New Poem by Anna Kaye-Rogers
I am meant to protect myself, to scratch and tear, a cat hissing in the night. I bare my teeth. Everything is sharp and pointed. I am meant to be fierce, on fleek, my eyebrows rubbed raw. I tear my own flesh and relish the pain. When I am found they will examine each nail, to see what traces have been left behind, that what was underneath was more important all along.
My kitten kneads me, each claw dangerously close to connect. I am covered in fine red lines, a correcting pen to each stretch mark, every scar, all the places the bumps and bruises settle along my skin. She curls into the caverns in my collarbones, the slow curve of my belly, an outstretched arm threatening to fall off the side of her world. When she is cornered she is afraid, she spends days under the bed, yet now when I sleep the blanket that once protected me feels too thin. There are monsters inside cocoons, and I have met my share. She sleeps on my back and holds me to the world I try so desperately to escape. Tiny claws mark the passage of time, and when my nails chip I peel the rest away. I cannot abide my imperfection, I must cover up all sign I ever was flawed. The soft cotton balls stink of strong poison that I willingly apply to myself.
And when I drink I am told to protect myself, to measure the liquid against the color of the polish. If it changes it means I am not safe, I have been seen as harmless and marked. Why must we teach our girls to dip their fingers in their own drinks, why are our young men not keeping fingers to themselves? Our nails get longer and sharper, we file them to points and bite them to the quick, always peeling and ripping and building anew. We blanket ourselves in pastel pinks and metallic purples, bright blues and soft white lines, until lips and nails match and everything is blackened, for there is power in feeling unreadable.
I wish to sheathe my claws, to find a safe place to curl up and rest and be left alone, a hidden space that black cats and soft kittens can find. I wish to enjoy my drinks in peace, to luxuriate in my own silence, the actuality of my own being in my own spot and perfectly enough.
I run my nails lovingly across the backs of necks and shoulder blades, down spines and up sides; to run my fingers through hair lovingly, because I want to be needed too. I want to be capable of murder without breaking a nail, but sometimes there are people who remind you to put your claws away.
New poem by Anne Leigh Parrish
Fire eats the forest
Evergreens turn to ash
Water chokes the canyon
Slopes fall under mud
Wind inhales the neighborhood
Throws rafters to the ground
A woman gives her body out of hunger for the touch
Her private land is fertile where scattered seeds are sown
Until all goes wild again
And yearns only for what
The heavens coyly know
New short fiction by Fallon Chiasson
“Look, a rosette sp—”
“A flamingo!” Ava said as their Carolina Skiff rounded the bend in the canal.
“No, sweetheart,” her mother, Jill, said. “Grandma was trying to tell you that it’s a roseate spoonbill. They are like flamingos. It’s pink because of the shrimp it eats.”
“Oh,” Ava said, looking up from her bird watching app, “I just looked up pink birds and that’s what it said. How do you spell what you said?”
Jill looked over to see what she knew would be disappointment on her mother’s face. But then Jill thought about how much data she would get charged for this weekend. Then wondered what in the world the location services on Ava’s iPad would be thinking. Then she chuckled and laced her arm around the two women: Ava on her right and Ada on her left. The women she was between were related by blood, yes, but that was only what united them. But that didn’t matter, not right now, at least. Not to Jill. She chuckled at her existential thoughts and returned to the moment in front of her: her mother, Ada—which Jill had only heard pronounced as A-da, with a hard, Cajun A and making the flowing, disyllabic name into jagged one—had taken she and Ava out to the secret fishing spot. Jill couldn’t get them back to the camp even if she tried.
It was Jill’s weekend with Ava. Two weekends ago, the two of them had stayed inside of Jill’s three-bedroom condo in New Orleans catching up on The Bachelorette and ordering takeout from the restaurants specializing in modern Cajun fare—vegan boudin, cornmeal gnocchi, oyster toast—that lined her street. They even had snowballs delivered by Waitr.
