Columns, Reviews, Interviews, News

2022 Poetry Contest Second Place Winner: American Pastoral by John Sibley Williams

American Pastoral

by John Sibley Williams

Again, the wind sings the laundry from the line. 

Bleached of our stains, baptized by soap & sun, 

 

by a once mighty river gone arroyo & a handed- 

down washboard bartered for a grandmother’s

 

dreams, what we’ve worn to keep the world 

from our bodies eddies out over the barbed

 

fence between neighbors, severing the gray  

halo plumes of not-distant-enough factories, 

 

all these empty pallets of shorn meadows,  

deerless wood, clapboard churches & the holy 

 

specters of fathers roped to stakes to terrify 

the crows—all that hay & newsprint a symbol, 

 

I’m told, for something: maybe witness, maybe rusty

hinge, home—maybe like contrails the t-shirt my brother 

 

killed himself in & the overalls he once carved angels 

into snow with & the wild whorls of my mother’s  

 

chemo wig & the tutu my daughter whose body 

thinks itself a boy’s cherishes like prayer; all 

 

the houses we’ve built around the house we live in 

my socks & underwear & regret & love just keep 

 

whistling past like a hymn, a migratory bird, like 

light before we divvy it up into ours/yours; before 

 

piecing our myths back together into a history, there’s this 

tender wind I tell my daughter she can hold in her hands. 

 

 

John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). His book Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming in translated form by the Portuguese press do lado esquerdo. A twenty-seven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.

2022 Poetry Contest First Place Winner

They Buried Him In The Sand

            For John Henry the man and all the unnamed men buried

at the Great Bend Tunnel, Talcott, West Virginia

 

Ghosts graze

the land,

and the grass—

it tumbles off the lip

into that old

roadside tangle

barbed wire

kudzu

caution tape

soft sinkhole muck

 

What the ground 

holds where

the ground collapses—

 

Sun lifts up

bright, bright

 

Down the road

a flat

space of gravel

stones raked

stones ordered

 

An amphitheater

sudden

in its maintenance

 

And a whole army

of little signs

 

Sudden signage

 

I hope you enjoyed the doves

 

What the ground holds

crawls all over

my skin

in the sunlight

 

Does my breath catch

from the knowing

of the body

or the already-knowing

of the story

 

they buried him

 

but it is after I know it

that I see it—this

hole in the ground

with its slump

of old concrete

is a gravesite

 

The sun lifts

the spirit—

sun-summoned spirits

rising out of

the blanch-white

of gravel dust

            (but there’s no sand here,

                                                            no sand)

 

Past the gravesite

the world gets groomed

 

and then by the tracks

his statue

 

Statue

of a Black man

famously

worked

to death

 

John Henry died from a race

 

song says

he hammered his fool self to death

sign says

hero of the working class

song says

I’d die with a hammer in my hand

sign says

the real truth is of a man who stood up for his convictions against technological advancements

sign says

 

John Henry died from a race

 

sign says

I hope you enjoyed the doves

 

sun bright

on the quiet ground

says nothing

 

                                    nothing

 

                                                            the man

they buried him in the sand

 

                                                            the myth

stood up for his convictions against technological advancement

 

                                                            the legend

this statue was erected in 1972, by a group of people with the same determination as the one it honors

 

JOHN HENRY DIED FROM A RACE

WITH THE STEAM DRILL, DURING

CONSTRUCTION OF THE TUNNEL FOR

THE C. & O. RAILWAY CO.

 

and the signs

take pains

to make clear

that even

if he isn’t 

buried here

 

Quite a few of the workers had an abject fear of working where someone had just died. It was in the contractor’s best interest to downplay these deaths and accidents as much as possible. Rumor has it that mass graves are located on each end of the tunnel and at the fill before the old trestle where it crosses Hungards Creek “where they buried men and mules.”

 

 

 

His statue

looks over these 

signs 

with their

pointed stakes

over 

the railbed

the picnic tables

chalky chain link

dull beneath the sun

groomed gravel

the amphitheater

back towards the fill

back towards the creek

back towards the buried

who were driven

by a confederate

who would

work men to death

but on his honor

refused bankruptcy

as ill suited to a 

good 

name

 

His statue

looks back

towards

the gravesite

 

Maybe his own and

Surely

Someone’s

 

It is irrelevant if the story of John Henry is true or a legend

 

His statue

holds a hole 

where

someone shot

a bullet

right through 

his chest

 

 

 

 

 

II.

