A Short Fiction/CNF Hybrid Story from Victoria Leigh Bennett

from pixababy

White Withers and White Fangs

          I was anxious to go out, to get away, to be off for good, but the woman behind the sign-in/sign-out window said, “Are you sure you want to sign yourself out?  You only committed yourself two days ago.  And it’s against doctor’s recommendations.”

          “I’m sure,” I said, wanting to present a united front with all of me, so as not to encourage my own second thoughts or more barriers from her.

          “Okay, then, sign here; here; and here.”  Her stubby but well-groomed nail hovered over three different spots on the form.  Ritual three, was my distracted thought.

          Without looking at the form, I signed my name three times, and turned to go.

          “If you should need to sign back in, be sure and let the person here at the window know that you signed in before.”  And she ducked her head to one side to watch me and make sure I got the message.

          But I was already nearly out the door.  “Whatever,” I answered, sullenly.  I’d tired of the jokes in the crisis unit about “hellfire” and “toasted buns” from the other clients who also hadn’t been diagnosed yet, when the lunch buns came burned the day before.  Likewise, I’d heard enough about the witchcraft they all seemed earnestly to believe in, and discussed constantly, if not knowledgeably by literary standards.  Not to say, I was freaked out.  I mean, just plain freaked out.  Why were a bunch of assorted people, who weren’t supposed to have known each other before signing in, all on the same page regarding sorcery?  All I could do to remove myself from it was to get back out again, since reporting it would only make me look crazy, too.  I’d spent enough alone time starting to wonder in my educated-but-becoming-unwound mind if lunacy did in fact have something to do with the moon and enchantment, and not the good kind of enchantment.

     What’d been my final straw was what had happened in the Sanskrit class, when the instructor, who’d started us on the Pancha Tantra, or animal tales, had sat by me in the small living-room-furnished classroom and deliberately growled at me.  He was supposed to be reading out a sentence, but as he sounded out one of the Sanskrit “r’s,” he distinctly growled, the intimate love-growl of predator to prey, and smiled oddly without looking at me, as I looked up at him—a tall man—and felt the thrill of being sought and the panic of being attacked all at once.

          It was a spell cast, and when I exited the room that day, I was still hearing it, still feeling it, still under its influence, even to the evening when I left the crisis unit.  That night when I finally made my way into my apartment, where for some reason before going to the crisis unit I hadn’t picked up groceries for about a week, but felt some kind of hunger, I heard the growl in the refrigerator’s smooth hum, in the heat coming up from the radiators, in the in-between-channels radio clock’s static.  In a desperate state, I reasoned that whether it was real or not, there was a solution:  I grabbed a bottle of garlic powder and began to sprinkle liberal amounts of it everywhere I heard the growl.  Though the radio now released choked sounds rather than full growls, the refrigerator and the heating system were unaffected.

          I made myself pull open the door of the refrigerator finally; there was only a bowl of cranberry jelly left over from Canadian Thanksgiving, which had been on October 10th.  Good!  I thought when I saw the redness lurking right on a center shelf.  Its heart!  Reaching into the growling monster, I pulled its heart out and consumed the whole bowl, standing up in front of it, with the prongs of a fork spearing the red corpuscles up.  Now, I’d eaten the werewolf’s heart.  We’d have no more of that growling!

          But the radiators…what about them?  The refrigerator had magically ceased its steady hunt when the door was opened, so I left it open, its heart gone now, and faced the garlic-covered radiators.  After a few panicked moments, during which I was fearful of losing the advantage of the gains I’d already made with the clock radio and the refrigerator, those avatars of evil that had before been so innocent, it was clear that the radiators were far more ancient in evil still and weren’t going to quiet down.  They not only growled, they laughed evilly in wheezy gasps, and their breath was dry and forbidding, in spite of the hiss and spit of the floor gauge.  The only thing to do was to get out of there until the apartment was cleansed, until maybe the garlic I’d spread around had had more time to work in the absence of the curse I’d brought along in with me.  It was following me, so I had to take it out and be rid of it so that my apartment could be cleansed.  Leaving the door ajar for the spirit to be gone when I got back, I went back out the door, carefully taking my keys with me so that the front door of the building would still be accessible to me later.  If there was a later; I shivered.

