Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 137
Orchid Image 3
Copyright © 2020 by Karl Ryden.
About the Photographer
Karl H. Ryden passed away in 2015. After receiving degrees in mathematics and biostatistics from UCLA. He worked on early cutting edge micro-computing at UCLA's School of Public Health, then information systems at Lockheed Martin. He later joined Disney, and ultimately became Vice President of Systems Support, Disney Worldwide Services. He traveled the world and became an accomplished nature photographer.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 137
The Heft of Mercy
Coldness is a lack, yet here it’s in increase—I feel the terrible weight of twilight as it falls, a despondent minx, while moths sandbag the river.
Looking at a fugue of trees lighting the monstrosity called life—black flak, speck, mass, caul, crows in ash, this silence rubbers, brays, is a crowned tooth in the grave.
Like the weight of a songbird before its singing, and after its death, nerves rivet the hasps of my spine—I remember how my father’s voice soaked me, like grapes in wild yeast and his knuckles, these were humpback guppies just under the skin.
The song, it sounded like a golden hair caught in the evening’s throat, and there were spinning wheels, gilled with stars, reeling.
Here where sounds simplify; those nights come back, nights where there was nothing but his purple shadow, all remote and not-remote, all craving, vertical and swollen, like a landscape under duress.
Tonight, volts of cream come swirling off the mountains, twisting, tearing apart, bone yellow with a crackle glaze—each sentence I build, dark as this storm-bruised water, unmakes me, like moss, soft as a stallion’s foam-flecked mane.
Unmade, this is not haiku: this is a smell like the metal rungs strung along my bed where the story is—my singular skin that was all so long ago.
But what lifts? For starters, these cream-colored clouds, and the chafing insects. This, as the lowering sun teases glitter from the river’s face and mist clings to ringlets of moss.
I like its quiet sheen. Singing a ditty about a man in love with a red horse, grasshoppers tumble from the reeds, snap like electricity.
Thronged, like braided silt, birdsong warbles up from the spiked heads of trees and ripples, like an anchor rope, which I also love.
While the fish rises through a portcullis of branches, algae sheathes my fishing line, beading it with emerald gobs. Frisky shadows line-ate fins as the silver hook catches the bejeweled jaw.
There’s a sloshing ache in my shoulder as I yank the fish aboard—intestines fall out, like magic scarves, as the spine reaches up through the muscled back.
While a finesse of bones dam its throat, translucent, straining, the glum inkling of beauty loosens, and beside it, my irrational hunger for wonder, truth and impermanence.
Because to name a thing is to say it will die, I let desire rise and risen, it’s writ in a red so ardent the walled heart of that fish should’ve burst into flame or bloom.
But it doesn’t. Instead, I squat on a shelf of sediment and release it, here where my father buried my face in the river’s laces. Oh, so long ago.
Blanketed, one might say the river became a figure for the weight of sin. Or, was the river was merely an old net? Waterlogged, was it heavier that night? Heavier than a body, waterlogged?
The pollywogs in their folds were hind-legged. They seemed quite incidental. One’s tail was replaced with the absence of tail. Sutured as a doctor would a thigh.
He used zip-ties, didn’t he? As he worked, the dog danced at his hip. One might’ve seen that dancing as a figure for hope.
How much later was it when a neighbor came to fix the fence, to mend the barbed-wire where the horse, the abode-brown yearling, had plunged through headlong, flecks of blood washed into the ditch by hours of rain?
The storm which bade her plunge, which fixed her eyes skyward in a rolling frenzy, hers alone, that terror, which had a texture like shorn velvet, sensuous, severe and alluring.
With a chainsaw, it took about an hour for the renderer to quarter her. I say the neighbor must’ve fixed the fence. Perhaps it fixed itself. No difference.
Ten years now, and still I love the uneven weight of grief. Not likely that one might call the panel-truck that removed the horse, a refrigerated hearse. Not impossible either.
As a child, I loved the disappearing act: the net as both artifact and artifice, its holes replaced with smaller holes, re-laced with something that wasn’t lace. How plastic tadpoles seemed when out of context, slick to the eye, dry to the touch.
I think often of the calm between waves, droplets lit by late sun, which might be called incidental.
He said the way I flinched resembled a gun-shy whelp. My tears, these were an over-ripe ellipsis, tears frayed by the formality of feeling that comes from a gun, even blanks when fired, tear holes in bolts of air.
Air: the cloak the living wear? I said I love the uneven weight of grief, but I mean that uneasily. Loved. Something that bucks tense.
Come spring, a tractor lays down fertilizer. My father probably never saw a beast like this churn and spew in the pasture, absurd in its lack of context—pistons for tendons, driven by a man in what looks like a party hat.
It sleeps there all night. If I shine a light, I can see how close the coyotes live to the house. How their eyes, in darkness, enumerate themselves, like stars, perhaps, or a droplet on a web. Of late it makes no difference.
Flayed without knives, without needles, almost like memory, the story goes like this: who is the wrong question, as is why. We skin, are skinned. By piece, or piecemeal.
Still, we light any way we can. Our bodies prism the world. As did that fish’s which flayed—yoked mica, deafened glint—among leaves, sticks, twigs.
The yearling’s skin, it, too, prismed, like handblown glass. Floating, it never felt like floating—when I discovered the horse, unseamed, spurting where the barbwire’s infinite awls bored through her tan-brown hide: the stone of her flesh rolled back.
But I made do. I ran, got a darning needle and a hank of yarn, stitched the horse right there in the pasture, letting my oversized needle zip in and out, like a dragonfly.
I’ve since learned that there are dragonflies called Devil’s Darning Needles. Maybe it’s true—it makes sense, at least—the one thing he wouldn’t leave me with was air, which is impossible to live without.
Air, that is, on the night my father dragged me into the river, there was none, but above me, while my lungs boiled like frogs, waterborne spiders swaddled dragonflies, which weighed next to nothing.
All this is old and visceral and grotesque, but my father, when he took the old pickup down to the sandpits to feed the dog, which he kept chained to a rusted stave—a raw-end rebar, ribbed like the fresh water mussels we dredged from the river bottom—the dog was likewise ribbed, a protrusion of need if not lack, and as we wended down the washboard road, I saw that it was serrated with sedge, that cleaned nothing and was itself unclean.
