Come join our *Witness* team! We are currently looking for volunteer readers, in every genre. For consideration, please send a short bio &/or CV, as well as your preferred genre(s) to email@example.com by Sept 25th. We can hardly wait!#writingcommunity #litmag #readers pic.twitter.com/mxHg2zxhiC
— Witness Magazine (@witnessmag) September 21, 2020
A Review of The Loneliest Band in France: A Novella
By Veronica Klash
The Loneliest Band in France: A Novella by Dylan Fisher, published by Texas Review Press is presented in halves. In the first, the reader follows Sri Lankan Migara de Silva through the streets of Montpelier, where he is studying at the local university. A stream of occurrences flow into one another, buoyed by a stream of consciousness narration. In the second half, Migara’s father, whose plans and intentions are at the forefront of the first half, shoulders some of the narrative burdens and transports the reader with a series of illuminating flashbacks into the main character’s childhood. It’s a challenge to summarize this work without divulging key points that are best discovered as the author intended.
It’s revealed early in the text that the title, The Loneliest Band in France is in fact the name of a band Migara—or Paul as he is known to the band members—befriends in the first portion of the novella. Indeed the band is a vital piece of Migara’s tale, but it’s the loneliest qualifier which introduces the reader to one of the prevalent themes coursing through Fisher’s captivating debut.
“…but I did have a title, am human and thus named, have a name, had one at the time, Migara, Migara, Migara de Silva, but instead I gave them a false one, one that was not mine, Paul, a name that allowed me to hide, to blend in despite my darker skin, despite my terrible French, in this country that was so nostalgic and numb…” (6)
The juxtaposition of loneliness in an immigrant versus a native, and later in the work, a child versus a parent creates relief topography of the universally relatable emotion.
Fisher draws a first-person literary narrative, shaded by magical realism and etched with a voice reminiscent of mid-century classics such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The work seems to be the spiritual descendant, particularly as it relates to pacing and experimental nature, of the writings of Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges. A single sentence makes up 38 pages of the 61-page novella. The author builds dense momentum within comas and ellipses adopting—among other stylistic tools—anaphora, and anadiplosis. Illustrated to great effect within the following quote in reference to Migara’s father.
“…yes, he would want that, would want anything, he would want me anywhere, anywhere but here, for here (in the practice space of The Loneliest Band in France AKA Sirens!) was uncertainty, here was trouble, here was where he might lose his only son, here lay the potential for harm, for death, here neither he nor I could predict the future, spawning outward, minutes or years ahead, although it was already becoming clear…” (4)
This format is unforgiving of a reader with waning or wondering attention. A sharp focus must be maintained for each phrase, each word, each punctuation carries meaning and purpose. The reader risks losing crucial fabric scraps of information, which when sewn together form an examination of rebellion, expectations, existential angst, paranoia, and racism.
Fisher bolsters these interrogations of the human condition with inventive descriptions and analogies. He twists words into fully realized images, transmitting the mesmerizing details from the page into the mind with a fast flourish.
“…two silent children, children I had never heard make a sound, like two gigantic mice, like two cotton balls, just as white, sliding about the tile floors…” (4)
“…if only to gander at the water, the sun bouncing off of it as if the grand attraction in a house of mirrors, reckless and distorted and never the same from one look to the next…” (44)
These contortions of language become a welcome respite. They give the reader a place to rest and refresh, like a ship docking at the port before departing on another journey through rough and exciting seas. The seas of course being the rapid-fire plot turns, shifts in thematic scope, and sudden deep dives into weighty topics.
The author is adept at devising and excavating the confluence of past and future and then returning to the present. All done seamlessly, though not effortlessly. The reader is first introduced to this skill when directions to the bathroom from one of the band members, turn into introspection, and a merciless plummet into the depths of suicide. This technique surfaces a second time when Migara describes his father’s eyes and takes the reader on a protracted journey through time, tense, politics, colonialism, bureaucracy, and familial relationships. At the heart of this novella is a father/son relationship, soured by trauma and presumption.
