Posts By: Meredith Irvin

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Fiction Feature: “When They Spoke” By Katherine Romba

 

When They Spoke

            When cockroaches started speaking, most people thought that they were imagining things. Someone would encounter a quiet conversation between roaches in front of the refrigerator. Or would hear one talking to itself in the back of a drawer. Or would even happen upon a roach perched on a baby crib, squeaking out a lullaby. And that someone would shake their head, chuckle, and continue with their day.

            Yet only a few days after this had begun, enough encounters had been documented to convince people that roaches could now speak. Children began chasing them and packing them into jars, while scientists ran them through a battery of tests. Talk shows sparked controversy on the phenomenon. “Isn’t it interesting that these insects—which are the most likely of all living creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust—have now developed the ability to speak?” mused one expert. Incredulity turned to curiosity—and suspicion. But the roaches never spoke under duress, whether at the hands of an interrogator, scientist, or little boy; in fact, they never conversed directly with people at all.

            Until the fire. The fire started in a subway tunnel—some said that the cockroaches themselves started it, while others believed that failing electrical wires were at fault. No one could deny, however, that it was the cockroaches that saved hundreds of people from potential disaster. Even before the alarms could alert subway personnel, even before the thick black smoke began pouring into the tunnels, swarms of cockroaches had collected onto the two neighboring subway platforms and had begun warning the waiting passengers. Voices normally disappear quickly into a subway’s cavernous spaces, but when the cockroaches spoke, in unison, their voices simply became louder and clearer. All of the people under- ground escaped safely—although thirty-eight roaches died in the rescue.

            After the fire, suspicion changed to approval and gratitude. But it was unclear where to direct these feelings, because the cockroaches had suddenly disappeared. People, ready with praise, searched the dark corners of their apartments. And when they found no cockroaches to coax out into their homes, they became unsettled and then increasingly disconsolate. Questions quietly plagued them. What had they in fact experienced? What had it all meant? What had they been given, and why had it been taken away?

            And in a desperate attempt to regain it—whatever “it” was—people began treating with reverence any other insect they could find. Spiders, ants, centipedes. People took down sticky fly traps, swept away boric acid, left cobwebs where they were found. Crumbs were summarily left out on counter tops. Yet the attachment people formed with insects seemed lost on the insects themselves. Moreover, these insects, no matter how ardently venerated, no matter how dotingly cherished, never spoke a word, and never saved a life, so far as anyone could tell. They simply continued doing what they had been doing: searching for food, creating nests, and dying rather ignominiously on kitchen floors, in bathtub drains, and in the crevices of window sills.

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Poetry Feature: “Loblolly Pine in a Field of Hollyhocks” By Vievee Francis

 

Loblolly Pine in a Field of Hollyhock

There is sweetness, oh yes, there is, like a thin pistil of honeysuckle
gone almost as soon as it’s sucked, like lips pursed just so, like a needled pine
with blossoms at its feet and far afield, and the slobbering bees bobbing punch-drunk.
So sweet, to inhale the late afternoon and the slight damp, hint of dew, or the rain
to come, like the rough lick of animals, a whistle, a rude joke in the ear,
trill of dying cicadas, a mouth of sour mead in the quickening day. Dear,
but not innocent, not the purity of some child, no virgin’s fount—no,
sweetness like joy must emerge from soil, from the torn fruit grown ripe
to bitter, not the penitent’s vision, nor the onanistic ecstasy of a lonely saint,
but the sweetness found in a stain of wine, or the cloy of blood soup, thickening as it cools.

 

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Nonfiction Feature: “Beneath The Surface” By Amy Butcher

 

Beneath The Surface

            The morning I realized the birds on the telephone line outside my apartment were cowbirds and not crows, a boy I knew was getting his heart stitched up.

            The boy was in a hospital and I was not in a hospital. I held the phone against my chin with my shoulder and hunched over, rubbed a cotton ball across my toe, and asked, “It’s going okay?”

            My boyfriend was on the other line, standing against a window on the seventeenth floor of Mass General in downtown Boston. He cleared his throat and took a sip of something. “Seems to be,” he said.

            I didn’t think then about the heart or what was happening to it—the idea that a thread was pulling something so fragile together. I dabbed the cotton ball into more of the acetone and wiped at the other toe and said, “Good.”

* * *

            I’d met the boy nine times before.

            Once we ate Brussels sprouts off china plates in a living room decorated with wallpaper of printed pink Colonial men and women. Another time we pulled on zip-up sweatshirts and walked along the Charles River, drinking marshmallow lattes with a disproportionate amount of marshmallow. On one occasion, he handed me a blanket that smelled like attic and made me watch forty minutes of loose footage he taped at his father’s lake house.

            “It’s going to be a thriller,” he said, “when I’m done with it.” This implied a vast amount of time spent in front of computers and monitors and boxy black equipment. But all I saw were ripples on water and geese taking off towards some definite treeline.

            “Okay,” I said.

            The night we watched the footage, the boy was seventeen. It was January. Even under the blanket, my feet were cold. I kept trying to tuck them up under me, rubbing my socks together beneath the fabric. His cousin Keith sat beside me quietly, watching the footage with fascination.