Peering through slats in the floorboards where the iron had rusted through, the dust rose up and into the pickup’s metal flanks—the dog, too, rose when it heard us rattle down the gravel road—creasing its bald forehead, oiling its arthritic joints with a few viscous licks.
As my father chucked rancid meat from the truck to land at the dog’s feet, he snarled at that stake, which was polished, like rawhide, by the gnashing of the dog’s teeth.
Years later, when my father’s body went into the river, I didn’t toss a clod of dirt in. Still, I wish I’d screamed my animal grief the way I did after I hauled myself out of the same river to lay in the dirt like a germ.
Instead, I pinpointed the chilling shriek of that yearling who’d nailed herself on the fence, and beyond her, mud and bluegill carcasses, as she sharpened her voice on lionized air.
A shrill cry. No choice in the matter, I climbed down to lift her up. I waded the muck and mire knock-kneed and unbalanced to save her.
Between the snap and buck of her gently coiled neck, I held her close to my chest, felt her blood coursing wild as I stitched her flesh, which hung, like a shirt.
When she leapt free of me and cleared the pit, my stomach dropped. Who knows where life’s logic comes from—that yearling, spotted like light below a stand of pines, she spoke only the wordless tongue of loss.
As she went down, impaled on the dog’s stake, the knotted muscle in my chest undid itself and how my father got there while the fish flew and the birds drowned, I’ll never know.
His monstrous eye, like a trompe l’oeil, went over the horse’s mane, its extravagance, which like consciousness was cut by cut by deep cut.
Her bleats, these she broadcasted, like gravel, her body jerking in an afternoon, thick as carrageen, its albumen strictly laid on the sky’s cream-laden pages.
Because the nose bone’s so close to the brain bone and the brain doesn’t have a bone, only an oafish sea wall, I had to believe that the yearling couldn’t feel the bullet bore into her.
But I could. Up above, buzzards rode the the heat signature of dusk.
Even the trees went mute, patient as slaves, as the yearling’s blood left sun spots all over the field beyond which the hills rose, were dark barbells.
Beneath the bent awning of barbwire on that fence, there were poppies, or if not poppies, then the downy heads of dandelions, heavy with humid air, or if not air, was it the heft of mercy that made them bow, slightly?
In my memory, the sky was blown, my skirt white as a headache. My shoulders, these became milk thistle as my father carpeted my body, took delight in my pain, which was the color of dirt.
Furrowed in their breathing, the trees rubbed sandpaper onto their branches, leaned away from us—my father, he left a strange taste in my mouth, of bile, of iron—where is she?—tell me—where is that bitter girl we both trashed, rusty as a brown rose?
But the river, cunning cat, bristled its brittle fibers—as he pushed me under, no one saw the wound I had from my chest up to my throat, like a garnet rainbow fanning open.
Above me the wind, pale as quail eggs, warped his face, like a decal. Then he was gone.
Wanting to go under until I broke like an egg, until the winged thing at the core of me became hard and brilliant and cutting like a torch, I caved.
I couldn’t breathe, no, how could I when the underwater moon was feeling all around me with its snakelike nose?
As I crawled out of the river, I shed wet light, was slowly wakened from my dream of the ruined world by the sound of rain falling onto the earth.
Because I drifted for a minute, an hour even, in pure, or almost pure response to the rain and the insouciant life all around me: cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing pilgrimage of water, the vast stillness of spellbound ephemera, animal voices, mineral hum, wind conversing like a collision, or the stuttering of fire to coal—then whatever was tethered in me, hobbled like the dog on his patch of gnawed grass and thistles, and was broken.
Because I knew that the earth will grow cold, a star among stars, and one of the smallest, a gilded mote on blue velvet—because our great earth will grow cold, not like a block of ice, or a dead cloud even, but like an empty walnut it will roll along in pitch-black space.
Because I knew this, I needed to grieve right then—I had to feel this sorrow—for the world must be loved this much if any of us want to say “I lived.”
While the serpentine and slapdash landscape turned blue, I grieved—so sparsely blessed this life, wherein whole lifetimes are writ on the undersides of leaves, leaves clogged with the neat procession of lush and flutter.
My father’s eyes, siphoned and dimming, demanded that I accept ardor as it was with its tear-splashed borders and stilted crippling, a romance that was earth-scummed because the hours never stop.
Bless his slivered soul, the dots of dinner in his beard because wasn’t he the collision course I had to lie under in order to rest? Bless him as he barreled into the dwindling novella of his days, as if already lowering his heralded bulk, with little fanfare, into the grave.
Time and disaster. A heavy landslide down the mountain. When my father stopped speaking to me what he really wanted was for me to stop speaking. To stifle the sound of my voice. I knew.
He didn’t want the quicksilver of it in his ear. What does it mean to silence another? For me, it meant ruminating on the rain hitting the roof, as I sat on the porch and asked for flight;—to make it through the grey-blue night.
Ghosts, like some kind of forever, saw what others in this broad dark could not: I set to make of nothing, the most, better: an ever-enlightening mark, like a piece of flint that if rubbed the right way, would sightlessly light that which would come down, give up, lift—and then there would be nothing left to say.
But no one will or can sterilize the lyricism of my sentence here on earth: the dark wood after the dark wood: the cold after cold in April’s blue staircase.
In this place where home can be translated as “then” or “scar”: more gone, less here, in the lurid present, cast and held, rooted, kept, like some old false-berried yew.
Just against; the door leading to preferment shut; no longer believing in, but still I was considered a wronged, corrupted thing, stripped: plain: thin.
Dare I commit that final fatal sin: in a close storm, rain plucked the mud like the gut of a violin, warm in the palindrome of air.
Like fire in the flue, we lived in the neck of an hourglass, its downpour, a silenced sonnet and pain, which remained so long in our home, it became me.
We succumbed to the dirt in the draperies, to the furrows on the wall’s forehead. We succumbed to the ticking hands of the clock as it dismembered us.
So was that all life could be? An index finger pointing toward the faraway? Snow falling for years yet failing to take shape? And life which entered from a hidden door every night with a dull knife.
