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September 2022

Divining
by katherine Tunning
Story

          If you asked anybody who knew the four of us who was most likely to be sneaking into the petting zoo to steal a lamb, they would say Becky for sure, because she’s kind of a psycho. I’m not saying it, but I know what other people say. Or maybe Amy, since she’s always on some kind of animal rights crusade, or even Rachel, if Becky told her to. She’d do anything Becky told her to. Nobody would guess me—but here I am.

 

          It’s only because my mom lets me borrow the car whenever I want, even on school nights. She barely looked up from the papers she was grading when I asked. All she said was, “Back by ten?” and I said, “Yeah, just going over to Becky’s.”

 

          We started with the Ouija board, back in sixth grade, but the spirit spelled ‘tomorrow’ the same wrong way Becky did. The same way she still does. We’ve tried lots of things since then: runes, tarot, tealeaves, palm-reading. Becky says we should be open to all kinds of traditions because it’s a global world nowadays, which seems a little redundant to me, but obviously I don’t say that.

 

          A couple weeks ago we did throwing-bones with some turtle bones that Amy—I mean, Amaranth, that’s what she wants us to call her now—found in the woods, plus some chicken bones that Rachel brought after her dad got KFC for dinner. Amaranth was pretty uptight about making sure the bones didn’t get mixed up, and Rachel was pretty upset about Amaranth saying that KFC was gross mystery meat. Everything turned quiet and tense. Rachel flipped through the pages of her book—she does all the research—and then said softly, “There's another kind of bone divination. You get a live animal and sacrifice it and burn the shoulder bone. Then you can tell the future by reading the patterns in the cracks.”

 

          One day, I walk over while Phil's lighting up his first smoke of the morning. Again with the Pall Malls. I half expect him to be wearing an ascot.

 

Amaranth didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything, but Becky was like, “Cool. We can try that next.”

 

I didn’t really believe her then, but I believe her now.

 

          I park across the street from the petting zoo and sit in the car wondering if someone will drive by, stop to see if I’m okay. But the road is empty in both directions, as far as I can see. Becky doesn’t actually think I’m going to get the lamb. I could tell when she asked me to do it—told me, really—the way her eyes narrowed, like she could already see me chickening out, turning up empty-handed.

 

          That’s all it takes for my body to make up my mind for me: out of the car, across the road, up the gravel drive, past the farmhouse to the sheep pen, flailing a little as I haul myself over the fence. I land with a splat I try not to think about. The sheep are huddled in a grayish blob on the far side of the pen. They make little nervous noises, but it only takes a minute for them to get used to me and settle down again. They move apart and there’s the lamb right in the middle, like they were trying to protect it, but not anymore.

 

          I hold out my hand and the lamb walks right over to me. It’s seen enough field trips to know about the little green food pellets. When it doesn’t find any, it huffs a short hot breath and starts to back away, but my hands dart out and suddenly the lamb’s pinned between my knees, the leash I brought looped around the narrow neck. It wriggles when I drop it over the fence, but lands all right on the other side. I wonder if it’s ever been on the other side of the fence before. I climb over and it feels like I’ve never been on the other side of the fence before, either. The light’s different somehow, more intense, all the shadows darker. I load the lamb into the car and it just stands there on the old blanket I threw over the back seat, swaying gently, blinking.

 

          Some part of me considers not driving to Becky’s, but there’s my foot on the gas and my hands at ten and two, one mile over the speed limit the whole way, signaling every turn. I don’t look in the rearview mirror. I pull into the driveway and sit for a while. The lamb’s so quiet I can almost believe it’s not there.

 

Then a figure hurries around the side of the garage. Rachel—Becky must have sent her out.

 

“Come on,” she whispers when I open the door. “We’ve only got a couple hours.”

 

“Until what? The lamb turns into a pumpkin?”

 

“This is serious, Lenore.”

