A Crash, A Collage

This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Get NonBinary Review #16 from Zoetic Press.


Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew
—Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying”

I learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown almost everywhere in the world. I could tell China from Arizona at first glance, which is very useful if you get lost during the night.

The fragrance Vol de Nuit, “Night Flight,” was inspired by the thrills and dangers of the brave, early days of aviation, and by author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a reckless romantic, one of the first masters of aeronautics.

I do love flying as a passenger, especially at night: on an airplane, the engine’s hum and vibration, the isolation, and the suspension of physical activity all induce drowsiness and serenity.

But no one is ever satisfied where he is, and the mood captured by the perfume marks a bitter turn, the uncertainty suspended between two wars, a foreboding sense of compression, like that inside a cockpit – After dark you will put me under glass. How cold it is where you live – a darker theme of loss and separation: I was more isolated than a man shipwrecked on a raft in the middle of the ocean.

A pilot, wrenched from the comfort of his domestic life, manning his aircraft through the dangers of the skies, into the inmost heart of night, often without sufficient flight instruments. Saint-Exupéry would navigate by landmark, his only entertainment the pleasure of sunsets, would watch, at twilight, the work of a veritable army of four-hundred-sixty-two thoughsand, five hundred and eleven lamplighters. Seen from a distance, this made a splendid effect. The movements of this army were ordered like those of a ballet. Without a navigation system, he relied on these lamps, on his flashlight and compass, or when, after several hours in silence…stars began to appear.

I’m lonely…I’m lonely…I’m lonely…

The cold steel carapace of the plane a thin barrier between himself and the freezing elements, the sky, the stars, the world looming up beneath him.

No wonder the pilot-author imagined a being, a little prince, hurtling through space in the dark, alone on his lonely planet.

So you fell out of the sky, too. What planet are you from?

Saint-Exupéry was himself killed in action over France in 1944, his body never recovered. His friend Jacques Guerlain created the perfume Vol de Nuit in his honor, a celebration of flight, of mastery of the air and the thrill of danger. Telling these memories is so painful for me…. If I try to describe him here, it’s so I won’t forget him. It’s sad to forget a friend. Not everyone has had a friend. The bottle’s design blends glass and metal in Art Deco design, imitates whirling propeller blades beneath a blocky brass lid, its nameplate framed in two circular lines mimicking the propeller’s drive belt.

Renowned perfume critic Luca Turin considers the scent a gold standard against which to measure all others, yet admits, “In truth, [Vol de Nuit]…is by Guerlain’s standards a somewhat shapeless perfume, lacking a legible structure.” The vast lonely landscapes and elemental space that surround the aircraft mirrored in the distancing effect of its first bitter green notes, taking to the air. Then, the plush base surrounds you like a halo of pale light, the perfume’s engine purring through to its outer reaches. I’ll certainly try to make my portraits as true to life as possible. But I’m not entirely sure of succeeding. Turin concludes, “But it gives me pleasure, …the feeling of unobstructed space and pinpoint clarity.”

The stars are beautiful because of a flower you don’t see

Unlike many perfumes of the period, Guerlain downsized the floral opulence, turned instead to herbal and leather notes. Vol de Nuit is renowned as the first perfume to incorporate the fiercely green, resinous odor of galbanum. So, while technically an oriental composed of sandalwood, oakmoss, ambergris and leathery castoreum, its distinct opening green makes it steer between an earthy oriental and an abstract chypre, a scent caught between land and air, a leather bomber jacket suspended in the sharp, cold night sky.

I’ve always loved the desert. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines, something sings in that silence

The perfume’s surprise, what pulls everything together, is its heart of tentative sweetness. It’s as if the dark night sky suddenly reveals a falling star, a falling prince, and the loneliness and danger of flying turns into an adventure, exhilarating instead of treacherous. For travelers, the stars are guides. This heart is a facet of narcissus, of jonquil absolut. Suppose I happen to know a unique flower, one that exists nowhere in the world except on my planet. If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of starts, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere.’ This swift diminuendo into delicate flowers – What does ephemeral mean? – similar to those pressed between the pages – What does ephemeral mean? – of an explorer’s antique journal.

What does ephemeral mean?
It means, ‘which is threatened by imminent disappearance.’
Is my flower threatened by imminent disappearance?
Of course.
My flower is ephemeral, the little prince said to himself.

