2018 Spring Poetry Winner “Study of Grief” by Brook J. Sadler Ph.D

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Study of Grief

(I)
A rip.
A block of wood axe-split.
A heavy pelt of rain.
The sentence that strikes,

then makes itself a constant refrain:
He is dead.
Or, He is gone.
I know these lines by heart.

But new to me is this fresh, rude thought:
This is it.
The peak of my life is past.
There is left only the decline

into old age.
I stand before a bush of wild
roses, small and steeped in pink,
deep ruby pink like well-kept secrets,

like small hearts flush with blood.
They bloom, a hundred promises
along this mountain trail.

(II)

It is late, and I cannot
keep my eyes open,
but I do not want to
go to bed because I know
I will lie down
and begin to weep.

Even with my back turned,
even in my sleep,
long purple shadows
seep from the mountains.

(III)

A single rose petal
falls to the table.

Along its rim
encroaches brown—

like a paper burned
at the edges.

I am advised to grieve
the passing of my youthful

promise, the dreams
that did not come true.

It seems an arduous
assignment: to grieve

my self.
But I can feel the relief

it would bring, the relief
that comes at the end

of grief—the soft and quiet
sigh, the shearing off

of that striving self,
my striving self.

I ask and ask again,
How do I know

that grieving isn’t just
capitulating, giving up?

In the morning,
the mountains are pink,

their contours a hazy blur.
By afternoon, they are brown

and etched with ridgelines
in the sun. They resemble

the dark umber of burnt paper
or the delicate border

of a decaying rose petal.
My life is burning

toward the center.
I fear the white space

will too soon disappear.

(IV)

White roses unhanded themselves
slowly
over many days
in a small vase
on my kitchen table.

The petals loosened—
each silken swatch
slackened—
pried open

by fingers of light—
by light alone—
until

with a silent sigh
they completely gave up

their shape.

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2017 Fall Poetry Winner “Deployed” by David Colodney

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Before becoming a writer, David Colodney was a fetus and, prior to that, an embryo. David realized at an early age that he had no athletic ability whatsoever, so he turned his attention to writing about sports instead of playing them, covering everything from high school flag football to major league baseball for The Tampa Tribune and The Miami Herald. David holds an MA from Nova Southeastern University and an MFA from Converse College, where he served as poetry editor of the South 85 literary magazine. He was recently nominated for Best New Poets and was a finalist for the 2017 DISQUIET International Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared or will appear in St. Petersburg Review, South Carolina Review, California Quarterly, Shot Glass Journal, and Gyroscope Review, among others. David lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his wife, three sons, and golden retriever.

Deployed
Your bedroom clock scatters us in minutes.
You rattle off random tasks                  chores
before departure:         physicals           basic
training               storage           lease-breaking.
You already speak staccato
like your drill sergeant, hollow
broken syllables.           Standing at attention
we survey these blank walls
pretending:      diminished breaths
an open window.           A lonely cloud burst
blurs your orders         clutched in spastic hands
tearstains         drain white paper gray.
I see through the folded print                an x-ray.
If I touch that letter, it means you’re leaving,
so I let angular words                dangle.
In this minute, there’s no changing you.
In this room, we live a moment
we don’t understand:                your bedroom clock
spins time faster            as you ship out to serve
               decaying America.
Young soldier, if your country loomed as large as your heart
beating under camouflage       last name         embroidered,
flag emblazoned                         if only                your country
                            appreciated.
In this minute, I don’t know:                  salute you
or hug you so tight
you never go.

Confessions of a Spook by Michael Washburn

Let me tell you just how enjoyable the scrutiny of strangers can be.

Today I am a hard, bitter man with little use for boyish fantasy. But my younger self craved the adventure, the romance, the thrill that the impressionable associate with the life of an agent in the service of Australia’s government. Having done research on the way of life of agents on sensitive missions, I thought I had an idea of the secrecy and the training that go with one’s induction into the service. Even so, a lot of what went on at the beginning came as a shock.

When I joined up, my supervisors told me that they needed to put together a detailed psychological profile of their new spy. If I was going to serve them in far-flung locales, they needed to know not just of my qualifications and skills, but of all the people I’d alienated, all the enemies I’d made, all the traumas I’d endured, all the phobias that grew like mold across my psyche. They needed to be aware of all my foibles and vulnerabilities, so that they could anticipate any scenarios where I might cave to pressure, forget my training, and act or talk irresponsibly. In the event that something happened to me, the profile might help them pinpoint who’d done it and why.

I had no choice but to cooperate. It’s routine, anyway, they assured me. A formality. Just take clipboard, pen, and paper, fill in a few pages for us, forget all about it, and move on to the substance of your elite role. Ever the obedient operative, I began to orient myself in my distant past. But the past in question was not really all that distant. I was thirty at the time they took me on, and I had to furnish an account of my relationship with my parents. I revisited the past, the life of a young man in a state of arrested development, living at home, in a two-story brick house in a suburb of Canberra, long after his friends had gotten married, started families, and become homeowners.

With respect to my mother, there isn’t all that much to tell. It is impossible for me to recall that woman without a cigarette in her hand. She began smoking when she was nineteen, evolved into a three-pack-a-day lady in grad school, and never let up. It was grotesque how much she smoked. She never—I mean literally never—exercised or saw a doctor. When my mother died of a heart attack in her sleep, at fifty-six, the question in my mind was not why she died so young, but how she’d made it that far. The last year and a half of her life were not pretty, let me tell you. It was as if she knew what she’d done to her body. She knew quite well what was coming, and needed someone to scream at and accuse of various things, to take her mind off herself. I was there and I came in handy. You wouldn’t believe what she said to me, or I to her. My own mother.

After her death, the clinical depression that had cramped my father’s existence for many years grew ever more severe. I got used to walking through the door of our modest brick house to find a man with wispy white hair lolling in front of the TV, with a look that kept just a bit of the educated, refined mien people had known him for before he stepped down from the chairmanship of the math department of one of the local universities. It might have been better if he’d just gone to hell altogether. No matter how far he wasted away, he kept just a hint of urbanity about him, and that made his inertia and dysfunction hideous to behold.

My father had a weird paranoid streak, manifesting itself in a hundred little panic attacks a week. That may not sound like much, but try to imagine what it was like for me. If he happened to see a bill from my car insurance provider on the living room table, with the words “24-hour claims service” in the top left portion of the envelope, something odd happened in my father’s mind. He didn’t think it was just a monthly bill from an ordinary service provider, but rather, a letter from a collection agency, seeking to recoup a huge debt I owed to someone. I must not be living within my means, I must be doing reckless, insane things.

Another example: If my father happened to come downstairs in his bathrobe on a Monday morning and see a week’s worth of empty bottles gathered in the pantry before I took them out to the curb, bang! He assumed I’d drunk the contents of all those bottles the night before. Ergo, I was fifty times over the legal blood-alcohol limit this morning and would get fired upon arriving at work. Some might dismiss these reactions as trivial, but they fed an atmosphere where at times I found myself wanting to kill my father. Oh, it got infinitely worse over time. My mother’s death, after decades of neglecting her health, made him solicitous about my health. The fellow was always peering at me, as if trying to look into me, to hone his view of the pockets of flab roiling inside me, the shifting fat in my body putting me at risk of a heart attack. To be quite honest, I was a little out of shape, even if no one would have described me as fat. All it took was a bit of bulge at the waist to push my father into frenzied imaginings. As fevered as his delusions were, he kept up his aloof academic air a good deal of the time. He said astounding things, but in a dry monotone. Once he and I were standing with thirty others in the courtyard of a hotel where a second cousin of mine was going to get married. People were milling around, talking of jobs and mortgages, paying special attention to my father because they didn’t want him to feel any alienation or loneliness. Every time he spoke, he commanded the attention of virtually everybody. Quite without preamble, he turned to me and said, “You know, Richard, there is a scale in the restroom right over there. You could weigh yourself.”

“Excuse me?” I asked in disbelief, in front of dozens of attentive ears and eyes. He thought I’d said it because I hadn’t heard him, not that I was unable to believe what I’d heard quite clearly. He repeated his suggestion, in that same academic monotone.

“You could weigh yourself.”

I felt the gazes of my relatives all around me as I stood there in the warm air of the courtyard. I thought of breaking his jaw. To this day, I believe that he spoke without malice or spite, he honestly did not know why someone might not react well to his suggestion. That didn’t make me feel too much better. Oh, dad. Here was the aloof academic with whom I’d grown up. In the months that followed, his unwanted scrutiny of my body and  his panic attacks over my health or over a bill grew ever more frequent and acute. On occasion, he woke up at night in the throes of a panic attack so severe that he grabbed the phone beside his bed and called the police or paramedics, leaving me with a lot of explaining to do.

In describing my father’s solicitude for my health, and his alarm over empty beer bottles, I may have given the impression that he was an exceedingly proper gentleman who would not tolerate sloth or excess. For the record, I’ve always felt quite humiliated at my father’s deportment. There are certain stereotypes about mathematicians being nerdy and unable to interact socially with the ease that comes naturally to others. I’ve always thought my father was aware of that stereotype and tried to overcompensate. He saw nothing wrong with open expressions of sexual longing. He installed a little program on his desktop that made a three-inch woman walk across the screen, pause midway, strip, and ogle the viewer in the most lascivious way, pushing her bare breasts forward, sliding her palms across her buttocks and pulling them wide apart. It made me queasy to watch these things or to hear him talk quite openly about what he’d like to do to the teen waitress in the bar on the corner. If you ever confronted him about this, you got something between a grin and a smirk. How amusing that someone should grow alarmed over the stash of porn mags and DVDs in his bedroom, or his putting the internet at the service of his urges. He thought he was being cute!

