Issue 24

Vestal Review  Issue 24   January 2006

Anointed

By Myfanwy Collins

This was the guy who quoted Pygmalion, as if I were his diamond in the rough. And this was the guy who stood in the driveway, a real Gatsby, and spread out his arms and said, “This is my house,” as if I were made holy there.

But his friend (the one renting the little house from him—the front house, the small house, the house that was once a post office where I had collected my mail on summer mornings, the box key shiny from the many fingers before mine, the postmaster in visor, waiting for the guests to arrive, the sun shallow across the lake) found him five days too late. And so he died. But I carried his mark.

It was in this smaller of the two houses, with bead-board walls and those plastic curtains for doors, where it happened. It was in the house with Hank Williams on the turntable. It was in that house where he brought me behind the curtain and said my hair reminded him of riding in a boat before the thunder, when the static brings it all alive, forms a halo.

Then his dry lips anointed my forehead.

It would have been around now that he went into that other, bigger house—the back house, the veranda house, the death house—with a bottle, a coyote denning up somewhere. Pawing the ground in a circle, waiting for winter to end, curling around himself and looking up at the pockmarked sky, seeing the two of us on a boat near the island where blueberries grow and knowing how my hand would fit into his, silk on silk. And how, with the form of his lips a stigmata upon me, his eyes would shine down as I waited, away, far away, for sleep, gentle, gentle, for sleep.

Copyright © 2005 Mywanwy Collins

 

Porch Cats

By Maryanne Stahl

It’s the fourth of July and I’m sitting on the porch swing, a Bounce dryer sheet tucked into my shorts to keep mosquitoes away, waiting for fireworks. The sky keeps changing—blue, grey, silver, yellow rays of sun. Earlier it opened, streamed rain. The movement is making me queasy.

But the cats on my porch are lying still. The black and white kitten snore-purrs against my arm and the warm, vibrating comfort of her makes my eyes wet. I am in need of comfort; my son doesn’t answer his cell phone.

I keep trying to call because there’s something I want to tell him I remember: him, riding his red-white-and-blue–streamered bicycle in a neighborhood parade when he was eight. Even though he would make fun of me, maybe because he would make fun of me, I want him to know I am thinking about that day.

And then, that time-weathered moment in which I am not sticky with sweat, I don’t have my period, I’m not annoyed at his father and one of the other mothers doesn’t seem to be snubbing me, that perfect, shining moment of summer bliss would hang between us, still and sparkling.

The long-haired cat is sprawled across the porch floor on her back, legs splayed. Most cats are graceful, it’s true, but this one is not. She misses when she leaps, as often as she lands. Sometimes I am embarrassed for her.

My son has never met this clumsy cat, nor the charismatic kitten next to me. He is acquainted with only one of the three cats sleeping on the porch of my divorcee’s cottage: the oldest, a dignified striped tabby who mostly keeps to himself (when not pissing on a rug) and who my boyfriend says would vote Republican.

It’s been two years since he went to college and his father and I sold our porchless, white-washed house, and already I have two cats my son knows nothing of. Not that he cares. He pretends to hate cats, but he was jealous of any attention I ever paid them.

Now my son is unreachable, and I have three cats on my porch. Beautiful, composed and ridiculous. I could have a fourth if I wanted, a fifth. But what I want is the sky to slow down.

Copyright © 2005 Maryanne Stahl

Diamond District

By Katharine Weber

“Let the stone tell you what it wants to be and allow it to become that thing,” the old man whispered. Isabel peered through the loupe and bent over her grandfather’s work table. She gazed intently at the diamond he was showing her.

“You see?” he commanded. “Study it well. Do you remember how it looked when I showed it to you last week and told you this one I would cut next?”

“A white pebble, a lump of salt?” Isabel had been tempted to taste it, but at ten, she knew better. She gave him back the loupe. She spent every afternoon after school in her grandfather’s little work space on 47th Street, way in the back of the third floor in one of the oldest buildings in the diamond district, while her mother gave piano lessons on the Bosendorfer in the apartment. The three of them lived together on West 76th Street, over a well-known funeral parlor.

Isabel watched her grandfather work at his bench, knowing that he mustn’t be disturbed unless he spoke to her first, knowing that his work was as delicate as brain surgery. She had been doing her history homework in the dim light at his old cluttered desk where his paperwork was stacked, waiting for the moment when her grandfather would stand up, take off his special magnifying headpiece with its lighted lens, stretch, turn off his work light, slowly stow his tools and then lock the tray of stones away in the clanking safe bolted to the floor under his workbench.