          As I walked swiftly in the moonlight through street after street, trying to shake my panic, I knew that I was like a white mare, my footsteps making a hollow sound on the cobblestone then concrete then cobblestone sidewalks as I clopped along, fast then slow then fast again in my urge to get away from what pursued me.  I thought about a notion of Jung’s with the part of my mind that was still consciously human and not animal, logical and not instinctive:  Jung had said that to dream of a white horse was a sign of approaching death…but I wasn’t dreaming, I was awake, and I was the nightmare I was having, myself.  And I was being hunted.  Too late I thought of the safety of the building I’d left.  But it was too late, I was outside in the chilled October air now, breathing in the cold.  I thought of him again, and of what he would do when he caught me.

He would jump up on my white haunches and tear at them, he would snatch at my hooves to bring me down, he would slobber and foam over my wounds as he drove sharp fangs into my being!

          In my haste to be away from what was pursuing me, I dashed through street after street, intersection after intersection, most of them seemingly deserted and yet still lit brightly, as if by torches and firelight and flames.  I passed away from the streets I knew, but in the part of me that was still fleetingly human, I had the tiny thought that Toronto was a geometrically laid-out city in the downtown part, and I might be able to find my way back, if I could escape.

Just as I crossed the next intersection, I happened to look up the hill.  Last night’s gibbous moon was now full, bright, and shining, making deep shadows down even between the streetlights’ shadows of the tall buildings.  And in the next parallel intersection up the hill, there he was, crossing as I crossed, in his human incarnation!  He was crossing parallel to me, obviously stalking, the jacket he always wore clear in the light—but it was a darker blue, now, more nightlike.  I had no doubt that it was he.

I slowed, shaking my head, feeling my mane against my withers, which danced with apprehension.  He turned left at the intersection, down my way, coming down the street towards where I was crossing.

In final desperation, I turned and headed towards him, right at him, as he turned the corner and made towards me.  But when I reached where he should have been, he wasn’t visible.  He was incorporeal, somehow!  My heart whinnied, and I screamed, and the beast was upon me, and in my being, I shivered and whinnied again—my withers shuddered and stiffened without my volition, my mane stood on end where it hung from my head, and I was deathly alive, and attacked.  I couldn’t see him, but I could smell him, the aftershave, then the sudden smell of his animal self, his shaggy pelt, his teeth stained with rich, fresh blood.  I turned my head towards him, my own teeth flashing and trying to fight back, suddenly becoming sharp and pointed in my mind.  And then, I growled in return.  I reared back on my back legs and aimed at him, and fought, and flashed my fangs again.  A shiver travelled through me.  Was he?  Was I?  Could I be?  I was untrammeled and free now!  And I was like him, and unafraid.

Bio: Victoria Leigh Bennett, (she/her).  Greater Boston, MA area, born WV.  Ph.D., English & Theater. In-print books: “Poems from the Northeast,” “Scenes de la Vie Americaine (en Paris)” [in English], both from Amazon.  Website: creative-shadows.com. “Come for the shadows, stay for the read.”  Between Aug. 2021-Sept. 2022, Victoria will have published at least 22 times with: Roi Faineant Literary Press, The Alien Buddha Press, Barzakh Magazine, Amphora Magazine, The Madrigal Press, and others.  She writes Fiction/Flash/CNF/Poetry.  Victoria is the organizer behind @PoetsonThursday on Twitter, along with Alex Guenther (@guentheralex) and Dave Garbutt (@DavGar51).  Twitter: @vicklbennett.  Victoria is emotionally and ocularly disabled.

A Creative Non-Fiction Piece by Lorna Wood : “House of Words”

