All Lonely Roads Lead to Old Sembahnang

by Elizabeth Wong

There were roads in Sembahnang that had not felt the hum of cars in a while. These roads were now cracking apart into hexagons, with weeds pushing, forcing themselves into broken spaces where hot bitumen was once laid. Now, the mangrove swamp encroached. No one has used them, not since the flood—no one, other than runners, scientists, Scout troops on expeditions, and of course, themselves.

The two of them had spent many a Saturday on the green glass beach, when they were younger. They took the road Jalan Changkat Beruas that ran through the artificial rivers and lakes of Mr. Tan’s prawn farm and passed by a row of makeshift huts—zinc sheets slapped together to form homes for Mr. Tan’s Burmese workers. The zinc sparkled in the afternoon heat and scorched their hands when they touched it. And then, the road wound around a cluster of fish warehouses, where the fish were manually sorted before being carried away to capital, in shoals of ice in dirty grey styrofoam boxes. In the morning, wooden boats powered by diesel engines brought in the fish and hoisted their catch with slings into the warehouses by noon. The two of them would stop at the warehouses to help with the manual sorting. Big fish goes in one pile, medium fish goes in another, small fish goes in another, weird fish goes in the weird fish pile. Their hands, shoes, and clothes would be stained with fish ooze, but they got a free lunch—packed nasi lemak with a fried egg and anchovy bits.

After their lunch, Jalan Changkat Beruas would take them further, away from people, to an old railway line that led onward to the beach. They used to skip unevenly across the wooden sleepers, from one row to another. Their entire journey took forty-eight minutes one way, according to Kevin, reading off his black Casio wristwatch with a tiny calculator (he got his watch when he was eleven for doing well in his exams). If they ran all the way there, their journey only took twenty-eight minutes. But their return home took much longer as they walked home carefully: otherwise, the beach glass would break and they would have gone there with nothing to show for it. Nothing but a memory of their day—scouring for, selecting, and saving the best pieces of beach glass.

She had visited the green glass beach only once ever since she had come back from the capital after finishing university. There was nothing lonelier than walking on a forty-eight minute trail, once with company, now by herself.

Nowadays, she spent her Saturdays volunteering at the Buddhist Children Playgroup (BCP), a ten-minute drive from her home. It was not a perfect substitute, but the feeling of helping another person could offset memories, or at least helped her forget. At the very least, she was too busy handling the kids to think about anything else. Last year, sometime in May, she and another regular volunteer (it was that woman with the jutting chin, whose name she could never remember) had taken a group of BCP kids out to the green glass beach. Bringing lunch, first-aid kits and handphones with them, they walked the same road that she and Kevin had once walked every Saturday. The kids spoke too loudly; their blaring voices overwhelmed the whispers of the mangrove, the sighs of unanswered footprints. When they arrived at the beach, she explained to the kids where this beach glass comes from, and how they were formed. She taught them how to choose the best specimens and was horrified when they collected the flattest ones only to skip them across the water.

She never took them there again or suggested the green glass beach to anyone else. Her cousin and her ang-moh boyfriend had stopped by Sembahnang two months ago, as they were doing a grand tour of amazing Malaysia and wanted to visit a quaint charming place in the rural countryside. Something not too touristy, her cousin had requested, and so she pointed them in the direction of a beach resort twenty minutes away.

At any rate, no one went near the green glass beach unless they were scientists or foreign tourists. People said that it was haunted, a “dirty” place. You should shower after you go there to get rid of any evil spirits that have clung to you. You should never read messages in a bottle, because that is how spirits try to communicate with you. She didn’t believe in the superstitions, but she understood their essence, how they came about. There is something about sitting on the green sand, waves lapping at your toes, the whole sky unfurling wide-open over you that breeds a belief that there are things (forces) in the world bigger than you are. Everything that has happened in the entire history of the world—every death, every flood, every job, every farewell, every childhood love lost—lingers in the surrounding hills, in the drowned valley, in the green glass beach. What was she, then? A microscopic glimmer in a world where nothing ever changes? In many ways, she was comforted by that realization.

On the day her Ah-ma died, she had found a bottle, washed up on the beach and hidden in a cluster of phragmites. The bottle was battered, but there was a message inside, smeared, almost unintelligible. But she could very nearly make out the top, 1859, which would make it over a hundred and fifty years old. A hundred and fifty years of floating in the ocean. It seemed almost meant for her—that she should find it on the day her grandmother died when all life seemed transient.

She and Kevin had never told their families where they went on Saturday mornings, because they wouldn’t let them go there. Her mother would tell her that all these bad spirits would try to find a place in your soul and control you and you’d never be free.

Looking back, their families had probably let the both of them do whatever they wanted on Saturdays because they were hoping that they would fall in love, get married. He is such a nice boy, her father would tell her, so filial and obedient. Respects his elders. He would make a good husband.

*

They had gone to the beach for the sole reason of collecting beach glass. Every Saturday, they emptied their backpacks of schoolbooks and used them to carry beach glass home.

Beach glass is ordinary glassware—beer bottles and glass jars—that has found its way to the sea. There, it is whipped by waves, and crushed against rocks and passing ships, before being left behind on beaches far away from where it came from.

Imagine: you find a seemingly perfect green sphere. It is the size of a marble; it is sitting on your palm, still. It is the product of everything, everything (!) that has happened until this very moment: blown in a glass factory somewhere, used by someone, found its way into the sea, churned around in storms, washed up on a beach and now picked up by you to sit on your palm, still. It has seen fish, bits of wood and household rubbish floating in sea surface eddies, weed.

Crystallographically-speaking, it is unnatural: minerals do not naturally grow into spheres. Its crystal system is not in the charts.

Microscopically-speaking, it is flawed: glass is a supercooled liquid with no long-range structures, no symmetry, no order. Although glass may look solid, it is actually a liquid and can flow at very slow speeds, unnoticeable to the naked eye. After several millennia, this glass sphere will have flowed into another shape altogether.

But, in terms of a human lifetime and to human eyes, this glass sphere is perfect.

*

In any case, she hadn’t been back to the green glass beach ever since she returned— except for that one time with the BPS kids—until one day in December, when Kevin returned to Sembahnang. He stopped by at her house three days after he returned, while she was out at work. She called him as soon as she found out that he had stopped by and asked whether he would like to go walking the next day, out to the green glass beach.

He said yes, and continued with, “Are you still collecting beach glass, Min? Do you still have that jar filled with green marbles? Do you still arrange them by size when you are bored?”

On her dresser was a jar filled with beach glass spheres that she had collected over the years. Whenever she was bored, she would empty the jar, arrange them by size and then place them back in, one by one.

“Of course not,” she told Kevin. “Why do you ask?” She listened to the flat dial tone after he had put the phone down.

The next day Kevin came to her house and they walked on their forty-eight minute journey on Jalan Changkat Beruas, as always.

“I can’t stay too long at the beach—I’m leaving tomorrow, and I haven’t yet spoken to my parents about Michelle. They’ve been busy with the shop and everything for the past three days,” he told her, just as they started walking.

“What do you have to speak to them about Michelle for?”

“She’s leaving for the Netherlands soon. She just got posted there on a two-year assignment. You know what happened there, right?”

“No…other than the fact that the one of the princes got married. The good-looking one,” she told him, smiling a little.

He smiled too. “There goes your dream of becoming a princess.”

“Yeah, too bad about that.”

“Don’t be too sad,” Kevin poked her with his elbow. “I’m sure there are other princes you could marry.”

“But all of them are married now. Or too old.” She made a sad face. “Their families and government and countrymen won’t like it if I chased off their wives.”

He laughed.

They passed Mr. Tan’s prawn farm, the Burmese workers’ huts, the fish warehouses, then they came across the old railway line, where they stepped carefully from one wooden sleeper to another, neither of them energetic enough to skip as they once had. All around was a bit of raised land, with mangrove trees fringing the edges. Here was where seas and rivers mingled. Her heart felt light and heavy at the same time.

“A large storm hit their coast. The floodgates, dikes and dunes were all breached. The waves reached eight meters high in some places and flooded at least several low-lying villages,” Kevin said.

“Did anyone die?”

“At least twenty. And thousands evacuated.”

She had not heard about this. She stopped reading the newspapers a year ago. “Their system was so geotechnically-advanced,” she said. “I remember the prof. telling us that they have these giant storm surge barriers to protect their coasts—huge ones, six to ten meters high. If we have had that here, in Sembahnang, the flood wouldn’t have happened.”

“It was one of those freak storms, a one-in-fifty-thousand-year storm. Crazy, isn’t it? You would think, one-in-fifty-thousand-years—what are the chances of an event like that happening during my lifetime? Zero…except, it isn’t really zero. It has a one-in-fifty-thousand probability, and it could happen today, and tomorrow, and the day after, because that is all the number is, a probability.”