 

On my walk out

I am still a while

in the thick part

of the trees

 

far from the sun

cold here,

cold     green      low to the ground

 

still til

nothing sees me

that isn’t

being still with me

 

I can hear the man

in the yard just

over the hill

 

I can see the backside

of the welcome sign

where a woman 

just pulled up 

and grabbed 

a carefully hidden

plastic bag

 

I can hear

next door

 

Someone keeps hollering

 

One minute he’s singing

 

and the next minute

he’s right back to

practicing

his shot

 

 

Ella Latham is a writer from South Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SoFloPoJo, miniskirt magazine, and the Peauxdunque Review, where it was selected as the creative nonfiction category winner in the 2021 Words and Music Writing Competition and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and works in the North Carolina mountains.

 


Praise from Asiya Wadud for “They Buried Him In The Sand”:

 

The fan-folds of American history diminish the distance of the past and instead creates one, contiguous field between past, present, and foreseeable future. Seemingly ancient ghosts remain at the center of our imaginary, animating our mythology; haunting the landscapes; wending their way across the distance.

 

What astounds me in “They Buried Him In The Sand” is the proximity of the utterly quotidian and foreboding violence. This closeness belies the myth and formulation of a distant past and instead we are asked to contend with the ways that “ghosts graze/ the land”. These opening lines are instructions for how to enter this piece. As such, we enter with the knowledge that the ghosts have gone nowhere. Their sturdiness is uncontested. They float up, they graze and hover, but they don’t dissipate. 

 

Throughout the piece, “S’s” nimbly slide across the page, creating a reverberation and reverence all at once: “song says” is followed by “signs says” which is followed by “song says.” Elsewhere, we have “the sun lifts/ the spirit—/ sun-summoned spirit.” 

 

Against the backdrop of violence are moments of transportive clarity and radiance as well as reminders that “nothing sees me/ that isn’t/ being still with me.” The subterranean brutality abutting attempts at order, jostling for space and attention, though it is in the space of their prolonged tension that the poem exists. As the piece notes, “Past the gravesite/ the world gets groomed.” This poem instructs its readers to peel back, to look past the neat exterior to see what exists under the veneer of uncleaved space.

 

2022 Poetry Contest Third Place Winner: whisper & smoke by henry 7. reneau jr

 

whisper & smoke

by henry 7. reneau, jr

after “The Urban Wild Coyote Project” by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

 

old man coyote   //   demigod/shape- 

shifter   / 

dons a missionary’s collar/   & snakeskin boots//   

cocks his head/   a God engine of whisper 

& smoke   //   a politician’s wink & a grin/   sound

/byte filtered honey/:  incognito amongst 

the People of Hope   

 

//   coyotes   //   the symbolic chaos of disorder 

in white myths/:  the illegal indigenous 

colonizing their cities/   mercilessly shot/   

& tortuously 

caught in traps/   their progeny/tear-gassed 

inside their dens  

 

//   but wild things are wild/   not a rib 

to be subserviently yoked/   because the walls 

we build to contain them/    mean nothing 

to them   /& their Other-ness 

is the filth/   that makes them feel   // 

 

coyotes are entangled/   live under constant 

surveillance/  

in many Amerikkkan urban networks/   

where the native tribes who venerated them 

were ousted or exterminated/   

but coyotes survived   (trickster/   finagler/& 

taboo breaker)

 

/:  in Chicago/   radio-collared coyotes work 

as civil servants/   hunting rodents 

in the city center   /

but gunshot splayed if they overstep their place 

 

//   their refusal to lie down 

& die/   their adaptability/   tenacity & 

elusiveness/   

their uncanny staying power 

even as white folks/came a-slaughtering   /& 

Progress swallowed up the land/   the guns & 

concrete 

& asphalt of Manifest Destiny/   

in the name of ‘sivilized/:  a self-

generating meta-

phor vermin   // 

 

we are people from shithole countries   /kid-  

napped in tall ships   /Atlantic crossing 

into the Gloaming/   between bated breath 

& the muted silence of dread   //   

 

