Texas Sky

Fatima Al Matar

 

Did I tell you how beautiful the sky is in Texas?

On some mornings, it’s an endless field of powder blue with strokes of soft pearl.

Some days the sky resembles Monet’s waterlily ponds, lavender melting into dusty pink, clouds like tufts of cotton.

Sunsets are the most magical, violent blood-red streaks tearing open the belly of a blue evening. Dizzying in its brutality and majesty.

Even when it rains and the sky throws tantrums and tormented clouds blow across, even then there is beauty and power. The next morning, all is forgiven. The furious sky is a tranquil azure once more, with vigorous white splashes like the crests of leaping dolphins.

 
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I stand at the chain-link fence; my fingers curl around the cold, diamond-shaped wire. On the other side of this detention center is America, the land of freedom, hope, and opportunity.

I look up. It is early January 2019; the snow geese are making their annual migration flight across the country, traveling south to warmer climates, their comical cries echoing one another. Every flock creates the letter V as they fly. V for victory, I think, as multiple Vs rush across the sky above me. A tremendous sense of freedom, knowing no boundaries, accepting no border, no country, no fence, or law. 

I am overcome with emotion; this is what it’s like to be free.

 
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My thirteen-year-old daughter and I shouldn’t be here. 

We arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, late December, carrying valid passports and visas. The date on our return tickets exceeded the permissible six-month stay, which raised suspicion. Our luggage was searched and the documents I had brought with me proving my prosecution in my homeland Kuwait were found—translated papers detailing my persecution for my political and religious views and my social activism. 

“If you don’t tell me why you’re really here, I will put you on the next plane to Kuwait,the angry officer bellowed. Inside the interrogation room of The Department of Homeland Security, under the jeering gaze of five other armed cops, I explained that I had come to America seeking asylum.

 
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I lie awake on the bottom bunk bed in the detention center in Texas; my daughter occupies the top. We share this room with five other families—mothers and their children. We’re the only English-speaking family here. I listen to the rapid Spanish chatter between our roommates. I don’t understand a word, and yet, the emotion of the language moves me: the rise and fall of the quick string of words, laughter that soon turns to something resembling a serious reprimand, then a burst of hysterical laughter once more. Up and down, the emotions go within seconds, always a sense of urgency and drama. The breathlessness of the language is engaging. They’ve turned the television to a radio channel playing Spanish songs—loud, fast, catchy, upbeat, multi-instrumental songs that urge one to dance. It is past ten o’clock at night, and I wonder if Jori, my daughter, can sleep through this noise. I contemplate whether to shout over the noise and ask her if she’s okay, or climb up to her bed to check on her. I do neither. I feel lethargic and out of touch, unable to comprehend my reality, thinking of all the borders I came to for safety but wasn’t allowed to cross. 

What will happen to us? Returning to Kuwait is not an option; we’ve left that life behind, that door has closed.

 
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I remember the tremendous fear I felt while we were detained for three long days in the airport, in a two-by-two meter room, with nothing but two dirty mattresses covering the whole floor, three security cameras on the ceiling monitoring us from different angles, and glaring, eye-watering fluorescent lights we weren’t allowed to turn off. They took our cell phones and our luggage. Whenever I asked how long we would be kept there, I was told that due to a government shutdown and the upcoming New Year holiday, it would take days. 

“But don’t think you’ll be moved to a better place when you leave here, you’ll only be put in another cell, the guards sneered.

With lights constantly on and no watch on my wrist, time stretched endlessly, an uninterrupted scream. I had no way of telling how much time had passed, lost in an unfamiliar limbo between night and day, between today, yesterday, and tomorrow. 

I laid a shawl I was wearing under Jori’s head before she fell asleep, so her face wouldn’t come into contact with the dirty gym mattress, and felt a mammoth sense of guilt. What had I done? Why did I think it was safe for me to come to America and put my child through this? 

Full of shame and regret I sat there and watched my daughter sleep, afraid to sleep myself, worried something would happen to her. Afraid to ask if I could use the restrooms for the same reason. Would we be safe? What would happen to us? Would they separate us at the detention center? I smothered my tears, not wanting Jori to wake up and see me crying; I needed to stay strong for her. 

From another room nearby, a woman with a Latin-American accent was screaming with anguish: “Let go of me, don’t touch me, I didn’t do anything wrong,followed by the sounds of male and female guards asking her to calm down. Another woman, with an Arabic accent and three small children, was crying and explaining to an officer in broken English why it was impossible for her to return to Saudi Arabia. 

 
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The details of when they flew us from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, where the detention center is located is a blur. There was a lot of shouting. “Get up! They’re taking you to a detention center,” “Quick, you’ll miss the plane,” “No, you can’t take your cat, no pets are allowed in the detention center, and if no one comes to claim it, we’ll take it to a shelter, the guards barked. There were a lot of tears when we had to say goodbye to our cat Ty, whom we had brought with us because he’s family. Open your bags and dump as much stuff as possible, the bags are too heavy, we don’t want to pay for the extra weight. Besides, ICE won’t let you keep all this stuff,the guards yelled at us and we silently obeyed, throwing away our personal belongings.

 
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When I think of how unfree I was for most of my life, the reality of my lack of freedom chokes me. I was constantly monitored and criticized as a girl in my family home by my strict parents; abusive, harsh, and unforgiving, they enjoyed reminding me that there are limits for a girl in conservative Kuwaiti culture. Home was never a safe space for me to express myself freely. 

Then my arranged, and ill-matched, marriage to a man I couldn’t love, and worse, couldn’t befriend. And learning that there’s a different level of loneliness, loss, and alienation to being with a man who feeds and fattens on putting me down. Throughout the four unhappy years I was married to him, there were violence, control, abuse, and judgment. Very early on I knew I had to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself. I knew that my home, when he was in it, was not a safe space for me to be who I really was. 

I fled the control of my family and the control of my husband, but there was a larger prison, society. 