The moon was witness to this—as were the little black fish moving through the capillaries in my fingers as he wrestled me into a life so narrow that we fell, finally, into the same pit the yearly leapt over. To her death.
Here then was where I, like a morbid bride, shot my father, point blank. The sound of the gun an affliction, or squalor—clearly, the bullet pummeled his brain’s bent fugue, until it was smelted in the starless dark.
Here where a deer drank from the middle of the river, kissing her reflection like a saint. Her eyes, these were soap bubbles, as she looked up, bolted.
While geese honked overhead, oñ-oñ-oñ, I dragged the body, in my white bobby socks, my hand bones, shining, into the fevered currents, into water that was a sealed aquarium, water which was predacious as it wept across the rheumy field with one footfall loud enough to nestle in the fox’s ear.
Watching my shadow flow like ink from my feet, the river—it folded back, a virgin’s skirt, no air there, none, only the livid carriers: wasp, mite, moth and the gnat which instilled its eggs, like rank seed pearls, into his bald eyes as he sank, an anchor with no rope, nor fish nor birds or song, yes, he sank, a silenced sonnet, bulls-eyed, bedeviled, like the black-ringed eye of the universe.
Because whatever lives bends down, unendurable. As does whatever dies, like haiku, or the smell of the metal rungs strung along my bed where this story is—in my singular skin that was all so long ago.
Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Kirschner.
About the Author
Elizabeth Kirschner is a writer who’s published six volumes of poetry and an award-winning memoir, Waking the Bones. The Heft of Mercy is from her unpublished short story collection, Only the Dead Suffer Butter. A Master Gardener and Prose Editor for Inklette, she lives in Maine.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 137
The Joy of an Immortal
(1st chapter of this unpublished novel, in search of a publisher)
“Heidegger: ’Anxiety is the experience of nothingness.’ But I liked that nothingness.“
—Carlo Alberto Volsatti
“If the only way to preserve that little I have is to keep my distance from others, then so be it.”
—Carlo Alberto Volsatti
“The world exists in order to be studied.”
—Carlo Alberto Volsatti
The past 64 years have seen Death walking towards me, without haste. He’ll arrive in eight days, on February 28th, 2018 (all even numbers). There’ll be one more tomb in this round cemetery called Earth.
No one will come to my funeral. But somebody from the funeral parlor will cross my hands across my chest. Underneath a double row of cypress trees my body will be placed in a coffin. I’m not frightened of death. I’m an atheist: I would never want to be seen by someone I can’t see. As a punctilious man, I’m bothered by novelties that throw me out of tune. But I have to admit that knowing the date of one’s death is very convenient: it facilitates scheduling one’s exit.
The 28th of the 2nd month of 2018 (I prefer odd numbers, and above all, number one) is the day on which this body—of an average height, middle age, full of normal organs—will stop. I could today, Tuesday, February 20th, 2018, begin to smoke or kill someone; I wouldn’t suffer grave consequences.
Yes, the 28th of the 2nd month of 2018 will call halt to the person whose sole aim is to live in perfect silence. A silence drawn out over 50 years. Unlike saints, I have never been interested in growing up, evolving, or self-amelioration. I have no yearning towards the heavens, manias of perfection or original sins to expiate. Above all, I have no interest in love— that oily, sticky, and corroded word.
I am composed of money and knowledge.
I want to remain how I was and where I was. I have always been alone and far from everyone. This is my body and this is my place, I once thought: I have everything that I need and whatever happens to humans is indifferent to me.
Salvation comes in foreseeing. Foreseeing, for the sake of one’s health, is salvation. Salvation is health. Losing one’s health is the true tragedy. I know how to live and I know how I want to live. But I also knew that one day my body, this luxury car, would make me get out. It was a big problem to figure out.
I have the common abilities of the common man. But in other people their minds whisper together with other confused voices; in my head, there’s only one voice. This sole voice, monotonous like a rosary, investigates all the solutions to problems. The final decision, perfectly analyzed, will be irreversible and unassailable. My body’s radio is always on.
Therefore, I went to America to find out how much time I had left to live. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, they studied my genome. My chromosomes are crosses with a plug in the bottom of the four arms, its telomeres my genetic stopwatch. The length of these announces the age of my death. The length was short. I am a machine programmed to live 64 years, four months and 18 days (there is safety only in numbers).
When I learned the exact date of my death, I waited, quite calmly, for the period of illness to draw near; and on the 12th day of the 2nd month of 2018, before the deadline, I wrote a letter to the stranger living in the house in front of mine: “Dear Sir,” it said, “you have intelligent eyes, and for this reason I permit myself to ask you a favor. Every morning we run into each other at the same time. If you don’t come across me anymore, I beg of you to immediately enter my residence and check to see whether I am dead or in a state of grave illness. If, for some reason, you can’t check, please delegate this task to someone you trust. I’ll leave a written declaration to the notary Baron Alberto di Dicomano that I will pay a thousand euro (1,000 euro) to whoever will come to my aid. I’m attaching here the keys to my home. My desire is to be taken to the Carzilli private clinic in Milan. Sincere regards, Carlo Alberto Volsatti.”
In fact, they came to pick me up one morning, four days ago. Now I’m writing from the bed of that clinic, more sumptuous than solemn. I write amid the coming and going of anxious nurses. I write to find peace again. I write to put my white ideas back in the overturned drawers of my mind.
I don’t write to leave a trace behind, to explain my motives, to analyze myself, to love myself more; no, none of this interests me. I write above all to put my affairs in order, in my mind. This will help me find the best way of resolving the bother of death and to pick up where I had arrived in the continual interrupted imbibing of knowledge. I want to prolong the unrestrained use of books, an addiction, akin to mithridatism. To re-establish my 50-year-old habits is my aim: my aim is to employ my time for the knowledge of the world without useless reflections. I’ll overcome death using what I have that is the most spectacular: logic. And I’ll get back the life that I want. The life that I want is articulated in a uniform rectilinear line, exempt from rifts and unhappiness and with a unique joy.
The title of my story, in fact, refers to the greatest joy of my life.
The greatest joy of my life, of this neither sad nor happy life, is defecating.
One day I discovered that I felt a great relief in ridding myself of excrement, and then feeling my empty belly and an overall extraordinary lightness. It was a joy that lasted for hours.
