Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 29, October-December 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 29.5
Ways in which Bats Gave Me Rabies
A Charleston Unfairy Tale
by Robert West
followed by Q&A
A Charleston Unfairy Tale
by Ting Lam
followed by Q&A
The dragons, an old couple, and I live
inside a little red shack.
The dragons tease and call me shawtay.
The couple hugs and calls me ah moi.
On slow days, they all smile and call me baby.
On busy days the fleets of powerful beasts crowd in,
roaring and famished for fried wings and lo-mein,
ordering the couple around, fueling their already fiery anger.
On those days, everyone taunts and calls me little girl.
The winged folks thunder, “More ice!”
The man and wife holler, “Three cups of rice!”
Divided and frustrated, I glare at
the demanding, cold-blooded reptiles.
They stare at me from across the counter with sanguine eyes.
Their breath boils from swigging bottles of Texas Pete,
the lava rolling down their ribbon tongues
and also dripping from their webbed fingers.
I blink; they are three men carrying guns.
Three masked men and an old couple
dance across the shack with wuxia grace–
fists flying, curses rising, cries climbing,
the noise spilling onto the desolate streets of the empty night.
Three masked men carrying guns grab money and run away.
The next bright morning,
the dragons call me shawtay and the couple calls me ah moi.
We smile and nod to each other and wings beat
against the counter as I search for deception behind
the dragons’ toothy grins, stretched so far back
that on reflex, I force my own smile in return.
Ting Lam is a high school English teacher currently living in Chapel Hill. Because she was born in Hong Kong, China, and lived in Charleston, SC, for most of her childhood, her poems have a lot to do with amalgamating seemingly contradictory Chinese and American Southern identities while growing up.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “A Charleston Unfairy Tale” is actually the first poem that I have ever written and it was
inspired by a “Where am I from” prompt by my first poetry professor. Instead of locating
it in a specific geographical place, I tried to capture the spirit of my childhood.
by Lynn Bey
followed by Q&A
It’s the second week of hols when Mom finally says Christmas isn’t going away, let’s get our shopping done. She means Sun Plaza near Albertstown. It’s an hour away but at least they decorate.
“We could do with some festive,” she says. It’s Friday, Ruthie’s day off, so breakfast is unfestive toast.
“I have to brush my teeth,” you lie. You want a look round your room, at Barry Gibb above your bed.
“Don’t dawdle. Everybody and their grandmother will be on that road.”
You grab your jacket. There’s $47.55 inside and some food. You change into socks and tackies. Mom’ll say it’s too hot for all that, then never mind, she’s tired of arguing.
She puts Kenny Rogers on and says it can be Abba coming home. You make good time and do Woolworths and two gift shops before getting a trolley for Hilda’s.
“Keep an eye out for anything half off,” she says. You fetch and carry and put back what she tells you to until you almost chicken out. But then you’re plonking Ruthie’s favorite jam next to the Vim and squeezing past the cash registers to go outside. Soon you’re across busy George Boulevard and turning right down Victoria, not looking back. At the main lights there’s the sign for Customs and Border Patrol. You pass the old Bata, a hairdresser’s, the chemist, a record shop that’s useless, the Wimpy Dad liked. Round the corner is the path you want. It’s a short-cut through the huge vlei that the nannies with gigantic bundles on their heads use to reach the road where cars queue waiting for Customs to open because that’s where they’re allowed to put down bits of plastic and spread out what they’ve made to show overseas tourists, crocheted bedspreads and dresses and doilies by the dozen.
The path’s bumpy, and you pull up your socks against ticks. If any ex-terr gets cheeky, you’ll shout at him to bugger off. It’s four months till Independence, and then they can be the ones shouting that. All the Whites, practically, are gapping it. They’re going Down South or to Aus or Kenya. The Fernleys chose Ireland. People who’re staying take turns saying, “Last one out, turn off the lights!”
