Stephen Mead

A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer, maker of short collage-films and poetry/music mp3s.  Much can be learned of his multi-media work by placing his name in any search engine.  His latest project-in-progress, a collaborative effort with composer Kevin MacLeod, is entitled “Whispers of Arias”, a two volume download of narrative poems sung to music which can be found at http://stephenmead.amazingtunes.com/.

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Still Warm from Satan

By Matt Galletta

The devil is waiting for me in my favorite chair when I get home from work. He wants to know why I never write about him.

“I’m a compelling character,” he whines. “Why are you ignoring me?”

I tell him I guess I’ve just never seen the appeal.

“Norman Mailer wrote about me,” he says, like that’s going to change my mind.

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Working Stiff

By Nancy Hathaway

1

Begin with the body, immortal, flawed.

Or begin with the mother, who conceived him out of spite, not because her mate had been unfaithful but because he had given birth to a daughter, who sprang from his brow like a thought.

Hera paid him back in kind, or such was her intention. She rubbed her hands against the pebbly earth and caressed the veined, watery skin of a lettuce: cool celadon, bitter herb of impotence, deathbed of Adonis.

In this cheerless way, without a swan or a snake, a flame or a cascade of gold, she gave birth to Hephaestus, eternity’s smith.

Yet satisfaction was denied her. For unlike Athena, Zeus’s splendid daughter, Hephaestus was imperfect, with a foot so alarmingly twisted that Hera, mortified, stood on the frosty summit of Mount Olympus and tossed him into the sea.

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INTERVIEW: Carl Olsen

Carl Olsen got his PhD in Scandinavian Studies at UC Berkeley in 2009.  His dissertation was on viking poems about pictures of myths on shields, which is pretty much the most awesome dissertation topic ever. He continued as a lecturer at UC Berkeley until Summer 2012 and most recently taught as a Visiting Professor in the Scandinavian Department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN. In addition to teaching and researching, he writes poetry, draws stuff, and blogs about Vikings, Scandinavian Studies, science fiction and fantasy, and lots of other stuff at Vikings, Books, etc. You can find links to his poetry on his blog, and you can find his art both on his blog and on deviantART.

In this interview we talk about how Carl became a Doctor of Viking Studies, his art and research on the Norse sagas, and why Norse culture is more complicated than you might think.

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Ode to an Urban Legend

By Neal Wooten

I punch the keys with two fingers, pause, and look at the screen. At 50 years old, I’m lucky to know how to use a computer at all. Most of the gadgets of this generation are things I don’t understand; don’t want to understand: Ipods, Iphones, Ipads, etc. If it has an “I” in front of it, it means “I” don’t need it.

But computers were inevitable, even for an old fogey like me. Of course I only use it to read the news and social media. As I peruse the main page of Facebook to see what people are talking about, I read a funny joke posted from a friend. I leave him a comment: “Good one. lol.”

OK, I realize it’s not Pulitzer material, but it lets him know I appreciate his efforts. And with me, it’s not just computer lingo; I actually do laugh out loud. 

Then it happens―again. Is no place sacred? I stare at the comment that follows and shake my head. It’s a guy from my hometown, many years younger and someone I don’t know. He writes, “Hey, dude, I heard you once threw a football from the far goal post and hit the roof of the girls’ gym.”

I cringe. I played football at a little school in a little town of the same name, which means “wooded area.” It was aptly named. But that was over three decades ago and I was at best a marginal player with a decent arm. But to hear the stories, you would have thought that every pro team in the country was waiting to sign me as soon as I graduated, but that wasn’t the case. My career started and ended right there in the woods.  

I want to write and explain that the distance he’s talking about is roughly 270 yards and physically impossible for a mere mortal. I think Zeus and Apollo would even scoff at that one. But I don’t write that. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, no matter how crazy the questions. I try to think how best to respond. You would think that after dealing with this for a lifetime, I would have figured it out by now, but I haven’t.

I decide to use truth. I write, “I heard it was the Ag building.” 