I could drink water in a hotel room in Buenos Aires but I would always empty my bowels at my home. In whatever part of the world I was, on whatever trip, however long it lasted, I never “marked my territory.” Only at 56 Via Maddalena di Canossa, apartment 1b, in Milan, did I liberate my bowels. I could restrain myself even up to a month. With complicated calculations I knew what to eat once I was travelling. Doubtlessly, a good astringent was eating unripe bananas. But the true secret to avoid defecating outside my home was to keep to a pure vegan diet in the two weeks preceding my trip. In fact, the morning of departure, with my suitcases all packed, I would have a last “appointment” and then leave. Indeed, without meat, the bowels emptied themselves completely in just a few hours, nothing was left. Once I was travelling, I would be careful to eat little, saving money, among other things, at restaurants. I tried to remember Caterina de’ Pazzi who—for 25 years—nourished herself on communion wafers and ecstasy, as her numerous biographers confirmed. That moment of freedom, that sadistic emptying, that tiring expulsion in the clean bathroom of my home, would give me then even more joy.
My mother used to tell how when I was two years old, she saw me under the dinner table, happily eating my excrement. She hurried to prevent me.
I am not coprophiliac, but I love to feel something unhealthy in myself emerge forth, like a filthy mouse.
Now it’s no longer like this. Today, the 20th of the 2nd month of 2012, I live on enemas. No, I no longer feel any joy. I expel without force waves of feces like pallid lynxes.
Today, the 20th of the 2nd month of 2018, is the celebration of the robust Saint Eleutherius. He quickly fled when a girl declared her love for him on the street. She poisoned herself, out of grief, and fell lifeless to the ground. According to the Acta Sanctorum, semi-biographical material, however, he resuscitated her, but her ungrateful family did not truly convert.
Today we also remember Saint Ulrich. Giovanni di Forde wrote that Ulrich read the mind of others and foretold the future.
I also read about another good man whom we celebrate today: Saint Eucherius of Lyon, who fought against Charles Martel so that they wouldn’t confiscate the Pope’s possessions, when the popes wore beards.
The saints are so numerous that the Church has to group them in twos or threes per day of the year. I remember all of them: I’ve spent every day of the last sixty years studying them.
I could have memorized any other subject, because I love to be hunched over books, but just by chance I devoted myself to this enormous field. My studies consist in being a deconstructionist: I dismantle culture, reducing it into particles, the tiniest possible.
I’ve been sealed in my room, after work, with those black tomes with golden edges, books whose pages must be cut, church books, books that have been held by priests and nuns, docile and pious people. Often I undertook research to investigate obscure histories of certain figures. I also travelled to sanctuaries, libraries and bookstores to supplement the information on the saint that I was studying. Everyone had a specific characteristic, expressed a specific religious dedication, and each person had a certain enemy, which was not always the devil himself.
I studied by myself, and I’d take the train alone from Milan to Messina, to San Francisco, to Munich . . . and alone I’d return. I’d go by myself, often bringing food from home. I’ve never had problems during my short life because I’ve always been alone. I’ve never had problems, no, not until these last four cursed days. I never had problems. Not even a mark on my criminal record, not even a small fine, not even a transgression. I’ve never had an argument, a fight with someone, because it’s contact with people, only this, that destroys us. It’s this stupid weakness of feeling alone that complicates life, a weakness to which I’ve never succumbed.
Now, for the past four days, I suffer because of the lack of solitude. For the past four days, I suffer the lack of the most handsome son of solitude—silence. When silence, like a dog that waits for you, fixes on a place, doesn’t go away. Silence and solitude created the walls of my home, an increasingly hard and compact material.
Now, over the past four days, I lack these two elements; I can’t relax myself anymore, calm myself, fall asleep.
Four days ago I didn’t have a double chin; now my thoughts go back and forth in time, even under and over, overlapping. I am becoming weak. Many people on this occasion become religious. I’m also acquiring a ridiculous sensibility, like a feverish person. I knew only one form of light pleasure, safe and daily, my long sessions on the toilet. Now in this hospital everything I see is painful: the squalid line of beds in double rows in the rooms, the coarse animal food, the soft flesh of my body half dead, and the coming and going of strangers. I begin an activity I’d never done: hate. And I write to hate even better. And the sincerity of my words will be my sword. I will be sincere, simplex, because I am not a man mixed with the world, I am pure, made of one sole element, my head is binary: on or off. Sincerity is a sword, but mine is sharper because I have no type of feelings at all.
Probably the greatest trouble of humans is stubbornly trying to love. I, isolated metic, didn’t practice war on the world, I didn’t oppose it: I wasn’t able to judge it good or bad, I simply lived at its side. I watched it. The world was a play. An open-air cinema.
Copyright © 2020 by Anna Leopardi.
About the Author
Anna Leopardi hails from Desenzano del Garda, Italy. She received a BA and an MA in Italy, and another master’s degree in London. She divides her time between Italy and England. She has written other novels but recently completed The Joy of an Immortal and is searching for a publisher for this novel. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 137
Anton Arcadia’s Supernatural Speakeasy
Ty had to stand on tiptoes to kiss Natalie’s lips, but he didn’t mind. The setting sun glinted off the front window of the Murrays’ butcher shop, framing Natalie’s face in a golden light as Ty looked up at her. A halo for an angel, he thought. Contrived, yes, and cheesy beyond all reason, but appropriate.
Lucy’s pitch-black parasol blotted out the light as she stepped up beside the couple. “Sure, you can’t come with us, Nat?” she asked. She leaned on Ty, resting her elbow on his shoulder. “I don’t mind third-wheeling if you two wanna have some more smoochy time on the dance floor.”
Ty’s face flushed red and Natalie laughed. “I’d love to, but this is one weekend I can’t afford to goof off,” Natalie said. “But I hope you two have lots of fun tonight!”
“I’ll make sure our boy doesn’t get into too much trouble,” Lucy said, mussing Ty’s already-messy auburn hair. “But I’ll make sure he gets into some, at least.”
“I’d really prefer none,” Ty said.
“And I’d prefer my best friend wasn’t the lamest man on campus,” Lucy said. “But we all have to play with the hands we’ve got.”