This is an ambitious work of fiction, making the most of its short format, exploring pain inflicted willingly and unwillingly in the quest for happiness, forgiveness, and change. It is likely to spark much discussion and reflection from readers, not only for its literary merit but also for the portrayal of suicide, along with the ability of a white-presenting author writing from the perspective of a person of color. As one of the marks of excellence in a work of art is the quality of conversation it will generate, the conversations to be generated by The Loneliest Band in France are the worthwhile payoff of reading this novella.
Now accepting art for our 2021 Spring Issue!
September 1st – November 1st
We are now open for our Spring 2021 print issue: As Seen on TV. The theme is open to each author’s interpretation, and we encourage creative approaches. As COVID-19 continues to impact our lives, many of us have turned to television as a source of comfort. Yet, these familiar shows are now populated by characters and situations that seem at odds with our current conditions of face-masks, social distancing, and the looming threat to our health. Our lives have become stranger than fiction.
We are interested in your essays, poems, and stories that capture this strangeness. Tell us your thoughts about television as culture, as medium, as entertainment, as sales pitch, or maybe as a source for change… Consider us your captive audience. We look forward to channeling the zeitgeist to interrogate our times. Can’t wait to read you!
by Kristin Ito
“Thespians!” he shouts at us from the front of the crowded restaurant.
Katie and I had been talking to the man ten minutes earlier at the bar. In his fifties or sixties, he wore Buddy Holly glasses and a wide Cheshire Cat smile.
He’d ordered a couple of drinks, and while he waited we made small talk: he asking if we were locals, and we asking how someone from New Zealand—obvious from his accent—had ended up in this small college town. He was here for his daughter’s graduation.
I had taken a sip of my gimlet and smiled happily, nuzzling into Katie’s curls.
“Oh!” the man yelped. “You’re lesbians! How wonderful.”
There was no irony in his voice, just genuine surprise and pleasure. Then: “I have a story for you about my daughter.”
“Okay,” I said, motioning for him to go on.
“One day she was pitching a fit and acting so dramatic.” The man mimicked her, arms akimbo. “So I said to her, ‘You’re quite the thespian.’ And you know what she says?”
We shook our heads no.
“‘What’s that? A lesbian with a lisp?’”
He guffawed, almost spilling his drink, and we all laughed. The joke didn’t seem mean-spirited—more just clever word play from this wild, gregarious Kiwi. We talked with him for a few more minutes, and then he went back to the front of the restaurant where his wife was waiting.
“Thespians!” the man is hollering down the bar. “Come sit with us!” He’s smiling, waving his arms above his head like an airplane marshal.
One of the bartenders looks up, concerned.
“Are you two all right?”
“Yes, we were just—“
“Is that man harassing you?”
“No, no,” I say, trying to explain.
“I can kick him out,” another one says, wiping his hands on a towel and glaring at the man.
“He was just, um. He’s fine.” We scramble over to the man and his wife, now seated at a booth. They ask us to join them for dinner, and we thank them for the offer, but decline.
When the place has quieted down, the staff huddles around us. We’re regulars and have gotten to know the restaurant owner’s son, Antonio Jr. His boyfriend comes around sometimes, a good-looking blonde with a tan who sometimes helps seat customers. I wonder how Antonio Senior feels about his son being gay. I wonder if the Italian machismo made it worse, and then I think how so many cultures have a sense of machismo, only sometimes there isn’t such a tidy word for it.
A young bartender with a goatee brings us a round of drinks. He tells us his sister is a lesbian.
“I almost lost my shit,” he tells us. “I thought that man was yelling, ‘LESBIANS!’” We laugh for a while at this ridiculous misunderstanding. But then we’re all a little quiet because I suppose he kind of was, though.
Katie and I walk into the warm summer night. Eucalyptus trees tall as buildings sway in the wind, long dry leaves crackling in the breeze. We live in a town near the coast, one that on weekends is flooded with farm bros from the Central Valley. Having grown up in LA, I’d never seen anyone wearing a cowboy hat that wasn’t a part of a Halloween costume, but here it’s common to see them, almost always accompanied by a pair of Wranglers.