In a cold, austere courtroom, I sat next to my lawyer, awaiting my verdict. The seriousness of the mahogany furnishings and the judge’s elevated bench added to the drama. A large plaque in the shape of a scale hung on the center wall, with a verse from the Qur’an—“And when you judge between people, judge with justice”—written underneath. The silence seemed to suck all the air out of the room. Only the gentle sound of prayer beads bumping against each other created an eerie rhythm, the way a ticking clock threatens that time is running out. 

My heart pushed against my chest. My eyelids felt heavy, as if I was sleepy, and, yet, I was never more alert. My mind, unable to process the crisis, sent my body into shutdown, sleeping mode. The slightest whispers from spectators sitting behind me stirred and agitated me. There were several people from the press, and a few social media trolls who wanted to be the first to tweet about this—the first Kuwaiti woman to be tried and imprisoned for posting a politically controversial tweet. The fact that I was a law lecturer added to the irony and made it more news worthy. All I kept thinking was, what would happen to my seven-year-old daughter if I were to be put in jail? Who would care for her? My family was unsupportive and distant. The fact that none of them were there proved how embarrassed they were by me. And her father, my ex-husband, was not reliable.

It was during the Arab Spring. I had posted on Twitter that the Kuwaiti Emir was corrupt. The charges against me were defamation and spreading rumors with the intention of undermining state security, both felonies. 

Although I walked away with a hefty fine, I decided I wanted to leave Kuwait. It didn’t feel like home, it never had. The endless public shaming, discrimination, and ostracism I experienced encouraged me to leave. 

I left Kuwait, searching for a place to belong. The UK seemed like the natural choice. It was where I had done my postgraduate work, where I had had my daughter, where I had seen my thirst for acceptance and approval reflected in the contrasting climates—the scorching, dry, dusty desert of Kuwait, versus the endless, luscious meadows of the UK, full of trees, flowers, and rain. But in the midst of Brexit, the UK was a hostile place for a brown Arab single mother and her eight-year-old daughter. After fighting and losing the right to reside there, I was on the move again. 

Dubai was a safe choice, a neighboring Gulf country where I could permanently move and work without the bureaucratic hassle of visa or sponsorship. Of course, the scorching desert heat was worse, but the multicultural aspect of Dubai appealed to me. This is a cosmopolitan city, I said to myself, people from all over the world come to work, shop, and vacation here. This wasn’t like the narrow-minded, repressive Kuwaiti culture. But when the college teaching job offered to me was pulled without explanation, I knew that I hadn’t traveled far. Getting answers was not easy, especially when I didn’t know anyone with any authority. I was finally told vaguely how a mutual security agreement between Gulf States made my political prosecution back in Kuwait relevant in Dubai. One tweet in 2011, and I was denied the right to work and live there in 2016.

When I returned to Kuwait in 2016 with my now ten-year-old daughter, I returned penniless and heavy-hearted. I didn’t want to be there, but I had no choice. I had to get a job, fast, to be able to support us. I begged for my teaching job back, but the college was reluctant to rehire me. They saw the noise my trial had made in 2011 as bad for their reputation. They saw me and my oppositional views as too rebellious and not fit to teach young people—they feared I would influence them.  While I was waiting for a final decision to be made, I did odd jobs here and there to keep Jori and me afloat. We barely got by month to month, living in a tiny studio apartment where I slept on the sofa for a year—a far cry from the relatively comfortable life I’d had most of my life.

 
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I did return to my teaching job. And as a law academic I felt it was my duty to speak up against the government’s banning of 4,590 books and the 5000 trials taking place against people who had merely expressed their personal opinions on politics and religion. I organized and led protests; I argued for the sacredness of freedom of speech and expression as liberties protected by the Kuwaiti constitution; I facilitated talks; blogged; spoke about the issue on television and radio. I started a small feminist group at the college where I taught, renouncing many Islamic ideologies that enabled the control of women and encouraged misogyny. I expressed my support for LGBTQ groups freely on Twitter in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality.

I angered many people in the process—the head of the public law department where I taught, the dean, my colleagues, some students, the government, Islamists. I was called in for questioning by the authorities and was accused of blasphemy—when I asked God for equal gender rights in a Twitter post, they claimed that I was insulting Islam and inciting immorality—and misuse of a cell phone. Because I could get a year in prison for each of those charges and because I was warned by the court after my defamation case that a repeated offense would definitely earn me time in prison, I decided it wasn’t safe for me and Jori to stay in Kuwait and sought asylum in the United states.

I fled, I fled, I feel I’ve lived my whole life fleeing.

 
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On the bottom bunk bed at the detention center, I recall a moment when Jori and I were detained at O’Hare Airport. A guard moved us to a smaller room because they wanted to detain a larger family in the room we were in. The smaller room was dirtier, more oppressive, and didn’t have mattresses. I said to the guard that this treatment was inhumane. He shouted at me to be quiet and to do as I was told. “You have no right here, he yelled at me with such scorn. 

To which I replied, “Yes, I do, I have the right to be treated with dignity. 

 
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Fatima Al Matar migrated from Kuwait to the United States, seeking asylum with her daughter, Jori, and their cat, Ty; they now live in North Olmsted, Ohio. Fatima is an artist and a writer. She writes to understand, and paints when language fails her. Her art focuses on women's bodies and all the societal and cultural norms that govern them. Her writing has appeared in Acumen, The Journal, Angelic Dynamo, Further Monthly, Fleeting Magazine, Bad Language, Staples Magazine, Word, The Wry Ronin, and Jaffat El Aqlam

 Lo Stradone

megan chiusaroli

 

I’m living in a region of Italy that is famous for fog. Something about the hills and valleys of Emilia-Romagna makes the conditions just right for fog to settle in and cover everything. If one winter evening it’s unusually warm and you think, How nice! See? Winter’s not so bad, and you stroll through town with your coat unzipped, you know you’ll pay for it in the morning, when the cold sneaks back in and the fog along with it, and ice crystals coat your car. Sometimes visibility is less than five meters. You drive by intuition, with your third eye, with Google Maps leading you down the road to your home. 