 

          Everything’s serious with Rachel, but you can’t say that. Right after Amaranth changed her name Rachel tried to change hers to Rhiannon, but Becky said “What’s the point? You’ll still be the same person.” And Rachel just looked at the ground and nodded. I wanted to shake her. I guess I should have wanted to shake Becky, but I didn’t. So Rachel is still Rachel, and Becky is still Becky, and I’m still Lenore. That’s what happens when your mom’s an English lit professor. The name has never fit. We had a new English teacher this year and she got all excited calling roll the first day—“Lenore! Quoth the raven, never”—but when I raised my hand I could see her seeing me, the blond hair and freckles and everything. She was like, “…mind. Never mind.”

 

Becky’s right, though: no point trying to change it.

 

          I get the lamb out of the back seat and Rachel just watches and chews on her cuticles, which are bleeding like always.

 

“You thought I wouldn’t do it.”

 

Rachel looks away. “No. I knew you’d do it.”

 

          “This was your idea,” I remind her. I don’t realize how mean it sounds until it’s out of my mouth. We both stand there for a few seconds. If I’m waiting for Rachel to say stop, we shouldn’t do this, I’ll be waiting forever. I roll my eyes and head into the garage.

 

          There’s a blue tarp on the ground, and on it a roll of paper towels, some newspaper, a big black trash bag, a knife. It’s just a regular kitchen knife. Becky’s mom probably uses it to cut up pot roast or whatever. I guess it’ll go back to being a regular knife after we’re done. Becky points at the tarp and I plonk the lamb down. It stands there shaking. Becky doesn’t seem surprised that I brought it. Maybe I was wrong, and she told me to get the lamb because she knew I would. A little bubble of pleasure fizzes up through my chest and I try to swallow it down.

 

“When are your parents back?” I ask.

 

“Nine, maybe,” Becky says. “Depends how long the game goes.”

 

          Her brother’s on the middle school football team and her parents go to every game. Sometimes they drag Becky along, but she told them we were working on a project. Which we are, in a way.

          Amy—I mean Amaranth—stalks in a circle around the garage, pausing at the back door, then coming back to the tarp. She’s trying way too hard, wearing a long black dress I’ve never seen before. I give a little snort.

 

"What?"

 

"Way to goth it up"

 

          “Well, it won’t show blood.” Her expression hardens, like when she’s about to remind us that meat is murder. In a second she’ll tell us we can’t go through with this. But the second passes, and another, and she doesn’t speak.

 

“We all agreed,” I say, as if she’s trying to argue.

 

Amaranth shrugs. She plucks at her dress, twists the fabric in both hands.

 

          “But will it work?” Becky asks. She’s turning the knife over and over so the light dances on it. “This is a big deal. I only want to do it if it’s really going to work.”

 

          My heart lurches. The point of Becky is that Becky doesn’t ask. The point of Becky is that Becky doesn’t doubt.

 

          “It’ll work,” says Rachel, suddenly eager. “I promise, I read everything I could find. But burning the bones could be tricky—”

 

“We can do it at my house,” Amaranth volunteers. “We had that bonfire before. My mom won’t mind.”

Becky looks reassured, even grateful. Now I see what she’s doing. Honestly, it’s pretty smart.

“When are your parents back?” I ask, then realize I already asked.

 

“Not before nine, I told you. Don’t freak out, Lenore.”

 

“I’m not freaking out.”

 

          I might be freaking out. I bend over and touch the lamb. I wouldn’t call it petting, exactly. Its coat is soft and kind of oily.

 

          “All right,” Becky says, sounding like herself again. “Amaranth, take the front legs. Rachel, you get the back.”

 

“What about me?”

 

Becky doesn’t answer.

 

          Rachel has the ideas, Amaranth has the conviction, and Becky has whatever it is she has that the rest of us don’t. My job is the same as always: get the lamb, do the hard part, then stop things before they get out of hand. I cross my arms. Let’s see what happens if I don’t.

 

          They take hold of the lamb and it tries to kick, then stops trying. Becky tugs the leash to one side and sets the knife against the lamb’s throat. She takes a long breath and lets it out.

 

I take a breath and can’t remember how to let it out.

 

          The silence is a thick woolen blanket. A few small sounds break through: the plastic rustle of the tarp, the lamb’s soft panting, a hiccup that must be Rachel, trying not to cry.