There isn’t a gay bar in town, no rainbow flags in storefront windows. No businesses owned by gay or lesbian couples, at least not that we know of. But next month, there will be a pride party in the plaza, where young parents will bring their children for the afternoon and let them run around with face paint and glitter.
Still, it’s 2016 in California and we feel comfortable enough holding hands on the street. Some people hardly give us a second glance, but other times we get slight nods of the head, as if to say, You go, girls. I’m surprised that it’s often middle-aged women who give us these shy smiles of encouragement. Once when we were in the definitely-flirting-but-still-just-friends stage of things, a couple of women in mom jeans eyed us from the table next to us. “You two are so cute!” they squealed. We blushed and told them we weren’t together, which was true, though not for long.
But of course, as two women in a relationship, we’re often sexualized by men—straight white men, to be more exact. Once while we’re at the new brewpub in town, eating dinner at the bar, an older man slinks up behind us. Salt and pepper hair slicked back, barking out his drink order. He’s visiting his daughter at college, he tells us, standing too close. His drink arrives, but he lingers, ogling our intimacy. He chuckles to himself and we know that something foul is going to come out of his mouth.
“We all have something in common,” he says. “We all love vaginas.”
And there it is, just out there like the smell of a harsh cologne. A complete stranger talking about our genitals while we’re trying to enjoy our flatbread pizza. And now he’s saying something about how he’d recently divorced and has been dating a ton and how much he loves all the different lips, the pink lips and the brown ones, and I’m not even listening; I’m just looking wide-eyed at Katie and at the people around us: Are you hearing this?
“My daughter likes to ride horses, and I built her this beautiful stable,” he’s saying. How had he switched from vaginas to his daughter’s hobbies?
That’s when a young girl who looks about sixteen, who’d been standing a few feet away with her boyfriend this whole time, approaches. She rolls her eyes so hard I can see the whites and nothing else. She says nothing to us, but tugs on her father’s sleeve until he finally raises his glass and follows.
I see a post on Twitter the other day about a twenty-five-year-old who just came out as non-binary to their ninety-year-old grandmother. Expecting her to have the same negative reaction their parents had, they’re surprised when Grandma takes it in stride, saying, “I get it. You’re somewhere in between.”
Then there are Katie’s friends from water aerobics class, most of them in their seventies. Nancy, seventy-five years old, uses the word “partner” for her husband because she wants to use a non-gendered term, plus she’s never really much felt like a “wife.” Alice, sixty-eight years old, accidentally asks about Katie’s husband, but then immediately corrects herself—“partner, I mean.” There’s Gene, seventy years old, happily married and off to Mexico for the winters with his husband and Sheryl, who lost her wife of thirty years not too long ago.
So when I catch myself or others using “It’s a generational thing” as an excuse for homophobia, I think of the white-haired water-loving, people-loving septuagenarians at Evergreen Wellness, who remind me to expect more of people, no matter their age.
One time when Katie and I are on vacation in Portland, a Lyft driver picks us up in a minivan. It’s summer, and the driver, a man in his late sixties, has the windows rolled down to let the breeze in. He has a Jerry Garcia vibe, with a mustache and tan arms, his left one three shades darker than his right. We chat for a few minutes, and upon realizing we are girlfriend and girlfriend, the man opens up and tells us his story.
“My daughter’s best friend growing up came out to his parents in high school,” he starts, leaning back into his seat. “They kicked him out.”
“Oh no,” we murmur in the back seat. Heavy, hot air billows in through the windows, but it feels good on my skin, chilled from an afternoon of hopping around air-conditioned coffee shops.
The man continues: his daughter’s friend came to live with them and eventually, the man and his wife adopted him.
“That’s wonderful,” we say.
“And now Michael is married and transitioning.” It takes Katie and I a moment to realize that this whole time, the man has been using Michael’s preferred pronouns. The realization makes my heart swell and feels like the opposite of everything that’s been going on in the world.
“Everybody says we’re so tolerant,” he tells us, making a wide turn. “Tolerance is fine, but in Portland, we embrace.”
Katie and I smile at each other through teary eyes. The van gently bounces over a speed bump, and I’ve never felt lighter before.
