the attic on 31st
small yellow flowers,
a grocery list
and mint on the back of my tongue
There are boxes stacked against
and I can find
her us in every one of them
I can lead her ghost to the attic
but I can’t ask her to stay
there here Do I love, does she love where did we go?
boxes are opened
every year, people climb stairs and find secrets
maybe that’s the most we can ask for,
that a stranger
will have an easier time unpacking us.
Isabel J. Wallace is a queer writer and nurse working in Florida. The swamp has left her predisposed towards ghost stories and the certainty that something is always lurking just out of sight. She’s been published in Malaise: a Horror Anthology, as well as in Quaranzine: poetry in the time of COVID-19.
How It Starts
I cremated my first being when I was ten. Arf, the family dog. A nine-year-old Chihuahua. He was like family. Just putting him in the ground didn’t sit right with me, even at ten years old. I built a campfire in the back yard and took care of it. I was surprised how many bones remained after the first attempt. It was mostly ash after a second try. Mom was horrified. Dad was impressed. I sprinkled him in the red rose bushes where he liked to piss.
I learned later, after years of schooling, certifications, and practice, just how difficult it is to burn away all bone material, even at over 1400 degrees. After a while you don’t worry about a few bone fragments. I always thought it added character. Ashes alone could be anything. A bone settles it.
Word spread to the neighborhood kids how I’d cremate pets. I got requests. I charged by type and poundage. Do you realize how many pets regularly die? No longer did they have to flush frogs and goldfish down toilets. Bury turtles in shoeboxes out by swing sets. Goldfish: $3. Eight-pound cat: $10. I charged $50 once for a ten-foot boa constrictor. It beat the hell out of a paper route.
I ran funerals as well. It taught me how to cry on demand. I provided ash containers – boxes, jars with screw caps, blingy glass soda bottles. I learned early that money should by luxury.
Simple campfires and barrels worked for a while. Then dad helped me build an outside brick furnace with a salvaged cast iron door when orders backed up. It was near air tight and I could vent it and get temperatures up higher than any barrel fire.
The Piersons next door got fed up with the greasy smoke hanging around and the morbid funerals with darkly dressed young people. A city codes enforcer showed up. We lied and said we were smoking meats. That we were working on a secret recipe for a barbeque tournament. He didn’t buy it, cited dad with a $200 fine for unlicensed animal disposal. That was the end of the backyard cremation era.
That’s when I started taking on-line mortician classes. I was seventeen.
What brings a person to collect things? To collect anything? Coins. Dolls. Yard gnomes. Lighthouses.
I met a woman who claimed she had over a thousand salt shakers. She’d bought all the matching pepper shakers with them but thrown them away. She only collected salt shakers. Why?
An old man collected clowns. But only vintage clown dolls with porcelain heads, hands, and feet. He stopped at twenty-five-hundred. They found him dead of a stroke in a recliner in the middle of his clown room after his daughter hadn’t heard from him in three days. He hated banks. Had twenty dollar bills sewn into random clown bodies. Almost thirty-thousand dollars. His daughter hated them. She was lucky that the first box she gave away was to a big mouth who couldn’t keep quiet about the cash she’d found stuffed in all those clowns.
Can I be blamed for collecting souls? Once I’d discovered where they resided? Extraction. Preservation. Who wouldn’t have done the same thing?
I found my first soul in the ashes of a horse. The owners put down the mare in the ditch line. It had broken its leg on a run. My job was to cremate Sally. I told it would take all night. Horses are huge animals. I soaked the animal in diesel fuel and packed hay bales around it along with some spare two-by-fours. The flames were visible from a mile away someone told the farmer later. I stayed out there with it burning, tending the process.
Come twilight, there was only heaps of gray ash. Charred bone. I poked around, kicking up dust, exposing glowing embers flicking into tiny flames. One ember was different. It was a pure yellow, like glassy fire. Like a fired marble. Perfectly round. It dislodged and floated up to head level. A little sun. I reached for it. It moved away as if affected by the wind from my hand, feather-light. I wondered if it was just a strange piece of burning ash. I crept closer.
No sound. No smell. No heat. Only brightness. It made my eyes hurt. It bobbed in the air like it was waiting. I stepped closer, raised my hands gently and scooped it up. I swear I heard someone whisper in my ear.
Larry D. Thacker’s writing has appeared in The Still Journal, Pikeville Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Dime Show Review, Vandalia Journal, Grotesque Quarterly, Story and Grit, Spillway, Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Poetry South, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Appalachian Heritage. His books include Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia; poetry chapbooks Drifting in Awe and Memory Train; collections Drifting in Awe, Grave Robber Confessional, Feasts of Evasion, and Gateless Menagerie (forthcoming).
Thick slabs of steak smothered in butter, rose
mary, thyme, that endless sizzle, smoke enough to melt
my face off. I crave what is delicious. Unhealthy.
When she comes home, spiderweb tales of things
she did, wants to do, I will not listen. Her tongue glides
with the delicacy of a raw creature. I imagine
unspooling those taste buds, pressing my fingers to
either side to peel muscle apart, chop pieces, baste it with
red wine. Hush. She is beautiful with gaping holes
for eyes, cheekbones stolen from a ferreting wolf,
I cry when she enters the room. I cry when I enter the
soft folds of a blanket, roses, no thorns. I crave the safety of
a room with a lock. When the day ends and night
crashes into place, I run hot water until steam clogs
the mirror and I cannot see my face at all.
Owed to the notion we all deserve happy endings I
traipse a trail of broken glass, jar of honey in my hand.
I will entice the creature at the end of this path and
it will fall for me, if not in love, then in worship, and if
not in worship, then in defeat. If the flytraps can macerate
over a month without food I can yield those consequences
I deserve. Move over: I will jump on broken glass without
moving an inch. In euphoric moments I paint my face
bright colors the way an earthscape should look, see
me, I am gorgeous, I am a crater of that lonely moon.
At the end of all this, just before I turn to dust I will grab
the mirror by its edges and force myself to look.
Kathy Key-Tello lives in Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in No Contact, the tiny journal, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere. Kathy received her creative writing degree from the University of Houston, has received and been nominated for a few awards, and served as Editor-in-Chief of the undergraduate-run literary magazine Glass Mountain. Kathy is at work on a novel. She typically spends her free time loving her bunny and bothering her cat. Find her on Twitter & Instagram @kaffychill.