BEING EATEN BY A POLAR BEAR / JOANNA GALBRAITH

Polar bears like to go dancing in the shallowest bend of the Biekenfau River. They splash gaily in the rocks. They wave colored flags on wooden sticks. They wear coral tutus and bang on tambourines.

The bears come to dance at night when the moonlight makes their fur gleam silver and they look like comets streaking across the frozen river. But sometimes, during long wintery dusks, they even tango too.

The nearest town to the bend in the river is two miles south; an old miner’s settlement, still standing, even though the gold is all gone. Full of broke farmers, loners, and religious zealots, it would have died out long ago if it weren’t nestled between three valleys and lined with balsam firs.

One of the town’s smallest residents is Alfie, who lives with his great uncle down near the bend. Alfie’s a sable-eyed boy with tanned eager limbs. At night he goes down to the river, wearing his grey flannel nightshirt and green rubber boots. An old mutt with yellow eyes follows him, and together they watch the bears dance from the stoop in a tall tree.

Neither of them is afraid. The bears don’t frighten them, but Alfie is careful all the same. He never joins them in the water. He never claps or cheers out loud. The bears are performers, but they’re still bears.

 ***

Alfie’s great uncle runs the only bar on the main road.  A run-down place in need of paint. Even the carpet forgets its color. No one cares much for show around the Biekenfau River, except the bears.

After school, Alfie sits on his great uncle’s bar stool, stretching out a cut of leather as he does his homework. The old yellow-eyed mutt lies at his feet, gnawing on a stick. A man trudges into town with a hessian tote on his back and orders boiled potatoes and warm beer at the bar.

He nods at Alfie, “Mind if I sit?” He asks as he sits down next to the boy.

Alfie and the mutt look him up and down. The stranger is neither big nor small and seems tidy apart from his natty beard and a twist of reddish curls.

“Are you a geologist?” Alfie asks.

Geologists come regularly to explore the town. The gold may be gone, but rich sediment remains. Interesting to geologists, but not so much to anyone else.

The man smiles. “Do I look like a geologist?”

“Well, you’re wearing plaid jacket.”

The man laughs. “No. What else you think I do?”

Alfie frowns and looks to the ceiling.

“Truck driver,” he says.

The man shakes his head.

“A drifter then.”

“Is that a job?”

Alfie nods his head. There are a lot of drifters in this town. It must be a job.

When the man finishes his beer, he calls out to Alfie’s great uncle, “Any lodgings around here?”

“We’ve got a room,” Alfie’s great uncle says. “Bit out from the town. The boy can show you if you want.”

The man trails behind Alfie and the old mutt into the dark. They follow the hush hushof the water. Everything else is silent. The polar bears are not dancing in the river tonight.

***

The next morning Alfie has already gone to school by the time the man wakes up. He is tired, but feels content to wake up in the wooded quiet.

“I have to work,” Alfie’s great uncle says. “There’s bread in the larder and drying meat out on hooks. No need to lock up. Critters are our only visitors and they don’t use a key.”

The man nods and retires to his room. He spends the day in between sleep. At dusk, he hears a scattering sound in the kitchen. Alfie is cutting bread and setting down plates.

“Uncle thought I should come home. Make sure you’re ok.”

The man nods his head and runs his left hand through his beard. 

“So, what did you do today?” Alfie asks.

“Nothing.”

The boy lets out a grunt. He can never understand why they work children so hard at school when adults seem to just sit around and drink beer.

“I was tired.”

Alfie shrugs his shoulder. His father was tired too before he disappeared.

“I’ll go fishing later,” the man adds, as if to make amends. “Get you something good for breakfast.”

“I wouldn’t do that at night,” Alfie says.

***

Later, much later. The moon is silver overhead. Alfie is down by the river wearing his grey flannel shirt and green boots. The polar bears are rehearsing a new dance. It’s a bit like the Florentine men who throw their flags into the air, but the bears are having trouble catching the poles. Their paws are not so deft.

The man is there too, but he’s hiding deep in the scrub. He’s watching the bears dance. He’s never seen it before.

The next morning at breakfast, they are both yawning.

“Stop catchin’ flies,” Great Uncle says to them. 

“You look tired, boy,” says the man.

“So do you,” says Alfie.

“Ah, that’s because I went out walking last night. The moon woke me up.”

The great uncle frowns. “You must be careful ‘round these parts. Especially after dark.”

“Where’d you go?” Alfie asks, pouring himself some tea.

“To the river bend and back.”

Alfie frowns at the man, but says nothing more. He grabs his school bag and swings out the front door. The mutt slinks alongside him all the way to the school.