 

          Then the phone rings--hard, metallic, so loud it shakes the air. Rachel shrieks and Becky drops the knife and the lamb starts peeing a huge puddle on the tarp.

 

“Shit!” Becky glares at each of us in turn, like it’s our fault somehow, then runs inside.

 

          This is our chance, I guess. Rachel chews on her thumbnail. Amaranth does the special breathing she does when she’s stressed out. I look at the knife, then away, then back at the knife. The lamb kicks and skates and falls in the puddle of its own pee. It gets back on its feet but it isn’t smart enough to move out of the puddle, so it keeps slipping and having to stand itself up again, over and over.

 

Becky comes back.

 

          “Just my mom. The game’s over but they’re going out for ice cream. So we’ve got plenty of time.” She picks the knife up again, but I can see the phone call has shifted something in her. She’s thinking about her parents, her little brother, the ice cream cones in their bright paper wrappers. The knife dangles from her hand like her hand wants nothing to do with it.

 

          I try to catch her eye, but her hair falls in front of her face in a long curtain, so dark brown it’s almost black. She should have been the Lenore and I should have been the Becky, probably. But instead everything’s the way it is.

 

          My lip curls. I’m so annoyed, or maybe not annoyed exactly, but something is alive under my skin and the knife is so loose in Becky’s hand and it’s no effort at all to take it from her, or maybe she lets me, or maybe she’s just too surprised to stop me. I cup the lamb’s chin in one hand. My body knows just where to lean to stop the lamb struggling, just how hard to pull back on the lamb’s head. Its throat is soft and hot and plush, the pulse fast against my little finger, just going, going, going. The handle of the knife is smooth and black and feels cool in my hand, not like the rough wooden ones we have at home. I bet the blade is actually sharp, too.

 

It’s not that I don’t feel bad about the lamb. I really do.

 

          But the knife comes down and it’s my hand around it, my hand pressing as the lamb heaves and jerks, my hand pulling hard across flesh that gives easier than I thought it would, or maybe I’m just stronger than I thought I was. My hand pulling hard across what I realize, after a long stuttering second, is Becky’s arm, shoving the lamb away.

 

The lamb staggers off to the side. Someone gasps but it’s not Becky. The knife hits the ground, clatters.

 

          Her skin is open where it was closed before. A long trench right by the elbow. First it’s just white against tanned skin and then blood pricks up in little dots and I think it’s not so bad, and then blood fills the trench and it’s bad, it’s really bad, blood dripping fast onto the tarp, mixing with the pee and the dirt and the rest of it.

 

          Rachel turns into someone useful and gets a towel to wrap around Becky’s arm. Amaranth says, “Pressure, pressure,” and holds the towel tight. The towel turns red. Amaranth tells Becky she needs stitches and Becky nods, dumb as the lamb. I’ve never seen Becky cry and she isn’t crying now but her old face is gone, and underneath are faces I’ve never seen. One when she looks at her arm, another when she looks at the lamb, another when she looks at Amaranth and Rachel. She doesn’t look at me.

 

“Sorry,” I say, and keep saying. “Sorry, oh my god, sorry, I didn’t, oh my god—”

 

          Amaranth puts herself between me and the other two and says, “Just take the lamb back, Lenore. Put it in the car and go.” And I’m like, oh right, the lamb. I scoop it up. It smells like pee and worse. It doesn’t struggle.

 

“Wait. Shouldn’t I drive you to the hospital?”

 

“No!” Becky’s eyes, when they finally meet mine, belong to an animal. “No. We’ll ask the neighbor.”

 

“Go, Lenore,” says Rachel. “Just go!”

 

So I go.

 

          Lamb in the back seat, me in the front seat, buckled up, headlights on, full stop at every stop sign, one mile over the speed limit exactly. I can see the lamb in the rearview mirror. It’s sitting down, like it’s finally too exhausted to stand. Its knobby legs are bent and splayed out weirdly and there’s a big dark smear of Becky’s blood on its back, which must be freaking it out, the smell I mean, because it’s bleating now, finally, as loud as it can, an endless wail coming out of the red terrified slot of its mouth and I’m like, “Oh my god, shut up, I know." But when I say it the noise stops, and I realize the noise was coming out of me the whole time.

