Fiction Feature: Debbie Vance
Debbie Vance‘s fiction has appeared in Tin House Online, Catapult, The Masters Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Colorado State University and is at work on a collection of speculative stories and a novel. Visit her at debbievance.com.
The typewriter was the first to go. An old machine, never used, kept on the living room mantel. The framed picture beside it remained, a girl and her dad holding fishing rods beside a lake, as did the broken geode with its purple-white crystals catching the light from the window that didn’t fully close. Next to go were the radiators, which would’ve been a problem if it had been winter, but it was summer and their absence only meant more room for the houseplants to sprawl out of their woven wicker baskets, which, unfortunately, went soon after. Kat didn’t mourn the freezer-burned waffle fries or the faded blue rug or the hair dryer because she didn’t notice their absence. She didn’t notice when the charm bracelet that had belonged to her grandmother disappeared from her wrist, or when her grandfather’s WW2 compass abandoned its post on her dresser. She didn’t notice when the framed collection of insects, her dad’s, left a bright shadow on the wall, taking the memory of bug hunting with it.
When the bathroom mirror went, Kat continued to stare at the blank gray wall above the sink while swiping mascara onto her eyelashes, which is how she ended up with a smatter of black on in the crease of her eye lid, which is why her first client of the day, a gallerist named Sima, asked if everything was all right.
“Of course,” Kat said, licking her thumb to wipe away the offending smudge. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
A memory epidemic had begun sweeping the world ten months prior, erasing memories and their real world counterparts with a kind of recklessness that made it impossible to predict and, consequently, stop. Specialists had been brought in to safeguard the future, but no one was immune, not even professional memorykeepers like Kat, and when the specialists forgot what it was they were meant to be studying, the rest of the world let the question mark of the future drift into the
periphery like a bad dream.
“What’ll it be today?” Kat asked, skimming the notes she kept on Sima’s memories, which would exist only as long as Sima remembered them. This should’ve proved the futility of memory services, but logic had always been weak in the face of hope, and Kat’s schedule remained full.
“Sex in the bathroom of the 747 somewhere over Ohio? The Moscow art heist of 2018? Chocolate croissants in bed with Henry? Ah. I know.” The pages of the notepad rustled as Kat flipped to an earlier memory: Making monkey bread with Mom in the alley kitchen of the apartment in Harlem. Cinnamon. Walnuts. Pillsbury biscuit dough popped fresh from a can.
Sima closed her eyes and let Kat tell her a story she still remembered.
Kat forgot the gravy boat in the shape of a pig and the cigarette slowly burning in an ashtray. She forgot the way Sima’s mom said Bon Appetit when she put the monkeybread in the oven and the background noise of the radio, but she remembered the rusted wires of the whisk and the thumbprint stain on the recipe card, which made it, in a way, a success.
After, Sima listed what she knew. She listed colors first. She listed the preferred heights at which to hang paintings and the kinds of lighting that would best compliment a work of art without damaging it. She listed artists and the modes they worked in. She listed the obsessions that kept them up at night before an opening. She listed the pills her mother put in her days-of-the week dispenser and the names of her brother’s parakeets and the sound of her partner making coffee each morning: the hush of tap water filling the kettle, the click of the stove, the ten-second mechanical whir as two tablespoons of beans became grounds.
Today, Sima forgot to include her step dad, who listened to jazz on his morning commute to the high school where he worked as a custodian, a change Kat noted in her legal pad but did not—would never— mention to Sima, who would only look at her, confused, and ask, “Who’s he?”
When the memory epidemic swept the US ten months earlier, Kat went from counselor to human archivist. The clients who’d once come to explore childhood wounds and irrepressible anxiety now came to have their most treasured memories told back to them by Kat, who was only able to remember them as long as her clients did, which was, luckily, just long enough.
Memory services such as this were wholly ineffective. Hearing an externalized account of your cat or niece or long-awaited promotion couldn’t keep you from forgetting them anymore than your own fastidious journaling could. Mnemonic devices were useless, as were tattoos and photo albums and other attempts at memorializing the significant events of your life, but that didn’t stop people from trying. It was the trying that mattered. At least, that’s what Kat told her clients to keep them coming back week after week until, of course, they forgot.
