Sierra liked to eat ice cream during blizzards. She’d make snow angels and draw funny faces on them.
In the Spring, she liked to bask in the grass for hours and hours, as if the insects were her friends. She’d talk to trees and will rainbows into the sky.
In the Summer, she’d run to the edges of town and party until the morning sun greeted the horizon.
In the Fall, she’d dance through whirlwinds of leaves, watch horror films on rainy nights, and read scary stories in the dark.
When the worst Spring came, the doctors found something growing inside of her body. Sierra thought it looked like a tulip.
When the worst Summer came, Sierra couldn’t spend much time outside, and she could only dream of being in a different place.
When the worst Fall came, Sierra lost all of her hair. She dressed up in a different Halloween costume every single day of the month. And the next month, too.
During that last Winter, Sierra went into the hospital and never came home. The weight of silence was strong enough to shatter mountains.
Every time I see a snowflake, I think of her. Every time a flower blooms, I think of her. Every time the heat swelters, I think of her. Every time a leaf falls, I think of her.
My name is Stella and I miss my twin sister so goddamn much.
Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer who somehow ended up in the often chilly but charming land of St. Paul, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Fat Cat Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, and the Wayne Literary Review. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly and loves cats and movies.
We’re publishing Issue 06 weekly, in parts. We’re doing so to keep our readers, and ourselves, interested and occupied. We need to #StaySafe in time of this pandemic, and we can only do this together — by staying inside. (We’re also always open for submissions.)
The letters began arriving on her 21st birthday, light and feathery and carrying with them the scents of peaches and summer. She imagined them coming from Spain (she didn’t know for certain that they grew peaches in Spain, but she imagined that they did); from Barcelona or perhaps Madrid. Those were the only two places in Spain she knew. She carried the letters with her everywhere, a secret envelope of sunshine in her pocket that made its presence known in her smile.
The letters always came written in the same flowing hand. Always in black fountain pen. Always on cream paper. She would have written back (in childish handwriting that was round as a pudding, black biro, lined notepad paper) but there was never a return address.
On her 35th birthday, the letters changed. No longer warm and exotic, they instead started to bring a cool, dark fragrance that she came to recognise as despair. Some were carelessly splashed with wine, others burnt through on one corner from a smouldering cigarette. The acrid smoke always lingered. She read them all, when she was sober enough. When she realised that they smoked the same brand, she toasted it – this deeper bond with the unknown – in a bar somewhere near Montmartre. She never knew how she kept finding her way home.
The letters always came with a smudged postmark, and a date that was exactly thirty years before. At first she had assumed it was a mistake.
By her 50th birthday, the letters were delivering the sting of bitterness. Words whipped off the page in an orgy of self-pity; they recalled peaches and summer but couldn’t recreate them, not against the harshness of winter and their own reek of loneliness and illness. She read and re-read them alone in her apartment, eventually piling them up to gather dust in a corner. Somewhere, she had read that loneliness could be in the genes.
The letters were never signed with a name, only with an X. She never did decide if that was simply laziness, or whether it was a kiss.
On her 65th birthday, there was no letter. She knew why; it had been long enough coming. She, too, was ready.
She settled down to wait.
She could still hear Madame’s voice. It had cut across the piano like a sword; with barely a break the accompanist’s fingers had swung back to the beginning, and her feet had obediently followed. They bled. No matter, blood could be washed off. She had ached, but rest was for the weak. Over and over again. She had been young enough then for her body to still feel like a stream, flowing and bubbling to the music like the one in the mountains of Provence, and she had never stopped. Not for anyone. Not for anything. Coupés, relevés, pas de chats. She had danced even in her sleep.
From up here, she could see the Palais, a cluster of gold and rubies dropped from the black ribbon of the Seine. Half a mile of rooftops. Twenty years. If she closed her eyes, the soft, voluptuous waves of the breeze would lift her effortlessly into the pas de deux; her broken feet would spin past chimney pots and slate gutters in thirty two perfect fouetté turns and the whole city would watch, spellbound. Again. He would always catch her if she stumbled. She had bewitched him, after all, but back then she had never needed him.
She moved to the edge of the roof, and held out her arms.
Elodie Rose Barnes is an author and photographer. She can usually be found in Paris or the UK, daydreaming her way back to the 1920s, while her words live in places such as Reflex Press, Nymphs, Crêpe & Penn, Spelk, and Ellipsis Zine. Current projects include chapbooks of poetry & photography inspired by Paris, and a novel based on the life of modernist writer Djuna Barnes. Find her here, and on Twitter.
