November 11, 2022

Emi Benn

Nine

 “Nine,” the mother says.

“Is that a lot?” the daughter asks, pulling back the sheets. “I sleep with you and all my stuffed animals. That’s already maybe a gazillion.”

“I’m not counting stuffed animals. Do you want a bedtime story or not? If you just want to ask questions, you can go right to sleep, bunny. You know I have to go to a lot of trouble to tell you about the nine.”

“Story, please.”

“Have you done your teeth and toilet?”

The daughter nods so the mother begins.

*

The first was just for a night. Her boarding school was an alien place where she never felt she belonged (she had a full scholarship). The bed was hard and narrow and creaked whenever they moved. Though the mother had slept on it all year in the small room of her dorm, she hadn’t noticed how uncomfortable it was until he was there sharing the bed with her. He was older and had come to visit his girlfriend, her classmate, from his Ivy League college nearby.

“What was he like?”

“He was black. If I brought him home, Grandpa would have said bad things to him.”

“Why did you sleep with him, Mommy?”

The mother shrugs.

“We were drinking. People do foolish things when they drink.”

“He’s the one who kicked the blankets and twisted the sheets.”

“Yes,” the mother says, “We both made a huge mess.”

*

Number Two happened the summer before she started college. She knew him from school, but he never talked to her. It was only in the quiet of summer when they ran into each other at the drugstore that they had their first conversation.

Her immigrant parents encouraged her to see him. “They practically shoved me out the door and sold me to him,” the mother says, but mildly and without bitterness. “He was white and came from a rich family. That kind of guy who will always be alright, no matter what they’ve done.”

He drove them to the beach and then he just wanted to sleep.

“He just fell asleep? Isn’t that weird?”

The mother shrugs.

“Why did you sleep in the car with him? Were you tired?”

“I was. Very, very tired of it all, especially my parents. Never sleep in a car with a boy you don’t know that well. It’s uncomfortable and you don’t want to be thought of like that.”

“Like what, Mommy?”

“Like the kind of girl who would sleep just anywhere. You want to be a girl who only sleeps in a feather bed and sends boys all around the world just to fetch you a silk pillow.”

“Why would they have to go so far to get a pillow? Couldn’t they just buy one at the store?”

“Because you want someone who’d get you something so special that it won’t leave creases on your cheek.” The mother sighs. “You have to understand, if I didn’t sleep, there would’ve been nothing else to do. And I was kind of excited, too, before I went. I liked him before that.”

“Did you have bad dreams sleeping in the car?”

“Yes. Terrible dreams and nightmares about monsters who lurk in the dark.”

*

“Wait,” the daughter says, holding up her little hand before the mother can get to Number Three. “Do the monster check.”

The mother hangs her head over the side of the bed until her dark hair brushes the floor. All she sees in the dim light is dust and stuffed animals that have fallen through the crack between the bed and the wall.

“It’s clear.”

“Then why do I still have bad dreams?”

“Sometimes monsters are invisible. They hide in the crevices of things and even in people, behind the faces they wear every day. They feed on secret things, the things you can never tell anyone, like this story. If you repeat it, you might invite monsters in. Do you understand?”

“I won’t tell. I don’t like monsters.”

“Good.”

*

She was in college by Number Three – a state school with financial aid, she was the first in her family to go. He was in her American History class. He took long, hot showers after they slept, as if he wanted to wash all the sleep away.

“Did he wash the sheets, too?”

“Maybe. From the way he washed himself in those showers, he probably had a lot of laundry.”

“Didn’t you sleep with Grandma and Grandpa? Why weren’t they the first two?”

“I never slept with them,” the mother says as she stiffens but seems to rise taller, even though they’re both lying on the bed. “I always slept on my own. Even at sleepovers. I never got too close to anyone. I never shamelessly climbed in the way you do. I don’t know why you bother. You have such a lovely bed.”

“Yes,” the daughter says, fluffing her feather comforter and resting her head back onto her pink pillow, safe under her net canopy. “But it’s cozier with you. And I get scared.”

“You should stay in your bed,” the mother says.

“My number is one,” the daughter says.

*

Four was someone the mother liked but met in passing. She noticed him right away. He had a lion’s mane of blond, curly hair. They were traveling on the same bus in a foreign country. Before they slept, they took a walk. They were the only two who wanted to see the village nearby. People warned them not to go because it was unlucky. But they were curious.

Dirty children blocked the path there, taunting them and throwing rocks. Though she hadn’t believed it before, the mother was sure she could feel the bad luck.

“We should turn around,” she whispered. As they made their way back, Four put his arm around her like he was protecting her from the bad things behind them that they both had felt.

That night they shared a bed. They were dusty from the road, but he didn’t seem to mind.

*

Five and Six didn’t happen but they’re still part of the list.

She’d parted ways with the man with the lion’s mane and lost her passport. This time she was hitchhiking in a car with another American – safe, she thought, not knowing that the taillight of his car was out and that it would give the police an excuse to stop them.

They waved the driver on. The mother had no identification, so they took her to jail.

The two arresting officers told her that she had to sleep with one of them.

Five was tall, young, and good-looking. Six was old and squat.

You choose, they said.

The mother was very dark and brown from the sun. She was wearing a filthy cotton dress that looked like a sack. If she’d even had a shower, she was sure they wouldn’t have given her a choice. But she was female, and they were bored that day.

She chose the old, ugly one.

“I knew that the tall and handsome one would want to sleep right away,” the mother  explains, “He looked used to getting his way. Because he was handsome, I knew he would be brutal. So I chose the old one. He looked like he could be tricked. I just used my hand.”

“What for?”

“To cover his eyes so he would think that he was sleeping without really having to sleep. You probably wouldn’t have known to do that, would you, bunny? You would have chosen the tall, handsome one.”

The daughter nods, shyly.

When the first light filtered in through the bars of her prison window, the mother called out to the tall, handsome officer and prostrated herself before him. 

Remember your mother and your sister, she cried. Remember the Virgin Mary!

“Then what happened?”

“He let me go and I got a new passport.”

*

The real Number Five was Henry, a potter who lived with the mother in a big house they shared with other people who came and went like the rabbits she let run wild. She was still in college but older at this point – wiser, she had thought, from travelling.

The rabbits multiplied. One day, they chewed through the electrical wires, and the house burnt down.

“You wouldn’t know what that’s like,” the mother says. “You love your things too much. If something like that happened, you might die just staying with your things. Or you would get caught in the fire while you were trying to take them with you.”

The daughter makes a face but then asks, “Was the man who owned the house very mad?”

“Actually, insurance gave him more money than the house was worth, so it seems the rabbits did him a favor. That’s karma for you.”

For just a little while, before the house burned down, it had been nice: the mother liked Henry and he had liked her back. After they moved, he started liking someone else.

“It’s what always happens,” the mother says. “I’m the last one before they marry someone else.”

