These are just a few excerpts from the many inspiring selections in Muse 18. To order a copy and read the entire issue, please visit our Support the Muse/Order Copies page.
Pam Freeman, Treasure Chest
Years ago I heard of a woman who lived alone and took her life
By shutting herself inside her chest freezer
But only after she had spent weeks
Thawing, cooking and eating all the frozen food in there
Until it was empty
I imagine a quiet sense of responsibility
Compelling her to tape a brief explanatory note to the lid
Before climbing in
So that someone will realize they need to call 9-1-1
And let 9-1-1 open the freezer
Not that it’s a sirens-and-flashers type of emergency
Or any emergency at all
Just a dim glimpse
Of a soul’s unaccountable plumage
I’ve never forgotten this and I have questions about it
That will never be answered
But what I understand perfectly
Is the dignity in not allowing anything
To go to waste
Except maybe life
When only futility looks back at you
From the chilly white interior
And purpose can no longer be measured out
In turkey casserole portions
And tuna noodle surprise
Robert W. Daly, These Winds
Arrive and then depart. And come again.
I do know why, not where or when.
These winds will stop me day and night.
There is no "later" when they do not return,
No time or state beyond their reach.
I cannot deny them passage
By pretending to forget -
These winds do not care that I am sad.
they do not care what I think or say.
they will not be swayed nor bargained with,
nor understood away.
they come and go as they see fit.
they will not cease or be controlled.
Yet when I do not fear or serve them,
These winds of grief can be endured.
And then I notice:
They do not always hold me.
Marley Stuart, Pastry Cream, Reverie
I’m trying to remember
what it was, stirring tempered eggs
into hot milk and sugar at the shop
today, what exactly ran through
my mind as the foam cooked off
and the cream began to spit.
What was it?
The cream was turning out well,
hot enough to set when I poured
in the eggs. Steam crept up
my arms then snuck back into the pot
like a request withdrawn and the foam
cooked off. The cream thickened
and began to spit.
But wasn’t there something
before I emptied the cream
into pans to cool, something there
and lost in the pot like a drop of sweat
whisked in, something that stopped the steam
on the crook of my arm while the bell
rang over the door?
It was good to know the milk was hot
enough already, and I wouldn’t risk burning it
turning up the flame after adding the eggs.
Maybe it was that small reassurance,
nothing else. How much of life
comes down to a steady hand
Elaine Mansfield, A Narrow Escape
In June 1940, two weeks after Regina was married in a borrowed white dress, she missed her period. She didn’t say a word.
Six weeks after her wedding, she missed her period again.
“What should I do?” she asked her mama, Grazia. They spoke Italian, the only language her mother knew.
“Tell him,” Grazia said. “You have to tell him.
“I can’t,” the girl said. “He’ll hit me. He’ll scream and throw me out. I can’t tell.”
“You have to,” her mother said, wiping her daughter’s tears with her apron. “You can’t keep it secret. Your body will change. He’ll know.”
When she missed her third period, she gathered her courage. “We’re having a baby,” she said to her husband, hoping for a smile.
He scowled. “I told you I don’t want a screaming brat. It took a week for you to get in trouble? I shouldn’t have married a dumb virgin.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. Her eyes pleaded. He looked away. “We’re Catholic. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’re Catholic,” he screamed. “It’s all lies to me. You’re a dumb bitch. Figure out what to do.”
“I’m having our baby?” she said. It was a question more than a fact. Her wet eyes begged like a starving dog.
“No,” he said. His voice was a frozen knife. “I don’t want a brat in my way.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“My friend knows an old lady in the city who gets rid of babies. You can go to New York on the train.”
“I don’t want to,” Regina said. “I’m afraid.” She’s heard about the back-room women who get rid of babies. Besides, she loved her swelling breasts. She thought she loved this man, but he’d turned mean since the wedding. Instead of dancing and flirting, he drank shots of whiskey and hit her when dinner was late.
But what could she do?
She packed a small bag. He handed her a piece of paper with a phone number and drove her to the station.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said in that icy voice. He slipped her an envelope of cash before he grabbed her wrist and twisted hard. “This better be over when you come back. It’s either me or a brat. You know what to do.”