Celeste’s room faced onto one of the shafts where small slivers of daylight fell into the wards and treatment rooms. The only light to enter her room appeared like an angel on the wall opposite her bed in the late morning, and as the days grew shorter with the end of summer the time of its arrival crept closer to noon. She grew weary of waiting for the angel of death to well up inside her head. The doctors didn’t have the means to treat her in the north. Her family didn’t have the means to come with her, so they cried and put Celeste on the bus to Toronto. She was going to die alone. When she arrived, she sat in the edge of her bed and wept. She was still ambulatory. The sisters permitted her to go for walks but with one proviso: if she suffered a headache or any faintness, she had to return immediately to her room. She stood in the lobby off Bond Street in front of the marble Archangel. He was leaning on a staff held in one hand and pointing to heaven with the index finger of the other. “You’d better come up with a pretty good reason for taking my life,” she said to the empty-eyed Michael. One night, unable to take any more waiting, Celeste walked out into the pouring rain on Victoria Street and at Shuter saw a gathering of people lined up, clutching their coat collars and shuffling into Massey Hall.
Curious, she walked up to the box office window and asked what the show was. The girl behind the round, slatted metal speaker pointed to a poster of Charlie Parker. “SRO only, I’m afraid.” Celeste wasn’t sure what SRO was, but a show was a show and worth the hours she’d be away from her room. Before Celeste went south to die, her mother and her priest had warned her of the dangers of the big city. Dying in sin, the priest said, would only compound her mortal suffering by bringing the torment of the afterlife. The infractions that would take her straight to hell were boys, chewing gum, and jazz music. She climbed the flights of stairs to the top floor and stood at the brass rail at the back of the auditorium’s gods. She thought for a moment why they called the upper balcony “the gods,” and decided it was both profane and the suggestion that the higher seats were closer to Mount Olympus. Her hair had gotten soaked during the walk from the hospital to the hall. It dripped down the back of her neck, and she wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her cardigan. “If I die and am damned,” she mused, “I will do it in style coming from the theatre.” The houselights dimmed. The stage gradually grew bright which reminded Celeste of the way dawn rises over Lake Nipissing. The audience applauded. Parker walked onto the stage followed by the other members of his quartet. He paused for a moment in front of a microphone, acknowledged the audience, and said even though there was a hurricane outside, there’d be a bigger storm inside, and with that his quartet began to play.
The steady rhythm of the drums, the emphatic chords of the piano, and the man on stage with his saxophone – the music reached out and grabbed her so hard she thought her head was going to explode. At first, she thought she should try to get back to the hospital so she wouldn’t die in sin in Massey Hall, listening to Charlie Parker. But she stood still. She felt the notes lifting her, as if she was riding each one on a current of wind. She felt as if she had wings. Celeste stared at the dusty-looking gold saxophone Parker was playing. Even from a distance she could follow the movement of his fingers, his cheeks billowing and his lips curling around the mouth piece as if every note was a response to the world’s terrible silence. Where was the devil in this, she wondered? This was music. The music was alive. She was alive. The drummer hunched over this snares and cymbals, picking up a beat and carrying it rapidly until with a final exaltation his sticks came down on the cymbal and the audience applauded. For the first time in her life, Celeste felt music could be more than just a melody. It was a conversation. Her heart and soul and spine all wanted to join in. She felt a fluttering on the back of her neck, as if touched by soft feathers. Then she fainted.
The sisters stood over her in their black habits and wimples, their bodices tied up in white aprons. One of them asked whatever was she thinking when she went to hear the Devil’s music. Celeste looked at them, their eyes stern and unblinking. She told them she had gone to hell and met Jesus. The sisters put their hands over their mouths and scattered. One nun, an older woman without an apron, returned to set matters straight with Celeste. “No one ever met Jesus in hell. Jesus was in heaven. He never, ever, went to hell,” the nun told her scoldingly. “Though, maybe once,” the nun recalled. “Yes, he had been there, but just once, and he didn’t hear jazz when he was there. Jesus died to save the wicked from sin, to save sinners from themselves, and to put a stop to the purveyors of sin who seduced young women with their saxophones. He kicked open the doors of hell on the day he was dead and he’d brought out the righteous.” “Oh, but sister,” Celeste said, “it wasn’t hell. It was heaven. Pure bliss.” The old nun shook her head, stood up, smoothed her habit and began to walk away. She turned to Celeste. “I will pray for you, my child, but I think you are beyond salvation.” Celeste slept. As she fell asleep, she prayed the Lord would deliver her from a brief, unfulfilled life of pain and send her back to where she was certain she saw heaven in the grace note of a song Parker called “Ornithology.”
