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“We Meet Witnessing a Woman Get Stung by a Jellyfish,” by Erin Piasecki

We Meet Witnessing a Woman Get Stung by a Jellyfish

Erin Piasecki

The thing bobs like a breast implant in the water. Someone pees a thin, dark stream onto the woman’s leg. We murmur from twinned fold-out chairs, stand up, walk closer through the sand. Talk about what we saw, a shared interest in the ocean, giant squid. Repeat, that was nuts. When he pissed on her? Shit.

The evening ends with his tongue snaking my molars.

I am a magnet for events like these. Childhood friends losing minor fingers to hamsters. A throng of bees dappling the track team in red. Someone from the social media department coming back with a stripe of stitches across her shoulder from a bear that wandered into her kitchen. They let her run the press Twitter after that.

Under a sun-bleached umbrella, he programs his number into my phone.

So you have to text me, he explains.

The next day, I do.

He and I have been dating for a month the first time someone dies. I find the woman whose novel I am editing with a snake wrapped around her neck. Its snot-yellow underbelly. As I wait for the police, I keep a close eye on the wall of cages. Pastel blue pythons and drab gray ratsnakes and inky boas separated only by glass. The one conspicuously empty. The novel goes unfinished.

After, I begin to have dreams of snakes and jellyfish skirts and other veined, fibrous things. The mucus of the jellyfish; its embryonic pulsing. That I am myself but have gone see-through. Blood sliding up the exposed seams of me. I recline across blooms of pink jellyfish-breasts but wake up in bed.

Trauma, the psych says. Stress.

The dreams subside. Two months. We go on more dates. I coif my hair and wear a crepe dress in an erratic herringbone print. The collar is choked up my neck. He brings me places I would never go, where we eat lamb with malt reduction, raw cuts of sea bass, translucent jellies clotted with berries. We delight in the quiver. Spoon it into mouth. Later, I suck down his tongue while he ham-fists my breast. I cannot help wishing his tongue were softer, slicker. He fucks his salty finger into my mouth. I’ll take care of you, he says. Forever. I know he means it. I almost drown myself inside him.

We move in together. I ask, What can I do? but he says he has it all covered, Not to worry. He decorates. Polycarbonate dining chairs. A white lambskin settee with a hole through it like an open eye. Fluted glass vases empty of flowers. I press him into the settee and glide along his thighs. The wood floors hurt my knees. I say, Maybe a carpet, before opening my elastic mouth. I hold him inside until his breath comes fast and I go and spit his salt into the kitchen sink.

In the new place, it happens again. Snakes writhe like bowels. Jellyfish fall out of my bra. Shoals of fish navigate my lungs. There is a slipstream through me. A waterlogged heart.

Risperidone, the psych prescribes. Fluoxetine. Lithium.

It is two years post-jellyfish when he begins to look for things in my mouth. Asks that I present my tongue to him each night. I speak through his meaty fingers. What are you looking for? I ask, but he will not say. He wants to see inside me. It frustrates him, to not know the innards of things. I suspect for him that is more literal than not.

He grows obsessed with tongue, me with animals. I watch videos online. Funny Animals Attacking People. Swans slapping up water. A boar snuffing before it knocks over a plastic lawn chair. Softshell turtles throwing their weight.

After that is not enough, I begin to parade him by the zoo. Under the ropy hammocks and foliage, we wait for a monkey. Nothing. Lithium. More lithium. Put pill in mouth and swallow.

I say, Let’s go to the beach. We pulse our legs all the way to the deep end, where there are sightings of sand sharks. None.

All the grit of the beach wedges itself between my toes. I sit on the gingham towel and gingerly pry them apart. It’s noon, he says, and produces the rainbow-bright plastic box. After I swallow the spit down, he pulls my tongue out of my mouth. Inspects. Maybe it is an incriminating hue. Maybe it is fine. He gives no indication.

We stow the towel, the faded beach umbrella, the cooler. He locks the trunk while I extract more grains of sand from between my big and second toe. We stop at the corner store and get a ham sandwich with miry lettuce (my request), a Coke (also me), some saltwater taffy (him). A ribbon of purple snaps across the horizon.

