by Michael L. Woodruff
I am a cemetery by the moon unblessed.
This is the moment when lights dim. A faint mummer, a creak in the aluminum and a light cry escape from an old section of the football bleacher at the edge of the cemetery located under a walnut tree. The ground is littered with small green balls. The bleacher is used for funerals. The sounds are a plea in a place that sleeps. It softens the morning. But it doesn't help.
You should have kept your mouth shut.
The grounds are immaculate, manicured, surrounded by low wrought iron fencing that goes on for seeming miles along highway 69. There are acres of gravestones, all precise and carefully etched. The grass is cut so clean you can have a Sunday picnic on it, and often, people do, spreading blankets atop the lime colored grass, complete with coolers and food baskets and folding chairs; they come to visit their deceased loved ones. Children run through the maze of gravestones like they do through the hallways of the houses they live in. The adults freshen up the final homes of lives that no longer care. American flags and plastic flowers dot the granite memorials. A wooden sign with listed rules exhort visitors to keep their endearments current by taking the old flowers away. Please do not leave anything over 30 days. Show community pride. The place looks more like a fourth of July festival than the home of the dead.
Her mother's right arm drapes across the body. The girl's clothes are wrinkled, awkwardly pulled back up her legs, her socks and shoes are off, inches from her feet. Her small tangled panties are rolled into the dirt, twisted when they were pulled off. Her cell phone is cracked and placed carefully on the bleachers, just above the girl’s head. Her mother scratches at her daughter's naked stomach. It's a soft scratching, intended to sooth. And for the first time, she sees how small and innocent her daughter really is. Her skin is vulnerable. She's a silent flower, weak and wilted. She tried to grow up too fast. The mother reaches for understanding in her head. Why? Things like this don’t happen in our town.Her daughter left the evening before with friends. She didn't ask who. It's a small town. Everyone knows each other. It shouldn't have mattered.
Mama, I'm sorry. It's the whisper of her last gasp. I should have been more careful.Her eyes close, sweet, like a baby's self-awareness and her escaping words are a final witness, creating a fiction her mother will never hear. Her hair smells like shampoo and dirt. She's a beaten animal.
This never had to happen. Her greatest sin was not cooperating.
A pick-up truck missing a wheel is propped up by a 2 by 6 wedge, the identified culprit--the diversion. It looks desperately abandoned. It's at the edge of the road to the back of the cemetery. It's out of place in this pristine landscape: guilt by misfortune. Out of place, like her mother with a dead girl's head in her lap, out of place like the mother's crying, out of place like her presence in the cemetery so early in the morning; the world is still asleep. Her mother didn’t make it in time. She doesn't have a car. She had to walk.
Ag City is a maze of silos and box shaped buildings and houses, business buildings, agricultural buildings. Everything about the town hinges around these businesses. And in Ag City, local business is a hobby, a purse that never empties. There's an endless well to draw from--the poor and the passer-bys along highway 69. And of course, exports. Businesses blend with the local houses. It's the shuffle of the deck. They are one. It gives the town its polished image: a pristine high school with cheerleaders, white like Sunday lilies--intellectually fragile. Old men in overalls, with thick wallets, ancient and bewildered, stagger into the cafes with walls lined with sport clippings. They sip weak coffee and talk proudly about the local football heroes who are without blemish. They stand confident in their knowledge of the past. They are the stewards of all things sacred. And the young boys: they are as strong as tree trunks, and they swim thoughtlessly through the town like unfettered bulls. The town’s main church, meek on Jesus, with the American flag flying high and dignified next to the Queen Anne structure, the only architecture of antiquity left in the community, is painted heaven white and is the center of anything new and appropriate, polished people with polished cars. Each member invites the minister to lunch once a year to remind him how wonderful they are.
New enameled tractors, Massey-Ferguson, reflecting the sun, line along highway 69 as unassuming as the fast food restaurants that garnish its banks. There’s a small shack with a sign: Guns and Tiresand a graveled parking lot filled with camouflage hunting blinds. Proud new buildings overtake the rusted tangle of the past, the powdered crumble of concrete walls with faded paint--Wonderbread and Pharmacy, along with other old buildings, sink, undetected, into the earth. They are replaced by galvanized and vinyl pre-fabbed structures. They are absent from the blemish and the stain of original sin. They gleam. Perfectly bound bales of hay sleep in fields along the Blackland prairies like huge nuggets of shredded wheat. They are sweet grass, the warm smell of summer, the hint of rural passion. Every parade and every town picnic is designed to showcase a community in bliss, the substance of the celebration, excess, reduced to paper cups and plates, trash, and left for cleaning the next day—it has a smidgen of charity, the reminder of a good time. It provides jobs to those with little money.