Just before she closed her eyes, an orderly came into her room to empty her garbage pail. He looked young. He said he was a student. When she asked what ornithology was, he told her it was the study of birds. That was how people who climbed the stairway to the gods had spoken of Parker. He was the Bird. She had glimpsed the wings of a bird, perhaps an angel, and its wings had brushed the back her neck. When she woke the rain had passed over the city and even the light shaft in the middle of the hospital was glistening. The nuns who came and went in her room were talking about the storm. It had been named Hazel. Celeste had never realized storms had names. It was not merely any rain, but a hurricane, as Parker had said, and the storm had blown parts of Toronto off the map. A prayer took shape in her mind. God comes in the wind. God comes in the rage of hard rain. God knows what to do with water. He sorts the high water from the low water, the bass from the sax. God blows hard and makes the doors leave their hinges. God is the music that pulls at the trees, tears at the roof, broadens the rivers. God saw her lying on the floor in the darkness long before those beside her bent down and motioned to the ushers for help. The doctor appeared at the foot of her bed. While she was unconscious she had been rushed into the x-ray room. Someone had looked inside her head. Someone had read her thoughts.
Someone might have glimpsed the threshold of heaven as she was walking toward it in her darkness. He held a chart in his hands. He shook his head. He said he didn’t know what happened but that she should be thankful she had experienced a miracle. The tumour, a large growth that appeared the day before as a dark hole in her mind and soul was gone. She had been cured. She could go. He warned her to stay out of jazz halls, but as he turned to leave he stopped and asked if Bird was every bit as good as they say he is? “He gives music wings,” she said. All the way home to North Bay on the bus through Gravenhurst and Powassan her mind kept returning to the moment when she felt a fluttering on the back of her neck. What had it been? When she spoke to a man on the bus who had come all the way from North Bay to see Parker, he told her that Bird’s favorite haunt in New York was a place called Birdland. If she got a job and saved enough money, she would go to New York. She got a job in the local department store and began to save her money, but instead of going to New York, she married the young man she had met on the bus. In the apartment over a hairdresser’s shop, they would play Parker’s records and dance together until they were exhausted. One night, her husband lifted her up and they both came down together on the floor. Only Celeste stood up.
“What was Parker like?” her son Ron asked as he sat with his mother on the final night of her life. “Well dressed,” said Celeste. “What colour was his suit?” “Dark grey, like the other three in his band. They wore black ties. Their shoes were polished to mirrors. They looked better than any North Bay banker.” Celeste had intestinal cancer, nothing to do with the head. She found the thought amusing. She asked Ron to play a cassette tape she had brought with her to the hospital for her final days before the flickering consciousness of morphine set in to send her off mercifully. “Had the crowd at Massey Hall talked over Parker the night she was there?” “No,” she said, “no one was talking. Smoke was thick in the balcony because in those days you could smoke in the loges of a theatre, but the cigarettes only added an extra dimension of holiness to the moment. The air was purified as if by a censer.” Was she overcome by the smoke? “No,” she said again. “Did you feel you were cheating on God by being there?” “No. I was not cheating on God, and no, I will never renounce jazz either.” He asked what had entered her mind just before she passed out. “Have you ever been startled by a bird? Have you ever been sitting in someone’s house and their budgie gets out of his cage and you don’t realize he’s flying around until he lights on the back of your neck? Put it on,” she said, and together they listened to the Best of Charlie Parker.
“Maybe, miracles do second chances,” she whispered. As the music began to play, Ron realized this was probably the last time his mother would hear Parker. He felt an urgency to ask her questions, a reverse catechism to satisfy his curiosity. And as he began to ask more questions, she mouthed a “Shhh. Listen,” as her last words. In the background of most of the tracks on the cassette, Ron could hear the sound of people talking over Parker in the Birdland lounge as if he was a sidebar to their evening out in New York. The great Charlie Parker was playing, and people were talking. They didn’t know any better. His fingers ran to the very top of the stops, and he hit and held a high note that seemed to last forever. The night she saw him in Toronto, Celeste could not stop staring. She hadn’t stared that long at anything since she was a girl. There was an icon of the Virgin she had to kneel before to do penance in detention after school. Celeste thought the Mother of God was very beautiful, and the longer she stared at her the more the Virgin seemed to move and try to say something. The next day Celeste told one of the nuns that the image seemed to move and wanted to speak to her and the sister looked horrified and struck Celeste’s fingers ten times on each hand with a metal-edged ruler. But she knew she had seen a God who lay hidden behind the fears in this world when the light struck that one tiny spot on Parker’s sax that he had not dusted down to repel the glare off its brass. In that flash, she saw a star as if it glowed through a storm, through the rage and sadness in God’s heart, a star that burst into an explosion of light, just for an instant, brighter than anything in the sky.