After dinner, more tongue. He holds me steady between thumb and forefinger. As reward we spoon lime jello with gobs of suspended raspberries. The rest of the evening runs together, sodden. He laughs and spills red wine over the carpet I bought. It runs a narrow river where the fibers are pressed thin. He moves to kiss me below the skirt. I do not want to be touched. To be reminded of body. To think of breast, or tongue, or the hole in the middle. I imagine him holding both my kidneys in his hands like twinned lamb shanks.

In the bathroom the fan exhales against my face. There are bands of dark beneath my cheekbones. I twist my hand into my mouth and spit out pills, slimy bits of lunch meat, water. Electric green. Prod the lips up over gums. Stretch my tongue out, unspooling until it spills and thrashes into the clawfoot tub. Oh, I say.

I run the tap. Water swells up my thighs as I get in. The snake wraps around an ankle.

It is green as a jewel and pocked with white. It flourishes across my calf, winds up the leg. Something drops out the middle of me. The jellyfish, veined and translucent and stretching to fill the tub. Its arms like ruffled tongues. Dangling red threads.

I kick at it. Water sloshes over the lip and takes the jellyfish over the edge. It sits on the bathmat and shrivels. A plastic bag. Once it starts to crisp I drape the long threads of it over my arms and carry it out into the living room. 

He sits on the settee. I arrange the jellyfish like a runner across the acrylic table. He looks at me and his face turns milky. Let me explain, I go to say, but have forgotten. The snake still twists green in the water.

Two years minus one month. I am happy. We eat ice cream cones and sit on a bench in the park and watch the sun erase itself. I take a big lick and press my mouth against his. I push the malted vanilla between his teeth. He laughs as it dribbles down his chin. We totter home and slowly dress for a work event. All those interior decorators, people obsessed with sparseness and clean lines and translucence. He needs to find a tie, the perfect tie, the only tie. Jason will get the joke, he says. He rummages in the closet while I perch on the end of the bed and relay the reality TV drama unfolding onscreen. My heart is in my throat, pulsing beyond tongue. I know before he says because of the sound of them hitting the floor. I peer around the threshold, between his legs, and see the dented edge of the old shoebox.

And then, all around him, in a wave across the tile: Pink and burgundy and white and blue. Some still threaded with saliva. Pills and pills and pills.

Two years. Three years. I really don’t know. Things go down but are reluctant to come back up. What he might see inside the barrel of my mouth:

Swarms of honeybees / a runty bear / snakes knotted like shoelaces / a hamster named Rodrigo / softshell turtles with aimless, flare-gun anger / a bristly boar / swan feathers.

A normal pink tongue / some papillae.

Or maybe only open / dark /

empty.

About the Author

Erin Piasecki is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the Design Assistant at The Believer. Born in Fredericksburg but raised in Albuquerque, she returned to Virginia to receive her B.A. in Theatre from the University of Richmond. She has work forthcoming in The Adroit Journal and is currently working on her first novel.

Editorial Note

Erin Piasecki will be publishing another story with The Conium Review in our next print edition. If you enjoyed this story, watch for “Several Ways to Remove Yourself” in The Conium Review: Vol. 9 later this year.

“Hausfrau Dad,” by Yongsoo Park

Hausfrau Dad

Yongsoo Park

“Go ahead, Christopher. Reach out and grab your destiny,” said Jimmy, as the dozen guests, who had gathered to celebrate his son’s first birthday, oohed and aahed, eager to see which item the boy would pick to set the course for the rest of his life.

Jimmy thought the boy, who’d taken on only his and Grace’s best features, looked incredibly handsome in a traditional hanbok. The things one could buy on the Internet these days. A couple of clicks on a computer and a hanbok, sized perfectly for an average one-year-old boy, had appeared at their doorstep.

Guests shouted encouragements and offered commentary as Christopher’s hands wandered over the items in front of him: a toy stethoscope, a toy golf club, gold coins, a flute, a wooden spoon, a bundle of thread, and a calligraphy brush. A buffet of life trajectories spread out for all to see. Each item, a portent of what might be.

