“An Audience of Feathers” by Jared Povanda

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I arrange the birds in an archipelago.

They stay still for me. The sparrows. The crows. The parakeet I borrowed from Mr. Thomas in 10A. All still. All silent. I crouch, haunches bunched tight, as it begins to snow outside. Gentle, so gentle, these March snow flurries. Goosebumps raise on my arms. I try to ignore the pain from the scratches, the pecks, the long, red, meandering talon marks.

“My grandmother taught me this,” I tell the audience of feathers. “It’s for conjuring. For bringing something into the world.” A large crow cocks her head, but she doesn’t leave her position at the front of the procession.

“You should understand, crow. It’s your kind who hold funerals for their dead. It’s your kind who practice necrophilia. Stop looking at me like I’m the weird one.”

I stand, muscles raw, back sore, arms stretched to the ceiling. I’m shirtless for the effect of it, and the goosebumps trail down me, make my hair stand on end. The windows in front of me collect snow on their sills.

There is a desk to my right, and it’s piled with letters. Harvey’s letters. I almost cross the room and pick the newest one from the pile. The paper isn’t yet yellow and cracked from over-reading.

“Ready?”

The birds stare at me with their beady, bright, bounding eyes. None of them move.

I nod and take a breath. Take a breath. Take—

Latin spills from my mouth. Words with round edges and sharp curves. Words that make my tongue itch.

It’s March 15, and Caesar’s ghost has dropped through the ceiling to watch. Caesar and Brutus, friends again and grammarians. I can hear them correcting me, and I want to shout at them, they’ll scare the birds before I’m done, but if I stop, everything’ll surely go to Hell.

I have to trust. I have to take trust between my hands, cup its shape on my palms, and stroke the letters until they trust me back.

This is for Harvey. Harvey, Harvey, Harvey and his letters. Harvey and his hatred of strawberries. Harvey and that piece of hair of his that’d never stay gelled down an entire night before springing up again. Harvey, the journalist. Harvey, my best friend. Harvey who loved the ocean. The sand. Harvey, my piña colada man. My little-pink-umbrella-in-a-drink guy. Harvey and his smile. The way he stood tall, protecting me from bully-punches, a grin on his face. Harvey, the brother. The son. The prince of his family. My king.

I remind myself of this as the Latin rolls off my tongue in foam-tipped waves. I remind myself of this as the parakeet begins to shake, feathers erect, and then blinks from existence. The other birds do not move. Do not panic.

One by one, as Caesar and Brutus look on, quiet now, the archipelago implodes. The avian islands sink into the air, into nothingness, into the syllables spinning in the breeze like last autumn’s leaves.

The blood, the bones, the beaks, all for Harvey. For his long, hairy legs and his arms and broad chest and the way his nose hooked. Harvey, and his loamy eyes. I plant the spell in each iris.

His body unbends, unfolds from that same nothingness, levitating feet off the ground. The bullet’s entry wound closes. His lungs knit back together.

When we were children, who could have guessed he’d be dead at twenty-eight and I’d be building a new Harvey out of bird bodies in my living room? Who could have known the ghosts of Roman emperors would watch me, and then pick through those letters, the letters he always insisted on writing—email was too impersonal for him—when we were states apart, in college, and then after, both of us traveling separately and too often for work? Who could have known the bullet would strike him dead on impact?

Who could have known I would eventually cradle his bleeding heart to my broken one?

My mouth is dry. My lips crack from the cold of the snow. There is only the last crow now, and she goes to open her beak, goes to say something, but the world is unfair to women of every species, and my spell rewinds her into the void with all the rest before she can do it.

The Latin dies.

The ghosts look on, Brutus gripping Caesar’s shoulder, and I wonder, fleetingly, how many times Brutus has apologized to his king for what he did.

The snow is on a soft descent outside.

Harvey drifts to the ground with it. Perfect Harvey. And I smile. I smile, and I start to laugh and bounce up and down.

“You’re here! Harvey, you’re here. Open your eyes, man. Open your eyes.”

I crouch by his naked body, haunches bunched tight, hope a sky we’re both flying through. His heart beats a steady rhythm. Wing flaps of an eagle.

I wait. I wait. I wait, and the ghosts wait, peering over my shoulder, and even they smile when Harvey’s brown eyes stare back at me.

I wipe away a tear. “Harvey, god, Harvey. It’s so good to have—”

He jolts up, sudden, fast, and fast-forward, like a video of an island being born from the sea. Like a bird, launching into flight.

“CAW!” Harvey shouts. “Caw, Caw, Car—lack! Car—lack, caw! Caw!” His hands are on my shoulders, and his nails embed themselves in my skin, and I’m bleeding, but I can barely feel it through the tears.

“What? But I did everything right? I did!” I’m shouting, trying to stand. Harvey’s cawing, trying to keep me down, and we’re a tangle of messy limbs and blood and feather-bits and bits of bone and we crash into the table with his letters.

