The VERA (VEstal Review Award) is our award for a flash fiction story under 500 words published by any magazine—other than ours—in print or online in the previous year. Only one submission from a publication, please. The stories are submitted by the magazines where they were originally published. The winning selection receives a prize of $100 (see the prize increase update below) and publication in Vestal Review, and the runner-up entry will be published in Vestal Review at our usual terms.
Update 1/21/19: The final judge for 2019 is Katharine Weber.
Thanks to the generous donor, @MythicPicnic, the VERA award doubles the prize money for 2019, just in time for the 5th anniversary of the award and for the 19th anniversary of Vestal Review.
The increased prize money will be distributed as follows:
The winning selection receives a prize of $150 and publication in Vestal Review, the second prize gets $75 and publication, and the third place gets $25 and publication. All three will receive a print copy of the issue as well.
The nominations will be done via Submittable. The nomination link will be open soon. The final judge TBD.
We got the winner.
The Final Judge Michelle Richmond has selected “She Is a Battleground” by Nancy Au (nominated by Lunch Ticket) as the winner of VERA 2017 (flash fiction published in 2017).
“She Is a Battleground” is a sharp, edgy rant against ageism. We meet a heroine, “the old Chinese lady they call Baboochka,” at a time in life when she is expected to be at the end of her rope, an easy target. But her age makes her fierce, not fragile. She responds to youth by knowing it and naming it, by predicting the banal futures of the young boys who taunt her, by recounting her own dangerous history and asserting, above all, her personhood.
The Final Judge Michelle Richmond has selected “Us, at Kroger” by Claire Luchette (nominated by Indiana Review) as the runner-up of VERA 2017 (flash fiction published in 2017).
“Us, at Kroger,” puts an unexpected spin on a common object: those cubes of pantyhose you find at the grocery store. The object becomes a lens through which we see the joyous lives of a small coterie of nuns. “It is our belief that everything can become something else,” the collective voice tells us. There is delight in everyday things, in the minor observations—and yes, in the luxury of nylons. The playful language is as delightful as the characters themselves.
The Final Judge Michelle Richmond has selected “Space Man” by Kathy Fish (nominated by The A3 Review) for special mention for VERA 2017 (flash fiction published in 2017).
I loved and enjoyed “Space Man”–it’s actually the one that gave me the most pure reading pleasure (the tennis shoes in a dryer!)–but ultimately I didn’t feel it went quite far enough.
Update 8/2/18. Michelle Richmond, the final judge, is about to announce the winner and the runner up. Stand by.
Update 3/26/18. The nomination process for Vera 2017 has begun.
Please feel free to nominate one story under 500 words published by your magazine in print or online in 2017. The winning selection receives a prize of $100 and publication in Vestal Review, and the runner-up entry will be published in Vestal Review at our usual terms. There is no nomination fee. Only a publication editor is eligible to submit a nomination. One story per magazine, please.
Please state your credentials when nominating.
This is the nomination link: https://vestalreview.submittable.com/Submit
The nomination process will close on May 28, 2018.
The final judge this year is Michelle Richmond.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections. Her books include the 2017 psychological thriller THE MARRIAGE PACT, which has been sold in 30 languages and was a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK; GOLDEN STATE, the critically acclaimed novel that imagines modern-day California on the brink of secession from the United States; the international bestseller THE YEAR OF FOG; and the story collection HUM, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.
Update 2/14/18. The voting results are in:
The entry Tuxedos and Evening Gowns by James R. Gapinski took the first place in our readers’ poll. Therefore it became the winning selection of our VERA prize. It will receive $100 and a publication in Vestal Review.
The entry Gratitude by Bob Lucky took the second place in our readers’ poll. Therefore it became the runner up selection of our VERA prize. It will receive a publication in Vestal Review at our usual terms.
Congratulation to James and Bob, and thank you to every participant. All entries were strong, but we had to select the strongest.
We will soon start accepting nominations for the VERA 2017 (flash fiction published in 2017) .
The short-listed entries for VERA 2016 have been announced:
Tuxedos and Evening Gowns
James R. Gapinski
Gen Del Raye
Burnt Springs, Alabama
This is part I of the poll. Please read the stories that follow, then rank all five stories according to your preference, 1 being your favorite and 5 being your least favorite. Voting will be open until February 6, 2018. You may only vote once. The two highest-ranked stories will be announced on February 12, 2018 as our VERA winner and runner-up.