I wanted to put my father out of my mind forever. I requested duty overseas, under the auspice of the South Asian intelligence bureau run by an official who had taken a liking to me and had voiced the highest regard for my abilities.

We were all weary of the interminable chasing and hunting of terrorists, but the public was understandably furious about intelligence failures. We were eager to nab a pair of guys who knew about the origins of the plot to blow up the nightclub in Bali in 2002, a particularly horrific event in which eighty-eight Australians lost their lives, and maybe knew about other plots as well. The status of this operation was, as they say, “ultra top secret.” The terrorists love to mix it up with the law-abiding civilians. Give them any warning, and the populace scatters like an avalanche of pebbles down a mountainside. Good luck finding anyone in particular. ASIS had invested so much into covert ops in Indonesia over the years, and we thought we had some pretty good intelligence from an operative who had sat down in a café with Prendy Gunawan, whom we knew as a member of a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah, the most widely feared terrorist organization on the archipelago. Whatever else you might say about Prendy, he was a personable guy who liked Fleetwood Mac and gave this almost embarrassingly broad grin when you met with him in person. Our operative asked him about this tic once and Prendy said the expression meant something to the effect of “Paradise is at hand.” In other words, tourism may have waned severely thanks to the bombings in 2002 and 2005, but we’re on the cusp of rooting out the terrorists and making the island a place where tourists in straw hats love to recline in chairs on the beach, sipping sangria. Our operative, alias Abdul Iskandar, worked for my ASIS colleagues Scott Gibson and Nick Talbot. He met with Prendy in a café in Kuta at the southern end of the island and gained some fairly reliable intelligence about a meeting of the higher-ups within the cell in the village. So, we were going in.

Suspicions were afoot now that our man Abdul might not have been the honest concerned citizen we imagined. Let me take this opportunity to clarify the matter. As far as I know, Abdul was quite honest and dependable. He did not share Prendy’s views. The trouble arose when a crusading online news agency, Transparent Authority, received a leak from a disgruntled Darwin-based member of ASIS, Bruce Owens, whose purview included all counterterrorism ops in Indonesia. The agency quickly distributed a list of operatives working there, including one Abdul Iskandar. It didn’t publish the information on its home page, for there were people even Transparent Authority did not wish to alienate, but on surrogate sites with text in the Indonesian language. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah quickly got hold of the information; that explains why our men in the field had a bit of trouble locating or speaking with Abdul after such a long, if covert, association.

But the mission went ahead. I, for one, acted on the assumption that Abdul Iskandar had not been privy to any dates for operations in the planning phase. We were aware of the possibility of disloyalty. We had given Abdul a certain amount of “decoy info” to mislead the jihadists into preparing for ASIS actions in cities barely on our radar at all, and we asked Abdul to gather data about people we didn’t really consider a threat. A certain number of my colleagues in the agency thought themselves exceedingly clever.

The night of the operation arrived.

I won’t forget remember the sights, noises, and odors of this night. We could not entirely avoid making noise as we moved down the road on the outskirts of the village of Sayan in the moonlight. We thought it was shrewd, deploying a mélange of ASIS men and Indonesian security operatives. all in civilian clothes. This was neither a mission launched by white “imperialists,” nor one for which we had to give Indonesia all the credit, you see. There weren’t many white faces in our team, mind you, just Scott Gibson, Nick Talbot, and myself, and we were on the inside of the cluster. Anyone who happened to glimpse us in the moonlight from one of the farms on either side of the road would probably not have made out any alarming Caucasian features. We had avoided at least one of the errors that allowed no fewer than six fugitives to slip away in the preceding ten months.

The village was coming up. I scanned the strip of bare road between the façade of a restaurant and the dark windows of a garage. I watched as things began happening nearly exactly according to plan. I started to think that the planning of the operation had been a stroke of genius. Three men wearing trousers and button-down shirts, with almost a prim appearance, passed from the mouth of the restaurant onto the moonlit road. I recognized two of them immediately. One of them was Rahman Taslim, one of the most wanted suspects on the island, and the other was Prendy Gunawan. The third fellow wasn’t obviously a match with anyone on our list of suspects but was worth questioning if he knew the other two. I was already thinking about the PR upshot of a victory.

I watched as more bodies flowed through the double doors of the restaurant out onto the road. We were closing the distance fast. The moonlight was particularly strong tonight and it threw into relief the beards and thick dark hair of the twenty or so men who had filled the street. Among them were a handful of women.

Now Prendy was looking in our direction and I had the impression, unlikely though it seemed, that he was making eye contact with me as a grin I knew all too well spread over his features. He wasn’t thinking about Fleetwood Mac right now; he had another kind of sublimity in mind. Another way to enter paradise. I guessed that Prendy and Abdul had a slightly different relationship from what we’d supposed. Either that, or Abdul’s outing by Transparent Authority had enabled the enemy to get top-secret info. At exactly this point, a bit of fluttering motion in my peripheral vision gave me a hint of the presence of maybe three people on the roof of the garage. In the crowd on the road, figures were reaching and groping as the moonlight reflected off long sleek cylinders. My colleagues noticed these developments immediately, but not what was happening atop the garage.

Scott, who had warned me innumerable times about the perils of hair-trigger reactions, gave the order to fire. His eyes told me not to argue. So what if there were noncombatants over there? The rules of engagement as he interpreted them at this moment said fire! Nick and I raised the barrels of our Beretta 93R machine pistols. The local operatives were even faster. We began firing even as a cacophony of shouts and flashes arose amid the crowd outside the restaurant. More fluttering motions atop the garage left no doubt our presence had registered up there. I heard a WHUMP! on the ground behind me, as if a giant canvas had toppled onto its face, and then it felt as if a thousand vicious insects were biting my back. My body pitched forward. I was aware of inexorable horizontal movement and I remember thinking I was going the wrong way, toward the flashing muzzles of the enemy. But then it was as if my bones turned to water, I was crumpling, I felt a round graze my right ear, and my face smacked the dirt so hard I blacked out.

I woke up in a cage in a bright room. I blinked incessantly for a couple of minutes. Outside the cage, men in crisp green uniforms, which were a little short by Western standards, moved around talking in the language I had only just begun to master. The cage was stationary but the room was moving. I was in the back of a truck. Before long, they parked and moved the cage out of the truck, through a courtyard, and into what resembled a factory. Then I was inside another bright room. This was where I first heard people say the name Dr. Fraser. The doctor was Australian, but most people here were locals. The cage was to be my home save for when a few of the captors escorted me to a dingy cement room with a toilet, a sink, and a curtainless stall. There was also the occasion where they led me in cuffs to a plain room where an officer sat at a desk and gazed at me with eyes as cold and lucid as a pond on the hills of Jindabyne. In precise, faintly labored English, he informed me that eighteen civilians had died in the botched operation along with Gibson, Talbot, and five members of the indigenous security forces. Now wasn’t the time to weep for my colleagues. When I tried to speak, a raspy moan came out.

“You have to give me a lawyer.”

“No.”

Please!

He shook his head impatiently. I told him it was most unfortunate that civilians had perished, but the enemy’s longstanding modus operandi was to mingle with innocents so as to complicate our efforts to fight back, and collateral damage wasn’t all that unusual. The officer retorted that that was what he’d expected me to say, but I must know that apart from the criminal conviction looming over me, the authorities on the archipelago had a use for me. I was the bearer of intelligence they had run after in the dark for years and years. Australia had refused to cooperate with them and it was a tense relationship at best. Nearly every time the ASIS tried to do anything here on the archipelago, it proved a catastrophe for the Indonesian authorities. They had to assuage many citizens outraged over their failure to control what a foreign power did in Indonesia in the name of Western interests. Now, at last, the officials had a live, conscious, articulate Western operative in captivity.

I begged for a lawyer. He shook his head with the same impatience. I feigned bewilderment at what this stern little man behind the desk had disclosed. I knew exactly what he meant. Now, these officials and their friends hoped and expected, they would be able to locate Western operatives the world over, no matter how cleverly or elaborately disguised. Well, I wondered, if they did find out an agent’s identity, and his or her role in sensitive operations, what exactly would that mean for the agent?

In the tentative spirit of collaboration that made the joint operation possible, the government on the archipelago had shared files with the government in Canberra. Of course I am using shared in a broad sense. Whether by request or through subterfuge, the officials who held me were privy to certain personal information.

So, if you want to situate yourself within my experience, what can I tell you?

Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

They took me out of the cage and put me in yet another bright room, 12’ by 12’. Here is the reality to which I awoke every morning. Contrary to what you might assume after having watched lots of interrogation scenes in films, the window forming one of the four walls enclosing me was not one-way but fully transparent. The managers of this facility wanted me to know exactly who was peering at me with the most prurient interest. I slept on a bunk at the wall opposite the window. In the morning Dr. Fraser entered the room. He was a prim middle-aged man with a bald scalp and a horseshoe of dark hair, who wore thick glasses and a white jacket.

“Good morning, mate,” the doctor said in an unmistakable Aussie accent.

Accompanying Dr. Fraser were a couple of guards. They placed me, naked, in the center of the room. Clamps joined to chains went around my ankles and wrists, then the chains tautened until I felt I was going to split apart. I saw everyone who stepped into the rectangular room on the far side of the window, and people spent many hours a day scrutinizing me. Officials, guards, doctors, twenty-one-year-old female interns in business casual attire stepped into that room to have a look. My attire was the most casual of all. I never had a stitch of clothing and my cock hung there like a burst balloon. The young female interns kept looking at it, beginning to laugh, giving each other looks. They studied me, sometimes asking questions, sometimes jotting notes down on pads. When they spoke to me at all, they said the issue of overriding concern was my health. The depth of their concern and their alarm about my health required them to examine me so thoroughly, or so they said. Surely I had not forgotten my history of health problems, my unwillingness to weigh myself, or my disregard for the concern of elders with more mature attitudes.

