Emily Rose Cole — “Ghazal with Cave, Wellbore & Millions of Branches”

Light shackles itself between my father’s old oaks in Pennsylvania.
As a child I thought my state’s name meant branch—Pennsylvania

the same as laurel, the same as cedar, maple, hemlock those trees my cheap state
school named its dorms after (you wouldn’t know it, up in northern Pennsylvania).

I called my first love’s eyes huckleberry, as if I could dip my fingernails
into her Indiana veins, stain my cuticles with the blue juice of Pennsylvania.

Where are all the trees, I asked as we barreled down I-70, her homeplace flat
as a Play-Doh pancake stamped with God’s palmprint (I meant where is Pennsylvania?).

Once I spent all night singing in a cave (live album, stalactites spitting water down
my neck) & wondered about the men buried in the slack mouths of Pennsylvania.

There’s an old folksong says colliers gave the fire to forge the steel that made
the tools for industry. All that fire & steel bound up in blood & Pennsylvania.

Coal’s gone now. Steel, too. But I’ve heard the trucks battering up & down
Route 6: wellbore, wastewater, frack fluid, the new machinery of Pennsylvania.

Don’t drink from the taps, they warned us at school. Cancer
rate’s tripled. The Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas, that’s Pennsylvania.

Pee-Ay’s big break, our governor assured us. Overnight millionaires.
Geysers of gold churning beneath the farmlands of Pennsylvania.

The only gold I want anymore is honey tongued straight from the comb,
the kind I used to get at the Apple Butter Frolic in Harleysville, PA.

Here in southern Illinois, the same train rattles through for years.
Dear train, does the sap tapped from my throat still sing Pennsylvania?

In college, my friend Wes nicknamed me after the beast lumbering down
our black-burred mountains: Cole-train. I’ve never loved a name more, Pennsylvania.

Emily Rose Cole is the author of a chapbook, Love & a Loaded Gun, from Minerva Rising Press. She has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Philadelphia Stories, and the Academy of American Poets. Her work has appeared in Nimrod, The Pinch, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is completing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati. You can reach her via her website at emilyrosecolepoetry.com.

Zan Agzigian — “4th of JULY: HOT SPRINGS”

for Phoebe Bosche

I promise Phoebe the campout of her life, drive us through a string of
switchbacks up and up into the Olympics, the trees more dense, the sky
becomes a crack. Rain begins as we park our car in a line of cars. Must be a
popular place: Cul de Sol—so wet, all you want to do is quack. We trek up a
barren trail wondering where all the bodies are: underneath the roots, whisper I
can feel them here, the sunken people. Climbing higher in a spiral, we spin
towards light, up and up to where the trail becomes a strip, and the overhang is a
cliff’s edge. Suddenly, peoples’ heads emerge from steaming pots scattered like
pinecones floating in puddles. Drops carve circular patterns in empty pools. I strip
and sit on slippery cedar root, soft cushion against my butt. Phoebe follows suit,
and we plunge into the arms of Mother Earth, catch raindrops on our tongues,
talk of love and finding some. Making our way back from this glory, drenched to
the bone, we quick blast the heat in the car, steam up the windows, crank tunes
and head for the Port Angeles Laundromat before going back to our soaked site
for another two days of this pouring down. Never so warm and content, wearing
ponchos, cooking dinner in a downpour, one pot at a time, we make our meal in
stages, cuddled up in my newly seam-sealed tent while still light, reading poems
to die for.

Zan Agzigian is a poet and playwright with an MFA in Fiction from EWU. Stamen and Whirlwind is her 1st collection of poetry. She lives along Latah Creek Spokane with Itzy, her dog. She produces and hosts a two hour weekly music mix show called Soundspace for KPBX Spokane Public Radio. Whenever she gets the chance, Zan has a passion for restoring lookouts in NW Montana.


Cesca Janece Waterfield — “The Thicket”

Daddy steadies my bicycle
as its training wheels wobble
in a rut of dirt road
that stitches our house
to the field and shore.

In the forest that follows our progress,
quail nest in low scrub
to shelter their clutch.
Tall clusters of pines sway,
and the stream shatters in sun
as saplings are swept with light.

But I wake to see scab fungus crawling
the pecan tree where my bicycle has fallen.
Woodland voles burrow under the yard
to gnaw roots of yellowing elder,
of dying English holly. In a mist
that clings itself, the woods twitch.

Cesca Janece Waterfield’s poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction have been published in or are forthcoming from Deep South Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, Writers Resist, Foliate Oak, and more. They were nominated for Best New Poets of 2017. They teach composition to undergraduates as a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They completed their MFA and MA at McNeese State University.

Lillian Schneider — “Help Me See Clear: Reflections on Rain”

In the Pacific Northwest the rain on the rooftop is as constant as any kind of love you could wish for. When the fall rains begin, you know they will not leave you; they will keep this corner of the planet green and fragrant for you, so that in summer, when they depart for the ocean, you step out into a new damp world abundant, and welcoming, sagging with berries and fruit. As a child I was a night-owl bound to the daytime schedule of school and society, and lying there awake in the darkness, I was never alone. There were ditches in my neighborhood, a pond the size of a four-square court in my backyard, and when the water ran the frogs went crazy, singing their own kind of storm. I drifted into sleep trusting the rain not to stop in the night the same way you have no choice but to trust your heart to your body. If I woke and the rain was gone, I knew it would be back soon. The Northwest can’t speak English, but speaks many dialects of wind and rain, and I interpret how I please—it doesn’t feel like interpretation to me, though. More like plain listening. Just as love feels inevitable when it comes. (Perhaps later I will wonder what I was thinking.) The rain will come and come and come, and I like the kind of faith you can touch and listen to. I like the kind of confirmation that pours down on your whole world.

Rain’s biggest detractors criticize it because it is wet. But what, really, is so distasteful about being wet every now and then, and usually for not so long a time, for ten minutes or a hundred out of a whole lifetime of regular dryness? Comfort has no stories to tell. Umbrellas are a fine invention, but how silly they make us look, like taxidermied frogs with cocktail umbrellas pasted at the hand, scuttling mushroom people, people with shields up against an earth that is only trying to help, and doesn’t care about you or your umbrella anyway. How I love a bouquet of wind-busted umbrellas bunched inside a trashcan on a street corner. How I love to see people, who try so hard, bless them, to appear always smooth and correct, now totally undone and disheveled by the weather. This is how we look at the most dramatic moments of our lives: in sex, in birth, in sickness, in despair, in fevers of unrestrained joy. I like when everyone on the street has been rained on and we are all a little more worn down than usual, bristling, frowning like newborns in reverse, inwardly screaming to stay dry against a world where wet appears for now to be the rule. It’s true, we are worn down, we are malleable, we are powerless and we don’t quite understand what is happening to us. Our lips are not really Double Daiquiri Pink and our eyelids should never be purple; our coats are not true protections—just pretty things with sleeves and pockets for all the things we will lose someday.

My father worked for the city of Seattle, a ferry ride away from the island in Puget Sound where we lived, water around us, water above us, water within. It was his job to regulate the reservoirs, to make sure they didn’t overfill or go dry or cause, in their fluctuations, even more salmon to die. During droughts he stayed late at work and came home harried, then clogged up the landline with boring phone calls to men with boring names. He’d interrupt my online chats to check the water levels, then the weather. When he found good news he’d get excited, running in and out of the house every few minutes to peer at the sky. And I’d know when the first few drops came because I’d hear him crow triumphantly, “Aah!” and I’d run out to join him where he stood with his arms out like the wings of a totem pole, his face tilted upwards. I don’t know what he was thinking—maybe only that he’d have an easier week at work—but he looked like a man giving thanks.

When it rains in the forest everything makes sense. Alone, walking among the trees, the mind is soothingly boggled. How can it all be so beautiful? How can all these different leaves exist? How do the flowers know to grow, and to grow into this shape, this color, which catches our own blooming breaths in our throats? Each raindrop is a clue—I can touch the clean clear water and know that this is a part of everything. The same every time. Repeat, repeat, repeat, like meditation. Then, too, in forest, all the best smells emerge, smells that were there all along, which the animals could smell but we could not, yet, until rain aided us. Rich cedar, spicy plants, papery bark, funky fungus, sweet peas and wild roses and rhododendrons and blackberry bushes in various states of decay. River stones are as shocking-bright as rainbow trout under water, bland when you take them home, exciting again when you wet them with your spit, smeared with a thumb. You can drink water from leaves.

It’s different in the city, which is engineered against the elements, where rain and snow and blazing sun and animals are kept at bay, blocked, shoveled, poisoned, drained into dirty rivers to mingle with oozing, killing stuffs. In the city the rain is an uncomfortable new skin wrinkling in the corners, the joints of the city, running into the open faces of tennis and basketball courts and canceling games, chattering over the lips of the curbs where people will step in and swear, pockmarked in the puddles where new drops fall, where coffee cup lids and sleeves fall, where pennies fall, receipts, candy wrappers, used-up train tickets. I understand the vents to gush it away so cars don’t accidently become ill-fated boats; I understand awnings, and may have used them myself in certain rains, the most powerful ones that come down in muscled sheets. People crowd together when it rains, under awnings, , and then, they may even speak to each other. They may remark that this rain is ruining their day. I was going to pick up lemons, they will say, and now the salmon is going to be so bland, and we’ll have to poach it, we cannot grill. The rain is powerful to the people who don’t like it as much as the people who do. Drops the size of your pupil, and we are dismayed, and we run away.

There’s a beachside cliff back home where I like to stand and look out at Seattle across the Puget Sound. When everything on the horizon is a shade of grey I can let myself make it make sense, as if it were all formed by and for one system, as if the skyline is simply a compressed, more geometrically ordered version of the sky. On certain days, in a certain grey light, the water is like rippling steel. Surely men made Seattle from this water, pulled it right from the bay in great spools to cable the buildings together. Other days, darker days, when there’s a certain mineral-scented wind that shivers like the timbers of a great ship going somewhere fast without you and the skyscrapers look like columns of lead, it’s not hard to imagine that centuries of churning storm clouds pressurized the buildings into existence, like crystals, over time. I know that the core of the earth is melted and moving at its core but I won’t ever see it. I use what I have to see it. I imagine it sort of like an orange version of a rainy sky, spitting drops, boiling, blooming, thick.

