the conduit between the conceptual patterns of the Kundalini, and her footsteps, her feet bare, dipping her toes into the cool water of the stream. No one was around. There was no chance for the intrusion of a plot. No action could happen horizontally. It could only go vertically, through that conduit to the larger part of her true life.

She wandered through the dry earth, the red rocky soil sparse with shrubs, and a line of trees growing by the creek. She walked towards the red cliffs, knowing where she was going. Wearing her crystals and feathers to help her be a stronger conduit, she walked towards the fountain coming straight up out of the ground.

She lifted up her skirt. And she sat on it….. She drew in the miraculous conduit of startlingly intensely pressurized water into her vagina, and astral light through it and through her whole body. She flew up through the energies of the earth as they spouted out. No one was around to see her, her bright red hair glowing against her light skin, nearly translucent body, wearing a short dress of un-dyed muslin, one shoulder without a sleeve, the bottom of the skirt torn at an angle as well. There was no man to take her on a horizontal path of desiring him, following him. She was sitting on the wet, cold power of the earth directly, flowing with it, her identification flying up and up and up, brighter and brighter. She got completely soaked.

Sometimes Kundra writes about herself in the third person.

When I, Kundra, had finished writing what you have just read, I went for a bicycle ride along the ocean, nothing like the canyons of the last scene. It was the most stringently perfect lighting for photography and I was taking photographs as I rode my thick red cruiser, a classic that perks everyone up.

We are in the present, and we see the red of the wheels we may remember from childhood. The spokes have been broken and repaired. The spokes all come out from the center. The scientists say time does too. Everything I just wrote about came from the moment of me setting on the jet of water that went into my vagina with such force, it became the center of the wheel. My past, my present, my future, all flare out of my soaking vagina being pummeled by the spring in the dry canyon. You come out of that too.

I bike along the shore trail, the fluffy sand dunes with their fur hide the sun just enough to make it take on shapes between the stems, the leaves, the fuzz, the people rolling on them.

I think again of my desire to fly through the sun beyond the sun and all the many shapes it takes cut into patterns by the tall grasses on the dunes. Some things we reject. Some things we accept. The pattern of rejection and acceptance form our signature vibration complex.

I remember a life not on Earth, of flying up and down in what seemed like water, touching against each other, all of us, all of us, one after another as our bodies touched in vertical lanes, sliding the technology of acceptance and rejection against each other. Every off and on in our psychology is encoded in our skin. Then, we read it with our eyes of light of sensations of skin. Like dolphins.

I stop to take a photograph and hear behind me a man with a voice from Columbia talking to someone, probably not– but maybe me. What he says keeps speaking to me anyway, and I have to suddenly turn and bike back to him as he stands on the wall of the beach path, at one of the high decorative juttings along its surface. He has a camera that looks more like a kaleidoscope, a telescope, outrageously powerful and long. It seems to point for centuries.

He’s talking to three young people around him, looking enthusiastically at him.“I’ve taken videos of the sunset every night for four years, right here. I changed this spot. I cleaned it up for fifteen years. It used to be all gangs. One gang for every set of steps from the walkway to the beach. I take the photos of the sun with all the shapes they take and put them one on top of the other along these scopes, see?” He holds up one see through image after another which stacked up to become a tunnel of geometrical shapes. They look like telescoped mandalas. “Then I fly through them. . . . It’s like flying through the center of time, going in all directions around me.”

He continues talking, and I grow more and more restless, as everything he expresses, one concept and feeling after another, is what I just wrote in this vertical story . . . everything I didn’t write, which is most of the story, most of what you’d really want to hear, but won’t, unless you bike past this man, yourself, and have him tell my secret story. If you want to know where he stands every night, ask, and I’ll tell you. But maybe it’s your secret story he will tell.

“I don’t like to eat,” he says, “just eat the beauty of the sun. It gives me another life, the love-life of being in love with the sun, a separate life to live inside, and I can curl up in a ball and see myself like the sun, glowing. My own sunshine fountains out of my head. See? Can you see it?” He bent his head down to show me. “Put your hand on top of it and feel it. It’s the center of time.” A dog walking past him along the walkway gets tangled up in its leash and bumps against him.

I feel like bursting because it’s so bizarre and beautiful. I can hardly contain myself that I am talking to a man speaking my own story back to me that I just wrote to you. I start to cry. I tell him why. He doesn’t seem to listen. It’s as if it happens every day that he says exactly what a passing stranger just wrote, sometimes word for word, sometimes in total order of the paragraphs, and always with the non-plot structure that goes nowhere but up, and through the sun and out the other side of all stories.

He just keeps talking and talking, almost exhaustingly so, but I keep my sparkle. The people he was originally talking to take the chance to get away from his long windedness with the accent one has to strain to hear, and from the impossibility of getting much of a word in edgewise. He says “I never read. Why bother with words when we can expand our minds and fly like the pelicans?”


Copyright © 2011 by Tantra Bensko
Story image: © Alain Lacroix, Dreamstime.com


Tantra writes: 

"I have been writing, short story by short story, a book about my life, calling myself Kundra, though I only pick certain scenes out of the whole to describe. Each story at its best has the potential to fountain the reader out of the series of stories, into the world above story, the more mystical state of joy and brilliant light. “A Vertical Life” I wrote in an attempt to begin the whole set of stories off with the autobiography of the fountain aspect itself.

I describe a life of fountaining, not too much caught up in the need for recreating the whole story, but just going with the soaring. While the rest of the stories in the collection take place chronologically, story to story, this one takes on chronology through a lifetime of non-linearity, so it falls apart when we look at the nature of time, which can be seen as coming out from the center like spokes on a wheel. The man taking special images of the sunset was real, and he truly did repeat the concepts of the story, right after I wrote them down, though I had never met him before. A garrulous man, indeed, but it was a magical convolution of time and wonder that stacked up upon itself fittingly.

To write a story like this, which doesn’t fit the formula of a plot arc or anything at all traditional, is my way of using this world to push beyond the default perceptions of it inherent in most media, and most mindsets.  This story is an example of lucid fiction, and of mystical prose, which I teach, and promote, because I feel writing and reading this kind of thing improves the world in some obscure but shining way, and I appreciate Cezanne’s Carrot for publishing it."

Tantra Bensko, MFA, is the author of chapbooks Watching the Windows Sleep, and the tiny Swinging on the Edge of Day, published by Naissance Press. Magazines have published more than 140 of her poems and short stories and a substantial number of articles, including literary theory about lucid fiction. She teaches Mystical Prose and Experimental Fiction Writing, through UCLA Extension and her own Academy online to brilliant students all around the world. She edits Exclusive Magazine and maintains a site on experimental writing. She also teaches LucidPlay, and has books and DVDs available.

Worthless Days


Creative nonfiction 
by Margaret Dulaney

I wonder if I am the only one who suffers from worthless days, days when I simply cannot fathom what I am doing with my present incarnation, as if everyone around me were busy pushing along the evolution of life but me — days where all I seem to be is a gas-guzzling, fresh-air-hogging, plant-consuming, water-sucking, free-loader, a worthless drain on an overdeveloped world, taking far too much room at the trough.

If you have ever shared even a hint of this dreary speculation, I must tell you that we are in good company. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, felt the weight of such days. “Yonder uplands are rich pasturage, and my neighbor has fertile meadow, but my field, says the querulous farmer, only holds the world together.”

What I find most fascinating about the workings of the world is how often, when in such a glum mood, some opportunity of usefulness will be unexpectedly handed to me.

Many years ago, before I had animals of my own (or I should say, before I began to pack my home full of animals) I was having a dreadful attack of uselessness. My husband and I had newly moved to the country and I had no friends, as well as no animals, to take care of. I had been wandering around in my back yard in a fog of paralyzing self-negation, circling through a list of empty pursuits, of vacuous reasons for my existence. Finally, weary of my damp, dead-end thinking, I asked to be given some sign of worth, some small signal of my life’s necessity. 

Moments later a dog bounded into my back yard from out of the woods.

The yard at the time had a good deal going on in it. My husband had been overseeing the building of a fence along the road by our house, and there were several men standing around in various states of work and discussion. When the dog entered the yard, he raced past this group of men, practically leaping over them, in an apparent frenzy to reach me, as I stood near the back screen door of my house. He was long-legged and fast and in such a mad fury to get to me, with so little notice of the others, that it occurred to me that he might have mistaken me for a large squirrel. Surely, I reasoned in that brief instant, he was about to execute his instinctual, murderous designs by shaking me by my scrawny neck.  In a sudden panic of protective paranoia, I ankled it though the back screen door, just before the dog, unable to stop his enthusiastic trajectory, threw himself against it. He recovered, partially, and stood panting and staring at the door. I hotfooted it around to another room, and looked out a window that would allow me to study him without his notice, and perhaps detect, from this point of relative safety, any signs of rabies or mad cow disease. Somehow he sensed my presence, turned to my window and raced over to it, placing his great paws on the windowsill to peer in at me.

I asked him, through the safety of the window, why it was he didn’t just go out and find one of the men who were working in the yard. I suggested that he might find the men less defensive of their necks, and therefore more inclined to listen. Without a glance in the men’s direction, he stared fixedly into my eyes, allowing me to make a more studied assessment. He was a mixed breed, of the largish, shepherd-like variety, faintly curling tail, long wolfish nose. He wore a rather dear, albeit anxious expression. He did not look the least like a hardened assassin. His name, if I had been asked to give him one on the spot, might have been Buddy, or Clem, something friendly, harmless . . . okay, even lovable.

I sighed, walked around to the door, opened it and stepped out to see what I could do for him. This caused such fireworks of desperate joy that it took quite a while to read the wild dangling ID tag, which landed and shot out of my hand a hundred times. Finally able to detect a phone number, I hunted for a pen, hunted for a piece of paper, hunted for the phone, while the dog continued to circle and leap, allowing less than two inches to come between us. The phone call elicited an equally mad fit of joy from his owner, a mother, who told me how many torturous days he had been missing and how much his child housemates had wept since his absence. She came at once, eliciting wails of gladness from both parties, and the circle of losing and finding was complete. I rung with gratitude for hours afterward.

This whole scenario took perhaps twenty minutes and was entirely lost on the men at the fence project. Months later when I mentioned the lost dog story to my husband, he was completely clueless. “Dog?” he asked. “In our yard?” The incident of the dog’s deliverance had clearly been designed for me.