Mercifully, the chains loosened so I could use my limbs a bit. A couple of young guys, Amat and Lemah, took turns coming in a few times a day to deliver meals on plastic trays and clean up my waste. Amat was fit and handsome and had a brash demeanor. Lemah, by contrast, had a big ungainly figure and was quite slow. At times he seemed to struggle to recall what he was supposed to do next. Their shifts alternated at times but I was able to begin to figure out how often I could expect to see either of them. One thing I noted was that Lemah didn’t appear to resent me. He was pretty lax about letting me take as long as I wanted to eat.

People kept coming to the window and staring at me. On the rolling metal table to my left there was a towel. One day I realized that I could move my leg just far enough to give the table a weak little kick. By doing this repeatedly, I was able to make the towel fall to the floor. I got it between two of my toes and thence into my left hand. I was able to cover my cock with the towel. When the space behind the window filled up, people saw a man with sweat all over his face, naked except for that scrap of cloth over his groin. A few of them giggled at the sight. It had the negative virtue of not being interesting enough to keep them around.

The stratagem might have worked if not for Dr. Fraser. He looked at me through the window, then came in with a grin running practically from one end of his spectacles to the other.

“Clever, aren’t we?”

He swiped the towel, folded it with distaste, placed it back on the table, and left. The observers could watch me and my shriveled penis for as long as they pleased.

All of the observers took an active interest in me, but I remember that one of the young interns, in particular, an Indonesian girl with straight dark hair and glasses, liked to watch at those times of the day when my muscles writhed and tensed and slackened and tensed again and I shat uncontrollably. She maintained her maturity as she watched this happen. I imagined her thought process. Surely we are not so immature that we cannot watch a natural function of an adult male’s body. Several times a week, the official who had interviewed me during the intake moved into that rectangle of space. His questions were always pointed. He wanted the names and locations of operatives, the lowdown on planned operations. It was agents, in the employ of or on friendly terms with ASIS who most interested him. He wanted to know who they were, what online footprint they might have, what aliases they might blog or post under. Of course I knew quite a few agents, in the employ of many governments, but I thought of what it would mean for them if I sang.

My days—or nights?—were largely the same but at times, I recall, there were problems with the lights in the room and they had to send in technicians who got hastily to work. On rare occasions the whole room had problems. The chains got looser, they didn’t function properly as pulleys controlling my movements and position within the room. The technicians moved me, still naked, to the cage in the bright room where I’d been before. Outside that cage, officers milled around or sat at desks shuffling papers and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. There weren’t many such occasions, but enough for certain people to grow quite frustrated.

On the third occasion of the room’s general malfunctioning, I sat out in the cage witnessing the most remarkable thing. A couple of the officers I observed through the bars had white skin and wore Australian uniforms. I began to wonder just how furtive the local officials had had to be in order to gain access to my file. Here I think it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. The authorities on the archipelago were furious at Canberra for the incident in which I’d played a role, for other botched missions, and for the general high-handedness with which a Western government treated a non-white regime. At the same time, even in the face of those failures, the Indonesians knew quite well they’d be harming themselves if they refused to let seasoned Aussies, with lots of sensitive information available to them, help out as advisors in the intelligence-gathering and missions. Australia had loads of technology and manpower to commit to the efforts, at no cost to Indonesia, no monetary cost anyway. So, after the third episode where the room in which they kept me malfunctioned, I saw an Australian officer berating one of his Indonesian counterparts, who sulked like a Vichy policeman at the harangue of an SS commander. The locals had to do a better job of cleaning and maintaining the restraints in that room, he yelled, for nothing less than brand integrity was at stake! That’s exactly the phrase he used. Brand integrity. The systems of restraints and pulleys, as well as the concept of the exposed cell itself, were components of a brand developed and put to use by secret governmental organizations going back to the Vietnam War. Fuck up brand integrity in a corporate civilian context, and people will literally come after you with guns, so just imagine the possible reactions when the same happened in clandestine operations undertaken in the name of national security and counterterrorism.

Neither the Australian officer nor his counterpart appeared to notice me. Lemah’s attentions were bumbling, but he didn’t appear to hate me. As for Dr. Fraser, well, he was a different case. The doctor came and went, came and went, laughing at me, chiding me, mocking me whenever I tried to use the towel to cover my limp appendage. I spent countless more hours in front of the audiences at the window. At one point, their interest seemed to wane ever so faintly. I recall one afternoon when I hung there, unsure of whether my status as a prisoner was the same as the day before. I amused myself by making my toes dance. Where were the observers? Perhaps they weren’t quite so taken with me, perhaps they had downgraded my status a bit. I dared to hope until the door in the wall running perpendicular to the observation window swished open, and the young Indonesian intern who’d observed me before  came in. The intern moved up to a position a few feet from me and scanned me from head to foot.

“I hope you have a mature attitude to the scrutiny you’re undergoing,” she said.

My, her English was flawless. I didn’t say anything.

“Dr. Fraser has explained to all of us why this is part of an enlightened, twenty-first-century penal program,” she added.

My chains had tightened. I looked down. Her gaze had alighted on something so puny, one would hardly dare to call it a cock. Her cool professional manner implied that she, at least, had a mature attitude about her training, about all it entailed. So scholarly was her air as she stared at what was down there, mentally processing and filing away data. I tried to move my arms, but only made parts of them really red. I felt a tautening of my muscles, realizing she was just close enough for me to snap her neck if I could make one quick decisive move. She stared for maybe forty minutes before she lifted her eyes to meet mine and answered an unspoken question.

“We’re only at the beginning. You know how concerned we are about your health,” she said.

Only now did I realize that the area behind the observation window had filled up. As the intern pronounced the word health, with such peculiar emphasis, twelve heads behind that long sheet of glass nodded solemnly. The eye had not really even blinked.

On the following morning, Lemah came in to give me my breakfast. There was a roll with butter, a bit of granola, and a pitcher full of orange juice. I ate and slurped as he moved about the room, cleaning and arranging things. As usual, any distaste over my body’s functions failed to register in Lemah’s dull features. Soon he was done and reached for the tray. I signaled that I needed a bit more time. He stood there, silent, looking as if he were struggling to recall something. He then turned and walked out of the room. My sense of the ebb and flow of people on the other side of the glass was so acute that I knew exactly when to get the plastic pitcher in my hands and tear a strip from it. Within seconds, I had a shiv with a sharp point, the possession of which would get any normal prisoner a long spell in solitary.

I’d just gotten the towel into place over my groin, and the other instrument, when Dr. Fraser came in holding a clipboard.

“How are you enjoying the scrutiny, mate?”

I didn’t respond.

“The observers have given your health careful consideration and we think it’s about time to weigh you.”

Still I stared at him.

“Of course, you’re an adult, you’re perfectly capable of weighing yourself. I’m sure you’ve developed a mature, enlightened attitude.”

Dr. Fraser bent forward and yanked the towel off me. With a movement too fast for him to see, I thrust the shiv upward and cut his forehead from end to end. He danced around the room screaming for a full minute, blood shooting everywhere, before the Indonesians rushed in. When they carried him from the room, a huge bloody flap of skin dangled from his forehead like banana skin.

They put me back in the cage in the bright room to which they had moved me once every few weeks. They could hardly move me to a worse place than where I’d been, and at this point it didn’t matter. One of the Australian officers, a young lieutenant with fringes of blond hair just visible under the edges of his cap, came up and viewed the gibbering naked man. He came up to the cage and talked with me through the bars for an hour. The sensitive intelligence in his eyes responded to what I was whispering. My next meeting was with three Indonesian officials and a pair of high-ranking ASIS men. The latter had grown interested in my case after hearing about me from a colleague and were now leaning toward the view that if I’d had anything to share with the local authorities, I would have done so long, long ago.

I was going to be free. I was going home to the house my father still owned in the suburbs of Canberra. He no longer lived there, but in a nursing home where seniors went to scarf Jell-O and watch game shows in grimy rooms for a few months or weeks before they kicked off. Moreover, in recognition of my experience being a tad unpleasant at times, they were coming through with a monetary settlement. A nice one, to be quite honest. On many afternoons during the six months after my release, I pulled into the driveway of the house in Canberra, got out, stretched, walked up the drive to my front door, and noticed something rather odd in my peripheral vision. Yes, it was quite odd. A young dog, practically a puppy, white with black and brown splotches, was poking its head over the top of the knoll forming the western perimeter of my block. The dog wore a little red plastic collar with a bell on it, had an eager look, and held something in its mouth. I stood there on my doorstep making eye contact with the dog until it mounted the knoll and galloped down the edge of it and up the drive. The creature was so eager, so friendly. I knelt, plucked the envelope from the dog’s mouth, patted it on the head, then watched it race back up to the crest of the knoll and disappear. Inside the envelope was enough to live well for a long, long time. I received regular visits from that little dog until I was almost ready to say, Hey, I’m not a victim, misunderstandings happen even between friendly governments.

            But every time I tried to take a cab from the office where I worked to a doctor’s office for a routine checkup, I experienced such severe panic and hyperventilation that the driver ended up taking me to a hospital. Once we got to the hospital, I refused to get out of the cab, and the poor Pakistani man behind the wheel of the cab ended up calling the police. I have come to the realization that this syndrome isn’t going away until I bring it before the world. I need the world to listen. I’ve come to understand what lies in wait for operatives when somebody outs them. All candidates for high office, in every country in every corner of this hideous terrifying world, must understand their obligations to keep secret what must never, ever come to light. Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

Non-Fiction Spring 2018 Winner

Tuna Melt with a Side of Grief
by L.D. Zane

“Twenty-three-ninety-five for the buffet! Are they kidding?” I asked Grace.

“That’s what the sign says, Lewis. And that’s the senior price!” she responded with despair.

