~ from the essay " Sacred Spirit Medicine: “Sacred Spirit Medicine”
Pleasing Tree by Brooke Larson
How did we get here?
God was my youthful drug of choice. I’ve heard descriptions of the euphoria and hard fall of heroin that uncannily resemble the experience of my girlhood prayers. Curiously, I never had that experience when I tried heroin. I never felt anything out of the ordinary when I took ecstasy. My non-experiences of these drugs baffled others and greatly frustrated me. Drugs would always seem modest in comparison to my mutterings in pajamas at my long ago bedside.
"A very spiritual girl," my parents would say. This, I would come to realize, was a euphemism. Once, my Mom, shaken awake in the middle of the night to hear my exuberant account of a message from God, would unguardedly say, “You’re acting crazy.” It’s touchy talking about talking to God, even—or especially—among those who believe in God, who is, by any other name, a certain way of thinking and talking. Personal visions unsettle the narrative.
It wasn’t long after I learned to count past one-hundred that I started telling my mom that I wasn’t meant to be in this world. I cried some, on the bottom bunk I shared with my older sister, and I started sticking my fingers in electric sockets, my butter knife in toasters, daring them to beam me to a different realm. I wanted to die the same way I wanted to change out of my stiff school clothes. A matter of feeling free. Fortunately I didn’t understand the realities of electric conduction—my poking around was innocuous. Looking at those behaviors it would be natural to infer that I was a sad kid. But I wasn’t sad, and not especially angry. Something more like hungry. I wanted what no finger could point to. Fantasy books did or didn’t help. Narnia seemed to be my biological planet whence I was trans-existentially adopted. There came a night that this feeling reached an unbearable pitch, which was the only register God seemed to hear, like Lassie, or Flipper. We talked. Our conversation about the problem would become a core story of my personal mythology.
A prayer: Dear God, this world doesn’t feel like home. And heaven sounds lame. What’s the point of living or even being saved if there’s no Narnia?
Here’s where, according to the palimpsest of memory, I suddenly enter into one of my life’s most emotionally vivid landscapes, reaching the heights of exact language without words, colors without names, sensations beyond stimulation, all behind closed eyelids. I am transported to a world of unknown feeling, and God says, in essence, Girl you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In my fourth-grade class I had a girlfriend who also loved Narnia. We would talk about the sadness of finishing all the books. So, at the point in a birthday slumber party when she and I found ourselves off on our own, slurping blue Otter Pops on the back deck and fireflies here and there, I thought I’d tell her the vision God gave me so that she wouldn’t have to worry about finishing books anymore. I knew, the second the story came out of me, that I was ridiculous. We quickly and silently rejoined the party, and I really knew. Not long after, Mom took the fantasy books away, said I couldn’t read them for a while, because they got me too caught up. She was probably right to do it, but I wonder if she need have bothered. I wonder if my friend need have been silent. The fantasy novels would have been traded for more serious books soon enough. The visions would abandon me soon enough. Soon, like a good person, I would not be crazy, just sad. I would do pills, not prayers, but I would never again see all that I saw when childish faith wasn’t a sin.
That is, until last spring, when I abruptly woke up to plants. When I woke up to plants awake to me. And life was enchanted again. Too wild not to be true.
What are you seeing? I ask Dave. “The colors still, but less. Some wild patterns. And a body rush.” But does your mind feel different? I press. Dave says it doesn’t. He asks if there’s anything happening for me yet. I say no. He tells me there’s still time. It’s about 5 am at this point. If there were magic, it would already be wearing off. Some of our people have wandered off having their inner experiences. Michael’s friend is roaming about in a blanket sobbing and telling her awakenings to anyone who will listen. The cute couple, it turns out, is not a couple. She has a nice place in Midtown. He lives on the street. Their connection isn’t clear.
The absolute fog has become a sort of lukewarm nightmare to me. I would take terrors, demons, blood, over this colorlessness. I can’t look anymore at nothing. I close my eyes and try to conjure my own color show. Vague darkness. There’s no manufacturing any convincing color on the backs of my lids and I start to question if I ever could. Inside me, the graying glare of waves and sand in the dark. Dave says it first, “This is sad.”
I have to sit up. You feeling it here? the Shaman asks me pointing to his chest, patting his heart. I don’t feel anything, I tell him. But I know he can’t take me seriously because now I’m crying. “Awesome, perfect,” he says. “This is great.”
No, Mr. Shaman, this is totally not awesome. This is cosmically shitty. The Shaman keeps repeating that this experience is me, is my mind, is what I’m made of, the story I’m making.
