(un)reality – Three poems by Allison Stein

In her three poems, Allison Stein uses visceral details and powerful imagery to paint compelling scenes and unforgettable characters.

liquid state of matter(being)

let’s go swimming, you say, 
a heat-scorched dragonfly
(who goes in memorable movements to sip the fresh sunlight

beneath the softlapping surface the lake shines wild green
and your ears are whorls of precious jade.
you burble through the delicate-draped light,
             (diving to wrap yourself in the dim)
down here our skin looks wondrously unnatural as we link pinkies
                          and trail our heels through the silt.

               pulsing storms in the eddies of our slippery bodies.
               how grotesquely powerful we are here
                           where no gravity exists
                           and we do not recognize the silken moss growing from our scalps
                                                                 and lingering behind us in the tepid water.
we are alien, perfected by unrepentant green,
vivid things tiptoeing on the rim of a boundless heaven.

i run out of breath faster than you do 
and drift to the surface like a film in reverse:

                                                 lips spit out clear water and hands brush hair back from shining 

                                                 face–
          back rises through the membrane into forgotten air–
slowly up up with hands grasping for the bottom– 

let’s drink, you say
dirty shoes off exposing ripped sock, 
your head sparely haloed by string lights
(but you are less iridescent than ever)

lovely you hands me vodka in red-knuckled, apathetic fingers.
        clear like tap water, smelling of bare collarbones and average late nights
                       and through it i see the everyday pink of your cheeks
                       and the places where your cheap earrings have scarred your lobes.
you and i are no lake creatures and no gods.
here we are, natural beings, sipping nothingness.

 

 

 

half an instant of light

we paint cities on the palms of our hands / and press them feverishly along the edges of the sky / knowing they will wash away in building hurricanes. / (we can hear their eyes blinking, their weight heaving through wet air) / fragility smells like crushed lavender, don’t you think? / how lucky, how cursed we are to be minuscule                  (timewise). / if you are a baby mayfly and i am the corner of the briefest cloud / can we ever hope to last longer than this holy-handed present? / and if we are so sweetly fleeting can we ever be anything but lovely? / we climb to the tops of cherry trees / until we can no longer see earth or sky. / (just the smudges we left with our chrism-oiled hands) / really there is nothing before or after us. / this you say to me with your fingers in your ears, / smearing skylines over your blushed cheeks. / (darling darling i long to hang streamers from god’s front stoop with you.) / (darling my darling i will stay with you forever / until we blink our eyes and the world erupts into empty—– / how awful and beautiful it is to stretch time ragged / breathing hard and fast to fit infinite life into half a second. / your head so cleanly haloed by tangible wind. / the sun rises and sets while we eat one overripe cherry. / is this not life? / is this not the span of the universe? / are we not occupying all the time that will ever exist? / look at us choking on luminous air. / our bodies burn out, quickly, quickly. / for the slowest of seconds we wind our fingers through the shuddering void.
darling, darling.  it is time to go

 

 

 

photo album, with you everywhere

here is me squeezing the last toothpaste from the tube
          hoping that when i slit it open, i will not find you
          sleeping on the silver foil, a neon, too-familiar thing.

here is me slicing an apple into messy eighths,
          hoping the overripe nectar will cover the taste of you: 
          stardust (which is all just heavy metals).
 
here is me peeling off my eyelids and soaking them overnight in contact lens solution
          praying that when i stitch them back on,
          your face will no longer be etched in this most fragile of skin.
 
here is me staring at my wall from which all lavender has bled out
          trying to rub my neurons raw enough
          that this will stop being your brain, too.

 
here is me losing my balance as i walk along the curb

here is me waking up to a tree burning scarlet in the yard. 

here is me trying to forget you.

                              (here is me wishing i had said goodbye.)

 

Allison Stein is a 17-year-old student living in Pennsylvania. She has been writing stories and poems since the age of two or three. Her work has previously been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in the Ralph Munn Literary Anthology as well as several smaller publications.

Visual Art by Guo Cherry. 

The Lady Downstairs

In her piece, “The Lady Downstairs”, Kanchan Naik unfolds the haunted side of family heritage in a busy city life full of twist’s, turns, and death.

 

Mr. Anand claimed that if the world grew quiet for even a single moment, we would hear the footsteps of the Great Mother. Ira, he called her. Ira Devi. But my thick New Yorker tongue, in all its nine years of inelegance, could never bring out the softened trill in ‘Ira’. We would try for hours to rediscover the sideways lilt and the softened vowels of his accent. But the voice that came so naturally to him made my warbling American throat a clothed imposter. So it was Mr. Anand, while trying desperately to keep a straight face, who suggested I call her The Lady Downstairs.

We spent those evenings on the stairwell that lead to the front door of our apartment complex, where redbrick met with the sun-stained streets of Jericho. My head rested against the seventh stair with my feet swinging off the ninth. There was some clarity in staring at a city that whistled by us, that arrogantly wrapped itself within the fiction of consciousness. But Mr. Anand and I knew that the streets, with all their oil stains and car crashes and racket, were sound asleep.

Listen,​ he said. And we would, until the clatter of a dangling world blurred into a dull roar. He would close his eyes, and I would too. For a second, I could feel every bone in my body, every eyelash pulsing with the ghost of some forgotten instinct. The winds ceased to dance. The sky would exhale. When I opened my eyes, I would murmur, ​someone was here. ​Mr. Anand smiled back.​ Yes, someone was here. The Lady Downstairs. A​n the sun would dissolve, as though on cue, behind the diner two blocks away.

