​​Story of the Week: January 15, 2019

Perfectly Imperfect

by Lynn White

It started when we stood hopefully, 
with our thumbs outstretched
by an English roadside.
We were heading towards Italy and Yugoslavia
without maps or money, 
or sense of direction.

And we made it to Italy. 
and swam off the rocks, 
with a man we’d met in a cafe,
because he said we could.
And we swam and swam until two policemen came, 
(one very stern and one very twinkly),
and said we couldn’t.
Nor could we leave the rocks without clothes on,
or with clothes clinging to our still wet bodies, 
or lie on the rocks until we were dry,
in case we disconcerted the traffic or populace. 
This being the main street in Trieste.

And we made it to Pec and lived 
in a house "typique du Turque" 
with a water pump in the garden
and a toilet, also "Typique du Turque,"
which made us very ill indeed.
But the parties were good and 
the conversations interesting,
Even though no one spoke English.
And we learned to speak some Albanian, 
which was always handy.
And we survived to sit thirstily by a hot, 
dusty roadside and fantasize 
about the ice cold mountain water 
streaming through the streets of Pec,
and even about the water pump in the garden. 

And we made it back home.
We had got lost a lot, 
but hadn’t got raped or murdered. 
So far as we can remember.
What perfection.

First published by Silver Birch Press, Perfect Vacation Series, August 2015.

LYNN WHITE lives in north Wales. Her work is influenced by issues of social justice and events, places and people she has known or imagined. She is especially interested in exploring the boundaries of dream, fantasy, and reality. Her poem "A Rose for Gaza" was shortlisted for the Theatre Cloud War Poetry for Today competition 2014. She has been nominated for a Pushcart, and her poems have appeared in many publications, including Apogee, Firewords, Indie Soleil, Light Journal, Snapdragon, and So It Goes Journal. Find Lynn at https://lynnwhitepoetry.blogspot.com and https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-White-Poetry-1603675983213077/.

Story of the Week: January 8, 2019

Feet to the Fire
by Robert Leone

They promised to hold Marty’s body until I got there, so I flew in from San Francisco on a redeye. She was covered with a plain white blanket up to the neck. I think she was naked underneath, but I was afraid to look. To be caught fiddling with a dead body. There was a small smile on her lips, kind of like real life but somehow different. It must have been added post mortem by an undertaker.

Marty was on a metal gurney and her feet were up against a rough white wall. Clearly this was a budget operation. For some reason I touched it. The wall was warm, and only then did I realize we were up against the crematorium. I kissed her forehead. Like other foreheads of the dead it was cold and marble like. Looking at her she seemed peaceful, no unfinished business. I envied her that. I started to sweat, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the flames. It was because of Mark. At that moment I would have been thrilled to see his size 11 feet up against that overheated wall. That was the problem with me and Mark. All we did was fight, there was no making up. It was like a reverse Pandora’s Box. Slam the lid shut and you let yourself in for a world of trouble.

Late the next day we picked up the ashes and brought them back to Marty’s trailer; it was full of people, none of whom wanted to get close to that box. That was my cue to dig in, literally, with a plastic laundry scoop. I transferred the contents to a metal pail and we set off for the mesa, a place she loved. Since I had taken charge of the ashes, I felt justified in leading the procession. I think Marty would have liked that since she was always out in front anytime we went hiking.

We wound our way up the trail in the starry night; you couldn’t see the red rock mountains all around you but you could feel them. The pail was passed around the circle. Handfuls of ashes were scattered into the dark either in silence or with some words of farewell. “I’ll see you again, old lady” was all I could think of when it was my turn. Was it stupid? I don’t know, but when I flung Marty’s ashes a wind came up and blew them back in my face. Someone out there in the dark snickered, and I wiped them away with a damp tissue I had in my pocket.

ROBERT LEONE is a published author whose work has appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Review, Spank the Carp, Imprints, Rosebud, The Evergreen Chronicles, HGMLQ, and other publications. He co-wrote, along with his husband Ed Decker, “Rights of Passage,” a full-length play focusing on international LGBT human rights that was produced by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco and published by Samuel French, Inc., in Spring 2018.

