Preservation

Maria Lioutaia

Over the past month, Valentina had attempted every procedure, from reputable to highly experimental. She’d bathed Lenin’s body in hydrogen peroxide and potassium acetate, employed benzene wipes, adjusted the dosages of intravenous polymer, applied refined paraffin wax in a thin layer over the face to maintain the appearance of skin, even resorted to botulinum. But the corpse had ceased all cooperation. After seventy years of successful maintenance, Lenin’s body was deteriorating faster than the morticians and biochemical scientists could keep up. Patchy dark spots bloomed across the dome of Lenin’s skull. His eye sockets collapsed like sinkholes. That morning, as Valentina inspected a gray fleshy protrusion on his temple, his left ear had fallen off into her hand like the handle on a poorly made clay mug. Most worryingly, there was a new smell about him. A damp, ghoulish, subterranean stench.

Valentina took the creaking elevator from her basement office at the Red Square mausoleum to the viewing chamber, where she could peek into the main room through brocade velvet curtains. Lenin was arranged on the central dais, as always, strategically spotlit by a soft peach wash over his recessed features. Today he was dressed in a black wool suit with double lapels and a maroon pinstripe tie. They’d had to change his suits almost daily this week, to keep up with his skin secretions. His face was serene, as though he were simply indulging in closed-eyed contemplation after a busy day of guiding the proletariat. Despite the flattering shadows of the room, Valentina could see the cluster of fungus on his bald pate through the glut of concealer.

Natural Order

Elin Hawkinson

An earthquake destroys the bulk of a coastal European city. Eve is still young, so it is in a time before the 24-hour news cycle with its gushing stream of horror and pleas for foreign aid. But the quake makes the papers because a photographer from National Geographic is there to document the reproductive process of a rare breed of starfish, and he survives to capture the devastation.

From the safety of an over-stuffed armchair, ten-year-old Eve flips past pages of starfish to a single image of chalk-dusted bodies laid out on the sand. She reads that five hundred and thirty-nine people are confirmed dead, several hundred more still missing. Interestingly, the bodies belong to tourists, mainly, and the wealthy, crushed beneath the weight of their many-storied luxury hotels, their hilltop marble manors. The poor, packed like sardines in squat hovels and unregulated tenements, were simply swept out to sea. Fifteen years later, the photographer revisits the city and finds it restored and bustling, with only a vague memorial sculpture to mark the loss of life.  Fractured streets have been repaved; rebuilt hotels have doubled in size. The photographer writes that there is very little visible difference between before and after the tragedy, with one notable exception: the many tons of debris that washed into the ocean killed the rare starfish population.

Alien Hunters

Dylan Brown

You need a clear night, all dead stars and Milky Way. After that, it’s just luck and persistence. At least, that’s what they say on the forums. I’m still waiting for my first sighting. Once a month my sister and I drive to the same viewpoint up the hill from her trailer outside Phoenix. No one ever comes here; no one reads the sun-bleached placards about the Apaches. You can tell because there’re no burger wrappers or coffee cups. Tonight we brought the 50 mm Celestron Travel Scope, a pair of lawn chairs, a six-pack, and some weed. Alma likes to “star stalk” just as much as I do, but more for artistic reasons. It can vary as much as the day sky in shade and hue, she says. Like the ocean: sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes black. She’s a painter and her favorite planet is Saturn—its skirt of rocks gliding through the viewfinder. She lights a bowl and the cherry blooms.

“Do you hear that?” she says, blowing smoke.

I do. It sounds like a desert banshee, lost and wailing. A pinprick of light shoots from her phone and we walk towards the cry. There, on the other side of the lot, by the locked bathroom huts, is a baby carrier. Inside, wrapped in a blue blanket, is a baby. Not a ghost or alien, but a baby.

“Mother of hell,” Alma says.

Saturday Night Special

Regina Porter

Gohegan Man came back from the dead and told Ezekiel Applewood he was too old to lie across his bed boo hoo crying.

“What for you cry now, Zekie Boy? Who you know come in this world to stay? Who you know got the power of everlasting eternal life clutched fist ball in his hand? Even Christ set free his human form.”

But Ezekiel Applewood, preternaturally small in stature for a fourteen-year-old boy, would not look up from his sleigh bed. A bed that he had always suspected was too low to the ground. A bed made of native satinwood, a relic from America’s baby-teething Federal days in a style his father referred to as Hepplewhite. The bed, a curving, narrow thing, along with nearly every piece of furniture in the Applewood house, had once belonged to someone else until Ezekiel’s father had seen fit to swindle it away from an “Everyday Sucker.”

Ezekiel had learned at a young age that Everyday Suckers weren’t meant to have or keep anything, even their most precious possessions. You were doing Everyday Suckers a favor when you stole their possessions or bought them for next to nothing because Everyday Suckers were bound to lose the things they loved anyway.

The Atlas of Reds and Blues: An Excerpt

Devi S. Laskar

An excerpt from The Atlas of Reds And Blues (Counterpoint Press)

Inciting Incidents

. . . in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no . . .

&

Possibly the exact moment the mustached state policeman, in monogrammed Kevlar and matching navy pants, stands in her driveway and points his assault rifle at her head on a cloudless morning in May, right after she took the girls to school, before she has her shower, and while she is still wearing her brown “Hard Work Never Killed Anyone but Why Risk It?” T-shirt and gray sweatpants.

Possibly one minute later when she counts the number of police and the number of automatic guns on her front lawn: all weapons at the ready as if she would cower before them or be impressed at the demonstration of force or be more inclined to listen to their list of demands.

Possibly a moment not too much later when the firecrackers are unexpectedly displayed, and she finds herself on the ground, bleeding.

 

&

Or, years earlier, the moonless night before she goes into labor for the first time, the air thick with mosquitoes. Hands, face, and feet swollen from gestational diabetes. She wears flip-flops everywhere, the police precincts, the courthouses she covers, and the newsroom where she works as a journalist. For months, all jewelry had been off her hands, ears, and neck to quell the tide of swelling, the tide that never ebbs. The dangerous pregnancy and its forty daily admonitions and precautions always looping in succession in her mind. Labor Day weekend, 1998. After work, she lives in black stretch pants and a maternity T-shirt that has a cartoon picture of Garfield on it because those are the only two comfortable things she owns.

It is close to midnight and neither her husband nor she can sleep. So humid that even the crickets in the Georgia thickets stop chirping to conserve personal energy. They decide to watch a movie, but notice there is no popcorn, her only obgyn-approved snack, left in the pantry. She volunteers to go to the 24-hour grocery a few miles away to lap up the hyper-air-conditioned air, while her husband, her hero, tries his luck at renting Titanic.