It was with Mr. Anand that I tasted my first cup of real chai. My mother and father, who opted for the convenience of QuikTea, never bothered with spices and cane sugar. Mr. Anand, however, ground his own garam masala from fennel and bay leaves. After one taste, I knew that my tongue would never forgive the flavorless, sugary water that my parents preferred. Instant tea, like my Indian accent, was shakily unsure of what it was supposed to be. But a steaming cup of chai was so confident in its existence that the liquid sung as it gurgled down my throat. ​I make chai from the earth. From what she gives us, M​r. Anand explained. ​From The Lady Downstairs?

From The Lady Downstairs.

My parents treated the greying Indian man one apartment across with a cloaked unease. They were grateful for the hours we spent together before one of them came home from work. But the crimson toran hanging on Mr. Anand’s door was a silent red flag between them. My parents were ‘wallflower’ Indians who lost their accents to keep their jobs. Delhi was a photograph in my father’s wallet, a pair of earrings on my mother’s nightstand. They forced smiles during the offhand conversation, but I could see my mother’s eyes harden when Mr. Anand called her Parvati instead of some Anglicized distortion.

Autumn came. And as those summer evenings descended into the horizon, they took two towers with them. I remember the frantic phone calls, the wail of sirens crackling against our screen door. My mother sunk lifelessly into the sofa as the television blared.

Parv, m​y father murmured.​ You need to eat something.​ But she didn’t. Her eyes were fixed on the bodies ablaze, on the screams coiling into television static. I remember those hours we spent, a porcelain family, almost able to touch a splintering country through the telechrome. Mr. Anand had once told me something, and it burned in my brain. ​We live in the Kalyug, the Dark Age. T​hose words prickled in the television volume, an echo of those wounded faces. I would never forget those men who crawled out out of melted cars, carrying bloodied bodies on their backs. They had those hunted eyes — eyes in silent agreement that yes, this is the Kalyug, the Dark Age.

Mr. Anand was shot three weeks later. My father swept me into his arms as though it was I who had borne the bullet. It happened outside the grocery he used to frequent, where he would buy cinnamon and fresh ginger and tell the cashier to keep the change. The nearby 7/11 owned by the Guptas was burned to the ground, and all I could hear was Mr. Anand, over and over, reminding me that this was a Dark Age. Those words grew colder every time until I found myself sitting on that stairwell, staring at a hollow street. Mr. Anand’s relatives were moving his furniture into a white U-Haul. For a moment, I desperately hoped they would forget the red toran swaying against his front door. It could live a fragile life of its own, suspended only by a fraying string. But when I blinked, the toran was gone.

She’s awake now, I​ whispered. The city was alive, and so was I — the two of us momentarily silenced. And for the first time, I felt the footsteps of Ira Devi against the blackened earth, louder and louder until they swallowed the sun. ​The Lady Downstairs?

The Lady Downstairs.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

visual art by Holly Shelton 

A Conversation With Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is an Oregon-based freelance journalist and host of the National Magazine Award-nominated podcast, Bundyville. She has work featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Outside, Vice, The Atlantic, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere. 

 

After a two-day masterclass with the Idyllwild Arts Creative Writing Department, packed with mystery postcards and research rabbit-holes, Bella Koschalk and Ryan French sat down to ask questions regarding journalism, politics, and investigative reporting. 

 

Q: You touch on a wide range of topics in your journalism. What draws you to the stories that you investigate and write? 

 

I think over time it has kind of changed. Where once I used to only write about music and counterculture things, now I think I look for stories that have compelling characters. It’s always weird to refer to real people as characters, but I think it’s someone who is interesting to interview or has something interesting to say. Or stories that have good scenes in them where I can do some kind of writing or reconstructing of an event that happened. But I think at the heart all the stories I write there is some kind of tension. So, like, someone struggling with something or a conflict and that maybe by understanding that person’s conflict or story, people can read it and come away with some clarity in their own lives. So I’ve started to look for things that could have a greater meaning for people. 

 

Q: Is it possible to remain completely unbiased in journalism, and should you?

 

I think that it is impossible to be unbiased. Journalists are real humans too and I think a lot of people in the industry talk about the rectification of the journalist. People talk about how maybe journalists shouldn’t even vote, or journalists shouldn’t participate in civic activities or that they should remove themselves in some way from society. I came up in alternative journalism and alt weeklies, and those platforms were taking a stand on something. So as far as my work is concerned, I approach subjects that I disagree with personally, but still try to understand their point of view. I think that you can hold an opinion but still fully investigate what someone else thinks. I think journalism has gotten into a lot of its problems now where people are trying to say that they aren’t biased. Journalism is undergoing a big change right now on how we cover things. At the end of the day, I think as unbiased as people can be, we do need that kind of journalism to just get to the facts. If the president holds a press conference, and it’s not televised and there are only print reporters there, they need to just get the facts and that’s it. And I think the industry ripples out from there and there are people like me who take a position on a certain thing. 

 

Q: How do you feel the platforms of journalism and podcasting interact and converse? How are they different? Do you prefer one over the other? 

 

The Bundyville project started as a print series. So there are nine written long-form print stories. At a certain point, my editor asked if I wanted to make a podcast and I was like, “Sure, I don’t know how to do that but I like podcasts so I’ll figure it out.” Now that I’m on the other side of that, it’s interesting to see that people who read the stories didn’t listen to the podcast and people who listened to the podcast didn’t read the stories. It’s a really effective way of getting the same information to two completely different audiences. It’s like meeting people where they’re at. Not everyone wants to read a long piece of journalism; that shouldn’t exclude them from the information. That kind of caters to my personality. I was never a traditional student. I’m not the kind of person that got amazing grades and could sit and listen to a lecture and absorb the information. I needed to digest information. I needed to hear it and touch it and see it. I think this is serving journalism to people who might feel excluded from it normally. 

 

Q: From the reporting side, do you have a preference for which medium you use? 

