Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 61, October-December 2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 61.2
by Jane Andrews
Followed by Q&A
How to Be Happy
Caribou Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology
How to Be Happy
by Tara Shea Burke
Caribou Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology
Richard Kelly Kemick
Followed by Q&A
The anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form
of science, immediately beneath alchemy and notions of love,
if the two can be considered separate. The only thing “love”
and “evolve” have in common is the lettering.
Before he wrote that, our teacher had told us that when a wolf’s pups
are starving, it’ll take one far from the den, kill it, eat it, come back
and regurgitate it for the litter. A girl I’d spent the past two months
trying to date raised her hand and said that otters tie seaweed
around their pups so they don’t float away. So? he asked.
So not all animals are cruel. He nodded for a moment,
pausing to examine the shape of her argument.
Why do you think the wolf goes away? –– What? ––
Why do you think the wolf hides from the den before devouring the pup?
You see, the anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form of science…
After 254 days of gestation,
carrying him in the cocoon
of her body, she only has
an hour of postpartum feeding
before he drains her.
Kicking herself free,
she walks two metres
and for the first time obtains
the distance needed for clarity.
A week before my sister turned twenty-three, her girlfriend's
parents asked her to be a pallbearer for their only daughter.
Thirteen years from now, I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table
across from my own daughter who is colouring yet another bird
on a scrap piece of paper. Like me, she becomes obsessed with things
and can’t let go. What do you want to be when you grow up? –– A parrot.
I tell her of the time I became a caribou and her eyelids open
until I see full rings of white around her sea-green irises.
She believes me to the extent I believe myself. At the kitchen table,
we open ourselves like museum cabinets. At the end of the funeral,
my sister shook her head and said she couldn’t do it,
her hand hovering over the wood and brass handle.
The girl's father rested his arm upon my sister’s shoulder
and touched their foreheads together. He whispers,
We need to be more than what our bodies demand of us.
The calf rises with short-circuit
all knee and hip socket.
The cow bobs her head
along the thread of a vertical plane
until he jostles himself forward,
buckling at her hooves exhausted.
She doesn’t look down, rather turns
and trots four metres farther.
And he began to write what he was saying on the blackboard,
a film of white dusting his fingers. His back turned,
I looked up, past the handful of students copying it down,
to the five-litre jars of pickled animals.
…alchemy and notions of love, if the two can be considered separate...
There was a cat whose forepaw has pressed itself
against the glass: the fleshy yellow paw pads
and alcohol grey eye were the only colours in the silt.
Outside, the sun floated a higher angle and I watched
the fish-eye reflection of our class grow across the jar’s bend.
The wind ramping off her pelage,
she pivots, grunts from her chest,
and nods again.
With a lifetime of movement,
suicide comes as stillness.
If the calf cannot continue to move,
the mother will once again
push him from her body.
We buried my guinea pig in the back corner of my parents’ yard,
her shoebox coffin laid behind the poplar. I was too old to cry
but did anyway. Now, I’m living alone and one evening
I see a blur scamper along the baseboard. I put traps out
for three weeks but the mouse eats the food right from the trap’s teeth,
leaving half behind as a sort of humility. I resist naming it.
Another week, and the thin metal bites down, gets
its tail. The mouse clatters across the hardwood, writhing,
but when it sees me, turns still as water. I pick up the trap,
its body hanging like a dew drop, take it out onto the street
and have to bring down a scrap of wood twice before it’s dead.
If she migrates south alone,
you’ll almost be able to hear
the weight that rattles loose
behind her, like soup cans
behind a limousine.
It’s the calf’s scent
she is trying to understand,
trying to decipher it
among the calligraphy
...have in common is the lettering. An unexpected silence grew, our desks
creaking beneath our weight. He paced the classroom,
searching our expressions, wanting someone to challenge him,
to point to the selfishness of reproduction, its naive attempt
at immortality, but that we have within us things unseen
of great weight, colour, and expanse, like butterfly wings
cutting through caterpillar skin. The bell rang
and I went to talk to otter girl. He watched everyone leave,
standing in front of the board, forgotten.
