The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
Wind blows through my bones,
pares me to a skeleton,
Jim Friedman has been published on-line and in anthologies. He had his first collection published in 2022. He is working on a second collection.
Klea grasped the pot handle of her simmering meat sauce, inhaling the robust bouquet of lamb and beef with hints of cinnamon and oregano. Lungs filled with the scent of her spell, she burst out four chords of joyous, operatic song.
Proper sound was often lacking in the cooking process and it was an essential ingredient to add, activating the potential of edible magic. Tone and volume were important, as were the emotions experienced while creating it. That would be her biggest challenge today. How could she simmer in joy with grief brimming in her heart?
Klea preferred her spells to be pleasant, turning down clients who sought the darker side of her witchcraft. But her practice wasn’t a quiet one.
The couple next door had once threatened to call the cops on their ‘crazy neighbor’ when Klea baked a raucous batch of cookies. Klea’s father often placated them: he always had a way with people. A subtle magic that wasn’t magic, a splendid thing to behold.
Dad had jogged outside, his bare feet sinking into their neatly mowed lawn as the neighbor woman shouted over her picket fence with her grouchy husband at her shoulder. He dispelled the couple’s irritation with an easy smile and a horribly bad joke. Klea had watched from the kitchen window, cookies in hand, as the neighbors’ shoulders relaxed, anger stitched into their faces softening as they spoke with him.
And now dad was gone. The lawn was overgrown, weed-ridden and more brown than it should be for early fall.
Klea gripped the stainless steel handle. A solid anchor—something real in a suddenly surreal world. She set the lid on top of her pot, tipped to release whispers of steam, and turned to the tall windows framing the front yard.
They should arrive any time.
Despite the clear skies, the world outside was gray; color leaking down drains sliced into the gutters on the lane. A quiet lane lined with cottages and old oaks where Klea and her sisters used to play as children, pretending to cast spells as if they were simple words. Magic was far deeper than that; something dad had taught them with each gentle gesture and crooked smile.
Barren street too much to bear, Klea turned back to the warm light in her kitchen. But it was uncomfortably empty. She should make some tea, keep busy.
She whistled along with the kettle to give her beverage a touch of cheer, but her heart wasn’t in it. Hoping for a little comfort, she hummed to the jasmine leaves as they steeped in hot water. It took a moment to realize the tune she picked was a lullaby her mother used to sing.
Tears threatened her numb countenance, and she choked them back, edging away from her simmering sauce. She couldn’t taint the spell she was cooking. Not now. Not when her sisters were finally coming home. Together again after so long. She needed to be there, warm and welcoming, to ease their melancholy.
A unifier to their differences.
But standing in the empty shell of their house, his house, she lost that battle, and salt trailed down her cheeks to join the jasmine in her teacup.
Klea stared outside, trying to occupy her mind as she waited. Squirrels foraged with less enthusiasm. A wren that hadn’t flown south pecked weakly at the brittle grass. Even the breeze jostling the fanned leaves of the ginkgo tree did so half-heartedly. Brecka used to love climbing that tree.
“Aren’t parents supposed to tell their kids to be careful? To get down so they don’t hurt themselves?” Klea had often asked her father.
Dad had smirked, giving a shrug as he watched Brecka dangle high above them. “I think we both know that would only push Brecka higher up the tree.”
As if summoned by a thought, Brecka’s car puttered down the lane. The black beater sang in Klea’s ears like a gentle staccato as it pulled into the driveway behind Klea’s pickup. Klea wasn’t going anywhere: she never did.
Klea set her mug on the counter and rushed out through the kitchen door—the screen barely swinging open before a car door slammed shut.
“Traffic is still terrible,” Brecka said, her mane of raven hair tangled up in the collar of her long black coat.
“It’s a one-lane road.” Klea spread her arms and embraced her sister on the cracked driveway. “It’s less a matter of how many cars, but if you’re lucky enough to get stuck behind a slow one.”
She felt Brecka snort against her shoulder before withdrawing. “How are you?” Brecka asked, sharp eyes searching Klea’s face.
Klea forced a smile. “I’m getting by.”
Brecka jerked the stiff screen door open and waved them inside the house as if she had never left. “Sure.” Brecka could sniff bullshit a mile away.
“I’m a little better now.” That was true.
Brecka stepped into the kitchen. “Well, enjoy the peace while you can. Once Morraine’s loud ass gets here, that’ll be over.” She inhaled and visibly relaxed, creases of strain vanishing from the corners of her eyes. “Smells good. What spell is that?”
“You know the rules,” Klea chided. “Wait until we’re at the table before guessing.” But this spell had begun the moment Brecka stepped inside.
Brecka didn’t bother pressing, striding across the open floor to the den, where the family used to gather each night after dinner. “I’m surprised you haven’t started the fire yet,” she called over her shoulder.
“Feel free to do it,” Klea said, keeping her voice steady. She hadn’t touched the hearth since dad passed. It was the heart of his home, the gathering place, the place to swap stories. Now, she couldn’t bear to sit in the den alone.
