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Translator’s Note

You never enter Beijing the same way twice. For centuries this was a hidden, forbidden empire: nine gates through which to pass, each with a melliferous name (Gate of Peace, Gate of Security, Gate Facing the Sun), each moat, wall, guard tower knocked down then rebuilt. First the Mongols, the Manchus, then the Boxers and Brits. So many defenses needed to protect the Peaceful Capital that eventually it was renamed Northern Capital—Beijing—for fear of instilling a false sense of quiet.

In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I witnessed hutong alleyways paved over by four-lane highways, a landscape of construction cranes pocking the horizon with hungry, steel arms; my old neighborhood with its elderly inhabitants, once accustomed to shared squat toilets and courtyard kitchen fires, shipped to the suburbs to make way for a Holiday Inn and an office tower with iridescent windows reflecting an endlessly gray, heavy sky.

October 1576

“No! I won’t go!” Emilia shouted, kicking at the rushes on the floor.

“Stop that and come here, Emilia!” Her mother held out her arms.

Emilia stomped around the room, shouting, “No, no!” Stompstomp. “No, no, no, no, NO!”

“Stop!” implored her mother.

The little girl stood teetering as her mother began to cough. She stood on one foot, then slowly lowered the other to the floor. “Stop coughing, Mama!”

Her mother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, swallow- ing hard, then sprang up and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders. “You are going to the Countess of Kent, and that’s all there is to it!” Emilia went limp and began to wail as her mother held her tight.

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than writing historical fiction. The opportunity to get it wrong, whether the feeling of a place or a time or a person, seems like an insurmountable barrier, before the writing even begins. Creating historical fiction becomes more than simply writing, it becomes research: the reading of books and interviews, listening of transcripts, visiting the locations, trying as best you can to express even a micron of the magic in someone’s life in clumsy, fallible words. Not to mention the issue of the author’s own voice – have they been able to present an accurate depiction of the subject’s life, beyond their own stylistic prejudices? Or worse, has the author merely recited events without the kind of flavor or fervor necessary to engaging reading? It is truly a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where the very best examples somehow manage to walk the edge of the knife, a strange feat of authorial alchemy that features all these seemingly-contradictory things in perfect balance. To achieve this remarkable result, it helps if the author and the subject share a kind of kinship, where personalities meet across backgrounds, discipline, and centuries to create something simultaneously unique and seamless.

Signorina.

Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.

to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”

Peg Alford Pursell-Dec 2016Do you think it’s necessary to start off with a self-conscious question acknowledging that you are talking to yourself publicly?

No.

 

Good, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. What do you most want others to know about your book, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow?

The book is an accumulation of many years of writing, a slim volume, but in the words of Antonya Nelson “to call it slim would be a mistake…” The collection of hybrid prose (flash fiction, prose poetry, et al) is short but intense. The cover, which is a detail from a beautiful painting by the amazing David Kroll, is meant to draw the reader into a much different kind of beauty than what the painting might seem to offer, into a penetrating concentration of a world of perhaps terrible beauty in its clear-eyed look.

Show Her a Flower, A Bird A ShadowPetal, Feather, Particle

Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart. What is both witness and sign along the way on this rough earth, a shell already cracked. She’d thought she could raise a child with only minimal intercession but now, as she was being driven to the hotel, found herself looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling a quiet prayer. Her daughter was like her: too quick to do everything.

The girl’s father had been someone she once knew, or thought she had, a man who laid her in repose on the bed and gave her waist a tender squeeze before arranging her hands on top her, placing the right over the left, palm over knuckles. He studied her in that corpse-like pose, letting his glass with the float of lime warm in his hand, before his mouth captured hers.

Sanderia Fayes MOURNERS BENCH CoverIndoor plumbing was the last significant change in Maeby, Arkansas, before my mama left town. For as long as I could remember, my family and other colored folks kept our pigs, chickens, cows and all other animals in our backyards, and a little further back, always from the gardens, sat the outhouses. The all-white city council threatened to take the animals away from us if we didn’t clean up our yards and do something about that horrific smell. We didn’t pay them no mind, talked about it after they drove off in their city cars. Reverend Jefferson may have brought it up in one of his sermons, but generally, we went on back to minding our business and so did they until the next time they felt up to performing their civic duties. Then one day the city council members decided to make good on their promises. They bucked up and passed an ordinance that required us to remove all the farm animals outside of the city limits, and to get it done in no time flat. Just for the sake of it, they told us that we must tear the toilets out of the outhouses and replace them with flushable ones. All the grown folks were in a huff about it, especially over the toilets, but since I’d never seen or heard of one, I reserved my passion for when I would know what I was getting upset about.

