Category Archives: News

Quiet Places

quiet places

 

there’s something about walls and ceilings

and their clearly delineated lines

are rooms put together

/ constructed

that way

to give us the illusion of order

providing a familiar

/ predictable

space

to come back to to

exist

in

after

spinning in the

maelstrom of life

?

clearly, they don’t satisfy every need

we’re always nailing things up

calendars to remind us of passing days

art to remind us of beauty

the forgetful or addicted mount their televisions

to remind them of the

madness alfresco

if bare walls mirrored life

they’d resemble cubist art

which would be good

museums are always quiet places.

Steven Louis Ray is a multidisciplinary artist working in traditional film and darkroom processes, in addition to writing and recording experimental music and writing poetry. He’s currently slogging his way to a creative writing certificate and studying printmaking at City College of San Francisco. More of his photography can be viewed at stevenlouisray.com

a couple admiring a work in a museum
At Moma by Junona Jonas

Junona Jonas is a student at City College enrolled in the Fine Arts Department. She has been painting and drawing for a number of years and have been able to develop as an artist working with the extraordinary teachers at City College.  Her work is largely narrative, Whether using pastel or acrylic for work that is landscape or figurative, Jonas wants to engage the viewer by telling a visual story.

Sunday Sunday Sunday

Dad is too drunk to drive, so I take his keys and lay him into the back seat with a plastic water bottle. The sun’s beating down on the Sonoma hills and the roar of hot rods exploding down the track is loud. We will have to find out who won from the Sonoma Raceway Radio on our way home, but it does not really matter that much. Not to me.

“Drink Dad,” I tell him. “Finish the bottle.”

He sits up — too quick — and snarls at the back of my head. He seems about to speak. Instead he flips off the plastic cap and chugs the water bottle dry, tossing it out the window into the dirt parking lot. I consider going after it, but it’s best to get the hell out before the race ends. I do not want to sit in the heat and traffic all the way home.

His hand grasps my seat as he tries to catapult himself into the front. I pull the car back, reversing out of the parking space fast, and dislodge his grip, then lurch forward as I pull away, dropping him into the back seat.

“Shit, let me drive,” he grumbles. But we are already on our way and he lets it go.

I drive through the exit gates, passing an empty cop car and some bored looking traffic attendants. I turn the car onto the highway. Back to Sacramento.

 *  *  *

The day had been mostly good. We woke early on Sundays, almost as early as a regular day because most Sundays Dad wanted to get church finished and over with early so he could spend the rest of the day doing what he pleased. Sometimes it was brunch. Sometimes it was the lake. Today it had been the race. It was always drinking. Sunday was the only day he would drink before noon.

“Come on kiddo,” he had said that morning, finishing his cup of sweet, black coffee. “Let’s go see the hot rods.”

Mom stepped quickly into the room wearing a knee-length pastel dress, ready for early service. She looked Dad up and down and asked him why he was not dressed.

“No church today,” Dad said. “Today me and the kid are going to Sears Point. It’s a rite of passage now that he’s got his license.”

We had seen hot rods at Sonoma before, but this would be the first time since I started driving and he kept telling me that until you drive you can’t really understand racing. But I always understood racing. It was all about spending time with my dad.

*  *  *

Dad knew someone at the track who always got us pit passes that gave us access to the drivers before the race. We would hang out at the staging area where hot-rods, funny cars, and motorcycles had to wait their turn to run the track. We could stay with the drivers until they were called up. From here we could watch them fire up their engines and shoot away toward the finish as we were left in a haze of nitro-fueled smoke. For the rest of my life the smell of nitro-fuel, or even just gasoline, will always remind me of Sunday with my dad. The smell was powerful and after a dozen or so races standing downwind, we had to make our way up to the concession stands just to keep from passing out. That’s when Dad would begin the day’s drinking.

“Shot and a beer,” Dad had said to the bartender behind the portable bar in the large red and white tent. “And a coke,” he added, looking at me. I was his buddy, his “wingman.”

“A wingman has your back,” he said.

“I’ve got yours and you’ve got mine,” I answered. We clinked our drinks together in a toast. It always started off so well. The first two or three drinks lifted his spirits and gave him an edgy, sarcastic wit that people found amusing. He would flirt with young girls and say he was just trying to find a bride for his kid. All for laughs.