Author Bio: Kristin Ito is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her essay “The Quiet” was nominated by Hypertext Magazine for The Best American Essays, and her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, WhiskeyPaper, and other publications.
by Oona Robertson
They say the uterus is the thing that holds a woman inside of herself. Blood-wetted. Always emptying or filling. A tide on the open ocean. Entangled. Drumming heartbeats. Blankets of blood thickness. Umbilical cord wrapping around and around and into us. This piece we hold internally, forking toward the tiny livers and the tiny hearts, it grows us, feeds into what will be closed and is now our open mouth, our open nose, our open wound. I wonder what happens to that six inches of circuitry that tethered us, hearts to bellies, once we have been cut into our own bodies.
I look for the answer in a book written in 1971 by a white man with an eye patch. He blames women for their own pain. He doesn’t have the answer.
I look for the answer in my friend training to be a midwife. She pulls a pelvis and a doll out of her purse. Dances it through bone, the head only fitting one way, the baby working its way out like a thing that multiplies. She says her favorite part of a birth is the few seconds where the mother has two heads. I want to ask her what the sound is like. Which head is screaming. Instead I ask her to have my baby. I ask her umbilical questions. She doesn’t know the answer but will get back to me.
Have you ever seen a time-lapse picture of a birth? How flesh you thought you understood will unfold and unfold again, its purpose clear, the head crowning monstrously and pulling the halves of the pelvis open. Because really the head doesn’t fit, and what you thought was one bone might be two, stretching open, and in the picture the head is more woman than the skin around it that is tearing. It doesn’t look like it, but they are working together to move apart.
I find the answer on Wikipedia but don’t trust what the internet is saying. That it just dissolves into fibers. Was once vital and is now umbilical trash, wedged in the corners of our cavities, bothering organs or becoming a part of them, slowly sifting its way out of our container. I want it to integrate, become the hot core of us, the thing that tells where our depths end and turn into liquid. I want the real answer. I want to hear it from the open lips of a mother or a beautiful dentist or the belly of my sister.
I become fascinated by the placenta. The thick meat of it. The grey and yellow and blue of it. Mother’s resources going in, baby’s waste going out, vein filled, arterial. How the blood circulates but doesn’t mix, conversing from arm’s distance. How it connects them, so helpfully, until it falls into the hands of the mother or the midwife in that last push and is useless. My mother’s gynecologist keeps a polaroid of our placenta in her desk drawer and every year for a decade while my mom is lying face up in paper clothing, she takes us into her office and makes us look at it. The biggest one she has ever seen. We are famous for what was built in the space between us, our needs gigantic, our mother tiny and beach-balled by our unfurling.
There is another picture of the same placenta in a book we have to read every birthday. Spread flat on a hospital table, part steak and part brain, knotted tendrils. The story is it got put in the freezer until they figured out what to do with it and then the fridge died and it was moved to a cooler on the back deck, maybe a heat wave, and after that nobody remembers.
My mother writes letters at the kitchen table and four blocks away her mother writes letters at the kitchen table. The thing that connects them is old and beginning to harden. She sends the letters out towards us haunted by her ghosts by our tethers. Missed calls, early morning messages, I can feel her tugging.
I can feel the stem in me, the belly button ending and the knot of muscles and deeper than that, a forking or a fracturing. It touches organs, wraps around the stomach and up the throat, speaks for me without language, urges me to find strangers to touch, whispers up at me in the milky darkness: do you miss me, it says. Then the mother’s voice, face to the ocean, calls: come back to me. I need to try again to make you whole and clean and uncomplaining. The placenta flexes in the night. We drop back into the ocean like we’ve always wanted.