now/   we root ourselves 

in tribal birthmarks/   & blooms 

of bruises of old blood/   remake ourselves 

from jaw bones/   gri-gri wishbones/   & 

backwoods ham-

bone Blue(s)   /like blood diamonds  

ground down   /to whispers on the color line   /

the comet in us   /

fur-sleek over sinewy muscle/   our 

multi-Colored chanting Jubilee   //   we 

were told we no longer belonged/   

as our endeavor to persevere/   marched 

on Baltimore/   Ferguson/   & Sanford, Florida/   

seething to the surface irides-

cent in hoodoo magic/   & pixilated 

kaleidoscope 

to replicate ourselves/:  as many 

as They can count   /plus one more/   

like schools of  minnow 

glimmering gunshot celestial neon with galaxies   

/or Mason jar caged 

electrical ball lightning of fettered fireflies /   

phoenix up-

risen/   to roar again/   

singing mighty protest songs   //    

 

Note: Philadelphia, Denver, Toronto, and the Gotham Coyote Project in New York City boast research organizations devoted to metropolitan coyotes. In Chicago, radio-collared coyotes work as civil servants, hunting rodents in the city center. In Tucson, biologists found that 50% of the city’s human residents enjoy seeing coyotes in their neighborhoods. Up to 85% believe coyotes pose no threat.  

 

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience—is the spontaneous combustion that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, like a discharged bullet that commits a felony every day, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, his collection, A Non-Violent Suicide Poem [or, The Saga of The Exit Wound], was a finalist for the 2022 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Zone 3; Poets Reading the News, and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. 

 

Spring 2022 Images

Poem by Maxwell Stenson

Poem by Maxwell Stenson

This morning we will be simple.

We will collect splayed

seconds, our fingers

anticipating caffeine.

 

We will offer nothing

in way of robinsong

branches, motions

Aeolian about them.

 

There’s little time

for casual sublimity,

for drowned blues

beside a broken river.

 

Steel offices, shield,

crucible or desktop: for these

today will we be simple.

 

And for twenty minutes

a war can end which

trumpeted never truly

for us, for twenty minutes

 

we can taste

simple salt, curtailed

lotus, the dawn rolled back

along a lover’s tongue.

 

 

This premature light lingers,

lances through limes

and disassembles the mourning chariot.


Maxwell Stenson currently lives and works in Sacramento, California. His poetry has been nominated for Best New Poets, has appeared in Thrush, The Blue Route, Sijo: An International Journal of Poetry and Song, and is forthcoming in The Elevation Review.

THOMPSON: SUBMACHINE GUN OR SEAFOOD HOUSE BY HENRY CHERRY 

Thompson: Submachine Gun or Seafood House by Henry Cherry 

 

The cable to helium,

the lightning mustard,

corded in excelsior.

Wings spun of caramel,

fellow witnesses to the

descent, beyond the linens.

Disrupted in popped corks,

unstrung tennis racquets,

woods layered with pine needles.

The sweeping falter of arrhythmia

pursed in ruby painted

lips, a dank basement.

I have the purplish-blue color

from architectural prints,

from duplicating ditto machines

embroidered in a pillow case

with English alphabet letters

and Arabic numbers up to 10.

Big block memorials by the

golf course, shrouded in

plastic cups lined with citrus

flavored ideologies. Clacking

hooves, five-foot high fences

and wide brimmed hats.

I have a DeCarava print on the wall, and a

metal table underneath collecting

dust and fingerprints.

Hymnals open to the last

number of the epilogue

where God gets a little swinging.

 


Henry Cherry worked as a cowhand, a chef, and is now a journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles. He has been nominated for the Pushcart and the Orison Award. Featured as a reader at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at Litquake in San Francisco, his work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Cathexis Northwest Press, Australia’s Cordite Poetry Review, The Louisiana Review, and the recent pandemic collection, Hello Goodbye Apocalypse.

notes from the understory (layer 34, direction one) by Rusty Morrison

notes from the understory (layer 34, direction one)by Rusty Morrison 

Blue mountain, black cloven hoof, red tint at the rupture of 

temporality, green tint on hidden immoralities, 

 

a naked knowable, a virginal myth, an iris of the owl’s eye focuses 

on the direction of an iambic laugh, 

 

a secret I hear myself whisper and I feel the secret’s hands 

surround me.

 

Beside me in bed is Yi-Fu Tuan’s text “when we stand steadfast 

before an idea, regardless of its strangeness, then the mind frees 

itself and roams.” 