“That’s what being a wingman is all about,” he told me.

It was usually around the fifth or sixth drink that his slightly sarcastic wit turned very sarcastic, and lost its wit. I could sometimes draw him away from the bar by saying I had to pee, which of course he would too. But if he were on a roll, as he was today, he would just point in the general direction of the restrooms and tell me he’d wait right here. By the time I returned he was drunk and really just an asshole. The girls had left and there were two Latino bikers sitting next to him looking just a bit annoyed as he went on about the smell of nitro-fuel.

“Sometimes I’ll bring trash bags down to the track to capture a big whiff,” He yelled. “Next week I’ll pop that vintage right open and get a snoot-full. Sometimes it still got a real kick that’ll knock me on my ass.”

The Latino bikers were doing their best to ignore him which was getting him even more riled up. I knew we needed to get back to the car, so I pulled him around to face me.

“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Let’s hit it.”

He looked at me blankly. I waited for my request to settle in. The bartender placed two plastic bottles of water on the bar next to us.

“The last race is done,” I said. “Let’s get out before everyone else.”

“Sure,” Dad said slowly. He opened one of the water bottles and drank it down. I took a bottle in one hand and his arm in the other to guide him out the open flap of the tent.

“No point hanging around here anymore,” he said.

*  *  *

Dad is sprawled out in the back with his eyes closed. I keep the radio low so it does not disturb him.

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream…

An old Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio. I can just hear him singing along in the back.

We gotta get out while we’re young. ‘Cause tramps like
us, baby we were born to run…

I look at his face and see him mouthing the words so I turn the volume way up.

Written by: Sean Carlin

Born in California, raised in Israel, served in the military, educated in film and television, documented environmental and social justice work, produced and directed commercials, Sean Karlin is a filmmaker and creative director who lives in San Francisco with his wife Orli. 

Bible on the dashboard of a '65 Buick
Photograph

Art title: Sixtyfive

Art by: Adrian Ordenana

The Things You See

These are the things you see
yet I remember:               first,
the animals in cages too small,
littered with empty strawberry
soda cans;                           then,
the yellow cocoon of a puttering bus
to Aden,                               then
the sudden carcass of a car,
a woman running in full balto
and nikab, and blood on the road.
I am                        here
and you are                       there.
It’s strange to wake and not see
you in your bed bent over
crossed legs unfolding out of sleep,
count our coins together for bodega coffee.
I am alone on a packed corner
where a woman catches my eye
telling me she’s anorexic, OCD
is killing her, and would I please
put my trust in a stranger and call
her sister? You would’ve been her
stranger, a brief indent against the skin
of another day. A sister, my sister—
for though some say two friends
must be            parted,
the hazel tree still stands by
our old window
by the wire fence
and vacant lot,
where the bittersweet
vine once held fast.                       Look:
its grooved body still marks
the invisible       weight of another.

Written by: Grace Zhou

Grace H. Zhou is a poet, dancer, and cultural anthropologist living in Oakland, California. Her writings are inspired by ethnographic encounters, diasporic experience, botanical worlds, friendship, and loss. Her work can also be found in Icarus Magazine and a smattering of academic publications. She is Poetry Editor at ABD Zine and a PhD Candidate at Stanford University.

 

Toucan barbet, by Canyon Sam

Skeletor

Skeletor had long wanted a body: to cover him, shield him, make him whole. He was only a skeleton. He was jealous of the other skeletons who had bodies. Sometimes, he would put clothes on and stuff them with pillows or crumpled up newspaper and stare in the mirror. He always put an extra pillow or something in his stomach area because he didn’t know what it was like to be hungry. He dreamed that one day he would have a body with a big belly. He couldn’t wait to be hungry.

His name, tk421, had been given to him by the courts. There was also tk422, tk423, bk102, and so on. All names had two letters followed by three numbers. It was more or less a tracking system the courts had developed. But the skeletons usually hated their names and would come up with their own. His given name, tk421, was funny to Skeletor because of the scene in Star Wars using that name. He liked Star Wars. He liked fantasy movies and stories. Anything that would take his mind off his current world. Skeletor named himself after He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, a cartoon. He always rooted for He-Man but was sympathetic to Skeletor, and being a skeleton, the name made sense. He imagined it would only be a short time before he got a body and then he would get a new name that did not consist of two letters and three numbers.

