We’re giving one lucky winner a copy of Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon. You can listen to and read an excerpt in Episode 61, where we feature Joe’s work.
Joe Okonkwo is a Pushcart Prize nominee who has had stories published in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, and Best Gay Stories 2015. In addition to his writing career, he has worked in theater as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright and youth theater instructor. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Jazz Moon is his debut novel.
The Other Stories’ Social Media Intern Melissa Francis reached out to our authors to find out what they’re up to.
Some of the talented authors that we’ve featured on our podcast have new and upcoming publications:
- Jacob M Appel (episode 26): “The Homely Girls” published in Ascent; Coulrophobia& Fata Morgana, a short story collection to be published by Black Lawrence Press in August.
- Levi Andrew Noe (episode 48): “Cadence” published in Scrutiny Journal.
- Zachary Tyler Vickers (episode 28): “Finkle, Frigup” published in The Iowa Review; “Braille Lessons for Very Tall Children” published in Booth Journal; and “The Seamster,” forthcoming in DIAGRAM.
- Ríona Judge McCormack (episode 47): “Backburn”, winner of the inaugural Galley Beggar Press Short Story Award; “The Kiss” (audio), shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Award; “Fifteen Silver Shillings”, joint winner of the HISSAC Flash Fiction Prize.
- Mary Rose McCarthy (episode 44): “They Know Not” forthcoming in Cork County Council’s From the Well anthology; story shortlisted in competition of the same name.
- Katherine Vondy (episode 4): “The Harbor, In Winter” published in Cobalt Review.
- Anne Whitehouse (episode 36): “A Fire in Winter” published in The Greensilk Journal; “The Secret”, and “One Summer Day on the Number One Train” published in By & By Poetry; “Grout Pond” published in Agave Magazine; “Preserves” and “The ‘E-E-E-E-E-E’” published in riverbabble; and “My Last Spring in My House and Garden”, and “A Few Things I Learned From My Mother-in-Law”, published in The Basil O’Flaherty.
- Kit Haggard (episode 17): “Poppies”, forthcoming this month to be published by Okey Panky; “Kiss”, published in Hypothetical People: Writing and Art from the Booksellers of Greenlight.
- Eric Silvera (episode 13): “Skinny Mirror”, published in Five2One Magazine; “Festival”, published in The Poeming Pigeon.
- Craig Fishbane (episode 42): “Cordoba”, published in A Quiet Courage.
This week, we featured an excerpt from Rebecca Strong’s novel, Who Is Mr. Plutin, published by Curiosity Quill Press. And because both Strong and her publishers are awesome, we’re giving away her book to one lucky entrant to the contest below! If you don’t win, don’t worry! You can buy Who is Mr. Plutin here!
From the Curiosity Quill Press’s websites, a quick description of Who Is Mr. Plutin:
Yesterday Vika Serkova was in New York, eating takeout alone in her closet-sized apartment. Today she wakes up with a wedding ring on her finger, next to a man who claims to be her husband. In a designer flat in St Petersburg, Russia. Huh?
Her new reality is full of surprises. She owns only stilettos but can’t take a step in them without falling. People around her seem to think she’s lived in Russia her entire life. Her daily routine includes thousand-dollar spa visits with caviar and Dom Pérignon. And her husband is a handsome oligarch who buys her jewelry without any occasion. This new Russian life seems to be as different from the old American life as two countries’ views on Crimea.
Has reality blown a fuse? Vika won’t worry about it now that she is a living Cinderella story. At least not until her husband drops an ultimate bomb about why she’s forgotten everything, about the work she does with her father, and about her current assignment for the Russian President. The assignment, which, as she discovers a day later, sets her against her husband in a conspiracy big enough to cost them not only their Breguets but very possibly their lives. To save herself and the family she is beginning to remember Vika needs to fool them into defecting. A perfect plan but only if she can manage it with her Russian memory MIA and her opponents set on destroying each other even before Vika’s manicure dries.
Fun and fast-paced, WHO IS MR. PLUTIN? is set in modern day St. Petersburg, Russia where your chances in life are only as good as the car you drive, the clothes you wear, and the people you stay away from.
Review by Caitlin Murphy
I love a good literary road trip. From Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Kerouac’s America, there is something undeniably appealing about them. To me, they’re a modern take on the quest narrative or coming of age story, serving as a vehicle through which characters are developed for the better, returning home wiser, stronger, and changed. When Kody murders his girlfriend’s parents, fleeing with her on a road trip across America, it is immediately understood that the characters of Bud Smith’s novella I’m From Electric Peak are not to be redeemed. Instead, Smith subverts the trope in such a way that highlights a dangerous tension between the dynamics of power, blind faith, and a sense of a knowing, inevitable collapse.
Told through Kody’s perspective, I’m From Electric Peak begins with the cold blooded murder of Teal’s parents in retaliation for their decision to send their daughter to Italy in an attempt to keep the teens apart. The reader learns shortly thereafter that Teal was pregnant, forced by her parents to undergo an abortion, a loss which Teal feels acutely throughout the narrative. Where Kody takes this personally, it becomes clear that for him, his desire to “rescue” or “avenge” Teal is more about maintaining his ability to control her. The road trip is exclusively about his plans for their destination and life together. While Teal goes along with Kody’s whims, she is simultaneously pushing against him and his control with a growing intensity throughout the novella. This dynamic is coupled with a growing intensity of Kody’s violent thoughts and intentions, all of which culminate in a standoff which won’t be spoiled in this review.
The world of I’m From Electric Peak is claustrophobic, tightly centered on Kody and Teal’s adventure, fueled by Kody’s toxic idea of love as two people alone in the world. Their twisted intimacy, combined with a series of constrictive settings and Kody’s possessive violence, creates a constant sense of extreme unease and fragility for the reader. There is a very real threat to not only Teal’s safety, but to anything she cares for, ranging from her brother to her own agency. In turn, the possibility of tragedy becomes as much a character as any of the others within the narrative, and this is something Smith handles brilliantly. For me, the most striking thing about I’m From Electric Peak was the role of power and faith throughout the narrative. Where Teal finds a necessary faith in Elvis, a connection associated with her home and her family, assigning the experience of visiting Graceland with religious significance, Kody believes exclusively in himself and his perceived love for her.
Where Teal identifies the extent to which the men in her life have dominated over her and her wishes, recognizing that Saint Dymphna, a woman compelled to marry her father only to be murdered by him, is “a lot like [her]”, Kody is seemingly affronted by her lack of faith in him as an absolute figure of control. As Teal begins to gravitate toward a sense of faith as a belief in herself and her sense of home, the more danger Kody poses to her, and the more urgent a need for resolution becomes.
I’m From Electric Peak is not the kind of book you read casually, or purely for pleasure. While there are many interesting, and thought provoking aspects to the novella, the story is ultimately told from the least compelling character’s perspective, leaving some of the most interesting questions or plot points under utilized. Instead, the reader has to be willing to engage with the narrative on a critical level to fully appreciate the symbolism and language Smith has to offer. If you’re looking for a read to spend days contemplating, give I’m From Electric Peak a read for the metaphors, a thoughtful portrayal of power and toxicity, and for Teal Cartwheels.
Caitlin Murphy is a writer, editor, and reader based outside of New York City. She probably wishes you’d ask her about knights in literature. You can find her on Twitter @MsCaitlinMurphy
Tor Books has kindly agreed to let us give one of our wonderful listeners a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s The Bands of Mourning. Below you’ll find the details to enter, and the first chapter!
THE BANDS OF MOURNING: Chapter 1 Excerpt
By Brandon Sanderson
Waxillium Ladrian hurried down the steps outside the bar-turned-hideout, passing constables in brown who bustled this way and that. The mists were already evaporating, dawn heralding the end of their vigil. He checked his arm, where a bullet had ripped a sizable hole through the cuff of his shirt and out the side of his jacket. He’d felt that one pass.
“Oi,” Wayne said, hustling up beside him. “A good plan that one was, eh?”
“It was the same plan you always have,” Wax said. “The one where I get to be the decoy.”
“Ain’t my fault people like to shoot at you, mate,” Wayne said as they reached the coach. “You should be happy; you’re usin’ your talents, like me granners always said a man should do.”
“I’d rather not have ‘shootability’ be my talent.”
“Well, you gotta use what you have,” Wayne said, leaning against the side of the carriage as Cob the coachman opened the door for Wax. “Same reason I always have bits of rat in my stew.”
Wax looked into the carriage, with its fine cushions and rich upholstery, but didn’t climb in.
“You gonna be all right?” Wayne asked.
“Of course I am,” Wax said. “This is my second marriage. I’m an old hand at the practice by now.”
Wayne grinned. “Oh, is that how it works? ’Cuz in my experience, marryin’ is the one thing people seem to get worse at the more they do it. Well, that and bein’ alive.”
“Wayne, that was almost profound.”
“Damn. I was aimin’ for insightful.”
Wax stood still, looking into the carriage. The coachman cleared his throat, still standing and holding the door open for him.
“Right pretty noose, that is,” Wayne noted.
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Wax said, leaning to climb in.
“Lord Ladrian!” a voice called from behind.
Wax glanced over his shoulder, noting a tall man in a dark brown suit and bow tie pushing between a pair of constables. “Lord Ladrian,” the man said, “could I have a moment, please?”
“Take them all,” Wax said. “But do it without me.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Wax said, nodding to Wayne. He dropped a spent bullet shell, then Pushed himself into the air. Why waste time on a carriage?
Steel at a comfortable burn inside his stomach, he shoved on a nearby electric streetlight—still shining, though morning had arrived—and soared higher into the air. Elendel spread before him, a soot-stained marvel of a city, leaking smoke from a hundred thousand different homes and factories. Wax shoved off the steel frame of a half-finished building nearby, then sent himself in a series of leaping bounds across the Fourth Octant.
He passed over a field of carriages for hire, rows of vehicles waiting quietly in ranks, early morning workers looking up at him as he passed. One pointed; perhaps the mistcoat had drawn his attention. Coinshot couriers weren’t an uncommon sight in Elendel, and men soaring through the air were rarely a point of interest.
A few more leaps took him over a series of warehouses in huddled rows. Wax thrilled in each jump. It was amazing how this could still feel so wonderful to him. The breeze in his face, the little moment of weightlessness when he hung at the very top of an arc.
All too soon, however, both gravity and duty reasserted themselves. He left the industrial district and crossed finer roadways, paved with pitch and gravel to create a smoother surface than cobbles for all those blasted motorcars. He spotted the Survivorist church easily, with its large glass and steel dome. Back in Weathering a simple wooden chapel had been sufficient, but that wasn’t nearly grand enough for Elendel.