Of course the top of the agriculture building is still 200 yards from the far goal post. Yet over the years I have heard many different people tell that very story. It seems like everyone was there the day I did that―everyone except me.

Another comment follows. “That’s still a long way. Is it true?” 

I thought my answer explained that it wasn’t true, so I try again. “Anything you hear about me is an urban legend.”

There; that will put the matter to rest. It doesn’t.

“Just tell me if it’s true.”

The urban legends about my high school football career have evolved, as have the reasons for discussing them. It began with people who saw me play and those stories were told in earnest admiration.  The years passed and the stories became more exaggerated as people seemed to enjoy telling them and people seemed to enjoy hearing them. Yet as the stories now reach a generation of people who never saw me play, and maybe never would have heard of me except for these stories, the purpose for inquiring has gone from admiration to accusation.       

I write back, “No, it is not true.”

I stare at the screen for some time but there is no response. I assume he is satisfied. I wonder if he feels lied to or betrayed. I wish I could explain to him that I did not invent the story. I wish I could explain to him that I did not ever tell the story. I wish I could explain to him that, like him, I am a victim of the story.

I wish I could tell him that but it wouldn’t be true. I am not a victim. For years I stood quiet as people told these tales without so much as correcting even the most outrageous scenarios. Part of me thought it was rude to offer argument to someone telling a story in my honor; part of me liked hearing the stories, and, maybe, part of me wanted to believe them. 

The only thing I know for certain is that I never made money from my throwing arm, and often I curse the day I first picked up a football.  

 

Neal Wooten grew up on a pig farm on Sand Mountain in the northeast corner of Alabama before being dragged kicking and screaming to the snow-infested plains of the American Midwest. He is a book editor, columnist for The Mountain Valley News and The Indie Times, cartoonist, artist, standup comedian, and the author Reternity and The Return of the Nephilim. The Balance will be released by Bold Strokes Books in the spring of 2014. He resides in Milwaukee with his wife and three dogs. He can be found on the web at nealwooten.com.

Of MITCs, MUTBs, and Malicious TFs

By Janet L. Cannon

“And the gallant knight rescued the beautiful princess from the ugly monster,” Robert read dramatically, his free arm gesturing while his other hand held the book. “The end.” He snapped the book closed and smiled at his six-year-old daughter.

Eliza giggled and clapped. “Read again, Daddy!”

He shook his head and kissed her forehead. “No, sweetheart. It’s time for bed.” Eliza pouted. Robert patted her cheek. “Don’t you want to go to sleep? This is a special night, remember?”

“Oh!” Eliza grinned and pointed at the gap in her mouth. “The toof fairy’s gonna come get my toof!” 

“That’s right. And she won’t show up until you’re asleep.” Robert stood, pulled the blankets up to Eliza’s chin, and patted her hands. “Close your eyes.” She squinted them into slits. “It’s your choice, sweetheart. Stay awake if you want. You won’t get your dollar.”

Eliza rolled onto her side, pulling the mass of blankets with her. “Okay, Daddy. Good night.”

Robert stepped toward the door and shut off the light. “Good night.”

He was about to close the door when Eliza yelped and sat up again. “Daddy! Daddy, I heard something in the closet!”

Sighing heavily, he stepped back into the room. “Eliza, we’ve talked about this. There are no monsters in the closet. There are no monsters under the bed. You’re just trying to stay up later. Now go to sleep.”

“But if there’s toof fairies, there’s gotta be MITCs and MUTBs, too, right?”

Although tired and at the end of his patience, Robert realized Eliza had a point. As her father, it was his job to protect her, even if the monsters were imagined. “I won’t let the bad monsters in, Eliza. Tooth fairies won’t hurt you, so they’re allowed. Now go to sleep.” 

“Check, please?” she pleaded.

Patiently, Robert picked up a glittering, be-ribboned baton and swung open the closet door. He rapped the baton against the wooden floor and walls, then thumped the hanging clothes and the heavy boxes. “Nothing here except old toys and clothes you don’t wear.”

“Under the bed, please,” Eliza whispered, clutching her stuffed rabbit.