I acknowledge it is difficult to picnic in the rain.

For all of childhood I was the slowest runner on my soccer team. Ten minutes of game time meant a mottled red face which revealed my inferiority to everyone.  But in the rain I was refreshed and ran better; my cleats dug into the wet dirt in a meaty way that felt good. When I switched to goalie in the second half the ball would hiccup to a stop in puddles in front of the goal, easy for me to snatch. At the end of the game I‘d be covered in the proof of my determination, the proof of the past two hours of my life: mud.

You can never be too intimate with mud. There are so many kinds of mud to meet. I am acquainted with many of the northwest kinds: grassy grainy soccer field mud, runny black and fragrant garden mud, the sand-mud of baseball fields, the flaky pencil-smelling mud of recently turned dirt, the squelchy shoe-eating monster mud that is the best kind to play with. In Israel I plastered my hands with eraser-grey clay mud from the hills; in Georgia, during a summer thunderstorm, I watched the penny-red clay of exposed river banks melt into a water like rusted milk. In high school, running barefoot, throwing dirt clods on a soccer field, I turned and my ankle, stuck in mud, stayed stuck.

That was it, the pain we avoid most of the time, the real help me oh my god pain. Not later but now. Not maybe but yes. I was wheeled through the clinic howling, soaked, the mud all splashed across me like I was a swamp creature pulled from the murk. If you want the world to see your suffering, cover yourself in mud. No one will make the egregious and frequent mistake of assuming that you’re all right.

When the doctor took the x-ray she had to press my broken ankle flat on the table. Dirt and grass and water were all over the table when they pulled me off.  When your body is breaking and your mind, unhinged by pain, starts shooting off panic rockets from the emergency “I’m Dying” supply, it simply feels good to make a mark. It feels good to make a mess. We can snap like twigs! Just like that! We will die before the skyscrapers! We are caught in an unstoppable river! Don’t just stand there, move, dance, sound the gong, make a mess, love right now and cry about it, because it hurts!

Of course I love the feeling of the sun on my skin.  But between sweat and rainwater, I’ll take the one you can collect in a barrel and drink.

There’s enough death and terror in the world to provide tear-fodder for many lifetimes, right? I could sit around and cry about it, but I don’t have time and sometimes lack the spirit. Being a citizen of the global world is not easy. We were not evolved to monitor and respond to the heartbreak of thousands, thousands of miles away, but this is what we must do. When it rains I feel not absolved, but offered a companion. At least someone is crying. I’m not sure who the someone is. Perhaps loving rain is only a coping measure, some end result of an early unconscious realization that my life in the Northwest would be a lot more enjoyable if I did.

I have hated rain once, just one day. My mother’s funeral. Stop, go back, rain, suck yourself back up into the clouds and let this whole thing stop. The circle of life was an abomination for a long time after. Pain was everywhere. Grief was a chronic dampness of the spirit that could not be dried off. Screw you, world. Screw you, rain. Screw you, fresh little sapling drinking up the drops—don’t you know the world’s going to eat you up?

Of course I want the answers. I don’t expect to find them, for I am not a child. I am grateful that I have been given some time to try. For now and probably forever, rain, which fogs the windows and blocks the sun, helps me see clear. All my blood is not mine. It was once picked up in clouds and taken across the world and it carved canyons and grew asparagus and zoomed through a pterodactyl’s veins and was honey and was piss and was snow on an empty mountain. And between all these things, it was rain.

Lilly Schneider holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Willow Springs, Green Mountains Review, Hobart, december, Briar Cliff Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from the damp, green Pacific Northwest, she currently splits her time between Laramie, Wyoming and Denali National Park, Alaska.

Ryan Thorpe — “Chess Moves”

I call Hae-jin “Jin” because of his love for drinking in the morning. According to him, with the infinite uncertainty of the world, a man should drink hard in the morning and love nothing before noon. In the afternoon, though, anything is possible.

I sit across from him in his favorite park in downtown Daegu, South Korea, with the lifelike chess figurines spread across the plastic Chinese chessboard. It is similar to a Western board but with a few key differences. The king remains trapped within a few squares called a palace, and pieces move on lines rather than spaces. Some of the pieces are different as well. Bishops have morphed into elephants, and the queen has split into two ministers who guard the king at all times inside the palace. The biggest difference arrives with Jin’s favorite piece, the cannon, which hops over one piece and strikes the piece hiding behind. The piece that thought it was safe from all the action.

“You need to move your pieces together,” Jin says. “Right now you’re playing like your dick’s in your hand. If you want to do that, then do it at home.” He moves his cannon to the middle of the board so it points at my palace.

I move a minister to protect my king. “Maybe you were born with your dick in your hand,” I say. “Maybe you glued it there a few years ago so you wouldn’t lose it.”

“The blood on your head hasn’t dried, and you declare war,” he says. “Must be the dick in your hand.”

Jin adjusts his pieces, so they all face forward. He wants them to watch the coming bloodbath on the board, the feast of my youthful inexperience. “I’m speaking, but I’m not sure you understand.”

It’s early on a Wednesday, our normal chess day. Because Jin long ago retired from managing convenience stores, he tutors me on chess and drinks whatever liquor is on sale and grows drunker and bolder, drunker and bolder in a tumbling cycle. At almost eighty, he’s full of chafing truth and little else. At his age, he is an established elder, an untouchable in Korean society, and he loves to create minor emergencies.

Last week, he spent two hours protesting at the local department store over the outrageous price of designer shirts. He carried a multi-colored shirt over his head like a flag and walked up and down the aisles, demanding to know what color Korea had turned to allow a simple shirt to be sold for over two hundred dollars. “Would you want to wear this shirt?” he asked random customers who shook their heads and shrunk away. After his protest, security evicted him from the store with the shirt still in his hands. Today, he wears it with his old felt hat and looks unusually fashionable.

“You know what we do here?” he asks.

“You kill me in chess?”

“We listen to each other’s stories,” he says. “When you get older, that seems to be the only reason to do anything.”

A woman in her mid-sixties wearing a blue nylon track suit walks by our table in the park, and he wolf whistles at her. His wife died a decade ago from an ailment he refuses to name, so he enjoys his afternoons in a park famed for elderly one-night stands. Around the park, retirement nightclubs and motel rooms cater to an aging population who act like teenagers thanks to a rising pharmaceutical industry. I know he misses her by the tone in his voice when he speaks of her, but he rarely mentions her. I do not even know her name. That is how I know he must love her. He keeps her close to his chest like the elephants on his back row, a subject requiring protection.

“You never tell me your stories,” he says. “I want to hear your stories.”

“Your stories are better, teacher,” I say, using his title in the traditional Korean way. We speak in a hybrid of Korean and English when we struggle to find the right words.

“There are no bad stories,” Jin says. “Just cowards afraid of speaking.”

“Thank you,” I say. I want to fight back against his insult, but I know he needs to make me hurt for a moment before he tells me a story, which is the reason why I am here: to listen. I love his stories although I am never sure if they are memories or lies. He tells his stories with his whole body and with character voices, and he reminds me of an ideal grandfather I never had who might tell me semi-magical stories of giant trout in the river that never get caught unless you whisper a secret into a river reed. I move my castle towards the center of the board, ready to start my counterattack when the moment is right, but that moment is not now.

“When I was young,” Jin says, “I fell in love with a prostitute during the Korean War. During those days, everyone was a prostitute if you had the money, but this one prostitute said she would never sleep with me regardless of how much I paid. I gathered up my pay each month and offered it to her, but she always told me no and to wait till after the war. Then something real could happen. I have to tell you, son, she had the face of a poem and the body of a dream. Do you know that kind of woman? Do you know what it’s like to touch a woman like that?”

I nod as I study his side of the board. His knight moves onto my side.

“She died before the war was over, but a friend of mine told me that she loved me. I don’t know why she loved me, but my friend swore she did. I don’t understand it to this day. I never wanted a girl like I craved her, but we never said anything to each other openly about things like that. We just laughed. I kept asking. She kept refusing. I raised my offer to mountains of money I would never have, and she refused. I just kept making that imaginary mountain of money bigger and bigger, and the bigger it got, the harder she laughed.”

“Sounds sweet,” I say.

“It was the middle of a war,” he says. “We did things like that then. We wrote long letters on scarves that we tied around our ankles to identify our bodies—letters that promised everything when we could deliver nothing.”

“What did your letter say?” I ask.

“You’re about to lose,” he says. He moves his other knight towards one of my ministers, and I see his pieces coming in a swarm. They are nearing my palace, and I try to image myself as the king on the board, standing on the battlements, watching the opposing troops wheel and scream while they approach my gates. My ministers fret behind me and talk of slipping out the palace’s back door.

He picks up his bottle of soju, traditional Korean liquor sold in little green bottles. He swirls around the last of what rests in the bottom of the bottle, examines it, and then throws it back. He allows himself to feel the burn of the liquor before spinning the bottle on the table and looking up at me, which serves as my invitation to buy him another bottle, the fee for my chess lesson.

“Teacher, I’ll get that,” I say. I pick up the empty bottle and drop it off in the trash as I walk over to the convenience store next to the park. I pluck a few fresh bottles from the fridge and take them up to a teenage cashier playing on his cell phone. I cough, and after a moment, he puts down his phone and stands.

“They don’t do anything,” the cashier says as he rings up the bottles. I have been here before, and he knows that I am buying the soju for my teacher. “They just get drunk and wait to die.”

“Maybe,” I say. “You don’t think they do anything else?”

“I don’t talk about what goes on in the motel rooms,” he says. “So much alcohol and time wasted.” He bags the bottles, and I take them without saying anything more. He likely sees most actions as wastes of time as if life after retirement should be placed into the large, green recycle bins in the park. This way their time could be processed and given to the young in packets of minutes and seconds. For him, all time needs a name and purpose, and I had neither of those to give.

In the minutes I have been away, Jin has talked two older ladies over to our table. “And maybe we could go dancing later?” he suggests to the two ladies. “I’ll be free soon.”

