by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Review by Ollie Shane
To read the review of Monsoon Daughter by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, click HERE.
To read the review of Monsoon Daughter by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, click HERE.
To read the review of Burning Sage by Jennifer Rieger, click HERE.
To read the review of Count Each Breath by Maria James-Thiaw, click HERE.
My grandmother chose Benson and Hedges in the gold package until she saw an ad campaign for Eve and switched because it made her feel more feminine. She liked to think she was glamorous and had a drawer just for belts, three wigs to cover her thinning hair, and some poor-quality diamonds that her nasty mother had accidentally left her in an un-updated will.
I was always told my grandmother was beautiful, but I never saw it. Perhaps that’s because by the time I spent most of my weekend days with her, she was depressed and living in a housecoat and fake gold slippers. Or perhaps it’s because she was old, and, loving her as I did, I sat too close and could see every pore on her nose.
I sat so close to her and clung onto her thin neck so tightly she used to whisper in her smoker’s voice, “You will love it when you get your first boyfriend.”
“Why Nana?” I’d ask, holding her with both arms and swinging around to see her face.
“So you can love him so.” And she’d draw deep on her Eve cigarette, careful not to burn me.
I was never inspired to actually smoke, though I did convince her to teach me to blow smoke rings when I was seven. It was one of those lazy days as she and I sat on the couch. The suited anchorman named Walter Cronkite was talking, and for all I knew he could be speaking Russian because news was like a foreign language to me. No matter how hard I tried to listen, it always became mish-mash. One thing I did know for a fact: he was able to see me and he was looking. I had to be careful what I did when I was directly in front of the TV. I couldn’t change into my jammies, for example. Nor could I hit my brother, as the anchorman would be a witness. Basically, my only options were coloring in the coloring books Nana kept in the dining room china cabinet, practicing my dancing, about which he seemed oddly disinterested, or sitting with Nana on the couch. All shady business had to be undertaken out of his range.
I was unable to sit still for long, so both Nana and the couch became a de facto jungle gym. Invariably, I ended up sitting on the cushions behind her, giving her a bruising back rub or putting her hair in hair clips—one of man’s greatest inventions. Clip, they’re open, Clip they’re closed. Clip, they’re open, Clip my finger is stuck inside.
She was sitting, right leg crossed tightly over left, left forearm folded across her body (hand hanging down), right elbow anchored on her right knee serving as a hinge that opened and closed to bring the cigarette close in for a puff, dangling foot circling at the ankle. This was her pose. I thought it was handsome, so I copied her. I practiced it. I even practiced shredding the skin around my thumb with my index finger with the hanging down hand, which was her activity of choice when she wasn’t holding a tissue.
“Hey Nana, I want to blow a smoke ring.” I announced, snapping a clip in the pin curl I made in her hair. She pretended not to hear, so I poked her bony back and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “I won’t tell,” I said.
“Oh Kathy, I can’t do that,” she said. I slid off my perch behind her, hooked my left arm around her neck and kissed her soft, powdery cheek. It was Saturday. My grandfather was at the hardware store where he worked because he couldn’t stand to be retired anymore. Drew, my brother who usually visited with me, was at Indian Guides where girls weren’t allowed. And my parents were at home raising my two baby brothers. Now was the time.
“Children don’t smoke,” she said.
“I won’t smoke,” I said. “I just want to blow a smoke ring.”
I felt her body sigh under my arm again. She was not looking at me.
“I love you,” I whispered, and even then I knew that bordered on the unethical.
Slowly she uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. Sometimes she moved like she was a million years old and sometimes she moved like a hummingbird. She grabbed her cigarettes from off of the gold painted coffee table.
“Hand me that, will ya.” She pointed to her metal flip-top lighter that was just out of reach. I jumped up and grabbed it. I was a veteran at lighting that lighter. I especially liked the smell and I’d sniff it until I was sick.
I flipped the lid open with my thumb, put the thumb on the serrated spinning wheel, snapped a grinding turn, saw a spark, spun it again and up popped the blue flame.
