Category: Stories

Only Children, Part One of Two

The farm grounds are always empty the day after the sky lantern festival. Anthony stares out at the lie of the land, the shape and swell of hillocks and wet fields. For these few hours in the year, he is completely alone. The part-time boys, those lads continually slipping up and letting loose heifers into haylofts, they’ve run off with buttery, peppermint-smelling schoolgirls. The carpenter has been collecting them all morning, shining kerosene lamps on bright-eyed children in forested areas, cutting short elopements inspired by the glory of last night’s lanterns. He brings them to attention with a few prods of a pitchfork, and in the instant between the end of their dumb, warm solitude and that harsh reintroduction into the biting air of the ugly universe, the carpenter catches in their faces the pathetic and raw look of true love.

Beddington is normally in charge of lecturing the dimpled and disgraced couples in the front room of the main house, but even he has pulled a disappearing act. Anthony had found his uncle in the spare bedroom behind the greenhouse around midday, wrapped around a soft and supple milkmaid. Her ankles, hanging off the bed, were marked with the crenulated imprint of woolen socks. Beddington had one hand in her fair hair.

The landowner and maid have an understanding, put into practice only once yearly. Unbeknownst to them, Anthony is well-aware of the liaison, and though he’s not sure if he approves, he goes above and beyond the nephew’s call of duty to protect them. Every year, a week or so prior to the festival, Anthony gathers the farm boys in the barn and terrifies them with legends concerning a greenhouse ghoul, coated in constrictive vines and red lilies. For days afterward not even the carpenter will enter the greenhouse, something Anthony’s uncle thinks is indicative of spiritual approval (“even ghosts want us to be together” he whispers to her in the corridor). Beddington and his home-grown, milk-fed inamorata are convinced the gods are looking after them.

Though they lie now in flagrante delicto, there is no chance of detection so late in the morning. All of the farmhands have long made for neighboring villages. They are visiting their Ma and Pa, or buying confectioner’s sugar and cake flour with their holiday bonus. The postman has come and gone, bearing the usual: advertisements for this fertilizer or that brand of halters, and a love letter or two for a Beddington employee. Anthony and the carpenter, who open the mail together, observe the former with more distaste that the latter. Beddington’s is a dairy farm and has no need for fertilizer nor halters, but both men  have been contaminated with a secondhand appreciation of adolescent desire and the sickness that inevitably accompanies it. Sometimes they make brief corrections to the letters, usually purely grammatical but recently varying into stylistic territory (“how terrible, ‘love’ and ‘grovel’ do not rhyme”).

It is Anthony’s eleventh consecutive year at Beddington’s. He does not stand much taller than he did at fifteen, and the core of him conserves most of the same traits, including the prodigal memory that made him a brief county legend. Though this particular knack is what convinced Beddington to hire him, Anthony often wishes he could remember less.

For example: Anthony can recall, with an easy accuracy and perfection that mortifies him, his first and last sky lantern festival. In his mind’s eye, there he is, a barely pubescent kid, standing in line to collect his wages from the overseer. Pockets heavy with coins, fodder for wire and lights, there he is zipping across plots and over fences. They arrive in time to set up the preparations: tables dragged from townhouses and lain in the square, piled high with cretonne and oil paints, smart girls in pantyhose standing beside them, leaning against beaus and balustrades. The farmhands tighten wire and curl it around their wrists, shaping it into perfect circles. Anthony remembers holding the fabric down while the ladies put wax pencil to paper and draw for hours, dots and curlicues framing pastoral scenes and red barns. Fermented juice is passed around, leaving the artists tipsy and giving way to drawings considerably more risqué than the township is used to, filled in with warm orange pastels and off-set with pink lace. Anthony had refused all drink and so his recollection of the hours that followed is considerably clearer than that of his compatriots. At midnight they’d gathered up the lanterns, like mothers picking up children, and carried them to a nearby field. Standing in the grass, they struck matches together and lit the candles tucked into the wire chassis of the lanterns. For a moment nothing happened, and they all felt silly, gussied up as they were in their best and brightest, holding out greasy paper trimmed with ribbons and copper. Then, slowly, as though uncertain and unhappy to be leaving home, as though they were only cautious and frightened children, the lanterns began to rise, trembling. There was no wind, and no moon, and for once adolescents looked up at the night sky and thoroughly ignored the stars. They stood rooted as the lights rushed up, in a sudden gush of longing, towards the timberline and, from there, to the heavens. Watching them go, aligned perfectly in what seemed like a divine order, Anthony was sure he’d found God.