The two women laugh and tell him they will see him later.

“Come by if you’d like a drink,” Jin says as they walk away. He holds up the soju in the air as if they needed proof, but they are already gone.

“You’re killing my game,” he says to me. He uncaps the soju and pours himself a small amount into the same plastic cup from earlier in the afternoon. He shoots it down, pours himself another, and stares at it like the clear liquid might hold a secret. “I never had a son,” he says. “I tried plenty, but I never actually had one. That’s maybe the one regret that I have. I sometimes think of everything that I would like to teach him. I could teach him how to speak in English and how to shoot a gun. I’d teach him the things to say to a girl to make her feel special. I’d teach him a lot of things. A lot.” He looks at the board for a minute, toying with an elephant before moving a castle back towards his palace, a defensive move. “Don’t think I’m getting soft on you. I’m not that kind of guy. Now move and think before you do it.”

I look around down at the board but have difficulty seeing the next move. Every move will sacrifice another piece, and I feel like I need every piece on the board. I select a knight, but Jin shakes his head. I grip a cannon, and he gives me a curt nod. I move it alongside his palace, and he dangles his fingers inside his palace trying to decide what piece to move.

“Now tell me a story,” he says. “You owe me a story.”

“I ran away from home once when I was ten,” I say. “I packed my backpack in the evening, told my parents I was leaving, and went to my elementary school playground. All night I swung on the swings, slid down the slides, and climbed on the large, round metal ball that stood to one side of the playground. I fell asleep on a table near the soccer fields watching the moon. It looked huge in the sky. I remember desperately wanting to see the man in the moon, but I never found him. I fell asleep staring up, hoping to find a familiar shape up there.”

“When did you go home?”

“The next day, I played until my grade came out for recess in the morning, and I joined them. I went home after school. My mother never said anything about it. She asked about my day, and we continued like I had never left.”

“That’s a good mother,” he says. He pours himself another drink and looks around at the park for a minute, smiling. He seems to note the colorful pagodas with their blue roofs, sloped in gentle arcs to mimic the surrounding mountains. He looks out at the blue pond in the middle of the park and watches a woman drag her finger in the water, causing ripples to spread across the surface. “But that’s a terrible story,” he says. “Maybe I should do the storytelling from now on.” He moves a pawn towards my palace. “I want the end of this game to be different from our other games,” he says. “I want you to win this time, but you have to earn it.”

I look out at the board, unsure of what piece to touch.

“Kill me,” he says. “But you have to want it.”

I fumble with my pieces, and he stares at me. He no longer fingers his soju cup or stares off at the pond or the old women walking circles around the park with their hair done up in black rolls.

“I’m not sure I’ve taught you anything,” he says.

I pick a cannon and move it along the side of the board until it attacks the side of his palace.

“Think of the lines. Every line on the board ends at the palace. At this point in the game, you should only think about ending it. Remove options. That’s what your opponent is doing.”

I look at the board, but I cannot see the end of the game, and for a moment, I doubt I want to see the end of the game. The end of the game means silence and a long bus ride home, and I know there are still stories I want to hear and stories I would tell if I could only find the words.

He moves a knight to the edge of my palace. “That’s the best I can do. You’re one move away. Find it.” He stands and grabs his soju bottle and walks over to another table of old, retired men who are playing cards. They deal him a hand. He never looks back at me: a lesson in itself.

I stare at the board with its maze of lines and pick up the figure of the king from Jin’s palace. I scrutinize his little pewter face. He looks scared too at not knowing how to find the ending. Beneath the stoic lines of his nose and mouth, he must think of the moment when the troops storm the walls, as they always do, and he is left alone in the darkness, muttering stories about the days the ministers laughed at all of his stories.

Dr. Ryan Thorpe is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute where he teaches writing and humanities classes. He is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review, the editor of The Blue Tiger Review, and is the founder and director of the Shanghai Writing Workshop. He writes columns for The Global Times and Sixth Tone, has published in numerous literary journals. More information on his work can be found at rythorpe.com.

Aaron Raz Link — “Time”

At this moment (9:50am, Central Standard Daylight Savings Time) I am sitting on a porch in a small Nebraska town, and time is measured by robins and gray-haired men. The robins are very trim and appear roughly every two minutes to patrol their territory. The gray-haired men are considerably less trim and appear roughly every half hour to patrol their territory. These two measures of time coexist in the same space, neither taking much notice of the other. There are also bells on the hour from each of the twenty-one local churches that believe in Galileo’s system of measuring time. Galileo, in addition to proving we are not the center of the universe and even the heavens are imperfect, designed the first pendulum clock. He saw it was one aspect of gravity: a heavy weight, suspended from its source across a long distance, moves back and forth in a predictable arc. The pendulum’s travel has been replaced by the same electronics that run our cell phones, beeping to remind us when our loved ones were born and died, and the transcontinental airplanes that fly us across long distances, but our habit of measuring time with the body remains. Before Galileo, the most accurate measure of time was your heartbeat.

At this moment (10:05am, Central Standard Daylight Savings Time), a robin is building a nest. At roughly two-minute intervals, she appears on a nearby downspout, carrying a sheaf of damp grass. She lays it authoritatively on the downspout. Then she lowers her bill, spreads her wings, and does the Macarena. This remarkable behavior serves some important function, but it has been a long time since Marlon Perkins appeared on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to tell me what. On the downspout, it causes the grass to fall off. Every two minutes she tries again. By 10:17am, she has discovered the grass will stick in the crack where the downspout meets the wall and is concentrating her nest-building efforts there. It was not where she thought she’d end up this year, but it works. Scientifically, this is known as behavioral flexibility.

Personally, I measure time in cats. This method has disadvantages, since a human life may add up to only four or five. Neighbors who measure time in large dogs speak breezily in terms almost Biblical; ah, yes, that was in the days of Bonzo, son of Wellington, daughter of Rex. Their hair isn’t even going gray yet. In a smallish number of heartbeats, Buddha is dying–in this case he is a large dog who looked after my dying father—and he needs looking after himself. So here we are, Buddha and I and the birds, in our coincidental transits.

About sixty miles to the west of the nest is the largest concentration of cranes in the world. They are sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), birds as tall as a teenager, with wingspans wider than a grown man can reach. They are swinging by Nebraska on their way north, running thousands of miles before the wind to find a wild place to nurture their young. The cold wilderness that waits beyond Nebraska is not a place they could survive the winter, so after its summer is gone, they will swing back south. They pass through Nebraska again, seeking gentler climates. Either way, they do not stay long in the place I was born. Each year, the old ones fall away in the wind, and a new generation joins the flocks. Almost all of the world’s population stops to rest not far from where I grew up. At this moment (10:43am) half a million cranes are having brunch together along the banks of the Platte River. At least I hope they are. The weather has been unseasonably warm, most of the Platte River now runs out of sink taps in Denver, and the cranes do not operate on clock time. No one is sure exactly how much river they need to survive, or how they know when it’s time to leave.

Though I grew up not far from here, I have never seen those 500,000 cranes.


Long before I was a trans gay radical West Coast Jewish writer, I was a kid in Nebraska. When I was young, what seemed remarkable was the human ability to model the world. In a digital age it is now so commonplace that people have trouble telling the difference between the world and their Facebook page. But in years gone, families like mine spent hundreds of hours in the state museum, watching the wonder of planetarium shows that could project images of the stars we still saw outside, and touring the new Hall of Nebraska Wildlife. Nebraska wildlife was freely available outdoors. Still, people came hundreds of miles to marvel at the realism of the beaver family, the bobcat stalking a brushy-tailed packrat, the twelve-point buck whitetail. Each was mounted by an expert scientific preparator, every leaf on the beavers’ cottonwood sapling cut separately from parchment paper. The fuzz on the baby packrats modeled with infinite care in their illuminated secret nest was made from sifted cotton lint, lifted into realism by wands charged with static electricity.

Carl Akeley perfected this type of diorama more than a century ago so that tenement-dwellers from Brooklyn could take the subway to see gorillas in the mist. But the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife wasn’t designed to offer its visitors scenes they could never witness in life. It asked you to notice the world beyond your door. This same spirit animated the old tradition of State Fair dioramas: an acorn the size of your head, an enormous cornucopia of perfect fruit, a display window that could have held elephants filled instead with a model cross-section of backyard dirt, a single earthworm the size of ourselves modeled in loving detail. But the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife used none of these wonders of scale. Its master artifice was time. Visitors came to bear witness to thousands of hours of painstaking skilled labor, all required to recreate a timeless model of their own world.

Only we—the visitors—moved, through frozen landscapes lively with our absence, listening to voices always audible to us through the invisible mechanics of recording, wondering at what we saw. In other words, we went to see the mounted cranes on their majestically painted river in the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife, but we did not think the regular return of half a million of their living kin along the Platte was anything unusual.

Time marches on. At 11:00am a cardinal lights on a branch outside, eliciting an honest gasp. It is precisely the color of that perfect tomato you are always looking for in the supermarket and can never find. This too did not seem to me remarkable before I left Nebraska, where they are ordinary, for a place where such things are not found.

To tell the truth, I never thought much of ordinary dioramas. I was drawn instead to the cat-eyed Allosaurus (extinct 150 million years ago), to Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that has ever lived (25 million years ago), and to the dwarf mammoth the size of a large dog (1 million years ago, almost close enough to touch). I spent hours at the farmyard, every inhabitant of which was a skeleton, from the cow to the chickens to the farmer himself, one bony foot on the paddock gate, a strand of mounting wire between his teeth. (Forty-five years later, he is still there, though in the era of Ronald Reagan, the wire was discreetly tucked back and hidden behind his incisors. Like the past or your own skeleton, you can’t see the joke unless you know it is there.)

The dioramas I loved were the prairie oceans, decorated with colorful crinoids, cruised by cephalopods in shells like party hats, and busy with trilobites, faintly beetle-like creatures whose faceted eyes gazed back across the unbridgable distance of 500 million years. With unerring instinct, I honed in on the artifice that evoked those lives we could no longer touch, the calls that we would never hear, separated forever by time.