“How’s your practice coming along?” Klea called, continuing to glance out the window for signs of the others.
Brecka grunted as she hauled a few dusty logs by the fireplace onto the grate within and opened the flue. “About what you’d expect. I painted a beautiful spell of protection for a newborn last week and finished a rather special one for a cancer survivor. Also turned away some crazy bitch who thought I would curse her ex-boyfriend with…bedroom deficiencies. What about you?”
This meal was the first Klea had found the strength to cook since she murmured her last goodbye. Her kitchen now sat neglected where before she had lived in it. She could still hear dad’s gentle rumble as she baked Chel’s favorite shortbread cookies, infused with warm hums of homecoming.
“If you keep sending her treats, what incentive does she have to come home?” he asked, watching her wrap them lovingly in a tin with a letter asking her to visit.
As Klea opened her mouth to make an excuse to Brecka, another car door slammed outside.
Brecka didn’t move, fiddling with the deep box of tinder and kindling by the hearth. Klea paced towards the door, but the screen was already opening to reveal Chel’s bony face, sprinkled with its usual dusting of glitter. A large prism dangled from a golden chain around her neck, swaying like a pendulum as she leaned forward.
Despite being middle-aged, Chel never grew out of bedecking herself in sparkles. She gave Klea an airy smile, pale eyes distant and gentle. “Klea,” she said. “It smells otherworldly in here. What spell is that?”
“If you tell her, I’m leaving!” Brecka called from the den.
Klea chuckled. “You’ll find out at the table, same as always.”
As Chel reached a bejeweled hand to pat Klea’s square jaw, water built behind her sister’s thick-rimmed glasses. Klea wasn’t ready to examine those feelings and turned to check on her sauce as she swallowed a lump in her throat.
The kitchen door opened again.
Fauna poked her round, dark face into the kitchen, looking as wild as the woods she lived in. “I can smell that from outside,” she breathed, wide eyes landing on the stove. “Now I’m hungry.”
Chel turned to usher their youngest sister inside. “Don’t let the chill in.”
“She’s fine,” Klea said, wrapping her arms around Fauna’s slight frame, the girl’s knotted hair catching for a moment on Klea’s earrings. “No friends today?”
“Only two. I promised they could come,” Fauna said, her tiny voice thinner than usual.
“Well, I hope they’re small.” Klea leaned over to check Fauna’s person. A pair of chipmunks peeked out from the right pocket of the young woman’s oversized duster. Their beady eyes stared up at Klea expectantly. “Tell them they’d better like peanuts,” Klea said. “That’s what I have.”
Dad had always kept a jar around. He would toss them to the squirrels outside while he asked Klea what names Fauna would give them if she were still home.
“I think that one looks like a Nutters, yeah?”
“I don’t think she names them, dad.”
While her younger sister whispered to the critters, golden light licked against the walls of the den as flames consumed kindling. Eyes shot to the fireplace, where Brecka stood with a proud grin. “We got time before dinner? I could do with a story.”
Klea’s heart pounded faster. “I have a few more elements to add to the spell.” She ushered the other two sisters down towards Brecka. “Go catch up; I can hear you talking from here.” It was one of the best things about their family house—the kitchen was open to everything.
“Morraine’s late as usual,” Brecka said, slumping onto a hand-carved rocking chair.
A chorus of creaking followed as the other two sat on the worn couch, threadbare from many years of love. Klea soaked in the song of memory: banter from her sisters, the groaning of wooden furniture, the crackling of the fire. Father’s voice reciting stories about their mother, meeting her in the forest of Cevat where the wood nymph bewitched him with more than just her words.
Those tales were all they had of her now.
Klea turned back to her meat sauce and opened the lid to let in the ambient noises of nostalgia, tender and bittersweet. She was careful not to stand too close, unwilling to sour it with the ache in her heart.
While the three sisters chatted about their practices and recited old stories about mom, Klea worked on her spell. She whipped up a bechamel with plenty of cream, adding in nutmeg and parmesan before finishing it with a few lines from a cheerful jig. Pasta got tossed in with the meat sauce and tipped into a casserole dish, bechamel topping the hearty blend.
With a whisper of love, Klea sent it to bake. As she shut the oven, the screen door opened one last time, a booming voice reverberating off her cabinets.
“Sorry I’m late!” Morraine said, spreading out her arms. “Forgot how horrid the road from the airport can be.” Red lipstick painted a little too thick, mascara a touch too dark, Morraine stood larger than life. Boisterous but loving in her own way.
“Brecka, dear,” Morraine called, unable to wait a second longer to antagonize her sibling. “Didn’t daddy tell you to fix that dent in your driver’s side door ages ago?”
He had. But as he deducted decades before, telling Brecka to do something was like challenging her to a standoff. Something Morraine never picked up on.
“How do you even know that?” Brecka muttered from the den, refusing to leave her rocker.
