Issue 128 of fiction brings you the unwanted, the imprisoned, and the unhinged. What is real? Only the best writers can answer this with positive uncertainty. Sit back and let Matthew Burnside, Timothy Bearly, and Jennifer Walkup turn your world over.
Procession of the Dogface Lepers
“The one thing nobody can do for you is walk on your own two feet.”
―Old Dogface proverb
Once a year, we clear the streets for the lepers. Old as sea, sun, and star, the Festival of Maw has been the most prized of my people’s traditions since the beginning of our recorded history. The horned hail from all directions: north, south, east and west. In ragged droves and clanking caravans they come, snaking through the hills and treading the sharp-pebble beaches, marching the sun-baked cobble streets of Lamsdown, weighty cowbells swinging from the necks of the adults and tinsel chimes tinkling on the children’s dainty wrists.
Barefoot and threadbare they walk―day and night, without rest, without drink―suffering the elements and bearing their burden in silence and humility. Some will sew their mouths shut in protest while others haul impossibly cumbersome items strapped on their backs in lieu of the conventional albatrosses. Lead anvils; sacks of dirt, sand, or seed; grandfather clocks; bedposts; small, uprooted trees; rubber tires; anything to spite the cruel lot of my tribe who go out of their way to make the long pilgrimage even more oppressive than it already is.
Those who relish the migration of the lepers like sport plant thorns or spread broken glass ahead of time along the Trails of the Filthy, pelt the Dogfaces with soured trash or spoiled food as they pass by their village. They’ll enjoy chilled purified water in their presence, a delicacy afforded only to those born of my caste, while the Dogfaces grow up drinking from the streams where we deposit our refuse, in which we urinate and defecate and dispose of our dead and contaminated.
All along the trails around festival time, you’ll spy horned dolls strung from tree limbs, snouts stitched smiling to mock the horned ones. At festival’s end, each doll is clipped down and tossed into the stream.
Righteous children like me wave to them floating out to sea while adults rejoice for the purification of the kingdom for another year. If perchance it rains during the festival, Dogface mothers will be seen lashing their young with a look, curt reminders to accept not one drop on their tongues, for it is taboo, a weakness and therefore against their way. At times, a Dogface child will pass out from exhaustion, the mother or father will scoop and hoist them up, carry them for many miles. If they wake before reaching the destination, they are immediately placed back on their own two feet to finish the trek alone.
Almost there, my beautiful child, I once heard a Dogface dare to whisper to her son, a child with abnormally protrudent horns for his age. No crying, do not allow them that. A stark sunless face tried its best to bury shameful tears, but I saw them clinging to his chin before being absorbed by a mother’s skirt. The boy saw that I saw, too. I could not look him in the eye. When they made it to the edge of the cliff―what is known as The Maw to us, but to them, simply: The Long Bridge Home―that same boy waved at me, then dove knees first into the icy waters below.
Steam rose slow, there was a howl deep beneath the waves, then a red cloud which crept up to the surface, spread like a blanket unfurling upon the sea’s livid skin. Blossoming out, swirling like rose-colored wine. One by one they pitched themselves off the precipice after that, paying the price of our sins so we wouldn’t have to.
I wonder sometimes why I wasn’t born a Dogface. Why I was born clean, without a scar on my soul. Why me? Why not them? Why not that boy?
Mother scolds me for entertaining these thoughts. You are what you are. They are what they are. He that made Us made Them. All is right as rain, she tries to put me at ease, but her logic only confuses me, angers me more. Father forbids wrestling with such nonsense, too.
Reminds me that What if? is a dangerous thought, maybe the most dangerous of all thoughts. Still. I can’t help it. Secretly, I admire them. To swallow slaughter with such grace is an art. The Dogfaces are artists. They are beautiful to me. We bleed the same blood: blood without a face. Weep the same salt of sadness. I don’t believe in the old way. But who am I to challenge the elders? To defy sea, sun, and star? Tonight is the night before the festival, and I lie awake haunted by a hand that won’t stop waving to me and only me, a phantom splash that won’t stop hammering the silence in my head.
No matter what I do, I keep seeing those bodies float up to the surface. Too many to count, innumerous as the stars and their infinite wisdom. Yet I try and count them, give each driftwood corpse a name. This is the punishment I give myself. I won’t sleep until I have counted them all. I can’t ever count them all.
But all is right as rain, I am told. Something is terribly wrong with the rain.
Matthew writes from Texas, where he edits the litzine Mixed Fruit Mag.
Life Unworthy of Life
Here, in this infinitesimally small prison cell, in this dark and frigid penitentiary, the barbarous inmates foam at the mouth and bellow all night, the corrections officers have egos the size of mastiffs, and the warden is as sadistic and fiendish as a squirrel.
I have no voice to plead my innocence, or to plead for my exoneration. All that I can do is await my impending execution. If I did have a voice, I would tell you that I have done nothing wrong, and that I am an innocent man. Guilty only of the transgression of “defecating in public” when they picked me up and threw me in the back of the patrol car. But no one would hear my case, and it is just the same for the others on death row, no due process, no jury of our peers. In fact, we are a subspecies, a genus that is not mentioned in the Magna Carta.