It was not until later, when he had jumped over the fence and was nearing the Beddington property, that he began to think differently. In the darkness he only noticed the blood by the time his boots were in it. The outline of her grey silhouette quivered, and her head was flat on the ground, turned towards him. Anthony remembers that her eyes had been open, and for a few seconds a lantern floating just overhead illuminated the silky whites and red-ringed pupils. Anthony can’t recall, for the life of him, the interval between those eyes and his dragging his uncle Beddington from the sleepy milkmaid’s arms (“what, slow down, hey, let me put on my – hey, hey, Anthony!”). It seems cruel to him that those minutes should have been erased, but not those that came immediately afterwards: running across the grounds, thump, her huge black-white back and maw, filled with wire, Beddinton’s “oh damn”. And his own hands, the ones that carried the rifle.

The Last Three Days of Nissil And Henny, Part the First

It’s interesting how unpreocuppied he is with her naked body. In fact, he seems more interested in the contents of the medicine cabinet, entertaining himself for the better part of half an hour. He laughs softly at the oddly shaped containers the hotel management stocks, the ugly lime green complementary shower caps, the plastic toothbrushes that crack like eggs at the least pressure. Every so often he’ll find something of note, most often personal items left by the previous occupant of the room. There’s a bottle of prescription pills labelled “Metadate CD”, a pack of half-empty menthol cigarettes, a deflated pink balloon and a severely outdated map of the region, marking the city limits as they were before the construction of the railway.

“A flighty, lonely female tourist,” Nissil says, looking closely at the photograph of open heart surgery on the cigarette box, “let’s name her Belinda.”

“Hardly,” Henrietta says, lifting one arm out of the grey water. She wags a finger at him, still hurt by the little attention he is paying her, “Belinda sounds too much like the heroine of a soap opera. A Belinda wouldn’t be staying in a musty hotel in the fall, unaccompanied.”

“Unaccompanied? You think so?”

“Absolutely.” She puts her hands on the rim of the bathtub and peers outward, trying to get a good look at the washbasin. “I see no can of shaving cream, no disposable razor. Belinda’s leading man was not with her.”

“Poor Belinda,” Nissil muses, “all alone, pretty Belinda!”

Henrietta scoffs. “Hyperactive, clumsy Belinda. Tragically abandoned by her don Juan.”

“Hyperactive?”

“Metadate is ADHD meds.”

“Really?” He considers this information, lips pursed, nodding slowly. It’s the exact same expression he had worn when she had told him she loved him, exactly four days prior. He sits down on the yellow linoleum floor, back against the wall. In another era, they could have been a boyish sailor and his heartless mermaid inamorata. Though, in all truthfulness, Henrietta is not beautiful enough to pass an otherworldly creature, and it is she who has pursued the distant clear-eyed babe. It pleases her, this reversal of roles, to think of herself in the white and blue mariner’s costume, one finger under Nissil’s chin, keeping him from leaving with the tide.

“How’d you know that? That ADHD business?” He asks suddenly. Henrietta is quiet for a few moments. In one swift movement she rises from the bathtub and wraps herself in a powder blue towel. She arranges herself on the toilet seat. She takes her time answering him, fetching Belinda’s forgotten cigarettes and takes a pretend puff.

“My sister used to take them.” She says finally. My sister: these words come easily and painlessly. She is conscious, however, of the specter they bring with them. In her mind’s eye Noreen takes shape, considerably vaguer than she once was, but important parts still intact. There are the dark blue eyes Henrietta did not inherit, the cropped hair and quick smile. Not even the knowledge that she has only three days left lessens the power of Noreen’s memory.

“Oh. Oh, sorry, Henny.” There’s Nissil’s face. He’s standing up now, pulling the cigarette from her hand. Does he worry she’ll actually go ahead and light it up?

“What are you apologizing for?”

“I made you remember.”

Now she laughs bitterly. “Naw. I’m always remembering it.”

