RAVEN- Issue Seven (08/30/2020)
Image Source: Jason Sebastian Russo
You & Me
Written by Jason Sebastian Russo
crouching behind a bullet-ridden cinderblock wall
haggling over the % of sadness our love contains
developing an arsenal of subtle looks watching the musician’s hands and smiling knowingly taking our clothes off to pray handing each other ratchets loving everyone who isn't us a little less each day puzzling over pieces of an old roadmap patching our remaining blue tarp splitting the last cliff bar fiddling with keys in the headlights making a fish hook out of a safety pin arguing from a great distance staying warm by burning a stack of memoirs of a geisha nodding solemnly & agreeing “sick breeze” saying “that thing with your dad” a lot making the ‘breath’ hand gesture in public grading on a curve sleeping in shifts reading by headlamp stockpiling antibiotics casually recreating childhood trauma gradually introducing more and more functional sporting gear into our wardrobe not even having enough self-esteem for one person figuring out why genitals are plural fighting about fighting shitless w desire agreeing to couples counseling on date three genuinely shocked that we're in separate bodies while utilizing every inch of them for prayer really me & you
Author bio: Jason Sebastian Russo is a writer, composer, musician, and digital marketer based in Brooklyn. He's recorded and toured with bands that include Mercury Rev, Kevin Devine, Hopewell, Pete International Airport, Nicole Atkins, and Guiding Light, which releases a new album in January 2021. He’s also working on a novel and currently exploring forms that combine poetry, music, and technology, as well as scoring podcasts for the New York Times and others.
Beneath Shifting Skies
Written by Amanda Crum
When dying season wound back up, Matthew found himself in Iceland.
The circumstances of his expiration had first taken him to Greenland, a place he had never visited in life; he took his last breath in summer, slept for a while, and woke up in September to an ice-covered world beneath shifting skies. The Aurora Borealis. He stayed in Greenland until spring arrived, when he woke up in Alaska and the cycle started over. The northern lights awaited him. That fall he traveled to Norway, then to Canada in the spring. They were beautiful places, but he had always dreamed of a journey to Ireland.
“We’ll see the Cliffs of Moher,” his Mary had said when they talked about their plans, but they never made it there. How he missed her, the way her eyes lit up when she spoke about something she truly cared about.
Matthew realized early on that he was traveling with the solstices, and, by extension, with the auroras. He was always the first to arrive, which meant he got to see the newly dead come out of the fog with their eyes fixed on the heavens. Each time felt like he was witness to both the birth and the demise of the world. Twice a year, he stood in the midst of a swarm of ghosts, arms akimbo as they breezed past so he could feel the electricity that crackled on the surface of their skin. It was the closest he could get to living.
They stayed until the end of the month, when they disappeared in unison. A chorus of ghosts reaching the same high note at once. Afterward, when the sky was dark enough to see the lights, he would lay in the grass and rest. His thoughts always turned to his old life, and how little he had appreciated it while he was there. He had never before felt such a complete sense of loneliness; his was a very insular world, the only ghost in a given city until the solstice came around again and he was transported to someplace new.
He still had no ideas about where the others went, or why he never went with them.
March was thick with spirits, but September was the heaviest month. Each time he watched them arrive in the fall, he imagined Halloween evenings beneath a silver fingernail moon, trees giving up their freight of leaves to become compost. There was almost certainly a connection between the death of a season and the volume of specters it produced, Matthew thought.
Of course, there were the lights to factor in as well.
He had to admit to himself that no matter how frustrating it was to be stuck, he never tired of seeing the sky rumble from green to gold to rose-drenched violet. Standing on the edge of a fishing village in Greenland the first time, he had felt something close to religion as his gaze roved across the pulsing firmament. In fact, he might have thought it was Heaven, but he had never been a believer.
Besides, the living were all around him, bundled up in bulky anorak jackets to watch the night skies. They drank hot cocoa and held their hands out to the flames, never knowing how many traveling spirits were all around them. Some of the dead held their own palms to the fire, the result of a muscle memory reflex buried deep in their minds.
Matthew hadn’t felt warmth or cold in a long time. Just as well, since it aided his traveling, but he missed the soft flannel of his favorite jacket and the way it smelled like home. Still, it was nice not to have to worry about aching joints when winter was approaching. There was no pain at all, in fact, a truth that hadn’t clanged in his brain since he was a relatively young man of 50. In death, he had found a fountain of youth.
Iceland was beautiful and strange.