The rules and regulations to get a body were simple: fill out the forms properly, keep your bones clean, don’t break your bones, and the most important rule — do not go outside during daylight hours. He followed these rules religiously but about a year ago, he was mistaken to have taken part in a protest where many skeletons marched the streets — during the day! Skeletor couldn’t believe so many skeletons would do this. He was so afraid to break the daylight law that he would wait one hour after official daylight time to go outside. But a skeleton, with a body, had said he was in the protest. Skeletons, after all, do look alike, and skeletons, unlike skeletons with a body, are guilty until proven innocent. The skeletons that openly admitted to taking part in the protest were banished to Skeleton Island. Once there, the odds of getting a body were about one in a million. Those who were accused like Skeletor, but denied it, were in limbo with the courts. There was no trial for them; they were given a strike on their record. Two strikes and it’s Skeleton Island. Skeletons with no strikes were first in line for bodies.

Bodies, these days, were produced ever so slowly, because of resources, or so they were told. There were conspiracy theories, mainly held by the skeleton population. One theory, probably the most believed, was that they slowed down body production because they were experimenting with bodies in order to make them stronger, more durable, and last longer. Skeletor paid no mind though. He just wanted a body and didn’t care what quality.

He went to the bd (Body Department) to check, yet again, to see if he had been given a body. He only went once a week. Some skeletons went everyday but Skeletor didn’t want to upset the wrong clerk at the bd. He had heard of a skeleton that was banished to Skeleton Island for checking too much. He didn’t want to risk that. The clerks always called the skeletons “bone.” It was a running joke with the clerks. They also cracked jokes to the skeletons, like “make no bones about it, no body for you,” and other ridiculous comments. But the skeletons were at their mercy. The clerks had bodies.

“Next bone,” the clerk yelled. Skeletor walked up to the window.

The clerk said, “Hi Bone.”

“Hello, I’m tk421,” Skeletor said.

“Teee…Kayyy…nope. Next bone,” the clerk said with a smirk. Skeletor walked away, sad, yet again. What could be the problem, he thought. Normally, skeletons with one strike would get a body after about six months. It had been at least a year since the protest incident. He decided to go see his friend, tk997, also known as Ribeye.

Ribeye was a mentor to the skeletons. He had been around for many years. He shared everything about his life and helped any skeleton he could. He was like an open book, but no one really knew the whole story as to why he never got a body. This, Ribeye, would
not share.

Skeletor knocked. “Come in,” Ribeye said from his sculpting chair. He was adding water to his clay for a new piece.

“Hi Ribeye,” Skeletor said and walked over to the long picnic table which was covered in books and sat down. He felt at ease; he always did at Ribeye’s house. The walls were lined with bookshelves that were filled mostly with books but also with sculptures. Ribeye had become a very talented artist over the years. He mostly created sculptures of planets with different terrains. The rest of his house was similar to other skeleton houses: there was the main room, a
small sleeping quarters, and a shower. There was no kitchen or bathroom because skeletons didn’t eat or drink. Ribeye spent his time sculpting and reading.

He never bothered to check with the BD and from what Skeletor could tell, he was content.

“Let me guess, you’re coming from the BD,” Ribeye said. He noticed Skeletor’s bone posture.

“You guessed right. I don’t know what to do anymore. If I don’t get a body soon, I may take the incinerator option. This is terrible. I just want to be hungry and thirsty. To taste. How can I remain a skeleton? Who wants to be a skeleton!?” Skeletor remembered just then about Ribeye’s decision. “I mean, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“Relax, Skeletor. I’ve made my decision to remain a skeleton and I’m happy with it. I have my books and my sculpting. Have you developed any hobbies besides dressing up like you have a body?”

“Well, uhhh, not really,” Skeletor said; he was embarrassed. How did Ribeye know he still dressed himself up?

“Look, we’ve all dressed up. Even me. It’s only natural. But you should start thinking about what would make you happy, as you are now, a skeleton.”

“But I want to eat. I want to drink. I want to feel.” Skeletor felt defeated.

