Author: mrsfanster

I am a writer influenced by my childhood obsession with Pearl S. Buck's compilation Fairy Tales of The Orient, my lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression and my seemingly disparate optimism.

Femme Fatale

                                               

I open my eyes very slowly, as if emerging from a storm cellar after the tornado. A cluster of people peers down at me. A young woman carefully tucks her purse beneath my head. I see her lips are moving and am reminded of the adult voices in a Peanuts cartoon. I try to laugh but this alarms the crowd gathered around me. The young woman shakes her head and gently pushes my chest to keep me supine. With closed eyes, the deprivation of sight enhances my hearing. Children laughing, rhythmic chanting from the Hari Krishnas, the chug of a small train. Central Park. 

I remember now, standing in line to buy a lemonade. A handsome young man talking. Flattered. It’s been so long since a man talked to me. Stupid. Stupid cow. I flirted. I preened. Stupid. He snatched my bag! Why hadn’t I just let go? What a hideous scene. How I flapped about, screeching; like an old hen protesting the axe. He shoved me with such force. The fall. I shudder from the humility of it all. 

The young woman mistakes my embarrassment; I hear her now telling the others I might be having a stroke. Stupid, I’m so stupid. Open your eyes so they won’t think you’re dying. Open your eyes; don’t replay that odious incident in your mind again and again. The graceless fall. Your glasses flying off. The thud of your head upon the cement. 

Stupid. You were a mark. The man, boy really, sensed your loneliness, smelled it like a cheap cologne. Pathetic. How carefully you had chosen your outfit, applied your lipstick for a stroll in the park on this first sparkling summer day. For what, for what, you silly old woman? If anyone notices you these days, it’s not for a good reason. God, the embarrassment. I could die from it! I had giggled, so flattered by his attention. Open your eyes, the poor girl thinks you’re dying! She’s begging the EMTs to hurry!

 I wish I was dead. Open your eyes; let them know that regrettably your raggedy old hide is still alive! Open your eyes, openyour, op, op, o… 

Very grateful to The Bookends Review for selecting this flash for publication August 2022. This piece began in a winter Flash workshop with Retreat West and I cannot recommend their courses highly enough.

When We Had Wings

Millard Fillmore loved the butterflies. He was confused at first, having never seen one. I struggled to explain that they used to be common; ordinary like birds, I said. That was a mistake since he’d never seen a bird. It took me a while, but I told him all I knew about hummingbirds and roseate spoonbills, cardinals and woodpeckers, robins, eagles, and bluebirds. I waxed a little poetic on the bluebirds, I guess. Birds of happiness. Anyway, I started singing a snippet of some old song, a bluebird on my shoulder. At that point, Millard got bored and fell asleep.

That was months ago. Most of the butterflies are gone now, which is a bad sign and indicates we need to move along as well. 

As I am packing our few remaining things, I say to Millard it’s time to fly away. He eyes me warily and I admit it is a figure of speech but that also once people could fly. When water covered more of the planet than dust, when trees donned resplendent coats of many-colored leaves, when rain fell like tears and sometimes when it was cold, yes cold such a concept, and snow fell. At that time, so many years gone, we people, we were so clever, and greedy, we climbed into machines and dared to fly. 

Millard does not think much of this story. He likes the stories about companions. I have shared with him tales I was told long ago, but by whom I can’t even remember. A guardian? I would like to think I had a gran. Maybe I sat in a comforting, wide lap, listened raptly to a sonorous voice. Anyway, I like sharing the buddy stories with Millard. I tell him about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I tell him about Pooh and Piglet. He likes Bert and Ernie the best because he thinks it’s funny that I don’t know what they are. Once I said they were bears but last time I called them critters. So yes, I don’t know how to explain to Millard what Bert and Ernie are, but I know they were close friends and I think that should be good enough. Sometimes he just misses the point. 

I have packed up everything we want to take with us. After I have made sure we are leaving the place tidy, I realize Millard is not with me. I spy his fluffy ginger striped tail on the porch railing. This is unnerving and I feel a hot anxiety bubbling within me. I want to scream but at the same time a cautious voice is heeding me to approach quietly. 