The one that Henry liked had a name that began with N. All the mother’s enemies have N names. The daughter, too, has a name that begins with N. The mother named her with the hope that the daughter would grow up with all the advantages of her nemeses.

The daughter knows who Henry is because he still sends the mother packages. She smiles a secret smile when they arrive and passes them over to the daughter, who rips open the paper. The daughter drinks hot chocolate out of a perfectly weighted mug that Henry made. In the summer evenings, she holds Japanese fireworks that he sends, while the mother lights their ends. They burn slowly in soft explosions that look like stars and snowflakes.

*

“Why do boys like to sleep so much?” the daughter yawns.

“They want to be close to someone when they sink into their subconscious.”

“If you’re both asleep why does it matter?”

“It’s the same reason you climb into bed with me. It’s comforting. But sleeping with someone else – even me – can be dangerous, too. Sometimes your dreams mix together and then you get mixed up in the other person. You don’t know where you start and where they end. But it can be nice to lose yourself like that, and not have to be completely responsible and enclosed inside your own body.  

“Also,” the mother continues after thinking a little, “it makes them taller. Boys like to be tall. Right after they sleep, all the gravity makes them taller than before. Just for a little bit, not permanently. Then they walk around all day, and the gravity fights their bodies, so they get shorter. But for boys, that little moment they’re taller, it still counts.”

“Should I sleep more so I can be tall, too?”

“No. The best thing you can do is to sleep soundly and not wake in the night. I know you creep to the bathroom, but try to sleep, little bunny. Monsters lurk in the dark. It’s better if you don’t see them and just let them pass by without knowing that you’re there. Only wake after they’re gone.”

*

Six was George, the mother says, trying it out loud, and wondering if it’s true. She’s muddled up the timeline at this point. She can’t account for everyone, and nine seems like a decent enough number, not too big or small.

Six wasn’t important – that’s all she knows.

The daughter nods because she knows he belongs in the list.

George liked the mother but sleeping with him was just like sleeping with a brother.

“But you want to be safe when you sleep next to someone,” the daughter says. “Sleeping with someone like family is better, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes,” the mother agrees. “But sometimes you want to sleep next to someone who isn’t like family at all. They help you dream different dreams.”

*

Seven was the one who got away. He was older, a graduate student she watched as he biked across campus. She knew he would be important one day. He surprised her by walking right into the library where she worked. That’s when they really met.

He was half-Japanese, half-white, serious and tall.

She liked the way he considered everything she said, but that was the problem, too – he took everything she did so seriously, all her moods and crying jags and silly, crass jokes.

“I was too messy for him,” the mother sighs. “He was more comfortable with someone more cultured, of his own class. He married a prettier, nicer version of me. Everyone said that she reminded them of me. Sometimes she sends a Christmas card and signs his name for him. I always throw those away.”

*

The daughter’s father was Eight. The first time the mother saw him he was standing on his head in an ashram in India where the mother had gone to find herself.

He told the mother about a girl he’d met there who could see auras. She had told him that his aura was white. White was rare, he explained, it meant that he was a very spiritual person. He was at the ashram because he had left the Zen temple where he was training to become a Buddhist priest. He didn’t like the rituals – the toilet cleaning and all the repetition – and wanted to see if there was something better.

They didn’t talk about the past or the future because it was not something the mother was thinking about (if they did, she couldn’t remember it). She was still thinking about the seventh man who hadn’t loved her enough.

She wondered if her aura was black and was glad the girl who could see auras had left the ashram before she’d arrived.

They hiked together and slept outside on a holy Tibetan mountain.

The mother had vaguely decided to travel on and work with Mother Teresa. But she had a change of plans.

“I was in your belly!” the daughter cries. “Tell me again how I got there.”

“While I was sleeping, a deity must have snuck you inside. Be careful where you sleep. You’re more vulnerable, and it’s easy not to notice things when you’re distracted by your dreams. Sleeping in a holy place means that mischievous gods are around. I can’t recommend it.”

“But you’re not mad that they put me in there?”

The mother strokes the daughter’s hair and says, “Shhh.”

*

“Next time will you tell me the story of the giant boob that rolls down the hill?” the daughter murmurs. Her eyelids are heavy, though she fights to keep them open. “I like that one. I can’t remember if it smashes the city or not.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“And the milk that comes out, I can’t remember if it saves the people or drowns them. I can’t remember if it’s a happy story or not.”

The daughter blinks her eyes and furrows her brow. She’s half-asleep but awake enough to know that something isn’t right.

“I’m sure there was another one after that. I thought there was someone else after Daddy? A handsome prince who was gentle and kind?”

“Not tonight.”

Through her yawn the daughter continues, “Wasn’t there also one before, at the beginning, a monster? And a girl? I remember a girl.”

“Go to sleep, my Nine. You know that there are always nine.”

“But—” the daughter protests but her eyes are closing.

“Stories change. Sometimes they get confused with your dreams when you’re already drifting off so you can’t remember them exactly right even if you try.”

“Please stay with me after I’m asleep,” the daughter says. “I don’t want to be alone.”

*

The daughter lies heavy in her pink bed. She looks like a doll next to all her stuffed animals, which are buried in the crack between the bed and the wall to protect her from the monsters. She smells of bath soap mixed with her own sour smell.

The mother climbs in under the cool sheets and lets her head fall onto the pillow. She feels the warmth of the daughter’s body beside her. Then she closes her eyes and sleeps.

Emi Benn’s fiction has appeared in Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario. This piece appeared in SAND 20: Taboo and is available online for a limited time. 

Lucy Zhang

What It Takes to Shatter Wood

She smashes her brother’s violin case into the drywall supporting the stairs because that wall is the cleanest, plainest of all walls, the perfect canvas for a most conspicuous dent. The violin case emerges unscathed. Only the wall and the big, black dent stand out—something her dad will surely yell about and her mom will speak to her about in low, serious, you-burned-a-bridge tones, and they will send her outside to cool off in the streets where she has learned to keep walking around the block and through the trails across the CVS parking lot to where the new neighborhood construction is, miles and miles of pavement and geese poop away, leaving her calf muscles a bit strained but nothing she can’t handle to stay warm. She will find the door unlocked by the time she returns and slip in like dust, scavenging at the table of leftovers from which her brother has already eaten all the good pieces of soy-braised beef and her mom has already finished all the A-choy fried with garlic and her dad has already inhaled the soft face meat from the fish head and she’s left with a palmful of rice and boiled eggs and overripe snow peas that are too stringy to swallow. She smashes the violin case because her brother’s playing sounds atrocious, like screeching owls who’ve just killed a mammal, which would’ve been tolerable if he practiced consistently so she knew when to evacuate the house, but instead he practices rarely and randomly and forgets the instrument the rest of the time even though the teacher can tell when a violin isn’t used, the wood not fully settled, the varnish structure still unstable, the wood and strings stagnated from neglect. You won’t get anywhere like that, she’d like to tell him but holds it in because she’d rather not listen to him play more often than necessary. Her parents pay fifty dollars an hour for his lessons and tell her to earn money from working at the downtown Good Taste Chinese restaurant for under-the-table cash since she’s too young for a real salary, and it’s just enough money to cover her school’s annual one-hundred-dollar activity fee so she can continue piecing together Lego Mindstorm robots. They can’t force her to pay for fixing the dent, she figures. She’s not old enough to drive to Home Depot and lug home a bucket of spackle. At best, dad will have her stand facing the wall, blocking the dent from sight while the rest of them eat dinner and discuss her brother’s plans to join the debate club, a month-long interest that has convinced mom he’ll “move to high places” with this level of ambition—even though, years from now, she will be halfway around the world preparing for her company to IPO in Hong Kong and her brother will be living at home stealing from her parents’ retirement savings for weed and she’ll mail them monthly paychecks while asking for very little in return—just that they ship the violin to her so she can drop it from the second floor, see if anyone hears it shatter.

