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Alicia Case
 
Ascension
 
I think of the day the hot air balloons drifted
into our city
 
and I watched as a purple and red one climbed
behind the house
 
across the street and I followed my mother’s green bicycle
to the river
 
where the valley opened wide like a mouth.
 
Fifty-three orbs, their torches and baskets hanging
in the dawn
 
and my mother’s smile repossessing her face.
 
What was it like for her the year after my father
left us? She said
 
it was like sleep and it was like God
lifting her up
 
the way she floated with the balloons, the dark city
beneath her.
 
 
 
Margaret Kaufman              
 
from Life Saving Lessons
 
            When bubba died, I saw a man I hadn’t seen since the summer Elizabeth and I were twelve, the summer of breasts and love and life saving lessons.
            “We must, we must, we must increase our busts,” we chanted, arms moving up and down, Coke bottles clenched in each hand. It was stifling hot in Elizabeth’s room with the door closed, but this was a secret pursuit. Nobody except our young aunt Ruby knew about these exercises designed, we prayed, to give us breasts. She didn’t put much faith in them.
            “Things happen when they happen,” she told us. “If you want exercise, you’d be better off swimming.”
            Elizabeth and I liked to swim, not so much for the activity as for the lifeguards, one in particular, our idea of perfection, just out of high school, going to Fayetteville that fall. For now, he sat on his perch with limbs like a statue’s—thick and perfectly formed. When we walked past, we could see pale blond hair on his calves, more on his chest. We dared each other to speak to him.
            “Hey, O.T.,” Elizabeth drawled. “Hey” was foreign to me, the Yankee cousin from St. Louis. We said “Hi” and so my salute was slightly off.
            “Hey, Yankee,” O.T. answered. “When you girls signin’ up for Life Saving?”
            Life Saving. We hadn’t dreamed we were eligible. We’d watched him instructing Gwendolyn and Mary Beth for the past week, but they were fourteen. We’d observed with longing the way O.T. towed them across the pool demonstrating rescue, the girls’ bodies obediently limp as if half-drowned. The way, after lessons, the girls stepped out of the pool, shedding water, their arms making brisk brushokes now against their newly rounded hips. The way O.T. watched their wet ruffling from his re-claimed roost.
            Elizabeth and I became brave. Big on Greek gods and goddesses that summer, we’d nick-named O.T. “Apollo” because his skin was bronze. The sailor cap he wore rolled down to shelter his eyes distracted from the image, but we felt that without it, he would look like the Apollo in the encyclopedia at the public library.
            This was 1953. You had to go some to see pictures of male bodies, adorned or otherwise, and we had found the Britannica a good source, art books similarly rich in possibility. The librarian had no idea what we were so interested in. Our taste was catholic: it ran to anything explicit, male or female, but there was something furtive about our paging through those books. At any time, the librarian with a slight but definite mustache might loom up silently, “Finding what you want?”
            At Uncle Bubba’s and Ruby’s house, there was yet a better book, a huge coffee table volume of American paintings. Elizabeth and I each had our favorites, and Ruby didn’t mind what we looked at. She was not yet thirty that summer, our youngest great-aunt, and for that reason we didn’t “Aunt” her. She exclaimed with us as we turned pages. Frequently we made up stories based on the pictures. The ones we liked best had people in them, and one that drew us always was a Thomas Hart Benton, “The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley.” A woman in a pink dress clutched her breast. Blood flowed. A farmer stood before her, dagger in hand, hat tilted. In the foreground, an indifferent trio of musicians played fiddles and harmonicas, oblivious to the drama behind them.
            “Never,” said Ruby, “take up with a jealous man. Look what can happen to a woman, and nobody does a damn thing about it. That girl is going to bleed to death for sure. And over what? She had a generous and loving nature is all I can see.” We shook our heads, sad for that poor woman.
            “Another thing,” said Ruby, who loved an audience, “never take up with a musician. Look at those men,” she pointed to the trio. “In a world of their own, is what.”
            “And Orpheus,” one of us would say, sinking into this lovely afternoon litany, “look what he did to poor Euridyce.”
            “Don’t never look back,” said Ruby then, “that’s what you have to learn from that one.”
            Here was a man running with a baby in his arms, a ladder against the house behind him. In a hushed voice Ruby told us about the Lindbergh kidnapping. We shivered. We worried. Grandmother’s house was low. Our shared room was by the driveway, and sometimes, after dark, men came to the window seeking Grandfather to come out and deliver babies or sew up wounds. We’d got used to those urgent tappings, but what if, some evening, it wasn’t a patient but a kidnapper? Ruby laughed.
            “Scream bloody murder,” she advised. “It would save your life. Unless of course there’s just musicians around. That poor woman.” She’d flip the pages back to The Jealous Lover.
 