Millard, I practically whisper. He is vexed. I can tell from the twitching of his tail and the angry spitting noises he is making. 

Millard, I manage it a little louder now. We no longer have wings, please, Millard. Please come back down.

When I am certain he will jump, when he has hinged up upon his back feet, I lunge. I have not moved with this kind of alacrity in months. I have not been chased or afeared for so long, but my muscle has memory and my body hurls me toward Millard whom I grasp tightly round his midsection as we both hit the floor of the porch.

And then a thing so miraculous, I cannot believe my own eyes. At first, I think we are watching a dust devil; the air seems yellow. Then the thrum of hundreds of wings. Goldfinches! I say, Millard, I never mentioned goldfinches! 

How can this be, I think. There is a veritable cloud of goldfinches hovering, swarming, surfing the breeze. They alight in the anemic branches of an old linden tree. They perch upon the ratty tatters of an elderberry bush. Their birdsong swells upon the break of the hazy dawn.

I sit on the porch with Millard in my lap. I think the warbling of the birds is moving through me before I realize that Millard is purring. There is a warmth, spreading over me, the way I imagined I would have felt in a gran’s lap. I remember, if blue birds bring happiness, goldfinches bring luck. Millard nuzzles my chin. Yes, I tell him; we will stay.

I chose Shen Chen Hsieh’s stunning artwork on the cover of Moon City Review for this piece because I am eternally grateful to be included in this journal with so many talented writers.

Shenandoah

            A southwest corner of Virginia, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the home to a military college and an elite university. Around the erudite little town, farmland undulates and dense woods are a hunter’s delight.

We grew up there. We were every girl in the 1980s. We watched Oprah and listened to The Talking Heads on our Walkmans. We complained how our youth yawned in those baby-oil days, as we sunbathed, bikini-clad on a tin roof, drinking diet cokes and spritzing Sun-In. We lamented our sheltered lives as we lathered each other’s backs, impervious to the country boys honking the horns of their dirty pickup trucks or the frat boys calling “Townie girls” from their BMWs. We barely glanced over the pages of our V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steeles as the cadets, awkward, profusely sweating in their summer pants and winter jackets, shyly saluted us as they marched past.

We left those days, not as quickly as I should have, and that town, mired in its strange duality, a little bastion of liberalism isolated in a conservative county.

You went your way, the way we all knew you would, up north, to a fine Ivy League institution. I meandered. Sometimes, I marvel how we started from the same point. Of course, it was never really the same. Our collective experience, the crushes, the dances, the Saturday night Trivial Pursuit marathons – somehow, I never perceived there was more. You knew differently. You left on a raft of accolades and expectations. I barely escaped.

The roads we took were never on the same map again. You were undeterred, cruising through undergrad, first tier medical school. I struggled to find footing, a few hours only from home. I bounced from one ridiculous vocation to another. Curiously, as you moved through your structured paces, I too eventually found the right path. Mine just doesn’t bring me “home” much. Just as well, I suppose; I can’t abide the confederate flags and the ghosts of my indiscretions. How funny that I am in the north now and you are further south than where we began.

And yet, on humid nights, when my potted gardenia is blooming and the fireflies wink in the soupy air, I stand in my backyard, staring at stars in a sky that will look the same to you, and I run my hands over my arms, remembering the slick, oil tickle of your fingers upon my skin.

Again, I am grateful to Sky Island Journal for picking up this CNF Flash of mine. Thank you for reading. Recently, I have started to tackle my struggle with being (American) southern, what that means and my moral obligation, as someone who writes, to accurately represent the South.

Hot Flash

Hot Flash

I lie in our bed, on the left-hand side, as I have for 17 years. I hope the valerian or the half bottle of scotch will soon put me to sleep. My husband’s chest rises and falls simpatico with the snoring cat. Both are fat and happy. The mattress is uneven; my side a good inch or two above his. I am slight, barely perceptible underneath the bed coverings. My husband’s belly balloons, a blanketed summit. 