“Probabilities fail when you want them to work the most.”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “Michelle was asked to be a project manager on their reconstruction project, by protecting whatever coastline is left, and then to pump out and drain the area. She is flying out there in three weeks time.”

“Congratulations,” Min said.

*

Fifty years ago, their families used to live in Old Sembahnang, a town that once lay in the valley. It used to be a swamp, but over time, the swamp was drained by electric pumps, and protected by a system of wooden dikes. Old Sembahnang was two—maybe three—meters below sea level, but the sea was kept out and it stayed dry. During one monsoon season, storm surges breached the dikes. Several of the barriers broke down. Water from sea and rivers spread into the town, slowly. “You would have thought that once the barriers were breached, the whole town would be flooded in an instant,” Min’s Kong-Kong said. In reality, it took time to drown the entire valley.

There were puddles of water on the roads at first, filling potholes, then these puddles connected into a murky deluge that swept away anything left on the ground, kettles on wood-burning stoves, children’s toys, broken half-cups, a five-hundred word History essay on the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese with loose ink running off the pages. The residents tried to carry away whatever they could, grabbing spare fishing boats and stacking them up high with their things.

There was even one fishing boat that had sunk under the weight of its load. It was owned by Tauke Chong, who owned the town’s only sundry store. He was too greedy and tried to pile his entire store in. He thought he had succeeded in saving everything, up until the very last second, when the boat gave a last sigh and disappeared under the water. Cans of Milo drifted away, too beautiful to watch, hundreds of electric green cans bobbing in the brown murk. Some had even opened to let its contents mix with the seawater. Within a twenty-meter radius of the sinking boat, you could have had a chocolate-flavoured Milo drink.

Days passed and the waters kept rising, until you could only see the tops of houses, and then not even that. Min’s Kong-Kong and family, like the others, moved into the next town further south and renamed it New Sembahnang. The dikes were never repaired, nor was Old Sembahnang ever drained. The mangrove swamp grew between the ghosts of the abandoned town.

Old Sembahnang, transient and fleeting, existed for all of a generation.

If you were to try to visit Old Sembahnang today, all you would see are the surrounding hills, the mangrove swamp, the drowned valley, the green glass beach.

*

As they went along the old railway line, sometimes they would talk; mostly they would walk with the tips of their fingers occasionally brushing. She thought she heard footsteps—not hers, not Kevin’s, but a third person’s, a millisecond or two out of beat with theirs. She looked around whenever she heard the footsteps, but they would stop just as her head turned. Eventually, she realized that the footsteps were actually her water-bottle bouncing off her backpack as she walked.

Suddenly, Kevin threw his head back and laughed to the sky. He said, “Remember that one time when we found a bottle at sea with a message in it? We were out at the beach, and it was the day before your grandmother’s funeral. It was drizzling and I had slipped on the rocks. Remember? We were so excited. We actually thought it was a hundred and fifty years old.” He laughed again. “So gullible.”

“Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it a hundred and fifty years old?”

“Min, you trust everyone and everything. The cork is not airtight. Humidity and salt would have long destroyed the paper. The glass bottle wouldn’t have survived a hundred and fifty years of being thrown up by the waves.”

She was disappointed. The dull ache in her heart grew.

“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you must have known. The green glass factory was flooded just fifty years past, and only the green marbles have survived to today, because they are smaller than the other pieces. And one day, those green marbles will be broken up too.”

*

They heard it all the time when they were growing up. Get married. After all, weren’t they childhood sweethearts, in a way? He kissed her on her cheek several times, and even a quick peck on the lips, once, when they were both fifteen and it had seemed like the thing to do at that time. Kevin had knelt down, clasped her hand to his ear, and mock-proposed to her. She felt deeply thrilled by his mock proposal, although she took care not to let it show. But, all this happened in the context of a small town where there was no one else but them. When they both went to university, in the big capital city, their shared experiences diverged.

People liked Kevin. At dinner, they came around in groups, clustering, grouping, wanting to sit next to him. They felt unlucky if they got a place at the other end of the table, away from him. When he proposed seeing a movie, everyone wanted to come along. Kevin never walked in the hallways alone. Third-year students would ask him questions like, “What do you think of today’s lecture?” followed by a question on what he was doing for lunch. Or, what about dinner? All of them, the ambitious engineers, the hierarchical computer programmers, the idealistic humanities students, the cool kids. Even professors liked speaking to him.

Kevin would ask her to join him at the parties he went to, only that she inevitably ended up sitting in a corner and sipping at her drink, slowly, so she would look like she was busy doing something. She observed Kevin a lot from her corner. He was oblivious that life could be different for other people; he was always happy, sometimes cruelly so. From time to time, Kevin would walk up to her and have a private conversation or shout her name from across the room. Everyone would turn to look at her. She was flustered, but there was nothing more flattering than being linked to Kevin. Once, as she was sitting on the couch, watching everyone else dance, Kevin approached her with another guy whom she knew from her classes.

“Min, meet Heng Lee. Min’s from Sembahnang too,” Kevin said, before he disappeared into the crowd again.

She panicked—the light was too strong, the voices were too loud—but then she told herself that Heng Lee was just another person.

“Have we met before?” Heng Lee asked her.

She wanted to say, yes, you borrowed one of my pens during Structural Design and never returned it. Instead what she said was, “I think you’re in one of my classes. Structural Design.”

“Seriously? I usually sleep through it. It’s too early in the morning.”

“Yes. So, where are you from?”

“Bangsar,” he answered. “Not too far from here, not like Sembahnang, I guess.”

“Yes, Sembahnang is about eight hours away.”

“They make those green marbles, right? That famous green glass factory.”

“The factory was closed a long time ago. It was destroyed in a flood.”

She couldn’t think of anything more to say. She sipped at her drink again and smoothed her skirt. She wished Kevin were here. When she looked up, Heng Lee was still sitting at the other end of the couch.

“Where are you from, anyway?”

“You already asked that question,” he smiled.

“Oh…ha…that’s right. Yes. What do you think of this party?”

“It’s a nice apartment. We are in Bukit Tunku, after all. Probably one of the most expensive places to live in capital. Like Kensington or Chelsea in London.”

Min shook her head. She wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“Have you seen the view?” he said.

“No,” she answered. The windows were far from where she stood, and besides, there were too many people standing by it.

“Come on, I’ll show it to you.” Heng Lee took her hand, and they walked to the full-length windows. The sixteenth-floor apartment overlooked the entire skyline, the city pulsing with light. She could see, beneath her, the capital city, the horizon and the sky of stars beyond.

“Kuala Lumpur,” he said, sweeping his free hand in an arc, as if unfurling the glittering streets and all of the city’s deepest quietest secrets.

“I need to go to the toilet now,” she said, and left.

In their final year, Kevin got himself a girlfriend, and her name was Michelle. When they held hands, it was the most natural thing in the world.

*

Everything in Old Sembahnang had revolved around the green glass factory. Before the flood, the green glass factory had produced some of the world’s finest glassware. They made everything from goblets to pitchers to vases to art glass to chalices, all in monochromatic gradations of green: pistachio, jade, lime, forest, olive, emerald, avocado, Lincoln, Nile, sea—and no other colour. They were especially famous for their green glass marbles. Each marble looked like little frosted balls of green, covered in scratches—except when you looked closely, the scratches were actually intricate patterns on the surface, carved by men like her Kong-Kong. Too expensive to be played with, these marbles were bought by collectors.

Old Sembahnang would not have existed without the green glass factory. Min’s Kong-Kong moved to Sembahnang for a job at the green glass factory, where he learned the skill of carving tiny patterns with a scratcher. Min’s father had expected to find a job in the green glass factory too. Schools, clinics, restaurants, hawkers, tailors clustered in the town and Old Sembahnang grew into a thriving community.

After the flood drowned Sembahnang, the green glass factory was moved to a large industrial park down south, where they now produce glassware of many different colours and no marbles. The glassware remnants from the factory were swept up with the flood, broken up by the waves and thrown up on the shore. The green marbles kept their sphericity, but their distinctive patterns were erased with time.

And that is how the green glass beach was formed.

*

They approached the green glass beach and stood, facing the surrounding hills, the drowned valley. The glass spheres moved around their feet. There was no one other than them, not even the occasional Saturday runner. The shuffling noises their feet made echoed throughout, so loud, unanswered.

She picked up a seemingly-perfect glass sphere from the ground and cradled it in her palm. “Are you ever going to come back and live in Sembahnang? Not now, obviously, but sometime in the future. Perhaps when you retire,” she asked.

“There’s nothing left here, with everyone moving away. No jobs, not for a civil engineer.”

