Woman at the Edge of Town

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

My mother knows her way around a ghost. Their worn faces, their domestic haunts. She hears them, their restlessness on the stairs, in the basement, in the walls. She sees the lines drawn between stars, the prophesies in a palm, orbs of light floating loose in dark fields. She must be a witch, I often think. She must be a witch to know them all so well.

She’s an actress, a writer, and once worked as a clown with sea-green curls and a wide painted mouth, bells at her cuffs and waist. (My mother is a master of disguise.) Growing up, she told me stories of Judith beheading Holofernes and the goddess Hera’s endless revenges. She taught me how to break up with people, that feng shui is good for increasing energy and fooling stain-sniffing landlords. She taught me that mud can be beautiful and that blood is powerful, even sacred, especially when shed in sacrifice.

If she ever wore her dead ring to ward off the whispers, I cannot recall. But we were there all along, my brother and I, the curse our village elders called a blessing, forever lingering at her side, reminding.

*

She must be a witch, I often think, to be so singular, so shunned and so willfully misunderstood. To unravel her skin each night and sew it back thicker each morning. To cross those moats our fickle neighbors tried digging between us. To sink her feet boldly into their stinging waters and pull forth her own mythic swords of power.

*

She must be a witch, the way our neighbors shrank from us after the divorce—divorced from a pastor, no less!—narrowing their eyes and snarling back their lips at her. She who turned away their rubbernecker casseroles. Who bore their judgement without blinking. Whose story refused to end on its provided page.

Because the witch, you see, is endless. Boundless.

She builds homes out of gingerbread and theater, a smiling enchantress spinning plates on a stage. She carves runes into her skin, squeezing out living red power across her grimoires’ pages, smearing it over us, her children, like war-paint; a spell for protection, a spell to blind us to her pain.

Laughing, she lifts her dripping hands to the sky—all of it defiant, undeniable proof of Her. The Witch. She who so loves the world’s ghosts, yet will never succumb to joining them.


KC Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on her first novel, a fem near-future scifi piece about rats, ghosts, and artificial wombs. For more information, visit: kcmeadbrewer.com or follow her @meadwriter

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1613) by Cristofano Allori.

Interview: Taisia Kitaiskaia

2Taisia Kitaiskaia is a Russian-American writer who creates poetry, prose, and more. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Literary Witches (Hachette/ Seal 2017), a collaboration with illustrator Katy Horan, and Ask Baba Yaga (Andrews McMeel 2017), based on her advice column in The Hairpin. Her poetry can be found in literary journals such as Crazyhorse, Guernica, Fence, and many more. Poems from her “Queen Harp” manuscript will be published in the upcoming Translucent Issue of Fairy Tale Review. I interviewed her about the influences of folklore in her work, her portrayals of feminine characters, and various witches.

Baba Yaga is a witch from Slavic folklore and mythology, and you invoke her character in an advice column and your upcoming book, Ask Baba Yaga. What was your first introduction to this mythology? Was there a particular story you remember being told, or one that has become your favorite?

Before my family moved to America, when I was five years old, we lived in a city called Irkutsk by Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. We had a summer house, or dachya—almost everybody in Russia, at the time, had a summer house—edged between the lake and the woods. These were deep woods, very magical and mysterious; one of my earliest memories is of my parents saying I couldn’t go berry picking with them because we might run into bears. I must have heard about Baba Yaga early on, because I knew that she lived in those woods along with the bears. I felt her nearby, creeping around, making concoctions in her hut that moved around on chicken legs. Even when we went back to Irkutsk, she was close. I remember taking a walk with my mother through a city park and seeing Baba Yaga’s face in the hollowed-out part of a tree.

Continue reading Interview: Taisia Kitaiskaia

Every story begins with a story that you already know

by Brian Oliu

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Every story begins with a story that you already know: something that is entrenched in your core despite it seeming completely foreign at first—the moment when you realize that you dislike the bitter taste of almonds; the sight of your own blood as you dab at it with your thumb—the scarlet seeping into the ridges of your fingerprints before you rinse your body of itself clear in the bathroom sink.

At the edge of my bed, a bookshelf filled with hardcovers—texts that I could call “mine” in a way that children claim things; all things received as a gift; the ornate pages, the gold trim that I would scratch at with my fingernails if I hadn’t already bitten them to flatness. The stories, too, were mine: girls and boys and frogs and toads rooted to my stomach, curving their way around the bumps in my spine, as if they had always been there, just beneath the surface, leaving their marks on the inside of my skin.