Just as I am beginning to believe that I might nod off, a glimmer catches my eye. A rosy glow peeks from underneath the window shade. It is far too early yet for dawn so I tiptoe over to take a look. I can feel the radiant heat before I lift the shade. The backyard is afire. It is a sea of flame, undulating and ebbing ever closer. The smallest waves of crimson and orange, flicker across the lawn licking at wicker lawn furniture and potted plants before the blue flames engulf it all, an infernal tsunami rushing toward me. Entranced, I feel something akin to envy as I watch the flames take what they will. I have not felt such desire, such longing, in years. I glance briefly back at my husband and the cat, oblivious to the lusty blaze beckoning me. 

Once, I was a barefoot vagabond lover. I took what I wanted but never more than I needed. That man in the bed wove his fingers through my hair, and his lies through my heartstrings. He wanted to hold me, not hold me down, he said. He wanted to put a diamond on my finger, not a ring through my nose, he promised. He wanted to put fine shoes upon my feet, not shackles around my ankles, he lied. 

I watch my husband pull the blankets ever tighter; he is chilled without me in the bed. Lie next to him to keep him warm, lie underneath him to keep him happy, lie to myself to keep from going insane. I turn back to the blaze. My husband and his cat, that battleground of a bed, the very walls of the room disappear.

Ah, Desire, my old friend, I thought you had abandoned me forever but here you are, resplendent in the finery of flames! My heart threatens to break free from my chest. I hear my whispered name, hot, honeyed tongues at my earlobes. In the window, my image is haloed, my head ablaze. I look back, just once more, at the false prince, the man who promised me a kingdom and made me a servant. My shadow stands resolute as the fire illuminates the room. Enough, I will no longer keep my yearning at bay. The smallest ember deep within me, the one I fanned with freedom and frivolity, has sparked back. I put my palms to the window, press my weight upon it; my hands are seared. And then the glass shatters and I am seized. Such rapture…

I was fortunate enough to have two speculative works selected for publication in Sky Island Journal’s Summer 2022 issue. Thank you for reading .

NAIAD

Inside me there is a river. Perhaps my mother swallowed too much sadness; perhaps there were two of us swimming within her and after one drowned, the water swelled, slithering into me. Who knows how these things happen? 

Recently, a coughing fit dredged up silt and muck, bones, and teeth. There is always so much more in a river than what you think. I have tried to mitigate it in some way, swallow enough bread or sand, but the water only rises. I no longer sleep upon my back; I would drown. 

August is the worst month. Around me, the air becomes waterlogged. I do not perspire but even the slightest touch leaves a dimple of wetness, like when you push upon a sponge forgotten in the sink. I cannot live within plaster walls. Too soon, the black crawls up, etching and fanning like coral, like brachia. Wood is not much better, too porous. Brick mosses and ferns. 

Winter can be cruel. The occasional cold snap will wreak havoc throughout me; my veins are icy splinters and moving takes herculean effort.

It is too tiring being altered by the moon and the seasons. Once, I thought I could leave this place and stifle the source. I nearly died in a drier climate, my skin paper to the touch.

A short while back, I met a man who told me he could see all that was dammed within me. I took his hands and pressed them to my eyes. So much spilled out from me then, he fled, terrified that I would inundate him.

I long to complete, to belong, the way the Mississippi barrels with all her strength to meet the Gulf. She is being called home.

I stand now by the retention pond, my whole being seeping, yearning when a blush blossom catches my eye. I summon up my height, and bend from my waist, wavering like a heron, poised to strike; I take the lotus whole. I feel the green of it as I take it down into my watery depth, the vegetal tang as its fibrous parts soak within me. As I hover over the water, baited like a fish upon the lotus, this is when I hear the song; tadpoles and newts thrumming, newly sprouted legs whisking through water; fish gliding, silver scales sluicing ripples; all the aquatic plants dancing upon the surface while below their tentacled roots ebb and flow. All these in chorus, beckoning me, let down your load. At last, as I plunge into my new home, everything is so much clearer beneath the surface.

I am grateful to Sky Island Journal for giving Naiad a home in its’ Summer 2022 edition. While not a retention pond, the photo taken in Villeneuve-les-Avignon is too pretty not to share. As always, all photos are mine. Thank you for reading.

