Poetry Review: Robert Okaji’s If Your Matter Could Reform

10592324_10153113120915120_689180005_nIt’s April, National Poetry Month, and I want to think of poet Robert Okaji’s new chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform, as a song cycle. It does, after all, make music of the words with which we gird our lives: “In the marrowbone of night,” he writes, “your song parts the fog.” [“Trains”]

It’s not any casual poetry, crammed with namby-pamby rhymes and beats, easily forgettable and born-discardable. Like the best, it’s steeped in Stygian waters, chipped at by the fine, diamond-point of time, and polished to an exacting degree. You might begin to wonder ‘where’s my place’ wrestling with these words. And, oh, the words! Let’s not overlook those.

The chapbook’s title stems from the subjunctive mood: “if” this hypothetical or contrary reality could happen, then something equally magical follows. This conscious naming choice places the chapbook on prosodic terra firma. The subjunctive is the very expression of doubts, wishes, desires, regrets, and requests. What a perfect spot in the universe from which to peel back the curtain and show a reader a bit of the poet’s wheelhouse!

This book, available now on download through Dink Press, is not packed to the gills with snobby, high-falutin’ poetic argot, but it needn’t be. To paraphrase another poet, its fresh directness gets at where the deep-down things live, though it is neither emotionally or intellectually doused nor tamped fashionably.

From twinkling stem to stern, this chapbook moves: in and through itself, outside itself, through you, and through time.

“To sweeten the dish, add salt. To bear the pain,

render the insoluble. . . .

My mother brought to this country a token of her death to come.”

Readers of Bob’s blog, O at the Edges, will feel a favorite-blue-jeans kind of familiarity to the poem “Ashes,” which is probably, along with the more traditional, one might say, love poem “Nine Ways of Shaping the Moon,” at the highest-water point in the chapbook for personal (brushing up against confessional) poetry. Although I’ve never met Bob in real life, I get a sense of his actual flesh-and-blood voice, timbre, pitch, pattern, in these two poems in particular. I would also add “Earth’s Damp Mound,” which I was fortunate to read in Bob’s blog in the past year. But these two pieces plumb the emotional depths as they must, in matters of regret and remembrance, both personal and the hinted-at historical, as in “Ashes,” and shoot to a zenith when the narrator himself implores his beloved to “Talk music to me. Talk conspiracies/and food and dogs and rain. Do this/under the wild night sky.” [“Nine Ways of Shaping the Moon”]

Perhaps the quintessential question in this 16-poem volume prods you out of any complacency as a reader and, if you are a writer, drives your courage back to the sticking place: that empty page. “Are words ever enough?” [“If We Burn”]

There’s a Shakespearean sonnet here, too, where “Nothing is everything, but before.” [“Nocturne with a Line from Porchia”] There is ample praise of gravity and of lives well lived and written, even if “the words find[ing]themselves/alone, without measure,/without force, and no body to compare.” [“Earth’s Damp Mound”]

It seems to me that Bob’s friend and mentor, Prentiss Moore, eulogized so eloquently here [“Earth’s Damp Mound”] and elsewhere, would applaud the herculean effort of the chapbook—it goes a long way toward elevating the diminished thing (one’s life sifting by and any accrued regrets) and reforming both lost matter and memories. What more could an author ask of him or herself? What more could a reader want beyond a hushed “come over here and let me share my hard-won secrets with you” from a wise friend or confidant? If Your Matter Could Reform might be the key fob to the private kingdom in that regard.


Texas poet and one-time bookstore owner Robert Okaji frequently shares his original poetry and thoughts on other bibliophilic interests at his blog: O at the Edges. His first chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform, is now available for digital download from Dink Press, via their Etsy shop, for a mere $1. Think of it as caffeine direct to the intellect, and at well under the price of a traditional cup of coffee.  Print versions are slated to be available April 19, 2015.

Love in Ten Lines


April is celebrated as NPM by the Academy of American Poets, among other groups. Use #npm15 to connect w/like-minded folks.

Well, cruelly or not, here it is April already. Happy National Poetry Month (more details on this in a later post)!

As for a poetics of the personal, I was asked almost a fortnight ago by fellow writer and friend Sarah Potter to wax poetic on the subject of love, following certain parameters and with strictures that I still managed to both tangle and mangle, for the “Love in Ten Lines Challenge.” You’ll have to forgive me on several fronts. I’m steadily pedaling back up to speed on blogging—both writing and reading/commenting—after a bout with spring sinusitis that decided to invite my eye in for the party. I’ll spare you further allergological details (in any case, they happened after I’d written these two poems anyway).

Briefly, here are the rules of the 10-line love challenge:

  • 10 lines only, on love.
  • “Love” must appear in each line.
  • Each line must be exactly 4 words.
  • Include a quote about love (it can be your own quote).
  • Use any language you choose.

As grateful as I was to be invited, no obligations attached, by Sarah to take part in this challenge, I’m a little rowdy with the rules, I guess. I’m supposed to formally invite other bloggers to take part, but I feel as if I’d be imposing on y’all if I call out specific people, even though I do have several of you in mind. But everyone is so busy. That said, if you’d like to take part in this challenging premise, I informally welcome you. Then we can probably just call it a free-verse free-for-all.

Finally, who doesn’t like a good word brawl with one’s language every now and again? (Even if you get a bit of a black eye, as I feel I have here . . .)

A Museum of Moments

Love, my heart’s Braille,

written for unseen loves,

suitors untailored for love,

in love with veils,

of ragged things unloved.

gagged love, silken bonds

fixed fast. Everyone loves.

We covet coursing love-

blood. Strange museum, love:

where we all sight-see.

Beloved Dust

My little loves, fay

folk, loved beyond mortal

measure. Love carves us

out of softwood. Love

chips love away, shapes

each love in fashion.

Shavings, sharp edges; love

leaves behind even love

itself sometimes. Love sears

into each beloved grain.