She can only acquire his smell
by dislocation, the things
you assumed were a part of you
but only recognize when they're gone.
She needs to ensure
that they will recognize each other
through the soft fog of chaos,
desperation. The calf rises
and their eye-contact
is held thick as leather.
My sister believes in love the way my science teacher believed in loss.
I’m unsure of either but will defer to otters tying their seaweed
and wolves tasting their pups, to parrot feathers and a handful of earth
tossed over polished wood, to animal-shaped clouds of silt,
shoeboxes, tails of field mice, and the floral growth
of butterfly wings. In grade eleven, I would learn that “lanugo”
is the soft, fine hair that covers the body of a fetus.
In the womb’s peach light, we aspire to be animals. And we are.
Unfaltering, the cow
continues to pump
her head, her neck rolling
like deep waves of sound,
refusing to break
the hold of her brown eyes
––like she cares.
Richard Kelly Kemick's debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication in Fall 2016. He has been published in magazines across Canada and the United States.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: There can never be true poetry until Tibet is free.
Let’s say there’s nobody in the world who looks quite like her. Let’s say Richard recognizes her from the back as she leans over the trays of Harris Teeter sushi at 8:45 the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. His ex-wife Ellie is wearing her vintage black lamb coat with the rounded collar and her hand knit woolen mittens dangling loose from her sleeves by a fine braided rope of yellow, red, and orange ombre yarn. She knitted them herself during their last summer together, sitting on the back deck after dinner until the light failed and Richard had sat in the den with his ice melting in his gin and tonic while he read the latest biography of Harry Truman. Imagine Richard teasing her about making mittens with a string to run through the sleeves of her coat so they wouldn’t get lost. Imagine him asking, What are you, four years old? Mentally impaired, taking the short bus to school? Imagine Ellie remarking that Richard would do well to have such mittens as he was always losing one glove from his topcoat pockets. Usually when he took it off to scrape the ice off the car window. What’s the point of your polar fleece gloves if you only have one? Going to just keep the other hand in your pocket? What’s the sound of one glove clapping?
As Richard stands by the display of out of season cantaloupes bordered by cartoon turkeys with pilgrim hats, he stares at his ex-wife’s back and sees a memory projected on the lamb coat. It’s the one of that night in August when he woke in his chair with a jerk, sloshing gin and lime in his lap and flipping Harry Truman to the floor. The clock on the DVD player showed it was 11:47 and he could feel Ellie’s absence in the house. Richard wandered through the dim kitchen and over to the French doors. Picture him watching Ellie through the glass, the way he would watch a creature from a different world, a stingray in an aquarium or a wide eyed lemur at the zoo. Ellie sat in the suburban dark, not knitting. She had the cordless phone to her ear and a cigarette between two fingers of the other hand. Cigarettes? The words Ellie said into the phone reached Richard muffled by the muggy night and glass door. Her face in profile was partly eclipsed by her hair and the burning point of the cigarette slashed shapes in space as she gestured. Richard was mesmerized by the illusion of a light trail her conversation set in motion. Just like Ellie to talk with her hands to someone who couldn’t see them.
Let’s say Richard blinked and walked through the unlit house never having to put a hand out to find himself or steady his way, everything in their home so familiar, so solid, he did not need the light to locate himself. That August night, in an uneasy season of drought, humidity, and heat lightning that did not bring rain, Ellie eventually found her way to the bedroom. She returned her yarn and mittens to the basket by her side of the bed, the left and gently peeled the single top sheet back. But Richard was still half awake, surprising her by pulling off the tee shirt she wore to bed and saying, Put the mittens on. It had been a while. And Ellie had laughed, her salt and pepper curls shaking. She put the mittens on and soon Richard mounted her and felt her hands like paws slide down his buttocks and pull him deeper. He wound the cord attaching the left and right hands around the posts by the headboard of their bed, then took Ellie from behind like an explorer planting a flag and claiming her for Spain. Finally, Richard pulled the mittens over his own hands—as far as they would go---and caressed his wife with the slightly scratchy, slightly oily wool. Ellie cooed at the unfamiliar not quite rough texture on her bare flesh, but Richard only felt the curves and planes of her architecture, not the slippery, heated skin that he had thought he’d known by heart.