In the Hall of Paleozoic Life, each glowing window on what at first seems to be the same tropical reef announces the passage of millions of years.

In the beginning, we had nothing to stand on and did not even know what we were. At a place named Avalon, on the edge of a cliff called Mistaken Point, you can step out across the bottom of the sea on one particular day 565 million years ago. You can see every creature–all reproduced here, in the first diorama–as they anchor in the ooze like tiny junipers or lie cowlike on the ground. You can touch the details of their bodies, how they spread out across the country in scattered herds, the way the siltfall that entombed them left them all pointing in the same direction. You can know everything about them, except who they were. We have no idea. Were their lives anything we could recognize? We do not even know if they were animals like us. At this distance of time, the information is something we may never recover. The diorama is very small. It is illuminated by a mysterious blue light.

At the other end of the Hall is the end of time. It is called the Permian extinction. 90% of all life on earth died, far more than what was lost with the dinosaurs, far more even than is being lost now. No one alive knows why. When you look through that last window, you see the world on the day before the dying. The reef teems with life in every imaginable pattern; all you can see at first is a thicket of fingers and eyes. The fingers are eloquent corals and sponges speaking in signs, the stalks of sea lillies, the spines of sea urchins and sculptured lamp shells. The eyes belong to fish and trilobites, scallops with scores of eyes as blue as my father’s, and nautiloids called ammonites, after the ram’s horns of the indomitable Egyptian god of empty space. When you look up you will see that the sky above you, through which the light comes, is made of blue glass. When you look into the distance through the skein of life, you will see it extends indefinitely, receeding forever, as when you were a child and turned two mirrors to meet each other and found yourself living in a hall of mirrors without end.

To the left of the diorama is a small doorway. There is no announcement. There is no door to open. There is nothing to stop you. Sooner or later your footsteps will take you through this doorway, and you will be in another world. The blue light will be gone. Nothing will ever refer to it again, as if it had never been.

From now on you will live on dry land.


Each spring when I was a child, my family would pack a picnic and set off for a small place called Weeping Water. A story says the name records the grief of two tribes for all the dead in the long war between them. This is probably a romantic mistranslation. There is a permanent creek here, and it falls through some of the largest natural deposits of limestone on earth, making a lot of noise for a part of the world that has never seen a waterfall. The limestone deposits were once coral reefs. A man named Dave Meyers once owned a limestone quarry here, digging out the bones of reefs to crush into road gravel. The top of the reef had been flattened by the mining, and families like ours would climb the hill and picnic on the scrape plateau. If, on a warm spring day, you had eaten your fill of fried chicken and leaned back off the edge of the blanket, your palms would come away printed with clamshells, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. We used to scoop up crinoid stems to string into keychains; the hill was made of them. The ground we sat on, fissured with zones of prickly pear and ornamented with occasional abandoned cars, was a tropical reef 300 million years old, the peak of the world’s abundance, the last age before the age of the great dying.

In a building on the town’s main street is a model of the town’s main street. It records a time forty years before I arrived in the world to eat fried chicken on the fossil coral reef and drink soda pop from a 25-cent machine that vended bottles. Each building on that other street is minutely detailed, cut from varicolored paper and assembled like a house of cards. Beneath each is a drawer. Each drawer holds a stratigraphy–a record of each person who held, for a fragment of time, a lease on that spot. In 1904, Fong Jon ran a Chinese laundry; in 1910, Jim Look gave him a run for his money. There were doctors and barbers and homeopaths, a lunch counter and a cigar factory, a newspaper called the Eagle that ceased publication in 1893. The model and its stratigraphy were made by the hands of Dave Meyers, the gravel king, who helped start the town historical society.

Forty years later, the coral reef is called Potash Quarry, owned by PCS Phosphate, a multinational mining corporation based in Canada. PCS Phosphate does not donate to the town historical society. About seven hundred truckloads of fossil coral reef are removed every day. The site is fenced and posted against trespassing; even the locals no longer try to go there.

A local explains the situation. “They don’t let people up there without permission, if you can even get permission–the ownership’s outside the country. It’s all different now. A boy went up into the quarry years ago and drowned. Now everybody’s worried about their liability.” The man is a volunteer with the town historical society and has stopped by the town coffeehouse, which doubles as an antique store. (It’s also a historical costume library doing a national business via the Internet, with its own in-house armory and prop fabrication shop, and a bakery when the owner gets around to making popovers.) The owner gives the man coffee in a china cup with his name on it. Bill drinks his coffee and slides back the cup. The owner says, “People have been known to prosecute.”

Bill has a ball cap that says U.S. Navy, ret., and no particular place he has to be just yet. A burly man comes in from the armory. He and Bill and the woman serving coffee catch each other’s eyes, and the man hands Bill a set of keys. They’re board members of the historical society, which makes this something of a quorum. “We’ve got five buildings,” Bill says. “Do you want a tour?”


In Hastings, Nebraska, a man named Dave Stewart once walked upstairs at a building where he rented space and found a railroad whorehouse. Generations before, the last owner had retired, locked the front door, and left. By trade, Dave Stewart was a janitor in the art department at the local college. One night he found an assignment left behind on the studio chalkboard: find objects and make a sculpture. So when he found the windows of the whorehouse were still level to lean out and chat with the long-gone gentlemen on the passenger trains that no longer came in, the velveteen settees and the wardrobes and the flower-figured wallpaper still waiting, he figured he ought to do something. The place is now called the Burlington Sleeping Rooms. Dave Stewart will take you up there if you swear he’s not liable if you fall through the floorboards and die.

There are a few cast-off but graceful mannequins; they gaze out a window or turn away from you to brush their hair, and the wardrobes are now full of the clothes these women might wear, and there are delicate celluloid grooming kits on the vanity tables, and perhaps a photograph tucked in a mirror. But mostly the rooms are empty. It is as if the inhabitants had just stepped outside for a moment. You are waiting yourself, with a strong sensation of being out of time and perhaps inside a Joseph Cornell box. You are not quite sure what you will say to the women when they come back. The painted nudes in gilt frames on the walls are by Dave Stuart, more Matisse than pornography. And when you peek in a bedroom, a woman who is no longer there has just been writing a letter to her mother, to say hi and talk about cousin Millie and the weather and the loneliness that sometimes comes into this house like a visitor from another time, and patches of plaster sometimes fall from the ceiling, and in the end you will always lose your nerve and leave before the women who work here come back. But you don’t forget them, ever.

Every town in Nebraska has at least one museum. In Nebraska City, population just over seven thousand, there is a civil war museum where John Brown’s best friend’s sister once lived. A sign on the lawn of the post office preserves both the town newspaper article that reported the escape of a slave with the phrase “she must have been enticed away by some white-livered Abolitionist,” and the information that a large crowd of all races drove her former owner away when he tried to recapture her. His mansion, which burned down, is now the Post Office lawn. At the Dinty Moore Lunch Counter, a descendant of someone chats happily with a visiting Dominican woman from New York City; she makes an appointment to visit the Civil War Museum.

There is also the Windmill Museum, a factory whose last owner locked the front door and left; they used to run the equipment in demonstrations on Sundays. Up the hill, there is a fine and costly new museum about Lewis and Clark (they slept here), with dioramas of local wildlife. It’s not far from the renovated historic barns and orchard where Arbor Day was founded, but right downtown is also the River Country Nature Center, open by appointment, which displays dioramas of local wildlife along with 100 different breeds of chickens, and one of the largest collections of albino creatures in the Midwest. It’s the life’s work of a dedicated taxidermist. The town pitched in to get him a place. Down the road is the village of Union, population 99. All the business on the one-block main street are shuttered, but the town jail is on the National Register of Historic Places. There are small towns in Nebraska where it might be impossible to forget anything.


In Weeping Water, Bill unlocks the first of five buildings. It is a wunderkammer: a museum of the most remarkable things people here have ever seen. There’s a two-tine hoe made by Nellie Sac’s grandfather from a single piece of iron, and a vespa wasp nest found in Michigan by Mrs. Sigvald Jensen. Here are the thirteen white silk roses placed on the coffin of Sam Baker in 1991, the last survivor of the Last Men’s Club. Here are the typewritten minutes of the seventy-three annual meetings they had after they came home alive from the War To End All Wars, a record of thirteen men’s yearly toasts together and of their slow deaths one by one.

At the coffee house, the three locals had briefly argued over whether this building was the oldest in town. “No,” said the woman behind the counter, “Linda’s house is older than that. She’s got steel bars on the windows to keep the Indians out.” Bill answers immediately in the reflective, thoughtful tone that substitutes here for indignation, “My great-grandfather, when the Poncas came through each spring, he used to always give them a calf. He never had any trouble.” The third man goes in the back and looks up Linda’s house; at 1856, it’s the oldest European structure.

The wunderkammer gradually resolves into a stratigraphy, a cross section of Weeping Water’s life through time. There are coral heads the size of large dogs (Pennsylvanian: Virgil Series, Shawnee Group), then a scattering of nautiloids and Pseudozaphrentoides horn corals, who lived more solitary lives. Then come artifacts from a village of Oneota people, who lived here before the Poncas did (North side of Weeping Water Creek, 700-800 years ago, excavated in 1976 by Dr. Lloyd W. Kunkle, MD, who wears a pith helmet). A large round pot from the site thoughtfully resembles one of the corals. Then Ponca, Omaha, and Oto people are making everyday objects with fine geometric decorations, first of porcupine quills, then glass trade beads. By 1850, someone is making a fry griddle from slate bound with iron, and twenty-five years later, someone else feels the need for a fluting iron to press ruffles into fancy clothes. Most of the rest is war.

Recent wars are not much represented, though when I ask Bill whether he’s from Weeping Water, he tells me he came when he was eighteen to inherit his grandfather’s house and go to college in the nearby city. “That was the plan, anyway,” he says. “Like a lot of people my age, I took an unexpected vacation.” He does not directly mention Vietnam. After his tours of duty, he returned to Weeping Water, Nebraska, population 1000, and never left.