Oh, a final finally. The quotes!

“Love is not love/
which alters when it alteration finds.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)

and, for more on fissile or weathered love, we have the Peter Gabriel lyric:

“. . . In lovetown,
I can’t settle down.
And do those teeth still match the wound?
Take a good look around
In lovetown.” (from “Lovetown,” available on the 2-CD release “Hit” [disc two of which is called “Miss”])

Friday Fictioneers: Good Woolf

PHOTO PROMPT © Lauren Moscato

Photograph © Lauren Moscato

Good Woolf

GENRE: Fan Fiction, Science Fiction

Word Count: 161

Meg Jansen rented the flat primarily because it met her basic requirements: not so much location, location, location as cheap, cheap, cheap. Besides, it made for a tidy little writing room of her very own.

One night as she burned the mid-write oil on a fourth draft, moonlight shot a shaft of light in through the window, moving her to the weird door that connected her room to the column of air above the street.

She opened the padlocks, cultivating a fervent hope of glimpsing the dragon’s orb surveying her. Yet she didn’t expect to step out into an expansive space of machinery—pulsing wires, cable trails, a console, and a man in a brown trenchcoat bent over it as if in study.

Where's that sonic screwdriver, now?

Now where’s that sonic screwdriver?

Stranger still: When he turned and introduced himself only as “the Doctor,” all she could think of was Virginia Woolf and weeping angels. Either way, it was going to be an interesting night.


This science fiction flash fiction piece, created expressly for Rochelle’s weekly Friday Fictioneers, was edited down from 204 words to the more manageable 156. Of course, I had to butcher one or two darlings in the process and should have done more trimming to get it to fit the 100-word parameter better. I seldom get the chance to write any fan fiction. That said, I loved writing and editing this. And by the way, thank you for reading. Do check out the other fictioneers for some fine weekend reading.

Voyager, Voyeur

Qu’eethi pressed a naso-orbital bone to the substandard instrument. The outer-planetary object would be making its descent soon, and Qu’eethi was watching. Dorsal salivary ridges, as phantasmagoricized as Qu’eethi, underwent piloerection as the nimbus came into view. Had Qu’eethi been on ancient Earth, the object’s make-up would’ve been clear: discarded spacesuit, minus occupant.

Qu’eethi hoped they didn’t have another sticky collide-o-scope event on their hands’ hands.

The kaleidoscope pun (and attendant image of an alien peering through a telescope of some kind) arrived almost instantly when I read the Chimera 66 #11 challenge word. It then became a matter of how to spackle a decent microflash around the word. I’m not sure I succeeded—if only I had about five more words!—but it’s a fantastic exercise to work those sprint-fiction muscles . . . AND, besides, I love supporting in my own minute way what Suzanne and the ghouls have gotten tumbling with their endeavor.

In researching medical and astronomy terminology, some that I’d forgotten once upon a time (oh, for a 20-year-old’s memory capabilities!), I stumbled across this fascinating fact. Did you know that a “retired” spacesuit was rigged with a radio device and set adrift from the International Space Station in February 2006? I didn’t remember that. Specifically, it was an Orlan spacesuit. And Wikipedia said so, so you know it’s gotta be true. :)

Hope you enjoyed pondering the squidgy sci-fi microfiction this week, including Qu’eethi’s possible motives had the “Earth being” made a live touchdown. Do peruse the other Sixty-Sixers this week for a decadent treat, comrades (hey, I’m channeling the Russian spacesuit)!

“Clamp his two hands in strong chains” (speculative flash fiction)

I took this photo from Andree at Scribe's Cave, for a prompt she had in early March (that I missed). Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the photo, which I felt nefarious (especially in the "surgeon's" smug smirk), that I was compelled to write about it.

I used this photo from Andreé at Scribe’s Cave, who used it for a prompt she had in early March (that I initially missed). More info at end of story.

They caught me unawares, the young one and the two old enough to have hairy faces.

My body, their pelt, their possession. They sneered. I supposed they’d never heard tell of the Tamboti tree.

I could tell the wide blue-eyed one was scared, but he readied the trembling handkerchief anyway. Coerced, no doubt.

“We’ll make a lesson of yew, boy,” was the last sentence my ordinary limited senses lapped.

They were lucky the straps and the medication rivoted me temporarily in place as the haughty side man prepared the bone-saw and hot iron cross for my leg.

Photograph of the leopard from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts, if you can.

Photograph of a leopard, from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts.

The man under a dark drape held the box aloft, and I saw it flash through my eyelids even as I was transforming, screen of skin sliding in on itself.

I felt the color rising as my hide erupted in a riot of bristly hairs.

Soon my only instinct would be shunted toward a decision: do I play with these muslin bags of flesh before I shred them asunder?

First, more on the original photograph. Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the depiction, which I felt nefarious, that I felt compelled to write (or right, as the case may be) about it. After looking at the man on the table, my indignation sprang from what I interpreted as the “surgeon’s” smug look; admittedly, it’s difficult to see for certain, and I don’t have the “patient’s” backstory, although I seriously doubt informed consent was something practiced in those days, plus given the horrors of slavery, I’m doubtful the black man was either asked or told what they thought might happen during the operation. All that said, I could be incorrect, so please feel free to give me the backstory if you can provide data sources.

Now, as far as the discussion of the writing proper . . .

Please do check out One Starving Activist, where Andreé Robinson-Neal hosts Scribe’s Cave, especially if you’re a fan of speculative fiction (i.e., sci-fi, fantasy, or horror).

If you’re curious as to the partial inspiration/origin of this shape-shifter fantasy story, other than the awful legacy of slavery, particularly in American history, you have to look back to Greco-Roman myth and the character of Proteus.