Wood planking lie on a flatbed trailer, unused, having sat there four years forgotten by the white trash who own it. They never learn. They leave their better intentions in splintered piles. They lose their drive and money. They are never quite able to bring a task to its conclusion. They take what is free with little inspiration concerning its use. They are blank slates. The town is a place where white propane tanks of the past still heat many of the houses, the broken houses that nest in the weaker lots like sad reminders. Cottonwood trees hang heavy, splayed out, over the concrete sidewalks, an umbrella over these same older houses.
Hedge posts skin the sides of highway 69 while yellow and light green brome, the grass not baled, fill the ditches and spike into the wind. Houses along the highway sport custom mailboxes supported by western plows and milk containers. This morning, the sky is different than it was in the days past; it's now a confused blanket of light blue, lacking mid-day clarity. The angels in the clouds have disappeared leaving feathered streams of white. There are holes in the air where the rays of light penetrate and the sun spots the landscape below.
The freshly painted water tower with solid legs wears the pride of the city-Class B champions 1962. It's the promise of future victories without consequence. These fast food restaurants, Taco Bell and Subway, the whole lot of them, have invaded the city long ago, one by one, forever cemeteries, numb of any personality. The poor you have with you always, a conflicting message at best. They populate our town like a plague. And as a result, there are needs for jobs. But, these poor are expendable. They are here for the convenience of others. They are eaten daily. These fast food restaurants are a concession without any real economic impact, the illusion of growth and success. Being a shift manager is still not going to cut it.
Her mother gets the call about 15 minutes before...there are noises from the phone falling, the girl's voice screaming,no, and then, mama, I'm at the cemetery. The phone call is abruptly ended, the drone of her ringtone. Her voice sounded like a plea for the mercy of god--a flawed redemption. It's in these times that the eyes of god are plucked from their sockets, his presence ineffectual. Absentes Vero. Prayer is always an act of desperation, a salvation poorly planned, and the early morning air is mute.
People drip out of their houses surrounding the cemetery. They hear a weak cry in the morning rime. And they start to gather, blinking out the morning dew. Their mouths drop and somehow in their minds they're thinking something about the girl's lifestyle, careless thoughts that make its way to a conclusion, what they think they know, what they imagine it to be, late night bars with wild music, dances; their perception is that she parties nightly, using a fake ID, people talk, it’s how news spreads in Ag City, and her reputation is somehow responsible for her death. And her mother---what does she know, she allowed it all to happen.
-What a tragedy. But if you play with fire expect to get burned. The community is already preparing its lie.
One of the young girl's breasts poke out of her threadbare blouse, and men, with pink faces, as guilty as candy-stealing children stare. Her mother pushes it as best as she can back into the blouse, but the blouse is torn and weak and her daughter isn't wearing a bra.
-We called the police, one of the men says flatly.
She just shakes her head; she's buried in her daughter's face. She’s going to miss work today at the convenience store, and it’s something she can’t afford. She has a mortgage on a house that disappears daily into the landscape. She can’t afford the repairs. Its roof is chaffed and the siding scraped to the naked wood, gray and cracked. The yard is full of abandoned junk. The inside of the house has the thick scent of unwashed blankets. There’s no air-conditioning.
-These people are used to this kind of thing, another man concedes. They suffer daily. Most of their children die in birth. All Okies, with weak values, it’s no wonder bad things happen to them. That’s life.
The others agree.
-Just white trash--very sad. We’ve never had this shit before. It’s a recent thing. It happened when those damned fast food places started coming to town, creating bad jobs for people to buy once perfectly good houses, letting them go to hell, property that will never be repaired. And tattoos: How do these people afford their tattoos? The town is disappearing into the Blackland plains. This used to be a good place to live.
The woman whips her hair behind her shoulder and looks in the direction of the men and glares.
-And I’m fat and stupid, too.
They back up with a steely guilt.
-Come on guys, let's go. The police are here.
The police cruiser pulls, quietly, up to the bleachers, the crunch of gravel under the wheels. The lights on the cruiser spin chaotically: red, white and blue. The siren is silent. There are beer cans, murdered birds, sprinkled around the bleachers.