 ***

Later, much later, the boy returns. His mood is dark. He eats his dinner without a word and then sits on the back porch with his arms folded, face creased. The man sits on a step nearby. He is paring wood with an old knife he found in the kitchen.

Eventually, Alfie speaks. “You can’t tell anyone what you saw.”

“You mean about the bears?”

Alfie tightens his arms around his chest.

“Your great uncle knows.”

“I mean anyone outside of the town.” The boy leans forward and lowers his voice. “Or the scientists will come and the bears will leave.”

The man passes the boy a stick he just carved. It’s a line of bears dancing the conga. It makes the boy smile.

“Do you think the bears will dance tonight?”

The boy nods his head. They are working on something new. They won’t want to stop.

“Let’s go back to see them.”

The boy shrugs his shoulders, but he likes the idea of someone coming with him. Like his father did before.

***

At first, the bears are shy. They know their audience has grown. There are a few fumbled flag passes, but they soon begin to find their rhythm.

“Don’t you want to dance with them?”

Alfie’s eyes widen until they fill up his face.

“They’d eat me if I did. They are bears, you know.”

The man smiles and nods his head.

“Well, I can think of worse ways to die than being eaten by a bear.”

“Like how?”

“Hmmm, falling into a silo and suffocating on wheat. No dancing there.”

Alfie grins and shudders.

“Or swallowing a piranha that’s still alive so it eats you from the inside.”

This time Alfie laughs.

“Getting gored by an angry goat while you’re pinned against a prickly cactus.”

“Or by a wild boar with two heads,” Alfie adds.

“Terrible,” says the man.

***

The next afternoon Alfie finds a note in his room. The writing is shaky, seismographic.

Forgetting to breathe.

Eating soap and drowning in bubbles.

Cancer.

Solving algebraic equations.

Alfie stares at the list for some time. He can hear the man coughing in the room next door. It does not stop. It only gets louder. He wonders if the man will die and then the coughing stops. He adds Coughing to the list.

***

Soon the two of them are down by the river every evening. The old mutt comes along too. They all squeeze into the tree’s stoop and watch the bears dance. Sometimes, as they watch they make lists of deaths that are worse than being eaten by polar bears. It makes them laugh loudly and the bears lose their rhythm.

Occasionally the man coughs. His face begins to whiten. Now it’s the shade of a heavily sugared loaf.

One night Alfie starts to climb the tree, but the man decides to squat down by the river instead.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “The bears won’t get me.”

The bears are late, but eventually they come. Splish-splashing through the water. Pirouetting and falling down. Getting up again. They wave their flags at little Alfie until he waves one hand shyly back.

***

Later, when the moon rises between the trees, the bears gesture to the man.

Come dance with us.

The man looks up at Alfie with a broad grin and leaps from the river bank. He wades towards the bears, his arms above his head, laughing and shouting. He starts to sway.  He is dancing with the bears. Flipping fish into the air. Spinning hula-hoops. Turning cartwheels. Tossing a bowler hat.

Alfie is shouting and laughing too.  But he stays high up in the branches.

The man dances with the bears until the moon begins to set and Alfie falls asleep on the back of the old mutt.

***

In the morning, Alfie wakes up with the sun. He feels stiff and unrested. The bears have gone. Only a bowler hat remains on the ice.

He hurries back home, but the man isn’t there. His great uncle hasn’t seen him, and the man’s room remains untouched.

“Wanderer,” says the great uncle. “Probably got eaten by them bears.”

Alfie nods his head.

“There are worse ways.”

 

 

Joanna Galbraith is an Australian-born teacher and writer who currently lives in a tiny hilltop village between Pisa and Florence. She has been writing short stories for a number of years now and has had them published in numerous journals, including the highly-acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix series. When she isn’t writing, she likes to pass her time butchering the Italian language (with love) and drinking red wine.

 

 

IF YOU’RE A SHRIMP, I’M A SHRIMP / LAURA MANARDO

You were baking shrimp. It was evening in Brooklyn in late October. Yellow leaves were falling off of trees and smacking the bay window. Your mother had just died. Pete was gone, too; had been gone.

The oven dinged. You checked your phone: four missed calls from your father. You walked over, made sure that the cat wasn’t around because he always hopped into the thing, and opened the oven. It was almost time for honey.

Your mother had taught you to drizzle a dark honey onto them just before biting into the shellfish when you were young. It made them syrupy and gooey. Thinking about it made your mouth water, made you miss your mother.

Your phone chimed. Another text from your father: Honey bear—call me when you can. I have news on the service.