Author Bio: Oona Robertson is a writer and furniture maker based in Western Massachusetts.
by Oona Robertson
Suddenly, at the dinner table, she stops eating. First a bend at the neck, then head, a leadening. The body always follows. Her fork skids into the depths of bare feet, her torso long and stretching sideways. It is almost imperceptible, the slow fall and then she is dangled, her head a few inches off the ground. The solid weight of her hips still seated. The fingers curved like a dead animal. One hand pressed watch-face to combed carpet. It beeps once, marking the end of an hour. Then silence. All eyes pointing forward except the mom, who blinks once, sliding them up and then back into place before opening. Clack of knife hitting the butter dish. Throat sounds. A napkin dropped and not recovered. The table is dark wood, room of ominous paintings. A few chairs unfilled. A coldness like occupation. Thick draft of collective breath, smell of under-cooked meat and distance. Her hair brushes the floor to the rhythm of her cerebral spinal fluid. The mother asks to be excused from the table.
She shook the doll with an old vengeance. Listening was no longer enough. The doll would sit slumped against various furniture and she would cry and point and rave. It was nice to have a place to put her anger. The doll didn’t mind, or did nothing to stop it. Its face was beautiful and satisfying to prey on. Often she would get so angry a hardness would rear up in her and she’d want to throw the doll off the roof of their house or squish its beautiful fucking face under the heal of her Mary Janes, the nose breaking off like porcelain. She hated what she could see about herself in the other dolls’ forced-open eyes. The nose stayed in one piece like the lost part of some old statue. She thought of the people who owned them patching it back on with the soft tip of a brush dipped in superglue, and her anger mounted. She stomped around the house slamming cabinets in the fake kitchen and the door of the cast iron oven so fucking lifelike you could light a fire with broken-in-half matches and cook if you could find an egg small enough. When her anger got so big the people noticed, they would pull her up to their scary mouths by the buckle of her overalls and yell in some garbled language, shaking her from tip to top. This made her extremely nauseous, and to punish them she would walk past the pretend toilet and kneel on the living room rug, heaving stale air from her hollow body.
The egg is put down in front of her. The table is farmhouse. Her palms are wide and white. She cracks the shell like her mama taught, with the edge of her spoon and the tink of good intentions. The inside is still embryonic, goo of wet turned coagulate. She has to eat it. Each time she sets down her spoon she is given another, slightly bigger, until they don’t fit in the cup and she has to hold them in the palm of her hand. She was not hungry to begin with. The shells start to resemble cracked skulls. The yolk is an eye or a uterus. The white part is blinding and she can feel something sticky crawling down her fingers, same as her tongue is coated. The pile of shells on the table grows and she can smell newborns and the field outside. The one window gets greener and then starts to oscillate and the eggs clack around in her head which is now also an egg and she no longer sees the problem.
Author Bio: Oona Robertson is a writer and furniture maker based in Western Massachusetts.
by Oona Robertson
I take a small pill every day that does not sustain me. The point is nothing happens. All flesh remains stable, womb empty, hormones balanced, pain a heartbeat, base note of my body’s self-understanding. I could tell you why I take them; Pain, however, is no story in itself. 1 My pain is always there, rough and stalactite. It sandpapers.
The pills are a light yellow and come with the days of the week attached to them. At the end of the month there are seven white placebos, which I drop into a small glass jar. I screw on the lid. I don’t know why I’m saving them. I measure the periods I don’t get against my body, rarely at risk of pregnancy. I measure my good days against my bad days. I have no faith in the word prevention.
Sometimes I forget to take them long enough for a sharp remembering. I run back to the bedside table, the loud foil packaging, the dusky taste of the tiny disk on my tongue, the water from the bottom of the glass milky with sips taken. Another day of not forgetting.
After years, the jar is not nearly as full as I thought it would be. The pills are tiny and don’t add up to much. I want to make pedestals for each of them, carved on a lathe with the greatest dexterity. I miss having a tampon when asked for one. I miss the richness of what came out of me. Other than that, I feel at peace among women.
The pills are made of sugar. I could make a cake; dissolve them in morning coffee; ask someone to swallow them for me; place one against each cut underneath the band aid, check in each day until dissolution. Get rid of them, I’d say. I don’t want another collection.
I used to save all my pill bottles. That terrible orange reflector color, like nausea plasticized. The white labels saying my name, saying my name. White oval, imprint 5 300. Pink oval, imprint FP. I wanted to keep track of everything I was taking into my body. Prove its inability to fix itself, to equalize, self-actualize. I recycled them all at once and worried what the trash collectors would think of me.