When I wake up in the morning, all of the people in my world are fast asleep. Or maybe they’re just going to bed. So I spend my mornings in solitude, counting down the hours until one early riser might awake and keep me company—telepathically, at least. They won’t be here with me in this small apartment on Via Provinciale Uso in Lo Stradone, Borghi, Forli-Cesena, Italy. Street. Fraction. City. Province. Country. So many words to remember and write on letters or applications that all serve to remind me that I’m far away. Here it’s just me and my orange kitchen in the morning after Antonio leaves for work. Me and the elderly couple downstairs and their dog. Mia! Mia! Come back here! they yell. I make sure to open the shutters as soon as Antonio leaves so that it’s not too dark, or else I will surely fall back asleep. Though I usually do anyway, but at least it’s with a kiss of sun on my face and a blue sky emerging if it’s a clear day.

It’s winter now, so I won’t want to leave the house until around noon when the temperature rises just enough to make me feel like the eight-minute walk to the supermarket is a leisurely stroll, so that at least a few times a day, I can feel like the reality of my life here meets the romanticized notion my friends in New York have conjured up for me: the illusion of la dolce vita in Italy, all rolling hillsides and wine and cappuccino all day. 

At the A&O market down the street I talk to Claudia, who speaks English with a perfect British accent. Born in London, she’s the only other English speaker I’ve come across here in Lo Stradone. We don’t say much, but her Oh I’m fine, thanks. How ‘bout you? makes me so giddy, you’d think I didn’t understand Italian, that I didn’t speak it every day with my husband. What is it about greetings and salutations that are so hard to pull off in another language? I can never quite get “Grazie, arrivederci!” to fly off my lips just so, and end up with some kind of avvuh-decci stutter and a feeling of inadequacy as I walk out of the store. 

Across the street is the bar and the corner tabacchi shop. They sell tickets to the bus, but don’t know anything about its schedule. I downloaded the app the bus advertises and bought tickets through it, but couldn’t get the QR code to work onboard. The app suggests you speak to the driver if it doesn’t work, but the drivers all tell me I need to drive the bus! 

If I turn left, heading out of Lo Stradone and veering off the long road our town is named for, I find myself on a little country road, Strada dei Gessi, that my mom and I discovered while she was visiting. There’s a signpost for the Camino di San Vicinio here. Being that Antonio and I met while hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, it seems fitting that we live right on the outskirts of another pilgrimage. Sometimes I jog or hike up this road and am terrorized from a distance by countless dogs, behind fences, in fields, and up ahead on hills. They bark their loud Italian barks and all say the same thing, the same thing I hear many Italians saying these days. Go away! Get off our land! 

Back down Via Provinciale Uso, heading toward home, there’s the pizzeria down the street that we love. It has no business being on this sleepy stretch of road, and it crushes me when I see all the empty tables inside each time we’re there. Their specialty, which can only be eaten in the dining room, is a half-meter of pizza covered with so much bufala mozzarella, burrata and prosciutto, it’s worth the stomachache that inevitably follows when I finish it all. The crust is a lightness that I’ve never known—a salty crispy cloud that dances on your tongue. We came here with both of our families the night before our wedding, so the cook and the waitress know us. The cook has spent time in my husband’s hometown in Puglia and said to Antonio the other night, “You lost a hand, huh?” Antonio shook his head and laughed, then whispered to me after he passed, I don’t know what that means. 

I pass the pharmacy and the bank whose ATM once stole 50 euros from me. I went back every day to talk to the teller, who first tried to convince me it flew out of my hands, and then had the machine checked twice and printed out a sheet of nonsense to prove to me there was nothing more he could do. So I don’t go there anymore.  

By now the shops are closed until at least 3:30, so even though my day has just begun, it’s time to go home and rest. If it were summer, I might sit on the balcony for a while, or do some yoga and hope no one sees. Right next to our apartment complex is a small vineyard, so close you can see the grapes on the vines in August and smell the manure in the field almost constantly. In the summer, the owner rides his tractor at night to avoid the heat, and we are lulled to sleep with a bright light and tractor engine sounds outside our window. 

When Antonio comes home, we might eat in, or maybe go out for pizza or piadina, or to his parents’. In the evening he’ll be fussing with the ambient lighting in our house, the LED strip behind the television, the color-changing bulbs overhead. My husband has a passion for ambient lighting, which, like poetry, illuminates just the right things. The owls will be hooting in the distance, but we won’t see anything. If we’re lucky we’ll be so socked in with fog that the rolling hills will drift off in the distance and the picturesque bucolic landscape with it, and it will just be me and him, in our orange kitchen, aglow in our ambient-lit love. 

 
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Megan Chiusaroli is an English language teacher and poet from New York. Her work has appeared in Rockvale Review, After Happy Hour Review, I want you to see this before I leave, and Aphros. She currently lives in Northern Italy with her husband, whom she met while hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. 

 A Little Short

yolande house

 

South Korea, 2017

Like pellets of rain, the touch is soft, gentle. I turn and face the widened eyes of one of my fourth-grade students, a sweet Korean girl with long, black hair, who caresses my upper arm. 

“Fat,” she says. 

That’s what I get for wearing short sleeves today. 

I frown and stick out my lower lip, whimper, and use my index fingers to mime tears running down my cheeks. That hurts my feelings.

Comments like these used to bother me. When students at my first teaching job in South Korea called me “pig,” I’d leave class in tears. Five years later, I’ve lost a lot of weight, going from a North American size 2X to an XL; friends at home say I’m “average” now, but I still feel like a giant. Some Koreans are gaining weight from adopting a Western-style diet full of fried chicken, pizza, and sweet garlic bread, but most remain naturally thin. Even slender Westerners hear, “Teacher! Big!”

Direct observations like this are usually well-intended. In South Korea, where photographs are clipped to résumés and plastic surgery is routine, physical appearance affects job and marriage prospects. But I can’t help my Western stubbornness: my conviction that my body size is no one’s business. My co-workers used to tell me nearly every day, “You look sick,” or, “You look tired.” Each morning as I said hello, I felt the weight of their calculating gaze and my breath caught. Rarely did I pass their judgment. One day I snapped, saying with heat in my voice, “I just look like this,” and they stopped.