Nana hit her pack slowly against her hand a few times and pulled out a single cigarette. She put it in the corner of her mouth while she tucked the pack in the sleeve of her house dress, then grabbed the cigarette and leaned forward so I could light it.
“This is a terrible idea,” she said, blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth away from me.
She paused, staring past me for a while, cigarette aloft, and I thought I lost her. I waited, still. Then the light turned on in her the way it did sometimes, and only then I’d realize it had been off. She’d sit up, her eyes would shine and a wickedness would come over her. The kind of wickedness that would prompt her to confide to my seven-year-old self on one of our sleepovers that she would have slept with John F. Kennedy if he asked her.
“Don’t inhale this,” she said, flipping the cigarette around, filter side to me. “Just pull the smoke into your mouth.”
She put the cigarette to my lips, her house dress sleeve sliding down to reveal her thin, veiny forearm. “And promise me you will never smoke.”
“I promise,” I said, maybe intending to keep it.
I pulled the smoke into my mouth. The cigarette’s tip glowed. The smoke burned my eyes, but I forced them open. Nana drew smoke in her mouth and formed a tight O with her lips. We looked at each other like we were under water. Lifting up her hand, she tapped, gently making a popping noise on the hollow of her cheek. Out floated a perfect circle. I put my finger through it, then tapped my cheek. Smoke came out of my mouth, but not in a circle. We blew out our smoke.
“Tap quickly, like this.” She formed my mouth into an O and tapped her finger on my cheek.
This time she handed me the cigarette. I had taken enough tokes on so many unlit cigarettes and pretzel sticks, had watched her and my grandfather and everyone else I knew smoke that I knew exactly how to hold it, how to draw, what I should look like.
I put the Eve cigarette between my middle and index finger and sucked more smoke into my mouth. I leaned forward and tapped the shaft with my finger to knock the ashes into the ashtray. Then I handed the cigarette to her, filter side forward.
We had smoke ring school periodically from that day on. There were certain conditions that had to be met of course. First, we had to be alone. Second, Nana had to be in that mood, so I learned to watch and wait for the light. Third, I had to promise never to light a cigarette when she wasn’t around or practice on one of hers when she wasn’t looking. After a few weeks, I had mastered the cheek tap smoke rings. It took a while longer to get the hang of the jaw pop smoke ring, but those were the holy grail of smoke rings and it was worth the month or two of practice that it took to perfect them.
With both types under my belt, I could begin to work on smoke ring gymnastics. I could blow a large and expanding jaw pop smoke ring, then repeat-fire a string of tight cheek tap rings through its center as it moved away. Nana could blow a jaw popper toward me and I’d send the cheek tappers through the bullseye of its center.
I never did pick up smoking. Both she and my grandfather died young of emphysema and lung cancer, devastating me and turning me against the habit with a vengeance. But every now and then, when I catch a whiff of an Eve cigarette on a city street, or see it’s discarded slim packaging lying in the gutter, I remember the days when Nana and I would have cheek tapper contests and blow rings at each other until we ended up laughing in a cloud of smoke.
Kathy Smith has published both fiction and creative non-fiction in Philadelphia Stories, poetry in Apiary, and twice won Glimmer Train’s Honorable Mention, once for Short Story, and once for Very Short Story. Most recently, she won Gotham’s Josie Rubio Scholarship Award, and was a finalist in Gotham’s Greatest Gift award. She received her B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
The first book assigned by my new book club in Hong Kong, meeting half a world away from the action it described, detailed the life and career of the Marquis de Lafayette: he who, at the age of 19, had left France to join the Continental Army of George Washington.
But I didn’t need the book club’s assignment to teach me about General Lafayette: I had grown up in the shadow of the great man’s influence. Just a few roads away from my childhood home, a fieldstone covered with white stucco, stood the venerable Dilworthtown Oak. My parents had told me this extraordinary tree had already been full-grown at the time of the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777, when American troops had been routed by British forces under General Howe.
The Marquis de Lafayette, wounded, had sat in the shade of the Dilworthtown Oak to recover, tended to by a local Quaker woman whose name was not recorded.
The redcoats went on to set the city of Philadelphia ablaze. The Continental Army fled to nearby Valley Forge, where they spent a horrific winter of suffering and deprivation—a dark time, when they could not yet see the future, and did not yet know that they would ultimately prevail.