It was that time of year in South Louisiana that the only mildly comfortable place to be outside was on the water. Not by the water on the Riverwalk or in Jean Lafitte Park, but actually on top of the body of water that had been like a second home to Jill ages ago. Last weekend, the maternal guilt had set in. She wasn’t making the memories with Ava that she had grown up with; rather, she was inoculating Ava into the right-now culture Jill herself had grown so accustomed to—no waiting for the fish to fry, much less waiting for the fish to bite in the first place. After the Bachelorette weekend, Jill called her aging mother, who still lived in Jill’s childhood home down the bayou, to ask if they could take out the boat to go fishing, like old times.
“Does Ava know her iPad can’t get wet?” Ada had responded. Ada pronounced Ava’s name—a homage to Jill’s mother—with the same inflection that her name was pronounced: A-va. Jill cringed every time.
“Maybe,” Jill kept her voice calm. She knew her mother didn’t approve of Ava’s inert lifestyle. “But Saturdays are tech-free when Ava is with me—trying to detox her from when she’s with her dad—so the iPad wouldn’t come on the boat.”
Ada was silent. It was better than her usual comment: “throw her outside, lock the door, and don’t let her come inside until dark. Get her to make some friends in the neighborhood.” Jill never corrected her mother that the majority of her neighbors were middle aged lawyers, bankers, and doctors. Or that she never let Ava be alone outside.
“Oh Mom, don’t you remember when we’d go out on the boat and live off the land? Shrimp and crab and redfish? Then boil and fry and eat outside? I want Ava to have memories of our heritage. Like I do.”
Jill heard Ada put the phone down. Ada still had a house phone and the cord didn’t reach her stove, where a pot of red beans—soaked, boiled, simmered; not from a can like assimilated Cajuns do, like Jill does—was due for a stir.
“Fine.” Ada said. “Pick me up at 4:30 Saturday mornin’. We can have the boat in the water by 5:30, fish until it gets hot, and be home for lunch.”
“But momma, can’t we spend the night? Do some fishing off the dock in the evening? Make drip coffee in the morning?”
“We couldn’t plug in the iPad and run the window units on the generator at the same time,” Ada said.
“But Saturdays are tech—”
“C’est bon” Ada said as she sampled her red beans from the wooden spoon. “You want me to freeze some for y’all to have later?”
“No ma’am,” Jill said. She wouldn’t dare tell her mother that Ava didn’t eat onions, even the soft, clear minced onions in red beans. “We’ll see you Saturday.”
Willing it into existence, Jill set a reminder on her iPhone to pack an overnight bag for she and Ava anyway.
Jill wasn’t so great at waking up while it was still dark outside, even if she set three or seven alarms. By the time she managed to get up, feed the hamster, tried to wake Ava up, successfully woke Ava up, tried to get Ava to eat a bowl of Chobani but picked up chicken minis for both of them instead, and drove down the bayou to her mother’s house, it was 6:15 a.m. Her mother was sitting on her porch. Jill was certain Ada had been sitting on her porch since 5 a.m.
“Where have you been? I tried calling your house.” She sounded mad, not disappointed. Her mother probably expected this.
Jill didn’t respond. She never answered her home phone anymore.
“We’re gonna smother if we go fishin right now,” Ada said. “I put the crab traps in the boat and we can go set them then check them when we go fishing late this afternoon.”
The smallest of smiles appeared on Jill’s face.
“C’mon,” Ada said to the two younger women. “Get in my truck.”
When Jill got in the truck, she noticed a bag with a change of clothes for her mother, and a toothbrush.
No one remembers how long the fishing camp has been standing. It was built by some great uncle or grandparent and the generations to follow had renovated it as needed—new wood for the dock, cleaning out the cistern, mending the roof after a storm. There were no electric poles—or neighbors—in sight, and the family hoped to keep it that way.
The camp had different rules than at home—a little more roughhousing was acceptable, staying up a little later was allowed, and the only baths that could be taken were with a bar of Ivory soap in the canal. But really, there was no roughhousing or staying up late: Jill and her brother’s days had been filled with fishing, crabbing, oystering, and swimming. When Jill got to high school, though, she stopped going to the fishing camp so much. When she got to college, she quit going altogether.