A beached whale trying to navigate the aisles with a shopping cart, she remembers to take advantage of her human hands. She enjoys the forced air-conditioning, relishes the empty aisles and stocked shelves. She picks out her popcorn, and for her husband she chooses a variety of tasty garbage including a pint of ice cream that is called, appropriately enough, Coma by Chocolate.

One checkout lane open. Manned by a man named Manny who, according to his name tag, is the night manager. She looks like she is carrying some sort of obscene food baby ex-utero, chips and popcorn for the torso and legs, chocolate chip cookies for the pair of arms joined together, and ice cream for the head.

He gawks. “Ma’am, do you know about prenatal care? There are some vitamins on Aisle Twelve, next to the baby wipes.”

She turns around but finds herself alone. “Excuse me?”

He cocks his head. “Hables español?”

“What?” She gulps. “Yes, but . . .  no.”

“Ma’am, you need to put back the chips and the ice cream, and drink some milk.”

She attempts to clamp shut her jaw but fails. “It’s for my husband.”

“Are you kidding me?” He pounds his fist on the price scanner. “What kind of man allows his pregnant wife to go to the store in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t want to go to the video store.” She swipes the credit card. “It smells in there.”

He grunts. “Are you sure you’re married?”

A small hiccup of laughter escapes. “Why?”

“Where’s your ring?” His stare almost a glare. “People will talk.”

“At home.”

“Where’s your house?” His finger wags near her face.

“Three miles that way,” she says, pushing away his hand.

“Do you have a doctor?”

“Actually, I have two.” She signs the promissory note and waits. “And I have a medical condition that prevents me from eating anything after dinner, except for this popcorn I’ve bought.”

“Bless your heart, ma’am,” he says. “I’m just concerned for you.”

Huh. “That’s excruciatingly touching.”

“Excuse me?”

“Can I have my receipt now? Please?” Nothing has changed. The dolls are still judged. She is thirty-one years, ten months, and six days old.

&

Or, years later, after she moves them from the city to homogeneous suburbia, cookie-cutter identical for everyone but her. No one answers their doors when mother and daughters march up and down the cul-de-sac and ring the doorbells, homemade brownies in hand. Not only do the new neighbors not come over to see if they are all right after the lightning strikes the new house, none of them bother to say welcome. No chicken casseroles forthcoming, no chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, no smiles. They, the family, wait patiently, every day, like maiden aunts at a charity dance, waiting to be asked to waltz.

No one calls.

&

Maybe, just maybe, it all starts one morning in the fall semester, 1986, when she meets her man of the hour and coins her nickname for him. The starting line for the hard looks and comments that will follow them for the next twenty-four years, strangers unhappy when they hold hands or kiss in public. That Friday, the leaves burnishing gold and crimson and copper among the evergreens, the air brisk even in the afternoons. It is her turn to feed the meter, not just for her clunker, but for her roommate, Donna, as well. The meter maids on campus have been cracking down and the Real Thing knows she cannot afford yet another parking ticket. She is in danger of losing her car, her parents had warned her it would be confiscated if one more parking offense reached their mailbox, and without her car, well, she will lose her part-time job as a newbie reporter in the local bureau of the second-largest newspaper in the state of North Carolina.

Her English professor, Dr. Shelley, had let them out late, nine and a half minutes late. An entire semester devoted to the verses of John Donne, one ecstatic poem after the other, a graduation requirement. The professor’s voice more irritating than her fuchsia-painted nails that accidentally scratch the chalkboard as she writes out her lecture during class. In her haste to reach the cars before the meter maids do, the Real Thing trips over a brick paver by the planetarium entrance and the quarters fly from her fingers into the labyrinth of rosebushes. She spies one, and scratches her left arm on the thorns as she retrieves it.

The meter maid is six, maybe seven, cars away from her hatchback but only a few cars from her roommate’s. Her trot turns into a jog, backpack slung over one shoulder, toward her roommate’s white Chevy Cavalier. She stops at the car, and notices that beside it is its twin. The meter maid is two cars away. She dashes to the back of the car, but the license plates are virtually the same, and each car is sporting identical university magnets and business school logos.

The meter maid is close enough that the Real Thing could reach out and touch her cap. She reaches the meter, and puts in the quarter, and buys another hour.

“Thank you for rescuing my cadaver,” a voice says by her ear.

“What?” She looks up to see the chiseled jaw, the brightest blue eyes, a bemused grin. “Wait, did I pay for your car?”

“Yes,” he says, and introduces himself, tells her he’s named the car a cadaver because it often fails to start in cold weather. “Are you okay? I saw you fall back there.”

The Real Thing feels a cinnamon-red blush flooding her face. “I’m trying to beat the meter maid, for my roommate.”

“Allow me,” he says, and fishes for something in his pocket but comes up empty. The grin fades as he looks on the ground and on the curb. “Damn it.”

“What’s wrong?” she asks, aware of the meter maid inching closer.

“I thought I had an extra coin or two,” he says, then looks closely at a spot just above her shoulder. He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and produces a quarter, tucks another strand, and produces three. “I knew they were here somewhere.”

He feeds one of the quarters into Donna’s Chevy.

The Real Thing laughs. “You’re the man of the hour!” She snatches the remaining coins from his hand and runs to her car, feeds her own meter as well as the meters of the cars on either side of her. She looks back to see her new friend speaking to the meter maid, a small white package in his hand, and then the maid hopping back into her vehicle and moving toward the exit. She walks back to him. “What did you say to her?”

He shrugs and shows her his roll of quarters. “I promised her I’d feed everyone’s meter.”

She wonders why he has this money, and remembers the arcade just down the block. “And she believed you?”

His smile holds the glow of a campfire in the deep woods.

She pictures herself as a moth.

“She’s coming back in fifteen minutes, to check.” He breaks the roll in half. “You’ll keep me honest, right?”

She takes her half of the stack.

&

Perhaps it’s when an older boy, Michael, follows Middle Daughter around during first-grade recess on the school playground, pushes her down in the hallway near the library, bumps her elbow in the cafeteria, calls her names that allude to the darker side of the color spectrum, calls her a coconut, white on the inside, for even wanting to attend this fancy Southern school. Michael gets on the cross-campus bus that transports the children to and from the school gymnasium and natatorium three days each week and sits behind her and taunts.

Middle Daughter announces her decision to forgo education for a life of flight. “I’ll just go to the moon sooner than I thought,” she says, breaking open a chocolate cookie and crumbling the sweet white frosting between her fingers. On TV, news anchors are showing NASA’s photographs of the Phoenix soft landing on Mars.

“You have to finish high school, college, graduate school, a stint in the Air Force, and then NASA training,” Mother says. She takes a sip of the black coffee and puts down the cup.

Middle Daughter’s lower lip juts out, the cookie crumbles on the tabletop. “I just can’t go to school anymore, not while HE is there.”