The games too, were mine, in a different way: whereas the stories of my youth were found within, as if they had been stitched into my core, the games were explosive in their moments—they burst into my world from the exterior, and it was my duty to capture those days sitting on a stained carpet in an upstairs hallway trying to make this other version of myself run fast enough that the boomerang would get lost amongst the rocks.

These too, were stories that I already knew: of awakening in a land where all things are equal and the touch of a fleck of light could kill you where you stood—these stories of danger, or warning, of beware the outside, but push forward toward an unknown end and eat all of the fruit whole.

There was a time when I would have to shut the game off, but I could enter a different world through the pages at the foot of my bed, often scanning the same stories over and over before it was time to put my glasses on the nightstand and let all worlds blur. Some nights, when the room was too warm from the heat of all of the electronics, I could see the images of the parallax scrolling still engrained in the darkness, glowing a warm red, even when all of the lights were out—a constant revisiting, as if I were the vacuum tube casting images against the blackened windows.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam, and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. He is at work on a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long distance running and recent work appears in Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Passages North, and Another Chicago Magazine.

Editor’s Note: A Border of Sky

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Borrando La Frontera

In 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted swathes of the Tijuana border wall pale blue. From a distance, these painted sections blended with the sky so well that the wall seemed to disappear: it ceased, for a moment, to be a barricade, a reminder that the Global North is fortifying itself against the Global South. Fernández’s work reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood, where the edges of forests are boundaries between known and unknown worlds. In those stories, borders function as thresholds.

In Ambos Nogales, where I volunteer at el Comedor, an aid station and soup kitchen for recently deported migrants, the border wall starts outside of town. It’s a rust-colored snake that wriggles across the hill crests before descending into the city itself. It cleaves the broad avenues and beige-brick buildings of sleepy Arizona from the narrow streets and tumble of vendor carts and pharmacies of urban Sonora–cleaves city from suburb, Mexico from the US, “them” from “us.” On Sundays, families picnic along the fence, cousins with Mexican citizenship passing Coca-Cola and condiments to cousins with US citizenship, holding hands instead of embracing. The border here is porous enough for fingers, voices, shared meals; for lives to be lived across and between–but not permeable enough for whole bodies.

I’m a gring@ from north of the line; I live in a country where politicians and public intellectuals fuel fears that legions of people from Mexico and Central America are crossing north to take jobs away from US citizens and to, God forbid, speak Spanish while browsing the supermarket. In his poem “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes, “CAN’T CROSS because ‘xenophobia’ is a politically correct term.” Secure borders! US conservatives scream, and Xenophobia! the liberals respond–a cloaked word that doesn’t sound quite as bad or honest as racist.

I also live in a country that just elected Donald Trump to the presidency–a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” But he’s wrong–those are not most of the people crossing north, and they’re certainly not most of the people I’ve met and talked to: undocumented millennials who grew up in the United States, were deported, and are trying to get back to Chicago, Phoenix, or California; families fleeing gang violence and economic poverty in Honduras and El Salvador; a Oaxacan university student whose visa application was rejected by the Mexican government because he looked “too indigenous,” and came from a family without wealth or social standing.

Herrera’s poem also includes the portentous line, “CAN’T CROSS because brown is the color of the future,” which hints at the dream that someday Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants will be able to travel north freely. Herrera and other writers and artists are making a new mythology of the border: Prefiguring what could be and should be, they transform the militarized line into a threshold. “I see a whole generation … wandering around // a continent without a name,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes in “Freefalling Towards a Borderless Future,”  “Standing on the map of my political desires // I toast to a borderless future // (I raise my wine glass toward the moon).” Queer, Chicana writer Gloria Anzáldua–who grew up in the borderlands of south Texas–considers the northward migrations a “return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán,” the original Southwestern homeland of the Aztecs which, according to Anzaldúa, they “left … in 1168 AD,” bound for the Valley of Mexico. “This land was Mexican once, // was Indian always // and is. // And     will be again,” she writes in her poem El otro Mexico.