“Don’t you feel now? You feel sad, right? Well, you can feel happy too,” Ribeye said.

“I suppose so,” Skeletor said and slumped at the table. “Well, I’m going home before daylight begins.Thank you for your advice.”

“Remember, there’s no guarantee a body will make you happy. You’ve seen them, not all of them are happy. Even the ones with large bellies. Think about that.”

Skeletor walked home, slow and sad. Days and weeks passed. He hadn’t been to the BD since that day he saw Ribeye. He was too depressed to hear another rejection. He even stopped dressing up. But he kept his bones clean, hoping. After about two months he couldn’t take it anymore. He thought, one more check at the BD and if no luck, he would start his life, as he is, a skeleton.

“Next bone,” the clerk said with an abnormally big smile. He remembered this bone.

“Hi, I’m TK421,” Skeletor said, shaking.

“I know,” the clerk said.

Written by: Andrew Park

Andrew Park grew up near Sacramento and earned a Business degree at Chico State before moving to San Francisco. He has always written in his spare time as a hobby. In the Fall of 2019, he took a creative writing class at the City College of San Francisco for fun.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama
Portrait of Yayoi Kusama, Japanese artist

Art title: Yayoi Kusama 

Art  by: Ana Lazaro

Ana Lazaro is a San Francisco based artist. She considers herself a world citizen and has, since childhood, had a passion for capturing moods and emotions through her portraiture. Ana’s current work is inspired by her desire to celebrate empowered women making a difference across the globe.

Colliery

At the MoMA there is a series of photos, black and white,
Bernd and Hilla Becher who captured old steel mills, toppled
tipples now destitute. My heart is a braitch hole, once full now
excised of any valuables, cavernous drop through earth.

Fingers pick me over, break away the slate from the good coal.
Uniform pieces of anthracite so when heated I might burn
efficiently. Our purpose is limited: fuel the fire for those
who will forget our ash. The best poor man’s country stripped,
carted away by lokies, thirty at a time. Coal mine no. 9

These photos hang quiet, their reverence is a taunt.
Each frame remembers I am from the stepping stones
of industry, remembers that I am just a girl from south
of the mountain. Did the Bechers know how they
commemorated forgotten things? The resolve
of my lonely mountain towns, ugly from strip mines?

Oh, there are valley creeks converging in me, mine
run-off lays waste all these years later, the mud is xanthic,
smelling of peat and sulfur—this is my yoke. Tears ooze,

like oil, to leave stains upon my collar.

Written by: Dominique Whitman

Dominique Witman is a SF transplant who has been living in and enjoying the city for over six years. She is a part of the CCSF community and is currently studying English. She enjoys exploring identity and cultural differences within the US through her poetry.

Mother of Pearl Rosary

My brother Herbert and sister Luisa laughing
Sitting and swinging on a church gate
A black robed priest, wearing a crucifix,
swearing at them, to get down
Confirmation day, white dresses
Wearing a white carnations corsage my mother had given me
No indication of oncoming storms on that sunny May day
No indication of how our faith would be tested
No indication of oncoming heavy rains
My mother drowning in winter
Riding in the back of my father’s olive Volkswagen,
with my brother Herbert and sister Luisa
Drunken father, speeding Volkswagen
Terror of crash
After my mother’s death,
He broke down, crying
He neglected to put food in the refrigerator
I was a hungry child, searching for sandwich ham
Opening an empty white refrigerator
Finding only dismay and a bottle of cheap Italian dressing,
to hungrily gulp down
Under an apricot sunset
I walked along a crumbling seawall,
in need of repair
Broken heart
in need of repair
This pier has become my anchor
Dolphins joyfully leaping in ocean waves,
my consolation
Broken faith
White adobe church of my youth mocking me,
as I knelt on my knees to pray

Written by: Rocio Ramirez

Rocio Ramirez is a Counselor who works with families. She has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a Certificate in Expressive arts therapies. She has been a Presenter for IVAT, Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Trauma, in La Jolla. She has recently presented on the use of Sandplay therapy and Collage with Domestic violence survivors. She is currently writing a book on sandplay therapy and art therapy with disenfranchised populations. She is always happiest when she is next to the sea.