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Wigleaf, Apple Valley Review, AAWW, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Find her at kowaretasekai.wordpress.com or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen. This piece appears in SAND 24.

Zosia Koptiuch

Words We Lost

1. Grandmother

Bird: I was fourteen and in biology class. The teacher asked me something about the class aves—that’s what I started calling them from that point on, aves, in Latin, but it wouldn’t be long before that word disappeared as well—and I couldn’t answer.

I was a good student. I had read the chapter on them the previous day. I could tell you all about their eggs and their migration patterns and their feathers. I even remembered something I’d read about them in a book a year prior, about their intellect. Even the aves had a better memory than me.

After class, I sat down on the floor and flipped through the book. The words on the page were replaced by little grey wisps. I concentrated and tried to remember. The word had disappeared. It was as though I’d never known it.

When recounting that story to my parents, I lied: “It was on the tip of my tongue, I swear.” But the word was nowhere. A feathered, levitating creature landed on the tree outside my window, as they did every day.

Illness: It happened when I was in med school in Kyiv, studying for an exam with my roommate. I said that word one last time and stopped in the middle of the next sentence. Nothing. I ended up saying health problem, but I would never forget the look my roommate gave me: sharp, concerned, lips pursed and eyebrows raised. This was unlike me.

Maybe that’s what it was. An ailment. At nineteen, I was way too young to have memory problems. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me.

When other people said the words I’d forgotten, they sounded like they came from under the water. They sounded like bubbles and murk.

Pen: Responding to a love letter. I dipped it in red ink and the ink spilled. That was what replaced the word in my memory: red all over my table. Blood.

After that, my hand started trembling whenever I wrote. I couldn’t respond to that letter. I was scared that my response would be the final straw, that this was when I would finally lose all my words and never speak again.

Tapestry: It hung on the wall of the apartment Tosiek’s family lived in before we got married. It had the beaked, soft, fluttering creatures on it, surrounded by leaves and flowers. I wanted to compliment it: “Nice…carpet.” His mother, the type of woman to always try to fix even the slightest, most irrelevant things, laughed and corrected me: “Honey, I think you mean ____.” She meant well, but it hurt.

Julia: I insisted on naming our daughter that. A few months after she was born, the name vanished. I decided to call my daughter Helenka, a diminutive of my mother’s name. By the time she turned one, she responded to that name. It would take a long time for her to learn that she was actually named ____.

When I explained that to my husband, Tosiek, he told me to go see a doctor. The doctor prescribed me pills that didn’t work, and Tosiek kept reminding me to take them every single day, as if I didn’t know myself. He became overprotective. I appreciated it, but there was nothing he could do.

 

2. Mother

Green: I forgot my first word. There was nothing I could do. The first word was for the color of my nursery walls, fresh and acidic, which my mother would repeatedly point at while she said it. She was desperate to teach me what she still knew before it was too late. She taught me ____, _____, guitar, chair. She hoped that I would turn out unlike her, and oh how I disappointed her.

Curse: That’s what it was, I decided, after reading a book of fairy tales from the school library. It made sense. Both my mother and I had it, and my children would have it, and after all, it made all of that nonsense sound more romantic than it really was. It was probably the work of some witch, I imagined, or punishment for an ancestor’s misdemeanor. At ten, I preferred that version over accepting the truth: that I had some sort of hole in my head, and words flew out of that hole like small winged beings flew out of the twig-bowls they hatched in.

I couldn’t explain it to my mother, though, because that word was gone, too. She probably wouldn’t like it anyways.

Solidarność: The worst times were when I was in middle school, between 1988 and 1991. The radio and the TV were on 24/7 in our house, and even though I couldn’t understand most of it, I heard it. Because we were of Polish descent, my parents’ heads turned whenever the newscaster’s cold voice mentioned that word. By the time the word turned to white noise in my head, I hadn’t yet figured out if it was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing. I asked my parents and they had to guess, going through many other white noises in the process, blindly navigating the ever-growing maze of my head. When they finally seemed to get what I meant, they told me not to worry about it. It was none of my business.

USSR: After communism fell, I forgot the name of the country I had spent most of my childhood in. It was the only word I would never miss.

Helenka/Agata/Agnieszka: My name changed a million times throughout my life. I knew my name as the sound of thunder that came from people’s mouths in place of something lost.

My first name, the name my parents called me—not the nebulous smudge on my birth certificate, which I had never known and would never know—disappeared when I was sixteen. It was the only time I had ever snuck out, compelled by a classmate. After I came back long after midnight, my mother was standing at the door with her hands folded on her chest, and she said my name, and as I should have expected by now, I couldn’t make it out. I didn’t tell her until the next day. When I did, she sighed and said: “Pick a new one.”

That’s what I would eventually become used to: picking names. I went through so many that by the time my child was born, I would run out of them. Though I supposed that wouldn’t matter either.

The name I picked for myself was one that tasted like strawberry in my mouth, a whimsical name that my parents weren’t too fond of. It was a name I had given to one of my dolls when I was younger. It was a name that made people raise their eyebrows when I introduced myself.

Then it was gone, and the only part of it I remembered was the first letter. So I made myself another, a beautiful Polish name I’d first discovered in a book. The time when I had this name was my happiest. I hoped the love of my life would know me by it. I hoped my children would know me by it. The column I wrote for the short-lived magazine knew me by it. After the name disappeared, I cried.

I like to think that with each of my names, I transformed. I don’t know if that’s true. It scares me how impermanent I am, how I don’t even have a word for myself.

 

3. Daughter

Tree: They’re everywhere, these crooked, motionless monsters whose color sounds like ____, and I don’t even know what to call them. I haven’t known what to call them ever since I turned four, when we had a picnic for my birthday party and I threw a tantrum because of that sound coming out of my mother’s mouth: not speech, not cooing, not song, just the void of a missing word, like a _____. But what do I know? I have never known my own name. It might be Zuzanna, or Dominika, or Olga, or _______, or _____, or ____.