Bio

Katherine Tunning lives in Boston with her partner and a highly variable number of cats. Some of her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, Washington Square Review, and Analog SF&F.

You can visit her website at Katherine Tunning.

i am hyper aware that I am alive and breathing                                                    Julia Merante

 

 

i was afraid                                                                         i would kill

                                                                                                       my dog

on wednesday

                                                                                                               god forbid :

                                                                                                      he inhales        my muffler's

                                                                                                      carbon monoxide

i cry --

 

but at least

tears are sweet

& at least they      dry & at least

they are calorie-free   otherwise                                                  where would i be besides

                                                                                                     lost in the peculiar    -

                                                                                                     the in-between

 

I understand this   asymmetry                                                     is molecular

chemical & confused

or maybe

chemically confused

or maybe intentional-

-ly infused

or maybe perpetual-

-ly bruised

they took every article

of clothing

with strings attached -

they let me choose          which plastic chair but then                they didn't make me

cut my hair with safety scissors

& let me simmer &                                                 swallow the rest

of my vending machine chocolate

square   until

i was taken

to the room with    the windows -                                               under supervision & finally

I         :                                                                               through these incisions

have made the decision to

learn & remember

how to convert

oxygen to carbon dioxide

& Maybe            I can                                                                        finally start        living.

Bio

Julia Merante is a second year law student living in Buffalo, New York. She owns 5 winter jackets, 3 dying plants, and is the godmother of 1 cat. Julia graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2020 majoring in English with a concentration in poetry, and she now dedicates her legal studies to policy research on gender disparities and family violence. However, she still makes time for the ones she loves: the aforementioned cat and poetry at large.

Poem
CNF
I'm sorry, But your granddaughter is a puppy
by Steph Maker

 "He says he’s a grandfather to a bunch of dogs." I can't read my Dad's tone as he reports on a conversation he's had with an old mate. I bum about on the lounge and am grateful to be talking to Dad on the phone. In part, because my tea-stained trackpants remain my sloppy little secret. But mostly because my face is being rude. My expression says, 'Don’t be haughty, Father-dearest, that might be the extent of your grandparenthood too.'

 

          I imagine Dad’s friend out walking, gripping leads pulled taut by blurs of excitement. Is that what he had in mind, for his golden years? I sense he'd have preferred a golden child to a golden retriever.

 

          For a moment, I feel guilt, maybe even shame, for not having reproduced by my mid-thirties. I am grateful that my parents have never outwardly, explicitly aired an expectation of progeny. Seconds pass and I feel comfort knowing Dad's mate's boys haven't reproduced either. No heirs between us. Just dog-children.

 

It's been years since we've gone on a holiday. We look out from the upstairs Tattersall's bar onto the streets of Adelaide. Our whole life has changed since we last got away. We're homeowners now, and dog-parents. My partner is wearing a jumper, despite himself. He loathes the cold but seems to dislike dressing for it just as much. I think he'd be a great Dad, perhaps, despite himself.

 

          I look at the security system app on my phone. The cameras home in on our Westie Annabel's territory. She’s not there though, and our place looks empty without her scruffy presence. I sigh and look to my partner. I'm certain he’s seen me forget we're out of Queensland and try to check on a dog that isn’t where she would normally be. He takes a sip of beer and says, "I miss Little Dog." Our friends, Corgi owners, had the audacity to bless our medium-sized dog with this nickname…and it has stuck.

 

          I miss Little Dog too. Desperately. We’ve left her with my parents while we take a week off. She’ll be fine, I think. I know she’ll be loved. Mum will play with her. She will be spoilt with rich treats, just like a real granddaughter might be. Annabel might even be pudgy when we come to pick her up. I scold myself: Don’t think that. You’ll give her a complex.

 

Can you give a dog a complex? I know I could give a child a complex. I've clearly got one.

