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Never


by Mary Milstead

SCROLL DOWN

Never


by Mary Milstead

They found the boy’s body out in the hollows, in one of the abandoned subdivisions. Drowned. Word spread through the city faster than fever. A guard out doing rounds said he saw a shimmer of light dance across the crumbling stone wall of what used to be a gas station, and when he walked around the corner to investigate, spear drawn, he saw the swimming pool, gorgeous and clear, dancing as the wind blew across its surface, filled to the top with the freshest-looking water anyone under the age of thirty had ever seen. The guard thought he was dying, or having a vision like the ones described by the prophets. He didn’t dare touch the water until back-up had been called, and it was only then that they saw the boy’s body at the bottom of the pool, a wavy mass of blue and brown at the center of all that cool white concrete.

They said he was still wearing his work uniform, crisp navy blue, the brass buttons clearly visible from the surface of the water. No shoes on his feet. They said his head lay back against the bottom of the pool at an odd angle, and that he was hugging a bag of sand to his chest, hands wrapped around his wrists.

How many hundreds of gallons does it take to fill an entire pool? Ever since the clouds stopped releasing their rains, water has come down through the pipes and been distributed in limited amounts. We work hard for that water, and there’s only enough to cook, to clean deep wounds, and to sip from daily ration pouches. The idea that there might be enough collected in one place to actually drown in is unbelievably decadent. The way kings should die. 

His mother hadn’t reported him missing, but she’s new to the city, so she might be excused the proper protocol. It might be that she just didn’t know who to tell. I’ve only met her the once, so it’s hard to know what to think. I was the first to volunteer to bring her a casserole, so I was the first with the opportunity to ask—did she know where all that water came from? Did she have any idea how he got out there, in that position? She said no, but I noticed that her eyes jumped away quickly, like there was something she wasn’t saying. She thanked me for the casserole, without really looking at it, and I told her I wouldn’t need the pan back for at least a week, to take her time and savor it, especially in this time of great sorrow. Beef Stroganoff, I said. 

Everyone knew not to go outside the city walls. My daughters have known this all their lives. It’s been drilled into them, like their unique identification numbers and the password to the storage chambers.

 

As far as I know, no one’s been able to answer why he was out there. Usually the authorities are quick to announce a conclusion, to quell the rumors if for no other reason, but so far on this one they’ve been quiet. When they announced that they would set up a shuttle from the south gate, I was one of the first in line. At the last minute, I decided to bring Valentine with me, and once we got down there, we ran into our neighbor from across the park, Mrs. Hawthorne. We stood together quietly while we waited. The boy, of course, had been taken to the morgue, so it was only the water we’d get to see. My ration pouch was heavy in my pocket, and each time I wanted a drink I closed my hand around it and counted to ten. It was just nerves, anyway. There was no reason for an actual increase in thirst, just a bad habit from when we used to always have drinks in our hands—endless coffees and teas and glasses of wine.

We got on the second bus, Valentine was sullen and barely saying a word. She was a teenager, so I was used to it. It didn’t matter whether she wanted to be here or not, I thought it was important for her to see, and I was still the mother, so I got to decide. I wanted her to know what could happen. They’d been in the same work group together, though she said she didn’t know him at all. She sat by the window, so all I could see was her blond ponytail. I hadn’t been out of the city since I was a girl. Even though this was an officially-sanctioned excursion, a hush fell upon us all as soon as we crossed the canyon. I knew there was nothing to the rumors about what would happen out here, but still my pulse raced. We passed rows of crumbling houses with missing roofs, overgrown with wild ivy. Eerie stillness in every direction. Ann-Marie was at my sister’s, and I wouldn’t see her until nearly dinnertime. I couldn’t stop thinking about that other mother, the seemingly-insignificant choices she’d made, the last time she’d ever seen him alive.  I’ve never lost a child, but if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for weeks, maybe ever. I wouldn’t survive. If something terrible happened to Anne-Marie or Valentine, I would just ask God to take me too, right then and there.

My heart was flapping in my chest when we climbed off the bus and walked over toward the pool. Of course it was blocked off, with orange caution tape stretched across the yard, but there was a velvet rope across one side, and they let us file past, close enough to get a good look. The water was so clear I could see straight through to the bottom, silver where it sparkled in the sunlight. It was amazing. The way it rose in small peaks and valleys, blown by the wind, how the surface was never truly still. I remembered the feeling of dunking my head and my whole face underwater, pushing my hands through my hair, and twisting it into a rope down my back as I rose out of the water. I could almost feel it on my lips, running down my back. 