Matthew walked across the landscape, keeping the surrounding faces a blur on purpose. Dying season was a solitary thing. No one wanted to talk about what they’d just been through. There was no point in Matthew getting to know any of them; they would be moving on at the end of the month, anyway.
It was always interesting to see how others traveled, though. Some walked quickly, toward some destination only they could see, while others shuffled along with heads hung low. He kept his own travels light, with hands in pockets, to avoid drawing attention to himself. There was no way to explain why he had become stuck in a loop; he didn’t understand it, himself.
Here, there were large spaces unoccupied by the living. It was a relief to roam freely across the fields and beaches. He kept the ocean at his right, resting in the sand as soon as it was dark enough to see the light show. Solar winds pushed through the atmosphere, something Matthew felt as a spiderweb tickling his forehead, and he was lulled into an almost-sleep as the skies turned the color of spring grass. When something brushed his hand, he looked down and felt his throat tighten.
“Hello,” he whispered.
The dog panted good-naturedly and dipped his head to be petted. Matthew obliged, although he couldn’t feel much; it was like touching something through the surface of a soap bubble. He smiled and felt a curious sort of sad joy coursing through him. It was the first animal to acknowledge him since the end.
“Where did you come from, boy?” he asked, glancing around him for signs of a human wearing a look of panic, but there was no one alive on the beach. A few spirits wandered about a hundred yards out, moving away from him, but that was all he could see in the shadows.
The dog, a beautiful burnished gold retriever, huffed and laid down, resting his chin on Matthew’s leg. There was no collar around his neck, nothing to tether him to the world.
“I’m going to call you Rusty, if you don’t mind,” Matthew said, stroking the dog’s head.
Rusty rolled his dark eyes up to meet Matthew’s. No worries, his gaze seemed to say, just let me rest on you for a bit.
They sat together for a long while, enjoying the auroras as they pulsed across the sky. Matthew no longer had a need for sleep, but he rested when he could simply because it was a way to pass the time. He pushed himself down into the sand to create a hollow that curved around his form and closed his eyes, keeping one hand on Rusty’s head. The dog sighed contentedly. It seemed that, at least momentarily, Matthew’s solitary existence had come to an end.
By the middle of September, Matthew and Rusty were inseparable.
Matthew waited for someone to show up and claim the dog, to pull Rusty from his spectral grasp and take him away, but no one ever did. It was as though Rusty had been sent to him out of the ether, fully formed and ready for companionship.
They walked together most days, Rusty staying close to Matthew’s leg as they explored the beaches and forests outside the town. They found a volcano and walked across the silvery mud, carefully picking their way around little cauldrons of bubbling magma. When Matthew came to a small plateau of igneous rock, he sat to rest for a moment. It wasn’t the Cliffs of Moher, but it would do.
From that height, he could look down at the trees shivering in the wind and the spirits dotting the landscape. So far below, they were little more than pale wisps of fog, and he wondered what he must look like to them. He thought of Mary, how she would have loved these trips and what it might have been like to kiss her again beneath the lights. When they were younger she had always tasted sweet and summery, like berries on the vine.
It was coming on dark when the boy appeared a few feet away.
He was tall, rangy, his arms ropy with muscle; Matthew’s first thought was that he must have worked on a farm at some point, although he was far too pale to have done so for very long. Or perhaps, Matthew thought, he had just been away from the sun for a long time. Dark hair brushed across the boy's forehead as he looked around with a gaping mouth, trying to make sense of his surroundings. He seemed not to notice Matthew at all, but he was definitely of the spirit persuasion; Matthew could smell it on him. The dead always smelled like wet leaves.
“Hello,” Matthew said softly. Rusty barked his own greeting.
The boy turned to him, blue eyes flashing wild in the dim light. “I did it,” he said.
Matthew stood and put his hands in his pockets; it was the least aggressive posture he could think of. He had no way to measure how this would go, having had no interaction with a spirit before, and he didn’t want to scare the boy off.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I found a way out,” the boy said, and gave a little laugh that was part relief and part disbelief. He sat on the rock and looked up at the sky, which was just beginning to flash with color. That afternoon had been overcast, but the clouds had parted to reveal a scattering of stars. As the atmosphere began to fade to green and blue, the boy smiled even as tears coursed down his cheeks. For a long moment, he seemed consumed by a weary mixture of sorrow and elation, something Matthew felt like a hot breath on the back of his neck.
Matthew sat back down and stroked the soft velvet of Rusty’s ear, watching the boy closely.
“Where did you come from?” he asked.
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know the name. Away.”
“You say you found a way out?”