“For a Christmas Day buffet at the West End Family Restaurant?” I turned toward Grace and asked, “Did they say anything about the price online?”

“Nope,” responded Grace. “Just said they would be open Christmas Day and would have a special buffet. I figured that was good enough for us.”

“Well, they’d better be serving caviar for this price.”

“I suppose they’re just catering to their normal clientele, Lewis. They obviously can afford these prices.”

So could we, but it was the principle of the matter. We both stood in the cold staring at that sign as others walked around us to enter.

Finally, I capitulated. “Well… We’re here, and there’s no other place open.”

“There’s always Antonio’s,” Grace offered up.

Despondent, I replied, “Yeah, but that’s on the other side of town and you needed reservations—which we don’t have.” With a resigned sigh and slumped shoulders, I said, “Not the way I wanted us to spend our first Christmas together, Grace.” Grace reached out and held my hand. Then I said, “Let’s just do this.”

 

The waitress showed us to our booth. After she took our beverage order, we perused the menu.

“What the hell!” I spouted off, and not quietly. There was a couple in the booth across from us who appeared to be about our age. They looked up from their meals.  “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

I lowered my voice and said to Grace, “The only thing different on the buffet is they added chopped steak. And for this they more than doubled the usual buffet price? Well, that’s absurd. I’m not getting the buffet. For the price of the buffet, we could have had a great dinner at Antonio’s. I’m just going to order off the menu.”

“I don’t want to add insult to injury,” Grace said nonchalantly, “but it looks as if they raised the prices on all the menu items by about fifty percent. They know when they have a captive audience of helpless saps with no other place to go on Christmas—other than Antonio’s or some Chinese restaurant.”

The waitress came back with our coffee and water. “Have you decided on your order?”

“I can tell you it’s not going to be the buffet,” I said with righteous indignation.

The waitress whispered, “That’s what most of the other customers decided as well. You’re better off ordering from the menu.”

“And that’s still a rip-off!” Grace chimed in.

The waitress ignored that sling and again asked, “Ma’am. What are you having?”

Without looking up from the menu, Grace said, with sarcasm dripping from the corners of her mouth, “I’ll have the tuna melt with a side of grief.”

The waitress responded with equal pithiness, “I’m sorry, but that side is not on the menu. You can either have mashed rustic potatoes, french fries, baked potato, cole slaw or mixed veggies.” And then she asked with a wry smile, “Which one would you like to replace the grief?”

Grace looked up, mirrored her smile and answered, “Just give me the fries, and please make sure they’re crispy.”

There was no response from our waitress other than, “And for you, sir?”

“I’ll have the open-faced, hot roast beef sandwich with a baked potato as my side. I’m in a better mood.”

“Absolutely.” She collected the menus and said, “Your orders will be out shortly.” My only thought was, with certain smugness, I wonder whose food they’ll spit on? Shouldn’t be mine. I was nice to her.

Grace was now staring into her coffee. So I sucked it up and asked, “What’s wrong, Grace? Is it Joel’s decision to disinvite you for Christmas?”

 

About a week and a half before Christmas, Grace received a text from her daughter-in-law, Bernadette, Joel’s wife. Without saying a word, Grace showed it to me when I came home from work and after I had settled into my favorite chair. It read like a telegram: “No need to come here for Christmas. We’re just hanging out. Going to my parents Christmas Eve. That’s all. See you at Alicia’s next week.” No “Merry Christmas.” No real explanation. But we both knew it was in retaliation for a text spat Grace had had with Joel the week before Thanksgiving about not being invited to any of Joel’s son’s football games.

For the eight years between Grace’s husband’s death and our recent marriage, she had spent every Christmas at Joel’s. It was her last tradition. And now it was gone. That text broke Grace’s heart, and mine. It also lit her fuse.

Then I read Grace’s reply text to Bernadette: “I understand. But I have to be honest, I’m very disappointed. For the first time I won’t be with any of my family on Christmas. I’ll hold yours and the boys’ gifts until we see you at Alicia’s. Enjoy the visit with your parents. Merry Christmas.”

Grace’s text was akin to a declaration of war. It might as well have said, “I hope you choke on the food at your parents’, and that you and Joel get paper cuts from opening up your gifts! My misery is on your hands.”

Foolish me. I thought only Jewish mothers knew how to dish out guilt. They may have invented it, but Catholic mothers have obviously learned well from their mentors over the millennia.

The night after Grace sent her reply, she received a call from Joel. Mercifully, I was at work. I learned that Joel started off by saying to Grace that Bernadette told him, after she showed him Grace’s response, “You had better call your mother.” And that he did.

He proceeded to rip into Grace about everything that had been gnawing at him about his mother. She returned fire. There didn’t appear to be any winners. In fact, I’m surprised there were any survivors. Grace didn’t convey to me the gory details, and I thought it best not to press her for any.

 

Grace narrowed her gaze at me and raised her voice. “Disinvite us, Lewis! And he didn’t have the balls to call or text me first. Instead he had Bernadette do his dirty work.” A melancholy shadowed her eyes. “And did you notice they didn’t even send us a card or call us today? Alicia, Albert, and their boys did.”

I did notice, but didn’t feel the need to concur with the obvious.

She paused momentarily, then said, “But that’s not what’s really bothering me.”

“Then what’s really bothering you, Grace?”

She took a deep breath and sighed. “Joel said, during that nasty call I had with him, that since he was seeing me at Alicia’s the weekend after Christmas, there was no need to see me twice in a week.” She grabbed her napkin, dabbed her eyes, and then grabbed mine and blew her nose. I made a mental note to have the waitress bring us more napkins.

“What did you say back to him?”

“Nothing. That’s when I hung up.”

Now I was pissed. I like Joel. He’s an affable guy with a good sense of humor. And from what I’ve personally seen, he appears to be a good father, husband, and provider. I pondered how I would have reacted had one of my children laid that at my feet.

I reached over, held Grace’s hands, and said, “You know it’s not my style to interfere on matters with your kids, sweetheart. But do you want to know how I would have responded?”

“Yes, please.”

“I would have calmly said, ‘I’m sorry, Joel, but I didn’t know there was a FUCKING QUOTA!’”

That got the attention, again, of the couple across from us, along with some of the other customers within earshot. This time, however, I didn’t apologize.

Grace burst out laughing. “That was good, Lewis. I wish I had thought of that.” But quickly, she once again turned gloomy.

I made an attempt at being jolly and asked, “Hey, what about all that Christmas spirit you’ve been lecturing me about?”

Grace snapped back, “Shut up! This is the most depressing time of the year.”

Hanukkah was never like this. My only retort was, “Here comes our delicious, overpriced meal.”

 

The next morning at eight I took my usual mile-plus walk. I returned around eight-thirty. Grace was already up, sitting on the couch, and nursing her first cup of coffee and a cigarette. I grabbed a cup of coffee, plunked myself into my favorite chair, and slipped off my sneakers.

Something seemed different as I scanned the room. And then in a flash of brilliance, I figured out what it was. Grace had taken down all of the Christmas cards and put away our fake, ornament-laden, assembly-required Christmas tree. I cautiously asked, “Grace, where are all the Christmas cards and the tree?”

“Christmas is over, Lewis. Christmas is over.”

THE END

“Togetherness Is A Fable (We Tell Ourselves In The Hope Of Not Being Alone)” by Frederick Barrows

15°

“Ella?”

The man’s eyes fluttered. Even in the subdued light, he had striking, golden-hazel irises.

“No,” she said. “I am Dr. Shi.”

“Ella…” He looked too rangy for the adjustable bed’s standard-sized frame. “I…” He lifted his large hands and stared at them, astonished. “My God…” He shuddered. “You brought me back. You … you actually did it.”

He had a full head of dark, curly hair, albeit speckled with gray, and a warm glow had returned to his light brown skin.

“Welcome back, Mr. Crain,” she said. “Your vitals are strong but it will take time for you to…”

“God!” He turned, coughing sharply.

“Halitosis is a temporary side effect of the restorative chemicals.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around, taking in the cylindrical spaciousness of the antiseptically chrome- and white-polished lab and its encompassing, blue-tinted glass. Dr. Shi wondered if he’d comment on the absence of door handles, as more than a few before him had done.

“Ella, where’s my Ella?”

“I am sorry, Mr. Crain, I do not understand what you mean.”

“No…” He shook his head. “No, no, no. That was the arrangement. We were supposed to come back together. That was the deal.”

“Mr. Crain, there is always some fear and uncertainty associated with…”

“Where the hell is my wife?”

It was more plea than demand. Dr. Shi was startled by the immediacy of his yearning, especially after such prolonged isolation. He spoke as if he’d been separated from his spouse for a few hours rather than two centuries.

“I understand your concern, Mr. Crain, and I will do my best to answer all of your questions.”

He looked at her. “Your eyes … what…?”

She turned her head from side to side. “The color of the irises vary depending on light intensity.”

“Come again?”

“They have been augmented, greatly enhancing my limited inborn vision.”

“Augmented?” His settled against the pillow. “That a big deal … now?”

“Yes. Most people employ some form of augmentation.”

“Have my ruined lungs … been augmented?”

“No. Nanite technology repaired them, as well as your extrathoracic and mediastinal lymph nodes, using organic rather than artificial tissue.”

He looked puzzled. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“As a rule we try to avoid utilizing augmentation on new arrivals. It is better to allow patients to decide, depending on cost-effectiveness and the condition of their bodies after restoration.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess.”

“We endeavor to bring you back in the most optimal condition.”

“By the looks of this place, it appears it took quite a while for me to achieve optimal anything.”

“I am still running diagnostics. Please, try to rest.” She turned to go, revealing a withered left arm.

He gestured with his left index finger. “What happened to your arm?”

“Rest,” she said, showing him her right shoulder. “Soon, there will be answers.”