I learned somewhere that the General’s reputation during the American Revolution had been so great that one of the first acts of the US Postal Service after the war was to call a moratorium on towns naming themselves Lafayette. Thus do we find, today, the map of the Eastern United States dotted with place names like Fayetteville, Lafayetteburg, and Fayettetown.
By the time I arrived on the scene as a little girl, almost two centuries later, what I found most interesting about the Dilworthtown Oak was the fact that although it still stood, it was rotted out inside, hollow. Its sides were strong, and every fall it rained down acorns, meaning that a lawn keeper had to ruthlessly root out oak seedlings from the surrounding area each spring. At some point in the previous twenty years, the local historical society had put up a bronze plaque, confirming what we locals already knew of the mighty Dilworthtown Oak’s glorious history. They installed a screen on the hollowed-out front to prevent irreverent and blasphemous teenagers from throwing trash into the dark oaken cavity on Mischief Night.
For years, my older brother told me stories about creepy things that lived behind that screen and would come out at night, mostly to prey upon little girls who messed with their older brother’s baseball cards or comic books.
Whenever someone from the city came out to visit us at our little stone house in the country, we would take a walk to the top of the hill to see the Quaker Meetinghouse, built in the 1600s, and the one-room Octagonal Schoolhouse, unused for decades. Behind the meetinghouse, in the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery, lies a mass grave of the men and boys who died in the Battle of the Brandywine two hundred years earlier. While the mass grave itself was marked, the names of the individual soldiers—British and Yankee, lying together—were not. As our visitors pondered this sobering fact, we would tell them proudly that not far from here, you could see the Dilworthtown Oak, where Lafayette had sat, wounded—an implausibly young general, a teenager, really, no doubt wondering if he would live to see his native France again. Later, at home, my brother would show the city visitors his collection of musket balls. Even then, a few would turn up every spring when the fields on the other side of the creek from our house were plowed.
For the bicentennial of the Battle of the Brandywine in 1977, a re-enactment was held. Local history buffs converged on the upper hayfield, sweating in the late summer sun, to wear tri-cornered hats and play with fake muskets. A month earlier, my father had mown a path through the hay, using the sickle-bar on his tractor, so that I could visit the little boy about my age who lived on the other side of the field, without getting ticks and burrs on my way. We all laughed when the “Revolutionary Army,” a little unclear on what had actually happened during the battle, marched boldly up the pathway my father had sheared, towards Coley’s house, as the man playing the part of some officer—a local guy who had a horse—tried ineffectively to turn them back toward the actual field of battle.
My mother told me that confusion and muddle like this were probably a more accurate representation of the battle than what we read about in the local hagiographies. (She probably didn’t use the word hagiography, since I was only four at the time, but her point was clear.)
My brother, who loved dressing up in costumes, begged to be allowed to join the “troops.” Drummer boys, he insisted, could certainly have been as young as seven, and anyway, General Lafayette was only 19 himself—and our parents finally relented. My brother was NOT to wear the dusty, half-rotted tricorner hat from the attic that some ancestor of ours had left around, no matter how appropriate it might have been. But he could dress up in a little soldier’s outfit and follow the “army” up to Coley’s house if he wished. While he was scampering through the hay and ragweed, a documentary filmmaker on the scene for the day asked if my brother would like to be in his movie. This, my mother absolutely forbade. It was a source of dinner table conversation for years afterwards: had my brother been saved from a horrible pervert or denied a glorious film career?
I learned the word “Bicentennial” that year. Bi – like the two wheels on the bicycle I had not yet learned to ride; and cent – like the 100 cents in a dollar, and a century, which was 100 years. For the first time, in contemplation of this new word, I saw the vastness of centuries opening before and behind me. One hundred years later, I learned, would be the tri-centennial. The hayfield, the creek, the sunny hill, and the mass grave, shaded by maple and yew trees, might still be there. But out of my whole family, I myself would be the most likely to survive that long. I might arrive at the tri-centennial re-enactment, a 104-year-old woman with white hair, and tell them what I had seen, and be interviewed on the radio.