“I know lots of things.” Morraine paused, inhaling. “Oh, Klea, it’s simply divine in here. I can taste your magic in the air. Breathtaking.”
Klea bent down and cracked the oven door, letting in Morraine’s sonorous tones. That was more important for the spell than perfect heat circulation. The meal was nearing completion, almost all the ingredients added now. Fauna joined them again in the kitchen to greet Morraine and snatch another handful of peanuts for her guests.
Morraine clucked her tongue. “Fauna, when was the last time you combed your hair?”
“Perhaps we can help lay the table,” Chel’s gentle legato cut over Morraine’s nagging. “Unless that’s a part of this spell?” She glanced at Klea.
Klea gave her a coy smile. “That would be perfect. You know where everything is, nothing’s changed.”
The banter continued, strained and strident following Morraine’s arrival. It felt almost normal. Almost.
It was a lie.
Something unspoken lay beneath the laughter, grumbles, and shrill critiques. Something quiet and empty, throbbing like a deep drum. The absence of a low, easy baritone. Her last ingredient.
Klea leaned on the speckled granite counter to steady herself. Dad had been the sole rock in her life while her sisters drifted away like dandelion seeds out into the wider world, far from hearth and home. They sent word back occasionally, but their thirst for more kept them apart, never bonding the way Klea and their father had.
The sisters inherited their mother’s wild blood, veins full of wanderlust. Klea inherited her father’s sense of duty. She could never leave home, leave him; it would be too much like leaving one of her arms behind. Or, more accurately, her heart. She had wanted to draw the others back together, but nothing worked. Nothing brought them all home at once.
It was their father who succeeded where she failed. “I’ll bring them home,” he’d whispered near the end. “Death can be a great unifier.”
Was that his final spell? A summoning. To give Klea this last gift. Had he died just for her?
Klea’s throat swelled shut; she couldn’t hold back the guilt any longer and turned aside to hide her face.
But Brecka could sniff bullshit a mile away.
Ink-stained arms wrapped around Klea’s stocky form. “We’re here. We came,” Brecka croaked. “I’m sorry we were too late.”
That was too much.
A sob pierced Klea’s safe harbor of numbness, followed by another. And another. She tried to get away from the oven; sorrow would sour the meal. Brecka held her steady, the others joining the embrace in a circle.
“Your sorrow is a part of this, Klea,” Brecka said. “Our sorrow. We may not have been as close to him, but a hymn of mourning unites us, too. Complete the spell.”
“We aren’t even at the table yet,” Klea rasped. “You’re not supposed to guess the spell until we eat.”
“We know you, Klea,” Fauna said. “You’ve been brewing up unity since we were kids. I sensed it the moment I stepped inside.”
Klea realized the oven timer was beeping—how long, she wasn’t certain—but Morraine was already opening it. “Why don’t we skip the table, dish out this succulent magic, and eat down by the hearth instead?” Morraine said. “I think it’s about time that we told some stories about dad.”
Klea stared down at the den, warm and welcoming, but absent of her anchor. She knew she needed to face it.
To face his empty chair by the hearth, the seat worn from daily use. To wake each morning without the pungent scent of his coffee brewing on the counter. To live in a world without his horrible jokes and warm chuckle.
But she found him still in the embrace of her sisters. His smile shone through on Brecka’s face, and Fauna had inherited his inquisitive eyes. Morraine could sweet talk almost anyone and no one told worse jokes than Chel.
Klea nodded. Surrounded by her sisters, she would face this goodbye. “I’ll grab some plates.”
Erin L. Swann is a lifelong lover of fantasy and space adventures. She’s an avid home cook and works as an art teacher, feeding the imaginations of others while fueling her own creativity. Her work appears in numerous publications including Factor Four Magazine, The Colored Lens, and Brigids Gate Press. You can find her on twitter @swannscribbles and on her website at www.swannscribbles.com.
One is ironing his habit
carefully, nosing the hot tip
of the iron into gathers
frowning in the off-white fabric.
There is a method here, a dance
implicit in the movements made,
stepped into many times before –
hand-lift and footfall surely done.
Skill focussed on the task in hand,
it has the comeliness of calm
performance like fruit ripening,
a steady coming to the full.
He parks the iron to cool down,
leaving all as neat as before.
Carrying the alb across his arms
it looks like a limp pietà.
Jim Friedman has been published online and in anthologies. He had his first collection published in 2022. He is working on a second collection.
Fly you rebel, you charlatan,
for who other than a trickster
could feel lightness in such times as these?
Although you circle and swoop, we know
the world is broken. And the tears we cry
at that knowledge forever stain our cheeks.
Don’t shimmer in the golden glow of daybreak,
don’t bring another dawn if it cannot
be better than those we have already seen.
I see you as you want us to –
benevolent, generous – but the
sheen blinds us from the truth.
Yet, you touch me, and the sting
of gratification inoculates my doubts,
makes me want to trust.
But tell me, how can we soar, how
do we survive when each day
whittles away our resolve.