The part I of the poll results.
1/15/18: Since the part I of the poll is limited only to 100 participants, please continue voting in the part 2 of the poll. The results of both polls will be combined.
The short-listed stories are posted below:
Tuxedos and Evening Gowns
by James R. Gapinski
When I open my bedroom door, there’s always someone inside, dressed to the nines. I’ve tested this phenomenon a couple dozen times so far. I don’t know where these bedroom people come from. My room doesn’t have windows. There’s only one way in or out. I can shut the door on the windowless room, wait a few minutes, open the door, and voilà. They nod appreciatively and walk out. I get the impression that they’re waiting for me, waiting to be let out. But it’s not like some panicky incarceration. These people are always calm and collected. Their tuxedos and evening gowns are pristine. Their hair and makeup is flawless. They’re waiting, but not quite trapped.
They rarely say anything to me, these people in my room. Sometimes they offer a polite “good evening” or “nice weather we’re having.” Whenever I try to talk directly to them, they just smile and look somewhat uncomfortable, as if their politeness can only extend to the most rudimentary phraseology. I say, “Pardon me, could you please tell me why you’re in my room?” I’m not sure why I bother with these niceties—there’s something about their fancy clothes that encourages civility, I guess. After about one week of good manners, I drop the decorum and insist: “Tell me right now! How did you get in here?”
These people shudder at my lack of grace, and their voices quaver as they say “good day” in a hurry. They brush past me, their expensive-smelling colognes and perfumes lingering in the air. They appear more agitated now, but they never break from the politeness. They always close the door behind them, and I’m left in my dimly-lit hovel with my stained mattress, 90s band posters on the wall, IKEA side table, alarm clock on the blink.
I try to follow them out, but they catch a never-ending series of buses and trains, and I always lose them after the fifth or sixth transfer. I sleuth for a couple weeks. Every time, they vanish into midday commuter crowds only to reappear on some distant bus as it chugs forward, leaving me on the platform by myself.
I decide that they’re embarrassed of my hoodie and jeans. If I look like I belong, maybe I’ll be able to make all the correct transfers. Maybe I can attend whatever swanky party is waiting at the end-o’-the-line. So I dress myself to the nines—tuxedo, shiny leather shoes, bowtie. I trim my beard. I gel my hair. I look gooooood. I stand in the middle of the room—I want to sit on my stained mattress, but I can’t risk messing up my new clothes. I watch the door, and I know somebody will let me out soon. I will nod at this person and say “good day” in my most polite voice. I will leave the room, and I will know exactly where I am going.
by Gen Del Raye
I say she was a tough woman, and my mother says, how tough, how tough? My mother always wants to know the toughness as a number. The television says Robert lived twelve years past his prognosis. The newspaper says Sandra battled cancer for twenty-three months. Ah, my mother says. That’s tough. That’s very tough.
I say the woman traveled farther than she ever thought she could. I say she learned English in night school with a baby in her lap. I say she battled lonely for thirty-two years. I say she battled outcast, homesick.
Homesick? my mother says. Homesick is for children, she says, for frightened old ladies. Homesick is not tough. No, not tough at all.
The woman battled widowhood, I say. She battled abandoned. She battled poor and broken with nobody left to turn to. She battled weekly long-distance calls that she wished were daily, her best friend the moth-murmur of a voice on the line – this costs a fortune, I have to go, same time next week, okay?
My mother says her brother survived six bullets to the chest in Parma. She says her grandmother lived thirty years past being buried alive. Don’t insult me with your fake tough, she says. Save me your prissy stories.
She battled electro-convulsive therapy, I say. She battled inadequate mental health services. She battled words she couldn’t understand in court, she battled no children, no freedom. She battled wanting to go home but not knowing where home was. She battled depression and Alzheimer’s and she lost those battles but still she kept fighting.
Losers aren’t tough, my mother says. If she wanted to be tough, she shouldn’t have lost. And wanting to go home, no, don’t give me that crap. Give me numbers instead, give me something I can understand or else leave me alone, she says, leave me alone. And then she looks at me straight with her great big wet eyes and says, I don’t even know you, old man.