When Christopher’s hands moved toward the golf club, Mark, Jimmy’s good-natured brother-in-law, shouted, “Looks like there’s going to be an athlete in the family!”

Then, when Christopher’s hands moved toward the toy stethoscope, Jimmy grinned in anticipation. He had purposely set the stethoscope directly in front of the boy. He found it funny that he was behaving like the stereotypical Asian parent when his own parents had been so atypical. They’d never pushed him to be a doctor or lawyer. A part of him was grateful for this, but a part of him blamed them for not holding true to the stereotype. Had they crushed his dreams when they’d had the chance he might be a successful doctor or lawyer by now instead of the struggling writer and Hausfrau Dad he’d become.

Just then, Christopher’s hands settled on an item Jimmy had placed at the farthest edge of the table.

“He picked the calligraphy brush. That means he’ll grow up to be a scholar just like his father,” Jimmy’s mother shouted proudly like only a mother can do about a mediocre child.

Jimmy’s heart sank. It hadn’t even occurred to him to include the calligraphy brush on the menu for the day, but his dear mother had shown up with it and insisted on its inclusion.

“It’s tradition,” she’d reminded him. “You yourself picked this very brush on your first birthday.”

Tradition. With that single word, Jimmy’s mother had changed the course of Christopher’s destiny. As guests congratulated him, Jimmy forced himself to smile and told himself over and over that nothing is written in stone and a calligraphy brush didn’t have the power to determine a life. But he didn’t find himself very convincing.

About the Author

Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels Boy Genius and Las Cucarachas, the memoir Rated R Boy, and the essay collection The Art of Eating Bitter about his losing battle to give his children an analog childhood.

“Eight Thousand Dollars in 1981,”by Gina Rose

Eight Thousand Dollars in 1981

Gina Rose

They came to my door and it was very late. They were knocking. But I had barely fallen asleep. They didn’t know this about me. They didn’t know I was a night owl. I don’t remember asking them to please come inside, but I might have. They flashed their badges in my face. They said:

Do you have a camera?

A camera. A…what?

Now they are flashing their lights outside the house. Through the double pane windows. I bought the house in 1981 for eight thousand dollars. Good house. Never gave me a lick of trouble. Only thing is the four way stop outside that people tend to glide through. I never had an accident myself, but I’ve lived through a few of them.

The Browns, I told them. The Browns. They have a camera.

The Browns live across the street. South side of the street. Kitty katty korner to me.

That’s the Browns…

Now they are writing in their notebooks. Tiny pads of paper made for a Barbie doll-sized human of a being. 

We need to check the tapes.

The what?

The footage. See if there’s any footage of the footage. The footage we’re looking for.

I just remember, I say. I just remembered. I do have a camera. I do, in fact, have a camera.

They want to know where and I tell them. Or show them.

Now it’s several days later and I’m sitting across a desk.

We want to thank you for your cooperation, Mr. White. Yours is the only home surveillance camera that caught the footage.

The footage of the footage?

Of the killing. The hit and run. Fifteen years old. That poor boy…

I crumple a little in my chair across the desk from the person. It has to be a sign, I think. It has to be a sign. Why me? Why my camera? Why couldn’t it have been the Browns? Now I must live with the memory of this moment forever. It will forever belong to my truth and it’s something I never asked for. It has to be a sign. Why me?

They came to my door and it was very late. They were knocking. But I had barely fallen asleep. They were knocking and knocking. They came to my door and it was very late. I don’t remember asking them inside. They were knocking and at first I didn’t hear them. Knocking and knocking and knocking. And I couldn’t hear them at first. I don’t remember asking them to please come inside, but maybe I did. They were knocking. And it was very late. They were knocking and knocking and knocking. And when I finally heard them in this life, they were gone.

About the Author

Gina Rose is an African American and Chinese American writer in Oakland, California. She attended Barnard College in New York City where she received the Howard M. Teichmann Writing Prize. Her work has been featured in Rigorous and Penultimate Peanut magazines.

Editorial Note

This piece was selected during a special “(Re)new” themed call for submissions. The theme was curated by our managing editor, James R. Gapinski. The theme celebrates The Conium Review‘s new website and James’s new title, Fruit Rot, released on July 15th from Etchings Press at the University of Indianapolis.