All the numbers: I would have failed math if it weren’t for my best friend, _____. It’s harder with things like this, you see, because these things are not material: they are made of nothing but thought and symbols and paper. If there was a color, a shape, a texture for me to latch onto, it would be so much easier.

Anna: My friend. I told her everything. Every weekend, we would meet up at the bus station and take the bus to the old part of Kyiv, where there was a fortress on a hill where nobody ever really went, surrounded by tall grass and dandelions. We would sit there and _____ and ______ and drink and laugh and watch the ____ ____ over the city. She knew about what was going on in my head with the words. We looked for ways to fix it: dictionaries, learning to read lips. All useless. She even wanted to try a memory exercise, but I knew it wouldn’t work. It had been this way for generations, I explained. If I were to truly remember all of my language, I would have to go back in time. I hadn’t just lost these words. They had never belonged to me in the first place.

Then, one day, I looked at her and realized I didn’t know what to call her anymore. I told her and she understood, but I could tell she was grieving. How could I assure her that in my mind, she still existed just as much, even if I had nothing to refer to her by?

Father: Makes sense. I never had one.

I mean, I did, but I never met him. I had never asked about him, either, but my mother still told me: he was _________, with _____ and ______ and he ________.

As a teenager, when people asked about my family situation, I didn’t tell them I didn’t have a _____. Instead, I told them I didn’t have a man in my life growing up. That was not true. I had my dziadek and my piano teacher and my swimming coach. But with my ____, I ended up having to lie a lot.

Understand: My babcia always joked that she was a horrible doctor and my mother would reply by saying she was a horrible journalist. Well, I was a horrible linguist. It was a matter of stubbornness, really. I thought, there had to be a way to __________________________.

I didn’t think I’d get into the linguistics program, but I did. I didn’t think I’d survive the linguistics program, ___________________________________.

Picking words apart was harder than losing them. I read book after book on neurolinguistics, pages upon pages of ___________, and still could not figure out why _____________.

I asked my babcia how it started and she could not find the words. She rarely ever talked about her past. It had been cut off from her, and all of us, by our _______. That was something worth ____ about.

So I _____. I couldn’t sleep. My pillow was soaked in my tears. The glitter sprinkled in the dark outside looked so much dimmer without a name. What did Shakespeare write about this? Something about a flower the color of _______ and its ______. He was wrong.

Love: The _____ left me with no choice but poetry. I called ____ almost every day, and she always listened patiently to my _____. When she spoke, she sounded like _____ shedding their fur in the ____ after it turned from the color of lime to the color of pomegranate. I could not describe the feeling I had towards ____ and my mother and my grandmother in any way besides ______, but that wasn’t enough. It had to be the feeling of the sky’s two eyes, one always closed, just like the way _____ sleep—Did you know _____ sleep with one eye open?—dwelling inside me and lighting me up. It had to be a cipher.

Hereditary: I visited the archives the other day. I asked for information on ___________ and _______ by pointing at the smudges on my grandmother’s documents. They managed to find ________ and _______. I sat there in an armchair, lips pursed, and traced the __________ with my fingers. Then I opened it: ____________ and _____________. I remember breaking down as I read. It might have been something shocking, or maybe it was just the _____ of finally coming close to understanding my ________. Either way, I only got a day or ___ with my family history. I should have __________. It was nice while it lasted.

Reclaim: ______________, I went to the park to_________. ________________ monsters with roots _____________. _______ the sharp blood-vessel I scar the paper with and _____________. ___________________________________, ____________ , ____________________________________________________. ________________. __________________ in class ________________ ask ______________. ____ my fortress-friend and ______________________. _________________________________________ archives _____________. _____________________________________________________ bird.

Zosia Koptiuch is a writer of Polish descent from Ukraine. Born and raised in Kyiv, she currently resides in Warsaw. She enjoys calligraphy and taking long walks. This piece appears in SAND 24 and is available online for a limited time. 

In Ambika Thompson’s “Mermaids,” a mother-daughter vacation to Mexico turns fantastical when the mother takes an unexpected lover and the daughter befriends a mermaid who may or may not tear her heart out. The women’s lives intersect with the mermaids of mythology and popular culture to explore sexual mores, sexuality, gender, and choice…or the lack thereof. An excerpt of the story’s beginning is included below. Read the full piece in SAND 24

Ambika Thompson

Mermaids

Lisa knew, or thought she knew, the moment the guy made the sound like a squirrel having its organs ripped out by an owl, that she was knocked up. She didn’t have an orgasm, she wasn’t quaking with ecstasy, she was mostly trying not to throw up on him, but in hindsight wished that she had.   

Too much tequila, some girl on the beach with them kept saying, Again.

But that girl didn’t end up on the beach with her knickers around her left ankle and sand filling up her delicate folds. That girl stayed with the group just where the darkness swallowed them. Lisa could hear her laughing with the waves. It was the laugh of someone who was happy, confident.

What was his name? Bert, Bart, Britt, Brett. He smelled like intoxication. From the Midwest and shaped like a rectangle. In a blurry moment, sex on the beach seemed like a good idea. Now Lisa wasn’t too sure. She was sure she felt his sperm swimming around her insides, infesting all her invisible nooks and crannies. A condom seemed like something she forgot existed, was never invented. She wanted him to like her, but why? They would never see each other again. He was leaving in the morning back to whatever Midwestern state he hailed from: Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. Back to crawl under whatever rock he came from, maybe it was Arkansas. He wasn’t even particularly nice to her, just kept trying to get her away from the group, telling her he didn’t really like her hair.

Come, look at the waves, he’d said. He asked her over and over again, like water torture, an unspun spinning wheel, a needle skipping on a record, like sunsets and sunrises, like life and death.

Lisa avoided it, laughed to herself every time he asked until she didn’t care anymore, until the liquid had dulled her resolve, dulled the sights and sounds of existence, dulled common sense. She moved out of her body and into a grain of sand. She’s young, she’s supposed to want get fucked on the beach. She’s sure that’s what her mother would say, but then disapprove if she knew that that is indeed what Lisa had actually gone and done.

Haven’t we all fucked someone we wished we hadn’t?

They’re in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Playa for short to the locals, in the state of Quintana Roo, which reminds Lisa’s mother, Annie, of Polkaroo. Lisa doesn’t know who that is.

My first boyfriend, Annie told her. Annie was a bit sozzled when she said that, the edges of life were a bit fuzzy.

At dinner the night Lisa had sex on the beach, Annie mentioned again how her father, Lisa’s grandfather, had told her he lost his virginity to a sex worker in Tijuana.

He not only told me once, baby doll, her mother said, But three times. I might have a sibling here in Mexico. I never asked him if he bagged that bitch of a dick of his.