Burnt Springs, Alabama
by Catherine Moore
They fished her from the artesian well on the east side of the Burnt—a murky spring where they used to dunk captured Yankee soldiers, so the story goes. She smelled like rotting seafood. Years later Little Miss Lively reported, “That thing was laying in the back of a wagon looking terrible—the head of a woman with long, stringy hair but was as ugly as the devil, flesh covered in fish scales.” There’s always been a debate whether the Burnt Springs maid was primate or aquatic humanoid. Such disagreements drew political lines, cost elections, and have grown to epic proportions. For this is the land slightly forgotten on the state map, a land of upright Wampus Cat sightings and where Elvis impersonators aspire to be put on the terrorist watch list. Sheriff Butterbean tells a gorier tale of the creature, hung swamp-side and used as target practice by local sharp shooters. Obviously, he sides with the mermaid theorists, in private, but for the newspapers he spins a story about the remains of a vampireous Yankee. Never a word regarding the devil’s sea maid from the spring, just “a damn yank trying to drink our river’s soul dry.” Whether buried in the woods or swinging in a tree, they hold their women tight in the South.
by Billie Travalini
You open your eyes.
Your husband is holding a gun.
“Go back to sleep.” You watch the corners of his mouth lift up, as if he is in a different time zone, and he is mocking you for this and God-knows-what-else. “Wouldn’t listen… had to snoop, didn’t you?”
You count 144 guns in total, all carefully diapered and bedded just so. You had thought that maybe the Thompson submachine gun that required a special license or the AK 47 bought from a veteran of Desert Storm, or even the Israeli Uzi would get an extra pat or tuck, but no, he has given each and every one the same complete and undivided attention.
“Can’t leave well enough alone.” His eyes are on the guns, but you know he is referring to something else–something you aren’t supposed to know about but do—and, this more than anything rankles him, makes him feel spied on: invaded.
He closes the crate and locks it. His eyes are blazing.
“What did you expect? When we met you were like a little bird. Now, you want to be I am woman hear me roar. Well, you go right ahead, but not on my dime. You hear me… it’s time I did things my way.”
You look at him as if he were somebody you once knew, but you can’t remember the where or when.
“Could have lasted another year or so.”
You question if it relates to your marriage or his adultery, but you are tired and he is still talking.
“Sarah would be out of high school. The house would be paid for.”
You point at the crate and hear yourself laugh, a strange guttural sound that starts and stops like a series of coughs.
He raises his voice. “Here we go again…same old thing! Any woman in her right mind would love to have a man like me, but not you. Nag, nag, nag. Okay, go ahead, say something. I haven’t got all night. Spit it out.”
He points to the floor, and continues, “All yours. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Your forehead aches from his voice, and your stomach is a fiery mess. You turn just enough to erase him from view.
“Ten, nine eight, seven, six, five, four…look at me. I want to remember your face.”
He hangs over you and you feel his breath on your neck and your bones rattle and your eyes water. For a millisecond you grind your tongue between your teeth and swallow the pain, a reminder that words are useless when you most need them and silence is the only real truth.
A car pulls up outside and chokes to a stop.
You open your eyes, but before he notices, before he can say, “Never again,” you squeeze them shut, and he has dragged the quarrelsome crate behind him and is gone.
[haibun story, 169 words]
By Bob Lucky
In the morning you turned the crack in the ceiling into a metaphor and we both watched in disbelief as it spread wider and wound its way down the wall. Well, I thought, to hell with going to work. I went outside and sat beneath a tree. If I were rich, I might have flown to Paris for lunch, but I didn’t have much of an appetite anyway. I rubbed pine needles into prayer beads. I could smell the grass because a neighbor unaware of the end of the world was out mowing his lawn. I could hear birds singing as if nothing mattered but the next note. Clouds gathered and dispersed, the promise of rain and the threat of drought indistinguishable. Later, I watched the sun slip out of the sky and wondered if that was it. When I went back inside the house, you were gone. I could barely see the crack, but thanks for leaving the lights on.
a dead star burning
2/1/17 Accepting submissions for Award 2016 (administered in 2017)
Award 2015 (administered in 2016)
This is the award for stories published in 2015.
