By JEFF FRIEDMAN.
MY MOTHER COLLECTED our tears for our father in a lidless jar she set on the kitchen window ledge. “Let’s see what grows,” she said. The tears turned yellow and then lost their color as they evaporated, leaving a faint smudge on the glass. “Nothing to be sad about,” she said. She also shook the tears out of our sheets and pillowcases, out of the cushions and towels into a bucket she emptied into the garden. Born of sadness, the flowers grew up happy, their bright yellow faces opening to the sun. But my mother forbid her own tears to stream down her cheeks or even to well up in her eyes. She would no longer shed tears for my father, no longer sob into her pillow to drown out the sound, though every once in a while, tears would gush unexpectedly.
And she would transform them into glittery spangles that clung to our hair and cheeks and lit up the air around us.
THE VOICE SLIPPED out between her lips. She closed her hands around it, but when she opened them, it wasn’t there. She saw its speckled wings catching the light just before it flew through the open window. She tried to speak, but her words were soundless. What would she do without a voice? And what would her voice do without her? Would a cat trap it beneath its paw? Would it get taken away by a heavy wind and be lost in another town or a big city? Or would someone else swallow her voice? Or would it fly too close to the sun and melt? She thought about going after it, but decided that the best thing would be to leave the window open and remain at home so if her voice returned, it could get in. She lay down keeping her eyes on the window until she fell asleep. When she woke up hours later, it was dark outside, and her place was cold. She went into the bathroom and began mouthing words in the mirror. She could see each soundless word emerge from between her lips like a large colorful blossom, opening for a moment to swallow the light.
Dismantling the King
FIRST, THEY REMOVED the crown from the king’s head and placed it gently in its velvet box. Then they ripped the royal robe and the clothes off his obese body. His face turning orange, the king ordered them to stop but they laughed at him. When he decreed that they would all suffer for their misdeeds, they stuffed his mouth with a swath of the robe. Then they took his legs so he couldn’t run and fed them to the royal dogs. As a joke to ridicule him, they used his hands to shake hands and clean the blood off his face and scratch his nose. They took his torso and set it on his throne like a truncated mannikin. They cut off his skin and draped it from the window, so the sun would dry it. They collected his teeth and bones in a metal box and later donated it to the museum of kings. They took the royal belly and turned it into a deep pot for cooking stews. Proud of dismantling the king, they stood in the throne room and cheered and slapped each other on the back, sure the king was gone forever. But when they walked away, his intestines unfolded slowly and crawled from the palace, looking for something immense to devour.
The Last Truth
ONE TRUTH WAS shot while it sat in a café, sipping an Americano and writing its memoir. Another truth rose up on a stage and protested the swarm of lies that had descended on the town, clinging to heads and faces or flying down throats. The mob rushed the stage, pummeling this truth until it fell beneath them. They kicked and stomped it to death. Another truth was tortured until it confessed that it was a lie and then the spirit left its body, and only emptiness resided inside it. Many truths were burned in the public square as they screamed, “I’m telling the truth.” We collected their ashes and bone in an urn and tried to bring them back to life with spells and chants, but our words had lost their belief in the power to summon. And the last truth, hiding for months in abandoned buildings, escaped into the forest. When it returned years later, no one recognized it or believed what it was saying.
JEFF FRIEDMAN’s eighth book, The Marksman, was published in November 2020 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His poems, mini-stories and translations have appeared in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. He has received numerous awards and prizes including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016, and two individual Artist Grants from New Hampshire Arts Council. Meg Pokrass and Friedman’s co-written collection of fabulist microfiction, The House of Grana Padano, was published by Pelekinesis in April 2022.