Of course we could imagine his body lying there at the bottom, what it must have looked like. Had his mother seen him like that? Or did they pull him out of the water before she arrived? 

“Evelyn Jackson saw her at the grocery store, just yesterday,” Mrs. Hawthorne said, turning toward me and speaking low so the others wouldn’t hear. 

“What? I wouldn’t have thought she was up for leaving the house,” I said. 

“Yeah, according to Evelyn, she was standing there laughing. Like honest to goodness, mouth open and her hands flung back, bright big smile on her face, laughing. I don’t know. She was talking to Jimmy Franklin, the mailman.”

“Jimmy Franklin?” I said. “What does he have to do with this?”

“I don’t know. He was just standing there telling jokes I guess.”

“It makes you wonder what she needed to even get from the grocery store, as many hot meals as we’ve provided,” I said.

“Exactly.”

Valentine scowled and turned away from us with a sharp little huff.

“Yes, Miss?” I said. “Do you have something to say?”

“You don’t know anything about it,” she said

With a big dramatic flap of her ponytail, she was off, pushing past the people who were still standing at the rope, and heading over toward the area where some portable restrooms and a hand-sanitizing station had been set up.

“More attitude than she knows what to do with,” I said. 

Mrs. Hawthorne chuckled.

The water was beautiful but of course it couldn’t be used now. and the way that boy died was terrible. If that had been my child trapped under water, I don’t think I would be able to stand, much less walk, much less go grocery shopping and laugh with the mailman. I’d lie in bed for as many days as they’d let me. 

 

As soon as everyone got through the line and had taken a good look, we were directed to an area in the side yard. A group of scientists were standing at a lectern, and they began given their presentation on the biological importance of never drinking water that couldn’t be properly sourced. The problem here was two-fold, of course—one, there was a dead body found in the water, and two, we couldn’t be sure where it came from. We couldn’t even be sure, despite its appearance, that it was actually water. 

I wanted to go back over by the pool, but I could see that another bus was pulling up behind ours. It was hard to listen to the scientists—the more data they provided, the less sense it made. Mrs. Hawthorne was staring intently at them, so maybe she was following. She might be able to explain it when we got back on the bus. 

I slipped away without even Mrs. Hawthorne noticing, and I went in the direction I’d seen Valentine go. The new group had decided to stop here first, so there was a line for the bathrooms, and I assumed Valentine was in one of the stalls. I found the shortest line, and kept looking around to see if I could spot her coming out. I would make it up to her, and tell her that I trusted her opinion, that I wanted to know what she thought. Finally, it was my turn, so I had to go into the stall without spotting her. 

After I’d sanitized, I walked back to where the busses were parked. I even climbed onto our bus and walked all the way to the back, looking in each row to see if she was hiding there. She’d done that once, when she was a very little girl. We were at a clothing store, and she’d stayed hidden inside a rack of clothes even after she heard us all calling her name. I was too afraid to start calling for her now. I knew the legends weren’t true, but it still seemed like a good idea to keep her name out of the wind. 

The street was filled with identical houses. Or at least, they’d been identical at one time, when they were built. I wouldn’t leave the group if it weren’t for Valentine, but I needed to find her, and so I slipped down the driveway, and out to the street. This was what it must feel like for the guards. No humans in sight, just the wind and the silence, and miles of abandoned houses. I shuddered. A few houses down, there was a house with all of its walls still standing. The fence was still standing, too, though the boards easily fell when I pushed against them. I walked into the back, and there was another swimming pool. It was clean, and empty. Not even any dirt or ivy. No sign of Valentine anywhere. 

I knew that I should go back to the street and check a few more backyards. Or I should go back to the group and ask for help finding my daughter. I was too far off track at this point. But something about the empty pool drew me toward it. 

It felt natural to sit down on the edge, like I could almost feel my feet dipping into water. Once I was already sitting right there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to push forward and slide into the pool. The concrete was so clean and dry that it tugged and caught the fabric of my pants as I slid, and before I knew it, I was at the bottom, the sides looking much steeper than they’d looked from the surface. 