After Sima there was Suz, a headhunter for the oil and gas industry, then Ten and Mike and Diego. Ralph the tailor didn’t show, despite Kat’s reminder call the day before, which meant there was room in her schedule for Jessmyn, first on the waitlist of many. Tony forgot his wife, and Kat gave him the business card of a shelter he could call should he feel uncomfortable sharing the bed of a stranger. She made a note to call his wife, too, should she need counseling in the coming days and weeks and months spent loving someone who no longer knew who she was. Shanda forgot her medicine, which meant assisted living, which wasn’t always much help considering the people paid to assist you could forget your pills same as you. Micah forgot nothing at all, which was good for Micah but bad for Kat, because Kat, unfortunately, had forgotten Micah.
“Welcome in,” she said to the man who sat so easily before her he must’ve been someone important. “Have you been to a memory keeper before? Are you familiar with our services?”
“You’re my memory keeper,” Micah said. “I’m familiar with you.”
Kat maintained eye contact while she drew a star in the upper right corner of the notepad she’d started new just for him, a sign to herself that this one might be too far gone to help. “Why don’t you start with your parents,” she said. “Tell me about your dad.”
Micah rubbed his eyes, not because he couldn’t remember his dad or the postcards he sent from all seven continents, but because she couldn’t. Because even the person whose job it was to remember had forgotten. “I prepaid for ten sessions,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it.
On the way home, Kat stopped at the store for shrimp and linguini and a jar of pre-made alfredo sauce. She didn’t notice the small gap between chives and sage where Thai basil used to be, or the empty display that used to showcase sparkling water. She did notice that Barbara, the cashier she preferred, was not at her station, and she wished her well, wherever she was.
After dinner, Kat spent a few glorious minutes turning on the lights: the kitchen light, the living room light, the lamp beside her sofa. The front wall of the house had vanished, taking with it the door with its sticky lock, the 123 writ on ceramic tiles, and the bundle of chili peppers hanging from the rain gutter, and she marveled at the abundance of moths that battered their bodies against the lamplight, which spilled across the front yard and onto the sidewalk beyond, where her dad, Russell, was walking his Scottish Terrier.
Russell remembered rhinoceros beetles, the lunar calendar, and the original 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream, but he did not remember Kat. Or rather, he did not remember that the friendly woman who lived across the street, the one who mowed his lawn every Saturday when she mowed hers, was, in fact, his daughter.
Kat sat on the sofa and waved at her dad as he passed. She sipped Chardonnay from a small bowl—all the cups had gone—and considered the house across the street, the one whose mortgage she was paying off alongside her own. All that remained of the family photos she’d hung were empty frames, the memories and their occupants long gone.
Kat waited until her dad had returned home from his walk. She waited until he’d settled into his recliner with a TV dinner on his lap, and then she called. She watched cranberry sauce spill from its plastic compartment onto his khakis as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. She watched him say hello.
“Hi Russell. It’s Anna the Archivist, calling with your daily memory.”
“Ah Anna,” Russell said, checking his watch. “Right on time.”
Kat watched him mute the TV and tuck his free hand behind his head as he prepared to receive that night’s installment of the past.
It had been a month since her dad had forgotten Kat, and she’d been moonlighting as Anna the Archivist ever since, pretending to fill a prepaid contractual obligation while trying to resurrect herself in his memory.
Tonight she told him about the day spent fishing in Des Peres Park: the Slim Jims they’d used to bait the hooks, better than hot dogs because the skin was tougher, and the old oak that had shaded them as they waited for minnows to bite. She told him about the Igloo cooler where they’d kept the fish alive until the day’s end when they could swim lazy loops around the bathtub.
Across the street, her dad nodded along, eyes closed. “You got it mostly right,” he said. “I don’t know that we ever had a cat, but I sure do remember those fish. Gloria was pissed I let them swim in the tub.” He laughed, remembering the nanny who watched Kat in the summers while he was at work.
“Who is Gloria?” Kat asked, hoping to force his hand. How could a nanny exist without a child who needed her?
If her dad felt something then, an absence, a mistake, he didn’t show it. “She took care of the house,” he said. “A housekeeper.”