“Yes, that’s right,” he answered finally, after a pause so long she had turned back to the Battle of Gettysburg. “Like something unimportant you might bring home from the seashore. But its beauty was hidden. And now what do you see? It is revealed.” He spoke softly without looking up, as if he were taking to himself. “This is called an emerald cut. If you can let the properties of the diamond guide you, then you will have something wonderful. If you try to force it to be something it doesn’t want to be—pffft! It could shatter. Or it could resist you in a thousand other ways I will explain to you someday. Just remember that if you are wrong in your choice, then the stone will sulk and refuse to be what you want, because you are mistaken about its true nature. Then you have nothing.”

Walking to the subway, they passed brightly lit shop windows, one after the other, displaying nothing but bare blue velvet landscapes, empty red velvet stages, barren black velvet amphitheaters. Sometimes, on days they left a little early, Isabel would see hands reaching, reaching, reaching into the windows, taking away the precious merchandise to be locked up safely until the next day of business. She reached for her grandfather’s hand, and the rough calluses on his palm were like precious pebbles they carried home together.

Copyright © 2005 Katharine Weber

Headless Angel

By Tom Hazuka

Beth was three months pregnant when we went to France on our honeymoon. The trip represented our promise not to let the baby change who we were, not to forget that there was so much world, all around, waiting. Then in Normandy, strolling down to the beach for lunch, we saw a woman dive from a fourth-floor window and die on the sidewalk, right across the street. It was horrible, a shock out of nowhere on a gorgeous sunny day. People ran to the rag-doll body, yelling for a doctor, yelling for the police. But it was hopeless. Beth trembled against me in a way she never had before; I knew she was remembering her younger sister who had killed herself. Hugging each other hard, Beth and I walked to the shore. Young men in tiny bathing suits played volleyball on the sand, oblivious to what had happened two hundred feet away.

“It’ll be all right,” I said finally, to both of us. I put the untouched bread and cheese in my backpack, though I was very hungry. I squinted against the glare off the Atlantic. The water was cold here, all year round.

“Right,” Beth said.

The next day we drove the abbey road, along the Seine. The river flowed slow and perfect in the morning mist. We stopped at the Abbaye de Jumièges and paid to enter the magnificent ruin, roofless walls and white stone spires reaching for the sky.

Beth disappeared.

I found her in a courtyard staring at a decapitated marble angel, its childlike hands palm-to-palm in prayer, the front of its bare feet broken off and worn as smooth as a windowsill polished by generations of elbows.

Beth touched the angel’s wings. “Vacation’s almost over, lover,” she whispered. “Soon we have to fly home.”

Our fingers intertwined on the cold, hard stone.

Copyright © 2005 Tom Hazuka

Mortality

By Amy Kiger-Williams

Her husband was dead now and she couldn’t stop laughing. There he was on the couch, cooling to her touch, the television still tuned to ESPN. His eyes were open and his mouth was slightly ajar, revealing the line of crooked lower teeth, a piece of green vegetable caught near the gum line.

She had found others dead before, her mother who just never woke up one morning, a stranger floating in the lake behind her house, a beloved cat curled stiffly in a corner. And now she was anticipating others’ deaths, a friend with advanced lung cancer, the boy with leukemia on the other side of the lake, the reckless teenagers who she feared might wrap their cars around the telephone pole at the bend in the road.

But this she never anticipated, which was why it was so absurd. Just a little while ago, she had heard him on the phone with his law partner discussing a case. She licked his neck, tasted the salt on his skin. He was wearing his running shoes, a t-shirt and shorts. She could imagine him pounding the pavement, the sweat dripping from his hair, the iPod buds in his ears. He would play Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones while he ran, all those musicians so much older but so much more alive than he was. She laughed at this, too. Charlie Watts was even older than her father-in-law, and they both were still alive, gray-haired and breathing.

She laughed and laughed as she pulled out the half-empty bottle of Gatorade that was held upright between his thighs. She took a swig and laughed some more. She embraced him roughly and held his head between her hands. “Jordan, wake up, you fucker,” she laughed. “You’re fucking with me, Jordan.” His skin was turning ashen under her fingers. She laughed, “You can’t do this to me, you bastard!” She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. She pressed her lips against his, and felt the strange sensation of cold, soft flesh. It was all so ridiculous, so she laughed and laughed again, over the volley of the tennis match on TV, beside her husband on the leather couch, until the tears started.