Mother’s heart crumbles too. “Can I tell Daddy now? Please?”

She shakes her head, unable to speak.

&

In this new neighborhood the wives take baths (not showers), put on pumps, and apply mascara just to retrieve the morning newspapers from the edge of the driveway or check the mail before their children come home from school. Their husbands take notice of other things, and leave curt messages duct-taped to the front door of Mother’s house. Her man of the hour is usually not home, he is usually out of town for work. But her man of the hour happens to be at home when the latest note about their failings as residents of the subdivision, on cut yellow Post-it, is posted.

“We have to be nice,” he says to her, softly, as he sits down next to her on the couch. “We agreed to follow their rules when we moved here.”

Greta is by the fireplace, and she opens her eyes. She wags her tail weakly but does not sit up.

“A lightning strike. We couldn’t close the doors to the garage.” Mother pokes holes in the yellow Post-it with a ballpoint pen. “Everything was broken.”

Her hero turns on the TV and finds a college basketball game. “They don’t care.”

She looks at the box, the score is tied. “But we couldn’t park in the driveway. The repairmen were parked there.” The pen breaks the skin of the paper and goes through.

He starts to channel surf. “They don’t care.”

She puts her hand out and they trade, note and pen for remote. “They didn’t even check on us when we were hit! We could have had a fire. We could have died.”

He crumples the paper into a ball and puts the cap back on the pen, and then juggles them high into the air. Greta takes notice and her head follows the paper ball like an avid tennis fan at Wimbledon.

Mother finds The Wizard of Oz, it is the moment that Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies. Greta rises and wobbles to Mother’s side of the couch, sits back down again. They all watch in silence until a mouthwash commercial interrupts the film just as Dorothy and her companions enter the Emerald City.

Her hero sighs. Maybe in resignation. “If we fight this, we’ll end up in court. They’ll have the law, and then we’ll have to apologize and we’ll have to pay a fine.”

They trade again. She tucks the pen behind her ear, and makes a perfect shot with the Post-it into the wastepaper basket on the other side of the couch. Greta follows the shot and goes to investigate the trash can. Mother says, “I just think we should . . .”

Her hero changes the channel back to the basketball game. Overtime. “Be nice,” he says. “By the way, I have to go out of town again.”

&

More likely, it began on the playground when Mary-Margaret Anne Moriarty expounded on her theory of love. Recess, at St. Luke’s co-ed. Last full week of April 1978. A day when the azaleas are already in bloom, when sixth grade still means elementary school, and the term “middle school” hasn’t yet replaced “junior high.” While other schoolkids embrace the Bee Gees and John Travolta, the Real Thing and her classmates argue with nuns about attending mandatory morning mass, even as non-Catholics. On the playground Sister Joan drones on about school uniforms, which look suspiciously like habits except they are an ugly green plaid, and how their souls would be in mortal danger if “boys” could see the girls’ knees or calves or shins or even ankles. She wants to know what mortal danger really means but doesn’t understand the correlation between that and her bony kneecaps—scarred by the rough tumble off her bike in the woods near the creepy cemetery managed by the Bible thumpers who want to save her soul but know better than to ring the doorbell and argue with her mother once more. The school bell rings, calling them back to their classrooms.

Mary-Margaret Anne, as she likes to be called, stands two feet away from her. Dirty blond with tiny pixie freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her bulbous nose. Her father is a businessman who is never in town except on Friday afternoons, when he picks up Mary-Margaret Anne from school in a white Mustang convertible. Her mother roams in a station wagon with three boys still in diapers, rolling down the window at the curb, begging Mary-Margaret Anne to get in. And Mary-Margaret Anne never hurries her pace, and finishes speaking to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette before strolling to the car and flinging her hot-pink bag into the trunk. The Moriarty parents never offer the Real Thing a ride, but drive by as she trudges past the firehouse and an abandoned wooden structure with a caved-in porch that even animals stay away from, to the city bus stop a half mile away. Monday through Friday. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, like the postman. The boy Mary-Margaret Anne is “going” with, Eric Moynihan, has ignored his girlfriend that morning but utters “excuse me” as he whizzes by on his way back to his seat, his blurry form jostling the Real Thing’s left arm. Mary-Margaret Anne’s eyes flash green in the sunlight. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” she replies, wishing she knew kung fu just then.

Mary-Margaret Anne pirouettes on her left foot, and she looks poised to do a jeté. She has the body to be a ballerina, and unlike her own mother, the Real Thing bets Mary-­Margaret Anne’s has no problems parting with the money, if only to get her daughter out of the house for a short time. “You know what I heard? I heard you and Henry have been kissing in the library during reading hour.”

Sister Joan’s head turns on her broad neck, like an owl. She stands equidistant from Mary-Margaret Anne and the Real Thing and their shadows all lie flat on the blacktop. Sister Joan’s stare through her thick spectacles is thoughtful.

Henry and his parents had moved to town from Michigan over Christmas.

He is the first Black boy at school. Well, his mother is Black but his father is white. And from where she sits, Henry is just another student. Hair neatly combed, pressed collared shirts, impeccably shiny shoes. Shiny copper pennies glistening from his penny loafers.

He never raises his hand.

He doesn’t open his mouth.

She sits next to him, in the back of the room, watches him doodle battleships and helicopters on notebook paper during class, watches him crumple up the imperfect drawings and shoot hoops into the trash can, watches the nuns hand back perfect scores on his test papers. “I don’t think so,” she says, picturing Mary-Margaret Anne’s head in a guillotine, like the one she read about in history after an unflattering description of Marie-Antoinette. “He’s never even said hello.”

Mary-Margaret Anne’s grin is all knowing, the way her lips spread thinly over her even teeth. It is the same smile that she produces when she talks loudly to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette about how she and Eric are one day going to “do it” when her mother isn’t at home; and that after she “did it” with Eric, he would have to marry her. She can only imagine what “it” is, and judging from the bewildered look in Paige’s hazel eyes, their classmate doesn’t know either.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” Mary-Margaret Anne says. “But it’s nice that you two are going together.”

Sister Joan raises her eyebrows, and through the magnification of her glasses they look like perfectly synchronized caterpillars doing aerobics.

She shakes her head. “We’re not going together.”

Mary-Margaret Anne shrugs. “It makes sense.”

It does not. “Why?” she asks, pinching her fingers together so she won’t shout at Mary-Margaret Anne in front of Sister Joan and spend another afternoon in Sister Grace’s musty headmistress office hearing about her lack of gratitude for being “taken” off the streets—although she doesn’t quite understand what streets she is being spared from, since she still has to walk a half mile every weekday to and from the city bus stop to school.

“He’s Black,” says Mary-Margaret Anne, a coo at the back of her throat.

No, actually the color of his skin is coffee with cream. Since he never smiles, it is coffee sans le sucre. “I’m not Black.”