“Aristaeus [the demi-god who invented beekeeping] wept, when he saw all his bees killed and honeycombs abandoned incomplete. His sea-blue mother [the Naiad Kyrene (Cyrene)] could scarcely console his pain, and attached these final words to her speech: ‘Stop your tears, my boy. Proteus will lighten your loss, and tell you how to regain what is gone. But so he does not baffle you by altering appearance, clamp his two hands in strong chains.’
The youth approaches the seer and binds the limp arms of the sleeping old man of the ocean. Proteus uses his art to shift and feign his looks, but soon resumes shape, mastered by chains.” — from Ovid, Fasti I, translated by Boyle (Fasti is the “Book of Days,” or, specifically, a partial poem in six books that detail the first six months of the Roman calendar)

In a different translation of Ovid from Latin (by James G. Frazer), Proteus is likened to a wizard rather than a seer.

How to be a Woman in 2015: International Women’s Day

Although I am essentially armchair-bound with a nasty little nasal bug, I could not let today, International Women’s Day, pass without some comment.

I happen to agree with author Caitlin Moran, who wrote, in her book How to be a Woman:

Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society . . .”

Nor would I be allowed to operate this blog, choose to stay at home (at least for the first few years) to help raise my children, attend college for a higher education, or, indeed, to leave my hearth to pursue anything other than shoppin’, baby-birthin’, and other domesticatin’ duties.


As of 2015, girls worldwide, for instance, in Tanzania, Africa, are still forced into marriage. Human Rights Watch has a report on child marriage/human rights. Photo © 2014 Marcus Bleasdale for HRW.

Said another way, International Women’s Day (IWD) is an outright necessity. Yes, it’s Women’s History Month throughout March, but I wonder how many of us in the West (especially in the United States or Canada) can envision what being a girl or woman comprises in, say, China. Or Tanzania. Or India. Or Ecuador. Or a hundred other places or circumstances around the world that can be named with some fluidity. For some reason, Steubenville, Ohio; the dorms at Vanderbilt University; and NFL wives come to mind in the American context.

In short, as long as there are Jyoti Singhs in the world—far, far too many of them throughout history—whose light should be fiercely guarded and then raged against when it is monstrously snuffed out—there will be feminism.

Nota bene to any miscreants: women are not going away. We’re not going quietly or gently into the night. We’re not shutting up and taking it. We’re not sitting down or going to the back of the bus. We’re not staying barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. We’re not staying away or leaning backward. And we’re certainly not being brushed off, pushed over, or “bitch”ed into silence, even by one another.

But we are rocking the boat, shaking the tree, and talking the talk. So get used to it.

But don’t listen to only me on this matter. Moran is a good start if you’re looking for something modern and womanistic.

If you want something a little more in real-time, there have been some fantastic meditations on feminism, the need for IWD, the documentary called “India’s Daughter,” about the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, and much more just today, 8 March 2015. For those who’d like to do a search, this subject is also earmarked with the following hashtags: #womensday #IWD2015 #MakeItHappen #internationalwomensday

And I will highlight just a handful of springboards to immerse you in the current wading pool surrounding women’s rights worldwide: Suzy at Someday, Somewhere writes about Jyoti in “Let Her Light Shine On”; Corinne at Write Tribe offers a list of compelling quotes in “Use Your Voice”; the photographers of National Geographic offer a stirring pictorial account of women worldwide in “Portraits of Strength”; and, for some historical reading, activist and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger’s writings and speeches can be found at NYU or here online if you’re not in New York.

In approximately the time it’s taken you to read this post so far, at least one woman or girl has been sexually assaulted in the United States. Figures vary planetwide, but the World Health Organization reports the following:

based on existing data from over 80 countries, [researchers] found that globally 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. . . . International studies reveal that approximately 20% of women (and 5–10% of men) report* being victims of sexual violence as children.

This Grendel of physical and mental violence has to stop. Come what may, we all have to unfetter our voices against misogyny, rape culture, and the oppression of a significant segment of the world population. Let sunlight and speech be our disinfectants, as well as our giant-slayers.


*Emphasis mine, as reported rates of sexual violence, rape, and incest are notoriously underreported.

Bivalve’s Love Song: Chimera 66 #5

(In Honor of, and with Simultaneous Apologies to, Valentine’s Day)


Oyster photo-bivalve-Flickr user swamibu

Oysters are the very definition of protean, beginning life as plankton and then becoming hard-shelled organisms able to change sex at least once per lifetime (photo by Flickr user Swamibu.)


From a temperate boudoir she comes,

fused with metamorphic rock.

You slaver to rasp slaty cleavage

with ravening tongue—

exploring textures.

It might be gneiss

to possess such a hybrid.

Highest bride,

whom I pried

from vinegar rest-bed,

for her “delicate, toothy texture”

and briny liqueur.

But sink this deeply into keratinized mind:

Being so caught up,

she has you shut in her

fickle flesh, adducted.

Inspired by Grammar Ghoul’s Chimera 66 #5 writing prompt. The prompt was oyster, and it probably helps to read the links I’ve provided above and here, unless you have a really good memory from high school biology on bivalves and other sea life (or, obviously, if you’re a marine biologist). Hope you enjoyed this innuendo-, entendre-, and pun-filled (semi-) writing departure; you might still have time to get yours done. The deadline is today (Friday), and there are great writers there already! Where are you?


On the Eastern oyster

W.B. Yeats, “Leda and the Swan”

And, finally, you might as well take a little trip back with gender-bending father Tiresias (who has “crossed the poles”); excuse the boring graphics–but the audio seems good except for clipping off the very end of the instrumental, which leads inexplicably into “Supper’s Ready” despite them being on different albums


Flowering: A Poem

'Thai maroon' guavas, a red apple guava cultivar, rich in carotenoids and polyphenols. In public domain, by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

These are “Thai maroon” guavas, a type of red apple guava cultivar. Image in the public domain, by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.


 by Leigh Ward-Smith

You want me for

your hot guava girl.

Succulently sweet,

            not too loud.

Squeezable, tease-able,

not too proud.

Juice, jelly, jam:

able to be quashed

under the press of your flesh.