He shouldn’t call you honey bear. He shouldn’t call you anything at all. You left the shrimp in the oven and picked up your fluffy lump of a cat. He was purring. You felt his chest move with this rhythm. You put him down, leaving your phone on the counter and the shrimp in the oven. You walked out of your apartment.

You walked out onto the street and it was cold. You hadn’t changed out of your drawstring shorts. You looked down: pink, veiny legs. You paused at the bus stop, telling yourself that you’d wait only five minutes then you’d head home. You’d return your father’s text. Hell, maybe you’d call him.

A bus came barreling down the street within a minute and you walked on, pulling your shorts up past your waist, something your mother had always told you was “unladylike and quite odd.” You missed her.

You swiped your card onto the reader and waited for the approving noise to chime. You sat down next to a family of four.

You used to be part of a family of four. You were nineteen when your little brother killed himself. You knew it was an accident. You hoped it was an accident. Pete was addicted to Xanax. The little blue pills you tried a couple of times in high school took your brother and killed him. He’d buy them by the bag-full and take five pills a day, but it was mixing that really got him, your sweet baby brother. You walked in on him.

It was over Thanksgiving weekend and you remember walking down the basement. Uncle Charlie was staying with you and so Pete spent most of his time down there. You had found him passed out before so when he looked unconscious on the floor, you got angry. You yelled, “Pete! What did you do now?” and you stomped over to him, kicking his side with your fuzzy sock-covered foot. You kicked him again. You kicked him harder and harder until you rolled him over with your foot and saw his eyes. They were open, bloodshot, full of something you’d never seen before. Pete was gone. You kicked your dead brother.

At the funeral, you couldn’t stop thinking about how you kicked him hard down your family’s basement. Pete looked so peaceful in his casket and his fluffy brown hair was tufted to the side just like your mother used to comb it when he was younger. Your mother and father were overcome. They sobbed and you were the one shaking hands, thanking them for coming. Your parents were standing behind you just sobbing. And you understood. You did. Losing a child must be the worst thing. You blamed Detroit for a long time. You blamed living in a small suburb next to Detroit. You moved to New York City the June after Pete died.

Where were you headed? You looked at your arms and they felt smaller, shorter. Your feet were pointing up toward the sky.

You looked at the family of four. There was a young girl and a boy. A mother and a father. The boy kept picking on the girl, pulling her hair, poking out his tongue. The girl cried. She looked like you.

You remembered when Pete and you got into a fight in the backyard next to the basketball hoop. Pete got so mad at you. You don’t remember why. He was so angry, full of something you’d never seen in him; only in your father. You remember Pete slapping your face. And then you got angry, too. You slammed his small head into the metal pole and he turned around. He turned around and pulled out a chunk of your hair. You cried for weeks. The bald spot on the back of your head was terrible, but it grew back.

The bus wasn’t hot or cold, but just felt right like when you feel nothing. Not sweet, not salty. Nothing. Nothing on your tongue but spit. Nothing in the air but you. You looked down at yourself: pink. You could see your reflection on the opposite side of the bus. Your eyes were bulging. You were hunched over at some strange angle. You needed help, you needed help, you needed honey. You wanted honey.

You pulled at the wire above your head with small arms, curled over hands, eliciting a stop. You’d made it to Brighton Beach. How’d you get here?

You hopped off of the bus and began stripping down. The bus hadn’t left yet, and the driver was sitting in his bus driver chair watching you. You shot him a look and he drove away, the family of four still inside. Still safe.

You had about a ten-minute walk on sand to the ocean, but there you were, naked, pink, veiny. Your toes were red and shelled-over. With each step, you felt your eyes bulge further out of your head.  You felt your arms retract and spread until you had many, many small ones all down your abdomen. You began hopping.

Your father left you and your mother four months after Pete died. You came home from class one evening to your mother sitting on the porch next to the concrete statue of a dog, the one that Pete and you climbed on top of and rode until it’s neck cracked off and bits of its head painted the front yard. Your father had it put back together. Your mother was smoking a cigarette, the only cigarette you’d ever seen her smoke, and offered you one. The pack was half empty and looking up at you, she only said, “your father left.”

He took the blanket that his mother had knit for you, the coffee machine, all of the hanging pictures of Pete. You were left on the walls. He took Molly and left the other family dog. He took the wooden ducks that adorned the fireplace. He took Pete’s baseball card collection. His car was gone. He took the good suitcase.