Lisa’s grandfather is dead now, a heart attack sometime around Lisa’s ninth birthday. She liked her grandfather, what she remembered, but he smelled like the boy on the beach, maybe that’s why she did it. That’s what Freud would probably say.

Lisa’s mother, Annie, had fallen asleep that night to a rom-com about a boy and a girl who hated each other upon meeting but soon discovered that of course they had to spend the rest of their lives together or their faces would explode.

Word of advice, darling, Annie said shortly before passing out, If you hate a guy when you meet him you will always hate him. Trust your instincts.

Lisa watched her mother’s breaths lengthen as the romance unfolded in all its pixelated glory. Then Lisa stood over her mother waving her hand in front of her face, and imagined putting a pillow over her head, wondering how long it would take to snuff her mother out. But Lisa didn’t do that, she left the room, out to the beach, and out to adventure. Lisa wanted to be sucked into the sea by a mermaid and be entangled in her voice.

After Bert, or Bart, or Britt, or Brett got off of Lisa, he kissed her forehead roughly, the sand on his lips scraped her skin. He thanked her as if she had held a door open for him or picked up an object he’d dropped. Then he pulled up his shorts and joined the group. The mermaid crawled up onto the beach and told Lisa she could have done better.

Continue reading the full story in SAND 24.

Ambika Thompson is the author of the SAND classic “Ninety-Nine Pink Vaginas” and is now one of SAND‘s Fiction Editors. Ambika’s favourite colour is rainbow and they have a black cat that is a witch. They have been published in several international publications including Electric Literature, Riddle Fence, Crab Fat Magazine, Fanzine, Joyland, and The Fiddlehead. Ambika is the recipient of a Research and Creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (2021) and has an MFA in creative writing from Guelph University (Canada) where they studied with Dionne Brand and Heather O’Neill. Ambika runs creative writing workshops online and in Berlin and can be found at Ambikathompson.com. Read the full piece in SAND 24.

Lucie Bonvalet’s flash fiction piece “Signs” explores burning, desire, and climate change through the dual lenses of a Spanish wildfire and the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. An excerpt is included below. Read the full story in SAND 24.

Lucie Bonvalet

Signs

Fires turned the sky black on the third day.

Shortly before we were evacuated, I took photographs: one part of the sky above my head black, thick. The color spread like ink in water.

In the movie I watched yesterday night, a young woman catches on fire. It takes place at night, in a field of long grass, by the sea, in Brittany. People are gathered around a beautiful bonfire. The green hem of her long crinoline dress catches a low flame.

For one or two days before being evacuated, we knew the fire. We watched the flames from a distance on the hills nearby. We tried to predict which direction it was taking. But we could not smell the flames. Our sky was just faintly veiled.

In the movie, it is not clear at first whether the woman knows she is on fire. She walks slowly among people, oblivious to the flame in her dress. But her face is lit different, vibrates, juxtaposed against night. Her calm gestures become urgent. Her blue eyes, blacker.

Why this urge to photograph a burned sky?

The moment I decided to take pictures coincided with the moment I admitted to myself I could no longer breathe freely. The air, too thick, too warm. The taste, a multitude of small agonies, nonhuman.

There is always the possibility that the young woman deliberately sets herself on fire. From our vantage point, from the other side of the bonfire, it’s hard to tell.

Continue reading the full story in SAND 24.

Lucie Bonvalet is a writer, a visual artist, and a teacher. Her prose and poetry can be found in Phantom Drift Limited, Catapult, Puerto del Sol, 3AM, Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review, Entropy, and elsewhere. Originally from the Dordogne, she lives in Portland, Oregon. This piece can be read in full in SAND 24

Yan An, Translated from the Chinese by Chen Du & Xisheng Chen

Rivulet of Occasionality

Text of poem by Yan An: I have been furtively loving a place Neither as hard as a gravel or a rock Nor as restless, skeptical and indecisive as a sand dune A meadow with a few dumpy-stumpy trees Fine-grained well-knit but not befuddling As if arising by chance the thin rivulet Drying up under the scorching sun but brimming with rainfalls Is the river where herded horses disappear Where a shepherd and his sheep full with river water stray Where a lone trekker loses his sense of direction After having a little sip of the water when crossing the river Is the river small and discreet seemingly humble But being prepared every moment For growing larger or vanishing straight

Yan An is the author of fourteen poetry books including his most famous poetry book, Rock Arrangement, which has won him The Sixth Lu Xun Literary Prize, one of China’s top four literary prizes. He is also the Vice President of Shaanxi Writers Association, the head and Executive Editor in Chief of the literary journal Yan River. His poetry book A Naturalist’s Manor, translated by Chen Du and Xisheng Chen, was published by Chax Press. The poem published here is from Yan An’s most famous book Rock Arrangement, which was published by Shaanxi Publishing & Media Group (Taibai Literary Press) in 2013. This piece appears in SAND 24.

Chen Du‘s translations have appeared in more than twenty journals in the United States and her poems have appeared in American Writers Review and elsewhere. A set of five poems written by Yan An and co-translated by her and Xisheng Chen won the 2021 Zach Doss Friends in Letters Memorial Fellowship. Yan An’s poetry book, A Naturalist’s Manor, translated by her and Xisheng Chen was published by Chax Press.

Xisheng Chen, a Chinese American, is an ESL grammarian, lexicologist, linguist, translator, and educator. As a translator for over three decades, he has published many translations in various fields in newspapers and magazines in China and abroad.

Levi Cain

PITY PARTY, TABLE FOR 1!

i am shitting blood.                are you allowed to say that in a poem?                               will the great ghost of langston hughes run me through                                             with a broadsword? will my mom see this                                                           and say “honey, why?” every single day i feel like my soul is prolapsing.                i’m out of metaphors, mostly. i’m tired of them,                             their casual nothingness like a wormhole. i wouldn’t know                                          a simile if it jumped me                                                         outside my apartment. i grant myself a pity party. i invite all my past hurts,              my most recent embarrassments, the voice that was surely murmuring                           in the back of an old boyfriend’s head. it was there, i know,                                        mouldering up the place, putting its dirty fucking sneakers                                                      on everything, picking its teeth with my failures. i wake up to disquiet myself. i put coins on my eyes. i demand my own head. once, i was eight and having a panic attack. it was violent and sudden.              normally i would say it was like a thunderstorm in may,                                  ripping up the crocuses with its howls. this was not                                                 like that because it was just pain. just my own homegrown tragedy,                                                              untranslatable to even myself. in the now, my mom asks how i am doing.              i say: i think my heart is full of bile, i think i would benefit from leeches,              something capable of sucking out the sludge. my mind feels like a sewer grate in hell                         or maybe just boston. i feel jealous of every filmy-eyed hare                                   hare in the park. o to be carried                                                        in a dog’s mouth to whatever peace                                                                    is possible after running                                                                                                  wild & free. i am used to coming home to pain. i know to grab the fob under the flowerpot,               to knock my shoulder into the doorway just so. i take off my shoes                            and pad around in my sloughing socks. i say “hi honey,                                         i missed you.                                                        like, so bad.”'