Now here is where the idea of answered prayer becomes a bit tricky. I am not implying that the loss of the dog and the subsequent anxiety of his family were designed only for me.  I tell this story because I believe it illustrates the remarkably intricate design, which weaves all of our needs into such a fine pattern, that if one were able to follow each thread backwards through the complexity of connection and miracle, the exercise would blow our tiny little finite minds.

In other words, if you took the thread of my own dreary thinking, the thread of the dog’s fearful journey, the thread of misery from each member of the dog’s household around the loss of the dog, if you took these threads and attempted to follow them back, even a few days, you could never unravel the wisdom behind this strange connection.

This fabric of cause and effect seems to be fabulously complex, dense, dense, like the deep pile of a thick rug.  And, although there have been moments in my life where I believed I had discovered a worn spot, where I detected a bit of light shining through, I suspect the relative shining is like that of a candle next to the sun. 

I will take that candle for now, take it gratefully.


Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Dulaney
Story image: Adapted from an image by Photobunnyuk, Dreamstime.com


Margaret writes:

"When I’m feeling particularly lost, an animal will often appear to help reconnect me to my place in the world. Apart from the animals in my home (and barn), I have learned to look to wild creatures for this aid of connection. When I travel away from my home, for instance, I am sure to be given some special glimpse, some touch: a passing cat will brush against me, an owl will peer out of her hiding place, a squirrel will pointedly chatter to me from a tree.  These messengers, offered at crucial moments, have given me such comfort that I can only assume their presence is the result of a holy prodding, delivered from some kind divine hand."

Margaret Dulaney is the creator of the spoken-word website, Listen Well, offering once-monthly spoken-word pieces that explore the Divine through story and metaphor. “Worthless Days” originally appeared as the October 2010 offering on Listen Well and can be accessed by visiting the archive page at www.listenwell.org This is the third essay of Margaret’s to appear in Cezanne’s Carrot, and she is very grateful for the continued support of its editors. She can be reached at mdulaney1111@gmail.com.

Euclid’s Mirror

Previous Worthless Days

A short story
by Terry Paul Pearce

A sphere sits on a concrete plain, and a man stands and peers into it. To the man, the surface of the sphere appears silvered, opaque and clear—all at once. He scrutinises the sphere closely. He cannot work out whether the sphere is a mirror, a window, or a picture; whether what he sees is on the surface, without, or within. What he sees there is a figure, much like himself. When he raises a hand, the figure does likewise. He takes a step forward; like a dance partner, his double steps to meet him.

All around the figure, he sees criss-cross gridlines, as of the paved surface on which he stands, stretching away from the figure just as they do from him. Behind the figure, as in his distance, are buildings; the city. The only difference between what he sees and what is around him is the way that the sphere's contents cleave to the curvature of its form, whilst everything around him adheres to a straighter, more familiar perspective. The arcs curving around the sides of the globe correspond perfectly to lines of grid, level parallels which constrict the boundless and bare plaza on which he stands, but those on which he stands stretch off towards vanishing points on the horizon. 

As he stands there, a conceit germinates in him, and it is this: the sphere contains within it a universe equal to the exterior one it reflects. Admittedly, the space outside is infinite, whilst that within is bounded by the circumference of the sphere. But, as the man reflects, he has never seen infinity. The scientists tell him that the universe in which he lives continues forever, but he sees only so far.

If every point in his universe has its twin in the sphere, the counterpart of a point on the infinitely distant rim of his universe could be found at the centre of the sphere. The increments one would need to traverse to get to the centre could merely get infinitesimally smaller, and therefore be unlimited. He thinks of a fable he once heard about a hare who gains on the tortoise he is racing, halving the distance, then halving it again, and halving it again. At that rate, the hare would reach the tortoise only in an infinite number of stages. He sees a parallel between the impossibility of the journey to the centre of the sphere and impossibility of the journey to the circumference of the universe. The same information, plotted in different geometries. The infinite, he whispers, is the analogue of the infinitesimal.

Worlds realign themselves in his mind. A jigsaw fits into place where before there was only chaos and formlessness. Time passes as he stands, staring, motionless.

His reflections turn to the being inside the sphere. Beings, plural, for surely if his doppelganger stares at him, then in the city behind, his wife is cooking dinner, his children are tucked up in bed, and all the nameless faces who share his joylessly anonymous journey to work every day are going about their business. In the city in the sphere, in the distance that does not seem distant. He wonders what they see when the gaze upon the surface of the sphere. It eludes him, at first. He is trying to make his brain fit into a dimension it is not used to, taking it on a forced march along both sides of a Moebius strip.

But then he has it. He finds another dimension to add to the realignment taking place, as if he has gone from solving a two dimensional puzzle to solving it in three. They would, of course, see it exactly as he does. He would be the one bounded by a circumference, living according to a strange geometry. He would be the one whose infinity was a centre. A chameleon can see through all the points of the compass, but does not see itself as having a strange field of vision. It would find eyes only on the front of its head strange. The mirror is perfect, he realises. As outside, so within; as within, so outside.

He gazes at the sphere, nodding, murmuring under his breath. His conjecture is perfect; it is self-consistent, has an undeniable internal logic. Then, however, a final realisation dawns. Knowing what he now knows, he sees that he can never be sure whether he is the man who gazes, or whether he is the figure seen inside. Whether his world is curved, or straight. Whether everything he knows is reflected here, or whether he is the reflection, existing outside of the physics he thinks he knows; in effect, not existing.

Perhaps this knowledge would madden some men, or crush them under its weight. This man, however, sees it differently. Balanced on the edge of infinity and nothingness, he feels the lightness lift him. Maybe the world he knows is real, maybe not. Maybe he is nothing but a reflection, maybe he sees the reflection. Maybe he is bounded in a nutshell, or perhaps he is the king of infinite space. It’s all, he realises, a matter of perspective.

He takes a last look at the sphere, the man, the flatness, the city in the distance. Then he turns on his heel and whistles as he walks home to his wife, feeling a world of possibility stretch out before him like parallel lines which will never meet.


Copyright © 2011 by Terry Paul Pearce
Story image: Adapted from an image by Ivan Mikhaylov, Dreamstime.com


Terry writes:

"I’ve always been interested in different perspectives on reality, especially as explained in scientific circles. I agree with Stephen Hawking that any description of reality is only a model, but need not be any less useful for that. It was in this context that, last Christmas, I was musing on a prompt set in a flash fiction competition: a photo of a huge mirrored ball – an open air art installation in a city square. At the time, I’d been reading about Non-Euclidian Geometry, and the possibilities that unfold in the story suggested themselves as soon as I inserted a character into the scene, peering into the sphere."

Terry Paul Pearce lives and works in London. He writes mainly short fiction, although he hopes to work up speed to a novel one of these days. Among his influences are Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Loren Eiseley. Previous publishers of his work include Grey Sparrow Press, The Foundling Review, Girls with Insurance, and The Battered Suitcase. Musings and links to all of his published work can be found at www.terrypaulpearce.blogspot.com.

La Llorona


A short story
by Sandra Jensen

Hard in my mouth. Tearing. Taste of blood metal. I smell salt, my own spit-froth. I’m sweating. She’ll fall off if I don’t stop. I feel her knees through the leather, high up on the skirts. Terrified, she is, pulling hard. I’m bleeding now. I don’t care. I want this. This now. Scrub flying like storm water beneath my hooves, rocks disappearing into sand the faster I go. My hooves do not touch them or the nopal. We are on the edge of the canyon my mother fell into. I watched her fall, legs and eyes and mane and tail a knot of flashing grey and then there was nothing. And then there was a sound. It leapt from canyon wall to canyon wall, and I looked up. A billowing dust cloud swallowed the herd, my father leading. That’s when I learned to run.

I’m breathing hot air, fire down my throat. I forget she’s there until the shift of her weight on my back. Both hands on the swell, her fingers caught in the reins. If I dipped my head she’d fly off into the ravine, like my mother. She’d not make much of a noise. She’s just a slip of a woman. She thought she could ride me.

The man said, Do you want gentle? Or do you want Formula One? I know I looked like nothing, my head in a bucket of mush, my bones sticking out, my coat a mess of dun and dull. I felt her eyes. They lit up like a fire-stick. I stopped munching. Oh, so she thinks she can ride me? We’ll see about that. I lifted my head from the bucket. She’s bone thin. Hair like mine. She looked at me and did not look away. My heart stopped. She’s mine, I thought. I stood still while she clambered up. I don’t usually do that. I could hardly feel her. Light as a chickadee, lighter than the saddle. She didn’t like it. She wanted English. We only do Western here, he said. But I can’t feel him, she said. You’ll feel him. The man pointed the way. Two hours, he shouted, dragging his boy to the cookhouse.

I did my job. I followed the trail, I’d know it in my sleep. I turned at the juniper. An eagle hovered above, a mote in the sun’s unblinking eye. Now I smell the ranch. I smell my corner in the corral. Then I smell the woman’s fear. It smells the same as the girl’s. It smells of moonflowers and light. I want to stop but I can’t, it’s too late. I want to turn around. I want to take her to the girl’s vultured body. I want the woman to do what’s undone but my legs won’t stop. My hooves pick out the flat without my help, they know every fetlock-crushing hole. I want to mess up. I tell my legs to slow but they don’t listen, they are on gallop-home but it’s all wrong now. Blood and sweat and spit and froth and her sorrel-gold hair in my eyes, she’s holding my neck, breathing short hot breaths into my ears. Her eyes are closed, she knows I’ll see for her, she knows I won’t let her fall.

The ranch is a brown speck rising out of the dust, sprawling across the mesa like vomit. I smell smoke, sour corn, boiled beans and piss. Horse sweat, man sweat. Wet hay, stink water. I smell the boy’s tears, twice wrung. He’s dried out. He’s a straw boy standing guard over his mama, waiting for his sister to leave his nightmare nights and come out to play. She will not play anymore. I can’t do that for him. But I can do the other, that I will and I know this now. I have the woman to help me.