What does that make me? Colorless. Empty. Lifeless...
Stop! I tell myself, but I can’t stop crying and the Shaman can’t stop saying how beautiful this is. So my insight is that there is no insight? No anything? Not even a blue or a green for God’s sake! “Maybe,” enthuses the Shaman. “Isn’t it wonderful! That you were already that perfect?”
Perfectly void? I’m devastated. He says I can drink more if I want. I want. I take two more cups, two more than the others. An hour later, when nothing happens, the Shaman taps my forehead and says, “This is what we call ayahuasca hardheadedness.” But all I wanted was to get out of my head, I protest in my mind. I wanted the plant to talk to me in its own way—why else would I be here? I want. I want.
~ from the short story "Turkeys"
I AND YOU by J. David Stevens
On Thursday, Raymond’s father picked up the athletic permission forms from the high school. Then he took Raymond to buy cleats. He made a production of handling every shoe in The Sports Authority—bending them at the toe, knocking his fist against the molded rubber bottoms—before selecting a discounted pair one size too small with soccer balls on the heels. Raymond didn’t complain. Over the weekend, he knew, his mother would return the shoes and select a pair the proper size, depositing them in his closet without comment.
After shopping, they dropped by the tire store where Tommy Feng was smoking in the back parking lot. An assistant manager, Tommy was almost Raymond’s height but thinner, with angular cheeks and longish hair that always looked damp. He drove a yellow Lancer with a custom spoiler and had never finished high school, but Raymond’s dad liked him because he had an easy rapport with customers: men and women, Chinese and not. “Good in school,” his father said, “doesn’t always mean good in business.”
Raymond was headed toward the building when his father stopped to open the trunk of their Buick and tossed him a football. He saw Tommy Feng glance his way. “You stay and practice,” his father said. “Throw it up and catch it. You only have a few more days.”
He disappeared into the back of the store, and Raymond moved to the center of the parking lot, his fingers grooving into the laces, spiraling the ball upward before it dropped easily into the cradle of his forearm and chest. He threw the ball higher and higher, making a game of it, and had almost started to enjoy himself when he noticed Tommy Feng standing only a few feet away, motioning for the ball. Raymond shoveled it to him.
“Run a post,” Tommy said, cigarette bouncing as he spoke. He barked a snap-count, and Raymond felt his feet move, body gliding in a straight line before angling across the parking spaces. He half-expected a pass like his father would have thrown it, so when the ball rifled into his chest, his hands barely had time to clamp down. “Sweet,” Tommy said.
They ran pattern after pattern, the passes hitting Raymond in the numbers every time. At some point, Tommy got rid of his cigarette and started dropping back, pretending to avoid a blitzing linebacker before he torqued the ball Raymond’s direction. A kind of relief grew inside Raymond with each catch. Where his father’s throws required him to look well in advance of their delivery, Tommy’s throws arrived almost the instant he extended his arms. He ran faster. Cut loose from the anxiety of backyard workouts, his body flowed. He liked the feeling, the smoothness of it, the way his muscles knew how to work even before his mind told them. It even occurred to him that he might have liked football—at least the running and catching parts of it—if only he’d come to that decision on his own.
When Tommy said to go long, Raymond was so amazed to watch the ball float over his shoulder and into his outstretched hands that he almost careened into the concrete barrier separating the tire store’s parking lot from the cell phone dealer. Tommy leaned against the A/C unit when Raymond came jogging back. “Nice hands,” he said, swatting a pack of Marlboros then withdrawing a cigarette with his teeth. He held the pack toward Raymond, who shook his head. “So when are tryouts?”
Tommy finished lighting up, tossing the match. “I didn’t know you liked football.”
“You trying to impress a girl?”
It reminded Raymond of the time that Tommy had asked if he were dating when he was only in the fourth grade. Over the years, most of his comments to Raymond had run that way: jokes about girls, driving, shaving. Raymond folded his arms but couldn’t help glancing toward the back door, suddenly hoping his father would reappear.
Tommy followed his gaze. He looked at the Buick then back at Raymond. “Oh, that’s great,” he laughed. “That’s one I never heard before.”
“Football,” he said. “Violin lessons maybe. Good grades. Even chess, you know?” He shook his head. “But football?”
“I already get good grades,” Raymond said.
“I bet you do.”