Over time I’ve learned what to do when I’m hurt by a student’s remark—I mime my feelings. The Korean girl, delicate as a sparrow, considers my response and then gestures an open hand toward my face, saying, “Pretty.”

Pretty. A broad smile rounds my cheeks. Fat, but pretty. Heh.

Her hand touches my lower arm. She cocks her head to the side, thoughtful, and adds, “Little slim.”

Okay. My lower arm is slim. Great.

“Thank you.” I smile, wave to the girl, and then grab my yellow basket full of papers and notebooks.

When I wear sleeves well above the elbow, many of my co-teachers ask, “Aren’t you cold?” I’ll say, “No, that’s why I took my sweater off.” Over time, I’ve come to realize they’re expressing the Korean notion that you should cover your arms unless it’s summertime. Showing cleavage and shoulders is risqué, but exposed upper arms are acceptable when it’s hot and muggy. 

Except for the incident with an adjushi. I was lying on a park bench in a tank top enjoying some sun when the older man rushed over, shaking his head, speaking in rapid-fire Korean. He motioned frantically around his shoulders, over and over until I sat up and put my cardigan back on. Only then did he nod and leave. “I don’t miss that,” said my now-stateside American friend when I told her the story.

Westerners in Korea can find this conservatism ironic, considering liberal attitudes here toward bared legs. A popular expat cartoon shows two women passing each other in the street and glaring—the Korean looking at the American’s exposed cleavage, the American looking at the Korean’s barely-there skirt.

When I first arrived, I realized most of my Canadian clothes were wrong. My sneakers and buckled Mary Janes were inconvenient for the restaurants where you sit on a floor cushion, cross-legged, in front of a shallow table, or at my public school where we change into slippers. My short-sleeved tops needed to be layered with their long-sleeved cousins in the colder months when there is little to no indoor heating in bathrooms and many establishments. I had to purchase multiple winter jackets, since the schools can be so cold that students and teachers don outerwear inside, rarely unzipping in the coldest months. 

In the sticky heat of summer, I try to wear cardigans that reach the elbow. There’s always a student who will comment or caress if I forget. 

Over time, I’ve come to accept that I will never fit into Korean beauty standards of a super-slim frame and a small, V-shaped face. I’m tall and big-boned; I could lose all my weight but still be considered “fat” here. In Canada, I learned to live with the usually quiet but ever-present scrutiny of appearance, my gaze catching my reflection, and heart either sinking or lifting. Once I worked on accepting and loving my body—at home and abroad—it was easier to nod and smile, and say a gracious, “Thank you!” to a well-meaning child.

One day, a boy in class squeezes my forearm, rubbing his hand along its surface. I eye him warily, brace myself for the insult. Too thick? Too hairy? 

He looks up from his seat, eyes bright, voice filled with wonder, and says, “Strong!”

Oh! That’s a first. I flex my arms. To me, strong means healthy, capable. “Yeah! I’m strong!” 

He laughs. 

I practically skip to the front of the class.

 
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Yolande House, originally from Fredericton, N.B., Canada, taught English in South Korea for six years and now resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her creative writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from literary magazines such as The RumpusJoyland, PRISM international, and Grain. Her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018,” and she was a finalist for Creative Nonfiction’s “Sex” issue. She can be reached at www.yolandehouse.com or on Twitter @herstorian. Currently, she’s revising a completed childhood memoir.

 Eatonville, 1987

Laura Jones

 

To find the real Florida, travel out I-4 from Orlando. Leave behind the strip malls, the $5 t-shirt shops, the theme parks offering byways into fantastic worlds. Sea World, Disney World, and all the lesser ones—the Wet ‘n Wilds, the Legolands, the Madame Tussauds. A few clicks east lies Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, featuring waitresses dressed up like the country western star: blonde wigs, jean shorts, red and white checked shirts tied beneath the breast, country girl style. Its across-the-street neighbor is the Holy Land Experience, a Christian amusement park with an exact replica of the Garden Tomb. Every day at five o’clock, Christ is recrucified there to the horror and delight of visitors, hung up like a sopping wet towel in the streets of a cardboard Jerusalem.  

The further north you drive, the more the land turns to what it’s always been. Hot stretches of green pastures, rippling with humidity. Trees garlanded in ash-gray Spanish moss. Reedy grass and shrubs gone wild with flowers. I-4 is a flat highway through a flat world, no hills or rises, just horizon as far as the eye can see. The first piece of it was poured in 1959 to make travel easier for tourists, a freeway to sunshine, at a time when the state’s population was expanding at an astronomical rate. Florida’s always been the fastest growing area of the south, sometimes in the course of a decade. White folks died here in the Civil War, enlisted in droves in the Confederate Army. They died to keep the orange groves ripe and producing and the cattle farms overrun with steer, all on the backs of men, women, and children due no protection or rights.  

Tallahassee was the only Confederate town not to fall during the Civil War. In the 1920s, the most lynchings committed in America were perpetrated in this state. Yet Florida is still remembered for sunshine and hospitality. It’s never been perceived as part of the south. In the popular imagination, Florida is theme parks and white sandy beaches on spring break. These were the things people saw outside their car windows, heading back north up the highway, beach sand pooling in the nooks and crannies of floor mats and suitcases, gritting up the nails of children falling asleep in the back seat, weary from all-day swimming on family vacation.

 
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But Florida is more than that to the people who live there. It’s the interior, the hinterlands. Up I-4 you’ll pass the small towns people live in, parceled out amongst all those stretches of nature that can’t help but grow, seemingly in fast motion, amongst the heat rising up hazy off molten black cement. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, one of those tourist destinations. But at the age of fourteen, my family moved to a small town in the center of the state. I attended school at Eustis High School, west and north of Orlando, population 20,000 soaking wet. To get there, you had to pass ABC Liquors and Publix and Winn Dixie and churches, a whole mess of them. Southern Baptist, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventists, and even the occasional Catholic steeple. My high school was one of many dotting this landscape, a low-slung two-story building squared off by a football field, bleached orange in the sun.  