Natalie tried to hide her smile, but it shone through like another sunbeam and Ty felt himself melting in its glow. “You sure you don’t want me to stick around tonight?” he asked. “I know I can’t help much with your classwork, but—”
“I’m sure, Ty,” Natalie said, giving another small grin. “Let tonight be about you and Lucy, okay? Next weekend can be ours.”
“It’s a date,” Ty said.
Natalie leaned down to kiss him once more before finally turning to go, waving back at Ty until she turned the street corner and disappeared from sight. Lucy rolled her eyes as she opened the front door to the butcher shop and ushered Ty inside.
“Nat is way too cool for you, I hope you know that,” she said. Her mother looked up from behind the counter as the door slammed close and grunted in acknowledgment. “Of course, I’m too cool for you too,” Lucy continued, folding her parasol and putting it on the stand by the door. “Cool people like us just need uncool people like you to balance us out.”
“This place is for butchering animals, not roasting your friends,” Ty said.
“You never know. Maybe one day you’ll be on the menu.”
“You’ve been saying that for ten years.”
“I’ll stop saying it when it stops being funny.”
Lucy’s mother stepped up to the counter and sat down two plastic bottles, one filled with clear liquid and the other with red. Ty grabbed his water and took a few sips while Lucy eyed her own drink.
“What’s on tap today, Mama?”
“I said pork.”
“Pork it is.” Lucy uncapped the bottle and took a long, deep swig.
The sight of Lucy drinking blood had disturbed Ty the first time he saw it; he was twelve, and the revelation that his best friend wasn’t human hadn’t really sunk in yet. But in a decade of friendship, he’d grown accustomed to it. Vampires have to eat too, Lucy reminded him. And the butcher shop ensured that nothing went to waste: customers bought the meat while the family kept the blood for themselves. Human and supernatural symbiosis at its finest.
“I still don’t know how you found a girl like Nat,” Lucy said. “You’re just lucky I didn’t meet her first, else I’d have snatched her up all for myself. Or tried to, at least.” She winked. “We all know how irresistible I am.”
Ty rolled his eyes. “So, what’s the plan for tonight?” he asked. “Are you really dragging me out to a club, or can we just crash in your room and play Mario Kart?”
Lucy drummed her fingertips on the glass countertop. “If Nat was gonna be with us, maybe one of those would fly. But since we’re just the dynamic duo tonight . . . ”
Ty started to offer a suggestion, but a flicker of movement caught his attention outside the window, and he froze. A taller boy with jet black hair leaned against a streetlight, seemingly staring down at his phone in his hand. Yet Ty could see his eyes occasionally darting upward to glance at the butcher shop, as though waiting for someone to emerge.
Lucy followed Ty’s gaze and her playful expression instantly turned sour. “Oh no, don’t tell me this asshole is following you again.”
“I hadn’t seen him for a couple weeks,” Ty said, fidgeting nervously. “I thought maybe he’d finally let it go. But, well, you know Han.”
“I know he’s an asshole,” Lucy repeated. “You didn’t see me lurking around my ex when she dumped me.”
“Just let it go. If it gets any worse, I’ll call the cops.”
“Forget the cops, my family will make sure he never bugs you again. Hell, I’m tempted to go take a bite out of him myself. Right here, right now.”
Ty sighed. “Please, Lucy, don’t worry about him. You were so excited about hanging out tonight, let’s focus on that.”
Outside, the boy stood up straight, letting his gaze slide over the butcher shop window one more time. Ty could feel Han’s eyes settle on him, waiting a few seconds for any visible reaction, before finally moving on. Fists clenched at her sides, Lucy watched Han slowly stride away until he disappeared from her sight. “Fine, back to our business,” she said, letting out a long-held breath. “But I’m telling you now, I’d really love to sink my teeth into that guy next time we see him.”
Ty managed a weak smile. “Maybe next time,” he said. “Now come on, we’ll waste all our time if we don’t hurry up and make plans.”
Lucy chewed her lip thoughtfully, briefly exposing the tiny fangs that she normally kept hidden. She rattled something off in rapid-fire Spanish, too fast for Ty to understand, and her mother responded in kind. Lucy nodded to herself, uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, then chugged the rest of her pig blood in one gulp and slammed down the empty bottle. “Alright, I’ve made up my mind. We’re going to Anton’s.”
Ty raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to tell me what that is?”
“Not right now,” Lucy said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “The occasion calls for a certain element of mystery.”
“Lucy, I swear if you try taking me to another cult—”
“That was a one-time mistake.”
Before Ty could say anything more, Lucy grabbed his hand and pulled him to the door. “So, we’re going out, I take it?” he asked.
Lucy just smiled. “Let’s roll. The sun is down, and the night is just beginning.”
The two bid a quick farewell to Lucy’s mother and stepped outside. Lucy chattered nonstop as she led Ty down the sidewalk, talking about how much fun they’d have and how she wished Natalie could have joined them. But even with her voice raised to be heard over the general din of city traffic, Ty didn’t catch a word of her ramblings. His every sense was directed to taking in his surroundings, watching and waiting for any sign of Han’s returning presence. Simply knowing that the other boy had been nearby left Ty feeling that the city itself was rejecting him, refusing to allow him any sense of comfort. But for all his concerns, Han was nowhere to be seen.
After walking a few blocks, Lucy stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk, nearly causing Ty to run into her. “Here we go!” she said, gesturing to a plain-looking door leading into the nearest building. A sign on the sidewalk identified the establishment as “The Fairy Ring” and advertised five-dollar margaritas.
“Lucy, if you think hanging out at a gay bar will make me feel better, then you have grossly misjudged this situation.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“I won’t dignify that with an answer.”
They entered the bar together and Ty was simultaneously disappointed and relieved. The dim dining room was almost completely deserted. The only other inhabitants were the bartender, a couple girls chatting quietly at the bar, and a man in a suit standing along the back wall.
“I admit, I was expecting something a bit more spectacular,” Ty said. “But I’m definitely down for a quieter evening if you are.”
Lucy smirked. “Please, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” She approached the man at the back and Ty watched, confused, as she chatted in hushed undertones with the man until he nodded in apparent understanding and stepped aside, revealing a door labeled “VIP Only.” Lucy gestured for Ty to follow and he hesitantly moved to join her.