Crossing

A new tongue cuts through the canyon,
where the dusty road dodges.
The water dims with the red sun.
We did not build the bridge,
but our toes sparkled across it
until we heard the creaks
of someone else’s back.
We did not build it,
nor did we keep it from crumbling.

Written by: Matt Luke

Matt Luedke is a former editor of Forum who continues to be inspired by the writing community he’s found through CCSF. He has also been published in Prairie Light Review and Ripples in Space. Links to his published works are at mattluedke.com.

Who Are These People and What are They Doing in My Living Room?

Your mother’s brother stands
in the foyer, che this, che that
accents of Argentina eja he says
en vez de la ella de Mexicanos
Tall and thinning, ruddy faced
white beard groomed

Su tía esta arreglando todo
Couches, tables, chairs aligned
in an oval lace covers
crystal dusted and untouched

The couple on the couch squints
at us, points an index finger
back and forth
morena at mi pareja
güera at her mother
güera morena yo les dije, es la hija de mi hermano

tía Anita frustrated
the daughter
of my brother who is not here
Mi hermano, sí, moreno

You feel they want to turn
to me if they could
and you are no response
we are all seated in our place
eating tiny white cakes
and a candle for tia’s
birth; feliz cumpleanos
sing Mañanitas
Beto y Maricela on their tiny space
heads moving from side to side
from Mascota, Pueblita of familia no one says where we are from
Mascota of the mountains I told you, she is the daughter

of my brother

Who are you? they want to say to me.

As we talk about where we come from

Blue eyes Brown eyes
Dark haired hija Mother once blonde, now grey
speaking perfect Mexican Spanish
And I say, soy pura judia knowing this has to be a lie
generations of undiscovered paths
rapes and some intermarriages

am only Jewish
And the cousin of tu tía on the couch
without missing the bite going into his mouth
que lastima sobre el holocausto
Yes, too bad
because there is no time
to search for other
phrases
Unless sitting on my stiff backed chair
eating my piece of cake about to fall
off the spoon

I say si, estamos juntas como maridos
pero diferente
I could take my beloved
across the patio below
with children and forgotten
toys, away from pristine crystal and lace
because we are together
but not really a married couple

so how can we fit this into idle afternoon conversation?

Written by: Carla Schick

Carla Schick, educator, Queer Social Justice activist. Their works have appeared in Gathering of the Tribes, Earth’s Daughters, California Quarterly, & Invisible Ink. They received first place in the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry prize (2012, 2018). Theirpoetry will appear in the next issue of Milvia Street.

Copy of Spitblossoms_#_Capricorn_Visual Art

 

Art title: Capricorn,

By: Spitblossoms AKA Carlos Ortega-Haas

CCSF student, Bay Area born and Tijuana-raised, Spitblossoms is a visual artist and successful musician who has always found joy and meaning in realizing his artistic visions and sharing with a community of artists. For Spitblossoms, art is a meditation, release, source of pride and sustenance that helps him perfect his vision, overcome hardship, and continue to push forward to achieve his goals and dreams.

Ode to the Olive Trees

Hardened after decades of adaptations
deep rooted desert strains
a tantalizing sun, scintillating
leaves in air that steals your breath, ghosts
Of children hidden to fight wild hamsin winds—
Climb boughs, deflect the scratches made by rough bark,
Fall over into toughened earth, catapult
stones at the armed men waiting at the barbed-wire fence.
Rows and rows of irregularly spaced
crooked gnarled branches growing into eternity
a grove of olive trees, children behind
an unmovable rock, calls to the Jordan river.
In Bethlehem the tree that has survived the longest
would take only seconds to destroy—
A hack saw electric style to the tree’s trunk
An explosive bullet in a young boys leg
Children surge to the forbidden border
a stream of rubberized smoke, burning tires
a slingshot of stones against barrier
barbed wire and the wall, earth cleared
Where sacred olive trees once stood, an opening
to aim rifles at the marchers’ heads, an armored
tank oversees roads Palestinians cannot travel
Military tear gas to upend the bodies moving toward the wall
Families, whole villages gather to harvest the olive trees
In the shade, a claim to their lands, women sit
Embroider starlike patterns into black cloth
reds that bleed, reds that refuse removal
while settlers from illegal outposts trample
the harvest, steal the olives left behind when harvesters flee
danger. The olives shaken from these ancient trees
press into the finest oils, the daily flow of resistance.