Story of the Week: January 1, 2019

My Mother Is a Cat Cryptid
by Christina Fulton

I have always focused my creative nonfiction on my father’s non compos mentis[1]. His unhinged antics, exploits, and exits have been woven deeply into my current psychological temperament. It borders on obsession sometimes. However, this has led to a great sin. I have reduced my mother, the very same woman who has cleaned up all my physical and emotional vomit and shit over the years, to the role of a minor character. It must be made clear that she is so much more than just background noise to my father’s lechery, lies, and odd loopy loops into the grave. My mother is a fearsome, yet wildly misunderstood creature. My mother is a cat cryptid. 

Before we delve into specifics, let’s be clear that I don’t believe she is one particular feline cryptozoological specimen. I believe she has phase shifted between three of them throughout her life. Let’s see a hairy beast-man like Bigfoot or the Wolf Man do that!

My mother was born in October 1955—a month that is already dripping with supernatural sass due to the pagan/Gaelic holiday of Samhain, a festival honoring the dead. In addition, this is a time of year where black cats are the top decorating items to have for lawns and doorways. This is probably due to the fact that during the Middle Ages these cats were seen as a witch’s personal demon flunky in disguise. It was also believed they could steal a baby’s breath, predict the weather, and snatch a dying person’s soul. My mother came into the world hissing and screeching because the doctor decided she was taking her “sweet time” and used forceps around her head to pry her from her den. According to many veterinarian websites, cats have a history of being very picky about the way they are held, and there are sharp consequences if they feel uncomfortable. The Mother Nature Network recommends that in order for it to feel secure, the cat has to have multiple points of contact with your body when it is lifted off the ground. In addition, it warns strongly against pulling on the front legs or the neck scruff.

When my mother was in kindergarten her teacher wrote on her report card that she was mentally retarded, and she had to walk home and ask my grandparents what those words meant. It was a day she would never forget. My grandparents immediately took action and made sure she went to the best schools. She was later diagnosed with dyslexia and other learning disabilities that many doctors believed were the result of brain damage from the impatient obstetrician and his kitty snatching clamps. My mother can read and can communicate properly, which was something that she was told as a small child growing up in the '50s and '60s she might not ever be able to do. Cats, and my mother, actually do have this extraordinary ability to land on their feet. Most of the time, a cat’s body reflexively corrects its course, so that by the time it arrives on the ground, its feet are in a position to safely hit first. The height of a cat's fall determines how well, or how poorly, its legs can absorb the shock of the landing. They actually have a better chance of not hurting themselves if they fall from higher up. They have more time to do the necessary calibrations.[2] This is wonderful news because my mother was born free falling and would continue to do so, as she began to shift into her three cat cryptid permutations. The first of which may have been genetic.

In the Appalachian Mountains there is a Cherokee legend of a woman who distrusted her husband and dared to follow him on a hunt, while using animal hides to disguise her presence. Unfortunately for her, she was discovered while accidentally overhearing sacred hunting stories. The tribe’s medicine man put a spell on her for her jealousy and incursion on their magical male bonding, causing the hides to fuse to her. She became a giant bipedal black panther, with glowing, sun drop eyes, called the Wampus Beast. The sightings of this creature date back to after the Civil War, and it has been spotted skulking around Dixie Land, well into 2000s.

My mother, her mother, and this unfortunate woman all had the audacity to play outside of patriarchal protocols. My great-grandmother was only thirteen years old when she married a thirty-three-year-old man. She went on to endure seven life-threatening pregnancies and three stillbirths in the back hills of North Carolina. By the time my grandmother came along, the man she had married was well into senility and already singing his coffin song. However, there was his younger brother, Uncle Frank. He was always rumored to be a steadfast figure on the family farm, before and well into my grandmother Frankie’s childhood. A name, a connection, and a secret that were buried in an extremely shallow grave of menstruation-tinted Carolina soil.  

