After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.
Dylan Thomas’ final words
Dylan, Welsh god of the sea, what have you done
but drown yourself in sound and longing,
stroking the arched backs of words, seeking the ones
that curl together like cats on the tongue,
the ones that electrify the dark, that spark
the spongy dryness of the mind. But all your meanings
within meaning can not disguise the fact
you did not rage against the pain. You slid
down the narrow neck of anything you found,
glass and flesh alike, and you drowned, you
who knew why water throws itself against the shore,
spurred your own demise, taking your sweet syrup
of sound, half-hidden on that honey’d tongue
upon which all your words were hung.
Karen Stromberg is a minimalist who prefers the short poem, flash fiction and the ten-minute play. She has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes.
What you don’t know when you sign the release form is that death isn’t the permanent void that nonbelievers swear it is, nor is it the tranquil bliss that the enraptured would lead you to believe.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. The truth is, they are your organs for a reason that seems to transcend the biological. Your eyes may now be transmitting patterns of light to someone else’s brain, but they are still your ticket to the world and, frankly, I don’t like what I see.
What I’m seeing at the moment is an old man’s spotty hands forcing an orange tabby into a ratty carrier. Then there’s a swoosh-like blur, like watching a movie where the camera moves from place to place without cutting. Now I’m looking up at a young woman in a doorway, who’s squinting back tears. The old man’s hand comes into the frame and pats her on the arm. She steps back. There’s a one shot of the open-mouthed cry of the child in her arms. It goes dark. The old man has shut his eyes.
What the woman won’t see is the man placing the carrier tenderly on the lap of his gray-faced wife, his accomplice, and several blocks away, stopping the faded beige Toyota and switching the cat to the trunk with all the others. That’s the worst part, when the trunk opens and all those cats look up, their eyes dilated from darkness and fear, their mouths open in long yowls.
He’s good at this. He crams in the carrier, slams down the trunk, cranks up the radio and off they go.
There’s not a lot of money in selling cats for medical research or zoology classes. It’s hard work. He has to read all the classifieds, be the earliest caller, cover the whole city. It takes a lot of first class acting — first on the phone and then in person.
I know this because he reads from a script, how they need another cat because they’ve just lost Old Jake, or little Molly, “the sweetest calico you’ve ever seen.”
Every morning I follow his arthritic finger through the same sad stories: owner divorcing, dead, allergic, called up, moving overseas. Once upon a time, one of these was mine. Perhaps this is why this has happened to me. I was done with domesticity: husband, house, pets. The feeling was mutual. We ran an ad.
Free to good homes. Cats!
I used the bait word: free, the one that brings cat sellers right to your door like raw chicken brings gators out of a swamp. An old couple showed up, not my current couple, but another old couple, just as gray, just as quiet, and what do you know! They took both cats, “To keep them together.” How wonderful for big fluffy-gray Furangela and little white, part-Siamese Celandine, those best friends, who always slept together, curled light and dark, like Yin and Yang.
I never knew what I’d done until I woke up seeing my sin played out daily through the cat man’s corneas.
There are no accidents. There’s stupidity, there’s indifference and there’s redemption; and I’m done with the first two.
The cat seller and I meet in the mornings as he lifts his razor and stares into the mirror, into his eyes, my eyes.
Repent, I say, sensing some long ago Baptist in his lineage.
He stares for a moment, frozen, the razor ear-high, like maybe he hears me, like maybe I’ve become a faint ersatz conscience.
He says something, always the same thing, before jabbing one finger into the slack flesh of his face and pulling it taut over the cheekbone.
“A man’s gotta eat.” I think that’s what he says just before the razor goes to work.
Repent! Damn it! Repent.
Karen Stromberg is the proud companion of three cats, and would like to believe that fiction can somehow, somewhat, atone for past cruelties, even those performed in blatant ignorance. Other flash fiction can be found at qarrtsiluni and Pedestal Magazine.
a chaplain appeared and it was as if
my father, that constant joker,
had waylaid the elegant white-haired
minister we’d envisioned
and herded in a tiny Filipino nun
for our amusement and to lift your despair
over having just died in a hospital’s
generic white gown
with your hair uncombed.
The nun spoke an earnest language,
not quite English, not Roman Catholic,
but full of breathy spaces
where the Holy’s would have gone
if we hadn’t mandated Presbyterian.
We were mesmerized by her quick
index finger, eager to make a sign,
repeatedly reaching out, jerking back,
over your breathless sternum—
Mother Mary so unspoken
she was everywhere.
I could see my father’s fine
Irish hand in this, his knack
for making you and your mirror image
break into laughter
when humidity had panicked your hair
or your hemline had forgotten
to contradict the stock market,
how he would hold out his arm, and
filling the mirrors with emptiness,
sweep you off
into the deep and starry night.