The boy looked at him. “You a ghost, too?”
“I am,” Matthew said, smiling a little.
“Is this the only place you’ve ever been?”
Matthew pondered, unsure of how to begin his own story. “No. I’ve traveled a fair bit.”
“They all been good places?”
“I reckon so,” Matthew said, thinking of all he had seen since Greenland.
“Lucky you,” the boy said. “That your dog?”
Matthew looked down at Rusty, who was panting lightly with his eyes half-closed in the sort of doggy ecstasy that only came with a good ear rub. “I don’t know if he’s mine or not, but I’m his.”
“I get it,” the boy said, and looked up at the sky once more. “What is this place?”
“Iceland,” said Matthew. “That’s the northern lights up there.”
“How do you know it’s Iceland? Have you been here before?”
“No,” Matthew admitted. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s just something I knew when I arrived. I saw the name in my mind.”
The boy bit his thumbnail for a moment, considering, then nodded as though he had come to a decision. “Yeah. This is a good place.”
“I’m Matthew, by the way.”
“No offense, James, but I’ve never seen a spirit appear out of thin air the way you just did. Usually they all come at once, on the same day.”
“Oh yeah? Where do they come from?”
Matthew thought for a moment. “Well, I’m not sure. Through a door of some kind, I guess. I’m no expert, but I’ve been around a while. The dead always come through on the first day of March and September, stay for the month, then disappear. Myself, I’ve been wondering if maybe it has something to do with the lights. The solar winds attracting electricity. The dead come charged with it, you know. You can feel it sizzling in the air when they all arrive at once. Not you, though. You’re an anomaly.”
“Let me ask you something, Matthew," the boy said, his voice trembling on the edge of a sob. "You believe in Hell?”
The way he said it told Matthew more about him than a hundred answers to a hundred questions ever could.
“I don’t know,” Matthew said.
They looked at one another, two spirits separated by a copper-colored dog, and as the wind picked up a handful of ash and scattered it into the atmosphere, Matthew knew that something had just been changed irrevocably.
Matthew and James watched the lights for a long time, sitting in a silence that would have been companionable were it not for the charged undercurrent running through their last words. For the first time since his own death, Matthew felt a cold sort of fear grip his heart. He had never questioned his own beliefs, even when the afterlife sent him on a seemingly aimless trip around the planet, but now there were doubts floating about. He felt so stupid for assuming that this was all there was; in his mind’s eye he could see possibilities that simply hadn’t occurred to him before. In death, as in life, there were invisible borders, only these couldn’t be plotted on any map. He thought that perhaps James had discovered one and crossed it.
But what had he seen?
“You shouldn’t be here,” said a voice behind Matthew.
The dead man wore a trench coat of deepest black and an expression of both confusion and irritation. His hands were fists at his sides, lank hair curling upon his collar. Matthew stood slowly, trying his best to appear friendly, but that expression didn’t change. At his side, Rusty growled so softly in the back of his throat that Matthew may have been the only one to hear it.
“Hello,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the spirit said again, leveling his gaze at James. “We saw you arrive from down below. Looked like a streak of lightning. It’s not right.”
“I never saw any lightning,” Matthew said softly. “This is James. He’s traveled a long way to be here.”
“We all saw it, felt it like an icy wind,” the man said, turning to look at Matthew for the first time. “He doesn’t belong here. Can’t you feel it?”
The air around them did feel different. Matthew hadn’t noticed until now, but the tiny hairs on his arms were standing up. A caution signal.
“Says who?” James asked. He looked as though he might cry. “Why shouldn’t I belong here?”
“Because you came from somewhere else,” said the stranger. “You didn’t arrive with us. We don’t know you, you’re an outsider.”
“You have no idea what it’s like back there,” James said. His voice was a shivering tightrope. “I’m not here to cause trouble. I just want to rest.”
“I understand your trepidation, friend,” Matthew said to the spirit. “But we’re all just trying to get along here. Maybe we could give him a measure of safety for awhile and let him move on with us when it’s time.”
“There’s no “us”, friend. You don’t belong here any more than he does,” the stranger spat.
“What do you mean?” Matthew asked, but he felt as though he’d been punched with a heavy fist.
“You know,” the spirit said, narrowing his eyes. He turned to leave, calling over his shoulder as he went. “This won’t stand.”
Matthew felt gutted. The others knew he was different. He had assumed they kept to themselves because they weren’t keen to talk about their experiences, when all the while it was something else entirely. He was from “away” just as much as James was.
“I didn’t mean to bring you trouble,” James said.