Copyright © 2005 Amy Kiger-Williams

One Letter, Three Women

By Dianne Rees

Does she write letters to you, your wife? Does she cast salutations or swear words on a torn-out piece of notebook paper, to scorch your fingers when you find it tucked in your briefcase? Do her missives make you blush? Does she write the forbidden words—love, love, love? Does she write words even she won’t send, words that make her mad and hopeless and bereft? Letters crumpled, one after another, as she writes to bring you to her, to make you speak her name before all others.

***

Mom’s writing another letter. She tells me that it’s homework for her college class, but I don’t think homework starts “Dear One” or ends “Love, love, love.” I think it’s gross, to be so out-there for “Dear One.” I wonder if he’s someone who’s come to the house or if he’s the one she calls, twisting her hair like my sister does when she gets all moony over her latest heartthrob.

Sometimes I pick up letters she thinks she’s shoved far down enough into the garbage to be invisible. But I find them. They’re interesting after all—it’s like contemplating a scab you’ve pulled off your knee. Sometimes the words are smudged, but sometimes, here and there, some things come across, like “please come back” or “I’d give up anything.” I want to ask her if I’m anything. But it’s like Aunt Sarah says, don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to.

***

He’s gotten another letter. It’s disguised with scent, as if it’s personal, but it’s not from another one of his floozies. I know that. He’d never date anyone who wouldn’t take the time to buy stationary. This one’s written in code, on a piece of torn-out notebook paper. The words are filled with portents. Like the last one, “Dear One, please come back.” It’s clearly an encrypted message. He’s in the spy business, my Dear One. He works in The Blue Cube. Everyone says it’s just an army base but I know otherwise. Harry says he’s a supplier—he ships goods overseas. But I know what that means. There are lots of different kinds of goods. And all words have hidden meaning, don’t they? “I need you” just means there’s a job that takes him away again. And “love, love, love” – it’s the universal code for “surrender.” Ask any woman. Harry reads the letter quickly, then folds it away as if it burns him. He turns away from me, won’t meet my eyes, gets all military on me, all “need to know.” He tells me I’m imagining things. But he’ll put this imaginary letter away in a box in the garage, with all the other ones that don’t mean anything, but which collectively spell ruin for a lot of innocent people out there. Not just me. No, not just me. Maybe I’ll go look, after he’s gone, just to torture myself. Maybe I’ll imagine myself lighting a match, and watching all those secrets burn.

Copyright © 2005 Dianne Rees

Witches

By Avital Gad Cykman

It is night when the witches stretch in their waterbed, the lake of Florianopolis. The lake is stirring in a circular and vertical movement, like milk in a glass held by an unsteady hand.

Blizzards are rare in the region. Florianopolis is located around the corner, out of the storms’ way.

The witches sniff the night air with their cashew-shaped noses. A hundred years have gone by. It is, indeed, time to wake up.

Gray vapor rises from the middle of the lake, widening its circle until it dresses the witches in cloudy dresses. Their minds are filled with isolated noises: wind, thunder, words of command. They are loyal like dogs, but they have to find an owner. They care for themselves like cats, and they should go out for food.

They whirl in the blizzard’s arms, creating lumps of smoke when they try to blow into the vaporous tube. Their dresses caress and tie, and their stretchy long hands finally find the tube’s mouth from which they reach out, horrid and graceful as newborns. The wind now pushes at their backs, and they are at the head of the storm, and they are looking for a home.

The houses overlooking the lake stand pale and quiet uphill. Such blizzards have never hit them. The people stay still. They hope the destruction can’t take hold of frozen bodies. And, somehow, the storm rushes around and not through their houses.

But then, one little woman approaches her computer to hit the keyboard with a story.

There!” the witches shriek.

They freeze against her house with the wind in their backs, the clouds around their bodies. They circle the house until they surround it with their arms. They tighten their embrace so the roof gives in and it rises in the air and is snatched by the mouth of the storm.

The woman at the keyboard raises her face and sees the green faces of the lake. Long tongues set out at her with the dedication of dogs, long nails pull at her for food. She is still banging the last words as she rises in alarm and tries to blow them out—to no avail. She is their feeder and their food, their storyteller and their story. They lick words and more words inside her, a whole book, then they rise—sweet, fat witches—and signal to the storm that it is the end of the woman’s story. So, probably, this is the end.

Copyright © 2005 Avital Gad Cykman