How do we overcome the burdens
handed us, the holes that can’t be filled
with 10,000 shovelfuls of dirt.
No, even you can’t pretend that all
will be well. You rise higher,
but at some point, the wax will melt.
David Mihalyov lives near Lake Ontario in Webster, NY, with his wife, two daughters, and beagle. His poems and short fiction have appeared in Ocean State Review, Dunes Review, Free State Review, New Plains Review, San Pedro River Review, and other journals. His first poetry collection, A Safe Distance, was published by Main Street Rag Press in 2022.
I want to slam the steel tracks
and bomb the railcar
that’s scheduled to
take you away from me.
I become hard like you
but not in a hotel way.
The stabbing below my waist
is the hate I start to have
for the things I love:
your five o’clock shadow,
your David body,
your Joker laugh,
your addicting affirmations,
from green eyes
we both share.
all because I am not there,
on the steel tracks
in the railcar
Nancy Byrne Iannucci is a poet from Long Island, New York who currently lives in Troy, NY with her two cats: Nash and Emily Dickinson. San Pedro River Review, 34 Orchard, Defenestration, Hobo Camp Review, Bending Genres, The Mantle, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Glass: a Poetry Journal are some of the places you will find her. She is the author of three chapbooks, Temptation of Wood (Nixes Mate Review, 2018), Goblin Fruit (Impspired, 2021), and Primitive Prayer (Plan B Press, fall 2022). Visit her at www.nancybyrneiannucci.com Instagram: @nancybyrneiannucci
when she came to leave
her tearful goodbye whispered
like a hand grenade
Ian Gouge is an experienced author and poet with numerous volumes mainly Indie published but some with non-fiction published traditionally.
I bowed to the crows
when I realized your presence
turned my eyes to tongues.
Mind led where body
resisted. But how could I
scare something so rare?
Alone with you, time
held a match to my belly
and rusted my spine.
Time was a deep sea
oil spill when I had you
I hemorrhaged you.
A lone sisserou
choosing my shoulder would coo
as it pleased while I’d
its weight; wait for the talon
in the collarbone.
You flew off before
the gentle bleach of habit
falling like first snow.
But weren’t there others
in need of technicolor
and a way back home?
Lindsay Clark is a resident physician living in California with her family.
The formal fashion of an ode,
reflection of emotive style
embraces only what I know,
my heart, mind, soul combined to show
a sole commitment, chosen goal.
Holistic, mindful, common wealth,
well-being in community,
these I can raise, praiseworthy whole,
but ill-defined when general,
an ode to everything is null,
a jack of all, master of none,
like prayer of child that all be blest.
But poets seek to garner verse,
as anglers on a sea of words,
the fisherman’s hope, she or he,
from depths, swirl eddies, current flow.
With net or rod, can it be hooked,
some darting silver, flying fish,
or is it shark fin, tuna tin?
To catch a Water-God, old rope,
detritus or the pearl, great price,
the selkie, mermaid, siren call,
must rise before the squall capsize;
but will it suit their palate taste?
Stephen Kingsnorth (Cambridge M.A., English & Religious Studies), retired to Wales, UK from ministry in the Methodist Church due to Parkinson’s Disease, has had pieces published by on-line poetry sites, printed journals and anthologies, including The Whisky Blot. He has, like so many, been a nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His blog is at https://poetrykingsnorth.wordpress.com/.
Death caps mass in the
rot of oakfall; nearby, a
A lone bat flaps by--
streetlight and clapboard conjure
its fleeting double
heavy air, disappear; night
heals without a scar
Michael Rodman’s writing, including poetry and satire, has appeared in Bear Creek Gazette, Talking River Review, MAD Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Defenestration, Oddfellow, and elsewhere. His poem “Document (Undocumented)” was winner of the 2019 Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press. His work has been adapted and presented onstage by Lively Productions in New York City. A native of Metro Detroit, he now lives in New Hampshire.
Walking through a small grove
of bamboo, the breeze evokes
a creaking until you need to look
to insure the tall spindles
are not about to collapse on you.
A small child seeing you knows
what you are thinking, smiles
and says “they are just saying
hello, so you should say hello back.”
Her parents appear flustered, whether
because she is talking to strangers
or for fear that she is bothering you,
but of course it is neither, for the girl
is a Buddha dragging you into
this fragile moment, so you say hello
and both the bamboo and girl giggle.
Louis Faber is a poet living in Florida. His work has appeared widely in the U.S., Europe and Asia, including in the Whisky Blot, Glimpse, South Carolina Review, Rattle, Pearl, Dreich (Scotland), Alchemy Stone (U.K.), and Flora Fiction, Defenestration, Constellations, Jimson Weed and Atlanta Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
So long as I’m
in the river,
it doesn’t matter
where I flow.
Zhihua Wang’s poems have appeared in Aji, Last Leaves, Across the Margin, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Central Arkansas and will be a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Rhode Island this fall.