She already knows what’s going to happen. She knows it's those boys, the rich ones with the cars that sparkle. They drive around town every night like vultures. They hunt, stalk and never go home until something is broken or destroyed, a victory over the night. She can't do anything about it. They own all the respectability in town. She warned her daughter: Hon, never try to be like them, they will hurt you. You are not like them. You are less in their eyes; you will always be less in their eyes. And here she is...below her arm. She’s pale and limp; the wave of her soft brown hair, thin like a small child, blows over her knees. Just dig a grave now, put her into the cold ground, we’re already here, there’s no reason to move her body, and why pretend there’s anything else important to do? She’s been abused enough. No one cares. All that’s left is the sprinkle of a little charity, the brown dirt of the earth.
In this small town she knows who she is--her place. And we keep her down on purpose. Her life is like this cemetery, absent the words involving conscience, forever void. Let my daughter down in her grave, softly, in peace, she whispers, please, let the earth comfort her;it’s a soft begging sound. These people can’t afford to bury their death. But her whisper accompanies the hundreds, the thousands of others, the community of the forgotten, among the big mausoleums filled with the immortals, forever in their place. There is a line drawn between worlds. It’s always there. But it’s more visible in Ag City. It's intended to insure order, maintain the stability of the community. It’s there to create a sense of place, identity, and each person is assured their measure of decorum. It's solidified in the paint and mortar, in the glass and the asphalt that criss-crosses the town. It’s visible in the homes people occupy, the degree of comfort; it tells the world who you are and some of the houses are very ornate. It’s displayed in their ignorance of architecture, in their hunger for all things practical. Our community is a museum for the culturally untrained.
We designed and built the house ourselves.
At this point, you have to understand our town to understand what happened, and to understand these desperate people who pack themselves in the unseen corners of our community—the convenience store and fast food restaurant workers. I know my picture is vague and mean. But something is slipping away. My eyes are no longer blind. Yes, I killed the girl. I watched and I imagined, as it all unfolded, moving branches as I spied her mother sitting on the bleachers with her dead daughter's head in her lap. I watched the neighbors mock. I guessed their thoughts. I assigned a reality to it. I know everything. And these white trash people who clutter up our community, whose intentions never slip past my thoughts, they think they are entitled to something that we have, things they will never get. The poor you have with you always. Again, Jesus was right. Pour the perfume on my feet where it belongs. Let its sweet fragrance save my day. The whole thing was set in history, long ago. Who can argue with that?
I'll find a way to clean up this mess. She's a small person in a larger world. The girl's life had imagined value, as unnoticed as the dirt I walk on. How dare she reject me: the little slut. I gave her things—trinkets—things that shine. She never turned them away. And her mother: she’s a confused woman. She's a couple months behind on her mortgage. I know. My father owns the bank. He's been patient, too patient, and I suspect she will soon disappear, moved to a different town, forgotten. The Mexican whose truck broke down at the edge of the cemetery has no idea what is about to happen to him when he comes back to claim his property. They, too, are starting to fill our town. Our town suffers scourge after scourge. The whole thing is planned out in my head. Yes, I had to kill the girl. It was necessary. She would have ruined everything. This is a good place to live, filled with good people and good families. I have many friends here. I plan to stay. This cemetery is filled with monuments to our past, of the people who truly belong here and have a promise of a future—our eternity. These gravestones are precious gems, lessons to the community on the value of our history, the cornerstone of our beliefs—the substance of our God. She wanted to put a stain on everything. I shook her to get her to understand. She swore she was going to tell everyone that I forced myself on her. I didn’t force anything. It was just sex; it was done before each of us even blinked. Why did it matter? But, no, she spit in my face and tried to tear herself away. She struggled. But my grip was a vise. She's not going to do it. She's not going to say a word. Not if I can help it. No, definitely not.
It's time for me to get to my car, drive around the block, come back, and pull into the cemetery disheveled and distraught. After all, I just lost my girlfriend and I’m deeply pained.
Michael L. Woodruff is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While at the Workshop he received the Reikes Scholarship for Writing.
His stories have appeared in Summerset Review and the Main Street Rag.
His poems have appeared in Live Poets’ Society Vol. V 2018
He is a 2019 Nominee for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
He was born in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to writing and reading, he spends his time hiking the deserts of New Mexico.
by Antonina Rousskikh
I am an explorer
Relentlessly sailing my boisterous oceans,
Mapping the fascinating pockets of light
That draw my restless soul to the unknown.