Three hundred year old trees
steadfast against the scars
etched into strong untainted wood, the people
continue to the march of return, raise their hands
with gestures of drawing their faces
on the maps of villages their grandparents recall,
forced removal and release incantations

Al-Quds
Einabus
eternal spring
Isdud
Lydda
sumud

the keys to their homes
in their pockets
Jibata
Al-Quds
Al-Asqua Mosque
the Prophet waits their gifts—
olive seeds, oil
hands that caress ancient

roots.

Written by Carla Schick

Carla Schick, educator, Queer Social Justice activist. Their works have appeared in Gathering of the Tribes, Earth’s Daughters, California Quarterly, & Invisible Ink. They received first place in the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry prize (2012, 2018). Theirpoetry will appear in the next issue of Milvia Street.

 

Excerpt from The Storytaker

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Click, tap, tap, click. 

Pencils on paper. Fingers tapped table-tops with no particular rhythm. The days were too short and too valuable to make music while deep in thought. 

People scrunched up their faces, which were red and frustrated. Tongues bled under the pressure of teeth. No one spoke, no one looked at anything but the swirls of marble on the ceiling and the notebook in front of them. Everyone was in their own world, even while so close together, and they had to keep it that way. 

Little dictionaries lay on the desks, people’s hands ripping through them like wind. Their gazes darted up and down the pages, becoming desperate. Some spent hours on a single sentence, a comma, a conjunction, an adjective. It was common knowledge that a good use of adjectives was a way to get through the day alive, or at least with a less fatal punishment. 

Shelves and shelves of dull-colored books lined the Sanctuary of Word. Some of them didn’t have pages yet, just covers waiting to be linked to a story. Others were half full. Then there were some gaps in between the books. I shivered at the sight of these lost stories. 

Someone vomited all over their notebook, bits of half digested food bleeding through their carefully selected words. They didn’t look much older than me. The person, whose gender I couldn’t tell from rows and rows away, muttered something under their breath, something like a number. Then they just stared into their ruined notebook, eyes full of fear and irritation. The Writer glanced up at the clock overhead, anticipating their coming doom. 

It was a solid hour until midnight, but here, the minutes rushed by as quickly as fire catches. 

I wanted to comfort them, but I felt as though there was a wall between us, like the screen of a mirror. That mirror being what held the reflection of my future self. 

1,000 words per day. Starting from age thirteen, this was life. Tomorrow, I was set to become one of the thousands of Writers who struggled to write marvelous tales every day. I would pick up a pen and start to write. One of those many seats would be mine. 

“It’s just two pages!” Ms. Penn, the head of the house I lived in for my earlier childhood, had taken to assuring me ever since my twelfth birthday. I would never forget that morning, when I’d woken up screaming from a dream where my hands became spiders and I couldn’t write, and then a Guard beat my head with a book until I woke up. 

Ms. Penn never helped with her attempts to comfort me. They just made me think about how much she was wrong. She hadn’t mentioned the additional 130 words I had to write to live in a decent place without rats crawling around, which was practically everywhere except the Sanctuary’s boarding houses on the edge of town. Ms. Penn also failed to bring up the fines you’re given for spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. Then, and most terrible, the Block, where a Writer went when they had nothing left to write, or couldn’t come up with anything good or sensical. Those people were known as Blocked. Their books were removed from their shelf, the words inside of them concealed from the world forever. 

I swallowed hard, balling up my writing hand, my right, into a fist. I dreaded the moment it would hold a pencil, the words it would be forced to etch onto the page. After years and years of tossing and turning in bed, dreaming up stories I’d write in this hall, nothing seemed like the one I really wanted to write. I knew I’d have to write something. The only way to escape this was to finish one’s story, usually hundreds of pages long, have it released to the public, and have people know who I am. There was no other way. 

The clock tolled eleven, time for me to go through the door all the way down the hall. At least that was what the letter I received that morning had told me to do. I didn’t know what was to happen, but I had a feeling I was going to be meeting a Storytaker. 

