The girl took the photograph of her grandmother from her pocket. She called her grandmother Nana. Her grandmother called her Little Turtle. Forehead pressed against the window, she could see blossoms falling by the trackside; white, even here. She watched one fall, lost it among the others in the dirt. The train pushed slowly through the mountains. The pane-vibration pit-a-patting her to restfulness, she thought: All covered in dirt. What will life be like now? The girl’s grandmother died a week ago. The photograph fell from her hand.
Across the aisle, a young woman stole glances at the girl between hands of Solitaire. Six more occupied the car and each had elected to sit away from the others. None spoke, save to themselves or their cell phones. Through a miasma of static, she had spoken briefly to her own father: “You’re breaking up, I can’t hear you.” Through a different kind of static, she had tried to speak to the girl. “Are you by yourself? My name is Ami?” The young woman did not see the photograph fall. Her mind wandered. She was craving pickled octopus.
Welcoming and watchful, the mountains cradled the familiar transport as it clattered through their pass. They endured, so like old lovers: each knowing the other’s form by touch, knowing where best to kiss the other’s curves. This pass had fallen out of favor some years ago, passengers flocking like white-eyes to more favorable modes of transport. Their liaison may only last a few years longer—for the train, its life. And what would the mountains do then? The wind blew beneath the tree-line, scattering blossoms from their branches.
Ami mis-shuffled her deck, cards falling across her lap, along the floor. Kneeling in the aisle she gathered them, her mind wandering its own disused passes, lumbering through each junction, over each switch. Reaching under the seat to retrieve the queen of spades, a wave of nausea hit her. She lowered her head to wait it out. The little girl across the aisle was sleeping in her seat, an uneasy sleep. Ami had never known her mother, but for the moment of that great push that ended one life and began another. Why should a child be alone? A nagging fear replaced her nausea. She slid something into her deck that did not fit.
The icy glass vibrating against the girl’s forehead was comforting. She didn’t know what her new home was going to look like. She didn’t know why her grandmother had died. She dreamed that somebody had placed one white petal over each of her eyes, blossom dirt falling lightly on her lids. They placed her next to her grandmother in the ground and said a prayer and cried for both of them, but she was happy. A hand on her shoulder woke her. “I found this by your seat. Is it yours?” The girl took the photograph, noticing how gently the other held it. For a moment, her hand clasped to Ami’s so tightly that she did not believe she would ever be able to let go.
© GARRETT CROKER 2015
Martin’s eyes narrow on the short-legged, ash-gray ovoid striding across the room, its tail twisting across the glow of the television, and then close. When he opens them again, the cat, named Marshall because it is the only name Martin likes for cats, is crouched in front of the sofa juggling its weight on the front paws, reconnoitering the cushion through dumb, dilated eyes. Up you go, then. Just out of reach. Naturally. Martin leans forward on the couch, enough to reach the top of the cat’s head, just inside the ears, up and down the neck, the bridge of the nose. A satisfied noise reaches up through Martin’s throat, a cloudless vibration.
The television explodes into advertisements, blaring empty noise scales of magnitudes louder than before. Shit. Martin twists his body and finds the remote, muting the commercial break on his second stab. The cat is unperturbed, and they both test the air for sound. Silence. A somnolent murmuring. More silence. A wide-eyed side-glance. It didn’t wake the baby. That’s good. This is a life that Martin had always expected to sneak up on him, but he had been the one to approach it instead, slowly and with careful steps. After a few minutes, they all begin to doze together, Martin’s head half-cocked, hand absently petting the sofa, the baby making no noise, the cat purring, paws lost to sight stuffed beneath its fresh abundance. The three of them. A trinity. The father, the son, and the holy cat. Now how about that?
Martin’s thoughts are wandering. He watches the door for Sheila. “Good night, Marshall,” he says, pulling the midday light over his shoulders like a blanket.
© GARRETT CROKER 2015
It will be dawn soon and Brendan wakes first, heavy lids over bleary eyes breaking up the dim morning light like a prism. He and Brianna Rose have been together, more or less, for seven years. She never wakes before him. He tries to let her sleep.
Brendan’s eyes slip to his nightstand, a photo there of him and Paul chasing emus at a farm. After Paul’s depression, and his suicide, Brianna Rose retrieved the photo from the trash and framed it. “Celebrate his life,” she said. Paul was the first loss in this period, Brendan’s father, both of his paternal grandparents, and his dog Cadmium following in consecutive years. Then there was Brianna Rose’s miscarriage. Tragedy crept across the surfaces of his life like vines, thorns snagging anything that got too close.