 

I do love writing, and I’m very familiar with the process of what it means to gather information for a print story. But podcasts are really evocative. I can interview someone who has experienced profound loss and write that they started crying. And it’s on my writing skills to really bring a reader into that moment. But hearing someone actually cry in your headphones is a totally different experience. Audio journalism is really exciting to me. It could be because it’s new. They are different in the way they’re reported. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. 

 

Q: Have you ever gone into a piece thinking you knew what the story/angle would be, only to uncover something during your research and refocus the piece?

 

Almost every story I started thinking I knew what the story was and then the more interviews I did, and the more reporting I did, it changed. Sometimes it drastically changed. Just recently, I wrote a story about a shipwreck that happened and a woman who discovered all this information about it. The story that I pitched ended up being completely different than the story that I ended up writing. It had similar threads, but because the reporting was so exciting and the things I was uncovering were so interesting and different, I had to follow that. I think also that I may come in with a subject that I think, “Oh, this person is going to be awful, and then I’ll meet them, and I’ll think okay, I definitely don’t agree with their view of the world, but people are not always as bad as we want to think.” After you meet them, and sit down and have a cup of coffee and shake their hand, sometimes I’ll really have a shift on how I feel about things. 

 

Q: Have there been any stand-out stories for you that completely flipped? 

 

Yeah. Last year I wrote a story about a man named David Matheson, who was a conversion therapist. He was someone who made his career by trying to convert someone away from their same-sex orientation. Which we know is impossible; it’s not scientifically proven, it’s pseudoscience. And all of a sudden, he stopped doing that therapy and he came out as gay. I went to meet him and was like this guy has damaged so many people’s lives. He was super remorseful of what he had done and he explained to me how he justified it in his mind. And by the end, I felt he was a friend, in a way. I really understood him and I felt a certain amount of empathy for him. That was really interesting. I didn’t think I could level with someone that I thought to be such a terrible person. So that was one example where I was really surprised. 

 

When I interviewed Cliven Bundy, I was really scared. I talked about it in the first season of Bundyville. I was like “I’m so afraid to meet this person.” And then he was like, “Come on in my ranch, sit down on the couch.” It smelled like barbecue and he was very kind. We sat down and talked for three hours. This man is supposedly one of the biggest domestic terrorists in America. I don’t think I changed my opinion at all about what he did. He represents a super dangerous arm of extremism. But, he was very easy to talk to, and that kind of surprised me. 

 

Q: How has being a journalist changed your lifestyle and your day-to-day life in general? 

 

I work from home. Sometimes I don’t take a shower until four or not at all. I wear pajamas a lot and I talk to people on the phone and I’m like, “Good thing they can’t see what I’m wearing.” I tend to take on stories and projects where I often say it’s feast or famine. I won’t have anything going on and then all of a sudden I’ve got a ton of work. When the time is right, I have to put the rest of my life on hold. I have to go on the road and interview people. It’s very long days and I have to hit deadlines. And then it’ll stop. I get published and then I’m done. Definitely, my career has been at the center of my life and I’ve set it up that way purposefully. I could work a nine-to-five reporting job or something like that, but to me journalism is a lot more of an art. I treat it like art. Nonfiction is a form of expression. It’s very important to me, so I set up a lot around my writing. If I’m not writing, then I’m reporting. If I’m not reporting, then I’m reading. If I’m not reading, then I’m making art. So I have this cycle that I’m living in. 

 

Q: You started out working for a newspaper. What made you decide to become a freelance journalist? 

 

I think it was that I didn’t want to write on just one beat. I had been writing about music for a really long time and it was ruining music for me. I like music a lot. I would be like, “Oh, I love this band,” and then I would interview them and they’d be lame and then I wouldn’t like their music anymore. I realized that eventually, I wanted to write for magazines and more national publications and the only way I could do that was to move to New York, which I was not interested in doing, or freelance. I was 32 probably and I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and this decision was going to seem like a really dumb thing to do once I got to a certain age. So I was like “I guess I’m going to try freelancing now.” And I did and I haven’t starved to death yet. I’ve come close. That’s not true, I have not come close to starving, but I’ve definitely come close to thinking this is a terrible idea and maybe I should do something else. 

 

Q: Have there been any situations where you feel really uncomfortable or unsafe when you’re reporting? How have you dealt with that? 

 

I feel uncomfortable a lot. I’m kind of an anxious person, and interviewing people can be kind of hard. But you have to just do it. Your job is gathering facts, so at the end of the day, you have to make someone feel comfortable and interview them. I have had several moments where I have felt really uncomfortable, mostly when I’m writing about extremism. I was at a gun rally in eastern Washington. There were a lot of people involved in anti-government militia groups there. It’s the era of Trump and him calling people fake news and I’m there as a reporter. The person I was trying to interview was a state representative, an elected official, and he got people to film me while I was interviewing him. It really put me off. I didn’t feel like I was doing my job very well because I was so uncomfortable. I was alone and surrounded by men with guns. That was a moment where I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. 

 

There’s some stuff in the second season of Bundyville—which is way better than the first season, FYI—where I go to this secretive religious community. Kind of a cult. That was a little scary. I always work myself to be a lot more scared and then it turns out to be fine. The gun rally was the most uncomfortable that I’ve been. I ask myself: what is my job here? I’m here to gather facts and not here to issue my opinions. There are times where I leave before other journalists would. I’ve also covered a lot of street protests that have turned into riots or just completely out-of-control chaos. There have been a few times where I’ve gotten tear gassed or things like that. As a reporter, I’m trying to gather facts and figure out how to stay safe while doing that. I don’t enjoy that. It’s funny, though, the most uncomfortable moments I’ve had have been in the last four years. The tenor of how people think of journalism and what’s going on in America has sort of created those situations. 