“So, what, you’re getting us into some fancy exclusive club?”
Lucy laughed. “Exclusive? Nah, man. Exactly the opposite.”
With that, she opened the door and pulled Ty inside.
The sensory wave that crashed over Ty nearly swept him off his feet. It was certainly a club, at least that assumption had been correct. A crowded dance floor dominated the center of the room and strobe lights painted the space in vibrant pinks, blues, and purples. The air itself was energized, vibrating with the rhythm of pounding music, laughing voices, and clinking glasses — how had none of that permeated into the bar’s front dining room? Ty’s mind spun with visual and audial stimulation, overwhelmed, but not unpleasantly so.
Ty stepped aside as a tall figure in a trench coat entered the room behind him. Then, as the door closed behind them, the coat dropped to the floor and the three small men inside leapt out. One of them nodded to Ty in greeting before joining the others in carrying their discarded disguise to the coat check in the corner of the room. Ty blinked a few times and turned to Lucy.
“Uh, were those—”
“Brownies,” she said. “Can’t exactly walk around outside when you’re two feet tall without drawing attention.”
Ty simply nodded, his gaze wandering around the club once again as he realized for the first time that everyone in the room was distinctly nonhuman.
Brownies wove around the legs of the partiers, always underfoot but never tripping up. The floor shook slightly as a pair of twelve-foot giants felt the urge to dance a few steps, inviting a chorus of amused and delighted laughter from their surrounding companions. Even those who appeared more visibly human had some detail, large or small, that set them apart: horns, tails, one eye, no eyes, blue skin, scaly skin. Ty swallowed hard, feeling the distinct impression that he was just an unremarkable goldfish swimming into a vibrant tropical reef.
“Lucy?” Ty asked. “Where the hell have you brought me?”
“Right where you should be, kid!”
The voice did not come from Lucy. An old man appeared before them with no warning; Ty wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t just materialized out of thin air. His white suit, pants, and shoes matched his hair and beard, with a pink bow tie adding a mild splash of color to his ensemble. He bowed deeply to Ty before straightening back up and flashing the most dazzling smile the boy had ever seen.
“Always nice to see a new face around here,” he said. He clapped Lucy on the back good-naturedly. “So, this is your friend, eh? Glad you got him to come, Lucy.”
Ty’s face flushed red, equal parts embarrassed, nervous, and bewildered. “Uh, sorry, I still don’t really know what’s going on.”
“I didn’t explain to him beforehand,” Lucy admitted sheepishly. “This was a surprise for him.”
“Aha, so that’s it,” the old man said. “Well then, allow me to make the introductions myself.” He threw up his arms in a grandiose gesture to the entire room. “Welcome, new friend, to Anton Arcadia’s Supernatural Speakeasy!” A cheer went up around the room in response to the loud decree. The man extended a hand toward Ty. “I am the aforementioned Anton Arcadia. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Ty reluctantly accepted the handshake. “Uh, you too. I’m Ty.”
“Wonderful, wonderful,” Anton said, enthusiastically shaking Ty’s hand. “Welcome to the club, Ty. Make yourself right at home. After all, this place is for everyone.”
“I’ll show him around,” Lucy said. “We’ll have him settled in here in no time.”
“That’s my girl!” Anton said. He flashed one more radiant smile at Ty. “If you ever need me, just ask. I’ll always be there for everyone who has a place here.”
Ty wasn’t sure if he even blinked, but a split second later, Anton was halfway across the club, chatting with a cyclops at the edge of the dance floor. “Lucy, I’m still not sure I understand . . . well, anything.”
Lucy put an arm around his shoulder. “Sorry, I know this is a lot for someone unfamiliar with all this. But no worries, I’ll get us some drinks and then we’ll get to having some real fun.”
She guided Ty toward the bar along the back wall, past a group of dancing werewolves, their tails wagging excitedly with the beat of the music. One of them let out a sudden howl and quickly covered her mouth, apologizing profusely to everyone else around her. On the opposite side of the dance floor, the winding shape of a serpentine dragon rose over the crowd, rhythmically spiraling upward into the air. Yet as it flew ever higher, the ceiling remained a comfortable distance above it, never seeming to grow nearer even as the floor grew farther away. Ty felt a rush of mild nausea as he watched, overcome with the dizzying, impossible sensation that the room itself was stretching around him. Shuddering, he forced his eyes down and drew himself a little closer to Lucy.
“See, ole Anton opened up this place a long, long time ago,” Lucy said as they walked. “Don’t ask me how long, I’m not sure anyone really knows that. But basically, this is the place for everyone in the city who doesn’t fit in.” She vaguely gestured to the crowd in the middle of the room. “Everyone here, all us ’special’ folk, where else are we supposed to have to ourselves in the middle of the concrete jungle? Anton makes sure that this space is always open for anyone and everyone who has nowhere else to call their own. And in a world dominated by humans, that includes every supernatural entity.“
Ty nodded. Whatever kinds of weird beings he was surrounded by now, he understood that universal desire. But if this was a place for them, he wondered, then what did that make him for being there?
He and Lucy stepped up to the bar, which was packed with creatures of various shapes and sizes. A party of vaguely humanoid beings with pale blue skin—some kind of river spirits, he quickly concluded—drunkenly rambled about the pollution permeating their homes, while a neighboring wood spirit sobbed about the loss of her tree, chopped down to make way for a parking lot. Beside the bar, a pair of snow-white unicorns drank from a trough filled with glittery pink liquid.
Ty raised an eyebrow at the sight. “Lucy, why are there unicorns in the club?”
“Oh, Willow and Frank? They’re police horses. Or they used to be, their unit just got shut down a few weeks ago, so now they’re out of a job. Real shame, they used to be such party animals. Now they just come straight to the trough and drink taffy brew till they can’t see straight.”
“No, I mean. They’re unicorns. Like, basically horses, right? And I saw some kind of dragon earlier too. How does that work out in a club for people?”
“Well they’re still intelligent magical creatures, Ty. They’re as outcast in the city here as anyone else, so Anton has a place for them.”
Lucy hopped up onto a barstool, joined a moment later by Ty, and the bartender immediately moved to serve them. He looked human enough in his physical appearance, but his long blue robes and the caddy of various wands sitting behind the bar quickly told Ty that this man was something else entirely.
