Plum Grove, a short story by Lowell R Torres
From Hoosier Writers 2012 by Lowell R Torres
I spent the spring 2005 semester studying abroad at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, a tiny village right outside of Liverpool, England. My favorite class that semester was the creative writing class, as it was different from every other CW class I’d participated in before or since. One very different activity was a field trip to the Tate Art Gallery in Liverpool, where our assignment was to find a piece of art and write a short story about it.
The piece I eventually chose was Plum Grove, by Peter Howson and it depicted a brutal scene from the fighting between Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. My story changes that setting to somewhere in the south during the US Civil War.
- Plum Grove by Peter Howson, courtesy of tate.org.uk
A crow pecked and pulled at the man’s left hand. The appendage was purple and bloated, but that didn’t deter the crow any. It ripped off a piece of flesh and gulped the prize down with a quick motion of its head. The bird went about securing itself another morsel in a business-like way.
Fran’s rock missed the bird by a good six inches and proved to be more annoyance to it than a threat. It ruffled its feathers and cocked its head her way, one black beady eye glaring at her with what her mind’s eye considered malice. Don’t try that again lass, or may be I’ll dine on you next; the look seemed to tell her. Isaac’s rock was much bigger, and while he missed as well, it was enough of a threat to send the crow off with a disdainful caw. Fran followed its progress to a nearby tree before her eyes were compelled to return to the man.
They had come upon him strung up to one of the plum trees as they played and raced through the grove. Fran nearly ran right into him as she risked a swift glance over her shoulder to check how close Isaac was, and only her brother’s look of shocked surprise had saved her. When she turned around to see what it was that had Isaac gaping, she gave a panicked yelp of surprise that quickly turned into a shriek of horror.
The rope started at the man’s right ankle, tied tight so that his leg hung up awkward behind him while the other one dangled on the ground. Up and across his stomach it went, securing him to the thick limb of the downed tree. After looping around his chest it went under his armpit and stopped at his left wrist, secured to a branch. His whole left arm was sticking up behind his head in such a grotesque way his shoulder had to be broken or dislocated. But the arm wasn’t the worst, nor was it his lumpy face, all cut up and bleeding and bruised. The worst was his lower. His trousers were pulled down, and instead of his man parts there was just an ugly gaping red hole. Trails of dried blood ran down his thighs.
The area was thick with flies. The air hummed with their buzzing.
“What happened, Sissa?” Isaac asked, his voice full of awe, but not fear. Isaac was very brave for a four-year-old. Almost too brave.
“He got lynched, you dummy. What do you think happened?” She didn’t mean to be cross with him, but her nerves were quite frayed suddenly, and she felt jumpy. Her stomach fluttered dangerously, but she told herself she wouldn’t vomit.
“But he’s wearing the grays!” Isaac pointed out, as if she couldn’t see the Confederate uniform for herself.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. How a soldier on their side could have been lynched, especially down here in friendly territory, was beyond her.
“Was there a battle?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Maybe it was a battle,” he said, though it was more of a question.
“I said I don’t know!” she shouted, and then shrieked again as the man’s eyes opened. Fran was sure she was going to drop dead of a chest seizure at that very moment. Even though nine-year-olds were too young to drop dead, she was positive there were some exceptions.
“He’s alive,” Isaac said dumbly. He didn’t even jump, but his eyes were real wide.
One of the man’s eyes was so filled up with blood you couldn’t make out the color, but the other was a startling hazel. Even though the eye was dull and glazed over with pain it struck her. There was something about the color that was familiar, but she’d never seen this man before. His gaze moved from brother to sister with a quiet desperation. He opened his mouth, but only a dry click came out. He cleared his throat loudly, and grimaced in pain.
“Water,” he finally rasped. “Please . . . water . . . dying.”
“Was there a battle?” Isaac asked and stepped forward.
Fran was too stunned to act at first. Her heart still felt like it was in her throat. The man seemed confused by Isaac’s question. He shook his head, like he was trying to clear it of cobwebs, and then repeated his plea for water. Fran noticed two his two front teeth were missing, the gums bloody.