I don’t know what it’s like to take a pill and feel better. Does this make me unAmerican? The options are get fixed or stay out of sight, and only one comes naturally. I often believe I should have been extinct. It’s not dangerous thinking if your death wish is evolutionary.
There is a book from the nineties of homes around the world. The people are made to stand next to their objects, everything taken out and displayed for the lens of the white photographer. The American family—man/woman couple, boy/girl children, unfortunate haircuts—have many televisions and a long winter’s worth of dry food. I want to see the pill version of this book, all of us standing next to what we have swallowed, the air above our heads a prescription pad of disease and recreation. Yes, I want to look through your medicine cabinet.
Each morning I swallow the pill with water. The stomach eats it like medicine. The body digests itself. Repent means ‘the pain again.’2 Another day begins with my mouth opening.
Author Bio: Oona Robertson is a writer and furniture maker based in Western Massachusetts.
Equality for all is worth fighting for.
Stand proud, but don’t forget to also stand with those still in the fight.
Keep it up. On all fronts! We’re with you.
PRIDE AS PROTEST | BLACK LIVES MATTER
by Nathan Alling Long
I’d seen Trip at the school bus stop for years, but hadn’t ever talked to him. Not more than a hello. He lived on a farm down the road, and it wasn’t until the summer I turned fifteen, just as school was ending that year, that his dad came over and asked if I wanted to work with them baling hay.
I said yes, mostly to avoid working around our own farm. My parents bought this land when I was ten, and Dad and I had spent summers rewiring the house, turning the pantry into a bathroom, clearing the land. Dad raised two steers a year and tilled a half acre, which he called “the field.” But he wasn’t a real farmer, only an insurance salesman with a gentleman’s farm.
A few days working with Trip and his dad that summer, I understood the difference. This was their life. They lived and breathed it.
Trip was a year younger than I was, though looked more like he was eleven or twelve, not really a teenager at all. He was scrawny, but strong, with an overbite and a long bony face. His hair was shaggy—this was the late ’70s—and the way it hung over his eyes, the way his white, white teeth hung from the pink of his upper gums when he laughed, made him look like a wild horse in the field.
We had nothing in common. My other friends and I talked about banned books, helped each other study for Chemistry exams, made fun of rednecks in school. Trip and his dad didn’t need books or schooling, although Trip was still forced to go. Around them, nothing I normally said to my friends mattered much. I didn’t have to think. I just concentrated on the work at hand. I felt the heat of the sun and the coolness of the breeze, and the taste of the cold water from the thermos that rested on the back of the tractor. I breathed in deep the sweet pungent smell of the dried grasses and slowly felt something opening up inside me, something I wanted to guard from my parents and my friends, something so uncomplicated, it seemed dangerous.
With my dad, working the land felt violent, like he was trying to force it to do what he wanted. Over the years we’d lived there, we cut down one hundred and seventeen trees. I kept track of each one in a little book I kept under the drawer of my bedside table.
I remember crying when we felled our first tree, a few weeks after we bought the farm, back when I was ten. Maybe it was the splintering noise of the chainsaw, or how Dad pressed the blade into the trunk so forcefully, or the way the branches stretched out as they dropped to the ground, like they were reaching for something they’d never grasp again. All I remember was Dad scowling when he saw my face, asking me why I was upset, telling me that I didn’t have to worry—trees grew back.
“Besides,” he said, “this one is an Ailanthus, tree of heaven. They’re weeds.”
Within a week of working for Trip’s dad, Trip and I started hanging out. My friends were busy working their first jobs at the mall, and Trip was the only boy around my age who lived nearby. We didn’t talk much, just ran through the woods, climbed the cliffs overlooking his farm, and waded into the stream that ran between our properties. The only thing we didn’t do was eat at each other’s houses. It seemed we both knew that our families were too different, that whatever we had in common, we only had alone.
One day in early August, we found a tall thicket at the bottom of the slope below our house. Trip said we should burrow through the brush and look for blackberries. They were fruiting over at his farm, but Dad had cut most of our bushes out that first summer, not realizing what they were.