You felt like a shrimp. You really did. You saw the ocean at your toes and they weren’t toes anymore. You had a tail. You were different shades of pink, different variances of shell. You were veins. The ocean felt so right on your new body. It felt like the time Pete and your mother and father and you rented a cabin in northern Michigan. You brought Molly, too, and had a neighbor watch Frankie, the other family dog, because he was blind and could barely breathe anymore.

“He’d never make it,” your father kept saying on the drive up.

You had a small boat on the lake there and Molly would let her tongue hang out the side of her mouth. Or maybe her tongue let Molly do it. Pete cannonballed out of the boat into the center of the lake and didn’t come up for a long time and you remember your mother jumping in after him. She was wearing an extra-large Beatles t-shirt and orange drawstring shorts. She was so much wetter than Pete was when he finally came up from the water, gasping for a breath like Frankie used to.

You waded into the water until you were shoulder deep. You could feel your body calling them: Pete and your mother. You let your head sink into saltwater.

You were under there for a long time. You could breathe and you could move and you could see Pete dancing under there with you. He was young again. And you saw your mother jump into the water, too. She was wearing her Beatles t-shirt and she was searching for Pete. He just stared at you. He just loved you.

 

 

Laura Manardo is a whale-loving MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. She spends most of her spare time in coffee shops writing about bodies of water and the people who love them. You can find her newest work in her poetry chapbook entitled “Lemon Water in Lake Michigan” on the Grandma Moses Press website or on the link on her Instagram: MoreSangria.

A PHOENIX / ALICIA ROBINSON

It is hot – so hot. The sort of heat that seeps through your clothes to your skin, drips down your scalp, and makes you want to scratch, an itch that won’t stop. I wipe the back of my hand on my face and stare at the beads of sweat stuck there.

“It’s hot,” he says and takes a long drag of his smoke.

The smoke chafes my nose, my throat. I try not to cough. He said he would quit. He has said that quite a few times. I watch a bird soar through the sky, its blue fringe glints in the sun. It banks, lands on a tree on the other side of the street, pecks at the bark, gives up – flies off.

“I wish I was a bird,” I say. In my mind I mime a pair of wings. They would stir up a brisk breeze, a balm for this stale day. I would fly through the drab, dank sky; the wind in my wings would drift down, would coat the earth with hues of red and rose and gold – the shades of my soul.

He puts his hand on my thigh – a mute plea to bring me back to him. Does he wish for wings too? Wings that would take him to someplace else, someplace new?

“I had a bird when I was a kid,” he says. “A finch. It died.”

I stare at his face, his deep-set eyes, his thin mouth, the small sad line of his lips.

“It’s no use,” I say. He nods.

The hard lump in my throat chokes me. My eyes feel tight. I stand up.

“I love you,” I say. He starts to reach for me, stops, drops his hand, nods.

“I know,” he says.

I get in my car, drive down the street. I should stay, should pack my bags. But if I do, I might change my mind. There is a stop sign in front of me; I slam on the brakes. I can’t move, can’t drive, can’t go back. I can’t see through the tears. Why can’t love just be enough? Some birds mate for life. So why can’t I give up my wings? If I could, would they fall to earth black and burnt? Would they rise out of the ash, gold and rose and red and brand new? There is a sharp knock on my door. He stands there.

“Please?” he says.

I sob. He holds out his arms and I get out of the car. He smells of smoke and pine. We stand there, in the bare street.

“Let’s talk,” he says. I shake my head. I watch a flock of geese, a crisp black V in the gray sky.

“Just give me one more chance. I can be a bird too,” he says.

I turn to look at him. He holds out his hand.

 

 

Alicia Robinson received her B.A. in Anthropology from Oregon State University. In addition to Anthropology, she studied Archeology, Prehistory, and Creative Writing. She is currently applying for graduate school to study Biological Anthropology. Alicia lives in Oregon with her partner David, their two Siberian Huskies Nova and Whiskey, and their cat Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She is constantly working on new short stories and takes inspiration from her own life and her beautiful home in the Pacific Northwest.

ANNABELLE / R. E HENGSTERMAN

“How do I look?”
“You look fine, honey.”
“Is it fine or beautiful?”
“You look like a mom,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure.”

Lillian Ratcliff fluttered about the nursery as if a butterfly had taken possession of her body. Moving unopened diapers from shelf to shelf. She went to the crib, adjusted the mobile and cracked the window because of the faint odor of fresh paint.

“What if they don’t approve us?” She said, rearranging the stuffed animals in the crib into a neat row.

“We’ll be fine.”
“How’s our credit?