The grandmother stands in the shadow of the honey mesquite, one hand on her big hip the other shading her broken face. She turns to open the corral gate. My legs canter down to a trot, hooves pattering like slow rain. The woman bounces off-beat and then finds my rhythm. She lets go of my neck, fingers knotting into my mane. Her knees drop, grip the saddle fender. The left rein falls, I’m going to trip but she gathers it up. The gate is wide. The old one fusses with her braid, grey hair uncoiling like a snake on hot coals. The boy’s behind the corral, sitting on his mother’s grave. He watches us with his windowless eyes and then ducks away. El Negro is waiting for me. They don’t take him out, not after he threw his rider. The man had to give his money back. He waved the limping gringo off, watched the camaro melt over the rise, and then he said, ¡Chinga tu madre, cabrón! and spat into the dust. The man beat El Negro with his stick and the stick splintered into his hand. There was blood and he carried on beating until the old one pulled him off.

El Negro’s in the corral and going to fight for it. I don’t care, not this time. I’m not going in. I swerve in front of the gate, hind legs following forelegs too late and I stumble, right myself, twist past the piss-hut and the old woman shouts, ¡Vuelve aquí! but I don’t.

My woman’s right heel flails across my ribs, the other still stirrup hooked. She’s too far forward, her fingers catching in the brow band. Her hand folds back my ear for a moment and she says, Sorry. I want to stop and weep when I hear but I keep moving before the man sees us. He’ll bring the rope and the whip. We pass the cookhouse. Burning tortillas. The man will whip his boy. Where is he? I don’t look for fear. The man’s fast and so is El Negro, but not as fast as me. El Negro wasn’t with us at the border crossing. He doesn’t know the smell of a ghost girl’s blood, bullet-dried.

The woman finds the other stirrup, she’s in now. I dip my head to check the reins. She gives a little, the way I like it. She’s got me good, knees and heels and hands and backside. I knew she would. She’s all bone and sinew, curved into the saddle like a whisper. My tongue is thick. The corners of my mouth hurt. Ribs bruise where she dug me. I hear the man shout but I don’t turn to look. I’m going fast now, faster than before. I head for the canyon. They think I only know one way but I’ve been where no man can go. I’ve met the Chupacabra, the goat sucker. He tried his evil. I’ve drunk at the Rio’s edge. I’ve heard the woman who sings for the dead.

The wind is up, it’s going to storm. I’m breathing hard, my heart thumping, hers a hummingbird pitpitpit. My hooves have forgotten the ground or it has forgotten them. Rocks have grown up under the sedge. Something catches in my left hind hoof, pressing into the frog. Pain knifes up my shank, I kick back, try to shake it out but it’s lodged in deep. I’m still cantering but it’s lopsided. She puts a hand on my neck, strokes me down. It’s too soon to stop. They’ll find us. I tuck my ears backward and forward. I hear nothing but the thickening storm and the birds huddling in the pines ahead. It’s okay, she says, stop. My eyes blur with pain and I slow and then falter just before we reach the forest. I want to get us inside where it’s dark, but I obey and stop. I hang my head. Close my eyes. I’m done. Heaving. My sweat has wicked into the air and all I feel is hot. Water is a long way off. Storm water tastes like tin. It’ll have to do. Night will fall and with it the moon.

I can’t think further than the taste of my bloodied mouth. I drop to one knee and then the other. Hey, she says, but I’m on my knees and it hurts so I blow through my nose. If I roll, her leg will crush. I blow again, louder this time and she says, Okay, okay. She’s off, slipping like a newborn, thumping softly on the ground. I roll and she rolls with me, her head resting on my belly. We stay there awhile. Her head lifts as I breathe, her hair tickling my underside. I want to stay but we can’t. I shift but she doesn’t. Her body is limp, pressing down on me like my mother’s breath. I don’t want to move her but I must. I shift again and she cries out. I turn my head. We have to get into the forest, I say, but she just reaches out one hand, fingers curling downward and then uncurling when I don’t draw back. You can touch me, I say, and she does, her fingers on my nose. You’re dry, she says, You’re bleeding. I nuzzle her wrist. She smells of sundried wheat. She looks up at the blackening sky. We’d better get under cover. I blink and tell her that’s what I said but she’s already standing.

The skies unfold their arms and one drop falls on my loins. Then nothing. But I know this rain, it comes on as thick as fire on cheatgrass in a drought. I get up. I can’t put any weight on my hoof. She takes my reins and knots them over the swell and walks into the forest. She turns, sees me limp. Keep going, I say, you’ll get wet, and she already is because it’s bucketing as I said it would. The clouds gather like black mustang, clustering and tumbling and the forest is no darker than the savannah but the pines are thick and keep the rain off even though we are already soaked through.

I lick my nose but the bit chafes so I stop. She comes close, presses her forehead against my shoulder. Where have you taken me? she asks. She doesn’t wait for my answer. She’s around back, lifting my leg like she’s done it all her life, my shank resting on her thigh. There boy, she says, but I don’t like to be called that so I nip her gently, just her hair falling down her back. It tastes of burnt corn. She’s got her thumb in, trying to dig the stone out but it’s stuck hard so she uses a stick. It hurts and I pull away, I don’t mean to. My leg slips from her hands and she yells. I pull up quickly, I’ve stepped on her. She’s hunched up, rocking forward and backwards and now I can’t put my hoof down at all, the stick is lodged in there with the mud along with the stone. The storm comes down hard. It’s so loud I fear it’s going to sever the forest roof and then there is a crack louder than the storm and now I’m sure we’re finished, the trees themselves are falling on us. I hobble sideways shielding her body with mine and then there is a flash of light and nothing else, even when it stops. The forest is burned onto my eyes, trees standing hard like men. They don’t get the girl, not this time. I let them shoot and then it’s all white and I’m blind, falling, falling, my legs kicking, my tail catching on stick arms poking out the canyon wall.

The Nahual is already on me so I must be dead. I feel his hot breath searching my face. He’ll eat my eyes and then my heart. I jerk away, the side of my head hits something hard. It hurts. Does it still hurt when you’re dead? Is the girl still hurting? Does she bleed dead blood? I don’t want to think about that so I don’t. Where is she? I’ll take her away, I’ll find her mother and we’ll ride into the heavens. My thoughts are mud thick and then I hear a voice humming. I knew she’d sing tonight. She’s unbuckling the cheekpiece. Her finger is in my mouth, tugging at the bit. She tastes like the living and I open my eyes. It’s not her. It’s my woman. I blink hard. She’s not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be here. I caught the bullet. I can feel it in my heart and then she gently pulls out the bit and I swallow. I try to raise my head and she says, Easy now. The rain has slowed to a rat’s patter and I listen to it awhile.

The woman keeps stroking my neck. It feels good and I want to sleep but I know the dead girl will visit so I don’t. She’ll ask me why I’ve not buried her bones and I don’t have an answer to that. I think of the man and his boy. Will they still be on our trail? We have to move on. The girl is not far and the air is beginning to taste like midnight.

I roll and she says, Where do you think you’re going? She doesn’t listen, this woman. I’m half up, the bridle hanging undone. She pulls it off and I stand. Something’s different. She’s lifted the saddle or maybe it did so by itself. I’ve seen such a thing. It took the rider with it, his head breaking open like an egg. Come over here, she says, stepping up on a fallen Chihuahua pine. It looks recently alive and I wonder if the lightning got it. I can’t get up unless you come here, she says. I’m coming, I say, and I do, carefully because of my hoof but I forget and put it down hard and pick it up quickly. It doesn’t hurt at all. I try again, and still it doesn’t hurt. She’s a healer woman. I knew that because of her eyes, shifting like the colour of a river when the clouds herd a twilight sun.

She puts both hands on my withers and swings up. I guess you know where we’re going, she says. I turn and look her in the eye which looks as black as everything else so I brush my nose against her knee. The rain has stopped, which is good. I take the shortcut by the big rock and something darker than the night slithers underneath. Probably a king snake so I don’t worry but keep on and out.

The sky wears her star-punctured cloak, slick with moonshine. It must be past eleven so I take up a slow trot, waiting to see if she can hold her seat. She can and I open to a canter. I can’t tell where I end and she begins except for the pulling at the base of my neck, her hands thick with my mane. We’re in the open now, anyone can see us if they’re here. I sniff up the air but the rain has wrung it clean. I’m worried about the man. I don’t care about him. It’s the boy. He’s too young to see his sister’s gun-spoiled body. He’s too young to leave his mother’s mound. He tried to grow yellow dog weed flowers by her head but they died before they took root. Sometimes I’d call out to him and he’d look up and wave, but he never came over.

I can hear the wash of the Rio now, it’s moving fast. We are close. I smell the girl. She smells of silt and petrified wood. Her bones will be sun bleached, easy to find. I look for the big sagebrush but instead I see a white truck. I cut sideways catching my woman off guard but she’s stuck to me like she was born on my back. It’s too late, they have seen us. The truck revs, blinks a bloodied eye, corners us into the brush and then stops when I don’t move except for dancing. Then I smell the sagebrush. It’s right here under my hooves and so are the girl’s bones, crushing easily and I rear up hard, my woman hanging on. Hey, a man yells and then another, ¡La Migra. Alto!

I won’t let them get her, not this time. I wanted the woman to bury her good but it’s too late for that. The best I can do is get them away from here, but they’ve got me trapped. The truck stares with three blinding eyes. One man climbs out and then another with a long gun. You American? the first shouts, but I don’t answer that and neither does the woman. Get down off that horse, says the one with the rifle. I step back and hear something crack like a gunshot against my hoof. It’s the girl’s skull, I know it before I rear and fall, dragging the sky with me. I see her long black hair trailing shooting stars behind, I hear her child-laugh as she spins cartwheels in the dust for her brother. I hear thunder, and think that’s strange the storm has long moved on over the Rio or I wouldn’t be seeing the moon. Jesus, Bo, a man says. And then I taste blood again. The woman must have put the bit back in but she wouldn’t do that. She’s right here saying, No! her small face pressed into mine but I don’t know what she’s referring to. Her face is damp. Salt-rain stinging my mouth. I must be wrong about the storm and then I hear La Llorona sing and I am glad. The girl can go now and so do I.


Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Jensen
Story image: © Ivan Mikhaylov | Dreamstime.com


Sandra writes:
In the spring of 2007, I hadn’t written for months. I was blocked. I picked up Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing and discovered he'd been writing at least a thousand words a day since childhood. I flung the book down, thinking, if he can do that, I can at least do a twenty-minute assignment I’d set for my online writer’s group. I wrote a freefall piece on the prompt "reigned in." Although the first words were inspired by a terrifying ride I’d taken in Mexico, what I’d written was totally new. I wrote again the next day, and the next, hurtling towards an end that "wrote itself" (and which made me weep). For the first time I had a sense of what a short story actually felt like to write. It had a shape, a life outside of my own; a taste in my mouth, almost. That story became "La Llorona." It was published a year later—my first print publication—in the international literary journal Versal.