 

Q: Had you expected to have to deal with situations like that going into freelance journalism? 

 

No. Initially I wasn’t writing about politics. I was writing about culture and the funny little corner of the West. I was finding groups of people to write about. I never could have imagined I’d be writing about politics. I’m not explicitly writing about elections or things like that. I’m writing about the residuals of the political climate. It’s weird to be a freelance journalist. For example, when I’ve covered street protests, there are all these paid journalists like the Oregonian, the paper there, and the radio station. They all kind of clump together. You’ll see them in their Oregonian jackets. And the TV reporters in their clumps. And then there’s me. I don’t have a team jacket to wear. No one knows I’m actually a journalist. So that can be kind of weird. I hadn’t thought about that as a freelancer. Who am I going to call if I get arrested with a bunch of people? There’s no editor to call. Yeah, it’s weird. 

 

Q: Was there something significant that inspired you to start writing about politics? 

 

My major in college was journalism, but I minored in political science. I’ve just always been interested in politics, just as a person. But, I think it really was falling into this world of writing about extremism and anti-government groups in 2016 that really made me fall into a deep hole that I was not expecting. But who can expect that a group of armed men will take over a building in their state? It was just a very interesting story. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I would be writing about that stuff. Maybe I would have found my way to it eventually. 

 

Q: Bundyville is on NPR. What is that like? 

 

It’s really cool. It’s been much more successful than I could have ever imagined. We made the Apple top ten. This is the second year in a row that the podcast has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. That’s never happened before. I’ve never made radio before, except I used to host a show on the community radio station at midnight where I just played [heavy] metal. But that was just my thing. It’s been really cool. I feel very much like an underdog, as a freelancer. So, to see the work that I’ve done have a big platform is really pretty cool. 

Layers of Self

In her beautifully crafted poem “Layers of Self,” Lauren Kim uses vivid language and powerful imagery to explore the self.

The marks of my creators surround me
With no inch left bare
My soul carved by sculpted hands
A dichotomy of pairs

In the sea of my skin
Mother and father leave their mark
My every feature blurred
A rendition of art

Two variations of the self
Devoid in common thread
Have woven an artful piece
A testament to words unsaid

I am molded in the image and likeness
Of those who came before
My very visage and limbs
A shadow well worn

My gown of paint and clay
Is a shroud to the truth within
For although my self be old
It remains my very own

 

Lauren Kim is a writer of both poetry and prose and resides in New Jersey. She draws inspiration from small nuances in the world around her and aims to magnify them in her writing. She is a junior editor for her school’s two literary publications. An avid reader of classical European literature, she melds the literary voices of past and present to project her voice on themes of importance.

Visual Arts by: Yixuan Luo 

Fish Magic

In her poem, Lynn Kong uses vivid language to reflect on and amplify the details in Paul Klee’s painting “Fish Magic.”

Based on a Paul Klee’s Fish Magic

It is the mirk of stained glass that glows by a slice
                                                                                                                        of moon.

Gaunt elegies speak of a desolation beyond the edges
                                                                                                                        of era.

Generation upon generation–genealogies betray the birth
                                                                                                                        of seed.

The ambiguity of a barren clock transfixed at IX:
Even the fish await the tearing of the veil.
Hands clasp dust. Ash taints scale.
Threads of exile weave into a silent cloak.
Only time will tell.

 

Lynn Kong is a sophomore at Cary Christian School. She is co-president of the Holocaust Literature Club there. She adores Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Connor, and just about every line of epic poetry. Part of her is always lost in Amsterdam.

Visual Arts by Rudy Falagan

 

 

 

Hymnody

Katherine Vandermel balances the simple and the lush; the ethereal and the physical in her visceral and poignant piece, “Hymnody.”

Aria
When I was alive, Zerlina’s aria
rang in church, not mine.

Her voice, soft & sexless.
My voice, a bullet
ricocheting off the chancel.

They were God’s songs, beaten
into pink pavement.

Apoptosis
I brewed spirits to forget the taste 
of the Italian lyric.

Manipura became my catholicon—
a bead strung on blue tantra thread.

After prayer, each bead bitten, swallowed. 

Inside, they lived as tapeworms
spoiling the meat of the ribcage.

My appendix carried grenades.

Exorcism
In Heaven, children sing the body holy—
pretzeled legs & braided hands, cheeks 
grinding against mahogany.

I join them because God visits 
often. I want to feel Him 

around my throat, to be baptized
clean as a soprano. 

When he’s gone, we smoke at the altar.

Spirits unwind from our cigars, staining the body 
like wet bourbon on silk.

Opera
After exorcism, my lungs fermented. 
Mouth full of ashes, tongue pulled by light.

From the spaces in my bones, a new hymnody.

Children following
my voice.

 

Katherine Vandermel is a writer who thinks of writing as painting: each word imbues the world with coloration. She loves music and a good, warm croissant. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alexandria Quarterly, and National Poet Quarterly, among others, and has been recognized by Behrend College and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She edits for Siblini Art and Literature.

Visual Art by Dawn Jooste. 

Of This Skin

In her poem, “Of This Skin”, Angel Benjamin creates visceral imagery that explores the details of the largest organ of the human body; skin.

shout out to the largest organ on the body;

a jewel of melanin and sunlight,

 

where rifts have been driven through,

marked up like tiger stripes.

 

housing our souls in armor

battered from time’s pain,

 

it has embraced the clumped earth

and slept on the ocean floor,

 

reaching outwards from the bloody west

to the hollow east.

 

though familiar with metal’s tongue, 

it still dances in glitter

 

for its light illuminates my mind, 

has shown me futures where I

 

can step through that same gate, 

and revel in sharing the worlds I create.