Kat watched her dad unmute the TV, laugh, and tuck the phone between his leg and the chair without hanging up, so she could still hear the sitcom’s stilted dialogue, the way her dad described what was happening on-screen to the dog who slept at his side. She wished he’d forget the TV, or at least the program that coincided with their call. She wished the cameramen would forget their cameras, the actors their lines, the broadcasters their obligation to fill the air channels with signals that could transform into light and noise so her dad would stay on the line just a little longer, so she’d be the thing he told the dog about. In the street between them, where the light from her house met the light from his, a tabby mauled a rabbit, tearing open its belly, which, from this distance, shone white.
By morning, Kat had forgotten all about the fishing trip with the Slim Jims and the Igloo cooler and the bathtub, and the framed photograph of her and her dad no longer sat on the mantel beside the geode whose crystals caught the light from the window that never fully closed.
The unsupported front corner of the roof drooped towards the grass, but the morning sun shone gloriously into Kat’s newly open-plan living room, and she basked in the warmth as she lapped her coffee from a shallow dish—the bowls having gone the way of the cups overnight. Her dad waved hello as he passed by her mailbox, but the dog was no longer attached to the leash looped around his wrist, and the metal clasp rattled loose against the concrete as he walked.
When Kat brushed the coffee from her teeth, she stared at what had once been the gray wall above the sink and made a mental note to collect the dirty laundry piled on her bed, newly visible from this vantage point, and wash them. When she urinated onto the tile that had once held the toilet, she marveled at the strangeness of pee-saturated feet, then she zipped her favorite jeans and drove to work.
Colette had forgotten her pregnancy. Dez had forgotten his pants. Amy had forgotten Kat, but had not, apparently, forgotten her Tuesday routine of sitting on this office sofa and reciting everything she still remembered: pinball machines and temporary tattoos and candy sold from concession stands.
For lunch, Kat walked to the corner cafe and ordered a Bloody Mary with extra celery to go with her caprese salad sandwich. She’d forgotten mozzarella, and the balsamic-drenched tomatoes and bread was not substantial enough to keep the vodka from going straight to her head, which helped loosen from her memory the lemon squares she and her dad had made every Fourth of July.
Back at her office, the Keurig had vanished from its place by the door, leaving her with twenty small plastic cups filled with grounds she couldn’t transform into coffee. A headache bloomed behind her eyes as she listened to Noelle recite Florence and the Machine lyrics; Ben, the Miranda rights; and Ross, the many reasons he should not, should never, be forgotten.
At home, the wall holding the window that didn’t fully close was gone, and broken glass crunched underfoot as Kat watered the monstera, the fiddle leaf fern. The weeds growing between her house and the next overreached their bounds and scattered their seed on her hardwood floor. Defeated, Kat found the bottle of wine in the pile of room-temperature foodstuffs where the fridge had been and took it to the sofa. Tonight, her dad had microwaved a tray of lasagna; she could smell the tomato sauce, the garlic. He answered on the first ring.
Kat told him about the rock and gem shows they used to frequent, and the geodes they collected as a result. He remembered the event centers with their aisles of rock-strewn tables, the geodes themselves, but did not remember the little girl wandering beside him, pulling him from fossils to gems.
“I think you’re confusing me with someone else,” he said at her insistence.
“I’m not,” Kat said. “It’s written right here: one daughter, Katharine Louise, born on the tenth of May to Russell and Diane Lane. Six pounds, twelve ounces. Nineteen inches long.”
Her dad shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
By morning, the geode was gone, as was the hardwood floor. The mantel was empty, and the exposed foundation was scattered with broken glass and seed pods and two slumping piles of dirt that had once held a monstera, a fiddle leaf fern.
Her car was gone from the street where she’d parked it, as were all the other cars around it. The corner stoplight went from red to green to yellow as hundreds of people walked and biked and scootered to work. When the bus rumbled by, Kat was not alone in marveling at the monstrosity of this machine forcing its way through the pedestrian streets.
The corner CVS had lost its brick shell, and Kat watched shoppers peruse the aisles of advil, toilet paper, milk. Starbucks still had drip coffee, but the espresso machine was gone. The gas station was devoid of pumps, not that it mattered.