“So, you’ll be staying in the city then, in Kuala Lumpur?”

“Yes, or another city. Oh, I wanted to ask you whether—”

She cut him off. “It’s beautiful here,” she said, agitated.

Min wanted to tell him that there was nowhere else she would rather be, that everything in the world is linked to here. When she saw green glass vases in anonymous street cafes, or on display at a receptionist’s desk, she was reminded of this place where waves lapped at her toes. Living anywhere else meant that she would live each day knowing that something important was missing in her life, something that whispered her name even when she walked along the busy Petaling Street with people pushing at her elbow, wanting to eat a bowl of laksa from the most popular street cart. Something that whispered her name even as the neon signs buzzed in her ear.

She wanted to tell him that the entire history of the world was contained here, in the miniature pictorial scratches on green glass marbles that men like her Kong-Kong had carved. But, she didn’t know how to say this to him, so she repeated herself, “It’s beautiful here.”

“It is beautiful,” he sighed, “but that’s all it is. There’s no future here—it’s some backwater place, Min.” Kevin waved a hand at the mangrove swamp, “And I mean it literally: backwater. The sea’s slowly reclaiming the land, the mangrove swamp is spreading. New Sembahnang is dying small town. We weren’t meant for anything more than the glass factory, and even that’s been gone for fifty years.”

“But this makes it worth living here, for now.”

“Ah, Min, the ever hopeful one,” he said, placing an arm around her shoulders. “Sembahnang is too small for you, and it will only get smaller. Don’t let changes act on you. No one can give you a destiny to follow. This is life and it is not a fairy tale; there is no deus ex machina, and there is no prince that can sweep you off your feet.”

“But isn’t that what love is? Isn’t love a type of deus ex machina? Love is an unexpected, transformative power that sweeps people off their feet and makes everything right. Love is a happy ending, a gift of grace bestowed on two lucky people, where just one kiss makes the world go ‘round. Isn’t Cupid a god and doesn’t he shoot his bow on two unsuspecting people? Isn’t it all so random who gets it, this gift?”

Kevin said, “No, that’s not it. Maybe, you could call that an infatuation. Because love is something you seek and build and create, an experience that you might be scared of, but push yourself into anyway, nervous, but excited, because you and the other person could build new worlds. Together as a whole instead of as imperfect halves, worlds that you could have never built on your own. It is transformative but the transformation comes from within, it is not imposed or forced upon the walls of your soul; rather, you break down your own walls because you want to break them down, even though you don’t quite know what is out there yet, and even if there is a chance that there is nothing out there after all.”

He took her hands in his. He said, “Get out of here before it’s too late, before you drown too.”

She was calmed by the touch of his hands.

They stood there a while longer, before he said, “Well, we should head back. I need to get back early to talk to my parents about the wedding and all that,” Kevin said, as he slipped his hands back into his pockets.

“You’re getting married!”

“Well, we were talking about it. It seems a little sudden, but we thought that it might be good if we got married, so that I could go to Holland with her. She’ll be there for two years after all.”

The green glass sphere that she was cradling seemed to melt in her hands.


Elizabeth Wong grew up in Malaysia, majored in English and Geology at Yale University, and now lives in London, UK. During the day, she works as a geologist, exploring stories of how the world used to be. She recently completed her first novel, We Are Stardust (longlisted in the Bath Novel Award 2018 and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2019). 

Two Dead, One Buried

by Preston Taylor Stone

The thunder had rolled the evening into night: syncopations the dog growled at, but the rain never came. So it wasn’t without reason that I paused, wondering whether the bangs on the door were real.

“Who’s there?” 

“Open the goddamn door.”

I unlatched and opened the door and my sister shoved her way into my studio apartment, tracking mud on the white tiles and the gray patterned rug beyond it. She did lose herself on occasion, her panics frequent after the local court dropped the charges on the man who hit her in the parking lot of the Publix with his car. She was, as the prosecutor argued, “an overly hysterical woman with a history of drug abuse and paranoia. Who could believe she would tell the truth now if she hadn’t told the truth enough to keep her children?”

The old dog met her with sniffs and a waggy tail. She ruffled his fur as she sat down on the couch, her muddy shoes still on.

“He’s over there,” she said. “Watching me like a fuckin’ sniper.”

“Who’s over where?” I said.

“I swear to god, do you read your email?”

“Yes,” I said, a lie.

“The man from the church, the one who gave out the candies—prolly fuckin’ laced. He’s moved into the trailer across the way from me and his blinds never close. He don’t even make a show of being a stalker.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little—”

“Fuck you. I’m not paranoid and I took a picture to prove it.”

She took out her phone, different from the one I had seen her with just a week before; though, I should say: she hadn’t keep phones for very long, not because she was paranoid about the number getting taken, but because she dropped them. Out windows, in toilets, on sidewalks, in the garbage disposal, in food or beers. She dropped them a lot.

The photo she brought up is of an older man walking into the trailer across the way from her own and what appeared to be a small bedroom window without blinds.

“I don’t see how—” I started, but she shushed me and flipped to the next photo.

The second and third photos she flipped to were more concerning: one of the man with a rifle while he sat in an older lawn chair the likes of which had probably not been sold since the late 90s, and one of what appeared to be the man watching the camera from the window. I didn’t think it was cause for as much alarm as she did at the time.

“Maybe,” I said, “he’s watching you because he can see you’re watching him. The gun’s a gun. People have guns, especially down here. They show ’em off.”

“But showing it off after you know I’m watching?”

“Why don’t you speak with him about it if you’re worried for the kids’ safety?”

“I just got them back from the state,” she said. I could tell she had thought through the scenario. “You think I wanna go argue with some armed fucker from the church who all but kicked me out so he can go on and tell everybody I’m what they always thought I was?”

Then, dog sat at her feet and licked some of the mud from the tip of her socks closest her knee. Another percussive episode of thunder made him growl so she shewed him from her feet. She had always been afraid of big dogs, even as when she was her daughter’s age. I thought more about the man, remembering as my sister had pointed out that he’d given out candy when we were small kids, stopping only because he had contracted diabetes and gave up sweets altogether, according to Nana. The pockets of his pleated khakis seemed so deep when we were that age. In the photos, though, the man seemed unbecomingly small. His petiteness was swallowed by the khakis, yes, but their length was too short for his leg and his tall white tube socks more than peaked out from the bottom of both shins. He was frail looking, too, like he’d had to take pains in order to lift the rifle.

“I don’t think you ought to worry,” I said. “That will just trigger some of your worse behaviors. And besides, he’s got a limp now, doesn’t he? Lost his leg from the knee down to diabetes, Nana said.”

My sister wasn’t satisfied by this answer. Almost offended, it seemed, at me dismissing her fears. She was paranoid, at times, the only remaining effect of her addiction. But she had come to my apartment for support and she trusted my loyalty to her wouldn’t be in question as it had been by almost everyone else in our family after she lost custody of the kids.

“Let’s go,” I said.

When we drove up to the trailer of the old man, I could feel her tense up. The man wasn’t in the yard, but the old chair was. It must have rained on that part of town because the sand and the little grass that the man had in his yard was wet. The sand snared when we stepped out of the truck and the tall weeds made a slap against my boots, leaving wettened imprints along the sides.

“I ought to go check on the kids across the way,” my sister said. “You know E. can’t be alone with her brother for more than a hour without wanting to strangle him.”

She’d already started walking to her place.

“No,” I said, and waved her over to where I was standing in front of the truck, which pointed at the man’s front door. “We’ll settle this together. You’re the one who’s scared, anyway, so you can confront him.”

She waited, thinking about it, probably offended I used scared, but I’d chosen the word specially. She was paranoid, and she knew it, but the one way I knew I’d get her was if I called her scared. She’d have jump off an ATV if someone told her she was too scared to do it. She turned around and walked to where I was. I tapped my knuckles on the vinyl door of the man’s trailer. No answer.

“Hello?” I said. “Sir? Excuse me.”

Still no answer. I looked around to see if his car was anywhere. I hadn’t noticed it driving up.

“Maybe he isn’t here,” I said to my sister. “Where’s his car anyway?”

“Don’t got a car,” she said. “Nana said he ain’t been able to drive for last couple years and ain’t got no family left to take him anywhere. And besides that, he’s always here. Never goddamn leaves.”

We hadn’t noticed the kids come from my sister’s place until they’d gotten to my truck.

“Uncle!” E. said. The little one tried but he could only muster out “Untull.”

“Get the hell back in the house,” my sister said to them both. She was scared. “I told you don’t come ‘round this man’s property. He’s got a gun, dammit.”

E. hugged me tight, ignoring her mother. Weird how they grow. She was almost taller than I was even though she was just ten years old. She screamed when she let go of me.