“Sure you are,” she says. “You’re not white.”

She feels hot in her face but knows she can never cry in front of Mary-Margaret Anne, or she will never be able to come back to school again.

Sister Joan’s head turns back to a forward position, her step takes on a definite marching intonation. She simply enters the building and disappears.

“Nobody,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, enunciating the first syllable at twice the length it normally requires, “like Eric will ever ask you to go with him.”

The Real Thing pinches her palm as hard as she can and the ocean of tears at the eyelid shores recede. “Why not?”

“Because,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin, creating a crater of shock, “this doesn’t rub off.”

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Tin House and Rattle, among other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and is an alumna of The OpEd Project and VONA. Laskar is the author of two poetry chapbooks, and The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Stories Out of School

selected by Cheryl Strayed

Teachers have the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This contest, a joint venture of The Academy for Teachers and Tin House, was created to inspire honest, unsentimental stories about teachers and the rich and complex world of schools. There were two criteria for submissions. The story’s protagonist or its narrator had to be a teacher and the story had to be between 6 and 999 words. This year, Cheryl Strayed volunteered to choose our winner.

—Sam Swope, Founder and President, Academy for Teachers

Outside the Raft

Dantiel W. Moniz

That summer we were nine and ten, our birthdays rolling over one another as if playing leapfrog—first hers, then mine, five days apart. I was envious of my cousin’s double digits in the same way she coveted my silver-wrapped presents, the balloons and white-frosted sheet cake, the way my parents shouted, “Happy birthday!” Except next year I would be ten, and Tweet’s parents would still be locked up, serving life sentences for holding up the pawnshop and killing a man, something like Bonnie and Clyde, but no one made a movie. She lived with our grandmother, who didn’t believe in birthdays, and so hers passed quietly, leaving only the gift of age.

It was a typical Floridian summer, both sweltering and sweet. Stretching out before us like a wide-open hand. I was giddy at the prospect of long, uninterrupted days where my cousin and I could be together. My mother never understood it, why I would want to spend all my time at my grandmother’s small, slant-slatted house on the bad side of town—no cable, no PlayStation, no fresh air. What was there for two little girls to do?

I used to hear her on the phone with her friends—Saturday mornings, decked out in sweats and an old boyfriend’s T-shirt she only wore to clean in—talking about how she couldn’t wait to leave Grandma’s when she was a teen.

Predator Satiation

Troy Farah

Momma got nipped after giving birth to her two hundred and fifteenth child—me. Two hundred and fifteen kids isn’t so many compared to her six thousand sisters, who averaged broods of twelve hundred or more. But these things happen and Momma got nipped, so I was raised by my one hundred and ninety-five siblings (twenty of them were nipped by the time I reached my sixth birthday.)

I go to a high school of six hundred thousand students, although the student body fluctuates wildly day-to-day. Just last week eighteen kids got smashed by four buses, another forty were kidnapped and turned into smoked sausage, and approximately one hundred eighty were just nipped. But the next morning, there were just as many new kids at the school. I’m used to making different friends all the time.

Today my homeroom class was twelve dozen fth graders and we had sixty-eight math teachers all trying to teach us the same thing: ‘an exponent is blah blah blah.’ I’ve never cared for math—when will I ever use it in the real world, when I’m fifty percent likely to be struck by a massive ballclap of lightning just walking home. When an 8.5 earthshaker could open up the floor, just like it did to Thunderbird High next door. When I could be nipped in my sleep a thousand different ways.

The Barefoot Woman: An Excerpt

Scholastique Mukasonga

An excerpt from The Barefoot Woman (Archipelago Books, December 2018)

 

Maybe the Hutu authorities put in charge of the newly independent Rwanda by the Belgians and the church were hoping the Tutsis of Nyamata would gradually be wiped out by sleeping sickness and famine. In any case, the region they chose to send them to, the Bugesera, seemed inhospitable enough to make those internal exiles’ survival more than unlikely. And yet they survived, for the most part. Their courage and solidarity let them face the hostile wilderness, farm a first little patch of land that didn’t completely spare them from hunger but at least kept them alive. And little by little the displaced families’ makeshift huts became villages – Gitwe, Gitagata, Cyohoha – where people struggled to recapture some semblance of everyday life, which of course did little to soften the crushing sorrow of exile.

But the Tutsis of Nyamata weren’t slow to realize that the tenuous survival they seemed to have been granted was only a temporary reprieve. The soldiers of the Gako Camp, built between the villages and the nearby border with Burundi, were there to remind them that they were no longer exactly human beings but inyenzi, cockroaches, insects it was only right to persecute and eventually to exterminate.

I can still picture the soldiers from Gako bursting into our house, a rifle butt crumpling the piece of sheet metal we used as a door. They claimed they were looking for a photo of King Kigeri or covert letters from exiles in Burundi or Uganda. All that, of course, was pure pretext. Long before, the displaced families of Nyamata had thrown out everything that might possibly incriminate them.

I don’t know how many times the soldiers came to pillage our houses and terrorize the people inside. My memory has compressed all those acts of violence into one single scene. It’s like a film playing over and over. The same images again and again, engraved in my mind by my little-girl fear, later to return in my nightmares.

The scene that unfolds before my memory is peaceful at first. The entire family is gathered in our one room, around the three stones of the hearth. It must be July or August, the dry season, summer vacation, because André and Alexia are there too, back from their school a long way from Nyamata. Night has fallen, but the moon isn’t full, because we aren’t sitting outside behind the house, enjoying its light. Everything seems strangely calm, as if the soldiers had yet to pay us their first sudden, brutal visit. Evidently Mama has taken none of the extraordinary precautions I’ll talk about soon. I see everyone in their usual places. My mother Stefania is squatting on her mat against the outer wall. Alexia is close by the fire, maybe trying to read one of her schoolbooks by the flickering light of the flames, maybe only pretending. I can’t make out my father in the dimness at the far end of the room; I can only hear the continual, monotonous clicks of the rosary he never stops fingering. Julienne, Jeanne, and I are pressed close together near the front door that opens onto the dirt road. Mama has just set down the family plate of sweet potatoes in front of us, but we haven’t yet begun to eat. We hang on André’s every word as he sits in our one chair at the little table built specially for him – the boy, the student, the hope of the family – by our older brother Antoine. André is telling stories from school, and for us they’re like news from a distant world, an amazing, inaccessible world, and they make us laugh, laugh, laugh . . .

And then, all of a sudden, the clang of the sheet metal crashing down: I just have time to snatch up my little sister and roll with her off to one side, dodging the boot that grazes her face, the boot that tramples the sweet potatoes and buckles the metal plate like cardboard. I make myself as small as I can, I wish I could burrow into the ground, I hide Jeanne beneath a fold of my pagne, I stifle her sobs, and when I dare to look up again, I see three soldiers overturning our baskets and urns, throwing the mats we’d hung from the ceiling out into the yard.