The design was to allow those who worshipped full view of the mists at night. Wax figured if they wanted to see the mists, they’d do better just stepping outside. But perhaps he was being cynical. After all, the dome—which was made of segments of glass between steel supports, making it look like the sections of an orange—was able to open inward and let the mist pour down for special occasions.
He landed on a rooftop water tower across from the church. Perhaps when it had been built, the church’s dome had been tall enough to overshadow the surrounding buildings. It would have provided a nice profile. Now, buildings were rising taller and taller, and the church was dwarfed by its surroundings. Wayne would find a metaphor in that. Probably a crude one.
He perched on the water tower, looming over the church. So he was here, finally. He felt his eye begin to twitch, and an ache rose within him.
I think I loved you even on that day. So ridiculous, but so earnest.…
Six months ago, he’d pulled the trigger. He could still hear the gunshot.
Standing up, he pulled himself together. He’d healed this wound once. He could do so again. And if that left his heart crusted with scar tissue, then perhaps that was what he needed. He leaped off the water tower, then slowed by dropping and Pushing on a shell casing.
He hit the street and strode past a long line of carriages. Guests were already in attendance—Survivorist tenets called for weddings either very early in the morning or late at night. Wax nodded to several people he passed, and couldn’t help slipping his shotgun out of its holster and resting it on his shoulder as he hopped up the steps and shoved the door open before him with a Steelpush.
Steris paced in the foyer, wearing a sleek white dress that had been chosen because the magazines said it was fashionable. With her hair braided and her makeup done by a professional for the occasion, she was actually quite pretty.
He smiled when he saw her. His stress, his nervousness, melted away a little.
Steris looked up as soon as he entered, then hurried to his side. “And?”
“I didn’t get killed,” he said, “so there’s that.”
She glanced at the clock. “You’re late,” she said, “but not very late.”
“I’m … sorry?” She’d insisted he go on the raid. She’d planned for it, in fact. Such was life with Steris.
“I’m sure you did your best,” Steris said, taking his arm. She was warm, and even trembling. Steris might be reserved, but unlike what some assumed, she wasn’t emotionless.
“The raid?” she asked.
“Went well. No casualties.” He walked with her to a side chamber, where Drewton—his valet—waited beside a table spread with Wax’s white wedding suit. “You realize that by going on a raid on the morning of my wedding, I’ll only reinforce this image that society has of me.”
“That of a ruffian,” he said, taking off his mistcoat and handing it to Drewton. “A barely civilized lout from the Roughs who curses in church and goes to parties armed.”
She glanced at his shotgun, which he’d tossed onto the sofa. “You enjoy playing with people’s perceptions of you, don’t you? You seek to make them uncomfortable, so they’ll be off balance.”
“It’s one of the simple joys I have left, Steris.” He smiled as Drewton unbuttoned his waistcoat. Then he pulled off both that and his shirt, leaving him bare-chested.
“I see I’m included in those you try to make uncomfortable,” Steris said.
“I work with what I have,” Wax said.
“Which is why you always have bits of rat in your stew?”
Wax hesitated in handing his clothing to Drewton. “He said that to you too?”
“Yes. I’m increasingly convinced he tries the lines out on me.” She folded her arms. “The little mongrel.”
“Not going to leave as I change?” Wax asked, amused.
“We’re to be married in less than an hour, Lord Waxillium,” she said. “I think I can stand to see you bare-chested. As a side note, you’re the Pathian. Prudishness is part of your belief system, not mine. I’ve read of Kelsier. From what I’ve studied, I doubt he’d care if—”
Wax undid the wooden buttons on his trousers. Steris blushed, before turning around and finally putting her back to him. She continued speaking a moment later, sounding flustered. “Well, at least you agreed to a proper ceremony.”
Wax smiled, settling down in his undershorts and letting Drewton give his face a quick shave. Steris remained in place, listening. Finally, as Drewton was wiping the cream from Wax’s face, she asked, “You have the pendants?”
“Gave them to Wayne.”
“You … What?”
“I thought you wanted some disturbances at the wedding,” Wax said, standing and taking the new set of trousers from Drewton. He slipped them on. He hadn’t worn white much since returning from the Roughs. It was harder to keep clean out there, which had made it worth wearing. “I figured this would work.”
“I wanted planned disturbances, Lord Waxillium,” Steris snapped. “It’s not upsetting if it’s understood, prepared for, and controlled. Wayne is rather the opposite of those things, wouldn’t you say?”
Wax did up his buttons and Drewton took his shirt off the hanger nearby. Steris turned around immediately upon hearing the sound, arms still folded, and didn’t miss a beat—refusing to acknowledge that she’d been embarrassed. “I’m glad I had copies made.”
“You made copies of our wedding pendants?”
“Yes.” She chewed her lip a moment. “Six sets.”
“The other four didn’t arrive in time.”
Wax grinned, doing up the buttons on his shirt, then letting his valet handle the cuffs. “You’re one of a kind, Steris.”
“Technically, so is Wayne—and actually so was Ruin, for that matter. If you consider it, that’s not much of a compliment.”
Wax strapped on suspenders, then let Drewton fuss with his collar. “I don’t get it, Steris,” he said, standing stiffly as the valet worked. “You prepare so thoroughly for things to go wrong—like you know and expect that life is unpredictable.”
“And life is unpredictable. So the only thing you do by preparing for disturbances is ensure that something elseis going to go wrong.”
“That’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint.”
“Living in the Roughs does that to a fellow.” He eyed her, standing resplendent in her dress, arms crossed, tapping her left arm with her right index finger.
“I just … feel better when I try,” Steris finally said. “It’s like, if everything goes wrong, at least I tried. Does that make any sense?”
“As a matter of fact, I think it does.”
Drewton stepped back, satisfied. The suit came with a very nice black cravat and vest. Traditional, which Wax preferred. Bow ties were for salesmen. He slid on the jacket, tails brushing the backs of his legs. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he strapped on his gunbelt and slid Vindication into her holster. He’d worn a gun to his last wedding, so why not this one? Steris nodded in approval.
Shoes went last. A new pair. They’d be hideously uncomfortable. “Are we late enough yet?” he asked Steris.
She checked the clock in the corner. “I planned for us to go in two minutes from now.”
“Ah, delightful,” he said, taking her arm. “That means we can be spontaneous and arrive early. Well, late-early.”
She clung to his arm, letting him steer her down the side chamber toward the entrance to the dome, and the church proper. Drewton followed behind.
“Are you … certain you wish to proceed?” Steris asked, stopping him before they entered the walkway to the dome.
“Having second thoughts?”
“Absolutely not,” Steris said immediately. “This union is quite beneficial to my house and status.” She took Wax’s left hand in both of hers. “But Lord Waxillium,” she said softly, “I don’t want you to feel trapped, particularly after what happened to you earlier this year. If you wish to back out, I will accept it as your will.”
The way she clutched his hand as she said those words sent a very different message. But she didn’t seem to notice. Looking at her, Wax found himself wondering. When he’d first agreed to the marriage, he’d done so out of duty to his house.
Now, he felt his emotions shifting. The way she’d been there for him these last months as he’d grieved … The way she looked at him right now …
Rust and Ruin. He was actually fond of Steris. It wasn’t love, but he doubted he would love again. This would do.
“No, Steris,” he said. “I would not back out. That … wouldn’t be fair to your house, and the money you have spent.”
“The money doesn’t—”
“It’s all right,” Wax said, giving her hand a little squeeze. “I have recovered enough from my ordeal. I’m strong enough to do this.”
Steris opened her mouth to reply, but a knock at the door heralded Marasi sticking her head in to check on them. With dark hair and softer, rounder features than Steris, Marasi wore bright red lipstick and a progressive lady’s attire—a pleated skirt, with a tight buttoned jacket.
“Finally,” she said. “Crowd is getting fidgety. Wax, there’s a man here wanting to see you. I’ve been trying to send him away, but … well…”
She came into the room and held the door open, revealing the same slender man in the brown suit and bow tie from before, standing with the ash girls in the antechamber that led to the dome proper.
“You,” Wax said. “How did you get here before Wayne?”
“I don’t believe your friend is coming,” the man said. He stepped in beside Marasi and nodded to her, then closed the doors, shutting out the ash girls. He turned and tossed Wax a wadded-up ball of paper.
When Wax caught it, it clinked. Unfolding it revealed the two wedding pendants. Scrawled on the paper were the words: Gonna go get smashed till I can’t piss straight. Happy weddings ’n stuff.
“Such beautiful imagery,” Steris observed, taking Wax’s wedding pendant in a white-gloved hand as Marasi looked over his shoulder to read the note. “At least he didn’t forget these.”
“Thank you,” Wax said to the man in brown, “but as you can see, I’m quite busy getting married. Whatever you need from me can—”
The man’s face turned translucent, displaying the bones of his skull and spine beneath.
Steris stiffened. “Holy One,” she whispered.
“Holy pain,” Wax said. “Tell Harmony to get someone else this time. I’m busy.”
“Tell … Harmony…” Steris mumbled, her eyes wide.
“Unfortunately, this is part of the problem,” the man in brown said, his skin returning to normal. “Harmony has been distracted as of late.”
“How can God be distracted?” Marasi asked.
“We’re not sure, but it has us worried. I need you, Waxillium Ladrian. I have a job you’ll find of interest. I realize you’re off to the ceremony, but afterward, if I could have a moment of your time…”
“No,” Wax said.
Wax pulled Steris by the arm, shoving open the doors, striding past Marasi, leaving the kandra. It had been six months since those creatures had manipulated him, played him, and lied to him. The result? A dead woman in his arms.
“Was that really one of the Faceless Immortals?” Steris said, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, and for obvious reasons I want nothing to do with them.”
“Peace,” she said, holding his arm. “Do you need a moment?”
Wax stopped in place. She waited, and he breathed in and out, banishing from his mind that awful, awful scene when he’d knelt on a bridge alone, holding Lessie. A woman he realized he’d never actually known.
“I’m all right,” he said to Steris through clenched teeth. “But God should have known not to come for me. Particularly not today.”
“Your life is … decidedly odd, Lord Waxillium.”
“I know,” he said, moving again, stepping with her beside the last door before they entered the dome. “Ready?”
“Yes, thank you.” Was she … teary-eyed? It was an expression of emotion he’d never seen from her.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Forgive me. It’s just … more wonderful than I’d imagined.”
They pushed open the doors, revealing the glistening dome, sunlight streaming through it and upon the waiting crowd. Acquaintances. Distant family members. Seamstresses and forgeworkers from his house. Wax sought out Wayne, and was surprised when he didn’t find the man, despite the note. He was the only real family Wax had.