“He does got a gun, don’t he?” the old man said. He’d walked from around the side, and his arms held the shotgun, pointed at us. He cocked it.

“Woah,” I said, stepping in front of my sister while the kids hid behind her. “C’mon now, why you got that pointed at us for?” I said, making my accent thicker to appeal to him.

“You know it’s illegal for somebody walk on a man’s property without permission in the state of Florida?” he said. “And if I feel threatened I could damn well shoot somebody who’s on my land.”

“Sir,” I said, begging. “Please, you don’t wanna do this.”

I walked slowly toward him, something I knew of either intuitively or because of the films I’d seen. I had no plan of how I’d get him to put the gun down. With it cocked, I couldn’t very well grab it, since a slight nod of his finger on the trigger would see my hand or worse blown off. Shotguns are the flamethrowers of guns, the unskilled shooter’s choice: they dole out imprecise and unforgiving destruction. That close to us, he could have shot an arm off or blown my head to kingdom come.

“I think, actually, I do wanna do this,” he said. “Bitch’s been watchin’ me for all hours of the day and night. Wouldn’t take the warning when I got my gun out. Now strangers’ on my land asking for clemency.”

“You don’t remember us?” I said. “St. Peter’s UMC. Mary Louise Helms is our grandmother.”

For the first time, he let the gun down a bit, opening the eye he’d closed to make as good a shot as he could.

“You Patrick’s kids,” he said. “Or the other one’s?”

Uncle Pat had been a reputable member of the church for going on thirty years. He led bible studies, communions, youth camping trips, missionaries, and Sunday school classes. My mother, though, had always worked full time at the hospital. The last thing she wanted was an endless sermon at the quietest church in town on her one day off. No one in the family blamed her; she got us there every Sunday and Wednesday as kids. But the church members made side comments to all of us about her. “She can bring them but not stay,” they’d said. Or “We sure do miss her. Hope she can make it,” with just the right amount of judgement in the tone of voice that you knew that it was a commendation, not an invitation. In the split moment he’d asked which of Nana’s children we belonged to, I figured he’d surely wanted me to say Uncle Pat.

“You hear me, boy?” he said.

He put his face back against the shotgun, closed the one eye, and aimed again for me. My sister hit me on the shoulder and whispered something I couldn’t make out. She was telling me to lie, I was sure.

“Patrick,” I said. “It’s Patrick.”

E. stepped from behind her mother. “Great Uncle Patrick?” she said.

“Liars!” the old man said and he took the shot at E.

My sister screamed and covered her body with hers. I lunged at the old man and he cocked the gun again, but I pushed the barrel up before he could fire. The bullet broke through the makeshift patio cover that jutted from the camper’s side, protecting the chair from rain. The force of my pushing, with the firing of the gun, pushed the man down. I took the shotgun from his hands and knocked him out with the stock.

“Call 9-1-1,” I said to my sister. She was screaming, still on of E.’s body. The little one was crying now, too, but likely because he saw his mother doing it. He was too young to know death. I said it again: “Call 9-1-1!” She took out her phone and dialed. When they answered, she struggled to tell them what had happened. I could tell the operator was unable to understand her because she had to repeat herself several times.

“Give me the phone,” I said and took it. “Hello, yes. There’s been a child shot at Maury’s Mobile Manor, Jacksonville, FL. Yes. Thank you.”

I took off my button-down shirt and pushed my way to E.’s body. She was bleeding from where her chest met her neck. “Move,” I said and shoved my sister. “We gotta control the bleeding. That’s what they said.” My sister grabbed the little one and held him close while they both cried. Their screams were stomach-turning, and I don’t know to this day how no one heard enough to come see what had happened. Not a soul living in the mobile park made their way over to where we were.

The old man groaned and when my sister noticed, she grabbed my shoulder and screamed louder.

“Hold this,” I said to her, putting her hand on top of my bloodied shirt. “Press down!”

I grabbed the shotgun from the ground and beat the man where his hand was rubbing his head. I cursed him to hell and beat the shit out of him. His old body cracked like hot oil under my boots and his skull popped and flattened as I beat his face with the butt of the gun. When I was tired and the anger expensed, I realized what I’d done. My sister had stopped crying and started comforting E. with words like “Come on, baby, stay with me. Stay with momma.”

“C.” I said, calling her. She ignored me, stroking her daughter’s face and continuing the mantras of comfort. “C.!”

She turned to me finally. “Tell them the man ran off with the gun.”

“What?” she said through tears. “Why?”

“Just do it!” I said.

She looked frightened by my yelling at her but she nodded.

I took the old man’s body and chucked it into the bed of the truck. When I went back for the gun, I realized the man’s blood had painted the grass under it. I panicked. Looked around. I threw the gun into the bed of the truck and ran over to E. and my sister. 

“C. we gotta move her over there,” I said. “They need to think that’s her blood.”

E.’s body had fallen on wet sand and barely stained it despite all the blood she’d lost. We picked up my niece carefully, C. keeping the pressure on the wound. The flash of the police and ambulance lights was in view now. We were roughly midway into the mobile park but I hoped there’d be an exit at the back. We sat E. down where I had bashed the man’s skull in. I ran to where she had fallen and kicked around the wet dirt so it was of no focus for the police. I hopped into the truck, cranked it, and rolled down the window.

“Don’t forget,” I said. “He ran away with the gun.”

C. nodded. I backed the truck quickly—I could hear the body and the gun toss around the bed of the truck when I changed gears and sped off toward the back of the mobile park. By this point, I could see people coming out their homes. They had begun walking toward the sirens alongside the dirt road. I slowed to appear unsuspicious, but they still watched me closely as I passed them.

At the back of the mobile park, there was no exit. The dirt road ended at a final mobile home that was grown over with vines. The vinyl was so colored by a rusty orange mold that it had to have been years since it was abandoned. The trailer had become a part of the forest around it, the yard busheled by tall weeds and dense, wet grass. When I got out the truck, I looked around to confirm the property’s abandonment, peered around the truck and up the road to see if any of the neighbors wandered their way behind me. No one.

I opened the truck bed and pulled the body from the back. It fell to the ground like several cinder blocks, making a thumping sound. I dragged the body to the front door of the abandoned trailer. I said a silent prayer and tried the door. It was unlocked. I pushed the door in, moved the vines from out the doorway, and yanked the body into the living room of the home. The automatic headlights of my truck flipped off and the whole place was swallowed by darkness. I shut the door and got my phone out for the flashlight. I used it to look around the house, which while it was dirty did not smell of anything but dust and still air.

I checked the closets for shovels since I hadn’t seen a shed in the yard. Nothing. The closest I found was a large ladle in the kitchen drawer. I saw a long bread knife with serrations in the drawer and abandoned the burial idea. I looked in the living room for a fireplace and found one below a dusty wooden mantle. I opened the smoke shaft, and used my cigarette lighter to start a fire with my undershirt and what remaining wood there was alongside the fireplace.

When I took the knife toward the old man’s body, the barbarism I had committed and would continue finally occurred to me. It began to rain outside, hard. Thunder shook the trailer and I winced when the man’s skin and muscle squeeched from the knife. As the rain got stronger, though, crackling on the top of the trailer, I wasn’t able to hear any more sounds from the body under the knife. However, I quickly realized that the knife wasn’t nearly sharp enough for the man’s bones, even with their frailty. Besides that, it would have taken too long to chop the man’s body up and burn each piece in the small fireplace.

So, I decided after a moment that I would fold the man’s body into a ball. I tucked his body into a pillowcase from the bedroom and waited for the fire to get hot enough to burn a full body. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy, I told myself. Reiterating this phrase stopped my own paranoia. I’d killed someone. I wasn’t trained to kill a man. I’d never joined the military like my father or uncle Pat. I wasn’t a surgeon or a nurse. I had never seen the amount of blood that had collected under the man’s head when I had squashed it with the gun. I had never gone to the dressing place with my father after we’d hunted and killed a deer because I didn’t want to see them slice into the animal’s flesh and rip the muscles away from the bones the way my friends had told me they did. Yes, he’d shot my niece and self-defense is an argument that can hold up for some things, but not when you beat a man so much you collapse his skull. The man was crazy. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy. He shot my niece.

I went searching for lighter fluid or something flammable to help the body burn. The fireplace would never get hot enough to burn the body. I found something better: lye. I wasn’t a soldier, a doctor, a nurse, or an undertaker, but I had paid attention in high school chemistry. Lye and water can melt flesh, disintegrate it into a bubbly body stew, and empty every nutrient from every bone so they are brittle enough to powderize under small amounts of pressure. Heat expedites the process.