The houses on this far side of the vlei have wire fences filled in with straw. Probably they’re poor Whites. You feel sorry for how they’re almost on the other side of the border and part of Down South. From half-way up a mulberry tree you see which garden doesn’t have a dog or kids in it. It’s lucky the scullery’s not locked so you can sneak inside and hide till morning. You’re so starved when you wake up you scarf all the Digestives and crunchies you brought. Then it’s back over the fence to head for the sound of cars and lorries braking.
When you’re close to the fancy arch that’s the border you hide behind gum trees and watch. The guard lifts up the boom to let in a few cars before bringing it down again. Everyone on the guard’s side hurries inside the main building with their passports. People who’re this side get out to stretch their legs. The men walk down the road and start laughing and offering each other cigarettes. The moms make the kids go with them to the loos that are opposite Customs, and you get in line too. The line takes ages but it’s perfect for no one noticing what you’re staring at. Finally a kid comes running out of Customs and you watch which caravan he goes to unlock. He jumps to get in, and when he’s out again he tries locking it but drops a baby’s bottle and starts cleaning it with his shirt. When it’s your turn to use the loo you flush and get out because otherwise the unlocked caravan could drive off.
But it’s still there, and when the car jerks it forward with you inside, it’s as rattly as your bike. The trees and sky and clouds through the tiny windows are snap to what you pictured.
Before the caravan stops you jump out. Your knees are barely skinned so it’s half a sec till you’re inside the shop that’s closest. Mom calls this kind cheapelie, but the smell makes you hungry for samoosas. In the row of chips and sweets there’re kids choosing a treat. You choose sherbet sticks, then say who here thinks Durbs is best? Whoever says Me! you follow to the counter and then outside, where suddenly you burst out crying because the bus must’ve forgotten you here. The Durban kids’ dad says, “For Pete’s sake,” but the mom hugs you and you’re allowed in their back seat so they can drop you at whatever police station is near their hotel.
Everybody’s nice and you’re nice back. You share the sherbet you stole and they give you ham sandwiches and a Fanta.
It’s rude, running away instead of going inside with the dad to talk to the police, but with tackies on you’re fast. There’re hotels everywhere. Inside a white one an old lady with lipstick on her teeth lets you phone your dad.
“What the—? You’re not serious! Here?”
You wait in the dining room, where two Indian girls, or Coloreds maybe, are setting the tables for supper. They bring you a cheese scone so you tell them the jokes Heather Fernley told. You’re starting another one about stupid van der Merwe when the back of your head stings like it’s caught fire. The girls giggle because it’s not their dad giving them a slap.
“Stop sniveling,” he says in the car. When he doesn’t say anything else you look out the window at the lagoon. The sun’s going down, which means Mom’s on the verandah having wine. She wants you both to make the best of things. She wants you to stay put even though all the lights are being turned off.
Lynn Bey has had short stories and flash fiction published in The Literarian, Birmingham Arts Journal, Two Hawks Quarterly, Rhapsodia, Conquista & Rebellion, Broken Pencil, and a few other magazines that are now, sadly, defunct.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story for a 600-word competition I entered (and did not win) with a writer-friend (whose story was much better than mine). When I reworked this story, it kept growing longer; eventually I realized that it should have been longer from the start—the precise length it is now, amazingly! (The great thing about writing is that it lets you convince yourself of almost anything, including that you know what you’re doing.)
Prime Number Magazine, Editors' Selections, Volumes 1 and 2.
His last night
he reread the poetry
his wife knew
he’d often wished
there had been more of
Robert West is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, the latest of which is Convalescent (Finishing Line Press, 2011). His work has appeared in Able Muse, Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, and other venues. He is an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, where he also serves as associate editor of Mississippi Quarterly, The Journal of Southern Cultures.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I like brief poems that suggest a narrative beyond their scale; “Corpus” is an epilogue to an unwritten biography. I also admire poetry that engages with the language in a way that might defy translation, and I try to do that with the conclusion of this poem.
Ways in Which Bats Gave Me Rabies
by Patrice Hutton
followed by Q&A
Your dog licked me, and even though I know you take care to vaccinate her every year, who knows what else she’s been licking in your backyard? When bats expire from rabies, slowing from their fury, do they settle onto a branch for their last breath, toe and tail joints giving way, and drop to the ground? Your dog might have licked that.