My Love for You, as Consumed

            A piece of chocolate, broken from a bar of Hershey’s. I smear peanut butter upon it, sprinkle sea salt and savor each slow bite as I read, and reread, my first text from you.

Six slices of Claussen sandwich stackers, greedily eaten over the kitchen sink before I vomit on the floor. You google abortion clinics, make an appointment for the next morning.

Cherries, summer sweet, staining my fingertips. I spit the pits at you in the backyard before nearly choking on one as you get down upon one knee and take my left hand.

Tacos in the back of an Uber on our way to the airport for our honeymoon. My mother invited too many people to the wedding she thought would never happen so we barely ate at our own reception. Too busy meeting and greeting.

Pepto bismol, saltines and ginger ale for three months after our honeymoon until we wake one morning, our sheets soaked in blood.

Chinese takeout. Pizza. Platters from the Lebanese place down the street. McDonald’s. Burger King. Wendy’s. You gain 8 pounds. I have lost twenty. While you play Xbox or jam with the guys in the garage or work late, I bury what I should have eaten underneath newspapers in the trash.

Bell’s Oberon. Dewars. Robert Mondavi Merlot. Jack and ginger. Then vodka. Straight. After you tell me to stop. After you tell me I am killing myself. After you tell me I am killing us. Straight vodka looks like water in the Picardie glasses you bought for me for our fifth anniversary.

Frosting, straight from the store-bought tub because I don’t like cake but I love frosting and we are celebrating my first year of sobriety. 

Extra strength Tylenol. Water. No, I do not want the soup your mother keeps begging me to eat. No. Water. Extra strength Tylenol. Water. I have not changed the sheets in two weeks. First, it was because I could still smell your scent, vetiver, and something, something else, something uniquely you. I pretend it’s still there but I know it isn’t. It is forever gone from this world as are you. 

A piece of chocolate, smeared with peanut butter. Sprinkled with sea salt. It tastes like love. I miss you.

This flash was selected for The Flash Feast Anthology by The Molotov Cocktail Summer 2022.

Mississippi Delta 1975

A town begins its slow demise. All its’ young, bright hopefuls are leaving in droves. My street is without sidewalks as the municipality falters. Our house, a squat, low ranch, sits behind a Magnolia. In a kitchen, knotty pine cabinets and tired linoleum, I, six, at the table, sobbing; my young parents already falling out of love, quarreling.

From this, things take root. My mother and I aligned; Daddy’s casual cruelty; a divorce. Gardens give blossoms and fruit. Also, thorns, weeds, and noxious things that will leave you wounded. Fresh soil so fertile yields such painful bounty.

I am pleased to share that these 100 words earned me a Josie Rubio Scholarship from the Gotham Writers Workshop.

Make Peace With My Bones

            The last leaves of late autumn cling to skeletal trees. They rustle in a bitter wind and I know it is you.

This time of year, the merriment of the holidays cannot stave off the end-of- days darkness. It is you, rattling your chains, keeping me from sleep.

I could sense you last night, as I lay in your bed with someone else. I had the ceiling painted haint blue but still I smell tobacco and bourbon in a house where neither of these can be found in the daylight. Burnt matches in the sink. Ice cubes rattle in a glass in a room no one is in.

I have thrown away your clothes, your shoes, your wedding ring. I did not give any of these to charity. What charity would it be to me to find your shoes on another man’s feet walking down the street? Still, I see you. That coat in front of me at the Post Office. That mustache on the barista. That thumbprint of a bruise on my neck.

Your letters, I have burnt. I do not need to see your pledges of love, your apologies, your threats; they ring enough in my battered head.

All these things, I purged from the little house we once shared. It does not matter. Like a leviathan unmoored from some sepulchral trench, you summon the pieces of you I forgot or couldn’t find, the fingernail clippings, the hairs in the razor in the medicine cabinet, the blood beneath the floorboards. All these on the harshest December night meet and mingle, rising and converging upon me.

When my love awakens tomorrow morning, in your bed, I will be as cold as this season’s first snow.