Levi Cain is a gay Black writer from Boston, MA. They are a 2022 Mass Cultural Council fellow, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and a former Sundress Academy of the Arts fellow. Their work can be found in Shenandoah Literary, beestung, The Slowdown, and elsewhere. Their first chapbook, dogteeth., was published by Ursus Americanus Press in 2020.This piece appears in SAND 24.

Rukmini Kalamangalam

on summer days, my mother gardened

as if we were empty as if inside us both there was not a mouth hungry. sour with the taste of a leaving sickness a shovel, green with worn sponge handle bent backwards by impatient child child a squirrel before tomato vine child who knew how to salivate how to hunger how to ask a golden mother to bring the harvest our fingers returning long and cut by the sides of a lemongrass leaf child in the passenger, seatbelt high and sharp choking shard of earthen pot thumbed pot made of front yard houston clay roots lingering between painted lines ms herrick taught us how to make pots and then went to jail. her son’s pills beneath the seat in her zero-tolerance no place for hate car. when she came back she cried for the women left behind and the blanket they held around her as she pissed, naked, into the metal bowl in the corner. don’t children peel back all the layers of us? I will tell mine leave me my boiled skin limp like pressed flowers under the weight of a houston sun the damp of houston air the air heavy with last flood next flood leave me stories of unbending birch bark scraping off like dead skin in the sheets draping lemongrass escaping its pot the way it melted the way it was once sharp the way it drained slowly into our tea we tilled the ground summer and fall we swatted mosquito from feast feasted the pink-throated lizard in its greenery in its nascence we were once nascent beautiful on a wooden fence the snow-pea trellis we wound tendrilled vines around post post after post wound each other and then the ground froze the kardi patti leaves floated slowly to the deadening grass I’ll teach my children how to hold a hose feel stagnation pool between their toes how sometimes we stay still when mosquitoes bite how the mosquito moves when it’s sated fat with blood how we strike it then and then our blood is ours again against the fence of our skin

Rukmini Kalamangalam is a first-gen page and performance poet from Houston, Texas, USA. She was a sophomore at Emory University at the time this poem was published. In 2018, she was named Youth Poet Laureate of the Southwest as well as Houston Youth Poet Laureate. Her poem, “After Harvey,” was set to music by the Houston Grand Opera. She has been published by Jet Fuel Review, Blue Marble Review, Da Camera Museum, GASHER, and Tilde, among others.This piece appears in SAND 21.

In Alison Fishburn’s flash creative nonfiction piece “Safety,” the technical, detailed nature of the writing subverts expectations and takes on new meaning as the story behind the objects being described is revealed. 

Alison Fishburn

Safety

I wear a powerful spring on a cotton cord around my neck. The spring is a thick steel coil coated dark blue, about two inches long. It used to be compressed to half its size inside a device called a brake cartridge, a safety mechanism the size of my hand, plugged into a table saw that uses electrically-charged saw blades. Should one of these electrically-charged saw blades come into contact with a conductor of electricity—such as a finger in the wrong place at the wrong time—the electric signal to the blade changes, activating the brake cartridge within five milliseconds. Within those five thousandths of a single second, while a finger and life attached to it hang in peril, the powerful spring is released, sending a molded aluminum stop into the spinning blade, reducing the blade’s rotational speed from 4,000 times per minute to zero, saving the finger and life attached to it.

I found the spring in the bottom of an industrial-sized plastic trash bin in a woodshop where I sometimes work. What caught my eye first, though, was the discarded ten-inch blade embedded into the aluminum stop of the brake cartridge next to the spring.

Among wood scraps and sawdust, the combined object was mesmeric, machine versus machine, a snapshot artifact of averted danger; safety.

I pulled the blade from the trash bin for a closer look. I inspected the way the curved teeth of the blade bit all the way down into the aluminum stop. I imagined witnessing the moment of impact and I wanted a souvenir for what I had imagined. I dropped the blade back into the bin, opting to keep the powerful spring because it fit inside my pocket.

I have another souvenir, an airbag I never look at.

The airbag is a sheet of white nylon that used to be compressed inside the steering wheel of a you know where this is going.

Should a car come into contact with an obstructive object, and crash, an array of electric sensors in the car are triggered, activating the car’s safety system.

Within five hundredths of a second, the number of airbags deemed necessary for the type of crash detected are deployed. In the steering wheel, a canister of sodium azide, a white odorless poison, is lit by an electric match, causing a chemical reaction. The sodium azide is converted into nitrogen gas and inflates the airbag, preventing the driver’s head and chest from hitting the steering wheel.

I found my souvenir airbag on a car in a tow lot, the collateral damage of a head- on crash with a charter bus. I was told the driver of the car had died instantly because not even the airbag could have saved her life.

What caught my eye first at the car was my dad, because he was retrieving personal effects from behind the driver’s seat. Then he wailed, falling backward, catching himself on the ground as though the ground had prevented him from falling any further. I was standing next to the car, looking through the space where there should have been a door, observing the driver’s seat, the painted outline of my sister’s figure in stains of char and blood. I took a step toward my dad but stopped because I saw what sent him falling. And I looked away from the pool of liquid red on the floorboard behind my sister’s outline, and the first thing I saw when I looked away was the steering wheel bent upward in a ninety-degree angle and the deflated airbag laying on top.

I went to the airbag. I inspected the piece of cloth that couldn’t have saved my sister’s life. And I imagined the airbag was the last thing to touch her when she was still alive. And I decided I would keep the airbag as a souvenir because it was a final moment with my sister, an artifact of our missed goodbye.

Sometimes I hold the cotton cord on either side of the powerful spring around my neck. I rotate the cord until the motion spins the spring. I pull the cord tight, watching the spring snap to a stop. I do this again and again because I like watching what I can control.

Other times, without thought, I wrap the cotton cord around my hand like a rosary. Or I’ll pinch the spring with my fingers, a futile attempt to compress it to the original size it would have been inside the brake cartridge, before it was activated within five thousandths of a second, which is ten times faster than an airbag could save a life.

Alison Fishburn is an American writer living in Paris, Ontario. Originally from Florida, she has written and self-produced three full length plays in New York City, studied acting and playwriting at The Barrow Group, and studied and performed improv at the Magnet Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade. She has an art degree from Brooklyn College and an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of King’s College in Halifax. Her writing has appeared on Longreads, The Outline, and SAND. She is currently writing a memoir about her younger sister’s unexpected death in 2013. This piece appears in SAND 24.

