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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.

“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

The Conium Review 2016 “Count”

Typically, we release our gender ratio statistics around the same time as the official VIDA count. However, we wanted to tally the numbers before the AWP Conference in Washington, DC. There’s also the small matter of today’s inauguration, wherein a serial misogynist was sworn into the nation’s highest office. It seems like a good time to remind the literary community that there are still places where women’s voices can be heard, even if those places seem increasingly under attack.

The Conium Review: Vol. 5 featured a larger percentage of women than any previous print issue of The Conium Review, and our combined print and online count held steady at 76% self-identified female authors. For those who haven’t read The Conium Review: Vol. 5 yet, there is also a distinct feminist undercurrent in many of the pieces, even more noticeably than the average issue of The Conium Review. This wasn’t a reactionary plan of any sort (the issue was finalized before the November election results). In the simplest terms, this is just where our editorial aesthetic leans — toward fiery voices that refuse to be marginalized. Given the events of today, I’m glad to see our press putting out a lit mag with stories in this vein. It seems necessary in this social climate. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep reading. Stay strong.

(And as always, we’d like it if you’re writing something a bit weird/surreal/bizarre too).

The Conium Review 2016 “Count”

%

Female (Total Print & Online)

%

Male (Total Print & Online)

%

Female (Print)

%

Female (Online)

%

Male (Print)

%

Male (Online)

Okay, now let’s break it all down. Our 2016 count is 76% female and 24% male. The previous year’s overall count was identical at 76% female to 24% male. The 2014 gender ratio was 64% female and 36% male.

Throughout the entire year, The Conium Review published 29 authors total, with 22 self-identified female authors and 7 self-identified male authors.

In the annual print edition, we published 9 self-identified female authors and 1 self-identified male author, for a ratio of 90% women and 10% men. Within our online arm, The Conium Review Online Compendium, we published 19 authors total, with 13 female authors and 6 male authors, with a ratio of 68% women to 32% men.

Throughout most of 2016, the editorial masthead contained 10 people, 7 of whom self-identify as female, 3 of whom self-identify as male, for a behind-the-scenes ratio of 70% women and 30% men.

Historically, we’ve tallied out “count” only for The Conium Review as a periodical. However, we launched a few books in 2016 through Conium Press. These authors are not reflected in our overall count, but the numbers don’t change much either way. We’re a boutique press with only a couple titles each year. Of the two books published this year, one was written by a self-identified female and one was written by a self-identified male. We also released two limited-run micro-chapbooks, again with a ratio of one woman and one man. If you add these Conium Press numbers to our tally, it becomes 33 authors total — with 24 women and 9 men — for a total ratio of 73% women and 27% men. Whether you crunch the numbers as 76% or 73%, we still think it’s a damn good gender ratio. With the excessive number of magazines that seem to propagate the same male voices over and over and over and over again, we’re glad to offer a counterbalance — even if it’s only partial counterbalance. Especially on today of all days.

Vol. 5 Collector’s Edition Box Set Preview

The Conium Review: Vol. 5 paperback edition officially launched on December 15th. The Vol. 5 collector’s edition is slated for December 30th.

Like the Vol. 3 collector’s edition and the Vol. 4 collector’s edition, we’re loading up a wooden box with individual handmade objects. Each story will be represented as its own micro-chapbook.

This year’s box will actually be more box-ish than previous years (rather than resembling a wooden book). It’s roughly a 3.5-inch cube (not quite a cube — one side is around 4 inches — but close enough). It’s fitted with a metal latch and hinges. This box will be hand-stamped with the title, ISBN, and price.

Over the next few days, will show other pieces of the collector’s edition, leading up to its reveal and sale on December 30th. Stay tuned!

Stephen Graham Jones will be our 2017 Innovative Short Fiction Contest judge!

Stephen Graham Jones headshotWe’re pleased to announce our next Innovative Short Fiction Contest judge: Stephen Graham Jones. This guy is a writing machine. He’s published over twenty books, including Demon TheoryThe Last Final GirlGrowing Up Dead in TexasAfter the People Lights Have Gone Off, and others. His most recent book is the novel Mongrels. He teaches at the University of Colorado.

The winner receives $500, publication in The Conium Review, five contributor copies, and a copy of the judge’s latest book.

The Conium Review 2017 Innovative Short Fiction Contest opens for submissions on February 1st, 2017. The deadline is May 1st, 2017. Full guidelines are available here.