I am an archaeologist
Digging up the relics I have buried,
The dire mistakes that mock me,
The ones that will teach me of my past.
I am a real estate agent
Selling a concocted image of myself to the world,
Assuring those who unwittingly crossed my path
That my ashen ruins are indeed recoverable.
I am a mathematician
Endlessly rearranging my equations,
Aiming to unveil the obnoxious “x”
That perplexes every bit of my being.
I am an architect
Carefully planning every meager fragment,
Desperately hoping that in construction
I won’t collapse like a heap of bricks.
I am an artist
Painting a vibrant Gauguin like portrait
Of who I should and could be,
With bright paints that conceal my grey.
I am everything and everyone
The world has gifted me all its knowledge,
Yet I am nothing and no one,
And I know absolutely nothing.
I exhaust every second trying to be someone
Trying to be something, simply trying to be.
I stumble and crumble under the crushing weight
Of my own thoughts that seem to plague me.
I never cease to ask myself the haunting question
The question that clouds my brain like dark smog
The one that I seemingly can yet cannot answer:
Who am I?
Antonina Rousskikh is a student from Canada, currently living in India. She is passionate about reading and writing. She is also passionate about reaching out and helping others struggling with their identities and themselves and she wishes to do this through her poetry.
by Kevin Hogg
His hopeless eyes plead with mine
From the dirt beside the sidewalk
Worldly possessions fill a garbage bag
Home: a cardboard mess, a heat grate
Her tiny eyes gaze into passing cars
Violence defines her neighborhood
Bored on the doorstep of low-rent housing
But to explore today is to jeopardize tomorrow
His tired eyes seek freedom from this reality
An unwashed, unshaven face,
A paper cup and sign:
Why lie? I need money for beer.
Kevin Hogg is a husband, father, high school teacher, and Chicago Cubs fan. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English Literature and has published poetry with inner art journal, Foliate Oak, and Mouse Tales Press. This poem features memories of people in Washington DC, Baltimore, and San Diego, who may not remember him, but he can never forget.
by Chris Mpofu
The bulls shoveled sand backwards, heads to the ground, eyes locked.
"Sgu-u-u-u-u!" Mexan, thick and squat like the bull he was calling on, crouched beside the animals, his own legs wide apart, hands clasped tight. Khaki shorts torn down the middle, the crack between his buttocks wide open.
Thabo watched the bulls, his eyes wandering from time to time to the tear in Mexan's shorts. The boys exploded in cheers as the bulls clashed, yelling and applauding every time their animal gored the other. As usual, Sgubudu, Mexan's prize bull, triumphed. Thabo watched the defeated bull trudge away, blood dripping down its side. His stomach roiled as he caught sight of Mexan's gloating eyes.
The river made a V-like bend here, its widest point. In the dry season, it was a vast stretch of soft sand, patches of water dotting its width. Tree roots cracked its banks in search of water. The cattle drank and grazed around it, the caress of its cool breeze soft and gentle in the punishing heat.
The boys sought shade under a camel thorn tree, where they played tsoro. The game boards—four rows and seven columns of holes—pockmarked the ground under the tree. Players scooped and shuffled stones furiously from one hole to the next in a bid to capture their opponents' stones. The senior boys played non-stop while the juniors took turns watching the animals. Thabo looked on as Mexan played, cocky after his bullfight victory; hovering over his opponent with arm drawn back as if to land a punch, scorn skinning his lips across his teeth. Mexan would join the army one day, Thabo was sure. Well, maybe he would meet his match there. Get his big testicles crushed under a giant boot. He hadn't looked so cocky a year ago when Gogotook him in, his parents burned to death in their hut. Thabo loved his grandmother, but why did it have to be theirfamily that rescued this baboon? It didn't take long for Mexan to settle in, and he was soon pushing Thabo around. Kicking Thabo's feet away under the blankets at night. Sometimes ripping the blankets away from him. He was strong, and Thabo never challenged him. If only Thabo could share his bedroom with just his little brother Spikili. But Gogo had insisted that he make Mexan feel welcome. Didn't he feel sorry for the poor boy? Both his parents gone just like that? At the river, Mexan maneuvered his way to the senior group of boys. So now he played tsoro while Thabo watched the cattle.