“You didn’t,” said Matthew. “Don’t worry about them. You’re safe here.”
James turned to him. “You said everyone moves on at the end of the month?”
“But not you. That’s what he was talking about, right?”
“You an angel or something?”
“Not that I’m aware,” Matthew said, smiling.
James pondered that for a moment as he looked out over the landscape. Far below, they could see the spirit in the black trench coat joining a small group of spirits in the woods. Above their heads, the lights shimmered like a dragonfly’s wings.
“What happens if I don’t move on with them? Will I go wherever you go?” James asked.
Matthew sat back down on the rock and hugged Rusty’s neck. “I can’t answer that, James. I’m afraid I don’t know half as much as I thought I did. And that wasn’t much.”
“They can’t kick me out, can they?”
“Not at all,” Matthew said, although there was no way he could know the answer to that, either. “James?”
“What was it like? Where you were. What did you see?”
James was silent for a long time, so long that Matthew wasn’t sure he’d heard the question. When his answer came, it was choked with emotion.
“Nothing,” he said. “There was nothing, and I stumbled through it for a long, long time.”
When Matthew woke, he found himself looking directly into Rusty’s fathomless brown eyes. The dog had gone off hunting sometime in the night and now laid two dead ravens on the ground near his master’s head. Matthew assumed he had already eaten during his travels and had simply brought back the birds as a gift.
“These for me?” he asked, scratching Rusty’s soft head.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen a dog,” James said.
Matthew turned to find his new companion sitting with his back against a tree, watching the two of them. The previous night, the group had climbed down to a deserted copse to find a place to rest and had fallen asleep with the shifting lights filtering through the branches. It was like sleeping beneath a UFO.
“For me, too,” Matthew said. “He’s a good boy.”
James shuddered violently then, holding his arm up to eye-level. Even from a bit of a distance, Matthew could see the gooseflesh that had popped up on his skin, raising the tiny hairs as though they had been electrified.
“That hasn’t happened since...a long time ago,” James said with a frown.
Matthew felt a sudden and distinct affection for the boy at that moment, and it came with a sadness that pinched at his heart. “They say when that happens, someone is thinking about you.”
James nodded, his eyes filling with tears. “I guess that could be.”
“Come on,” Matthew said, standing up. Rusty barked happily, eager to move on. “Let’s go for a walk.”
They left the woods and headed toward the beach, where a scattering of people were setting up tables and tents in preparation for an aurora-viewing party. Matthew could hear them chattering excitedly about the festivities they had planned and smiled. It took so little to make the living happy.
“What did it feel like?” James asked as they walked. “When you...you know.”
Matthew looked down at Rusty, happy he was sticking close now that strangers were in their midst. The question was one he himself had thought about for a long time.
“It felt like walking downstairs and missing a step,” he said. “And then it didn’t feel like anything.”
“Were you scared?”
“I don’t think there was time to be scared,” Matthew said. “I was fortunate. But it’s okay to be scared. These are scary times. None of us know what comes next.”
“It just feels so arbitrary,” James said. “I didn’t ask to end up where I did.”
“We didn’t ask for it, either,” said a voice behind them.
Matthew turned to find the dead man in the trench coat standing in the sand with a dozen other spirits, all of them carrying stern expressions. They looked James up and down, tendrils of white mist floating up through the collars of their shirts. It hovered in the air for a moment before dissipating, as though the spirits themselves were made of creek water. Rusty gave a low growl and sat at Matthew’s feet, limbs tensed for a fight.
“I don’t want any trouble,” James said. “I told you, I just wanted to get away. To find something better.”
“We don’t want you here,” said one of the spirits behind Trench Coat, a woman with blonde hair and a worried expression knitting her brow. “Everything feels wrong since you came.”
The others nodded in agreement, speaking in hushed tones about the charged atmosphere. They had all felt the boy’s arrival from Hell, and it was working on them like a drop in barometric pressure would do to a wild animal. It was clear that their leader had been amplifying their fears, working them into a frenzy.
Matthew could see movement in his peripheral; the living were grabbing blankets and extra coats, trying to warm themselves against a deep chill that had just crept in. It was all for naught, however. The drop in temperature wasn’t about the air at all, but rather the unseen specters gathered in the sand.
“Call your dog off,” said Trench Coat, eyeing Rusty warily.
“I won’t,” Matthew said. “He’s not hurting anyone.”
“Call off your dog or we’ll take your friend here back to the top of that volcano where he came from.”
“No!” James cried, backing up. “I’m not going back!”