 
 
Natalie Diaz
Honorable Mention
 
The Elephants
 
                        Hast thou not seen what thy Lord did with the possessors of the elephant?
                                                                        ~Al-Fil, Chapter 105, Qur’an
 
 
My brother still hears the tanks
            when he is angry—they rumble like a herd of hot green
                        elephants over the plowed streets inside him, crash through
 
the white oleanders lining my parents’ yard
            during family barbecues, great scarred ears flapping, commandin
                        a dust storm that shakes blooms from the stalks like wrecked stars.
 
One thousand and one sleepless nights
            bulge their thick skulls, gross elephant boots pummel
                        ice-chests, the long barrels of their trunks crush cans of cheap beer
 
and soda pop in quick, sparkling bursts of froth,
            and the meat on the grill goes to debris in the flames
                        while the rest of us cower beneath lawn chairs.
 
When the tusked animals in my brother’s miserable eyes
            finally fall asleep standing up, I find the nerve to ask him
                        what they sound like, and he tells me, It’s no hat dance,
 
and says that unless I’ve felt the bright beaks of ancient Stymphalian birds,
            unless I’ve felt the color red raining from Heaven and marching
                        in my veins, I’ll never know the sound of war.
 
But I do know that since my brother’s been back,
            orange clouds hang above him like fruit made of smoke,
                        and he sways in trance-like pachyderm rhythm
 
to the sweet tings of death music circling
            circling his head like an explosion of blue bottle flies
                        haloing him—I’m no saint, he sighs, flicking each one away.
 
He doesn’t sit in chairs anymore and is always on his feet,
            hovering by the window, peeking out the door, Because,
                        he explains, everyone is the enemy, even you, even me.
 
The heat from guns he’ll never let go
            rises up from his fists like a desert mirage, blurring
                        everything he tries to touch or hold—If we cry
 
 
when his hands disappear like that, he laughs,
            Those hands, he tells us, Those little Frankensteins
                        were never my friends.
 
But before all this, I waited for him
            as he floated down the airport escalator in his camouflage BDUs.
                        An Army-issued duffel bag dangled from his shoulders—
 
hot green elephants,
            their arsenal of memory, rocking inside.
                        He was home. He was gone.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Johnie O’Neal
 
Cotton-Picker
 
I
 
The hair on his temple is pulled back more
from the scar, white against the clay
color of his skin. Sometimes, out here
I believe the story he is half Osage,
making me an eighth. He kneels
among the tall prairie grasses, finds one
tufted with white, seedy down, and his fingers
close around one of the thorny cotton heads
as if it were a baseball. He shows me
the grip for a southpaw’s sidearm curve. Dizzy
Dean, he says, he could make the hard ball
sing three up three down like a national
anthem just for pitchers. He limbers up, then
heads back across the outer field
to the house where I lived until I was nine. Fired
orange by the light at sundown, his coloring
makes the Osage Indian story
more than an old man’s tale.
 
II
He pitches a burlap sack
into a corner. It collapses
like a lung, the cotton-balls
spilling out onto the dirt floor
like water, but dry, as dry as his mouth
the morning after he killed
a pint of Thunderbird.
He knows I’ve come back
from someplace where they tell me
to say as little possible. Neither of us needs
to speak, breath hard after
a lesson in his fields. Later
in his rocker he will fall asleep, drowning
in the dream of pitching
in the majors, and not wake up
until after dark, when I have gone
again, back to the school
of fewer words, unsure what day it is.
 