As for the Dilworthtown Oak, I never doubted it would still be around. For years, whenever I drew a picture of a tree, it was always an oak, with its characteristic hand-shaped leaves, surrounded by acorns, and a mysterious, dark hole, covered up with a screen. Sometimes I drew Lafayette languishing beneath the tree.
Thus, it was an enormous shock to hear from my mother, in a letter she wrote to me when I was at college, that the Dilworthtown Oak had fallen. Not to old age, nor to the pernicious rot that was eating its insides for so many years, but to a cataclysmic bolt of lightning during a violent summer storm. The great natural monument had cracked in two, and although part of it might have been able to hang on for a few months longer, the local historical society had pronounced the Dilworthtown Oak dead on the scene.
Once again, just as I had when I was a tiny child, I saw the immeasurable stretch of years before and behind me. But this time, the sense of permanence and continuity was gone. If the Dilworthtown Oak could fall, what else might happen? Would the plaque be removed? Or changed, to say, “Here once stood …”? Would the screen be tossed into the old scrap metal heap by the creek? Would my parents one day move away from the Brandywine Battlefield? What would Lafayette have thought?
Out of curiosity, in 2019, when I was about to order the book, Lafayette – A Hero of Two Worlds, for my new book club, I looked up the Dilworthtown Oak on Google. I wasn’t expecting much; a local curiosity is nothing in the grand expanse of global history. Still, I thought, there might be a few references to Lafayette.
After filtering through page after page of listings for “charming homes” on quarter-acre lots in Dilworthtown Oak Estates, I finally found two references to the actual Dilworthtown Oak.
The first one said the oak was famous for the legend of three rapists from the British army of General Howe, who had been hanged from its branches in the period of chaos and looting that followed the Battle of the Brandywine, and that the tree had fallen in a windstorm. The page asserted authoritatively that the oak was known to one and all as the Haunted Hangman’s Tree, and that ghosts had been spotted there as late as the 1980s. The information was taken from a self-published book by someone called Phyllis Recca, wholly unknown to me. Confused, I looked at the other reference.
There, the great Dilworthtown Oak was relegated to a single phrase: “a Penn oak” (in other words, an oak that had been alive when William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1600s) “that had failed to make it to the 21st century.” The main article, a review of famous trees in the area, spent most of its effort glorifying the so-called Lafayette Sycamore, a tree that “towers 100 feet on the west side of Route 1, about 50 yards north of the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield State Park.” The article enthused, “According to legend, the Marquis de Lafayette rested during the Battle of the Brandywine under this very sycamore,” but “Historians dispute this, pointing out that there is no way of confirming if Lafayette was anywhere near this tree during the battle.”
By this time, my own son was nearly the age Lafayette had been when the great man either was or wasn’t wounded, and either did or didn’t sit under a tree, which, for all I knew by this point, might as well have been a sassafras or a poplar. I knew that my son’s memories of stories I told him when he was very young were not strictly accurate. Were my own memories just as muddled? All the same, I felt as if a final door had been shut on my childhood. My parents had moved to the Allegheny Mountains for their retirement, my brother had made his career in New York City, and I had spent more of my life in a skyscraper in Hong Kong than in a stone house next to a hayfield.
The other stories of famous oaks and sycamores were just legends themselves, I rationalized at last. Why should the story I thought I heard not bear just as much credence as those? Each year, in any case, the story of how my brother was almost a movie star gained more and more details, and the provenance of the tricorner hat became more and more established, at least in my father’s mind.
No, the Dilworthtown Oak was better remembered as a place where a kind but nameless Quaker woman, despite the roar of the surrounding battle, tended to a desperate teenager burdened with enormous responsibility but frightened out of his wits, freeing him to fulfill his destiny as the hero of a great revolution and the namesake of 100 podunk towns.
I took up my phone and typed happily in the WhatsApp group, which was self-mockingly named, “Serious Book Club HK.”
“Lafayette?” I typed. “Cool! You know, I grew up right around a place where he fought. When he was wounded, he sat under this oak tree to recover, and it was still around when I was a child.”