I spent a pleasant morning walking
quietly around the grounds, searching
for them diligently, but as on most days
they again remained hidden from sight.
I did see several cattle egrets staring
deeply into the foliage, knowing
that breakfast lay hidden deep within,
and a flock of ibis pecking life
from the still wet, just watered lawns.
Today I even saw a Great Blue Heron
admiring herself in the still surface
of the pond across the road, and
a snowy egret and a little green heron
engaged in a silent conversation
to which I would never be privy,
but in the glare of the morning sun,
despite my careful search, not
a single poem showed itself, leaving
me to hope that tomorrow would
bring better luck, or as least a cinquain
or a ballade, not my pantoum of failure.
Louis Faber is a poet living in Florida. His work has appeared widely in the U.S., Europe and Asia, including in the Whisky Blot, Glimpse, South Carolina Review, Rattle, Pearl, Dreich (Scotland), Alchemy Stone (U.K.), and Flora Fiction, Defenestration, Constellations, Jimson Weed and Atlanta Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
To hell with deejays,
live bands, crowded
dance floors. On lonely nights,
bourbon in hand,
I still love to hunker,
over wide-bellied jukeboxes
tucked into dark corners
of back street bars,
their squat legs perched
on sawdust strewn floors,
their gap-toothed grin,
like a fat man waiting to be fed.
I flip through metal pages
in search of songs
from the past—downbeat
Doo-wop of the fifties,
Frankie Lyman wailing
on that ancient question
—why do fools fall in love--
the Platters, rumbling
with the rhythm of sex,
and Elvis, the king,
high gloss, down dirty, singing,
sobbing, turning us weak
with desire, we wanted
to be there, to live
in that mysterious hotel
to walk its bleak,
seedy corridors until
we learned it was not a place
to reside forever.
Elizabeth Burk is a semi-retired psychologist and a native New Yorker who divides her time between her family in New York and a home and husband in southwest Louisiana. She is the author of three collections: Learning to Love Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase, and Duet: Poet & Photographer, a collaboration with her photographer husband. Her poems, prose pieces, and reviews have been published in various journals and anthologies including Atlanta Review, Rattle, Southern Poetry Anthology, Louisiana Literature, Passager, Pithead Chapel, PANK, One Art, and elsewhere. Her first full-length manuscript will be published in September 2024, by Texas Review Press.
How calmly the cubes settle
in the tumbler where twilight ambers.
The antidote to memory
Lights the body's furnace,
Banishes the cold.
Once at a fetish street fair
a man-sized latex egg,
and in it, an alien.
The barrier of skin dissolving.
a wet hand digs through
a breech to signal safe.
I take that hand in mine.
I won't let go.
Darren Black resides on Massachusetts North Shore. He continues to hone his poetic skills in workshops and has studied in Vermont College's MFA program. His first publication appeared in the fall 2019 issue of the Muddy River Poetry Review. Recent poems explore disability and his own experiences living with blindness.
The men hold their sticks,
chalked at the tips, smashing
balls against one another, ordering
Mich Ultras & Budweisers
& my phone number, tipping
me when they remember as they tip
glass bottles to their chapped, thirsty
lips, puckered like the assholes they are
after the sixth beer settles in their guts.
Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.
It is raining
and I am listening to Jazz Noir
The heavy rain comes down
the whisky spills into my glass
The sky is dark
the dram tints the crystal amber
Rain and whisky
soothe the dry places parched by drought
It is no longer raining
I am still listening to Jazz Noir and I feel it
The whisky pours into my glass
I drink it again and I feel it too
Shane Huey (editor) writes from his home in America's most ancient city. When he is not working, he can often be found on top of a mountain in Colorado or seated on his favorite barstool in Key West.
no periods exclamations or
let your life be a run
on sentence that never ends
maybe maybe allow
an ellipsis (if necessary)
Roy N. Mason has 41 years remaining until his death. Striving to make each day count, he documents his experiences. His observations and lessons-learned are documented in personal essays and poetry. A world-record holder at nothing, but a legendary Key Lime Pie cooker, he has the ability to remember mundane facts. He is an introspective storyteller touching on all the topics of the North American human experience.
I’ve walked them one...
I’ve walked them all.
I hate to see them go.
In these last few days,
I’ll walk them slow.
And finish up where I always do…
At the bar of Sloppy Joe.
Written from the bar at Sloppy Joe's, Key West, Florida. September 7, 2021.
Soon Abigail would be coming up the street with her Husky. She’d be coming from the coffee shop. Not so long ago, when Abigail went for a coffee, she would stop and knock. She’d say Hey, did Rhonda want anything. Often, they’d gone together. Abigail had liked to walk arm-in-arm and talk about how to understand this year they had given to the mountains. Rhonda had come in June, Abigail in May, so she knew the ropes. This town was mostly a summer outpost, but it could be seen as a shrewd base camp, as skiing wasn’t far, and the rents beat the resorts. Abigail would have a latte, Rhonda a tea with bergamot. Sherpley would sit on the tiles with his head nearly to the level of the table, watching their conversation. The Sibe had a blue eye and a green eye and the white of his fur seemed blue like powder at first light.
