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.

Rising Waters

by Jonchy

The Indonesian word for flood is banjir.

In Jakarta, my hometown and the nation’s capital, the banjir comes so regularly that it is simply seen as a part of life. The rainy season begins in November and with it comes inevitable floodwaters. During this time, everyone places their valuables on high shelves and move vulnerable furniture on top of spare beds. 

I loved the banjir as a child. When it was low, it turned our street into a large puddle in which I could slosh around—provided I had my blue rubber boots on and didn’t stay out too long. Some days, as my mother watched dutifully through the window, I would go out in search for stray branches floating in the street-turned-river. I’d pick an acceptable one to be my sword. I’d imagine myself as a pirate in shallow waters, defeating an improbable number of invisible enemies on my way to shore.

On car rides to the center of the city, I’d imagine that we were in a tightly packed convoy of ships, sailing through a brown ocean in search of new land.

I appreciated the banjir too, for its habit of arriving sneakily in the night to fill up my primary school. I went to an English-speaking school in East Jakarta, some forty minutes away. This is a short distance in the context of notorious Jakarta traffic—which, at its height, can stall a city-center trip by two hours. 

Communication between the school and students’ parents could be lacking at times. Some days, my parents had the foresight to call ahead after a particularly stormy night to check if classes were canceled. More often than not, though, I’d be driven to school in the rainy months only for us to discover that rainwater had risen to shin-height on campus. This happened because the school was in a sort of valley and—like most of the Greater Jakarta area—was terribly irrigated.

On those days, a security guard would wade to us in his boots and tell us that class was cancelled for the day. I’d be happy, of course. I liked school, but not as much as reading chapter books or playing my daily allotment of computer games—this was 15 minutes, strictly policed by my mother. 

My Korean mother pronounces it “Ban-jil,” having been born into a language whose “l” and “r” sounds are barely and blurrily distinct. In the cruelness of childhood, I made fun of her for it, though I would give anything now for her multilingualism. My Umma speaks three languages fluently, while I can only offer stunted approximations of her native tongue, or of my father’s. 

As an adult and an immigrant I’m embarrassed that I am conversational but not fluent in the languages my parents passed down to me, even though they were spoken in the household. Though it was true that we spoke English the most—partly because it was my parents’ first shared language and partly because it was key to a successful future in the Western world—both hangeukmal and Bahasa Indonesia certainly had a place in our home.

When more than one language bounces around a household, it is inevitable that crosslinguistic jokes enter everyday speech. A favorite growing up was the conflation of Appa, the Korean word for father, and apa, the Indonesian word for “what.” Apa, Appa? was my stock response if my dad ever asked me a question, even if I’d clearly heard what he’d said. He humored me even after the sorry pun had worn itself out, always cracking a small smile in acknowledgment.

I’m not sure if we ever joked about the banjir, but I can imagine how it would’ve gone down. The word ban in Korean means “half,” and so the quip might have gone something like this: the ban-jir is up to my knees! I hope we don’t get a full-jir, that’d be up to my waist! My mother would have laughed gleefully, instead of giving me the groan I would have rightly deserved. 

Recently, I’ve learned that everything I was taught about the banjir is only half-true. 

I remember wondering aloud about why it flooded so much where we were. My parents would tell me it was because of what’s going on uphill. By this, they meant the deforestation in Western Java. I learned vaguely as a child that they were cutting down too many trees in Bogor, and that for some reason it made the banjir come upon us more heavily.

I know a little more now. I know that the logging industry uphill caters cheaply to the interests of Chinese companies, and that trees are often toppled to clear space for new apartments and factories. Apparently, dead roots don’t suck up water very well, so when the rains come down in the West the banjir surges down on Jakarta unopposed. 

Deforestation is one part of the reason the waters rise and fall in Jakarta. But there are other things that summon the banjir to my city as well. Larger, darker forces are at play. I’ve grown to see that the banijr I so loved in my childhood is more sinister than I’d first realized. 

I know now that the floods are getting higher because Jakarta is sinking. In the past ten years, the land in the coastal north of the city has dipped 2.5 meters—a full foot greater than the height of one Shaquille O’Neil. Jakarta is sinking because that is what happens when rampant urbanization sprawls outward and upward without a steady infrastructure to hold its weight.

While I have fond memories of my childhood, there are many things about Jakarta I am glad to have left behind. I am still traumatized by my hometown’s standstill traffic, where spending an hour to move your car forward by a mile is not unheard of. I remember getting lost in the gaudy multi-story shopping malls which populate the city, crying and headachy in the neon lights of retail stores. 