My version of the story would live on, not as dry history, but as a personal treasure. Like a musket ball or a dusty old hat to show to friends and family—both on the old battlefield itself, and halfway around the world.
Genevieve Hilton was born and raised in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on the site of the Brandywine Battlefield. She has lived in Hong Kong since 2000, and writes science fiction novels and stories as well as political and business stories.
There used to be a hulking, gothic prison in the exact same spot as my neighborhood’s fancy grocery store. It’s not like they advertise about the prison in the store. I found out from some historical signpost at the edge of the parking lot. I’d never bothered reading the sign before. I only read it this time because one of the straps on those crappy paper bags broke and my groceries spilled out on the ground right in front of the sign. I secretly missed the plastic bags, but to admit that would be like saying I wanted to suffocate a sea turtle. I did learn a thing or two from the sign, though. For instance, the demolished prison had been known as Karakung, its name cribbed from a long-gone indigenous tribe. I didn’t like the thought of my organic produce mingling with tortured souls, but it honestly explained a lot.
Once I got home and put away my banged-up groceries, I went upstairs to confront the ghost loitering above my laundry hamper. He’d appeared a week ago after my last shopping trip. He wore eccentric, striped rags and hadn’t said a word since materializing in my bedroom. He didn’t seem to have a face. It was like his orifices had been smudged out by a cheap eraser.
“Hey,” I said. “Does the name Karakung ring a bell?”
At this, the ghost’s eyes popped onto his face and opened about as wide as eyes could get. He was still earless and mouthless, but it was progress at least.
“Um, hello?” I asked. “Do you hear me?”
His ears suddenly appeared and, lo and behold, his mouth.
“An evil place,” the ghost said, his mouth disappearing whenever he stopped talking, as if exemplifying the phrase use it or lose it. “I need you to deliver a message for me.”
Delivering a message for a ghost felt so cliché. “Is it going to be a whole thing?” I asked.
The ghost’s ears vanished again. Apparently, he didn’t want to listen to my excuses.
“I implore you,” he said. “Find my wife. Tell her I miss her dearly.”
“And how am I supposed to find her?”
The ghost scratched his bald head. It seemed he hadn’t thought through logistics. “Her name is Elizabeth Fields,” he said. “She was the love of my life.”
“Okay,” I said. “Anything else? Like, any identifying features?”
“Beauty beyond even God’s imagining,” the ghost said, with a literally crooked smile. “If the sun came down and kissed the dawn.”
“How about an address?”
A single tear fell down the ghost’s cheek, leaving an orange, ectoplasmic stain on the floor that I’d have to clean up later. “If only I knew,” he said.
I thought about telling the ghost that he’d probably died well over a hundred years ago and that his Elizabeth was long dead too. But I didn’t do it. I figured it would only further upset him. So, I lied and said I’d ask around the neighborhood for any intel.
The ghost, despite not paying rent, turned out to be a half-decent roommate. He never interrupted me if I happened to binge-watch the entire season of some reality show. He didn’t mind if I spent the whole evening in bed scrolling on my phone. He never once judged me.
Of course, there was the complication of Elizabeth, but I managed that pretty well in my opinion. Every day, he’d ask about her and, every day, I’d give him some fake leads regarding her whereabouts. He also told me the story of his incarceration. He’d gone to a neighboring county to find work as a farmhand and, without warning, was snatched, tried, and committed to Karakung. He wasn’t even sure what he’d been charged with. When they hung him, he told me it just felt like a snapping at the base of his skull and then he awoke as a specter in my bedroom.
One time, the ghost asked if I had an Elizabeth in my own life.
“Not really,” I said. “Dating’s hard these days. I’ve got a lot on my plate as it is.”
He said he understood. He told me that when I find my Elizabeth I’ll know. He told me he knew the first time he heard her speak, that the winsome lilt of her voice had set his heart afire. If he had a single wish, he said it would be to hear Elizabeth’s voice one more time. I explained to him how I mostly interacted with potential romantic partners on apps via emoji. I said it was tough to meet people in real life and that everything just felt so awkward. I told him it was easier to talk with people on a screen. But the ghost couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to get across to him. He was stuck in the past, a relic of a bygone age.