The Storytakers ruled the Empire of Word, and controlled the Guards. They decided the fates of all Writers, and the values of their stories. Rumors told that the burning of bodies in the Block below the Sanctuary, and the paper from the stories burned by the Storytakers in their tower above was why this place usually smelled strongly like smoke and ashes. 

I walked slowly down the aisle separating the rows and rows of desks. People muttered abstract words and metaphors madly to themselves as they watched me pass, no doubt planning to use my image for one of their stories. In this place, so dull and fear-filled, there was no way to get inspiration other than from your own writing or people coming in from outside. 

I finally reached the end of the hall, and the door, which was not just a door, but a gigantic book. It had a shimmering gold cover and I could see coarsely cut pages sticking out from the top along with a pale red bookmark with the words “Take the Pen” written in puffy gold letters. 

I looked around at the rows of Writers closest to me. No one glanced up from their work, now used to my presence. Shouldn’t I ask one of them if I could borrow a pen? What if I surprised them so much with my question that they forgot an important idea they had? I didn’t want to be the reason someone got sent to the Block that day. 

I glanced back at the sign. Take the pen, take the pen… I began to search. Under the shelves, near the door. Beneath the desks, making sure my shoes didn’t squeak against the floor and cause a disruption. I began to get frustrated. Was this a test of intelligence, or just a simple thing I had to find to get in? Would I be fined with words if I couldn’t figure this out? Yes, that was probably it. An attempt to mess me up on my first day. 

I pictured it in my hand, ball-point, gold as the book. Don’t ask me why, but somehow imagining things gets my thoughts straight. What did I want? A pen. Where could I find it? I didn’t—

Click. Shuffle. Shuffle. 

The bookmark slipped into the book and disappeared. The bookshelves beside the book slid sideways. In response to having more room, the enormous glowing cover of the book opened to two blank, slightly yellowed pages. 

I pressed my hands against the smooth parchment. I twisted my head around to find the people were still not looking at me. Did they have to deal with the same mysterious entrance the day before their ceremonies? I returned my focus back to the open book, tracing my hand to the place where the pages were bound together. There was no opening, no way to worm my way through. I started turning pages, which were heavy and easy to crease due to their intense largeness. And then, after what felt like hours of turning, I reached the back cover where, sure enough, was a little gold door. I pushed on it and it gave way, creaking on hinges of gold coil. 

I laughed as I stepped through. I was coming through a book! Could I possibly be inside a story? 

Creak. Whoosh. Creak. 

The pages of the book all fell into each other as the book closed with a loud thump and the bookcases slid back into their places. The back cover of the book gleamed. But from what light?

I whirled back around, seeing a fog of eery white light hanging in the air a few feet away. 

I walked towards it. With each step a slight whirring in the distance got louder and more intense, while the light or fog or whatever you call it denser and overshadowing the looming darkness. 

I turned my head every which way, expecting to see a Storytaker’s eyes staring back at me mysteriously.

I’d never seen one before, and no one had ever described them to me. There had been stories about people who’d died out of terror in a Storytaker’s presence. Even though there was no saying whether or not these stories were true, there was no denying that they were creatures most people in the Empire did not want to meet.  

The white haze continued on. I walked faster and more impatiently now, the humming growing louder, almost like the very projected purr of a cat. Suddenly I realized I was passing through a ball of the pearly white fog, in the center of which was the most peculiar fountain I’d ever laid eyes upon. 

The water was the same cloud-white as the light that had led me there. The liquid moved around in waves, hence the sound of an animal in content. The waves were bodiless dancers. They crashed, circled around each other, dived deeper into the water and produced bubbles which rolled around on the surface like marbles until they hit the walls of the fountain. I squinted at the walls, which seemed to be made up of books with heavy stone covers so tightly connected that no water leaked through. Without realizing I was doing it at first, I reached out and touched some of the water riding a wave. It was warm and soothing. I took only a drop or two out on my finger, and realized that even though I’d brought it out of the light, it was still the same white it was in the pool. The substance was almost like milk, although it smelled of ink and parchment dunked in a contaminated lake. 

I wiped the substance off on my dress, a white stain soaking into the fabric of my skirt. Maybe the liquid was contaminated. 