I got the largest pot I could find in the kitchen of the abandoned trailer and filled it with water from the case of water bottles I kept in the backseat of my truck. When I got back inside the trailer, I put the pot on the fire, and dragged the pillowcase with the man’s folded-up body inside it to the bathroom. I emptied out his body into the tub and wrapped the bloodied pillowcase around my head to cover my nose and mouth, so I didn’t inhale the fumes. I scattered the entire bin of powder lye over the body. When the water was warm enough, I poured it over the body. It wasn’t enough water so I did this several times: filled up the pot with water, warmed the pot, and poured it over the lyed body in the tub. Eventually, the fumes and smell of the bubbling flesh were so much I had to close my eyes and avoid breathing when I entered the bathroom.

When the water from my case ran out, I put out the fire and got in my truck to call my sister and meet her at the hospital. I didn’t have service, so I drove up the road until I could find a place where I had bars. I finally got to my sister’s place and my phone connected to the WiFi. My phone dinged with two voicemails and ten missed calls from my sister and my mother. I parked the car at my sister’s trailer and called her. No answer. I called my mom.

“Hey, baby,” she said. Her voice was calmer than I expected it to be, given the circumstances. Hearing her made my voice crack, my emotions finally hitting me.

“Which hospital y’all at?” I said, sniffling through tears.

“Memorial.” She spoke to someone else, thanking them. “Baby, you should get here soon.”

I put the truck in gear and drove toward the entrance of the mobile park.

“How is she? Is she okay?”

“E. didn’t make it, honey.”

The lump in my throat grew as hard as rock, my mouth dried, and my vision blurred, submerging in tears.

“I gotta go, baby,” my mom said. “They’re calling us in. Come quick.”

She hung up.

*

The next day, I bought the abandoned trailer and moved into it. I cleaned up the yard and cleared off the vines and painted the vinyl bright white. The old man’s liquid remains filled up the tub, too thick to go down the drain. So, I bought five-gallon gasoline jugs, filled them with water, and diluted the liquid remains of the tub every few hours until only the bones were left. When the electricity was reconnected to the trailer, I boiled the bones in lye and water until they were brittle enough to be crushed. I flushed the crushings down the toilet.

The funeral was at the church and they buried E. next to my grandfather. It was sunny and so humid that everyone sweat through their clothes and the women fanned their faces with the programs. My sister cried, of course, sitting in a chair facing the preacher and the casket. My mother held my nephew in her lap and rubbed my sister’s back while they both cried, as well. My father sat next to my mother listening to the preacher, a stoic and hardened look I couldn’t tell from one of boredom behind his dark sunglasses. His face didn’t appear to bear any tears. 

While the preacher gave a final prayer and everyone bowed their heads, I stared at the casket. I thought about how I didn’t regret killing the old man. I would never speak of it with my sister and to this day she has never mentioned it to me. My nephew, God willing, won’t remember. I thought about E. and my nephew going to church with my mother and father while they had custody of the children, when my sister was in rehab last time. E. loved to sing hymns and was fascinated by the sound of the organ. When she’d asked me once if I believed in God, I lied and told her no. I wished I hadn’t lied.


Preston Taylor Stone is an English PhD student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, where his research centers on diaspora studies, contemporary literature, and formalism. He is the Chief Editor of KAIROS Literary Magazine.

Notes from the Latigo Pasture: a Summer on the Colorado Steppe

by Bruce Hoppe

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Don’t call me by that name. A tawdry developer’s hawking. West Coast investor speak. A peddler’s cinematic hustle to conjure up images to families of the chance to have their very own cul-de-sac piece of the Wild West out there on the Colorado plain. You will get me soon enough this I know. My great grassy expanse will bear the scrape and scour of hulking yellow diesel motors until I am carved into a modest domestic grid—a mélange of civilized defeat. But I am not done yet so don’t call me by that name.”

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Call me by any of the names that I am. Call me by the name that tells of the crackling ricochet of static electricity as foxfire streaks along the top strand of barbed wire in the luminescent green shadow light prelude to the monsoon wizard’s tempest. Or call me by the name of the evening song of the male lark bunting as the summer solstice nears, the musical score of his refrain perfectly synchronized to a precise patterned arc of his flight. I am these things and more so call me by the names that I am.”

This is how it was back then. The prairie primordial. You could stand at its epicenter surrounded by an ocean of grass and lift your gaze to the far horizon there the gray-purple colossus called Pike’s Peak kept its fourteen thousand foot above sea-level sentinel watch over the plain. You could ride a horse past a badger boldly sunning himself on the dirt mound earthworks at the portal of his den. You could pause within a few feet of a nesting infant antelope blended into the tawny tufts of dried prairie plants and she would not run. Too weak yet for flight and in the absence of her mother’s defense her only chance instinct and hope.

The Ute and Arapaho knew these things even as they preoccupied themselves with their running territorial conflicts. The gold rushers hurried past these things in pursuit of the material, precursors to modern times. The famous rodeo cowboy Hugh Bennett ranched this country and the older locals still called it by his name. But before it was done, before it passed into memory there was one more traveler who came to know this land the way it was, its dreams, lies and whispers—its story. Only there for a very short time. He made do. In the native beauty of his surroundings his life and his notion of place became inseparable. When he left he took nothing with him but the thought of how near he had been to the impossible. For in truth there was nothing to take, save the memory as if a forge in which he would be relentlessly tempered for the road and the things to come.


Bruce Hoppe has received multiple New Mexico Press Association awards for journalism. His feature and investigative journalism articles have appeared in publications including the Union County Leader and the Boulder Weekly. He is the author of two novels: Don’t Let All the Pretty Days Get by and The Thomas Ladies Club. He has taught writing classes at Colorado State University, New Mexico Highlands University, and Luna Community College. When not at his writing desk, he can usually be found horseback prowling Colorado pastures.

Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Issue 7 of Sinking City—today, in the first days of December, the humidity has finally lifted its stronghold from the air in Miami. As cool rain breaks from the bleak sky in sideways sheets & floods the potholes on my street, I am reminded of our hurricane season past & all of those living real-time in sinking cities across the globe.

This year, Miami was lucky to escape the hurricane roulette unscathed, but has continued to hold space for climate refugees from the Bahamas, the Windward Islands, and more. For those of us in South Florida and other regions impacted by Rising Waters, these experiences serve as a bleak reminder of the real-time gamble of our environment: of how climate change has, and will continue, to put our lives and homes at risk indiscriminately.

But, even as water swarms in the sky above me, I know that, as Antiquity suggests, the slow burn of our collective existence is what tethers us to one another. Sometimes, we may forget that the concept of the communal is our best tool in combating what seems inevitable.

As Soleil Davíd writes, it’s “an astronomical thing, our yard of silence.” Together, we strive against the deadened, apathetic spirit which seeps into the ground like Formaldehyde. Together, we live dangerously, create dangerously, and can exist purposefully—we are The Invasives who are undoubtedly Faced With Extinction. We are the imaginary lakes and the houses near them, throbbing toward stillness.

In Sinking City’s seventh issue, 17 writers, poets, and artists tackle what it means to be a part of this race. They question the notion that We’re Fine—that there’s nothing left worth questioning. As I write this letter, the clouds above me are fracturing to make the sun’s light vulnerable to all of us flitting below, and I am grateful to all of our contributors for being a force in that fracture.

On behalf of the MFA program at the University of Miami, I write to welcome you into this space: the one between endlessness and ourselves. I hope that the pieces included in this issue can guide you—to splinter, to rupture, to shatter—something in the landscape of us.

Sincerely,

Maeve Holler
Managing Editor

Sabrina & Corina: A Review of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Fiction Debut

by Soek Fambul

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short story collection Sabrina & Corina will haunt you. Firmly rooted in memories of home, Sabrina & Corina centers the lives of indigenous Latina women and girls residing in the ever-changing city of Denver.  The soul of Denver, in all its gentrifying permutations, is personified throughout the collection, thematically linking the majority of the eleven stories. In Sabrina & Corina, readers feel a resistance against the erasure of the Denver many of Fajardo-Anstine’s characters call home—a city deeply tied to the collection’s momentum. 

Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Random House, 2019. 219 pp. $26.00

In the story “Galapago,” the narrator reminds us that the neighborhood character Pearla has resided in for over sixty years has been renamed the Northside by “newcomers…[as] they’d changed the neighborhood names to fit their needs, to sound less dangerous, maybe less territorial” (109). Here is the ghosting presence that unifies Sabrina & Corina, a collection that refuses to forfeit its rightful claim to home and protecting one’s own story. 