 

I put the book down and slide under the covers. Heat washes over 

me in waves luring me deeper than I want to go. 

 

I will not think the thing about death. The thing that I see has 

vanished from my husband’s face when he talks to me. 

 

My husband Ken, more sure-minded than I, knows he won’t die 

from cancer today. The doctor’s clinical language a raft that Ken 

expertly guides. 

 

Ken tells me a dream: he found a thousand dollars, but the trouble 

it caused made him glad to wake up here in our bed. 

 

The idea of this life we are living is so alive in his eyes that my mind 

finds itself free to roam.


Rusty Morrison co-publishes Omnidawn. Her five books include After Urgency (won Tupelo’s Dorset Prize) and the true keeps calm biding its story (won Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, James Laughlin Award, N.California Book Award, & DiCastagnola Award). Her recent Beyond the Chainlink was a finalist for the NCIB Award & NCB Award. Her poems have recently been published in or accepted by American Poetry Review, Oversound, and elsewhere. She’s a recipient of a Civitella Ranieri fellowship as well as recipient of other artist retreat fellowships. She was awarded a fellowship by UC Berkeley Art Research Center’s Poetry & the Senses Program in their inaugural year (2020). She teaches and gives writing consultations. Find out more on her website: www.rustymorrison.com.

NO MARY IN KHASHURI BY JACOB REINA

No Mary in Khashuri by Jacob Reina

 

I remember at the end of June—when our van broke down,

In the distance, foothills peered as a prelude to the Caucasus,

The sky came sprinkling down before it blew on a baritone;

 

I crossed the little concrete bridge over the canal’s rushing water,

Gazed straight across the grassy field, all-lined with chamomile,

White clouds of afternoon grew gray like a grieving widow;

 

Like our big black van, I stalled, for a moment, under the onset of rain,

Inhaling humid air, knowing then what a fresh start can really mean,

Realizing that one’s praised navigation can’t foresee a heated engine;

 

There was a girl I went across the world for who really won’t return,

To the cathedral bells, accordion songs, to all the cows wandering,

To the steep green hills, pot-bellied men, to overloaded dumplings;

 

Knew she must still be loved, her past handled best by the better man,

Like raspy coughs of my driver-friend, his Parliament Lights in embers,

His head in hand, over ruined matches—the merry prank of raindrops.

 


Jacob Reina is a part-time tutor and full-time English student at Fresno State. His poems have been featured by Poet’s Choice, Allegory Ridge, Prometheus Dreaming, and Cathexis Northwest Press. He loves traveling, making friends abroad, and currently lives in West Fresno in Central California with his two children.

 

Sea Change by P.Q.R. Anderson 

Sea Change by P.Q.R. Anderson

Dredged

to the accreted

gristle-rock,

resolving as sand

again in the gills

the sea is turbid silver,

attended by birds

of the by-catch, not

a net cast

to the other side,

but like the last

stone, overkill.

These chrome fish

brought to burn

their gills in air,

winched aboard,

become a tonnage

shrouded in rags,

glister-weed,

and to each its

parasitic worm

or hitch-snail.

In that bright

threshing

begin: cartilaginous

mouths mouthing

prayers of a people,

gills evolving

transit wings.

Who is it walks

on the shore

calling the shoals’

shadows as if

from the heights?

Why elect

these men,

these fish,

to multiply

the word at the fire

lit on the sand,

to feed the congregant

millennia?

Now the sturgeon

and cod are collapsed.

We begin

in this well-

oiled protein,

provender of

gully and trap,

the walled tides,

middens,

the fish otoliths

found inland

in compacts

of carbon and dung,

our caves,

and cast

our thought far

onto the shelves

where the great

birds blow

over the mown

quadrants,

to the flooded

caves we knew

how long ago

in the morning

Anthropocene.

Now reckoned

by plastic milled

to a yet

irreducible

dust of itself

or the ubiquity

of chicken bones,

we are our own

likely and sudden

expiration

who have netted

the currents

in that plastic

entanglement

and built a new shore

of flip-flop

and nylon and nothing

will get it out,

but still

rake the floor

of the krill-fecund

shelves

for the smaller

and smaller fry

while the by-catch

clusters

in winged clouds

out of Dante

over the dredge

of a more-or-less

anonymous

inhuman umami.

