I never know where I stand


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


As another barrage of her
conversational grenades
goes off… with her aim,
it’s either a black eye or
a bite in love within the heart
of our nightly conflicts.
Forget waving white flags—
it’s war when she craves
the spark of our most
unfriendly fire, forcefully
showing all her pointed views,
cacophonous in number
smashing of her passive
aggression symphony,
screaming…broken
glass is just like glitter,
isn’t it? I can taste

the familiar stinging
refrain of splitting up
again. This time not even
another volatile romp
marching to the beat
of her unrestrained wildness
would make up for her
latest verbal upset
offensive of: you’re
in my veins you fuck.
Now I realize the reality
in her favorite tongue
lashings. And with one final
bloody lip, sans her
nakedness, in our fox hole
lies the overexcited remnants
of another explosive love
affair, without the dynamite.


NBR8Cepedasmall
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is an L.A. Poet who is a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Thick With Conviction, Silver Birch Press and one of his poems was named Cultured Vultures’ Top 3 Poems of the Week. 

The Arrest

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonnBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


Captain Simon Rosencreutz, an engineer officer in the Holy Army of the Revolution of Zoorland (HARZ), stood on a slight rise that overlooked the swiftly flowing, brown River Kosovo. Through binoculars Rosencreutz observed White zeppelins in the distance. Great fat silver clouds of death in the clear winter sky, they idly scudded along, dropping loads of explosives and napalm on helpless Red troops. The muffled crump of still distant White seventy-fives punctuated the cold wind’s whistling. Nearby stood an ancient stone bridge, the only crossing point in fifty kilometers.   His mission was to destroy it.

Months ago, in summer when the Kosovo flowed gently and Red fortunes were ascendant, a HARZ division with the grandiloquent title “The Sword, The Arm and The Covenant of the Lord Bog” marched across the bridge, intent upon destroying Kranski’s Whites. Ostensibly led by an ex-Imperial Army colonel general, but actually closely supervised by Religious Commissars, the division was poorly handled. Outgunned by seventy-fives and without air power, the Reds were chewed to pieces. The colonel general (a polite old gent whom Rosencreutz once met at a champagne supper) was thrown to the soldiers’ bayonets. This briefly improved morale, but otherwise didn’t alter the situation.

After long consideration (with considerable lamentation the colonel general wasn’t kept alive as a scapegoat) the commissars decided upon retreat. This too was an unmitigated disaster. Swollen by an early thaw, the Kosovo flowed too swiftly to string pontoons. The only hope for the division’s tattered remnants was the stone bridge.

Men and pack animals queued up, covered with filth and weary to death, waiting to slowly shuffle across to safety.  Was their stoicism due to exhaustion or the selfless fanaticism Religious Commissars instilled in peasant soldiers? That this zealotry was real Rosencreutz knew for a fact. He’d seen men run headlong into mine fields to clear a path for comrades with their shattered bodies. Why they did so was a Zoorian mystery he couldn’t fathom.

With a professional eye he watched sappers smash holes in the bridge to place charges. He pulled off his gloves to rub circulation back into his hands. They were long and thin, the hands of a concert pianist, a female friend once remarked. His face was also long and thin with delicate features that betrayed education and intelligence, two dangerous qualities in those times. He had black eyes and sleek, black hair reduced to gray stubble by a HARZ haircut. Slender, of medium height, he carried himself with a poise instilled by five years in the Imperial Corps of Cadets. In spite of his seeming sensitivity and delicacy, an iron core of discipline and nerve couldn’t be shattered. At the time of these events he was 25 years old and knew he would never see 26.

Defeated soldiers straggled past. Occasionally one had enough spirit remaining to shoot the gaze of utter contempt HARZ soldiers reserved for ex-Imperial officers. Buoyed by a perverse humor, Rosencreutz was flattered to receive such attention even in a desperate moment.

“Sergeant Yagoda, report.”

Fat Yagoda walked over slowly, bursting from his shoddy HARZ uniform, making sure Rosencreutz knew he cared little for him.   The surly Yakutian was an insubordinate oaf and a consummate barracks lawyer. Rosencreutz yearned for the old Imperial Army when Yagoda could be reduced to the ranks and thrashed with a birch cane before the regiment on parade.  Better not to remember things from a lost time.  It could lead to a loss of temper that might prove fatal.

Yagoda slouched to a halt and saluted poorly. Rosencreutz was dwarfed by his bulk.

“Well, what is it?” Yagoda barked in the voice used for particularly stupid privates.

“Yagoda. How much dynamite in each charge?”

“Why, one stick.”

“Forgive my slip in memory, Yagoda, but isn’t five sticks the standard charge?”

Yagoda insolently grinned. “I discussed it with the men. We took a vote.”

Rosencreutz grimaced. How many times had that insipid remark been the preface for certain disaster?

“And what did you decide, Sergeant Yagoda? To pray to Bog to smite the bridge with his lightning?”

Sarcasm was lost on Yagoda.

“No, Comrade Rosencreutz, we decided to save for the war effort and use less dynamite.”

Infuriated, Rosencreutz was about to strike Yagoda, but thought better of it.

“Carry on, Yagoda.”

With the superb condescension of a career NCO to a junior officer, Yagoda shrugged his beefy shoulders and walked off.

Rosencreutz walked back to a hillcrest used as a vantage point. White armored cars could move quickly. The troops moved slowly, but in six hours would be safely across. He only hoped there was enough dynamite in place to adequately destroy the bridge.

A poorly maintained staff car coughed and sputtered. Rosencreutz groaned upon sight of the car.  Now he was really in the shit.  A higher-up, probably a Religious Commissar from the rear, come to stick his nose where it didn’t belong.  The mud spattered black roadster shuddered to a halt and a fat, bald Commissar lurched out, Hojatoleslam Nikita, who’d always borne a grudge against Rosencreutz.

The junior Commissar gazed about, spotted Rosencreutz, and headed toward him.  Nikita had come to see him personally, a certain sign of trouble. The Commissar was ambitious, intent upon advancing his career.  A sure way to promotion in the Holy Revolution was to arrest ex-Imperial officers as traitors and saboteurs. Despite his fear, Rosencreutz maintained his habitual icy demeanor and stood to attention.

Nikita slowly plodded up the hill. The two men were markedly different. The uniforms of both were filthy but Nikita wore his sloppily with undone buttons while Rosencreutz’s was neatly arranged. The Commissar wore a long, black leather trenchcoat and a huge religious medal around his neck, standard issue for Religious Commissars, while Rosencreutz had a simple wool Army overcoat. Rosencreutz was clean-shaven while Nikita’s round, ugly mug was covered with a thick stubble.

Rosencreutz saluted. Nikita didn’t bother to return the salute.

“Well, Rosencreutz,” he panted, slightly out of breath, “why isn’t the bridge destroyed? Are you incapable of following orders?”

Years of military service, imprisonment, and frequent brushes with death had schooled Rosencreutz in servility.

“Please, Hojatoleslam, the mission is nearly completed. The charges have been set and wired. All that’s left is the evacuation.”

Nikita snorted. He peered down at the sappers, now stringing wire to a nearby trench where Sergeant Yagoda squatted with a detonator.

“Why aren’t you down there with your men?”

Before Rosencreutz could answer Nikita walked away, gesturing for Rosencreutz to follow. He tagged behind the fat man like a dog at his master’s heels, wanting to do nothing more than pull out his service revolver and kill the uncouth priest. Upon sight of the Commissar, Sergeant Yagoda snapped off a sharp salute and ordered the platoon to attention. Nikita, who obviously fancied himself as a troubleshooter, waved at the men to carry on.

“Sergeant, is this bridge ready for destruction?”

“Yes, Hojatoleslam.”

“Praise to Bog and his Prophet, Thanatos. Let Him rain fire and death on the Whites,” intoned Nikita solemnly, holding his arms skyward.

This show of piety greatly impressed the platoon and nauseated Rosencreutz. Nikita looked at the bridge. Discipline had collapsed long ago.  Several hundred men were crammed onto the narrow arch, crowded in a hopelessly snarled tangle of miserable, tired soldiers, mules, and horses caught on the treadmill of war.

“Captain Rosencreutz, give the order to destroy the bridge.”

“What? But the evacuation isn’t finished. There are two thousand men on the other side. They’ll be stranded.”

“There are always more mojahedin willing to give their lives for Bog. The enemy forces are near. They must not have this bridge. Destroy it.”

“Enemy forces? They’re hours away. At least give me time to clear the bridge.”

Nikita came close to Rosencreutz.  He stank horribly.  The Religious Commissar looked the young officer up and down, sizing him up.

“Do you mean to say you won’t obey my order, Captain Rosencreutz?”

Rosencreutz’s guts knotted with fear. His next words might sign his death warrant. Yet he was tired of playing a tedious, ultimately futile game. His neck was already in the noose; it was only a question of when it would be tightened. And he was damned if he would order the senseless destruction of soldiers in his own army even if they did despise him.

“Yes, I do, you bloody minded bastard.”

The Commissar recoiled, disconcerted by the loathing in Rosencreutz’s retort.  He recovered his aplomb and smiled, victorious.

“Funny how you Imperials always get moral in the end. It’s your undoing. Sergeant Yagoda.”

“Yes, Hojatoleslam.”

“Arrest Captain Rosencreutz as a saboteur and traitor to our holy cause.”

Yagoda snatched Rosencreutz’s sidearm away. He backhanded him across the face. Rosencreutz fell to the ground. Nikita stood over him.

“In addition to a distressing lack of religious faith, Rosencreutz, you do not believe in your comrades-in-arms.”

The priest walked back to the hillcrest. He raised his arms commandingly over his head.  A church-bell voice drowned out the retreating army’s tumult.

“Soldiers of the Holy Army of the Revolution, hear me.”

This phrase, drilled into the wretched troops’ minds, provoked an automatic response. They stood stock still and fixed their attention on the fat Commissar.  Nikita’s trenchcoat flapped about him in the sharp wind, a dramatic effect that increased his prophetic mien.

“The enemy is upon us, brothers. He is at the gates clamoring to get in. And woe to you for failing the Revolution. You did not defeat him or die in battle. You ran like cowards. Cowards will never see Pardis.”

Upon hearing this, the men groaned and wailed with grief.  HARZ soldiers believed death in battle ensured entry into Pardis and union with Bog. After a crushing defeat, it was devastating to be told by a Religious Commissar that Pardis was denied.

Nikita silenced them with an abrupt gesture.

“The Whites will be here soon, brothers. This bridge must be destroyed now. There is no time to clear it.”

He paused.

“Do you wish to see Pardis?”

Men on the bridge screamed with joy at the prospect.  Frightened animals balked and howled.

“Are you ready to be united with Bog?”

Another prolonged fit of ecstatic screaming. A few with common sense saw what was coming and tried to leap off the bridge but were pulled back by their comrades and clubbed senseless with rifle butts.

“Are you ready to die?”

The HARZ soldiers pounded their chests in unison, the ancient Zoorian sign of readiness for martyrdom. Hallelujahs filled the air. Tears of gratitude streamed down their faces. Soldiers on both banks tried to struggle onto the bridge. Rosencreutz was certain he was the only sane man there.

The Commissar blessed the HARZ troops, by now completely lost in religious frenzy, and signaled to Yagoda. The NCO ordered the platoon to take cover, unceremoniously threw Rosencreutz into the trench, and jumped in after him. Careless of ecclesiastical dignity, the priest also dived for shelter. The death song of the HARZ soldiers grew shrill. Yagoda hooked up the detonator. Rosencreutz covered his ears with his hands. The howl of men giving thanks for their own destruction was unbearable.

“For Bog’s sake, man, do it. Do it!”

A deafening explosion engulfed the trench in a fine spray of dirt and pulverized stone. In the confusion, Rosencreutz thought of escape, but abandoned the idea. There was nowhere to run. Yagoda shouted.

“Sorry about the slap. You’re not a bad sort for an officer. Make a full confession and they’ll probably just shoot you, no torture.”

“Thanks, you fat swine.”

The dust cleared away to reveal a scene of grisly destruction. Twisted, shattered pieces of HARZ troops were scattered along the riverbanks.  Swirls of scarlet in the Kosovo’s eddies marked where fragments had fallen. The bridge was only partially destroyed, however. Its pylons still stood, a mistake that would make reconstruction simple for the Whites. Rosencreutz couldn’t resist the chance to rail at Yagoda.

“One stick of dynamite. Conserve for the war effort. You stupid, enlisted scum. I hope the Whites catch you and cut your ballocks off.”

Enraged, Yagoda stood up, fists clenched, ready to beat Rosencreutz to death, but was interrupted by Nikita.

“Sergeant, have that traitor bound and thrown in the boot of my car. And be quick about it.”

Yagoda decided against personally assaulting Rosencreutz and had two privates tie his hands and feet and put him in the trunk.  Nikita clambered in and ordered the duty driver to return to the rear. Clumsy with the clutch, the driver coaxed the auto into jerky motion. They departed from the front; the car’s churning wheels spitting a fine spray of mud behind it.

*   *   *

It was cold and uncomfortable in the trunk. Hammered and jolted as the car drove along unpaved roads, Rosencreutz ached miserably. After much effort he was able to roll over onto his back. He was reminded of his confinement in a 1.5 by 1.5 meter cell in the Lubianka. That lasted a week. This particular bout of claustrophobia would be shorter with the promise of extinction at the end. An imminent demise seemed a blessing.