In October 2015, Ana Teresa Fernández and a group of volunteers painted a 50-foot section of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico the color of the sky. In April 2016, volunteers in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Agua Prieta did the same. With each brush stroke, they enacted the project’s name, Borrando La Frontera. They offered those on the south side of the wall a vision of what they might someday see looking north–after the steel, barbed wire, and Border Patrol trucks that divide the two countries dissolve, there will be nothing but houses, schools, mountains, mesquite trees, clouds in a hot desert sky.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.


If you’re interested in supporting direct humanitarian aid to end migrant deaths and people of color-led pro-immigrant groups in southern Arizona, please consider volunteering with or donating to the following organizations:

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes (Arizona)
Aguilas Del Desierto Inc. (S. Cali & Arizona)
South Texas Human Rights Center (South Texas)
Derechos Humanos
Protection Network Action Fund/ Fondo de Acción de las Redes de Protección
Mariposas Sin Fronteras
Southside Worker Center

The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.

Interview: Pauline Greenhill

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In 2014, when I began studying fairy tales, I came across Pauline Greenhill’s “‘Fitcher’s [Queer] Bird’: A Fairy-Tale Heroine and Her Avatars,”  an academic article that offers a queer reading of “Fitcher’s Bird,” my favorite Grimm fairy tale. The article has deeply influenced my thinking and writing on fairy tales and so I was thrilled when, after sending off an email to Greenhill, she agreed to an interview.

Greenhill is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her most recent book is Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films, Culture and Society, which was co-edited with Steven Kohm and Sonia Bookman, and published in 2016. She also co-edited Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives with Jack Zipes and Kendra Magnus-Johnston in 2016; Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag with Diane Tye in 2014; Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television with Jill Terry Rudy in 2014; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms with Kay Turner in 2012; and Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity with Sidney Eve Matrix in 2010. She is the author of Make the Night Hideous: Four English Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940 (2010). She has fairy-tale research published in Feral Feminisms; Law, Culture and the Humanities; Marvels & Tales; Narrative Culture; Studies in European Cinema; and Theoretical Criminology among others.

There’s a storied tradition of studying fairy tales through a feminist lens, but you take that work further, examining queerness in fairy tales. How did you find your way into this field of research?

Absolutely my queer/trans research is an extension of my feminist research! But my route to queer and trans fairy tales was circuitous. I started a masters in Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977. At the time, and to a sad extent now, the cool kids avoided traditionally recognised forms of folklore like ballads and fairy tales. Trying to be one of them, I did my masters thesis on family photography.

However, when I got to the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, where I did my PhD, I worked with Roger deV. Renwick, a ballad and folk song scholar who has always been an advocate for studying traditional genres (see e.g. Renwick 1980 and 2009). So for my PhD dissertation on folk poetry in Ontario under Roger’s supervision, I was looking for the old in the new, as it were (Greenhill 1989).

After five years teaching Canadian Studies at the University of Waterloo, I came to the University of Winnipeg’s (then) Women’s Studies program in 1991. (We’re now a Department with six full time faculty and we’ve included “and Gender.”) At the time I was working on Newfoundland ballads about women who dress as men to follow their lovers or seek adventure as sailors, soldiers, or robbers. You can listen to one example here, sung by the fabulous Newfoundland traditional source singer Anita Best on the compilation album Bristol’s Hope–Lately Come Over. Hitherto folklorists’ readings assumed that these songs were about men and their experiences, and my feminist reading asserted that they were also about women.

Continue reading Interview: Pauline Greenhill

Thirst

by Harmony Hazard

I picture my mother at the helm of a boat somewhere in the thick of ocean. Floating behind the boat is a glacier, a compression of quiet grace. My mother has tied a thousand ancient ropes to the glacier and is pulling it through the water with the same conviction that I imagine Moses had when he parted the sea.

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For years, she has whispered her plan to us. Before they all melt, my mother wants to transport a glacier from Alaska to wherever my sister and I are living, so that we will have a secure source of water. To keep it from melting, she will coat the glacier in sawdust, as if sprinkling confectioner’s sugar on a slice of bundt cake. Then, she will chain it to a tugboat and tow it across the ocean, where it will finally be left in a dry pond or a desert’s scorched riverbed so that my sister and I will not die of thirst. We have always rolled our eyes to this idea. Impossible, we’ve said. But, recently, I’ve wondered.