Throwing her a placating smile, Robert knelt down and tapped the baton several times on the wood floor under the bed. He placed the baton back on her vanity chair, tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, and pointed at her blankets. Obediently, Eliza snuggled down under the covers and pulled the edge up to her nose. Robert kissed her forehead again. “Good night, Eliza.”

“Good night, Daddy,” she whispered.

Stepping around the toys that cluttered the floor, Robert stepped out and closed the door firmly behind him.

The being’s translucent wings vibrating soundlessly as he watched her. His delicate outline hovered just outside the window where he could see the girl’s covers rise and lower rhythmically. Yes. Yes. She was asleep, now. His short blonde curls bounced softly around his face as his red lips curled into a calculated grin. The beautiful phantasm drifted closer to the window. For a moment more, he shimmered in the moonlight, then dissipated, leaving the area decorated only in the natural silver gauze of moonlight. 

Inside, past the frame of light on the floor, the shimmer coalesced into a humanoid figure. Within human walls, his wings crumpled and melted like microwaved plastic, his body shriveled into a hard, gnarled mass of skin and bones. His chuckle soft, his prey close at hand, he shuffled across the wooden floor, negotiating past Barbies and Teddy bears and stacks of beginner’s chapter books. The creature inched up to the side of the girl’s bed.

His lust burned as he studied how her lips pursed in sleep, the way the curve of her cheekbone paralleled the curve of her jaw line. Surely, the beauty inside her mouth was just exquisite! His withered hands worried across each other, his anticipation growing.

When she turned toward him and her lips parted, spittle dribbled from his mouth. Just as he had imagined, her remaining baby teeth still clung to her gums, waiting their turn to fall like autumn leaves. A wealth of delights so near but just beyond his reach. Why take one at a time from under the pillow when he could have them all right now? Each tooth granted further life, further beauty, further pleasure. Temptation greater than he could bear, he reached toward the girl’s throat, his knobby fingers wriggling in delight.

A creak from the closet door startled him and he felt a thin tentacle of force whip around his throat. At the same time, a massive swirl of dark energy from under the bed seized his ankle. “Don’t think so, TF,” a deep voice boomed by his feet.

The tooth fairy chuckled softly, then clicked his tongue. He glanced at his foot. “A monster under the bed.” His eyes swept over to the closet. “And a monster in the closet. I’m honored you feel I require two custodians.” He tried to jerk out of their grasps but only succeeded in tightening their grips on his emaciated flesh. He laughed lightly. “You know I was just testing, MUTB,” his voice rasped. “Just kidding. You know I would never hurt—” 

“Save it, TF,” a lighter but no less commanding voice drifted out of the closet. The pressure on his neck tightened. “We’ve heard it before. Get your tribute and leave.”

The tooth fairy nodded. The pressure on his neck released just enough for him to reach under the girl’s pillow. Her face was so close, he could feel her breath on his cheek. So close. All those little teeth … each a promise of extended beauty and freedom from pain. But the grip on his neck reminded him he was not alone. He pulled out his cupped fist and stood. Hand near his face, he splayed open his fingers and admired the dull glisten of the enamel, the blood-stained root, and the hollow core. As if fearful his prize would be taken, the tooth fairy lowered his head to his palm and sucked the tooth into his mouth. He swallowed it whole, savoring the sweet rush of pleasure his tribute brought.

His body shivered, then re-transformed into that of a delicate, femininely handsome being. His wings lifted and expanded, his spine straightened, his arms and legs filled out to normal proportions. The tooth fairy exhaled, the ecstasy of the change gifting him the fleeting peace he sought each night. He held his hands up in surrender. The slender rope of darkness around his neck and the thicker bulk at his ankle dissipated. He bowed toward the underside of the bed, then toward the closet. “Give my regards to your tribal leaders.” He jumped and his wings began to vibrate, levitating him off the floor. “Until next time.” The tooth fairy turned and flew toward the window, his body shimmering into nothingness as it touched the edge of the moonlight.

A thick, snake-like swirl slid out from under the bed then hovered over Eliza, making sure her sleep hadn’t been disturbed. The darkness glittered softly with satisfaction. “The child still sleeps,” he murmured.