“What happened, mister?” she brought herself to ask. She wanted to run away, run home. The smell of him and the sight of the flies crawling in and out of the hole in his crotch made her feel faint, and even more sick. But her curiosity overwhelmed those feelings.
“It was a battle, wasn’t it?” Isaac asked again, and Fran contemplated punching him in the nose.
“It weren’t no battle, you stupid!” she spat at him. “There would be bodies everywhere and we would’a heard it.” Isaac just rolled his eyes at her, and then looked at the soldier again.
“Please . . . water,” he pleaded, voice full of pain. “She . . . she wanted to . . . was willing . . . swear . . . God!” This last word he said with vehemence, as if invoking the name of the Holy Father explained it all. Fran didn’t think it explained anything. “Please . . . water . . . please.” She understood that much.
Fran turned to go, then remembered her brother. She grabbed Isaac’s sleeve and tugged, but he resisted her. The dying man entranced him. Fran had seen all she wanted to see of the man, but she pitied him so much she would get him some water.
“Come on, Isaac,” she urged, but her brother ignored her. To her complete and utter horror he reached out a hand and touched the man’s outstretched leg.
That was when their father arrived.
“What are you children doing?” he boomed in his angry voice. Fran turned to look at him in helpless mute appeal. Isaac jumped back so fast he tripped on a root and fell onto his bottom with a teeth-rattling thud.
“Francis made me!” he wailed, and then started crying.
“You rotten lying little!” she shrieked and kicked him in the leg, which made him start bawling even louder. He looked at Father as if that proved his point. Fran was relieved to see that Father didn’t seem to believe Isaac’s lie. He marched forward and pulled Isaac to his feet.
“You both get home right this instant, or I’ll be tanning both your hides!”
“He wants water,” Isaac said as Fran tried pulling him away. Father glowered at them for a moment, and then his face softened.
“I come to bring him something better than that,” he said, and Fran noticed the big bayonet sticking out of his waistband. “You children get on now.”
Fran obeyed her father and drug Isaac after her. She was still mad about his blaming her, but he was a little devil like that. At the end of the row she turned back for one last look. Her father was talking to the soldier, who was nodding his head slowly. The man said one last thing, and then her father drove the knife into the man’s heart.
The soldier’s body gave a shudder, and was still.
Food for Thought, non-fiction by Braden Thacker
Let’s look at the complexity of human beings as a species or even just one individual.
For one, most adult human beings have roughly 500 trillion chemical synapses, or at least that’s what we’re able to measure at this time (potential chemical connections between neurons and not potential synaptic pathways) and if you consider that in the next few decades or so there will be roughly 9 billion people on the planet, that’s a minimum of 4,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 synapses with 9 billion different controllers, each individual possessing a near infinite capacity for variation and almost unlimited action potential, not even accounting for potential interaction with others.
This baseline for interaction and potential among our species alone at least dwarfs the number of atoms that compose everything on earth, (1.33 x 10^500) which is of course a roundabout way of saying that our relationships with each other, or at least the potential that exists, are/is far more complex than we can really ever comprehend and more intricate than any audit of our immediate physical existence.
Also, if we’re taking a physical or material view of things, consider the volume of electrical activity alone and the percentage of atoms that are being moved along these synaptic pathways, as well as the changes to polarity that result thereof.
The way people think is very important, no doubt, and even in a strictly physical sense (read: non-spiritual, philosophical) that’s a lot of physical activity that has to be accounted for.
Essentially this means our potential as a species for variations of cognition, experience, feeling and communication exceeds by far our estimate of the total number of suns in our own galaxy, a measly few hundred billion, to the effect that exploring the thoughts and feelings of our neighbors, even just one of them, is for all practical purposes more of a complicated and cosmic pursuit than sending a satellite to the outer reaches of the galaxy.