 

it has walked, shouted, praised, and hollered

what an elastic thing

 

as our permanent fixture, a shield,

from the water’s grip and the tight rope clips

 

as our reminder, 

for it’s no mere shadow in the mirror

 

it’s a lens, 

and we are afraid of it.

 

Angel Benjamin is in eleventh grade and lives in the old state of Maryland. Her work was recognized for the first time by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for regional awards. She likes to create worlds, both imaginary and real.

Visual Arts by Audrey Carver 

A History of Drowning

In her prose poem, “A History of Drowning”, Pearl Reagler retraces her personal history of swimming by using very beautiful details and a series of intriguing events.

When I first swam, I was five. My swim coach was named Cricket and she taught me to breathe every four strokes. One, two, three, gasp, one, two, three, gasp.

 

Nobody knows when the first human swam. I assume they drowned and people kept drowning until swim lessons were invented.

 

It’s funny to me that many people are so scared of water. It makes up most of our body. We grew into our bodies in the liquid of our mother’s womb. People say water births are ideal because they provide the smoothest transition from the womb to the outside world. The child leaves it’s growing place and transitions to a place that’s similar. Descending out of itself and into itself.

 

When Missy Franklin, a gold medalist in the 100 and 200 backstroke, swam for the first time it was like destiny. It was like I was born in the water, she says. Like she was returning to the womb, descending back into herself spiral by spiral.

 

When the flowers in my backyard are almost open, but not quite, I like to grab the petals and peel them open. Pressing the soft layers back–I have no time to wait for nature. The flowers need to bloom now, while I am still here to see them.

 

I understand that this is cruel and pointless.

 

When I was little, I learned to count very quickly. I counted my steps to get everywhere in school. I knew that it took exactly 102 steps to get from my classroom to the cafeteria, and 90steps to get from there to the library. I learned to count because I had to. How else was I supposed to fill the empty space in my mind. The ambiguity of a walk through school poked holes in my body and made me sick.

 

Because of this, I joined swim team. Structure is good, my mother says. Now, I can learn how to make things feel better. I can learn that the more your legs burn the softer they are after a shave. I can learn that it’s possible to ignore the spasms that come after one has held their breath too long.

 

There are four strokes that are legal in competitive swimming. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke.

 

Freestyle was a race horse, full of beast and muscle.

 

Then there was butterfly. Butterfly is the stroke made most popular by Micheal Phelps. It is not as easy as he makes it look.

 

Backstroke is the scariest stroke to me. You can’t see where you’re going so everything has to be timed perfectly. You need to know exactly how many strokes it takes for you to get to the wall before you flip or else you’ll crash against the wall. My number was three.

 

Then there was breaststroke. I could ever understand it. It was always my worst. Cricket taught me to kick—turn legs out, chicken feet, parachute, snap jaws closed. My ankles couldn’t turn out all the way and catch enough water for me to pull myself forward.

 

When you start swimming you begin to become acquainted with the most successful people in your sport. Allison Schmitt has a gold medal in the 200 freestyle. She is 6’1 and cannot stop smiling in the interviews that I watch. For some reason, I found her very annoying.

 

There were trees that grew over the pool I swam at. They would drop pine needles and leaves into the water. They would get caught in your suit and cause little pink pricks to form all over your skin. Sometimes I would take the needles and weave little bracelets. Other times, I would throw them at people. Once I hit my best friend square in the back. The needle pierced a scar that she got from jumping a fence in the 6th grade. Now on top of that wound, there was another smaller one. Little pink pricks forming.

 

On my tenth birthday I stopped all other sports and outside activities. I swam six times a week, for at least an hour and a half. I noticed that another girl is getting private lessons. I decided I should do those too. I decided I was going to make the Olympics in 2020. I would be 16 by then. Plenty of time to improve.

 

Micheal Phelps made the olympic team when he was 15 years old. In the 200 fly he came in 5th overall. I’m sure he wasn’t satisfied by this. My first swim coach used to say, a good athlete is never satisfied. You should never look at the people you beat, only the people who beat you. I always liked winning. Usually it was pretty easy. But when it wasn’t I was incapacitated. I remember one morning we played a game and the objective was to get across the pool in as few breaststroke kicks as possible. The record was four. I was stuck at fifteen.

 

Micheal Phelps now has 28 olympic medals. 23 are gold.

 

Most people I knew loved swim meets. Another opportunity to win was very welcome. I never felt that way. Swim meets were terrifying to me. When I got too close to the edge, the tile on the bottom of the pool blurred and formed a goats pupil. I wanted to vomit but I never could. I could never throw up at a swim meet.

 

Micheal Phelps tried to race a shark after his final olympics in 2016. He lost. He even had a head start. Pathetic, a woman next to me whispers. She’s not talking about Micheal Phelps. She’s talking about her daughter who is struggling to finish her race. She flounders in the water, lagging behind the other girls. It’s like she’s not even trying.

 

I could never lead a lane at swim practice because I couldn’t count laps. I had many other things to think about. How I had to breathe on this stroke, blink twice for every leaf on the pool floor, apply the exact same amount of pressure to each leg pushing off the wall. I suppose my teammates were better at multitasking than I was.

 

Once I tried to count laps for a friend instead of myself. She was swimming a long event at a swim meet, the 800 free, which is almost half a mile of swimming. Because of this, the athletes ask friends to count their laps for them. Counting laps is pretty simple. You stand at the end of the pool and hold a long pole. At the end of the pole are large plastic cards with numbers on them. For every lap, you flip a card and when the swimmer is turning they look up and see how many more laps they have. When I was counting for my friend I got distracted by the tiles on the deck and nearly dropped the pole on her head.