 

          Mum sends me a text with a picture update: Annabel is asleep. Like most babies, she’s cutest when she’s asleep. I gush over the photo, showing my phone to my partner. Warmth rushes about my body. It’s calming and isn’t the rolling serotonin rush that comes from the centre of my chest when I ruffle the fluff of Little Dog’s white mane.

 

          Even though I know I should stop her, I love how she licks my face. I laugh when she digs in the garden and gets covered in soil and silt. I even love her when she wanders underneath the car and gets grease on her tail like she’s a wee dipstick. I am not a disciplinarian. I giggle at her cheek. I love my Annabel like crazy.

 

          I couldn't have a baby. I shouldn't. I don't know how I could love harder without going mad. I also don't know why a baby seems like such a good idea sometimes.

 

My friends have beautiful children. They are beautiful people: in body and soul. More babies are on the way, and they will be beautiful too. I look forward to meeting them. I will sew them toys they may never use. I love them, but I struggle to imagine the logistics of having my own child. Not the sex, I get that, but I fear the responsibility and the likelihood they’d dislike me. I feel I’ve only just begun to carve out a comfortable niche and the expense of childrearing seems crushing. I do not wish to extinguish the spark of a career to raise children, nor do I wish to hurry towards the financial sinkhole of childcare and schooling. I believe in state education in a theoretical sense, but am a private school kid, and would, hypothetically choose the same path for my child. Though I am an exemplar of how private schooling can offer a terrible return on a substantial investment. I remind myself to breathe to staunch the panic. In. Out.

 

          A friend assures us a baby would be the best decision we’d ever make. Another was famous for his use of a web browser plug-in that replaced Facebook baby spam with images of cats. I have drifted in my thinking to the liminal space between the two views.

 

I scoop my fur-baby up into my arms and she licks my face feverishly. I’m delighted to see her after our holiday and to take her back home. Mum makes tea and we all settle in for a chat in the sun.

 

          Dad shows me his hand, “Look at this.” I grimace. His skin is prone to bruises and tears. It’s bandaged with a thick white patch. He says it’s his granddaughter’s fault. He’s teasing, but so is our imminent mortality. We should have just sent her to the kennel, I think. Dad doesn’t need to be roughed up by petulant terriers.

 

          Annabel trots to Dad and puts her front paws on his knees. I know the look they share. It’s adoration, appreciation. What if, I think, that were a little girl he was cooing at? I sip from my mug. Yes, that would be beautiful. My mind hums:

 

There are no baby kennels.

 

After our break, we’ve settled back into the rhythm of work. Wake up, dress, breakfast, coffee, open laptop, attempt focus. I often fail at these attempts to point my attention at tasks.

 

          My partner’s work-Dad is at our dining table, purportedly for serious business. I courtesy wave and put the kettle on in the kitchen. I move to the table to say hello and post-pleasantries he continues his story about trying to move his mother into aged care. He says something along the lines of needing brothers and sisters to help. I gulp. I’m one of one in my family. A first and only child. So’s he. That’s his challenge, he says. Work-Dad tells us about the shift in the mood in his visits with his mum once nurses started to come to attend to her wounds and dressings. “You can just have a cup of tea with her.”

 

I don’t know who will care for me when I get old. I presume I will pay for a portion of the care, perhaps the government will support me. I doubt it, but I sense it is unjust to raise a child as aged-care insurance. Still, it seems so…acceptable.

 

Annabel lies on my belly while I read a trashy book on her lounge. We’re warm together. Small things. My partner stomps into the room in his heavy work boots and she bounds off my tummy to rush to his side. I’m winded from her push-off. He picks her up and they stand at the front door together, looking out on the garden. He references The Lion King, tells her she’s the queen of all she can see – all the way to the end of the driveway. I sneak in for a cuddle, from both of them. This is my little family. I love it just as it is. And, in a few years’ time, maybe I’ll let nature decide whether it should grow.

Bio

Steph Maker is a writer and editor living on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She has a Masters in Writing, Editing and Publishing from the University of Queensland. Outside of reading and writing, Steph enjoys documentaries, camping and crafternoons.

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