Perfume, too, is ephemeral. In Guerlain’s composition, there’s no narcissistic rose to be sniffed, with or without the heart. Its heart holds only narcissus and subdued jasmine. You must never listen to flowers. You must look at them and smell them. Vol de Nuit is a beautiful, enveloping aura of pulverized starlight that lets us fully imagine the gloriously new sensation of drifting almost effortlessly, and timelessly, above the clouds. If you love a flower that lives on a star, then it’s good, at night, to look up at the sky. All the stars are blossoming.

Resolutely not beckoning and un-come-hither, the perfume is quite assertive and spiky, a study in contrasts. It’s a beautiful but odd perfume, not as popular or appreciated as Shalimar or Mitsouko. Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her. Mine perfumed my planet, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that. Its cool leather and wooden dashboard undercut by a smoldering, growling cinnamon note that suggests daredevils. A scent by turns soothing and unsettling. Look up at the sky. Ask yourself, ‘Has the sheep eaten the flower or not?’ And you’ll see how everything changes…

The young pilot, the little prince, who could have been Saint-Exupéry, a pioneer of that uncertain time when a night flight could easily mean death.

…he was dropping headlong into an abyss,…nothing to hold him back…lost and remote

What does ephemeral mean? Today, vintage Vol de Nuit loses much of its topnotes, the famous galbanum, on liftoff, loses altitude, plummeting too swiftly into its darker heart and base. I miss its tension, its weirdness.

Don’t let me go on being so sad.

Despite these vagaries of fate, he nevertheless lived, risen above, on top of the world, literally, and, like the magnetic pull of the perfume and its graceful descent, the pilot has reached some kind of bliss.

For me, this is the loveliest and the saddest landscape in the world.


All italicized passages are from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) translated by Richard Howard (Mariner, 2000). Luca Turin’s quote is from his entry for Vol de Nuit in his and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A—Z Guide (Penguin, 2009). Other material comes from the perfume blogs Monsieur Guerlain, The Perfume Shrine, Now Smell This, Yesterday’s Perfume, Bois de Jasmin, and Black Narcissus.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Senior Poetry Editor at Poetry City, USA. She is the author of the poetry collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

St. Exupéry

This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Get NonBinary Review #16 at Zoetic Press.


Poor Antoine, marooned in the dunes
flying blind in bad weather:
Saharan, Andean expanses
dissolving into
the Mediterranean.

His postal routes criss cross the sky
and we receive
missives from faraway lovers
postcards from dads
grandmothers’ scribbled Valentines—

their voices almost audible
as he rounds the globe with good news
reams of dreams bulking up his biplane
cursive contrails in his wake
his starry breath clouding the cockpit.


Christina Lloyd holds a master’s creative writing from Lancaster University (UK) and a master’s in Hispanic languages and literatures from UC Berkeley. Her work appears in various journals, most recently in The North. NonBinary Review published her poem “Clytie” in the Bullfinch’s Mythology issue a few years back. She is pursuing a PhD in creative writing through Lancaster.

Ghost in the Way


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s story of a child named Mary Katherine Blackwood, who, after poisoning her family, lives with her sister Constance in a large house, which she eventually sets on fire. Constance was originally blamed for the murders. She indulges Mary Katherine (Merricat) in all of her misbehavior and outlandish fantasies. The sisters lock themselves away from a world intolerant of murderesses until an insufferable cousin shows up, and that’s what leads to the fire.

Or is this the story? They live with an invalid uncle who flirts with senility, saying at one point, “My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead. . . . [She] died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister’s trial for murder.” And one may think of other Shirley Jackson characters: Jannie in Life among the Savages, the child who adopts a bewildering variety of names and moves among them comfortably, shifting the blame for her mischief to whichever one she is not currently inhabiting; the conceivably schizophrenic Natalie in Hangsaman; Elizabeth in The Bird’s Nest, as she wrestles with her multiple personalities.

So it’s possible that this isn’t the story of two young women living in an old house but of one young woman living in an old house. She was originally blamed for the murders because she committed them. She handles the pain of that by splitting off the uncontrollable, stream-battling, world-ruining part of herself and naming it after the little sister she killed.