“Creature Creator,” by Jane Hammons

Creature Creator

Jane Hammons

Elsa removed the bas-relief from the incubator in the hen house and placed it on the worktable. From malleable clay, she formed her creatures, adding barbs to the tail of one, a saber tooth to the snout of another. She webbed the wings of one in flight, reconsidered the head of the barb-tailed beast and made it fleshier, more sympathetic. To the one at the top of the tableau she added breasts. Then she carried the sculpture across the backyard and into her kitchen where she hid it in the oven.

Mariah, her youngest, was eager to mix a batch of birthday punch for Selena. An addict for years, Selena had been in and out of rehabs, on and off speed, coke, junk. No one had expected her to make it to thirty. Conceived under icy February clouds, Selena’s birthday fell on a harvest moon. Her father was transient, a wanderer taking a shortcut across Elsa’s fallow field. She devoured him. None of her daughters shared a father. Mariah’s, the singer, had been most tender.

Barbara, her eldest, disavowed the birthday rituals as pagan. The product of Elsa’s high-school-sweetheart-marriage, Barbara was prudish, embarrassed by her mother. Ordinarily, Elsa wouldn’t insist that Barbara attend. But for Selena’s landmark birthday, she enlisted the help of shy but strong Lulu, the child she made with a polygamous gambler.

Elsa set out utensils for Mariah. The one who mixed the punch could add ingredients, but the elements Elsa brought up from her cellar were essential.

Bone of father. Elsa scooped the powdery substance from a canister into a brown paper bag.

Blood of mother. Into a tin measuring cup, she poured thick red syrup from a green bottle.

Birth of child. Once she had wrested the honeycomb from the milk bucket where it was stored, Elsa scraped the goo that clung to it into a bell jar.

She placed the ingredients on the kitchen counter then climbed the stairs to her attic bedroom. She undressed and nestled into the bedclothes. Month after month, year after year, birthday celebrations took more and more out of her.

When she woke, Elsa looked out the attic window. The sky prepared to display the harvest moon that would rise over the field of dried corn stalks where sheep and geese grazed.

Lulu trudged into view. Her prey, trapped in a large burlap sack, fought her as she dragged it up the footpath. Without dressing, Elsa flew down the stairs to help. By the time she reached the backyard, the contents of the sack had burst. Barbara looked away from her mother whose naked body was burnished a rosy hue by the setting sun.

“Good work.” Elsa took Lulu’s arm and followed Barbara into the kitchen where Mariah finished pouring the punch from the mixing bowl into the earthenware crock. Elsa untied the apron from around her youngest daughter’s slender waist and tied it around her own thick one. “Where’s the birthday girl?” she asked.

“Here I am.” Selena stood at the top of the stairs. Over one arm, like a broken wing, hung a yellow baby dress. Over the other, a red padded snowsuit bulged, soft and muscular. Atop her head a blue bonnet. Around her legs, Selena had pulled petticoats, and tutus, layering her tight black jeans with clothing from her childhood. She slid down the banister. “Let’s begin.”

Elsa poured the punch and passed the cups.

“Fabulous concoction, Mariah,” said Selena.

“The best.” Elsa was satisfied Mariah could carry on the family tradition.

“Present me, present me.” Selena demanded her gifts.

Mariah handed Selena a small glass teardrop hanging from a thin wire. “I blew it myself.”

“Fantastic!” Selena pulled out one of the studs in her earlobe and replaced it with the drop of Mariah’s breath.

She looked next to Lulu who had no gift. Capturing Barbara had taken all her time and energy. She thrust the torn burlap sack at her sister.

“Exquisite.” Selena tied it around her waist.

Reluctant to admit she was present against her will, Barbara ripped pages from her Bible and threw them at Selena. They fell like autumn leaves around her.

“Marvelous.” Selena gathered them and tucked them into her burlap waistband.

“And now this.” Elsa took the bas-relief from the oven. “It hasn’t been fired yet, so it can become whatever you want it to be.”