The ash girls scampered out, sprinkling small handfuls of ash on the carpeted walkway that ringed the perimeter of the dome. Wax and Steris started forward in a stately walk, presenting themselves for those in attendance. There was no music at a Survivorist ceremony, but a few crackling braziers with green leaves on top let smoke trail upward to represent the mist.
Smoke ascends while ash falls, he thought, remembering the priest’s words from his youth, back when he’d attended Survivorist ceremonies. They walked all the way around the crowd. At least Steris’s family had made a decent showing, her father included—the red-faced man gave Waxillium an enthusiastic fist-raise as they passed.
Wax found himself smiling. This was what Lessie had wanted. They’d joked time and time again about their simple Pathian ceremony, finalized on horsebackto escape a mob. She said that someday, she’d make him do it proper.
Sparkling crystal. A hushed crowd. Footsteps on scrunching carpet dappled with grey ash. His smile widened, and he looked to the side.
But of course, the wrong woman was there.
He almost stumbled. Idiot man, he thought. Focus. This day was important to Steris; the least he could do was not ruin it. Or rather, not ruin it in a way she hadn’t expected. Whatever that meant.
Unfortunately, as they walked the remaining distance around the rotunda, his discomfort increased. He felt nauseous. Sweaty. Sick, like the feeling he had gotten the few times he had been forced to run from a killer and leave innocents in danger.
It all forced him, finally, to acknowledge a difficult fact. He wasn’t ready. It wasn’t Steris, it wasn’t the setting. He just wasn’t ready for this.
This marriage meant letting go of Lessie.
But he was trapped, and he had to be strong. He set his jaw and stepped with Steris onto the dais, where the priest stood between two stands topped with crystal vases of Marewill flowers. The ceremony was drawn from ancient Larsta beliefs, from Harmony’s Beliefs Reborn, a volume in the Words of Founding.
The priest spoke the words, but Wax couldn’t listen. All was numbness to him, teeth clenched, eyes straight ahead, muscles tense. They’d found a priest murdered in this very church. Killed by Lessie as she went mad. Couldn’t they have done something for her, instead of setting him on the hunt? Couldn’t they have told him?
Strength. He would not flee. He would not be a coward.
He held Steris’s hands, but couldn’t look at her. Instead, he turned his face upward to look out the glass dome toward the sky. Most of it was crowded out by the buildings. Skyscrapers on two sides, windows glistening in the morning sun. That water tower certainly did block the view, though as he watched, it shifted.…
Wax watched in horror as the legs under the enormous metal cylinder bent, as if to kneel, ponderously tipping their burden on its side. The top of the thing sheared off, spilling tons of water in a foaming wave.
He yanked Steris to him, arm firmly around her waist, then ripped off the second button down on his waistcoat and dropped it. He Pushed against this single metal button, launching himself and Steris away from the dais as the priest yelped in surprise.
Water crashed against the dome, which strained for the briefest of seconds before a section of it snapped open, hinges giving way inward to the water.
Copyright © 2016 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Sanderson grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. He lives in Utah with his wife and children and teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. In addition to completing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, he is the author of such bestsellers as the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, The Alloy of Law, The Way of Kings, Rithmatist, and Steelheart. He won the 2013 Hugo Award for “The Emperor’s Soul,” a novella set in the world of his acclaimed first novel, Elantris. For fascinating behind-the-scenes information on Brandon Sanderson’s work, visit him at www.brandonsanderson.com.
Anna Sones was featured at Bard College, reading the following story. Listen to the episode here.
My mother was a flight attendant. It started out as a job between jobs, one she would leave soon for its obvious disruptions to family life, but she found the work fit her disposition more snugly than expected, so by the time I was born, the thing was consecrated, and she remained perpetually above us. My father worked out of the house as an accountant. His tasks were to look over all our earthbound problems: mowing the lawn and looking after his limping child. My father was a caring man, in a quiet, nervous sort of way. Everything about him was a bit trembly—the way he ate, the way he balanced and re-balanced his checkbook, the way he asked my doctor detailed questions he wouldn’t understand the answer to. It was necessary, I suppose, looking back on it.
I’m sure my mother was very kind also. Only I feel that in order to make such a sweeping generalization about someone, you need to spend quite a bit of time with them, and, as I said, my mother belonged to the sun. My father and I worshipped her, the idea of her. She was our goddess, with a navy-blue suit and a demonstrational oxygen mask. We used to speak reminiscently about her using the souvenirs she brought back from all over. Between the souvenirs and the pictures and the reminiscences, it was like we’d all really been there together.
I learned to expect the souvenirs as a part of my mother’s presence. On the days my father helped me through the front door after school and she was there, everything would happen at once. She would give me a hug and a souvenir and a story all in one swift, blustery breath. It would happen like,
“Oh, Helen, my sweetheart, I missed you, look at how well you’re walking! Look what I got you! See? It’s a magnet with a picture of the arch in St. Louis. Oh, I only had time to pick it up in the airport because they changed my schedule and after I missed your doctor’s appointment, I wanted to get home as soon as I could, but isn’t it a nice picture? The sky has such pretty colors. Do you know you can take a train up through the inside of the arch? And it stops right at the top and you can get out and look out at the sky. Oh, I missed you, Helen, I thought about you the whole time.”
I suppose this was necessary too. Time was ever in short supply and there was little certainty as to when it would come around again. We were like safari animals, gorging while we could. After this, she could take a deep breath, and then she could ask me how school was, how I felt, if it hurt as much as before, as when we had talked on the phone. And then I would put the magnet on the fridge and make the necessary adjustments to the patchwork of other magnets, and my father would cook us dinner. Then we would eat and my parents would sit across the table from one another and exchange timid smiles, like awkward high school lovers. It must have been hard, being married to a goddess.
It was a quiet childhood. I was studious to the utmost degree. All the time I had to myself I spent on my schoolwork. I would transcribe my times tables or write my book reports, and I could always hear the tapping of my father’s keyboard, which was soothing like rain. My studiousness paid off in smooth, high grades, and my father was very proud. But eventually, I suppose my parents became concerned by my quietude. They asked me why every phone call was for my father and why I never even watched TV, and I didn’t have an answer for them. It was time for a vacation. I had recently undergone a minor corrective surgery, but after some deliberation it was decided that we couldn’t wait. Since my mother was the world traveler, we consulted her for appropriate destinations. We settled on California. The town she chose was small, and contrasted the primal smell of ocean decay with angular, modern shops and restaurants. We followed my mother to the open-air balconies of little bistros, and to the edges of little cliffs under which the ocean stretched out, corrugated and limitless. I limped along dutifully on crutches. When we tired of exploring, we returned to our third floor hotel room. We shared a king-sized bed, with me in the middle, and watched TV shows about other people’s lives, more exciting than our own. The lanky opaque hair of my father and I blended together, and side by side our soft, stooped bodies clashed with my mother’s, all of which shone slightly, as though rubbed with the cloth of an Ancient Greek sculptor. And all the while, my mother talked. She would say, “Did you know the tides change because of the moon, Helen?” or, “I once stayed the night fifty miles south of here. They had the best swordfish. We should go there someday, all of us,” or, “A friend of mine is related to this news anchor, just a distant relation.” At first, my father and I were mesmerized by her voice and its charming airy quality. We were so unused to it and we drank it up like desert plants, storing it for later. But after a while, we were gorged, and her voice turned strange in its insistence. We couldn’t reconcile its sudden abundance with its usual absence.
One evening, my father suggested a walk on the beach. The sunset had burst and spilt sticky orange colors all over the water. My mother said, “You can’t imagine how different a sunset is from the air.” With hardly a breath, my father replied, “If we can’t imagine it, then I wish you would please stop mentioning it.” There was silence as cool as the ocean breeze, in which my mother’s hair reflected the colors of the sun, and the breeze flicked it like the tails of cats. Gradually, my parents walked on ahead and I fell back to poke for shells using my crutches in the last of the ruddy light.
“I wish you would just stop talking at her and be with her,” said my father. They had walked just far enough away that they thought I couldn’t hear. Or maybe they knew I could hear and didn’t care. Maybe they wanted me to know they were concerned for my sake.
“And do you ever talk to her? Do you ever just talk to her?”
“We talk when it’s necessary.”
“Talk can be more than just necessity.”
“Well, when you talk, it’s just full of air.”
“Yes, air.” They had walked down to the lowest part of the beach, and their toes were in the simmering foam. A bit of moon was out, pulling at the ocean like a leashed dog, and the waves dashed themselves against the surface of the earth to touch her. From further down the beach, I could feel the bitterness coming off their bodies being sucked in by that tide and resurfacing, sweeping tsunami-like up over the lowland.
That night, I slept with my face turned towards the ceiling and my parents’ backs at each of my shoulders. Neither of them changed; only my mother addressed her wondrous comments to me alone now. “Look, Helen, do you see how the crab has picked too big a shell, Helen?” I liked to hear her say my name. Then we flew home, and a day later, my mother went back to work. That was alright; I had a book report to finish. My mother told me over the phone that her company was doing a worse job sending her to her home base between shifts, but that she had some wonderful souvenirs for me when it did. And when it did, she slept on the couch, or sometimes with me, if the pain wasn’t too bad, which I loved.
Life went on like that for a long time. It was like a wheel turning—not like a jet wheel screaming against the tarmac, but slow, like a carriage wheel. And then one day, my father was driving me from the pediatrician’s to the house and without looking away from the road, he told me that my mother was moving away, to St. Louis of all places. I don’t remember being very sad, just disappointed. It was the same deep emptiness that is felt throughout childhood whenever a little more magic is lost. Nothing really changed. I got a new leg brace and my father stayed stooped over his keyboard and my souvenir collection kept growing, only now additions came in the mail. I had a little chest of things from my mother. It held all the souvenirs that weren’t magnets: key chains and silver spoons and such. I kept the chest at the foot of my bed, just kept it there and didn’t open it except to add to it.
Only, I was starting high school now. While my mother was starting her new life, I had a change of my own. If I felt any conscious effect of my mother’s moving away, it was awe at how drastically, how easily a life could change. Even without our house as a temple, my mother was still my mythical goddess, and her power reached across the miles to inspire me. School lunchtimes had always been time to myself, when I could sit and start my work. But now, I stood outside with the other students, and sometimes smoked cigarettes. I let the smoke fill me like contrails. I would lean against the schoolhouse wall and I found that if I tucked one leg behind the other, it didn’t look too strange.
There was one girl who noticed anyway. In exchange for a cigarette one day, she asked, “Why is one of your shoes taller than the other one?”
“I have hemihyperplasia.”
“It means one of my legs grows faster than the other one.”
“Oh.” She handed me the cigarette. “I’m Atlanta.”