Near my town was one even smaller, Eatonville, the first incorporated black town following Emancipation, just 2,300 inhabitants. Small as it was, it made history. The writer, anthropologist, and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston lived and wrote in this town, and the stories she collected inscribed her own life. She would also die there, a forgotten hero of the Harlem Renaissance, employed as somebody’s maid. 

What did she think about in those final years, rocking in her chair on a neighbor’s front porch? Did her stories surround her the way they had in 1935, when she wrote her book Mules and Men, all those tales humming with meaning? They were filled with the mysteries and fears of being black at that time in history, read through the lens of myth, a portal to a world of signs. As a storyteller, Hurston’s love of story was born in Eatonville and the townspeople there who held what she called “lying sessions.” There she heard stories of God, the Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard, and all the rest. These stories comprised her south, and it’s hard to see where Hurston’s own story begins and these stories end. Stories have a way of doing that, taking us up in them until we become just one more myth.

 
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In the summer of 1987, I didn’t know who Zora Neale Hurston was. I was just sixteen years old, living in my own small town, trying to read the signs of how to survive life as a young lesbian in the south. I had no deep religious affiliations, but I showed up occasionally and sang in the choir at St. Mary’s church. I was just as likely to criticize the Bible at school, toss it haphazardly on a desk to make a point, to remind my fellow students it was “just a book.”  For both acts – being Catholic and belligerent – the Baptists in town made sure I knew I was destined to burn in hell. “The Son always rises in Lake County,” read a local billboard, and did its best each day to remind me they were right.

In central Florida, Jesus didn’t like Catholics and Jesus didn’t like “homosexuals.”  I lived then, I guess, in the closet, if there was such a thing at sixteen years old, in a place that refused to acknowledge the existence of people like me, beyond as tinder for the holy pyre.  I kept my relationship with my high school girlfriend quiet, frantically counting who might know, how many, how they might’ve found out. To be revealed in that place meant certain social death, but also to live with the realization that you were something abject. Something wrong to yourself beneath your own skin. I could feel that cold panic living inside me most times of the day. I would put it to bed at night and wake up to it first thing in the morning. There would be birds outside my bedroom window and the first faint rays of light bleeding in through the blinds; there would be the softness of first waking, followed by that shock of ice water in the belly. I would remember: I was still this thing I could not stop being. That day, like every day, I had to make sure no one else knew.

To wake up black in a small southern town had its own set of fears. Whites and blacks in my town rarely mixed, except on the sports field. There were black girls I played volleyball with: good, strong players who kept like a triad all to themselves. I barely knew these girls. But then again, I barely knew anyone. During the long, post-game rides home at sunset, orange light would flood the bus, and the other girls would talk together about the match or bend their heads in quietude over their homework, monkish in their study. The triad would sit as one, legs stretched out on the seat next to them, bodies turned towards each other. I’d stare out the window at a passing lake or string of cars. I talked to almost no one, shared nothing of my protected inner world.    

At school, the white kids sat on their side of the cafeteria, the black kids on theirs. I sat nowhere, preferring instead to roam the campus, or keep strained company with an overweight Algebra teacher discussing religion or politics, just about anything I could to stay away from my peers, so inept was I at connecting with those my own age. So certain they could stare right through me and read the alleged sins of my soul. 

 
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My sister was my mirror opposite. Popular, a cheerleader, the president of the Student Council. After I’d left for college, she’d broken that cafeteria line and dated an African American boy from school. It was more of a scandal than my rumored (true) affair with my female best friend.  

I remember the part of town this young man lived in. I never had cause to go there, until I drove my sister a few times in the front seat of my beat-up green Mustang. There were rows of small, run-down houses crowded behind wire gates and fences, lined by cracked sidewalks out front. Young boys with agility and strength to spare would stand around outside in the late afternoon sun with their shirts off, revealing thin, wiry muscles. They’d show off to each other by doing backflips from flat feet or running full down the road and tumbling into the air in perfect somersaults until their mothers yelled for them to stop playing and come on inside.

My sister would go after school to the boy’s house, and they’d hold hands or kiss out back beneath a sagging elm tree. On Saturday nights, they’d head to the Lakeside mall for a movie, causing a stir. They’d drink Orange Julius or do what everyone else did, just drive around. The boy was a good student. An athlete, well liked, handsome in every way, a perfect match for my sister. They put up with the stares and the whispers in plain sight. They didn’t break to the townfolks or the social pressure around being different. It was his mother who broke them up, quick as she could. At the time I had no more notion of why than I had knowledge of Eatonville, of a storyteller named Zora Neale Hurston, who had once lived just a few miles away.  

Looking back now, it’s clear. A black boy in a small southern town dating a white girl he knew from school. It was the late 80s, but it still wasn’t done. The fear his mother must’ve felt—I can only imagine. I’m not sure it was my sister she distrusted, although maybe she did. Maybe she was afraid my sister would cry foul one night, turn on the boy if she got mad or jealous. Or perhaps his mother was afraid of the town. How could you trust a hinterland place like Eustis, Florida? White kids on one side of the cafeteria, black kids on the other. The memory of those lynchings lived deep in our collective interior and was neither gone nor forgotten. Although for me and the other white kids, it was not something we knew about yet. It was a history that went untold.

 
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That summer, Eatonville celebrated its 100th anniversary as the first black incorporated town. For months, we heard on the news that the city was planning a grand parade. There was much to celebrate that Hurston had already proudly expressed in her work. Growing up in Eatonville, surrounded by “three hundred brown skins” who ran the schools and churches and banks; who, like her father, served as mayor, grew, or sold food; owned homes; contributed to civic life; and as in Hurston’s case, powerfully told its stories; Hurston had never been indoctrinated as a young girl in the alleged “inferiority” of black people. If blacks were afforded the same and equal assets as whites, she felt, then there was a freedom in living separate and unmolested by them.  