That was the last time Richard and Ellie were together, and now in the prepared foods aisle in November, Richard sees Ellie straighten up with a box of probably California rolls garnished with green plastic grass. The memory of that August which stretched from his life with Ellie to his life without her flickered up, lasted seconds, leaving him raw. He wishes he had never asked about the words he heard her say in the dark with the glass door between them.
Richard takes two steps toward Ellie standing in front of sushi, hummus, and baba gahnnouj and a tall man in a trench coat with a Burberry scarf comes up, places a hand on her shoulder and offers her a pomegranate. Richard hears the man’s voice, but not his words to Ellie. Ellie laughs, her curls shivering over the round collar of her coat. And Richard knows Mr. Burberry is sleeping with Ellie, that the shoulder squeeze is a signal of ownership, of an intimacy not yet routine, but not tentative either. Richard sees the man has close cut reddish brown hair and cheeks that are either chapped or the mark of an alcoholic. Not this guy, he wants to tell Ellie. Maybe not me anymore, but not this guy.
Richard is suddenly aware of his own body, still, in a stream of shoppers, calling attention to itself, embarrassing him. He walks purposefully toward the aisle with the French fried onion rings, canned green beans, and cream of mushroom soup. His empty basket fills with foods whose expiration dates he suspects may exceed his own. Whole families have bonded over green bean casserole, he thinks, hoping Ellie and Mr. Burberry are too sophisticated for such things, being buyers of sushi and pomegranates. Hoping they will buy their smoked salmon spread and crostini two rows away, and he will not have to face his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Who, let’s imagine, is not so new, but has simply been unseen by Richard until today.
Imagine Richard, as the cashier with the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer pin asks if he found everything he was looking for today, feeling that he found much more than he was looking for---something to bring to Joel and Nancy’s holiday potluck---but at least he, himself had not been found. But in this Richard, who is prone to making assumptions, is wrong. He is popping the frozen windshield wipers from the icy crust that has formed while he was inside, when he gets the sense of being watched. He turns around to see a Volvo shush slowly by behind his car and an arm unfold out the passenger window, a hand waving an orange, red, and yellow mitten, the wrist curling side to side like a queen’s in a parade, and the owner’s face turns away from him toward the unseen driver.
Richard sits in his car with the door open, bare right hand losing feeling, burned by his own cold breath, blinded by the brightness of her goodbye.
Jane Andrews was the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Second Place Winner. She has published poems, essays, and short stories in Red Clay Review, Main Street Rag, The News & Observer, Glint Literary Journal, among other places. She’s a freelance editor and workshop facilitator, as well as Associate Nonfiction Editor at Main Street Rag.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at the role the mittens took on and how they created a sort of echo against other images.
Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2 and 3. Learn more...
A Night at Wara Wara
American Falls (#10)
Eating beets is like giving the earth
mother gracious head. Yes, right there
she says, your tongue purple, tiny
traces of mineral left on the tongue.
These roots must be the divine source,
the earth’s top button, swollen and eternally
ready. Let her juices paint your face. This
is how to be happy. Lie down in summer
on your sweet belly and put your nose
in the grasses, nuzzle the fallen branches.
Her musk and sweat will teach you
to stop covering up. Stop shaving. Just
stop. See what happens as your dense
forest returns. Take meditative walks without
shoes. Feel your sciatic nerve take its journey
from your spine down your leg and into the beet
loving dirt. Look around. Breathe from your gut
and then deeper, from your pelvic floor. Open
wide and swallow a bug or two. The muse is in
you, she is your body and she is also on
the bunny’s bushy tail, in the broken glass
of abandoned brick houses, under the graves
of Civil War soldiers. She’s etched in stained
glass churches you’ll never attend because all true
godly people say not to worship her in rooms
or temples. The temple is the rock you finger
in your pocket as you toe the tracks of old trains,
the muddy rivers, the vultures and the sexing
cicadas, the teensy turtles and the siren in the distance,
the debt you’ll never repay, the tire-squished frog,
the messy hair you’ll comb in the morning, the smell
you smell when you let yourself smell. Sit naked
after a shower just to get comfy in your skin. Look
down and see the way the inevitable fat will roll
around and hide some bones, the way your breasts
point and sag, the way your penis hangs limp.