But her memories of the fishing camp were etched in her mind like a setting in a snow globe. Stronger than the visual memories, though, was the feelings that came when Jill thought about the fishing camp: her heart had always been so full. They didn’t have much back then, but there was so much quality time, so much love. What she thinks, when her maternal guilt kicks in, is that that was the cost of giving Ava iPads, trips to Disney World, and an Uptown private school education.
As soon as they arrived at the fishing camp, Ada opened the unlocked door, threw her bag of clothes on the ground, and turned on the generator. She threw a few beers and some sandwiches in the mini fridge. Jill came in behind her with her and Ava’s Vera Bradly duffels. She turned to look for Ava, but she was still in the boat.
“I’m scared to get out. Is that dock safe? Will I fall through? I see bugs.” She was repeating this mantra until someone heard her.
“C’mon, honey, come inside! We can snack until Grandma is ready to set the traps!”
But her mother was already heading back to the boat, a Miller Lite in hand. “Ready!” she said with more enthusiasm than Jill was accustomed to.
Jill placed the bags and ice chest on the ground, grabbed she and Ava each an Arizona tea, and headed to the boat.
Jill’s favorite part about going fishing was getting there. After they got out of the canal and into open water, Ada sped up the boat, taking it out of the wakeless idle and into nearly full gear. The small mud boat reared, and Jill saw Ava tense. Jill thought to reach out to Ava—all she would have to do is lean over—but stopped herself. She stayed standing beside her mother, but not too close.
The ride was Jill’s favorite part of the trip because of the solitude of the passengers, yet the togetherness. She was with her mother and daughter, mere feet and inches away, but they couldn’t speak to one another even if they tried. It was too loud. They were together physically, but far apart.
This distance closeness, Jill thought, is a paradox. The two women she stood between: the old, the young, inhabiting the same planet, worlds apart. She thought about how Ava will leave South Louisiana in a few years. She’ll go to some liberal arts college in the Northeast and sign petitions and join protests to support healthcare for all, no-questions-asked abortions, and weed. All these things that she, and many others, will need in the now. But Ada, in the town she grew up in and never left except for appointments in the city, will stand on the dock of her fishing camp in the Mississippi delta, charting how the land seems to dissipate by with each changing season while the oil rigs pop up like springtime flowers. She’ll think of those rigs, raping the earth, while praying that someone will put a stop to it. Because all she’ll be able to do is pray.
With so much time left, Ava will care about now; with so little time left, Ada will think of the future—the children she will never meet, and the lost land they will never see. And Jill, Jill will not know what to do, really, either—like how none of us really knows what to do—other than be the bridge that unites the two of them, and try to lessen the distance.
New poem by Holly Day
The dust finally settles, and it’s safe to come out.
Doors of fallout shelters creak open,
exhale recycled air and the smell
of confinement. The first step
cautiously out into the open.
Huddled masses stretch themselves into the halls
of new palaces: abandoned, themed McDonald’s
massive stock exchange buildings bearing reliefs of
extinct flowers and grains
an ice skating rink, big enough
for children and horses.
Self-proclaimed kings and queens
spontaneously create new religions
and traditions, declare them in a competition of cacophony
through broken skyscraper windows
and flimsy observation decks
littered with the bodies of sparrows and pigeons.
This Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Ebony Williams. “Happy Hair Days” is an excerpt from her novel, How to Build a Ragdoll.
We have happy hair days to celebrate the hours that turn into full days at the hair salon. I tell people this and while I don’t want to call it a black thing, it’s a black thing. Picking a hairdresser is like picking a best friend and a therapist all at the same time. A salon is a place where you go to keep up with recent happenings among the community and where you had to be willing to share some of your own dirt in order to be considered trustworthy, seen as belonging. It was an all-day event. It was important to arrive early, nine in the morning was preferable, especially on Saturdays, so you don’t get pushed behind someone else who had been coming there longer but arrived without an appointment. If nothing else, hair salons were a place of seniority. The loyal and long-lasting customers usually went first.