Kat’s first client was a no-show, as was her second and third, and she spent the morning building miniature cities out of Keurig cups. By lunch, she’d forgotten why she was there in the first place. She drank two Bloody Marys with her balsamic-soaked bread, which helped numb the blisters that had formed on her heels, and tipped the waitress her whole wallet, which wasn’t much, after all, because the cash and cards had gone missing, leaving behind a loyalty card for a cupcake shop that still had a long way to go toward earning the tenth free treat.
She spent the long afternoon wandering unfamiliar streets until she came upon the one that was hers, the poor mangled body of a rabbit pointing her towards home, where she sat on the concrete floor of her living room beneath the lattice of pipes and wires no longer concealed by drywall and looked across the street to her neighbor, who was, remarkably, doing the same. They waved hello—Hello—and dipped their heads toward the phones in their laps, wondering who it was they’d meant to call.
*Debbie’s fiction appears in Issue 43.2 of Cream City Review.
Poetry Feature: Aimee Herman
We are honored to feature this month our Runner-Up of the 2019 Poetry Prize selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil!
Aimee Herman (they/them) is the author of the novel, “Everything Grows” (Three Rooms Press) and two full length books of poems, “meant to wake up feeling” (great weather for MEDIA) and “to go without blinking” (BlazeVOX books), in addition to being widely published in journals and anthologies including BOMB, cream city review, and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books). Aimee is a queer writer and educator and a founding member in the poetry band, Hydrogen Junkbox.
mountains before mountains were mothers
where your phantom2
1This body begins with a twitch. An environmental posture. Give it high levels of light. A drown. This body is a synagogue of frayed executions. Perforated sky junk. Synapsis of break-ins. Colic and jitter. If you listen carefully, there is a chorus of off-key clouds shaped as bladder, breastbone, left elbow, cracked tooth. If you listen carefully, you can taste the stained glass of body. It once. Was biblical.
2 Someone will write a story about how you should be grateful for the mathematics of your body. Count 1, 2, 3, up to 10 your fingers. Count 1, 2 your legs. They will cite sources and include four-syllabic words no one will question the authenticity of. You will explain that sometimes we need to remove in order to feel whole. Like that time you took your 4 strongest teeth to shred apart your left wrist (the right one was sleeping). You cracked 7 bones but left one alone because sometimes you need to stop to know that you can.
3 Like Erysichthan. Indigestion of incorrect. Imagine the aftertaste of birth certificate. You tried and tried to eat away that part. The wrong. The bloat. The burnt. One can die from too much silence and since we’re sharing, just slip outside the flesh sometimes and words can become can become can become whomever you need them to be.
*Aimee’s poem appears in Issue 43.2 of Cream City Review.
Fiction Feature: Sheldon Costa
This month’s CCR Online feature is our 2019 Summer Fiction Prize winner, selected by Ramona Ausubel!
Sheldon Costa’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, The Adroit Journal, and The Pinch, among others. Currently, he is pursuing an MFA at Ohio State University.
The Pig Queen
A young girl comes upon a wild boar in the woods, and because this isn’t the story you think it is, the boar is terrified. Though he is the biggest boar in the forest, each one of his great bleached tusks the size of the girl’s torso, he has heard the rumors. For weeks, this bramble-haired child has terrorized the woodland creatures, sinking her sharp little canines into anything she can find, leaving in her wake a long and festering trail of stolen life. There are rules in this forest, and the girl has broken the most sacred: eat only what you need.
The boar tries to run, but the girl is too fast. Before he can even turn around, she is already upon him, her thin fingers sunk deep into his fur, her mouth clamped tight around his throat. The boar squeals, and then goes silent. For some time, the girl feasts, her face hot from the blood, but the taste is the same as all the others: ash. She spits a hunk of thigh meat from her lips and howls, her hunger a bright red ember burning inside her.
Using a stone, she slices the boar’s belly open and spills his steaming innards onto the dirt. She grips the marbled fat and yanks back the ribs, so that she can fit inside. It takes some getting used to, but before long she is trotting expertly down the road on all fours, snorting and sniffing the air. The pigskin fits perfectly, and though it is warm and sticky within, the girl enjoys this view of the world, her stomach safely turned towards the forest floor.