Nissil pulls a hand towel from the rack and begins drying Henrietta’s dark hair. His touch is soothing and purposeful, fingertips reaching the nape of her neck, those spots of her skull where she is most vulnerable. It is this quality that first drew her to him: this insistence that springs forth from that awful aloofness sometimes, this persistent desire to care for the upset and needful. She remembers how, in elementary school, he’d stopped during a physical education run and helped a fallen classmate up. Henrietta, who begrudged the other girls their prettiness and stellar grades, Henrietta, who sought approval but found it difficult to dole it out: she found him impossible to understand. She was possessed by a need to hurt him, to test his unnatural capacity for compassion.

Underneath the towel, her voice rises, soft but angry.

“Maybe it’s a good thing we only have three days left. What really is the point? It’s a relief. Now I just don’t have to off myself, the universe will do it for me.”

He stops. She waits for him to cry “Henny!”, but the reprimand does not come. Fearful, she pushes the towel away from her face and looks at him. In the mirror opposite them, she can see a reflection of his swimmer’s back, hunched over her, covering her almost entirely. His shoulder blades are twin icebergs protruding from the huge expanse of muscle, quivering slightly.

“Sorry.” Now it is her turn to apologize for making him remember.

“Shush,” he says, shocking her once again with the speed and sincerity of his forgiving heart, “it’s alright.”

He finishes up and, after folding up the towel and returning it to its place (an exercise in futility if there ever was one, Henrietta thinks, but she says nothing) leaves the bathroom. She hears him lie down on the king size bed and turn on the news.

“Is he still gone?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

She goes to him, still only clothed in the towel. The hotel room is exactly the sort of place she’d wanted to spend her last days: sparse, containing only that which was was essential to her life, a category that as of four days ago includes the sixteen-year-old Nissil Easterly. Her school uniform remains piled on top of his button-up shirt at the foot of the bed, next to both their shoes, shined so carefully by him that morning. She can still recall him, seated on the beige carpet floor, undoing the knot in the laces of her dress shoes, face in shadow despite the yellow light coming in from the open windows. His presence there had seemed strangely fulfilling, marking her like the imprint of a hand on a polished surface.

“Henny, look at that!” he cries suddenly. The screen has gone dark, remaining in that condition for a few seconds before they hear the sounds of a camera coming back to life. Seated in the previously empty anchorman’s chair is a young girl in a yellow blouse, hands folded neatly on top of the table. She is around their age, smiling broadly. Henrietta’s eyes widen, and one hand goes to her mouth.

“Christ, is that…is that Faktorowicz?”

“It sure is.”

“So that hotshot Dahlia took my advice, huh. Fancy that. Good for her.”

As if to acknowledge the compliment, Dahlia clears her throat and jumps into the broadcast, hands curling into firsts on the table.

“Good morning, Juniper! This is the Daily Morning Newscast, and I’ll be your darling host, Dahlia Faktorowicz. Today is Monday April 7th and we are seventy-two hours away from the Apocalypse.”

Henrietta rolls her eyes. “How very melodramatic, Faktorowicz. She loses points for that.”

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Fourth

On the third day the question of the bell arises. That morning Mina had brought over a baker’s dozen pamphlets detailing the touristic marvels of Mirana Seaside: seasonal dunes, salt marshes, sandspits. Dahlia’s lips curl and pucker with wonder at the glossy blue photographs and lovingly-written captions (“The birthplace of thousands of seagulls”, “Turn to page 7 for the story of the last frilled squid, dead at Red Point”). Mina is as enamored as Dahlia, hurriedly encircling places to visit with a felt tip pen. But the beaches and tide pools they encounter on subsequent day trips provide a reality different to the one in the bright booklets: littered with bottle caps, chalky rock strata burned through by acid rain, piles of phosphorescent fishing nets, and, in a secluded corner, the puzzling remains of a purple Volkswagen minibus, so far eroded it’s impossible to determine its age, but looking for all the world like a close cousin of the dethroned Greek shipwrecks sinking into the Black Sea.

“Didja know, princess,” says mermaid Mina with three fingers dipping into the hazy waters of a pool, “that there’s a difference between wreck and wreckage?”

“Nu-uh! They’re synonyms, silly.” Spitfire Dahlia retorts in her mother’s most hoity-toity tone.

Mina looks over at her disdainfully.

“Naw, I’m joking, joking. What’s the difference?”

Wreck is used when the structure is still recognizable. Wreckage is used when it no longer is.”