Something cracks, but I don’t really feel that, either. Papers float down all around us, all around— white, white, white, snow on the inside—and I look into his anguished face, those eyes of his, and he keeps squawking. Keeps pointing at his throat.

Caesar retracts into the ceiling, I hear him, and I understand his English.

“Every year, I tell people to beware the Ides of March, but do they ever listen? Do they? No…”     

“I’m sorry,” I coo to my Harvey. “I’m so, so sorry. But I can fix this! I can! Trust me. Trust me.”

I reach a hand out to him, praying, but he just stares at it with beady, bright, bounding eyes, uncertain and unmoving, the start of a new archipelago, maybe, but also just a man. A man who’s looking at me now as if I were his great betrayer, as if I wanted this. As if I plunged a knife deep into my king’s back on purpose.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, sobs shaking me. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Harvey tips his head up in answer, muscled arms spread wild like wings, and lets out one final, piercing cry.

“Tears for Tadpoles” by Jared Povanda

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I fume in the doorway, my bag of Chipotle grease-stained and heavy with prospective vomiting, as the ghosts turn their glass-gazes on me. As the sun through the window refracts wild off their eyes for a few moments, beams blinding, scattering, before settling and spreading warmth. Something dark curdles beneath my stomach.

We’re here to help, Right says.

“Why?” I ask. “Why won’t you go away?”

I don’t wait for the answer—it’s my home, my room, those are my boxers on the floor, so I go inside and sit at my desk, hoping the decidedness of those actions stanch their not-words. My ghosts don’t talk, they just levitate the words in my brain. Each letter lifts shining from the dark.

You need help, Right says.

Yes, echoes Left. If you’d talk about Ryan—

“No.” I slam my fist down for emphasis, curled flesh a pretty good gavel, and turn my back. I tremble, though, such a shitty tremor, giving myself completely away, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop this time.

Grief is a haunted cupboard, Right says after a spell. It is us tying your shoelaces so tight you cannot get them undone. Sometimes, that is all it is. Annoying. Harmless.

But sometimes, Left says, more cheer to the not-words on his not-voice, grief is swimming with E. coli.

The window unlocks and opens all on its own, and there is a breeze, and then my dinner is borne up on it and taken out and away and down the street. I watch it float to the end of the road before it makes the turn and I lose it. Gone.

“How come some things disappear?” I ask, everything shaking so bad now. Junkie bad. “Why do some people blink out? Go to ash on the wind? How come some shitty ghosts can barge in here and just…?” My nails dig into my palms. My jaw aches.  “I—”

There’s wet on my face. On my wrists. Whole oceans start spilling down my cheeks, man, fucking tadpoles too, because then I remember what Ryan said, and it’s a damn spear through the gut.

“He forgot the word for tears one time.” I turn to the ghosts, snot and spit everywhere, face a fault line. “Once, he forgot, and he pointed to his skin, you know? And his lips were so pointy, if that makes any sense, and he ran those fucking pretty fingers right down his face, and he goes, ‘What do I mean, James? What are they? Tadpoles? No wait, that’s not right. Is it?’, and I was the smug asshole who laughed and wouldn’t give him the word. And he laughed with me, so freaking composed, before he grinned like the lover of a smug asshole and tackled me on the bed.”

Did you kiss? Left asks.

I tip my head back to stare at the shifting lights on the ceiling, hoping I snap off at the neck. That is what grief is now.

“Yes,” I say. “We did. We kissed until he was fluent in English. We kissed until I swiped the Portuguese right off his tongue. We did everything we could.”

Grief is his family having his funeral back in Portugal and not having the cash for the flight.

Grief is packing his stuff up—pressing that one comfy sweatshirt to my nose one last time—before his sister comes, wearing regret like a shawl, and floats her loaded car to the end of the street before making the turn.

“Grief,” I say to them, “is two ghosts sitting on my bed. Two ghosts, coming every day for the past three months. Two ghosts, making me bear my soul. Throwing away my food.

Drawing baths with lavender bubbles.”

We care, Right whispers, eyes like the sun. I can’t meet them.

We care, Left doesn’t whisper, but rises, body an ocean’s foamed swirl. We’re no longer content with rearranging cupboards, James.

Left sets a hand on my right shoulder, and Right follows to place a hand on my left, and I look at the two of them the best I can through my squinting—the two of them passing light between them, through me, off the mirrors they are, the mirrors they’ve been forcing me to look at myself in, the mirrors I’ve been fearing for so long, too long, along with my ugly reflection stuck inside the glass, until today when something broke to shards or opened like the wardrobe to Narnia or fuck, I don’t know—but I do feel love beneath my stomach now. In my chest. Head. Heart. I tell them this, my friends, my ghosts, and even though their mouths are perfect Os, I think they’re smiling. I think they’re happy they’re making progress with me. Grief is as unpredictable as anything I’ve ever known.

Tears, Right says.

Tears! Left says.

And I can’t help but sob again, less hysterical now, more cleansing, taking in deep, deep breaths of light and cold air, like I used to before, with Ryan, as they turn my tears to tadpoles. As my ghosts and I watch those tiny levitating bodies swimming patterns through my head, vowels and consonants going every which way, mimicking life, transient, an echo spreading wide, wide, wide.