Raymond knew this much: his father respected Tommy Feng. He liked the number of tires Tommy could sell. There was a certain quality—a “Feng-ness”—that Raymond’s father wanted his son to possess. But he would be livid if one day Raymond turned into Tommy Feng. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s always like that,” Tommy said, blowing a cone of smoke into the air. He turned back to Raymond, his smile fading. “You don’t need to defend him.”
“Who says I’m defending him?”
Tommy shrugged. He took another pull off the cigarette, holding the smoke in his cheeks before releasing it out his nose. He seemed to be studying Raymond, who would later decide that Tommy—if only for a second—was trying to help. “Have it your way. Maybe it’s not his fault. Too many ghosts, you know?”
Raymond looked straight ahead. He wanted to pretend that he understood, but his face refused to unfrown. Tommy’s hand drifted to one side, knocking away some ash. “You think someone has to die to make a ghost, right? Like a spook? But every choice makes a ghost. Turn left on a street, and a ghost turns right. Maybe you don’t notice at first, but they add up. One day, a guy like your father looks in the mirror, and there they are, looking back.”
Raymond considered the possibilities. “That’s true for everybody.”
“Maybe.” Tommy shrugged. “But some ghosts are more contagious than others.”
In the break that followed, Raymond could hear the traffic on Rt. 22 from the other side of the store. He watched Tommy scratch the back of his head, the cigarette still lodged between two fingers. Old questions stirred in his head, but before he could capture one on his tongue, his father ambled from the back door. Tommy pushed away from the A/C unit. “We’re burning daylight,” he announced to no one in particular.
Raymond’s father focused on Raymond. “Did you practice?”
“Like a pro,” Tommy agreed. Raymond turned to find him still palming the football. “Good luck, champ,” Tommy said, lofting the ball his direction.
~ from the short story "I Am the Voice Calling in the Desert"
“What on earth are you playing?” my mother asked one afternoon when she stepped out into the yard to hang up the wash. I was barefoot, streaked with dirt, and I’d torn my shirt.
“John the Baptist,” I said.
I must have been quite an affront to my mother in that moment. It broke her heart that I could never manage to keep bobby socks from slipping down and getting sweaty and crumpled in my shoes, and here I was, looking for all the world like a mental patient.
“John the Baptist wasn’t a girl,” she said, reasonably. “If you set your dolls up on the patio you could play school.”
I shrieked and ran around behind the garage where I could kick up dust and preach my sermons in peace.
“Don’t come into my house dirty, Helen,” my mother called after me. “Wash up at the hose and put on something clean before dinner.”
That evening I arrived at the table as she’d asked, clean and in a fresh skirt and blouse, but my mother made her displeasure with me known over supper. She regaled my father with my outlandish behavior as she passed around the stewed beef and mashed potatoes.
“Would you please speak to her, Wallace?” she asked. “Helen is absolutely out of her wits.”
“She’s fine, Joyce,” my father said. It was not uncommon for my parents to discuss me over dinner. I listened with excitement and curiosity—what would they make of me?! I turned my head as if I were at a tennis match. “The girl is fine. You’re just encouraging her.”
“No one’s encouraging me,” I piped up.
“Please be quiet, Helen,” my father said, and we all ate our dinner in tranquility.
As my imaginary life took on more and more significance, my parents grew further and further away from me. It was as if I were in a fish tank and we were watching each other through the glass. They thought they could see all of me, but they couldn’t.
I lived breathlessly in the backyard, baptizing everything I could get my hands on. I splashed furiously in buckets of water and went wild with the garden hose. I called endlessly for my dolls to repent. I made straight the path for the coming of the Lord. The wonderful and terrible thing about preparing for the Second Coming is that it brings with it the Day of Reckoning. I began spending more time than a child should thinking about hell. I looked at strangers in the supermarket with a deep sense of curiosity. Whose name would we find recorded in the Book of Life and who would be cast into the Lake of Fire? On the last day, we are told, all will be made known. Judgment is thrilling but also enough to chill you to the marrow. I began to fear for my parents. I called to them, but they could not hear. One evening, as I played long into the gathering dusk in the backyard, my mother stood in the open door of the laundry porch, framed in light from the kitchen behind her, calling my name. The sight of her pulled me out of what must have looked like a snarling rant of gibberish. I was holding a soaking wet Barbie doll in each fist.
“Mama,” I said.
“Come here, Helen,” my mother said.
She sat on the stoop and held her arms out to me. I went to her like someone in a trance, those outstretched mother’s arms calling to me. She hugged me and pulled me onto her lap. She pushed my matted head against her breast.