Pulp: pink or cream,

and willing.

Prone to ardor, rot, parasites.

You’re convinced my fruits will mummify

without your potable vigor, sure

my feathered veins will wither.

Still, I propagate in any soil

I desire.


This poem—which probably would have been titled “The Botany of Desire” if Michael Pollan hadn’t used it already, darn him!—was inspired by last week’s Grammar Ghoul (Chimera) 66-word challenge #4, whose deadline I missed a few days back. My advance apologies for the formatting in this; I’m not an html expert.

The prompt word was guava, as you might have guessed. For more on this fascinating fruit, you can try the University of Hawai’i Knowledge Master database on pests, crops, and much more, as I did. And also be sure to visit Grammar Ghoul Press, which has a garden-ful of weekly prompts, boys and ghouls.






Haiku High Jinks: On Word-Building and LEGOs

CandLego--Daily Imagination Haiku_2

Imagination power! Kid 2 thinks of the Bard (WS LEGO not seen above) as “Shakesbeard” and “Shakesbeer.” Which do you think he would like better?


Poet Ludens*

e.e.’s axiom:

which-y words flaying, zinging

out like darts in flesh

*Inspired by “what if a much of a which of a wind.” Text here at poem 75.


The Play-bow

The play-bow. RIP, big guy.

Ode to An Absent Friend

The red slide of your

back. An arc, bowing willow,

bark tethered to moon.






Daily Imaginations

Three-headed robot.

’Sooth, “Shakesbeard” shall slay them all!

Words flare, sabrepoints.


Wall Light Haiku_2.1

The Art-Light Game

Light leapfrogs our wall.

Chiaroscuro hop-scotches,

Pollock play-splotches.



Written for the weekly (25 January 2015) Haiku Horizons, keyword “play.”

Undelivered Valentines, the Conclusion

Somehow curiously apropos to my life situation, what follows is Section C (the conclusion) of the serial speculative story blending paranormal with literary fiction with romance that first started appearing on this blog, lo, back at the end of October 2014. Perhaps almost–Valentine’s Day is a good bookend for this!

To cadge a few words from a speech/passage I’ve always enjoyed:

“I regret to announce — this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell.”

(Okay, this is not really a farewell, but a temporary ending to this story. Thank you for partaking of it this far. Enjoy!)


1873 letter, Emma Spaulding Bryant, courtesy Duke U. Library Bingham Collection

This fascinating letter, from 1873, has much different subject matter (in its frank treatment of women’s health, infidelity, & the woman’s upbraiding of her husband’s suspicions) than the one presented in Undelivered Valentines. From the Duke University Library, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. Information accessed here.

Undelivered Valentines, Part 4, Section C (CONCLUSION)

by Leigh Ward-Smith

 A hoarse “Mom, what’s for breakfast?” came sleepily through, as if gauzed in radio static.

Jamie startled from her chair, noticing suddenly how her back felt. A giant combine threshing her ribs was all that came to her.

“What . . . oh? Yeah, Emily!” Jamie brightened as she became more coherent.

Before the girl could continue, Jamie had shocked herself when she sprang up, with a few pops here and there percolating up from buried bones, and scooped Emily into an embrace, almost lifting her en masse from the strewn covers.

“Good to have you back, Em! How are you doing? You remember anything from last night? Are you really hungry? How you feel?”

“Whoa, Mom, whoa!” Emily mock-chided through droopy lids, moving each hand slowly in a wiper pattern, palms out. “One thing at a time!”

She shook her head slightly, as if it were glutted with mud. “Last night? Uhhhh, we watched a video . . . didn’t we?”

Jamie nodded, not wanting to spoon-feed false or warped memories to the girl.

“I had some Skittles but complained the bag didn’t have enough green ones in it—”

“To which I replied,” Jamie began but Emily finished. “To which you said ‘what difference does the color make ’cause they’re all fake anyway.’ ”

“I remember that stuff, but from your face, it seems like something else happened . . .” Emily cocked her head to the right and scrunched up her brows questioningly.

“And why do you have bed-head, like majorly, Mom? Does it have to do with why you slept in my chair?”

Jamie opted to be truthful and related what had happened earlier.

Letting it filter into her consciousness, Emily was silent—but only briefly. She called out, rising up on her bed as she did, knees still crossed in black-and-red flannel pajamas. “They were fighting!”

“Wait, what? Who? Who was fighting?”

Poltergeist 2 screenshot

Okay, perhaps not the “evil” entity Emily believed she witnessed. This one snarls from a screenshot, from the movie Poltergeist 2.

Exasperation poked its way into Emily’s tone. “Them, Mom! Ghost-Thomas and some big guy . . . I think.” And then the flood. “I just had this sensation, goosebumps and sickness all smushed in a ball, like the huge dude was wanting to bring the pain. And I was scared and couldn’t scream and light or lightning or—”

Emily peered into the air, viewing time in reverse then fast-forwarding, fretfully.

“It’s okay, Em. It’ll be okay,” Jamie crooned, putting a calming hand lightly on the girl’s upper left arm, but not in such a way as to make her feel like she was being held down. Or back.

She’d seen, or at least remembered, her mother cry or tear up on only a few occasions in her life. When their 11-year-old cat had passed on, when Emily’s grandmother had died, with Michael’s death, and when Emily had suggested them both volunteering at a homeless shelter last year.

Emily reached an index finger tenderly up toward the face, as if it were a star, but instead she caught a tear, and Jamie almost shied away but stopped herself. Now that it was just them—a duo, not a trio, not counting furball companions—Jamie figured they would have to be more honest with one another. Emotionally and in every imaginable way.

She let the tears come and only hesitantly pulled away after a few minutes of hugging and sobbing and rocking one another, each seeming to take turns as the lead comforter.

Crying was a novel kind of liquid catharsis for Jamie. This time, she didn’t fight it.