Between the uniforms of World Wars I and II are the children’s button shoes of Minnie Barden and the chestnut duster of Jens Morgensen, who was so fond of his favorite horse that, when it died, he had it made into his winter coat. Two dignified older ladies are on their knees cleaning under the cases; come spring, the place will be open to the public on Sundays. They are trying to raise funds for historic preservation. This requires a whole different idea of what it means to keep a record. Bill mentions to his colleagues that an outside consultant emphasized Excel spreadsheets, and the ensuing discussion includes the word “Heavens!”

Suddenly, the room fills up with music. The sound resembles a music box the way a toy piano resembles a Bach organ concerto. It’s a Regina disc player; I last heard one forty years ago in a small town like this. The air resounds with a forgotten pop song from 1807: Hogtown Pig Annie’s Two Step and Cake Walk. One of the women says, “I just touched it by accident and it started. It started by itself. No one knows how to fix it. We’re not supposed to play it anymore.”

We all stand still and listen until the dance runs down.

The last of the five buildings is the office of Dr. Fate. When he retired from Weeping Water, he locked the door and left the fainting couch and the tower of medicines and the ribbon web that held the names of the people he cared for. Bill and the other folks down at the coffee house have kept hold of the keys. It all remains. At any moment, Fate will walk through the door and find us.

Though PCS Phosphate has fenced off the picnic site atop the coral reef, the woman who pours the coffee tells me quietly, “Go straight on down this road to the town park. Head North as far as you can go–don’t leave the park, the guy who owns the other side of the creek tends to prosecute. But the park’s public property.” The man who takes the keys back from Bill disappears for a moment, then opens his hands. They are full of fossils.

I go where she tells me. The creek still makes its resonant music. The banks are still filled with rough limestone and nodules of chert and tiny green frogs. My hand closes on a fragment of bone, then a stone made entirely from pieces of clamshell. And where the water sings over a riffle, I reach in, and there on my palm is the stem of the sea lily, the one that waves across all dioramas of first life, that still grows today in the depths of far oceans if only you know how to look, the one that sat on my palm atop a coral reef on another spring day, and the forty years that have passed since then is no time, it is no time at all.


According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five phases of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the first phase, we pretend nothing has changed. We look at the landscape and tell jokes. My return to the place I was born was carefully planned to avoid such problems; I would see the spectacle of migration, half a million individual bodies in flight, then return the next week in solitary splendor to see what the world looked like when they were gone. But migration and flight do not work so neatly, even if one does not forget until standing at the rental car agency that time and important birthdays means one’s license to drive has expired, even if one does not forget that spring in Nebraska is tornado weather.

I bargain my way to a new license. The sun shines warm on our backs. Birds and people go about their spring business. Soon I have a car.

The sky turns black.

When the storms roll in, I stop watching the robin building her nest.

In the visitor’s book where I am staying, someone has written, “DO NOT MISS talking to Joe, the taxidermist at the River Country Nature Center. He’s amazing! (98 years old).” The entry is dated a number of years ago. It’s the year my father died, within hours of crossing the border back to Nebraska, the state he had never wanted to call home. They tell me his last act was to pump his fist in the air in triumph that he had made it. One last roadtrip, then home. The last time I came here was to see his body before they burned it. I did not go to Nebraska City and meet Joe.

Everyone’s father dies. Yours, mine, Nellie Sac’s, Jens Morgensen’s (in the museum is an antique photograph of his son wearing the chestnut coat), the father of Dr. Lloyd W. Kunkle and of Standing Bear, chief of the Poncas, who illegally returned home with a few survivors of his decimated tribe to bury his son in the hills that held the bones of his father. First he had to stand in a courtroom and convince American law that an Indian is a person. Legally, only people have the right of habeus corpus: to know why my body is here. They say that when he spoke, the judge wept.          image(1)

At an architectural salvage yard in Nebraska City is a tool whose name is lost. The owner does not know what it is. The business end is heavy, so much that it must have been designed to fall through something, as a scythe does. Like a scythe, it is achingly beautiful, even to eyes that no longer understand how every element was made to further the action of a tool that would save your life if you used it well, and if you did not, it would kill you. A thick blade is strapped to one side with iron bands, its shape the swooping curve we used to call an apple knife. A generation before me would have called that blade a bill, and a billhook to harvest apples might be what the tool is, though I have never seen one this size. The handle is so beautiful it hurts to look at. Its curve resembles a natural growth, or what an axe handle might look like if it were hand-carved for giants by Alberto Giacometti. The wood is still solid, though it has been bleached the color of bones by weather and time and neglect. The blade is rusted dull. No one will ever use this tool again to do the work it was designed for. But it is here, not in a trash pile, not beneath the ruins of a decayed barn. The price tag says sixty-five dollars.

We all die. The people who inherit their grandparents’ houses and stay on in small towns know this. They have no way to pretend otherwise, even if they can now sell old farm tools to tourists. The thirteen white roses on Sam Baker’s coffin marked the death of the Last Men’s Club, which waited seventy-three years to find out which man would win the reward of flowers they would never see. The roses were laid by a member’s son. There was no one else to do it. Someone records his contribution to the museum on a small white card. Someone dusts the card. Someone paints a story of two warring tribes on a wall in a small Nebraska town, a tale without victory, all the survivors weeping. Someone donates the old cup they found while laying a new water line in their basement. Someone’s father made it. Someone’s mother made the big Vespa wasp nest Mrs. Sigvald Jensen found in Michigan. Someone wrote Mrs. Jensen’s husband’s name on the label. Her own name is lost. Trilobites. Crinoids. Coral reefs. The monarch butterflies that celebrated my childhood summers like ticker-tape parades of tiger lilies are on their way to the Endangered list. At the entry to Weeping Water is an enamel sign proclaiming their high school sports team state champions in 1961. All that lives is becoming extinct.

I go to see the cranes.

They are scattered in the thin rain across the stubblefields west of Grand Island, feeding on bugs and waste corn, not lining up to be counted. You might not notice them unless you know they are there. Once you see them, they are everywhere, strolling like small gray Herefords casually about the fields. They are the impeccable color of morning clothes. (The youngsters are an embarrassed brown.) Though I had imagined fields of pavé cranes, they do not congregate all in the same spot, or come in a day or leave in a day. Instead they arrive thin and hungry, wander about the rich soil, and leave in much better condition when they feel strong enough to continue and the wind is right. Some ease up the road a way, others continue half-way around the world. There are enough of them in places that they move in waves, like flamingos in a nature video.

At the Rowe Audobon Center in Gibbon, a few older volunteers run tours at dusk and dawn, and maintain large maps of the world. The maps open when the cranes arrive, and close when most have moved on. Visitors apply colored pins to mark their own migration. This year they came from East Falkland Island, East London in South Africa, Tabriz in Iran. From Casper Wyoming, Texarkana Texas, Meekatharra Australia, Niamey Niger. They came from Moscow and Hammerføst on the north end of Norway, at the top of the world. Someone arrived from Siberia, apparently just to check if the cranes were on their way. From Matamoros in Mexico, from Chad near the Libyan border, from Pearl City Hawaii, from Ooligah Lake. A visitor from the Marshall Islands remarked on how nice the place was. In the parking lot on this dark afternoon, a dozen vehicles sit in the freezing wind, license plates from Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, and two old farm trucks from up the road.

The cranes are not at the center this afternoon, though the trees by the river explode with the calls of red-winged blackbirds. There is a whiteboard account of what’s been seen today: bald eagle, wild turkeys, sharp-tailed grouse, greater yellowlegs. Someone has added “Northern Cardinal” to the list of notable birds.

In the fields, the farmers wait until after the cranes are gone to plant the new season’s corn. A couple of men work on an irrigation pipe. At a small feed lot, cranes graze on one side of a fence, and Herefords on the other. At the other end of the lot, pairs of cranes take turns showily hopping a foot off the ground with their wings spread, like transcendental mediators practicing levitation. Occasionally they will pick up a sheaf of damp grass and toss it into the air with every evidence of delight. The young Herefords take a close interest in this, and toss their heads.

Though I have been warned about the shyness of cranes, I stop the car to watch. They are fifteen feet away. Some of the flock ignore me. A few raise heads like scarlet spears, appearing to stare studiously in another direction. I get slowly out of the car. A few eye me, yellow irises gleaming, and the flock gets on with the business of eating.

A girl about six weaves noisily down the road on a miniature all-terrain vehicle. She is wearing a pink parka. The cranes take wing, providing a satisfying spectacle. It’s quite a thing for a little girl in a pink parka to be able to do. In flight, the cranes do not really look like herons or wild geese; they resemble axe handles designed for giants by Alberto Giacometti. The flock calls and drifts a few feet before settling back in the subblefield. Mission accomplished, the girl turns happily down a farm driveway. The cranes graze on. Somewhere on a downspout, a robin is finishing her nest.

As the light goes, I am standing on a bridge over the Platte River, where the shifting sandbanks have provided purchase only for a solitary juniper. The bridge was once part of a railroad. The rails have been replaced with boards for walking, and someone has bolted two vast iron plates to the sides of the open bridge. A person from elsewhere would have no idea why until they step out and are struck by the prairie wind. On my way out to the bridge I meet a couple coming in, leaving behind the wind and the late light; an old woman with an old dog and an old man with a cane. We smile and nod. They disappear into mist. I stand vigil for my hour on the boards.

You will not see all the cranes at once, but if you listen you will hear them. The sound rises constantly from every direction, a purring like running water or a distant crowd. They—who elicit an honest gasp at first sight—have been revealed all day long as ordinary, part of the landscape like Herefords or freeways or corn. It is only here, alone on the bridge, exposed in the gathering dark in the cold empty wind, that you can hear all their voices together. Only then will you understand what we have been skirting the edges of all along.

As night falls, the fine rain that passes for fog here will close in, and the horizon will slowly begin to disappear. The cold might make you think if you stay here you will soon die, but if you have been in such places before, you know that you will adjust, with time. People say that as night falls, all the cranes come together to the river. On the bridge I am standing exposed, clear of the windbreaks, so I can see the horizon from which they will come. I can do this because I am wearing my father’s windproof jacket. His widow, who knows this territory well, lent the jacket to me. It has a small stain of blood on the left sleeve, marking one of his many choices late in life to continue walking, though he knew he would fall. And so I can see that as the invisible sun goes down, first the most distant ridge of coral limestone disappears into mist, then the fields the Oneota and then the Ponca burned for corn, then the windbreak of trees planted by pioneer farmers, and then the closer, more recent trees whose taproots drink from the river. There is no threatening darkness, no markable line. The grayness just quietly swallows them.