There was the question about the hike. They’d kicked it around the day before. Abigail had been ambivalent. She’d sounded put upon. She’d become critical of Rhonda’s moods. The problem with Rhonda, Abigail said, was that while she hailed from the suburbs of nowhere, she kept getting homesick.
Rhonda went out to sit on the porch swing. Lights were coming on in the canyon. After all that awful wind, it was snowing again. The air smelled like cold mountain stones and grilled meat.
In the fall, Rhonda painted the wooden slats of the swing red and yellow and orange because she’d been sad about her life here. Rhonda had intended to live an outrageously fun life before returning for a career. It’s not that it couldn’t be — hadn’t been — great. Abigail introduced her around and there’d been a backpacking trip early on with nearly a dozen others. But most everyone worked weird shifts. Coordinating a challenge. A lot of free days there was no one around. Sometimes it could be disheartening all alone on a trail out in the middle of nowhere.
Abigail didn’t have to work as much. She’d become a reliable partner. And Abigail had been fun. She could make fixing a flat at tree line a big laugh where Rhonda would’ve been a big pain.
But with fall came Donnie. He’d bought a place he’d gutted and hoped to renovate before things got busy with his work. He made good money, but the job required frequent trips out of state. Donnie was gentle and loving. He had sincere eyes. In those first days of Donnie, Rhonda imagined he would ask her about maybe a hike or ride. Then Abigail had looked after some task or other for him and suddenly they seemed on their way to becoming a thing.
Now it was winter, and the narrow streets nestled in by these sheer rock walls a mess of snow and ice. All night and most of the morning the winds stormed the canyon, snapping at the conifers. Rhonda hadn’t slept well. There had been Abigail’s ambivalence. There had been what she said about Rhonda getting homesick too often. The worst part of it was that what Abigail had said made Rhonda even more sick for home and the life she used to know. Rhonda felt bewildered that wind could rush and whorl and crash like that, like it meant to scour the town from the canyon floor.
Now the tiny crystals drifted down to settle gently as turning a page.
Up the street came Abigail and Sherpley.
Rhonda lived in a tiny unit on a short row of apartments built so close only the sidewalk separated the front steps from the berm of packed snow and ice left by the plows.
“Hul-lew!” Rhonda said, wishing in the instant she hadn’t said it that way. She should have remained neutral. Passive. Calculating.
Abigail looked surprised to see her. The Husky stared up at the snow falling.
“It’s snowing!” Abigail said.
“I know!” Rhonda said.
A crow called from a rooftop.
“I was just thinking about our hike tomorrow,” Rhonda said. “Should be epic now.”
“Yeah,” Abigail said. “Not working out at my end.”
Rhonda pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
Abigail shrugged. “I just found out,” she said. “Donnie’s back tomorrow.”
Everything now always about Donnie and how Abigail might stay on a while longer. About how Abigail might just stay.
Rhonda’s landlord had already asked whether she planned to renew. He’d be raising rents.
Something flared in Rhonda.
“What if I took Sherpley?” she said.
“Sherpley,” Abigail said.
Rhonda heard herself breathing.
“I mean, yes of course,” Abigail said. She bent down to the Husky to scratch his ears.
“You’re always welcome to give Sherpley a walk. Why, isn’t that right, Sherpley? Yes, he likes a good hike, don’t you, boy?”
“But I’m not sure about tomorrow,” Abigail said, standing.
“It’s just that, Donnie’s been away for days,” she said. She made a sad face. “We’ve been missing him.
“You know how it is when your man’s away,” Abigail said. “We’ve been climbing the walls, haven’t we, Sherpley?”
Rhonda stood. The swing lurched away to bounce against the backs of her legs.
“Maybe another time,” she said. “Maybe Donnie can walk Sherpley.”
Rhonda crossed her arms. She wished Abigail would go away.
Abigail sank down to her heels and pulled the dog in close and he licked her lips. “Oh, now!” she said, delighted.
Abigail stood. She smiled.
Abigail and Sherpley walked up the street to her place, the dog prancing along beside her. They went inside and it was quiet again but for a car coming down the canyon road and — closer — the scrapes of someone shoveling.
Rhonda sat on the hideously optimistic porch swing and wished she had never come here.
Chuck Plunkett is a Denver-based writer who directs a journalism capstone at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has previously published stories in Cimarron Review and The Texas Review. He has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently at work on a novel he likes to think of as a literary thriller. He's worked in several newsrooms, including The Denver Post, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
He’s having an Old Fashioned with rye,
One of his favorites,
Used to have a lot of them,
More recently he’s been going for other stuff,
Diving right in,
Not because a solid Rye Old Fashioned,
Tastes any less like heaven,
But because he’s been leaning,
On bottles and drinks,
That don’t remind him of her,
He’ll be moving to bourbon on the rocks,
Right after this drink.