“Hey, bartender!” Lucy greeted. “I’ll take a Bloody Mary! O-positive!” The bartender didn’t respond but got straight to work, dropping a few ice cubes in a glass and pouring in a blue liquid that smelled sickly sweet, like antifreeze. He added in a few more dashes from other brightly colored bottles until the concoction started glowing, at which point he carefully selected a wand from his caddy and started stirring. “This guy’s a real wizard,” Lucy said; Ty couldn’t tell if she meant it literally. “There’s no better magical mixologist around. And he’s never even tasted a drop in his life.”
The bartender sat Lucy’s drink in front of her, then placed a glass of clear liquid in front of Ty. A slight mist rose up from inside.
“Trust me, drink up,” Lucy said, taking a long draw from her own glass. “He just has to look at you to know what you want.”
Ty hesitated, then took a sip. “It tastes like Coke.”
“Is that what you wanted?” the bartender asked, his voice barely a whisper.
Ty paused. “Yes,” he said after a moment. “Is it alcoholic?”
“Do you want it to be alcoholic?”
“No, just asking.”
Ty finished his drink without another word, listening while Lucy chatted amiably with the river spirit beside her. This was nice, he thought. Strange, but nice. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that had followed him since he entered the room.
Lucy turned back to Ty as the bartender brought them both another drink. “So, wanna hit the dance floor after this round? Lemme tell you, the folks around here have some serious moves.”
“Lucy, why did you bring me here?”
“What do you mean?” Lucy asked, taken off guard.
“Come on, you introduced me to the supernatural side of the world when we were kids. I’ve met your family and a few friends, but no one and nothing else in the whole decade since. And then now you just bring me here out of the blue?”
“I don’t know, it just came to me!“ Lucy said, laughing nervously. “It’s fun, right? I love this place and I thought you would too.”
“But this is your place,” Ty said. “I’m the only human here!” He stopped, craning his neck to look down the bar. “Wait, is that guy on the end a human?”
Lucy stretched to follow his gaze. “Uhhh no, sorry. He’s a wereman. Wolf that turns into a man during the full moon. Very confusing for the pack.” The naked man’s leg twisted upward at an impossible angle and he scratched the back of his head with his disturbingly unkempt toenails.
“See, that’s my point,” Ty said. “I’m glad you wanted to bring me along, but I feel so out of place here, like I’m intruding on your personal ground.”
“But now you’re the one missing the point!” Lucy said. She took a deep breath. “Look, I brought you here because I thought it would help keep Han and his bullshit out of your head. There are too many people like him that will always try to tell you where you do and don’t belong. And, well, you heard what Anton said, right?”
Ty surveyed the room and spotted Anton near the coat check with a group of gnomes, helping them get back into their human disguise to leave. Anton looked human too, he thought, but the longer he looked, the less sure he was. The air seemed to shimmer around the man and sometimes Ty caught brief flashes of other shapes, like his form wasn’t entirely settled. Extra arms, feathered wings, countless eyes dotting his face; Ty’s vision tried to explain what his mind failed to grasp, all of the things that he could and could not see.
“You’re right where you should be.” Lucy’s voice snapped Ty back to attention. “Anton has always, always said this is a place for everyone,” she continued. “And that includes humans like you.”
“Then why am I the only one here?”
Any answer that Lucy may have formulated was interrupted as three bats suddenly divebombed Ty, circling around his head. He yelped in surprise and instinctively cowered away.
“Ayyy, Lucy brought us some new meat!”
“I bet he tastes like chicken.”
“Knock it off, guys,” Lucy said, waving the bats away from Ty. “I’m the only one allowed to tease him like that.”
“Aww, we were just jokin’.” Two of the bats landed on the floor and morphed into human shape, appearing as black-haired young women in all black clothes and bright red lipstick. Even if he hadn’t just watched them transform from bats, Ty would have safely assumed they were vampires.
The third bat perched on Lucy’s shoulder and excitedly waved one wing in front of her face. “Check this out, Luce! I finally got that wing piercing I always talked about!” Indeed, a small gold ring encircled the crest of his right wing, halfway down its length.
Lucy laughed. “Wow looks real nice. And when you’re not a bat?”
If bats could blush, Ty was sure this one would be red in the face. Slowly, shamefully, he landed on the floor and took on his human form, and the ring now appeared directly on the tip of his elbow. Lucy and the two girls laughed, and the boy quickly turned back into his bat form, stammering incoherently in a vain attempt to defend his pride.
“Sorry about that,” Lucy said to Ty, stifling her giggles. “These are my cousins. Mina, Bella, and Henry.” She turned to the three vampires. “And this is my friend Ty.”
The two girls looked Ty up and down. Mina pursed her lips. “And you’re . . . human.”
Ty grimaced. “Yep.”
Henry gave a low whistle. “That’s a new one. But hey, any friend of Luce is a friend of us all.”
Perhaps it was just Mina and Bella’s disinterested expressions, but Ty felt no comfort in the words. Lucy glanced between him and her cousins and Ty knew despite her smile that she was gauging the tension in the air. Maybe she’d had the best intentions in bringing him along, but he couldn’t understand why she was so dead set on keeping him here. If he felt so uncomfortable in this space, he could only imagine the effect he had on everyone else around him, everyone who belonged.
Finally, it was Mina who broke the silence. “Come on, Luce, you gotta come fly a couple dances with us,” she said, beckoning to her cousin.
“It’s been too long,” Bella added. “Come on, for us.”
Lucy hesitated, glancing at Ty. He gave a small smile. “Go ahead, have some fun,” he said. “I’ll be fine on my own in the meantime.”
She lingered a moment longer before nodding. “Okay, but you’re giving me the next dance. Promise me that.”
“Of course,” Ty said. With a last look back, Lucy jumped up from her stool, taking on her bat form and soaring up with her cousins, joining a circling throng of bats and other small, flying creatures in the air above the dance floor.
Ty watched them for a few minutes as he finished his drink. The dance did sound tempting, he admitted, but he knew he wouldn’t be sticking around for it. He sat down his glass and stood up, hesitating a moment before dropping a crumpled bill on the bar; he had no idea if money meant anything to the bartender, but hopefully the gesture would at least get across.