We have every right to be vain and every excuse to be concerned with other people and ourselves in light of what we know about the universe. Each person truly contains limitless potential for thought, expression and experience. And from our incomplete understanding of the relation of electromagnetics to gravity/matter on a cosmological scale, even the most skeptical person has to admit that individuals and human beings interact with elemental forces at work in the universe in ways that we cannot yet fully comprehend, even when they just speak to the person next to them for just a single second.
Some food for thought.
Night Fishing, a poem by Ryan P Norris
From Hoosier Writers 2012 by Ryan P Norris
So inky black the sky and water are one
down, the bow,
paddles slosh in the lake.
Owls howl in the invisible world
and the child hears werewolves
crunching leaves along the shore, grandpa
wheezes, banging poles on aluminum hull.
Tackle box of raw hooks
Worms writhe on
plastic umbilical cords in the deep void.
fish lips bleed
onto pajama pants
gills spread under grandpa’s bone fingers
child’s wide eyes
black as the wild
of the baby blue gill
in the red glow of grandpa’s cigarette,
while he digs in the mouth
in small sections, a poem by Jessica Dyer
like so many petals
at the base
lost in the rotting
world of lichen,
the dead sing
we are the dust
and we are the divine
we are all stuck—
flecks of skin inside
the black sweater
of a whirling monster.
A Poet’s Gumbo, a poem by Diane Lewis
(for Norbert Krapf, Indiana Poet Laureate 2008-2010)
he stirred up synonyms and syncopation tonight
a pinch of spoken word
a dash of music
a teaspoon of salsa rhythm
until the recipe was just right
and this poet’s gumbo was cookin’
with some African beats
mixed with Brahms
sautéed a little jazz, served over blackened blues
my man Norbert
the poet laureate from Indiana
a super poet with mad skills
served up a dish with
a secret ingredient
he must be doin’ something right
’cause it sure smells good in his kitchen
While you were sleeping, a poem by Sarah Long
I was lying
in a cold bath
like a boiled tomato
in a bowl of
An excerpt from Seat Belts, a short story by Clay Cunningham
I was thinking too much again. I wasn’t disarming a bomb; I was feeling up a teenage girl. It shouldn’t have been exceptionally difficult.
It was. I quickly discovered that I’d needed the momentum created by my perfectly positioned hand more than I’d hoped. My efforts to blindly locate an entrance to the inside of her top were remarkably awkward. My hand kept shooting off in various, incorrect directions, failing to adhere to the commands of my brain, as I was again running the risk of ripping the shirt’s fabric.
The whole process seemed like it would go on forever before I finally felt something. My hand had clearly navigated through some sort of obstruction and was now resting on a soft, bulgy protuberance. I’d officially broken through, all the while maintaining visionary focus on the road. That expedition was over. I was now free to fondle at will.
And yet, something wasn’t right. As I blindly groped and massaged Lana’s left breast, I wasn’t getting the sensation I had anticipated (perhaps a honking sound would have offered some type of reassurance, but alas, that did indeed prove to be a false prophecy). Granted I hadn’t felt a breast before, but I had felt human skin, and all previous experience never would have led me to anticipate feeling something so oddly cloth-like. At first I thought it might have just been the bra, but unless her bra was a foot tall, I should be feeling flesh and I wasn’t. Something was afoul.
After confirming it was momentarily safe to again avert my gaze from the road, I looked over to investigate, my eyes going straight to the location my hand, which, as I had thought, was perched upon her breast. What I hadn’t anticipated was that said hand would still be in my direct line-of-sight.
Sadly my lack of focus while attempting a move that clearly required my full attention backfired, as I was actually pawing at her from the outside of her shirt. Turns out the penetration hadn’t been of any article of clothing, but rather the passenger side automatic seat belt! For the second time this little mechanism, one of the great life-saving mechanisms in human history, had played a significant role in not only killing my love life, but burying it in a shallow grave of perpetual virginity.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do and Lana, no doubt stunned by my ineptitude, had no initial reaction. So I just sat there, exchanging glances between her and the road, one hand at ten o’clock, the other clinging for dear life to her chest.
