Winter 2021

Jennifer Popa

Pity the Mammal Who Accepted the Blessing That Was Never Hers to Keep

 

If I should have a daughter I will name her Sylvia and we will wait for the day when she will kill herself. Some day. Some distant day we hope. We brim with hope in this game of pretend. But still, no matter how muffled the bell’s clapper, no one ever mistakes a death knell. And what everyone knows, but no one says is that its sound signals a mother who will be left holding her own hand.

Sylvia will arrive right when I need her. She will be my pet. The one thing I can make perfectly, sublimely, and without revision. Small pink vector of joy. Together we will tick down our days like cracking pecans from their shells, one at a time. We wait for the advent of inevitable loss. Our laps littered with the shells’ sharp corners and dust. We will work slowly and with patient hands. This movement is harbored only in its conception though not in time.

She will be the muse her mother made her. Because any child of mine will be preternaturally melancholic, certainly neurotic, as common a feature as blue eyes, mousey brown hair, a thin mouth that musters smiles for strangers without revealing even the faintest tinge of pain. This is the great trick I teach her, deceiving others into seeing only your fine-ness, how okay you are. Still, she will love wholly—love in a way that even the thought of being separate from me will cue her tears. My greatest fluency will be summoning her wail. This is what I want most of all: to be essential to someone. I stitch this secret in the webs of her fingers, her cowlick, the empty socket of her lost tooth.

As a child, she will fill her pockets with seeds, discarded snail shells from the backyard, half-stale cookies, worry dolls. Sometimes she will thumb the lines at my forehead, bring Band-aids to heal me. She will kiss my boo-boo and say, All better, Mama. And she is right. I will be the best I have ever been.

She will cut holes in the bedsheets to be a ghost. How I will yell, how I will ask what did I tell you about the scissors? I will repeat it, louder this time, as if my volume might unfurl some answer along her tongue. I will scare her even. But when I look to the holes where her eyes should be, there will be only ash. It spills out, dusting the linoleum. I throw the bedsheets out with the trash and make her sweep the floor. When punished, her eyes will tell me all the words she is saying with her mouth clamped shut. I recognize myself in her, though even this observation belongs to me.

Daughter as talisman, trinket, echo, pocketknife.

Mother as narcissus bulb, birdcage, the apron’s knot.

As a teenager she will begin checking her courage, slashing her skin, each scar a failing of mine—a seam I allowed her to open. I’ll spend my days wondering how it will happen. Will I someday find myself plucking windshield glass from the tangles of her hair, draining the blooded tub, wiping the bile-foam from her chalky mouth, retrieving a shell casing behind the toilet months after she finally does it. Will it be the needle in her forearm, a tipped soldier—or perhaps my Sylvia will opt for gas? This of course feels a bit on the nose. She will be far too original for such things.

Perhaps I dramatize. There will be more to our days than the endless business of dying, of course. As a child I will find her standing barefoot, stubborn in the grass, pretending she cannot hear me as I call out for bath time. She will pilfer tomatoes from the garden, seeds peppering her shirt, a sticky trail of juice tracing wrist to elbow. The ulna bone, she tells me when she is a teenager studying anatomy. Ulna, I will say aloud and marvel at the muscle of my tongue tipping this word into the air. Ejecting it into being.

If she should make it to adulthood she will be the waitress who specializes in burnt coffee and unremarkable pie, who never writes down a word of your order though never makes an error. Instead she will use her small pad for scratching poems and words that please her: supine, chimera, scythe. My words are: uninhabitable, filch, hysterectomy. Because when I do lose her, it will rip, burn, split me like the nut. It will show me how the meat of me can be pilfered by some doctor in some hospital in some city sometime before his lunch break: egg salad on rye in the perfectly-sized Tupperware his wife placed it in. The wife who bore him three perfect children. Children who would never use needles or have parents who named them Belladonna or Hemlock—children who would never make a sport of unspooling their perfect bodies. When I ask, the doctor won’t even tell me their names.

When my daughter leaves it will all be to say, she was never mine in the first place. I cannot preserve her for myself—I cannot preserve even the word preserve. And none of us can preserve a possibility. How meager it looks when boiled shut in a jar. I only took the assurances that were offered, and still she dies like any girl who has been told she is loved but cannot make herself believe it. How I had begged for the child who could make my body useful. If I do not say her name, she dies again and again, a thousand deaths before breakfast. Sylvia. Sylvia. Sylvia. My tongue lays limp though I speak it loudly. I’ve wanted her for so long I’ve forgotten why exactly. It’s the forfeited daughter who shows me that I am the greedy woman.

 


Jennifer Popa is a short story writer, essayist, and occasional poet. She is currently a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University where she’s working on a collection of short stories and a novel. Some of Jennifer's most recent writing can be found at The Florida Review, Bellingham Review, Moon City Review, West Branch, and Sundog Lit. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com

 


 

Wynne Hungerford

It Comes to This

 

In the middle of the night, Melanie had to wake up her husband and say, “I wet the bed.” It made her feel like a child all over again.