Is cousin Charles a fantasy too then, the embodiment of an intruding past and an intruding world? Or is he real—his rough treatment of “Mary Katherine” a rough treatment of Constance simply transposed onto the imaginary sister and managed that way? The scene in which the strangers from the village come to see the fire and end up participating in it orgiastically suggests a certain flair for persecution fantasy, so Charles should be a finger exercise for her. But all too real in his petty acquisitiveness, Charles could just as well be the mote of reality that gets in the mind’s eye of the imaginative girl and triggers a conflagration.

Of course, none of this is the actual story. The actual story is that of a house, the huge, ramshackle house that everyone knows from childhood with the haunted-house legends attached to it. By the end of the book, though Mary Katherine and Constance seem not to have aged, the vines have grown up so that evidence of the fire is erased. There was no fire. There were no murders and no sisters. There is just a scary house that needs explaining. This isn’t on the surface a ghost story, but all stories are ghost stories in a way, all fictional characters ghosts of a kind. That’s the sense in which they have always lived in that castle, out of time or in the parallel stream of story.

How many of them are there in the castle,
That scattered family or just a girl
Living there with her personalities?
Or do such odd inhabitants exist
More in the minds of us, the villagers,
Who need these bogeymen, these bogey-girls
To fill the haunted houses of our towns?

Remember “Mary Katherine has been
A long time dead,” words dropped by one who flits
Around the edges of his own decline.
This tense—what does it mean to have been dead
Unless now dead no more; that is, a ghost?
Ghost in the way that every story is.


Jack Granath is a librarian in Kansas. 

How To Protect Your Home


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


“There had not been this many words sounded in our house for a long time, and it was going to take a while to clean them out” – Shirley Jackson

It’s no longer enough to nail father’s gold watch chain to a tree
To bury coins and blue marbles in the creek bed
Baby teeth planted only dragons know where

No    the Words must now change daily     No Repeats
Must never be spoken aloud
Yesterday was TURQUOISE     ELLIPSIS     PORTABELLA

And additional barriers must be built
Monitored    reinforced
Crucifying a book is a beginning

But you also need to start curating a new kind of kindling
To scatter it on the intruder’s linens     To feed his embers
To smash the biggest mirror in the house

Kill all the familiar faces trapped inside
Because to truly protect your castle
You must be willing to risk gutting it     roof razed

Attic     a sodden museum
All forty-four of Uncle’s chapters    published as ashes
Windows stoned    figurines shattered

Mother’s harp toppled
Yes    in the end    you may be forced to let all the intruders in
To run riot on your turrets and battlements

Let them think they broke your harp and won
You may have to sleep some nights beside the stream
Slink shadows with black paws    pink pads

But as long as you have
Constance you can reclaim your castle
Inventory your preserves    build better    thicker barricades

Repair your magic till it’s strong again
In time     you’ll laugh to see the cruelest intruders
Become your humblest patrons

If they leave words on the stoop    burn them in your stove for warmth
If they leave you eggs and frosted cakes    let them supplement
The pumpkin pies and mushrooms you are learning to grow on the moon


Daniel Hales‘ hybrid book, Run Story, is forthcoming any day now from Shape&Nature Press. He is also the author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently, Shake My Ashes. I play in 2 bands: The frost heaves and hales. and The Ambiguities. I also have a recording side-project called Umbral, and our debut album, Predawn To Postdusk, was released by Spork Press in April.

 

Fool’s Journey


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


 


Barbara Martin grew up on three continents, and has lived in eleven states coast to coast. She currently lives in Oregon where she keeps a studio and teaches art classes. Art is an adventure for Barbara, where each painting is a new exploration of place and emotion.Her work is contemporary in style and leans toward the abstract, and sometimes surreal. Her subjects range from the serenity of a landscape … to the horror of a nightmare. Barbara belongs to the Oregon Society of Artists and is a member of several galleries and artist groups in Oregon. Her work has been featured in galleries, shows and museums around the country, as well as in Norway.

The Sweet Sleep of Roses or, After the Fall


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


There are rats in the roses;
I know this is true.
I feed them feathers and pearls
and, in return, they keep us safe
from the more dangerous pests,
eager to blacken our bounty.

I’ve sugared the soil
where the brambles bowed
around the rambling castle,
stains scoured, walls tumbled
under the weight of words—
melodious, Pegasus, digitalis.

Oh, sweet sister, you should see
what I’ve seen blinded by thorns;
smell the sweet sin hidden,
bound in a pentagram of petals;
taste the devilish seeds buried
deep inside the ripened fruit.