Whatever sex appeal there was to fondling a breast clearly didn’t exist in this situation. What was supposed to be a sweet, sensual expression of my newfound feelings had been carried out with all the grace you’d expect to be exhibited by a trench coat wearing pervert hiding behind park bushes, waiting for the opportunity to flash his vile dick at whatever woman had the misfortune of walking by. Even worse, I had gone from being nervous to downright scared, and this fear had rendered me almost paralyzed, completely unable to react on my own. So until she gave me some sort of instruction, I was staying put.
“Please let go,” she finally said.
Tone Deaf, a short story by Lowell R Torres
An earlier version of this work in progress appeared in Hoosier Writers 2012 (e-book available for only $3)
There were no certainties in life. Audra was taught that at a young age. The lessons were hammered in with ruthless efficiency, so she would never ever forget. Nothing was guaranteed. Your next meal, your next full night of sleep or warm bed, your next shower or hug or conversation or connection with another human being. Even your next breath wasn’t guaranteed.
Because there were no certainties in life.
Her mother’s shrill yell still echoed through her memories.
Like clockwork, the herald came every day at seven sharp. It was as reliable as the setting sun.
Mother wasn’t as much as a minute late with dinner. Not ever. Audra knew, and not because Mother reminded her every day during dinner. Audra knew because she kept the time, as Mother had taught her when she was “seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old.”
That litany was as familiar as the dinner call.
Followed by what her mother called her dinner bell: several metal screws in a baby food jar, shaken mercilessly. Mother knew the sound was like nails on a chalkboard to her, and she knew Audra hated being called ‘Dra. It was a stupid little baby name and Audra was eleven-years-old now. Not a baby anymore, but Mother was quick to use either voice or bell if she didn’t hear Audra moving after the second call.
“I’m coming Mother!” she sung, a high soprano this time. She always sang. Mother taught lessons and made her practice for hours a day; ever since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old.
“Good, darling,” her mother’s voice rang back to her in a pitch perfect soprano. “But you want to hold the E6 through ‘coming Mother,’”
“Yes, Moth. . .” the word tapered off as she entered the dining room. A place mat lay on the table in front of her chair, and a plate on top of it. Silverware lay on a cloth napkin next to the plate, but there was no food on the plate. There was always food on the plate. It was always there, on the plate, served and ready.
Mother was never late.
“Else you’ll waver and no one will pay to see a waverer,” Mother continued from the kitchen.
Mother swept into the room carrying a single plate. Mother always did things like that. She swept or pranced or sashayed, never anything as simple as a walk, or sitting down. No, she glided into her seat, like a dandelion seed coming to rest after flowing on a gentle breeze, a swan landing elegantly on the water. Every movement calculated to draw attention to her lithe grace.
The smell wafting from Mother’s plate made Audra’s mouth water, her temporary irritation at Mother’s constant dramatic flair forgotten. As she approached the table she saw on Mother’s plate was her favorite: grilled chicken with buttered asparagus and baby red potatoes.
But there was just one plate. One. There were always two. One for Mother and one for her. One for Audra.
Mother saw her standing there with a look of confusion on her face. She knew what the confusion was about. Still, she waited for Audra to speak first.
“Mother?” Audra began uncertainly in a low contralto.
“Is there a problem, my dear?” Mother answered in her most innocent soubrette.
“My food, Mother.”
“Are you hungry, dear?”
“Well. Go fix yourself something, dear.”
“Please don’t stutter. You sound like a constipated hen.”
“I what? I prepare your plate for you, just as I prepare the food you eat? And shop for the food. And work to make the money I use to shop for food.”
Audra maintained that same look of confusion but inside she was suddenly terrified. There was a set routine for dinner; the same routine they followed rigidly ever since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old. Mother was never as much as a second late, every day, day after day for four years. It was as comfortable and known to her as her ballet slippers or Judy Garland’s E3, Barbara Streisand and Edith Piaf’s D5s, Patti Labelle’s E6 and Sarah Brightman’s whistle register.
Something was horribly wrong.