            “Can we go soon?” I whispered in his ear. I wanted to be some place else: a downtown sidewalk, a restaurant, a place where I wouldn’t have to pretend something ordinary was special.

            “In a minute,” he said. “I’m enjoying this.”

            The footage of the birds and the trees and the sandy embankments would be edited down, turned into a film, submitted at some point as part of a portfolio to film schools. This is what I assumed. I let my eyes slide over the footage and onto the boy. I tried to picture what he would look like under big, bulky headphones.

            When the footage finished playing, I folded the blanket and put it back on the couch. “Good to see you again,” I said to the boy, and then I pulled on my snow boots and trudged to the car, parked two streets away, the snow coming down softly, the man I loved following behind.

* * *

            The boy suffered from congenital heart failure. He wasn’t supposed to live past six months. This is what the doctors told his mother in the birthing room.

            “His heart is functioning at three-quarters capacity,” they said. “Two of the four chambers aren’t divided; they don’t work.”

            His mother held the child, still warm in his blankets. She looked at the doctor. She named the baby Charlie, after her father.

            In the hopes that he might exceed their expectations, she held Charlie against her body each day and sang hymns. An infection, doctors warned, could exacerbate his condition; her milk would be best. But the baby grew tired quickly, his small lips too weak. She bought special formulas to increase his caloric intake, held the bottles along her chest and prayed.

            Charlie turned six months and then twelve. On his first birthday, his mother baked a cake with real vanilla beans and rich white buttercream. She took his picture, his cheeks covered in icing. She put it on the refrigerator to remember.

            Two weeks later, the doctors performed open-heart surgery on the child. They lay the baby on a small padded table and wrapped him in a thin white sheet. They made an incision in the center of his chest, tucking wires around the organ. They divided the upper and lower chambers. They added a patch to the right ventricle to improve blood circulation.

            The surgery would let him see six, they said.

            Charlie turned four and then he turned five. His mother had him swallow pills with orange juice. She tucked the bitter ones in pancakes. The pills fought off infection. He turned seven, and then nine, and then eleven. His heart kept beating. The doctors wondered aloud if it might beat forever.

            On his twelfth birthday, his mother rented a pavilion along the river. His father grilled hamburgers and sweet peppers and Charlie rode a horse along the edge of the water.

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Fiction Feature: “Staccato” By Peter Tieryas Liu

 

Staccato

 

Six weeks of every year, I take a trip to Beijing and invent a new “me.” I usually pick

international hotels because everyone there wears a costume too. Mine is “Esau Zhou”

and I sell vitamins to cows.

*
The hotel is in the Wudaokou area near one of the main universities, Tsing-Hua.

There’s lots of exchange students here, a thriving cultural mishmash in Beijing.

*
Partly drugged by jet lag and nocturnal remissions, I chat with Jean, a Korean art

student who paints noses over fingers as a motif on misguided sense. Abraham, a

disillusioned meteorologist, likes to ask, “If rain were as heavy as bullets, would people

have found a way to change weather, or would they have invented bullet-proof

umbrellas?” The German brunette across from me refuses to give her name, only dates

rich Chinese guys, and has a row with them every night before loud, raucous sex.

*
I talk about vitamins with the other guests. Cells normally subdivide until they die, I

explain, a vestige of reincarnation sucking away at the original. A healthy dose of

vitamin E can prolong age and life by increasing the durability of cell regeneration after

mitosis.

*
The first time I see Sarah Chao, she’s holding a violin with broken strings, sipping on a

cocktail in the lobby. She’s Chinese but has placid blue eyes that appear to drift.

Riveting is a word I shouldn’t use carelessly, as I’ve had bad experience with rivets. But

her eyes are riveting. Read more…

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Nonfiction Feature: “When Milk Is a Memory” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil reads “When Milk Is a Memory”

 

WHEN MILK IS A MEMORY

When the milk first comes it is gold. When the milk first comes it feels like a tug. When the milk first sprays across the bed, we laugh but you are scared. When the milk is too much and the baby bites you want to cry and dig your hands into your husband’s palm. When the milk spills out and soaks your shirt, the bed—you wake sour to the baby’s cry. When the milk slows because you put cold cabbage leaves in your bra, you cry. When the milk tries to flow and the baby still sniffs around your chest, you cry. When the milk goes back to the body, back to your chest and vitamins back into blood—you feel stronger than ever. The baby gets fat and smiles and all the crying stops.

 

When the milk is a memory you see a glass full of it and only think: bottle. When milk is a memory and your chest softens, grows smaller—you can press against your love without pausing and the baby will coo next to you in his bassinet. When the milk is a memory, every tongue and hot breath to slow near your neck just becomes a cloud of rain-precipitate and your hand an umbrella to cup all the hours of wishing for milk missing the milk teasing the milk fooling the milk and you’ve been friends and frenemies with milk and when the time comes, milk never says good-bye. And when milk gets to where he is going—he never even sends a thank you note so don’t even bother to check your mailbox for his licked flap, his cancelled stamp.

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