His thoughts drifted back to other times. Rosencreutz was the only child of a primary school teacher in a small, rural village. His mother died giving birth to him. While Rosencreutz ‘s father, a gentle, meek man, was technically considered one of the local gentry, he was entirely without means and despaired of providing his intelligent child with a decent education. Rosencreutz grew up in isolation, kept from other village children by a snobbish father who considered him too good for them. He’d been drilled mercilessly in languages, mathematics and music, his father’s special interests. A quick learner, Rosencreutz proved outstanding in all three fields, much to his father’s gratification. As a result of his academic excellence he was given an appointment to the Imperial Corps of Cadets to earn an engineer’s degree. Rosencreutz recalled his tearful parting at the railroad station from his father, full of pride, yet bereft at his son’s departure.

Rosencreutz arrived at the Cadet Academy a naive, introverted child, totally without social skills or graces.  Other cadets, bluebloods, self-assured scions of an ancient aristocracy, bullied Rosencreutz mercilessly. He made an abrupt transition from the pampered only child of a lonely widower to a despised outcast, the victim of beatings and the butt of a thousand cruel practical jokes.  Rather than cave in and admit defeat, the thin, nervous boy drew on inner resources and continued at school. He adapted to the iron military discipline of the Corps. Over the years his quick mind and natural charm earned him high grades and eventually the acceptance and admiration of most of his peers.

His proudest moment came on Graduation Day when the Commandant of Cadets, white haired General Pokrovskiy, buckled a saber around his waist and presented him with the Blue Fleur-De-Lis, the award for outstanding students. The Corps of Cadets cheered and Dr. Rosencreutz, hatless in the crowd, saw his life’s dream come true. To Rosencreutz the world seemed ready for conquest.

A few months after that, while on his first assignment with a labor battalion building a canal, the Revolution destroyed everything. Convinced the Emperor’s modernization program would finish the ancient way of life that had sustained the cult of Thanatos for so long, the Thanatite Orthodoxy made its move. Mullahs at all levels of society urged the populace to rise and destroy the godless, secular scum who threatened the true religion. Evil technology and depraved Western ways were decried by a thousand street corner preachers. The people of Zoorland revolted. Illiterate, moody peasants filled with boundless rage overwhelmed the thin facade of civilization that had been constructed by the aristocracy and fledgling bourgeoisie in a tidal wave of ignorance and loathing.

Arrested, Rosencreutz spent seventeen months in a concentration camp. He learned there his father had been stoned to death for “pro-Western tendencies” by the people of the village whose children he’d taught for 25 years. During the first six weeks he wasn’t allowed to sleep, ate garbage, and was beaten every day as part of the interrogation process. After that he was ignored, except for periodic bouts of terror when the camp administrators, to solve overcrowding, executed every tenth man.

One day Rosencreutz was led to an open field, the revolutionaries’ favorite spot for such frolic. A shovel was thrown at his feet and the camp commandant ordered him to dig his own grave.

“Kiss my ass,” Rosencreutz snapped.

A guard, eager to impress the commandant, moved to strike him. Quick as a cat, Rosencreutz brought up the shovel. The metal head caught the man directly beneath the chin and broke his jaw. He took out two more with the shovel before he was wrestled down by sheer weight of numbers. Rather than shoot him in the head like a dog, the commandant was amused by Rosencreutz’s spirit and returned him to the camp.

Two weeks later an order came from Central Revolutionary Command (CRC) to release all ex-Imperial Army officers for immediate service in HARZ penal battalions. Rosencreutz moved from an environment where murder was committed on a regularly scheduled basis to create fear to one where death struck out everywhere, haphazardly, for no discernible reason at all. For the past two years, he’d been a front line officer, exposed to danger from all sides. Now a bullet would end his short life.

The roadster stopped. The trunk lid flew open. The faint light of the evening sky hurt Rosencreutz’s eyes. Rough hands hauled him out of the trunk and pulled him erect. His limbs had fallen asleep from lack of circulation.

“Weak with fear, eh? You’ll meet justice soon enough. The Ayatollah Commissar himself told me to bring you back. Now you’ll meet him.  I guarantee, you miserable atheist, it’ll be the last moment in your foul life.”

The Commissar had Rosencreutz frog marched by two burly guards along a maze of planks that weaved through the muddy HARZ Corps cantonment. They passed three concentric rings of barbed wire and sandbags, the protective perimeter of the Front Center for Religious-Political Operations (FC-RPO). Nikita shoved Rosencreutz into the tent where Ayatollah Commissar Barko sat, putting in another twenty-hour day.

Barko was a legendary Commissar in the Corps, famed for efficiency and ferocity.  A soldier priest of the old school, head shaved, turquoise earrings hanging from his wrinkled lobes, he peered closely at a file through pince-nez, periodically making notes.  His huge grey moustache was waxed into extravagant curlicues.

Barko looked up from his work to take in the triumphant Nikita and the bound Rosencreutz.

“You’re late, Nikita.  It’s been twelve hours since I sent you off. It took that long to perform your mission? Is this the man I sent for?”

“Yes, Ayatollah Commissar, I arrested him.”

“Did you? What initiative. What was his name again?”

“Rosencreutz, Ayatollah.”

Nikita struck him savagely in the face.

“Shut up, you Imperial scum.”

“Rosencreutz, Rosencreutz…”

Barko pored through a thick pile of flimsy dispatches, found what he wanted, and read the document slowly, moving his lips as he did. The quizzical look on his face dissolved into a broad smile. He laughed aloud.

Nikita laughed as if he shared the joke.

Barko’s merriment abruptly ceased.

“You shouldn’t laugh, Nikita. It appears you’ve made a serious mistake.”

Nikita’s face, contorted by his braying, collapsed into an expression of dismay.

“What do you mean, mistake? He’s an Imperial, isn’t he? I arrested him, right?”

Barko looked at Nikita with utter contempt. He laughed sharply, mirthlessly.

“You idiot. I never said to arrest this man. Listen to the order: ‘By decree of the Holy Patriarch, the Revolutionary Ulema and Central Revolutionary Command, HARZ officer Rosencreutz, Simon M., Captain, is promoted to the field grade of full Colonel with all the appurtenant rights and privileges of the rank and is to be transferred from the front to Byzantium for special duty.’ You must always anticipate, mustn’t you?”

Rosencreutz couldn’t believe his ears. He was stunned. Nikita also stood agape, utterly crestfallen. Barko shook him from his reverie.

“Don’t just stand there, you oaf. Release Colonel Rosencreutz.”

Nikita scurried to Rosencreutz. The cruel ropes were cut.  He was free, thrilled and confused by his unexpected reprieve.

“Please, Colonel, forgive me. I had no way of knowing, you must understand, circumstances of war…”

While Nikita mouthed desperate platitudes, Rosencreutz was so full of hatred for the man he couldn’t speak.  He regained self control, laughed heartily, and shrugged his shoulders.

“Come, comrade Nikita. You made a mistake, but it was an honest one and in what you thought was the service of the Revolution. I can hardly blame a man for that. Relax. There’s no problem.”

Greatly relieved by Rosencreutz’s assurances, Nikita took the liberty of slapping him on the back.

“Congratulations on your promotion.”

Rosencreutz ignored him.  He walked to the front of Barko’s table and stood at parade rest.

“Permission to inquire, Ayatollah.”

“No need to be so formal, Colonel. What is it?”

“Am I a colonel in name only, like other ex-Imperial Army officers or does this position come with the full military authority customarily associated with the rank?”

“You heard the orders, Rosencreutz. Yes, you’re a full colonel, all right, fit to do just about anything you please.”

Rosencreutz snapped to attention and saluted.

“Sir.”

He executed an about face to confront Nikita.

Still reassured by Rosencreutz ‘s previous remarks, the fat priest grinned at Rosencreutz.

“I say, Nikita. I’m frightfully cold and it wouldn’t do for a senior officer to catch a chill, would it? Give me your coat, there’s a good fellow.”

Happy to get into Rosencreutz’s good graces, Nikita shrugged out of the heavy leather trenchcoat and handed it to Rosencreutz who pulled it on. His thin nose wrinkled in distaste.

“Sweet Christ, Son of Bog, you smell like a billy goat, Nikita. Is your devotion to the Revolution so boundless you have no time to bathe?”

Nikita was taken aback. Barko watched them silently like an old lizard following insects with obsidian eyes.

“I could also do with a sidearm to replace the one you took from me. That Mauser of yours will do for the moment although I prefer a Colt .45.”

Nikita looked around the room for help but found none. Barko had returned to his paperwork. The two giant Yakutian guards who’d escorted Rosencreutz to the tent understood the situation and would offer no aid. He had no choice. With a trembling hand he passed the weapon to Rosencreutz butt first.

Rosencreutz inspected the big, awkward pistol. He grasped the ugly automatic by its broom handle and pulled back the slide to start the action. The mechanism jammed. It took a few seconds to clear it.

“I see you’re not much on maintaining your arms either. Ayatollah Commissar Barko.”

“Yes, Colonel?”

“Senior officers in the field have the power of summary execution, do they not?”

“Yes, quite so.”

“Commissar Nikita, you are guilty of gross incompetence and fear in the face of the enemy. These are capital crimes. I will carry out sentence immediately. Get down on your knees.”

Nikita blubbered and moaned. Ayatollah Barko scribbled on his reports. Rosencreutz clubbed Nikita over the head with the wooden pistol grip. The fat Commissar fell to the ground.

Rosencreutz yanked Nikita up by the collar, pressed the muzzle of the Mauser to his temple and fired. The report was tremendous in the small tent. The dead man lay twitching, his head a grotesque wreck from the .30 caliber shell. Barko’s hawk nose wrinkled at the stench. He looked at Nikita’s body.

“A good thing there’s a dirt floor or I’d never get this mess out, eh, Colonel?”


NBR8Mellonsmall
Mark Mellon is a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. His short fiction has recently appeared in Thuglit, Crimespree, and Over My Dead Body!. Four of his novels and over forty short stories have been published in the USA, UK, and Ireland. A horror novel, Roman Hell is currently in print.  A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Medal for fantasy/science fiction. 

The Art of a Covenant


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Jon trudged through snow-covered Philadelphia streets, wondering if Carla would say yes this time to his third and—he swore—final proposal. It was the first real snow of the season, over three inches had fallen in three hours, and Jon wasn’t prepared for the wet walk, his Florsheim shoes slick and porous. The snowfall brought an unusual stillness to the city, and it was the lack of sound that seemed to amplify Jon’s inner thoughts. Carla. The thought of marrying her made Jon’s frozen feet thaw a bit—her Rapunzel hair, the way her clothes smelled like rain, the way she’d avert her eyes from him while they ate, never telling him to close his mouth when he chewed. Jon paused at each intersection, watched as cars and SUVs and buses slid through red lights and stop signs. At every pause, Jon poked a mitten into his coat pocket, feeling around for the tiny white box. Still there. Jon prepared himself for this, his third and final attempt at winning Carla, by immersing himself in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble. He’d found solace in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” When you move, fall like a thunderbolt. He crossed Pierce Street and saw the orangey-glow of Carla’s porch light

Carla answered the front door, surprised to see Jon’s Peking-duck-shaped bald spot through her peephole. When she opened the door, she saw Jon on one bended knee, a tiny square box in his mittened hands. “Aaaaagh,” Carla screamed, a scream like you’d hear in a Dateline murder reenactment. The doorknob felt frozen to her hand—she slammed the door shut. Later that night, she’d supposed that she should have seen this coming. Jon wasn’t like the others before him, the ones who gave up at any one of Carla’s hundred fake reasons to break up. She called this her fuck off list, most notably successful so far: You smell like maple syrup; You eat peas one at a time; You clump the sugar bowl with your wet coffee spoon. In fact, Jon never asked for a reason why Carla rejected each of his two prior proposals. This, Carla realized, was really weird. “Should we order in some Aloo Gobi?” Jon had asked, immediately after she’d rejected the first proposal. Carla had looked for a hit of sadness in Jon, but there had been nothing. “Sure,” she’d said, knowing that when Jon ate all of the potatoes out of the Aloo Gobi, she wouldn’t say a word about it. They’d eaten takeout Indian food on Carla’s sectional couch while watching a Die Hard movie marathon on TBS. The second proposal had been more of a production. Flavor of India Restaurant. Dine in. Ring in the rice pudding. Jon had simply wiped the ring clean in his saffron-colored napkin, slid it back into his pocket, and proceeded to eat the rice pudding with his signature open-mouthed chew.

After Carla slammed the front door in his face, Jon stood up and knocked a quick three raps, their secret syllabic code for ‘I love you.’

Carla knew he was expecting her to rap back in four slower taps—‘I love you too’—but she couldn’t make her hand do it. Her fuck off list flooded into her mind all at once—Your toenails click when you walk; You call a library ‘li-berry’; You wear socks with sandals. But that was just it—in her entire litany of fuck offs, none applied to Jon. None. She started to wonder what would it mean to actually go through with it—to marry Jon.

Jon rapped on the front door again—taptaptap. I love you.

Bile formed in the back of Carla’s throat. She knew she couldn’t say no again and get away with take-out Tiki Masala and Live Free or Die Hard. She clenched her hand in front of the door—she air-rapped a taptaptaptap, unable to connect.

“Carla, love, I can hear you in there.”

Carla had always been exceptional in a crisis—clear-headed, able to see fact and separate it from hysteria, like the night her father hung himself in their attic. It was Carla, not her incoherent mother, who’d talked to the police. She’d showed them her father’s medicine cabinet—Walter’s Walgreens, he’d called it—full of pills the color of Carla’s favorite spices—cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek. Curry ingredients, she now realized, as she stared at the only thing standing between her and another disaster. She would need a new type of fuck off catalog. Something irrefutable.