Touch yourself with meaning and without. Taste
yourself, too. Taste others. Lap it all up like a thirsty
dog and lie down wide, a five-pointed star
and swallow up all the suffering. Laugh
hysterically until it comes back a whisper
from the mountaintops. Sleep without fear
under this eternal, reaching blanket of sky.
Tara Shea Burke is a poet, feminist, activist, editor, and educator. She is poetry editor for The Quotable, teaches writing in Norfolk, VA, and yoga in the Hampton Roads area. Her poems and essays can be found in various publications and her chapbook, Let The Body Beg, was published in 2014 from ELJ Publications. She lives with her girlfriend, their 4 dogs, a cat, and 5 sassy chickens in Chesapeake, VA. Find more at http://tarasheaburke.wordpress.com/
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem began after a ridiculously perfect week in the woods alone, at a writing retreat in Virginia. I was interested in writing a poem that collected as many messy, raw, bodily and earthy images as I could to express a kind of commanding joy, because it’s difficult to do and that week alone without responsibility brought life back to me. It’s probably my only truly joyful poem and I’m compelled to write more, and call others to do so as well. Be naked!
A Night at Wara Wara
At the jukebox machine, Matt turns around as if he suddenly got struck by a live wire. In the darkened confines of the underground bar Wara Wara, I can see sparks flying out of his eyes—the look he gets when he’s four hours into his binge drinking sessions.
“YOU LOST THE FUCKING WAR,” he shouts.
In perfect Japanese, too (low guttural threatening voice of the old samurai dramas), which wouldn’t mean much to most bar patrons in the rest of the world, but we’re right smack dab in Tokyo, in Yakuza territory too, with their ultra-conservative goons in blackened buses parked somewhere nearby, just a block away.
I sink into my seat covering my face with my hands, hoping that no one heard. It’s a young crowd with mostly university-aged couples and groups. As far as I know, these guys could care less about the war—ancient history to them anyways. There are better things to think about like what hair colour is in this year? Or where to go on holidays during Obon Festival? What good is it to drudge up the stories of grandpa when you are thinking of what the heck you’re going to order next: octopus balls or tofu salad?
It’s all cool; everyone is still drinking their cheap all-you-can-drink sake (that’ll hurt in the morning) and laughing the good life of youth. If they did hear, they’ve got enough sense to ignore the ranting of a Gaijin gone wacko.
A gaijin that got dumped by his Japanese girlfriend. The same story told a million times. Just another day in the Big Sushi. At least this time it’s a little different from the script: Matt’s diatribe against Japanese nationalists.
He would know too because he teaches high school history. He knows the history books are written by the conquerors and yes, he is a descendant of the conquerors so that gives him the moral leverage he needs to harangue the patrons of Wara Wara, or Laugh Laugh in English.
Matt is not smiling let alone laughing and takes a sip from his glass mug glancing over at the flashing neon lights of the jukebox and the spinning vinyl.
Aside from a man who stands up to go to the washroom, the bar and everyone in it seems to be at equilibrium. Ah, the Wa is restored.
But (the hell with the Wa; the Wa is in fact fueling his animosity), Matt continues: “You have no right to treat us like this (I sink further into my seat and wish he wouldn’t use ‘us’; singular first-person would be more than adequate.)
“How many innocent people did you kill?” He pauses for effect.
“How about Nanking?”
Oh shit. He’s got that wild-look in his eyes and gesticulating with his arms, pointing with his extended finger, as if he were in front of a classroom. I notice some young men looking up from their conversation and taking notice of poor Matt, and then they shoot a look at me, like warning shots over a bow of an intruding ship, to shut up my gaijin friend.