 

Jared Povanda is a writer, freelance editor, and avid reader from upstate New York. In addition to SOFT CARTEL, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Riggwelter Press, CHEAP POP, briars lit, Silver Needle Press, and Sky Island Journal, among others. The winner of multiple literary awards, he also holds a B.A. from Ithaca College in Creative Writing. Find him online @JaredPovanda

“FIREBIRD” Jared Povanda

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The rocks know what you did to me, as do the weeds, but you are arrogant enough to think you can silence the whole world.

One of your hands fit clean around my throat, and I had to watch my blood become black before everything else. Before darkness stole across my eyes, depthless and fathomless, like the lake we called our own. So glassy and still, my eyes, as they posed for the moon. And then life, succulent life, left me in a trickle. Not a river, no, you didn’t want to make too much of a mess—your suits were always made of the finest gabardine—but that trickle was enough.

Who do you think you can convince of your innocence?

The swan women?

They will never believe the story you concocted. 

They are nightmares turned flesh. They are women cursed, and they are bitter. The light of their gossamer feathers is not a comfort but a rapier through the gut. 

The men of the forest, then? Will you go to them? Wolves for heads, they prowl. They snigger. The grasses of the moors bow before them, but I remember how you mocked them for being of a lesser class, for their lack of cultivated intelligence. Around the lake, they would     always walk on two legs, but they did not see us. They did not hear. 

When you had me on my back, naked, without ever planning to undress yourself. 

By the end of everything, my presence in your life became so innate, so expected. No one ever stopped you from writing with my body. No one would question the man using his own hand. Who was I, with you, but dew on deer tines, transparent and moments from         evaporation? I can’t remember yet.

The rocks know, though. 

The pebble that pressed into the small of my back. The moth that crawled around my mouth.

They remember. 

How you smiled like a sea at storm. How your waves never yielded. 

They battered me. You battered me. Society would like me to think I was asking for it. That I goaded you. That I fused myself with your soul of my own volition. And did I, at the     beginning? 

Yes, I will admit, when you charmed me.

But then yes became no.

No, and no, and no again. 

How your tempests frothed. How your salt tasted. 

You told me once that I was like the firebird you had as a boy. A phoenix. A legend, a myth, a force you forced into domestication. You reveled in that.

What a marvel, you said. The exclamations danced in your eyes. What a good cry…and your eyes, that color…

And then you reveled in my destruction. The power you knew you could wield over my body.

Your friends were all afraid to talk to me. To help me. What it was they feared, though, was not drowning in your ire, but stepping in its puddle. Wetting their loafers. The cowards.

I stare at you from the apple trees now. I wave to the moon, the stars, those gleaming  pinpricks we wished upon as we laid by the lake on our first date. You gave me a flower—a tulip—and tucked it behind my ear. Your smile was supposed to be a gift. Praise, my panacea. You doused water over the bird in my body, and I couldn’t even feel the steam.      Everything died before I recognized what life I had inside me. 

What glorious, glorious, soul-shaking life.

I was twenty-two. 

You are forty. 

You still have your money. 

You have the support, the job, the life. 

I have the apples. 

The swan women will not want me. Zombie, they will call me. A man has defiled you, they will say. Hypocrites, but the blame doesn’t fully belong to them. The patriarchy has twisted them like the branches of a wintered tree.

But no longer and never again. 

These are not leaves I cover myself with now. They are not green, but black. Black. I coat myself with my own ashes. A cocoon of sorts. The heat is coming. The fire is coming. Because you can kill a phoenix. You can put out a fire with semen, with urine, with earth and stone and a shovel. You can bury a body, but you cannot cage a soul. 

And I escaped long ago, rising beyond the grave. My wings sawed through the delicate skin of my back and then through the dirt, but the tear didn’t hurt. I should have exposed them the moment we met. 

Our bodies are our own, they belong to us, but we are so used to contorting to the needs of others. We are so used to minimizing to appease. 

But no longer and never again.

The branches groan under my weight. The ash falls from me in sheets, in curtains, in a waterfall of cinders and fire, and the tree is burning, and I am burning, and your whole sea of wealth will curl away in a hiss.

The moon is high—silvery and potent—and my body glows. Naked, now, because I choose to bear my skin to the world. 

And when I skewer you, it will be slow. When I burn you, I will make sure your bones melt before your brain.

The rocks and weeds, those bards of earth and green growing, will know what I have done, and they will sing to all who pass:

Beware the one who burns the sky.

Beware the one who dries the sea.

Beware the one who wished for freedom, once, upon the stars, and beware the one who was given a second, scorching chance to fly.

 

 

Jared Povanda is a writer, freelance editor, and avid reader from upstate New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Silver Needle Press, Sky Island Journal, Vestal Review, the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing), and Tiferet Journal, among others. The winner of multiple literary awards, he also holds a B.A. from Ithaca College in Creative Writing. 

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