“From now on you will make your own plate. You can do that, can’t you?” Her mother’s plain mezzo-soprano was almost dreadful. “You’re not a baby. Are you?”
“No, you’re not. Go on then.”
And just like that, a routine she had mistaken for a certainty disappeared from her life.
So Audra knew very well that nothing was ever certain. Every second of time has the power and potential to change the universe. An infinite amount of threads could come spilling out of any moment, taking her on an unlimited amount of varying courses through life. Any moment could change the rest of her life, which meant nothing was certain.
With that said, Audra was quite positive there was a man following her.
Most people would just see a man; a thin man of average height with shaggy blonde hair, wearing a charcoal-grey suit and Italian loafers meant to look more expensive than they actually were. He looked a little overworked, or like he’d been hitting the bottle too much lately.
Audra saw that and more. The tailored suit and loafers clashed with the unkempt hair. This was a man who put effort into his looks, and his looks said the hair was long overdue for a meeting with a barber’s scissors. The suit was expensive but worn out, as forgotten as the hair. It also hung loose on the man, as if he had recently lost weight.
And of course there was the monster riding on his shoulder.
The act of making her own plate didn’t bother her, as she quickly grew to prefer dishing out her own helpings. If Mother was in a foul mood after Audra’s practice sessions – a rigid nonstop four-hour routine sandwiched between chores and whatever home schooling worksheets Mother assigned – she would ladle up extra of a side Audra found unpleasant while skimping on everything else.
It was the shock of chaos, of a brand new experience. Her entire life since she was seven-years-seven-months-seven-days-seven-hours-seven-minutes-and-seven-seconds old had been one repeating cycle. She remembered just being a child, as she thought of herself in the time before mother’s lessons began. She remembered parks and playgrounds, carnivals and birthday parties. She had memories of playing with other children and adults. A girl with bright red hair in pigtails; a boy with the bluest eyes, blue like the sky on perfect summer day; a man with a smile and booming laugh; a woman large with child.
The memories had grown hazy but she still had them, and cherished them while feeling guilty all the same.
“You and I, Audra my dear,” her mother would often sing when Audra mentioned Outside. “We are all the company we need. We are a cosmos unto ourselves. Until you are ready.”
She had few memories since her rebirth – as mother liked to call it – where their rigid schedule had not been maintained. And those had been because of sickness or emergencies and not due to a purposeful action. Until Mother didn’t make her plate, but that was the only change. Mother continued on as if nothing were any different after that. They continued their normal routine.
Wake up, have whole wheat toast with raspberry jam, a banana and a glass of milk. Chores, which varied from sweeping and weeding the garden to mending their clothes and mother’s work uniforms. Four hours of singing with only a couple of fifteen second breaks to wet her mouth and throat.
And worksheets, which she loathed. She didn’t know which she hated more: that the sheets Mother gave her were often for children younger than she was, or that she still struggled to complete them. She asked Mother for help countless times, but Mother insisted she was teaching her everything she needed to know.
“You’re a star, ‘Dra darling,” Mother replied once when Audra expressed frustration with a particularly tricky math sheet. “You won’t need any of this nonsense when you’re old enough to Perform, but we can’t go against state wishes, can we?”
She was usually still working on the homework when Mother called her for dinner. Every night. At seven o’clock. Sharp.
And her plate, with food usually still steaming, sat at her place on their table. But no more. The shock was great at first, but over time it lessened. Soon making her own plate grew to be a familiar part of the routine. For one year, until she came down and there was no dinner.
Every week after that led to a small but significant difference in her day. The hot water would cut out mid-shower, if not altogether and Mother would ignore her screams. Mother would let her sleep in or wake her up earlier than the seven sharp that had been her normal time. Or she would cut practice or homework short with no notice and no explanation. She usually just set what she was working with or on down, nodded without a word, and walked out the door. The first time she was gone no more than five minutes, but within three months she would leave for hours at a time.