“Huh. Is that right?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Dahlia returns to her inspection of the rotting pier. The sky is a perfect white, and all around Dahlia lie colorless barnacles and deep green algae like shredded party streamers. The wood creaks and sighs as she steps on it in her cobalt Mary-Janes , exuding sweet-smelling water. It’s cool and very quiet. Only Mina’s clumsy humming breaks the spell of the tense waves and brittle landscape. Dahlia licks away the last taste of that morning’s orange juice from her lips, staring out at the featureless ocean. A few minutes pass before she notices the carcass immediately to her right.

“Oh great Gods!” she cries. Mina comes to her side, as close as possible without touching her. She follows Dahlia’s gaze and finds the bird. It is lying on its back, head turned to one side. Beginning at its throat is a clean gash, making its way through its miniature organs and tissues before tapering off midway. The insides have swollen and cracked in the heat, bursting out and bubbling up. Blood and yellow plasma has been soaked up by the boards and the wing bent back.

“Wreckage.” says Mina.

“The deathplace of thousands of seagulls.” says Dahlia bitterly. “Jeez, this is awful.”

“Princess, you ain’t kidding.”

“I’m going home. I just, oh jeez, this was supposed to be nice. I’m going home, dammit.”

“Wait. Hey, wait a second.” Mina has her hand on Dahlia’s bony shoulder. “Hey, listen.”

“What?”

Mina eyes her closely. “Okay. Well. Have you ever heard of the bell?”

FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE:

PART THE FIRST

PART THE SECOND

PART THE THIRD

Summer Gods

Midday finds her in front of the stove, frying two eggs in butter. Even with the windows open in the kitchen, it’s hot enough to justify idleness, not that she believes she requires any justification. She’s been reveling in childhood pleasures all morning: full glasses of milk, improvised calisthenics on the balcony, handfuls of chocolate-filled breakfast cereal, hours seated on a stool in front of the small television in the bedroom. Inspired, she removes the cushions from the sofa and discovers, with her characteristic, unpreocuppied joy, the web of copper rods that form the chassis. She’s enchanted by the idea that the things around her possess a structure and core she knows nothing about. Armed with this knowledge she marches about the grounds, collecting pocket radios, glamorous floral hair pieces, tubes of ancient lipstick, golden picture frames and other mysterious, valueless elements of her life. In the living room she plops down onto the floor and begins taking them apart, one by one, dumping the dissected remains in the brown paper bags she packs her husband’s lunch in. Occasionally she encounters something she likes – a soft, tactile on/off button, a cut-out from a food magazine behind her wedding photograph, several spring green circuit boards including the motherboard from a computer case found next to a dumpster outside. Lifting it up for closer inspection, she’d been shocked by its appearance. With its miniature saffron towers, thin silver lines and bright blue background, it had looked like an aerial view of a seaside town to her. She’s more overcome by this revelation than she had been, nearly half a year beforehand, by the two red marks on her pregnancy test.

The last item in her pile is a VHS tape she’d located at the bottom of her husband’s filing cabinet. It’s not labeled, so she assumes it’s useless. He has a habit of placing white stickers on important items and writing wordy, sometimes poetic (in a junior high school way), descriptions on them. Since childhood he’d nursed a great infatuation with the video camera, producing stack after stack of tapes, each with their own sticker. She often amuses herself by rearranging them into geometric forms, stopping to read what’s written on each one. “Neighborhood barbecue ’02, minute 2:46 features Tubby Theesfeld falling off the trampoline”, “High school prom, please excuse the awful tie”, “View from ambulance ’99 (broken ankle after slipping down the stairs of the gym)”, “The train that runs all night on New Year’s Eve”, “I can’t help but get excited by windy days”.

She’d initially picked up the nameless tape with the intention of dismembering it, but now she stops. She crawls on over to the television, popping the tape inside the VCR and pressing the buttons on the player experimentally in the dim light, until it clicks softly and begins to whirl. Sitting on her haunches, she watches curiously. There’s no sound, not even her husband’s playful cry of “Action!” The image appears one chunk at a time, letting her analyze one bit before slowly producing the next. There’s a column of data on the right hand side, small white numbers followed by units of measurement: centimeters, frames per second, decibels. A triangular shape with a cut-off top, like the skirt of a young girl, appears, and it is only when the white and gray contents of the triangle reveal themselves that she realizes what the tape is.