She catches the scent of other boars and follows it until she finds the City of Pigs, a clearing in the forest where the squealing creatures have made their home. As she walks through the streets, the boars poke their heads out the windows of their mud huts or look up from the piles of acorns they’re in the process of crushing.
You’re no boar, they say.
No, the girl replies, shaking her tusks in agreement. I’m the Pig Queen, and all of you belong to me.
The boars snort amongst themselves. They know there is a girl beneath all that fur—they recognize the smell—and they are wise enough to fear her. She has, after all, killed the biggest among them. What choice do they have?
Long live the queen, they squeal, stomping their hooves. Show us how to live.
All in due time, the Pig Queen says. First, I need to eat.
In the City of Glass, there lives a boy with beautiful eyes. One day, a man tears them out of the boy’s head.
In another story, he might be a prince, or a dashing rogue, but the boy in this story is unquestionably ugly, an orphan who owns nothing but the air he breathes. He isn’t even clever: on the rare occasion that he finds himself in possession of anything valuable, one of the other boys in the orphanage will trick him—I’ll tell you a secret, they’ll say, if you give me that dollar—and he always hands it over, no matter how many times they spit in his hair and call him a fool. He is perpetually astounded by the ill-will of others, rushing back to be swindled again like one of the flocks of birds who crash, each day, into the windows of the city’s tallest towers, forgetting all the previous beaks crushed by the sky’s blue illusion.
When the boy was born, he had no eyes. It didn’t bother him much, but the man who owned the orphanage expected every boy to work, to wash the windows and scrub the floors, and he refused to believe a boy without eyes could accomplish such tasks, no matter how much the boy proved otherwise. So the man hired an old woman who lived down the street to build him a pair. The old woman, who was once the greatest glass blower in the city, took pity on the boy, because he reminded her of her own son—a shy, hideous child who died when he was very young—and crafted him two perfect spheres of glass. They did not have pupils or irises, but they shined in the sunlight, glimmering in the boy’s face like garnets.
But it wasn’t their spotless radiance that made them beautiful. The boy’s eyes were mirrors, and when the other boys at the orphanage stared into them, they saw themselves, faces ruddy-cheeked and free of acne, smiling from the arms of their newfound families. When the orphanage owner found out, he gripped the boy’s chin and took a peek—only to see himself transformed, his bald head covered in lustrous curls, his paunch flattened to rippling abs. He spread the word around the City of Glass that he owned a child who’d show you the life you’d always dreamed of, and soon people were lining up outside the orphanage, happy to pay a little cash to see the best version of themselves smiling back at them from the boy’s enchanted gaze. There, in his eyes, all their troubles vanished: they arrived at the hospital room just in time to grip the hand of their estranged relative, they dropped out of medical school to practice the violin, they bought that plane ticket, received that award, walked through the grand entryways of their palatial homes and sipped expensive liqueurs beside ambassadors and foreign dignitaries.
No matter what vision they received from the boy, people left their sessions feeling renewed, heartened by the knowledge that in some other world they followed a more proper path. They returned again and again to study their perfected selves, until the drudgery of their days seemed less real, their various frustrations and failures faint shadows of the incandescent lives they saw played out during their time with the boy.
A few weeks after the boy gets his new eyes, a man peers into his face and sees himself tangled together in bed with the receptionist at his office, a woman he’s failed to seduce for months. He gets so excited by the sight, so desperate to keep it in his possession, that he digs his fingers around the boy’s eyes and scoops them right out. He’s apologetic, of course, and even pays the owner of the orphanage a hefty sum to take them home, but the pain for the boy is excruciating.
The owner, pocketing the money with feverish glee, sends the boy back to the old woman to get another pair. Tell her you’ve lost them, he says. The woman, who mistakes the despair on the boy’s face for guilt, playfully admonishes him for his carelessness, but builds them regardless. Don’t worry, she says, leaning over her glass blowing tools. Accidents happen.