He ducked into the bathroom as he made his way toward the exit, but immediately backed out again, not wishing to get involved in what he could only describe as some kind of troll drug deal. He kept a careful eye out for both Lucy and Anton as he headed on toward the door, but Lucy was occupied with her cousins and Anton was nowhere to be seen. Good, he thought. No need to make this a bigger deal than it was.
He opened the door and stepped out of the club, back into the still-abandoned bar in the front of the building. He felt the bouncer eyeing him with concern, and for a moment he worried that the bigger man would try to stop him from going. But the bouncer made no further moves as Ty exited the bar.
He strolled down the sidewalk, mentally kicking himself. Even if he still wanted to leave, he should have at least told Lucy he was going. What kind of jackass just abandoned their friend like that? Then again, she’d been the one to take him, a human, to the Supernatural Speakeasy. Surely, she could have figured that he would have felt like an intruder. But no, he chided himself, it was a kind gesture on her part, even if it hadn’t panned out. He pulled out his phone to text Natalie that he’d left, or maybe first to apologize to Lucy for ditching her. But before he could type a single letter, a strong arm grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him into a shadowed alley.
In a single quick movement, Ty was thrown to the ground, his phone dropping from his grip and skittering across the pavement. Han stood over him, his face twisted in an ugly, angry mask.
“Hanging out at a gay bar, huh?” Han picked up the dropped phone, looking at the open message to Natalie on the cracked screen, and sneered. “And does she know about it?”
Ty pushed himself backward across the concrete, frantically looking and feeling for anything he could use to defend himself. “You shouldn’t be here, Han,” he said, trying and failing to keep his voice from trembling. “Please, just let this go.”
“What, like you let me go?” Han said. “For her?” He took a step toward Ty. “You can’t have it both ways, Ty. No going on our turf when you’ve got her.”
Ty managed a smirk as he climbed back to his feet. “Your turf? Have you ever even been in the Fairy Ring? That place is dead.”
“I don’t care about one crummy bar,” Han said, his anger boiling over again. “But I’ll fight like hell to keep you from setting foot in there, or anywhere else. As long as you’re with her, there’s no place for you!” As his words reached their fever pitch, he lunged, fist raised.
And promptly fell backwards, landing on his back on the ground.
“Well now, this doesn’t seem right.”
Anton Arcadia himself stood in the entrance to the alley, his arms crossed over his chest. Han leapt back up, turning on the old man with fury in his eyes. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but stay out of this!” he said, clenching his fists tightly. “This has nothing to do with you!”
“It does now,” Anton said. His expression changed, becoming almost sad. “Honestly, though, what’s the point of this? You know as well as anyone how it feels to be treated like an outsider. And you’d want to push someone else who shares that feeling even further out?”
Han gave a short, humorless laugh. “Shares the feeling? He’s dating a girl now. He never has to share this feeling again!”
“Says the guy about to beat him up unprovoked in an alley.”
Anton’s statement visibly halted Han for the briefest of moments. Then he brushed it aside. “Oh, fuck this,” Han said, and he charged at Anton.
From Ty’s perspective, Anton remained completely motionless. Yet somehow, in a matter of seconds, Han was on his hands and knees, the wind driven from his lungs, blood dripping onto the pavement from both his nose and lip. He gasped for air, taking in great, heaving breaths, as he tried to stand, only to stumble back to the ground.
Anton stepped past him, pausing only to straighten his bow tie. “Are you hurt?” he asked, looking Ty up and down with concern.
“N-no, just fine,” Ty said, his whole body shaking after all he’d just seen. “What did you do? What are you doing here?”
Anton gave another one of his dazzling smiles, and Ty swelled with the warmth that flowed out from it. “I just wanted to see you safely on your way,” Anton said, putting a hand on Ty’s shoulder. “And to remind you that the door is always open.”
“I’m sorry,” Ty said, sighing. “Being in your club felt like I was in a space where I didn’t belong.” His gaze fell to linger on Han, who had regained his footing and was staggering away from the alley, not looking back, and a few unbidden tears sprung to the corners of his eyes.
Anton watched Han go as well and took a deep breath. “You know, kid, I misspoke before. The Supernatural Speakeasy isn’t a place for everyone.” He scratched his beard, contemplating for a moment before continuing. “Sure, it’s not only for the supernatural folks who have nowhere else to go. But it’s not for just any random human, either.”
Ty raised an eyebrow. “So, what, I’m special?”
“Yes and no,” Anton said. “Of course, you’re unique in the sense that everyone is. And of course, you have shared experiences with other people as well. That’s the part I’m interested in.” He took a few steps back from Ty so as to look him straight in the eyes. “We’ve not done the best job of putting out the word for people like yourself. So, tell your friends! Tell everyone you know who struggles to find their place in the world that they’ll fit right in at Anton Arcadia’s Supernatural Speakeasy!”
Ty stayed still for a long moment, then his lips turned up in a smile and he nodded emphatically. Brushing his tears away, he stepped forward into Anton’s open arms, sharing in a soft, warm embrace. After a few seconds that felt like hours, Anton pulled back, spotting something on the ground. “Oh, almost forgot this.” He picked up Ty’s phone and handed it back to him.
Somehow, Ty wasn’t surprised to see that the cracked screen was fully repaired. “Thanks, I should let Natalie know I’m okay. I hope Lucy didn’t text her when I left before.” He followed Anton out of the alley and back onto the sidewalk.
“Should I walk you back home?” Anton asked. “It’s no trouble.”
Ty hesitated. “No, I’ve got new plans.”
Anton didn’t speak, but as the two walked back toward the doors of the Fairy Ring and the secret speakeasy hiding within, Ty could feel the old man’s dazzling smile bathing them both in its glow, and he wondered if this was a another kind of halo.
Copyright © 2020 by Nathan Woolard.
About the Author
Nathan Woolard is a recent graduate from the MFA Creative Writing Program at the California Institute of the Arts. Prior to that, he earned a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. He hopes to build a career writing fiction novels and short stories, as well as writing for animation films and television shows. He has a self-published fiction novel, White Rose, and a short story excerpt in the CalArts Next Words Anthology, titled Nightjar.