Kolemenskoye Park

The staircase that led down to the gully was painted red and stood out against the light mist that rose up from the spring. Francine let a woman pass Her on the steps. She wore a brown coat, and a crown of leaves haloed her head. On such a mature woman the look was majestic, if a little unusual, thought Francine. The woman passed with a nod, and walked on to blend into the yellow leaves of the forest.

Kolemenskoye park, in the south of Moscow, had become Francine’s Sunday refuge soon after she moved to the city 6 months ago. The park was carefully maintained and heavily trafficked, but mystery managed to hover around the knobby branches of the apple trees, and near the tombstones of the orthodox church’s overgrown cemetery. The public orchards reminded Francine of her family’s fruit grove back home in Minnesota, where she used to spend days wandering along the shore of their small pond. In Kolemenskoye Park, the trees were tied with colorful ribbons. Once she had seen a man, bare chested, anointing himself with the water from the spring. And now there was this woman, dressed as the Queen on the Forest with her crown of leaves. As soothing as the park was, it was also full of reminders that she was far from home.

At the bottom of the staircase, the sound of the spring was loud. It’s path had been guided in some places with smooth round stones. But the rocks were eroding and the stream bed spread, matting the soft grasses into mud. The mist blew off of the stream, shifting into the banks of purple foxgloves and becoming thicker and heavier, and impenetrable to the eye.

Francine was alone here. Over by the bridge, where she had once seen the bare chested man ritualizing in the water, there was nothing but the morphing shadows of mist. It muffled every sound but the popping stream. There was a sudden small explosion by Francine’s arm as one of the foxglove’s seedpods popped, launching the ripe seeds against her bare skin. She brushed her hand over the plant and more seedpods sprang open. It was a miniature fireworks display, fit for a fairy, and Francine remembered how she and her sister used to play with the flowers they found around the orchard, pretending that they were dresses. Francine wondered if her sister’s daughter was old enough to play fairy games. She tried to calculate how many years had passed since they had last spoken, but with a brush of her hand dismissed that line thinking. Seeds sprang out of their pods and scattered over the mud at her feet, and Francine remembered again why she had come down to the gully.

Friends 2


“I was a little girl once, just like you,” my Granmi tells me. It’s fall, and we are sitting together on the front steps, sharing the woolly blanket my ma and pa keep in the truck of their car. It smells of gasoline and scratchy crumbs are stuck between its matted fibers.

On the street, fall leaves pile up against the fences and gather thickly in the crook of the roots of trees. I want to shrug out of that too-hot blanket and fly down the steps. I want to find a good stick, and I want to poke at the leaf piles. There are worms and rolly-pollies hidden in their damp centers. I like to collect them in jars.

“When I was a little girl, we lived in New York City. I used to play with my dolls on the sidewalk in front of the house. I had a little pram where I could fit them all in, and I’d roll them back and forth.” My Grandmi tugs at the blanket and pulls me closer to her bony leg. She smells of dusty flowers and pennies.

If I were alone, I’d take of my shoes and find some mud. I like to watch it ooze between my toes. If the mud was thick, it tickles a bit between my pinky toe and the other one. I would mix the worms and the role-pollies with mud, and sticks and leaves. I would feed my potion to the trees, to help them survive through the winter.

“And wouldn’t you know it, I was shy, too. Exquisitely shy. Just like you are, my dear. Do you know that you are shy?”

The blush that reddens my cheeks feels just like a dirty scratchy blanket. There is a tree in Mr. Neilson’s yard that has a lot of eyes. I love to sit in that tree. If I were there right now the fall air would cool my cheeks and I would leave my muddy footprints on the branches. The tree would thank me for the potion, and let me stay there as long as I wanted. My Grandmi is old, and so is the tree, but only the tree is my friend.




Irene thought it was Jacinta she saw at the market that Friday, but the other woman’s behavior was so bizarre that she couldn’t be sure. It was stir-fry night, and Irene was standing by the shiitake bin when, across the room, she saw Jacinta. Or, at least, the woman looked just like Jacinta. She had the same long hair, expertly curled at the ends; she wore the same colorful, conservatively styled clothing that Jacinta had been wearing every time Irene had seen her. She even carried the same purse. But this woman pushed her shopping cart so sluggishly that, for a moment, Irene worried that her new friend might be ill or, worse, under the influence of one of those sedatives that were becoming so popular among certain women.

It didn’t seem like a good time to say hello, so Irene was turning away to hide among the mushrooms when she noticed a man walking a few paces ahead of the-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta. He was middle aged, but wore his long hair combed into a ponytail. Wire-rimmed eyeglasses and a grey cardigan gave him the look of a librarian. He turned to say something to the woman pushing the shopping cart, it was something humorless, a command or a criticism. The-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta detached herself from the cart and moved towards a tall display of pears. Irene worried that the woman might chose one of the green pears at the bottom of the pile, and send the whole display tumbling to the floor. She worried that she’d have to help, and by helping she’d have to interact with this woman, this woman who might be her friend, but had none of the qualities, at the moment, that made her friend someone she’d want to be friends with. The-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta chose a pear from the top of the pile. She looked at it blankly, then dropped it into a plastic bag. Just as Irene was turning to push her own shopping cart away, the other woman turned. Their eyes met.