I turned back time, the thirteenth hour
wound down counterclockwise
past rotting hearts and golden coins,
poisonous passions and thorny crowns,
until the paths were closed forever
to anyone who wasn’t you and me

and you will sleep safely forever
in our moon-kissed tower
guarded by dragon teeth sharpened
and wandering eyes plucked,
planted among the twisting roots
of blackberries ripened to rot.


Carina Bissett is a writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of speculative fiction and interstitial art. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in multiple journals and anthologies including the Journal of Mythic Arts, Mythic Delirium, NonBinary Review, Timeless Tales, and The Horror ‘Zine. Her work has been nominated for several awards and she was the recipient of the 2016 HWA Scholarship. For links to stories and poems, stop by http://carinabissett.com.

Constance Blackwood (a lipogram)


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


Town talk stabs-
not wed
no lace on neck
doesn’t’ know code
wakes late
cooks at noon
lacks knack to stand alone
not sane.


Jan Chronister lives and writes in the woods near Maple, Wisconsin. She wishes she had a garden close to her kitchen like Constance and neighbors who leave her eggs. She currently serves as president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

sunset


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


each morning,
before we uncover my peepholes and
shrink from the yawning void
waiting beneath the impossible streets

before we push oak legs through
phantom dust tracks to their canonized
configurations and reset our
twin-acted stage of brain matter gray

before we hear, warbling through the
plaster, a million miniature devils
singing my hapless name into
rebirth as a unworldly beast

i pray that i might roll my
decaying marbles toward the
holiday china and spy a speck of
sugar i did not request

so that before i might scrub a
papery spider from the flatware, i
may seize back and finally
go to sleep.


Deb Jannerson is the author of Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and the winner of the 2017 So to Speak Nonfiction Award. Her work has been featured in six anthologies and more than twenty magazines. She lives in New Orleans with her wife and pets. Learn more at debjannerson.com.

Shelley’s Arm


This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press. 


It was a Tuesday, and I would have to go to town.

I was in abnormally high spirits about the prospect of going into the village that day. I put it off without thought. Bundled in my warm blanket, and with Jonas at my side, I slept away the morning in my hiding place in the woods, the frost beginning to melt and birds chirping and chattering away around me. I woke to find a spiderweb, glistening and silver, stretched across the entrance.

I knew that the web was a very strong protective omen, but I would have to knock it down if I were to get out. “I am very late to go into town, Jonas,” I said. Jonas blinked at me. I reached out to knock it away, but couldn’t bring myself to. “The magic will all be spent if I do it,” I told the cat. He flicked his tail, then stood, walking deliberately through the web.

I went inside and washed my face before starting on my way, as Constance had told me I must, and took the library books off their shelf, carrying them in a bundle at my side.

“Be very careful, my Merricat,” Constance said, her voice like a song. “And don’t take too long.”

“I won’t. I love you, Constance.”

“I love you too, Merricat.”

The library is the first space on the game board of the village. It lies just beyond the black rock and the gate that protects the Blackwood property from the encroaching rot and villainy of the villagers. I climbed the marble steps, went through the door, and lay the old books on the counter, then went about choosing three new ones. A mystery or criminal study for Uncle Julian, of course. Constance preferred romance, or cookbooks. I turned the corner behind a tall shelf, and stopped.

A woman stood before me, with long, auburn hair and a stylish emerald green frock. She was not one of the villagers. She was not ugly and grey and full of rot. She was beautiful, red and brown and green, like the forest. She looked at me, and smiled. I looked away, thinking perhaps she had mistaken me for someone else.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Shelley. Shelley Banks.”

I nodded politely. “Are you new to the village?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I had never seen her before. It was a very small, very dull village.

Shelley took a book from the shelf, examined it for a moment, then put it back. “I live in the city, actually.”

I let out my breath in relief. Somehow I wanted very much not to hate her as I hated the villagers. Shelley Banks continued. “I’m coming on to teach school here, starting in a week.”

She smiled, and so I smiled back politely, but in my mind, I cursed the devilish brats who would, no doubt, be terrible and wicked to their lovely teacher. It was sad to think of her surrounded by their ugliness, a pretty jewel among the muck.

“I’m terribly indecisive about books,” she said. “Have you any recommendations?”

“Oh,” I said, surprised that she continued to converse with me even in my stunned silence. I looked around. We stood in the “B’s”, and I spotted Wuthering Heights within reaching distance. I plucked it off the shelf and handed it to her.

