In the Centre of the Black

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #9: Sherlock Holmes/A Study in Scarlet. Get NonBinary Review #9 from the Zoetic Press website. 


He knew that I was here.
Concerned no one but myself,
the intensity of the feeling,

deep in some dark plot against me.
It was not against you.
The world was made for his pleasure.

I could not tell you,
a candle to the window,
nothing—nothing at all.

It was not my secret,
if there was a plot,
and the lighter expanse.


Source: Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Unabridged ed. 1959. London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, 1968. 100-101. Print.

NBR9PapenfussmallAmanda Papenfus has poetry forthcoming in Whirlwind and has appeared in The Montreal Review and other publications. Fiction has appeared in Two Thirds North, The First Line, and elsewhere.

Moriarty’s Music Hall Memories

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #9: Sherlock Holmes/A Study in Scarlet. Get NonBinary Review #9 from the Zoetic Press website. 

Editor’s Note: The Strand Magazine is proud to present its faithful readers with this exclusive excerpt from My Life of Good Intentions, the autobiography of James Edward Moriarty, forthcoming from Sherringford & Sons Publishers Ltd. We hope you are entertained with the following reminisces of one of England’s greatest impresarios.

It was Holmes who started calling me “The Professor”. Having an alter ego is not unusual in the world of theatre. It’s almost part and parcel of the business, really, ie: theatre folk and their stage names. Holmes hung “The Professor” on me not long after I took him and his partner on as clients.

Now, to this day, I still have no clear idea why he started calling me “The Professor,” though maybe it was his idea of a joke. For such an intelligent sort, he did have a curious fondness for puns and spoonerisms and all that type of low humour. “The Professor” might have been his idea of a clever play-on-words with “impresario,” I suppose. But I do know for a fact during all of our encounters over the years that there was always a trace of a smirk when he addressed me as “Professor” and sometimes I was almost sure that I detected a hint of a sneer, not that I ever said aught.

Still and all, I had no regrets about adding the two of them to my clients list. I have always maintained, and will do so with my very last breath if needs be, that Holmes & Watson were and are the greatest comic duo to ever grace the English stage.

I recall my initial impression of them as being two sides of the same coin. You had Holmes, tall and slim, almost rail-thin really, with that high intellectual forehead towering over those piercing eyes and that hawklike nose. Then there was Watson, almost the human epitome of the British bulldog, who even seemed to emphasize his subservient stature on-stage with his drab choice of dress for his short and stocky frame and his dour way of speaking.

True, given their modest music hall origin, it would have been quite difficult for most people to have predicted their rapid rise to prominence. Myself, I attribute it all to a hitherto-unrealized public appreciation for their unique melding of the academic and the absurd which became characteristic of their on-stage routine, and even of their off-stage antics over the years.

I would call your attention to “I Spy Miss Scarlet in the Study” as a classic example of what became their stock-in-trademark sketch comedy style mixed with true drama. Holmes, of course, was cast as the clever comedic lead opposite of Watson in the role of the stodgy and surprised straight man.

We all know the story. Holmes and Watson portrayed two amateur investigators helping, and also hindering, the police with a mysterious case of murder. There are the usual assortment of real clues and red herrings, a beautiful girl caught up in tragic circumstances, a vile and vicious villain, and a blundering and buffoonish representative of the official constabulary. What raised Miss Scarlet in the Study above the usual run-of-the-mill sort of farce was the introduction of a true anti-hero type in the person of Jefferson Hope, portrayed as the stereotype of the frontier American, yet who proved to have great audience appeal and encouraged actual empathy for his character in spite of his final revelation as the murderer pretending to be an ordinary London cabman.

I do not think I am giving away anything for the reader, or even spoiling the future enjoyment of others who might some day see a re-enactment of Scarlet in the Study, if I cite the following selection from the dénouement in support of my prior assertions regarding the comedic character of a Holmes & Watson offering. This particular scene display the satirical mixture of fine art and farce, along with an excellent example of Holmes’ own genius at elevating cheap humour almost to the level of true wit.