Two wild geese fly in. They paddle companionably, lover by lover, for a while. Then they have flown away. Another replaces them, alone. The far bank disappears. And then, when you are about to give up—if you are old enough by now to resist the impulse and stay a little longer, lingering by the sign that marks the limit of public access—you will hear a wild cry.

When you look up they will be there. They are perfect silhouettes, gray on gray, every detail outlined like absence, their voices ringing in your ears. First there will be one. Then  thirteen. Another small flock, and a score, and more, and soon you will come to understand that even though all you can see now is the river–even the house that seemed so close a minute ago is fading away–they are assembling. Each time you think they have all come, there are more. They are standing on the water, calling, and you know them by their voices, though you can see them now only as flickers on the edge of your vision, interruptions in the late light. You would not see them unless you know they are there.

And when you have stood on the bridge with their voices for as long as you can bear, you will turn to go, and meet an old man coming the other way to replace you, with his daughter and her daughter. You will nod to each other as your paths briefly cross. You will notice the man’s granddaughter resembles the teenage girl you saw yesterday, from behind a screen of trees, walking up to join her sister on the swing where you and your brother used to swing, in the yard of the house where you grew up, where you no longer live. And you will see there is no place where it ends.

Aaron Raz Link is the author of What Becomes You, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His work has appeared in journals including Fourth Genre, TSQ, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly Online, and Porabola, and anthologies including Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, Genderqueer, and American Lives: A Reader. He was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and wrote “Time” fifty years later on a Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency in Nebraska City.

Amanda Kay Oaks — “The Lonely Planet Guide to Grief”

The pool of water that fills this lava tube is deep, its bottom unknowable. I float on my back, close my eyes, let the water cradle me, fill my ears so that the world around goes silent in the steady drone of water. Like a sensory deprivation tank. Like trying to understand what it’s like not to be.

The thought is too much, and I jerk myself upright in the water, open my eyes. It all slides back into focus—the interplay of rock and sky, river and gorge. My friend Nicki floats beside me, half submerged. I want to crystallize this moment, to photograph it with my mind. I didn’t bring my journal or my cell phone because I didn’t trust myself not to tip the kayaks we’d paddled down a section of the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho.

This is the first time I’ve been in a kayak, and I’m surprised at how natural it feels. My arms clutching the paddle settle into a rhythm, and before long I look back to see my friend Nicki far behind me, a sliver of red hair, red life jacket, red kayak.

The Snake River is a wide, slow river. There are almost no rapids here, and barely any current. You make your own momentum. It’s exactly what I need today, what I need this summer… it may be what I need for the rest of this after. I’ve come here to spend time with Nicki, a childhood friend I hadn’t seen since she’d moved out here to do biology field work, and to engage with new landscapes. But most of all, I’ve come because my ex-boyfriend Nathan’s recent death made staying put feel impossible.

I’m still looking up at that picture-picture view, jagged rock climbing up until it meets the bright blue sky, when a thought shocks its way into me: Whatever happened to Nathan’s camera?

My first love, Nathan, had been a photographer. He’d also been a runner and, until two months ago, had been alive. Now, I wonder for the first time what became of his beloved camera, a Canon that made its way across Europe, through the Netherlands, and across the U.S. from Illinois to Arkansas, Arkansas to Arizona. Nathan had always been in motion, and always with his camera. It had been an extension of him, his lens on the world. Where is it now?

A shudder runs through me at the thought of his family going through the files on Nathan’s hard drive, finding the pictures he’d taken of me. Pictures of me wearing his white Hanes t-shirt and a pair of his sweatpants, pictures of me set against the landscapes of parks across the Midwest. Photos where I smiled in giddy, wide-eyed disbelief that the man behind that camera was mine, and I was his. Would they wonder why this woman their son had loved had abandoned him so completely?

I submerge myself in the cold water as if I can cleanse myself of these thoughts. I haven’t come to Idaho to dwell on guilt and grief. I have come west as Cheryl Strayed came west, as Helen MacDonald trained the hawk. These texts rode the Greyhound to Idaho with me, my personal roadmaps to grief, literature the only way I can begin to piece together the how of moving forward. I have come to in order to become someone who can bear this weight, the mixture of loss and guilt that still sometimes rips through my chest, leaving me breathless. To let unknown territory rinse me of my transgressions, let me remember him without the shadow cast by the year of silence that hangs forever between us, stretching across the rest of my life. I can never break that silence now, so I’m trying to cleanse myself of the guilt, learn to forgive myself for what I can’t change. My own kind of baptism.

Another group of kayakers has found their way to this compilation of rock and pools and is doing exactly what the kayak rental company had warned us not to do—diving from the rock outcropping into the nearby rush of rapids. They’ve brought a cooler of beer and shout to one another as they plunge.

I look at Nicki, whose head is out of the water at last, her red hair slicked back. “Let’s head back,” I say.


When we get back to Nicki’s apartment in the small town of Gooding, Idaho, we changed out of wet clothes and settle down on her couch. An overturned box forms a makeshift coffee table, on which we rest full cups of Ginger Ale.

“So, what next?” she asks. She’s taken an extra day off to give herself a four-day weekend to spend with me.

“I need mountains,” I tell her.

“The Sawtooths are only a couple of hours from here,” she says, pulling out one of many maps she’d picked up when we planned my visit. She traces along the road, pointing to the mountain range, which she’s visited once before.

“That sounds perfect,” I say, thinking already of how it will feel to lace up my hiking boots, put some distance behind me.

The next day, we gather our gear and go. We chatter through the drive, pausing occasionally to sing along to pop songs on the radio. Because Nicki’s car is a stick shift, I can’t share the driving, so I hold the map instead, offer to pay for gas. We’d grown up together, so in spite of the fact that we’d stopped talking during our college years, our friendship falls easily back into a natural rhythm.

We make camp beside a gravel road at dusk. There isn’t enough light for the 12-mile hike we’ve planned, so we cook canned chili and Idaho potatoes on her camp stove and read The Cursed Child aloud until even the fire can’t lend us enough light. Growing up, Nicki and I had read Harry Potter together, sitting side by side at our brothers’ soccer practices in cheap lawn chairs. Reading the play together now pulls us back to our youth and, though we laugh at the absurdity of it all, it feels like it just might be powerful enough to do some healing. If not healing the fresh wound of losing Nathan, at least the old wounds of Nicki’s and my own years of silence. The college years. The forgotten years.

Sitting here in the woods at dark reminds me of the trip Nathan and I took to The Great Smoky Mountains when we’d first started dating. While Nicki is a seasoned wilderness expert, Nathan and I had been amateurs. We hadn’t thought to buy a camp stove, and Nathan struggled to get the fire lit, singeing his fingertips. My ambitious menu of camp food dwindled in the thinning light as we tried to melt cheese inside quesadillas wrapped in foil, but neither of us minded much. We were together, sleeping side by side in my parents’ four-person tent. It was there, a few nights into our trip, that we kissed for the first time, me leaning cautiously towards him as rain beat down on the tent’s nylon sides. After two days of maddening closeness, I’d realized I would have to make the first move or it wouldn’t happen, so I’d leaned over towards him and tentatively pressed my lips to his. It was Nathan’s first kiss, and the first and only time I’d kissed someone first. I have yet to experience an intimacy as great and all-consuming as what we shared during that trip.

Now, three years later somewhere below the Sawtooth Mountain Range, tears prick at the edges of my eyes as Nicki and I crawl into her tent to sleep, and she doesn’t question them. In the morning, we hike.

I didn’t know mountains could look so different. These mountains look nothing like the Smokies, full of soft, rounded trees, humidity lending a still sweetness to the air. The Sawtooths, I realize, are not my mountains. The air is dry, the trees spike sharp against the skyline, all jagged edges. I think of Nathan as we climb, my mind flipping through the countless texts and Facebook and Twitter messages I’d ignored during the year after our break up. The last year of his life, though of course I hadn’t known it would be.  I force my feet along the arid ridges, cut my boots across the endless switchbacks that will lead us to Artic Lake. It feels like atonement.

Around midday, we arrive. We sit on the stony shore and kick off our shoes. I stare into the glistening expanse of the lake’s surface, a crystal ball in which I might divine meaning. We linger here a long time, feel the air cooling towards night.

Halfway down the mountain, we hear a man shouting “Help!” We look at each other. The vulnerability of two women alone flashes through our minds. So does the knowledge that a man’s life might be in our hands. We follow his voice.

He sits halfway up the cliff face, feet dangling. He can’t get down, doesn’t seem to know how he got up. “I was on the trail,” he insists, though the trail is a good quarter mile away.

I call 911 while Nicki calls up to the man—I repeat their questions, which Nicki repeats to him. She calls his answers out to me and I repeat them to 911—name, age, and hiking experience. The questions seem endless, and I can’t help wondering whether they’ve forgotten there is a man on a cliff.

“What supplies does he have?” I shout, as prompted.

There’s a long pause, then Nicki shouts back: “He has a stick and sturdy shoes!”

Finally, they agree to send Search and Rescue, instructing one of us to stay with the man while the other goes down to meet them. I run down the mountain, forgetting that I’ve never hiked this far before, that once I reach the bottom my legs will refuse to return. Nicki stays with him. I burst from the tree line at last, expecting to find a team of handsome, rugged firefighters but instead finding only a chubby woman with a pickup truck and a walkie-talkie. It takes hours to send someone up. Meanwhile I huddle in the back of the Search and Rescue truck wrapped in a thin emergency blanket, sipping Gatorade and fretting over the fact that Nicki’s phone is slowly dying and soon I’ll have no way to reach her. I’m scared of silence, newly awake to the possibility of death and irrevocability.