 
 
Patricia Grace King
 
from Dogs in Guatemala
 
 
            All the dogs in Guatemala are like this. It’s what Laurie wants to tell her, this college sophomore crying in the street over yet another brutalized puppy, except she can’t imagine a worse moment for explanations. 
            “Come on, Arabella.” Laurie touches the girl’s sharp-boned back. “We can’t just hang around out here. Not in the dark.”
            But Arabella falls to her knees on the sidewalk, stretching tremulous fingertips toward the dog. Scuttling down the edge of this no-name park, the puppy is oblivious of them, his muzzle thrust inside an old bean can. There’s no sound but the amplified banging of his can on the hard-packed dirt, his once-lush tail rustling behind him like a sullied white train. Cocker spaniel, most likely: one of the cuddly types the dog vendors specialize in. By day, they camp out in this park, middle-aged women who stand on the curb with crates of small wriggling dogs at their feet. Or they dangle a fat furry handful of cocker spaniel or poodle out over the street, as morning traffic grinds past. They make a couple of pups sit together on top of a high stack of boxes, so high the dogs can’t jump down. 
            Every morning for two years, Laurie has seen this. Normally, after the sun’s up—when it’s safer—she walks out from the Peace Action house in Zona 1, Guatemala City’s decrepit old heart, to buy the paper in Parque Central. She reads it aloud to her teammates, though they’ve all come to Guatemala to stay and are no longer shocked by the news: University students kidnapped as they step off their campus, a leading journalist’s house set on fire, a judge on the Constitutional Court shot through the head in his driveway. Reporting these matters—or teaching them to students like Arabella, who come on brief learning tours—is Laurie’s job. Here’s what happened, and how, and to whom. The follow-up question must be, What can we do about it?  It keeps the bad news just bearable. 
            Explanations are Laurie’s strong suit, part of her work. But the dog hawkers don’t fit into any Peace Action report or lecture to visiting students. They are one of those things she sees but tries not to see. Most days, however, she still thinks of the dogs, how they quiver together on their wobbly box towers, stranded in air.
           Now here, before sunrise, is one of their lot—a stray?—snuffling among the day-old tabloids and empty Tortrix bags that litter the park, and nobody else is around. Only Laurie, who wants to keep moving, and this teary twenty-year-old who won’t listen to her. 
           “I can’t leave you out here alone.” Laurie tries to keep the apprehension out of her voice. 
           It’s the end of the third decade of war, the tenth year of the Army’s scorched-earth campaign. They have burned whole towns to the ground, with people in them. Draining the ocean to get rid of certain fish, as one General put it.   The Army’s death squads patrol these streets every night, their black Chevy vans with dark-tinted windows hunting down writers, union leaders, students: anyone who might still support the guerrilla.
           “Poor puppy, can’t we help him?” Arabella wails from the pavement. “He must be lost.” 
           Ten minutes earlier, Laurie showed up at the guesthouse where the visitors in her charge are staying, to share early breakfast with them. But the first thing the other kids told her was that Arabella had left for a jogWhat?” Laurie said. “Who let her do that?” She banged out the front door before it shut behind her, and didn’t stop running till she saw the pony-tailed figure in a silver-gray Gore-Tex tracksuit, on her knees at the edge of the park. 
           “Arabella. We can’t do anything for him. We need to get in off the street.” 
           The dog shakes the can loose and notices them. His forelock is matted, his jowl smeared with beans. He cowers and whines, then shrinks away into the park, and Laurie’s chest tightens with pity. She could pick him up in one sweep, zip him into the front of her sweatshirt.       
           The dog’s retreat seems to unlock Arabella. “Oh my god,” she breathes and, before Laurie can stop her, hastens after him into the darkness. The park’s trees close around her and blot out the shine of her tracksuit.
            Squinting after her, Laurie hesitates on the sidewalk. “Give me a fucking break.” 
Normally she wouldn’t enjoy being out in Zona 1 at quarter till six; normally she’d walk fast and hold onto her Mace or her knife. But today she ran after Arabella with nothing at all in her hands, nothing in her head but the notion of bringing her back. And the guilty image she’s pushed down this past hour won’t leave her alone any longer: an image of the man who secretly slept last night in her house. A guerrilla, who arrived after supper, bedded down on the spare cot, and slipped out before dawn, before she did. Laurie had said Yes to him, and endangered them all.    
 