“Jon, I’m joining the convent.”

Jon put his hand on the doorknob. Seize something that your opponent holds dear; then they will be amenable to your will. At first he thought he’d heard Carla’s breath through the door—thick, more like panting—and then he was sure he’d heard her voice, the way it cracked when she rooted for Bruce Willis to save his movie wife, Holly; Carla’s inner-optimism revealed. Betting equals belief, he told himself. Bet on yourself, Jon.

The doorknob gave way too easily. Jon’s Florsheim’s glided like toboggans on Carla’s marble floors, and then there they were, standing eye to eye.

“Carla, I’m marrying you.” It was out of him so fast, he hadn’t realized that he hadn’t actually asked Carla to marry him. He’d told her he was marrying her. Never venture, never win! Jon felt like Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard, unstrapping Holly’s watch and watching as the bad guy fell down the face of the New York City high-rise.

“Jon, didn’t you hear what I said?” Carla felt her voice breaking. “I’m joining the convent!”

Fill silence with silence. It was obvious as night that Carla was scared. Jon held his breath and waited for a glimpse of the Carla that rooted for the hero to save the girl. The Carla who wanted a guarantee.

To Carla, Jon seemed altogether different that night. Strong. Declarative. Prepared. It was she who seemed to have a wobble in her knees. Her mind was ablaze with a new Roman Catholic vocabulary of fuck offs. Each one she squeaked to Jon seemed weaker than the next. “I want to be a nun, I’ve been called by God to serve, I’ve always known.”

Jon didn’t blink. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places that are undefended. “I love you, Carla. I am going to marry you. I am going to protect you.”

Carla let out a final chirp, “Jon, I’m gay.”

Jon grabbed Carla’s left hand with his mittened left, and even through a thick layer of wool he could feel it—the break before the actual break. The chalky pallor of her face. Tremors. The look in her eyes like she’d get whenever she walked into his bathroom and saw prescription bottles in his medicine cabinet. “I have high cholesterol,” he’d try to explain, but Carla would always walk away.

Jon squeezed Carla’s hand. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. He dropped to one knee.

Carla looked down. All she could see was the gleam of snowflakes-turned-shiny water droplets in Jon’s comb-overed hair. Like diamonds, she thought. Jon’s owl stare pierced her and she let out a long sigh, releasing a lifetime of nits and picks and fuck offs and no-no-no’s.  Jon was not the same. She could choose to not be the same, too. She watched as a tiny white box tumbled out of his hand and onto the marble floor.

Carla closed her eyes while Jon retrieved the fumbled box. “But why, Jon? Why on earth would you want to marry me? I’m a mess.”

Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Jon waited for Carla to open her eyes. When she did, Jon flipped open the lid to the little white box. He said nothing. The diamond was brilliant. Emerald cut. The orange glow from Carla’s porch light refracted through the stone, casting cinnamon rays onto Carla’s living room walls.

Carla dropped down to her knees, nose to runny nose with Jon. “Why, Jon?”

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Jon slipped the ring on Carla’s finger. He let go of her hand long enough to knock on the marble floor three times—taptaptap. When he heard four slow taps return to him off of the marble, he thought they sounded like horse claps—tiny warriors returning, victorious, from a thousand battles.


NBR8JohnsonsmallMichele Finn Johnson’s fiction has been published in Necessary Fiction, The Conium Review, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in Puerto del Sol and the anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and won an AWP Introduction to Journals award.

Interview With Juan Weider


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


When Juan Weider disappeared in December of 1989, a small group of his admirers began to tell stories manufactured from their own dreams or nightmares. The legends varied greatly and some were truly outrageous, like most stories about cruel characters or emperors usually are. But the one most accepted by Weider’s strange circle of fans (if that’s what those kinds of people can be called), wanna-bes, and even the few living relatives of victims he’d left scattered in his wake unintentionally, was that he’d gone into the northeastern Andean highlands of Ecuador to record (for himself or posterity) the precise time of each morning the day’s first bird sang.

This story came replete with details such as: Juan Weider kept intricately detailed notebooks of the type genus of bird first to vocalize and highly accurate songbird times (to the millisecond, the idea was that he had a digital stopwatch, of course) written in ink made from particles of carbon black, shipped by mule from Quito to his one-room shack in the jungle. And: the only man authorized to deliver these types of shipments was of Chachi heritage who only spoke Cha’palaa—the Barbacoan language of his ancestors. Like the missionary P. Alberto Vittadello who had lived for seven years among the Chachi tribe, Juan Weider had fully immersed himself into the Amazon jungle of north Ecuador.

Juan Weider was an interrogator and a writer. Many thought he was brother of the Chilean skywriting poet cum legend Carlos, who had the same last name, served as executioner for the Pinochet regime, and who also disappeared in 1989, just before Pinochet stepped down. But he wasn’t. In fact, Juan Weider may have been a woman. His name may have been Ivana, according to some who worked with him (dull tasks such as stamping documents and paperwork and performed other menial administrative duties). If he wasn’t a woman after all, then some of his victims may have known him as inquisitor Ivanov. One thing’s for sure, if any of them ever answered to a certain Ivanov during their interrogations before they signed confessions, none would be alive to corroborate the name. Perhaps those rumors were born out of nightmares.

When Juan Weider wasn’t interrogating or torturing people in the basements of non-descript Eastern European government buildings, he was writing and publishing Samizdats filled with fiction criticizing the morals of high-level government officials—the same ones that employed his services. Yes, he would change names, but everyone knew that for example Ivan was Ivor, minister of security who liked to float in his large private bathhouse and have little boys suckling on his toes (like Caligula), Roxana was Ruxandra, wife of the interior minister who forced her lovers to walk on all fours, meowing like cats or whimpering like injured dogs, and so forth. The Samizdats circulated underground among various intellectuals and artists, and Juan Weider became a legend on par with the famous broadcaster from (banned) Radio Free Europe, Sebastian Blackbeard. During those days, Juan Weider wrote under the pseudonym Jean-Francois Ian.

Over the years, Juan Weider interrogated many of the same intellectuals and artists that were enamored of his illicit writing, most of whom (if not all) paying with their lives. None of them knew that he was Jean-Francois Ian, responsible for the same material that they were accused of possessing, reading, and propagating.

Before he disappeared in December 1989, Jean-Francois Ian published an interview with Juan Weider. The piece (which was in reality a self-interview) was a shattering expose of the interrogation and information extraction business that all governments (not just repressive regimes) conduct. It is because of this interview that some believe Juan Weider was a woman. No man could speak with such sensitivity and elegance, such complex sensibility and humanity about the psychological methods of interrogation, extracting (false) confessions, and torture of citizens as Juan Weider did in his interview with Jean-Francois Ian. Weider spoke of empathy. It was vital that a high degree of empathy exist within the interrogator for his subject. In fact, Weider said, the more sensitive an individual, the more stern and effective he would make an interrogator. And later even an official executioner, but that was a different position altogether that required a different set of sensibilities, skills, and a melancholic sense of history. This is why artists are perfect for this job, Weider said in his interview. Artists are the best at torturing people. Especially other artists. (Of course, themselves, as well.) It is in light of ideas such as this that some readers believed Juan Weider was a woman.

It is interesting that Juan Weider chose to walk into the Ecuadorian rainforest, the home to many fleeing Nazis after WWII. But perhaps with a name like that, Juan Weider’s decision was wise. The most efficient way to disappear is to simply live among other monsters like yourself. No one cares to notice. It’s as if everyone is living before a mirror. No one wants to see their own reflection. Certainly not anyone in the business that Juan Weider had been in: torture and writing.
It is also interesting why Juan Weider chose to disappear at all that late December 1989. It is true that the Wall had crumbled in Europe, and young idealists began to take it apart with hammers, screwdrivers, even sickles (ironically), but Weider had not been anyone important. He was just a usual functioning part in a terrifyingly voracious machine. Historically, he wasn’t on any kind of radar. At least he wasn’t anyone important enough to be stood in a courtyard, given a blindfold, and shot.

In fact, most of those deemed important enough usually to be executed during a regime change, the ones in charge of the oppression and inequities, switched sides. Or, rather even more simply, switched labels. Now they were democratic or liberal or leftist or green. Some of these people were bold or egotistical, and they announced their allegiance to the natural, conservative movement, banking on people’s sense of melancholy: remember how good it was when… But in the end they all made money, and more importantly they all retained power. The heads that rolled after the Wall came down continued to be of those that were never complicit in the dealings of government.

Juan Weider’s father stayed put for a while. He was an old dog, though not subtle or intelligent in the way one thinks of intelligence. He played on people’s vanity and charity, switching masterfully between the two as he needed. But all old dogs know the streets; they can tell which way things are going to go just from smelling the piss on the sidewalks or light poles.

After Juan Weider disappeared, his father went on to denounce him publicly (playing on the vanity of the Social Democratic Party, the group that grabbed power first after the revolution). He dedicated himself to freedom and people’s rights, although by that time he was an old man about to draw a pension from the state and had no usable skills to contribute to society—he had been a mediocre actor with a small theater company that never travelled outside the country but was known for putting on plays by Michel de Ghelderode.

In his days of retirement, the old man undertook a project that he thought would revolutionize not just the world of theater but that of art in general: he began to re-write de Ghelderode’s play Christophe Colomb. In the old man’s version, the explorer becomes addicted to visions of Saint Anthony in the New World due to his use of peyote and disappears among American Indians, never to return to Spain with the claimed land. The New World remains unknown, diseases are not introduced, and empires like the Inca go on to thrive for a few hundred years before they effectively destroy one another in war and genocide. (Like I said, he had no usable skills to contribute to society.)

In 1999, on the brink of a new millennium, Juan Weider’s father left for Germany. In the small town of Aachen (sometimes in English the city is referred to as Aix-la-Chapelle), he befriended a woman, an emigre hailing from the same area of the country in which he was born, although she was fifteen years younger. No one who knew them (there were very few) could say what they had in common. They barely spoke to one another in public. The woman was an invalid for some reason (he never cared to find out why), confined to a wheelchair and living with her mother in a small but conveniently located flat in the spa town.

The home was a small jewel, replete with all necessary amenities and perks that the town offered. For example, Juan Weider’s father could walk to the city square leisurely and take his Turkish coffee at any of the several cafes or browse books by obscure Slavic authors at his favorite used bookstore one block from the flat. If he wished, he could take a train into Brussels for that big city feeling some people yearn after, though provincial as he was, Juan Weider’s father never did. The train station, anyway, was a ten-minute walk from the flat.

The apartment belonged to the emigre’s elderly mother, and the arrangement between Juan Weider’s father and his woman in the wheelchair seemed to be this: he took care of the infirm woman and her mother, and when the mother died (which was to be soon, based upon her age and fragility), Juan Weider was to inherit the flat. But, as with everything in life, well-laid plans never materialize.

Juan Weider’s father met Niko by mistake. One damp and cold autumn afternoon, he took the wrong streetcar to a festival the town council was sponsoring in celebration of Oktoberfest. It was quite some time before Juan Weider’s father realized his mistake, as he had been lost for a while in his thoughts about the entire business of inheriting the flat. The invalid’s mother had not shown any signs of demise whatsoever, in fact just the opposite. It seemed as if a revival had occurred.  She had taken to going out for hours-long walks by herself daily and even began to appreciate Wagner and Mahler with her afternoon cup of tea—a sure sign of longevity—for music most certainly adds years to a life. The woman was stronger than ever, and Juan Weider’s father was trapped now taking care of an invalid and her youthful mother who seemed to be living life in reverse.

Niko was an émigré from Sofia, Bulgaria. He had arrived in Aachen via sponsorship from a local Lutheran church. The church prided itself in doing God’s charity work by helping destitute political émigrés. Once arrived, those sponsored were offered food and lodging within the church’s confines, as well as some vocational training, language lessons, and a small stipend until the sods were mostly integrated into German society and let loose upon the world. In return, the refugees had to commit two evenings and every Sunday each week to service for the church.

It’s all bullshit, Niko told Juan Weider’s father on the wrong streetcar. But you know how that is. Yes, Juan Weider’s father said. You do what you have to do in order to eat. Before they parted ways, the two men agreed to form a partnership in an Import/Retail business of rabbit pelts. The idea seems odd, true, but given the latitude and harsh autumn and winter weather of their new country, Niko’s plan wasn’t at all bad. Through his connections in provincial Bulgaria, Niko would be able to procure for half the price of his stipend an egregious amount of rabbit pelts. The fur would then be used to manufacture warm hats, much like those worn by Russians in Siberia, and sold to the Germans. Juan Weider’s father, not having any prospects in life other than an invalid and her youthful mother, agreed to provide initially 500 DM ($1,000) for start-up costs and purchases of pelts, then a monthly sum of 100 DM commensurate with how fast (or slow) the business would grow.

After they shook hands like two old gentlemen having just engaged in a gentleman’s agreement, and Juan Weider’s father stepped off the streetcar, an euphoric feeling came over the old man. It was a feeling of validation and entitlement. He rushed to his flat among the mist and cold full of verve and vitality. He did not wait for the lift. Instead, he walked up the four stories two stairs at a time, not at all feeling the strain.

Inside, the invalid’s mother had fallen asleep in her room watching a television program. The door was shut but the volume reverberated throughout the entire apartment. Juan Weider’s father felt the tide rising inside of him like honey. It was vicious but it carried sweetness along with it. And after all, the old man now had a purpose and was going to make a name for himself within the town’s community.