WATSON: Egad, Holmes! You’ve done it again!
HOLMES: Tut tut, my dear Watson. It was, after all, only an elementary problem in philosophy.
WATSON: Philosophy, Holmes? How the devil do you reason that?
HOLMES: Watson, you’ve seen my methods and you know my background. Nothing to do with the workings of the mind, especially the criminal mind, escapes my notice. There is much use to be found in the ponderings of philosophers as applied to the art of ratiocination, you see.
WATSON: No, I’m afraid I don’t see. How in the world, Holmes, did you deduce that Jefferson Hope was the culprit?
HOLMES: Why, my dear Watson, it was just a simple matter of viewing the matter like the perpetrator himself. In philosophical terms, cogito ergo sum. In the end, old fellow, I merely placed Descartes before the horse.

And there you have Holmes & Watson in the proverbial nutshell. Really, other than having to endure his snide manner in addressing me as “The Professor”, the only actual problem in dealing with Mr. Sherlock Holmes was his ego. Watson was more than willing to “exit stage left” as it were at the end of a routine. The real challenge was to get Holmes to make his last bow really His Last Bow before it became necessary to use the hook.

Indeed, in the end, where Holmes was concerned, that was always The Final Problem.

NBR7ChamberlainsmallGregg Chamberlain has had work in Daily Science Fiction, and NonBinary Review, anthologies like 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories and the Alternative Hilarities series from Strange Musings Press, and magazines like Apex and Weirdbook.

In which Lucy, dying from a broken heart, explains why she didn’t leave behind her shadow near the boulder

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #9: Sherlock Holmes/A Study in Scarlet. Get NonBinary Review #9 from the Zoetic Press website. 

There are many omens of death in this town.

  1. A fancy circle which distances you inside the same spot and you don’t hear the nest of streams slip inside your pocket.
  2. A boy who blows too hard into a letter in order to master its small landscape.
  3. A small dimpled fist in an aquarium that folds a promise whenever it is hauled by a knife.

I took the toy coffin out when I realized you created me. Before I began to consider the damp blue veins you patted on my arms and body. Father, father, you scattered me on your fifty-two cards, taught me to settle blood bright on the shape of another finger. Remember when I sat down to braid the desert sand and you told me that I must always understand this kind of softness. How the men drowned the ceiling with their cigars. How you slipped arguments inside your pocket while my skin ended abruptly under their gaze. Know that the night remembers us only through the voice of crickets and a promise to wake up. When I will lie down, I will not hunt the ground that remembered your footsteps. How righteous it must be to burn the tongue to tell a story. I mean that there is nothing more obvious than a body returned to its original darkness. Be calm: even the leaves forget the names of the seasons. God knows you’ve disappeared me with much less.

SherlockShinjini Bhattacharjee’s work has been published in Cimarron Review, DecomP, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Red Paint Hills Poetry and elsewhere. Her chapbook There is No Way to Alter the Gravity for a Doll is forthcoming from dancing girl press. She is also the founding editor of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal and Press

69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #9: Sherlock Holmes/A Study in Scarlet. Get NonBinary Review #9 from the Zoetic Press website. 

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

1. Scarlet: ORIGIN Middle English (originally denoting any brightly colored cloth)

2. When I was 15 I bought a bright red dress to wear to my friend’s confirmation.

3. At the party he had the DJ play “Lady in Red” and asked me to dance.

4. Everyone looked at us, me hot with power but otherwise cool.

5. About the same age I started reading the Sherlock Holmes novels.

6. Scarlet: from late Latin sigillatus ‘decorated with small images’

7. I had a notebook then, what I might call a commonplace book now, where I wrote song lyrics I liked, and poems, and glued in black-and-white photographs, and drew vines and stars and spirals in the margins.

8. One of the poems I would recite again and again to myself over the years, when the shine left a romance was Mary Caroline Davies’ “Rust”:

9. Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered.— Pain
Rusts into beauty too.