“Hello Jacinta, so good to see you! How are you?” Irene called across a display of red tomatoes. Her good manners saved her from freezing at this critical moment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be saved from the cold fist of mortification when the-woman-who-might-be-Jacinta turned away without a smile, without even a spark of recognition in her dull eyes. The woman walked away with a pear sagging in her plastic bag. She handed the bag to the long-haired man, who held up the pear, glanced at Irene, and walked away. The strange woman followed, leaning heavily on the cart to push it ahead.

“How strange,” Irene thought. “Jacinta must have a doppelganger, right here in our little town. I hope I never have to run into her again.” And she wandered off to find the asparagus.


The Moon and the Mockingbird



The first time she noticed the mockingbird, Cassandra was getting ready for bed. As she brushed her teeth, Cassandra could just see a blood moon rising over the low pines that marked the edge of the yard. When the sound of the brush against her teeth no longer filled her head with noise, the house was quiet again. Downstairs, Cassandra knew, her father was drinking whiskey in the dark. Her mother had left for work hours ago, and she wouldn’t come back until the moon had set again, returning with the roar of the truck’s engine and the noisy energy of her exertion. Without Cassandra’s mother, the house sagged with quiet inertia, and Cassandra’s father, an extension of the house, did too.

The mockingbird’s call was so desperate that at first Cassandra couldn’t identify a pattern in the round, rushing notes. It was as though the bird breathed notes: trills on the inhale, trills on the exhale, until the air was full and there was no room for even the sound of the wind brushing the curtains across the window frame. The moon rose higher above the pines, growing smaller and brighter as it cleared some low clouds. The hallway to Cassandra’s room glowed. After she had tucked herself in, Cassandra lay awake for a long time, overwhelmed by the light and the song that filled her quiet night house.

The next morning, the moon and the mockingbird were gone. The day was sunny and full. Cassandra’s father mowed the lawn. Her mother sang as she hung the laundry. When the sun went down that evening, it stayed dark and quiet until Cassandra was asleep in bed. She woke, though, to the mockingbird. It sang outside her window, the only sound in the world, the sound of the moon rising, red, over the sea.

The swim


The water was cold. It sluiced across my back in cold chords of liquid muscle. It was the ocean, and never anything else. Even when I kicked and the water flew high into the air, the spray fell, glinting, back to be the ocean again.

I swam through the ocean and I was weightless, cool, fluid. The ocean entered through my nose, my ears, my eyes. The membrane of my skin encouraged a greater osmosis. I blew. My bubbles rose to the surface and popped.

When I was finished, I swam as close to the shore as I could, but when my belly scraped the rocky bottom I had to stand on wobbly legs. To balance my small flat feet was unreasonably difficult, but I managed to propel myself up the sloping beach to my towel, where I collapsed, wet and limp in the dry sun. That was when I noticed my eyes. They rolled in their sockets with the rhythm of the waves. They would not focus on the fixed objects of land. A stream of salt water poured out of my nose. Sea weed tangled in my hair. Surprisingly I did not vomit out a live fish. My sea change, this time, was a mild one.

The foragers

“What’s that?”

Lila pointed at the sandy ground, where, among dried oak leaves and thorny vines, a pocketed grey sponge sat unappetizingly.

Her mother came over and peered at the growth. She leaned over further, bending her knees to get a closer look. The breeze off of Huron Lake blew a cloud of dancing gnats around Lila’s head. She swatted at them and waited for her mother’s assessment. From the smile that was stretching across her face, it looked to be a favorable one.

“What’s this? What’s this? You found a morel, sweetie! In the most unlikely place!” Lila’s mother took a knife from her pocket and cut the mushroom’s stem. It was the size of Lila’s hand, and dense despite it’s hollow core. The cratered surface was firm, with grass seeds poking out a few of the tiny holes.

“Let’s see if there are more!” Lila’s mother started pacing the moss of the rest area, and soon had filled her pockets with several more of the prized fungi. They’d have to find a kitchen to cook in tonight. It was too late in the day to sell a handful of gourmet mushrooms.

Fire at Dawn



My fingertips are the first to wake up. Then, strangely, my tongue, which distastefully notes the staleless of my mouth. Even though my eyes were still half glued with sleep, I am aware, in the neon darkness of the predawn, of Stephen’s shadowy form moving around the room. At the window, he becomes a man again, his silhouette tall next to that of the cactus on the windowsill.