When the train arrived at Grand Central, she went the only place she knew, Aunt Rosa’s house. She could use the phone there. Aunt Rosa would never know. Regina knew she had to do this alone.
“Come in, my sweet Regina,” Aunt Rosa said when she opened the door. She peered into her niece’s eyes. “Are you OK?” Regina looked away to hide her seeping eyes.
“What’s wrong? Is he hitting you?” Tears made dark blotches on Regina’s pink shirt. She wasn’t good at keeping a secret.
“He hits me, but it’s worse. I have to get rid of a baby. I’m supposed to call this number.”
“That drunk son of a bitch,” Rosa yelled. “He sticks it in and walks out the door. Don’t cry, Regina. A child is a blessing. He’ll love the child.”
Deborah Cloonan, The Rope (Excerpt)
Dearing Award Winner
She pushed open the back storm door, the yard light arcing through the blowing snow. She felt for the rope with a gloved hand and used it to balance herself down the back porch steps. They had made fun of her for insisting on the rope, but they hadn’t lived through blizzards she had as a child, when people were known to lose their way as going to the barn, to be found frozen, just feet away from an outbuilding. The rope of her childhood had been thick and rough, with protruding whiskers and when rolled up in the spring was so heavy that it needed to be taken in with the wheelbarrow. Now it sat unused in the barn, stiff and dead, the winters having been milder in recent years. This fall, she had thought about putting out the rope again, thinking of getting to the barn or getting lost in a blizzard, thinking of the frigid cold. This new rope was silky and light, bought just for this job this fall.
Her name was Linda and she thought that fit her life. Unassuming. This South Dakota farmstead had been the backdrop for her almost all her life, except for the year after high school when she lived in Omaha. She had met her to-be husband, and he had agreed to return to South Dakota and make a life there with her. For several years they lived across the road from the farm, in a rented house. When her parents eventually moved to an apartment in town, yielding the farm life to the young, she and her husband and toddler son had moved in. When the farming itself didn’t carry them through, her husband got a job as a truck driver and she tended the family and the place, and in this fashion they raised their kids and got along. She worked as a secretary at the local grange off and on and sometimes at Christmas as a cashier at the Kmart.
There had been a horse when she was a teenager. She had always wanted a horse, fantasizing about a sleek steed, cantering through pristine forests, or streaking around the barrels at the fair, maybe even the fair in Sioux Falls. The reality of a farm daughter’s horse had turned out to be a stocky, stubborn horse capable of withstanding the livestock life, pasturing with the steer and the milk cow. The perpetual winds and lack of close neighbors made riding a lonely, blustery task and the sheen had been quickly taken off the fantasy. Her mare Candy had colicked one day when she was in high school. When she got off the bus, her father was using the tractor to dig a hole by the western fence line. She had taken it quietly, but her younger brother howled in confusion and distress until her mother took him to bed early.
Now her daughter had two horses on the same land, and her granddaughter was a good rider. The lonely riding had persisted, but they had a trailer to go to 4H shows, and the teenager was closer to that barrel racing dream. When Linda let go of the shiny rope to push the sliding barn door open, there was no greeting from the livestock within. The barn was not heated. The cow was lying down; the horses ignored her. She did not turn on the light. It was only slightly warmer with the animals’ body heat; miniscule heat was being generated by the chemical reactions in the soiled straw. There was a scent of hay, ammonia, and leather. Even in the cold, the waft of the ammonia was softened by the warm tannin of the leather. She thought of a balmy spring breeze with the trees just starting to green up, months away. If she lived to a day like that she would be bed-bound. She would be in that bedroom with the scalloped-edged sheets and her mother’s old apricot quilt, and she would probably feel frigid and shivering.
She moved to the stall of the bay gelding who had a patience about him. She put up her mittened hand to pat him on the side, but when he flinched she did not finish the pat, thinking better of disturbing the fine layer of warm under his coat. Instead she found the corner of his stall; the straw was clean there and she slid down to sit. She thought of the things that she would miss. She wondered how much the world would miss her. She wondered about her granddaughters’ lives, them getting older, and what the world would turn into.