I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

10. Davies was born in the 1890’s, one hundred years before I found her poem, but just a few years before Arthur Conan Doyle set Sherlock Holmes loose in the world.

11. When we first encounter Holmes – “meet” feels like too friendly a verb – he is trying to devise a test for human hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein within red blood cells.

12. With this knowledge Holmes can analyze bloodstains at the scene of a crime.

13. Scarlet: … from sigillum ‘small image’

14. Despite my success with the red dress, I did not court attention.

15. I wanted to be the observer, not the observed.

16. I liked to keep secrets. Your picture, cut from the church directory, in a locket. Your photograph, stolen from the school darkroom, in my favorite paperback. Some small part of you hidden in some small part of me until I could make it real.

17. When I was half again as young I read Harriet the Spy and filled my own composition notebooks with observations about my family, my friends, neighbors and strangers.

18. I thought I would be a spy.

19. Instead I became an essayist.

20. Thread: ORIGIN Old English thrǣd (noun), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch draad and German Draht, also to the verb throw.

21. Sherlock Holmes was only undone once, and by a woman.

22. I have undone several boys and several men, thrown them over – never casually, but with the same relentless trajectory.  And several have thrown me.

23. But if you’re not going to tie your knot to another, what else is to be done?

24. Besides, a metaphorical broken heart rarely kills.

25. Alternate definitions of “murder” range from …

26. … a very difficult or unpleasant task or experience (when no would not be taken as an answer)

27. … to punish severely or be very angry with (when you said, “People who love each other don’t treat each other that way”)

28. … to conclusively defeat (when Irene Adler – “the woman” – escapes from Sherlock Holmes and disappears)

29. … to spoil by lack of skill or knowledge (when I didn’t know how to eat a tamale and made to bite the husk, when I gouged the brie instead of taking the rind, when I spit the scotch back into the glass, when my salary wasn’t enough, when my not-caring about these things was too much)

30. And the shame of it – the hot blush of ignorance and innocence, especially when provoked by desire.

31. What can be told from the stain of blood across the cheek?

32. And how much should be told?

33. Must every inch be unraveled and exposed?

34. Unravel: ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense ‘entangle, confuse’): probably from Dutch ravelen ‘fray out, tangle.’

35. A relationship can unravel, a lie, a pose, a mask, a front.

36. Unraveling causes confusion, but confusion can also cause unraveling.

37. “There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel … Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?”– from the essay “The Unravelers” by Stephanie Danier

38. I have unraveled relationships, lies, poses, masks, fronts.

39. I have unraveled medieval texts and Renaissance plays, 19th century novels and 21st century essays.

40. I have knit myself to unravelers and been unraveled myself.

41. I have been an unraveler of knitters.

42. Does unraveling always destroy?

43. Can magic survive scrutiny?

44. Or is there always a trick, a mirror, a misdirection to be exposed?

45. Skein: a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted.

46. Skein: a tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation.

47. Skein: a flock of wild geese or swans in flight, typically in a V-shaped formation.

48. Astonishment: The sound of wild geese flying over me, in my kayak in the middle of the lake, the way they broke the stillness with their loud and throbbing wing beats, the way the sound itself seemed to propel them through the air, the way the dip of my paddle into the water after they left felt so weak and feeble as I returned to shore, returned to you, thinking only of when I, too, would fly away.

49. But don’t forget: Pain rusts into beauty too.

50. I am 69 inches long if I’m lying on a bed, across the back seat of a 1980 Buick Century station wagon, on a library floor, on a stack of patio cushions, in a loft, in a church basement, on the roof of a beach house, on a press box.

51. I am the same 69 inches if I’m telling the truth.

52. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies …” – Emily Dickinson

53. Emily Dickinson died the same year Sherlock Holmes began.

54. Holmes might have used circuitous means to get at the truth but the truth he sought was straight.

55. The evidence told the story.

56. The evidence didn’t lie.

57. Scarlet thread embroidered an A, stitched together a dress, sewed together shoes, fixed the seams of a tent, secured the lines of a flag.