Jodie Noel Vinson

Thirty-Six Times

Thirty-six times and a hundred times
the painter limned that mountain, each time torn
away, then driven back there; each time borne
(thirty-six times and a hundred times)
back to that blank, volcanic, deadpan face.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Mountain,” tr. Len Krisak

1.

Georgia O’Keefe painted Cerro Pedernal over thirty times from her studio at Ghost Ranch. If she painted that mountain enough times, she thought, God just might give it to her.

2.

Doing something thirty times over indicates a certain amount of affection. O’Keefe’s husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, photographed his wife over five hundred times.

3.

I must have first seen you out the plane window at twenty-two. Perhaps this is why whenever I fly I always take the window seat. Now that Seattle is home, every arrival and departure means a chance to see your face.

4.

When my husband and I visited his relatives in Provence, we gazed out his cousin’s car windows, watching the colors of Cézanne’s paintings blur into soft, fluid features of the landscape. When we reached Mont Sainte-Victoire, which Cézanne painted more than sixty times in one decade, we only stayed for about ten minutes. The cousin’s children were bored. They said: “We’ve seen it before.”

Wasn’t that the point?

5.

It’s hard to describe what mountains mean to a plains girl who spent the first two decades of her life confronting an uninterrupted horizon. Sunrise to sunset.

6.

O’Keefe first came to New Mexico as an alternative to staying in New York with Stieglitz, who’d just started an affair with the wife of an heir to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. fortune. Of her new landscape O’Keefe would write her husband: “It makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside – and very still.”

Mountains often fill voids other than the sky.

7.

When he read his friend Émile Zola’s novel L’Œuvre, Cézanne recognized himself in the central character, a painter called Lantier.

Cézanne did not like the self he saw in Zola’s pages. Breaking ties with his childhood friend, he withdrew more and more from society, a choice that seemed to draw the painter closer and closer to his mountain. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke would later observe that “only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work.”

Ironically, Cézanne’s seclusion also brought him nearer and nearer to the fictional Lantier, who by the end of the novel had “hanged himself from the big ladder in front of his unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece.”

8.

The first image in Katsushika Hokusai’s series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji is The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In the print, the wave almost eclipses the mountain, which can be seen beneath the hungry curl of its crest, standing snowcapped and small in the distance.

The sea rages and, being in the foreground, is the clear, present danger, yet the mountain in the background cannot be underestimated. It’s diminished, yes, but isn’t this just a matter of perspective, and isn’t perspective what is needed to remember that Mount Fuji has been standing there all along, that when the wave melts back to sea – taking whatever inland destruction it wreaked with it – the mountain will continue to stand? Looking at Fuji untouched by the wave’s fury, you get the sense that, if it wanted to, it could blow its top, but, at this particular moment, it has chosen not to.

It is the mountain’s presence that most inspires when viewing Hokusai’s thirty-six prints. Rain or shine, snow or wind, clear skies – seen from village, sea, or city – the mountain is a timeline against which all of life is measured.

9.

At a national park’s visitor center, I view a miniature diorama that reveals the Pacific Northwest before European settlers arrived. “Mount Rainier as it appeared to native inhabitants,” explains a nearby plaque.

At this point I’ve lived in Seattle for a few years, so I’m accustomed to seeing you couched between skyscrapers and the Space Needle, or crowded up against a Ferris wheel. That is, you’ve always appeared in the context of architecture which, magnified in the foreground, serves to shrink your sheer size down to something that can be swallowed in day-to-day bites.

In the diorama, all of this is stripped bare. You rise from the plains like the god which those who saw you unspoiled believed you were – the god, perhaps, you are.

10.

A less-known fact about Hokusai: he was one of the nineteenth century’s leading designers of three-dimensional dioramas.

11.

“I like being able to see what’s coming; it’s a kind of security,” a friend who has chosen to stay in the Midwest explains. And it’s true: when you live in the midst of plains you have the advantage of always seeing what’s on the future’s horizon – a cyclone perhaps, funneling across farmland.

But when you live in the daily presence of a volcanic cone, when you walk upon soil whose properties imply the presence of lava flows, it’s a constant acknowledgment of what has been, and what in all likelihood will happen again.

It’s the difference, perhaps, between living in anticipation and living with acceptance. Between fleeing below ground and bowing one’s head.

12.

I’m still trying to forgive the woman in the middle seat who, as the plane banked for descent, reached across to plaster her oversized cell phone against my window.

We sat silently watching you sink pink beneath the clouds on her screen. Until my offended muteness melted into her wordless awe.

13.

Mount Fuji’s northwest flank is blanketed by Aokigahara Forest, a thick wood that has grown up over lava that once flowed molten from the mountain’s core during an eruption in 864. Over hundreds of years the cooling lava was sown with seeds dropped from the beaks of passing birds.

Today the forest has become so dense it is known locally as Jukai, or the “Sea of Trees.” Beneath a canopy of cypress and hemlock, warped roots furred with moss twist across a forest floor of volcanic rock so porous it absorbs sound, lending Aokigahara-Jukai its reputation for silent beauty.

14.

The Iowa landscape is cultivated and purposeful. Cornfields do not have to explain their usefulness or excuse their ample existence.

But what use is a mountain? It exists only unto itself. A mountain stands tall and straight and still and says: “I am enough.”

15.

Living in the shadow of a mountain after college was a luxury, even, perhaps, a bit of a rebellion.

What was I rebelling against? Unchanging scenery, for one thing. “Treadmill runs,” my sister used to call jogs along the miles of gravel road that hem Iowa’s cornfields like patchwork. Perhaps even against the pencil-straight rows of purposefully planted corn. Against the idea that burying a kernel yielded a predictable crop.

The skies pressed down against a two-dimensional landscape. I boarded a plane and rose above them.

16.

“His horizons are high, his blues very intense, and the red in his work has an astounding vibrancy,” wrote Gauguin of Cézanne.

17.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was prone to car accidents. Driving over the Aurora Bridge, high above the ship canal, I would sneak glances left and right: east to the Cascades, glowing at sunrise, and west to the jagged peaks of the Olympics, dark silhouettes at sunset. This was actually safer than gazing straight ahead, where, on a sunny day, you might dazzle me right off the bridge.

18.

Seattle’s Aurora Bridge has been the site of over two hundred and thirty suicides, trailing only San Francisco’s Golden Gate. Which side do the jumpers face? East to the Cascades or to the Olympics in the west? Sunrise or sunset?

19.

Mount Fuji’s soundless “Sea of Trees” is also known as “Suicide Forest” and is the country’s most notorious place to take one’s life, with around one hundred suicides documented a year on this side of the mountain.

20.

One of Hokusai’s illustrations of the Japanese epic Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon depicts the ritual suicide of Takama Isohagi, the servant of a medieval warrior. The image reveals two moments simultaneously: the moment when Isohagi plunges the sword into his stomach and the moment after, when he lies prone in death. Cresting over the raised heap of the two bodies, a wave seems a moment away from washing the scene clean.