People from all over Indonesia come to the big city to make something of themselves, or at least to make the sort of money that will go exponentially farther when they send it back to their families at home. There are too many people, and too many buildings built to house and entertain them. Jakarta is a city of gridlock and excess, and it is caving in on itself.

The literal weight of urban development is sinking my city, but there is more to it than that. Of coastal metropolises, Jakarta has one of the worst infrastructures for water distribution. Piped water comes at ridiculous cost, and only serves half of the city. This leaves the poor and the corner-cutting rich to drill illegal wells that tap into natural aquifers. Stifled by concrete, the aquifers have trouble filling up again. The weight of too-many buildings press down on the empty space left behind, leaving parts of my city as valley-like as my primary school, as pits for the floodwaters to fill in.

I worry that the sinister banjir might drown my city. But these are not the only rising waters that threaten Jakarta. Somewhere I have never been, far from my equatorial context and even from where I live now in New England, something called the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting very quickly. It is filling up the ocean and causing it to rise, even as far away as Indonesia. When you draw a bath, doesn’t the bathwater rise up evenly, and not just on the faucet-side? This is why the rising waters are creeping up the coast of North Jakarta.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting because of the sum total of all the coughing cars and spewy smokestacks and burning forests in the world, and because of the masses of cows that leak methane from their asses. The gaseous outputs clog the atmosphere and, increasingly, cause more heat from the sun linger by earth than we’d like. Jakarta’s gridlock plays a part. The neon malls play a part. So too, does oil drilling in Dubai and factory farms in Northeast China.

The government of my city isn’t as concerned with climate impacts of far-flung cities as it is with the reality that the floodwaters are threatening to invade us from the outside. They are building a wall to try and keep the waters out. They call it the Coastal Wall, and they’re building it extra-high because they know that it’s going to sink like the rest of the city. And as they build this wall they are preoccupied with dreams of an even more ambitious solution: the Great Garuda, a seawall of reclaimed land in the shape of its mythic-bird namesake, the national symbol of Indonesia.

There is something romantic about invoking a mythic power in tackling a great elemental threat. But, behind this grand vision of a guardian bird protecting its city from the onrushing ocean, is the same human hubris that got us here in the first place. The Great Garuda is a 40 billion dollar project which invites developers to build more malls and sleek condominiums upon the new land they will summon up from the ocean. Corner-cutting and corruption may leave the newly risen land carelessly formed, unstable and unsafe. Perhaps the deepest problem is that the venture does nothing to address the lack of piped water systems which cause my countrymen to drill wells that sink the city. The wall, meant to keep the water out, may only serve to keep the banjir in, leaving my city to someday filled to the brim—a post-climate Atlantis. 

As a member of the diaspora, I love and I hate my city. I cherish my childhood sloshing in the streets, but cannot shake the panic of being trapped in a crowded mall. I feel an affinity to my birthplace and my people, and yet speak my mother tongue inexpertly. I think and worry about Jakarta, and write it out in English. I remember the banjir fondly, but hate it because it is a harbinger of destruction.

Like the sinking city of Jakarta, I am threatened from without and within. I’ve internalized a hybrid culture, through which I crack cross-linguistic jokes that make my mother laugh and my father smile. The longer I live on my own, though, the more language I lose and the more I find myself assimilating. I appreciate the values of freedom and the ethnic and cultural diversity I find in America, my adopted country. And yet, I understand that I am a resident alien, suspect to changes in immigration policy from an immigrant-suspicious administration.

Jakarta remains in me. But it is also a mirror to the world. The waters are rising everywhere because of Jakarta traffic and Korean barbeque and the same fuel-heavy flights that first brought me to America. Miami Beach is sinking, as is Shanghai, as is New Orleans, as is Manila and Rio de Janeiro. Just as in Jakarta, no one is really equipped to deal with it. I preoccupy myself by worrying about identity and parsing through my childhood, while corporations keep building heavy buildings and all people continue on with their lives.

No one wants to think about the waters creeping up our coasts, or to admit that we are sinking, or to consider that we may soon be submerged.

We will blink, and the water will be up to our waists.




Jonchy is an immigrant most worried about anthropogenic climate change—that deeply entangled reality which threatens to decimate our planet. He is particularly interested in the meaningful interplay between text and image, and often pairs his prose with scratchy sketches or family photographs. He lives on the North Shore of Boston, where he works with his hands.