One day

we will construe

Cetacean

and be read

into the record

of the sea-change

as those

who browned the waters

and hauled

the drowned birds

aboard on our barbs,

if we survive.

Yet somehow we pray

the pods will outlast

as we settle

among our congener

chicken bones and plastic

hundreds-and-thousands,

knowing some deeper

deep, and singing

across miles of it

the elegies

asked of the ages

of the age

of our unmercy.


P.Q.R. Anderson has published three volumes, Litany Bird, Foundling’s Island, and a long poem In a Free State: A Music (“Destined to be a landmark in South African poetry” – J.M. Coetzee). He is the recipient of South Africa’s Thomas Pringle Prize for Poetry (2018) and the Sanlam Literary Award (2006), and was runner-up in the Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize of Canberra University in 2017, judged by Simon Armitage, and in The Rialto/RSPB “Nature and Place” competition in 2020. He teaches English at the University of Cape Town. His work has appeared in The London Magazine, Denver Quarterly, TEXT, The Rialto, New Contrast, New Coin, and other magazines.

Exit Strategy by Daniel Reiner

Exit Strategy by Daniel Reiner

 

I watched over Linderhof’s shoulder as he focused the security camera. The image on the monitor was not unexpected: a dead man. I’d seen countless and there was nothing unusual about this one: average height, average weight. He was on the younger side, but if the typical life expectancy is halved, he seemed to have nailed that number as well. Perfectly average, so to speak. Simply dead.

 

Then he looked up at the camera, smiled, and waved. Even in the grainy, black and white it was easy to make out the cheerful “Hello” he mouthed.

 

“WHY is there no sound?”

 

“Begging your pardon, sir,” gulped Linderhof. “This is the original equipment. We never expected to use that room. Except to keep up with the dusting, no one’s been in there since the kick-out party.”

 

“His name?”

 

“Neville B. Goodthorn.”

 

“And he walked in with the others?”

 

“Uh. Yes.”

 

As servants of evil go, Linderhof is…good. I never really enjoy punishing him, but my nature demands a certain amount of cruelty, both random and calculated. Overcome with an urge to lash out, he was too convenient a target. Wide-eyed, plainly prepared for pain of some sort, he trembled. Over the millennia I had learned that it is best to not disappoint.

 

My relentless gaze has always been both easy and effective. He stiffened as the paralysis took hold. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, between the horns. A drop ran into his left eye. There was a wisp of steam. Then a second. That was cruel enough to satisfy the both of us, so I relented. He rubbed his eye.

 

Our guest waved again.

 

I tried to not fume, but the room warmed. “In all the length and breadth of eternity, has no one ever thought to check if the Blessed could enter?”

 

“It’s not our jurisdiction, sir. We can’t even— I mean, YOU can, but the rest of us can’t even get to the door to oil the hinges. It was installed by the other team.”

 

“How do we get his file? Is there even a procedure for this?”

 

Linderhof shook his head and shrugged. I sighed with enough despair to crush a score of souls. A pity none were within earshot.

 

“I’ll take care of it. In the meantime, see if he needs anything.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Water. Coffee. A snack. Surely there’s something around here to read. If he’s not one of the Damned, we must be nice.”

 

“Nice?”

 

“Go!”

 

He scurried away, left eye closed. Moments later he appeared on the monitor holding a magazine with what looked to be flying cars on the cover. I watched as Linderhof mouthed “Read this!” and shoved the tattered publication into the hands of the mysterious Mr. Goodthorn.

 

At that point I didn’t know which was more pitiful: a devil who didn’t know the basics of common courtesy or watching the scene unfold soundlessly in black and white.

 

There was a short exchange, but I couldn’t make out what was said.

 

Linderhof reappeared in the doorway.

 

“How do I make tea?” he asked.

 

 

 

 

Rarely have I regretted the fiendish convolutions I imposed on the bureaucracy and layout here. In the beginning it had all worked fine with a steady trickle of sinners—up until that Flood episode. So much effort had been wasted tracking down lost souls who had truly gotten lost in the labyrinthine corridors. To make room and create a more open floor plan, we knocked out some walls in the lobby that I had never liked anyway. The rope lines that should have been in place on day one went up, but that still wasn’t enough.