As the city ramped up parade preparations, one night the news reported the unthinkable: the Ku Klux Klan had petitioned to march in the Eatonville centennial parade. Their stated reason held an eerie echo of Hurston. They said they wanted to show support for black towns separated from whites. It wasn’t an aggressive act, they insisted, but one done in solidarity. Is it possible the petitioners had read Hurston’s August 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, when she had broken her silence and spoken out against the Supreme Court decision to end segregation in public schools? She’d written, “I regard the Supreme Court decision as insulting rather than honoring my race… if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is no difference (in desegregation) except the presence of white people.” No part of me truly believed the Klan had real sympathies aligned with Hurston or Eatonville; only that they wanted to insinuate their evil on the parade. I could feel the fear and anger smoldering from thirty miles away.

Public debate filled the airwaves. Many people in and outside Eatonville said there was no way the Klan should be permitted to march. They were co-opting the focus of a peaceful event meant to commemorate African Americans and all they’d survived. The KKK’s presence would instead emphasize their oppression and violence, slyly reasserting the ongoing possibility of both. Their march was a threat. Age-old Florida jumped up from the ashes. The real world risen from the theme parks.  

Some residents suggested canceling the whole thing, even if it meant the KKK had won. The mayor, Abraham Gordon, looked into legal action, but downplayed his concern to the media, saying he was worried about violence that would break out, but that he was also worried it “might rain and that the cold drinks wouldn’t get there on time.” In the end, it was decided that the parade would go on and that the KKK’s participation was a First Amendment right. Anyone could march in a municipal parade, provided they’d filed the necessary paperwork, which the hate group had done. Eatonville had no choice. The KKK would march in their parade.

Every day, I checked the news. Every day, I felt this breathless waiting. I wondered if violence would erupt. There were all those southern people, each one of them with guns. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the parade down a main street much like my own. As the KKK rounded the square, I saw the people of Eatonville, their righteous anger exploding. I wondered if the Klan’s presence might usurp the day, force pride to bend to power. If the dark cloud they brought with them would be all anyone remembered. These two outcomes were the only ones I could envision at the time.

 
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Hurston’s father, John Hurston, first settled in Eatonville in 1902, the minister of the Macedonia Baptist Church. He helped create some of the city’s laws, instituted the first jail, and even served as mayor from 1912 to 1916. It’s possible that some of the civil obedience he brought to bear became the same that protected the Klan’s rights in 1987. That empowered the policemen to dress up in their blue uniforms, line the parade route, and protect the Klan. It was a bitter pill. Even though Florida had seen more black men lynched than any other state, the Klan had—up until this point—left Eatonville, with its minority 1% white population, all alone.   

But the late 80s were a strange time for the town. In the earlier two decades, young African Americans had flooded Eatonville, looking for a better life for their children. By 1987, the dwindling economy had led them elsewhere. The fresh stream of families and finances dried up, despite the “rediscovery” of Hurston by Alice Walker in 1975. In an article for Ms. Magazine, Walker braved the hip-high cemetery grass that, as a fellow southerner, she knew was filled with dangerous cottonmouths or canebreak rattlers, all to find Hurston’s unmarked grave and lay a stone on it in commemoration.    

I learned of this later when I lived in New York and stumbled upon Hurston’s writings in my college classes. What struck me most about her was not Eatonville or her many accomplishments, but the deep, rich poetry of her words. They stuck deep inside me and conjured up our shared south and a language I instinctively understood. This language sang in my ear. It woke me as a writer, birthed in me art, which provided its own kind of identity and resistance. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s main character, Janie, “waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time.… She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge in the gray dust of its making.”  

I knew that green time she wrote of to be the lime green of the orchard leaves, waxy, riddled with ants, springing up and out of branches. I knew that orange time to mean the sunset, so brilliant over the Gulf, but also those miles of groves, alive with their fresh spritz of citrus. I knew the bloom time meant when they began as white flowers, with the bright smell of a stick of gum bursting out in the fresh morning air. Gardenias and jasmine and that soft drift of autumn, so small you couldn’t place it if you hadn’t grown up in a place of constant, relentless sun.    

Later, when I worked at Ms. Magazine, I sat in an office chair and answered a phone one day to find Alice Walker on the other end, a live conduit to Hurston. I held my breath and put Ms. Walker on hold. There was a moment before transferring her to the person she wished to speak to when I could keep her there, with her quiet, measured voice at the other end of the line, and believe that we two could have an actual conversation. I wanted to know her, to ask her about Hurston. I wished I’d known them both when I was living in the south, hiding who I was, alone.

 
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The day for the parade arrived. It stepped off as scheduled with all the townspeople standing on the street and watching the homemade floats and open-topped convertibles and the crowned queen of Eatonville’s Centennial roll on by. There was a marching band from the high school and a speech from the mayor. There were displays of the great history of the town, and all that the people had accomplished in 100 years. Men and women lined the street, clapping and cheering. Children waved their tiny flags. Eatonville was alive to itself on this day.

Then it came time for the KKK to march by. They entered the main space of the parade route, turning into it. Whether from fear of reprisal, or lack of follow-through, their group consisted of just three sorry white boys and a couple of hand painted signs. They did their best to cause commotion anyway. They cackled and jeered. They called out and waved to the crowd, as though they were the celebrants here. But the people of Eatonville didn’t lose their cool. They simply turned their backs and looked away as the KKK walked by. There was no violence and no confrontation. They refused to give those boys their attention, as though there was nothing about them worthy of Eatonville’s time.  

I watched it on the news and felt elated. My body jumped alive with thrill. There was something I’d learned from Eatonville. Something deep. It would take me a couple more years to put my finger on it; I’d have to move away first, and it might simply be identified as the new knowledge of living another way. There was something in that gesture—back turned, quietly, strongly, refusing to bend—the suggestion that a person could select another path, one most folks couldn’t even fathom.  

 
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Laura Jones is an editor, writer, and journalist living in Austin, Texas. Her nonfiction essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Foglifter, The Drum, and The Gay and Lesbian Review, to name just a few. Two anthologies also feature her work: They Said, edited by the poet Simone Muench, and DaCunha Volume 2. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University, where she won the AWP Journals Prize. Currently, she is the Editorial Consultant for Mondo/Alamo Drafthouse and a journalist writing for The Austin Chronicle.