“They get more aggressive each year,” the thin coil from the closet responded, spiraling out through the slats like maple tree seeds, then spinning together above the child. “Two of us may no longer be enough to protect a human child.”

Darkening in agreement, the MUTB slid his tentacle under the girl’s pillow, depositing a pea-sized bit of clay. Instantly, it folded into itself, changed colors, then appeared exactly as her tooth had. “Now that this one is safe, we must move quickly to the next.” The MITC swirled in agreement, then darted back into the closet where the darkness merged with shadows and disappeared. The MUTB, too, slid back under the bed and left no trace of his visit.

Robert could have kicked himself. He should have traded the tooth for the Sacagawea coin before she was asleep. Now he was going to have to risk waking her. As quietly as he could, he turned the knob then pushed the door open. Her content exhale reassured him. Tiptoeing through the swamp of toys, he stifled a grunt of pain when one solitary jack found a tender spot on his arch. Kicking it away, Robert stopped at the head of her bed. Using his thumb to secure the coin against his palm, he carefully slid his hand under the pillow. Slowly. Carefully. Eliza’s breath continued, unchanged. Luckily, the trade was easy and he stood to leave. 

It was then he realized the closet door was open. He distinctly remembered closing it. How…? Robert shook his head. Now he was imagining monsters under the bed and in the closet! Grinning at his own silliness, Robert returned to the quiet safety of his own bedroom.

A blonde-headed glitter at the window drew no one’s attention.

Janet L. Cannon is a happy wife, a technology teacher, an avid runner, an origami enthusiast, an obsessive crafter, a gaming nerd, a book hog, a graphic design enthusiast, and happens to have a little time between learning new hobbies to write stories, essays, and novels. She has both her BA and MA in English and is proud to have never had a job that required her to say, “Do you want fries with that?” She blogs at Revision is a Dish Best Served Cold and can also be found on Facebook

Michael Chabon Tricked Me

By Vicki Boykis

In an essay that no longer exists on the Googlable internet, Michael Chabon convinced me that Prague was my destiny. He had been in Prague with his wife, researching for the book that would later become his bestseller, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The city, according to Chabon, was a breathy dream, starting with its Czech name, Praha, like an exhale. The streets were cobblestoned. Prague Castle loomed above everything with Gothic spires that harkened back to a more genteel time. 

Chabon walked through the Jewish cemetery and felt the wisps of his ancestors in the gravestones, the quiet of the early morning fog, and the romantic desolation of a vanished empire. 

I found his essay when I was in college in Central Pennsylvania and desperate to leave.  The writing gripped me.  I started yearning for Prague. I wanted that same kind of melancholy and artistic experience. I wanted to walk through the fog, hands intertwined with my boyfriend. I wanted to think serious thoughts about how thousands of years of history went into sculpting the city of Prague. 

Finally, we were out of college, working our first jobs, making our first money. The world was ours to see, together. There were hints of engagement.   ”Where do you want to go on vacation?” my boyfriend asked me. I thought about where it was most romantic to be proposed to.  

“France,” I said breathlessly. We checked prices for hotels in Paris. “Prague,” I amended, quickly. We were employed, but not Paris-rich. Besides, Prague was super-close to Paris. And if it was good enough for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, it was good for Penn State graduate Vicki Boykis.

We arrived in the Vaclav Havel Airport on a bright May morning full of promise. I was hoping to see mist over the Castle and the Vlatva, twinkling, winding its way through the heart of the sleeping city. But the cab driver heard that we were former USSR oppressors (Russian-speakers) and intentionally took the long way to the hotel, winding his way through semi-industrialized regions of the city. “Look,” I whispered, “The street litter and graffitti here is the same as in New York!”  

We arrived at our hotel. “We’re in Prague,” I said, looking around the mall attached to the Clarion for signs of Dracula and Eastern European mysteriousness. A frowning man wearing a gold chain and matching tooth tried to sell us a cell phone.  We ate dinner at a place where the waiter asked if we wanted fries with our goulash. We went to bed watching CNN International, broadcast from Atlanta. 