House of Words

“I don’t understand it. This has to be ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips,’” Mom complained.
	“Do you want me to have a look?” Dad asked mildly, raising his head from the arts news.
	“No,” Mom said. “I’m doing just fine.” 
	A composer, Dad lived in his own sanctum of music, but his second love was language. Each week, he efficiently completed the acrostic, diagramless, or puns and anagrams puzzle, perhaps aided by his habit of completing twelve-tone matrices and writing fugues. Mom claimed the crossword as her territory.
	I was eager to help and earn her approval. “Can I try? Please let me look.”
	“All right,” Mom said, grudgingly. “But don’t get frustrated. This is hard even for grown-ups. And don’t put anything in unless you’re absolutely sure. This is pen. You can’t erase it.”
	I nodded solemnly. There was no use arguing about the practicality of pencil, and anyway I agreed with Mom that pencil was the coward’s way.
	I sat next to her on the sofa, and we put our heads together. “‘Tim’s tune,’” I mused, reading the clue. “Who’s Tim?”
	Mom explained over Dad’s disgusted noise. He was not a fan.
	There was no way around it. Not only was “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” Tiny Tim’s chief claim to fame, downward answers definitively established that “ipoe,” which suspiciously resembled “Tiptoe,” was part of the answer.
	At this point I had a hunch and began solving more intersecting downward clues to confirm it. When I had “heulip” near the end, I counted on my fingers and said, “If you left out the t’s it would fit.”
	Mom quickly counted on her fingers. “Lorna, you’re a genius!” She gaped at me in astonishment as I proudly filled in the letters. Then, groaning, she pointed to the puzzle’s title. “‘Strip Tees.’ I should have known. Though I am a little relieved. I thought this might not be suitable for children.”

	For a little over a year, when I was eleven to twelve, Mom and I worked the Times puzzle every Sunday. It was a break from my heavily scheduled weekdays and a time to bond with her. My linguistic skills always made her proud. When we were stumped by a few empty squares at the end of our labors, Dad was allowed to fill them in. The finished product seemed a testament to family unity.
 	In hindsight, though, I believe the crossword was something else for Mom, part of a multi-pronged linguistic defense against chaos. This battle had begun early. She is two in the earliest episode of abuse she recorded. Around that time, according to her, she taught herself to read, and her scribblings on the witch’s picture in The Wizard of Oz suggest that she knew what the story was about, mulled it over, and saw in the melting witch a hope of relief by the time she was four. At seven, she was sneaking into the fourth-grade library at her Catholic school to read Nancy Drew mysteries. 
	As an adult, she continued to love mysteries, and in her work as an art historian, she tried to solve them: her articles include a reconstruction of the Mycerinus Triad sculptures and an identification of the sitter in Jan van Eyck’s Timotheus. Language seemed an ordering force in opposition to the agony of her childhood and adolescence. The mini-mysteries of the crossword clues, culminating in the orderly patchwork of a completed puzzle, were part of this bulwark against the lingering effects of abuse and her fear that she, like her mother, would develop paranoid schizophrenia.
	Parenting was perhaps the biggest mystery of all for Mom. She pored over Dr. Spock, especially in moments of doubt, and she built me a house of words of my own. When I was three, our TV broke, and she did not replace it. She read to me daily and taught me to read when I asked. She made sure I got scholarships to good schools. When my father had a sabbatical, she enrolled me in a French public school, so I learned French. On long car trips we played “ghost,” a game where players must try to add letters to a word without finishing it. And she and my father read The New Yorker to one another daily, explaining the parts I asked about as best they could. The crossword was another logical extension of her view that words would help me find sound answers to life’s mysteries.   

	Dad also had a serious reason to cling to his words. When Mom and I began to work the crossword, he had recently developed a form of epilepsy in which he would lose the ability to speak for a few minutes. Dad avoided expressing his feelings about this directly. We did not even know about his seizures until he had one in front of Mom, months after they began. But in much later life, when Dad was beginning to develop vascular dementia from years of smoking, he, like Mom, clung to puzzle books and mysteries, trying to forestall the loss of language. Looking back, it seems likely the Times puzzles were an important defense for him as well. 
	Later, when explaining about his epilepsy, Dad would smile with one side of his mouth. “The doctor said I had a scar on my brain caused by a blow to the head. And I think that blow came from a little slipper.” Still smiling, he would lightly hit the side of his head lightly with his hand. The “little slipper” was a high-heeled shoe, wielded by Mom in one of her uncontrollable rages. 	
	A few years ago, I came across a letter in which Mom told a friend during the summer before the crossword time that she was going to rededicate herself to being a good wife and mother. She knew. She fought the madness, tried to work out the puzzle. Still, her rages taught me words I wasn’t allowed to use, words that were weapons. I felt my house of words was a dangerous, unreliable structure. As I finished sixth grade, Mom gradually stopped talking to Dad, except to voice groundless suspicions about his fidelity. In seventh grade, she left, taking a job out of state. The Times didn’t come anymore. New Yorker magazines piled up on tables. 
	When I was in high school, my parents divorced, and while I was in grad school, Mom developed late-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Under its influence, she wrote compulsively, going over her past, apparently to find the seeds of her illness in episodes of abuse and injury, and often beginning fictional mysteries, though she was never able to get far. 