In retrospect, with Hokusai’s later works in view, it’s easy to read this early illustration as a precursor of what would become The Great Wave. In Takama Isohagi, the wave’s foaming crest hangs just over the focal point of the print: the composite of Isohagi’s body bent back over his corpse at the moment of death. Thrown together, the bodies, above which the suicide’s determined chin thrusts in a peak of anguish, form the unmistakable shape of a mountain.

The difference between the prints is of course what happens next – that is, what remains.

Another way of looking at it: The suicide becomes the mountain.

21.

When I move back to Seattle with my husband, ten years after first glimpsing your face, our kitchen window offers a view of your peak, which only appears above the pines on certain days. This elusiveness, the ability to disappear, even on seemingly clear days, by some trick of the atmosphere, is nothing short of seduction.

As when, after a period of several days without a sighting, you stand there reflecting a late afternoon sun off a blinding white slope, or revealing a bit of blueish rock that snow cover once concealed, or emitting the soft pink aura of a sunset before melting into the crepuscular sky, until it is as if you were never there at all.

Every day you are different; every day you are the same. And even when I can’t see you, I know you are there. Even when you are there, I can hardly believe it.

22.

One day, when you catch me by surprise as I round the corner of my house, I stop and say: “I’m going to climb that mountain.”

But months go by without me picking up so much as a carabiner.

23.

Then, on another day, I sit down at my desk and begin to write about you.

24.

In 1870, Hazard Stevens made the first successful documented ascent of Mount Rainier, along with Philemon B. Van Trump. With such rich names as these, it’s hard to imagine why we stuck with Rear Admiral Peter’s surname, just because Vancouver’s expedition spotted the peak from the Puget Sound (which they also named).

Of course, the native inhabitants knew you by several names already: Tacoma (“snowy mountain”), Talol (“mother of waters”), and Ti’Swaq (“sky wiper”), among others. Words that lay claim by describing what is there.

25.

Throughout his life, Hokusai changed his name at least thirty times. This happened so frequently, and the new names were so closely related to shifts in his artistic techniques, that critics have found them useful when referring to his work from specific periods.

Perhaps it was this fluidity of self that contributed to Hokusai’s drastic shifts in perspective, and which allowed him to know the same entity from several angles, through many seasons, shades, and lenses, to understand the nuances of light and shadow across a face, how the very textures and especially colors could change in the space of hours.

The self, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views seems to say, is always essentially there, yet identity is not immune to context and conditions, rather the environment, as well as the position of the viewer, might drastically change how one is presented and perceived by the world.

26.

For much of Japan’s history, suicide was viewed as an honorable act, as established through the tradition of seppuku, the ritual suicide of samurai to avoid defeat or dishonor, later manifested during WWII in the kamikaze pilots who flew their planes into the enemy as an act of ultimate self-sacrifice.

This cultural tolerance for self-obliteration might also be attributed to amae, or the need to be accepted by others. In Japan, conformity – belonging to the whole – is traditionally valued above individuality. From this perspective, one’s worth becomes less defined by individual accomplishments and more highly correlated with how one is perceived by others.

I point this out to say: choosing where one lives can sometimes be a matter of life and death. Or, at least, it can feel as if one is choosing between life and a kind of death.

27.

It’s not that I am looking to own you, exactly. Especially not exclusively. I’m not planting any flags.

When a person claims a landmark, it’s not so much a statement of ownership, but a bid for belonging.

At least, that’s the way it feels: the mountain exerts a power over me, not the other way around.

So that when we say this is my place, what we are actually saying is I belong here.

28.

When O’Keefe passed away in 1986, her ashes were scattered over the top of Cerro Pedernal.

29.

Hokusai’s tombstone is engraved with his final nom d’artiste: Gakyō Rōjin Manji, meaning “The Old Man Mad About Art.”

30.

Unlike realist painters before him, whose technique relied on linear perspective to capture the natural world on canvas, Cézanne often distorted views, like when he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire tipped forward instead of rising away from the viewer, as the mountain verifiably does in nature. Émile Bernard called this seemingly contradictory rejection of classic technique in the face of the artist’s desire to portray the natural world “Cézanne’s suicide.”

The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, however, championed Cézanne’s work through his theory of “lived perspective,” which insists that art does not purely imitate nature, nor does it emerge merely from the imagination of the artist. In an essay entitled “Cézanne’s Doubt,” Merleau-Ponty instead sees Cézanne’s work as a fusion of the self with nature. “The landscape thinks itself in me,” he quotes the painter, “and I am its consciousness.”

31.

Hokusai’s father, Nakajima Issai, was a mirror maker. Who can tell, perhaps the mountain acted as a looking glass for Hokusai, one in which he saw his fluid, ever-changing soul reflected.

In that case we might read his thirty-six depictions of Mount Fuji as a series of self-portraits.

32.

When I leave Seattle for graduate school a few years after first arriving, I don’t think much about the ways I have changed since leaving Iowa. But when I move back to the city a decade later, I find that I can measure the years and their changes against the backdrop of who I was when I first encountered that mountain.

33.

In a postscript to Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai wrote: “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”

34.

It’s clear, of course, why Hokusai would, at the zenith of his career, choose Mount Fuji as a subject. The mountain stands at the center of Japanese identity, rooted in a cultural belief that goes back to the ancient Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in which a goddess deposits the elixir of everlasting life at the summit. The etymology of the name Fuji can be traced to the folk word Fu-shi, which translates as “not death,” in other words, eternally alive.

35.

“Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us the taste of her eternity.”
—Paul Cézanne

36.

What is less clear is why Hokusai chose to depict thirty-six views. Not thirty-five or thirty-seven; he didn’t even push for a nice round fifty, nor could he control himself at an even thirty.

I like to think that thirty-five was just not enough.

Or perhaps it was a matter of humility. The mountain enjoys a 360-degree view; to assume the human scope is ten times less seems like a safe bet. Any more might be presumptuous.

And then there’s the possibility of the artist’s paradox: in restriction one finds the greatest freedom.

Or maybe, according to his own prophecy, Hokusai feared that if he reached one hundred thirty, one hundred forty, or more impressions, his images might become alive – or, at least, wake up. No mortal wants to wake a mountain.

Besides, surely by thirty-six Hokusai had already earned the right to sip at the mountain’s alleged elixir. Or, if O’Keefe’s theory holds, perhaps by the time he’d printed that peak thirty-six times, Hokusai felt the mountain was his.

Jodie Noel Vinson received her MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she developed a book about her travels to literary sites around the world. Her essays and reviews have been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Gettysburg Review, The Massachusetts Review, Nowhere magazine, The Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. She is the recipient of the St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award and runner-up for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. Jodie lives with her husband in Seattle, where she is writing a book about insomnia. This piece appears in SAND 16.