barn through gate


My daughter holds the knife exactly as I taught her—arms straight out, left hand on the grip, right hand on the scabbard. She treads mindfully, keeping the sharp edge of the knife pointing away from the unicorn on her t-shirt. Our footfalls are barely audible because of the farm’s loose soil, and because I’d just told Letty to slow down. Her cadence, her concentration push a fast-forward button in my mind. Her body elongates. The knife blooms into a bouquet of calla lilies, her clothes bleach and stretch into a modest white dress.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I ask. “You don’t have to.”

The collie catches up after sniffing for squirrels along the low slats of the barn and stables. She huffs, kicks up dirt, yips. High-pitched. It’s all playful. She thinks we’re headed to a backfield to play frisbee.

“I can do it. I want to do it.” I check Letty’s face—no fear—but still I’m doubtful. She’d cartwheel through hell itself all day to show up her older brothers, but I’d tuck her in on the closet floor that night. The boys have been killing since they were 8, since the day I saw Porter take a hoe to a garter snake like he was sitting in church. Just like that. A white flutter had followed—the chickens disturbed by his victory howl.

The henhouse is quiet now. I open the latch and let Letty in, latch her in again. As I fill the pot with water and light the fire underneath I hear her inside; her voice is a bee buzzing: “…it’s an honor to be Sunday dinner…you’ve had a good life.” She walks out the shack carrying an inverted hen by the legs. “Easy,” she beams, white kernels of corn.

The double noose hangs from a support beam. It’s too high for her, so I move an egg crate closer. “Legs in the loops while she’s still calm.”

I picture what she’s about to do: the quick sideways slash, the spatter of blood on her jeans, the immersion of the carcass, white feathers floating in the boil. My stomach burbles. Letty’s still messing with the rope.

“Where’d that dog get at? Be right back. Just dip her in the water or plucking will be near impossible.”

“I know, Dad.”

I stop yelling the dog’s name when I get behind the silo.

Aldwych station wikicommons

The Railing

Before the second siren blared, my mother was chastising strangers. She cocked her cane above her small frame at any potential offense. She spat an unusually terse “Rude!” at a soldier who splashed as he ran through puddles. A few minutes later, a woman cut in front of us and caused Mum to stumble. “Cow!” Mum shook her fists. “There’ll be seats for all when we bloody get there. No use knocking old women down.”

Mum believed we were on our way to see a motion picture. I used to correct these confusions of hers until I realized it was like waking a sick child from a pleasant dream. That and I envied her ability to fly off.

My mother’s rancor pulled strangers’ gazes up from the dappled sidewalk and I found myself seeing her through their eyes: the caterwauling, the labored hop-step, the way her black shawl hung below her raised arm, she looked and sounded exactly like a crow. The offending woman ignored the row, but a whiskered face peeked above the line of her shoulder and in seconds Mum went from hurling insults to crooning over a stranger’s pet. Her moods had always zigzagged. The woman gave an alarmed glance over her shoulder; it asked for explanation. I gave none. I just stooped to wrap my arm around Mum’s waist. “No time now,” I said stepping in time to the words. “We’re running late.”

And we were. Flora and her family were awaiting our arrival. While stitching collars at work yesterday Flora asked if Mum and I would consider staying with her in Stratford. I refused at first, wondering how she knew we were without, but then I thought of my frail mother sleeping in a thin sweater on the station platform, of our stay in the shelter during the sortie last Friday, and of opening the door to smoldering rubble that had recently been our block. I thought of Mum’s hexagonal armoire—the only thing standing upright in that chaos, oddly untouched. Its glass door glared at us. Just look at what they’ve done, it said.

Three crackling siren blasts gave testimony to the enemy planes overhead. Everyone on the sidewalk quickened their already-fast pace. Within seconds I saw between a butcher shop and a telegraph office the gaping maw of a tube station.

I placed Mum’s cold hand on the railing that halved the somber stairwell and stepped to the other side. I was happy to have a free hand to keep my skirt in place and a break from stooping to help her at first. I kept encouraging her slow progression downward, but impatience simmered as I watched dozens of people maneuver around her. Hundreds more massed behind us. Some boys wearing dirty knickers pushed past, gliding through like common starlings. Mum stopped mid-stride to raise her cane at them.

“No use, Mum, they’ve gone. Will you please walk faster? People are waiting for you.” Every muscle in me fought the urge to flee, to leave her to her own devices.

Mum held her stance, her eyes on the downward tide before her. “Do we know these people, Melina? Did you invite them along?” She was so far away.

I took her hand again, wishing the railing away so I could pick her up. I was willing despite my shoes sticking to the steps. The rain and cement dust had made a viscous glue. “Again. Step down again. Do you fancy seeing the picture or not?”

“Don’t rush me, child. We have plenty of time.”

A strange eruption above shook the earth, sucked the air from my lungs. After a beat the crowd panicked and surged forward; a smell of sweat blossomed. Instinctively I turned sideways, slipped one leg through the railing, and hugged my mother’s shoulders, steeling myself against the thrust of the crowd and anchoring my mother. I saw a woman grab the crucifix at her neck. Someone else cried out. A large man reeled, then fell forward onto a boy. I shut my eyes, but heard the grotesque slaps and cracks that followed like sides of beef hitting a butcher’s block, then I heard only gasping, moaning.

Mum gently pulled away from me at some point. I opened my eyes to see her scrutinizing my face, memorizing it. Her lips were sputtering words of comfort, and I knew at least in that moment she had landed again in front of me.

This story is based loosely on the Bethnal Green Disaster.

Christiana Chamberlain Court Affidavit and transcript

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Reproduced at the National Archives

(writing here is the original researcher’s notes, Doris Wilson Gibbs)

State of Kansas

Sumner County

On this 17th day of December AD 1888 personally appears before me a County Clerk in and for said County of Sumner Christianna Chamberlin aged . . . years who is a respectable person and entitled to Credit. Who being duly sworn deposes and says that she is well acquainted with Emily C. Wilson wife of Thomas Wilson a pensioner on the Pension Rolls at Washington D.C. No. of claim No. 78617 Deposer further deposes and says that she was present on the 17th day of June AD 1843 at Mascedonia, Ontario Co. State of N.Y. and saw Mr. Thomas Wilson and Emily C. Wilson and heard the marriage ceremony performed as they were then and there pronounced man and wife by a Justice of the Peace. She further deposes and says that she has no interest direct of indirect to any Pension Claim to which this affidavit may refer and is not concerned in the prosecution of any such Claim And that her Post Office address is Wellington, Sumner County, Kansas.

Sworn and subscribed to before me this 17th day of December 1888

Wm. Berry Co. Clk.                                                C Chamberlain Pamer

String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

Five Star Mixtape

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life. Fraser

Sleep Cycles

I fell through a cloud last night,
piffed then sluiced
through cumulocirrus fields—
puffs of smoke
strung gray and then white again

I looked to the night beyond,
orb-eyed, past
the cuneiform I’d cut,
(whistling air)
saw Castor and Pollux guard

wet nebulas strewn like poor
Zeus’s babes
that wandered Olympus bare
Stars shift shape:
my Gemini folded back

to cloth, to my bedclothes’ jet
fabric sheen
Polaris, the cad, stretched out
(closet, clock)
and up to make walls, then spun

a vortex to fan me dry
Bed again—
tucked tight as a diving suit
(humming) and
I fell through a cloud last night