20°

Mr. Crain appeared more amused than bewildered by the quintet of holographic heads that floated over his bed. Respectively, encircling from his left to right, were Doctors Cao, Yao, Tang, Banerjee and Jha. Dr. Shi, the lone female, stood a few paces from the foot of the bed.

“Congratulations, Mr. Crain,” said Doctor Cao, “you are free of cancer and, overall, in excellent health for a man of your age.”

“It is a most remarkable recovery,” said Dr. Yao. “You have surpassed all of the predicted metrics.”

“We are pleased to have you back in the world of the living,” said Dr. Tang.

“Shortly,” said Dr. Banerjee, “you will be on your feet and commence the reorientation process.”

“It is the final step with us but the first in what we hope shall be a long and rewarding new life,” said Dr. Jha.

“Wonderful.” Crain shifted his weight. “Now, tell me about my wife.”

Dr. Cao’s brow creased. “Yes, well, once you complete your recovery with Dr. Shi and transition into the reorientation program…”

“Where is she?”

Dr. Cao paused. “Excuse me?”

“My wife,” he said. “Where is she?”

“The important thing, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Yao, “is for you to successfully transition into the reorientation program.”

“Will Ella be waiting for me when I get there?”

Dr. Shi focused on the great, curved windowpanes. Rain struck the armored glass and steamed. Bruise-colored flashes rippled in the distance.

“All of these questions and many more will be answered by the temporal therapist assigned—”

“No,” Crain said, cutting off Dr. Tang. “I want them answered, now.” He wriggled against his bedding. “Look, are you people even associated with the outfit that put me on ice in the first damn place?”

Dr. Cao looked in Dr. Banerjee’s direction.

“Yes, well, you must understand, given the span of time…”

“Just get to it.”

He smiled conciliatorily. “The organization that performed your initial procedure ultimately sold its assets to another corporation, which in turn resold them. This process of asset management and transfer repeated, quite a few times. And now you are under our dependable custodianship and care.”

Crain grimaced and repositioned his pillow.

Dr. Jha’s head drifted closer. “Yes, Mr. Crain, and despite the transfer of your assets, let me assure you that all of your rights and privileges are still valid and binding, as per your original agreement with…”

“My wife…” he said, visibly flagging. “My wife and I had our own valid and binding agreement that we would be revived together. To-geth-er.” He sighed. “Look, I’m not budging until I know where Ella is … or at least find out what happened to her.” He scanned the heads. “Get me, fellas?”

“Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Tang, “it is essential that you finish your recuperation and graduate to reorientation.”

“Not without my Ella.”

Dr. Yao cleared his throat. “Sir, whatever interpersonal agreement you and your spouse may have had, surely you realize that everyone who undergoes cryopreservation, be it whole-body or neuro, does so singly.”

Crain nodded. “Right, right, I understand. Now, tell me, is my money still good?”

Dr. Banerjee’s head bobbled. “Absolutely. The trust set up to pay for your storage and restoration is most healthy. The investment portion alone has placed you in quite a strong position, going forward.”

Crain laughed, raw and throaty. “God bless compound interest.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Banerjee.

“Come now, Mr. Crain, all of these matters, both financial and personal can be addressed once you begin the reorientation—”

“No,” he said, looking at Dr. Cao. “No, I don’t think so. Not right now.”

“Mr. Crain, please, there are protocols.”

“To hell with your protocols. I’m still your customer and my account is in good standing. And since the customer is always right—at least he was back in my day—I’m staying right here. You work out whatever arrangement you want. But until I see my wife, or find out where she is, I refuse reorientation. I don’t want to know when I am or…” He looked around, wincing as he craned his neck. “God, am I even in the same hemisphere?”

The heads, save for Dr. Cao’s, disappeared.

“Same planet, for that matter…”

“We shall confer, Mr. Crain, and return momentarily,” Dr. Cao said, and then vanished.

Crain stared down the length of the bed, at Dr. Shi. “Sorry to be a pain but … my wife, Ella.”

She smiled. “Everything will be fine, Mr. Crain. You are acting within your rights.”

“First comforting thought…” He grunted and touched the nape of his neck. “What in the hell—?”

Dr. Shi approached on his left side. She pulled her shoulder-length, black hair aside and revealed three small, metallic contacts embedded just above the base of her neck.

Goosebumps decorated Crain’s forearms.

“I am sorry if I have alarmed you,” she said, straightening. “These connections comprise the current standard interface.”

“Meaning I had no choice?”

“It is essential to the revivify procedure.”

“So much for that no-augmentation policy.”

“A mandatory exception.”

He scratched around the connectors. “Right…”

The heads reappeared, causing Dr. Shi to step back and out of Dr. Cao’s holographic space.

Crain crossed his arms. “Gentlemen.”

“Mr. Crain, since you have not left the storage lab, you are, technically, still considered to be in a cryo-state.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” said Dr. Jha, “that you may remain where you are, for now. Your meals, and other personal expenses, will be charged to your account. Of course, these costs are nominal. Ideally, you will soon come to the most reasonable conclusion that reorientation is the best outcome and move to the next stage.”

“And my wife?”

“Reorientation first,” said Dr. Tang, “and proceed from there.”

He snorted. “We’ll see about that.”

“Be well, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Cao. “Future messages may be relayed through Dr. Shi. If you need anything, simply request it of her.”

“Uh-huh.”

The heads disappeared.

He looked at Dr. Shi. “Say I go through this reorientation process and then find out Ella’s still iced and might remain iced longer than I can realistically wait … can I be refrozen?”

“Once you begin reorientation you are no longer considered under the institute’s primary care. To be readmitted can prove challenging. There is a waiting list and priority is given to those who are younger or have a medical condition that cannot be addressed with current technology. You would have to justify the need and await a ruling, which takes time, and may or may not go in your favor.”

“Meaning there’s no guarantee?”

“Not once you leave this lab, no. There are other institutes and organizations, of course. We are among the very best, however, and I would not recommend—”

“No, I understand,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Just a lot to consider.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, Doc, how is our particular arrangement supposed to work?”

“You have a bed. You will have access to clothing, sheets and toiletries.” She indicated a nearby rolling nightstand. “There is a bathroom and a shower. An artificial assistant will explain how everything works.” She paused. “Meals are twice daily, eight hours apart. Snacks are available. The kitchen area is modest but functional. You must understand, though, this is not a hotel.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that part I gathered. I’m just glad everyone still speaks English.”

She tapped her connectors. “Communication is no longer a great obstacle.”

He smiled. “Chalk one up for the future.”

She nodded. “If you need anything, please let me know.”

“And who do I contact, when you’re not around?”

“I am always here, Mr. Crain.” She gestured toward a faintly illuminated doorway, accessible via magnetic lift, located on the lab’s uppermost tier.

“Ah.” He nodded. “Well, since we’re going to be roommates, you can call me Edgar.”

“All right, Edgar,” she said, smiling. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my duties.”

“And what should I call you?”

“Dr. Shi,” she said, and walked away.

25°

Dr. Shi sat in her office, her neck nestled in a padded headrest that linked her with the institute’s systems. The mundane tasks of process reporting, system diagnostics, and scheduled maintenance of storage dewars required minimal active concentration. It was literally something that she could perform in her sleep. Her primary interest had become the behavior of her recently thawed patient.

She scanned his file for the umpteenth time, as if convinced some heretofore unrevealed insight might be gleaned. Charles Edgar Crain, Professor of Economics, aged sixty-one years, four months, sixteen days. American. Primarily of West African (70.2%) and Northwestern European (23.4%) descent. Non-smoker who received a diagnosis of lung adenocarcinoma in his fifty-sixth year. Lived in an onsite hospice care facility his final six months.

No known living relations.

Her request to inform him of that fact had been emphatically denied. Reorientation or nothing. Legally, he remained frozen. He was not the first to resist reentering the world, nor would he be the last. He was, however, the most outwardly stubborn in his resolve.

Ella cannot help you now, Edgar, she thought. But I can. I am here and I am real and I absolutely understand what you are feeling.

I am not some faded ghost.

In fact, I am the exact opposite of that.

She sighed and closed the mentally-projected file.

Edgar was tidying his bed. She had arranged for rolling privacy screens and furniture to provide some semblance of a personal space. The unicolor, one-size-fits-all shirts and elastic-banded pants sufficed, and he had a choice of green or white slippers. He had easily mastered the AI commands and was neat to the point of being fastidious. Over the past few days she’d consistently reminded him that he didn’t have to clean up around the lab. He ignored her.

A (mostly) model guest.

He approached the glass-enclosed office. She sent a thought-command. The door parted.

“So, Doc,” he said, grinning, “when’s the next defrosting?”

“You know I cannot tell you that.”

He crossed to the transparent wall opposing her desk. “Is my Ella down there?” he asked, scanning the orderly assemblage of vacuum flasks. “Has there been no cure for whatever killed her? Is she still younger than me? Older? Ageless?”

“Edgar, please.”

“It may not be legally right to tell me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”

“That is not my decision to make.”

He lowered his head and sighed. “Little victories, then.” He pivoted. “I’m not leaving this office until I know something I didn’t know before entering.”

“Edgar…”

He moved closer. “How old are you?”

She reflexively moved her right hand to her crippled arm’s wrist. Why would he ask such a thing? She frowned. What was the point?

“Well?”

“I am twenty-nine.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Coincidence.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ella was the same age when I … when I unwittingly became a transferrable asset.”

Her posture relaxed. “Coincidence is a statistical inevitability.”

He waggled an index finger. “Spoken like a true scientist.”

“And chance is merely an unexplained outcome.”

“Uh-huh.” He went to the doorway and then halted, his back to her. “What about death?”

“Sorry?”

He half-turned. “Have we conquered death?”