In one brusque and resolute movement, he grabbed hold of the woman’s wheelchair at its handles, navigated the corners out of her room and around into the hallway, and picking up force and speed, headed for the door of the flat, which he had not bothered to close upon coming in. The woman first inquired confused then quickly protested as it seemed Juan Weider’s father was not intent on stopping short of the door. By the time they went through and into the hallway of the building, the old man was nearly running. With one satisfying, swift motion, he heaved the chair together with the woman down the stairs. The invalid toppled forward and immediately broke her neck, (Juan Weider’s father heard the snap—it was like breaking a putrid, rotten twig.) with the chair following closely and finally landing on her dislocated body, together the mess of bones and metal resting on the landing below.

Mutti, Liebling. I’m finished, der Schatz. The old man yelled back into the flat, but the invalid’s mother said nothing. Nothing could be heard over the volume of the television program. Juan Weider’s father shut the door to the flat and called up the lift from the lobby.

Unlike the old man, Juan Weider’s mother chose to stay and live what turned out to be an unremarkable life in the same apartment in which her son had been born. Having been divorced from Juan Weider’s father for quite a long time (Juan Weider was ten years of age when the court proceedings officially recognized the split.), the woman finally decided to go back to her maiden name: Rossetti.

In reality, her father’s name had been Rossettus—he was a Macedonian with Lebanese heritage—but as World War I broke out all over Europe, his family thought it unwise to keep a name associated with the Great Powers (the Ottoman Empire), so they changed it to the more Italian-sounding Rossetti when he was sixteen years of age. It was, in retrospect, the right idea. Two years later, the Italians along with the Allies prevailed.

Juan Weider’s mother, Rossetti, began and finished her career at AutoTractor, a company that would be bought eventually by Eicher, a West German manufacturer of agricultural machines, located near Munich. After the Wall came down in 1989 and Juan Weider disappeared, Rossetti welcomed the new change in ownership and management style. She found the Germans distant and efficient. She liked the intensity of the foreigners, and she especially enjoyed the punctuality with which monthly accounting meetings were held.

Rossetti often lulled herself to sleep at night imagining what she would do when she could travel to Bavaria to tour the facilities of her new employer. She dreamed of creamy desserts, of having coffee with a Berliner or slices of Buchtein. She dreamed of Black Forest Cake and Blachindla and Dampfnudel.

But Rossetti never travelled to Munich. Instead, she walked along side of Lake Herastrau every evening after work and often opted to buy her small supper in take-away containers from the restaurant across her flat. The establishment sold brown beer in bottles with twist-off caps—something that made Rossetti very happy for some reason that she couldn’t name. (It’s not as if she didn’t own a bottle opener.) To compensate for her lack of travel to Germany, she would often take-away two small, thin slices of schnitzel, which she would eat with mustard in front of the television in the evenings and wash down with Dortmunder Union beer.

Seven years after Juan Weider disappeared into the jungle of Ecuador, Rossetti had a left breast mastectomy. The cancer had spread to three lymph nodes in her armpit, so it was necessary to remove the breast altogether. She chose not to look at what had been left of her flesh after the operation for nearly two weeks. When she did, she felt queasy and ill and had to sit on the lid of the toilet for quite some time in order to get herself together. The mastectomy had left her disfigured, like a soldier who’d been eviscerated by shrapnel or a Bouncing Betty.

The flesh would eventually heal in uneven, sometimes bifurcated patterns, and years later, from time to time, Rossetti would rest on the side of the tub and observe her wound with great and gentle motherly care. The left side of her torso, she thought, resembled a gargantuan extraction site of copper or silver, seen from high above the Earth. This made her happy and sad. In fact, she couldn’t explain how or what she felt. The closest word she could find for what she felt was “melancholia.”

Rossetti liked:

-tulips

-twice-cooked pork with hoisin sauce

-dress shoes

-purses

-cheap sunglasses, particularly those found on streets or beaches

-Jaguar cars

-stuffed grape or cabbage leaves

-Johnnie Walker (Red) whisky

-royal lineage (especially the Romanov family)

-Kent cigarettes

-Persian rugs

-flossing her teeth

-straight lampshades

-the sea

-Murano vases

-putting on airs of nobility

-telling little white lies that she called “ruby drops”

-Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” from the final act of Puccini’s opera, Turandot

Juan Weider’s mother never again married. She reconnected with her high school sweetheart, a famous geologist who travelled around the world frequently to attend and give speeches at symposia, (most often he was the symposiarch himself) and was hardly ever in the country. But on the very rare occasions he was, they conducted a unique relationship—that of husband and wife in going about domestic tasks only. He would come home for lunch and she would fix a plate and sit with him. Neither would say anything. Then he would thank her, kiss her on the cheek, and go back to work.

While he was in Lausanne, Switzerland, giving a presentation on megathrust quake faults and the degree of weakness observed (Stresses in subduction zones were found to be low, although the smaller amount of stress could still lead to a great earthquake.), Rossetti felt severely short of breath and began to cough incessantly. She developed aggressive lung cancer and often had to go to hospital for thoracentesis (every three days). Each session, the nurse would remove between one and one-and-a-half liters of lung fluid. Sometimes the needle would have to be inserted into the pleural space to remove air, instead. It was all quite fascinating, although Rossetti did not think it so.

In the end, Juan Weider’s mother could never explain to the geologist how she felt. The closest word she could find was “melancholia.” But she never mentioned it. Instead she stressed the importance of the small details found in a day that constructed a tolerable life and routine. And so the geologist continued to travel for his work, outlining important events that were always breaking through the surface of his discipline: outlining the fingerprints of sea level rise, presenting the first global antineutrino emission map, the development of a new model of Amazon seasonal cycles, Earth’s first CT scan, and so forth.

The geologist held onto Rossetti’s ashes for nearly a year. The box, which was inside another cardboard, inconspicuous box looking very much like a small package of paperback novels, was placed on the bottom shelf of his bookcase. Throughout the time that it remained there, the geologist had every intention to honor Rossetti’s last wishes: to be scattered onto the Black Sea and have a bouquet of sunflowers thrown in among the ashes. But he never brought himself to make the drive to the seaside.

One cold, winter morning, the geologist placed the box into his rubbish bin. He took the bag out into the hallway of his building, opened the chute, and dropped it down ten floors. The bag was incinerated later, along with all the other day’s rubbish of the apartment building.

In spring of 2015, Juan Weider resurfaced briefly but only by a strange proxy, as if one were digging for truffles and came upon a nest of red ants. His body and flesh were not altogether there, but evidence of his fingerprints and footprints was discovered. Or to be more accurate, literally his fingers.

Earlier that year, a local Ecuadorian author named Fernando Nuñez del Arco alleged that the country had been the hiding place of ten important Nazi war criminals and several hundred more of lower rank. Of course, Juan Weider was nowhere on the author’s list claiming this, as Juan Weider couldn’t have been a Nazi during the war; he had been born twenty years after its end. Juan Weider, in fact if anything, would have loathed the fascists. In any case, Nuñez del Arco’s insistence bordered on the maniacal, and so two investigators from the German government’s official Nazi-hunting agency, the Central Office of the Investigations of National Socialist Crimes, came to investigate.

The two men came from Berlin with the Ecuadorian government’s blessing. The investigators arrived in Quito and immediately went to work. They were: prosecutor Kurt Schrimm and police detective Uwe Blab. The men together physically, when standing side by side, invoked much laughter. Uwe Blab was nearly a giant, measuring six feet and ten inches. Kurt Schrimm was his exact opposite. It wasn’t known to anyone but Kurt Schrimm’s wife, but he wore inserts inside of his shoes, which gave him two or so additional inches to his stunted heights.

The investigators were diligent, nevertheless, no matter how funny they looked together. For the first few weeks the pair focused on Ecuadorian public archives and registries in an attempt to track down surviving suspects (privately, the investigators did not believe any existed), but also to get at the historical truth at how Nazi war criminals found refuge in the South American country.

This part was significant because, although it had always long been known that many Nazi had fled to South America following the defeat of the Third Reich, attention had always focused on other countries like Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Until Fernando Nuñez del Arco’s allegations, Ecuador had largely flown under the radar.

Nuñez del Arco had always been a determined man. On the particular subject of unearthing his country’s dirty secrets, he had been on a one-man mission. He spent five years researching his book Ecuador and Nazi Germany. This is what he claimed:

-Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas chamber hid in Quito from 1948-1958.

-Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller also lived (but has probably died since) in Ecuador.

-Hitler secretly awarded Ecuador’s foreign minister Julio Donoso the Order of the Eagle.

-Germany gave Quito a $34 million loan, seized from Jews.

Germany was a country that was always well respected culturally and very influential toward Ecuador, Nuñez del Arco said in his book. It held great prestige here while there was strong resentment in the U.S. and U.K., perhaps because of a kind of a Hispanic-Catholic nationalism. The Nazis’ influence in Ecuador was also strengthened by the fact that many senior officials in Quito at the time had studied in Germany before World War I. And during World War II, Germany was Ecuador’s principal trading partner, with Hitler’s war machine devouring raw commodities like balsa wood, rubber, coffee, and chocolate.

Nuñez del Arco had always been a thorough and determined man. One could even call him a savage detective. He went after his targets like a starving lion.

Upon their investigation of documents and government archives, the two German officials (Schrimm and Blab) came to the belief that the last Nazi to have been alive in Ecuador was of Dutch birth and that he died in Quito in 2008. But Nuñez del Arco had always been a determined man. He insisted they at least visit one small site in the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve forest at El Chaco. There, Nuñez del Arco claimed, they will see evidence of recent activity, perhaps of several years’ residence.

What kind of evidence, Blab asked.

The usual kind. Discarded cans, packaging of foodstuffs, even traces of a fire pit that had been used consistently for an extended period of time.

The Germans travelled with the author and two guides—men with brown skin and wide, honest, sunburnt faces wearing colorful ruanas, alluding to their Pasto ancestors—to the small town of El Chaco. They were surprised to find a small but comfortable hotel called Guarida del Coyote. The establishment served strong coffee all day long. It also offered a large choice of various types of omelets and freshly cut fruit.

This is a very fine little hotel, Schrimm said.

We have a very fine little country, you see, despite its dirty secrets, Nuñez del Arco smiled. Tomorrow we go see. And then you tell me whether the last Nazi died seven years ago.

The shack that Nuñez del Arco presented to the investigators (almost as if he were unveiling a new Mercedes Benz for an audience of buyers) had been abandoned for some time. Both Germans agreed with the author that someone had definitely lived there more recently than seven years previous. But the suspicion the investigators had was that the wooden shelter served in reality as the home base to a drug manufacturer—likely a jefe or a boss, not a notorious Fascist murderer on the run. They were sure they would find some type of home made lab or evidence of coca processing not too far from the shack. They were convinced that the Ecuadorian had not looked thoroughly enough.

Here, you see, is the outhouse, Nuñez del Arco said. If you examine the dung inside the hole, it’s soft still. The layer on top. It’s soft. I pushed on it with a branch when I came across this dwelling earlier. And there, you see, is the firepit I mentioned. The adobe is charred on the sides but from recent use. The soot is from recent fire. Do you agree.

Schrimm and Blab did.

I haven’t looked close, Nuñez del Arco said, because I was excited to first come upon this treasure and, after all, the job of forensics cannot be done properly by a writer. A writer can research and can find. A writer can write. Sometimes he can even do it well. But you will look close. That is your profession. And you will find…I’m sure…I wonder what you will find. Gentlemen, Nuñez del Arco said proudly and inflated his chest, I wonder what you will find indeed.

Juan Weider had been there but had left days ahead of the expedition. The team of detectives had found his trail, but neither Schrimm nor Blab nor Nuñez del Arco or the guides had any idea of who Juan Weider might have been. The evidence left behind, however, was more horrific than anything the Germans had seen in their inquiries throughout their entire careers. It wasn’t the song of birds Juan Weider had been documenting so precisely in the shack discreetly tucked there in the Andean highlands. It wasn’t that at all.

Right away Nuñez del Arco became giddy despite the images in the photographs and the rest of the physical evidence Schrimm and Blab excavated. He had, after all, found the work of a war criminal. You see gentlemen, what have I told you, he said.

Privately, the German investigators continued to believe that they had stumbled upon a narco’s very modest hideout. The men were not at all as excited as their host who became more and more animated with excitement at the horror unfolding within the evidence. Nothing is beyond the capabilities of the monsters living inside us not quite too deep, Blab reasoned as he flipped through the photographs that documented the period Juan Weider had spent in the forest. There will never be a shortage of nightmares. The factory always stays open.

Now this one is interesting, Schrimm said. See here. He laid the small photograph on the wooden table and wiped off dirt from its glossy face. The print was maybe two inches by two inches, and its geometric edges were cut in an elegant pattern resembling sinusoidal waves connected together ad infinitum. Blab thought it very much resembled the concept of ∞. It was meant to be a paper frame of sorts, like those used for historically famous paintings.

You see the fingers, Schrimm said. Blab squinted. The other German put a magnifying glass to the image. The hand captured on the emulsion was that of the photographer’s, Juan Weider. It was placed in the scene on purpose in order to indicate the size and perspective of the terrifying objects on display for edification. They were all smaller than a fingernail.

Do you see the digits better now, Schrimm said again.

Yes.

Well, what do you notice.

Blab leaned in and adjusted the magnifying glass to better focus the image of the fingers. The hand is perfectly manicured, he said.

That’s right, the other German said. And the fingers…

They’re quite small and dainty, Blab said. Smooth, as well.

No rings.

Seems that way. No discoloration or tan lines or any sign of ever having had rings on them.