 
 
Joelle Biele
 
First Snow
 
It was December, morning dark, first
snow, you called and wanted to go
for a drive. You came before the plows,
and I remember we went down the hill,
then over, there was the stream, black against
white, the blacker trees. We didn’t get far.
Did you see the car, the girl, or was it
me, was she already standing or did
she open the door? She flagged us down.
We pulled him out, her grandfather, our coats,
we put them under, you stepped beside him,
and she, was she sixteen, we were eighteen
or nineteen, she must have gone for help.
I don’t remember what happened next,
but I see his hair and her shoes, your mouth
on his, the blue house set back from the road.
I was standing, I don’t think I moved.
And then years later, this took me years,
I knew he was dead, he was when we got there,
you already knew and there was nothing
you could do but breathe, wait and breathe
until the police came, until they came
and we got in the car and you tried to drive away.
 
 
 
Lacey Jane Henson
 
from Trigger
 
           The first person I tried was Annie, a doctor at Group Health hospital, where I still had coverage through COBRA. She had a thick black braid slung over one shoulder and wore a collared shirt with little seashells ringing the neck and sleeves. Something about her hair and that shirt—its masculine cut, coupled with the sad vanity of the seashells—marked her as an old-school feminist. When I asked to renew my Ortho Tri-Cyclen prescription, she ranted about the ways drug companies market expensive pills, and persuaded me to switch brands. For my Pap, she adjusted the table so I could sit up and hold a little hand mirror in front of my vagina, while she gave me an anatomy lesson. It was mostly review, except, with the speculum in, I could see my pea-sized cervix for the first time. 
           “I have to push a baby through that thing?” I said. “Theoretically, I mean. Like, someday.” I was twenty-five.
           “Isn’t it amazing?” she said, beaming at the mirror.
           We both paused for a few beats. My labia gaped silently, almost forlornly, back at us. I thought of a beagle on a leash: sad eyes, fleshy jowls.
            Sharing that close-up view with her made the exam more comfortable, somehow, creating a sense of intimacy that I knew was false. Still, I allowed the soothing energy from her fingertips to expand inside me, as she softly kneaded my breasts, searching for lumps. Lulled there, under the flecked white ceiling, it felt almost natural to tell her that I needed an STD check. And then why.
            “You were raped,” she said. Her fingertips paused at my areola; her mouth began twitching with rage. I became aware of my nipples, exposed in the cool air. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier? That’s rape,” she repeated.
            The word reminded me of a TV melodrama: men in suits and the sound of a gavel. Once you define something it can be called into question, examined. What if I was lying? What if I didn’t even know whether or not I was lying?
            “I’m not sure,” I said, dumbly. It was all I knew to say.
           I watched her struggle to bring her face under control.
           “Well, if you change your mind, there’s a place they can examine you for evidence. You’ve waited a bit long, but they may be able to find something. Will be able to,” she amended. She left my side, in search of a pamphlet from a stack on the desk in the corner. “You know, you’re not supposed to shower after something like this. You’re supposed to go directly to a medical center.” 
            The brochure had a picture of a woman in profile on the front, her hair blowing behind her. I guessed it was supposed to advertise the quiet, inner strength you’d feel after getting your insides scraped for evidence of trauma. “Bruising and that sort of thing will show,” she went on. “Ultimately, it’s up to you. But remember—your rapist could do this to someone else.”
            My rapist, I thought, startled.
            “I’m putting a note in your chart, in case you change your mind,” she said.
            I realized that for Annie, the real danger was his status as a predator. She was probably imagining some college-aged boy—white, flipped-up polo collar—with an illegal supply of roofies. The truth was Pierre was my rapist in the purist sense. I didn’t think anyone but me would fall for the guy.
            As far as Annie was concerned, it was simple: Has the patient ever been a victim of sexual assault?
            The answer was precise, a checked box: Yes. 
 
 
 
Gabriel Spera
 
Apricots

It’s wrong, I know, shameful to resent
the tree’s unstinting act of giving, but
I’ve had all I can take of this sweet glut,
which will not wait for hands, but must, decadent

flump to the ground with its zither of meddling flies.
For something in my pennywise heart can’t let
gold go to waste, but bids me grab all the delicate
ingots I can hold, as I warily rise

on toddling ladder feet. What one life lacks
is another’s nuisance. And what does it portend,
this epic crop? Has an old tree, sensing its end,
thrown all its failing strength to stay the axe

of time? Or has nature always tried to cram
her largesse down our throats, deaf to any voice
that dare say no? There was a time I could rejoice
in rot. It’s too familiar now. And so I’ll jam

and jar until the sweet stench stains my pores
and cupboards all but buckle to contain
too much to spread before May comes again
with more bright gifts than one heart can endure.
 
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