1st place: When the Bough Breaks By Jayne Martin Nominated by Midwestern Gothic
2nd place: The Box of Skinny Women By Ingrid Jendrzejewski Nominated by The Conium Review
3/16/16. Update: The notifications are out.
3/14/16. Update: The notifications are to go out soon.
7/29/16. Just about closing the submission window.
12/15/16. The semi-finalists are selected. Please vote for your favorites. The two finalists will be selected based on the combination of the voting and the decision of the editors. The voting will close on December 30, 2016. The stories are posted below.
1/3/17. The voting is extended until 1/10/17.
1/12/17. The winners are announced. They were chosen as the combination of the voting and the decision of the editors.
The submissions for the 2016 VERA award are open.
by Elizabeth Wade
Nominated by Weirderary
You were everywhere that summer, summer of the research lab, summer of the white coat, summer when I learned how energy can move through the air unnoticed. I thought it sounded a lot like love, the way something you cannot see can take hold of your body, can seep into your cells. I never said the word, but my body knew. Each weekend, as I left my job and drove toward the city we’d picked from the map, my skin would quicken, even the air on it too much some days. Calculations were my distraction: if two cars leave two different cities at the same time and drive toward each other, how soon will they meet? To answer, you must know what separates them. To answer, you must know how fast each party is moving. I never knew these things, never knew how to predict when I would find you. I only knew that I must find you, knew the number of hours we had was finite, no more than fifty-six per weekend. I remember how each Monday I left you, sleeping, and drove straight to the lab. I remember the comfort of ritual, how I donned my white coat and unclipped the badge from its left breast pocket, how I reported to the technicians for clearance to work another week. I never understood just how the device functioned, though I loved the sound of it: thermoluminescent dosimeter. Each Monday, I fumbled for caffeine while technicians hovered over my badge, measuring the amount of light emanating from the space near my heart. Each week, they assured me the risks were minimal, said I hadn’t yet gotten too close.
My father is Trying to Set the World Record for Days Spent Petting a Shark
by Nancy Stohlman
Nominated by Blink-Ink
The trick, he says, is to just lightly move the fingers. The shark has the frozen, unimpressed expression of all sharks. Are you coming home for dinner?
I can’t stop now, he said. It’s only been 9 hours. It’s about goals, he added. Your mother never taught you the importance of having a real goal.
The Box of Skinny Women
By Ingrid Jendrzejewski
Nominated by The Conium Review
I have a box of skinny women that I keep under my bed. It is a small box as the women are, indeed, very skinny. I get them out once in a while when I’m not able to sleep. Somehow, leafing through their paper hearts and dusty smiles helps me make sense of living.
Once upon a time, I was a skinny woman too. I slid through days, hardly parting the wind. Nobody could see me when approaching my flat sides. Then, one day, I grew large and unwieldy; gravity began to tug at my heartstrings, making them fray. Once my footsteps started causing sink-holes, time started to snap at my heels. Now, when I sing, people’s teeth shake.
I used to think about evicting the skinny women. I imagined myself dumping the box in a skip without even opening it to say goodbye. I imagined the skinny women in filthy darkness, drowning in chicken bones and coffee grounds. I imagined them clinging together, wondering where they are, their pancake bodies shifting over each other and fluttering.
But then, every time I got close to acting, I would hear their faint voices seeping through the mattress and I would wonder whether the skinny women had a future. In recent years, I have had a stomach for many things, but never for atrocity. Now that I am larger than life, anything might be possible.
When the Bough Breaks
By Jayne Martin
Nominated by Midwestern Gothic
If they don’t get here soon, he is sure he will bust wide open. The bright yellow lily he’d picked for her this morning was already starting to wilt in the muggy heat of the Iowa noon.
Seems like it was just spring when his father had carried him up the ladder to a thicket of Juniper branches where four tiny spotted eggs rested among the carefully-arranged twigs of a sparrow’s nest.
“It’s no bigger than that right now,” his father explained.
He’d seen babies before, watched as his Aunt Ellen grew large and round as a pumpkin with his cousin Ray. He knew they took a lot longer to hatch than sparrows. His mother, too, had grown large and round as a pumpkin. Some days she could barely get off the sofa. Her ankles had become thick purple rivers emptying into swollen ponds of flesh that he would rub as she stroked his head and called him her good boy.