Can home be an unwelcoming place? No easy answers can be found in Fajardo-Anstine’s work, yet as each short story progresses, these delicate and complicated truths appear in unstable relationships, lost loved ones, and self-denial. Narrowing in on discomfort, the characters of Sabrina & Corrina must reflect deeply on their behaviors and the lives of those nearest to them. In a few short pages, we come away with understanding for Fajardo-Anstine’s characters and their actions, though we may not always agree with them. And, it is through this complicated feeling that we recognize the narrative power of their agency. This power suggests itself in the collection’s title: Sabrina & Corina

Fajardo-Anstine’s world primarily concerns itself with the nuances of female relationships and seeks not to appease the reader with comfortable fictions. Fajardo-Anstine leans into life’s contradictions, heartbreaks, and the hard realities in her character’s lives. Though at times, her stories’ naturalistic tendencies give way to fatalism.

After surviving a violent attack, one character plainly asserts, “I’m not ashamed…No one sees me anyway…People pretend they don’t see a girl with a bruised face” (125). In Sabrina & Corina, we become the people forced to see. Sabrina & Corina strips away the delicate barrier between public and private, placing you into the lives of characters that will unsettle you. And, perhaps, that is the truth in Fajardo-Anstine’s short fiction:  that what is most necessary is often what is most difficult. And that these truths, these stories, will follow you long after you finish reading them. Is that not the goal of fiction? Sabrina & Corina gives language to love’s absences—those who have left and will return to you—those who will never come back. These eleven stories flourish in those vulnerable spaces between loss and return. Fajardo-Anstine’s stories keep those haunting memories alive.

But What if the River is Made of Glass? A Review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror

by Zach Nickels

The landscape of contemporary serialized nonfiction collections is, to put it mildly, in a strange state of affairs. On the one hand, the proliferation of nonfiction—especially online, where digital media companies have exploded in influence—has turned the consumption of the essay into a fairly mundane experience. On the other hand, this expansion has not come without cost: serious, considerate writing has come under the thumb of capitalistic interests (as it so often does), with staff writers facing internal pressure for immediate gratification via click-throughs and mass feedback, with the process repeating itself ad infinitum.

This is the reality facing the modern essayist. And this is the environment that Jia Tolentino dives into, headfirst, with her discerning debut collection, Trick Mirror.

Averaging roughly 30 pages per piece, the essays contained in Trick Mirror each follow a familiar, successive structure: Tolentino begins by excavating a point of entry for the reader (e.g., the origins surrounding her own reality TV experience or a detailed exposition of female literary archetypes) and deepens her inquiry through an interweaving of facts, statistics and related personal experiences. This approach has the effect of fleshing out the initial inspection, broadening it to allow for a multitude of perspectives. Like an author of a fiction collection, Tolentino does her own world-making.

At their best—as in, the aforementioned “Reality TV Me”—Tolentino’s essays are precisely crafted; they give the reader the simplest, albeit most vital version of what an essay has to offer: the time to sit with an argument and just think. At their least realized—such as “Ecstasy” wherein Tolentino discusses Houston megachurches, hip hop and recreational drug use—the sections don’t quite stitch together properly. That piece, in particular, is the first time in Trick Mirror where woven threads begin to show.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. Random House, 2019. 303 pp. $27.00

Those threads are worth examining more closely, starting with the title: the O.E.D. does not contain an entry for the term ‘trick mirror’; nor does Merriam-Webster or Cambridge, or even an index as lexically-hip as the Urban Dictionary (a search of which provides only a shrugging emoticon—a result, no doubt, which brings Tolentino endless joy). If the reader is not careful, s/he may assume the title refers to a physically distortive mirror, like in a carnival funhouse. But this associative term is different than what Tolentino is aiming for. “Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives,” [inside jacket]. Rivers are a sort of mirror. So, too, is self-delusion a trick. And look: the collection’s subtitle is ‘reflections on self-delusion’. But the careful reader might still suspect a linguistic sleight of hand.

Much of Tolentino’s professional life has been crafted around essays; her debut demonstrates a deep care for them—what they are and what they can be. Etymologically, the ‘essay’ is rooted in the Baconian conception of an attempt or an experiment. Original usage posited it as an unfinished attempt, something to be inevitably fixed. Modern usage embraces the idea of a reflection, the writer is assaying (note the turn of phrase) some portion of the world via subject and providing commentary. It is not unfair to say that this accurately describes the ‘mirror’ portion of Trick Mirror: the river running through this collection carries all of us with it.

Whether it be the social evolution of the internet; cultures of sexual assault on college campuses; societal conceptions of the ‘ideal woman,’ societal conceptions of the ‘difficult woman,’ the decision to marry, et cetera, Tolentino exhibits a sharp understanding of our current cultural era and the events that led us here. The collection itself is rarely prescriptive—mirrors do not provide suggestions, nor do they hint—and, in fact, Tolentino occasionally appears unsure of whether she has gone too far in her analysis: “I benefit from it… I am complicit no matter what I do,” “maybe I’m extending sexism’s half-life now, too” and so on. The resulting image is that of an author who is not wholly convinced of where she—the essayist—starts and where the product eventually ends.

And so, the real question here involves the trick: what exactly is it, and what does the answer say about us? At first, it seems as though the subtitle’s invocation to self-delusion is aimed at Tolentino’s subjects: idealistic internet users, barre aficionados, corporate grifters, her sixteen-year-old self and more. But this verdict fails to account for the full breadth of the tricks being played. When you look closer at Tolentino’s work, you discover that she is simultaneously asserting the reader’s self-delusions while extending the space to reflect upon them. It seems evident that she is asking us to accept these delusions as our own; after all, she is, admittedly, as complicit as any one of us. Thus, we find the phrase ‘trick mirror’ to be linguistically reversed. The trick is not altering our reflection in the mirror: it is the mirror that is clearly reflecting the tricks we play on ourselves.

Delusions are not always a terrible thing, however. Sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes they lead us to greater achievements and realizations—our misplaced beliefs pulling us through otherwise uncharted waters. One might say the same about Trick Mirror. Not every essay in this collection is a beautiful experience. But the reader may find that Tolentino’s work can help them get to the other side.

Four pieces by Terry Wright

“Robot Drone Crashes” by Terry Wright, 2019.
“Robot Drone Reboots” by Terry Wright, 2019.
“Emboldened Horsefly” by Terry Wright, 2019.
“Joan of Arc in the Night King’s Army” by Terry Wright, 2019.

Terry Wright is an artist and writer whose art has been featured widely in print and digital venues, including Angry Old Man, Chaleur, Full Bleed, Glassworks, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Third Wednesday, and USA Today. Terry’s work was also exhibited at the 57th Annual Delta Exhibition.

The Lines and Their Consequences

by Annie Vitalsey

It was Yves who threw the party when we learned the earth was blue. When Gagarin came down from his orbit and swore it was so, we took him at his word. It was Paris, it was 1961, and before this most of us had thought our planet to be green.  

Not Yves. 

When he was a boy, he would lie on the sand and divide the earth amongst his friends. Claude would have the land, Armand the animals, but Yves only ever wanted sky. A blue so perfect, he had to possess it. Blue, pure energy. Blue, absolute serenity. Blue, the only color that could hold emptiness. He railed at the birds for pocking his view. 

When I knocked on the door of Yves’ blue apartment, it was Rotraut who answered in blue pants and a blue blouse, brown pigtails hanging heavy on her shoulders. 

“You thought it was green too?” she asked me. 

“Everyone did,” I said. “Don’t tell Yves.” 

Inside the walls and carpets were blue, the couches and chairs. Yves had blued the spines of all their books, and painted over plates and glasses, knives and forks all the same shade, dark like evening—over-saturated—like if squeezed, the hue would flood out smelling salty and fresh and almost frightening. In the corner, he had painted a heavy globe this same blue, seas and continents merged together in one shade. He had thrown Rotraut’s bluest scarves over every light and lamp so they cast the color over the faces of the partygoers. They would have looked dead, had they not been smiling so. 

“Drink?” asked Rotraut, and she offered me a cocktail in the familiar shade, and I took it. She smiled at me then, and too her teeth were the same blue, too dark for just a trick of the light. “Family recipe,” she said. 

I had known Rotraut first, before she met Yves and moved in with him. Before, when we shared a tiny apartment in Montmartre and modeled for art classes. I liked the work. I liked sitting still. I liked watching the groups survey me, seeing how they fixed my lines by eye. But all this bored Rotraut. Her back grew stiff and her eyes wandered and more than once her head rocked back from dozing. She would go home and sketch angry shapes across paper—fast colors at bold angles. 

“This is misery,” she said. She wanted to paint in her own right. But like me, she was only twenty-two, and apart from her tits and the slope of her spine, no one was paying attention. 

Then, of course, she met Yves and he let her mix the blue. 

It was a new kind of blue, she told me, formulated with the help of chemists, with the help of the same man who did Picasso’s blues. The trick was in the binder—it dried perfectly clear and would not taint the luster. She swore me to secrecy. A blue, like the heart of a flame, she described it. A blue that looked like love felt. 