 

I chased down a boy I liked and hit him on the arm with a branch from a rose bush. I felt guilty about this for a while. Watching his arms under water, seeing how little pink lines had bloomed. When swim practice went on too long, I would lock myself in the bathroom. Staring at beetles crawling on the locker room floor. Watching little pink lines bloom.

 

In May of 2015, Allison Schmitt’s cousin commits suicide.

 

I cut my hand open at the bottom of the pool. A bee sting in between my toes. A stabbing pain in my shoulder.

 

When I was little my friend had a pool party. He said he could run, run faster than any of us under the water. He cut the soles of his feet open on the bottom. Little rivers of blood pooled on his pale skin. Even now I can’t forget it. I can never let my feet touch the ground. I have to tread water for hours.

 

Tiles are very important. Every time I finish a set there are four tiles I have to touch. One, two three, four, one, two, three, four.

 

Micheal Phelps has gone a year without skipping practice.

 

My mother learned to tread water in the YMCA pool by her house in Virginia. She was never the strongest swimmer. Too anxious, she says. Instead she played tennis. I was never as good as you, she says.

 

Micheal Phelps is pulled over for doing 84 in a 45 mile zone. He failed two DUI tests in a row. After that day he lays on the floor of his apartment and thinks about drowning. In an interview years later he admits, I was in a dark place, not wanting to be alive anymore. His coach, Bob Bowman said, I thought, the way he was going, he was going to kill himself.

 

Micheal Phelps older sister should’ve gone to the olympics. Unfortunately, like her brother, she lay on the floor for days, trying to hide her broken back and blue body.

 

I am very good at counting. I count every stroke I take. I can make it across the pool in fourteen. My coach wants me to make it eleven.

 

Missy Franklin has lost air in Rio. To her, it feels as though she has run out. Her coach removes her from the relay race she was supposed to swim on. She watches from her hotel room as they win the gold medal she was set for. The carpet under her suffocates her body. She folds back into her throat ring by ring.

 

My last swim meet was unplanned. After making finals in the 200 free I walked up to my coach and told him I was never swimming again. The only thing that disturbed me about the encounter was how unsurprised he seemed.

 

The first time I almost drowned I was jumping into a cold lake. I had a life vest on but when the water touched my body I was certain I was going to die. I hadn’t swam in two months. My cousin had to pull me out and I lay on the boat deck in shock. As my aunt explained that the cold currents came from the mountains nearby, my cheek melted into the warm metal like an ice cube.

 
 

Pearl Reagler is a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston Texas. Most of the time, she likes to write poetry and screenplays. She also enjoys photography and film.
Visual Arts by Sumin Seo 

Silent Child: A Joke With No Punchline

Kalista Puhnaty takes a look at Silent Child and why the book is disappointing because of its unsatisfying plot twist.

Sarah A. Denzil, Silent Child, $15.99, ISBN-10: 1542722829

Sarah A. Denzil’s Silent Child sets itself up to be the thriller of the decade through the use of cruel and disturbing real-world events, an intriguing and unique concept, a well fleshed-out cast of characters, and an intricately woven collection of minor plotlines that relate to the main plotline—and not in the way I expected. It remained wonderfully calculated and kept me on my toes…until the plot twist arrived.

In the beginning, the book introduces its main conflict: Emma Price’s child, Aiden Price disappears during a flood and is presumed to have drowned. The only thing left is his red jacket. His body is never found. Emma eventually declares him legally dead, closing the investigation. Ten years later, he wanders out of the woods, mute. He also has not properly learned to write due to being kidnapped at such a young age. Aiden Price is the only one who knows what happened to him, but he can’t tell his mother or the police for reasons unknown. Emma has regained control of her life in Aiden’s absence, with a new husband and a baby on the way, but that begins to disintegrate. Nothing is as it seems. Familiar faces are coming out of the woodwork. Emma’s friends and family are no longer to be trusted, as they are all turning against each other and Emma, for many reasons . The stage is set for the big reveal, some shocking plot twist, and in the moments before the final chapters, I was thinking almost anyone could be guilty of kidnapping Aiden. It was enthralling, it was exciting, and I was on the edge of my seat, expecting my mind to be blown.

When the plot twist is unveiled, the novel’s plot unravels in the most unsatisfying way, and the twist falls flat. The novel turns out to be more about Emma’s new life than Aiden’s trauma, and the resolution of his plot is poorly executed. My excitement that had been growing exponentially as time went on was lost—not popped, but slowly deflated, like someone letting go of the balloon they spent five arduous minutes pushing air into. I got whiplash from how quickly the focus of plot shifted, and the novel’s sloppy ending and explanations certainly didn’t help matters. I was left confused as to what point the book was trying to make by focusing all of its drama on the specifics of something that, in the end, didn’t really matter to the resolution. There are very few books that I would say do not provide any sort of payoff, but this book makes that list. Overall, Silent Child is a book that resembles hosting a slumber party: it began on a strong note, held my attention for the majority of its duration, and as I neared the end of it, I realized that I had wasted my time and that the book had overstayed its welcome. The book departed in a hurry, and I was left sitting on the floor, staring at the mess it has left behind in a mixture of awe and resentment.

 

By Kalista Puhnaty

Barefoot

In her piece “Barefoot,” Kanchan Naik shares the sentimental experiences of she and her grandmother in India.

If India was a heart, pulsing and beating in my palm, then the National Highway 66 was a pounding capillary with traffic as steady as the flow of blood. Sixty metres of rugged ebony asphalt and mud-ridden intersections, the National Highway 66 guided everything, from taxi drivers with beetlejuice between their teeth to bickering couples across the western coast of India. The sun blazed like a copper coin in the limitless blue sky, beating down upon the well-worn stones of a tired road. Anyone, from the street children selling coconut water at the junctions to the farmers guiding oxen through the rice paddy fields could tell you where these roads could take you.