She shook her head. “Information-theoretic death is the great threshold. That is why protecting the brain is so vital. The rest of our bodies can be augmented, reinforced, replaced. Personality and presence, however, the distinctive spark of self that springs from consciousness defies faithful replication.”

“Shorthand: death is still inevitable.”

She rotated her chair, facing him. “Death can be delayed but not denied.”

“Well, now I know,” he said.

“I am sorry to disappoint,” she said.

37°

He touched the back of his neck. “How secure is this thing?”

They were sitting near the small kitchen, on a translucent, backless plastic bench.

“It depends on what you are connected to,” she said, stirring her red rooibos tea. “Remote connections tend to be more vulnerable than direct ones.”

He dipped a semi-sweet biscuit into his black coffee. “Have you ever been hacked?”

She took a sip from her cup. “I am sensibly cautious.”

“Right, of course, but with the proliferation of augmentations, doesn’t that make people more vulnerable to attacks?”

“This building is very secure, essentially a closed system. Once you reenter the world, however, it will be important to educate yourself about current encryption protocols, public versus private connections, and which interfaces you can and cannot trust.”

He pointed to a recliner next to his bed. “I gotta admit, it’s pretty neat to be able to just sit back and call up replays of any baseball game ever recorded.”

She smiled.

“And I am encouraged by the fact that the Grand Old Game has mostly stayed the same, however long it’s been since…” He chuckled. “Cute how you scrub the dates from what little media I can access. Downright cagey of you.”

“It is true,” she said. “We tempt with modern but familiar content.”

“Not gonna work, Doc.”

“You are like a fish that we eagerly want to bait but, sadly, cannot coax from the frozen depths of its obstinate ignorance.”

Edgar blew air over his lower lip. “Poetic, if harsh.”

“To remain here is no life.”

“True, but I’m not the worst roommate, right? I mean, it must get terribly lonely,” he said, looking around, “inhabiting this icy fortress of solitude.”

“I have grown accustomed to it.”

“You’re definitely not the stir crazy type, Doc.”

“This is not a job for those incapable of being alone.”

He deposited his cup in the stainless steel sink. “Tell me your name.” He looked at her. “Come on, Doc, what’s your Christian…” He massaged the back of his neck. “Tell me your given name.”

She sipped her tea.

“Okay, then. What do you do for fun?”

She paused, and then returned to the pleasures of her tea.

23°

“What’s with the big boxes?” He appeared in her office doorway, shortly after waking up.

Three portable containers were staged near a small couch and table, not far from his sleeping area.

“I received permission to allow you access to your personal effects and other articles,” she said. “Everything should be as it was before you entered biostasis. Copies of vulnerable items have been uploaded to a digital archive.”

He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. “You messing with me, Doc?”

She shook her head. “I am not messing with you, Edgar.”

“Wow…” He walked over to the containers and sat on the edge of the couch. “Even tastier bait.” He hesitated, as if assessing a particularly crucial chess move, and then reached out and depressed a latch-trigger on the nearest box. The unit sighed and the lid silently rose.

“Almost like Christmas,” he said, gingerly lifting the lid and placing it nearby. He moved the box closer and began digging through its contents. He pulled out a set of video discs and placed them on the table. His face brightened as he produced a bulky album filled with photographs.

“Oh … oh…” Tears welled in his eyes as he shakily turned the laminate-covered pages.

Dr. Shi exited her office. “Are you okay, Edgar?”

“It’s just … just so real, you know? Something connected to…”

She approached. “Is that Ella?”

“Yeah,” he said, sniffling. “She looked so good in that blouse. Man, what a smile…”

Lustrous blonde hair, shimmery turquoise top, long and trim. “She was quite pretty.”

He nodded. “Despite the age gap, we had a lot in common. Certainly a lot more than me and my first wife. Ella and I were both homebodies, loved to just sit on the couch, watch a show, maybe have friends over for charades or a board game. Just nice, uncomplicated stuff. Our wonderfully dull, happy place.”

He opened the other containers and began pulling things out: shirts, pants, cufflinks and deodorant. A framed doctoral diploma. Several board games. Two pocket combs. A pair of white gold rings.

“There we go,” he said, slipping the larger of the twin bands on his ring finger. “After I got the bad news and the treatments failed to yield positive results, we discussed our options. Cryopreservation was, by a wide margin, the most extreme choice. Regardless, we made a pact to be together in a future age. Seriously romantic stuff.”

Dr. Shi absently touched her wilted arm.

He met her gaze. “Surely you can understand the impossibility of going it alone? I mean, why do anything if it’s just for yourself? If you can’t share the experience with someone … someone meaningful, what’s the point?”

“The institute’s great hope is that you undergo reorientation and begin a new life.”

“Not without Ella. Not a chance.”

Dr. Shi moved past the couch and peered out the colored glass. “There was a woman, this was almost a year ago. We successfully revived her but, sadly, not her cat.” She drummed her nails against the pane. “She was similarly reluctant to leave. However, after a while, she understood that life must go on, regardless of circumstance. Delaying the inevitable is merely another kind of death.”

“Ella is far more significant than some damn cat.”

She nodded. “I am sorry, I did not mean to imply…”

“Are you trying to tell me that Ella didn’t make it, that she’s…?”

Dr. Shi focused on intermittent currents of lightning, admiring their dynamic patterns.

“Well, maybe there’s something bigger than your tidy, clinical definition of death. Maybe our consciousness is liberated when the body fails. You’ve got no data to disprove that. Love will always transcend death. Absolutely.”

She looked at him. “I meant no offense, Edgar.”

He squeezed his left hand into a fist. “If I can guess your name, will you tell me?”

She shook her head.

“Well, then,” he said, nostrils flaring, “it must be Bitch.”

13°

She sat in bed, carefully applying vermilion polish to the nails on her lifeless left hand. The door was secured and her personal shock shield enabled. She could hear him, moving around the lab. Since he’d received the stored goods, he’d slept little. Contents of the audio and video discs had been retrieved from the network. He played them incessantly. His passionate devotion to the woman’s memory was formidable. Admirable. Not sustainable, however. No, not anything close to that.

She heard his wife’s voice, the engaging sound of her laugh. Again.

It was just an echo, though, an ancient, empty echo. And you cannot wrap your arms around an echo.

He must know that.

It was so painfully obvious.

Dr. Shi exhaled and called up a self-curated collection of long, tonally nonconcrete, mentally soothing sounds.

100°

“Ah!” Edgar lashed out, scattering backgammon checkers across the floor.

Unfazed, Dr. Shi said, “It was closer that time.”

“Yeah, well, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he said, grumbling as he collected strewn pieces.

She laughed. “I am unfamiliar with the expression.”

“Trite but true, Doc.” He slapped the checkers down and stared at the board. “You know, I was quite the player, way back when. I mean, I was competitive. Fairly dominant. What’s your secret?”

She separated the red and black pieces. “It is just patterns. Like most things, once the underlying design has been decoded the surface variations are easily manipulated.”

“Well, seventh time’s the charm,” he said.

She yawned. “Last game.”

“So, uh, you ever been married, Doc?”

She leaned over, retrieving a piece he’d missed.

“Okay,” he said. “This the sort of work you imagined yourself doing when you were younger?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

“Sure, but what about your life outside this place?”

She inspected a chipped red checker. “My current rotation ends in eight days.”

He blinked several times, as if perplexed. “Eight days?”

“Yes.”

“My God, who’s going to replace you?”

She rattled her dice cup. “I do not know.”

“Doc, tell me whatever you can about my wife. Please.”

Dice tumbled across the right-hand side of the board.

Edgar remained in bed the majority of the following day. He pored over keepsakes and looped the sound of his wife’s voice.

As Dr. Shi was preparing for bed, he said: “I don’t know if God exists the same way for people now as He did in my time, but my God has a heavenly space reserved for true believers, a beautiful patch where all of your loved ones congregate in peace and harmony. Like a great big park with perfect weather forever. Just barbeques and togetherness. The rational part of me knows it’s fanciful, something to give comfort in the deep dark of the night. But my heart yearns for it. When Ella came into my life I caught a glimpse of what that special afterlife might be like. Truth is, passing with her still so young, I was selfish. Whatever awaited beyond this world, I didn’t want to spend one second of it without her. Stopping time was my way of not having to confront that. But, now, look at me. I’m stuck. If I leave here, surrender myself to the mercy of the unknown … and find out she’s not there … well, that … that I know would be a living Hell.”

-13°

The holographic heads of the other doctors hovered around Edgar. This time, however, Dr. Shi spoke for the institute.

“Though we have mastered the revivify process, it is important to understand that each patient is different, meaning we cannot confidently predict the outcome of undergoing a subsequent procedure.”

“Meaning my revival a second go-around is not guaranteed.”

“That is correct…” she said. “However, Mr. Crain, given the current pace of cryonic advances, I would say your odds of returning are most excellent.”

“And since there’s no disease to cure this time, I suppose I need to tell you when to bring me back.”

“Your input would be greatly appreciated. However, if you do not commit to a fixed date, we would determine an optimal time to revive you.”

“And what if my assets get transferred again?”

“In that case, you would be revived before transfer.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Look, tell me about Ella and I’ll begin reorientation immediately.”

No response.

“What’s to gain by stonewalling me, dammit?”

“Are you positive you do not have a preferred time to be awakened?”

“Yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “Bring me back when you can cure what I’m feeling inside.”

-18°

It was the second to last day, for both of them. They shared a final meal and then went over the impending procedure.

“Take care of my stuff, Doc,” he said, gesturing toward the containers.

“I will,” she said.

“Shouldn’t be nervous, but God knows I am.”

“You can still change your mind. It is not too late.”

He shook his head. “Old mule stubborn.”