Taylor Dibbert is a writer, journalist, and poet. He’s author of the Peace Corps memoir “Fiesta of Sunset,” and the forthcoming poetry collection “Home Again.”
Springfields still echoed somewhere off in the growing distance as night fell. He awoke, engulfed in dark and smoke. With great difficulty, he drew for breath and it pained him. He pulled himself up against a lone, tall pine at field’s edge and, back against the tree, put his fingers to the holes in his chest left there by the Minié balls. He coughed a choking cough. Bright, red blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and the holes in his old, grey coat leaked froth.
Surveying the aftermath of the battle, he could recognize nothing resembling human life remaining. Here he sat, by all appearances, the lone survivor. The blue coats must have mistaken him for dead, an honest mistake, else he would himself now be dead. No matter, death would come soon enough. There was no field surgeon now and nothing that a good doctor could do for such wounds save numb sensation of body and mind with what barely passed for whiskey and, if so inclined, as oft good souls were, provide some company until the end.
The soldier’s soul had been numbed long ago by pain of loss of country, his ancestral land, his family. Innumerable deaths were witnessed and replayed over and over in his mind. Once a devout man, he no longer feigned such, daring to declare that God himself had abandoned the South along with all the faithful therein.
Between fits of coughing and the adamantine pangs of death, he reached into a coat pocket fiddling for his flask. It was not to be found. After battles, mostly victories, those now fewer and farther between, General would ration out whiskey to the men and celebrate with them. Occasionally, the whiskey would be a balm for mourning after a defeat. There would be neither such this evening. All of the men, even the good general, lay before him carpeting the battlefield a dead grey.
What I would not give for one last taste of whiskey. It is funny what men think of generally but, perhaps, more so when upon death’s doorstep. And then his mind turned toward his wife, Sarah. This time of an evening, she would have finished up supper, said prayers with the children, and soon be tucking them into bed. He could not know that Sarah rarely slept these nights but, rather, spent them in a rocking chair in front of their bedroom window, curtains drawn, keeping watch over the path in the front yard for his return. Everyone knew that the war was drawing to a close and Sarah never lost faith that he would one day return to her.
From another pocket, he took hold of his journal. He took pen to hand and, within its pages, described this, his last battle, under the entry “The Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle.” He described the events of the day, as best he could, how the valiant men all lay dead, how hope was now all but lost for his countrymen, and then his mind wandered back to his home and to Sarah and the children. He lay there dying, a mere seven-mile ride by horse from his home in Athens. If only he could make it home to say his final goodbye. He would have to write it and hope that the words found their way to Sarah.
Sarah awakened in the middle of the night. She had dreamt that her husband lay dying in a silent field, propped up against a long, tall pine, body riddled with bullets. He lacked all comfort save those to which he could recourse in his own mind. A man ought not die like that, especially a good man. How she longed to embrace and hold him, to comfort him in all the ways a woman can comfort a man. To wipe his face with a water-soaked rag…to put a swig of good whiskey to his lips. The dream was more vivid than the present dim and dull reality. She had seen him writing in his old, dirty, now heavily bloodstained leather journal and read every word until the end, feeling as having been there with him through it all and with him still at the very last. But she could not decipher that which he wrote finally—a single line of script. Try though as she may, she was wisped away from the dream to reality against her will, filled with the anxiety that only words unspoken, those impeded by the encroachment of death, can impart.
She sprang up, drenched in cold sweat, feet to the hardwood floor of the old, two-story antebellum which creaked as her weight displaced upon it. She made her way to the antique, oak armoire and retrieved a dusty, crystal decanter and poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was still stiff and hot. She poured another, drinking it swiftly, as medicine for nerves burned frazzled.
On edge, senses heightened from the dream, to which she was still trying to reenter, she heard a rustling noise outside. Someone was on the front porch and, at this hour, this could not bode well. From a drawer within the armoire, she carefully removed her husband’s Griswold & Gunnison .36 caliber six-shooter sliding it from its well-worn, leather holster. She crept down the stairs, walking to the edge to avoid alerting any intruder to her awareness of the situation. She was ready to kill a Yankee if she had to, or one of those bastards who refused to fight with the real men, and even boys, of the South.
She took her French chemise gown in left hand and pulled it up as she glided silently toward the front door, black powder firearm in the right. A lone candle on the mantle cast just enough light. Back to the wall, she could clearly discern the shuffling of feet and heard the wooden planks of the porch creak. It was almost as if something were being dragged across it. Sarah inhaled a silent, but deep breath, slowly turned the key in the cast iron passage lock praying for no “click” or “clank.” She swung the door open and pulled back on the hammer, cocking the pistol and found herself pointing it toward a specter of a figure standing shadowlike in the inky darkness of the night.
Sarah was terrified but she would not show it. “State your business stranger and make it quick! We are quick on the trigger in these parts!”
He stood there in the darkness, silent. Or at least she thought it to be silence but then, at once, she could discern that the stranger was, in fact, speaking, rather trying to speak but so softly as to barely be audible over the cool, southern wind rusting through the magnolias.