“She’s going to depend on you to protect her, you know,” his mother had said.
He could do that. He was good at protecting things. When their barn cat tried to climb up to the sparrow nest, he’d chased it away with the hose and it never tried that again. He would hold her hand when they walked to school bus, and teach her how to tell the good snakes from the bad ones, and when it thundered so loudly that their whole cabin shook and lightning lit up the sky for miles around, he would hide his own fear so that she would feel safe.
By then the baby sparrows had flown off, all but one that he had found lying stiff and cold at the base of the tree. When he had cried, his father said that was just nature’s way sometimes, and together they had buried it and said a prayer.
He had clung to his mother’s skirt while his father half-walked, half-carried her to their car. They told him not to worry about the blood that trailed from their doorway.
Soon dusk would begin to cast shadows like ghosts across their land. Still, he waited.
Nature was especially unforgiving that year.
Ways to Mourn an Asshole
by Venita Blackburn
Nominated by Baltimore Review
Once is not enough. Believe in Santa and Jesus and Clark and Bruce but only ‘til daylight. Remember not to be a child. Pretend to be ill. Wear black slacks. Pray. Cut your hair without a mirror. Buy a casket. Use the casket. Invite all of the friends. Invite no one at all. Bury the empty casket. Collect the ashes. Hold the ashes. Kick the ashes with your heel. Be glad the plastic did not break. Put the ashes away for later. Play basketball. Write an obituary. Remember not to be small. Go hunting. Go mountain climbing. Remember to be very strong. Look at your muscles. Touch your abs. Remember to be proud. Take out the death certificates. Make copies of the death certificates. Draw penises on the back of the copies. Draw faces on the penises. Put the originals away for the insurance company. Open the ashes. Smell the ashes. Cough. Feel a little sick, and shake it off. Put the ashes in glass containers. Pretend they are Canopic jars. Pretend to be a pharaoh. Pretend these are the organs of ancestors. Pretend to come from greatness. Remember not to be afraid. Put one jar outside for the rain. Kill ants outside with an index finger while the rain falls. Remember to be big. Go inside. Open the plastic bag from the hospital full of clothes. Take out the wallet. Pocket a hundred and sixty eight dollars. Look at the driver’s license. Pull out the belt. Wear the belt. Remember to get fat enough to fit the belt. Collect the jar of wet ashes. Drop the license inside. Take the license out and wipe it off. Put the jar of ashes and rain in the freezer. Take it out of the freezer the next day. Sit it out on the fence. Find your hunting rifle. Fire one shot. Miss. Fire again. Don’t miss. Remember not to care. Remember there are other jars left.
Award 2014 (administered in 2015)
This is the award for stories published in 2014.
Update: All the nominations have already been submitted by the magazines’ editors.
Update: The first stage of the process is completed now. We have selected 4 semi-finalists. Please vote for your favorites. It would help us to select the winning two. The voting will close on May 15, 2015. The stories are posted below.
Update: The results of the award are in. Our editors selected four semi-finalists, and then the readers voted. We received 473 votes.
“Fireworks” by Matthew Fogarty, originally published in Pithead Chapel, was chosen as the recipient of the award. “Resurrection Man: A Litany” by Sarah Banse, originally published in Harvard Review, was chosen as the runner-up. The winner receives $100 and publication in Vestal Review, and the runner up publication and an honorarium.
Resurrection Man: A Litany
You Will See a Bright White Light
Fireworks ( Pithead Chapel)
by Matthew Fogarty
We were on the granite coast with the sun going down and the fireworks starting. There was the park with the army-green grass faded in the dusk and you and I were on the swings watching new stars shoot out over the ocean and you said you’d never seen those colors before. I didn’t believe you at first. I said every kid’s seen sparklers against the red sun, even kids from the desert. Though as soon as I said it I realized you weren’t looking at the sky, you were looking at my cheek, which was a purpling sting.
They left me at the edge of the cliff above the beach, while below, they lit dazzlers and fountains and roman candles, shot yellow globes up into the gray. It was beautiful but seemed like a waste, all that money and whatever just for a few seconds of skyglow. Then you were back with light in your hand, like you’d caught one and saved it. You had a towel and dabbed at my forehead, kept saying you’d never seen anything like it. That’s when I thought this might be something.