I dreamed my way into a Faulkner mansion and woke up as a bat chased me from the basement, up staircases, and into the attic. I lay there, shaking in my crimson Jersey sheets, wondering if houses in Mississippi even have basements. I know they often keep their dead above ground, so do they bother building spaces below ground for the living?
I needed to walk one of my characters (boy/girl/didn’t matter) to the bedroom window to stare out longingly and consider how (sad/upset/hurt) (he/she/didn’t matter) was. I put a bat house outside the window and had the boy man’splain to the girl that the old woman they were staying with nurses orphaned bats back to health. People do this, and I figured that if my character did it, I would believe that people actually do it without contracting rabies. Later I drove down a road in Maine and saw a store that sold bat houses, which reminded me that people do shelter the creatures, which reminded me that they do indeed exist, which reminded me to wear my hoodie snug around my face at night, which reminded me that my legs were still exposed, which reminded me that I would get rabies any minute.
We all had coffee with a Holocaust survivor in Amsterdam, but all I could think about was the bat maybe brewed into the coffee. She talked about the Holocaust as blackness, and all I could think about was the blackness in my cup and how it was that black because it was bat-infused (this happens*). I excused myself to the bathroom and tiptoed the other way to the kitchen. I heard her say that after the Holocaust, she got a husband, but she couldn't love him. I opened up the coffee maker, lifted up the grounds. No bat. The grounds, the grounds, I thought, and she talked on, the grounds, the guards making their rounds on Auschwitz's grounds.
We needed a breather from the bachelorette night and the limo needed cups, so we left the wine bar and went to CVS. And we wanted a moment to freak out about marriage, and dogs, and that the era of dick pics was over, and really just a moment, because she'd been in Jogjakarta for a year, and now our other best friend was getting married.
“My God, my God, Dasani, calamine lotion, my God, Cheetos!”
“Watching you rediscover America is magic. Walmart's next.”
“Okay, okay, but screw you America, I smuggled over two cartons of cloves!”
“Okay, focus, Solo cups and who all can we force Red Bull on? Jesus Christ! Bats!”
“Halloween? It's August.”
In an aisle full of lookalikes, really, how can you be sure that one's not lurking and wasn't that thing that pinched your back as you stared at the Red Bulls, tallying, figuring out how to wake a group of sleepy girls at a bachelorette?
And then the time I got rabies shots, really and truly, there were five hot pink vials plus a forearm pumped full of immunoglobulin and a doctor reading from a big red book, reciting the list of animals that could have given me rabies, mongooses and slobbering cows, and saying really, you were just walking through a park at night and a bat flew into you and scratched you? What do you mean when you say it felt like it had more mass than a moth?
*After her morning cup, a woman in Iowa lifted her coffee grounds to find that a bat had fitted itself into her coffee maker in the night. It was too-brewed-through to test for rabies, so the woman, perchance having ingested rabies-brewed-into-coffee, had to get the vaccine.
Patrice Hutton graduated from Johns Hopkins University, with the distinction of the Three Arts Club of Homeland Award for excellence in fiction writing. Her fiction appears in Mount Hope Magazine. Patrice directs Writers in Baltimore Schools, a program that provides middle school students with a vibrant environment for literary development through in-school, after-school, and summer creative writing workshops. Last summer, Patrice launched the Baltimore Young Writers' Studio, a creative writing sleepaway camp for Baltimore teens.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I got rabies shots in 2008, after an encounter with a bat in a Kansas park.
by Benjamin Vogt
followed by Q&A
As a hue [blue] it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity,
as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction
between excitement and repose….we love to contemplate blue,
not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, “Theory of Color”
Like any family, mine has secrets that get slowly revealed to its members through the decades. It’s sort of an honor, I suppose, part of growing older and being recognized as an adult and no longer a child. It’s a mixed blessing: cursed with knowledge and blessed with next-to-impossible-to-earn respect.