Atlanta liked to climb trees. Midday was the best time, when the sun was high and the shade most rewarding, and so we would skip school and go just out of town to the countryside where there were good climbing trees, strong with big limbs starting low. It was sometimes difficult for me to climb them, but she would climb up and pull me up after. We would climb up high, to where the limbs began to look more slender, and then we would pick one of the branches and edge out on it, further and further over time, just before the point where the balance was overturned and we would have plummeted to the earth. From that height, we could see the sky and the land as two distinct planes. I sometimes imagined I could pull them apart like stickers. Atlanta liked to talk about her family, and not in a good way. It seemed her father had ignored her and abused her mother until she left him for someone just as bad. “It doesn’t matter,” Atlanta said. “My family’s weak, and I don’t need them. Probably at some point soon I’ll just leave.”
“Wow,” I said. I never felt there was much to say of my family, so I didn’t talk about it unless she asked.
“Do you ever miss your mom?” she asked when I told her about my mother’s relocation. I thought about it.
One Tuesday, when the rest of the students were taking a geometry exam, Atlanta and I pushed our luck. With wild smiles, we edged just one more inch towards the tip of the tree branch, and when we carefully set our weight down together, the branch bowed precipitously and then split with a tearing sound that lasted the entirety of our descending flight. I ended up on the branch and Atlanta ended up on me and we both ended up in the hospital. Neither of us were hurt too badly. I had several badly twisted joints, and Atlanta had a mild concussion. However, for the first time in years, possibly in my life, I remember wanting my mother. I was keenly aware of her absence, and it felt very wrong and very empty. This was how my father found out I was skipping class. He tried to be understanding and even reprimanding, but I knew he was mostly just hurt—hurt and feeling marked permanently as an ineffective parent. Scalded, the stoop of his shoulders deepened, and he recoiled further into his work where he knew he could give the greatest gift: a paycheck. I felt guilty. I didn’t blame him. The only person who had gotten me onto that tree branch was me. I didn’t tell him that. The doctors kept me overnight and agonized over the additional damage to my leg. My father was all nerves and questions. My mother was somewhere in Asia and couldn’t rearrange her schedule in time to come and see me. Days after I got home, she sent me a pointed bluish crystal which she said was a healing charm.
Both of my parents’ gifts to me became particularly important in my third year of high school. For years, the doctors had deliberated over whether to shorten one leg or lengthen the other—if either would ever be necessary—and had waited year after year to see how and if the problem resolved itself. But after several late growth spurts and no agreement between my legs, the doctors finally decided to intervene and take out several inches of bone from my right leg. I need hardly admit I was scared. There had been other surgeries before, and small corrections and braces and shoes, but never had I faced a piece of me being taken away irrevocably. However, I had my mother’s crystal, and based on the satisfactory return of my leg to its normal state after the tree incident, I felt quietly assured that my mother’s divinity would see me through. Upon checking in at the hospital, however, I was told that I could not keep the charm in my fist during the operation. I cried. My father took the charm from my clammy fingers, kissed my tear-sheened cheek, and helplessly watched the nurses roll me away.
It was a long recovery. I begged my father to give me the charm once I was confined to my own bed, but no matter how hard I clenched it in my hands and verily prayed to it, the pain did not abate—not for weeks, months, even. And when at long last it did—what with innumerable hours of physical therapy, several prescriptions of stronger-than-average pain medication, and patience—I could not forbear feeling that it was through the strength of my own body alone.
During one of my mother’s short interims in St. Louis, she called me while I was out of the house. I realized, however, that my leg had returned to its normal state entirely without the magic of her presence. So I didn’t call back, and indeed, from then on, I felt less pressed to hear her voice on the phone. My grades had teetered perilously since high school began, and once the pain left and I could embrace my senses without fear, I recognized that it was time for focus. I would never be able to regain the pious studiousness of my childhood, but I learned ever to seek that middle ground between attending to my studies and paying heed to the friends that I was, on occasion, able to garner. Atlanta and I had not spoken since shortly after our joint hospital stay. We had acknowledged (mostly tacitly) the falling-out that must necessarily follow, and she had given me one last parting cigarette, to which I was still, reluctantly, addicted.
My balancing act was enough to get me into a state university. After the pictures of my graduation got out into the world, I received my first package from my mother in years: a framed picture of my family with the California ocean in the background. What with the orange-sliver smiles and my colorless windswept hair in my face, we looked like regular travelers. We looked like a family. The picture triggered a turning in my stomach. I put it in my box and went off to college. College was alright. In the evenings I studied in the comfort of my own apartment, and sometimes even walked the streets with others. My leg, as is often the case, resolved itself almost entirely by the time I got my degree.
After my mother retired, she had no more opportunities for souvenirs, and I think she believed she had nothing more to give. She would have to resort to her physical presence. With hardly a day’s warning, she flew in and drove straight to my apartment. She had aged. There was grey in her hair and spots on her hands. It clashed with the image from my childhood, with the image in the photograph. She took me out to a noisy diner with lots of college students and plenty of distractions. She wanted to invite my father, but he didn’t pick up the phone. The lettuce on my sandwich was wilted and I excused myself under the guise of a bathroom break to smoke a cigarette. At the very beginning of the meal she wanted to know ‘all about me,’ how I’d liked school and what my passions were, and when she discovered that there was nothing to know, she packed the rest of the hour with her own words, stories like she’d used to tell, only with more desperation, more pleading in the way she told them. I don’t remember a word.
That was the last time I saw my mother. I received a call while working as a receptionist in a psychologist’s office that told me she had died of cirrhosis of the liver. That came as a surprise to me, since I could not once remember seeing my mother drink. I almost went outside for a cigarette, but I had quit several years before, so instead, I watched parents nudge their wide-eyed children in and out of the office. Then I bought a plane ticket to St. Louis. The flight attendants’ voices were like air through a cracked window. Craning my neck, I could see their smiles and their struts, and I feared they might float off the aisle, acting so free so far above the ground. I thanked them as I got off the plane.
My mother’s apartment was at the top of a tall beige building. There were no drapes on the windows and the light gave a feeling of buoyancy to the place as it fell upon the greasy countertop and mismatched shoes. I found a picture of my face in almost every room. My father’s, too.
I wish my parents had known they didn’t have to try so hard. I wish my mother hadn’t tried to be immortal; it would have been easier for all of us if she had accepted her mortality. And I wish my father had blamed me, just once, instead of himself. I wish my parents had known that I would turn out alright, and that, I believe, the impact any one of us can have on any other, good or bad, is, in fact, very minimal.
These are the things I did not tell my father while we buried my mother. I picked up her ashes in a small tin can. I considered finding a way to the top of her apartment building and casting her into the wind so she could be airborne one more time. But instead, I took her home. I buried the can in the ground under a maple tree in front of my father’s house, the one where he had raised me. I knelt in the dirt and my father leaned on his walker, silent save to say, “I’m sorry, Helen.” By way of response, I lifted my old souvenir box, and placed it, too, in the earth under the maple tree near my parents. I think they need it more now.
Anna Sones was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is currently a sophomore at Bard College where she studies Written Arts. She writes in any genre in which the inspiration strikes, but mostly fiction. Her other interests include sustainability and playing the clarinet.
Johanna Costigan was featured at Bard College, reading the following story. Listen to the episode here.
Thatcher Hanson wore mustard-colored ties and made unfulfilled travel plans. He lived in the suburbs and had coffee breath. He let his lawn go and loved foreign film.
One day, during his morning commute, he stood on the train platform and eavesdropped on a couple of young women.
“I mean what’s going on with you guys…” Girl One said, thumbing her phone.
“We’re over, but I don’t know…”
Long pause until Girl One realized Girl Two was waiting to be egged on.
“I mean what don’t you know…”
“Well he cheated on me…”
“I saw him at Walmart the other day and his biceps looked flawless.”
Girl One’s turn to pause.
Finally, “Oh damn, that’s complicated.”
Thatcher thought about what it would be like to be around people and not understand what they were saying. He thought it might allow him to have a clearer headspace. He wouldn’t be constantly encountering snippets of other people’s lives. He could just think about nothing. He believed emptiness was a prerequisite to happiness.
He thought about standing on a train platform somewhere in Latin America, letting the Spanish wash over him. But he had taken Spanish in high school, and what if some of it came back? Not to mention the fact that there are so many Spanish words any English-speaker could understand without substantial effort. Then he’d get snippets of snippets, even more fragmentary truths about people and things he didn’t care about. He wanted to go somewhere where nothing would be discernable, where he could live happy and alone in his own empty head.
At work, Thatcher was distracted. He kept looking through his travel folders, filled with information about hotels and restaurants in cities all over the world. His favorite hobby was compiling this information, comparing flight prices, looking at photos of tourist attractions he would never visit. He found it to be a calming exercise, to imitate a sort of ambition for adventure that he did not possess.
He lingered on the China folder. He couldn’t think of any country that had comparable characteristics. China was huge, both in geography and population. It was globally relevant and nebulously threatening to many Western countries. Most importantly, he found the language entirely incomprehensible. To him, Chinese characters might as well be pieces of abstract art; they were meaningless shapes that his eyes stumbled over with the glee of ignorance. He listened to recordings of Chinese to find that it sounded like some kind of horrible, gritty jazz, its direction undecided, its syllables totally disjointed. He didn’t know when one word started or ended. He was delighted by his conclusion that it wasn’t the sort of language one would just “pick up.” He’d have to put real energy and effort into learning it–which he wouldn’t!
A few days later, Thatcher delved further into his travel planning than he ever had before. He actually purchased a plane ticket to Beijing. He had a large sum of money saved, mostly because his job paid well and his life expenses were minimal, so the investment wouldn’t be cataclysmic, even if he ended up chickening out and not getting on the plane. He had vacation days saved too. He had no family or notable friends to visit anyway. He looked at the China trip as a way to both reflect and meditate.
But it turned out Beijing wasn’t a very reflective and meditative place, Thatcher realized after stepping off the plane a few weeks later, carrying a bag full of his own vomit that he kept missing opportunities to dispose of. The plane ride had been stressful. He had spent it regretting his decision and debating whether asking the pilot to turn around was too needy.
His fears were largely confirmed as he walked through the chaotic airport and onto the street, where cab drivers were fighting over customers and customers were fighting over cab drivers. The air was muggy and Thatcher was coughing, giving himself the opportunity to experience his vomit breath once again. He turned to his left and spotted another trash can. Refusing to continue holding the bag of vomit, he very consciously walked toward the bin and dropped the bag over its opening.
Thatcher wasn’t an aggressive person, so it took him a long while to be noticed by a driver and taken in. He told the driver the address of his hotel using English numbers and mispronouncing the Chinese pinyin. The driver responded with an irritated grunt, followed by an utterance of, “No.”