Rotraut slathered herself in the blue and slid over canvases for Yves. She pressed her blue body to walls and floors of white. A new, dynamic model of painting, she explained. The body, liberated from the paintbrush. A satisfying collaboration, she called it. 

“Sure, sure,” I said. Her own paintings were being shown for the first time in London. I had to take on extra work to pay for groceries. 

Yves spent the whole party at his writing desk, composing another letter to Eisenhower. Yves wanted to use his blue to color the atom bombs. He said it would bring true peace, a blue revolution. Rotraut stood at his elbow, offering now and then a word. Yves wanted to marry her, she had told me. She also told me Eisenhower had yet to answer his letters, and he was still waiting on replies from Castro, too. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. He wanted to pave the roads with it. He wanted to color houses and churches, tint bread and salad, he had plans for the animals, for the rain. He wanted to feed it to sea plankton. He had just done his Blue Venus, and L’Esclave de Michel-Ange in blue. 

“Did you know,” a young man sitting next to me at the party said, “that Michelangelo couldn’t afford the color blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

The young man had a mustache bleached out and colored blue with what looked like chalk dust. It was making him sneeze. 

“Oh yes!” he said, scooting in. 

I took a sip of the drink Rotraut had poured me. It tasted briny. It stung my molars going down. 

“Did you know there’s no blue in cave paintings?” he went on. “Did you know the ancient westerns had no word for blue?” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“Did you know the Egyptian god Amun could make his skin turn blue and fly invisibly across the sky?” 

I sat and listened to him, thinking of my mother back in Nice, and how she liked to let good looking men explain things to her. She told me it was good for their hearts. 

“Did you know,” he went on, “that blue eyes aren’t really blue? It’s a trick of the light. Same thing that makes the sky blue.” 

I drank more, feeling the liquid pull and burn in my chest. 

“My name is Shrike,” he said. 

“Caro,” I said. 

When he tried to kiss me, I did not pull away. I tasted the blue chalk in his mustache—milky and hygienic. 

Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. But according to Gagarin, according to the news and the experts, it already was. 

Rotraut had been working with Yves for months before she invited me to his studio—a white room a short walk from the Panthéon, with a brass chandelier hanging low on one side. She wanted me to try the new modeling, too. She wanted me to see how fun it was. 

Yves was in the studio when I arrived, but he did not look up from his work until Rotraut asked him to.

“This is Caro,” she said. 

Yves nodded. 

He worked while Rotraut painted me up with a sponge, pressing the blue over me, tenderly, neck to knees, as if she was giving me a bath. The paint was oily and cold, and clung like needles. 

“Now move,” she said, and gestured to the canvas, held taut to the wall with nails, ready. 

First, I pressed my whole front to the white, then my back, then my front. Rotraut added more paint and I went again, slapping my fingers to the wall, sloping my knees. The whole thing took ten minutes. 

“Good,” said Yves, but he still did not look at me. 

Rotraut sat on his lap when I went to wash, down in the little bathroom in the hall. The whole thing reeked of Yves. Vanilla and beeswax, turpentine and unwashed hair. His beard shavings clung to the sink. The husks of his fingernails and loose, knotty pubic hairs peppered the floor. In the mirror, I saw the blue had crept up my neck and gotten into the ends of my hair. 

I stood in the ancient bathtub and opened the window to temper the air. The cold from outside prickled my skin. I found an old, dry sponge to work into a lather, and the soap suds blued as I scrubbed, running down my hands and my legs, dyeing the rest of me blue, but lighter. I washed and rinsed and lathered again, and the soles of my feet went blue in the cool standing water. 

Blue is a color that swallows, I thought. A consuming color. It runs and it devours everything else. It is everywhere. It is inescapable. 

I lathered and I rinsed, lathered and rinsed, again and again and again. 

Afterwards, Rotraut bought me a glass of wine. We sat at a table on the street, and she told me she was in love with him. 

“It’s a spiritual love,” she told me. “It’s immaterial.” 

“Oh?” I said. 

“It’s all there, in the blue. Didn’t you love it too?” 

My skin still tingled from the paint, it burned. I thought it was cold and uncomfortable, artless and cheap. The pigment still rimmed my fingernails and clung behind my ears. It was going to give me a rash. 

“I don’t get it,” I told her. “I don’t like it.”  

Rotraut took a sip of her wine. She twirled a pigtail. 

“He says he thinks he’s going to die soon,” she said. “He feels the void. He feels it everywhere. In the blue, too. But he isn’t afraid.” 

“He’s going to ruin your life,” I said. 

Rotraut looked hurt, surprised at this. “I don’t believe in death,” she said. 

“He doesn’t really love you,” I said. 

“Before modern science,” Rotraut said, “they made blue by soaking plant leaves in human urine. Usually urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol. Look how far we’ve come!” 

She had stopped listening to me. Within the next week, she moved out of our apartment and into the blue with Yves. 

At the party, Yves had my blue portrait propped against a wall, the imprints of my thighs, my breasts, my belly and hands ready to be shown off. I thought of how much of myself was left behind on that canvas—how many germs and skin cells, how much of my DNA would go on to be displayed in galleries, museums, gazed upon by thousands, auctioned at great price. 

“That’s me,” I gestured to Shrike. 

“Oh?” he said. 

“I did that one.” 

“Oh?” 

I wanted him to revere me. 

“I like it,” he said. “That one and that one.” He pointed to the one next to it—one of Rotraut’s first. Yves had painted her up and dragged her across the canvas, leaving two long, arced smears with breasts. 

“Another drink,” I said. 

At his writing desk, Yves balled up the letter he was writing. Rotraut rubbed him on the back. 

Within a year, Rotraut would go on to marry Yves. She would wear a white dress and a blue tiara, and Yves would wear the insignia of the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. By then, Yves would be jumping off buildings and onto trampolines for the photographs, to look as if he were flying, defying gravity just the slightest bit. 

Eisenhower still had not written him back. 

Yves would be painting in fire by then too, sneaking into the Centre d’Essai de Gaz de France, dousing models in water and rolling them over canvases, then torching their outlines with a heavy flare. Men at the center lost their jobs for those paintings. 

Within six more months, Yves, 34, would die of a heart attack, leaving Rotraut six months pregnant. Even at the end, he told her he wasn’t scared. Neither was she.

That night of the party, I took Shrike home with me. We left early, because the blue was strangling, suffocating and I was drunk. In the lantern light on the sidewalks, the chalk on Shrike’s mustache looked lighter, more pastel. 

We sat at my table and dipped our fingers in sugar while he told me more about the color blue—reflex blue, Prussian blue, ultramarine, azure, cornflower, steel. The sugar helped get the taste of those drinks out of our mouths. We ate it by the spoonful. 

“What was it like?” he asked. “What was is like for him to paint you?” 

“Boring,” I said. 

In my bed, he found the spot between my legs and dallied there until the blue had long rubbed off his mustache. With every loll of his tongue I pictured tangerine and safflower, fuchsia and merlot. 

But later, when I got up for the toilet, I filled the bowl with that familiar color, and in the mirror I saw the whites of my eyes had also gone blue. 

I phoned Rotraut. “What the hell?” I said. 

She laughed. “Methylene,” she said. “A great joke! The revolution is starting.” 


Annie Vitalsey has an MFA from Arizona State University and her stories have appeared in Reed Magazine, Juked, Bennington Review, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches fiction writing at Colgate University, where she received the 2019-20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship. 

We’re Fine

by Elizabeth Vignali

The house was only one story, so it was easy to see where it began, in the top corner of the living room above the potted schefflera. The little triangular patch right where two walls met the ceiling—not much bigger than both my hands splayed out—faded till it was as thin as parchment paper and we could see the yellow leaves of the neighbor’s birch tree through our own wall. You noticed it first. You saw the yellow shapes moving like coins on the ceiling and thought it was reflected light, that the baby was playing with some shining toy on the floor.

But the baby was on my lap. I was still trying to bond with him, get him to smile
at me the way he smiled at you.

“Ba-ba-ba-ba,” I said in that nonsense way people do when they’re talking to babies. He clung to my finger but he was still looking at you, your face turned away, toward the ceiling. We both watched you. He and I thinking the same thing. Look at me. Look at me.

“I think something’s wrong with the house,” you said.

I followed your gaze but I couldn’t see it then, couldn’t see anything but your
turned-away face.

The next morning, even I had to notice. On my way to the kitchen for coffee, sunlight striking my forehead, my right ear. A small corner of the house was gone. I walked over and looked up. It was a perfect circle. No saw could make edges so clean. You’d come up behind me, so quiet I didn’t know you were there until I felt your arms slip around my sides. Pressed your cheek to my back.

“It must be a prank,” I said. “Your brother.”
“No.”
“What, then?”
“I don’t know.”