I gulp down the rest of my cheap sake (hell, it’s all-you-can-drink and what are painkillers for anyways if not for cheap sake). Luckily no Thompson-ian moment, I don’t see Matt pouring beer over his naked chest, nor do I see bats swooping down from the low ceilings; what I do see though right in front of me is Matt slouching against the jukebox (how did I get here from my seat?).
I put up both my hands in front of me showing that it is I, his friend, his co-worker, his sympathizer, but he looks at me (those damned alcohol-soaked eyes again) as if I were a Japanese soldier surrounding as a POW. He grabs me by my shirt collar bunched up in his fists and slurs something about Hiroshima.
I, too, have an incendiary device of sorts, which I feel I must use in a time like this. Besides, it was Sober Matt who had once advised me that under such circumstances, it was my duty as a friend.
So, I look Matt right in the eyes and tell him about his father, the alcoholic father who almost drank himself to death and who beat his mother and her two sons. The same father that Matt didn’t want to become when he was an adult. But now look at you, I tell him, you are your father’s son.
I expect a bop under the chin, but Matt lets me go and drops his chin to his chest. The whole restaurant seems to heave a sigh of relief or is it just me. No, of course, it was the sound of Wa saturating the very air. The young are still sipping at their Sapporo beers and smoking their Mild Sevens.
Hauquan Chau teaches writing at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Canada. He has been writing creative non-fiction for the last 15 years. His piece entitled “Teaching the F-word” was included in the Best of Creative Nonfiction: Vol. 2. He was recently accepted into the MFA Program in Creative Non-fiction at King’s College in Halifax.
by Josh Keeler
Followed by Q&A
The Zookeeper’s heart was broken like the crushed metal padlocks on the doors of each cage.
He scrambled back and forth through the zoo, peering into empty enclosures. A siren wailed deep in his chest, getting louder and louder until the entire zoo reverberated with the sound.
He fell hard to his knees in the middle of the park, tears pooling in his eyes. He looked down and asked the cracked ground, “Why have they left me?”
He knelt for hours, immobile. The dirt beneath him joined together in rivulets as each teardrop darkened it.
After noon, people filed through the front gate, past the unattended ticket stand, and into the heart of the small zoo grounds where they looked through the Zookeeper and into the cages. Little boys and girls kept asking Mommy where the animals were, if they were hiding in their houses.
Sometime later, the crowd dissipated. One by one the families left, some with furrowed brows, and others with thin lines stitched into their mouths. No one looked at the Zookeeper except for a woman near the back of the crowd.
She stopped just before leaving the center of the zoo where he sat on his feet. She smiled, her eyes creasing above her cheek bones, and walked to him, reaching down for his hands. Their eyes met and she pressed her fingertips into his palms.
“Wasn’t I good?” the Zookeeper pleaded.
“Oh, you poor man,” she said, “You were the best.” She let his hands slip away and turned to leave.
He watched the back of her head as she walked through the gate, her figure a silhouette against the evening sun.
Joshua Keeler hasn’t taken much time to write since graduating college, except for the corporate blog. Josh works as a production artist and marketing writer for a company in St. Petersburg, FL, where his main concern is staying sane in a morally ambiguous position. Josh focuses on writing poetry, but he’s trying to pour in fiction and essay writing as well. He has published work in Eunoia Review, Bitterzoet Magazine, and Half-Baked Lit Journal, and he has a poem (supposedly) forthcoming in University of Pittsburgh’s Collision Magazine. Josh hopes you’re having a good day.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The thing I kept telling myself while I wrote and revised this piece is, “only focus on what’s necessary. If it’s not important, cut it.” It took a lot out of me not to just scrap the entire thing and never show it to anyone. Then, after gaining some feedback, I found that the one thing I thought was necessary wasn’t at all, and removing it helped me appreciate the story much more. It’s interesting what you can do to a story by simply removing a name. I think writers spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect name for their character. In a lot of work, this is an important piece to the story. I was surprised by how irrelevant the name of my character was, especially when I’d been focusing on other irrelevancies.