Darkness crept in, time to round the animals up.
"Thabo! Thabo!" The junior boys chanted as they corralled the cattle onto the narrow path. Some patted Thabo on the bum as they jumped up and down, naughty smiles lighting their faces. Thabo kept his head down, home suddenly far away. The narrow path filled with dust as hooves hit the ground, a sense of urgency filling the inexorable march home.
That evening Mexan sat across the fire, prodding groundnuts in the hot ash. His left leg folded underneath him, the right leg forming an inverted L shape above the floor. Thabo could never sit like that—it always hurt his foot. Mexan's eyes were partly shut by the smoke rising up to the thatched roof. When the nuts were roasted he gathered them into a pile, expertly removing the ash.
"Want some?" He extended a handful to Gogo, who reached across and accepted the nuts.
"Thank you, Mexan."
Thabo felt Mexan staring at him, but focused on his own search for nuts.
"You should've seen Sgu today, Gogo!" Mexan crunched his thick fists, holding them up as he stared at Thabo.
Gogo's not interested in bullfights, you asshole!Thabo scratched the ash, collected groundnuts from the fire.
"One day he'll find his match," Gogo said, smiling.
"Not for my Sgu, Gogo." Mexan had his arms folded upwards to imitate a bull's horns, his head dipped towards the fire. "There's no match!"
Gogo held a groundnut suspended in mid-air, her mouth hanging open. She looked like she was going to break into one of her loud cackles that always made her cough. Then, as if she'd suddenly realized that Mexan was just full of himself and didn't need to be encouraged, popped the groundnut into her mouth and chewed it well before speaking. "Anyway, Sgubudu's job is to give us calves."
Just then, Spikili walked in, covered in dust from head to toe. He squatted next to his grandmother. "Where do calves come from, Gogo?"
Spikili, always asking questions.
"Nxa isitshisa, inkomokaz'iyahamba khatshana iyozekwa."When the cow is in heat, it goes away to get fucked.
The firewood crackled in the little hut, groundnuts exploding as they cracked open. Thabo watched Spikili's little face fall in on itself and drive his gaze to the floor, his eyes darting in every direction but Gogo's.
"Ithi nxa isiphenduka iyab'isizithwele."And then it returns pregnant.
"One day Thabo will come back pregnant!" Mexan almost choked on a groundnut as he broke into laughter.
Thabo's nuts slid off his hands and rolled around the fireplace. He jerked his face towards the doorway, then down at the fire, not daring to glance at Mexan. He tried to jump up but his legs wouldn't move. So he fixed his gaze on the fire, its flames spewing smoke into his eyes.
Gogo turned to Mexan, her voice soft. "Hayi Mexan, ungenzi njalo."
"Will Thabo go away like the cow, Gogo?" Spikili asked.
The night's silence flowed in and flooded the hut. Thabo wished for the morning, the distant promise of relief.
Finally, Gogo gathered her blanket, groaning as she got up. "Everyone to sleep, it's late." She laid a gentle hand on Thabo's shoulder on her way out.
Thabo sat by the fire, tears streaming in the smoke.
The village store came into view, and he crouched behind a tree. It was mid-morning, but the sun was already baking, painting mirages in the air. He was sure no one had seen him. All he needed was a quick sprint across the open road and he would be at the back of the store. Zitha, their neighbor, was dragging her little daughter out. When they disappeared out of sight, he dashed across.
Why did Johnson have to be so loud? He was lugging a sack of maize from the storeroom. Thabo caught a glimpse of Mrs. Johnson at the store counter—scrawny and pale despite all the food in the store. He raced up the stairs, and stood finally in the bedroom doorway. The bed could sleep three people, maybe four, even. It was neatly made; the sheets folded back, a perfect white. He imagined Johnson and his wife in the bed, and something in him hurt.
"Like the bed, boy? Madam would shoot me if she caught us in her bed!"
Thabo felt Johnson's hard penis on his bum. He went to get on his knees, but Johnson pulled him back.
"Easy, boy. We take it slow, hey boy?"
Johnson's fingers roamed over Thabo's chest. Thick, hairy stubs. Thabo wondered if all white men were so hairy. Slowly, the fingers came to rest on Thabo's crotch. And then suddenly, Johnson was ripping Thabo's shirt off, forcing him to the floor. Making frantic attempts to unbuckle his belt, panting and wheezing. Thabo's own blood was racing now. He tossed his shorts onto the floor, put his head down, his fingers clawing the carpet.