Sadie telephoned Jamie around 11 a.m. with news. She didn’t know the other townspeople as well as she’d gotten to know Jamie in the last few days. Plus, many had moved on as the millwork dried up and eventually completely evaporated. Still others had died or just grown distant.

“Jamie,” she began, “hello, it’s Sadie.” She paused to gather words into a better bouquet than the hogweed, corpseflower, and prickly cactus she currently held in her heart.

“Oh, Sadie. It’s good to hear from you today. Were you wanting Gladys’ papers back, because I hadn’t quite finished . . .” Jamie said.

“Oh, no, no. Keep those as long as you need. I’m afraid I’m calling about Gram.”

The ominous tone halted all thoughts.

“She’s in the hospital.”

I can imagine, Jamie thought, not really wanting elaboration. Poor girl, I hate those damned places!

To the uncomfortable silence, Jamie spoke: “I’m so sorry, Sadie. What can we do to help?”

“Probably nothing at this point other than prayer, if you’re of a mind . . . ” Jamie felt as if Sadie were looking beside her, not willing to make eye-to-eye contact just yet.

“Certainly, we will keep Wilma in our best thoughts. Can I bring you over some dinner or anything? Em and I were probably just going to hang out and get a pizza tonight.”

“No, not yet. But I’ll keep you posted. We don’t know how long she’ll be there or anything. Maybe you could even come see her as this goes on. If . . .”

Tentative plans were made, as they always were, with no expectation and, yet, every intention on the part of the speakers’ hearts and hopes of being carried through. Not many plan to experience a crisis, slip into a pitfall, or train their ears on death’s dulcet tones, in effect date-stamping sadness into their soul, pre-wiring, girding themselves for the surety of strife and sorrow.

Jamie mused that this lifelong preparation for or preoccupation with demise is not so with some people and even if it were, it wouldn’t make dying any easier. For either the deceased or the survivors, the reminders of humanity are hanging everywhere, memento mori nailed on every damn tree-limb in sight.


After her frank talk with her mother, Emily felt even more resolved to do what she could to patch the bridge through time, ultimately unbreakable she felt, connecting lover to his beloved.

Sure, Emily still needed time to process the events of the last couple days, but she knew what gnawed at her that she didn’t always want to accept. For all her faults, for all every human’s faults, her mother had Emily’s best interest fixed as a constant North Star in all she did.

Her mom had even helped her memorize it from freshman English, in the Julius Caesar lines she had to recite to Mr. Nguyen as part of her grade:

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”


First that evening, she cooked up an excuse to put Rusty in his crate downstairs. And she did something a bit dishonest that she hoped she would not regret later.

She put some alcohol in her mother’s soda. Dribs and drabs, here and there, little nips at a time. And she kept being liberal with the refills. It was movie night again, and she used psychology, too. “Mom, this popcorn really is salty. I’m thirsty; would you like some more soda, too?” she’d suggested more than a few times.

She almost thought she was busted once when her mom noted how “weird” the soda tasted. “Um, maybe it’s flat or something? You know I don’t drink diet, so I don’t know, Mom.”

Emily hoped her vision of what could happen, would. Since Jamie didn’t often drink, the girl hoped just a little extra boost of booze might do the trick. Emily wouldn’t be caught in the unfolding reunion ploy, and her mom might have a less fitful sleep. It was a win-win as far as Emily saw it.

“Rusty noshed on grass outside when I took him out earlier, Mom, so I’m going to crate him tonight,” seemed to ignite no protest. The gangly dog had a nervous stomach, among other things, so indigestion wasn’t that improbable and grass-eating, for him, was a sure-fire sign of a messy impending upset.

He whined when Emily said “kennel up” earlier than he had gotten used to. She’d made the excuse that she wanted to do some reading and went up to her room, listening and waiting, waiting and wishing and pacing on cat’s soft paws.

Tonight was as good a night as any. The TV was reporting only a 20% chance of storms, the moon was very nearly full—or at least it was bright—and she had what she thought she’d need in a small satchel.

It’s up to me now to help our family and myself.

She’d seen that her mother didn’t completely embrace the prospect of ghosts. Her mother was a realist, an actualist, a here-and-nowist. As for Emily, she accepted some bend in life. You had to, or you split from your core, a spavined human branch.

She nearly silently made the call at just after 10:45. The signal came about 20 minutes later. He was outside the house, just where she’d instructed him to wait, flashlight in hand as the beacon.

The teens were going ghost-in-a-graveyard–hunting.


“How’d you get here so fast?” she whispered to the likewise darkly clad figure.

He jerked his head to the side. “I drove. Parked several streets away at Stein’s grocery.”

“Is that okay?” she inquired softly. He pushed the scrub away so she would have an easier path, letting it snap back after they passed.

“Should be. I’ve never seen anyone get towed before. Remember, girl, this is a hick-town. We go watch the streetlights burn out for fun.” He made a gentle move, in the cave of light provided by his hand shielding the flashlight, to mock-punch her as they paused to cross an alley.

“Too slow!” she joked, shrugging away.

With a quiet “c’mon,” he took her hand and led her through the alley and down a few streets.

Finally feeling safe to raise their voices and not furtively gorilla-walk through the small stand of trees clinging to a backyard space, she questioned. “Should we drive? I have no idea where Prairie River Cemetery even is. Do you?”

“Yeah, unfortunately, I do. My grandpa’s buried there.”

Occasionally she’d hear a bug get zapped as they walked among the mingled lights shooting shadows along the streets. She hoped Rusty was okay, and that no other dogs in the area decided to put up a racket.

“Come this way, away from the Fishers’ dog. It’s loud, and sometimes mean. Oh . . . and it’d be better to drive. It’s about, uh, 20 minutes away on some bumpy, dumpy country roads.”

In a few minutes, they’d arrived. He unlocked and opened the passenger door to a Ford Escort. “Your carriage, m’lady,” he kidded, sweeping his hand horizontally in an elegant fashion while slightly bowing. The humming streetlights near Stein’s were just enough to make everything that wasn’t deep black a garish orange.