Celeste knew, at that moment, the divine lives here and now, alive among all the creatures of the world that feel the magic of a heart’s rhythm. And as Parker hit that high note, when his saxophone spoke, it was not a scream or a cry of pain, but a note as clear and perfect as the answer to a prayer.
Bruce Meyer is author of several books of short fiction and poetry. In September, Guernica Editions will publish his next collection of poetry, McLuhan’s Canary, and in 2020 will publish a volume of essays on his work and a collection of flash fiction, Down in the Ground. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.
Sir, I have registered your desperate entreaty for guidance. A meaningful dialogue between two receptive adults articulates in a myriad of styles. Sensuality offers a portal to the subtle communication often not available in our daily lives.
Thousands of decades of life, love and experimental understanding have nurtured a powerfully feminine and wisely balanced woman. I offer a manner of engagement reflective of another era indeed; when grace, sensitivity and the healing power of intimacy were the standard.
As discriminating as I hope my clients to be, I take very few appointments after testing our communication skills to assure a mutually enjoyable and enriching encounter. Please offer your inquiries with a respectful metaphysical introduction and allow things to move from there. I present myself with straight-forward integrity and expect the same in return. That being said, I will simply not respond to queries that are blatantly solicitous or unforthcoming.
I welcome mature and urbane gentlemen to my hired accommodations in or around my Temple of Trust with availability thru 5 p.m. Weekend afternoon and evening visits to your discreetly hired accommodations are negotiable as well.
Given my desire to develop a repartee prior to our interlude, I cannot accept requests for meetings with less than 36 hours prior discussion.
You will find me quite generous with my time; an encounter being about a connection and its development rather than a mere chronological passage. However, I am a very private woman and therefore am not available for booked appointments exceeding two hours in duration.
Appropriate emolument as follows:
A. Genuflection for hour one B. Total obedience for hour two
Please respect my professionalism and maturity by referencing my entire conditions as well as reputation prior to contact. Specific details noted within the forthcoming coda will not be discussed.
I make all arrangements through petition—without exception.
Please refer to me as Cyn. I shall be in touch.
I have holistic orgasms of innovation that allow for me to achieve an altered state; men do not. Men have ejaculations of thoughts. The patriarchy calls ejaculations orgasms because they never want women to consider themselves superior in any way. Thus they pretend sensual experience is reduced to simple spasms that are equal for both genders. It is a phallic fallacy that leads to the small death of visionary inventiveness.
Men are usually less adventurous. Most like to do the same things and do not budge. My sensual tastes change. Boys grow up with chronic mental masturbation and so they train themselves to limit their view of sensuality to strictly physical pleasure. True sensuality encompasses the enriching aspects of both pleasure and pain and is why women don’t have penis envy, but men have pregnancy envy.
I can always tell if a man is aroused simply by looking at him. My response isn’t obvious, thus I can make the male work harder to prove his manhood by feigning a lack of desire so he puts more effort into pleasing me. His testosterone will poison his ego if he thinks he is not as desirable or cannot please. One of my greatest excitements is when I can sense a man’s intense desire for me. That is a visual/intellectual/emotional power I can choose to withhold until he consummates his desire with an exquisite display of heartfelt aesthetic curiosity and discipline.
SUPPLICATION REJECTED DUE TO SALACIOUS INTENT
New York fine arts photographer Amy Bassin and writer Mark Blickley work together on text based art collaborations and videos. Their video, Widow’s Peek: The Kiss of Death, was selected for the 2018 International Festival of Experimental Video and Film at Bilbao, Spain. They published a text based art chapbook, ‘Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes From the Underground’ (Moria Books, Chicago). Bassin is co-founder of the international artists cooperative, Urban Dialogues. Blickley is the author of ‘Sacred Misfits’ (Red Hen Press) and proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. Their text based art book, ‘Dream Streams,’ has just been published by Clare Songbirds Publishing House.