Sandra Jensen was born in South Africa and currently lives in Ireland with her partner and her cat. Her work has been published in Word Riot, Sou'Wester, AGNI and others. She is a finalist in the 2010 Bridport Prize and has received honourable mentions in The Fiddlehead's 2011 Literary Contest and Glimmer Train Press's Family Matters, Very Short Fiction and Open Fiction competitions. Recently she won Red Room's Scandalously Short Story Contest. Her short story manuscript, A Sort of Walking Miracle, was shortlisted for The Scott Prize (Salt Publishing). In 2010 she was awarded a professional writer's grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to develop her novella, Tell Me in Tamil into a novel. This year, she won the J.G. Farrell Award for best novel-in-progress.

The Peach at the End of Days

Previous La Llorona

A short story
by Bruce Holland Rogers

“Please, no parable today. I don't think I could sit still for it.”

“You don't have time to hear a story?”

“What I mean is that the world is in such peril.”

“You worry.”

“I want to do something! We don't need stories. We need action!”

“All right. No parable today. Instead, I'm going to reveal a prophecy.”

“Yes! The kind of story that shapes the future! A call to action!”

“Is that what prophecy is to you?”

“If not, then 'prophecy' is mere fortune telling.”

“What I have in mind is not fortune telling. Now, tell me about the state of the world. What is it that worries you?”

“Where to begin? The seas are rising.”

“Are they?”

“They're going to rise.”

“Yes. That's part of my prophecy. The seas are going to rise. And fall. And rise, too.”

“I'm not talking about waves! I mean cities under water!”

“I don't disagree.”

“The bees are dying! And frogs, too. Crop lands will turn to desert.

Don't you pay attention to what's happening?”

“Anything else?”

“Yes! The ones who hate! They're getting stronger! They're coming!”

“Those people are always strong. They are already here.”

“I mean the armies! Everything we stand for, they mean to wipe out!

They will wipe us out!”

“That wiping out, that erasure, yes, that's familiar. It is history when it lies behind us and prophecy when it stands ahead.”

“It's not inevitable.”

“My prophecy is this: All that you fear shall come to pass. And in the last days, four people will come upon a blighted orchard. These four will be the last who have warned and resisted and struggled. They will be the last four of our kind, the last four who remember the world as you and I know it.”

“You mean, in your foretelling, the seas rose, and we didn't stop it?”

“That's right.”

“And the deserts grew?”

“The crops failed. Millions upon millions starved. Will starve. Millions upon millions more will die in the erasures. Everything that worries you has come to pass in the future, and now these four souls are the last who believe as you and I do, the last who speak as you and I do, who would dress as we dress, though their clothes are such rags that in these final days it is hard to say how they are dressed. The enemy is not far behind them. Weary, starving, these four people come upon an orchard where the trees have borne scarcely any fruit for years.”

“No bees, then.”

“Hardly any bees. Maybe one last hive, miles away, and one storm-blown bee that pollinated a few blossoms before it died. There is, in one sickly tree, a peach.”

“Ah. There's always hope, isn't there?”

“This isn't hope hanging from a branch. It's a peach.”

“Well, it strikes me as a symbol.”

“It strikes these four hungry people as food. One of them climbs into the tree and plucks the fruit. Trembling, one of the four tears it with her fingers into four portions. The four refugees eat it slowly, chewing the ripe flesh into pulp, swallowing, licking the sweetness from their fingers. After the fruit is gone, they pass the stone from one to another to inhale the scent of it. They praise the peach, and the memory of the peach, and the scent of the stone, until the enemy finds them and kills them.”

“That's it?”

“That's the end of it.”

“Your prophecy is that all the worst happens?”

“This, or something like it, shall come to pass, in the fullness of time.”

“Well, I refuse it! I'm going to fight!”

“Did I say you shouldn't?”

“Yours is a prophecy without hope!”

“I did say that the sweet flesh will be tender and perfumed.”

“I don't care about the stupid peach!”

“It will be there, ready, whether you care or not.”


Copyright © 2011 by Bruce Holland Rogers
Story image: © Anne Power | Dreamstime.com


Bruce Holland Rogers lives in Eugene, Oregon. He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (on a Fulbright) and is currently a member of the permanent faculty for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program, the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won two Nebula Awards, a Pushcart Prize, two World Fantasy Awards, and the Micro Award for flash fiction.  More of his stories can be found at shortshortshort.com, where he also offers email subscriptions to new stories.

The World That Got It Right


A short story
by Mark Joseph Kiewlak

I began to wonder why I was sleeping so much, what I was trying to avoid. The waking world, its getting and spending, its rushing to and fro, frightened me beyond all measure. It just didn't feel right, this world, didn't feel true. Every cell in my body told me this. So I slept. And when awake did what I could, created what I had courage to create, and lived in worlds far more suited to my personal constitution than this world had ever been.

But it was not enough. I had so much more to give.

And so one night, when the house was quiet, and my fears at a low, I decided to create a new world, a new reality, and to populate it with those who could take full advantage of what it had to offer. I would seek them out, and ask them to share their gifts in this new existence.

You have to understand, first of all, that each of us has the power to do anything. I had this power. They would have it too.

I began by creating to undertake this task a self separate from the one I had known, but still a part of my greater whole. Slowly, as my consciousness shifted, I became this other person. The old me still existed, still went on with that other life, but the new me was focused now in this new direction. I felt energized and buoyed by anticipation. I was floating above the city at night. I saw no need for this new self to be hindered by such a limiting concept as gravity. Without the fear of falling I felt less vulnerable than I ever had. I felt free.

I landed in the courtyard of a rich man's house. He was a singer, a musician. His talent had brought him more wealth than he could spend in ten lifetimes. He was an idol, a hero of mine. But I was not here to worship him.

I entered the house quietly and found him at the piano, trying to work the flaws out of a new composition. He was not alarmed to see me, but rather calm. There was an understanding that radiated forth from my new self. It was intoxicating like a pheromone, but far more subtle.

"I've come to know you," I said. "That is all."

He concentrated on the keyboard, about to overcome his difficulty. The notes fell into place. He sang. That much more positive energy was added to the world.

"I am creating a new place," I said, "where creativity itself is the rule. I've only just begun to imagine it, but there will be no struggle, this I know."

He stood, and began to study an antique clock upon the wall. "It sounds utterly fascinating," he said.

"I want you there," I said. "Any part of yourself that wishes to come. Your genius has inspired me on countless occasions. You were, in fact, the first person I thought of."

He turned and bowed slightly. "I am flattered," he said.

I realized that I was hovering several inches off the floor.

"Will you accompany me?" I said.

He was a man who knew himself. He responded instantly.

"I will," he said.

Whether he too created a new self, or moved beside me as the totality of the person he had been, did not concern me. He was here. He was vital. That was what mattered.

We stepped next into the ocean, down to depths where no man had ever lived. I protected him from all of the mundane realities such as pressure or oxygen, which would have claimed him had he allowed his consciousness to empower them.

We found a cave as big as a continent and went inside.

"This is the beginning," I said. "This is a good place to start."

The walls lit up at my command, a billion jeweled fragments creating colors that caused us immediately to weep. We needed no sun. We were the light of the world.

I left him there, briefly, to acclimate himself to our new home, as I journeyed to find the next participant. The path unfolded before me like the narrowest of spaces between city buildings, and I found her in an alley atop Mount Everest. All contradictions and right angles, she was. Hard to understand and harder to love.

This was a woman who had, like myself, fled certain realities in favor of those she had greater control over. Only hers were filled with hardships. A ghetto child with a love of snow, she had aged herself to womanhood, praying for greater understanding with the wisdom of years, and then transplanted her ghetto to the place she imagined most likely capable of bringing it to bloom—the uppermost height of a cold and uncaring world.

As I said, many contradictions.

I reached for the child inside and focused only on her purity. This was the meaning of snow to her—a cleansing element that covered and united all disparate parts. There would surely be sixteen to twenty-four inches in her heaven.

"Why are you here?" she said when she noticed me.

She was huddled behind empty cardboard boxes. Old newspapers were her blankets.

"I've got a different life to offer you," I said. "All you need do is imagine it."

The snow swirled in miniature cyclones all about us.

"I don't think I can," she said. "I'm stuck on this."

"Okay," I said. "But my offer stands."

And with that I left her as quickly as I could. I could not stay long in that environment—so specific to her needs—without losing a portion of myself to it. I was at present unwilling to bend in that direction. I needed all of my energy to conduct my own affairs.

I returned to the cave to find it transformed into an English countryside. My friend the musician was walking with his dog along a stone path leading to a lake. As I entered the scene, the reality of our thoughts became momentarily jumbled and we both beheld the countryside underwater with the jeweled walls surrounding it. I blinked once, twice, and cleared my focus.

"What do you see?" I said to him.

"I see my countryside."

"Is it underwater?"

"It is pristine," he said. "All is as it should be." He gazed in a reverie at the beauty that fit so snugly around him.

"I see the cave," I said. "The reality I need to see."

"We're each of us about our own business then," he said and smiled. "That didn't take very long."

I knew then how my new world would function. Each consciousness would operate in the setting it found most comfortable. A malleable paradise.

Each of us could see into one another when we wished.

He tapped his walking stick twice upon the stones of the path and let his dog roam free. "Excellent," he said. "Let's go find another."

We were climbing stairs in a tower. It was a machine but somehow alive. I understood that each molecule, every aspect of the world, possessed a type of consciousness—an awareness of self and function. Some, like the consciousness of machines, we would call rudimentary. But gathered together, ever growing, they could become, with sufficient will and intent, a being unto themselves. The tower was alive.

As we reached the top of the staircase we saw that there was no roof. I inquired as to why.

"That would be confining," the tower replied. "I wish to be open to the sky."

Its voice was like soft rain speaking.

"I wish to become elemental," it said. "Technology is corrupt, therefore I am corrupt. Nature is clean."

I could see a lifetime of self-loathing printed in its circuitry.