“Helen,” my mother said, and I could hear the way her voice echoed in her hollow chest, “what’s happening to you?”
“It’s the end of the age, Mama,” I said.
Her arms went slack around me. Her dress smelled like laundry soap. Her skin smelled of powder and of makeup—wax and animal fat.
“What age, Helen?”
“He comes like a thief in the night,” I said. I could feel hot tears in my eyes, and I knew how they would look, cutting a pink path through the dirt on my face.
“You need a bath,” my mother said. I tried to slip free of her as she stood, but she hefted me into her arms. She was still strong enough to pick me up if she had to.
“No,” I howled, struggling. “Helen, stop it,” she said, her arms like a vice around me. I kicked and screamed and twisted. “Wallace!” my mother shouted. “Please fill the tub. Helen needs a bath.”
My father leapt from his chair in the living room when he saw us. He reached out to take me from my mother’s arms, but she turned us away from him.
“I have her, Wallace,” she said. “Please draw a bath. The girl is filthy.”
In my memory, I fought her valiantly as she struggled me upstairs, stripped me naked, and plopped me into the steaming water my father had readied in the tub. I think, though, I probably flailed and sobbed pathetically. We are rarely as heroic or strong as we fancy ourselves to be. My mother didn’t cry or shout or argue. She held my arm firmly in her right hand and a bar of soap in her left. She scrubbed and splashed until I was clean and so worn out that I sat meekly in the gray, cooling water and let her wash my hair. She was nearly as wet as me by the time she helped me out of the tub and rubbed me down with a towel.
“You have to snap out of this, Helen,” she said as she dried me. “You have to pull yourself together. You’re acting like a baby with this ridiculous business, and I won’t have it anymore.”
She shook me by the shoulders when I wouldn’t look at her. She thought I was being sullen, but I was actually mourning the great gulf that had opened between us, our inability to reach each other across such a perilous divided. How could I feel otherwise when I thought she might soon be lost to me forever? I could imagine her, cowering and small, being cast into the Lake of Fire.
“Do you hear me, Helen?” she asked, holding my wet head in both of her hands.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Now go to bed.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked out of the bathroom and down the hall toward my room, the carpet soft and springy under my bare, wrinkled feet.
"In The Paper Life They Lead, Patrick Crerand takes risks in his storytelling, and the result is an inventive collection. In this slim book of just over 50 pages, Crerand’s mixture of flash fiction and slightly longer stories drops the reader into bizarre and unexpected places. Fantastical events occur even when the world looks much like the one we live in. The interesting and weird premises are stated upfront allowing the reader to focus on the characters—their relationships and how they react to the situations they are in."
--Emily Webber, SmokeLong Quarterly
Read the full review here.
Caroline Leavitt, author of New York Times Best Sellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, says Patrick Crerand's stories "knocked her striped socks off."
"These stories are so jaw-droppingly unexpected. They actually remind me of Dan Chaon's stories, the matter-of-fact way that you guide us into deeply strange territory."
Read the full interview here.
Seth Berg reviews Rebbecca Brown's Mouth Trap, calling it "a fascinating, musical, often melancholic collection from an alternate dimension" and writes, "Brown has crafted dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, micro-worlds that challenge the confines of three dimensions. From the onset, she delivers an intentional, intelligently snarky heft which challenges the reader to engage in self-examination."
See the full review here.
We are delighted to see Patrick Crerand's The Paper Life They Lead: Stories receive honorable mention in the Writer's Bone year's best list. Congratulations, Pat!
Read their full list here.
We're late with this post, but Michael Czyzniejewski reviewed Patrick Crerand's The Paper Life They Lead: Stories on Story 366, saying "Crerand's choices become the real art here, his ability to make them work so convincingly. A story with a premise like [life on a Pepperidge Farm box] could be merely a joke in the wrong hands, but Crerand's commitment steers him clear of all of that, into much better territory, much more effective fiction."
See the full review here.
We made another minibook! J. David Stevens wrote it; Alban Fischer designed the cover; HV Cramond proofread it! Pre-order begins on Wednesday, January 23, and the first copies will be shipped on Tuesday, February 5.
Laura Krughoff is the author of the short story collection Wake in the Night and the novel My Brother's Name.
Q: You spent a lot of time living in different parts of the Midwest, and while not all of your writing is set in the Midwest, those that don’t have specific settings often feel Midwestern. I even found a quotation from David Kaplan at Loyola University Chicago who compared your writing to the Midwest when he said, "This struggle for identity, self-definition, a place in the world, is another strong feature of her work, all captured in prose as spare and haunting as a Midwestern winter." How has the Midwest shaped your view of your characters and story?