Karen Stromberg favors flash fiction, the ten-minute play and short poetry. She does not accept the boundary between life and death.
The moment she knew she’d conceived she made two decisions: no doctors, no birth.
“Baby,” she said to the cluster of 15 cells adhering to her uterine wall. “Forgive me. It’s a harsh world. I can only think of one way out.”
Every cell of their collective body agreed. At the end of nine months there were no contractions, no birth.
By the end of the first in utero year he slept through the night and drummed on her lower left rib if he wanted a shot of caffeine. He liked reruns of Myron Floren on the Lawrence Welk Show and did not care for Chinese food.
She filled with song. He learned to crack his thumbs in time to her voice, a double-jointedness which ran through the family on her father’s side.
By the third year she began to thin. Lying nude in the backyard dosing them both with Vitamin D, she noticed how translucent her flesh had become, the centerline full of white striations pulling and stretching like a seam coming undone.
In the dome of her belly, two small hands pressed, and then between them, a face. Even pale and waterlogged, his hair a floating nimbus, he looked exactly like her uncle Vinnie. She smiled. The boy smiled back.
His finger with its long curled nail followed the path of a crow over the dome of his world, leaving a flush of pink in the fluid.
She called her sister, said she was leaving a present in the backyard. The sister said she’d be right over.
When the sister arrived, the boy, sitting upright in the pelvic girdle, was playing patty-cake in a small puddle of amniotic fluid, tears streaming down his face from the pure brilliance of the day.
by Karen Stromberg
Download the MP3 (reading by Beth Adams)
She heard the plane long before it came into view, its small engine sputtering and whining. The jungle fell silent as the plane climbed into the sky and died. It hung weightless before spiraling into the ocean. A moment later a parachute opened — one small blot in a pristine sky.
She was impressed by the way the man worked the lines of his chute, swinging in his harness, moving toward land. Once he hit water, the white silk settled over him and floated on the surface like a large jellyfish.
Well, that’s that, she thought, watching the slow current carry the whole mess around the south end of the island.
Later, just as the trio of black-crested gibbons were finishing their evening song, a yoo-hooing voice moved toward her.
“Thank God for your signal fire.” A young, haggard man sank to his knees. “It led me right to you.” Men, she thought, taking the single fish from the spit and offering it to him on a banana leaf.
“Do you speak English?” he said a moment later, as he returned the leaf with its small nest of bones.
“Yes, I do. English major. Virginia Woolf.” Her eyes followed the scalloped moonlight of the shoreline. “I thought I’d done her one better.”
“Well, Virginia,” the man said, laying out a large knife and a small folding saw. “Your troubles are over. Tomorrow, I’ll start whipping this place into shape.”
At sunrise, he lashed the knife with its thick leather handle to a bamboo pole. “Any predators here? Large ones?” he said, as he waded waist-deep into the lagoon.
“Just us,” she called. She watched as he brought up the first fish, a small grouper, a huge hole in its pink side, its gill covers flaring wildly.
“There’s no refrigeration,” she said, watching the fish slam its tail against the sand. She stunned it with a stone.
“Well done,” he said, anointing her with a smile as he dropped a black bass beside the grouper.
“We can’t eat all these.” She inspected the wound on the bass. “They won’t keep.” She raised her stone.
“I’m taking an inventory. It’s good to know what you have.” He grinned and trotted into the water, the spear glistening overhead.
She dispatched the bass and walked to the next lagoon. As she bathed in the pristine water, small fish nibbled her fingers and toes. He was a nice looking man, she thought, good facial symmetry, adequate cranial circumference, and he had blue eyes. So did she. It tickled her to think that a recessive gene suddenly stood a small chance, not only of surviving, but of becoming dominant.
“We may be,” he had said the night before, “the last two people on earth.” A momentary gleam ignited in his exhausted eyes as he spread out the parachute like a silken sheet and fell asleep.
“Very likely we are,” she’d murmured, as she curled her body against his and felt him pull her snug against his side. She had not told him about her surveyor’s cabin with its small stove, cot and fourteen months worth of ecological diaries.
The line of dead and dying fish had tripled by the time she returned. The man stood thigh-deep in water maneuvering a sea turtle toward land.
“That’s an olive ridley,” she said, recognizing its heart-shaped shell. “They’re critically endangered.”
“Soup,” he said, pinning the turtle to the beach with one foot. “And there’s monkeys here too.” He freed the knife from the pole.
“I’ve got something much better.” She looked deep into his blue eyes. “Much, much better and just for you,” she whispered, as he turned toward her and the turtle slid back into the water.
She selected a puffer fish from the row of bodies on the beach, and taking the knife from his hand, she filleted it, liver and all.
by Karen Stromberg
Reading by Beth Adams – Download the MP3