“I’m very fond of Catherine,” I said. “The first Catherine, that is. There are two.”

“Oh, how confusing,” Shelley Banks said. “Well if you say it is good, I have no doubt I’ll like it, too.” Her cheeks were round and rosy and her face was very pleasant. I felt very warm, as though I were at home in the kitchen and Constance was baking a pie.

I was suddenly aware of the passage of time, and I quickly picked a third book at random from behind me, in the “H” section. “I must be off,” I said, “But it was very nice to meet you.” I was surprised that I actually meant it.

“You never told me your name,” said Shelley Banks, as I turned to hurry off.

I thought very quickly. If I told her that I was Mary Katherine Blackwood, no doubt she would hear all about me from the townsfolk in no time, and I would lose her favor forever. I very much wanted to avoid this, although I did not quite know why. I paused for a moment before answering, “Mary.”

“Good to meet you, Mary,” Shelley Banks said, and smiled at me again, all pink and red and brown and green. My stomach felt something close to queasiness, but not as unpleasant. I hurried to check out my books.

When I left the library again, I felt as though I had left my shimmering house upon the moon and stepped into a squalid swamp. The grey village loomed before me, and I set off, walking deliberately, space by space. I was a metal game piece, and nothing could perturb me. Past the post office, with its windows hiding watchful eyes. The Rochester house, toward which I avoided looking. Across the highway – lose a turn, as there was traffic. I would not stop at Stella’s after buying our groceries today. I had been far too long already.

Finally, the black rock and the gate. End. The wretched game board would remain unplayed again until Friday’s grocery run.

On Wednesday, after I had checked the fences, and mended a few wires which had rusted or become bent out of shape, I got to thinking about the library. Normally I would not go back until the next Tuesday, but something told me the schoolmistress would be there again. I had to come up with a device which would make her warm to me, stop her from being infected by the townspeople and their hatred.

“What would you suggest, Jonas?” Jonas leapt after a grasshopper, catching it in his mouth, then turned and blinked slowly.

“I suppose a book would do nicely,” I said. “She is a teacher, after all.”

I went back to the house, leaving a wild flower near Uncle Julian’s chair by the window and greeting Constance warmly.

“We are having vegetable soup for lunch today,” Constance said, her face flushed from stirring the pot.

I felt a little badly for Constance, keeping something from her as important as my acquaintance with the schoolteacher. I resolved to help her more in the kitchen. I wondered if Constance would get along with Shelley Banks, or whether she would be too frightened to allow her over for tea, even if she wasn’t from the village. I decided that I wouldn’t ask Constance about it until I was sure my new safeguard would work.

After lunch, I took a little leather-bound notebook out of a drawer in my room. I hadn’t used it in quite some time, but when I had, it was used to mark down the names of the villagers who had treated me the worst. Nearly every villager known to me had long since been added to the list. I carefully tore out the pages in the front where the names were written, and set the book on the windowsill. It would be best if the book could sit in the moonlight for three nights; since it was Wednesday and I was going back to the library on Friday, two nights would have to do. It helped that one of the nights was Thursday. Thursdays were my most powerful day, and therefore my most powerful night.

I took the loose pages outside and buried them. The villagers would surely face consequences sooner this way, anyhow, I thought.

Friday came, and although I was nervous about speaking to Shelley Banks again, my thoughts were filled with magic and shining things. We had not yet finished reading the books I had checked out on Tuesday, and so I brought only the notebook with me. The grey-haired librarian looked at me coldly as I passed her desk without returning any books, but I ignored her, as I always did.

Shelley Banks was standing, still in literature, but this time among the “M’s”. She flipped through a volume of Anne Shirley tales, looking amused. I cleared my throat softly, and she looked up, smiling again. The brightest smile, which made her face round and her cheeks sparkle, and my knees ache.

“Mary!” she exclaimed. I was pleased. She did not appear brimming with questions and suspicions just yet. I approached her, holding out the notebook. “What’s this?” she asked.

“I would like you to have it,” I responded, not sure what the protocol was for giving gifts to near-strangers. “It’s for writing in,” I clarified weakly, my head suddenly spinning.

“Oh, lovely,” said Shelley Banks. “What should I write in it?” she asked, turning it over in her hands. “What would you write, Mary?”