	The cooperative quilt of the Sunday Times crossword was not an effective shield for our family, and, as every good mystery shows, violence and fear cannot be put to rest by a detective’s quick explanations at the end. While I still enjoy a good crossword puzzle, I do not believe solving verbal clues can construct a barrier against chaos and violence. 
	I do believe it is helpful to puzzle over the clues of our own history and use them to guide our decision-making. The answers to clues like “effects of childhood trauma” or “secrets of a healthy marriage” can’t be written in pen in little squares over a Sunday afternoon; they require long study and much revision. Still, the work of mapping what happened to my family of origin and what it means for me, my husband, and my children is analogous to solving those punning, mysterious clues to the long answers in the Sunday Times crossword. Both require cultural knowledge, verbal skills, a sense of humor, and the love and support of a dedicated mentor. All this Mom conveyed to me, and I am grateful.
                               END





Bio: Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama. Her poetry is forthcoming in 2% Milk and has appeared in Before I Turn Into Gold (David L O’Nan, editor), Angel Rust (Best of the Net nominee) and Poetry South (Pushcart nominee), among others. Her fiction has appeared in Doubleback Review (Pushcart nominee) and on the Litro [USA] Lab and NoSleep Podcasts. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Feed, and her most recent scholarly essay is in The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism. Find out more at https://www.amazon.com/author/lornawood or from her blog, Word Music, here: https://lornawoodauthor.wordpress.com.

Poetry Showcase by Lorna Wood


Poetry about the Pandemic by Lorna Wood


Hearing “Hallelujah” at the Women’s March, 2017 by Lorna Wood  (poetry for Leonard Cohen Week)


A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Lorna Wood

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Ann Kathryn Kelly

with Ann Kelly:

Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?

Ann: My earliest memory of seeing my writing potential was fifth grade. My teacher told our class about the Vermont Governor’s writing contest and asked for volunteers. We only needed to write two pages, and the topic was wide open. This was 1980 and I imagined how it might be in the year 2000 which, at the time, seemed light years away like something you’d see on Star Trek with Captain Kirk and the gang. In my essay, I saw a world where space-age kids no longer needed a school lunch program and would instead swallow a red pill the size of a Tic-Tac to get all their nutrients … which of course meant no more God-awful lunches in the cafeteria with things like Tuna Wiggle. I won second place in the state contest. I’m pretty sure that started my lure to the written word.

Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?

Ann: I’m assuming you mean, who are my biggest influences in poetry? Well, first off, I should say that I’ve come to realize with these Fevers of the Mind interviews that you usually do your Q&As with experienced poets. Full transparency: I’m not a poet. (Laughs nervously.) So, first off, thank you for even entertaining the possibility of chatting with me. A friend on Twitter knew I’d recently started writing poetry which is why she suggested I look at your journal’s website. I have much more experience with creative nonfiction and I’ve been writing essays and memoir exclusively for years. But, I’ve always admired poetry: the lyric language and economy of words. I knew it could help me with my CNF writing and decided to take my first poetry class in April of this year, a six-week course with Cleaver Magazine. I loved it! I came out of the class with a number of poems in different forms: sonnet, villanelle, prose poem, haibun, and more.

After workshopping my pieces in class, I submitted them to journals over the spring and already I have three published poems to my name. In fact, I’ve gotten much faster acceptances for my poetry than I’ve ever gotten for my CNF essays. I’ve waited sometimes for almost a year to hear back from journals on some of those pieces.

I love how poetry elevates a piece of writing with lyric imagery. I also admire how poems establish a connection between writer and reader quickly because of the form’s shorter footprint. As a CNF writer, I can spend 3,000 words getting my points across, if I want. That’s the challenge I love with poetry: nailing that writer-reader connection off the bat and capturing pivotal moments in spare but beautifully layered language.