58. The stitches in my face after you crashed the motorcycle as well as my hopes for us were blue. But it was a red thread of desire that had me on the back of that bike, holding onto your waist as you couldn’t hold the curve, as the barbed wire fence opened its own red threads across my cheek, stole my blush, marked me for life.

59. Isolate: ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French isolé, from Italian isolato, from late Latin insulatus ‘made into an island,’ from Latin insula ‘island.’

60. Sometimes it is easier to see something in isolation, when there is nothing near to compete or compare.

61. A magnifying glass can work to bring one small thing, one small place, into looming focus while everything around it blurs into oblivion.

62. A Study in Scarlet was the first detective novel to feature a magnifying glass as a means of investigation.

63. In the Magnificat, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God.”

64. A piece of glass, a joyous soul, a lover’s gaze, a writer’s mind.

65. Expose: ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French exposer … influenced by Latin expositus ‘put or set out’ and Old French poser ‘to place.’

66. When a crime is exposed it is set out for all to see, often again the criminal’s desire.

67. But when a writer is exposed through his own writing, he is putting stories, ideas, settings, and feelings into place. Knitting them together. The scarlet thread runs through and the skein becomes brighter for it.

68. It is intentional. Calculated. Almost Holmesian.

69. Most of the time.

NBR9NoblesmallRandon Billings Noble is an essayist whose work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club.

Millennial John and Sherlock Meet Via Craigslist

This selection is part of NonBinary Review Issue #9: Sherlock Holmes/A Study in Scarlet. Get NonBinary Review #9 from the Zoetic Press website. 


We were told
it was new and we were bad
for living unmarried with roommates in The City.
But here are the wounded Afghan war vet
and underemployed genius
splitting an apartment in London
like San Francisco like Brooklyn like Austin.

I have a dog.

I smoke.

I’m lazy, but I can’t sleep.

When I’m depressed, I don’t speak.

Man buns or deerstalkers,
yoga pants or tweed,
there are always cities, rooms in cities, strangers.

Loud noises—I can’t.

My interests include DIY chemistry and the violin.

I’m supposed to be a doctor.

I don’t understand the solar system.

Always the ceaseless press of questions
in lonely, messy rooms.


The drugs.

Always something to learn
about blood.

NBR9LaytonsmallJanna Layton’s poetry and fiction have been published in Menacing Hedge, Caesura, Zone 3, Literary Bohemian, and Up the Staircase Quarterly.

Tip of His Tongue

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

The blank American beach
offers broad Atlantic broader Pacific
rapine of conquistadors and pilgrims
shady dealings vast distances in hard times
hopefears requiring a forebear forego
almost all for a certain uncertain promise
and in such incredible amnesia, must play
the wisdom game against lapping tides

The waves taunt
But the lives he’ll never live
and the reasons he can’t recall
taunt him worse

Remember is the command
to Proteus wrestling his strange self in the sand

Remember—The 144,000 souls at creation and at the end, woven throughout
time, reiterated into tenements and tents engorging both strangeness and
recognition confounding and affirming a single mammoth truth with each
contentious breath
Remember—The distortion built into all seeing so the round of the year
appears an arrow penetrating the depths of the unprecedented
Remember—The command to Arjuna to know his own soul and still to kill, to
seek in blood and betrayal the knot tied in all souls
Remember—Not to panic when you get here

Or was it something else?

The force of the night is against knowing—resistance
like a rusty fishing reel or trying to write down a dream
The path back chewed by feet bent by backs bent faded
by the claims of posterity mistranslated
at the insistence of the angels’ autocorrect

It dances on the tip of his tongue
holds him close and rebuffs him
sprouting and concealing worlds
without reward

NBR8DoddssmallColin Dodds is the author of Another Broken Wizard, WINDFALL and The Last Bad Job. His writing has appeared in more than two hundred publications, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. Colin’s book-length poem That Happy Captive was a finalist for the Trio House Press Louise Bogan Award as well as the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award in 2015. And his screenplay, Refreshment, was named a semi-finalist in the 2010 American Zoetrope Contest.