“I would write about my life on the moon, and about riding on my winged horse,” I said, not really thinking. She blinked her deep brown eyes at me, and I continued, “And I would write down all the stories my cat, Jonas, tells me.”

Shelley Banks giggled, and for a moment my stomach dropped and her dress lost a bit of color, but then she took my hand and said, “That is truly wonderful, Mary.” My face grew hot as she said, “I will try to write something half as good as that.”

I left the library feeling lighter than air. I am living on the moon, I thought. I am bouncing along the spaces of this imaginary game board of a town. Nothing can get to me when I am so high up.

Constance was ready with a savory egg tart when I got home, and I ate each bite with a twinge of guilt. I had thought of her so little these past few days, my thoughts wholly consumed by the strange—what was it? friendship?—I had struck up with the schoolmistress. Worse, I didn’t feel I could tell Constance about it, not yet. Anyway, I worried I might frighten her if I brought it up too soon. Now was the time to wait.

Constance had begun to suspect something, I gathered, because that night she asked me, “Merricat, did something happen in the village today?”

I was chilled. “No, dear Constance, why would you think so?” I asked, keeping my voice steady.

“Never mind,” Constance said. “It was only a feeling.”

“Silly Constance,” I said.

“Silly Merricat,” said Constance.

*   *   *

Perhaps it was time to think of another safeguard.

I decided that it would be too strange, and too much of a change if Shelley Banks were to come over for tea. I didn’t think poor Constance would like it, and resolved that it was a reckless idea. I went to the cellar, where many generations of Blackwood women’s china sets were kept. I chose a rather ugly beige cup, one from a low shelf, that I was sure Constance would not miss, and I smashed it on the floor. I picked up the pieces carefully and wrapped them up in my dress. I hurried outside with them, and left them in a long trail along the driveway. Now I would not think again of asking Shelley to tea.

Tuesday came again, and in the morning I asked Constance to make a coffee cake. When we finished our breakfast, I broke off an extra piece and wrapped it in parchment paper. I tucked it in the middle of the three books from the previous week (the “H” book I had grabbed by mistake—The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall —I had devoured on Saturday, finding it strange and amusing) and made off toward town.

I am on my winged horse, I thought, I am collecting cinnamon and honey, and deep, dark, topaz, brown and sparkling, and I am bringing them to Shelley Banks in the library.

The grey-haired librarian did not look at me as I returned my books, and I was grateful. Her stare would not have perturbed me much, I imagined, not today. Shelley Banks was in the “W” section, looking at some book with a dull red cover. My heart raced as I approached her, but when she looked at me, everything stopped.

Her face was different, her smile tinged with pity. Her green dress and brown eyes and red hair began to blend together into a featureless grey.

“Hello, Mary,” she said. “May I ask you something?”

I was aware of the air around me, pressing up on my face and hands, pushing me down against the earth. Shelley Banks continued, “Is your name Mary Katherine Blackwood?”

There was a sudden ringing in my ears. I nodded. Though I wanted to cry and scream and run, I did not. I will not run away, I thought, I cannot run away.

“I only ask because, well—the children, they sing this song…” She looked embarrassed. She stopped. “I’m terribly sorry. Children say such awful things sometimes.”

I clung to the piece of coffee cake wrapped in parchment. I wished that I had put death inside of it.

“Mary, please don’t be cross with me,” said Shelley. “Only I’m just so curious.” Her eyes were dull and colorless and I wondered if she had ever had a soul in them at all. “Did she really do it?”

“You shall never be invited for tea,” I said coldly, and spun around, walking quickly (I must not run away) out the door.

I rushed past the post office and the Rochester house. I wanted to smash the coffee cake on the ground and stomp on it. I wanted to stomp on Shelley Banks’s feet, pull at her hair, watch her cry and scream on the ground. I hoped that when she wrote in the leather notebook her long, thin fingers would shrivel up into knots and her hand would fall off. I smiled, picturing her crying over her stump of an arm, no longer able to write on the chalkboard during lectures.

I did the shopping with a sort of dull roar in my ears. The rotten villagers and their watchful eyes and their little whispers followed me until I reached the black rock and the gate. I set down my shopping bag to undo the lock and dropped the package of coffee cake on the ground. I smashed it with my foot, thinking of Shelley’s long, white fingers beneath my mother’s brown shoe.

