TSJ has been honored by being the first to recognize and publish excellent works. Such is the case with Amy L. George whose first poem was published on these very pages. Amy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from National University, San Diego, CA. Her poetry and writings have been published in various journals including Poesia, The Orange Room Review, The Foliate Oak Online and Word Catalyst Magazine. And this is the short list!
Amy is the general editor of Bird's Eye reView and also served on the editorial staff for The GNU, the student literary journal of National University. You'll be able to find her article in the forthcoming textbook-anthology, "The Working Poet," to be edited by Scott Minar and published by Autumn House Press. Her collection, The Fragrance of Memory is forthcoming from Amsterdam Press.
She and her husband reside in Texas, where she enjoys teaching English at Southwestern Assemblies of University.
TSJ is most proud and grateful that Amy, a talented and gifted writer, agreed to judge our “Let’s See Your Shorts” annual flash fiction contest . Her choices appear below.
Best and with thanks to Amy George,
(Editor's Note: Amy had to judge numerous entries of varied genres and lengths. Authors were of all levels of experience and ability. That said, I personally found really good and great reads among the submissions. And as usual-I am so glad I don;t have to make the decisions! Pamela)
Christine Venzon is a freelance writer of some 20 years. She has written widely but specializing in all things food. Her articles and fiction have appeared in adult and teen magazines, writers newsletters, and countless home economics textbooks in high school across America. Christine's FIRST PLACE win is100.00 and a Pushcart nomination.
Kristel Adams writes flash fiction, romantic fiction, fan fiction, and very, very bad poetry. She lives in New Jersey. Kristel wins SECOND PLACE and 50.00.
Al Carty lives and writes in the high plains of New Mexico. A transplanted Californian, he began to see publication when he accepted the harsh truth that re-writing applied to him as well as others. Now his stories and poems appear online and in print. When he needs new ideas he climbs into his baja bug and cruises the Zuni Mountains, listening for the voices in the thickets of juniper and pinyon pine. Al's story wind THIRD PLACE and㺙.00.
Congratulations and Best Wishes!
"Chucklehead. Get outta here."
I smiled into my pillow. Loving words, not meant for me.
I rolled across the bed and peered out the open window. Jo was hauling Soldier's head out of the lawn beside the porch, the tender blades lush with April dew. She let the horse wander while she cleaned his stall. Sometimes he wandered as far as the house, a dogged effort given his state.
They shuffled back to his shed. By now even I recognized the hobbling gait, the head bob at each stride. Chronic laminitis. The outer hoof (Jo explained on our first date) separates from the soft tissue inside, letting the bone inside tip downward. Debilitating, but in Soldier's case, manageable. Over our six years together, I'd watched her battle the disease from the frontlines, joined the fray occasionally. I'd toted buckets of hot water to soothe inflamed feet, dispensed miles of duct tape for space boots (Jo's term) around tender feet; pulverized horse aspirin tablets and mixed them into bran mash.
Mostly though I watched her ministrations. I didn't complain (much) if she sometimes seemed tired, if wry humor turned gallows. I cleared half-eaten plates after silent dinners and saved brochures for couples' weekends for . . . whenever. Soldier was family. They'd been together through bruise and concussion of his training and her adolescence. Through creek and field in three states and ten years of college and career. Now she tended him like an aged parent, grazing him in our acre of pasture, shooing his flies.
I wasn't threatened, whatever Freud said about women and horses. I wanted my wife to be happy. I wanted her to be happy with me. What a terrible husband.
I dressed in Saturday rags and followed the path to the shed. Jo knelt in the straw at Soldier's foreleg. Soldier munched hay. Neither noticed me.
Jo splashed her palms with liniment and rubbed it upwards into the tendon, her torso rocking with each stroke. One minute per leg. Increased the circulation to the feet, she said. Very important, since he couldn't stand much exercise.
Liniment invaded my nostrils, the cool tingle of alcohol and witch hazel. I was getting to like it, the way other husbands get to like the smell of hair-coloring dye.
Jo smoothed the hairs on the tendon, winded. She pressed her head against Soldier's leg, stretching to pat beneath the mane and rub behind the ears. "You're all right, Soldier." Soldier munched, eyes half-mast.
"Doesn't get any better than that, eh, Soldier?" I said.
Jo glanced over. "You're up early."
"Someone called me a chowderhead."
"Chucklehead," she corrected. "Sound really carries, huh? Make yourself useful. Hand me those brushes."
We traded liniment for brushes. Jo worked up a rhythm, rubbing with the currycomb in one hand, whisking with the soft brush in the other. They started their Moe-and-Curly routine: Soldier swung his head and butted her; Jo shadowboxed his nose. She grabbed his halter to brush his forelock; he tossed his head and sent the brush flying.