One of them has grabbed hold of André, and now he’s dragging him toward the door (I think I can see my brother’s struggling body go past, slowly, slowly, just beside my face) and my father races forward as if he could hold back the soldier, and I hear my mother and Alexia crying out. I squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I can so I won’t have to see. Everything goes dark, I want to burrow deep underground . . .

The silence makes me open my eyes again. My father is helping a wincing André to his feet. My mother and Alexia are cleaning up the beans spilled on the floor. Now, from next door, comes the same sound of boots, the same shrieks, the same sobs, the same crash of breaking urns . . .

—— —— ——

My mother had only one thought in her head, one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children. For that she tried every possible tactic, devised every conceivable stratagem. We needed some way to flee, we needed someplace to hide. The best thing, obviously, was to take cover in the dense bramble thickets that bordered our field. But for that we’d need time. Mama was forever on guard, constantly listening for noises. Ever since the day when they burned our house in Magi, when she first heard that dull roar of hatred, like a monstrous beehive’s hum racing toward us, I think she’d developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators. She could make out the faintest, most faraway sound of boots on the road. “Listen,” she would say, “they’re back.” We listened intently. We heard only the familiar sounds of the neighbors, the usual rustles of the savannah. “They’re back,” my mother said again. “Quick, run and hide.” Often she only had time to give us a sign. We scrambled under the bushes, and a moment later, peering out from our hiding place, we saw the patrol at the end of the road, and we trembled as we wondered if they’d break into our house, ravage and steal our meager belongings, our few baskets of sorghum or beans, the few ears of corn we’d been foolish enough to put by.

But we had to be ready for anything: sometimes the soldiers were too quick even for my mother’s sharp ear. And so, for those times when we wouldn’t be able to reach the brush, she left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her three little girls to slip into when the alarm was sounded. She kept a mental catalog of what she thought would be the safest hiding places in the bush. She discovered the deep burrows dug by the anteaters. She was convinced we could slither into them, and so with Antoine’s help she widened the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances under piles of grasses and branches. Jeanne made herself even tinier than she was to wriggle into the anteater’s lair. For all my mother’s advice and encouragement, she didn’t always succeed. A little concerned, I asked Stefania what would happen when the anteater wanted to come home. I’ve forgotten her answer.

Mama left nothing to chance. Often, as night fell, she called a dress rehearsal. And so we knew exactly how to scurry into the brambles, how to dive under the dried grasses. Even in our panic at hearing the boots on the dirt road, we scurried straight for the thickets or burrows where Mama had taught us to lie low.

The displaced families’ huts had only one door, which opened onto the road. To ease our escape, Mama cut a second way out, opening onto the field and the bush. But soon that back door, more or less concealed like the hiding places she’d made in the brambles, was of no use at all. Once (with helicopters to help them) they’d beaten back the ill-fated Inyenzi offensive launched from Burundi by Tutsi refugees, the soldiers of the Gako camp lost all fear of ambushes and attacks. No more did they stay to the dirt road they’d always carefully followed; now their patrols tramped freely across country, all the way to the Burundi border. Now danger could just as well burst from the bush as come down the road; no more were our thorny hiding places the impregnable refuges my mother found so reassuring. And so she set about making hiding places inside the house itself. Against the mud walls she stacked big bowls and baskets, almost as tall as grain bins, for Julienne and Jeanne to crawl behind if the soldiers burst in. I was already too big to squeeze into the shelter of the bowl’s black bellies or the baskets’ elegant curves. My only recourse was to dive under my parents’ bed. Those hiding places were meant more to comfort us than anything else, because they never fooled anyone, least of all the soldiers, who flushed us out in no time with vigorous kicks, all the while calling us cockroaches or little snakes.

—— —— ——

Mama was never satisfied with her survival strategies. She was forever coming up with improvements to her camouflage, forever finding new refuges for her children. But deep down she knew there was only one sanctuary, only one way we could ensure our survival: crossing the border, leaving for Burundi, as so many Tutsis already had. But she never once thought of taking that way out herself. Neither my father nor my mother ever considered going into exile. I think they’d made up their minds to die in Rwanda. They’d wait there to be killed, they’d let themselves be murdered, but the children had to survive. And so my mother worked out every detail of our escape to Burundi, in case of emergency. She went off alone into the bush, scouting for trails that might lead to the border. She marked out a path, and under her guidance, not quite understanding why, we played that strange game of follow-the-leader.

Everything at home sat ready for the big departure, which might be announced at any moment, set off by rumors of massacres going around Nyamata, rifle shots in the night, the local governor’s threats, a neighbor’s arrest . . . A few sweet potatoes, some bananas, a little calabash of sorghum beer were always left wrapped up in a piece of pagne. We girls were meant to take that bundle along when we slipped away and set out for Burundi. It would accompany us into exile. My sisters and I refused to look at it, because to us it was a dark omen of the miseries awaiting us.

But it was Alexia and André that most worried my mother. They weren’t there with the rest of us. They were at school, and wouldn’t be back until vacation. Mama imagined the worst: one day Alexia and André would come home and find no one there. The house would have been sacked and burned, she and Cosma would have been killed, and at least one of the three girls, or so she hoped, would have managed to escape from the killers and find her way to Burundi. But then what would become of Alexia and André? They’d have to find enough strength after their long walk from school to head straight for the border and face the many dangers they’d find on the way: patrols, elephants, buffalo . . . And so, in pre-arranged places, under a stone, near a stump, she buried provisions – beans, sweet potatoes. I helped her dig the holes, line them with fine grasses, make sure some air could get in. But of course we had to change the supplies regularly, and then we ate the slightly spoiled food buried by a mother’s love.

—— —— ——

You always had to be on your guard, so my mother took great pains to keep up with the goings-on in the area. Especially in Nyamata, home to the local government, the missionaries and their church, the marketplace. She interrogated anyone she saw coming back from Nyamata, trying to detect presages of a coming wave of arrests or murders. Had anyone heard tell of a meeting at the mayor’s, had they seen a big car from Kigali in front of the town hall? Had anyone spotted army trucks crossing the iron bridge over the Nyabarongo? Were there huge crowds at the market, were there fistfights? What were people saying in the bars? And at Mass, in his sermon, did Father Canoni go on a little too long about loving your neighbor? And what was the teacher saying, the only one with a radio? Stefania carefully evaluated the information, decoded the rumors, divined the imminence or absence of a threat.