It’s a copy of the ultrasound. Undoubtedly it must be a copy, since she’d destroyed the original. She had ripped it to shreds and set it alight in a trash can, while he watched from the porch, arms crossed over his chest. The memory of the burning of the ultrasound is clearer in her mind than that of the ultrasound itself. All she can recall is that she’d been in a bad mood the day of the visit, furious with morning sickness and the strange new shape and texture of her body. Her husband had held her sweaty hand but not looked at her, cooing over the screen with a delight that was foreign to her. She couldn’t remember it doing anything of interest. Had it really squirmed like that, distorting the picture, rolling and slipping around in placental fluid, a solid mass deep in her gut, beating and bare? She feels heavier now than she ever did while pregnant.

She removes the tape and, flipping open the cover, puts two fingers on the black magnetic tape. She keeps them there briefly before changing her mind and reaching for the tube of dark lipstick. She considers writing “I’m sorry”, but there’s no one left who would accept her apology. “Baby” sounds too cutesy. In the end she writes nothing. She gets up, the tape under her arm, and washes her face in the sink. Then she picks up all the things she has taken apart and carefully puts them away.

Opium Den, Part The Second

Sometimes I go to a concert with the usual pilgrims. We sit in line for hours, licking lipstick off our teeth. In square formation, lying on raincoats, we lean in towards each other, hair held in limp buns, swapping confidences. Some boys and girls abandon the front and trade spittle, fingertips playing along the fault lines of the sternum. Eyes done up in black and pink, showing off thighs and purple braces, we are a sight to behold.

When it is finally time we run as though chasing down foxes, winding through the back of the open-air auditorium.We push and tug at sleeves, blitzkrieg time baby, nabbing a central position from the enemy. Backs to each other, brothers and sisters, we’ll protect you. We’ll make it as close to the music as we can.

It’s hot, sweet Jesus, it’s so hot. Packed in tight, molded into the contours of strangers, breathing in foreign fluids. The weatherman had predicted precipitation and we await it like dogs for masters. Oh it’s raining, is it? Strobe lights color us neon and gold, a modern, a glossy spin on mini dresses and striped sweatshirts. We let the rain fall upon us, we lap it up like beasts digging into the heart of a deer, sucking up blood thick as honey. I swivel on my heels in time with the bursts and crunches of the stereo. We are a mass of a thousand plebes matching their heartbeats to the thump of pulpy paganism, running down our throats.

I imagine you somewhere in the throng. Maybe you’re eyeing a girl’s glittering make-up, maybe you’re even sticking your hands up her armpits and thrusting your nose into the artificial perfume of her yellow hair. That lavender was created by a chemist off the New Jersey turnpike. That waxy glow on her cheeks is factory-made, processed and standardized, spun up in a Petrie dish like candyfloss. The first thousand to wear her chapstick were a generation of white guinea pigs, engineered to be quiet in battery cages and docile under the microscope. But still you bare your teeth and her breasts underneath the skylights.

It’s a game of will. The hours pass and concert-goers feed on the vision of a singer they’ll never share anything with. There’s nothing substantial in their relationship, but still they feel that shortening the distance to the stage will bring about fresh closeness. It’s a tenderness they transmit through screams and whoops, feet pounding against the tarmac. But how could you hope that a few transient hours would bear fruit? There’s no way he’ll ever spot you in the crowd, absolutely no way your eyes will meet and he’ll fall instantly and irrevocably in love with you. How dare you even think of such a thing? Famous boys don’t care for your sort, dear, famous boys would be wasted on your bland looks and personality. I can just imagine the both of you seated on a tartan-print sofa, looking away from each other, thinking of other things. He’d be thinking: what a mistake, what a mistake it is that I’ve made.

Somewhere you’re letting your hands stray underneath the elastic hem of a girl’s jeans. The extraordinary only ever love the extraordinary. What a fool. What a fool I was, to ever think otherwise.

Opium Den, Part The First

Sometimes I go to an arcade with the usual pilgrims. We flit from golden basketball hoops to confessional-sized shooting simulators, ripping the attached cords from the plastic rifles. A pair at the billiards table shoot and sink balls, letting sport be the medium for their hot and heavy remarks (“got that one good, didn’t you?”). Dropping coins into pitchers of alcohol and air hockey tables, shaking their hips free of proverbial lingerie, divvying up and diving into the arms of a one-time-only other half. Occasionally, a gutsy schoolchild will try to seduce a prize out of the chain smoking pseudo-priest behind the ticket counter. Gender doesn’t matter to him, just as long as you’re pimple-free and he gets his fill tonight.