Trip and I beat back the brush with sticks, filling the air with the sugary perfume of honeysuckle, which knotted its way up the young trees.
“These are trees of heaven,” I said to Trip, who was ahead of me, his small body slipping through the brush like a snake.
“Yeah?” he said, not turning back.
I could tell he didn’t care. What I was saying was a fact, like stuff we learned at school.
“Thought that was funny,” I said.
He pushed on. “Hey look here, it’s a piece of wood, like . . . a door.”
I plowed through the briers fast, letting them rip into my arms. Trip was already lifting up the door, a few thick, rough-hewn boards held together with strips of rusted metal. The boards twisted then fell apart as he opened it.
“Wonder what it’s for,” I said.
“I don’t know.” His bangs clung to his forehead with sweat. “But look.” He pointed into the brush in front of us.
The outline of a window frame appeared. Then I saw it: a low building, a chicken coop or pig sty, half collapsed and buried under the thicket.
“I never knew this was here,” I said.
“I guess not,” he said and laughed, all teeth. “I’m going in.” He dropped to his knees.
The floor had given way to leaves and dirt, leaving only the joists rotting in straight rows. I knelt at the window, watching Trip slide easily through the doorway and across to the far side, where he nestled between two joists and leaned back. The walls creaked but held.
“Come on,” he said, laughing. “It’s fine.” He put his arms above him, cradling his head like he was basking in the sun. I didn’t want to go—it was dark and dirty and I feared I might get bit or stung by some insect—but there was something about him sitting so contentedly without me that made me want to go. I stood a moment, swallowing hard and trying to figure out what to do. Then, I ducked down and stepped through the threshold.
The air was dank and cool, full of the scent of earth, leaves, and decaying boards. When I reached Trip, I sat down on the floor between the next set of joists, bumping my head on whatever was the left of the ceiling.
Trip laughed and dropped his left hand so that it fell against mine. He kept it there. I felt the presence of Trip’s body beside me. I leaned back, straining to relax, then I gazed out the window, nearly shaking.
An engine—a chainsaw or lawnmower—started up somewhere on the farm. Dad. He probably wanted me to help him, but he would never find me here. I was alone with Trip, our hands still barely touching, just the heat and pressure of his thumb against the side of my palm. Neither of us moved. Our breaths made thin circles of sound in the stillness of the shed. If I concentrated, I could feel a pulse, though I couldn’t tell whose. I wanted to move a finger over his hand, to test his reaction—but what if he moved away?
A breeze pulled through the walls, drawing in sweet honeysuckle and another, heavier scent, sweeter and more bitter. I breathed in deep to taste it, to figure out what it was.
Then I brushed my hand against Trip’s thumb, just once.
He moved it away, brought his hand over his head, then placed it behind my back. I knew this was his gesture of friendship, something intimate that boys could do because they couldn’t imagine anything more. I thought of Huck Finn, which we’d just read in English and glanced over at Trip. There was not even a light fuzz on his chin. His eyes were green and bright, but didn’t tell me anything about what he was thinking, if he was thinking anything at all. Everything felt heavy. It was me doing the thinking, like it had been all summer, though I had pretended that I was not.
A bird swooped low into the brush in front of us, then darted off.
“This is a cool place,” Trip said and tugged my shoulder slightly.
“Yeah,” I said, lifting my hand and setting it on his knee. His leg was small, hairless. Far off, Dad’s engine raced, then stalled.
The heat and pressure of his arm on my neck, the curve of his leg beneath my hand, us just sitting in the cool infinity of that buried room—it was enough.
It was, for sure—but then I wondered, what if there could be more?
I shut my eyes, took a breath in and smelled that heavy, flowery scent. It seemed like the very air was telling me that I should go on. I moved my hand, slid it toward Trip’s waist, as though I had just lost my hold.
Trip was motionless, his head tucked back against the wall. I reached up and felt the band of his shorts, lifted up his shirt, touching his smooth skin of his belly.