But you also had to stay abreast of the neighbors’ doings. She suspected them of planning to flee to Burundi without telling her. “One fine morning,” she sometimes sighed, “we’re going to wake up and find ourselves all alone. Everyone will have left for Burundi without a word to us.” Her suspicion was particularly focused on Pancrace, just next door, who she was sure was secretly making all sorts of plans to get out. “That Pancrace,” she would say, “he’s a devious one, I know he’s found some way of saving his family, but he won’t tell a soul.” On the pretext of borrowing some fire (when in fact the first thing she did in the morning was to check that the coals were still glowing under the ash), or a little salt, or a handful of beans, she would hurry next door and discreetly look around for signs of an upcoming departure. Soon she decided that Pancrace was digging a tunnel out into the bush. With the help of Antoine, she set out to do the same, with the entrance under the big parental bed. At the end of the week, as soon he came back from his job as a gardener at the Agronomical Institute in Karama, not even giving him a moment to rest after his twenty-kilometer walk, she handed him the hoe. Crouched at the edge of the hole, she gave Antoine his instructions as he slowly disappeared into the depths. Fortunately for Antoine, Operation Tunnel soon proved unfeasible, and the work was promptly suspended. But Mama remained as sure as ever that wily Pancrace had come up with many other undisclosed plans to save his life and his family’s.

My mother’s watchfulness never waned. It grew doubly sharp in the evening, at dinnertime, since it was most often at nightfall, or sometimes at dawn, that the soldiers burst in to ransack the houses and terrorize their inhabitants. She had no intention of letting our shared plate of beans or bananas distract her, so Stefania never ate with us. Once we were served, she hurried to the far end of the field, at the edge of the savannah. For many long minutes she stared into the tangle of thorn trees, listening for the slightest unusual noise. If she spotted the camouflaged uniforms of the patrolling soldiers, she raced back to the house and told us, “Twajwemo – we’re not alone.” With that we had to keep quiet, not move, be ready to bound into our hiding places, hoping we’d be spared for this evening at least.

If she found everything normal, she would gaze on us for a long while in silence. Nothing pleased her more than watching her children eat. She’d saved them from starvation, working for the Bageseras in exchange for a few sweet potatoes, carving farmland from the inhospitable bush by her tireless labor. Day after day she won out over the implacable destiny we’d been condemned to because we were Tutsis. Again today, her children were still alive at her side. She’d snatched them away from death’s clutches. She looked at the three of us, Julienne, Jeanne, Scholastique. This evening we were alive. There might never be another evening.

 

Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced to the polluted and under-developed Bugesera district of Rwanda. Mukasonga was later forced to leave the school of social work in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 37 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which marked Mukasonga’s entry into literature. This was followed by the publication of La femme aux pieds nus in 2008 and L’Iguifou in 2010, both widely praised. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahmadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the 2013 Océans France Ô prize, and the 2014 French Voices Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award.

The Salesman

Emily Dezurick-Badran

There weren’t enough dollars for the salesman to get home. Three months he’d been in the city, trudging miles over the cobblestones, down streets wide as the plains at home, city streets that boasted no sunshine, no wild birdsong, no feltwood trees curled up from the bowl of earth—because there was no earth, only concrete on concrete and here and there a little grass. It was many miles between where the salesman slept and the city center, where he sold. The walks were tiring and the city people swooped past him in frigid gusts. Sometimes people tripped and fell on the sidewalk, and in their hurry other people trampled over the fallen bodies. The salesman walked over the bodies too. There was nowhere else to walk; the human traffic was too thick and rapid. Why did these people walk so fast and speak so loudly? The salesman had a quiet voice; perhaps that was why he couldn’t sell many of the trinkets he carried in his briefcase. Unlike the other men who sold knickknacks in the city center, the salesman’s trinkets did not light up or spin or fly. When he tried to explain that his trinkets had been carved by the skilled hands of friends from his home, the city people only said, “Do you have anything cheaper? Something for the children?”

“This is all I can offer,” the salesman replied, his voice lost in the din of the city.

The Game

Rachel Heng

For a long time, we rely on the men to read the letters from our mothers. We rely on the men to write back as well, so we say things like today the sky shimmers silver and the hens laid a good batch of eggs and our sons have just learnt to walk. We talk about the beauty of the Yongming River. The men write this down, stopping, every now and then, to challenge us. Your sons began walking four weeks ago, not today, they chide. One of the hens is sickly and tomorrow we will kill it for meat, they say. It rained all afternoon and the river is mud brown.

When the men correct us, we smile and keep very still. Yes, you are right, we say. The men do not notice the flick of a tendon in our necks or the clench of our jaws. All they hear is yes, you are right, and they are smug as they write down their versions of our stories.

Amongst ourselves we play a secret game. We take the ink blocks and brushes from our husbands when they are not looking. A sh sound as a neat horizontal stroke, a ch as a line at one angle, a zh at another. Different dots and lines for vowels, a i o e u ü, eyelashes and teardrops on a page. It was never meant to be a code, just a painting of sounds, a way to tether the words that slip so easily from our throats.

But the game begins to grow. Soon our sisters know it too, and then our mothers, and then our distant relatives in far off villages. We realize we can now write entire sentences.

A Few Normal Things That Happen A Lot

Gwen E. Kirby

A woman walks down the street and a man tells her to smile. When she smiles, she reveals a mouthful of fangs. She bites off the man’s hand, cracks the bones and spits them out, accidentally swallows his wedding ring, which gives her indigestion. 

• • •

A woman waits for the bus and a man stands too close. He puts his hand on her ass, not knowing she is the first successful subject of a top-secret experiment. She turns her laser eyes on him and transforms him into bus fare: two dollars and seventy-five cents in cool coins.

• • •

A woman is at the grocery store and a man in the frozen food aisle says, “Nice legs.” He follows her past the broccoli. “Why’s a pretty girl like you here alone?” Past the tubs of Cool Whip. “You got a boyfriend?” Past the ice cream cakes. “Don’t you want to say something nice?” She stops at the endcap. There’s a sale on chips and salsa. Yesterday, she would not have stopped. She would have feigned fascination with the cheeses, lingered over the pasta sauce, waited for the man to get bored, prayed for the man to get bored. She would have left, buying nothing, the dark parking lot endless, every car disguising a threat.

Luckily, last night she was bitten by a radioactive cockroach. Under her clothes, she is covered in armor. Her sense are heightened. When he asks, “You shy or just a bitch?” she hisses at a decibel that shatters the jars of salsa, studs the man’s chest with small shards of glass. Salsa splatters everywhere and a chunk of tomato lands on the hem of her skirt, which is sad, because it’s newly dry cleaned. In the dark, arms full of groceries, the parking lot is beautiful in a way she’s never noticed. A fine rain drifts across the weak lights. The asphalt shimmers and the cars hide nothing.

• • •

A woman sits alone in her apartment and hears her neighbor, who is drunk, banging down the hall. She does not check her lock, tug the chain to feel it stick. Instead, she picks up the remote control given to her by a witch. If anyone comes in, she will point the remote at the door and turn him off.