The next day, in the Old City, we walked through throngs of British tourists who were talking loudly and throwing Starbucks cups on the road. A sign pointed alluringly 50 meters to TGIFriday’s.  A man standing outside a pub tried to sell us a Budweiser.  

I continued to hope for the Jewish quarter.  It had to be as Chabon had described it: a small, left-alone place with just a couple hundred Israelis and New Yorkers coming every year to walk among the graves. 

It turned out that the Jewish spirit of Prague had sold out big time. There are three really old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter.  All three of them were making brisk business of the Holocaust.  We found ourselves in a long line of tourists regulated by very methodical Czechs taking our money and letting us in one by one, like a theme park ride.

Inside the synagogue, we saw all the names of all the dead written on the synagogue walls, not in a deferential way, but in one that was trying profit from our survivors’ guilt.  

Here was bimah where the Jewish rabbis suffered. Here was the name of Rachel Hayyah Liebowitz, who died in Auschwitz, and here was Moshe Zalman whose family was killed by Gestapo officers fighting in the Czech resistance movement, and here were 80,000 other names, written out to show the maximum impact of the suffering. 

Here were the walls. They were peeling. Coincidentally, the synagogue need money to repair them. Here, at the bimah, was a clear acrylic box full of the dollar bills of other American Jews who had been here and felt really, really bad. 

If visitors missed the opportunity to give money here, they could go through the cemetery, where, instead of misty graves, there were dozens of other people, going through a waiting line not unlike the one for Disney World rides, being shoved through the plots, one by one. Look, the signs said, the cemetery is dilapidated too, so don’t  forget to leave some spare change on the way out. 

Next was the synagogue gift shop, where you could get a map of the ghetto. For a couple korunas, guides eagerly pointed out some other Jewish sites you could go to, either by yourself, or with a tour guide, also for a couple korunas.  There were hundreds of  tchotchkes that have pictures of the Star of David on them, or mezuzot, or dreidls, sold by hawkers who shouted above the quiet of the quarter that no longer had any Jews in it. 

The image of Prague I’d had in my mind was shattered.   Michael Chabon had tricked me. The City of a Hundred Spires was as crass and commercial as the rest of Europe. There was nothing sacred. We had been in Prague for five days and everything sucked.  And people were selling Jewish Quarter keychains  near the cemetery. 

Every day was like the previous. There were hordes of tourists everywhere in the city, eating American food, talking loudly and distilling the essence of what Chabon had written about, silencing out the echoes of the past that made Prague Prague. 

But then, on the day before our flight back, my boyfriend woke me up early. “Let’s go,” he said, eagerly, quietly.  “Where,” I asked.  “Back to the Jewish Quarter, before the crowds come back,” he said.  

Curious, I followed him. The light was soft and golden, and only older European women wearing headscarves and heels clicked their way across the cobblestones. The breeze blew softly and the trees whispered. There were no people, and, for the first time, I could hear Prague. 

He led me into the Spanish Synagogue, the last of the synagogues in the Jewish quarter that we hadn’t been to. There was no entrance fee. The sunlight reflected quietly off the stained glass windows as we walked to the front, the bimah where the Torah sat. My boyfriend became quieter and quieter, and all of a sudden, he was down on one knee and he was saying words I couldn’t process and can’t remember anymore. In the synagogue, there were no tourists, no cameras, no recordings, only us, and if He was awake, God. 

Yes, I said, in the same building where the Germans stored property taken from Jews, the same building that had seen the fall of Prague and the rise again. Yes, I said, trembling, holding back tears. Yes, I said, again, as he got up.  I no longer had a boyfriend, but a fiance. The spirits and the mists converged around us and shadows whispered, and the city was still ancient, but my life was new and Michael Chabon was right after all. 

Vicki Boykis was born Jewish in Russia and raised guilty in America. She works in Big Data, is doing her MBA, and in the other three spare minutes is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband in Philadelphia-ish. She blogs at blog.vickiboykis.com and is on twitter @vboykis.