“719 goo she a loo,” Thatcher repeated, reading off a printout of his reservation confirmation he had brought with him for this exact purpose.
The driver made a gesture that said, “Give me the paper.”
Thatcher did, disappointed in himself for not thinking to do so immediately.
“Ahhh, 七一九 国下路， 好的,” The driver nodded and started speeding so severely that Thatcher felt inspired to hold onto the ceiling and seat of the small cab with both of his suddenly oversized, trembling hands.
He was deposited in front of his Marriott about forty minutes later. The driver had been on the phone throughout the ride, and Thatcher felt soothed by his incomprehension of the violent language. When it came time to pay, the driver continued accepting money until Thatcher was out of cash. He thought 560 kuai seemed expensive for the ride, but what did he know.
The woman at reception spoke adequate English, which Thatcher first found comforting and relieving, but then recalled the mission of his trip, and remembered to be disappointed by it.
The next day, he explored. He wanted to see the Great Wall, so he had the hotel concierge reserve him a seat on a tour bus that would take him there and back. The Wall was about an hour and a half from the city. The tour guide described the sights they drove past in Chinese; Thatcher listened closely and learned nothing.
The guide warned them that they’d be making a brief stop to get a snack and use the bathroom. It was unclear whether the decision to stop was at all related to the fact that two babies had already relieved themselves onto their loudly unforgiving mothers’ laps. Regardless, they got out of the bus and stretched their legs and surveyed the food being sold on the street. There were meat and rice and dumpling carts, none of which looked particularly appealing to Thatcher, who was more interested in trying something he didn’t recognize at all. He meandered down the road until he got to a more sparsely populated section.
One cart was apparently selling Hong-Kong style snacks, which Thatcher gathered by the proprietor’s shouts in sudden English as he saw Thatcher walk past him, “Hong Kong snack! Very authentic!” The food did in fact appear to be particularly exotic to Thatcher, which he considered a confirmation of the man’s promise of authenticity. Upon closer inspection, Thatcher found all of the foods to be utterly unrecognizable. He bought a small deep fried ball on a stick. He found it mildly revolting, but also very spicy. He then tried chicken feet, which were deep fried in what he presumed to be the traditional Hong Kong style, flavored with black beans and sugar. They were surprisingly good. Thatcher peered down the road to make sure his bus was still there. He saw it, and the driver standing outside smoking a cigarette. He decided he had time to try one more Hong Kong snack. He used gestures to try to ask the man which one he would recommend. The man seemed really enthusiastic about these slabs of meat that resembled a kind of reptilian bacon.
Thatcher was taken aback. Before he had swallowed his first bite, he was already mumbling and gesturing to the proprietor to give him another order. He had never tasted something so delicious. It was crispy and fried, extremely tender and slightly sweet. He stood there, focused completely on the tastes in his mouth and the ambiance of the road, the people walking by him speaking words he couldn’t understand. He felt nothing. He was truly happy.
Down the road, his bus driver honked the horn. He thanked the Hong Kong snack man profusely and made his way back onto the bus, where he savored the remaining tongues in a way that caused the only other English-speaking people there to stare at him with curiosity and disgust.
“Sir, what are you eating?” the wife asked.
“I’m not sure. Just got it from one of the carts out there. I don’t know what it is but I know I love it.”
“Looks like some sort of animal appendage” the husband contributed.
“Can I get a closer look?” the wife asked.
“Absolutely.” Thatcher handed her one, hoping she wouldn’t get ahead of herself and try to eat it. He was down to only six remaining pieces.
She surveyed it for a moment that felt like months to Thatcher. He wanted his delicious mystery meat back.
“Looks like lizard skin.”
“Maybe,” Thatcher said. “Maybe.”
He accepted it and tore half of it off with his teeth.
The Great Wall was magnificent. China was incredible. For the next week, Thatcher explored Beijing and, after finding out through a series of mimes and utilizing his translation app, deduced that he had been eating duck tongue. He learned how to say three phrases in Mandarin. “Excuse me” “Where is the Marriott?” and “I would like duck tongue.” He ate it every day.
He wandered the streets with no itinerary. The Great Wall was the only tourist attraction he cared about seeing. He spent his days immersed in incomprehension, letting the beautifully pedantic and accusatory language enter one ear and exit the other, un-understood. He sat in gardens and thought. He went to bars and thought. He stood motionless in the street and thought. He felt content and alone, safely static in his head. Thatcher had found his silence and his sanctity in the loudest, pushiest place he had ever been.
On his last day in China, he was in an airport shuttle bus with an elderly couple who were in the midst of a tour across Asia. They had somehow gotten clearance to go to North Korea–a hugely impressive accomplishment, and were en route to the airport to catch their flight. But the husband was nervous and expressing doubts.
“…we know what they do to their own people, imagine what they could do to us, we’re so blatantly foreign, I mean is it worth it?”
She was comforting and coddling her husband, who appeared scared and weak.“We’ll be with a group, we’ll be protected, it’s only a few days. Aren’t you curious?”
They pulled up to the airport and the man hesitated before exiting the car. His wife looked at him with a muted smile and raised eyebrows.
“Are you ready, honey? We’re not young.”
He nodded, seemingly honest. “I’m comin’ baby.”
Thatcher headed to his terminal and thought about their love. He wanted to be the hesitant man in their relationship. But since he didn’t have a reassuring, confident wife, he had to play both roles for himself. He found that to be a rather lonely, if also simple and efficient way of life.
Thatcher had bought another suitcase and filled it exclusively with packaged duck tongues. Lugging two suitcases plus a carry on was rather laborious, but he knew it would be worth the extra effort to be able to experience his new favorite comfort food, and most effective comforting object in general, after his arrival in the States.
Thatcher got on the plane and, fourteen hours later, off it. He went to work the next day, eating packaged duck tongue as a continuous snack. But he soon realized they weren’t the same. The packaged ones were tasteless, far from fresh, and lacked the authenticity of the tongues he first encountered with the Hong Kong snack man on that little street between the capital and the country’s main attraction. He found himself daydreaming about those fresh tongues, missing their texture and clearly irreplaceable taste. He would stare at the ducks alongside the river during his commute to New York City every day. The Hudson River had such plump ducks. He stared at them from afar through the window of the train and tried not to think about their meat.
One night, Thatcher was restless. It was 62 degrees outside; he put on his robe and took a walk. He brought his titanium baseball bat, which he owned in case he ever had a son who wanted to indulge in the famous American pastime. He walked down to the river, approximately six and a half minutes downhill. He got to the waterside park where he often killed time, and began nearly absentmindedly killing ducks. He massacred them quickly, ripping out their tongues with erratic and sharp tugs, leaving their bodies to rot on the beach of the river.
Thatcher breathed heavily and looked down at his blood-soaked hands, both of which were clutching harvested tongues. He walked home, put the tongues in a bowl in his kitchen, and washed his hands. Determined not to waste, he fried up the tongues and seasoned them with the spices he had on hand (garlic, soy sauce, onion). Of course, they tasted nothing like the ones from Hong Kong snack man, but he ate them all anyway and felt at least temporarily satisfied. He lay in his bed for a few hours without closing his eyes.
The next morning, a pair of cops on parking patrol found the seven tongue-less ducks laying dead on the beach. Startled and disturbed, they took photos of the scene and filed a report of the incident. They had no leads.
Thatcher decided not to go into work the next day. He took a drive to clear his head. He found himself in New Jersey, cruising down an endless highway that appeared to double as a city center. He drove past a Burger King, Walgreens, and four carpet outlets. (Carpet Capital, Captain Carpet, Kaod Oriental, and Carpet Carpet). He then noticed a large store called Wild Birds Unlimited. He pulled into the parking lot, calm but eager to take a look inside.
He was immediately drawn to a green and gold parrot who he instinctively named Hong Kong. He played with the bird for a while, soothed by his nonexistent urge to slaughter him and remove his tongue for consumption. He bought Hong Kong and drove home with the windows down. Hong Kong repeated the words he knew from his cage.
“Hello, Hong Kong! I’m so happy we met today!”
“Yes, crikey indeed.”
Hong Kong became a good friend to Thatcher. He was always there to chat, even if it was often the same chat. He tried to teach Hong Kong new words, but he was an old bird who appeared to be content with the vocabulary he knew. They became close. For a while after the massacre, Thatcher was shaky and nervous. He knew he had done something wrong, but he didn’t feel it was wrong. In fact, it felt like the most honest act he had carried out in recent memory.
A few months later, Hong Kong became very sick. Thatcher took him to a vet, who said the elderly parrot was nearing his end. When Thatcher pressed him for specificity, he said Hong Kong would probably die within the next few weeks. The bird was in severe pain. Thatcher was tortured, listening to him wheeze and shuffle around throughout the night, uncomfortable and powerless. He got up to fix himself a bowl of cereal during one of these nights, attempting to satiate himself to a point of excessive tiredness, so he’d fall into a deep sleep and forget about the bird’s suffering.
He made his bowl of cereal, ate it, and walked through the living room again. Suddenly, he noticed Hong Kong was quiet. Wondering what made him shut up so abruptly, he glanced at the cage, where the bird was keeled over and blatantly dead. Thatcher immediately realized he had snapped his dear pet’s neck only moments before, and Hong Kong’s tongue had been in his hand since before he took his first bite of Raisin Bran.
Johanna Costigan is a junior Written Arts and Chinese major from Dobbs Ferry, New York. She writes fiction and poetry and works as an ESL tutor at Bard.
Cleo Egnal was featured at Bard College, reading the following story. Listen to the episode here.
She would later say that it was quite an ordinary day and leave it at that, closing the shutters on all their questions and doubts. Inspiration was entirely common then, after all, so why should hers be any point of discussion or scrutiny? Mainly, they likely would not believe her. They’d laugh her off, strip her of her publication and fame. So she would, after the course of events, dismiss her experiences as some nonsensical daydream that sparked something within her, prompting her to jot down her remarkable journey and dilute it into a simple imaginative children’s book. She knew better. There would be more than one book, of course, and she could never thank whom she truly needed to—a little country rabbit named Peter.
The sun was warm—not too warm. A slight breeze ruffled his greyish brown fur as he settled into the tall grass, dozing but not asleep, dreaming while awake. It had been a long day of scavenging through gardens and avoiding gardeners—those he knew to be the tall, looming men that chased after him with their shaking fists and their gardening tools. His mother always warned him to stay away from humans, but he liked the adventure that peppered his otherwise dull afternoons.
His haunches twitched as he drifted closer and closer to sleep. He could hear the chatter of squirrels and the flutter of birds’ wings. He supposed he could chase some insects or clean himself to pass the time before supper, but he was quite content to lie in the sun and ruminate on his interactions with one particularly rude fellow, a gardener no less, towards whom the little creature possessed much hatred and simultaneous curiosity.