“Hello Merricat!” Constance sang. She had been waiting for me at the edge of the garden, and I felt the little knot inside my stomach loosen a bit. Constance, her yellow hair and blue eyes and lovely pink dress, her warm smile and musical voice, was the only color I needed in the world. Jonas ran up to me, rubbing his cheek against my ankle.

“Hello, Constance. The village is dreadful, and I’m so happy to be home.”

“Let’s go inside, Merricat,” Constance said with a little laugh.

I waited until Thursday, then dug up the pages which I had torn from the little leather book. I wiped as much dirt from the last page as I could, then wrote another name at the bottom. I would bury them in a different place, this time. I pictured Shelley Banks and her stump of an arm again, and smiled, scooping dirt over the paper with relish.

I heard Constance calling from the back of the house, and wiped my hands together in a futile attempt to rid myself of dirt. Constance would tell me to wash up before we could eat. I thought of Constance, and of Uncle Julian, and our beautiful, lovely house, and Jonas. I was silly to think of bringing someone else, an interloper, into our world. Now, I thought, I will never think of anyone more than I think of Constance; I shall never love anyone as much. We are so, so happy.


Meghan Elaine Bell is a northern California transplant and avid horror lover living in Portland, Oregon, with her girlfriend, Carly, and her cat, Midnight Monster. Her work can be found in the current issue of RFD Magazine

 

On Account of the Living


This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 


John Carlyle stood from behind his desk and extended a hand. “Thank you for making time in your schedule to meet with me, Mr. Marinkovic.”

His visitor ignored the handshake offer and sat brusquely. “Save it, please, and let’s cut to the bloody chase. What’s the problem this time?”

Carlyle sat, face sober, and steepled his fingers before him. “It’s not often easy for a parent to hear…”

“Skip the handjob, please.”

“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Your son does not appear to be cut out for this pre-K school.”

Marinkovic’s expression didn’t change. “Didn’t Ignacio Estrada say something like ‘If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn?’”

Carlyle did not immediately respond, but instead leaned forward for his desktop computer mouse. “Permit me to illustrate the problem?” Without waiting for a reply, he clicked at his computer and a video began playing silently on a television to one side of his desk.

A young boy with mousy brown hair is clearly engrossed in finger painting on beige paper, along with several other children. In walks an older, heavyset woman with her hands cupped together; the children jump up to greet her with excitement and cluster about her. She walks with them to a low table, says something to them, and they respond by moving their things off the table. The woman places what she’s carrying down on the table and removes her hands to reveal a blue jay, its neck clearly broken. The video pauses.

“The bird flew into one of the school windows and died,” Carlyle explained. “Ms. Gordon brought it in to show the children.” He then clicked the mouse.

The video resumes. Children begin to point and speak animatedly…all except for the boy with the mousy brown hair whose lip begins to quiver for some seconds before he begins to cry. The video pauses.

Marinkovic shifted in his seat. “What of it? With no context, Sergei might have…”

Carlyle held up his left hand, palm out, and wordlessly clicked to activate another video.

It is the same room, but the camera shows a different angle. It is darker than in the earlier video because the shades are down. The children lie on mats on the floor in various poses of sleep. The young boy—Sergei—begins to twitch, then grimace. His tiny arms flail, and his feet kick about. He begins to pant, head shaking emphatically back and forth as if forcefully screaming “NO!” The camera zooms to show tears streaking his cheeks, then pans lower to show a wet spot form at the crotch of his blue shorts.

“This? This is what I’m paying for?” Marinkovic stood abruptly.

“He had a nightmare, and wet himself, Mr. Marinkovic.”

“So? Lots of children do when they’re young!”

Carlyle gestured at the screen where the video had paused. “This was the afternoon after seeing the dead bird. Note that the other children are all sleeping soundly.”

“But…!”

“If you’ll calm yourself and be seated, I’ll show you the most significant evidence I have as to why your son doesn’t belong at this special pre-K program.” He studied his computer screen, moved the mouse and double-clicked once more. “Given the above episodes, the following test was absolutely warranted.”

Sergei is alone in a play room, playing with building blocks. The door opens and a young girl with curly blond hair and dark eyes comes in. The boy raises his head and looks to at her, and there is delighted curiosity on his face. He stands up as the girl walks over to the table and says something to her. She glances at the table, then back at Sergei, who smiles and nods. She reaches and takes a block, then adds it to what the boy was building. Soon they are taking turns, and both are laughing.