I do think of myself as deeply Midwestern. I’ve spent all but the first three and the past four years of my life in Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan, so the landscapes and people and politics and pace of all those states have shaped who I am. You asked about how the Midwest shaped my notion of story and character, and I see I answered by saying how it shaped me, but maybe those are the same question, in some ways. I think the wide, flat stretches of land and sky in the Midwest are really beautiful, but it takes a certain kind of looking to see it. On a walk with my mom once, when I was a teenager, she said, “The clouds are our mountains,” and that has stuck with me. The beauty of a cornfield and a blue sky crossed by contrails isn’t as dramatic as the beauty of mountains or oceans or the geological or ecological exuberance of other parts of the country, but it’s its own kind of beauty nonetheless. I guess that appreciation of subtlety shows up in what I think constitutes enough drama for short story quite often.
Q: The notion of waking in the night in prominent in your short story collection, Wake in the Night. Characters, often women, can’t sleep. They are thrust out of dreams, lying awake, waiting for something to happen. Even in your story “Audra,” which isn’t in this collection but was published in Orchid: A Literary Review, a mother attempts to soothe her insomniac daughter. What compels you toward dreams and restlessness? Is there a connection, for your characters, between the inability to sleep and being female?
I’m a pretty restless sleeper, so I’ve got a lot of experience being awake when other people are not. I write mostly about women, so anything my characters tend toward ends up being something that women tend toward, but I’d never thought of sleeplessness as especially female, though perhaps it is. I think what I’m most interested in is the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, and the way it’s mirrored by the liminality of the whole world when you feel like you’re the only one awake in it. Night has always felt like a time of revelation and insight to me, but it’s hard to know if those revelations and insights are genuine or tricks of the mind when it’s left to its own devices. It also feels like a time of danger/adventure, being up when ostensibly you should not be. Because my characters are who they tend to be, however, that danger/adventure is almost always solitary. I am much more interested in the night than in nightlife.
Q: Most of your protagonists are women. What I find particularly interesting are the female characters who grew up as members of previous generations, such as the WWII generation, when women didn’t have as many options when it came to choosing how they wanted to live. While many of these women characters aren’t passive, they are certainly more restricted, and their actions are sometimes subtle and maybe subversive. How do you go about writing stories about women who make smaller choices and maintain the tension of story while coming to some kind of feeling of resolution when the characters can effect little outward change?
It's funny, I almost never think about my characters as making small choices or being in states of stasis or without options, but people say that about my fiction so I believe it. What I do see, though, is that the transformations I’m interested in are very often deeply internal for my characters. I’m often most interested in what it means to wait, to be patient, to be watchful. These don’t seem like passive states to me, but I do think the tension in them comes from the fact that they cannot be permanent states. To wait or to watch always means to wait or to watch for something. I think narrative tension often comes from the reader joining the character in waiting or watching for whether or not that something arrives, or whether or not the character is ready to act when it does.
Q: You recently completed a novel, Halley's Comet, which is based on your Pushcart Prize-winning story of the same name. Can you say anything about this novel and how it thematically connects to your short stories?
In lots of ways it’s a very different project; it’s about two women trying to figure out how to order their lives as their nine-year relationship is unraveling just as marriage equality as an achievable political goal is on the horizon. The protagonist, Alice, and her (ex)partner live in Chicago, but Alice grew up in rural Indiana in the 70s and 80s, so in certain ways her life is at a right angle to the lives that unfold in Wake In the Night. The novel is similarly more interested in the interior landscape of these two characters rather than the politics unfolding around them. Access to marriage matters, of course, but the novel is really about what it means to love someone, and fail at it, and try again a little differently, and do better, maybe. Or maybe not. I’ve also learned, as I’ve written it, that it’s a novel about grief and love, about the fact that you can never have—or be in?—one without being vulnerable to the other.
Q: I want to end with a more general question about writing. Do you have a philosophy on literature? What should a writer strive toward? What should a story or a novel try to achieve?
I definitely do not have a philosophy of literature. The more I read it, and teach it, and try to write it, the more certain I feel that I don’t. I don’t think this constitutes a philosophy, but I do think I strive toward getting the details right. I think when I write, I’m striving primarily toward seeing the world clearly, seeing my characters honestly, seeing the moments that make a life in the sharpest possible focus. I know it does me good as a reader and a writer, as a human, when I’m seeing the world like that.