They are a woman’s fingers nevertheless, Schrimm said. And a fairly young woman at that.

Blab agreed.


NBR8PruteanusmallAlex Pruteanu is author of novella Short Lean Cuts, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books. He is also author of Gears, a collection of stories from Independent Talent Group also available at the aforementioned retailers. He has published fiction in Guernica, [PANK], Specter Literary Magazine, The Prague Revue, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and others.

Sun-Tzu, Lao-Tse


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


Chen looked at the carnage crowding the battlefield around him as he struggled to recover from the intensity of war. The fire in his veins was cooling down as adrenaline receded, but his heart was still beating rapidly. As he wiped the blood away from his sword’s blade, he felt tears rush down his cheeks.

All over the battlefield, crows had begun to gather, feeding on the carrion with eager, pecking beaks. Chen’s head pounded as he thought about the numerous of soldiers he killed to ensure his own survival, quickly losing count. How he wished that he could be among the dead, so that he wouldn’t have to live with his role in their deaths. “The life of a military man is a different beast from the life of a sage, entirely.”

Chen felt a hand fall upon his shoulder. The young soldier expected to see his general, Han, standing beside him, sipping wine from his gourd. Instead, he faced a man in Han’s Imperial armor, except it couldn’t be Han. This man’s face was nothing but skull, his shadow-pitched eye sockets carrying blue flames in the center.

This man was Death; for that fact, Chen was certain. A crimson aura glowed around him, and he stunk worse than any of the cadavers surrounding them.

“No.” Chen stumbled back, pulling up his sword in front of him, fearful for his life. “I survived the carnage. This isn’t the day we were to meet. The oracle told me. I was to live a long life. A long, prosperous life.”

Chen tripped over a body behind him, falling on his backside. Shaken, Chen stared at the face of the corpse, its mouth gaping, the armor unmistakable. Han was right there, as dead as all the other bodies surrounding him, stripped naked.

Proud in Han’s armor, Death merely stood and looked at the young man, not uttering a word, his teeth forever fixed in a skinless smile. Chen couldn’t read that face, lacking any flesh, any life. He didn’t know why death was there, when the soldier couldn’t remember any fatal blow his armor took on the field.

There was that slash to the back, Chen thought as he slowly rose back to his feet, still holding his sword before him, and that spear piercing at my side. My armor’s hardly scratched from it. But I didn’t even feel it. Could it be that… oh god… maybe I am dead.

Chen looked at the battlefield all around him. There were nothing but dead bodies and crows everywhere. Why did the other dead not rise as he did, if Chen truly were dead? He never felt so alone, and Death’s presence only made him feel more isolated. The ground was so barren, so lacking of vitality. The sky was so red with the reflection of a rage-tainted sunset.

“You wait until now to contemplate the life of a sage, Chen?”

Chen jumped at the voice, which didn’t come from Death. He turned to the opposite direction, facing another man only a few feet away. The man was healthy looking with tan, firm skin, covered with a white glow, as ivory as the fluttering silk robe and belt he wore. Even his long hair and beard were drenched in the hue of an angelic white.

White, the color of death. Chen shuddered even more, looking at the man of flesh and heavenly glow, than he did looking at the skeleton. Yet he dresses like a tian, an immortal. Why is he teasing me? To appear in more than one form?

Chen turned to look back at the skeleton man, shocked to see that Death still stood there. The young soldier’s mind was confused, yet convinced that both men were one and the same, two sides of an equal gold coin.

“I truly am dead,” Chen said, his hands shaking. “Death in a more attractive form is the same, is he not?”

“You were contemplating the life of a warrior as different from the life of a holy man, where you not, young Chen?” the old man in white asked as he stepped forward, edging closer to the soldier.

Chen began to back away, until he remembered the man of bones was right behind him. Freezing in his tracks, the soldier thought about making a run for it, about breaking away from both forms of death, yet something in Chen’s own power held him there. Chen wasn’t subjected to their control, and yet he chose to stay.

“I don’t know if they’re all that different, Chen Shan,” the old man continued. “The battlefield is much like a man’s mind, is it not?”

Chen’s expression twisted, perplexed. “How so?”

“The chaos. The violence and death. Horses sprinting with soldiers, coming and going. Does a man’s thoughts not mirror the clashing of blades? Are his mental defenses not much like shields?” Han reached under his robes and pulled out a sword, long and sharp, shining in the sunset’s dying rays.

Gasping, Chen drew his own sword.

A third blade pressed against Chen’s neck, belonging to the man of bones. Death’s skeletal hand pressed against Chen’s left arm. The sharp edge of the bone man’s blade was close enough to slice Chen’s throat with one slight gesture.

Chen wisely dropped his weapon.

The old man in white didn’t even point his sword at Chen, and his face wasn’t even threatening. Instead, the old man looked at his own weapon, studying it as an artist studied a painting. “All beings have their thoughts, their emotions, racing through them like wild animals. Some possess more active minds than others, different natures dominate the bodies of different beings. Some lean more to wood, others to fire, or metal and earth, even water. We all fall in our own strengths and weaknesses on the five-pointed star of the wu-xing, the pentagram of elements.”

Chen looked at the old man with a worried gaze, afraid of the bone man’s sword at his neck, wishing he took the chance to run when he could have. “So where do I fall on this wheel?”

“What does it matter? You’re dead as they all are. As we all are.” The old man drew his sword back into its sheath. “An enlightened man sees the unification in the conflicts of the battlefield and of the mind. He sees how the defenses and offenses are one. That’s how, in the midst of confusion and hell, one finds peace.”

Chen laughed. “There’s no peace in battle, friend. Were you ever a warrior?”

“Always and forever. As much as I was and am a sage.”

Chen sneered. “You were a warrior like I was an acrobat. I’ve never spent a day in the theatre. You know nothing of war, other than retrieving the fallen like a scavenger after the carnage.”

“We waged our own wars, even as allies and fellow soldiers. Just as we wage our own war within ourselves.”

“This is my fault, isn’t it? This little conversation you’re trying to have with me. You heard me as I looked over this battlefield, talking to myself, thinking out loud. Wish I hadn’t brought this up. Here we are, engulfed by death at all corners, and I open a door for a philosophical conversation. I open a door for Death. All while failing to realize the fact that I’m dead.” Chen looked down at his own sword laying in the dust, abandoned as he was. Why did he fear the bone man’s strike, if he was already dead? Did he fear dying a second time? Was there any coming back from being killed again by Death? “What happens if he slits my throat? He is you, after all.”

The old man laughed. “Are you so certain of that? You don’t even know who I am. Or who he is.”

“You’re both Death. The same damned being.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The old man stepped closer, not stopping until he was barely six inches from Chen’s face. “Death isn’t a person.”

The bone man let go of Chen, pulling the blade away from the young soldier’s neck and pushing him forward. Chen bumped into the old man, caught in his arms. Never had Chen felt so weak, within an instant. His spirit body suddenly felt lethargic, drained. Fear took over his mind as he didn’t trust the glowing old man, his firm grip, or focused gaze.

The old man looked at Chen with a smile. “I am Lao-Tse. The man of bones is my brother in spirit, Sun-Tzu. Just as you are our brother.”

Chen sneered. Lao-Tse, the author of the Tao Te Ching? And Sun-Tzu, the author of the Art of War? Lies. Sun-Tzu and Lao-Tse were famed philosophers and writers, deceased masters Chen Shan looked up to along with Confucius, men he always wanted to be like.

As Lao-Tse, the man in white, held the drooping Chen Shan in his hands, Sun-Tzu, the bone man, knelt down and stared the young soldier dead in the face. Was this truly what tian looked like? Lao-Tse could at least play the part of an immortal in his opulent garb, but why would the great Sun-Tzu reduce himself to a macabre skeleton, appearing more ghoul than god?

“The life of a warrior and a sage isn’t different,” Lao-Tse said. “Just as the faces of life and death yield no differences. No differences at all. You were a proud warrior, Chen. Just as you were a proud philosopher.”

Lao-Tse dropped Chen and let him fall to the ground. Chen spasmed like a landed fish pulled from freshwater, feeling energy and sensation returning to him.

Sun-Tse and Lao-Tse stood over the soldier, watching him tremor and quake.  As Chen looked up, he realized both men’s eyes were pulsing with a wisdom he never witnessed from any living thing.

I can’t tell if they’re trying to enlighten me with some hidden knowledge, Chen wondered, or if they’re toying with me like a cat toys with a mouse before dinner.

Chen breathed heavy. He could move again, control his limbs, and he nearly gagged as he took big gulps of air, pulling away from the immortals standing over him. Slowly, he worked his way back up to his feet, wondering what use it was of the two tian to temporarily rob him of his energy.

“Why did you rely on the books of dead men,” Lao-Tse asked, “if the tao was within you all along, young Chen?”

“Are you kidding?” Chen asked as he pressed a hand on his throbbing ghost chest. “If you are the men you claim you are, you influenced my life. From the time my father was a soldier, and onto when he passed his legacy onto me. He quoted your books to me a thousand times! The further one goes, the less one knows. Was that not you, Lord Lao-Tse? Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. Those were your words, were they not, Lord Sun-Tzu?” Chen hesitated on Sun-Tzu’s emotionless, skeletal face, then turned his gaze to Lao-Tse with a  frown. “Does he not speak at all?”

“He speaks the language of warriors,” Lao-Tse answered. “The language of sages. Our language, yours and mine. You speak it well, do you not?”

Chen was speechless. He turned his gaze back to Sun-Tzu, and looked deep into his black eyes, peering at the azure flames within them.

“Those who know do not speak,” Lao-Tse said, “and those who speak do not know.”

Sun-Tzu’s eyes penetrated into the depths of Chen’s soul standing before him.

Motionless, Chen felt his hatred, his fear, his distrust and everything that was once a part of him subside. The thoughts that once opposed the old man in white and the bone man were now dead, no longer necessary. Wary anticipation of horrid scenarios faded into nothingness. Chen no longer feared the one calling himself Lao-Tse, or the one calling himself Sun-Tzu, nor did he care if they were who they said they were or not.

For the first time he could ever remember, Chen knew who he was.

A coat of green light rose from Chen’s heart as the last beams of sunlight died behind the horizon. Soon, Chen’s entire being was enveloped in the jade light like yolk in an unhatched egg.

Chen looked down to his chest, captivated by the power rising from his own body. “I always wondered what it would have been like to leave the military life and become an ascetic, aspiring to become one of the spiritually immortal men, like Lao-Tze. Never did I think… never did I think I was already like them. Or that I had the potential to become one of them.”

Lao-Tse nodded. “You have studied the Tao Te Ching.

“Thoroughly.”

“And the Art of War.”

“I knew them front to back, like all good warriors should. I understood my responsibility was in battle, but… I would lie if I didn’t say I wished things were a little bit different.”

“Well, so did these men.” Lao-Tse stretched out his hand, addressing the sea of dead bodies surrounding the three solitary spirits. “Many of them didn’t like to kill. They didn’t like to see villages burning, nor did they like to see mothers and children crying. They didn’t like to see grown men weeping for that matter, when they sank their blades into the hearts of rivals. They did what they had to, not what they wanted. They were soldiers, like you. Never forget that.”

Chen nodded. “I understand.”

Lao-Tse nodded. “You spoke their language. You understood, every time you fought alongside your brothers. Every time you looked into a rival’s eyes. You saw yourself in them, the same way they saw themselves in you.”

“Yes.” Chen shook his head, shocked and amused by the fact that he didn’t notice it before. “All this time. The tao. The way. It shined within them as it shined within me, all at once.” Chen shook his head. “I still don’t understand. Why am I standing here now, with you? Of all of them. Why am I aware, and they still lay in silence, so lifeless in death, so empty?”

“They have their place in the way, and you have yours.”

Chen nodded.

Lao-Tse smiled. “Any more contemplations?”

With the shake of his head, Chen turned his back to Lao-Tse and Sun-Tzu. “I have too much life to live than to waste contemplating death.”

*   *   *

Chen gasped as he snapped back into consciousness, blood smeared over his face, his neck, his armor.

His hands reached, pushing and prying, pulling and rising. A mountain of bodies were stacked around him and on top of him, yet he wouldn’t let them stop him from life. He left and came back again.

A mountain. The bodies weren’t his opposition or obstruction, just bricks on a path to all that he was and all that was him. They were a foundation to a destiny that waited for him elsewhere, in this life and beyond. Chen would have mused about the irony of death guiding him back to life, but his will to survive trumped all thought at the moment.

Once he was free of the mountain of corpses, Chen crawled on the wet ground, stained with blood and water. The sky delivered rain in harsh pellets. Chen felt everything, not holding back from the muddy earth, the cold wind, or the merciless storm smashing down against him.

Turning to face the left, Chen was once again face to face with his dead general, Han. That gaping mouth of Han’s seemed to herald freedom. The general’s naked body, the only bare corpse among suited military corpses for miles, didn’t even desire its old clothes.

Chen desired nothing from his old life, either. Transformed, he crawled to his feet, and into a new life.

*   *   *

Old Chen sat in the warmth of his mountain cottage, his long hair and beard as white as snow, matching his robes.

The old man stared at his lively fireplace, warm and happy. He had much to be thankful for. As the oracle told him near the Forbidden City, many, many years ago, he lived to a ripe old age. Chen could feel his time coming, very soon, and he was ready for it. All he needed to do had been done.

For the last few years of his life, he spent his time in the tranquility of the mountains, alone, writing his own book of philosophy. Now, completed, the text rested in his hands, filled with valuable information that could be consumed like wildfire for future, eager generations.