Suddenly, the girl stops laughing and her eyes go wide. She appears to be choking, struggling for breath. Sergei jumps to his feet, hitting the table, and the blocks fall and scatter everywhere. The girl falls backwards and the boy falls to her knees at her side. The camera zooms in as his lips begin to quiver, and his face screws up and tears begin falling as he starts yelling out loud. The video pauses with him mid-cry.

Marinkovic frowned and glanced at Carlyle with a loathing typically reserved for finding a dead mouse in one’s cupboard. “Just what kind of sick bastard are you?”

“I am the headmaster of the most exclusive pre-Kindergarten school program in the world; I’ll do whatever is necessary to preserve the reputation of this school and its children.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the video screen, his eyes never leaving those of the furious parent before him. “You’re just angry because I’ve forced you to face the fact that your son is simply not suited to this program.”

“His new playmate collapsed in front of him, and….”

Carlyle’s hand slapped the desk with the sound of a gavel banging out a sentence. “Come now, Mr. Marinkovic! You knew the girl was dead the moment she entered the room, even via the film, didn’t you?”

Angry eyes glared back at him, but there was no reply.

“We’ve use her for years to test our students’ aptitudes—she was animated by Ms. Gordon, in fact, in this instance. Do you know what most children do, sir?”
Marinkovic looked away and said nothing.

“Most have the same reaction as when the see the dead animal—the blue jay, in this case. Sometimes it’s a turtle, or a mouse… Regardless, they typically respond with fascination, looking to understand. One in a fifty begins to explore their own abilities at this point; it’s a rarity, but some talent manifests so early and powerfully that they can make ‘Necro Nellie’ twitch, or move her hand.” Carlyle leaned back in his chair and again steepled his fingers. “None who cry, or wet the bed during a nightmare after seeing and touching a dead creature go on to become great necromancers.”

Marinkovic’s face was red when he turned his gaze back to the headmaster, and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth. “I’ll have you know that his grandfather was the scourge of the Ukraine, finally caught and burned to death after the uprising of the cemetery at the St. Peter’s and Paul’s Garrison Church in Lviv! That his father has surpassed even that feat, through the selective animation of historical figures over 500 years old!”

“That may all be true, sir, but…”

“But nothing!” Marinkovic stretched out a hand, fingers rigidly clawed.

“Oh please. I have my own powers, and…erk!” Carlyle’s mouth gaped open and moved silently. He stood abruptly, palms flat on his desk, and struggled for breath. His head snapped up, and his eyes went wide in horror and disbelief. He brought up one hand to his chest, the other curled to gesture, but nothing happened. The headmaster made the gesture again, more frantically, but again nothing happened. He fell back into his chair, back arched, eyes panicked, chest heaving but unable to breathe.

Marinkovic stood slowly, clawed hand turning over, as if he now held something clutched in it. “My son will be a great necromancer, you pissant, self-important little fool,” he snarled as he moved closer. “And do you want to know a secret? Something to which no one else living is privy?”

Carlyle heaved like a fish in air, eyes rolling back in their sockets.

Sergei’s father leaned close and whispered to the dying man. “When I was young, I, too, wet the bed. I grew out of it.” He suddenly squeezed his hand into a fist and the headmaster went absolutely rigid for several seconds before he finally slumped in his chair and did not move again.

“And so will my son.”

* * *

Alina Marinkovic leaned her head back and rested it against her husband’s chest as his arms enfolded her. “Are you certain this is for the best?”

“Of course. Look at how happy he is now.”

She turned within his embrace to gaze up at him. “But what about you? You were so proud to have him in that pre-K.”

Marinkovic smiled at her. “Let’s just say it didn’t quite live up to its reputation. I’m sure he’ll do fine with home-schooling for a while.”

“Well. I will say it’s nice to have him here, and it’s more convenient than having to drive him there and back every day.” She turned once again, and they watched Sergei together wordlessly for a few minutes. “And you’re sure about his tutor?”

“Mr. Carlyle and I spoke at great length, and I’m sure he would rather die than fail our son.”

Alina beamed. “That’s so sweet! What kind of man is he?”

Marinkovic thought for a moment, then kissed his wife on the cheek before replying. “Animated.”


David Hoenig has had stories published in Flame Tree Publishing, Cast of Wonders, Elder Signs Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, and Dark Chapter Press. He is working on his first novel.