I thought I had it wrong when you went back inside without saying anything. You had that look, both at his vincible wreck and my bleeding lips, one of those last looks like you were storing the image of it—our sweaty hair and the bruised ground—to remind yourself never to go through this park again. The others thought it was all so funny, the way he and I went at each other, our lousy ocean legs and arms swimming slow. But my chest felt like you’d gotten a shot in before you left, knocked the wind out of my lungs.
There was the guy who thought you were his, grabbed at you with words and hands that’d worked with other women. I stepped in between and he got mad and there we were in the park near the swingset and the sandlot with thick red gloves swinging drunken punches. They circled us; you sat on the low end of the teeter-totter. I clipped the side of his head and he followed hard with a right. I fell backward, recovered, came running at him, and didn’t stop when his hair hit dirt.
We were the only ones awake in the early morning house. I made coffee, asked who you were with. You said no one. There was that smile. We ate eggs on the porch as the fog burned off and we wondered if you could see the fireworks from space, whether the moon would feel lonely in its orbit, would strain to reflect their firelight the way it reflects the sun. Or whether the stars could be jealous we replace them so easily—just gunpowder and flames.
Resurrection Man: A Litany (Harvard Review)
By Sarah Martin Banse
Before Dr. George Parkman disappeared from Boston on that fine November afternoon, the Friday before Thanksgiving in 1849; before he stopped for groceries for his family; before he went to Quincy Market and bought a most extravagant head of lettuce for his institutionalized daughter, Harriet; before he went to the medical college, where ghastly dissections were performed, flesh ripped from bodies and carcasses dumped in the Charles River; before he went to collect a debt from Harvard chemistry professor John Webster, a long-time friend and fellow parishioner at New North Church—
Before Ephraim Littlefield, janitor and Resurrection Man, read of the $3,000 reward for the discovery of George Parkman’s body; before Littlefield spent the day digging in the dark through five layers of brick among sewage, waste, and body parts; before he spotted a pelvis, genitals still intact, in the bowels of John Webster’s private privy—
Before Marshall Francis Tukey was hired to clean up the city and take care of the Irish; before he and his Constable, Deratus Clapp, arrested John Webster; before they discovered teeth and hair in Webster’s office furnace; before they found the dismembered body parts seemingly belonging to George Parkman; before sixty thousand people witnessed the trial in fifteen-minute shifts for eleven days; before the jury deliberated for three hours, two hours and fifty-five minutes of which they prayed; before John Webster was sentenced to death and hanged before a crowd of thousands at the Leverett Street Jail—
—there was George Parkman, landlord and shylock, who tended his debtors with a watchful eye.
George Parkman, not lovingly referred to as “The Chin,” ill-natured, stingy, and shrewd. A man not opposed to taking a mother’s last dollar for groceries or medicine when the rent was owed; a man determined to call in his note to John Webster. And so he followed him in the street, appeared at his home, interrupted his lectures, generous no more. There was the amiable and round John Webster, who had wasted his inheritance on minerals and rocks and could not survive on his Harvard salary, for he was unable to deny his wife and four daughters their lavish parties or beautiful gowns. John Webster, who had nothing left to mortgage and who sought out the benevolence of friends like George Parkman when institutions would no longer lend to him. John Webster, who confessed to the killing but declared his crime an act of passion, if only to end Parkman’s constant taunting.
Afterward, the City of Boston was known for gentlemen butchering gentlemen, and Webster’s lab became a destination for the likes of Charles Dickens. Afterward, Governor George Briggs noted that capital punishment united the imbecile, the Negro, and the Harvard professor. Afterward, a collection of twenty thousand dollars was taken up for the widow Webster and her girls, the widow Parkman contributing five hundred dollars to the fund. Afterward, John Webster was buried in an unmarked grave on Copps Hill so the Resurrection Men wouldn’t nab him.
You Will See a Bright White Light (Tin House online, February 2014)
By Jill Kronstadt
It is what it is, and before that, it was what it was: night, the marks of your hooves in the lawn, the vegetal burst of daylilies between your teeth and on your tongue. You will see your herdmate raise her head from the shrubbery, nostrils flared, ears flicking to reassure herself that there is nothing to hear. You will stride across the gravel driveway and the crickets will break their cadence as you push clumsily through a hedge, but then they will resume, and you will amble toward the thing that pulls you.