Every week, some difference to the routine of her day. Every week for a year after the night there was no dinner. At the end of the year there was no food with which to make dinner and the changes stopped being so small. Mother would disappear for days on end with no explanation despite Audra’s pleading. She would go weeks without grocery shopping, making Audra scrounge for meals out of the dwindling pantry choices. Or cut the legs off all of Audra’s pants and make Audra work for the thread and needle to sew them back together. Mother loved making Audra work to regain her lost “privileges”, usually through grueling two to six-hour long opera performances.
The year after that Mother walked out the door and never came back.
This monster was a kind of yellow-fungusy color, short and squat with no legs to speak of, just large claw-like feet and stubby arms with long, skinny fingers. It’s face looked like it had seen the wrong end of an anvil, flattened with only one eye protruding from the surface. As big as a goose-egg and red and swollen as a ripe tomato, the eye had several white irises floating around seemingly at random, until they all stopped and joined together to focus on an item of interest. The thing had no nose or lips, just a gaping maw with little slivers of yellowed teeth pointed in every direction.
She named this one Squashenstein.
It had greedy elongated fingers stemming from stubby, muscular arms plugged into the man’s temple, and it’s horror of a mouth was constantly whispering suggestions. Never commands. These little buggers were the most passive of the three different types she’d seen.
They weren’t like the aggressive skinny green ones that looked like miniature versions of those movie monsters from her childhood, before Mother changed. Gremlers or something. Little Tyrants, she called them. They screamed and hissed, stamping their spiky feet as they ripped and scratched at their victim’s head.
Or the nasty brownish blobs that wrapped around their victim’s head like a turban. These didn’t bother with commands. They would send a tentacle down the victim’s throat and assume direct control. They were the Crude, because they looked like large globs of crude oil.
No one else saw the monsters. Only Audra. The monsters knew this. No one else believed Audra. Audra didn’t even believe Audra for the longest time. She remembered being outside before Mother changed. She didn’t remember monsters. But the first time she ventured outside after Mother left, there they were. But no one else saw the monsters.
The monsters knew this.
They hunted her. They wanted her, maybe to kill her or maybe to take her over too. She saw them all the time now, more and more when she left Home, which meant the already infrequent trips would only grow increasingly so.
The man was about ten feet behind her and getting closer. This was the closest one had come to her in some time, but she felt no thrill of the chase. Only a dull knot of familiar dread in her gut, like she wanted to vomit out the memories of her life’s joys. It was Squashenstein, sending out his mojo to her. She had let him get too close, too lost in her thoughts.
And too confident in herself. She was, after all, far from defenseless.
Audra abruptly stopped in mid stride and spun around to face her attacker. The sight of both man and monsters’ surprised reactions sent a trill of pleasure throughout her body. Yes, she had slipped up a bit, let it get too close, but she was master here. Audra was the only one who could see the monsters, and she was the only one who could stop them. She took a moment, just a small clipping of an instant, to prepare for what she must do next.
She took a deep breath. Engaged her core. Shoulders straight. She stared at Squashenstein, all of its little pupils balled together in the front of the eye, staring at her with venomous hatred.
© 2013 Lowell R Torres
Pilling, a poem by Mariah Srygler
I am someone else in this photograph, slack mouth straight hair, flannel shirt peppered with pastel roses, purple and pink, pilling from two years of laborious laundry runs, nine and ten, biking to the laundromat two days after finding no clean shirts for school- Mom says she can’t do the laundry for me, in her car, with her something-called fabric softener because one day I’ll be grown and when you are grown no one will help you but yourself Against the tree house, shadows are just-so, perfect for the collegiate photography projects not-Dad, just-Jon poses me for He says, beside the shadow of the rungs, Mariah get off the swing set, focus, Jesus, drop your toy, God that disgusting toy I can’t believe that you still carry that fucking thing around, how old are you? Jon says, beside the shadow of the rungs, Mariah, against the wood grain, under the light through the trees, now let me find the focus, he mumbles, smokes, and I hold Max tight around the neck Shadows melt in to my honey hair, my face is hard beneath the soft light, soft against the wood grain, distracted by the swings Max is pilling, too, turned grey and mildewed sick from ten years of being loved too hard