Later that afternoon, the boys were back at the river, Mexan perched on a little rock, twirling his club in the air. Thabo found a shady spot on the riverbank and sat down. He was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but couldn't; he didn't want to wake up with his shorts missing again. So he lay down, eyes wide open, and studied the clouds. It wasn't long before Mexan was standing over him, club in hand.
"Uyindoda wena?" Are you a man?
The thin clouds melted in the heat, exposing a vast blue sky.
Mexan kicked up some dust. "When are you going to get pregnant?"
Thabo bolted upright. He scooped a handful of sand to throw onto Mexan's face. Too slow. Mexan's thick fingers were around his wrist, his crotch hard on Thabo's back. The sand slid from Thabo's hand onto the riverbank. A scream formed in his throat but remained there. The other boys surrounded them now.
"He says he's a man!" Mexan pointed at Thabo, a sneer on his face. "Ayihlome!"
Before he knew what was happening, the boys had pinned Thabo to the ground, yanked his shorts off. "Big ass!" Bursts of laughter flooded the air and floated over the river.
Thabo didn't see it coming, but when Mexan thrust his club up his rectum, a bolt of lightning seared every inch of his body, bursting his head as blood rushed up. He inhaled sand. Convulsed so hard he yanked his head free and breathed air again.
Laughing faces hovered over him, all teeth and gums, his vision now a blur.
Mexan shoved the club deeper.
Sweat cracked Thabo’s forehead. His body went cold.
Then, one by one, the feet around his face shuffled away, a dove cooing above them.
"Where's your white husband now?" Mexan said.
Thabo caught Mexan's foul breath, the stench of rotten milk.
Mexan ran grubby fingers, hard, down Thabo's back.
Thabo couldn't breathe for the pain.
"In through the back door again tomorrow, huh?" Flashing his evil smile one last time, Mexan ripped his club out, and was gone.
Thabo collected his shorts, rolled himself into a ball, his breaths quick and short. His rectum throbbing. A few minutes later, he struggled onto his hands and knees, shoveled sand backwards, his head to the ground.
The blanket over his head helped to block out the forest sounds—crickets chirping, the sudden ruffling of grass. He tucked the edges of the blanket underneath him to get a good seal. Three nights in the bush now, hiding by day, Thabo had survived on roots. If only the river were full, splashing its swooshing sounds to calm him to sleep, wash away his pain. But this was the dry season.
In the morning he rolled his blanket, tucked it under his arm. He buried his tools by the tree and, his plan finalized, set off for home. When he entered the yard Gogo was sweeping the hut. He stood in the doorway and watched her. She wasn't humming her usual song, her sweeping strokes halting, almost breaking the grass broom. When she saw him the broom slid off her hands. She stood silent, her skin furrowed. Then, the tension draining from her face, she approached him. Slowly. Deliberately. Tears snaking down her rugged cheeks. She hugged him tightly, breaking into sobs.
Thabo clung on to her, convulsing hard. Until finally, they parted.
"Sit down," Gogo whispered, making for the door. She returned with a plate of sweet potatoes, a welcome break from the amadumbehe'd survived on in the bush.
When he was done eating, Thabo got up and went to the boys' hut.
His blankets formed a small mound next to Spikili, who was still sleeping, the stench of urine rising from his blankets. Mexan's blankets were strewn on the floor, his naked body stretching as he yawned.
"Haaa!" Mexan leaned in to inspect Thabo's tummy. "Are you pregnant now? You must be, after three whole days of it."
Thabo walked past him, picked up a bucket. He washed, changed into a clean pair of shorts and t-shirt. Then he went out to milk the cows. He loved milking the cows; he could talk to them, tell them his secrets, anything. They never laughed at him, never hurt him.
The river was particularly dry that afternoon, forcing the boys to dig deep in the sand to get water to drink . Thabo had brought his club, something he hadn't done for a while. He sat on a soft patch of grass in the shade and watched the animals.
"Iph'indoda?" Where is the man? Mexan, having sneaked up from nowhere, dancing a war dance, waving his club.
Thabo watched in silence, keeping his own club close by. Mexan danced towards him, kicking dust into the air. He hit the ground in front of Thabo with his club, a direct challenge to battle. Thabo stayed put. The boys gathered, laughing.