Before long, people start visiting the orphanage for the particular pleasure of yanking out the boy’s eyes. Those wealthy enough to afford the privilege carry the eyes in their pockets and purses, peering at them in times of trouble, rolling them anxiously in their fingers until their glass surfaces are smeared with grease. They place them on mantels by their beds, so they can watch themselves smiling blissfully in some other existence as they fall asleep.
The owner is careful to space out these visits— once ever few months—so the old woman won’t become suspicious when the boy returns, yet again, for a new pair. But the old woman is no fool. She sees the way the boy trembles as she gently presses each globe into place. She can feel the scalloped scar tissue around his eye sockets where customer’s greedy pursuits have mangled the skin.
Finally, she builds him a special set of eyes. Behind each, she hides a drop of poison. She presses a soft palm against his cheek, the boy flinching despite the tenderness of her touch.
The next person who takes your eyes, she says, will die.
The boy hopes it will happen soon. Even if he doesn’t get any more eyes. Nothing in the world so far has been worth seeing.
Before she was the Pig Queen, the girl was just another citizen of the City of Glass. In a quaint brownstone at the city center, she lived with her six sisters and brothers. Each night they fell asleep in soft cotton sheets, whispering to one another about all their possible futures. Their mother loved them more than anything—more than her fingernails or teeth, she often said, more than the wire of flesh beneath her tongue. She loved them so much, in fact, that she couldn’t stop eating them.
She ate the oldest first, a tall girl with a wonderful singing voice and two moles just above her right eye. Give me a song, the mother said, and while the girl sang the mother unhinged her jaw. She leaned over the girl and swallowed her in one bite. Delicious, the mother said, and fell back into the couch, the daughter’s fingers pressing out from her swollen belly, stretching the skin like rubber. My perfect girl.
The morning her sister was eaten, the Girl Who Will Become the Pig Queen sat down to eat her breakfast, the spoonful of cornflakes trembling in her grip, and discovered that the food tasted like ash. She ate an apple, and it tasted like ash, too. For the next few weeks, while the oldest daughter slowly digested in the mother’s stomach—sometimes singing, sometimes screaming—the girl ate pine nuts and taffy and dried crickets, but all she tasted was smoky despair. She began to eat less, until she was so thin that when she stood in front of a light she could see its glow shining through her.
She thought this might save her. But the thinner she became, and the more her bones strained against her withering figure, the more her mother licked her lips. She pushed the girl in front of her bedroom lamp and watched it turn her thin skin amber. You will be sweet, her mother said, like hard candy.
Her mother worked her way up the family tree, eating the children in order of age, plucking them from the branches like ripe fruit. The girl was youngest, so she would come last. For weeks the girl watched her mother consume her brothers and sisters, who allowed themselves to be stuffed down her throat, unable to fathom that their mother had anything but their best interests in mind.
But the girl was not so trusting, and on the morning when only she was left, she rushed out the front door and fled to the forest. She ate the squirrels and the birds, and though they still tasted like ash, she felt her limbs thicken. She licked grubs from the soggy interiors of logs and dunked her head into frigid rivers to catch trout in her teeth. She grew so large and strong that her mother could never hope to devour her. She found the biggest boar in the forest and made herself the Pig Queen—because who knew better how to eat than a pig? And who was more powerful than a queen?
Now, she stands in the square of the City of Pigs. Her boar body is swollen with heat and longing. Gather round, she says, and the pigs come to her. She smells the stink of fear in their fur.
Tomorrow we go to war, she says.
Where? The pigs ask. Already, they shuffle with excitement. War means blood and meat. War means food.
The City of Glass, the Pig Queen Says.
And though the pigs hate the City of Glass, though they are terrified of its burning lights and screaming machinery, they know better than to refuse. They are hungry, too.
There is a fairy godmother in this story, but she won’t be any help. She is in prison, deep beneath the City of Glass. She was put there by the king—did we mention there was a king?—in a tight iron coffin without a door. She is not the kind of fairy godmother you want drifting through your bedroom window in the middle of the night. Her arms and legs are bundles of rusted razor wire, and her torso is an old engine, its pistons clogged with calcified oil. When she speaks, her voice sounds like bullets rattling in an ammunition can.
If either of these children had asked her for help, she might offer some spell. Or, she might laugh in their faces, the batteries that she uses for teeth sparking in her mouth. Sorry kid, she might say, a trickle of bleach leaking from her lip, I only make things rot.