My mother was born after Frankie returned from a period of separation from my grandfather. She does not even remotely resemble her brothers, and she has a completely different blood type than everybody in her family unit. Whenever relatives would visit, my grandmother would hastily force her to go play in the attic. She was the ghost child and proof of otherworldly visitors, like the dreaded milkman. My grandmother confessed to my mother decades later that she overheard my delightfully demure grandfather roar at a mystery caller before violently slamming the receiver, “She’s my daughter. I don’t care what you say. I love her. Leave us alone!” This was amazing because he was not a confrontational man. In fact, he was one of the most loving and forgiving men my mother and I have ever encountered. He forgave Frankie for bringing home strange souvenirs. He never treated my mother any differently from my uncles, and he never treated me any differently from my cousins, while Frankie would violently attack my mother with an extraordinary sense of disdain when her sugar levels spiked and her juvenile diabetes dulled her senses. She would beat her with a large, oil-colored bristled brush that not only left her bruised but would puncture her skin, leaving her bleeding and transformed into a temporary spotted tabby cat[3]. Sometimes I think she saw the man she almost left my grandfather for when it came to those moments where her inner Wampus rage outmaneuvered her dietary restrictions.

Another theory that I have tinkered with over the years is that she wasn’t lovesick or mad at my mother, but enraged at the 1950s, two-parent, holy roller society that pressured her to go back to her husband and put herself second and sometimes third or fourth, depending on the day or circumstance. My mother, and her lime wedge–colored eyes, which no one else had in her family, by the way, would always be a reminder of what could have been. On her death bed, she admitted that she did not know who my mother’s real father was and apologized for it. There were no specific names whispered as this southern wildcat passed away. My mother was left with the realization that my grandmother loved not only wide and deep, but well beyond just two possible fathers. It is a well-known fact that most cats don’t mate for life. I doubt even the Wampus Beast would just want one man to love, especially after finding out you can’t even trust one man to stand up for you when an entire village of them thinks you're worth cursing for all eternity.

I am the first woman in two generations to know, without a doubt, my paternal lineage. My mother made sure that my father knew I was his through well-documented DNA evidence. It wasn’t that my mother was unfaithful. She just wanted to break the cycle of question mark dads and have that genuine connection found in normal Homo sapien households. It was fine, until she too had a reason to follow her man into the woods at night and become a Wampus Beast. This first phase was perhaps her shortest, because I was now a factor in her supernatural realm of dark realizations.

My mother first heard about my father’s infidelity while we lived on the shores of the Manahawkin Bay. Water went beyond a preoccupation for me. When I was swimming and wading through the marshes, I felt safer than I did on land where bullies pilfered my books and wove intricate wads of gum into my hair. In the mud and murky water I was part fiddler crab, part Nereid, and possessed all the sass and snap of the sawgrass and the cattails. Across the bay, and a little bit out to sea, was Atlantic City. As I child, I imagined it as some grand adult version of a McDonald’s tunnel and ball pit, for I was often dropped off at the kids club, pool, or arcade, as the adults descended into the bowels of bright lights, bells, and buffets. 

It was there, across the water, where our new neighbor caught him with his mistress. What was even worse is after my mother was told by someone she had not even known very long, she found out that closer friends, and even family members, had known for much longer and decided my father’s happiness was more important than her pride. After her brief Wampus Beast run through the same woods as her Cherokee sister from another mister, she remembered she had me to come home to and sprinted back to the nearest body of water. This is when she became the North American Mishipeshu, the Great Water Lynx of Lake Superior.

Even as a child, I remember noticing my mother change a bit in the years following her emergency hysterectomy that was sparked by an infection from her exploding appendix. The doctors unequivocally believed she almost ran through all of her nine lives at once from this medical chain reaction. My mother told me later in my life that this was the time that he had strayed, just because she couldn’t, and rightfully didn’t want to, have sex. I watched my mother grow larger and develop hardened scales, a spiked spinal cord and tail, and the ability to hold her breath and tongue. My newly emerged water lynx wanted me to have a happy childhood and decided to take all the unwarranted blows from my father’s ego and libido. But she had other ways of letting her feelings and wrath drip out.