A version of this flash first appeared in Second Chance Lit April 2022.

PET

Pet

She’s the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen. At least, I think it’s a she. Always hard to tell. Poor thing has horrible breath. Anyway, she’s so ugly she’s almost cute. And obviously desperate for affection.

Every morning, she is on the back porch. Sometimes I catch her unaware, closed eyes, face tilted to the morning sun. Whatever must she be thinking?

Lately, she’s brought me horrid little gifts. I know she’s trying to endear herself; I can’t shame her for trying. I rub her leg to let her know I’m thankful.

Old Tom, the neighborhood codger, disapproves of me befriending Poor Thing, as I now call her.

Nasty, vicious animals, he spits at me. They carry terrible diseases.

Tom is irascible, but there is something to be said for wisdom and longevity. I try not to slight him.

When the weather turned colder, I became concerned. Poor Thing came to the porch less and less. Her coat changed. Now, her scent is different. Her face is a little fuller but no less ugly. When she does not show up, I find myself worrying.  I’ve really become quite fond of her.

This afternoon is a little warmer. Perhaps the coldest months might be behind us. There’s a patch of sun on the porch and I am waiting to see if Poor Thing will visit. I’ve called for her several times but regrettably this only summons Old Tom.

What are you doing calling for that beasty? I’ve told you no good can come from that, he hisses at me. 

Tom, my goodness, Poor Thing is no threat to you! She’s harmless. Don’t get all bothered on my account. You’ve been around several blocks at this stage in the game; if you don’t like her, move along. 

Old Tom fixes me with his one good eye. I see his hackles are up and his tail is fuller than a raccoon’s. He stealthily approaches, which alarms me. I feel my own fur raising, my ears flattening to my skull. Tom speaks low and in that guttural that I know is meant to be taken seriously.

You fool, he growls. That foul smelling, furless wretch you’ve befriended is no cat.

Tom has gotten very close to me; spittle has hit my whiskers. I cautiously back up. I’m frightened of his claws but it is his words that have wounded me. Poor Thing is inept and ugly, it’s true, but she shouldn’t be hated for those things. I open my mouth to defend my pet but Tom roars on.

Idiot. Those plastic mice and “food” she’s given you; she’s trying to trap you! Ever wondered why she is so large or about those hideous sounds she makes? Take it from old one-eyed Tom here, you don’t want to mess with a human.

And there, he said it. I pull my tail down defensively, wrap it around my back ankles. I tuck my chin to my chest. Poor Thing, poor thing! I feel an ache deep within me. I think about her large naked face when she puts it close to mine. Her chemical breath. Her dull blocky teeth. I knew, I knew, of course I did, that she wasn’t really a cat. Of course, she isn’t. But there is something so pitiful, something that moves me so, when she sits on the step and pats her big paw for me to join her. 

Tom is nearer now. I smell his warm, feral scent. It is comforting. He brushes the top of my head with his jaw. I wait to feel his teeth graze my ear, to reproach me further but he purrs into my neck. I want to tell him no, that Poor Thing would never trap me, that she needs me. Tom has never felt the warmth of her paw when it rests in my fur.

You’re fine, you’re fine, Tom purrs. You didn’t enter its’ den. Let this be your first, your most important, your last lesson. Wild things are wild; you cannot change that. Tom licks my inner ear. I lean into the bath as he washes my eyes and nose. It’s been so long since I have been touched, other than by Poor Thing. So long since I was with Mother and my siblings. I hear the cries and calls of the colonies at night but I have been too ashamed to ask to join them. Me, the runt, left behind; who would want me?

As if his tongue has tasted my thoughts, Tom lightly nips my neck and says, you’re not alone. I look into his golden eye, noticing now more mirth than meanness. Maybe Tom was once a runt too.

The sun slinked off a while ago. A light from within Poor Thing’s den has come on and falls upon us.

It’s time, Tom growls and jumps from the porch. I follow. I look back only once, from the safe side of the fence. She is standing on the porch with a dish in her hand. I wince as she calls. Poor thing.

A version of this story was first published in The Dodge literary magazine April 2022.