An explosion of laughter ripped the air. Thabo felt the skin on his back split. Slowly, he rose from the ground. Shook sand off his body, broke into a dance of his own. He swung his club, throwing it in the air, catching it. And finally, struck the ground beside Mexan's feet.
A sudden quiet fell on the riverside; even the doves stopped cooing. The boys stood still, their jeering moves paralyzed, sneers frozen on their faces. Mexan was no longer dancing, his club held stiffly down his side. Thabo feigned an attack, and Mexan ducked. As he rose, Thabo struck. Squarely on the head, sending him sprawling to the ground. Thabo dragged the limp body to a tree, dug up his rope and knife from the ground. No boy stopped him. In fast jerky movements, he tied Mexan's arms and legs up, then tied them to a tree. Next, he ripped Mexan's shorts off and knelt beside his limp body. Then he snatched Mexan's penis in his hand, regarded it for a moment, and looked up at the boys. They stood in shock.
"Iph'indoda?"Where is the man? Thabo’s voice filled the air, searching the sky.
The crowd stared, unmoving.
Thabo wiped the sand stuck from his knife onto Mexan's shorts. "This is what you've made me do." He shifted gaze from one face to another, knife firmly in hand.
Mexan stirred again. Briefly. Then fell back again, limp as a dead frog.
"This is what you think makes a man?" Thabo stretched Mexan's penis. "Well, heis not a man anymore!"
He slit across Mexan's penis.
An ejaculate of blood gushed out. Splashed on the ground. Cries of shock wailed from the crowd. The boys fell on Thabo, pinned him down. Thabo dropped the penis, now just hanging on by a sliver of skin.
Gogo extended a hand through the metal bars to greet him. "I talked to the police," she said.
Thabo felt nothing. He stared past her. What would talking to the police help? He had told them everything. Admitted everything. There was nothing to discover.
"I told them how…" Gogo was saying. "I told them how he longed for you."
Thabo's eyes fastened on her. Longed? Mexan? What was Gogo talking about?
"He loved you, Thabo, couldn't you see?"
Where's your white husband now?
Mexan? "No!" Thabo roared, shaking the prison bars, making Gogo jump.
"He couldn't take it that you gave to Mr. Johnson and not him."
Thabo stared into her kind, rheumy eyes.
"He shamed me." Tears streamed down his cheeks. "He hurt…"
Gogo stroked his hand. "He didn't know how to tell you."
Outside, darkness fell on the river, and Thabo sat alone in the stifling prison, his isolation complete. Maybe, just maybe, there was another boy out there. Maybe one day they would talk. Sit by the river's edge, listen to its secrets. And maybe, with the ancestors’ blessing, the river would flow again, wash away his shame.
Chris is an emerging writer who was born in Zimbabwe and lives in Canada. He has had a short story long listed for the CBC Short Story competition, and another shortlisted for the Writers’ Union of Canada Annual Short Prose Competition. He is currently working on a novel that explores the experiences of those who have left their countries of origin to settle elsewhere.
by Amber Moss
There’s more to him than his cadaverous skin.
He eats steak with no seasoning,
but sandwiches with hot sauce.
He curses with his parents as they speak their dialogue, and I can’t imagine speaking
to my mother with lines filled with that much color.
When we walk on the beach,
it’s just us two.
The midnight sky collides with the lamps
eluding from the beach houses behind us,
and there’s no one to tell us to come home.
But when we do go home
to his home
to eyes different from mine,
It is 1960 again.
Amber Moss is a writer in New York City. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida in professional writing with a minor in creative writing. Her poetry has been published in Bewildering Stories. She has also contributed articles to NYGal and 87 Magazine.
by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
Beautiful day. Must check inbox before going walking. Swimming. I’m a writer. Inbox, read 1. Hold acceptance. Possibility. Just read 1. Convey possibility. Let me obsess over that number. Try to discern story’s fate from first line. No emails. Refresh. Refresh. Morning fades, afternoon, walks and swimming fleeting. Keep checking. Just once. I’ll step away. Waiting is a reward. I must learn patience. But emails follow me. I’m a writer. Just one rejection? Pine trees blow in late afternoon breeze. I can watch Office Space. Dusk, still checking. Pink and purple shadows fall. Avoid email tomorrow.
Can’t wait to check.
Mir-Yashar is a graduate of Colorado State's MFA program in fiction. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Terror House Magazine, Unstamatic, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Ariel Chart. He lives in Garden Valley, Idaho.