No. Chen tossed the book into his fireplace, where Chen felt the book would serve men best.

Let a sage develop his own philosophy, Chen Shan reasoned, and a warrior forge his own role in the way.


NBR6BarrsmallBrian Barr is an American author of novels, short stories, and comic books. Brian has been published in various short story anthologies, including Queer Sci Fi’s Discovery, NonBinary Review No. 3: The Wizard of Oz, Dark Chapter Press’s Kill for a Copy, and various short story collections. Brian collaborates with another writer, Chuck Amadori, on the supernatural dark fantasy noir comic book series Empress, along with Pencil Blue Studios’ Marcelo Salaza for the art. His first novel, Carolina Daemonic, was published by J. Ellington Ashton Press in 2015. Brian has also written stories under the pen name Aghori Shaivite.

Her Only Friends


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


Meta drank red wine out of a teacup. It clinked against the dainty saucer. Her friends stared at her, their tattered fringe like split-ends, their gazing buttons still as they stretched the paisley upholstery.

They’re just pillows, Meta.

She didn’t hear herself think that. She drained the wine from the teacup, sat it in the saucer, then picked it up and drank again. She got buzzed from the empty china, teetered in her chair. Two legs lifted off the floor before clapping down against the hardwood.

“Scale of one to ten,” she said, “how drunk are you?”

The pillows stared at her with unblinking buttons so she asked the lamp. It shook its shade and didn’t respond.

#

Meta was driving to her doctor appointment (it’s a doctor, just like any other) when she saw the yard sale just off the road. Tables were set up just outside the fence of a cow pasture. There were mounds of clothes and end tables stacked on each other like thick, wooden playing cards. Mosquito-bitten people swarmed the area (the sort of people you see at antique festivals, when you’re not sure whether they’re there for the fun of it or because they’ll be using a newspaper as a blanket tonight). Meta didn’t usually stop at yard sales (she neither understood them as sources of enjoyment nor would she be using a Sunday News Sentinel for warmth), but she was in no hurry to see Dr. Shurilar. So she pulled her Corolla, with a cracked windshield and a dent in the passenger door, into the grass beside an SUV and headed toward the junk sale.

#

“I’m giving you more than a fair price. They’re antiques for Chrissake.”

Meta nudged the grass with the toe of her boot and clutched the upholstery of one of the pillows. “I’m not saying they’re not…old. I mean, they’re certainly nice pillows, but—”

The woman folded her arms over her chest as the wind separated tufts of gray hair from her messy bun. “No, you’re just not willing to pay a decent price for them. Just like your generation. Always wanting something for nothing. If I said you could have them for a penny, you’d purse your lips and say, ‘Well, I’m doing a bit of a favor taking them off your hands. How about you give me the pillows and twenty bucks?'”

“That’s just not true.”

“I think it is, and you know what? I’m not sure these beautiful pillows need a home with someone like you.”

The woman snatched the pillows away. A piece of fringe caught on her long, dark nail and tugged a half inch out of the fabric. Meta winced.

“Fine, fine.” She pulled a wad of money, tied with a rubber band, from her jacket pocket and handed over the woman’s price–all in ones. Meta hauled the pillows into her arms and left the woman counting her spoils, drool forming in the corners of her mouth like condensation on a window pane.

#

“Meta, I’m going to need you to sit still.”

“I am still.”

“You’re turning circles in the chair.”

Meta looked down at the paisley-patterned rug. It was spinning. “You need to tell your office to be still.”

“It tends not to listen to me.”

She nodded. “I suppose I shouldn’t listen to you either.”

The doctor gave a half nod and pawed at his short, white beard as though flipping through a deck of playing cards. “If you don’t listen to me, how will you get better?”

“I don’t need to get better. I’m not worse.”

“Worse than what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm. Meta, I’m writing you a prescription. Take two of these three times a day. If you lose count, take two more and go to bed. Understand?”

“No.”

“Good, we’re on pace. Your mother is very worried about you, you know.”

“I don’t know.”

“Good. But maybe you’ll find out.”

“Find out what?”

“That you don’t know.”

“I all ready know that.”

“Know what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Perfect.”

Dr. Shurilar handed her the prescription and put a hand on her chair. The room stopped spinning.

“I think the rug is tired.”

“Yes, Meta. Now, get that filled on your way home. Take two with a shot of bourbon, and go to sleep.”

“I don’t have bourbon.”

“Then take two and go to Kentucky.”

#

“Goddammit!”

Meta yelled and swatted at the bird, though it was outside the car. Its beak had struck her windshield and cracked it down the middle like a fresh egg. She hoped the stupid thing was lying on the road behind her, frying beneath the summer sun like the yolk in a skillet.

She squinted, though the crack did not impede her vision, and she continued to mutter curses to and from the godforsaken god she did not believe in.

Now she had to drive ten miles per hour slower because of the crack that did not impede her vision, and she would be late to see Dr. Shurilar, whom she did not want to see. And she was always irritated to be late to an appointment she did not want.

She would have to file this with insurance. Her rates had already gone up after last year’s accident, and they wouldn’t believe a bird had struck her windshield. They would think she did it herself so that her rates would go up, and she could complain and threaten to switch insurance companies so they would cut her a deal.

She wasn’t any good at arguing, though—everyone knew that. Her friends could cheat her out of anything she owned if they took up a stance against her. Just look at how much she had paid for them.

#

The car was dented. The whole thing. It was one big dent, with the fender drooping toward the asphalt and the doors buckled and the roof caved in like an anorexic’s stomach. The car was gone. It was a shiny pile of black tires and green paint, like something a Norse god dropped from the sky.

Meta remembered it that way, but it was amazing she remembered it at all. The doctors said she should have died. Her body should have twisted up like the car, and they should have found her body a piece at a time, her new baby-blue manicure still perfect and glossy, instead of stripped away for emergency surgery.

Her hands were barren.

When she woke, they told her about her injuries. They said, “bruised” and “fractured” and “lung” and “ribs” and “concussion” and “memory” and “lucky.” They said, “better” and “worse” and, “Here’s your mama” and, “Don’t you want to eat something?” And Meta stared at the ceiling, counting the days until she could go back to Lucky Nails and get a baby-blue manicure.

Her mom held her hand, but Meta’s fingers were so ugly that one day her mom didn’t come back. The doctors shook their heads slow and whispered to each other, and Meta knew it was because she was ugly. Meta knew she wasn’t good enough because her mother read poetry and looked at art, and Meta was nothing but an unemployed twenty-five-year old with hair the color of cow manure.

When her mother left her the first time, Meta knew then, as she knew now, that it was her fault. The doctors said, “No Meta. She’s sick, Meta,” but she didn’t believe them for one second. The firm white pillows propped behind her back whispered in her ear as she lay still in the hospital bed. If you had been better. If you hadn’t wrecked that damn car. If you had finished college and found a boyfriend and kept your job at Kroger and been a good girl who doesn’t overdose on sleeping medication and keeps her nails painted your mother would still be here. The pillows whispered in starchy tones and told her what everyone else was afraid to say.

She was thankful.

But she was also afraid.

She bought a beat up Corolla with money her dad sent her, to make up for not coming to the hospital. It smelled like cat piss and had a dent in the side, but at least the whole car wasn’t a dent.

#

Meta didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, what was real and what wasn’t. Dr. Shurilar said that pillows couldn’t talk, but she heard them speaking to her even as she sat on his couch. What was she to make of that? He said that her mother loved her, but she left her and left her again. What was she to make of that? He said her father was a good man, but he didn’t want to take care of his four year old. What was she to make of that?

He said that she was a good person, but she had been told differently so many times.

#

“Be careful with this.” Her dad handed her the money.

“Where did you get it?”

“Don’t lose it, Meta.”

She hadn’t seen him since her mom came back, and she didn’t have to stay with him anymore, didn’t have to listen to the women in his room and the mean, rough pillows sitting on his sofa.

She shouldn’t ask questions. He was giving her money. She needed money. “Is it real?”

Yes, it’s real. You think I’m a goddamn counterfeiter now?”

“I don’t know what you are.”

“Well, you oughta know what I’m not. Then you know what I am.”

“How am I supposed to know what you aren’t? I barely know what you look like.”

“Just take the money, Meta. Use it for doctor bills.”

He knows about Dr. Shurilar. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“I didn’t say there was.”

“You didn’t say there wasn’t.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Meta.”

“I can’t believe anything you say.”

“Who do you believe, huh?”

Who do you believe?

#

“I should never have come back,” her mother said. “I should have stayed away. Away from you.”

Little Meta shook in the floor. She still had hospital tags on her wrist. Her mom towered over her like the refrigerator. She thought her mom would start humming like the refrigerator did when it was out of ice. It always scared her. If her mom started humming she might run away, even though she didn’t know where. She couldn’t run to her daddy.

Maybe she could run to the North Pole. She’d heard that’s where Santa lived, and even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she thought maybe someone nice lived there. It seemed as good a place as any.

But then she thought there were probably a lot of pillows at the North Pole, with it being so cold and all. Then it didn’t sound so good.

Her mom shook her head and bundled her curly hair in her hands. “Maybe I should go back. Maybe I wasn’t ready. You’re just too much. Too much. Why would you do something like this. Why would you even think to do something like this. Hell, I should be the one overdosing. I should be the one dumping sleeping pills down my throat. I’m the one up all night with nightmares and night terrors and creatures jumping out at me in the night, and why the hell would you do this! Now I have one more thing to think about, one more thing to worry about, one more thing to scream about when the white coats come take me away!”

Meta cowered. The pillows were laughing at her. But the more her mother yelled and the more her thick brows knotted and her curly hair shredded between her fingers, the nicer the pillows seemed. She began to think they were here only friends.

Her mother’s face turned red, and she raised her hand as though to slap Meta. As the little girl sprawled backward, her mother stopped, froze, and dropped to the floor, twitching like a dying cricket. Meta crawled away, down the hallway, to her room, on her bed, hugged her polkadot pillow tight.

#

Meta was four—four and a half on Wednesday. She and her mom were in the house alone, except for the pillows whispering from the window seat. They were watching the storm outside and yelping every time lightning struck beyond the hills. Meta thought their stuffing was bound to fall out onto the floor.

“Meta! Meta!”

Her mom’s voice, angry. Meta sat still on the rug, a toy race car frozen between her knee and the coffee table.

“Get your ass up here!”

The little girl hopped up and ran upstairs toward her mom’s voice (really angry, now). Oooooo, the pillows called out. You’re in trouble!

Her mom was in the upstairs bathroom, right across from the nursery that used to be Meta’s. Her mom didn’t change it because she figured the new baby would need a nursery, but then Meta’s daddy left, and the new baby wasn’t coming anymore. The stork must have decided to keep it.

“What are these?”

The bathroom tile was littered with popcorn. Meta clasped her hands in front of her. “I was trying to catch a mouse.”

“A what?”

“I saw one in the closet, and I thought it would make a good pet, if I could train it up a lit–”

“You—”

Her mother was shaking like the fizz on top of a coke. Meta watched her skin shiver and her hand float alongside her body as though she wasn’t sure what to do with it. She looked down at Meta, then down at the popcorn, then up at the ceiling, and then her mother walked past the little girl, down the stairs, and out the door.

Meta stood in the bathroom, wondering if the shower curtain might say something. It did sometimes, but it wasn’t as talkative as the pillows.

Her mother didn’t come back for two years. Meta went to stay with her daddy after the Avon lady found her cuddled up in a pillow fort two days after her mom left. There were Pop Tart wrappers and empty juice pouches scattered around the living room. The Avon lady gasped, but Meta didn’t know why. She had been having a nice time alone, and the pillows were being more friendly than usual–no snickering at her nasty hair or her chewed up fingernails. Why don’t you snuggle with us, Meta? You look lonely, Meta.

But she went to live with her daddy, who had rough pillows that said mean things to her. They told her all about her daddy (he drank two cases of beer last night, girl, before he screwed a nasty redhead and handed her a wad of twenties). She didn’t listen to them too much. Her daddy did drink a lot, but only because it tasted good. She thought she probably drank too much juice, too, but no one was getting onto her about that.

#

She was living in the old house again. It was strange. It looked the same (except for a little dust), but Meta couldn’t make herself feel anything but scared. Her mom acted all right, even though she wouldn’t tell Meta why she had left or where she had been for two years.

Her mother made a pot of oatmeal in the morning. She asked Meta if she wanted some. Meta said no thank you, so her mother got down two bowls and filled them to the brim. She topped the porridge with chopped anchovies and shredded cheese and asked if Meta would like some Crisco. Meta said yes, so her mother sat down at the table and began eating.

Meta wasn’t sure whether she was speaking at all sometimes.

She went to her room after not eating breakfast. She wished it weren’t summertime so she could get away from her mother for a few hours. She tiptoed to the stairs and peeked into the living room. Her mother was pushing the vacuum cleaner between the couch and the coffee table, but the machine wasn’t on. She picked up the cord and twirled it around her fingers, humming. Meta went back to her room and closed the door.

She brought down her crayons and a coloring book from her toy chest and sat cross-legged on her bed, opening to a picture of a cow. She would color it purple. She had finished the cow and decided to make the grass yellow when she heard the polkadot pillow behind her:

Hey, Meta. How you doing there, kid?

“I’m all right.”

Feeling a little down? Your momma’s acting kinda strange.

“No, I’m fine. Just coloring.”

How about you take a nap?

Meta looked up at the wall. Her eyes drooped slightly. “Yeah, maybe a nap doesn’t sound too bad.” She pushed the coloring book to the side and let her head fall on the polkadot pillow. She could hear it really clearly when it spoke again.