If you are truly hungry, you can easily cross the line of human urine whose scent rises up in whorls between you and the garden. You can leap over the white fence that loops through the white gate, and when you land you will be up to your knees in cabbages just starting to form heads, so sweet after first frost; and pungent feathers will tickle your legs to remind you that they are attached to carrots, their flavor a bell that rings in your mouth. On a trellis, a miraculous late crop of pole beans will wave gently to offer leaves and pods both, because this is heaven, and you are for now a trespasser.
At night on the road, so many of your herdmates become apparitions that fly out of the woods, clatter across the gaze of a car’s headlights and then hurtle out of sight again. The driver feels the terror of having missed catastrophe; you slip between tree trunks, and the smell of earth and bitten bark and broken foliage settles into the fragrance of peace.
From the garden, you will see the slow drip of headlights along the road and feel that you are safe. Your herdmate will follow you over the white fence and tear the pole beans from their trellis. You will hear her breathing and chewing and the soft grunts of your own satiated hunger. When a pair of lights widens and moves toward the driveway, you will vault back over the fence toward the road and snort, tails up, to warn each other of danger. When night enfolds you again, you will slow to a walk and stop to graze together on the shoulder.
When the lights return, they will be an apocalyptic silver that bolts through your veins. Your herdmate will bound into white nothingness. You will try to follow, and as your hooves touch the road’s surface you will see the light sluicing over her silhouette, beautiful and luminous, before she vanishes up the embankment and you float, weightless as breath, gently calibrating your last moment of being before the long scream of tires on asphalt announces your return to the garden.
Strange Animals (Witness XXVII.3 Winter 2014)
By Jennifer Pashley
Jost kept a crow, the size of a chicken, lame and broken-winged, in his shirt. He carried it next to his breast, where it listened to his heart, became his true love, his companion. Its oiled black head, a comfort under his thumb. Those were the last days, before the war, before the Germans came through and tossed babies in the air like skeet, shooting them before their fathers dug their own graves. Before people stood in line for rookwurst water. Then, there were mussels from the sea. A waving field of flowers, bright under the sun. When the crow learned to speak, he said fiets, calling for the bicycle, riding with Jost along the canal, under his shirt, the only way he still felt like flying.
The deer mother lay dead on the side of the highway, but the baby, steps behind, wobbled into the yard. Ida bottle-fed it in the kitchen, months, waiting for her own baby. It slept, curled at the foot of the bed like a big dappled dog. Female. No antlers burgeoned at the crown. The baby, female. No threat burgeoning below. When the baby came, Melvin let the deer go. The smell of a small human, the milk that came from Ida, more than the yearling could bear. It wouldn’t come up the step, but stood in the yard, looking in, lowering its head the way a dog stakes out prey. When it left, Ida watched it for a long time, its hind legs leaping, the tail, a soft white beacon, way into the trees.
Queenie was shot. My grandmother’s dog, who looks just like my dog now, a sleek, velvet-headed rat terrier. The house on Sleepy Hollow Road burned down to the foundation, nothing but char and ash and smoke for days. And Queenie, shivering in her haunches with no place to go after, met the barrel of a neighbor’s rifle. Twelve pounds of nothing.
My mother kept a woodchuck named Beaufort. It stayed in the house like a domestic cat, kept to a litter box it made itself out of rolls of toilet paper, wadded up in the cellar way. If you gave him a can of beer, the woodchuck could open it with his prehistoric hands, and lay on his back and drink the whole thing. He’d stumble around the house after, drunk, knocking into furniture, dropping the can on the kitchen floor, until he passed out on his back. He learned what he saw. If he could speak, he might shout out with anger. He might drive the car off the road.
Across town, my brother shoots a mouse with a CO2 gun as it runs across the kitchen counter. Only the back is hit, the legs limp, and it spirals in frenzied terror, trailing its own guts, screaming. My kid shouts, Shoot it again, to end it, but the violence is inherited. It comes to us in our blood, in our hands. We leave our prints on the wall, running down hallways toward light. The only way we feel like flying.