His car smelled like cologne and some kind of air freshener, she noticed as he strode around to the other side.

“Got everything? . . . like we’d want to creep back to your house if you didn’t,” he asked.

“Yep,” she patted the Army green satchel at her right side near the door. “It’s all here. I hope.”

“Well, then, let’s do this thing,” he enthused, adjusting the radio down so they could talk on the way there. He didn’t know if she caught his low “and hope we don’t stir up the dead.”

Although it was still summer, or the tail-end of what passed for it in terms of school schedules, she felt a winter-like warmth as if from a furiously overworked car heater envelop her as they drove. In a different mood, she might have imagined a tomb smothering mortal remains. But, considering that the heater was not in use, she attributed it to the heat of the evening, which had not dissipated more than a few degrees, as well as the temperature of her taut nerves, shrieking in their shells as it were. She wondered if he felt the same.


As soon as she saw the small field beside a field that stood for a cemetery, not too far from the river, she was instantly relieved she’d thought to bring an extra flashlight for herself and a couple giant batteries. Although they weighed down her bag, the other freight borne inside was far weightier. It had the heavy gravity of time invading every crevassed atom. And, what’s more, it shouldered the burden of something not yet put-right, which was immeasurable by any of humankind’s current or extant tools.

She took off the bandoliered satchel and thought to leave it in the car, but something made her pick it up and draw it close over her shoulders again. It had been her father’s during his Army service in the Vietnam conflict.

“Where you think it is?” he asked.

“I was going to ask you. Do you have any idea how it’s set up? I mean, it looks like most of the stones are simple. Almost tooth-shaped pavers,” she said as she swept her light back and forth curiously. “Are they alphabetical . . . I guess they can’t be.”

She spoke aloud, not thinking they had anything to worry about, for the nearest farmhouse seemed to be about 2 or 3 miles away, set back from the road as well as behind the cemetery, which faced the dirt road on two sides.

A shadowy patch of trees looked like it guarded the back perimeter of the small cemetery, with probably 70 or 80 stones, she guessed. She wondered if the farmhouse was right on the river or a rill tracing to it. Its wet, earthy scent was already smothered in the night air.

It was almost 11:20, according to her glowing Timex. She figured they should try to be back by midnight. That was Jud’s curfew, though he said he could explain to his mom if he got home late. They sounded like a reasonable, or at least laid-back, family, from what he’d related. As they say, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, so she figured that’s where Jud got his upbeat attitude and, cyclically, he kept his parents upbeat as well, as the good-naturedness of the people swelled and crested. Sometimes it was kind of difficult to see where one person ended and the other began—or at least her mother had told her so when she noticed a habit, posture, or mannerism of Emily’s that she attributed to herself or to Emily’s father, Michael. Such as the hand-gesturing excitedly while talking.

After about 10 or 15 minutes of searching and a couple stumbles she guessed she’d covered up successfully, they located Gladys’ gravestone. Along with her full name, it read:

Born 1898. Died 1985. Loving daughter and sister. Writer and citizen of the world. Until we meet again, my love.

Emily kind of liked tombstones. A succinct summary of a life—any person’s life—boiled down to its basic soup-bones, with even the marrow and tendons snapped off. “I told you I was sick,” is what she figured hers should say. The thought that she could make someone laugh at one of the most awful times in their existence gave her some solace, although she still shivered involuntarily.

Gees, you sure think about death a lot for an almost 16-year-old, she thought. Not like you’re astride the grave. “Yet,” an ominous thought boomeranged back at her head. And she didn’t duck it.

“Psst, c’mre,” she had called, not exactly screaming bloody murder, but not low-decibeled either, lighting up Gladys’ grave. She saw a light bobbing closer, heard fast footfalls, and then Jud soon joined her. They’d split up to save time. Even so, she glanced at her watch, pushing the yellow illumination button, and noticed it was already 11:37.

“Here it is,” she dragged the light through weightier air, showing a statuary of an opened book sitting atop the stone. Dried flowers that seemed to be purply and fake lay at the base, and the pair stood on each side of the plot.

The winds were beginning to pick up and she heard some distant shushing, probably from the stand of trees at the back-side of the graveyard. Combing the trees’ hair, she thought. It was a benign vision.

Gladys’ plot was left, or east, of the approximate center, near a towering pyramidal marker that appeared to be a depressed angel covering its eyes, for Judge Herman Mott. He’d died back in the 1920s, Emily noticed passing by, giving some hint as to the age of some of the “inhabitants.”

She didn’t know whether to suggest that they see Jud’s grandfather while they were there. To pay their respects or something like that. Gravestones should have given Emily more pause, but they didn’t. She’d refused to see her father’s, however. That one was too personal. Her aunts had taken some pictures of it, though, so she knew she could view it at any time she felt ready.

Gladys’ gravesite was on a slight knoll but surrounded by other stones like a group of weathered friends.

As if reading her wanly smiling face, Jud suggested “maybe she likes company.” He shrugged, still holding the flashlight at her chest level so as not to blind her.

“Guess so,” Emily spoke. Her hair had begun to spin behind her into a kind of whirlpool-Scylla.

“It’s getting windy here. S’posda rain?” They had opted for short, simple sentences. It just seemed right.

He bunched up his shoulders in an “I don’t know” gesture. “We’d better get a move-on, either way.”

She stooped to the earth and began to unconsciously twist grass blades in her fingers. “Uh, I’m not sure what to do. I guess I should . . .” she let her voice go silent, thinking rather than saying what she ought to do. Jud made no suggestions.

Heat lightning had begun to strobe silently several miles away. “That’s probably to the north, near home,” Jud suggested, almost prodding with his voice.