Indeed we are societies derelicts, the bastard children of bitch mothers, the unwanted mongrel progeny of unfaithful fathers, but we must face the ramifications of our begetters actions. Yes my “friend”, even the community’s second class citizens are our masters, we are alpha to no one.
They say that lethal injection is painless, I wonder how they can be so certain. Are they receiving tweets from the grave saying “It didn’t hurt a bit, thanks again for the quick and humane execution”. It has been 14 days, so I guess tonight I will find out how painless it is.
“Mans best friend eh? With friends like these, who the needs parvo?”
Papillons last words
Papillon was executed on october 18th at 6:30 p.m. Subsequently the three year old (21 in dog years) Airidale-Lakeland mix was placed in a black cadaver bag and then put in a large freezer located in the back of the grimy basement of the ramshackle—humane society—building. His body will eventually be donated to a university so that veterinary students can practice performing surgeries on his corpse. Thus enabling them to more effectively save the lives of—AKC acknowledged—purebreds.
Timothy writers from Idaho, where he likes to fish and spend time with his family.
I set the dishes at the garden table, feeling very much like the mad hatter amidst the overgrown and dripping ferns. Oval-shaped, wrought iron and heavy, the table’s piled with dishes; colorful, mismatched and chipped, vibrant against the saturated day.
My feet slip on the mud-slick patio. The rain is perfect, cool drops rolling down my scalp like marbles, gathering on my neck like old friends. Typically, I watch the rain from inside, standing at the stove, preparing endless meals for guests that just won’t leave. They sit in my dining room, leaking on the carpet. Rotting against my good chairs.
One by one, I usher them out now, an arm around them for support, all but dragging. Well, with Herbert I do drag, but I’m gentle when I prop him in his chair. And I’m nice. I give him the head seat. Even put the ashtray beside him, pipe tucked in his breast pocket.
I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, I didn’t kill them.
Why would I kill them and then care for them this way? Applying rouge to Aunt Mae’s sagging face, the way she liked? Sitting my sister and her allergies far from the blooming lilacs?
After pouring tea in cups already brimming with rain, I pass out scones that are admittedly stale, but nonetheless pocked with chocolaty goodness and a perfect twinge of orange, and that are quickly becoming soggy.
“A make believe tea party,” I mutter.
“Stop that.” I tsk. “You have friends. You have family.”
I do, don’t I? I’m not nearly alone.
Not unloved at all.
The rain smells good, earthy and dirty and clean. I pause, scone halfway to my mouth, considering the rain dripping off Herbert’s chin.
“Ridiculous.” I laugh, bending to wipe it with a sopping, pink cloth napkin. When I touch him, his mouth falls into an open half-smile.
“Really, now, Herbert. Mouth open at the table?”
“Humph,” Herbert says.
My head snaps up.
But Herbert merely stares, mouth still hanging in a sloppy O.
With my jagged pinky nail, I pick chocolate from my scone until the whole thing crumbles.
“Isn’t that wasteful?” Herbert drones.
He hasn’t moved, but I detect a sparkle in his eyes.
“What do you care?” Defensive. I can crumble scones if I want.
Herbert grunts, low. The way he used to, like a growling dog.
I roll my eyes, settling into our old routine. “Give it a rest,” I say.
Well. Isn’t that just funny.
I giggle. And then I can’t stop. I’m laughing, really laughing, tears rolling on my cheeks, mixing with rain that drips from the sky like something thick. Ink rain and salt tears, mixing on my shirt.
When I look up, Herbert’s laughing too, because, God, isn’t it funny? I mean, isn’t it just ridiculous?
“It is!” he answers, reading my mind, which only makes me howl louder. Around the table, everyone’s still lifeless, but Herbert slides forward in his chair, barking his smoker’s laugh and slapping a decayed hand on the table.
I nearly knock the table over in my haste, gathering dishes and cups in one swoop, crashing them to the patio. In my panic, I even knock Herbert to the ground, where he lies face down, shoulders still shaking with laughter.
“Shhhh!” I shout, quietly as I can.
But here’s Josh, hands on my shoulders.
“Mother.” He says it firmly, like his tight grip steering me toward the house. “You’re going to catch pneumonia.
“But…” I trail off. Why is he letting me off the hook about his dead father, laughing on the patio? And what about the others?
In the kitchen, I pull open a drawer and select a long carving knife. I try to twirl it in my hand like I’ve seen in movies.
Josh’s eyes soften.
“Mom.” He says, gently holding my wrist, plucking the knife from me like it’s a blade of grass. “You need help. Let me help.”
I look over his shoulder. Herbert still lies on the flagstone. The others slump in their chairs.
“My party,” I say.
“You can’t keep having parties by yourself in the rain.”
I’m not alone, I want to say, but I can’t push the words past the stitched seam my mouth has become.
Outside, Josh pushes the party into garbage bags, even my good dishes.
When he’s done, the patio’s empty, save for the rain.
Jennifer writes from New Jersey, where she pens young adult novels, short stories, and is the fiction editor for The Meadowland Review.