Through bits and pieces, I’ve come to learn my grandfather was an alcoholic and a physical abuser. At first, some years ago, my mother hinted at such when her biological father sent her a Christmas card after decades of silence. This event brought to light that the grandfather I loved was a stand-in of sorts. My grandmother—now a staunch Christian—gave birth to my mom, her oldest child of five, at the age of seventeen. She, too, was an alcoholic and rather free-wheeling, from what I gather. But again, the pickings are slim. I don’t really know, and no one wants to talk, not even about pictures—these were burned long ago by my grandmother, so the only physical history I have to trace is on my father’s relatively normal side of the family.
When my “real” grandfather sent his card, my mother had no choice but to tell her kids phase one of many phases I doubt I’ll ever get to the end of. Years later, I heard the grandfather I knew beat his two boys, and now one has estranged himself from the family blaming his mother for not protecting them. Not too long ago, after my grandmother’s failed trip to visit her son, my mom explained again why he was so aloof. Leaning against the edge of the living room couch, half on its thick arm, my mom crosses her tan arms and goes on.
“He blames your grandma for not protecting us kids from your grandpa.” She looks toward the blank screen of the TV, and then down to her feet. “She couldn’t do anything, of course, and things change anyway. People grow up. It was a long time ago. It’s your mother, for Pete’s sake.” She says this last bit looking at me, maybe planting the seed for anything I yet don’t know about, or for something unforeseen that might happen. “It’s your mother.”
But stranger in this is, as she looks to the floor, to me, around the room, to me, the floor again—strangest of all this are the words “protecting us kids.” She said this in a different way than before. She didn’t say “boys,” and her eyes became a darker black than usual. They didn’t swell, but the pupils expanded. I can’t forget this one detail. Like a cat, or some animal backed into a corner, those eyes opened and seemed to see something I couldn’t. They were waiting, ready, simultaneously fierce and afraid. And it was brief. I imagine, as the oldest child who cooked for the family, mended clothes that were handed down from her to her younger siblings, she must have had to stand ground in that house in Racine that I drove by only once, as a small child, on the way to a family reunion.
She didn’t say what I hoped she would, but I suppose I didn’t want to hear either. But I did. I wanted to hear it. I did. I wanted to hear how Grandpa, smoking and drinking, memories of Korea playing along like the TV in the living room, all came knocking against her arms, her face, her back. How the children ran screaming through the house, huddled together in closets, Grandma sitting at the kitchen table waiting for it to end as it always did after a few moments. Just take it, she might whisper to herself. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I can’t take it for you.
I don’t know what changed. Religion. Growing up. Working things out of yourself. Moving away. Patience. Long after whatever happened, the youngest son, retired from the army, was killed by a drunk driver. Then Grandpa got cancer after years of mourning, bearing the loss as he was chipped away by disease. Maybe my uncle, the estranged son, rejoiced. Maybe this is what made him who he was. But my mom, passing out bits of a life I can’t possibly imagine in the people I love so dearly, won’t live by the memories anymore. She moves on. She takes me out to the garden, where we silently worked together for years, and says she planted ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories because the scent reminds her of her grandmother’s house in Racine, how much fun it was to go there as a child. And without knowing it, either of us perhaps, something else comes up from the earth and slightly opens to the light.
Draped four feet off the ground, between the clump river birch and the verbena, is a web about eighteen inches in diameter. In the middle rests a plump, female yellow garden spider. There are a few others, all nearly the same distance off the ground—one by the aster tataricus, another by the ironweed.
Her legs are like black toothpicks, and as I watch a fly land in the web, their dexterity and pinpoint accuracy are a marvel as they first hold, and then rotate, prey near the silk-spraying abdomen. I am terrified of spiders, but know she is harmless. I try to remember Charlotte’s Web, and the knowledge that these are nonpoisonous, beneficial spiders. The wolf spider I found in the lawn near my sandaled feet are also beneficial, but venomous. My garden is, perhaps, becoming more than I bargained for—it’s hard to keep up with all that’s going on, coming through.
With yet another glut of grasshoppers, perhaps holdovers from 2009, I have a great idea. I walk over to the switchgrass, sneak up on a grasshopper, and swiftly close my hand around it. It claws and tickles, and then seems to bite at my palm as I rush it over, wildly tossing it into the web. It struggles, and in so doing drops an inch or two, and almost freeing itself only becomes tangled again.