 Water Meditation in 13 Images

maria deguzmán

 
Sands of Timr

Sands of Timr

A face appears, the lips of a wide mouth above prominent chin bones, strangely familiar. The rest of the face is masked by something like diving goggles furnishing an hourglass window onto another dimension, far away across the desert sands of an ocean floor. What are the parted lips saying? Don a Siebe suit, its helmet and aqua lung, passport to the depths. A mute photograph sings a siren song, luring me into another dimension. Something in the distance is burning, the coal black smoke plume from a moving train along ghostly tracks barely visible as they recede toward a vanishing point. A scene from another age, another century. And yet, here it is, in my slippery present, the culmination of the past, waves rippling from the burning vanishing point back to where I stand over a bowl of water, not seeing any of this at the time, of course, the water, like quicksilver, stirred by a spoon. Only later, upon review of the photographs I took while stirring the waters, do I see this familiar unfamiliar face, the parted lips—memory an act of salvage? 

 
Entheogen

Entheogen

And now to drop below the surface in a diving bell named The Black Madonna or Yemayá or Magdalena Divina. Seeing, as if through smoked glass, sunglasses… sun and shadow, a liquid medium, thicker than air, taking on form. Fluid slipping through itself, water moving through water. Currents. Dropping below the sunlit surface into the complex darkness and its crisscrossing currents from which our own circulatory systems are borrowed. The human infant is up to 78 percent water; an adult, 60 to 65 percent. Water in which we live and move and have our being. Living water. 

 
Man in the Water

Man in the Water

On a roasting afternoon in early July 2017, I first filled a small bowl with water and with one hand began stirring it slowly, almost absent-mindedly, while taking photos with the other, relying on a digital camera compact enough to be held in one hand only. The summer had been one of the hottest on record and no relief was in sight. I had taken to living with the lights off and starting the heavy mornings with meditation. It was in this manner that I began my experiments with a small bowl of water. Just the sight of the water made me feel cooler. 

And then, one morning, two weeks into these experiments, the strangely familiar shape of a man with black hair came swimming up as if from under the surface, in the border zone between water and air, dark glasses covering his eyes and a white handkerchief or an oxygen mask over the lower half of his face, like the inhabitant of a smoggy megalopolis. At the interface between O and H2O, the camera caught him signaling among the waves. Hello? ¡Socorro! ¡Socorro! What?

 
Landscape

Landscape

Another morning, a hot one with the sun lost in a white haze of climbing temperatures, a fever-pitch chorus of cicadas camouflaged among the wilted trees, a topographic picture emerges: both a map and a landscape. Mountains, lakes, rivers. From a low brown mountain range, rivers pool into an ocean with a creature that looks like a baby whale breaching in a back flip. I get an eerie feeling that I am reading a vintage postcard sent from the edge of a world that once was and is no longer. 

 
Pilgrim

Pilgrim

Then a hazy oval portrait appears in the face of the spoon: a seventeenth-century pilgrim, perhaps a Puritan, dark felt hat, long white hair, a doublet, a long face with sunken eyes and a hawk nose. The water is roiling and jumping up all around a storm-tossed spoon in three-dimensional Edgerton drops and splashes, as if the waters were staging a getaway. What is this stern pilgrim (or is he a starving Jamestown settler?) doing in that spoon? Stubbornly renaming the troubled waters? Appropriating and applying mispronounced Native American names for parts of rivers to the entire river, possessively confusing the part for an elusive, ungraspable whole that flows out of reach?

 
Blue Goldfish

Blue Goldfish

Still July 2017, on a steamy North Carolina afternoon, by a golden bubble or dome, a fish swims into sight—after the fact, of course, since I did not see what the moving waters were doing until later. It looks like a bluish East Asian wild carp (aka goldfish) or a small koi or maybe a Siamese fighting fish. Or perhaps it is the Sacred Cod in the House of Representatives’ chamber of the Massachusetts State House … the City on the Hill owes its gold to a fish … and now the fish has broken loose and is floating above the golden dome of the State House where all that’s solid melts into air. The cicadas are singing frantically on this boiling July afternoon and way down South, I contemplate this tiny prodigy, displaced. 

 
Oracle

Oracle

A couple of days later, on a cloudy morning, sharks appear, circling around an eyeless face, their bodies wreathing around a head, partially covering its lips—as if something secret were being conveyed. But what speaks most loudly is the silence of the sharks, their mute gliding around this pale face smooth as a pregnant woman’s belly. I double-check the shape of their tails in an encyclopedia. The tails of sharks, not dolphins. 

 
Poseidon

Poseidon

 
Storm at Sea

Storm at Sea

A forecast of tempests: the depths of the ocean raging in the shallow oval of the spoon. A nocturnal image reveals a bearded old man grimacing out of storm clouds streaked with lightning above a churning sea blanched a sandy white. An image captured at dawn is more ominous: noticeably elevated levels of a fluorescent gray choppy ocean under wind-driven storm clouds, and the oddest detail of all, the dark face of a woman, her hollow eyes cat-like, looming in the left corner as if passing out of the frame at great speed. Later, I will count Harvey, Irma, José, María, and ten other storms.  

 
Mouth

Mouth

The following month, in August, flaccid faces break forth, mouths limp, pouring liquid waterfalls out of their corners. Some of the images feature only lips, lips parted, the lips of the unconscious or the once-conscious. The exhausted? The drowned? The sickened migrant workers, Mexican and Central American, sent to wade through putrid waters to rebuild Houston and Miami and other coastal cities and towns? By the edge of the spoon, something flows, amoeba-like, water shapeshifting into a mercurial tapeworm, head full of suckers. Is this what our hope has come to—giving up the sucked-out holy ghost with a nauseous groan at the ratcheting numbers of those whose roofs were ripped off and whose lives and livelihoods were reduced to rubble and flotsam?