One evening, I heard noises coming from the street outside my window. I didn’t feel like getting up from bed, so I asked the ghost if he could see anything. The ghost didn’t react. Lately, he’d been spending hours on end staring at the one piece of art in my bedroom. It was a reprint of a Monet painting, Train in the Snow. The train appeared to be chugging through a frigid countryside, the train tracks lined by skeletal trees. I’d received the picture as a gift from an ex, who’d felt that my barren walls were too much to bear. After we broke up, I’d never taken the initiative to replace it with something less depressing.
“Don’t you hear that ruckus?” I asked.
The ghost turned his body to me, but his head and eyes remained fixed to the painting. “I would like to ride a train someday,” he said.
I sighed, knowing full well he couldn’t leave my room. “Let me give you a piece of advice: Sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.”
“Even so, I would still like to ride a train.”
“Sure, pal. So how about looking out that window?”
The ghost ignored my question again, forcing me to look out the window myself. It wasn’t anything too exciting out there—just some neighbors setting up for a block party on the street. I didn’t know my neighbors, but I figured they wouldn’t mind if I made an appearance. Either way, I was tired of listening to a ghost go on and on about stalled trains and lost love.
The block party consisted of some tents, makeshift tables holding chip bowls and potato salad containers, and a few families scattered around, talking to each other. I watched a young guy in a white t-shirt pick out a hotdog. Then he looked up and saw me gawking.
“Want one?” he asked. “They’re just the right amount of burnt.”
We started chatting. His name was Byron. He lived a couple of houses down from mine.
“Are you new to the neighborhood?” he asked.
“Might as well be,” I said.
“It’s a great area,” he said. “Pretty affordable.” Then he motioned down the street. “Although it’s gotten pricier ever since that supermarket opened up.”
“That place is haunted,” I said.
Byron found this funny, even though it was more of a fact than a joke. I explained to him how it used to be a prison. He’d had no idea our neighborhood was so rich in macabre history.
We ate a few hotdogs, nursed a few beers, and later, participated in a water balloon toss with the neighborhood kids. We didn’t win—our balloon exploded on the asphalt after bouncing off my fingers—but it was still more fun than I’d had in a while. Byron and I kept on talking until the sun sank below our houses and a slivered moon came out. Our neighbors started putting away the foldable chairs and it seemed like our time was up.
“You know, I’m really glad we met,” I said, feeling tipsy and flushed.
“Likewise,” Bryon said. He held a green glass bottle and took a last sip.
We exchanged numbers. It was nice interacting with someone who was alive for once, so nice that I wanted to text him right away. But I didn’t. I thought it might seem desperate.
When I got home, the ghost was in the same spot where I’d left him.
“I would like to ride a train,” he said. “That way, I could search for Elizabeth.”
Before bed, I took down Train in the Snow. I’d grown tired of the ghost’s obsession. But even more than that, I could finally imagine putting up something better in its place.
The removal of the painting did nothing to help the ghost’s mood. In fact, he just started staring at the blank wall where Train in the Snow had been. Worse, he was coughing up bugs—weird millipedes—and making high-pitched shrieks around midnight.
I had an inkling his bad mood was mostly my fault. I’d been giving the ghost false hope that he might reunite with Elizabeth even though it was impossible. Still, I didn’t want to just admit outright that Elizabeth was gone and that he’d never see her again. It would crush the poor guy. So, I resolved to do some sleuthing at the local archival library to find some trace of her. I heard the library had a database where people could look up info on their forebears. I pictured finding Elizabeth in the records, maybe even discovering she had a daughter who, herself, had a daughter. Then I could pass off that granddaughter to the ghost as the true Elizabeth. I wondered whether this fraud might be cathartic enough to send him to the next step of the afterlife. But the prospect of his disappearance from my life left me strangely hollow, so I kept putting it off.
After a few more days of dithering, I finally made a visit to the archival library. It was a dilapidated brick building that looked mostly forgotten. Inside, it smelled old, like ink, empty hallways, and decaying knowledge. At the front desk, there was a librarian sporting spiky hair and tattooed arms. Her youth seemed ironic in such a place.