In November 2020, my beloved tuxedo cat, Neo, went missing. As I searched for him, for weeks (he came home!), another little feral tuxie began following me home. Lucky is now an indoor cat too! This story began when I started to think about how I appeared to Lucky and whether he was really willing to take a chance on me. Thank you for reading. Also, adopt don’t shop and if you can support your local TNR, please do so!

Siren Of The West

Tomas, nut brown with wavy hair and wearing a crucifix, presses a plane ticket into my palm. My mother’s pearls bought this ticket. I instinctively touch the base of my naked throat. I have never left Mississippi much less flown in a plane. Tomas hands me his flask and pushes a bitter pink pill onto my tongue. It’ll calm your nerves, he whispers in my ear. Soon, I am a babe asleep in a winged cradle. We arrive in San Diego in the heavy velvet of night. I am gently placed in the cab owned by Tomas’s cousin who speeds us up the coastline.

            In the morning, I hear the sea before I see it. Churlish, it pounds over rocks etched by its’ furor. The barrier islands in the Gulf bear the brunt of the swells so the surf in Pass Christian is just a lick along the shore. Nothing, no one, could have prepared me for the sheer spectacle, the wanton audacity of southern California. Birds of Paradise cling to the cliffs, their beaks open in adulation. Manzanitas, Chaparral Broom, Sticky Monkeyflower, exotic names I would learn in coming days, cluster, tumble down arroyos. My seduction is instantaneous and complete. La Jolla. I roll the words of this place upon my tongue. It lingers on my lips. The words undulate. I close my eyes and whisper “La Jolla, La Jolla”, a prayer from a pilgrim.

            The clang of a phone snaps me awake. I am tangled in sheets. Tomas is half-dressed, buckling his belt. He is terse on the line, slams the receiver. He tells me he must go and I am not to open the door, nor answer the phone. It is fine. The verandah is a universe. I stand upon it and marvel at a world I have never known. Mountains meet the sea. 

            Tomas returns and I am nude upon the terrace, dizzy from trying to count the stars. 

Your man will come for you, he says. 

My beauty is a curse; just this once, I want to be blessed.

            Come to me now, I tell Tomas. He lies with me beneath heaven.

            God is not on our side, Tomas tells me in the morning. We will find another God then, I say. 

In Mississippi, a tempest rages.

Tomas feeds me figs and pomegranates. Fingers sticky, lips wet. 

He would bring a thousand ships, if he could, Tomas says. 

Let him, I say. I am standing beneath the outdoor shower. My wedding ring winks in the drain. I have let down my hair. 

Dios mio, you are beautiful, Tomas murmurs. His hands, a skin so many shades darker than mine, look like shadows upon my breasts, my belly, my thighs. 

Days of languor. We sleep until hunger, for food or each other, rouses us. The money is running out; Mississippi wages do not go far in southern California.

Tomas tells me his Mexico is not so different from La Jolla. I know enough to know he is not telling the full truth. His family home is far from the sea.

Zamora, he whispers into my hair, late at night. He holds me and tries to lull-a-bye me with tales of our future life in his homeland. He knows when he leaves this bungalow, when he returns, at any hour, every hour, I am on the verandah, watching her. How could he ever ask me to leave the Pacific?

We eat sardines from a can, crackers from a wax paper packet. Tomas’s eyes flit, onyx gulls searching for better scraps. The fig tree still drops honey-ripe fruit onto the verandah and I happily feast upon what I am given. Warily though, I notice her blues deepen as the sky above the Pacific turns leaden. 

Later, when my man has indeed come from Pass Christian for me, when Tomas has returned to Zamora, when all around me is ash and ruin, I take myself into the thunderous sea. No rings on my fingers, no pearls around my neck, I hold surf-pounded stones deep in my pockets and wonder, what good beauty has ever brought?

Stanchion EIC Jeff Bogle was kind enough to include this piece in Issue 7. I pay homage to my love to fairy tales, classic myth and The Awakening with this little piece, and with a wink and nod to the Mississippi coast. Please follow Stanchion on Twitter @StanchionZine. Better yet, order a subscription! Photo by Fannie H. Gray