He heard his mother’s familiar call, and reluctantly drew himself up from the soft ground. He would go home, but he was determined to stop for at least one more rest along the way, for the day was too nice to waste indoors with his silly younger siblings. He took notice of three things upon rising: the dent he left in the small patch of grass, the way the sky could have been either blue with small white clouds or white with large blue clouds and that someone should explain that to him later, and the inexplicable feeling that something exciting was about to happen. He shook off these thoughts easily, remembering how his mother always told him he had a penchant for thinking too deeply and too often, and hopped drowsily back home. After all, everyone knew rabbits had too many thoughts for their own good.
Beatrix woke with a start. The first thing she became aware of was the dull throbbing at her temples, which caused her to keep her eyes shut hard against the pain. The second thing that caught her attention was that when she reached up a hand to massage the spot to perhaps lessen the soreness, her limbs met the action with quite a great deal of resistance. Thirdly, there slowly washed over her a uniform and overwhelming feeling that she was not herself, and in fact had left her own body entirely.
Her pink nose twitched—which surprised her, as she did not know she was capable of twitching her nose. As she inhaled deeper, she was greeted by the strong scent of fresh grass and a vague citrus, the latter seeming somehow to be coming from very far off. Again Beatrix attempted to lift an arm, and again she failed, so she decided upon an investigation and promptly opened her eyes and shifted her gaze downwards.
It took Beatrix approximately fifty-two seconds to realize she had somehow become a rabbit. The fact should have startled her, but the soft breeze and warm sun calmed her greatly. She felt contentedly drowsy, albeit entirely confused, and determined to wake up from what was surely a very silly dream—but not before she enjoyed herself a bit first, of course!
Meanwhile, Peter was in a state of much less calm and much more intrigue. He had awoken underneath linens, which he never knew the texture of until that moment but had seen a handful of times through garden windows. Hands. He had hands! Upon feeling an itch at either side of his head, where his large floppy ears no longer were, he instinctively went to scratch with his hind leg but instead found fingers grazing his skin. Skin, free from fur…
It was a pleasant sensation but startling nonetheless. He began to think about his mother—she would be worried. Peter knew he was nowhere near home, he couldn’t smell the orange groves. Peter’s next thought was that if he was here, underneath linens with hands and therefore most likely somehow in a human body, perhaps somewhere there some human was hopping around in his! The thought irked him, and he was gripped by a wave of possessiveness. Peter must get back to his body, there was no doubt about it, but the linens were so comfortable, it felt quite different from the bare sun but different in a good way, so maybe he should continue to lie in this human body for a little while longer. His mother would not want him to squander opportunity, after all, and Peter was such a great fan of adventure.
Beatrix felt a bit timid in exploring her dream. She had never possessed the ability to engage with her unconscious mind before, and she was unsure of what to do or what the results would be. Using her new limbs did not pose as much of a challenge as she’d expected; in fact, she moved as gracefully as if she had been born in this small body. Beatrix was one of those lucky (or perhaps unlucky, depending on your view of it) dozers who frequently remembered her dreams upon waking. Because of this, she was very aware that her senses were more heightened in this dream than they ever were before—the colors were more vibrant, the scent of grass and oranges and a million other things she didn’t recognize were strong, the warmth of the sun and all the various new sensations she had never experienced before (such as the wind in her fur—fur!) seemed incredibly, well, real. There was a brief moment, while she rose and began hopping about as naturally as if she were walking to retrieve the post, when Beatrix doubted whether or not this was truly a dream. She panicked slightly at the thought—if this were really happening, how could she ever get home? Her moment of worry was short-lived, however, for just as she began to recognize her situation, she heard a voice call out.
“Peter! Peter, where are you?” The voice soothed her instantly. Perhaps in the back of her mind she realized this was in fact not English—not even a human voice for that matter—but it didn’t cross the front of her brain. “Peter, there you are!” The voice—the noise—came from behind. Beatrix maneuvered to turn to the sound, which she discovered came from another rabbit.
“Am I Peter?” Beatrix mused aloud, still mostly unaware she was not communicating in any familiar language.
“Don’t play games, brother. Mama wanted you home over an hour ago. She sent me to fetch you, supper’s getting cold. Please, Peter, I’m hungry!” The mention of food made Beatrix’s stomach rumble.
“Of course. You lead the way.” She decided to play along, it would be much more interesting than being alone.
“Fine, but don’t wander off! The others are hungry too.”
“I won’t,” Beatrix-as-Peter promised as she hopped alongside who could only be Peter’s sister. Peter seems like the kind of rabbit to dabble in mischief, if there is such a kind, Beatrix thought. He has a Mama and a sister he’s left worried and hungry! She was irked with Peter in that moment, not remembering that in a way she herself was Peter, and that perhaps she was simply a mischievous rabbit in her own right. And the ‘others’…perhaps it is an entire family! Beatrix allowed herself to ruminate silently on this rather than return to her nervous thoughts from earlier that maybe, in fact, this wasn’t a dream at all.
A sound from not too far off startled Peter out of his daydream. He was imagining walking up to the gardener’s cabbages and ripping them from the soil with his new strong hands. The gardener would be furious, of course, as always. This time, though, Peter wouldn’t be afraid. He wouldn’t run away. He’d stand tall on his human feet and say in his human voice,
“Mr. McGregor, pardon me, I will take your cabbages now, good day.” He would be polite and articulate, and would leave the gardener agape and speechless rather than red-faced and screaming. Peter was just in the middle of imagining bringing the cabbages back to Mama when a sharp sort of ringing sound made him jump. He somehow knew it came from the front door of the house he was currently in. Without having to try terribly hard Peter was able to stand from the bed, steady as anything.
What was a doorbell? Peter felt a sort of battle going on in his brain between the things he shouldn’t know or be able to do and somehow being able to know and do these things, these strange human things. Words and ideas flooded his mind, which usually had enough room in it for individual thoughts to float around and knock into each other but was now crowded and close to bursting. He was able to realize that he did not usually think in words or phrases the way he was beginning to. His mind’s eye was usually filled with images, textures, smells; reactions instead of memories, sporadic thoughts rather than a consistent stream of them. He started to feel overwhelmed and nervous, as though Mr. McGregor finally caught him and stuffed him in a thick brown sack.
Peter decided not to answer it. He was still, after all, a rabbit at heart and slightly wary of humans despite himself presently being one. He was more concerned with getting all those words out of his head so he could climb back in bed and enjoy the sheets and try to clear his mind so he could figure out how to get home. He walked to the door to perhaps leave the bedroom, but when he put a hand on the doorknob he became suddenly timid and afraid to open it. He turned around instead, faced the room, and took in his surroundings. The tall bed with its white sheets and four posts in the center of the square room, pushed against a pink-papered wall. A small table on either side of the bed, the one to the right supporting a hefty stack of books. He had never seen books before…and to the left, against the wall with the large windows and gauzy curtains a dark mahogany desk covered in clean paper and ink. He walked over to the bedside table and took a book in his hands, feeling the feathery-light weight of each individual page as he flicked a thumb over the edges of the pages as if this was something he frequently did. He felt the heavy black leather cover and the engraved letters on the spine. He took the book over to the desk, sat in the chair, and somehow—an action beyond his comprehension that he decided not to think too hard about—began to read.
The longer she hopped along the less aware Beatrix became of the things she usually thought about. The words in her head began to jumble and her memories grew hazy. Yet this mental shift did not concern her. Rather, she felt more free somehow, unburdened and careless. Moreover, she began to forget her human self entirely—she was, in a way, becoming Peter. She felt concretely natural hopping behind this stranger rabbit that did not feel like a stranger. Peter’s sister no longer felt like a different species to Beatrix, no longer seemed outsider. Beatrix’s concept that this was all a dream was slowly slipping away. She had flashes now and then of her life before this bizarre event; her big front door, the light from the sun as it set in front of her desk as she drew, tea and biscuits. Yet these things came to her more in images than anything else, and they had a fuzzy gloss over them as if she were looking at them through old, smudged glass.
“Finally,” the sister sighed, stopping so abruptly Beatrix almost slammed into her from behind.
“We’re here,” Beatrix said slowly, making an effort to eliminate the question from her tone. She didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that she was not who this rabbit thought her to be, but she was confused and was having trouble containing it. All she could see was grass and trees and boulders—she realized that she didn’t know where or how rabbits lived.
“Of course we’re here, silly. Come on, then.”
“You’re acting perfectly strange today, Peter,” the sister said, still with her back to Beatrix so that her expression was unreadable. Beatrix was unsure if she could even read a rabbit’s expression, despite her further immersion in the rabbit experience with each passing moment. A picture of her house slipped into her mind just then, and Beatrix was struck with a sudden panic—the sort that grips one when one cannot sort out who exactly one is. Had she always been a rabbit? Was she Peter, or was she Beatrix? Why couldn’t she piece together anything concrete from before she woke up in that field, in this body?
“Come ON, Peter!” Beatrix shook the fear from her mind and looked up to see the sister drop down suddenly into the ground behind a large boulder. Her curiosity was stronger than her fear or confusion in that moment, so Beatrix went over to the spot and saw a small round hole dug into a mound of dirt on the side of the boulder. The sister was nowhere to be seen. Beatrix heard an echoed cry of Peter lurch up at her from the hole, and she figured that the sister had made her way into that very hole. Beatrix swallowed her hesitation and followed suit, crawling through the dirt opening. She found herself suddenly entrenched in darkness, but realized that somehow her body knew where to move without needing to see the path. She thought of it as being the same as her ability to wander to the kitchen late at night with no candle to grab a handful of crackers to curb a midnight hunger. Beatrix allowed her new body to guide her through the tunnel that seemed to slope slightly downwards, as if she were treading on a small decline. As suddenly as she was plunged into the darkness she was bathed in light; she had come to a large opening in the tunnel, what she could find no other words for but sitting room or parlor. There was a fireplace on the left, a long wooden table situated on top of a dark red carpet in the center of the room, and a full stovetop kitchen on the right. Pots and pans hung on the wall above the little stove, where something that smelled familiar was boiling. A coat hanger stood next to the fireplace, with three little red coats strewn carelessly on its hooks. Beatrix should have found this entirely strange, but as she was still convincing herself she was dreaming she pushed aside her wariness and embraced that fact that whoever these rabbits were, they lived quite similarly to herself.
“Oh, Peter darling, there you are. We were all very worried. And you forgot your coat!” This was not the sister, but another female rabbit, older, with gentle eyes and a nose that seemed to twitch in concern.