After breakfast, I pulled the ladder around the side of the house and climbed up to take a look. “Be careful,” you said from below. Your boots on the fallen yellow leaves, the baby in your arms. I hadn’t been up here yet. There was moss on the roof, a few shingles missing. The gutters were choked with leaves.

“I should clean out your gutters for you,” I said.
“Our gutters,” you said.

Through the hole, I could see my plant in its mustard-colored pot. The coffee table. Your paperback spread-eagle facedown on the glass. The couch. Cushions indented from the previous weight of our bodies. The baby’s plastic giraffe tangled in your crocheted afghan.

The hole itself was just a hole.

“I don’t understand,” I said, too quiet for you to hear. But you did see me reach
for the edge, wanting to feel the cleanness of the cut, wanting to figure it out.

“Don’t touch it!” you said.
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”

I pulled my hand back. Grooves from the ladder stretched from where I’d dragged it to root against the house, black dirt tracks like a railroad curving around the corner, beyond where I could see. From here, I could see the roof of the coffee shop I used to go to every morning. The red-edged tower of the old theater. The spires of the church-turned-bar where I’d seen my favorite band last year. Had I been to the bar since then?

When was the last time I went to the coffee shop? I grasped the ladder, fingers aching on the cold aluminum, and tried to remember.

“What’s happening over here?” Your neighbor propped his mug on the fence
separating the yards. “Do you guys need help with something?”
“No,” I said. Too quickly. Your reproachful look. “I’m just looking at the gutters.
Our gutters. I need to clean them out.” I don’t know why I lied; there was a hole in the
house, and small as it was it was plain to see. I watched his eyes travel from the hole to
your face.
“You sure?” he asked you.
“Yes,” you said. Shifted the baby from one hip to the other. “We’re fine.”

We couldn’t see it happening, but by late afternoon we were sure the hole was a little bigger than it had been that morning. The edges weren’t as clean, either. They were blurred, almost. The walls and ceiling around the hole were thin and faded, as if the house was a pencil drawing slowly being erased. By evening, the translucence had crept down the wall. The top of the schefflera was vanishing. The leaves nearest the empty spot were curled up.

We kept an eye on the baby, but he wasn’t interested in the corner anyway. He grasped the edge of the coffee table and pulled himself up on chubby legs, wobbly but determined. He lost his grip and sat down hard. Pulled up again. His open smile, only for you.

“He’ll be walking soon,” you said.
The plant bothered me. I stood and walked closer to the corner, studying it.
“Do you think it’s too late to move it?” I asked.
You weren’t listening.
“Want a beer?” you asked. “I’m getting one.”

While you were in the kitchen, I got down on the floor and army-crawled toward the plant. It felt ridiculous, ducking to avoid a hole, but the thought of getting to my feet beneath it made the hair on my neck stand up. I grasped the heavy ceramic pot and tugged it toward me, grunting and awkward with the lack of leverage. Still, managed to move it a couple feet, enough that it was out of the way of danger. I stood again and looked at the plant, half expecting the disappeared section to be back, but it was still gone. I passed my hand through the air where the top of the plant used to be.

You returned from the kitchen, a beer in each hand. You gave me one bottle and drank from the other, your lips wrapped around the neck in a way that took my attention from the hole in the house.

“It’s actually kind of nice in a weird way, isn’t it?” you said, looking at the stars
through the wall.

We retreated to the bedroom sooner than we had to, in retrospect. The rest of the house sort of seemed superfluous, anyway. We’d always preferred the bedroom. For a
while, we could still get to the kitchen when we needed to, laughing at each other as we absurdly hugged the wall in order to avoid nothing.

You had the foresight to bring food to the bedroom, paper bags stuffed with crackers and carrots and cheese, grocery shopping in our own house. You even remembered to grab the remote before it was too late, to turn the television so it was facing the hallway to the bedrooms, so we could sit in the doorway to what used to be your living room and watch baseball until the television vanished too. Then the baby used the remote as a teether, pressed the hard plastic against his sore gums, drool all over the power button.

The plates began to pile up in the bathroom, crusted with food, but neither of us felt like doing the dishes with hand soap and washcloths in the bathroom sink. “Watch,” I said. Balled up my paper towel and threw it toward the emptiness. It disappeared. We got a little carried away then, fetched the dirty dishes from the bathroom and flung them like frisbees and watched them vanish into thin air. It was fun at the time, but we didn’t have any plates to eat on after that.

No one came by, except once, when your neighbor’s teenage son knocked on our
bedroom window. I slid it open.

“You want your lawn mowed?” he asked.
I turned to you.
“Sure,” you said. “Hang on.” You had on underwear and a threadbare tank top,
and I watched his eyes track your progress across the room until I moved to stand in the way. His eyes slid the other direction. You found your purse under a pile of dirty
laundry. Pulled a twenty from your wallet. You handed it to me. I handed it to him.

“Thanks,” I said, and shut the window.

Every day—sometimes twice a day—I pulled the schefflera a little further away from the growing erased area. I waited for you to tell me to just go ahead and move the plant all the way into the bedroom, where it would be safe, but you never did.

Then one day, the schefflera vanished. I’d moved it bit by bit into the hallway, where it blocked our view of the disappearing house. But the erasing was happening faster than I realized, and one morning when I filled an empty yogurt container from the bathroom faucet and went to water the plant, it was gone. I stood in the remaining half of the hallway and looked out. It was raining out there in the rest of the world, a rain so cold it was nearly snow. There were no leaves left on the neighbor’s birch. The naked branches black against the clouds.

I heard your bare feet come up behind me.

“It’s gone,” I said.
“I know, honey,” you said.
I put my arm around you and pulled you close. We watched the freezing rain till
you started to shiver. I rubbed your arms, pulled you close.
“Come on,” I said and slid my hands to your hips. “May as well go back to bed.”

You were sleeping when the bedroom wall began to fade. I woke you up.
“The baby,” I said.

You got up and walked naked to the doorway, peeked across what remained of
the hall toward where the baby’s room was. You came back, your skin prickled with cold. Lifted the covers and burrowed against me.

“It’s too late,” you said.
I sat up, wanting to see for myself. If there was anything to be done. You pulled
me back down, your skin warm again already.
“It’s okay. I’m sure my mother got him.”

I didn’t ask how your mother would have known, how she would have reached him. Easier to run my hands down your back, pull you on top of me, push your head gently into my neck so you wouldn’t see the encroaching eraser, the slow disappearance of the door to the bathroom, your grandmother’s old oak bureau, our pile of crumpled laundry.


Elizabeth Vignali is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019), and the full-length collection House of the Silverfish (forthcoming from Unsolicited Press). Her work has received special notice from the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in Willow SpringsCincinnati ReviewMid-American ReviewTinderboxThe Literary Review, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she works as an optician, coproduces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.

Hunting and Fishing

by Charles Haddox

With the vicious determination of a mother bird hunting insects for its young, two strong men cast out a weighted nylon net and pulled it in one direction and then the other, trying to catch as many fish as possible before the start of the afternoon rains. They were using the net in the clear waters of a creek coursing through the dense forest of sheltering river palms, beetle-covered strangler figs, and towering ceibas that continually dropped yellow flowers into the water below like a slow rain. The creek flowed just north of Greyhill, along the base of an ancient talus slope, which was topped by the road that ran to the island’s capital. Standing in waist-high waters, the two young men called to each other. They were mainlanders who had come to the village to idle away a few days fishing in the unspoiled rivers of San Carlos. And they were using the net to catch small fish which would later be used as bait to take bigger ones in the broad green river that surged through Greyhill on its way to the coast.

Two boys, about ten years old, were wading in the creek. They played with a turtle that swam in the warm, sparkling water. The turtle was almost a meter long from head to tail. It moved gracefully, gliding through the water like a thread of light. Its short, leathery legs were yellow and viridian, and its shell was the color of chocolate. It paddled against the gentle current of the shallow creek; unhurriedly, indolently, as though lacking any purpose or desire.

Birds of all colors chattered in the tall trees, and a sea mouse moved cautiously through the reeds that bordered the creek. The sky was clear, and the day was hot.

The boys lost interest in the turtle and set about building a dam across the creek with fallen tree branches. The water sparkled as it flowed over the branches and eventually carried the smaller ones away.

One of the men saw the turtle and pointed it out to the other man. They dragged it to a rocky spot on the shore and dropped large stones on it until it lay crushed and lifeless. It was half-buried by the rocks; a pile of red flesh, broken shell, and purple entrails.

The boys noticed what was going on. They stood in the water, watching.
“Why did you kill it?” one of the boys asked.
The men looked at each other.
“The turtle eats fish,” one of them answered.



Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries.  His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Stonecoast Review.