We go to Gene on hair days. She is our confidant, a therapist of sorts, our gossipmonger that sits, claws grasping the very top of the grapevine. Very rarely do they talk about hair during those Saturday morning sessions. My mom, no doubt, speaks of issues at work or the current complications with my father now under court visitation orders such as late child support. As for hair, things were much more straight- forward, to do list very clear, relaxer, leave it in for a few minutes then wash out. For so long, hair days, for me were about Shirley Temple. Were about her lovely curls. The way they bounce with each sweet dance move. She exists as this icon, before I understand what an icon even is. Then, she translates into the embodiment of love. Her curls were like warm bodies that might easily embrace me. They weren’t bodies that might easily embrace me. They weren’t the tight fists that were unruly and uncompromising.
Gene often spent some time trying to convince me to make smarter, more informed hair decisions. It is my mother who always has the last word; the cash was coming out of her pockets and even then, I understand the best choice for us is the practical one. The one that lasts longer. Requires less repeat visits but I want, with great determination to look like Shirley Temple. I beg my mom, at the hairdresser’s chair, while the white acidic paste is being washed out of her hair or while she sits under the dryer.
“What did Gene say?”
“It won’t last.”
“Ok. So then?” she often replies matter of factly as if the rest of her statement would include, “What do you want?”
I simply reply, “So can I get them? I’ll make sure to wrap my hair.”
This was not something that I did often. It’s comparable to a chore like washing dishes or, according to most kids, brushing your teeth. It started with moving a brush in a cycular shape around my head and then tying a scarf around it. Wrapping my hair was an ordeal that helped the edges of the hair stay nice, smooth, and manageable. To get the hairstyle I wanted I would promise to take care of it.
At her look of severe doubt, I add, “Every night. Promise.”
There must have been something in my voice. Something in my tone. Maybe a twinge of hope, of a sort of childlike excitement she doesn’t often hear.
Mom lowers her eyes, glasses resting on her nose. She says, “Fine,” shrugging her shoulders and returning to her book.
My feet can’t carry me fast enough as I make my way over to Gene’s chair and plop in.
“She said yes.”
I think they shared a glance. Gene’s disapprovingly. Mom’s was one of, “What can it hurt?”
When my hair breaks. Begins to fall out, clump together in the spikes of my comb or fill up the spaces between the bristles in my brush, they share glances. They speak of stress. Of “poor child’ as Gene puts it and I find a tenderness with her with me. Find that, at times like this, she handles my hair with the embrace of a hug that lingers lovingly. When my mom can’t afford to pay Gene for a few weeks, Gene understands and when she is all done with my hair, Gene brings me her bowl of candy and offers me one. I feel accomplished. I feel pretty.
I wonder what comes first. My hair breaking or my fascination with cutting off the hair of Jasmine, the one Disney doll that is a woman of color when I was growing up. I wonder if I try my experience on her or maybe I try to fit her experience into my life and into my body. When I do her hair or I am playing, I am engaging in a land of bodies, of meaning, of messages and as a child, I don’t know this. I just beg my mom for a Jasmine doll and I cut her hair shoulder length. I take a straw from the utensil drawer in the kitchen back to my bedroom, take the shade off my lamp. Quickly, I place it on my desk, yank off the lampshade exposing the light bulb. My fingers work feverishly yanking the synthetic strands of Jasmine’s hair around the plastic straw. I wonder if this is what Gene feels like. If this is the job I give her. One that comes with the expectations that she will tame my tresses; the expectation that by any means necessary her hands will push and pull me by the roots of my hair for my good. The expectation is that she will make me worthy of the world. She will make me beautiful.
At first, I attempt to bob Jasmine’s hair using the straw as one larger curler. The electrical heat emanating from the light bulb is like the dryer at Gene’s. It is required to reshape hair, to keep curls in place. I figure this will hold Jasmine’s style in place so the smell of synthetic hair burning surprises me. I never think this might be the product of working with such “nice” hair. Jasmine’s long flowing hair is so beautiful, it has to be tamable, curls have to be possible. I think Gene would be able to do this.