“I’m sorry,” Beatrix replied, staring at this new rabbit with curiosity. She instantly felt washed over with a sort of calm and drowsiness. Could this be—
“Mama, I practically had to drag him here,” the sister complained.
“Now Flopsy, I’m sure your brother did not mean to hold up dinner, did you, Peter?”
“No…Mama…I’m sorry,” Beatrix stumbled. She realized she could read rabbits’ expressions, for she noticed a look of concern and question on both of their countenances. She was not blending in as Peter, it would be much more difficult in front of Mama. She had to do a better job if she had any chance of a warm meal and safe place to sleep that night.
“Dinner smells good,” Flopsy, the sister, said, breaking the silence. “Can we eat now?”
“Yes, dear, just call Mopsy and Cotton-tail to the table.” Flopsy hopped off down another long corridor that extended from the far end of the room. Mama and Beatrix were left alone.
“You do not seem yourself, Peter. Is everything all right?” Mama’s sweet voice made Beatrix want to crumble into a ball and cry. It quickly occurred to her that she was very nervous, and desperately wanted to be home.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to explain,” she said softly.
“Come, sit by the fire with me.” They went over to the fireplace and lowered themselves in front of the heat, Beatrix avoiding eye contact for fear she would begin to cry, if rabbits could even do so. The thought of not being able to cry saddened her further, for some reason, and she let out a small whimper.
“Peter never whimpers,” Mama said gently. “Now, I am not sure what has happened, but I am sure that you are not Peter.” She did not sound accusing or harsh, but rather understanding and worried, which made Beatrix feel safe.
“No, I am not Peter,” Beatrix replied. “My name is Beatrix and—well—I am—or was once—I don’t know how I got here, in this body, in this place. I am just a bit frightened, I’ve realized. I have been telling myself it is all a strange, strange dream.”
“One often convinces oneself of things when afraid,” Mama replied kindly.
“Yes. Well, all I know is I fell asleep in my bed at home and woke up in a field, as a rabbit!”
“That is quite peculiar,” Mama said. “And if you are here, having woken up in Peter’s body, that must mean—”
“Peter the rabbit is awake in mine,” Beatrix replied.
“And what body would that be? Are you a cat? Heavens, are you a fox?”
“I am a human,” Beatrix said hesitatingly, unsure of what rabbits thought of humans, if they thought anything of them at all.
“My, my, a human,” Mama mused carefully. Beatrix could not gauge exactly what it was that Mama was thinking, but it did not seem all together pleasant. “It makes sense, somewhat. Peter has a dreadful habit of getting himself into mischief with humans. One in particular. I could be certain that he was off on one of his adventures this afternoon and lost his coat on the excursion. That, of course, explains the missing coat but not the change in, well—”
“Yes.” Beatrix did not quite know what to call the situation either. She noticed, however, that the more she conversed with Mama the less confused she felt and the more clearly she was able to process the thoughts that earlier circled her head without direction or purpose. Her memory, however, still seemed filtered through a foggy lens, and she had trouble remembering exactly what her life was like with the exception that she knew she was human, and that she was Beatrix, and she knew now she was certainly not dreaming. The clearer her mind became the clearer it was to her that her experiences were utterly real, despite the nonsensical nature of them. As Beatrix came to the conclusion that she truly was somehow trapped in a rabbit’s body, she became increasingly nervous and homesick, although she could not put her finger—or paw, now—on what home quite was.
“Do not be afraid,” Mama said, interrupting Beatrix’s racing thoughts as though she could read them. “You will have a hot meal and a good night’s sleep, and we will get this all sorted out in the morning.”
Beatrix nodded, or something of the sort, and tried to swallow her fears. She wanted to return to that blissful place of earlier, when the sun was warm on her back and her mind was free of concern or understanding. Yet she knew to return to that would somehow be counterproductive to getting herself home, and oh, how desperately she wanted to be home!
“Ready for supper, Mama.” Flopsy had returned with two other rabbits, quite young from the look of them. Bunnies, perhaps.
“Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, I must tell you something, and you must pay close attention, my darlings,” Mama said. Once the three rabbits gathered around Mama and Beatrix, Mama made introductions.
“Children, this is Beatrix, and she is a human. Now, shall we have supper?”
Peter closed the book gently. The world seemed a bit brighter and duller at the same time, a sensation he could not understand but did not entirely dislike. He realized he was a bit hungry, but wanted to—or had to—sit and absorb the experience he just had rather than try to scavenge for something to eat. Knowing he could read did wonders for his confidence in what he could accomplish in this body, but he still felt a twinge of concern at thinking about exiting the bedroom. No, he would sit for a while longer, and think about Wonderland.
Alice, the young girl at the center of the story, reminded him much of himself. It surprised him that he did not identify more with the character of the White Rabbit, for obvious reasons, but his personality was much more suited to Alice. The White Rabbit was always in such a rush, always so nervous and, as Peter imagined him, with a small twitch in the corner of one eye. Alice, however, was adventurous, bold, prone to tears on occasion but overall brave and open-minded. Yes, Peter and Alice were certainly cut from the same cloth as far as he was concerned. Peter never had compared himself to another before, especially not to a human, and the action caught him off guard. He did not like the feeling of inadequacy, that perhaps Alice was better than him, for she had real adventures, whereas Peter simply slinked along in forbidden gardens for sport. However, Peter thought, being here, in this body, was almost like entering Wonderland and having grand adventures like Alice. He realized that it was not very adventurous to simply be sitting here and reading—the very activity that caused Alice to want to escape in the first place—and in fact was rather quite dull. Peter knew what he had to do, of course, the answer was staring him in the face. He had to leave the bedroom.
The first thing he noticed after opening the door was the sheer length of the hallway. It didn’t seem to end, and perhaps it was similar in length to those he was used to in the burrow, yet those corridors were dark and he could not see how vastly they stretched on. Light poured in from two large windows that lined the walls on one side, so Peter could clearly see just how far he had to venture to reach the staircase. He knew that there was a staircase, for he could see the drop at the end of the hall, but did not know how he knew what a staircase was. He had never encountered one before, but he could not be afraid of it, he had to be like Alice. He made his way towards the looming drop, telling himself the fact that he could not see the end result of where he was going was just like crawling through the burrow. He had a brief thought about the human that was possibly in his body, and wondered if it also was afraid, if it was afraid of the burrow. But no, of course, it would be with Mama, and no one could be afraid when with Mama.
He passed a faded yellow armchair that sat against the wall with no windows, almost as though it was meant for a room and someone had forgotten it, and on the armchair sat a small animal, a rabbit! Peter hurried over to the figure, and began to converse.
“Hallo, Benjamin, is it you?” The animal looked immensely like Peter’s younger cousin, Benjamin Bunny, but when Peter spoke to him the rabbit did not respond. Peter took a closer look and realized the rabbit was a fake. Stuffed animal. Toy. Not real. Peter at this point had stopped questioning the words that floated around his mind, words he was not supposed to know but that came to him when he did not know how to explain something. Disappointed, Peter ventured on. He passed precisely two doors, the one he came from and another one that came after the armchair, both on the side of the wall with windows, in between them, the armchair being exactly across from the two windows. Peter wondered for a moment at the things he was noticing in that hallway, things he did not usually pay attention to. The windows made him realize the lack of light inside the burrow, and he couldn’t decide in that moment which he preferred. However, the thought was fleeting, and Peter took notice of the second door. It was slightly ajar and Peter peeked in, his curiosity always bubbling regardless, apparently, of the situation. He saw a handful of contraptions he did not recognize, and could have sworn he smelled the fresh scent of water. His nose at the moment, however, was nothing like it was back in his true body, so he was not certain. Peter lost interest in this strange second room, and so he continued on, but as he continued he realized that he did not have any further to go. He had reached the staircase. It took him no time at all to walk along the seemingly endless stretch. Of course, Peter thought, chastising himself, I am much bigger now. He allowed himself a moment to look down at the steps before trying to muster the courage to descend them. What if he fell, and injured himself? There was no Mama here to tend to his wounds. Truth be told, most of his wounds were a result of his adventures, so Peter figured this was not much different. Just as he thought about turning around and retreating back to the bedroom, Peter heard it again. That startling, brassy sound. Doorbell. Peter thought again of Alice, and knew she would not run away. Determined, Peter placed a foot on the first step, took a deep breath, and went down his first staircase.
It was slow going for a bit, but once he reached the first landing he had no trouble turning the small corner and flying down two at a time to reach the bottom. The doorbell sounded again. Rather than looking around as he was planning earlier, Peter rushed to the door the moment he spotted it. He barely avoided crashing in to the small circular table cluttered with papers that stood in the center of the—the—foyer. He was excited, now, a true adventure so close, not on the pages of a book but right in front of him! Peter put a hand on the doorknob, the large golden thing that stood in between him and Wonderland. With what he could only imagine to be muscle memory, Peter swung open the door. He found himself face to face with another human, one with gentle features and a broad smile. She, for it was certainly a she, wore a large hat adorned with silly ruffles and flowers—Peter thought Flopsy would quite like to wear something of the sort—and a dress that to Peter looked quite uncomfortable. It was nothing like the loose cotton dress and apron Mama liked to wear when she cooked. Peter wondered if this human felt about her dress the way he felt about his little blue coat—that is was restricting, cumbersome, and pointless.
“Beatrix Potter! There you are. I came by earlier but you did not answer the door. I suppose you were doing some of your marvelous illustrations. No matter, I am just in time for tea. May I come in? Beatrix?”
“Certainly, please.” Peter spoke without thought; the words came to him as naturally as hopping, and slipped out of his mouth smoothly and, he hoped, sounding normal. He supposed this Beatrix was the human whose body he was in.
“It certainly seems you were not expecting company this late in the afternoon,” the human said with a tone Peter did not quite like. “Perhaps you had forgotten our plans for both our earlier outing and tea!” When Peter said nothing, she continued, “I mean, of course, just the way you are dressed, dear. No harm.”
“No, no harm indeed.” Peter felt offended but he was not sure why. He saw nothing wrong, when he looked down at himself, at the white cotton shift and pink silk dressing robe he had woken up in. He found the materials pretty and comfortable, unlike what the other human was adorned in.
“May I take your hat,” Peter inquired. The woman nodded curtly and handed the large thing to Peter, who instinctively placed it on the round table on top of all the papers.
“My, Beatrix, are those some of your illustrations? I would love to take a look at them over tea.” She indicated to the papers Peter had just disturbed—a few of them had fallen to the floor, and their content seemed to have caught the human’s attention. Peter picked up the papers, noticing that they were illustrations mostly of mushrooms but some of frogs and other things. He tucked them under his arm and motioned for the other human to go first, for that was the polite thing according to whatever gear in his brain kept turning and telling him what to do. Peter was grateful for it, for he was sure he would have simply no idea how to conduct himself and would thusly confuse the other human and perhaps ruin the reputation and social standing of the human whose body he inhabited. He, of course, had no idea what reputation and social standing were, but something told him they were very, very important things to maintain. The other human walked—sauntered—forward, and Peter followed, suddenly less eager for his adventure and feeling much more burdened by it.