"Oh, a wise guy." Jo brushed his face; he fussed like a toddler getting scrubbed for company.
By the time she finished, we were both laughing. I had to admit: Soldier may have been a burden, but he was good for her. Jo was never more intense, never more alive, that when she was caring for him. And her capacity for caring was great, more than my needs ever demanded. Where would draw that energy forth, and where would it go, without Soldier? In a way, he had made her what she was today. Soldier, the horse that turned history.
"I want to buy some strawberry plants," she said.
She rested an arm across Soldier's back "We had a strawberry patch in our backyard when I was a kid. Mornings like this, we'd pick them for our Rice Krispies. It was like finding Easter eggs. One year I was making a strawberry pie a week to keep up." She slapped his neck. "That's when this weasel came along."
"Luckiest day of his life."
Jo smoothed Soldier's mane. "Mine too."
"How many plants do we need for a strawberry pie?" I said. But Jo was watching a small van rolling up the driveway. I recognized the vet's plates. "Something wrong?"
Dr. Milford hopped out, his round face unusually drawn. Their greeting was subdued, no chat about things equine. Jo avoided my eyes. Doc Milford said, "You're sure?" She nodded. He nodded.
They worked fast, as if they'd rehearsed. Jo held Soldier's halter, he face pressed against his. Doc murmured, "You okay, son." Soldier's eyes widened as the needle sank into his neck. He teetered, buckled, crashed headlong. Jo clung to him, trying to brace his 800 pounds. She would have let him fall on her, but Doc pulled her back at the last second.
I was stunned, staring, like the lifeless creature splayed in the straw. Neither of us had seen it coming.
We were alone now. Jo drew a ragged breath. "He was getting worse. His eyes were dull. The pain . . . Just to move . . ." Her voice cracked. "I'd put him through so much already."
I put an arm around her shoulder. Jo rammed her face into my chest. Tears burned through my shirt to my skin, a tidal wave of tears, and earthquake of sobbing, all that love and grief and energy (neither created nor destroyed, only released and absorbed).
I fought to fill my lungs. Who would have thought the weight of one person could feel so heavy?
Petar had owned the goat for ten years, ever since he married his dead brother’s fiancée and moved to the hills, away from the village and everyone he knew. Tiamat’s dowry had also included fine cloth, bags of seed, and a fistful of coins, but these gifts all quickly slipped through Petar’s fingers. Only the goat, with its renewable gifts of milk and fiber, continued to prove its worth year after year, and with minimal fuss. Everything else in Petar’s life required constant attention: grass for the herd, hay for the pull-cart ass, food and clothing for his expanding family, tribute for the local chief. The goat was undiscriminating in its diet, and carried its warmth on its back. For that, Petar was grateful.
As hard as he worked, Petar was ill-equipped for a shepherd’s life. After five years and four children, half of his sheep were taken by wolves, disease or slaughterhouse. By the time his sixth child was born, the ass was too frail to haul and the sheep too sickly to fetch a good price. What he had planned to sell soon became their only source of meat. Eventually, Petar had little flock at all.
To keep himself busy, Petar would spend his time tending to the goat’s coat, which grew long and tangled easily, requiring his expert hand with his oldest daughter’s fine wooden brush. The goat’s hair could be shorn and spun, and what was not sold to market had clothed Petar’s family through many a harsh winter. Petar preferred to attend to the goat alone—when Tiamat or the children tried, the goat would snap at their fingers. They had no appreciation for the animal or the ritual. They were rough and fast with the instruments, sometimes cutting the goat with their carelessness and imprecision. Petar took his time, petting the goat and offering it old folk songs in return for its valuable locks. The goat stood still only for him, particularly when Petar came bearing apples, hidden in his pocket. The children sometimes teased their father for his attentions. His wife remained silent.
Then came a time when the goat’s milk and fleece no longer sufficed. Petar’s third child took ill just as the air turned cold. There was little food, and no extra coin to pay a physician. Tiamat watched Petar carefully clip every last hair from his precious goat before she cleared her throat, already raw with hunger and impending sickness.
“We will soon starve, Husband.” Her eyes traveled over the goat’s hide, imagining the tender chops it would provide for her family. “I will take the other children down to the village and barter this fleece for bread and cinnamon.” Petar winced. She never used cinnamon on beef or poultry. “We will stay two nights with my sister. The sick child will stay with you.”
“Perhaps I could sell her to the tailor,” Petar spat, his fists tight on the goat’s leg, though it did not kick him. “Many times he has offered to buy her…for her fleece…only for her fleece.”
“That goat is skinny, and the milk hasn’t come in days. You’ve slaughtered all the other animals; this is no different. It is time you learn to sacrifice for your family, Petar.” He shut his eyes, bit into his fist as Tiamat turned away from him and his prize goat, never once entered into a contest. “When we return,” she said loudly, so he was sure to hear, “I will cook us such a feast.”