I lay back on the bottom of the pool and looked up at the sky. When there were low clouds like this, visible to the naked eye, it didn’t look much different than it had looked in the old days. The sky still blue, the clouds still white. There were no birds flying past, but I could almost imagine one, black lines against the blue like a lower-case m. They were famous for singing, their calls like a series of bells. I was so lost in the memory of those bells that I didn’t hear the drips of water when they began. It wasn’t until the water reached the back of my neck that I realized what was happening. It must be coming up from the drain. I closed my eyes and felt the weight press against my chest and I didn’t even think of Valentine and Ann-Marie, except for a passing thought about how far away they seemed, like they were already gone. I opened my mouth when the water reached my lips, and I drank and I drank and I drank until I was no longer thirsty. 

 

 

 

 

Mary Milstead is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She completed her MFA in Fiction at Portland State University, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Flash Flash Click, and Portland Review. She’s currently at work on a novel that’s set in Spain just a few years after the Spanish Civil War, a collection of weird little animal stories, and several new essays. Her website is www.marymilstead.com.
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The Black-Blooded Hen


by Kate Jayroe

The Black-Blooded Hen


by Kate Jayroe

Black-blooded chickens are a delicacy. The black blood can only be found in black-feathered hens. Tar feathers, pricked at the ready. A flightless bird. A foolish meatful. Glass talons grab at worms, catch an aching handful under an Oak canopy. 

At each Solstice, one of the special-bred hens is tucked underarm and carried into a dank, stone cellar. Wrung at the neck and bled, each three-month cycle bears bad fruit. 

Rust scarlet blood, even the occasional beet shade. A bright rouged one, or two. 

But never black.

This Winter Solstice, coal-minded skies bring the frost weeks before its time. New moon tidings usher a crude dark blood, oil-black and thick as cold molasses. Each drop is painstakingly taken into crystalline vials. The crystalline vials sell at exorbitant price. 

The bird’s body is stuffed and preserved. She travels from city to city to roost in museums for months at a time. She is stolen from a Viennese exhibit. Her glass case is shattered. Her area is disturbed. 

Her meat, long ago, got feasted upon at a long mahogany table staged with wealthy elite. Men with ties to business and trade tore and poked at the boiled, un-spiced flesh with tiny silver forks. Their hope is to never die. This is their aim.

 

 

 

 

Kate Jayroe is from Little Mountain, South Carolina. Her work appears in NANO Fiction, Hobart, Word Riot, and elsewhere.
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First Date


by Matthew Robinson

First Date


by Matthew Robinson

“You must be the embalmer,” she says.

“You must be the gravedigger,” he says. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” They sit under a bare yellow bulb, knees near touching. She notices the care he puts into dressing his salad, his manipulation of knife and fork—how his hands turn leaves. He admires her spooning of soup—working across the bowl until empty. The economy of it.

“Supposing this date goes well,” he says, “what happens next?”

“That’s easy,” she says, “we decide where to live.”

“Well I do have the mortuary, lots of bedrooms, steady income, but there is nothing better than the outdoors to grow a family. Perhaps your boneyard would be best.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” she says, “fresh air, sunlight, the exercise of digging, and of course, the refilling. And I should point out that my boneyard is fed by every mortuary in the county, so also a steady income.”

He likes everything about her, with the exception of this bit about her steady income probably being more than his steady income. But she’s lovely to offer up her boneyard, so he lays his hand over hers.

“When should I move in?” he says.

“I believe in long engagements. Let’s not do it a moment before the check comes.”

“Supposing once the check is settled and I move into the boneyard,” the embalmer says, “any reason we couldn’t start a family right away?”

“We’ve already started,” the gravedigger says. She pulls her hair to one side, lets it fall over one clavicle, the yellow light carving out a dark shadow below the other. When the check comes the embalmer is lost in that shadow until the gravedigger has signed the receipt.

“I love you,” she says. They are holding hands. Hers cold, his burning.

“I love you too,” he says. He thumbs the bone of her thumb.

They walk next door for after-dinner coffee. They sit on opposite sides of a deep red booth and drink from tiny white cups.

“I have a surprise for you,” she says. “I’m pregnant. We’re having a girl.” “That’s wonderful,” he says. “I know of a late night drugstore where we can get prenatals and packages of ground soil. I’ve read that a tablespoon a day works wonders against unusual cravings.”

“Of course, I will be needing some help with the digging,” she says.

“Not another word,” he says. “You’ll never touch a shovel again. At least, not before the check comes.” The embalmer stirs sugar into his cup. She watches his smooth hands and hopes they’ll fit into her work gloves. “Anything I should know before I begin?” he says.

“Use the axe for tree roots.”

“Won’t that dull the blade? Or if I hit rocks, ruin the blade?”