“It is the Wordpool,” said a voice behind me. I had no time to murmur a greeting before I was face-to-face with a stout man in a pale navy suit and thin wisps of white hair peeking out from behind two small, triangular ears. His eyes were worlds of white, thin of a mouth and pale cheeks rid of any redness or emotion. In his hands was a single pen dripping with jet black ink. I watched as he leaned over the pool and touched the tip of the pen to the water, writing upon the surface. 

Venus 

He stopped suddenly, watching as a white wave carried my name away. The ink fought against it, weaving for a moment around bubbles and small ripples and waves in an attempt to escape. But it could not fight against the oncoming larger wave, which pulled it down into the water without mercy. 

For a few seconds afterward, the water was slightly grayer than before, but even that took its turn to fade. 

“A reminder that all stories will be gone someday, as they all follow the tides of fate and, of course, time.”

But that wasn’t a story! I wanted to protest. 

He continued, “The Wordpool also tells us that we have more stories to write. There will always be a blank page for humans to fill. We can’t ignore emptiness, no, blank pages create voids in our hearts and cracks in our character. Our job is to turn the emptiness into somethingness, although we become part of the emptiness in doing so.”

He knows, I thought, the reality settling in like a storm cloud in the horizon of my mind. He knows it’s only a matter of time before I go to the Block. 

I followed his thoughtful gaze to the blank body of water and I suddenly realized that yes, it would be so satisfying to cover it up with words. It became so frustrating to just stand there and watch the blankness that I forced myself to look away. The man noticed my averted gaze and nodded. 

“Although, what really and truly is empty is up to the Writer. And of course, the Storytakers.” 

I ran through his speech again, fast forward to the very last word. I was pulled out of the philosophical tangles of madness I’ve just been bombarded with. “Wait— aren’t you one?”

“A Storytaker? No, I am your Counter. During inspections I will ensure you have written all that is required. The Storytakers are much too busy to explain to a child the importance of the Fountain.” 

“So why am I here then?” I asked, ignoring his insult. As much as I enjoyed coming here through a book and listening to this mysterious man’s narrative, more appealing was the idea of going back to the apartment complex and getting settled in my new home. 

He narrowed his eyes at me. 

“You are here,” he replied, in a reprimanding tone, “to complete a task. It is a way to set you on your journey to Writerhood.” 

I looked at him skeptically. Could it be more confusing than the one I had to do to get in there? And I still didn’t know what had triggered the book to let me in. I’d never heard of a book taking pity on someone before. Ugh! I didn’t think I could take any more puzzles today. They criss-crossed in my mind, overlapping like the lattices of a pie. 

But the man did nothing but simply give me the pen, the actual pen he’d used to write my name. 

I held it in my hand. It was smooth and silver, heavy. I felt a strange energy rushing up my arm, my throat, into my brain and back down again. I had no idea what its purpose was. 

I looked to the man for further instructions. 

“Write something.” He said it so simply, hurling the unexplained phrase at me like I knew he would. 

 

“Where?” I asked. “And what?” My politeness had somewhat gone out the window since I’d learned he wasn’t one of the most powerful and revered beings in all the land. 

“One word,” he replied, “Right there.” He pointed to the fountain, which at the moment contained only a few soft ripples, as if waiting for me to approach. I looked at the liquid parchment, and back at him. 

“But it’ll just go away after I… The word will be gone and won’t matter?” 

He didn’t say anything, but when I kept looking at him he finally decided to elaborate.

“It will matter to you.”

The pen suddenly felt much heavier. 

“After you write, you may leave the way you came. The door will be open,” he instructed as I stepped towards the fountain, the pen shaking in my hand, little droplets of ink shimmied up my arm. 

“And remember this: While creating something out of nothing, be sure not to lose yourself if you wish to have your way.” 

He disappeared behind the now thick curtain of white and then became one with the darkness. 

I was alone. I stared at the water. 

I reached over the lipped rim of the fountain and positioned the pen above the center of the mountain of white liquid. My hand had stopped shaking. The energy running through me all rushed into it, steadying it, empowering it. 

I took a deep breath. 

And I lowered the pen to the water. 

Written by: Emily Maremont

Art title: Eyes on Sunset

Artist:  Brooke