"Machines are angelic," I said. "For eventually they'll carry us to heaven."

This pleased the tower, and improved the speed of all its calculations.

"Can I see this other world?" it said. "This other world so alive in your mind."

The musician nudged me. "It's telepathic," he said.

I reached out and ran my fingers over the metal.

"Empathic," I said.

The tower would now come with us, shaping itself into whatever form was required in the moment.

"One more," I said. "One more and we'll rest."

The next to call to us was a man already dead, a miner who had lived a life of excess and self-medication. Unlike the musician, he had no songs to sing. He was a drunkard and a lout and had died alone, unloved, unmourned. A wretched soul most welcome in my new paradise.

"We can't let him in," the musician said. "He's all the ugliness of the world. He can't be a part of our perfection."

I looked at him in the grave, this working man clothed all in black, whose body had not yet begun to decay.

"He is our perfection," I said. "He is all our ideals turned inside out and worst fears manifested. He is the world that got it wrong."

I reached down through the earth and straightened his tie. This we would take with us, this everlasting memory of defeat. It was not permanent but that we made it so. We could turn back any event of human history and start anew. That was, in fact, what we were doing as individuals and as a species each time we allowed within ourselves the possibility of change.

Our friend the mechanical tower became a shrine, sheathing its innards in purest ivory. The working man's body was lifted from the soil, swathed in our caring. The musician sang to him. The walls of the temple vibrated with our harmonies.

"He is risen," I said.

And the working man opened his eyes, dusted off his clothes, and spit, once, upon the pristine floor.

The musician was appalled. "He's a stain upon our perfection," he said.

The working man loosened his tie, slipped the knot over his head, and tossed the tie aside. He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

"Damn right," he said.

I took him immediately inside my heart with the others and loved him like a father.

"Can't you see?" I said to the musician. "He's telling us that there's still work to be done. The work of our imaginations."

We journeyed together back to the sparkling cave at the bottom of the ocean. The machine tower was playing at being a submarine and I taught it along the way not to believe in rust. When we reached the opening of the cave I saw that the ghetto woman from Everest was there waiting. She had de-aged in her mental picture back to a child and left the trappings of cardboard and newspaper and filth behind her. She was huddled naked in the snow, not seeing the water or any of what I perceived to be surrounding her. I pierced the veil of her reality and flew to her side, setting down gently upon a landscape of unmarred perfection.

"I'm so happy," I said, "to see you here."

She lifted her head ever so slightly and spoke. "The snow turns night to day," she said.

I knew she was talking about my night, my fears. It was an aspect of my quest I had not anticipated. Such an obvious blessing, yet it had, until this very instant, eluded my focus.

"You're here to help me," I said. "All of you. Not just to build this new world, but to learn how to live in it."

The machine tower transmuted then into a playground of shining wonder, and we all went inside. I took the girl by the hand and felt the fear slip away, driven out by simple human contact. I reached back to the part of myself that still existed in the old world and told him of what I'd learned.

And he awoke.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Joseph Kiewlak
Story image: © Boludo | Dreamstime.com


Mark writes:
"The World That Got It Right" sprang full-blown into my head one night years ago. It never needed any narrative coaxing, nor did it care which laws of physics its characters obliterated during their adventure of reality construction. Like many of my works, the tale's underlying philosophy traces back to the author Jane Roberts's Seth books—a metaphysical instruction manual, the main tenet of which states that: "We all create our own reality." I much prefer it that way, don't you?

Mark Joseph Kiewlak has been a published author for more than twenty years. His fiction appears regularly in The Bitter Oleander, Bewildering Stories, A Twist of Noir, Black Sheep, Hardboiled, and many others. His story "The Present" was nominated for the 2010 Spinetingler Award: Best Short Story on the Web. He has also written for DC Comics.

The Sunlight and the Well


Creative nonfiction
by Sam V. Guthrie

Image for The Sunlight and the Well

The flight attendants did one last cabin check before takeoff, blissfully unaware that, soon after leaving the runway, our plane was going to crash in a blazing holocaust.

But I knew.

I’d had a premonition—I saw the flames, heard the screams, felt the hulking machine hurtle toward earth like a skyscraper fallen from the clouds.

Granted, I got this premonition every time I flew, but tonight it felt different, deep in my gut. It felt real. I was a high school teacher on my way to New York for a professional training and, at twenty-eight, I was hardly ready to die for my job. I looked out the window and watched guys in grubby reflective jackets drive little trucks around on the tarmac beneath our plane. Soon they would go home to their cozy, earthbound homes, have a beer, maybe watch a Seinfeld rerun—while I died in a screaming frenzy.

The cabin door was shut with a heavy clunk and suddenly I felt trapped and like I couldn’t breathe. A primal urge seized me: I had to get off this death machine. In all my premonitions about planes crashing, I’d never done what I was about to do.

The plane began to pull away from the gate and I waved at a flight attendant so frantically that two of them came over. I told them a terrible illness had gripped me. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, ennui—anything I could think of. I added that it felt virulently contagious. I actually used the word virulently. One of them gave me a cup of water and I sipped it weakly, like a baby bird. I kept my eyes half open, as if I was struggling to stay conscious. It was the same performance I’d used as a kid to get out of school, desperate to cling to the cozy safety of my mom. She would minister to me in bed, with a cool hand on my forehead, and I would bask in her sad gaze, The Flintstones on the TV in the background.

Dad would be safely far away at his job and I feared his return with a dull, inescapable dread. He’d walk through the door in his dark business suit and cocktail hour would begin, his handsome James Dean face getting pinker with each martini. Sometimes his eyes would start to squint, glassy and mean, as if he were scanning his memory for things I’d done wrong. Then the explosions of rage, him towering over me, lips pulled tight, ice cubes clinking in his glass. The two flight attendants disappeared to talk to the pilot and, a few minutes later, the plane rolled back to the gate. I staggered feebly down the aisle, out of the airless cabin and into a wheelchair waiting for me just outside the door. Guilt burned my cheeks. But in that moment, the only thing that mattered was that I wasn’t hurtling through the black sky toward certain death.


I was only thirteen when I began my project to become a highly evolved being, reading books on Eastern spirituality and studying Korean karate five nights a week. I thought of myself as Kwai Chang Kane, the Shaolin monk from the TV show Kung Fu. In the woods near our suburban house, far from my father’s clinking ice cubes, I would sit cross-legged, meditating, reading books on personal growth, and writing furiously in thick, spiral-bound notebooks, trying to analyze and control my riot of emotions.

Now, at twenty-eight, I still worked on myself incessantly. I spent countless evenings in front of my fireplace, charting the whole project of my psyche with forensic detail in the same spiral-bound notebooks. My cat, JJ Burnel, would snooze at my side. By this time, I’d studied Zen for ten years under a great Zen master and I’d come to think that I was pretty far along the spiritual path. I still practiced martial arts fanatically and, just for good measure, I’d become all but obsessed with health foods, eating things like broccoli sprouts and powdered Chinese mushrooms. In my eyes, these were the kinds of things highly evolved beings ate.

But there were these little inexplicable happenings. Like the airplane thing. Highly evolved men don’t freak out on airplanes. So, in the days following “the incident,” I accomplished a strange feat: I wrote off the whole event as a bizarre fluke. It became remote, somehow unreal to me. It’s not quite that I rationalized it away. It was weirder than that, more subterranean. It simply became the not-me.

The not-me was the secret repository of all the parts of myself that didn’t fit in with my spiritually evolved image—an image so indestructible, even wheelchair rides through airports couldn’t dent it. Neither could my therapist, Duane. I talked to Duane every week because crippling storms of anxiety came upon me regularly. I told myself these were the trials of being so far along on the path, facing the inner dragons that Joseph Campbell wrote about. I was a kind of Indiana Jones of the psyche. But I also wanted these struggles to go away.

Duane said I would never feel better until I let go of this “advanced guy” self-image. Intellectually, I kind of got what he meant. I could even talk about it with him, but I still didn’t see it—not really. I would nod sagely, as though he and I were colleagues discussing someone else’s case. It all felt very theoretical to me. I felt very theoretical to me.

When I told Duane about making the airplane return to the gate, he said, “Can you connect the fear on the airplane with anything you felt as a little boy? Try to go back into that feeling.” I closed my eyes and tried to feel. Nothing happened.

The not-me was impervious to interrogation.

Measures far more exotic than therapists in mild mannered sweaters would be required to penetrate the ligamentous scar tissue of my grandiosity.


Although I told Duane about the airplane, I was less honest about my martial-arts life. In fact, I spoke about the martial arts in such lofty spiritual terms, he probably pictured me wearing satiny kung-fu pajamas and subduing my opponent with willowy motions, sandalwood incense wafting through the air.

He almost certainly didn’t picture me at a martial arts school where ZZ Top blared through the speakers as we were taught the finer points of head butts and the three ways to tear off an assailant’s face with our teeth. You had to use your canines, because, as it turned out, your front incisors would “hydroplane” on your opponent’s skin.

I was an instructor in this system of martial arts, Filipino Kali. Nevertheless, tough-looking men on the street still filled me with a reflexive fear, a fear that was growing. I had a key to the gym and I stayed longer and longer after class, thrashing the heavy bag with knees and elbows.

Amazingly, I couldn’t see the consuming fear driving me to exhaustion. It was too close. Too normal. It was the not-me. Advanced beings didn’t have consuming fears.


Throughout all the years of my search, I’d maintained a tumultuous relationship with one author in particular, an unusual spiritual master with thick, black eyebrows on his great round head. I’d stockpile his books for a while, enchanted by his muscular rigor, his humor, and his fierceness. But sooner or later, I’d become infuriated with him. He could be maddeningly repetitive and sometimes downright mean. Worst of all, he was a guru. I hated gurus on principle. Zen masters simply gave you instructions, but gurus you were actually supposed to worship. So, I’d stuff his books angrily into my backpack and sell them to my local used bookstore.

However, a time would always come, a month or a year later, when I'd spot one of his books in a bookstore, grudgingly flip through it, and then mysteriously start buying his books all over again. This odd cycle had repeated itself for fifteen years.

But then, about a month after the airplane incident, something happened. My beloved Zen master died. And during the weeks to follow, in the grief of his passing, I began to sense a knowing in me, like a big, silent, inscrutable mountain, just sitting there, that I’d somehow never noticed: I was going to become a devotee of this wild guru. This, of course, seemed crazy to me. But in the aftermath of my Zen master’s death, all my protests about the guru seemed oddly prim and remote. Something much deeper had shifted in me, something geological.