“How badly do you want through the roots?”

He admires the tautness of her forearm as she presses her fork through coffee cake, the veins of her wrist softly blue. “I just realized the dangers of raising children in a boneyard,” he says. “The holes.”

“You’ll just have to fill them in,” she says. “Besides, think of the fun she’ll have amongst the headstones. Red Light, Green Light. Hide-and-Seek. Bury Them Bones.”

“Suppose I get the holes all filled in, and make repairs to the fence and the gate, do you think it would be alright to put up a tree house?”

“Well, there isn’t a tree sturdy enough to support one. They are all wind-worn and creaky.” The embalmer sets down his small cup. Rotates it around by its handle with a slender finger. “But,” the gravedigger says, “the lease just expired on an adorable little mausoleum. If you were to knock out some windows and transfer the remains to a regular old plot, I couldn’t think of a nicer playhouse.”

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you too,” she says. “And I think my water just broke.”

The embalmer settles the bill for coffee, leaving a too-big tip, and they walk out into the night. A gust comes up, blowing hair across her face. She throws her head back and he’s lost in the sharp edge of her jaw. They decide to walk against the wind.

“There has never been a mother so lovely,” he says.

“Thank you.” She takes his hand in hers. “Can you believe how fast she’s grown? It seems like only yesterday she was crawling, now she’s talking and running, dragging that plastic shovel behind her.”

“Well, she takes after her mother,” he says. She leans into his shoulder, braces against the wind, pulls her jacket front closed with her free hand.

“And the play house turned out so well,” she says. “She just loves it. Mostly, I think it’s those curtains that bring the place to life.”

“One really does get a knack for sewing, being an embalmer,” he says.

“Speaking of which, I have a surprise for you. I’ve had an outbuilding put up, out past the tool shed.”

“What for?” he says.

“Embalming, I know how you’ve missed it since the digging started.” He kisses her then, hair blowing around them both, breath misting between them. She presses her belly against him. “Also, we’re having a boy.” Through her jacket he squeezes into her biceps, his fingers wrapping clear around, his thumbs pressed into the meat of her shoulders.

“Can I see him?” the gravedigger says.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” the embalmer says.

“Please let me see him. I want to hold him for a little while.”

“Of course,” he says. “And I’ll get started on the hole.”

He opens her car door and the wind closes it behind her. He gets in behind the wheel.

“Now that our daughter is nearly grown, we really should start thinking of our future,” he says. He eases the sedan from the curb, holding the wheel delicately in his fine hands.

“Nearly grown?” she says. “She is still years away from college.”

“Years away, yes. But she’s saying med school. We should start planning now. Turning an agoraphobic pre-teen into a doctor will be no easy task,” he says.

“Oh, she isn’t really agoraphobic, she’s just most comfortable underground, digging.”

“You’re just being contrary,” he says. “As usual.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You’re just displacing your fear of mortality onto the child. As usual.”

She lays her palm on the crook of his elbow, feels the cold of his overcoat. She thinks his arm is thin, maybe as thin as hers, but her eyes stay on his hands as they hold the wheel, occasionally reaching for the turn signal, twice adjusting the wipers. His movements are fluid and stronger than his small arm suggests.

“But what do we need with all those catacombs?” he says. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even think we’re zoned for them.”

“It makes her happy, let the girl dig.”

“Of course I want the girl happy. Who was it, down there punching holes in all the coffins when the creek ran over so they’d stop floating from chamber to chamber?”

“You,” she says. “Always you. But it’s not like it was gruesome work—the coffins were empty. You only use those catacombs for storage.”

In the red glow of a stoplight he reaches his fingers to the nape of her neck. He runs his nails down until they catch on her collar. Farther down and through her coat he begins outlining vertebrae with fingertips. Green light and he returns his hand to the wheel.

“That isn’t the point,” he says. “Besides, I’m much more concerned about this young person you hired to dig graves with that tractor scoop. Really, it’s just vulgar.”

“Well ever since you got your outbuilding all you ever do is embalm. There are so many exposed holes it makes one wonder if you’re digging up remains just to have someone to embalm. Or is it, re-embalm?”

“You’re not being fair,” the embalmer says. “It’s the only thing that makes me happy. I’m so unhappy.”

“I’m unhappy too,” the gravedigger says. “This just isn’t working anymore.”

A hard rain falls against the car’s windshield, momentarily blinding the embalmer. He switches on the wipers and they both watch them go.