But few travel the old road that diverts from NH-66. Only a handful of those people would cross the bridge that connects to the monsoon-blessed Shambhavi River, its waters meandering into lazy, stagnant marshes. Hardly any would care to remember the name ‘Hejmadi’, the old village settled on Shambhavi’s northern banks.

But I remember. And my reason to remember has charcoal black eyes and silvery hair tied tightly in a knot at the back of her neck. Paper-thin wrinkles line the edges of her cheeks, crimping into little folds every time she laughs. The world calls her Radha. I call her Maomma, my grandmother. And for years, I was content with knowing her solely as the latter, while falling asleep in her arms as she sang ​Ranganayaka in her low, powdery voice. It was a holy song meant to awaken God from his heavy slumber. So, as God’s eyes opened to my grandmother’s words, mine slowly and drowsily closed.

As I grew older, Radha’s presence became more than a shadow, details that I had overlooked as a child now sharpening into focus. I pored over photographs that smelled lightly of mildew, struggling to weave her tale. ​Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that there was a whole other side to her.

Before Radha, there was Meera.

And she was a flurry of bare feet thudding against the grasses of rice paddy fields, the peal of her anklets following her like a shadow. It was the age of black and white ​— of an India that was free, but in bloodied pieces. Of post-Partition pressure tearing apart the Indian soil, but Hejmadi wrapped in its own cocoon, unperturbed.

It was amid this sea of contrasts that Meera grew up, a nine-year-old with a charcoal dot beneath her ear to ward off the evil eye. Seven children in all, the Shenoy family was virtually a village of its own, scurrying about the mud-walled courtyard in the midst of their boisterous games. Meera’s mother watched and smiled. Meera only had a few faint memories of her mother — a gentle caress, tender hands weaving her hair into braids, a chime of laughter. She would count the callouses on her mother’s palm as they walked hand in hand through their coconut groves. Bare feet muffled against the silence of the fertile earth, the ghosts of their footsteps erased by the wind. It was during the handful of years with her mother that Meera learned to befriend the stubborn coconut. How to burst it open against the ground with a single crack. How to scrape the last bits of flesh off its shell.

What Meera didn’t know is that some coconuts bear tiny, fine cracks beneath the surface. They shrivel slowly from the inside, the white flesh dissolving beneath the sun. She would soon see these thin, jagged cracks in her mother’s waning health. For months, her mother battled fevers and a hacking cough. But still, she roamed the leafy groves, dismissing the signs of her growing illness with the wave of her hand. ​Little did ​Meera know that her mother would never live to see another coconut season, never guide her through the dense arms of palm trees again.