I play the dinosaur hunting game, sweating inside the makeshift cubicle painted orange and black to look like a safari vehicle. Raptors crow at my back, thumping along the pixelated scarlet jungle, but somehow I avoid a Technicolor demise. This is a miracle in itself, for I am not even looking at the screen. I am turned towards the one-way panel of darkened glass that hides me from my compatriots. The light bends and refracts in such a way that I can see, with a clarity that turns my stomach, their endeavors everywhere: a femme fatale in cowhide boots running her hands over the baize, a male duo sticking mutilated coat hangers up a ticket dispenser, a birthday girl reapplying purple gloss in a dank corner. But these objects of teenage action and reaction do not hold my interest. The gaze swivels and searches, and finally alights upon the objective of the pilgrimage. Over there, to the far right, in blue jeans, that’s you, losing your soul to the DDR machine.

The Cat Xylem

The cat Xylem is older than you, that’s for sure. But then again, the cat Xylem is unsure what words like “older” or “younger” even mean. He does not see them as independent terms, corresponding to items of human concern, but rather as amalgams of the alphabet, floating beyond his comprehension. He does understand the gist of the language of humans, (in fact, at one point he could even speak it, like all of his kind) but what he and most have can hardly be called “communication”, not even its primitive ancestors “sound”, “gesture” and “feeling.” Like a derailed train chugging hopelessly along a seashore, the cat Xylem functions without a vital component. His vocal chords have been ripped out.

In the unrecognized micronation of Nounaim, the cat Xylem is something of a phenomenon. He travels on the underside of horse carriages, he feeds on children’s candies. All doors in Nounaim are built with compartments specifically for his use. All drainpipes are painted purple (a color he despises) so he will not, in a fit of disorientation, attempt to crawl into one. The cat Xylem is a lot of things, but he is not particularly slender.

The cat Xylem, despite his quick paws and careless stare, is not a free agent. The cat Xylem goes to wherever his paper collar indicates. It is always an address in Nounaim, printed in the Scientist Phloem’s neat small caps. 3 OSMOSIS STREET, that was the very first, a skinny panelled house sandwiched between the glossy pastel shingles of 2 and 4, belonging to Cambium.

(a brief tangent for the uninformed reader: Cambium, who in a daguerreotypes of old is a young lady of exceptional and expert grace and liveliness, a female to put even Parenchyma to shame, sending any fellow into fits of weeping at the very sight of her rainbow bow and ankle-length velvet skirts. Today, almost three hundred years after the cat Xylem’s visit, neither he nor she have aged visibly at all, but her rainbow bow lies shredded at the bottom of a landfill.)

Cambium had knelt before the cat Xylem, offering him first salami, then hunks of discolored bread, then a bowlful of milk (no? Are you minding your figure? Two percent fat, maybe?), until finally her butler Trichome (Stoma’s elder brother, taking up the mantle of Cambium’s care like a true lovelorn gentleman) had dropped half a sheet of drying salt water taffy into the cat Xylem’s maw. He had bent down and, pinching the edge of the paper collar, ripped off Cambium’s address. 3 OSMOSIS STREET crumpled up into his fist, revealing 6 PHOSPHATE DRIVE underneath. Thus began the cat Xylem’s love affair with sugar and his long voyage.

THE MEMORIZATION OF PLANT TISSUES AT MIDNIGHT

Plant tissues stick to the mind more more readily when you associate them with human beings. I am a sucker for crafty and convoluted mnemonic devices.

GROUND TISSUE

Parenchyma: the most superlative-worthy of three sisters, she is the oldest, the prettiest, the smartest and the most murderous. Sly and dandy Parenchyma, in an unknown man’s Persian blue sweater, stepping out of the family car and turning her head this way and that, getting the full scope. She’s a most dedicated actress, playing the part of virginal scholar in class and fleshing herself out during recess, swelling like ripe fruit. Unflappable, she licks at her love wounds like a tiger (hickeys and scorned schoolboys, she can take anything you dole out, dear).