“Of course.” She produced a small, glossy white cube. “Once connected, this cryoinducer will put you into a restful state and gradually lower your body’s temperature. Final prep will occur, your heart will be stopped, and you will be placed into storage.”

“Yeah, I’m mostly familiar.”

“We begin first thing tomorrow morning.”

He chuckled. “By dawn’s early light.”

“Yes.” She paused. “I want to have time to make sure you are perfectly situated before…”

“Your replacement arrives.”

“Correct.”

“Have you ever undergone the procedure?”

She nodded. “When I was young, I was very sick.” He glanced at her arm. “My parents were part of the institute. They helped found the cryonics division. I grew up around labs such as this one and lived in corporate-sponsored housing.”

“When you were first brought back, did your parents look like grandparents?”

“Yes.” She brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “A cure took longer than expected. Despite my late revival, neither chose to delay the inevitable. The following year, they passed within hours of one another. I was determined to help the technology evolve … to ensure that it far exceed known limits.”

“Determined to reach some post-death finish line?”

She smiled, her mutable irises transitioning from blue to green.

He stared at her. “God, how many times have you been brought back?”

“It can become an addiction,” she said. “I give my life to the institute and they grant me opportunities to test, discover, and document what comes next. I very much like being a pioneer of progress.”

“Still,” he said, “pretty risky behavior.”

“I came to peace with that, long ago.”

“So why not … fix the arm?”

She shook her head. “You described your ideal heaven. Well, my ideal heaven is called xīn shēnghuó, or ‘new life.’ It is a world where everyone has an opportunity to hibernate-on-demand and ultimately settle on a future of their choosing. Being born in a less advanced age seems arbitrarily cruel and wasteful.”

“One-way trip, though. Shame if you abandon a better past for a worse future.”

“I have not been disappointed, yet.”

He leaned forward. “Doc, please, what happened to my Ella?”

She tapped the center of his forehead with her index finger. “Like you said, Edgar: one-way trip.”

-40°

Dawn. The cryoinducer had been attached. He was fading.

“Doc … what … sound?”

“That was a test tone,” she said, checking a digital readout. “I made a recording for you.”

“Re-recording? … Ella’s?”

“No,” she said.

He licked his lips. His voice was ragged. “Yours?”

“Yes, Edgar. Mine. It will play once per calendar year, on the anniversary of your return to biostasis.”

“Why?”

She placed her hand on his chest. “To better understand.”

Two assistants appeared and waited nearby. Dr. Shi initiated the final shutdown sequence.

Edgar’s fingers twitched. His eyes rolled white. “Tell…” He licked his lips. “Tell me… puh-please…”

She did not remove her hand until his heart had stopped beating.

-150°

Dr. Shi tidied the lab, checked the systems, and began repacking Edgar’s things. Ella’s wedding band was the last object remaining. She held the white gold halo aloft and examined it. Written on the underside was the inscription: Love without end.

Her replacement was due to arrive within the hour. For her, it was back to the research department and unappealing interactions with choleric colleagues and smug superiors. Reorientation to the mundane determinacies of daily life.

She carefully maneuvered the ring onto her left hand.

But not quite yet.

-196°

“A pair of ice fishermen unknowingly left a fish behind. The tiny creature tumbled from one of their buckets and bobbed in the slushy ice that filled the hole they had cut. Paralyzed with shock, the fish was unable to dive. Overnight, the ice thickened. When the fishermen returned to their hole they discovered the orphaned fish. It was trapped between worlds. One of the fishermen claimed the creature’s mouth was moving, as if desperately trying to tell them something. The other fisherman said his friend was imagining things and that he should lay off of the late night drinking. If capable, the tiny fish would have laughed itself to death.”

A calm exhalation.

“Edgar, I plan to be here when you are brought back. Regardless, you will do so alone. You have been alone for a very long time. That does not mean, however, that you are incapable of enjoying a rich and fulfilling new life.

“When you do reawaken, even if I am not present, I hope the first name that you speak is mine.

“Take care…

“菊.”

2018 Winter Poetry Winner “Unexcused Absence” by Claire Scott

UNEXCUSED ABSENCE

 

Monday morning and you are not here.

Another “F” joins the parade

of “F’s” across Miss Nichols’ notebook.

You are off catching pollywogs

in the stream behind the school,

sneaking into matinees, sitting

next to men with bourbon breath.

 

Our hands touched by chance

in the dark theater of Audrey

Hepburn and Gary Cooper.

Sparks shot up my arm.

I didn’t wash for weeks,

savoring the scent of your skin.

 

Monday morning and you are not here

in Charles River Church.

I circled the notice in the newspaper,

learned your heart was weak.

Strangers are speaking of you:

good Father, loving husband,

generous friend.

 

I drift away.

My hand touches yours

and we are twelve again,

skipping school, watching

Love in the Afternoon.

 

Claire-2

Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been accepted by the Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Enizagam and Healing Muse among others. Claire is the author of Waiting to be Called and the co-author of Unfolding in Light: A Sisters’ Journey in Photography and Poetry.

 

The Slide Zone by Noah Sudarsky

Winner of the Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Contest

There’s no cutesy way of saying this: yesterday, just as our daily walk in the hills was nearing its bucolic climax, Hazel murdered a deer. As luck would have it, the bloody harvest happened across the street. What would the neighbors think?

I was about to throw her best ball into a cherished grove of live oaks when she spotted him. We were standing on the dilapidated tennis court where my kid learned how to ride a bike. The land was acquired by a developer. In a year or so, there will be a cluster of three-story houses glaring down at us. But for now, the abandoned tennis court is still a pitted, slumping stretch of macadam surrounded by trees. Lots of trees. A genuine wildlife corridor, as I preached to the City Council, using my most impassioned vibrato.

“Time’s up, Thoreau,” the head of the Zoning Board wisecracked.

It’s my fault. I tolerated these little games, which seemed so harmless. Keep dreaming Hazel. But Hazel is no visionary. She’s calculating, and predatory.  “A perfect machine,” a rocket scientist remarked the other day, as we hurled tennis balls for our respective pooches near Lawrence Livermore Lab, where Oppenheimer built the first cyclotron. Her yellow lab was left in the dust. But I never imagined that Hazel could outgun a mule deer. They’re big, agile—designed for scampering up and down the Sierras. Fawns may fall to bobcats and eagles, but the bucks? They’re armed and dangerous. Their only predator, until the wolves recolonize, is the mountain lion. Five years ago, a stag gored a neighbor’s Irish deerhound. The hound’s owner, the head of the History Department, made a big stink out of it because it happened right in his backyard, and he figured the ungulate for a kind of Mongol invader, an avant-garde for sharp-horned legions ready to take over our elevated redoubt, chomping contentedly on “deer-resistant” hydrangeas and eviscerating our pets.

But Hazel is something else. An OBD, or Oakland Brown Dog. She’s all bizness, dawg. I’ve coined another term for our hybrid, because OBD doesn’t quite capture her bushwhacker’s soul: ridgebull. In Rhodesia, ridgebacks were used to battle lions, and they climb trees. Pits have a bite-force that beats most carnivores in their weight class, and those infamous locking jaws. As the Raiders were to the rest of the NFL, circa 1984, so ridgebulls are to the rest of the canine realm: stronger, faster, badder. When Hazel was still an adorable, pudgy puppy, she was found roped to a tree in West Oakland. The Post Office worker who untied her asked my partner for directions to the pound. Gaby didn’t lose any time texting me a close-up of Hazel. I responded “No Way. Really.” We already had Banshee, a.k.a. The Great White Dope. We had cats. Rabbits—all of them rescues from a neighbor’s cottage breeding facility, but it was beginning to look like Watership Down. What would I do with Hazel, besides, when I went back to France to enjoy my mother’s rural recipes? I had always taken Banshee along with me (he was practically an Air France mascot, and they allowed him to travel on the plane despite his large size), but pitbulls, or anything pit-like, or pitish, are banned. The anti-pitbull hysteria reached a paroxysm around the turn of the century. Today, following a nation-wide eradication program, the only thing that can elicit more Jacobin indignation than a woman wearing a hijab in public is a pit. Modernité be damned. That evening, the Post Office worker delivered Hazel to our doorstep. Resistance was futile.

The thing is, Hazel isn’t some vicious beast—she’s the ultimate nanny dog. She’ll frolic with the kids for hours, and more than tolerates the repeated attempts to ride her like a carnival pony. She cleans Baby Elwynn’s ears, which makes the little one shriek with delight. Zoe will dress her up as a princess, and stage elaborate wedding rituals with our cat, whom Hazel worships. She defers to Banshee, who’s getting on in years and behaves like a perfect curmudgeon whenever she strikes a playful pose. Hazel will stalk the rabbits, but once they are cornered she will lie down and whimper, lamenting her fate but ever-conscious of the constraints and responsibilities of her station.

Of course, there’s another side to her. In the three years since Hazel graduated from puppydom, the spate of car burglaries that plagued our street has ceased. Any suspect noise at night sends her careening to the front door, where she releases a thunderous rumble (“the death growl,” as Gaby calls it) that evokes a lioness making the case for her newborn cub. The nocturnal marauders have grown scarce. If anything, we are rather in awe of her Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine. It only makes her more endearing.

 

I should have known better. Squirrels send her bolting over the high fence at the dog run. I’ve witnessed a few other dogs give it a shot, but those other pooches invariably flounder and fall back down in an ungainly heap. Hazel is the only regular who can take flight. On the Cal campus, tempted by a sashaying tail a few dozen feet up a redwood, she tried channeling a mountain lion, and propelled herself a respectable distance up the hulking trunk. She ended up hanging off a low branch as the squirrel admonished her from the safety of an upper limb, and I had to break her fall as best I could—an act of interspecies empathy that has cost me the ability to raise my left arm above my shoulder. She captured a field mouse up at Tilden Park, dispatching it before I could extricate it from those heavyset jaws.