“I smell smoke,” he says again. My sleep-heavy body lets in a new layer of sensation: sirens, many of them, drifting towards us from all directions. Their scream sounds like a red light, flashing and turning, fading and then becoming loud. Stephen comes back to bed, sniffing at the air but reassured that the smoke is not our problem. All I can smell, with my groggy nose, is the bitter perfume of wet cigarette butts. A light flashes by our window, briefly illuminating the cactus’s shadow in red and orange, and Stephen begins to snore. I lay awake with the scent of bitter cigarette corpses, amazed by the confidence sleep requires. It comes back to me eventually, that senseless confidence, and I dream of incessant floods.

The Sounds That Inanimate Objects Make In The Night



A pop in the kitchen when you’re lying in bed. What is the name for space compressing? In this vacuum, the ear travels alone, searching, but there isn’t another sound.

A creak in the hall. Is it the floorboard, moving under a weightless foot? Or the ceiling, sagging a little further towards the inevitable?

If you forgot to close the window the curtain is sure to rustle or beat in a more incessant wind. Narcissism reversed and amplified, until you yourself are still, inanimate, always listening.

The helicopter of discontent



Normally at this hour blades of sun cut through the gauze of the living room curtains and backlit the veins of the philodendron plant, but not today. A heavy veil of clouds greyed the sky outside. Inside, the apartment was cool, hushed, blue. It seemed as though the sun were just dawning, instead of it being 10:30 in the morning.

She had a vague memory of waking at dawn to the chopping of a helicopter. Rushing to the window, she saw it hovering. It slowly descended until it was level with the hight of the low apartment buildings that bordered the street. Two small lights on its underside twinkled alternately like seed diamonds. Behind her, still in bed, she heard Cayetano move the covers.

“What is it, Julia?”

“There’s a helicopter outside. I wonder what it wants?”

The helicopter was ominous. Its whirring blades skewed the quiet residential street into a dystopian scene, the helicopter a spy of the regime. Julia knew that inside, humans served its predatory bulk, but from her perspective now the machine was beastly and autonomous. It sniffed at the edges of the building, and Julia looked up at its underbelly from below, wondering again what it wanted. What disorder did it sense in her home? What fault could it find with her quiet life, lived sleepily as if beneath a calm pool, or within a bubble, separated invisibly but completely by the chaos and hardship of more difficult lives. Was the helicopter here to pierce her contented inaction?

The two diamonds blinked and the helicopter turned, moving slowly at first but then, nose pointed down to the trail of a new scent, hungrily away. By the time it returned, roaring past like a bloodhound on the trail, Julia was already back in bed, curled against Cayetano, half warm and covered and half cold and exposed, just as she preferred. When she woke up much later to the hushed blue of the morning, the helicopter was nothing but a dream.

A crime of purpose


Karen made sure the door jangled noisily when she entered the corner bodega. It was important that Luís noticed her as she walked though the door, before she ducked past the bags of Takis and Plátanos Maduros. The bags crinkled loudly as she pushed past into the aisle, and Luís shouted good morning, Karenita, hows your hip?

She ignored his question. Karen had a plan. She hobbled down the aisle, past the hip-high freezer of ice-cream and frozen Snickers bars, past the cans of kidney beans and corn, past the bags of flour, white and wheat. Nodding to the workers who sat on milk crates in the back, she went straight to the beer refrigerator. She chose the fanciest looking beers (a label with intricate floral designs and a startlingly sexy skeleton in the center) and, looking both ways, she opened her jacket. It took all of the strength of her 70 year-old arm muscles to hold the beers just right, hidden but only superficially. She hobbled back out the way she came, and made sure to flaunt the bulge of the six-pack as she avoided Luís’s look and jangled on out the door.

At home, Karen left the beers to warm on the counter and lowered herself tiredly into her spotty easy chair, the one Harold used to sit in every night, watching the news. Harold was long gone, and it was time for the chair to go, too.

Luís knows where I live. Now I just have to wait for the po-po to show up and I’ll be back on easy street.

She waited. Eventually she dozed off in the yellow afternoon light of her dirty window, the dry remains of her once abundant houseplants serving as a kind of shade. She woke to the phone ringing.

Yes? She answered

Hi, Karen, this is Luís, from the corner. I hope I’m not disrespectful in noticing that you took some beer with you as you left the store today. I wanted to tell you that if you need anything, food, some money, Rosa and I are more than happy to help. 

Karen sighed. Thank you Luís.

She would need to come up with a new plan. For it wasn’t food or money that she needed. No, Harold’s pension took care of those basic necessities. True, she couldn’t know when the landlord would decide to kick her out in search of younger tenets willing to pay a higher rent. Security would be nice, at her age. But even more than that, she longed for the purpose that comes with routine. She had spent the last years passing the time, drifting through every day, every week, sometimes without speaking a word to anyone but her poor dead husband. Last week she figured it out. There was a place where everyone was welcome, where every day was regimented and where companionship was the only pastime. Clothing and food was supplied, and if you played your cards right, you’d never have to leave.

Karen laughed to herself. How silly she had been, thinking that Luís would call the cops for a measly six-pack! She’s have to up the stakes. Because when she went to prison, she wanted to stay there for good.