After they had all finished supper, and Flopsy begrudgingly cleaned up, Mama announced to her children, and Beatrix, all drowsily gathered around the fire, that it was time for bed. Beatrix had no sense of the time; she was not even sure if that wonderful afternoon sun had set yet. They were underground and guarded, and besides Beatrix did not know the sleeping habit of rabbits so she could not gage the time based on this, and thus could not exhibit surprise at the seemingly earliness of it all. It struck her, though, that regardless of the hour she felt quite tired.
“Oh but Mama,” Cotton-tail whined, in a way that reminded Beatrix of something familiar. “Must we?” Mama merely smiled knowingly, and Beatrix sensed this was a ritual the little family went through nightly. She briefly wondered about Peter and his role in the bedtime resistance; would he complain, be dismissive, lead the charge? Beatrix stayed silent, unsure of the part she felt somehow she would be meant to play if her identity had not been revealed.
“Yes, my love. Now—”
“But Mama!” Cotton-tail interrupted, her whine increasing in volume. Mama seemed to be deep in thought then, mostly likely about how to avoid a debacle she probably knew all too well. Flopsy and Mopsy looked between their mother and sister expectantly, waiting to see what would happen next. They all seemed to forget about Beatrix, until Mama said,
“Beatrix, I’m sure they would all love for you to tell them a story, wouldn’t you, my loves?” All at once the three siblings hopped up and gathered around Beatrix.
“Oh yes please,” Mopsy said, and Flopsy and Cotton-tail made sounds in agreement. Beatrix snuck a glance at Mama, who seemed pleased with herself and also maybe a bit weary and relieved.
“I—I will have to try and remember one,” Beatrix said slowly. She felt it would take a lot for her to recall an entire story from her life before the burrow.
“All right, well, get into bed. Beatrix will be there shortly, I’m sure her memory will not fail her.” The bunnies obediently hopped off down a corridor, disappearing instantly into the darkness. “I appreciate this, truly,” Mama said to Beatrix. Beatrix nodded, or at least thought she had. Could rabbits nod?
“My pleasure, but I’m afraid I’m having just a bit of trouble remembering a story.”
“I’m certain it will come to you. Here, this way.” Mama headed down the dark corridor, expecting Beatrix to follow. Beatrix shoved aside her nervousness—why couldn’t she remember—and hopped behind. This corridor was shorter than the first she had traveled down, and soon she found herself in a small candle-lit room in which sat four little beds and four little bedside tables. The three bunnies were settled already underneath three red patch quilts, and on the fourth bed a matching blue quilt sat undisturbed. Peter’s bed. Beatrix thought quickly back to the red coats she remembered seeing strewn across the coat rack, and smiled inwardly. The entirety of the burrow was, all in all, incredibly quaint. Beatrix marveled at how the rabbits lived, so similarly to humans in a way that made Beatrix feel as though she were in another world entirely. That’s when she remembered what story she wanted to tell.
“Have you three heard of a girl named Alice?”
The bunnies fell asleep before Beatrix finished her story. When she realized they had dozed off, she turned uncertainly to Mama.
“I don’t know what to do now,” Beatrix admitted. Mama smiled her warm and now familiar smile.
“You told such a wonderful tale, and you must be tired.”
“In fact, I do feel a bit drowsy.”
“Why don’t you get into Peter’s bed? After all, he won’t be using it tonight.” Beatrix detected sadness in Mama’s voice, and suddenly felt very guilty, as if she had stolen something. In a way, she had.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” she said hastily.
“I insist. Every rabbit—or person, I suppose—deserves a warm bed to sleep in. Like I said, we can figure it all out in the morning.” Her tiredness overcoming her manners, Beatrix climbed reluctantly but happily into the small bed. Instantly she felt calm and relaxed, as if nothing wrong has ever or could ever happened.
“You know, I know a few stories myself. Would you like me to tell you a story, to help you sleep?” Beatrix made a noise that seemed to convey ‘yes,’ for Mama began to tell the story of a duck named Jemimah. As Beatrix listened to the story, drifting closer and closer to sleep, she realized she was having some trouble understanding Mama’s words. Right as she fell asleep, Beatrix felt as though she was listening to another language entirely.
After Peter had shut the door behind his unexpected, and eventually unwelcome, guest, he stood silently in the foyer, wondering what to do next. The adventure Peter had in mind when he answered the door did not pan out in an exciting way—rather, it had left him feeling tired, bored, and homesick. He could not imagine how two people could sit around, drinking dreadful concoctions, discussing nothing of true importance. All the woman talked about were Beatrix’s drawings, something about mushrooms and small animals. It was nothing Peter was interested in the least. However, as the sound of the door closing reverberated around him, he was struck by an idea. If he was in this body, the body of someone with a talent for drawing, perhaps he himself could draw with her hands. But what to draw? Another pang of homesickness flooded through him, and he was overcome with the desire to simply draw his family. He remembered the beautiful illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, the incredible renderings that punctuated the story. Maybe Peter could make drawings like those, and he could feel more connected to home. After all, when he was reading, he felt utterly absorbed by both the drawings and the words. Words—Peter had words now. Human words, just like Alice. Maybe he could also use words. With a new determination, Peter raced upstairs to the bay window desk. He gingerly picked up a piece of paper from the stack on his left, and a fountain pen—whatever that was—from the collection in the little glass jar on his right. The first stroke, a mere blob of ink, rather, was truly a disaster. Peter felt immensely frustrated. He was able to answer the doorbell, serve tea, take the obnoxious woman’s hat; yet he couldn’t use a pen properly. Why was this the one thing his new body wouldn’t let him do?
Peter drew in a breath and attempted again to make a clean, pretty line. He managed to draw a thick, crooked one, but it was a line nonetheless. Feeling proud of himself, and a tad cocky, he threw himself into his task. He finally looked up at the window again after several hours—he had completed his project just as the sun had begun to set. A pink haze had settled over the horizon, a warm fuzz blanketing Peter’s view. He yawned; something about the encroaching darkness left him feeling quite tired. He noticed his hands were covered in black ink, but he shrugged it off. He had gotten into worse messes, after all. His thoughts wandered to forbidden gardens and blue and red quilts and coats.
He yawned again and smelled oranges and fireplaces. His thoughts began to jumble, and he had trouble remembering what he had done that day, or where he was, for that matter. He took a glance down at the stack of papers in front of him, the first one reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The longer he looked at the words the harder it became for him to make out the letters. Eventually, as he flipped through his work, he could only make out the pictures. They left him feeling calm and happy, comforted in a way. Peter pushed away from the desk and walked, not very gracefully, over to the bed. The moment his head hit the pillow he was sound asleep, dreaming of a girl named Alice and large, ridiculous hats.
Beatrix woke with a start. The first thing she became aware of was the pleasant sensation of soft linens against her skin. The second thing that caught her attention was that when she reached up a hand to brush her hair out of her face, she was able to do so with human hands. Thirdly, there slowly washed over her a uniform and overwhelming feeling that she was back to being herself, and in fact had returned to her own body. She sat up quickly, dizzy and disoriented. She took in her room, her beautiful, human room, with great relief and excitement. As a headache began to creep up on her, Beatrix struggled to piece together the events of the past day—or what was most likely a vivid dream. Of course, it was certainly a dream. Whatever it was, she felt an urgent need to put it down on paper. It was all so intense, so bright—the family of rabbits, the burrow, the soft grass and warm sun, Mama…
Beatrix flew out of bed and rushed over to her desk where, to her surprise, she found a stack of papers fully illustrated and littered with words. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix was confused—she had only had the dream that night, and thus could not have possibly written it all down. Unless, of course, she wrote it in her sleep, but her hands were clean of ink, which indicated to the oft-messy illustrator that she in fact had not written these words or drawn these pictures. Yet it was all there, Peter and Flopsy and Mopsy and Cotton-tail and Mama, and the burrow and the soft grass and warm sun. Then, Beatrix had a thought. Peter. Of course, it made sense that if the events were in fact real, that Peter must have been in her body, and how confused he must have been! Beatrix remembered her appointments with her friend, and cringed, hoping Peter made it through appropriately and also without too much pain, as Beatrix knew her friend was quite a handful. It must have been Peter, it had to have been, who wrote and drew on Beatrix’s paper, with Beatrix’s hands, in Beatrix’s body. The though irked her, but after all, she had slept in Peter’s bed, in Peter’s body, and told stories to Peter’s siblings, so she did not want to be hypocritical. She had to admire Peter’s work—the illustrations were stunning, and the story, as she read through it, was concise and sweet. Beatrix had never truly written a story before, nor thought to write one, yet she was enthralled and wondered if she could replicate it. But what to write about? Mama’s story of Jemimah Puddle-duck came to the forefront of Beatrix’s mind, and without a second thought Beatrix sat down to write. The only problem was, she had fallen asleep before Mama finished the story. Oh, Beatrix thought, with a small smile on her face, feeling more mischievous than usual, I suppose I will just have to make it up.
Cleo Egnal is from Los Angeles, California. She is a junior Written Arts major, and focuses on writing historical fiction novels, although she also write short stories, poems, and music. This year she began a series of student-run fiction readings that take place in the Written Arts building, Shafer House, during which all Bard College students, Written Arts majors or not, are welcome to come read their works to their peers.
Tade Thompson, featured on Episode 46, is giving away two hard copies of Making Wolf. Here are his thoughts on the book:
MAKING WOLF is a love letter to the pulp crime novels that occupied me on long, hot afternoons in my teenage years. I’m talking about Chandler, Spillane, Hammett, Chase, Pendleton. It is also a memoir of my time in Nigeria, though transformed beyond all recognition (this is a lie. My sister recognized all of it). It is not for kids. It is an adult book with adult themes and a farcical harshness that is not for the meek. Though this particular story is complete, I am not done with the characters yet. The cover art is gorgeous and you should buy the book for that reason alone. Frame that sucker! I sometimes worry that a general audience may not have enough cultural context, but it is a novel, an entertainment. It is not anthropology field work. I don’t view it as a genre novel, but don’t take my word for it. Read it; form your own opinion.
It’s been a long time coming…
But we’re finally there. In this space, we’ll wax literary, poetic, and, you know, stuff.
We’ll share news from the authors who’ve been on our show. We’ll do giveaways. We’ll write about writing things and book things sometimes too.
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