Emily made the thorny decision, never noticing that someone had followed them on the journey, for they’d cut the lights while parked in the cleft of a hill a few miles back toward town, pulling off the road and watching, it seemed, from afar. She thought she would weight the letter pulled from her bag with a nearby rock and dig it a shallow—very shallow—hole with her Swiss army knife to the side of the grave. She dug while he shone the light. Her hair danced electrically in the heated gusts, and a few wisps slid into her mouth, but she didn’t stop until she’d made a cigar box–sized indentation and placed the letter in the container to place it all into the hole. After a couple size adjustments to the open earth, she then covered it over with grassy soil and stood, wiping dust from her blue-jeaned knees, which she was glad she’d worn instead of shorts. Dirty business, reuniting a secret love that society didn’t condone, she almost snickered darkly.

Should I say something? she thought as she tapped a hand against her pocket uncertainly. Then, quickly reaching down, she moved some of the plastic flowers so they stretched from Gladys’ grave to Thomas’ buried missive. Almost a cradling embrace, she thought.

Picking up on a fragment of something she’d said on the way there about Gladys tutoring Thomas in Shakespeare, Jud whispered hoarsely, not sure what he was really aiming at.

“Going from memory here, but maybe . . . ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night until the morrow.’ ”

Emily remembered her mother reading these lines from Romeo and Juliet with her when she was about ten.

He didn’t notice that the flashlight beamed into the sky as he spoke earnestly; fortunately, it was a weak light when set against a canvas of eternal, enveloping night.

He held out his other hand, hoping Emily would take it without too much more final pomp and sorrowful circumstance.

They stepped gingerly, carefully to be respectful of the dead (and the living), as they made their way back to the car. No one fell, but he stumbled once and she grabbed for him instinctively, which helped him recover quickly.

“It’s almost cold,” he said as she strode slightly behind him. They picked up speed, even though the walk to the car was only a few minutes away.

“What was that?” his voice seemed to come both from a tunnel many meters ahead and beside her ear as a crack of lightning fissured across the dome of sky, a pot left too long in the kiln.

It was near and sounded like the noise Emily imagined a shotgun would produce, except this rippled through the hollows like a none-too-rough soundwave. It made her delicate neck hairs stand on end, and if he’d been forced to admit it, Jud would have said it gave him the heebie-jeebies, too.

Both nearly jumped out of their lightly covered flesh, but only Emily saw the multi-laddered illumination ribboning down to the ground from the sky. She didn’t know if it was a portent of good or ill, but she hoped for the best. “Prepare for the worst but expect the best,” her mother’s counsel ran.

In her mind, the spiral encased Gladys’ tombstone, or somewhere near it, like a hand creating a cave to shelter something more precious than gold, silver, moon, or stone.

Her wish was that Thomas and Gladys had found peace, closure, or something akin to that whatever people attain when they bandage their own wounds over time, time tincturing all. Not forgetful, not faithful exactly, not forlorn, just an in-between waiting and watching and wondering. It all distilled down to hope, she expected.

Emily had since switched off her flashlight and bagged it, instead following the arc of light from Jud’s. Each had quickened their pace yet again toward the front of the graveyard and to the car, weaving among tombsides.

Something braceleted Emily’s ankle. At first, she thought it was only a snagging root, so she gently shook her right foot to untangle herself. Then, as she bent to examine the whatever-that-was-not-falling-away-after-vigorous-wiggling, she felt an unmistakable sensation of lowering. It was as if she were on an earthen elevator. In slow motion, she saw herself in the center with racing clods of dirt obeying gravity’s epicenter and tendrils of grassroot swaying like nature’s nooses now-unearthed. She felt she was being sunken alive, subducting with shelves of dirt into the core of the fecund Indiana land she’d just recently discovered. She thought she heard yelling but couldn’t be sure if it was hers or Jud’s. Or perhaps even the storm that seems to have been stalking them, steadily, stealthily. With some surprise, she found there’s little moisture involved when a Hadean maw wants to devour you. Jolts raced to her heart when another body slid in beside her, making a sucking noise as it sluiced down. In a frantic panic, Emily saw that she and Jud were trapped together now. A runnel of flesh. Both on their bellies on the plane of the widening hole, seemingly shaped like a reverse volcano.

They were both screaming now, and he grabbed her left hand.

“Emily, hold onto me!” he yelled.

But he can’t hoist them both up, and the blank sky began to pepper them with dribs and drabs of rain. Emily forced herself to keep her eyes up as her feet clamored blindly for a foothold. She reached one and tried to boost herself with her left foot, but the dirt fragmented and she slipped down a few inches and to the right. Then their handhold broke, but in the faintest of night-lights she could still see Jud’s form. Even if she crawled up now, adjacent to him, she was too far horizontal to grab his arm.

I’ll have to do it myself! She gritted her teeth.

She saw her mother’s face, a vein-blue crescent under each bloated eye; she’d been crying. Her mother is reaching out a hand for her.

Am I delusional? Mom, help me! The scream zigged off the walls of her mind, and she caught another root, rock, who-knows-what, and figured it might be her last chance. With all her might, Emily jackhammered her right knee down and caught the object, which seemed stable, then swiftly did a high-knees impression like they’d made her do in PE class, not to mention in track-and-field practice. It was a good thing she’d picked hiking boots. They held and she grabbed at earth and anything near what should be the top of the sinkhole. She had to delve fingernails into the almost-mud and pull with all her might, too, but as she neared the roof of earth, she poked her hand up and glanced off what felt like a welter of flesh. Repeating the half-acrobatic, half-desperation dig-jump, she seized the solid something again, aloft, and, this time, grabbed it.

More important, perhaps, than its mass was that it held to her.

Emily scrambled up the hill, thankful that she hadn’t lost too much leg-power over the summer. She flopped down flat on her stomach and reached for Jud, but lost a grip on his hand with the increasing liquidity of land, a sandy silt around them. She looked for the limb that’d helped her boost herself higher but couldn’t locate it.