The man stumbled forward and it was enough that the candlelight illuminated his face. It was her husband. Before she could say his name, he fell toward her and as he fell, she quickly dropped the gun, catching him, falling to the floor alongside him. A hard breeze blew past them, the candle flickered, their eyes met glistening in the dim light accented by tears as precious as diamonds.
She held him. She said his name over and over. She cried. She placed her hands upon his now gaunt, ashy, and bloodstained cheeks, fixing her eyes upon his, then closing them, and pressed her lips gently against his, red and salty from the tint of blood. She tasted death. He tasted whiskey. And then he passed from this life to the next, steadfast in her arms.
The sun was soon up and shining morning’s first light in through the doorway. Sarah, lay there, still, having never let him go all the while weeping inconsolably through the final hours of night.
It was by light of dawn that Sarah noticed the tattered journal protruding from underneath the flap of a coat pocket. She took it carefully to hand and turned through the stained pages and read, best she could, through a veil of saline. Remembering her dream, she turned to the last entry and read of the efforts of the valiant men in the battle for the trestle, moreover their homeland, and the subsequent tragedy of their demise. She had, indeed, seen from within her dream, or so it seemed to her, her husband write these very words. She read further…fond recollections of herself and of their children. And then, finally, she came to that last line penned by her husband within his journal on that fateful night…those words that she had tried so very hard to read in the dream before she was so abruptly divorced from that place and returned to the cold reality of her present life. It read, “Sarah, wake up.”
Shane Huey, editor of The Whisky Blot, writes from his home in America's most ancient city. This story first appeared in The Chamber Magazine, July 30, 2021.
from deep sleep in roiling
black earth, patient longing
through damp dormant dreams
urgent pulsation of growth, persistent
pressing upward through layers of soil
lean into light
petal by petal
to full blossom
exquisite wild wonder.
Liz Kornelsen is a prairie poet from Winnipeg, Manitoba and the author of Arc of Light and Shadow: Poems with Art. Previous publications include Transition, Green Teacher, and The Whisky Blot. When not writing, she may be found skiing, dancing, or savoring the rich flavors of art galleries.
Art: "And the Loveliest Plant in the World" by Ewa Tarsia, an internationally acclaimed artist whose innovative, versatile and prolific work demonstrates a unique sense of texture, design and expansive imagination. Follow on Instagram @ewatarsia.
Great grandma’s clock has ceased to tock,
that mantel piece of crude cut wood,
a case too large for inner works
where even dust just lost its way.
That alloy block on ramrod stick
founds its weight too much to sway.
Great grandad sat there by the peat,
sipped Bushmills from up the way,
admired his cutting from the moss.
She would have him up the stairs
but once the whisky had its way,
along with glowing from the grate
he was balanced on his seat,
content, the ticking of her talk
wafting, smoky, up the stack;
no matter words, straitjacket, Mum,
admonition of her tongue.
He piled bog slack from crumpled pail,
settled back, ignored the pain,
tasting time, port barrel stock.
Stephen Kingsnorth, retired to Wales, UK, from ministry in the Methodist Church due to Parkinson’s Disease, has had pieces published by on-line poetry sites, printed journals and anthologies, including The Whisky Blot.
The simple things of life bring me smiles,
like the bird house made of wood from an old red barn.
It sits atop a garden post
holding safe its second hatch—bluebird family--
flashes of sapphire,
zipping in and out, feeding their young.
The fledglings will soon find their own way into the big sky.
As did our daughters.
In spring, I sometimes walk the meadow,
see sunshine in daisy faces--
their centers innocent, happy,
their white petals holding the secret
that pre-teen girls
pursue by that fanciful plucking--
“He loves me,
he loves me not.”
I need no daisy petals to tell me what love is.
We know each other long and well--
know the simple things that make each other happy.
He builds me bird houses,
hands me daisies from the meadow.
I, too, know what warms his heart,
brings us near--
a plate of barbeque,
a frosty mug of beer.
on a pillow
the Sutra on
on my cushion
hiding from fears
to my old mantra:
full of grace...
Mark J. Mitchell has worked in hospital kitchens, fast food, retail wine and spirits, conventions, tourism, and warehouses.
He has also been a working poet for almost 50 years. An award-winning poet, he is the author of five full-length poetry collections, and six chapbooks. His latest collection is Something To Be from Pski’s Porch Publishing. He is very fond of baseball, Louis Aragon, Miles Davis, Kafka, Dante, and his wife, activist and documentarian Joan Juster. He lives in San Francisco, where he once made his marginal living pointing out pretty things. Now, he is seeking work once again.
he can be found reading his poetry here: https://firstname.lastname@example.org.
A meager online presence can be found at https://www.facebook.com/MarkJMitchellwriter/.
A primitive web site now exists: https://www.mark-j-mitchell.square.site/.
He sometimes tweets @Mark J Mitchell_Writer.
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