I dove into the wild hoping to find a catalyst for transformation, following the footsteps of writers I admired, the rumpled pages of grief narratives my guides. But grief is its own kind of catalyst. From the moment I learned of Nathan’s death, that sudden erasure, change was inevitable. He was the first person close to me who had died, the first person my age to have life cut short in an instant. Where once, I would never have imagined that the man on the cliff wouldn’t survive, or that Nicki wouldn’t be able to make her way back down the trail safely, death looms everywhere for me now. Death is possible now, concrete in a way it hadn’t been before. Death is something that can happen. Sitting in the truck, waiting and worrying, I trace my new edges—raw, sensitive, fresh. Begin to feel a sense of the person I will be in the after.

It is dark by the time Nicki makes her way down the mountain alone, a single headlamp to light her way. I race out to the trailhead to meet her and hold her tight. She’s alive. Though the helicopters can’t come for the man until morning, he, too, will survive.


Nicki and I get back to our tent well after dark and stay up talking, trying to comprehend the evening’s events. We sleep only a few hours, then wake up and make the Tasty-Bite meal we’d planned for the previous night’s dinner for breakfast—chana masala poured over instant rice.

“We saved a man’s life,” we keep saying, rehashing events as the reality of them already starts slipping away. Rather than go out for another hike, we decide to head back, take the time in the car to digest events.

It doesn’t feel possible that it’s coincidental, the young woman reeling with guilt about how she could’ve handled things differently leading up to her ex-boyfriend’s death coming across the chance to save someone’s life.

“It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like… redemption, in a way,” I tell Nicki over pizza when we stop for lunch halfway back to Gooding. She nods. We’ve been over my guilt, discussed the ways in which Nathan’s death couldn’t be my fault. But it lingers still, the thought that if I hadn’t broken up with him, if I hadn’t refused his attempts to move to Cincinnati, he wouldn’t have been running on that dry, hot Arizona evening of his death. Maybe he’d have died anyway, from a bad heart or a seizure, whatever it was that killed him. But maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have. Maybe the Ohio climate would have been kinder. Maybe I could have been kinder.

Now, maybe, the scales have been rebalanced. I can’t change the way I handled my break up with Nathan, but this time, I chose compassion. As inconvenient as it was to stop along the trail and call 911, as scared as we were that the man’s shouts were a trick to lure us off the path, Nicki and I had chosen to stop. That feels like it has to mean something. The guilt starts to shift, and I understand for the first time that one day I will be able to forgive myself. Not yet, but someday. And that is enough.

Amanda Kay Oaks is a Pittsburgh-based writer, educator, and professional wearer of many hats. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. “The Lonely Planet Guide to Grief” began as part of her thesis, a collection of personal essays titled How to Tell a Love Story. Her work has appeared in The Longridge Review, Hoosier Lit, the Inspiring to Aspire anthology, and others.

Samuel Autman — “Grady, Arkansas is Vanishing”

I am standing outside of my grandparents’ house in Grady, Arkansas, a town of 523 souls on the Mississippi Delta. My sister and I spent our summers running around barefoot on these red dirt roads as children. Our grandmother sometimes locked us kids out of the house as she sat at a sewing machine eating ice cream with an electric fan blowing on her.

“Chillun belongs outside,” she’d yell to us as we had our faces pressed against the screen door.

Clouds dance on the pink horizon as the sun sets over the green and white wooden house my grandfather built in 1960. I’m five hours late having flown from New York City. I haven’t stayed the night at their house in twenty-five years. I’ve come to see Madea, 87, and Granddaddy, 90, before one or both of them dies. I want her to hug me, give me a hot tea and wrap me in one of her homemade quilts. Just maybe age has softened her.

I slam the rental car trunk shut, compose myself and knock on the door. They yell for me to come in.

Madea rests on her recliner while Granddaddy sprawls out on the sofa. The audience cheers on The Wheel of Fortune. I stoop my 6-foot-4 frame to hug them each. Vanna White turns a consonant around. The woman on the TV picks the wrong word.

Granddaddy sits back and radiates in silence.

“Now boy how’s comes you is so late?” Madea spits out, clutching the TV remote.

“Oh, I overslept and missed my flight. I had to take a later one.”

“Overslept? Well, if you had a woman in your life you wouldn’t have overslept. The woman would have woke you up and you wouldn’t have missed your flight.”

I smile at Madea. Her once bovine frame bent over with what my mother called an “old folks hump,” the deformity so pronounced she needs a walker to prop herself up. Moles, the sizes of raisins and chocolate chips, populate her face. Those same moles had begun appearing on my mother’s skin. The eyeglasses sit cockeyed on her face. She looks like a little girl.

Madea reaches down and spits in an old torn up Clorox Bleach bottle crammed with paper towels stained with brown spittle.

I grimace and swallow before mumbling, “Yes ma’am.”

“Now child how come you ain’t married?” “Well, I’m just not with anyone right now.”

“Listen I want you go and find a woman, any woman. Marry her for two weeks and then get you a divorce. I want you to know what it’s like to wake up next to a woman, any woman. Ok sir?”

Madea knows that a 40-year-old man who has never mentioned women nor brought home a girlfriend wasn’t into women. The things I want to say, I can’t. My mother would never forgive me. I force a smile. My grandmother will never change. I’m still the kid with his face against the window looking inside.

My grandparents have lived in Lincoln County all of their lives. Cotton gins and John Deere tractors litter the landscape. Sunflowers, hogweeds, and dandelions grow a plenty. Cotton, rice, and soybean fields claim more than three-quarters of Grady’s land, an atmosphere where rats and snakes thrive. The swampy summers are filled with lots of thunderstorms and flash floods. Even after the many years of slavery and sharecropping had ended, whites still own most of the big farms.

In Arkansas, just like in Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana, the life of the state once depended on the industry that came floating along rivers, except that no major rivers flow through Grady.

There are two bayous nearby, Deep Bayou, a small water hole where people still get baptized by full immersion, and the Bayou Bartholomew, which is the biggest bayou in the United States. It flows from northwest Pine Bluff on for 359 miles south crossing the Louisiana Border connecting to Ouachita River. But when Madea talks about “the bayou,” she means the Bayou Bartholomew because of its size. And more folks drowned in that one.

As the crow flies, Grady is 22 miles south and east of Pine Bluff in the middle of Lincoln County. From U.S. 65 highway it once was a clean shot. Around 2009, the federal government extended Interstate 530, effectively cutting Grady off from any traffic. All the stores, even the gas station closed. Grady hovers at death’s ridge but won’t cross over.

Most of my cousins that we ran around with as kids have moved away. Granddaddy took his last breath in the house in 2011 at 94.

A few months before Madea turned 94, a stroke forced her to move in with relatives in Little Rock where she died in 2015 at 95.

The Grady I knew only lives in my memories.

Samuel Autman once resided in Print Journalism serving bitter paragraph sausages daily in Tulsa, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and San Diego. Before Print was absorbed into the New Media wormhole, he began experimenting with narrative nonfiction. Without a cushion, he defected that planet, landing on Higher Education. He switched his identity into an Associate Professor of English at DePauw University. Showcased in anthologies, literary magazines and one short film, his work tastes sweeter. www.samuelautman.com

Ana Garza G’z — “The Tree of Knowledge”

“Nor did I desire to enjoy what I pilfered,
But the theft and sin itself.”
St. Augustine – The Confessions

In my backyard, there was a nectarine tree so heavy with fruit it bent low to help us pick the tart round globes that aren’t quite peaches. In my neighbor’s yard, there was an apple tree as laden, but forbidden by a fence and the neighbors’ dad. We went to mass, so we knew what was inevitable when there’s a garden and two trees.

We bided our time, and we let the months and the seasons roll like cloud banks from winter—through frost, rain, and fog—to the surprising heat of mid spring.

When our nectarines grew apricot sized and torpedo shaped, and our tree stood trim and straight in our yard, when their apples were large and round and yellow-green, and their tree hunched lush and low in the middle of theirs, we collected all the windfalls we could—the aborted nectarines, the end-of-season lemons, the withered bodies of winter pomegranates— and we knelt quietly behind an old couch, where I imagined God would want us to pray in secret, our knees on the ground, our hands folded together, our heads bowed low away from our neighbors’ eyes, unlike the hypocrite of the temple. My mother must have glowed at the vision of her angels framed by a window sash.

Then when one of us saw them, all five, there in their yard and under their apple tree—no parents—only us and them, we began:

“You red-neck, trailer-trash Okies,” we flung with a barrage of hard stone fruit.

Three ran for the tree. Two shoved trash cans and a broken baby carriage into barricades and returned: “You brown, Mexican, don’t-speak-no-English wetbacks.” The apple pickers dropped and ran for cover.

We throwers popped up and swung. “You whities who can’t even speak good English,” followed by a volley of large rotten lemons.

More running, more apple picking: “You ethnics who can’t count if you don’t have no beans.”

And so it went: the words, the scrabbling for ammo, the gathering and sorting of good fruit for eating and bad fruit for hurling back, the strategizing—ludicrous since even I could play, the blind one without aim.

We battled on until our mouths were empty of things to say; until the grass was stony in smashed apples, exploded lemons, flattened pomegranates; until everyone rubbed the bruises marking the paths of the missile fruit that whooshed over the fence in both directions; until we knew their mother wouldn’t bake very many pies and our mother wouldn’t have extra fruit to pack in bags for the neighborhood; until the seasons knotted into early summer and the neighbors’ gazes lifted to our side of the fence, the single garden, and the nectarine tree sweet and stooped, its leaves thick, its fruit blushing and ready as fists.

Ana Garza G’z has an M. F. A. from California State University, Fresno, where she teaches part-time. Sixty-six of her poems and two of her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and journals, most recently in The New Verse News. She also works as an interpreter and translator.