• • •

A woman jogs on a cold day and a man jogs fifty, thirty, twenty feet behind her. They are the only two people on this path, a narrow ribbon tracing the river, her favorite place to run. She speeds up, and so does he. Her heart begins to hammer and she curses herself, stupid bitch, people have told you not to run alone, you know better, stupid bitch, but then she remembers, thank god! She was recently scratched by a werewolf! The woman lets herself change a bit, turns to the man, and pulls off her gloves. Underneath, her hands are covered in fur, the pads black and leathery, and when she extends her claws the man yelps and runs away. The woman rubs her cold cheeks with her soft fur. She breathes deep and falls back into her even pace.

• • •

A woman is on the subway and a man sits next to her even though there are many empty seats. The woman folds her small hands in her lap. The man takes out his dick and begins to masturbate. The woman stands and exits at the next stop. The woman’s heart is not racing, she does not feel nauseous, and she does not wonder what she would have done if the man had followed her.

No, once she steps onto the platform and the doors close behind her, the woman does not think about the man ever again. This is her superpower, bestowed on her as a baby by her alien mother. She feels absolutely fine and does bit of work in the early evening before deciding she’s tired and ordering Chinese. She sleeps deeply.

• • •

A woman goes on a date with a man and while they are walking to the restaurant, they see a woman bite off a man’s hand. The man on the date rushes to the man on the ground, who is bleeding profusely. The woman on the date asks where the woman with fangs got those teeth. “They look great on you,” she says.

“Do you think so?” the other woman asks. “They’re exactly what I needed for that extra boost of confidence.”

For the rest of the date, the man with two hands is extremely respectful.

• • •

The cockroach woman goes to the bank and hopes someone will rob it, so she can use her new and amazing powers. Instead, a man in front of her is talking to a woman. The man interrupts the woman. “The thing is,” the man says, “it’s just too easy to generalize, you know?” The cockroach woman considers ripping off the man’s arm, but that would be an overreaction. She deposits a check and feels glum as she walks to work, her newly grown antennae vibrating in the breeze.

• • •

The same man takes his dick out on the subway. He is sitting next to the woman with a mouthful of fangs. She freezes for a moment, but it’s really happening, it’s really happening, and so she leans over and bites off his dick. She spits it out. No bones in it to break. She leaves it harmless on the floor and gets off at the next stop. She keeps her face calm—she is used to ignoring the screams and the blood—but the taste lingers the rest of the way home. 

• • •

The woman with the magical remote control takes it with her everywhere, in her purse next to her pepper spray and a half eaten bag of M&Ms, twisted tight shut. She wouldn’t use the remote in public; there is no way to know that she’d hit her target. In a recurring nightmare, a man is yelling at her for messing up his order, a two shot half-caf skim latte you stupid cunt and in her anger she turns off the entire coffee shop, the entire block, the whole world, and she presses rewind, rewind, but it’s too late.

She won’t take the remote out, but as she walks down the street, she enjoys a fantasy in which she slips her hand into her purse and presses pause. In the still city, she can do anything she wants. She walks for miles, down small alleys, through wooded parks, past the corner where the homeless man yells obscenities, but see, he’s quiet now. She’s brought them both peace.

• • •

Werewolf-woman has never before loved being in her body, but now she lets her fur out whenever she is home. She’s at her most powerful when she’s naked. Sometimes, late at night, she stands in the backyard and howls not because she is sad but because her lungs are strong and it is a joy to turn air into sound. Her husband sees how happy she is and he asks her to scratch him, turn him, too. She wants to want to. She tries to explain to him that this is kind of her thing, that she needs this for herself. What she knows but can’t find the courage to say is that she needs it to not be for him. He says he understands and she knows he’ll never quite forgive her.

• • •

The fanged woman eats a donut on a park bench, though the fangs make it hard. She is in a bad mood. Her tongue is sore, her cheeks nipped raw, and her blazer is dusted in powdered sugar. She wishes a man would make some comment so she could bite him, but no one does. The fangs, after all, are easy to see.

She calls her friend who forgets. “Most days I’m fine,” she says, her s’s emerging with a slight hiss. “It’s just days like today I’m tired.”

“That sounds terrible,” her friend says, though she wishes they weren’t always talking about men. The friend who forgets picks at a seed stuck in her dull teeth. The woman with fangs dusts off the sugar and says she needs to go.

• • •

A woman walks down the hall of a large academic building after hours. She is eighteen, a freshman, and at least once a week there’s an email from the college about a sexual assault in the area. At the bottom of every email is a bullet-point list for ways to keep herself from harm. Despite the warnings not to be, she is there to pick up a paper from her professor’s mailbox. When she gets to the mailroom, the door is locked. All this for nothing, and here is the stairwell again. When she was fourteen, a man in a stairwell stopped her to ask a question, pressed her against a wall, groped her breasts. She runs down the stairs. Tonight, they are empty except for the men she peoples them with, and they reach for her like the branches in Snow White’s dark forest. She hates that she is a coward, is angry that she calls herself a coward.

If her imagination were not occupied, she would notice a twenty-dollar bill on the final landing. She would pick up the bill and spend it on a novel or a movie, maybe pay back a friend. A sophomore man finds the money later that night when he is walking calmly down the stairwell. He thinks about a movie he’s going to make with his friends, which they will shoot in the park at night while getting high. He enters it in the college film festival and places second. Years later, he is a director of indie films.

Luckily for the woman, she arrives home safely and the next day is bitten by a radioactive cockroach. Radioactive cockroaches are sweeping the city. She loves her new powers, but she doesn’t know how to tell the man she’s dating about the changes to her body, so they break up.

• • •

The woman who watched the woman with fangs bite off the hand of the man gets fangs for herself. She snaps them at her reflection in the mirror. There is blood on the fangs like she imagined, except it’s her own blood, from where her gums are still aching and raw.

• • •

The government finds out about the radioactive cockroaches when the mayor’s wife is bitten in her sleep. The mayor, though they share a bed, is unbitten and unchanged. What a strange thing! What is happening! No one knows, and the infection is spreading quickly. The mayor’s wife is taken in for testing. The press reports that the wife is ill and taking some time out of the public eye. On Reddit, conspiracy theories tangle and grow like vines.

• • •

A woman walks down the street and absolutely no one bothers her. She smiles at the other women she passes. They smile back. Something is different.

• • •

A woman wears a pair of fake antennae and takes her trash out to the alley behind her apartment, where she’s always been too afraid to go at night. No one bothers her, except for a large rat, who is plump and resentful.