“So, what brings you in today?” the librarian asked.
“I’m trying to find a lost relation,” I said. “Can I do a search through your database?”
“Oh,” she said. “I think you might be confused.”
“That’s usually the case,” I said.
“The collection hasn’t been digitized,” she explained. “So, you can’t really ‘do a search.’ But we’ve got a very simple cataloging system. You’d get the hang of it pretty quickly. Do you want me to show you how it works?”
I considered the prospect of making several trips to the library, spending hours sifting through fragile documents and squinting at 19th century cursive. I told the librarian thanks, but no thanks. I told her that some things are better left a mystery. She seemed disappointed.
Back home, the ghost hounded me once again about Elizabeth.
Instead of the truth, I told him I had big news: My informants discovered that Elizabeth settled down upstate on a great big farm and started a great big family.
The ghost let out a long sigh that made the lights flicker. “Thank you for finding her,” he said. “It is a great weight lifted off my shoulders to know she thrives. She deserves every happiness on earth.”
“Yup,” I said. “Land’s fertile up there.”
I told myself not to feel guilty. I was just trying to help. Anyway, it was like that old saying: ignorance is a man’s best friend. Or at least I think it’s something like that.
I’d hoped my lie would help the ghost forget about Elizabeth, but it only encouraged him. He kept on asking when I would visit her upstate, so I had to keep making excuses about why I needed to postpone the trip. The ghost never doubted me, no matter how flimsy my explanation. In any case, his disposition improved, and I considered my scheme a success. I felt pretty confident I could keep the charade up indefinitely. And, for a while, things carried on in our odd sort of normal. That is, until one rainy evening, when Byron messaged me.
The gist was: DTF?
It’d been over two weeks since the block party, so I was surprised he even remembered me. But I was also too excited to overthink it. I badly wanted to see his face again. Even though the weather was terrible—rain pouring down, wind singing through the windows—I didn’t care.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m heading out for a bit.”
“To go see Elizabeth?” he asked. His eyes shone bright with hope.
“Soon, pal,” I said. “For sure.”
I grabbed my windbreaker and went out into the drizzling night. Wind and rain pelted me until I reached Byron’s rowhome.
When he opened the door, I could tell something was wrong. He looked frightened and pale. His shoulders were draped with blankets. He guided us over to a couch. I took a seat next to him, close enough that our legs would touch.
“So,” I said, turning to face him. “Is everything okay?”
Byron took a steadying breath. “I may have brought you here under false pretenses,” he said. “The truth is, I need help. I have a ghost.” He looked down at his socks. “I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to believe me. She’s up in my bedroom. I don’t know what to do.”
I sat in silence, not knowing what to do either. Up to that point, I hadn’t thought too much about why the ghost had entered my life. I considered his appearance a fluke—a worm in the apple of the universe. But now I had questions. How many tortured souls had been infused into the food at our grocery store? How many others suffered injustice at Karakung? What was our responsibility to atone for the sins of the past?
But then something less complicated occurred to me, something the ghost had once told me about Elizabeth. About her voice. And that’s when I knew.
I took Byron’s clammy hand in my own. Then I closed my eyes and leaned in close to him, hoping it would be the start of something strange and beautiful.
Matt Goldberg’s stories have appeared in The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. His work has also been anthologized in Coolest American Stories 2022 and won the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives with his partner in Philadelphia.
Editor’s Choice: 2023 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest
1979, after Carolyn Forché
You haven’t heard this one, but we were there. In the bright ugly room
behind a row of bald professors. It was April, and sticky. The plastic chairs
sucked at our thighs. Some dignitaries led her to the podium. She was just
a girl-poet, with her long blonde hair and flowy clothes, and all the easy
romance of being not too old but enough older than us. After the Chair
introduced her, she spoke in a voice so low we all leaned in. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. Some pipes clanked inside the walls.
Outside, through the open windows, frat boys were shouting. We were on
the inside now. We feared the colonel’s spoiled teenage children. The dog,
the American cop show. And— Don’t write about a pistol unless you intend
to use it, we knew at least this from our professors—the pistol on
the cushion by the colonel’s thigh. The poet’s words were candy tumbling
from a table; then, her voice dropped softer: our tongues on the dried peach
halves. Oh, I can tell you this now,
There is no other way to say this:
Metaphor is a tool of the wicked.