The Weight of Him Book Cover 2017Billy Brennan overdid it again with the fast food. After, he hurried as best he could along the street, fighting the need to stop and recover—he didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself. Strangers looked twice at his massive bulk. He pretended not to notice. Those he knew seemed inclined to stop and chat, but he issued only passing hellos and pressed on. He was in no mood to suffer further condolences and awkward exchanges, all of which set his heart racing.

A woman overtook him on the footpath, walking fast and with force. She must have just come off a foreign holiday or a session of sun beds. Maybe she had slathered herself in that fake lotion. More noticeable than skin the color of mahogany, though, she was sickly thin. Billy had never seen a woman so skinny; her arms and calves could snap like sugar sticks. It seemed impossible she could move that fast, could have the strength to even stand up.

Motherhood CoverI am a terrible mother. I love my daughter, love her so much I’m amazed I actually have to hold her in my arms, that she doesn’t just stick to my side, my heart heavy as a black hole, dense with love, trying to suck her into it. I love her like this, then, minutes later, can’t wait to get out of the house, leaving her behind. I’m told all mothers are like this, more or less, and are all wracked with guilt because of it.

The week I found out about Mary Rose, my beloved Stella Marie was six months old. She had black stick-straight-up hair, blueberry eyes that would find their way eventually to a less exotic shade of hazel, an abiding affection for the decorative moldings of our seventy-year-old house.

She liked to gaze at the corners of windows and doors, reach out as if to grab them, then wag her hands excitedly, like a palsied lady trying to open a wide-mouth jar. Her basic look was one of consternation. She was not a silly baby, even though I’d been known to make her wear a bonnet. She is perfect. The world’s cutest human. Really the world’s cutest human.

mperks-whatbecomesus-coverDear Reader,

Previously in our story, our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father had grown frustrated. He couldn’t figure out what our mother was doing wrong. For his Christmas/Chanukah present she gave him a skiing vacation in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. She secretly thought it would give her a break from him, but he insisted she join him, so he could continue his spermatazoon campaign.

On their second day out, Mother was buried in an avalanche. She waited for our father to rescue her, and when he failed to do so, she thought she would just give way for the last time. But then she remembered there might be life inside her. She bucked and shook her head and arched and reared up into blue, blue sky, gasping and crying, covered in powder.

And not alone. Because that is the moment we came to consciousness in an explosion of bright, bright blue. Not one, but two mouths opening in perfect synchronicity. Twins startled into being, we immediately knew every thought our mother ever had, her past, her present, everything that is, except our future.

cbw-coverLucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. She’s downstairs in the kitchen, and Iris has the TV on. The weather guy, his skin golden as a cashew, is smiling about power outages, urging the elderly and the sick to stay inside, his voice sliding like a trombone, and as soon as she hears the word “elderly,” Lucy glances uneasily at Iris.

“He doesn’t mean me, honey,” Iris says mildly, putting more bacon to snap in the pan. “I’m perfectly fine.”

mermaids_cover

“The Dead Dream of Being Undead”

Part I

 

Once, there were two brothers born nine months apart in the same room of the same hospital in the same manner—the protracted period of ill-timed contractions, the doctor in blue scrubs and white mask, the late-night crowning, the father’s kiss, the death of the mother. And with each child’s arrival and each mother’s passing, the father celebrated and mourned in the only way he’d ever learned to do either: asleep in the arms of a new woman. Christenings were funerals. Cradles were made altars.

Not until their tenth year on a day four and one-half months after the oldest’s birthday and four and one-half months before the youngest’s birthday did the father reveal to the boys they weren’t borne of the same woman and that the woman they’d known as their mother was in fact mother to neither. And it wasn’t until this day in their tenth year that either brother had considered the differences between them, had even recognized there were differences between them other than their nine months’ difference in age.

rituals-of-restlessness-cover-photoSimple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done. He finished smoking his cigarette with chilling calm, so that for the first time in all the years he had smoked, he could enjoy lighting one cigarette with another and, without wetting his palate, not taste the foul tang in his mouth.

“Does the smoke bother you?” He rolled down the car window.

“No, sir.” The man’s sharp Mongol eyes were darting from side to side, unable to remain fixed on anything. Just like the way he talked, with all those annoying questions.

“Where are we going, sir?” “We have work to do.” “What kind of work?”

He felt less anxious when he talked. He did not want to stay quiet for even one second. Just to talk, about anything. It did not matter what.

beneathcoyotehills_cover-copyI had a normal childhood until Pop lost his job and took up the bottle. Mom became depressed soon after. My brother Zack and I would arrive home from school to find her lying glumly on the couch watching TV in her nightgown, too blue to greet us. Still, I got good grades, made the junior high varsity baseball team, was popular enough. Though nothing compared to my brother Zachariah: two years older, first in the state in the 440 yard dash, class president, ladies’ man. Zack was still big brotherly in those days; he showed me the correct way to slide into base, advised me on my swing, helped me with algebra. He seemed to know everything, born like a computer with many gigabytes of information pre-stored in his brain.