Jennifer Brinkley — “Tendrils”

There are three ways to travel to Potacari from Sarajevo.  The bus is the cheapest route. It costs about eight marks, but it is the longest trip.  Three and a half hours. You could take a taxi, which is shorter, only about two and a half hours, but too expensive.  At least 50 marks. I don’t drive so the third option of a car is unavailable to me. I make very little money each month selling my scarves in the Bascarsija.  The scarves move gently in the breeze as I sit, their bright colors beckoning, waiting for tourists to finger through them. On good days I can sell one for 15 marks.  Good days are rare. Tourists, especially the Americans, haggle with me. We settle for 7 marks. Then I watch them throw marks to the street children, pleading for change.  These children are richer than I am, in many ways. A little boy sits near my booth, day in and day out, playing his wooden flute in front of his beat up cardboard box. He has recently started bringing his sister.  She walks through the narrow streets, dirty and smudged, begging. A cat, its black and white coat matted and dirty, follows her, weaving in and out of the shops. Hoping to scamper upon scraps of pita or cevapi to fill its distended belly.

When I moved to Sarajevo in 1996, it was a difficult change.  Bells chiming in the minarets, people walking everywhere you turned.  The trams barreling through the center of the city, an unstoppable force.  Bodies crammed too tight, the stench of sweat and poverty. You know the smell.  Cigarettes and longing. I found a room to rent from a Muslim family. They eyed me with suspicion, knowing where I come from.  Somehow everyone knows where I come from. Maybe they needed the money. Maybe their loss was less than others. However they rationalized it, they allowed me to stay.  

Why did I come here?  The ghosts became too much for me.  They clung to me, blankets too heavy to throw off.  A past I didn’t ask for, but one I didn’t try to improve, either.  All those boys, walking for days, the ones who could escape. Not much younger than my own son.  Carrying each other, feet bleeding and torn, spirits not ready to give up. See, I was on the other side of the fence that summer.  The fence looking into the refugee center, safe on the outside. I still remember the sweltering July nights, the sobs and screams that became a soundtrack to 1995.  The hums of gunfire, of shovels hitting dirt. Metal scraping rock, over and over again. Bulldozers moving land here and there. An unwanted rhythm, a relentless undercurrent in my mind.  I never asked for Serbian blood. I cannot escape my own skin. What fault is it of mine to have been born Orthodox? Nationalism never interested me. Until it became a mode of survival, that is.

Life wasn’t always divided by blood, by religion.  There was a time when neighbors helped neighbors. I would bring the Sabic family strawberries from my garden.  They would share milk from their cows. Our boys played together, mine named Aleksandar, theirs Kenan. Brothers by choice, running through our backyards, destructive tornadoes we adored, laughter flying on the wind behind them.  They were closer than blood relatives. Until Aleksandar joined the Army. You live life thinking you can see disaster coming. You imagine ways in which you would be the lucky one, the one to avert adversity due to wit and ability.  The fact is, some tragedy is gradual. Slowly it rises, like wild grape vines up a tree, invasive and over powering.

Was I proud of my son?  What mother isn’t? He was a sight in his uniform.  Took the breath from my gut. The change in his manners, his posture.  Aleksandar would come home on leave to make sure I was eating, doing okay with the garden on my own.  I would grab him and check him over, making my own assessment of how he was growing. Memories of bathing him, chasing after him, feeding him, replaced with the reality of the man standing before me.  I remember the nights when he was small.  Together in the darkness, my arms wrapped around him, a happy sigh would escape his lips and he would say, “Mommy, I love you with all of my heart, every last piece.”  The words dancing pirouettes around me. I was so thankful. So proud.

I have decided to return.  Just for a day. A round trip bus ticket.  A couple of scarves worth of work. Luckily, the bus is not as crowded as the tram in the city center.  I’m on the aisle but I know what is outside the window. I don’t need to see. Stunning mountains, the tallest you can imagine.  A river, parallel to the highway, made of water that is clear yet also a striking shade of cerulean. But then there are the houses.  You can tell which ones belonged to Muslim families. They are burned, battered, open wide to the elements. Most families, or what was left of the family, did not return.  Some did to discover the jagged, gaping wounds of these structures. With no money to fix them, and it being too dangerous to sleep in their hometown, they did not stay. Others discovered Serbian families squatting in their homes.  I heard a story of a man who returned to Foca, only to find a family living in the house he built. They invited him in for coffee, a stranger in his own residence. He knew the internal joints of this place, its dents and cracks. He did not stay long and never returned.  Some skeletons are better left buried, he said.

The highway is quite improved from my past travels.  I imagine having my fruit stand on the side of this paved artery instead of the previous pot holed road.  Tourists passing through, buses stopping to purchase my plums and raspberries. The juice trickling down satisfied faces.  On the way to a destination that would soon change their expressions. You hear of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald. People, today, have religious experiences when visiting these former camps.  They stand shocked, speechless, confused. Terror and panic resonates, inviting them to bear witness. What did the people looking into those places think back then? The ones on the outside of the fence, doing their own gardening, raising their own children, keeping them fed and upright?  I can tell you exactly how they survived, what they thought as days turned into years. Thank God that’s not me.

The bus slows outside of the Potacari Memorial.  A few hundred feet from the entrance, we disembark from its doors.  The chatter now a muted silence. Women must be covered, scarves are pulled on, some of good quality like the ones I make.  Others are cheap, manufactured, sure to be tossed aside after this visit. We walk through the gates, a group soon to splinter and fracture.  I have been looking at my feet, shuffling along with the crowd. Now I look up and I see. I see a valley nestled at the bottom of a mountain, occupied with white gravestones.  6,504 gravestones to be exact. These are the bodies that have been recovered of the 8,372 killed in Srebenica. My hometown. I walk to the walls of names. My fingers glide over the engraved grooves.  It would take days to read them all. Brothers, fathers, sons, they perished together. Some killed along the mountain side, attempting to flee to freedom. Others in mass killings, packed into buildings with grenades tossed in.  Others shot as they stood at the mouth of a mass grave, drawing their final breaths. Some holding hands. Their last human touch.

I remember sitting on the hillside in Srebenica, watching the chaos unfold below.  The valley was the so-called “safe area” for the Muslims. They fled here because it was supposed to be off limits.  The UN was supposed to protect them here. The war had been raging for years. Tragedy had been customary. But this…I had never seen the likes of this.  Troops in matching shades of green, loading trucks and buses. Women and children directed one way, men and boys over 12 directed the other. “You go left, you go right.”  General Ratko Mladic had rolled into town, telling the refugees, numbering over 20,000, they would be safe. They knew better. We all knew better. I saw boys being ripped from the arms of their mothers.  Bodies shaking with grief. Others frozen still, in disbelief. I saw a soldier slice the head right off of a child. He danced around with it. The mother clawed at him to give it back, like they were playing a twisted game of keep away.  She dropped to the ground and held her son’s body, rocking, screaming. We all heard her. But no one intervened. We heard the rapes, the “no’s” that punctuated the thickness in the air. It was all so strangling. So dreamlike. Still I sat, tearing at the grass, having nowhere else to go.  My blood, my deity, made me immune from the horror below. I was left only to witness, to observe, with no avenue to stop it. How do you stop a rolling army? I could not hold off the tanks, I could not take the place of these women, these mothers, grasping and reaching for the hands of their sons and husbands.  I could do nothing. Instead, I watched.

Where was my son?  He was one of the men in green.  I could not make him out in the sea of bodies.  I hoped to God I raised him better than to rape and torture.  I prayed the little boy I held, who saved earth worms from the rain, would show up.  Would put a stop to this vicious abuse, would not look the other way, would help instead of hurt.  I prayed he had more strength than I did. I would never find out for sure. He was killed after the massacre.  The violent images were all over the news. When the Americans saw what happened to all of those men and boys, they had to get involved.  Jets flew in, bombs dropped, documents were signed, land was divided. Then what? We were all supposed to forgive and forget? To move on together?  The days of brotherhood and unity, the messages of Tito, were lessons long past. Every day felt more like a powder keg, waiting for a spark to ignite.

Walking through the gravestones, I stumble upon a woman and her son, he must be three or four.  I ask her who she is visiting. “My brother,” she says. “He was seventeen when he was killed.” Her child hugs the gravestone, the only way he knows his uncle is through stories and this cold white stone.  I take a picture of them with her phone. The boy looks directly into the camera, uncertain whether to smile. He decides against it. The mother holds his hand and looks to the ground. Her shoulders bent, weighted with sorrow.  I compliment her scarf, she smiles. Her mother made it. I ask if her mother visits the memorial. Her eyes cloud over. “She doesn’t have the strength to visit. My dad is still missing. She says she will not come until his body is found and she can visit both.  I’m not sure that will ever happen.” I nod and let her pass, the young child clutching the hand of his mother.

There is a museum across the street.  It is in the warehouse where people piled in that summer, trying to obtain some type of sanctuary, some type of reprieve from going left or right outside the doors.  I cannot go in. Instead, I sit among the stones. Am I happy I came? That’s an odd question. Strange to think of happiness in this place.

I pull myself up and go back to the ridged names on the wall.  There is one to whom I need to pay my respect. I am an old woman now and believe this will be the last time I walk across this soil.  I search out Kenan’s name. The stone is chilling to my fingertips, or maybe that is my imagination. I have no idea which gravestone is his so I linger over his name.  Tracing it with my crooked forefinger. My mind wanders to days spent weeding, cultivating the garden while attempting to also tame Aleksandar and Kenan. Or at least keep them from trampling my produce.  

When they were small, I would take them to the river behind our homes, making them hold hands as we negotiated the rocky terrain.  Fearful they could fall if not holding on to each other, if not supporting the other as we walked. “You must look out for one another,” I would tell them.  They would swing from the grape vine growing around the branches of the large silver fir, then fall from it, splashing into the water below. Giggling and slapping each other on the back for particularly large splashes raining over me on the shore.  They would do this again and again until I dragged them home, one in each of my hands. It was not until years later I finally understood how those tendrils of vines, the foundation of such delightful memories, would grow to smother the tree, digging its own roots into the earth, and spreading like a sickness.  Destroying the beauty underneath.

Jennifer L. Brinkley is a lawyer, professor, and writer in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Her poetry has previously been published in Handful of Dust Magazine, The Blue Pen Literary Magazine, Still Here:  VLP Magazine, Route 7 Review, The Notebook, Pink Panther, Survivor’s Review, and issue.Zero Literary Magazine in Paris, France.  She has also had nonfiction works published in newspapers in Lexington and Bowling Green, Kentucky.