From then on, I secretly begin to collect straws. Alter the type of curler I use to reach my desired outcome, the Jackie Kennedy bob. I remember watching movies or reading books with images that showed Black women with straightened and curled into a bob. I recall being told that in those days Black women couldn’t really find jobs unless their hair was straightened. Maybe these images date back to the 50s. Maybe this is where my love for Mid-century modern comes from, a time of clear, crisp tailored look. Maybe the bob was the working woman’s hairstyle of choice. A neat acceptable look. Never a feather or a strand or hair ruffled. This was my interest in Jackie O., my post-Shirley Temple exploration or attempt at adopting whiteness.
I cut straws into eight pieces. This is Jasmine’s collection of rollers. I try to use bobby pins and other accessories from my mother’s hair bag to lock Jasmine’s curlers in place.
They were all too big.
I go through six Jasmine dolls at least and I believe the only reason I give up is because the Jasmine doll begins to have too many versions; there is a sparkling princess, a holiday version, a married Jasmine doll, and a Jasmine that sings. I prefer my original canvas to work on.
I imagine I begin to understand, on a basic level, what it means to have a body through her body. In the world of Disney, she looked the most like me. I could also see how through her body, I learn how to live in the world with my own, taking on the shape of history’s expectations for me. The scary part is, I continue doll after Jasmine doll to make her into something she is not. I am determined to tame her hair. To give her a bob no matter how much she resists it. I burn her body to achieve a type of beauty that seems compulsory. That is consistently rejected. I don’t do this to my white dolls. Don’t do this to the male dolls. They don’t appear to need molding. Don’t seem to need alterations.
At the end, the Jasmines were always unattractive, mutilated. Hair burned down to the spot where, if she were made of flesh and bone, brain might overflow from, if exposed and melted by a light bulb. At the end, she is visibly void of external beauty. Is striped of what she was in an attempt to make her something else. They sleep under my bed in the wicker basket my mom used for me when I was a baby. My collection of Jasmine dolls sleep atop, between, or underneath the other. Bodies strewn about like corpses, abandoned and forgotten peaking out from time to time demanding to be remembered.
Usually we might not leave the hair salon until after the Carvel store, a few blocks over, had long closed but on days when we both got out to greet the sun before it set, my mom and I walked two blocks to buy a small ice-cream cake. The fun excitingly awesome part was deciding what to have written on our fourteen-dollar treat. “Happy Hair Day” usually sufficed and coupled with our newfound beauty, we felt revived, renewed.
#yesallwomen #ebonywilliams #happyhairdays #howtobuildaragdoll #art #arts #shortstories #feminism #feminist #feministwriting #womenswriting #women #hair #dolls #writing #moms #mothers #daughters #mom #mother #daughter #stories #fiction #shortfiction #fem2 #beauty #hairdresser #happy
Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.
In an unjust world, there’s a fine line between anger and madness. S/tick Magazine invites you to channel rage into righteous art and writing for its next issue, “Angry/Mad.” Tired of the grotesque facades of rich men in power? White politicians cavorting in blackface? Sexual predators who insist their violations were consensual? Rhetoric on reconciliation without genuine action? People who look at wildfires, rising water, disastrous storms, melting ice caps and deny there’s anything amiss? Submit, but do not be submissive!
Deadline: March 31, 2020
This Throwback Thursday brought to you by Amber Hollinger
S/tick, Issue 1.2
Editor’s Note: Watch the don’t die press blog for some oldies but goodies from an earlier era of S/tick!
by Megan Harris
My mother is bone white and black
daughter born from cocaine breath
came out on the cusp of winter.
A wispy gasp and darkened heart
skin is paper stretched over bone
white sheet, dark pen, dark red.
Mother warns daughter to not love death
to not long to feel his dark eyes
fall upon her breasts.
Daughter is of winter locking,
a chest begging to be opened to light,
fill the lungs with dirt and breathe life.
Mother is bone white and black,
her burning head stares down
Daughter turns away again – frozen.