The spider stops and starts, judging who knows what from the vibration of her web—the size of prey, the distance, its orientation, if it will escape or not. Soon she rushes over and within a split second has paralyzed and encased it with silk—a substance that is far stronger than steel or even Kevlar.
In case you think me cold or unkind, I encourage you to visit my 5,000 grasshoppers and diminishing perennials. I also want you to know that I capture and release all sorts of spiders, boxelder, and lady bugs from inside my house. My wife rescues frogs who’ve fallen into her office’s egress window well.
A few times a week, as I pass the web over the early fall, I try to toss the spider a free meal. Sometimes I can’t capture a grasshopper; sometimes they wiggle free of the web. And when, one autumn day, I see the web torn and abandoned, I read up on the spider’s lifecycle, how the females die before winter. I feel a gentle loss and sadness that surprises me, as if a friend has moved away. Each day the web rips a bit more as the leaves turn color. I know that something new was spelled out for me here, this year in my garden, but I don’t yet know how to interpret it.
Twilight Geese in Autumn
A few evenings ago I made my nightly pilgrimage around the garden and yard. After inspecting and filling the dozens of holes dug by migrating robins and brown thrashers, I made my way to check on the fall foliage of the birches, maple, and willow.
Along the back fence is an opening that looks out to my neighbor's three acres, and in the distance—about 200 feet—is a thick stand of mature trees on the edge of their property. Where that stand of trees ends and meets the thin line that runs along the back of my lot, is a small pond which marks the end of a long flyway, if you will, reaching back across many acreages running parallel to my neighborhood.
An autumn dusk is always breathtaking. The air is crisper and drier, the sunlight sharper, the musk of rich decay feeding new soil sweet and thick and reminiscent of the woods I would explore growing up in Minnesota. I am always home when I smell this air, holding it as close and far inside me as possible with each deep breath.
At dusk my chilling body leans against the chain link fence, and I can hear in some great distance Canadian geese—another call home for me. The cries shout far in this air, at this time, and I know they are searching out their nightly place among the cornfields not too far away, or the many small ponds that dot a nearby park. I don't think they are coming closer, but moving south, away from me, as they do this time of year.
But their calls remain constant, neither growing fainter nor louder. It's like my heartbeat, racing north, leaning slightly into the wind and suddenly darting right or left to catch an impulse, a desire.
I can't see them. Behind the cedars and elms is where they must be, but I am so low here, between the trees, a small gap in the line, I'll never see them.
Suddenly one lone call pierces loudly, rushes forward like a warning, a groping in the dark. I hear their wings like someone slipping on a warm coat in winter. Then there they are, no more than 20 to 30 feet off the ground, mapping the earth in front me. A perfect "V" of two dozen birds, pushing and pulling air, stable in the dichotomy of their actions, pulsing from east to west. I've never been so close.
The edge of the "V" closest to me is missing a bird, and as the formation slides by so low that for a moment I childishly think I can reach up, hook on, and be carried away, I believe they have made a place for me.
And they have. The moment lasts all but two or three seconds, but I no longer exist in the same way that I did before. I am no longer the same person. As the calls slide over the horizon chasing the last faint yellow and magenta sunlight, I am here and nowhere, far away and closer to my home.
Stay still. Don't breathe. Be ready. They may come around again.
Benjamin Vogt is the author of a poetry collection, Afterimage (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), and has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in two genres and has recently appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Diagram, Orion, Sou’wester, Subtropics, and The Sun. Benjamin writes a Plains gardening column for Houzz.com, and is also the author of a blog, The Deep Middle, where he rants about writing and his 1,500-foot native prairie garden.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “Stop complaining, shut up, sit down, and just start writing.” On occasion. Because for some reason we don’t like to do what we most want to do. Are we lazy or filled with demons? Are we afraid of our potential? Are we afraid to be happy? The hardest things in life are the most worthwhile, so give yourself the hardest thing to do or be and embrace it even if it stabs you like a torture device.