• • •

Now that she can pretend to be a cockroach, the woman with fangs considers having them removed but in the end, she has grown too used to feeling safe. What if the radioactive cockroaches prove not to be the answer? What if there is a special taser? What if the scientists hard at work discover a cure? She keeps her fangs and accepts that her mouth will always be a little sore.

• • •

Fake antennae sales skyrocket. The men of the city do not feel safe. The women of the city experiment. They make baths and stay under the water for thirty minutes, holding their breath deep in their new lungs. They get very drunk on the beer their cockroach bodies love and walk home under the stars and when they see a man they hiss and the man runs away and they laugh and laugh, “Can’t you take a joke?” they shriek, and they almost feel bad, because two wrongs don’t make a right but one wrong after wrong and wrong and wrong and wrong does make a cockroach woman feel better, reckless, free.

• • •

Men carry small cans of RAID in their pockets when they go outside at night. It isn’t enough, not by a long shot, but they hold them tight in their hands, a talisman as much as a protection. With all women wearing antennae, there is no way to tell which ones may be dangerous.

• • •

The woman who forgets and the woman with fangs get coffee and the woman who forgets tells the woman with fangs that she doesn’t understand this new fashion trend.

“I tried on a pair,” she says, “but it flattened my hair and gave me a headache.”

The woman with fangs is on antibiotics. One of her teeth has developed an abscess.

“Headaches are the worst,” she says, and begins to cry.

• • •

A man cuts off the head of his cockroach girlfriend while she’s asleep. She staggers up and kills him and still has a whole week to live. She walks down the city streets holding her head under her arm so that she can see where she’s going. She writes an article for BuzzFeed about embracing the time she has left, but the truth is, her severed throat is tight with terror. She wishes she had died three days ago, that she’d never become a cockroach. Nothing is worse than knowing that the man she loved cut off her head, except the knowledge that killing him has not made her whole again. 

• • •

Two women are in their secret lab full of radioactive cockroaches. They wear long white lab coats and thick goggles. Their red rubber gloves go up to their elbows.

“I hope we did the right thing,” one woman says as she gently injects a new serum into a cockroach, then places him in jar #B872. 

“I think getting Marianna the changing table was the perfect choice,” the other woman replies, her head bent over a beaker, waiting for the orange liquid to cool.

They work long hours and it is always a relief when it’s time to go home. They talk about plans for the evening as they peel off their goggles and gloves and coats. Under their clothes, they are mosaics of failed experiments. Scars across cheeks, toenails hardened into claws, patches of skin that are stone and fur and scales. One woman has the interlocking armor of an armadillo down her spine. The other has a single wing that can’t unfold all the way; the feathers clog her shower drain.

The women step outside, put on their fake antennae, and walk home holding hands. A man coming toward them nods respectfully and gives them a wide berth. They smile at each other, not evil smiles, but not nice ones, either. They feel good and safe, but not as good and safe as they’d imagined. They are distracted from the stars and the cool night air by the places on their bodies that ache and pull and pinch, the itching that never stops. They are proud of what they’ve done, but still they sometimes wish they could be smooth and whole, some softer version of themselves.

Gwen E. Kirby‘s stories appear in One Story, Guernica, Ninth Letter, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy.

from Frail Sister

Karen Green

Tin House’s Editor-at-Large, Elissa Schappell, on Karen Green’s Frail Sister, out today from Siglio Press.

There is a growing movement, particularly among female writers, to push back against the notion that the worlds of writing and art must remain discrete.

I’m Exaggerating

Kate Wisel

Serena wore a navy two-piece suit, sensible flats, twisted-up hair, a buttoned cuff over the wrist—read the faded blah blah blah script. Her first flight was to Wichita, and she had asked Niko if he knew what Wichita looked like from the sky. She wanted to hurt him. For him to picture her cloud-height, off the ground, sixteen hundred miles to the middle, untouchable.

She scooped ice and twisted bottle caps. Balanced her palms on headrests during dips. The aisle a tightrope. It rattled: the overheads, the ice, her fingers. Sometimes the pilot and the co-pilot looked like the cops who rapped on her door the month before. In the cockpit, their hands on the gears against the bright, complicated look of the control panel. The backs of their heads against the bright, complicated look of the sky. She cracked the front door, chain off the bolt, swollen eye. Her smile a cross, index finger against her lip. Niko was passed out in boxers, in the bedroom, in a deep sleep. The cops pushed through, ignored her.

Galley Club: Bitter Orange

THSTAFF

Tin House invited a few early readers into the shoddy mansion where we store our galleys (maybe not the best idea, we know) for a look through a peephole at Claire Fuller’s latest, Bitter OrangeIt’s a best book of the month at Entertainment Weekly and TIME, where they’re calling it “unsettling and eerie… an ideal October chiller.”

It’s 1969, and sheltered Frances Jellico takes a job researching the architecture of Lyntons, a dilapidated mansion in the English countryside. But she’s distracted: under a floorboard in her new bathroom, she finds a peephole into her neighbors’ private lives. She’s entranced. But as the summer burns on, the cracks in Cara and Peter’s glamorous exteriors—and even in Frances’ own—start to show, and a crime unfolds that will brand their lives forever.  

Want to know more? Take a peek under the floorboard at our early readers’ thoughts below.

Do you have a favorite line from Bitter Orange?

  • “If food is worth eating, it’s worth eating properly.”
  • “I knew there were rules I was supposed to live by, but it was intellectual knowledge, a checklist to be ticked off against each new action, not inherent as it appeared to be for everyone else.”
  • “He must think that I am much changed, transformed from the person I once was: shy and awkward, large and plain. Now I am a woman of bone and skin, the patches of pigmentation like a map of a rocky archipelago; I am obdurate and uncooperative, drifting on a sea of memory between islands of lucidity.”
  • “The water was black and the shapes of our bodies tangled with the shadows made by the weeds and the bulrushes which crowded in from the bank like slender spectators.”
  • “There was no wind that afternoon, the lake was a new penny lost in an unmown lawn, and the unseen birds that chirped and twittered in the bushes didn’t disturb a twig.”
  • “Beautiful on the surface, but look a little closer and everything is decaying, rotting, falling apart.”
  • “I learned from the wig men that the law is not about finding the truth, it is about who can tell the most convincing story.”
  • “I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
  • “We were all standing on the edge that day, at the very rim of the precipice, staring into the void. Something inside us wanted to see what it would be like to jump, just to find out what would happen, an actual physical lurch that seemed so possible, except we all knew that once we had jumped there would be no way back.”

If you liked Bitter Orange, you’ll also like ____.

  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • A Rose for Emily William Faulkner
  • Indian Summer by Marcia Willett
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
  • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
  • Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce
  • The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Thanks to our wonderful Galley Club members for sinking into the Bitter Orange summer with us. Interested in being part of Galley Club? We’ll announce the next title—and instructions for how to join—on social media in November.

Infographics by Jakob Vala.