Anyways: she believes in the School of Hard Knocks. She’d probably tell them: there is no magic that can hustle you out of a hard life. I wouldn’t be half the fairy I am today if someone had whisked me away from all my troubles.
Of course, it still might have been nice to hear. It might have granted the children some minor reprieve—a feeble hope that there was happiness on the other side of their misery. After all, they know how these stories are supposed to end: every cruel act, eventually, gives way to justice. The knight arrives just in time to slay the dragon; the exiled princess fools the witch at the very last moment, switching the poisoned fruit, pushing the cackling enchantress into her own bubbling cauldron. Suffering, they’ve been told, is never just suffering—it is merely the rising action, the prelude to whatever lesson must be learned.
But they’ll never get to discuss these possibilities with the fairy godmother. Like we said: she’s in prison. Locked away in her dark little box. When the pigs invade, the only evidence of their march is a rhythmic tapping in the iron all around her, like rain falling on a tin roof.
The City of Glass never stood a chance. Its citizens—so accustomed to being ferried along the avenues in the backseats of taxis—don’t know a thing about fighting. They’re easy prey for the pigs as they flood the streets, a bristling tide of tusks. Those who aren’t trampled are gored, their bodies flung skyward like so many broken dolls.
The Pig Queen goes to her mother’s house first, excited to avenger her brothers and sisters. She is sure that killing her will lift the curse—that her siblings will spill from their mother’s split stomach, and with them will return the sweetness of sugar, the tang of lemons, the salty brine of anchovies. When she arrives, though, she finds that her mother is already dead, her bloated corpse lounging, as it did in life, on the living room couch. Eating
children, it turns out, is not a viable diet.
The Pig Queen still takes a bite out of the dead woman’s chest, hoping that the act of consumption will be enough to cure her affliction. But all she tastes is ash.
Rage scorches her insides and hunger rushes in to fill the husk it leaves behind. She joins the other pigs in the street, reveling in the slaughter. It is only by chance, really, that she comes upon the glassblower’s house, noticing just how much the old woman looks like her mother. And it is only by chance that the Boy With Poisoned Eyes should arrive just in time to see the glassblower clawing desperately in the air while the Pig Queen tugs her intestines into the center of the room, her hooves slipping and sliding on the glistening mess. He’s too shocked to speak, so the Queen doesn’t notice him there, clutching his chest by the doorway, while she eats the glassblower piece by piece, imagining the screaming woman is her own terrible mother.
She does not hear him wailing from the building as she tromps back down the stairs. She does not see him, cradling the old woman in his arms, pressing his face into her hair. All she hears is the steady drone of the voice in her head, the firm refrain that has been with her since she first stepped foot in the forest, saying: eat, eat, eat.
The boy does not vow revenge. He does not pick up his father’s sword and set himself out on a quest. He has no sword, and no father, and he doesn’t know the first thing about quests. But he does go to battle.
The king—there he is again, standing atop the tallest tower in the City of Glass, pontificating on the cruelty of pigs—has declared war. Every willing citizen is handed a gun and a flimsy suit of armor and told to follow the pigs back into the forest; to return, ten-fold, the bloodshed they have brought to their gleaming city. Now that the glassblower is dead, the boy has no reason to stay in the City of Glass, so he joins the ragtag army marching towards the wilderness.
The soldiers trudge through the forest, murdering as they go, burning every tree and shrub until there is a black highway of cinder running through the heart of the woods. Many die, their torsos crushed by the rampaging boars, who in turn are riddled with holes from the soldier’s bullets. When the carnage overwhelms them, the soldiers sometimes stare into the boy’s eyes, and see themselves back in the City of Glass, standing safely beside their loved ones. The hope of being reunited with wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sends them rushing back into battle, where they are torn apart by tusk and tooth.
The boy, who has never been a fighter, just tries to stay alive, firing his gun uselessly into the treetops. He presses his palms against his ears to keep out the screams.
Eventually his platoon is ambushed. The pigs, erupting from the underbrush, make short work of the soldiers, who are exhausted from the endless campaign, their faces gaunt and covered in soot. The boy tries to hide beneath the bodies of his comrades, but the boars catch the stink of his sweat and drag him from the pile of corpses.