The courtyard was silent as her mother lay on her charpoy. Those few fleeting hours before she died, she swallowed her finals sips of coconut water, the glass trembling in her hand. Soft sobs filled the night as Meera sang ​Ranganayaka for her mother. God arose from the distant horizon, welcoming an old friend.

~~~

Life without her mother was wounded and fragmented. Meera learned to tie her own braids, her stubby fingers fumbling with the ribbons. She ground coarse masala powder against a stone and swept debris off the courtyard floors with a broom. She carved the ground beyond her house with white rangoli and lit sticks of incense beneath the altars of the household gods. Ashy plumes of smoke clouded her vision. The temple was no different from what she had become, clouded by the obscurity of what was no longer there. In all her teenage years, Meera was a child struggling to fit in her mother’s skin. She rebelled, thrashing against the void she was expected to fill. In local paan stalls, she secretly smoked beedi cigarettes, the feeling of tobacco mixed with temburni leaves burning in her throat. Meera’s aunt speared her left nostril with a pointed stick, her eyes screwed shut through the agony. When the pain subsided, she threaded a glimmering crescent of a stud through the hole.

“You are a woman now, ” she said, beaming.

But at night, when the coconut trees whistled in the wind and her father sang Ranganayaka t​ o the sky, Meera was still a little girl wrapped in her mother’s shadow.

The years passed by slowly. Old scars learned to heal with the gentle fingers of time. The village was the same, with the medleys of grey-bellied cuckoos reverberating across the fields. It was Meera who had changed, with her hair longer and threaded into spiraling braids, her features the very image of her mother’s. The knee-length skirts and blouses were now replaced with half-sarees, the ends of the cotton fabric tucked into her ​kamarbandh​. Her nose ring was larger than the last, but gone was the stinging pain that had come with it. Gone was the anguish that marked her early childhood, the vision of her mother now blending like watercolors into the past.

Meera still roamed barefoot, the soles of her feet resilient against the Indian soil. But the ground where she had learned to walk had changed. The seamless rice-paddy acres, so enormous they could have swallowed her, were now but a faint horizon through the window. With time had come the overbearing verdicts of her conservative older brothers, imprisoning her within the confines of four walls. “A woman’s place is in her home”, they repeated, their words twisting into firm metal bars. But the stern gaze of her brothers only made Meera love the open air with reckless abandon. Heartfelt but headstrong, she refused to watch life slip between her fingers. Bare feet tiptoed across the courtyard as she slithered into the night, the village fair awaiting her. Her eyes grew wide as she watched larger-than-life actors prance across the stage, the bells of their costumes jangling in the distance. It was those nights when Meera tasted the stolen fruits of freedom.

As she grew older, her father and brothers descended into a whirlwind of preparation for her marriage. Meera’s father counted the acres and examined the cows of local landowners, his love demanding nothing but the best for his daughter. Marriage was a circle, a rhythm of brides leaving their homes to make new ones. The day a woman adorned her forehead with the vermilion dot of good fortune, she became a strand of an age-old fabric much larger than she was. But in between the threads of red and gold tradition, Meera saw the same pattern of captivity, the same narrow walls of domestic drudgery. She had no interest in walking in the footsteps of her mother and the mothers before her. Her brothers pleaded with her. “Why must you argue? Are you not happy?”

“Of course I am happy. I just want more.”

But what ​did s​he want? Frankly, Meera didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that sometimes when the village Ferris wheel ground into motion, her fingers grasping at the breeze, Meera felt irrationally but utterly complete. Bare feet fluttered against the sky as Meera’s Ferris wheel cart swung gently at the top. Her gaggle of friends waved to their companions below, but Meera looked nowhere but upward.

She wanted to spend the rest of her life reaching for the sky.

Meera was sprawled on the charpoy on the terrace, dreaming of the Ferris wheel when the stranger from Bombay arrived. Her sister grabbed her arm, whispering excitedly.

“Meera! There are visitors at the door! They are bringing a ​boy.​”

Meera rolled her eyes. “​Another ​suitor? The matchmaker had just brought in a boy two days ago.”

Her sister giggled. “This boy isn’t the same as the rest!​” She leaned closer, her smile only growing wider.“ He’s​ different. Y​ou know, these other boys come swaddled in their​ dhotis, looking like baby ducks crossing the pond. But not this one! He is wearing crisply ironed brown pants. ​”​

Meera’s eyes widened. “When will I get to see him?”

“No, you cannot see him. What would people think?”

“How can I marry him without seeing him? What if he’s short or plump or…” Meera struggled to find words, “…or ​ugly?”​

She darted across the courtyard, leaning against the walls in a desperate attempt to catch broken pieces of conversation. There were muffled words, the voices of her brothers too faint for her to discern. As the discussion continued, Meera stared at the chicken-wire window etched into the wall a few feet above her. Her eyes hardened into resolve, as she knotted the loose end of her half-sari to her waist.

Bare feet mounted the tiles that lined the courtyard walls. Her sister stared at Meera’s antics in silent horror, entirely prepared to flee in the case that she was caught.

When Meera stared through the spaces between the wire mesh of the window, she saw nothing at first. The faces of her family members were hidden behind a billowing cloth hung to dry. She cursed her fate under her breath, clutching the edge of the window sill for support. Then something flashed before her eyes, and she gasped.

Shoes.

Shoes were not for Hejmadi’s farmers or businessmen. They belonged to those who walked down bustling roads carved by slabs of concrete. The shiny black Indian loafers meant nothing to brothers who accounted for land and the aunts who prized the family name. But for Meera, shoes were the symbol of a world she had never seen, of the things that she never had. Every scuff mark brought a piece of the city’s crumbling sidewalks, every stain of shoe polish was the mark of city monsoons. No one in Hejmadi cared for those shoes because they had no interest in its whereabouts. For the earthen village soil, living barefoot was enough.

But not enough for Meera.

“Of course he’s ​different!​” Meera whispered to herself, recalling her sister’s words. “He’s from the ​city.”

In the midst of her joy, she lost her balance and fell to the ground with a thud. Bruised bare feet on the ground again, giddy and quivering. Her sister clucked like a mother hen, scolding her for being so foolish. But still, she smiled in a daze of some sorts, remembering nothing but the shoes. It was settled. Meera was to be wed.

~~~
Marriage in India was not simply the exchange of rings in front of a fire. It was a moment of change, when women left the final pieces of adolescence in their childhood homes. Meera stared at herself in the mirror, her hair coiled into a bun and slicked with coconut oil. Thin strokes of kajal lined her eyes. There was once a time when Meera wanted nothing more than to be a woman, to fit into her mother’s cotton sarees and carry her borrowed confidence. Yet as the moment had finally arrived, she wrestled with the fear that simmered beneath the surface. Meera remembered the moment before she had broken her first coconut. Gingerly, she had looked up at her mother asking,

“I don’t know if I can do it, am I ready?”

Her mother smiled. “You always were.”

The coconut cracked open that day, its fruit for the taking. Wordlessly, Meera draped the loose end of her saree over her shoulder and walked into the light.

They say when God chooses to awaken on Earth as a mortal again, his incarnation is given a new name. Meera had grown up chanting these names in the household temple, singing, “Hare Rama! Hare Krishna!” And now, wrapped in red and gold, she was gifted her own name. When women were married in Meera’s village, they were given their new identities, the shells of their previous lives unraveling into the​ mandap s​moke. As the vermillion dot of good fortune was painted on her forehead, she was christened Radha — the namesake of God’s beloved. It was a new name, one that did not conceal Meera but rather embraced her. That night, it was Radha and her husband, Govind, who left the village, promising to write letters home. Bare feet welcomed the new earth below it, regardless of what lay ahead.

~~~
It took another thirty years before the National Highway 66 was built by the Indian Government. Carefully, the changing times molded pieces of Southern Karnataka, constructing buildings where there were grasslands, factories where there were terra-cotta homes. But the banks of the Shambhavi River are the same. The golden stretch of land resists not the water, but accepts its tranquil ripples and currents. Coconut trees reach towards the sunlight, its fronds whispering in a language of its own. I stare at Maomma. Her nose ring glints beneath the sunlight and I am reminded of both her pain and her pride. Time has been both kind and cruel to her, but my grandmother is at peace with the waves that have molded her.

I begin making my way down the waterside, but she halts.

“You are forgetting something,” she tells me, her eyes twinkling.

“What?”

Silently, Maomma slips out of her sandals, beckoning for me to do the same. We cross the patchwork of sand and silt, the two of us barefoot and laughing. My feet sink into new soil. Grains of sand coil between my toes and suddenly the generations between us disappear. Gone are highways that divide us, the languages that separate us. With every growing step our footprints grow closer and closer, until the horizon melts into the water below and no longer can we tell them apart.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Visual Art by Nahyun Sung