Soon after taking my devotee vows in a simple ceremony, I pushed through my premonitions of exploding planes and flew to a large ashram in Northern California for my first meditation retreat on my new spiritual path. The guru was not there—he lived at another ashram, in Fiji, of all places. But apparently, when it comes to guru devotion, time and space are merely the quaintest of notions, cosmetic trifles.

The ashram had a few cavernous meditation halls, each one pitch dark except for a big, framed photo of the guru, dimly illuminated, glowing gently in the sea of blackness. The guru was supposed to be a sort of laser-like “focusing mechanism” of the transcendent reality. Instead of concentrating on your breath, like in Soto Zen, we meditated on the guru and his spiritual transmission because, as the axiom went, “You become what you meditate on.”

For the first several days, I experienced in meditation a quiet joy I’d never even imagined. The photographs of the guru often seemed to come alive and a pleasurable force pressed between my eyebrows, drawing me into an exquisite feeling of peace. Sometimes there were cramp-like sensations in my heart, like an ancient mummy’s crusty old fist creaking open by a couple of centimeters. Remarkably, in between these experiences, I found ample time to reflect on how they were proof of my highly evolved status, and I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about them in my bashful, reluctant way.

One meditation stood out from all the rest. I was sitting there on my little round cushion, channel surfing through the inane trivia of my mind, when, out of nowhere, I was swept into a sensation of an infinite space, a bright and delicious openness, wider than the sky. I dissolved into it, and the dissolving was the happiest thing I’d ever known. I stayed in the cold, dark hall basking quietly in the afterglow long after everyone else had left.

About ten days into the retreat, however, all the bliss unexpectedly stopped. At first I tried to pretend that it hadn’t, but that just made me anxious and self-conscious. My anxiety grew until, one night, sitting in meditation, enormous waves of fear began surging through me. I’d befriended a dentist from Australia named Martin, and the next day at lunch I sat down next to him. He was a burly guy with hips like a mastodon.

“I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” I said.

He grinned. “That’s awesome, mate! Purification! Good onya!” This with great gusto, wide eyes, and challenging grin. He told me to read a talk of the guru’s called "The Sunlight Over the Well" and, after lunch, I curled up with it in the men’s retreat quarters.

In the essay, the guru said that at high noon, when the sunlight shines directly down into a well, all the slimy creatures in the bottom come up the sides to escape the heat and light. In the same way, our deepest emotional wounds come into awareness when we open ourselves to the spiritual force of a real guru. I’d read about this idea of purification before. But I’d always figured I was so far along on the spiritual path, how much could I possibly have left to purify?


When I got home from the retreat, the terror quickly subsided. But something was different. I went to my martial arts school, and it was almost like I was watching myself from across the room. I was practicing eye jabs and groin slaps on a big, meaty guy in body armor, and it suddenly seemed crazy in a way it never had before.

Later that week I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables for juicing when I stopped, in the quiet of the morning. All at once I saw what I was doing—trying to ward off a ravenous horde of diseases with my talismanic pile of produce. I felt embarrassed, disoriented.

And then one night I was alone in my apartment meditating when an image flashed through my awareness. I could’ve sworn it was my father’s face—huge, red, a mask of terrible fury. A sickening fear rose up in me, just like I’d felt on retreat, but only for a moment. I thought I must have made it up. I had, after all, read a lot of books on this stuff.

But the next day I was with Duane and I mentioned it, all brainy and analytical, and, mid-sentence, I started crying. It welled up before I knew what was happening and I sobbed. Duane gently asked me to open my eyes. “Let me go there with you,” he said, and I could barely hear him. But I did it. I lifted my head a little and opened my eyes and made myself connect with his gaze. His eyes were shiny with moisture. And then something broke open and my sobbing grew louder, and somehow, woven within the sorrow itself, I felt the sweetest wash of life and newness.

The impossible combination of these feelings—the brokenness and the benediction within it—felt real, like it was waking me from a dream. After a long time I said to Duane, “I’m so tired,” my voice raw, a pile of snotty Kleenexes in the wastebasket next to me.

“I know,” he said.


It's been a year since I took my devotee vows, and I sit before a fire in my living room fireplace. On my left, my cat, JJ Burnel, is curled into a ball. On my right is a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, heavy with an unnatural mass, the collected works of the not-me.

My plan is to burn them, to watch my whole life of pain and struggle go up in flames, symbolizing a bold new start. It’s as if all my fear, shame, and grief are trapped in these notebooks, the way a shaman gets an evil spirit trapped inside a little wooden doll and, by throwing it into the fire, destroys it. I’ve been looking forward to this cathartic ritual all week.

I take the first notebook from the stack, a dark green one, five sections, its corners bent and softened to a silky smoothness, and I prepare to start ripping pages from its spiral ribcage for the pyre. But then for some reason I stop and just stare into the flames. I look down at the notebook. Look at JJ, sleeping obliviously. And, as if from out of nowhere, something odd occurs to me: burning my notebooks is not some bold new start at all; it’s just me doing more of what I’ve done my whole life—trying to “work on myself.” And real spiritual life has nothing to do with working on myself.

It’s been plainly stated, even exhaustively stated, in my guru’s teachings, but only now does the shocking obviousness of it smack me square in the face. This mad guru is not calling me to get better at tinkering with my psychology; his demand is far more blasphemous and subversive. It is to abandon every conceivable form of working on myself, the whole project-of-me.

Yes, I must feel my fear and brokenness nakedly, as I had done with Duane, and many times since then. The sunlight must shine into the depths of the well. But spiritual life is not about what's galumphing around down there. It's about the sunlight itself, the radiance that transcends the whole chugging machine of who I think I am. Somehow I'm supposed to commune so recklessly, so unceasingly with that radiance that I'm rendered utterly indifferent to my pain, my bliss, my anything.

If I was a great devotee, I’d be so obsessed with the nectar of the Transcendent that I wouldn’t give a damn about these notebooks—toss ‘em in the fire, wallpaper my apartment with them, whatever.

A familiar despair fills me, because I am not a great devotee. My whole “evolved guy” façade has been cracking a little more each month, and I know damn well that I can barely lose myself in spiritual communion for a few minutes, never mind every moment of every day.

The despair thickens and I stare into the fire, my stack of notebooks sitting implacably in the soft, flickering light. JJ Burnel still sleeps, blissfully bereft of any notebooks whatsoever. I reach down to pet her and she purrs, seeming mindlessly happy. And that reminds me of my guru, who also seems mindlessly happy, and something about all that secret, mindless happiness, hidden behind the voluptuous universe, even behind the torments of my poor, wounded father and myself, makes me feel that maybe the seed of being a true devotee is already in me. “Advanced guy” may be a lie, but maybe “hopeless guy” is, too. Maybe the despair is just me playing sick again, trying to get the jetliner to return to the gate.

But as I heave my warm cat onto my lap, I have the sense that this plane has already lifted off the runway, and we are hurtling, even now, into an infinite space, a bright and delicious openness, wider than the sky.


Copyright © 2012 by Sam V. Guthrie
Story image: "Shiny Lotus" © Kimberly Vohsen


Sam V. Guthrie

Sam writes:
"I’ve always found the notion of psychological purification intriguing—especially when it seems to be magnified and quickened by the energetic or spiritual transmission of an authentic guru—the ‘sunlight and the well’ phenomenon. On the flip side, I’ve also been fascinated by the strangely beautiful mysteries of psychological denial. This personal essay marks a period in my life when, by my guru’s grace, my own memories of traumatic childhood abuse were just starting to open up, initiating a pretty remarkable and humbling odyssey of self-discovery.

Sam V. Guthrie is a nonfiction writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his disconcertingly hot novelist wife of twenty-odd years and their two cats, Tiberius and Oblio. He is also a Rolfer, a martial artist, a raw-food guy, and a Russian kettlebell fanatic. Sam is a longtime spiritual practitioner, having been the devotee of his guru for almost twenty years. His great creative inspirations include Jack Kirby, Joss Whedon, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Nabokov, Joan Didion, and William Hazlitt. Previous publications include the book Stress Relief: How to Achieve Radiant Inner Peace (Scarecrow Press) and numerous articles in the Minnesota publications The Edge and Twin Cities Wellness.

The Old Man, the Ocean, and the Bird


A short story
by Iztac Metztli

Image for The Old Man and the Bird

There was an old man who dreamt of being a bird.

He was a guayabera wearing viejito who never considered dressing in anything other than white. White was the color of dreams, of seagulls and clouds that drifted effortlessly. Most of all, white was the color of foam that burst against the shore. He was in love with the ocean and nothing tasted better than the flavor of the coast on his tongue.

Perched just beyond the beach was the old man's home. At noon, before he took his nap, he would sit on the porch and look out into the waves, watching where the light blue shallows divided into the dark blue of the deep sea. You could always find the old man slumped in his seat. The silver hairs on his chin scratching the top of his chest as he slept in his bright white rocking chair.

But before he became the old man who dreamt of being a bird, he was Rogelio. A man who loved his wife more than the sky or sunlight. He slept with his fingers wrapped around hers, his face buried in the curly heaviness of her hair.

In the mornings when she rolled over, her black eyelashes brushed against his cheek. She always smiled when she saw him.

“Oh, it’s you,” she would say.

“Yes, it’s me.”

She’d smile again, cup the side of his face in her palm and kiss him.

“Good, I’m glad it’s you.”

Rogelio would watch his wife as she stood in the kitchen, the Sun outlining her body like an eclipse. He was blessed to have her and not a day went by that he didn’t know it.

Rogelio loved the color of his wife’s skin.

“It’s as beautiful as sand,” he’d say.

“That’s because I came from the ocean.”

Rogelio believed her when she said this. As a young man he loved to sit in the plaza on the black metal benches by the trees. That's when she appeared. The rain was cold and fast, the orange lights of the street made her look like she was glowing. He laughed when he saw her, dressed in white and as slippery as a fish. There was still sand on her bare feet, tiny shells caught in the spirals of her hair.

Rogelio would crinkle the center of his eyebrows, “Why did you leave the ocean?”

“Ai, Rogelio…" she said, her black hair dancing around her waist. "To find you!”