Matthew took a step back as well, watching the group closely. They looked ready to pounce, a pride of lions waiting for the antelope to fall. When he felt a curious tickling sensation on top of his head he looked down at Rusty, remembering the night the dog arrived. It had been here, in this area of the beach, and Matthew had felt that same soft touch. Like the universe was running fingers through his hair. At the time he thought it had something to do with the solar winds, but the sun was still shining. The lights were hours away.
“James,” he said softly. “Step back.”
Crossing the border felt like walking upstairs and missing a step.
There was silent darkness for a time, and then Rusty barked and the sound was enormous. It filled the entire world, slowly echoing away as though it was rolling through hills.
Matthew opened his eyes with care and looked around at a vast expanse of green. Salt tinged the air; in the distance, a nameless sea roared and crashed.
“You found another border,” James said from behind him.
Matthew whirled around, feeling an enormous grin stretch across his face, and broke into relieved laughter as he pulled James into a hug. The boy stiffened, then slowly sank into him. It had been so long. His shoulders shook as the enormity of the moment crashed into his brain. For a long moment, they stood together as the wind whipped their hair.
“Actually, Rusty found it,” Matthew said, and he wondered if Rusty had been sent to him after all, because as his laughter dissolved into tears, three words clanged over and over in his brain.
Cliffs of Moher. Cliffs of Moher. Cliffs of Moher.
Author bio: Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has been published in The Hellebore, Eastern Iowa Review, Barren Magazine, and others. She is a Best of the Net, Pushcart Prize, and Indie Horror Book Award nominee. Amanda currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.
In Your City
Written by Kimberly Ray
eyes squeeze shut all at once with
wishes whispered under breaths to be
anywhere else, anywhere cooler than
the constant heatwave of near 100 degrees.
Toes dip into makeshift sandy beaches
along the city’s river while children
play in water fountains next to erected sandcastles.
But here in my city, it’s another monotonous
day. I am wide-eyed making 11:11 wishes to be
with you in your city, your heatwave, along your river,
walking the streets when it’s your midnight.
My sweat drips waiting for you to wipe it away.
I’m waiting for the days where we open windows
to a gentle breeze and kick away the sheets for relief.
Author bio: Kimberly Ray, a Virginia native, is the author of the poetry series Coffee Shop Sessions (2018, 2020). She has been published in Clay Literary, 3 Moon Magazine, and Teen Belle Magazine. Her work primarily delves into the intricacies of relationships and the complex nature of discovery, attainment, and loss. Her poetry has been identified as a "working out the desires and interior of one’s heart."
Written by Rachel Hessom
We spluttered to a stop, many miles from any town
In rural France where we couldn’t speak a word.
The air smelled thick with sauvignon
As we kicked the tyres and the dust
Billowing up in humid clouds and coating skin,
Sticky with the sweat of cars for hours
And only grimy roadside stops for comfort breaks.
He laughed beside me, deep and throaty
As we walked towards a town we didn’t know.
I stared at him, hoping for an answered prayer
And here he was just laughing at our plight.
He picked at M&M’s we bought the day before
When we were clean and tidy, at the ferry port.
My boots were rubbing as the sun beat down,
I wanted so much, to split away from him,
This always was a dumb idea.
It sounded so romantic, when we were at home.
And now his presence made me prickle with
A hatred only intensified
By the closeness, the blinding heat,
So unexpected when we left, holding hands, in love.
That was the sadness of our maiden trip,
Through valleys full of luscious vines.
We thought we had the making of a vintage wine.
Instead, it was never meant to last.
Author bio: Rachel Hessom is a writer based in the UK. She writes daily poetry on her blog, patientandkindlove.com, and she enjoys tweeting words that vaguely represent poems. She is currently training to be an English teacher so that that she can pass on her love of literature to the next generation.
Written by Ruth Taaffe
On cycle-path twilight
taking a turn
at the end of a day
that had worn you
to the verge
of a decision
a change of heart
you heard a downpour
on muddied ground
in the stare of a Sambar deer
tall as the darkening trees
saddle raised high
who held you in the shine
of his god-blackened eye.
For two thuds, both hearts
beat in tandem,
time burned a fuse-wire
and this deer
in fading daylight
forged of the dérailleur and chain.
Author bio: Ruth Taaffe is from Manchester, UK, and currently lives and works in Singapore as an English teacher. She is taking a Masters degree in Creative Writing with Lancaster University. Some of her poems have been published in the online journals Creative Writing Ink, The Poetry Village, Allegroand in print and in print in Acumenand Poetry Birmingham.