The Riddle

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

I moved to the right and dug beside my first hole. Once it was as deep as the first, I removed the thin wall of dirt between the two holes to join them. I expanded the hole this way until it was satisfactorily wide, and roughly circular.

I deepened the hole. I dug on the left side and then I dug on the right side. I wanted the base of the hole to be flat.

When I could no longer reach the bottom from the edge, I stepped into the hole.

The dirt I tossed out of the hole formed piles. The farther I dug, the larger the piles grew. The hole appeared quite deep from the inside.

After another few feet my shovel hit something hard, and suspecting a rock or a tree-root, I tried to find the edge of the object with the shovel. Each time I tried, the shovel struck the object again, and at the same depth, as if I had come upon a floor.

I climbed out of the hole and got a spade from the shed. I used the spade to clear away the layer of dirt covering the surface. It appeared to be bone.

I climbed out of the hole and got a pickaxe and chainsaw. I splintered the bone with the pickaxe, and managed to puncture it in one location. It was about four inches thick. There was no blood.

Beginning at the punctured part, I used the chainsaw to cut out a square. The section of bone fell downward into an abyss. I bent down and looked intently into the hole. I could not see inside. Getting on my knees, I stuck my head in the hole.

Once my eyes adjusted, I could make out an incredibly large picket fence. The fence extended into the darkness.

I pulled my head out of the cavity, and shifted into a sitting position on the edge of the bone, letting my feet dangle inside. I placed the heels of my hands on the side of the opening. I stretched my feet out until they found a crossbeam on the fence, and shifted my weight onto it. I slowly entered the cavity.

I descended the fence like a ladder— first lowering my left foot to the next beam, and then my right. It did not shift at all under my weight.

The air was still. It was very dark.

After some time, I looked back up to the surface. The square of light had become very small. Through it I could make out the blue of the late afternoon sky. The square of blue light seemed to be hanging in a void of infinite depth.

I descended further. I did not jeopardize my balance by twisting to look around the cavity behind me. I descended further still without reaching the bottom, and then I stopped to look.

With small movements, I carefully turned enough to look around the cavity. A square of light was below me, not far out from the fence. It seemed to be very far down. It was a dull red, and it shimmered like liquid.

I reached one hand out from the fence, palm downward, wanting to see the light shine up onto my palm. I slowly waved my hand through the air to find the spot, but when I passed through it, the light vanished for a moment. I moved my hand back to be directly over it, and again it disappeared.

I wondered if the light was a reflection of the sky, now red with the light of the setting sun, off of whatever lake lay below. But neither side of my hand was lit as I held it there. I looked up, but I could not find the square of light shining through the entrance I had made. With horror, I retracted my hand. The light above immediately returned, as if it was a reflection of the light coming up from below.

I began hurrying upward, and I looked toward the light, the sky, after every new rung, praying that it would remain.

I tried to drown out my fear, but the thought that I might not return drove me into a stupor.

I realized I could not hear my own breathing. I knew I was gasping only by the feeling in my throat.

And the dull red of the evening light, which widened in view as I got closer, was fading with the approach of night. And I began to cry. The light seemed to shimmer through the water clouding my eyes.

And my groping hands grew numb as I crawled, like an infant, upward into the darkness, which swallowed all light and sound. And I mutely called out to the vanished light.

There is nothing to see in this dark world, and there is nothing to contradict the mind’s eye. In the delirium of the void imaginings become vivid and bright.

I am crawling out back, in the yard. And the dewy blades of grass shine brilliant in the late morning sun. I’d like to sink my fingers into the soil, and to feel it in my fist.

NBR8StreetsmallMiles Street has authored two books recently, para.docx and Making Sense Of Myself In Public. Para.docx is a documentation of activity related to a fictional profile called Elle Bee. Making Sense Of Myself In Public is a collection of prose poems originally posted to Facebook, that have since been taken down and compiled into a book.

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,
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.

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.


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?”

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.