After three children and years on land she still smelled like the sea. But his wife was changing. She loved her children but it didn’t stop the change. Since they had met they lived in an arid desert state where cacti bloomed in the occasional rain. The smell of salt water was evaporating from her body, her skin was drying, and when he pressed his head against her chest he could barely hear the rhythm of the waves.

The night of her forty-third birthday she curled under Rogelio’s arms and whispered, “I’m wasting away Rogelio, but I love you and I’d rather stay here and turn to sand than leave you and the children.”

Rogelio could feel his blood freezing, the ice in his arteries piercing his heart in half. "What if we go live by the ocean?" he said sitting up. "That way you could go swimming every morning and you'd be fine. You'd be like always."

"You don't understand Rogelio. My leaving was a great dishonor to the ocean. The only way I can return is if I promise to stay." She looked at him this time. "You won't see me again."

For as much as he wanted to stay with her, he couldn’t let his wife turn to sand; he wasn’t that selfish. Rogelio tried to rationalize. Their oldest was twenty-two, their daughter had just turned eighteen and their youngest was eagerly awaiting her fifteenth birthday. He convinced his wife, after much convincing of himself, that it was okay if she left them. The children were almost grown and he would raise the youngest the best he could and always in the memory of her mother.

They went on one last vacation as a family. None of their children had seen the coast. “Everyone has to see the ocean at least once in their lives!” she told them.

It was early in the morning on their third day there, that Rogelio said goodbye. They crept out of their beds at dawn, his wife memorizing the faces of her children as they slept.

The water was hungry that day, leaping forward and licking their feet as they stood on the shore. Before she left, Rogelio held her hand and kissed it.

Rogelio watched as she slowly stepped into the ocean. The farther she went the more it looked as if her body was dissolving in the water. Her legs and stomach turning into waves until there was nothing left but the black curliness of her hair, and then nothing.

Their kids, and everyone else they knew, lived the rest of their lives thinking she had drowned and that the tide had not been kind enough to return her body. It was after this that Rogelio became an old man. He moved to the coast with his youngest daughter, eventually giving her the house when she had her son.

Having fulfilled what he promised his wife and wanting nothing more than to dream, he made the porch his official sleeping post.

“Grandfather, you sleep a lot! What do you dream of?” his grandson would ask.

“I dream of being a bird.”

“But why?”

“Because the only time I felt like I was flying was when your grandmother was with us.”

“And dreaming about birds reminds you of her?”

He tilted his fedora over his eyes, “These are too many serious questions for a child. Go, be a little boy and let this old man sleep.”

Pouting, his grandson disappeared into the house.

The old man slept.

The sweat dripped down his gray head to the nape of his neck. The breeze ruffled his pants; the trees rustled. The waves responded to the wind. To the old man’s sleeping ears the sounds became bird song. He dreamt that he was all feathers, an elegant Quetzal bird made of green and red fire. Everything was damp in the canopy of the rainforest. The green moss on the tree branches tickled the spaces between his forked feet. He had the taste of avocado in his beak.

The tree shook itself.

‘She’s leaving today.’ It said.

The flames of his wings rose and flickered. ‘I know.’

‘Well, you aren’t going to stop her?’

The bird shook its head. His fire was wasting her way, he understood. He was in love with a blue macaw made of water. Ever since she hatched from the river it was her destiny to return to the sea. She swooshed in the air as she left, the bottom of her wings flashing a fierce yellow as she flew. His fire flickered. He stretched his head above the trees trying to smell the ocean, but the wind never carried her scent. The Quetzal dreamt of the coast, of the salty wind; he hid in the shadow of the leaves where the sun could not reach him. He was not worthy of sunlight without her.

The old man was still dreaming of being a bird when his grandson woke him.

“Abuelito! Abuelito!”

“Hmpf” was the only noise the old man made.

“Abuelito hurry!” He wrapped his hands around his grandfather’s fingers and tugged.

“They caught a bird! A red green bird! You have to see, Abuelito, you have to!”

Half asleep, the old man followed his grandson until they were standing in front of a house where a crowd yelled, “It’s made of fire!”

Not sure if he was still dreaming the old man opened his eyes and pushed, “Let me through, let me see it.”

The bird was frail and flickering. Its small head hung low inside of the cage. Something woke up in the old man when he saw the bird. He put his hand out and nudged it onto his fingers. The fire did not burn him. In that moment the old man felt himself become Rogelio again. No one stopped him when he walked away with the bird. His grandson following quietly behind as they walked towards the beach.

“Abuelito, where are you going?”

When they reached the shore the old man, now Rogelio, whispered to the bird, “We will reach them soon.”

He turned to his grandson and laughed with more teeth than the little boy remembered. “Don’t follow me. When you are older you will understand.” He patted the boy’s head before he kissed it.  Sensing what was to come, the little boy fit his hand into his grandfather’s. They stood there silently staring into horizon.

“The distance we travel for those we love is endless. Your grandmother traveled that distance for me and now I am returning to her.”

The bird on Rogelio’s arm cooed.

The little boy said his last goodbye and watched as his white-clothed grandfather walked into the ocean, holding the fire bird high into the air. He watched until there was nothing left of the old man and the bird but the smoke of their bodies meeting the water.

This time the tide was kind enough to return the old man’s white hat.

Copyright © 2012 by Iztac Metztli
Story image: © Christos Georghiou | Dreamstime.com


Iztac MetztliIztac writes:
After a lifelong love affair with water, and a class with a perfect view of Lake Michigan, this story came to me. ‘The Old Man, the Ocean and the Bird’ became a way for me to ask the questions, what are the transformative powers of water? Where does its magic and beauty come from, and how can I portray that in a story? Whether or not these were directly answered, I can safely say that the tone and movement of the piece is completely inspired by my observation and appreciation of water.

Iztac Metztli is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Creative Writing. As a writer, her focus is on magical realism, spoken word poetry, and creative nonfiction. From Mexica (Aztec) dancing to her photography, everything she does is an attempt to tell a story, to remain present and preserve what is on the verge of being lost. You can reach her through her website: www.iztacmetztli.com.

Daughters of Hemingway


A short story
by Robbie Kenyon

Image for Daughters of Hemingway

Gabi was telling me a story about his cats when applause erupted throughout the club and drowned out his voice. The house lights dimmed, and I turned towards the stage. He had mentioned that a friend of his, Maya, was singing. Gabi and Maya had played together in various bands off and on over the years, but this was the first time I’d ever seen her.

Maya stepped into the stage lights and the room went silent. She had mousy brown hair with a sallow, dull face. She wore a pair of jeans and a hippie shirt that showed off her average arms. The drummer started a beat, followed by the bass and guitar. Her cue came and she stepped to the mike. She opened her mouth and the hair on my arms stood up. Feeling rose up from her gut and gushed out of her. I bathed in that voice like a naked body in a vat of warm honey. It washed over me and healed every ill. It brought every death back to life. I was transported. If you heard that voice out on the streets, you would stop in your tracks and look for it. She finished the song and retreated from the stage to the uproar of a standing ovation. I stood just like all the rest. That voice coming from out of that shell of a person, like a pearl from an oyster; what rock in her gullet had made it possible?

She emerged from backstage and the crowd rushed her. Men and woman fawned over her, wanted to speak to her, to touch her. She pushed her way through to our table and sat down. I saw that my first impression had been accurate. She was no hot little twenty-something, no blond bombshell, no redheaded nymph. She was in her forties with lines around her pale eyes and grey in her mousy brown hair. I couldn’t stop staring at her. You would pass right by her on the street and never give her a second look. She blended into the wallflowers. Unless you’d heard it for yourself, you’d never know or believe what she had in her.

I asked her what she was drinking. She replied she’d have whatever we were having. Even her choice of drink dissolved into the crowd and left no trace of her. I ordered another pitcher of beer and some water. I stared at her some more. That exterior shell looked exactly like every other egg in the room, but inside it resided a shining, golden center. I’d always preferred men, but even I wanted to sleep with her just to get closer to that gift. She lit up a cigarette. I looked around, wondering who was going to complain. Nobody frowned at us. Apparently, great musicians can get away with anything. Who knew? I smiled and asked her where she was from.

“New York,” she replied. Of course, she’s from the city of all cities, the rough and tumble glitz box that crushes coal into diamonds. “Upstate,” she added, and my theory dissolved. New York City cut diamonds. Upstate New York dug coal. Two entirely different ends of the spectrum.

“Where are you living now?” I expected her to say she was going back to LA tomorrow, that she was just up here visiting friends.

“Mountain View,” she replied.  Mountain View was no gritty Detroit. It was no hippie Portland or Seattle grungetown. She lived in a burg south of San Francisco, a village, really, softer than gelatin and more coddling than Mother.

I raised my eyebrow at her. “Did your father beat you?” Gabi looked at me in alarm. I shrugged. Somebody had to have kicked her around; it was the only other thing I could think of. Maya threw back her head and laughed.  Even her laugh fell along the normal continuum.

“No! Why do you ask?”

I shrugged. “Just wondering.” Gabi glared at me. I threw a wide grin at him, and he forgave me. He settled back to listen to the next set of music, but I barely heard it. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Maya smoke her cigarette. Maybe there would be some other sign that inside this woman lived a soul the size of Texas. Silvery wings on her elbows. Translucent golden heels. A purple aura. Something. Anything. I kept watch for the rest of the night, but her disguise was impeccable. I never got a glimpse.

The realization made me look around the room. What other secret genius was I in the presence of? How many here were the children of Picasso, the daughters of Hemingway, the sons of Mozart? How many of these nondescript pupils veiled a blinding light? Maybe all of these eggs contained a creamy nugget of gold. I glanced over at Maya. Or maybe they were just empty shells and that golden globe fell only to the few gifted and chosen. I felt the Old Green Demon tighten my heart. I was just as ordinary as the woman sitting next to me, across from me, beside me, behind me. The gods had denied me the gift that would do for me that thing which Maya’s voice did for her. I would never be remembered. I had already been forgotten.

At the end of the evening, I caught up with her at the door just before she left and grabbed her arm. She looked back at me.

“How did you get there? What makes it happen?” I demanded. My words were slurred and confused as they gurgled up through my inebriation, but I could tell by the look in her eyes she knew exactly what I was talking about.