Metaphor presses against your skull, your nose squashed to the glass. The
window was never meant to open. The architects made it that way. On your side,
the Chair is paying attention. His nostril hair flutters with each bated exhalation.
The girl-poet will become famous. On the other side, the scene is vivid. An ear
unfurls in a glass of water. The ear is disconnected from the mind. On the glossy
tiled floor, a scattering of amputated ears “to the ground.” Life is a series
of amputations. You are mute as a nun in church. The girl beside you, who
cries easily about ideas, weeps with shame.
How can we go forward in this future? How can we go on?
Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music (Little, Brown), a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver Magazine.
Editor’s Choice: 2023 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest
In my pocket, the shudder of a newborn marsupial.
Along my back, a stampede
of tiny mammoths stomping through snowdrifts,
plummeting down a precipice.
Between our legs, a convergence of ladybugs
seeking out aphids,
reappearing each Spring as if by magic, as if drawn
by the pointillists. In my eyes,
two black holes born to feast on scattered light,
to render it absent.
My foraging fingers rifle through the typewriter,
are robins shedding feathers
to feed them into keys, ripping out the ribbon
with derricked beaks, nesting
in flocks of silence. My skull glows from within,
is bioluminescent, cradles
this thinking prisoner of uncertainties accrued,
my embattled mind
a zigzagging chase, both a pack of stubborn hounds
& the foxes it pursues.
Jonathan Greenhause’s first poetry collection, Cupping Our Palms (Meadowlark Press, 2022), was the winner of the 2022 Birdy Poetry Prize, and his poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Barrow Street, Bayou, The Fish Anthology, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Permafrost.
Editor’s Choice: 2023 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest
and lightning and how if you count the seconds
between the flash and the rumble, you can tell how close
the sky is to becoming a guillotine. I once saw lightning split
a tree trunk in half. Thunder didn’t follow for another ten
seconds. Sand can turn to glass. Did you know that? Each shard
settles at the base of my spine. What happens when they no longer
keep me fused together? If I stare out of a car window long enough
will my reflection disappear completely? Would you will it to happen?
Yesterday, they recorded upside-down lightning in a Kansas town
and it reminded me of a long-downed tree in the local cemetery—
how it looks like a hand getting ready to pluck the tombstone
straight from the ground. I can’t remember the etched name
in the stone but I remember thinking how I wished it was mine.
For the storm to make me an offering: Say, here I’m going to shelter you
for a while. It’s not true what they say about remembering. The lobes
could be ripped out electrical cords, cause a surge—unpower what
I should have forgotten: your birth year, how you smelled on a Tuesday
afternoon, the drawn-out agony. I was once told that thunder was just god
and the angels bowling. How I listened for the cheers after each strike
of a pin. I’m still counting the seconds between entering this world
and being taken out. What I mean to say is when the thunderclap
sends the windows singing, I want my end to be a white-hot echo.
Erica Abbott (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based poet and writer whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Button Poetry, Midway Journal, Kissing Dynamite, The Broadkill Review, and other journals. She is the author of Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, is a Best of the Net nominee, and volunteers for Button Poetry, Write or Die, and Variant Literature.
like most birds: strong, supple, sharp.
But you left your claws behind
when you crawled out of the forest
which isn’t wrong, but—
that all living things need air, food, and water.
You need a fourth: a sheet of skin that doesn’t burn
when you touch it. You need something a fruit knife
couldn’t cut through.
like a bullet. Rip all the fat and muscle
from your bones. Go back
to the beginning and drag the right body
out of the forest—
of grapes, of skin bruising under sunlight
but a fourth color. The color
of trees singing.
Liya Chang was born in Texas, grew up in Singapore, and returned to the United States for college. They study English, Dance, and Asian Studies at Swarthmore College. Poetry is one of their greatest joys and vices, through which they explore the wonders of being the third in everything: third culture kid, third gender, and third bird on the wire.