On the night of her seventieth birthday, my mother told my sister and I that some scientists believe the moon was once part of the earth. This theory surmises that when the moon separated from the earth, the Pacific Ocean was formed in its void. We were eating pineapple-upside-down cake in the flicker of candlelight, she was wearing a white kimono and a halo made from fourteen carmine flowers, and my sister and I balked at the idea. But my mother insisted until my sister googled it. It’s called the fission hypothesis, my sister says. I guess I have to get a PhD, my mother responded with a tilt of her halo, for people to listen to me.

Over a decade ago, my mother had a theory that the energy from the moving bodies at gyms or playgrounds could be used for electricity. When she and I walked past fitness centers with treadmills in the windows, she pointed to the sweating bodies and said, Imagine how many light bulbs they could be powering? My eyes went from the runners’ wet, mangled hair to the ceiling, where fluorescent lights hummed incessantly above their heads, but I wasn’t convinced. Years later, my sister saw an advertisement: a company was utilizing the velocity of playing children to power electrical outlets in a playground.

Maybe I’m wrong to not believe that you can part the sea, that a body can run enough to flash on a light bulb, that the moon can slice itself from the earth and spiral out into the knitted black of the sky. Maybe I am wrong to not picture the glacier, hulking and glossy, rising over the sea like a skyscraper; to not look closely at this image until I can see my mother’s reflection in the ice, waving at the distant sight of land, her salty seaweed hair swept into the sea-wind, rough waves smacking against the sides of the boat. If I look even closer, I will discern on my mother’s face not only the knowledge that her family’s thirst will forever be quenched, but also that now, after all these years, they will maybe, finally, believe her.


Harmony Hazard hails from both Tucson and New York. She is completing her MFA in creative writing with Stony Brook University. She edits the “Participate” column in make/shift magazine, has been published in CALYX and Border Crossing and is part of a collective editing an anthology of creative writing about the Sonoran Desert borderlands.

Photograph by Timothy Neesam.

Editor’s Note: From Inside the Wolf’s Belly

wolfbelly3You. You are a girl, and where there is a girl there is a story. A story about a girl.

Your mother will give you a bag. Maybe a fine leather satchel, or maybe a rough sack.

It will be much heavier than it appears.

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Your mother cannot speak, so she cross-stitches her warning to you. Her thimbled finger pushes the needle that pulls the thread. She spells it out so you see her words framed by pine above your pillow. Each day you wake to them, and each night you bed down beneath them:

Do not go into the deep dark woods alone.

You hear the story of your mother from the women of the village, so often that you know it by heart. The old wives tell their tale. Your ears grow heavy to carry. Sometimes the women are raccoons chittering, sometimes birds wide-beaked and screeching grief. You want quiet. You want dark. You want to be alone.

You set off carrying your mother’s bag.

From inside the wolf’s belly, you don’t hear the old wives at all.

Still. You know their story, by heart.

Your mother lost her voice to the jaws of a wolf. She went into the deep dark woods alone, with her basket in hand. She was plucking mushrooms from the good rot when the wolf came upon her. He caught her by the neck. At the last moment, a hunter saved her. He drove his knife through the beast’s belly. Soon you grew in hers. The hunter built your house. The hunter brought meat. But the hunter did too break your mother’s bones.

From inside the wolf’s belly, you can hear the hunters swarm for rescue. You stay very quiet.

*

They will leave, with their knives and axes and arrows. You will begin to chew.

You are a girl, and where there is a girl there is a story. A story about a girl.

The old wives will tell this story of you:

The girl went into the deep dark woods alone, chasing her shadow. The wolf had pale yellow eyes and a black smile. He gulped her down whole. But the girl ate the wolf from inside his own belly. She ripped and chewed and swallowed until the beast was inside her belly instead, every last sharp tooth of him. She belched. She howled and barked at the moon.

*

You. You will whisper to the wolf inside you:

You ought not have gone into the deep dark woods alone.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Anna Lea Jancewicz

Our Kids Are Singing About Child Sacrifice

by Claire Zlotnicki

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When my sisters and I were young, my dad used to sit one of us on his lap and thump on our back and chant “Hurley-burley, thumpety whack! Pretty good fellow, pretty good back! How many fingers do I hold up?” He would pause for us to guess a number, then resume the chant. “Two, she said, and three there were. Pretty good fellow to go to the war!”