American Falls (#10)
The view is better from the other side, but he refuses to cross over the river border, so great is his hatred for America’s former masters. He’s content to see the falls from this limited view, to watch the horseshoe thunder from a distance. The other set, American Falls, is better seen from the Canadian side; but on the American side, from where John Tyler stands, he can see from where the water falls but not where it lands. It’s a problem of perspective. A problem of vision. A problem of not knowing where the story ends, only how it begins.
The ground is falling away. Horseshoe Falls grinds down the clay of the riverbed by almost four feet each year.
Tyler’s here only because he steps forward when the ground disappears. Harrison dies, and Tyler says: I am President. I am not acting President, or temporary President. I am the President.
And it works. The ground stops vanishing. The Congress does not take control. He is President.
But nature is a force. The erosion starts again. The man called Clay wants control. Tyler won’t fall, won’t turn over, won’t go over the falls in a barrel so the Whigs can run the country. His footing fails, he fumbles. He’s abandoned, a man without a party, adrift. The visit to Niagara is a ritual performed by presidents, an incantation against collapse, against the forces of history, which are the forces of nature. Keep us whole, they say. Keep us together. At the place where America ends, the Chief Executive prays for unity.
Tyler loses the thread. His party leaves him, nominates another man for 1844, although Tyler still runs for the office.
Finally, it crashes, splinters on the rocks below. Tyler retires. Older, he chairs the Virginia Peace Convention in 1861. Without regrets, he votes for secession, to dissolve the union. He had taken the oath of office when Harrison died, had sworn to defend the Constitution of his Union. And yet, and yet. He dies in Richmond two years later, a citizen of a foreign country, buried in a foreign land, far from Horseshoe Falls, far from the vanishing ground, buried, at last, in solid ground.
Colin Rafferty teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington and lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he can visit the grave of John Tyler as often as he likes. Other essays on the presidents have recently appeared in Brevity (Grant), Cobalt (Bush Sr), and Parcel (Bush Jr).
I grind my teeth at night. When I say grind, I mean gnash. I gnash hard. Masticate is a better word. When you say it aloud, you almost have to chew it.
Masticate: a word that captures the fricative sounds of the mouth, sharp as incisors; the taste of toothdust on my tongue; a jaw worn with worry.
I know what I am chewing. I am grinding up the night of my rape into something I can swallow. I am softening the edges with my spit. Rolling the clips like a film on my tongue, over and over again, gnashing each frame: the hooded eyes, the grit of a zipper, knuckles stiff as stones, my swollen throat, the bitter gag.
The tile, cold as frozen meat on a fresh contusion.
The grate of grout on my spine.
A pistol kissing my skin, my daughter a room away.
If you scream again, I’ll kill her.
So I didn’t.
Sometimes, now, when I wake, my teeth are a deadbolt lock— my jaw a throbbing muscle letting no one in. I have to bring my fingers to my mouth to remember I can open it, to remember that this mouth is my own.
Sometimes, when I wake, I go to her. My daughter, sleeping. She is grinding—
her jaw afire with crackles and jerks. I can almost see her molars splintering, sawing down, the very teeth that cut through her sturdy gums now becoming nubs.
I am sure one night when I went to tuck her in, I was grinding. Maybe I checked under the bed or glanced over my shoulder or peeked into the closet, under the bed, to make sure we were alone. Maybe I startled at the sound of the air kicking on. Without knowing, I taught my daughter how to chew. And by way of a goodnight kiss, I spit it all into her mouth— my baby bird.
Now she chews and chews. I watch her sleeping, chewing the words that are too big, impossible to pronounce. I watch her gnawing all the hurt I have handed down to her, all of the panic handed down to her, the whole history of violence on our kind sealed behind my daughter’s lips.
Whitney Templeton received her MFA from University of South Florida, where she currently teaches Digital Rhetoric. After earning her degree, she co-organized a writing-centered therapy group in her community for female victims of violence, and she serves on the editing team for Sweet: a Literary Confection. Whitney’s poems have appeared in Barnstorm Journal and Cheat River Review among other journals. This year she was awarded the Fairhope Nonfiction Prize, and her essay, "Body Cavities," was named Runner Up for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. In 2015, “Body Cavities” will be published in Bellingham Review.