Then I felt it, a tug in his shorts. I slid my hand under his pants until my finger pressed against the edge of his underwear. I looked at Trip’s face again, so boy-like and plain, and I stopped.
“It’s okay,” he said, his eyes still shut, his body perfectly still.
But I couldn’t go on. He was thinking after all, possibly all kinds of things that I didn’t know. The silence was gone, and though the bitter sweet scent from some unknown plant still poured into the dark shed, it could no longer sway me.
I pulled my hand slowly out. “I just had to see,” I said—not even sure what I meant.
I felt embarrassed, but knew I had to pretend not to be. Still, I decided at that moment to stop hanging out with Trip, though I would do it gradually, so he wouldn’t think it was because of this. We were, after all, nothing like each other.
I worked those next few days with his dad and him. He’d smile and I’d smile faintly back. After a week though, I told him Dad wanted me back to work on seeding the field for the fall.
I was hoping to spend the last few weeks of summer alone, not working at all, but one morning, Dad woke me early. “Get dressed,” he said smiling. “I want to clear out an area at the base of the slope.” He stood up. “If we plant strawberries now, they might bear fruit next spring.”
I was half asleep, but I knew the place Dad meant. I waited until he left my room to get dressed. When I went downstairs for breakfast, he was already cleaning the chainsaw.
I walked out the backdoor slowly to the spot, where I saw a pile of tools already laying on the grass. I stood silent, watching, until Dad turned and said, “I thought you could hack at the small stuff.” He pointed to the briers.
I nodded, and though I didn’t want to, I picked up a clipper.
Dad pulled the chainsaw cord with his free hand, and the engine coughed gray smoke, then revved.
I went to work, cutting the briers one stalk at a time, smelling the honeysuckle and the sharp scent of Ailanthus wood as it became dust from Dad’s saw. Above those scents was the heavy perfumed blossom I’d smelled that day with Trip.
A few minutes later, I heard the engine die. “Look it here,” Dad said. “I think I found something.” Dad set the saw down, got the long-bladed clippers, and cut back the brambles.
“It’s a shed of some kind,” he said. “Who would have thought?” He pressed his clippers into a roof beam. The blade sank into the wood. “It’s rotted,” he said.
I stood there silent, unable to swallow.
“If I take out this tree,” Dad said, pointing to the one behind the shed, “it should fall on the thing and crush it.”
“Haven’t we taken down enough?” I said.
Dad stared at me. “Look, I know you don’t like cutting trees.” We hadn’t talked about this for a couple years. “But this here’s one of those Ailanthus.” He said it as though we both agreed they were bad.
“They call it the tree of heaven, you know,” Dad said, clearing brush around the tree. He’d told me this a couple times.
“So why not save it?” I said.
“It’s just a weed tree,” Dad said, starting the saw. “There’s nothing special about it.” Dad hunched his body rigid against the tree and yellowish dust began flurrying around him.
I wanted to rush up and push him away, but I would look silly. So I stepped way back. Each time he pressed the blade further into the trunk, the saw whined higher, like an enormous drill boring into my head.
Then I heard the crack and the swoosh. I felt a thud in my chest as the tree slammed against the earth and crushed the shed beneath it. A wave of air hit me, full of that heavy sweet, bitter scent. It was the Ailanthus, its flowers a tangle of yellow white blossoms at the end of each branch. I thought of Trip, and how I wished I’d done less with him, or more.
When the dust had died down, I went up and tried to break a blossom off the tree, but the wood was too green. So I snapped the branch with my clippers and held the flower in my hands as Dad cut the tree up into logs. He’d looked over at me, but didn’t say a word.
After, I went to my room, set the branch of flowers in a glass of water by my bed, and made a mark for the tree in my little book. It was the last one we cut down.
Author Bio: Nathan Alling Long’s work has won international competitions and appears on NPR and in various journals, including Tin House, Story Quarterly, Witness, and The Sun. The Origin of Doubt, a collection of fifty stories, was a 2019 Lambda finalist; Nathan’s second manuscript was an Iowa Fiction Award semi-finalist and Hudson Fiction Manuscript Prize finalist. They live in Philadelphia and teach at Stockton University.