“You look well,” he says. “How’s our daughter?”

“She’s well,” she says. “I’ve lost thirty pounds forgetting to eat and picking up extra shifts in the boneyard.”

“I’ve lost forty,” he says. “Of course I’ve put twenty back on of lean muscle mass—I’ve taken up Zumba.”

“I was going to say you look like you’re doing well. How is it being back at the mortuary?”

“Good. Quiet,” he says. “Why are there extra shifts, aren’t things working out between you and that tractor person?”

With the sleeve of her coat, the gravedigger wipes a hole clean in her fogged-over window. “Well, you were right,” she says, “the catacombs were a bad idea. The tractor sunk a tread into a particularly shallow passageway. Getting it out collapsed most of what our daughter built.”

“Oh no,” he says. “She wasn’t underground, was she? When it happened?” “Luckily, no. She was out in the charnel house.”

“Charnel house?” he says.

“It used to be your embalming studio. Now it’s the place we keep the bones we find when we’re digging new holes.”

“Bones already in the ground?”

“Of course. The bones from before,” she says. “This is me.”

The embalmer pulls the sedan up to the boneyard gate, retrieves an umbrella from the trunk and opens her door. He’s soaked to the skin when she takes his hand and steps out. They walk the path through the gate and up to her door, her arm in his. When she unlocks her door he leans in, pulls her hair free of her ear and kisses the corner of her jaw.

“Thank you for dinner,” he says.

“Thank you for coffee.”

“Thank you for the fine family and many splendid years together,” the embalmer says. “Sorry it ended this way.”

“That’s okay,” the gravedigger says. “Parts of it were exactly as I wanted.” 

 
 
 
 
Matthew Robinson is the author of The Horse Latitudes. His words have appeared in Grist, O-Dark-Thirty, Nailed Magazine, and elsewhere. Matthew is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship for fiction and more of his work can be found at www.matthewrobinsonwrites.com. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
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The Lion and the Lioness


by Mary Milstead

The Lion and the Lioness


by Mary Milstead

As the sun crested over the horizon, the lion leaned his head back and yawned, mane glowing in the golden rays, a little line of spit at the corner of his mouth. He watched until it was a full fiery circle and then said, "That's mine." 

The lioness was on the rock just below him. Still cold from the night.  “You didn't make it,” she said. 

She didn't know why she said it, hadn’t even known she was angry until the words had fallen from her mouth. She stared hard into the distance, hoping somehow he hadn’t heard. She glanced back in time to see a wave of fury twitch through his mane and shoulders. The way his jaw stiffened. 

“But it's yours,” she said. 

“Like that cliff and that tree,” he said. “The river.” 

The rest of the pride lay in groups of two or three on the hill below them, flapping their tails in the growing warmth of morning.  

“Yours,” she said, purring her voice. 

She swatted a fly as her heart buzzed in her throat, and she tried to stay calm. She hoped he wouldn’t stay angry. He was better than her last mate, and she had cubs to think of. The last of the fog was burning off, and soon it would be time to sleep. 

“Any fool can make something,” he said. “It’s only the strongest who can rule.”

 

 

 

Mary Milstead is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She completed her MFA in Fiction at Portland State University, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Flash Flash Click, and Portland Review. She’s currently at work on a novel that’s set in Spain just a few years after the Spanish Civil War, a collection of weird little animal stories, and several new essays. Her website is www.marymilstead.com.
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The Rabbit


by Mary Milstead

The Rabbit


by Mary Milstead

The rabbit rolled onto her side and let the little ones climb up on her. She’d been lying here for days, still not sure she could get up. They jostled, rolled, burrowed their little faces in her fur, sucked nipples long dry.

"You make me feel so safe," the little ones said. 

"But aren't you hungry?" she said.

"Only a little," they said. "But when we're safe we forget."

 

 

 

 

Mary Milstead is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She completed her MFA in Fiction at Portland State University, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Flash Flash Click, and Portland Review. She’s currently at work on a novel that’s set in Spain just a few years after the Spanish Civil War, a collection of weird little animal stories, and several new essays. Her website is www.marymilstead.com.
 
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A Note From The Editors


A Note From The Editors


Today marks Winter Solstice, the shortest, darkest day of what has been a strange and dark year. Starting tomorrow, each day gains a little more daylight. The stories in this issue emerge from darkness and contain magic; each examines a reality with its own mysteries and possibilities, gleans small bits of brightness to carry us forward.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for writing,
CB & LP
editors