She went in the bathroom, wiped herself with a damp cloth, and changed into a clean set of pajamas. People had told her it was ugly, the way embarrassment spread in hot bright patches across her cheeks, and she imagined their insults stored as fat around her stomach and thighs, rolling and dimpled and smelling faintly of yeast. She could not look at herself in the mirror. She would not.

While she stripped the bed, her husband sat in a chair in the corner of the bedroom where he normally put on socks and shoes before work. Melanie waited for him to help but he just looked at his feet with disgust. She draped the quilt on the floor, piled the sheets, pillowcases, and soiled nightgown in the middle, and wrapped up the bundle like a dirty diaper.

Her baby wasn’t a baby anymore. Jeremy lived in Chicago and performed with an improv troupe. Sometimes he called to complain about the wind, but it wasn’t like the old days when his penis caught in the zipper. She’d held it in her hand like a little fish, freed it, let it go. The whole family caught bream on Crystal Lake one summer. Her husband had sucked her nipples in the rented cabin, and in the loft her son played with a King Friday puppet from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then her baby left and her husband became an old man and while putting on her bra one morning Melanie noticed that the skin of her left breast was starting to look like an orange peel. She waited until her annual check-up to tell the doctor, who first scolded her for delaying a biopsy, and then reported that she was officially obese. The long O was a tunnel that she had been falling down ever since. She was ready for a swift, bloody landing.

In the bedroom, Melanie’s hips and knees ached as she sat on the wooden stool in front of her vanity. She looked at her husband sitting in the chair. He looked at the wet stain on the mattress. Time was of the essence but neither of them moved.

 


Wynne Hungerford's work has appeared in Epoch, Subtropics, Blackbird, The Brooklyn Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, American Literary Review, The Normal School, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA from the University of Florida. Learn more at www.wynnehungerford.com.

 


 

Vincent Yu

Private Illusions

 

Even in the dead of winter, when the house was black and the wind angry, my father would nudge me awake and help me dress in my snow pants and thick jacket, pull the gloves over my fingers, and slip my feet into boots still stiff with cold.

 

We would leave through the door in the back of the garage, letting it squeak slowly open (though there was no one awake to hear) and climb the small hill behind our home, as our breath erupted and retreated into the night air.

 

The cemetery received complaints when we first started doing it there. People thought we were vandals. And even after we explained, they said it was disrespectful, a fire hazard, stupid. What was burning it going to do?

 

So we moved the picture to the backyard and put the basin there, at the top of the small hill. My father would take the Kit Kats out of their wrapping, his hands shaking, and break them into little fingers of four and then eight and scatter them. He’d take out his lighter with the picture of Mao in a blaze of red and hold it close, so that the flame left a black spot of soot on his thumb and the candy began to burn.

 

For a few quiet moments we’d kneel there, the wind whipping against our faces, and I would whisper to my brother about whatever was going on at school, trying to ignore my father shaking beside me. We burned the candy and hoped that it would reach him out there. Just a little sweetness. We never spoke about it to each other. We sustained private illusions.

 

Years later, when Mom died, my father did the same thing. He put her photo beside my brother’s and set up another metal basin. He ripped big bundles of lilies from our front garden and burned them every morning for her. Kit Kats for my brother, flowers for Mom.

 

By then he knew better than to ask me to join. I was no longer amused by his superstition. I was blazing with my own kind of resentment, angry at the ways he’d failed to keep our little family together. Angry at him because it needed to be someone’s fault. I escaped the first chance I had.

 

And years later, when I finally came back, after the arrangements and the stiff farewells, I saw a third basin on that same hill, filled with the charred, unreadable remnants of paper that he’d never emptied. It sat beside a picture of me, the same age as my brother.

 

I searched through his study and the old living room and kitchen before finding the stack of papers in the drawer by his single bed—a hundred sheets thick, the words FORGIVE ME slashed on each.

 

 

Note on Theme:

Mourning in Chinese tradition requires offering something—money, food, a message—that embodies the departed while serving them in the afterlife. Long before I realized that this was a coping mechanism for the living, I wondered whether my ancestors really appreciated all this stuff we were leaving for them. Did it even reach them intact? What if they wanted something different? If only keeping in touch with the deceased weren't so unilateral. My grandmother died of Covid-19 this summer after a near decade of dementia. By the end, none of her old personality was left. None of that scaffolding that we'd come to associate with who she was. My family still doesn't know what to offer her.

 


Vincent Yu is the National Sales Coordinator at W.W. Norton. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares (Solos), Able Muse, The Sierra Nevada Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

 


Fiction

Wynne Hungerford - It Comes to This

Jennifer Popa - Pity the Mammal Who Accepted the Blessing That Was Never Hers to Keep

Vincent Yu - Private Illusions

 

Poetry

Rooja Mohassessy - First Kiss

E. B. Schnepp - it’s christmas in anne boleyn’s throat

Natasha King - a gate will not remained closed

Despy Boutris - Girlhood

Alison Stine - Planned Community, Southern Ohio

Sean Cho A. - Dogma

Ro Daniels - Number 5

 

Creative Nonfiction

Amanda Gaines -  Something About Which We Could Talk Forever

Jean Coco - Here, Now



 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.