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

Thunder
is holy1

where your phantom2
limbs live3.

 

 

 

 

 

 

___________________________________

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. Deliciousthe 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.