As with most water-adjacent New Englanders, summer was a time for crabbing. Every dock had box traps tied around every possible piling, in the hope of catching enough blue crabs for weekend cookouts. I was in the marsh underneath the little dock where we occasionally tied up jet skis. I was hunting an eel that I had seen the previous day, and I was determined to make him my new pet/best friend. I had already stolen one of my father’s buckets for it to live in under my bed, and I had filled it with appetizing fiddler crabs and killifish. The thought of possibly taking it to show and tell made me giggle as I gently combed through the mud. It was then I heard footsteps coming down the adjacent main dock. I knew it was my mother because every child instinctively knows their mother’s natural gate, and whether or not there is anger in those clicks, clacks, and creaks. And sure enough, I remember those steps being somewhere between heated and heartbroken.

 I thought for sure she had caught on to my plans for capturing a slimy confidant, so I darted back into the shadow of the seawall. I watched her march down to the pilings and quickly pull up every crab trap. She began dumping all her prisoners into a bucket. Her face was expressionless. It reminded me of the cloudy chalkboards at school. It only changed when she had finished and pulled out a pair of tongs and a shiny spoon from a nearby dock box.

She smiled as she picked up the first crab with the tongs, which must have been a male, for she then proceeded to wedge it under her shoe and sodomize it to death with the spoon. It ended with her prying off the top shell and hurling it into the water. My mother always told me that it was okay to kill the males. She taught me to always check their underbellies for a candle-shaped mark, which now I realize was their genitals. She taught me how to jam the spoon up their little anuses, ignore their frantic hisses, and artfully dodge their pinchers. The important thing was not to stop until they were dead and ready to be cleaned.

The next one she pulled out must have been a female because she gently grabbed it by the pinchers and lowered it daintily into the water. I asked her once why we didn’t kill the females, and her answer came with a soft smile: “Because they are going to be moms one day. And that is a very important job. They have to survive.”

She then showed me one with a black triangle on its stomach indicating pregnancy. I would always watch for the blessed triangle whenever I crabbed by myself. I accidentally killed a female one time, and my mother screamed at me, as if she knew that crab personally. She banished me from the dock for the rest of the week. I remembered these things as I watched her pull out another male. This one had the unmitigated gall to latch both pinchers onto her forearm.

“You little son of a bitch!” she boomed, as she shook it off. Ignoring the blood dripping down to her wrist, she caught him under her shoe before he could escape into the water and warn his brothers. My mother hardly ever cursed, so I knew what was about to happen was going to be breathtakingly insane and memorable. When she shoved the spoon up this one she went slower than usual, and her smile returned as both his ass and shell gave way. She flung it as far as she could and then let out a deep reverberating sigh that sounded suspiciously like the sated purr of a large apex predator.

I didn’t know what I was witnessing back then, but I remembered that moment. I wouldn’t understand it until my early twenties, after my mother divulged to me that she feared my father’s lawyers if she tried to divorce him. She wanted me to have a financially stable childhood. Under that dock, and knee deep in mud, I saw the great Mishipeshu blowing off steam. It is hard work protecting something so precious, like a stash of copper, the underworld, and your only daughter.[4]

When I was twenty I witnessed her final transformation. This time it was into the American Southwest’s most peculiar mythological beasty, the Cactus Cat. I had known since I was fifteen that my father had so flippantly smashed her heart, along with a few commandments. I found a letter she had written to him on the computer expressing her hurt, anger, and unfathomable disappointment on a variety of subjects ranging from his myriad lies to his racist reasoning behind his disapproval of my boyfriend. And what seemed to really hurt her the most is that she had recently been holding his hand through his first heart infarction and medical shrapnel deposit, and she claimed that she could feel that he only wanted his mother and the other “other” woman in his life by his side. And just like that, my teenage reptilian brain had teleported me to my parents’ bedroom where I intended to light my father’s clothes on fire. I was searching for a lighter when I heard her car pull up. I ran back to cover up my digital transgressions and then skittered to the door.