In what wildlife biologists call the urban interface, there is a case to be made for dogs of a certain caliber. Not long after our new neighbors moved in, their tomcat picked a fight with an industrious raccoon cub who was pilfering the kibble. It was a reckless gamble on the cat’s part, though not as reckless as putting the cat chow out on the deck in the first place. Within moments, Ace, a big bruiser who liked nothing more than to torture our own wimpy feline, was being swarmed by the entire banded brigade. I heard Gaby’s screams from the driveway, where she’d been putting out the trash. As the neighbor watched his cat being savaged from behind the safety of a screen door, I stomped up to the raccoons, bellowing and shaking my arms. Perfectly oblivious to my clownish antics, they continued their assault, a fanatical mass of surgical claws and gnashing teeth. “They’re killing him. Get Hazel!” Gaby wailed. The plaintive caterwauls coming from our neighbor’s hapless tomcat were agonizing, but I was torn about sending Hazel into the fray. The raccoons are a brazen bunch. In addition to cantankerous housecats, they will not hesitate to face off with canines that don’t adhere to their Fourierist belief system. Gaby could tell I was conflicted, so she took matters into her own hands, dashing nimbly to the front door, dreadlocks slapping down on whipcord shoulders like a sassy cat o’ nine tails. Hazel surged, her spring-loaded frame gathering momentum as she catapulted across our yard. Dispensing with formalities, she bounded over the half-open craftsman gate rather than squander an extra second navigating the narrow breach. As she neared the scrimmage line, my heart lodged in my neckline. Something terrible was about to go down, no doubt—bloody carnage and five-figure vet bills. But the raccoons must have sensed there was something different about Hazel. An undercurrent of savannah, of dusty rangeland and bushmeat. They scampered the moment they heard her distinctive roar, clambering up the tall wooden fence against which Ace lay, gasping. All but one. The kingpin himself, in his striped zoot suit, paraded atop the high boundary for a moment, growling (the sound resembled a pair of electric shears having a meltdown). Hazel, as was her wont, blasted off, landing squarely on the railing. The scowling kingpin scurried off to a nearby redwood, where the rest of his posse had retreated. They peered down at Hazel from a high bough. The wooden fence swayed under her bulk. On that promontory she maintained her balance, leopard-like. Hazel had treed the raccoons, and she spent the rest of the night patrolling the garden. Ace vanished in the confusion, and was never seen again. Cats prefer to die alone, when they can.

 

A set of sharp, slender antlers flared out from the top of the buck’s bony brow, narrowing near their extremity. Not an impressive trophy spread, but trident-like and deadly, if it came to that. Hazel did not balk. I called out to her, using my most commanding voice, but I was no match for her primal bloodlust. The buck bumped up against a tall chain-link fence on a grassy knoll north of the tennis court. He turned, springing back down the hillside, displaying his full girth. He was a force of nature, a coiled mass of muscles and bony protuberances. Hazel intercepted him. She grabbed a shank, but the buck gave a kick and she let go. Good boy, I thought. But in his panic, he collided with one of the oaks and lost his footing on the muddy slope. Hazel was on him in a flash of auburn, hackles raised high. She latched onto the nape, just behind that fairy-tale crown. Having achieved a good anchorage, she shook herself back and forth, trying to generate lethal leverage. By then I was running toward the scene and baying hysterically. “LEAVE-IT, DAMNIT, LEAVE-IT!” Within seconds, she dropped the fallen buck and came strutting toward me, satisfied that she had accomplished what she had set out to do. The stag attempt to stand, but there was something awry about the way he carried himself. His head seemed far too heavy. Listing like a sailboat that has hit a shoal and sprung a bad leak, he finally keeled over. One of his hind legs twitched feebly. He just needs to shake it off, I told myself. He will get up, he must get up.

I brought Hazel and my ancient husky back home. Banshee hadn’t even noticed the chase. It happened too fast, in less time than it had taken him to position his hindquarters favorably and drench the manzanita bush.

A few minutes later I walked out of the garage, sliding along the carriage doors and casting stealthy glances left and right before crossing the street. I jogged up the steep, curving access road that led to the decaying tennis court. Halfway up, I cut to the left, through the grove of live oaks. Beyond the oaks lay the remains of a large acacia grove, which the developer hadn’t wasted any time cutting down (there was a city ordinance protecting the native oaks, at least). Where the ground had been cleared of trees the sodden earth was already beginning to slump ominously. I thought about geotechnical questions not to dwell on the deer, and by the time I reached the area where Hazel had felled the buck, I was almost buoyant. Obviously, she could not have dispatched such a behemoth. This was no field mouse, and even a lion can’t kill a zebra with a single bite. Don’t the wildlife docs always showcase the desperate struggle between prey and predator? The buck would be long gone, how could I have doubted it?

He wasn’t. There was blood trickling from his wide muzzle, which had colored the damp leaves an autumnal red. I grazed one of the long, donkey ears. It was already cold. I cupped that cartoonish ear and gave it a little tug, just to make sure he wasn’t about to resurrect, Lazarus-like. Something inside his neck made a muffled sound. A vertebra letting go of its tenuous hold on the spinal column. Great. Now what?

A few months earlier, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I had stumbled upon an abandoned cabin in the redwood forest. In it I found a worn green fascicule entitled Feral Forager: a Guide to Living off Nature’s Bounty in Urban, Rural and Wilderness Areas. “Our future vision,” it stated, “is one of a horticultural, village-scale, community located near a wild area, but as we are still landless, our current dietary habits combine backyard-scale gardening and bulk organic staples, along with wild edibles and scavenged roadkill.”

A “scavenger-forager lifestyle” (to avoid contributing to the military-industrial complex) constituted the practical and philosophical underpinning of this intriguing, primitivist society. “The highly sought-after roadkill deer” was a prime target, but the authors (it was an collective work) didn’t hesitate to harvest dead raccoons, foxes, opossums, birds, and just about anything that could provide “untainted meat.” They called themselves roadkill vegans. “Although some die-hards may want to leave civilization behind, set out for the wilderness and practice primitive hunting and gathering techniques, we are more interested in bringing wild food gathering and roadkill scavenging into our daily lifestyle.”

I found this neo-Neolithic perspective persuasive. I had become a pescatarian because I was sickened by the plight of stockyard animals, from industrial feedlots to mechanized slaughter. Yet, despite years of deprivation, I wasn’t quite cured. I wasn’t using, but the craving for a juicy flank steak, properly aged and lightly seared over a bed of mesquite coals, had never dissipated.

Abandoning so much prime meat to rot on the hillside felt like an insult to this magnificent stag. Daunting as I found the prospect of cutting into the fresh carcass at my feet, I resolved to harvest the meat. I was no stranger to dead deer, mangled deer even. Most of the mountain lion studies I had joined up with use roadkill obtained from National Parks or Forest Service personnel to lure the big cats into cage traps so they can be sedated and outfitted with GPS collars. I did my share of dirty work, lugging bloody deer carcasses up remote mountain ranges. But this was different. The line between life and death feels so extreme, so unyielding, and yet nothing had really prepared me for the precarious nature of that divide. Just minutes ago, the buck had been prancing blissfully, browsing on the abundant fresh grass and sedges the rain had brought up. Spring was finally here, and apple blossoms were alight in the neighbor’s manicured orchard, beyond the tall chain-link fence that had created a death-trap for the luckless ungulate, courtesy of our devoted dog. Maybe we should finally re-baptize our ridgebull, I reflected. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, would be more fitting.

I selected the sharpest knife I could find in our kitchen, but it wasn’t quite sharp enough to slice through the thick mule deer hide. Not easily that is, and it was getting dark. Working quickly, which isn’t a good idea when you are field-dressing your first deer, I reached inside the body cavity to cut the windpipe, which allows the guts and organs to spill out of the carcass if you do it the right way, on a slope with the head facing uphill. But in my haste I grabbed hold of something else, not the trachea, and cut through that instead. Immediately, I smelled the stench of decomposing vegetable matter. At least, when I pulled out the guts, everything came, the way it ought. There was a cupful of brown fluid inside the empty body cavity, not enough to taint the meat if I flushed it out. I moved the organs off to the side—the scavengers would make quick work of them. I saved the liver, for Hazel and Banshee. Then I skinned the deer, which took a long time in the deepening dusk with my dull blade, and finally managed to hack out the haunches and the ribcage.

I grew faint at one point, and I must have swooned because I opened my eyes with a start and saw that my knife had fallen inside the bloody, gaping cavity. It was an ordeal, cutting into another sentient being, but I was hopeful that even Gaby (who hasn’t tasted any meat since she was Zoe’s age) might try some haunch of venison. The argument for veganism is societal and ethical (as they’ll tell you at Farm Sanctuary benefits), not gastronomical. This musky flesh would represent the sum total of my carnivorous passion for this season and in all likelihood for many seasons to come. My flash syncope was merely a symptom of my own depleted nature. Harvesting the slain deer wasn’t just the proper thing to do, in theory, it also felt right—far less dislocating than buying a slab of meat whose existential framework, from birth to the processing plant, was a study in degradation. I felt more human afterward, not less.

I left a bit more than the innards for the hardcore cleaning crew, those masked banditos and the over-communicative crows that woke me up at the brink of dawn most days of the week. All the scavengers deserved their fair share after all, not just me. Before Hazel entered our life, I’d spotted a bobcat sitting calmly on his haunches on the game trail that winds along the edge of our neighbor’s house. He was unfazed, and we locked gazes. All of a sudden, the mystery of our fish basin’s dwindling koi population was resolved. The remains of the dead buck would serve to sustain more than the local carrion-feeders, it would nourish the entire carnivore guild. Our friendly neighborhood apex predator, otherwise known as Hazel, was providing for the entire food chain.

 

The End