Having some trouble falling asleep?

“Just a little.”

I’ve got something to help. Head into the bathroom, reach around the side of the vitamins, and grab that blue bottle. Swallow the whole thing with some tap water.

“The whole bottle?”

Just what’s inside the bottle.

“And it’ll help me sleep?”

You’ll sleep just perfect.

Meta did as the pillow told her, and when she dropped her head onto it again she slept so soundly, she could have been dead.

When she woke up, her mom was holding her hand. The doctors said they had pumped her stomach. “Like a foot pump?” she asked.

“Not quite.”

There was a man in the corner.

“Honey,” her mom said, “this is Doctor Shurilar.”

“Did he pump my stomach?”

“No,” the man said, “I’m a different kind of doctor. I just wanted to meet you. You’ll come see me soon. We’re just going to talk.”

Meta nodded. She didn’t mind talking to people, but she didn’t want to talk right now. She was plum worn out, and the hard, white pillow was already chattering in her ear.

#

“Well, what am I supposed to do with her?”

“She’s your daughter, Jimmy.”

“I know that.”

“Then take her.”

“Why do you have her anyway? She’s my daughter.”

“Her mom left.”

“Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know. I found her alone, talking to the pillows.”

“She’s a weird girl.”

“She’s your daughter.”

“What were you doing there, anyway?”

“Selling Avon.”

“You had no business.”

“Why weren’t you there? She’s your daughter.”

“She’s her mom’s daughter.”

“Then maybe I should find her.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Well, I would, damn it, except she’s gone. So take your goddamn daughter.”

“Fine, I’ll take her. Did she bring a pillow or something?”

#

Meta dropped the empty bottle on the hardwood. It shattered shattered, her mind shattered was stripped, torn to ribbons thin as the fringe on the pillows. She teetered into the kitchen, grabbed the last bottle of wine, and unscrewed the cork. It flew across the room and bounced off the walls, one two three, like a rubber ball in a cartoon.

Meta staggered back to the couch, her knees buckling with each step, her ankles crackling, her eyes rolling around like billiard balls in her sockets. The pillows hissed at her as she loomed over them, like her mother had done when she was little.

Meta wrapped her lips around the bottle and tipped it upward, pouring it down her throat like oil into a car. She had just changed the oil before

The pillows screamed screamed screamed screamed as she doused them with red wine. It looked like blood. It smelled like oil because everything smelled like oil, it smelled like death. She watched the pillows wilt, their stuffing deflating, their fringe drooping like wheat after a storm.

Then they laughed.

She heard them, oh god she heard them so loud, louder than she had ever heard them before. They were laughing, snickering, howling at her. And she felt the drunkenness building in her bones, in her limbs. It slithered beneath her skin, and the room turned somersaults. The pillows were still laughing as her elbows struck the wood, then her head. The wine bottle crashed in front of her.

Glass shards buried themselves into her face, but she was so numb she barely felt them. She heard nothing but a buzzing in her ear, a humming like the goddamn refrigerator. She hauled herself up onto her knees, grasping at the couch, and flinging her chest onto the cushions. She was so heavy. So heavy.

Her eyelids were closing, falling toward the glass still lodged in the flesh of her cheeks.

She saw blue capsules, broken open, half-hidden beneath the red-stained pillows.

And a blue bottle.

Empty.

Her friends laughed and laughed and laughed.


NBR8GriffinsmallVictoria is an East Tennessee native, currently studying English and playing Softball at Campbell University. When she is not on the field or in the library, you can find her running on a back road or stretched out in a hammock. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Synaethesia Magazine and FLARE: The Flagler Review, among others. Find her at VictoriaGriffinFiction.com and on Twitter @victoria_grif7.

 

The Phone Call


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


Nadine knew better than to answer the phone while at the pool—her “happy place,” according to the latest in a string of therapists.

This one, she was assured by her V.A. caseworker, was a PTSD specialist, and this one, she was also assured, would be able to “set her mind straight.” She had lost hope when the fucker set the tone of their first session with “finding a happy place” that Nadine could “go to” whenever her mind began to “shut down.” No, she had thought and was thinking again, I need a massive quantity of psychotropic medications to counter my brain’s terror of adrenaline. Nevertheless, the pool at Sun Valley Apartments had become Nadine’s “happy place” and it was there, by the pool on this sunny, hot Florida morning, that she looked down and saw her doctor’s office number flashing back.

“Hello?” she answered halfheartedly. That they were calling before noon meant they had bad news about the spinal tap in search of the cause of Nadine’s headaches. Patients who got good reports received phone calls in the afternoons. Patients who were to be the recipients of bad news got their results in the morning, in case the doctors wanted to bring them in that afternoon.

“Nadine Smith?” the chipper nurse asked. Nadine told her it was she. “Could I confirm your birthday as 2-16-79?” Yes, Nadine said. “And the last four of your social?” the young woman asked. Nadine gave it to her.

“Look, hon, I ain’t got all day. I know it’s bad news and—”

“Yes,” the nurse interrupted with a stammer. “We…well, we had a mix-up at the lab, but got it sorted.”

“So you’re not calling me to tell me I have brain cancer?”

The nurse laughed. “Oh heavens no! Your tests came back clear. However, the doctor wants you to come in this afternoon to talk, if you would, to a young man we just got home from Afghanistan. Doc Murphy says you understand PTSD better than anyone in the clinic.”

Nadine pinched the bridge of her nose. Since coming home, she had become the resident expert on all things military for her friends and family. Obama on the television talking up an operation or something blew up, there was Nadine and a three-hour phone conversation with her aunt in Milwaukee. “A drone—what’s that again? Well who’s flying the thing? It’s sounding more and more like Terminator every day.” The first time one of the V.A. docs had sent a recently returned soldier her way, she thought they were insane. She wasn’t even fixed herself. How was she supposed to fix someone else? But she had agreed to that meeting, just like she would this one.

“What time?” she asked. If left to the V.A.’s devices, the poor kid would be huddling under his bed by the end of the first night. By the second, she knew from experience, the bed would be upturned and there may be an unpleasant few days in store at the looney house. But that wasn’t going to be today—not on her watch.

“Three-thirty and I’ll text you to remind you,” the nurse said. Nadine gave one last glance around the pool. It was pressing two now and she had to get ready.

Four hours later, Nadine was sitting in a hard plastic chair in what the hospital called a “social room.” She hated the “social room” because the cold sterility, the white tile and white walls and white ceiling hummed under the white fluorescent lights. She hated the “social room” because it fostered only those emotions that ran contrary to social interaction. Completely loving, supportive spouses became snippy and argumentative in the “social room.” As soon as Pfc. Green arrived, she would hightail it to the little garden where the doctors all went to sneak smokes.

“Sergeant Smith?” a young man asked. He was small, too small for the BDUs he was wearing. His shaved head, still tan from the desert sun, betrayed just a shadow of darkness, brown or even black. His eyes were blue, the kind of blue that Nadine might have described as piercing if they weren’t so lifeless.

“I’m Nadine. You must be Henry Green?”

He nodded. She watched his face as he scanned the room and debated entering. Henry Green was young, probably about the age of her own son, had she ever taken the time to have a family instead of spending twenty years in the Army. His dark eyes, though, betrayed an age that didn’t come with years. He still had not released the doorknob, a symptom Nadine understood all too well. Doors can separate you from the enemy. Or worse—from escape. She knew just how to fix that. “Want to take a walk?”

They took the stairs down from the third floor “social room” to the first floor, where the stairwell emptied into the courtyard and garden. She was glad to see none of the doctors were around and that the courtyard had just enough sunlight to be pleasant, but not so much as to be a reminder of the desert.

“So, want me to give you the run down?” she said.

“About?”

“All the bullshit you’re about to get put through,” she said. He half smiled. “Good. You are alive in there. Don’t ever forget that.”

For the next few minutes, Nadine talked him through the various treatment regimens the V.A. docs would try. None of which, she assured him, would do a goddamned thing but make him sleep too much, drink too much, or eat too much. So, skip it all and just drink too much, eat too much and then sleep it off. “Same result without the drugs,” she said.

She then told him what to expect after the treatments didn’t work—the reporting to this specialist or that. “It’s all pointless, but still, do it. Otherwise, they’ll just med-dis you out and yank your benefits. Meanwhile, remember: over eat, over drink. Are you married?”

He shook his head.

“Girlfriend?”

Another no.

“Boyfriend?” she asked. He rolled his eyes. “So you’re single. Good. Do you have things you like in your apartment? Like gifts from your long-dead great grandfather or your Dad’s railroad watch?”

He thought for a minute. “Yeah, a few things. Like my brother’s guitar. He was KIA in Fallujah.”

“Bring it to me next time we meet. Chances are at some point, you’re going to smash everything you own into toothpicks and sand. I’ll keep it safe,” she said. “You can have it back after you’re done. And that’s the good news. You will get done.”

“How long, Sarge?” he asked. She could tell by the tremor in his voice that it was the most important question he had ever asked—and possibly the only one she didn’t have an answer for.

“As long as it takes. And call me Nadine, Henry,” she said. “So, before I ask you what happened to you, I’ll share with you my story. Then we’ll compare notes. Sound fun?”

He shrugged one shoulder.

Encouraged enough, she launched in. Nadine told him about going to college for dental hygiene, about graduating and deciding to pursue a dental degree. She still remembered the sound of her CO’s voice when he called to tell her their unit had been activated and was on standby to deploy to Baghdad. “The Green Zone, though,” he had told her. “Setting up a clinic. You’ll enjoy it.” Which she had, for the first three months. Then the fighting started. The “Green Zone” got a bit smaller every day, until their clinic was in the middle of a street fight between two groups she still didn’t understand. It wasn’t an ethnic or religious fight, she assured him. It was a gang turf war. She stopped for a minute when she got to the part about the day the clinic was attacked. Apparently the dentist in charge had fixed the teeth of one of one of the group’s leaders. The other group had seen this as a sign of loyalty. So, after an hour of beatings, torture and rapes, the other group executed everybody. Except Nadine. She had been in the supply room at the time the attack started and, God only knows why, the men had never thought to check the door.

When she got to the end of the story, she looked over to Green. He was still starring off, his eyes fixed on the horizon. She nudged him with her elbow.

“Your turn.”

He shook his head.

“Maybe later. I’m kind of tired right now,” he said.

She understood. She gave him her cell phone number, her home number, and her email address. “Add me on Facebook, too, if you like. But be warned. I post a lot of cuteness. Cats and puppies, and I have a serious thing for pandas.”

Pfc. Green said he would do so. He gave her his cell number, too, but only after she insisted. He thanked her for the contact information, “I don’t imagine I’ll call. I hate the phone.”

“Still, I wanna know it’s you and not the bill collectors,” she said.

They parted ways in the hospital lobby and, as she was driving home, Nadine was hopeful.

That night, just before Kimmell, Nadine dozed off in her easy chair. Her mind strayed too quickly into the dream realm and, somewhere between consciousness and sleep, Nadine slipped back into Baghdad, in the clinic. She did not panic, though, and did not try to rouse herself from slipping farther into this sleep-memory. By the time she realized it was that morning, the morning, it was too late and she was soundly in the grip of unconsciousness.  Somewhere in the distance, mortar shells were exploding. The shouting was much closer, too close, as she huddled against the door of the closet. The shouts were Captain Taylor, she knew, because she recognized the rasp in her voice and the slow, Southern drawl as she begged them to stop. Nadine began to brace herself for what she knew was coming next, for the pop that would end it all. Small caliber, clean, staccato. The pop came, but the silence she expected didn’t. Somewhere in the closet, a phone was ringing. This wasn’t part of it, she knew. Something was wrong.

Nadine opened her eyes. She looked down at the cell phone in her lap, the caller ID flashing “Henry.”

She answered it immediately. “Henry?”

The line was silent, but she could hear background noise. “Henry,” she said. Still no response. By now, she had her keys in her hand and was heading for the door, calculating as she went how long it would take her to get to the V.A.

“Pfc. Green!” she mustered in her most authoritative voice.

“Ma’am!” he snapped back.

“Status report?” she demanded.

“On the roof, Sarge! Pinned down against the railing.”

On the roof? Of the hospital? How did he get on the roof? Why?

“Pfc. Green, I’m on my way. I’ll be there in fifteen,” she said. She fired up the Dodge Charger, revved the engine twice. “Strike that. Ten.”

“Nadine,” Henry said. His voice had changed. “I ain’t doing so well.”

She was out of the parking lot and into traffic. She blew through the first red light as she answered. “I know, son. But I’m on my way.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Then don’t do anything. That’s an order, private.”

“I just feel—”

“Stop!” she interrupted “Don’t finish that sentence. You are not what you were about to say—even though you feel that way. I’m here. I’m with you on the phone and in about seven minutes, I’m going to be up there with you. Got it?”

Silence.

“Pfc. Green!”

“Yes’am, Sarge. I got it.” He went silent again, but she could still hear him breathing. “Nadine?”

“Yes, Henry?”

“I think I know what’s wrong.”

“What’s that, son?”
“I’m glad it was them and not me and that makes me feel like shit.”

Nadine sighed. She knew just how he felt.

“Just sit tight. I’ll be there in five. Got it?”

Silence.

“Pfc. Green! I asked you a question and gave you an order, son!”
“Yes Sarge,” he said, his voice quiet.

Nadine knew he would be there when she got there. But she also knew she had better hurry.