Realizing the satchel was still there at her side, no longer either afterthought or agonizing reminder, she egg-toothed a very quick plan to life. God, I hope this material is strong!

She draped the bag’s sturdy canvas handle down in a half-circle, missing a couple times before smacking Jud on the hand and getting his attention in the deepening darkness. “Come on,” she grunted, through gritted teeth as she peered over the edge. Together, they ascended him out of the opening in a spin of limbs.

Both flopped down and lay still for what seemed like a whole minute but was probably closer to fifteen seconds. Hands clasped, as she’d grabbed him on the way up.

She was the first to rise. She got to her muddied knees and helped him up. Neither talked, but once they were both standing, they hugged. Hard.

Fishing sightlessly around in the bag, her squishy hand touched the inert metal of her flashlight. His rested at the bottom of the hole, he knew. Damn, this all is going to take a lot of bleach to wash, she thought, then laughed softly at such a practical and rational concern.

Emily thought to thank, in her own way, whatever root had saved them, but as she swept her light around—like the teens, it had taken a licking but kept on ticking—the surrounding area, she could see nothing firm except for gravestones.

But then something stood out, and not only because of the bird.

A dark feathered thing of some kind perched on a small cross that looked rather makeshift. She looked over at Jud and shrugged. He shrugged back. Its eyeshine did not deviate. It also appeared unfazed by their presence. Emily cautiously moved closer and shone the light down onto the small marker, then felt breath gather into a net in her chest in a sharp gasp. In handwritten text, the paver said simply:

Thomas Tillson, devoted son and brother, fearless friend.

Following it, a verse:

Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die. (John Donne, “The Good-Morrow”)

Emily was anchored in her spot, light beaming out shakily. But Jud surged forward, gently taking the light like a baton. As he moved, the bird let fly with a startled caw and rush of wings. As he neared the tomb, he pointed the light down at and saw, propped carefully at the right of the stone, a thick, splintered tree limb and the lightest of footprints in the mud, leading toward the trees. Rivuleting before his eyes, rain filled the earthen trough-marks and began to dissolve soil into its own skin.

He picked up the limb and walked it over to Emily. Tears mingled with the rain that undulated lightly and heavier. Only another crack of thunder and ribbon of lightning delivered them from a mutual wordless reverie. He again took her hand, and they walked away from the scene.

As Emily pitched a glance backward—as Orpheus had, she, too, could not resist—she realized that the hole in the land had seemed to mend itself.

She grasped the splinters harder, thinking of never letting it go.

Nothing will either shock or petrify me after tonight.


Emily asked Jud to crank the radio, and they drove home in verbal silence until they got back to Stein’s. The raindrops were hollyberry sized and really pelting by then.

How will I hide the muck on my clothes? she wondered.

“We could strip,” he had teased when they first got to the car, “but fortunately, I have some old towels back here somewhere. The front window on this thing was leaking and I never did get it fixed yet. Still waitin’ for the big bucks to flow in from my smooth library job.”

He peeled off his soaked, dark shirt and tossed it into the trunk while the rain was flagging. She saw him throw on a white T-shirt in its place.

“Take it,” he’d urged, pushing the dirty yellow towel at her. She smoothed it down on the back and sitting part of the seat to try to keep the fabric in the car somewhat clean.

“Don’t worry ’bout the floorboards,” he said, poking his head and body in and sitting down on his own rag.

Neither wanted to talk in-depth about the events of the evening, which still had to be parsed, diced, meted and either accepted or rejected as true memories.

“I’ll get you closer.” He pulled up to the curb a couple blocks away from Emily’s house.

To his surprise, she darted at him and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Jud. For everything. See you . . . ?” she let him finish the sentence.

“Oh, soon. Very soon. We’re a great team, you know. Annnnnyway, I’ll call you tomorrow. I hope it goes OK with your mom.” He pointed his head toward the house.

“With any luck!” she agreed.

With that, Emily turned and sprinted toward the house, taking care to jump the puddles and dry off in the mud room off the back of the kitchen and leaving her smeared, rain-weighted boots there, too. She shucked off the wet clothes and balled them into a plastic bag, then double-bagged it, and carried them with her up the stairs, tiptoeing.

Rusty’s whines didn’t seem to wake Mom, Emily thought as she passed her mother’s room, listening and hearing nothing but breath, careful not to scuff on the carpet or shock herself on her door knob.

No trail of wetness in the hallway either, she noticed, as she bent down and felt with her hands in the absent light.

She dropped the bag of wettish clothes onto the floor in her closet and used her bath towel to dry off.

Good thing I took that winter cap or my hair’d have been a wet-rat of a wreck.

Clothes waited for her in the warm divot of her sleeping spot. She slid into the pajamas stuffed there, looking like a lumpy human body, albeit a previously absent one. One finger pressed the stereo, and melody lit the air.

Before she turned off the straining light on her nightstand, her reading light, she thought to get up and go to the closet. She didn’t feel scared going in, in the utter blackness. She felt around for the crinkle of the bags and, after locating it, untied them and retrieved the clothes. She hung them over the hamper so they could dry.

There, they’re neater. I’ll wash them first thing . . .

As she lay in the whispering room, she eased into a decision. I’m going to tell Mom everything tomorrow. I don’t know if she’ll believe it all, but the truth—my story—is still important.

Emily herself felt peaceful as dreams playfully encircled her this time, throwing a giant protective shield around her form as if she were in a science museum bubble-maker contraption. Her father and mother were there, too.

In her dreams, a voice sang its way uphill—and pulled her cheerfully along.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be/
It’s eeeea-sy/

All you need is love.

elderly couple statue

I picture Thomas and Gladys like this. This is a real statue in Kiev. It commemorates the relationship of an Italian man, Luigi Peduto, and a Ukrainian woman, Mokryna Yurzuk, who were imprisoned in Austria in the Sankt Pölen forced labor camp in 1943.



**Dedicated to R, C, and S, with all my devoted heart can creatively muster.**