Well, I’ve gone off on a tangent and didn’t answer your question. I’d love to list influential poets, but I’m early in my learning stage.  

Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Ann: Aside from my fifth grade example, I think I knew it by the time I was in tenth grade. I wanted to study journalism, but the university I attended didn’t offer that so I graduated with a degree in English Literature. I’ve since made a career of writing in the corporate world, starting out as a copywriter for a software company before moving into various marketing communications and public relations roles.

Q4: Who has helped you most with writing?

Ann: I give a lot of credit to a developmental editor I’ve worked with—Naomi Kimbell—who reviewed my memoir manuscript and gave me this just really tremendous feedback. She was able to balance pushing me to dig deeper, while understanding and honoring the intention of what I wanted to do with my manuscript. She helped me see arcs and metaphors I hadn’t seen, and my manuscript is absolutely stronger for it.

Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?

Ann: I lived just outside Philadelphia from birth until second grade, then my family moved to the middle of nowhere up nine miles of dirt roads in rural Vermont to fulfill a dream of country living my mother had. After college, I moved to the Seacoast region of New Hampshire, with a stint living in downtown Boston when I worked for an advertising agency as a copywriter. I’ve written one or two essays about my rural childhood, and it’s also in my memoir manuscript, but my writing is not heavily influenced by place.

As for travel, my job has sent me to a bunch of U.S. cities for work conferences, and a few places overseas. In fact, I was at a work conference in Barcelona just before Spain closed its borders in the spring of 2020 with the pandemic. I’ve also traveled to quite a few countries for fun. I’ve been through Europe, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and India, as far east as Hong Kong, and into South America. I’ve even been to the Arctic Circle and into the Sahara desert. I’ve written a few essays about some of my travels.

Q6: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far to you?

Ann: Tough question! Well, I’m hoping my most meaningful work will be my memoir if and when it is published. I wrote the manuscript to share with readers that a devastating diagnosis is not always a death sentence, even when it involves a bleeding brain tumor. If my memoir helps just a handful of people facing a scary diagnosis find strength or hope in my story, then it will be worth the years I’ve spent writing it and researching certain aspects and workshopping it a gazillion times with critique partners. I’m also proud of all of my CNF essays and flash nonfiction pieces. One essay was particularly difficult to write, but I think it’s beautiful. It’s called “The Color of Heartache” and was published in The Coachella Review: http://thecoachellareview.com/archive/nonfiction/the-color-of-heartache/

Q7: Favorite activities to relax?

Ann: I’ve really gotten into flower gardening, and I’m up to seven garden beds now. Pretty big ones, I might add! It has transformed the outside of my house, and I now have a ton of birds and butterflies. When I started trying poetry this spring, my gardens were the obvious choice to dip my toe in and see what resulted. My gardens serving as muse sounds like a cliché … but it’s true!

Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?

Ann:

I find it haunting that Anne Sexton’s poem “Yellow,” though written in the early 1970s I think, could just as easily have been written about everything the world has endured in 2020 and into 2021.


When they turn the sun
on again I’ll plant children
under it, I’ll light up my soul
with a match and let it sing. I’ll
take my mother and soap her up, I’ll
take my bones and polish them, I’ll
vacuum up my stale hair, I’ll
pay all my neighbors’ bad debts, I’ll
write a poem called Yellow and put
my lips down to drink it up, I’ll
feed myself spoonfuls of heat and
everyone will be home playing with
their wings and the planet will
shudder with all those smiles and
there will be no poison anywhere, no plague
in the sky and there will be mother-broth
for all the people and we will
never die, not one of us, we’ll go on
won’t we?

Q9: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?

Ann:

As I mentioned, I took my first poetry class in April of this year, and I’m thrilled that three of my poems from that class have already been published! I have a few more poems on submission from that class. I also have a number of CNF essays on my website that I’ve excerpted from my memoir. My plan is to query my manuscript this autumn.

American sonnet: Kingdom Come

https://www.sledgehammerlit.com/post/kingdom-come-by-ann-kathryn-kelly

Prose poem: Puff

https://www.olitmag.com/annkathrynkelly

American sonnet: Abode

https://www.eucalyptusandroselitmag.com/post/abode

More writing on my website:

https://annkkelly.com/portfolio