NBR8DeVaultsmallMichael DeVault is a novelist and essayist living and working in central Tennessee. His work appears frequently in regional and national publications, and his novels Anything But Ordinary and The Patriot Joe Morton were finalists for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Medal in Novel. When he is not writing, Michael teaches at Volunteer State Community College and Tennessee State University. He is currently working on his next novel. 

The Cubism of War


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


All warfare is based on deception.
— Sun Tzu

Each trench left a story, frozen in time.
French trench, German trench, less American
trenches than those entrenched for much longer.

Yanks had “very neat” camouflage, she wrote.
Gertrude Stein said color and design, ways
they placed things, everything was different.
“It made plain the whole theory of art
and its inevitability,” Stein explained.

“We had heard of camouflage. Picasso
amazed looked at it and then cried out, yes
it is we who made it, that is cubism.”

“Anything new, anything worth doing,
can’t be recognized,” opined Picasso.
“People just don’t have that much vision.”

French, German, American camouflage—
all different doings, foreign foresight.

After the war, they went out and cleaned up
the mess of mines, gas canisters, butts of
cigarettes, bandages, clothes too warm or
cold, coffee mugs, love letters left unsent.
American poetess, safe in her wandering,
blood-stained French countryside beneath her.
Rummaging through war’s fabric, entrenched.

“There is only one valuable thing in art,”
said Georges Braque. “The thing you cannot explain.”


NBR8FlynnsmallOriginally from Denver, Brian Robert Flynn is currently breathing the fiction and poetry of Washington, DC. His work has appeared in LETTERS Journal, Litro, The Learned Pig, The Quotable, Rose Red Review, Banango Street, and The Moth.

Getting Ahead: A Quest


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

She didn’t want any part of him, but she had to have his head. The Staff of Xrenthis commanded it, beseeched to skewer the head of the Elgae. Xie recalled the creature’s rancid breath melting her under its talons, its wings masking the sun. She could see herself in the monster’s glassy eyes, yellowed and tattered like a sick crumpled book page tossed to the wind. Twice her size and trice her weight, the Elgae could have crushed her as it did many a victim including her son at the ripe age of sixteen. A part of her wanted it to, to spare her suffering beak disembowelment alive and kicking if not to allow her to see her son again. But no, without reason, the creature left her alive that day, a year ago. She didn’t want to try her luck, didn’t want to test her strengths, but again, she had to.

As advisor to the king, she was charged with listening to the Staff of Xrenthis and following its every wish. Born from the holy oak that stood in the middle of Xrenthis, the Staff was crafted by Xie’s own hands. Precious as a child with its smooth finish, head topped with an opal gem, it spoke only to her, whispered intensive measures for the sake of the Xrenthis people and asked that Xie heed them. Some tasks were simple as sowing earth with holy water to bless thriving harvests; others challenged her faith and endurance by requesting she handle foreign affairs with warring nations or warring neighbors, both situations dangerous as the next with the participants’ equal lusts for bloodshed. None was as unfeasible as engaging the Elgae and expecting to come out alive.

Weariness work’s into the king’s eyes when he learns what his advisor must do.  “It’s as good a command as asking you to sever your own head. Are you sure you heard it right?”

There was no questioning her translation of the Staff of Xrenthis, they were so fused in mind, so intimate a coupling, and Xie said so.

“To lose my advisor with no protégé at the ready is to lose the trust of kingdom. A king is as good as his right-hand woman. Last I heard of a king trying to rule without an advisor, the city sunk to ruin. Like a body bearing no legs, he had nothing to stand on. You understand, don’t you?”

Xie understood. She must come back alive with the Elgae’s head on the Staff of Xrenthis or doom her whole kingdom. She turned in early for a good night’s rest (as good a night as any plagued by images of beaks snapping and talons clapping and eyes glinting, shrieks of sadism and rage) and headed out before the sun has risen from bed. The king and his guards, as well as all patrons of her kingdom, saw Xie off. Children clutching their mothers’ worn garments made from the same cloth as their security blankets; men still sweating and bleeding from a hard day’s work in the fields, machetes held dismissively at their sides; mules and dogs chewing and panting and looking downright weary for the lackluster event their owners were feeding them. Xie felt like she was the target of their attentions for all the wrong reasons, a corpse at a funeral rather than a wedding bride, pitied not admired, but she carried on without looking back.

Miles on she discovered the cave, home of the Elgae. It was far enough from the kingdom’s patrons that no one could wonder on it by mishap and close enough to tempt the reckless to its open door. Xie found it daft but the reckless did come and, like flies, they got caught in a web they didn’t see until they were inescapably tangled up in it. Entering the Elgae’s cave was suicide, as was entering any animal’s territory but more so when the proprietor was a being pledged to darkness, night vision powerful as God’s Himself; it saw you, always, but seeing it meant you were good as dead if not stone cold already. For all expect Xie.

Night still poured on Xie, night air mingling with morning dew to chill her. She didn’t take her eyes from the cave mouth, but continued to work all but her legs. One hand was working the Staff up and done, gently clanking it on solid ground, wood to stone; her other hand was fisting at her side, curling and uncurling on and off. Sunlight graced her within an hour and all was given life, the grass carpeting the area behind her as well as her stiff, now warming, limbs. Only her vision was trying to sleep, skip away from the cave mouth to a flitting butterfly nearby, close to allow for rest she didn’t have last night, but she couldn’t manage it, losing to distraction. So she stared on.

Xie thought she heard a crack behind her, either the snap of a stick under foot or bone under beak. Her body itched, stressing her to turn. Her mind told her not to. Mind over matter, matter included her thawing flesh and blood which probably didn’t have much judgment anyway. Another crack, closer this time, molested her ears and purpose. Could the Elgae be behind her, stalking her?

Something still told her not to turn, something that almost sounded like her own voice, but not. The Staff of Xrenthis. The Staff was speaking to her without her focus, with only her hand on it and not her eyes or even her mind. That never happened before, and it frightened her. It frightened her and hardened her resolve. She wouldn’t turn.

A flicker interrupted the darkness of the Elgae’s cave, the shadow of a wing. The creature was awakening. Soon she would be forced to witness its monstrosity again and, again, hope her life wasn’t balanced between the breakability of the bird cage shielding her heart and the vigor of a talon’s sword edge. Red plumage appeared as, now, Xie was facing the crown of the creature’s head. Further and further out, it came. Its wings were outstretched making it look like a haunting villain with his hands above his head, sneaking up on his victim with a wickedly hungry grin. The creature made quite the clamor on land as even rocks worked to tumble out of its way. In air, it was another matter.

It hadn’t seen her yet, so keen it was on motion. Stay still, trample the urge to flee, and Xie might have a fighting chance, a chance to fight. She was aware that she didn’t have a true weapon, had never had a need for one, something shiny and pointy that she’d have either poked a finger or cut off a hand with. She had her Staff, pulsing with furious power. It would have to be enough. She was ready.

Luckily, as her nerves betrayed her and the fingers of her free hand twitched; unnoticeable to a normal bird of prey, maybe, but to Elgae, she had written, signed, and broadcasted a death wish. Elgae’s eyes flashed to her and it wasted not a second taking to air. Stillness was useless now and Xie posed for action, her Staff gripped in both hands, ready to shield or draw blood. The monster circled her overhead, zoning in. She had one moment – one. Elgae dove.

Talons struck wood with such majesty, Xie beheld lightning sparks inches from her hands. She was astonished that the Staff didn’t shatter to dust. The opal stone on the Staff’s crest was glowing, spangling the world about her with light multihued. Elgae lifted off with a shriek of pain and Xie noticed the weight she’d been bearing hadn’t all been the creature’s pressure; her Staff was now solid metal. Xie missed when Elgae came back. Angled all wrong she was unable to block a blow to the head from a wing. She flew and landed in a slide. Her right arm felt that it was been massaged with sandpaper but her head was what ailed her most. She patted a hand to her scalp, pulled it away and saw a sheet of red on her palm.

Elgae was coming again. No longer caring for silence, knowing it had essentially made its kill. Her vision going in and out, Xie could hardly make out what was happening about her. Flash: the glint of golden eye made closer by some unknown phenomenon. Flash: beak opened wide swallowing her whole. Flash: talons pinning arms to chest, hers, figured only by the wood-morphed-metal Staff still in hand. She couldn’t feel, not the daggers in her skin. Yet, weight pressed on her, suffocating. Her head swam.

A blur feasted her tunneling vision. The suffocating sensation left her and she was submerged in a mess of angry caws and pain-laced screams and red feather confetti. Xie, on her side heaving, noticed the feathers were red from tip to base, naturally colored and unnaturally dotted in blood where pulled forcibly from flesh. She lay on her back to get a look at the devastation in the sky. Elgae was still fighting, just not with her. Another bird-like creature had materialized and was intent on raking and jabbing Xie’s nemesis. She watched like this until she was sure her heart had quit beating. She knew, while watching them, that this other bird thing, this almost identical creature, was the one she had sat under a year ago. She smiled in the knowledge that she was never spared, that she hadn’t lived while at the creature’s feet where so many had perished. Soon Elgae hailed down beside her, plummeted like the cold hard lump it was.

Her Staff, reverted back to wood, was begging her again. She crawled with the last of her strength and looked down at Elgae. She was aware of how drab eyes lose light and color and influence, they might as well be classic pebbles. She wasted no time whapping the creature sharp across the neck, blow hard enough to sever head from body then she jammed her Staff into it. She grew squeamish at the sight of blood pooling at her Staff’s base, the sound of soft meat squishing, but Xie doesn’t shy from her task. It must be done. The opal gem now hidden in the eagle monster’s head gave the Staff a new gruesome figurehead. The opal restored light to the creature’s eyes, life unto itself; to Xie, the will to live life and strength to do so.


NBR8JulysmallSierra July is a graduate of University of Florida, as well as a writer and poet whose fiction has appeared in Robot and Raygun and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, and SpeckLit, among many other places, and is forthcoming in Belladonna Publishing’s anthology Strange Little Girls.

AlterMist


This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #8: The Art of War. Get NonBinary Review #8 from the Zoetic Press website. 


He had one of those sandwich-board signs, you know, the whole “the-end-is-nigh” business draped over the shoulders -big letters on the board in front, another message in the back- but his sign was made out of metal. He’d bought two 3/8″ aluminum squares, three feet wide, four feet tall and had the words cut into the metal itself in fourteen-inch letters:

as I burn
so burns
the planet

All lower case, no punctuation. Same words on both sides. You could see the sun shining through the cutout letters. He wrote a 27,000 word manifesto. It had been thoroughly proofread, no typos, employing traditional and precise use of the written word. He sent an electronic copy of it to every major news agency minutes beforehand; he printed out copies and left them everywhere.

Those copies he printed are worth serious money now. As near as anyone can tell, he had about twenty made. Shipped one to his mom, one to an old girlfriend, and a couple to a a few old college roommates. The rest were left in office parks, waiting rooms, and liberal Christian churches. He left one in our foyer. I have it in my study. If I auctioned it off I could buy a new car.

The sign itself must have cost him around seven hundred bucks. Pundits are saying the bidding war is expected to end well north of twenty million. Some of the thermite fell off, melted into the front plate. The left side looks like termites have gotten to it. Some of his skin and bone is probably embedded into the pitting. I wonder if you could get his DNA from the sign.

He arranged for at least three cameras to be there, including an HD rig. They had no idea what was going to happen. I assume they expected a press release, maybe the germination of a protest. He stood in front of the main office doors of AlterMist and he threw a copy of his manifesto in front of their main door. That particular copy sold for half a million dollars.

AlterMist had always been considered one of the good guys. They made organic pesticides, supplying the major-scale organic growers with enough natural and USDA-certified weedkiller to keep millions of acres free of unwanted vegetation. They had made several high-profile donations to anti-GMO nonprofits and they spent a hell of a lot of money on marketing and image consultants. This was about to become insufficient.

He was wearing a black cotton beanie with half a pound of thermite tucked inside it. The red iron oxide he used in the mix gave it a burn temperature of around 2500C. As a tribute to what we can only assume was the source of his inspiration, he doused himself in gasoline, knelt down, and applied a cigarette lighter to the center of his drenched shirt. The heat from the gas fire was insufficient to ignite the thermite, but he was aware of this. Added dramatic tension. He lit a magnesium flare (easily hot enough to reach the flash point of the thermite) from the fire that covered his entire body and applied it to the thermite, staring directly at the camera the entire time.

One of the news guys out there abandoned the filming to dial 911. Everyone started buzzing, then they started screaming. He started screaming. The plan must have been for the thermite to slag, melting through his skull and boiling his brain, but maybe the pain from the gas fire had gotten too bad. He made a point in the manifesto that although he had considered painkillers, he wanted to be completely clearheaded to avoid any charges of mental instability or a bad drug reaction. His actions had to be sober, but in his sobriety he couldn’t keep his head upright and the slagging thermite began to slide off, sticking to the side of his face and his arm before splattering the sign and burning a hole in the concrete big enough to stick your hand into. Two days after the event, an enterprising crew came in with a cement saw and cut out the square of concrete containing the hole and the melted slag at the bottom. They sold it to a factory tycoon in Hong Kong. He has it in his entry room.

Emergency services got there in five minutes. They kept him alive, got him in a helicopter and had him in the best burn center on the West Coast in ninety minutes. He lasted about six days. One of the cameramen is writing a book. He’s been on a couple of morning shows already.


NBR8VanSickelsmallSean Van Sickel is a writer living in Bakersfield, CA, where he works as an English teacher. He’s a former staff writer at The Runner (Cal State University Bakersfield’s student newspaper) and has been published in The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle. This is his first publication since his time as an undergrad.