Selena dug into the moist clay. She carried the first piece, the bountiful breasted mammal to Elsa. The animal with the wings went to Mariah, the saber-tooth snout to Lulu, the handsome barbed-tailed creature to Barbara. The spiny-plated creature she recognized as her own.

Mariah smeared the clay like a mudpack over her arms. She rustled her delicate wings, eager to try them. Rejuvenated by the punch Lulu stabbed vigorously at the table with her saber-tooth snout. Barbara stuffed her mouth with clay and slapped her long, barbed tail upon the floor. Selena rattled the plates along her spine.

Elsa applied the clay breasts to her withered ones. Together the family trundled and gnashed out the door and into the fields, where they chased the geese, teased the cows, butted the sheep and shook the trees. The stars fled into the black sky. The moon glowed.

Night became day. The beasts molted their wings and barbs, plates and snouts. Barely conscious, the creatures sought the softest parts their mother. Suckling and chewing, they slept. Elsa hoped what remained of her when they woke would not frighten them. Bone, cartilage, gut, hair. It needed to be collected and stored in the cellar. One might deny what she’d experienced, believe it a dream, another forget. But she was confident that at least one daughter would nurture and recreate the mothers she carried within her.

About the Author

Jane Hammons taught writing at UC Berkeley for thirty years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she writes, takes photographs and frequently listens to live music. Her fiction has appeared in Akashic Books (online Mondays Are Murders); Alaska Quarterly Review; Contrary Magazine; Southwestern American Literature and Tupelo Quartery. She is a Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Editorial Note

This piece was selected during a special “(Re)new” themed call for submissions. The theme was curated by our managing editor, James R. Gapinski. The theme celebrates The Conium Review‘s new website and James’s forthcoming title, Fruit Rot, due out on July 15th from Etchings Press at the University of Indianapolis.

“Rehearsal,” by Thomas Michael Duncan

Realistic reel of film, doodle style

Turns out there’s always work for a corpse. I’m talking movies, TV, emopunk music videos, texting-and-driving commercials, crime scene reenactments, all that jazz. If you’ve turned on your cable box in the last month, you’ve seen me dead. Most of my appearances are in the first two minutes of police dramas. Sometimes the script calls for me to be naked, washed up on a beach with seaweed in my hair. Sometimes I play a woman corpse; they position me facedown, shave my back, and put a red curly wig on my head. Open casket scenes are best because I wear a clean suit and coffins are lined with satin. More often I’m discovered in a dumpster, bloody with shackle bruises on my ankles and wrists, or bunched up and stuffed into a front loader at an abandoned laundromat. I get really into my parts. I can keep my eyes open for almost an hour without blinking. I can breathe for a whole day without expanding my chest cavity. When I’m dead, I think dead people thoughts, like what year is it? and where am I buried? and how many ounces in a pint? I block out my surroundings so well that I don’t always come back to life when the scene ends. If this happens, the production assistant dumps a glass of water over my head. That usually does the trick. Last fall I costarred with Dwayne Johnson. It was during his Dwayne Johnson phase. I played his dead brother. DJ cradled me in his gorilla arms and cried and shook like a paint can mixer at Home Depot. I acted dead. DJ didn’t stop crying until after lunch. My agent says I’m the most convincing corpse he’s ever seen, and he’s seen actual corpses. Auditions can be tough—the competition is stiff. Sorry. That’s an industry joke. But really, casting is uncomfortable. The directors shout at me, kick me, call me names, eat plates of linguine off my back. But I am dead as a dinosaur. They usually apologize after. My girlfriend decided we should try role playing, but she always wanted me to play the same part. We broke up. It was mutual. Now I have the apartment to myself so I can rehearse whenever I like. I play loud music and leave all the widows open and door unlocked and shower running in hopes that someone will discover me. That’s my one fantasy. It would be the absolute height of my career to be mistaken for a corpse by a pedestrian. I imagine being declared dead, fooling even the coroner. I would remain in character until the first shovel of dirt hit the mahogany.

About the Author:

Thomas Michael Duncan writes fact, fiction, and the occasional bit of nonsense. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Image Credit: © Handini_Atmodiwiryo – stock.adobe.com

“Empty Nest,” by Jillian Jackson

Rabbit sketch

The day her youngest left for college, she came home with two cats. A boy and a girl, just like her children. Everyone understood. The nest was empty. It’s that thing. It’s only natural.