After his father’s death, Brendan began to feel his moods like a slumbering dragon; left alone, he lay about in apathy, hoarding his anguish and anger in the hollowed caves that the love for his father and his friend once filled. The slightest excavation sent him into rages, a noxious fire erupting from within. He lost his job and for months made no effort to find another. When he did, he could not keep it. He ran out of friends.
Brianna Rose was not always there for him. At times, “you lazy son of a bitch” was the only thing she called him. She recited insults like incantations, cursing him for being poor, unstable, unavailable, and small-dicked, her maleficence escalating always to match his own. They only had angry sex, and then none. When they separated, she did not tell him she was pregnant.
Three months into their breakup, he woke to a banging at his door. “I heard about Cadmium,” she said. “Are you okay?” She was showing. He was not okay.
When they lost the baby, Brendan blamed Brianna Rose. He hit her. She woke before him one morning and noticed not for the first time the four deep knuckleprints on her cheek, bitter bruises. If her sobbing hadn’t woken Brendan, he would have found her dead on the kitchen tile. Instead he caught her sucking the blood from her finger, having pricked herself with a knife to be sure the blade was up for the job. He saw then the poison in her blood, which she had meant to let. He had put it there.
His body shuddered and shook. She waited for his rage. “This is a nightmare,” he said instead, coming in total darkness against the stone wall of his heart's deepest cavern.
This morning, he sits while she sleeps, the cascading sunlight an aurora in her hair. Brendan marvels at how far they have come. There is a prescription bottle on the nightstand behind the photo, and he swallows two pills. He leans down to kiss her.
It’s time to wake up.
© GARRETT CROKER 2015
A fox came to Ismé at the edge of the woods, coated in grime and rail thin. The dry, irregular cracking of the leaves beneath its heavy limp gave it away long before she could be taken by surprise. She was afraid, of course, but the way it drooped its head, the way it held its right front paw, matted with blood and dirt, gingerly off the ground disarmed her. It hardly looked like a fox at all.
A lone tree stood out from the line where the rest of the wood had been cut back. Ismé placed her hand against its trunk to steady herself and came away with a fistful of wet, crumbling bark. With the bark came the smell of rot, overwhelming in the evening’s humidity. Ismé looked up to the bare branches and down to the dead-brown leaves, not autumn gold like those from the other trees. The same brown as the filth in the fox’s coat.
When she reached for the fox’s paw, just to look, it snapped at her in pain.
In bed that night, she could still feel the paw in her hand, nothing but fur and bones. I wonder what foxes like to eat best, she thought, and then fell to sleep.
When Ismé returned the next evening with a hunk of raw venison, she found a deer in the fox’s place, the shaft of an arrow extending from the meat of its shoulder like an antler, or from whatever meat could still be found between the skin and the bone. The deer’s hide pulled tight against its ribs, its breathing shallow. Cuts around the circumference of its neck oozed with thick, dark blood.
Ismé dropped the venison, which now seemed to her in poor taste, onto the blanket of dead leaves at the base of the tree and approached the deer slowly. She placed one hand on its side for leverage and the other with care around the shaft of the arrow. She breathed twice, quickly, and with all her might pushed with one hand while she pulled with the other.
The deer cried in pain and ran back into the woods.
Ismé stood with the bloody arrow at her side. When she turned to leave, the fox was finishing the meat she had dropped. It lifted its head to meet her gaze, placed its injured paw experimentally on the ground, and padded away.
She had to go the library to find out what deer eat.
Her herd grew, so that in time she came to woods not only with venison, apples and acorns for the fox and the deer, but with alfalfa for her one-eared rabbit, seed for her bird with the broken wings, and live mice for her snake whose tail she had never seen but whose stump she knew well. The animals tolerated her caresses while she fed them and returned to the woods when they finished, always offering a final glance in her direction before plunging headlong into the darkness. Goodbye, Ismé, she thought they were saying each time. We’ll see you tomorrow.
Slowly, their wounds closed, their bones mended, and they began to get fat.
One evening, as the fox, deer, rabbit, and snake looked back at her from the tree line after their feeding, the bird held back. It twittered and fluttered circles around her head, stopped on her shoulder and hopped to her hand before joining the others again. It tweeted frantically from the deer’s broad, golden back. Come with us, it seemed to say. We need your help inside now.
Ismé walked to the wood edge with her friends, stopping at the lone tree. She had long since stopped wondering at its recovery. She reached down to her feet and scooped a handful of pink blossoms from the dirt, tucking one into her pocket and letting the others fall before following the animals into the woods.
© GARRETT CROKER 2015