“I made it into my everything,” she replied. I let go of her arm. She drifted out the door and left me behind. There it was; I had my answer. She had thrown all her eggs into a single basket. It takes a hardboiled one to be a daughter of Hemingway. I knew. God, how I knew.


Copyright © 2012 by Robbie Kenyon
Story image: © Tracy Hebden | Dreamstime.com


Robbie writes:
"Daughters of Hemingway" was inspired by the many individuals I know who are wrestling with their inner artists. I usually begin a story with the image of a scene in my mind, and write whatever comes, then I go back and flesh out the structure and theme in the editing process.

A long-time writer just getting her act together, Robbie Kenyon graduated from Wesleyan University with an English degree. Her short story “Higher Standards” can be found in the May 2010 issue of The Foliate Oak, and her story “Honey” was published by Residential Aliens in their June 2010 issue. She can be reached via email at moviemakerr@yahoo.com.

Strawberry Blizzards and the Holy Ghost

Next Design

A short story
by Brian Michael Barbeito

Image for Strawberry Blizzards

 The bottom of a pail is broken through.
—Zen Saying


We walked down those streets, and it had rained all day. The entire area had for a while afterwards been wet with a beautiful type of black that sort of glistened. People used headlights in the day, but then in the late afternoon the whole thing turned into a sun shower. A couple rainbows were painted in the sky—one to the east and one to the west. We walked right along there, heading farther south. It was said that you had to lock your doors there, because there was much crime, and this was accurate, but we were okay then, that day—as if we were protected. Our group stole oranges off some trees and ate them—and then boosted a few more and put them in our pockets for good measure. They smelled like they must have smelled the day the world was born, before it fell heavily from grace and goodness and solitary gladness. We had to go visit this church, and when we walked in to where the offices of the church were, it was noticeable that the place was just infused with spirit (which is actually strange for a church), and there was so much spirit there that the walls were infused with it, and there was a genuine happiness—not the happiness of this world that is only based on excitement and is not the real happiness. We had to talk there for a while, an incorruptible place, shining—and I felt and saw that light was coming from everywhere, and you could really see and know that it was in and about things, and that the regular world before was all a sort of make-believe place, a secular cop-out of sorts, full of Maya, of illusion—and that this new illumination was what the seers and sages had spoken and written about. It was a universal and non-denominational thing of course—because you can’t ultimately classify those places of experience—but living in the duality as we did and do, it must be classified anyhow, and for now. We went on from there and down to the Dairy Queen and bought these Strawberry Blizzards. Walking along the streets after that, night was coming, and I thought that the little lizards that lived all around might be getting ready to go to some quiet and secretive dwelling place, or else they were there still by white and pink stucco walls, around orange cars and thick green grasses, or else resting, slightly weary from the day, around pale green garage doors, or by anything—but that they could not be seen now. And that was how we walked those streets, wearing watches and tennis shoes, in t-shirts and in gladness—a long way from the beginning, from creation, but still catching some of the spirit.


Copyright © 2012 by Brian Michael Barbeito
Story image © Elizabetti, Dreamstime.com
"Strawberry Blizzards and the Holy Ghost" was previously published in Mudjob.


Brian Michael Barbeito

Brian writes:
“Strawberry Blizzards” was written as a sort of remembrance of a mini-satori-like experience on the part of the narrator. The idea is that the feeling of spiritual exuberance is to be found in the church office, but also in otherwise plain and ordinary subtropical streets around it. Whatever the cause of the narrator’s perception, meaning whether it be spirit in the religious sense of the word or spirit in a more plain and unromantic sense—such as the spirit of the street—there is described an extended moment where the ordinary reality seems glorious.

Brian Michael Barbeito lives in the greater Toronto area. He is the author of the prose poem novel postprandial and the compilation of flash prose pieces titled Vignettes. His work has appeared at NFTU (Notes from the Underground), Whisperings Magazine, and elsewhere. You can reach Brian at Brian1750@hotmail.com.



Creative nonfiction
by Sabrina Dalla Valle

6 am

A gun shot, a scream of frustration, in that order—just before dawn. Tiny birds lift the sun by the tips of its rays from a place deep under the canyon. Sounds of their work pour into a furtive sky. Then, silence, as blue seeps through the window.

Image for Design


Transparency lets the dark in as well as the light.

7 am

The crows come later—intermittently. They seem not to care about first light as they do territory. I asked my friend Gail, “How is a raven different from a crow?” “By one wing-tip feather,” she replied. That—and their abundant calling patterns. Ravens know how to imitate songs of their life-mates to call them back if somehow they disappear.

8 am

Daphne said in an interview, “I also write to make things that I need but can’t find.” Words sculpt a place for us to live on the page when the world becomes strange.

I swallow an excretion made from the throat of a honeybee—a tiny spoon of royal jelly. It does not come from a flower, but from a gland. It is not sweet, but sour.

9 am

David Foster Wallace took his own life in this daunting desert valley. A record of his thoughts were left behind in the marginalia of three hundred or so books—pining what he needed from the world—a page-by-page scribbled dialogue with folks who somehow thought they had a valid explanation.

10 am

If the body were a text, what would be the margin? Perhaps it is the space of an afterthought.

Did David Foster Wallace have an afterthought?

11 am

I sat with my father and a knife—it could have been sharper. I was poised on the arm of his chair. He gave me one of his treasures—a collection of modern French poetry books, limited edition, handset type, ink unevenly spread as if light splattered around the edges softening the form of random letters.

The books were clumsy, still bound by the publisher’s folds. “This is not a bank,” he said. “They are for you to hear the voice inside.” And together, we slit each page.


I will make my book with wide margins. Some medieval manuscripts liberally reveal the scribe’s commentary and errata on the marginalia.

The Latin root of erratum, ers, means “to stray.”

1 pm

A student writes a summary of The Witch Must Die, but forgets to explain why.

2 pm

There is a word in my hand. It is limp. I stoke it between my fingers. There is silence. I shake it. . . “Wake up! Say something! Please!” Where do dead words go? Do they have a heaven or a hell?

It is difficult to stand at the silent front of your students—dismayed when they must leave Hollywood behind.

3 pm

I write to Jeffrey, a childhood friend, about a conversation we had in my dream a while back. He wanted me to create his portrait when he was six years old: “The one where I was a butterfly,” he said. “With indigo, purple, and a touch of orange?” I responded. “Yes,” he answered. And I asked, “Do you want me to paint it?” “No,” he said, “I want you to come tomorrow and tell me the story.”

He writes back:

“I was wearing my old Mexican sweatshirt type thingy today that has a butterfly on the back in those exact colors! OK, now that's just odd!!:)”

4 pm

I am attracted to the hypnotic voice of the sage buzzing like an electric wire. Bees are sparkling drops of honey swarming on bush. Eager, they thrust their thorned noses into the throats of pale-blue flowers.

A hive of bees will fly 80,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth, to collect 1 kg of honey.

5 pm

A voice from the ripped poetry books escapes:

il y faut de l’âme à batter le fer
et l’âme est dans le marteau,
dans le bras,
je déjeune de travail.


it takes soul to beat at iron,
and soul is in the hammer,
in the arm,
I feed on this work.

6 pm

Renaissance printers sculpted a world with letters designed in human proportion: alphabets shaped by perspective, the Golden Section—even classical mythology.

7 pm

Drones have no father; they perform no work, but for the few who will fertilize eggs to render them female. If you draw a family tree beginning with a drone, after several generations, the Fibonacci numerical pattern emerges. The breeding order to generate a drone reflects a perfect, natural harmony.

8 pm

Maeterlinck says the queen bee is the unique organ of love within the hive. Nourished by royal jelly, she alone is able to produce eggs.

It has been written, in the far distant future the human being will reproduce asexually through the throat. We will release life, like language, into the air.

9 pm 

My neighborhood kids are in a fluster. It is dark, and the sound of a troubled bird fills the street. Deep-throated, but insecure. Young, but large.

Their voices tangle in the night.

10 pm 

Synchronicities are patterns that repeat in time. They bring people together at the boundary of awareness. After several experiences, the notion of coincidence simply dissolves.

11 pm 

Whether painful or pleasurable is irrelevant. The question is how to perceive.

You can hear the swoosh swoosh of a raven in flight, but you cannot hear a crow.

Copyright © 2012 by Sabrina Dalla Valle
Story image © Asif Akbar
"Design" was originally published in the chapbook 7 Days and Nights in the Desert, published by Mindmade Books.


Sabrina Dalla Valle

Sabrina writes:
“Design” is a hybrid essay from my chapbook 7 Days and Nights in the Desert, a memoir about living in the Los Angeles desert. Each essay is a 24-hour meditation on a day, integrating dream life, memories, present environment, and literary theory. The result is an ordering of imaginal structures created through textual patterns. Meaning emerges with urgency within the boundaries of time and then immediately disperses. With repetition the boundary becomes flexible and a certain grammar of logic emerges—not just in the course of a day, but over the flow of a year. Eventually, as my clever friend says, “You create a chiasmus between what you choose and what chooses you.”

Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA, is a published poet and academic writer. She is most interested in the poetic imagination as an aspect of phenomenological perception and topics in memory as related to integral personal identity. Her academic research is in modernist poetic theory as it relates to hermetic philosophy. She is an adjunct faculty member of Woodbury University in Los Angeles, CA, where she teaches writing and communication theory. Her signature online course, "Writing from the Core," is the result of her work since 1992 creating writing programs for adults, adolescents, and women survivors of domestic abuse. She may be reached via email: winter.night.18@gmail.com.

All Good Things…

Previous Design

Image for All Good Things

Since the Winter Solstice of 2005, we’ve had the honor of publishing work from writers who took risks, writers who bravely explored what lies beyond the conventional world experienced with the five senses. The need for this creative exploration is as great as ever, but we feel that Cezanne’s Carrot, as a vehicle for sharing those explorations, has come full circle. And so this edition will be our last.

We’d like to express our deep gratitude to all those writers who have entrusted us with their work over the last seven years, gratitude to our readers for their continued support, and gratitude to our third co-founder, Lori Romero, who helped us bring "The Carrot" to life.

While we won't be publishing any more work under the aegis of Cezanne's Carrot, we will be leaving up our complete archive of already published stories for an undetermined time, so that new readers can continue to discover the amazing literary works we've published the past seven years.


Barbara Jacksha & Joan Kremer
The Editors at Cezanne's Carrot

Image © Jean Carneiro
























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