“You’re such a little peanut,” she said to one of the cats. “My little Peanut. Peanut Butter. Peanut Butt.”

“Biscuit,” she said to the other. “Bisquick. Little Bisque. Bisque-Kitten. Biscuit-Tin. Lobster Bisque. My little Lobster, sweet Lobster Claw.”

She bought them beds and toys and treats. She let them scratch her couch. She scooped their poop twice a day. She liked the crunching sounds they made when they ate their dry food with their precise little teeth. The metal tinkling of the tags on their collars, like tiny bells, joyful sounds that let her know they were close.

It wasn’t enough. While her husband was at work, she went to the pet store and bought some rabbits. The rabbits proceeded to do it like rabbits. More rabbits. Her husband helped her build hutches around the house. She fed them each their own head of lettuce. She stuck her fingers through the wire cages. They were soft, impossibly soft, so soft, eight, sixteen, twenty-four soft little feet, lucky feet.

Too many rabbits, her husband said. The nest was too full. He made her put an ad in the local paper: bunnies for sale. But then he had a heart attack, and when the house was dark and her children had left again and all the flowers had wilted and she put the cards away and there weren’t any more casseroles in the freezer, she was grateful she still had the rabbits, and it seemed to her, in fact, that she did not have enough rabbits.

Maybe it wasn’t rabbits, precisely. Maybe it was something else she needed. Hamsters. Hamsters were small. They could fit in your pocket. That could be her new thing. Now that she was not all the things she used to be, she could be the lady who did that, who went around town with a hamster in her pocket.

The hamster did not like her pocket. It did not mind its cage: the wood chips, the brightly colored tubes, sucking from the metal tip of the water bottle. The sound of its nails against the plastic, its feet scrambling through the loops, comforted her. “Silly hamster,” she said. “Hamster-Ham. You are my smoky little Ham.”

When she got the hamsters she also got two goldfish. Impulse buy at the checkout line. The same way she would sometimes buy a candy bar, or a trashy magazine. Two fish, a tank, a filter, fish flakes, pink pebbles, seaweed plants, a castle, a plastic diving man, a Jacques Costeau. She wondered what they would do if she stroked their glittering scales with the pads of her fingers.

Weeks later she was out running errands. She was buying food for herself and for the cats and the fish and the hamster and the rabbits. When she got to the dairy section, she thought, how silly. How silly to spend money when there are creatures that will give these things to you for free.

She bought a full-grown chicken and a couple of chicks. She named the chicken Pokey. “Little Poke,” she said. “Hey there, Pokey-Partner.”

She put the chicken in a coop in the yard and the chicks under heat lamps in the living room. Their yellow feathers glowed under the hot red lights. She cupped a chick in her hands and said, “What a lovely fluff. Fluffy baby.”

Then, of course: a cow for the milk. A couple horses, because, why not?

To the horses, she said: “Beautiful. Perfect,” and she ran her palm over their wet velvet noses, kissed the wide hard plane of their foreheads.

Birds: lovebirds, parrot, parakeets. She gave them their own room. “This is for the birds!” she punned. Soon, she joked to no one in particular, she would need an ark. But, she laughed, there were sometimes more and sometimes less than two of every kind.

But when she fell asleep at night, she thought: this is not what I want. How have I strayed so far from what I want?

What she really wanted was to lock herself inside a cage. For someone to feed her, bathe her, pet her, brush her. She wanted someone to make up nicknames for her, call her sweet diminutives, to hold her, tightly, so tightly she could not breathe, and tell her that she was beautiful, perfect, perfect; that she was the best thing in the whole world, the only thing, and she wanted to go limp in that warm embrace, to know nothing except the sound of a soft voice singing her praises, unintelligible words of comfort, murmurs of endless, boundless love.

About the Author:

Jillian Jackson is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Boston University, where she received the Florence Engel Randall Graduate Fiction Award. She’s also the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly and Misadventures Magazine.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.

Image Credit: © Vadim Gnidash – stock.adobe.com