“Lil, we’ve done the best we can. Our references are solid. Our credit is sufficient. We have money in savings. The Hooper’s got their baby last year, and they don’t look near as good as us on paper. And remember Cassie Ingram, Judith Lloyd’s cousin. She got a beautiful baby boy last year, and she’s not even married.”

Lillian wore a path from the crib to the dresser. Animal silhouettes cut into the yellow wallpaper back-dropped the crib. In the corner, an oversized luxury glider, upholstered in white and wrapped in plastic.

“I don’t know,” she said, giving the room a second and third re-organization.

“Do you have the medical records?”
“Yes, dear.”
“And the tax returns?”
“Yes, dear.”
“Okay.”
“We’re good people Lil, and we will make great parents.”

Lillian nipped at the fuzz on her cashmere sweater and adjusted the hemline of her skirt as her husband drove.
“Have you thought about how our life will change? How different things will be?”
“I have,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “Lillian we’ve gone over this a million times. You need to relax.”
She wrenched the skin on her hands into an angry shade of red.

It was a twenty-minute drive from the house to the three-story concrete and brick building with Italian cornices. Lillian and her husband walked the granite steps leading to the elaborate, recessed entry, hands interlocked. A garden of white trumpet lilies encircled the building.

Inside the main lobby, cast stone walls met pink marble wainscoting. Centered on the coffered decorative ceiling was an enormous octagonal bronze and glass pendant light fixture.

“This place looks more like a museum,” Lillian said. He squeezed her hand.

“It will be okay,” he said as they rode the elevator.

The waiting room walls were ornamental plaster and held a dozen women who looked much the same as Lillian. An attendant offered fresh water with cucumber. They waited a sharp seven minutes.

“Dr. Gideon will see you now,” a well-proportioned blonde said.

Inside his office were two chairs, a single computer, and a centered plaque with his name.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “We have decisions to make today. Are we excited?”

Dr. Gideon looked no older than thirty, coifed hair, perfect teeth and a well-tested smile.

“Yes, we’re excited,” Lillian said, cleaving the dryness in her throat with a sip of cucumber water.

“We have our records,” the husband said as he passed their folders across the desk. Dr. Gideon took the paperwork and tapped the corners until each page aligned.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl,” Lillian giggled. Her husband smiled.

“Yes, girl, perfect,” Dr. Gideon said. Typing as he spoke.

“Eyes?”
“Blue.”
“Hair?”
“Blonde.”
“Height?”
“Five foot ten.”

Dr. Gideon perched himself on the edge of his seat, “now for the nuanced traits.” He said, picking up the folder marked medical records.

Lillian shifted, matching Dr. Gideon.

“Aunt with dementia,” he said, looking toward Lillian.

To the husband, “father with cardiovascular disease, brother with colon cancer, sister with breast cancer and psychiatric disease.”

Lillian peered at her husband as Dr. Gideon set the folder on the desk and reclined.

“We can use Crispr to edit the genome of your embryo with unprecedented precision and efficiency. But we may need to make a few compromises.”

Unseen, Lillian dug her heels into the carpet. “What does that mean?”

With your deposit and financials we can either cover aesthetics or disease polymorphisms. There won’t be enough money to cover everything you want.”

There was a lengthy pause. “We can make this work, Lil. We can have a healthy baby.”

Lillian grew as her husband shrank.

“I’m not leaving my baby’s appearance up to chance,” she said. “My mother told me not to marry someone with flawed genetics. I knew better.”

Her husband was about to speak, but Dr. Gideon, sensing the divide, interjected.

“We can mix and match. Eye color, or hair and disease polymorphisms,” he said.

“See, Lil? We can do both.”

Lillian jumped up, “I’m not compromising.”

“Maybe I should give you both a minute to discuss your options,” Dr. Gideon said. Lillian’s back was to the desk, arms tight to her torso and folded.

“You know Lil… we can always have a baby the old-fashioned way. We can use the money for something else.

“Why would I ever leave my child’s genetics to chance? What would our friends and family think? We’d be the laughingstock of the neighborhood. That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe we need some time to think, Lil. A little time. That’s all.”

Lillian charged from the office before either her husband or Dr. Gideon could respond.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my wife’s behavior. We’ve been saving for this for almost five years.”

Dr. Gideon nodded, “I understand.”

Her husband moved toward the open door.

“Before you leave, can I ask you a question,” Dr. Gideon said.

“Yes.”

“What would you name her?”

“Annabelle.” He said.

“Beautiful,” Dr. Gideon said. “Beautiful.”

 

 

R. E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and the written word. He is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, proponent of self-flagellation and a  flawed human who writes under the beautiful Carolina sky. You can see more of his work at http://www.ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.