Nobody I’ve talked to knows where this rhyme comes from—maybe it’s about sending child soldiers to war, or about the arbitrary nature of death. Often, those people tried to look  at simple nursery rhymes and try to find dark or scary origins for them. But most nursery rhymes, I’ve found, weren’t even created for children—they were the jumbled together songs and poems that tired mothers brought into the nursery, searching for anything to soothe a crying child. In fact, most nursery rhymes probably don’t mean anything, although one of the few that might have dark origins is “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Archeological evidence supports the claim that “London Bridge” is about human sacrifice—specifically, the practice of burying children in the foundations of a bridge to keep it standing. Though there are no findings of human remains in the current-day London Bridge, other old bridges have been found with human remains. Many of us have played the children’s game that goes with the song—two kids form an arch with their arms which falls to catch one of the others passing underneath. Maybe that “caught” person represents the victim of superstitious bridge-builders of the past.

But does the fact that this familiar chant might be about child sacrifice mean I shouldn’t tell it to my children one day? Or that I shouldn’t pass down my father’s rhyme? No, I think it means I should. Nobody knows what my father’s untraceable chant or “London Bridge” or “Ring Around the Rosie” are really about, but the world is still as dangerous a place as it was back then. We can make up our own stories as we go along, but the origins we give them today will be no better than the ones they might really have. Human nature hasn’t improved over the centuries. Old stories about children with candles who were killed to protect an ancient bridge aren’t fooling anyone that we’re better off today—not even our kids.


Claire Zlotnicki is pursuing a Women’s and Gender Studies degree at the College of Charleston. She graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Creative Writing. She is from Florence, South Carolina.

Between Life and Death

by Bethy Wernert

I am four when she first appears to me.

Trembling and afraid, I lie in ICU, other children dying around me. My parents sob silently. A mournful priest murmurs the last rites to someone in the room next to us, separated only by a thin curtain.

My seizures have brought me here, to this place between life and death, and I feel my soul lingering in the hazy realm between worlds.

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As I lie in the hospital bed, the mattress firm and cold, a shadow dances across the curtains. I feel a hand—a caressing breeze—stroke my hair. I can’t see her, but I feel her. Ancient, like trees rooted in centuries. She smells of earth after rain, and birds outside raise their choral hymn in honor of her. She whispers, her voice, maternally soothing, “Everything is okay. This is who you are, and you always will be.” She then disappears as a brush of wind trickles through the window.

The doctors come in with the verdict. “Epilepsy,” they tell me, “a seizure disorder. Idiopathic—no one knows how it’s caused.”

My parents leave the hospital, wondering why I was “cursed to have this disorder, this—this disease.” I leave the hospital feeling blessed. As tired and scared as I was, I now feel at peace.

Over time, I discover that I’m not alone, that epilepsy has long been associated with spirituality, wiring our brains to the belief in the mystical. [1] Our brains become conduits, neurons sparking our sensations to perceive the otherworldly amidst the mundane. Believing in magic, my mother raised me on myths of fairies and ghosts, shadowy nature spirits that drift between worlds. I’ve always believed in these spirits, but epilepsy allows me to sense them.

Eventually, my seizures are controlled with heavy doses of anti-epileptic medication, pentagonal, powder-white pills labeled Lamictal. And through the passing years, the epileptic sparks in my brain cease to light.

“You no longer have seizures,” my neurologist proclaims.

I feel a loss of identity at his words, my sense of self, melting into nothingness. What am I without my seizures? Without everything I’ve experienced? Without everything I’ve seen?

Yet, my soul remembers that realm, that place between life and death, and she still visits me, wandering through the shadows when the air is damp with rain, when the creosote breathes its gentle perfume, and when the mist clings to the crevices of the mountains. She comes when the sky is darkened with magic and storms, and she whispers, “This is who you are, and you always will be.”


[1] Coles, Alasdair. “Temporal lobe epilepsy and Dostoyevsky seizures: Neuropathology and Spirituality.” Royal College of Psychiatrists (2013): 1-7. Web. 7 June 2016.


Bethy Wernert lives and works in Tucson, Arizona after graduating with a BA in English from Northern Arizona University. Her nonfiction has previously appeared in Communion. When not working and writing, she likes to sit in nature and drink tea.