Before they can kill him, they see themselves reflected in the glass of his eyes, not as they are—their fur clotted with mud, their tusks dripping with blood—but as they once were, grazing in the verdant undergrowth, napping under the sunlight that reaches them, speckled and warm, from the trees overhead. They remember, to put it bluntly, the simple joy of being pigs.
They bite his ankles and carry him to the Pig Queen.
Inspired by what the boy has shown them, the pigs beg their Queen for peace. So many have died. Their bodies are stacked and rotting in heaps taller than the trees. The only sounds in the forest are the hum of the flies, frantic from feasting, and the crack of gunfire.
We are pigs, the Pig Queen says, we are made to eat.
But the pigs know this isn’t true. There are acorns to be sorted, mud pits to tumble through, piglets who need to be taught how to swim. There are many things about being a pig that the Pig Queen doesn’t understand.
So they bring her the boy. Look in his eyes, they say, because they think this is a story about renewal, or righteousness, or hope. They think that the Queen will see some vision of rebirth—will be lulled, as they have, by the promise that peace is still possible.
But this is not that kind of story. This is a story about taking—about what is taken from us and what we take in turn. The Pig Queen does not want to be reminded of some other world. She does not want to imagine how different things might have been if her mother had cared for her properly, or what moral she’s meant to uncover from the heap of her own anguish. If she has learned anything, it is only this: better to be the biggest. Better to hurt before you have been harmed. Better to consume the world, lest it digest you first.
She eats the boy. Starting at his toes and working her way up, she takes big, savage bites.
And here, finally, is where the real magic arrives. Because as she breaks through the brittle armor and pierces the tender flesh below, the Pig Queen tastes everything. The soft rawness of meat, the coppery tang of blood, the silky butter of bone marrow. She is so overwhelmed to have her taste returned that she eats the boy as slowly as she can, chewing each morsel so thoroughly that it turns to paste in her mouth.
And the boy, if you can believe it, is grateful. With the exception of the old woman, no one has ever treated him so tenderly. He has never been desired for anything but his eyes—yet here is someone who wants every part of him so desperately that there are tears streaming down her face. The Pig Queen grips both of his arms and digs her snout into his gut, slurping up his kidneys and lungs as though they were rich slices of mango. The pleasure is so immense that he moans.
For a moment, he considers telling the Pig Queen about his eyes, and the poison hidden behind them. But it’s too late: she’s already reached his throat. When he opens his mouth, no sound escapes. She crushes the eyes in her teeth, each one like spun sugar, and dies.
The pigs, who have watched this ordeal solemnly, waste no time in eating their Queen. They know better than to watch such food go to waste— sweetened, as it is, by its first taste of true love.
*Sheldon’s fiction appears in Issue 43.2 of Cream City Review.
Poetry Feature: Hannah Dow
We’re excited to launch our inaugural CCR Online feature with our 2019 Summer Poetry Prize winner, selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil!
Hannah Dow is the author of Rosarium (Acre Books, 2018), with poems recently appearing or forthcoming in The Southern Review, Image, Pleiades, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Hannah has received awards and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Orion, and is editor-in-chief of Tinderbox Poetry Journal.
My Mother Tries to Teach Me How to Garden
On Saturdays we knelt, too—
I watched you make holes
in the unforgiving New England dirt,
then fill them with the seeds you carried
like Communion. I heard you pray
for cooperative weather, then confess
you were not a patient woman.
This must be why I first confused impatiens
with hurrying, with impulsive—though unsurprisingly,
the root of impatiens does not wait—
the seed pods burst open if touched. The root
of garden is enclosure, and in this way I became
like you, leaving home before the first
nodding buds of Spring. I never
busied my hands with beauty—
instead, I taught myself to see
the fastened slipstitch of a flower’s
another to filament, the ghost apple
suspended long after the ice storm
departs. Here, in this small
southern town, so far from anything
I call home, a whole grove flourishes
within an abandoned building, restless
like a greenhouse that has shaken off its glass.
*Hannah’s poem appears in Issue 43.2 of Cream City Review.