 
Highflying

Highflying

A brunette in sunglasses and a black satin dress with charcoal wings flies high in a chiaroscuro sky, one arm stretched across the silver lining of a looming thunderhead. She hovers over a waterway that pools into the head of a largemouth bass lying sideways up—Edisto, Santee, Great Pee Dee—blackwater rivers of methylmercury vying for first place with a river near a Nevada goldmine. From the belly of the high-flying brunette—she, too, looks strangely familiar—a thick umbilical air hose descends into the top of a diving helmet with alien eyes. Another Siebe suit on a reconnaissance mission. Where? When? In this scene, the brunette is parent to her own father whose company manufactured the metal parts of those watertight copper and brass diving helmets. Metal spinning. The water around the spoon gets the bends, tiny bubbles in its golden blood.

 
Alms

Alms

Cryptic letters of light tumble out of the heavens. An alphabet both strange and familiar. Eyes and tiny fishhooks. Alchemical signs for metals and materials. Forgotten scripts, unfamiliar yet nearly legible. A L M. An audio linguistic method, in this case with no audible sound, only these multidimensional pictures of ALMost people and animals and things montaged and mixed, morphing into one another. Here a huge dark dolphin, perhaps a whale, rears its head to the sky. There, adjacent to it, a smaller one turns its rostrum toward the viewer. ALM, alm, alms in relation to what? As opposed to what? A culture of extraction and extinction? The seismic detonations and drillings that are killing the whales and the dolphins and other marine life and seeding the atmosphere with the stuff of mega storms, of hurricanes and tornadoes and typhoons that drown low-lying communities of color and the economically disadvantaged? The Grampus griseus who raises a rostrum to the luminosity of the sky above the rolling surf—what is it thinking?

 
Direct Look

Direct Look


The naval officer is looking at me. How do I figure this? Though I never saw him in the flesh, he has appeared in old photographs. I know no other face quite like his. The Spanish naval officer with thick, groomed hair, large sad eyes (Phoenician blue), prominent eyebrows, and a small mustache above full lips. An islander, a Majorcan who married another islander, an Afro-Hispanic Puerto Rican woman who saw the place of her birth pass from one master to another, Spain to the United States. The naval officer’s entire life depended on the ocean, what he lived of his life—asthmatic, insomniac, and dead before his time. His sons would be naval officers, too, and he was fated to outlive them, something that likely made the drawing of every breath even more difficult. ¡Socorro! ¡Socorro! But here he peers out, with an almost serene curiosity, at the viewer. From behind a curtain of light and the pale green of shallow water, his eyebrows are thick, his eyes characteristically large, his once brown moustache white above full lips. Suspended in the shadow beside his head is a question mark like a sinewy fish with gills and a pearl for a punctuating dot. What is your question? ¿Cual es su pregunta?

 
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Artist’s Statement

I obtained these photographic images by agitating water with a spoon in a small bowl and photographing the water while stirring it. The naked eye cannot see what is happening at the time. What intrigued me about the experiment I conducted with light, water, and motion was the uncanny “historicity” of the forms, caught on camera, that appeared in the bowl of water. The basis of this creative non-fiction is my own memory journey with these forms interpreted as time images.

 
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María DeGuzmán is a conceptual photographer, writer, scholar, and music composer. She has published photography in The Grief Diaries, Coffin Bell, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Map Literary, and Two Hawks Quarterly (forthcoming); poetry in The Kentucky Poetry Review, The Cape Rock, and Empty Mirror; and short stories in Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature, and Sinister Wisdom. She has also published three scholarly books: Spain’s Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (Minnesota Press, 2005); Buenas Noches, American Culture: Latina/o Aesthetics of Night (Indiana University Press, 2012); and Understanding John Rechy (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Her SoundCloud website may be found at: https://soundcloud.com/mariadeguzman.

 

When Two Jehovah’s Witnesses Come to Your Door Wearing Dresses on a Cold Morning to Ask How You Deal With the Loss of a Loved One

Diane Payne

 
  1. You answer the door in your slippers, sweatpants, and thermal shirt, obviously bra-less, and they stare a moment, tell their names, then ask yours.

  2. Then they say they’ll be quick because everyone is sick, and no one is dressed for this weather, especially since you don’t invite them inside, and you are standing in the carport wondering when they’re going to hand the religious tract to you.

  3. They get to the point: How do you deal with the death of a loved one?

  4. Finally, someone cares about you. Grief has been knocking on your shoulder for months. You ask if they’d like some whiskey, and they look horrified. You say you will be right back and return with a glass for yourself.

  5. You tell them how your dog died two months ago, and people are still asking where the big dog is. “You know what hurts?” They shake their heads. “When people ask, ‘Did you put him down?’ You get this, right? Like asking someone if they pulled the plug on their mother.”

  6. You tell them about this writer, Sherman Alexie, and how he has a Post-It in a book that defines grief as being unable to masturbate. “Tell me about that, right?”

  7. You tell them you know Jehovah’s Witnesses tend not to vote, but didn’t they just want to crawl into a deep hole with a bottle of Irish Cream last night after that racist Republican woman won the Senate in Mississippi?

  8. You tell them how you brought your cat to the vet two days ago, and the vet was so upset to have to tell you about one more pet dying, she pulled you aside to show you the x-rays of a healthy cat first. Then your cat’s x-ray with the huge tumor wrapped around her lungs and heart and one more death sentence. You point to the backyard and tell them about all the dead dogs and cats and how each death haunts you to this day, especially the big dog, the first one who has been euthanized. “I will never forget the look on his face when he got that injection.” They nod their heads.

  9. Right after, you excuse yourself to step inside and refill your glass because you’re ready to talk about the dead humans now. You return to an empty carport, not even a religious tract stuck in the door, and you take another sip of the burning, yet soothing whiskey before stepping back inside the house, wishing the women were Faith Healers instead of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 
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Diane payne’s most recent publications include: Barn House, Notre Dame Review, Obra/Artiface, Reservoir, Southern Fugitives, Spry Literary Review, Watershed Review, Superstition Review, Windmill Review, Tishman Review, Whiskey Island, Quarterly, Fourth RiverLunch Ticket, Split Lip Review,The Offing, Elke: A little Journal, PunctuateOutpost 19, McNeese Review, The Meadow, Burnt Pine, Story South,and Five to One. She is currently offering online creative writing classes and writing consultations. 

https://www.facebook.com/events/381333442585530/  and https://www.facebook.com/events/469610656954454/

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