Petar looked down at the goat, the source of milk for his infants, cheese for his plate, clothes for his back. She never complained when Petar milked her dry, or robbed her of her coat, or buried his head into her side to stifle his hopeless cries. The goat had been his silent confidante, one he’d known longer than his own children.
“Sevda.” Only he knew the goat’s name. “I have no choice.”
When Tiamat returned two days later she found Petar drying out strips of meat near the hearth. She laughed aloud at the tears streaming down his face.
“Husband! How can you cry like this over a—”
“The boy is dead.” Petar sank to the dirt floor, staring at his shaking hands. “The fever took him in the night. I buried him in the field.” Tiamat was nearly to the floor before Petar caught her, mumbling into her hair, “Hush, hush, feed your hungry children.”
It was a somber occasion when Petar’s family ate well for the first time in months. The children mourned their brother as they gorged themselves. Tiamat cursed their god for taking her child even as she thanked him for finally putting sense into her husband. Petar remained quiet, choosing to take his meal outside, away from his wife’s comments that the meat was very thin, but surprisingly mild for goat meat.
Petar looked over at a patch of disturbed earth behind his home, and then down to his pocket, which held a small tailor’s purse of coins. There was enough to feed his family for a month, perhaps two, now that there was one less hungry mouth. He devoured the tubers and vegetables in his bowl until there was nothing left but oily roasted meat. Its unusual aroma intrigued his nose, but turned his stomach, so he threw it to the cold ground.
He returned later to cover it with fresh snow.
I was with the University system then, and we were conducting pruning experiments on lemon trees in the desert. A local grower let us use ten acres in one of his orchards. The harvest crews had been hard at work and we would know in a few days if any of our efforts had increased the yield of fruit.
On this early chilly morning I walked the grove with the foreman of the crew. He was a short, gruff-talking old Mexican named Felipe. He had broad shoulders and big hands. As we walked along the rows he muttered greetings to one or another of the pickers. Most of them were young, up from Mexico for the harvest and hoping for a long season. They were adjusting canvas gauntlets over the sleeves of their shirts to protect them from the wicked thorns. The foreman’s words were returned with respect by the workers. Several of the pickers were older men, like Felipe, more than ready for retirement.
As we started down the next row Felipe spoke to a young couple. They nodded and looked away when they saw me. They were white, blonde and blue-eyed. The clothes they wore were worn and faded. I wondered at their whiteness and their youth. This was a job that attracted Mexicans because the growers could not find many Americans to do the work. It was hard work.
We continued along the row and I looked at him and nodded over my shoulder. He knew what I meant.
“Conejitos!” he said. “What they look like to me.” He shook his big head slowly.
“Little rabbits?” I asked.
“Simone…, si! Yes, you know, like they stay close together. They’re scared, you know, like the hawk or the coyote is going to get ‘em. They don’t go around nobody.”
“When did they start? I didn’t see them yesterday morning.”
“No, they come around in the afternoon. They wanted work. You only got to look at ‘em to see they was hungry. They slept in their old car last night, right there by the road.”
The old man looked into the trees or down at the ground while we walked. I knew he didn’t want me to look into his eyes. An old bracero like Felipe had worked hard all his life. He didn’t want to be seen as a pushover, but he wouldn’t let these kids starve, either.
“How are they doing?” I asked.
“They never picked lemons before. Couple old men are showin’ ‘em what to do. The boy works on the ladder, the girl on the ground. They’re not makin’ much money. I can give ‘em a little work.”
Felipe’s big face was impossible to read, but I could tell that helping them gave him pleasure. I left him to go to my truck. When I was almost to the end of the row I looked back. He was talking with the young white couple again. I saw the blonde head of the man bowed, looking at his feet. Felipe pulled out his wallet and was looking around. I turned quickly and left the grove.
I was busy for the next few days on another project. When I finished that I drove by the lemon harvest. Only three cars were parked at the far end of the grove. Most of the pickers had moved on to another orchard. I parked my truck and walked down a row.
I heard trees rustling and Felipe’s voice speaking calmly. He spoke first in Spanish and then in English. When I was close to them I stopped. The young couple was still here, and the two old men. Felipe had let these few stay behind to finish the grove.
The market-ready lemons were taken quickly by the ambitious young men, but there was always fruit left on the trees. The foreman had stayed behind with the old men and the young couple to finish the picking. There could still be a little money made. The white boy was speaking in halting, uncertain Spanish and the old men were laughing. The girl laughed too. There was a slow and friendly tempo.
I felt as if an illusion would vanish , like Brigadoon, if I showed myself. The inexperience of youth had survived; they were scratching out a living and they were together, finding their way among strangers. It seemed they were also finding friends. I was smiling when I turned and walked between the fragrant trees back to my truck.