Collenchyma: the buttery, soapstone middle child, she folds her sister’s clothes, packs their lunches and scrubs their backs in the clawfoot tub. The evening the cat Xylem arrives, paws ripped open like chocolate wrappers, it is she who packs him in newspapers and sets him near the ticking oven, she who feeds him syrup and salted crackers. In gratitude, Xylem grants her a ring of daylily fibers that will protect her from harm; she slips it on sweetheart Sclerenchyma’s little finger. Not long after she is hit by a bus.

Sclerenchyma: the baby for whom one older sister perishes, and another is robbed of her true love (dashing Stoma with his pearl cuff-links and breezy countenance). She is the finicky blonde simpleton always found in family trees, removing the cords of her red hood from the branches of paternal morality and descending into the swept-up, deep dark undergrowth. Dumb but desirable, she is on first name terms with nearly everyone in the two grades immediately above and below hers. Her giggles teeter on the brink of innocence and seduction, drawing males and females alike.

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Third

On the fifth day, Dahlia follows Mina around the amusement park. The stalking hadn’t been a planned affair, but somehow seemed inevitable. There was that way Mina kept her hair tied up in elastic, fingers red and constantly in the company of each other, that manner of looking shaken-up and in need of a shaking-down. Mina the waif. Mina the lurching urchin. It keeps Dahlia nearby.

The amusement park Mirana, a seaside collection of spit-bright surefooted young’uns and their mechanical rolling counterparts, fossilized plum-colored planks twisting up in dramatic curlicues, emanating a suffocating blue heat. The Italian owner had had space divvied up and colored in the style of his home country: Dahlia’s quick eye spots Mina the fiend disappearing into the golden boughs of Toscana.

Tracing her steady voyage, it’s easy to see where she’s headed. At eleven in the morning, when Dahlia had started following her, she’d been in blue-white Sicilia, onwards to Calabria (all-you-can-eat pizza, Miss Oliver Twist has seconds and thirds), Basilicata, Campania (fun house in which Dahlia catches a thousand reflections of Mina in as many scalloped mirrors), Lazio, Umbria, leading up to Toscana. It’s a trip marked by indications, which Mina reads aloud as she passes them, taking care to step only on the orange tiles of the color-alternating path:

THIS WAY TO FLORENTINE FERRIS WHEEL ((Hello lovely blog readers (all six of you), Emma here, à la glorious footnote. National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow! Please wish me luck and fruitcakes.))

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Second

At her mother and Samson’s wedding reception, Dahlia steals candy buttons from gift bags and tells Auntie how upset she is at not being able to walk around the house topless any more.

“Can’t do it with him around,” she says, licking her lips colored Yellow Number Five. “and even if I did, just look, just look at ‘im! He’d snitch to Momma for sure.”

Auntie chomps down on her teeth, Pan-Cake foundation wet on her hook nose and sloping collarbone, offering Dahlia nothing. She knows better now, than to give the child reason to believe she agrees with her. Momma! Auntie thinks your new hub’s a tattler too, she went and told me so! Ohoho, not going to happen again, Auntie’s determined, the babe can be kamikaze all by her lonesome.

Auntie’s eyes paw Dahlia’s courtesan’s bouffant and fingernails, painted with orange permanent marker and glitter glue.

“I know, Auntie,” Dahlia whines, “but how was I supposed to get dressed up for this, huh? It’d be like letting Momma win.”

Auntie’s sympathizes, but not enough to brave the primeval waters of mother-daughter conflict. The cellophane mammalian eyes, which through the magic of natural selection are also Dahlia’s own, circle once, twice, careening from the daylily flower arrangements (Dahlia thinks monocotyledon, sophomore Biology, Miss Rittenhouse’s China red cardigans) to the collapsing Neapolitan ice cream cake dead center (Dahlia thinks sacarose, fructose, lactose, I want to go home, I want to go home).

Color-alternating strobe lights, Mr. and Mrs. Samson Faktorowicz waltz by, merry-go-round, tight turns and whorls quick enough to make the brand-spanking-new Dahlia Faktorowicz’s head spin. It’s a storybook affair, but Samson ruins the effect by letting his hands stray below Dahlia’s mother’s waist, and she, the DayGlo princess rotting, lets him, drunk and reveling, revolving, revealing.

“Oh Good Gad,” Dahlia says, “great Gods. Save your humble servant.”

“Better get used to it,” Auntie says, unable to resist getting a hit in with her perilous problem niece, “you’re going on their honeymoon, aren’t you?”

Churning loud, huffing and puffing, a wounded Dahlia skulks out to the parking lot.