Her smile is the first thing you will notice about my mother. The second thing are those eyes. They have that classic chartreuse feline ferocity, but there is a golden nimbus around each of her pupils that I have always associated with a sense of joy. And that was the first thing I saw that day when she came in carrying groceries. I didn’t want to hurt her, and I decided to wait, because like Kristin Cast[5] says, “Cats choose us; we don’t own them.” She would tell me when she was ready, but my father and I would soon commit the worst offense cat co-opters could make . . . we rushed her.

Five years later, after my paternal grandmother died and my mother had to endure an entire wake of rubbing elbows with his mistress, my mighty water lynx had all her spines snipped and had shrunk down to mere house pet proportions. I knew that she still loved him on some level, but I didn’t know that it was floating somewhere deep down in the mesosphere. After the funeral, I found her curled up in my grandmother’s recliner. She was pale and her eyes had that look of confusion on whether or not she had just cried or was about to. In my mind, it would be easier to help her through this if I told her I knew. I remember looking at myself in the dining room mirror hoping to catch some of her feline, made in the '50s, refined sense of sass and class in my reflection, but all I could see was my father’s Icelandic, blue mongrel eyes. The kind that show no sense of couth, feeling, or panache in being an apex predator, just nothing . . . but hunger.

“Mom, I know his mistress was at the funeral.”

At first she responded the way any cat does when a foreign object is introduced: she froze. Then, she arched her back and hissed out tears and nothing else audible to human ears for a few minutes, before I was brave enough to ask, “Was it the trashy blonde or the skanky brunette that talked to everyone, except you and me, and followed Dad around at a very suspicious and obviously calculated distance?”

She nodded and clarified the only piece of information I didn’t know with a soft mewing.

“The blonde one. The brunette . . . is her friend . . . and that’s not nice, Chris.” Even in her darkest moments, my mother has more savoir faire than I ever will. I then told her everything I knew, and she just sat there astonished and said nothing, which I feel was totally appropriate because sometimes even I, a writer, know that there are just simply situations where words go to die.

The next few months involved me, and all her true friends, trying to pull her out of a very toxic depression. I could tell she wasn’t eating well, and I would come home from college to find her curled up in bed or on the bathroom floor. I would call her in the morning, between every class, and before bed. I wanted to make sure that on some level my mother was still there. Cats have a tendency to wander off into darkness if they are not watched properly.

Then, my mother, my real mother, woke up one day and told me that she was moving out of the house, and she was going to try to divorce him. Her tail stiffened and branched out like the fingers of an angry Saguaro cactus. Instead of spines and armored plating, needles grew out of her brown fur that no longer felt the need to compete and be dyed trashy blonde. She remained small, but for a good reason. She knew that I had grown up and no longer needed the Mishipeshu’s sheer size for protection.  She was now headed out into the desert to drink fermented cactus juice, howl and dance under the Mojave moon, and give any irksome cowboy a nasty scratch if he came too close. Even though my father refused to divorce her amicably or without the threat of suicide, the sheer fact that my Cactus Cat moved out and started to move on with her life was enough for me. She would always love him, but now she was ready to love herself too. There was only one night when the howling grew mournful across the rust and mustard colored sands of her new home and spiritual plain of peace, but that’s another story. This is hers . . .

                                                                     and hers alone.

CHRISTINA FULTON teaches at Miami Dade College North. She has a supportive mother, a loving husband, and two crazy pups. Her poetry has appeared in Open Minds Quarterly, The Outsider, and Stay Weird and Keep Writing. Her creative nonfiction has been featured in Scarlet Leaf Review, the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Route Seven Review, The Chaos, and the GNU Journal. Also, her essays have been published in the Sliver of Stone, Lady Literary Magazine, the Adanna Literary Journal, and the Almagre Review. The Medusa Laughing Press published her “Illegal Exhumation” in their anthology of micro texts. 

[1] Latin, literally, not having mastery of one's mind.
[2] From those sages at Animal Planet.
[3] One of the five coat patterns found in tabby cats. The spots appear all over the sides and can range in size and shape.
[4] According to the legends of the Ojibwa tribe, this cat cryptid guards a stash of copper that is on Michipicoten Island. The Algonquins believed that this creature is a major player and power in the underworld.    
[5] She is a #1 NY Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author who teamed with her mother to write the wildly successful House of Night series.

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