 

The take-a-number system we added during that remodeling phase was actually Linderhof’s idea, an offhand remark about branding their foreheads with numbers to tell them apart. While I found the concept appealing, it placed too much reliance on the ability of my minions to count. Having a single roll of tickets eliminates mistakes. And writing out an infinite stream of numbers keeps the accountants busy.

 

They’re not all dim, however. I did place the brightest in positions of power. Making Dumah our ambassador to the other place was a no-brainer. Being half-Fallen, he was well-versed in the policies and politics of both sides. It was a good fit. Not as good, I now realized, were the rules I instituted for contacting him—rules that even I must obey. I do recall being amused at the time by the specification that he could not be visited in person.

 

I stared at the telephone for a long time before picking up the handpiece and dialing the number.

 

The Angel of Silence answered on the second ring. As expected, he said nothing.

 

“Dumah, this is Satan.”

 

Again, no response.

 

“I need your help with a wayward soul. Do you remember your Morse code?”

 

Scratch, tap, scratch, scratch. Tap. Tap, tap, tap.

 

“Excellent.”

 

I explained the situation and followed that with my questions. The ease of getting Goodthorn’s file was the pleasant part. Before Dumah had even started into his taps and scratches, the pristine manilla folder appeared on my desk.

 

Time passes quickly here, unless you’re being tortured unceasingly. Or deciphering a Morse-encoded discourse on free will over a telephone. On and on he went. The earpiece had visibly melted by the time I hung up.

 

 

 

 

Stepping into the waiting room, I had to wonder exactly how long my fact-finding trip had taken. Every flat surface was covered in cups and saucers, most filled to the brim with liquids of widely varying colors. Some resembled tea. Most did not.

 

Goodthorn and Linderhof sat at a table on the only two available chairs, quietly sipping. Distracted by the state of the room, I didn’t notice the cow until it mooed from the shadows of a far corner. Its udders were singed and the neck was stained with fresh blood.

 

Facing the door, Linderhof saw me first. He shrank into his seat.

 

“What is all this? What are you doing?”

 

“Being nice, sir?”

 

“Moo-ooo!” countered the cow.

 

Goodthorn turned and smiled at me.

 

“Oh, hello,” he said. “You must be Mr. Satan.”

 

I managed a crooked grin. It didn’t come naturally. 

 

“It’s just— Yes. I am.”

 

“If I may say, your Mr. Linderhof has been very accommodating.”

 

“That is…good…to hear.”

 

“As you can see, it took more than a few attempts, but his tea ended up being quite a treat. How do you like yours? He prefers a dollop of blood, something that I have to admit never occurred to me to try.”

 

When I eyed Linderhof, he held his cup out to me.

 

“Would you like a taste, sir?”

 

“Clean up this room immediately. And return the cow.”

 

With an unholy speed, the room was unencumbered of ruminant and porcelain.

 

I took Linderhof’s seat and studied Goodthorn, trying to not appear vexed by the gravity of the situation. I must have succeeded, his cheerful mien not wavering for an instant.

 

He leaned forward. “Might you be able to tell me when the next tour is scheduled?”

 

“Tour?”

 

“Yes, I thought a bit of sightseeing would be nice before I toddle off to the heavenly—” He chuckled. “I almost said pastures. Cow on the brain right now.”

 

“Heavenly, yes. So, you do know that you don’t belong here.”

 

“Oh, for certain. The woman in front of me was extremely upset about this being her only choice.”

 

That answered my next question. “That means the mechanism is working. And both doors are clearly marked?”

 

“Clearly enough. The intent was more communicated through the use of the dreamy blue and nightmarishly red colors. But frankly, I was stumped on the language. Latin?”

 

“Enochian. It never caught on.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Though I have a reputation—and rightly so—for being a smooth talker, I was stumped about how to begin. Aware of the folder in my hand, I put it on the table and opened it. His sins were listed on a single sheet with room to spare. Minor transgressions, all.

 

“But, uh,” he said quietly. “Do you have someone that can give me a quick look around?”

 

I tried to reply, but words continued to fail me.

 

“It’s alright. If nothing is scheduled, I can be on my way.”

 

That was the prompt I needed.

 

“Mr. Goodthorn… You cannot.”

 

“Cannot?”

 

“Yes, it’s a rule that no one ever bothered to explain to me. If a soul such as yourself does not make poor decisions while alive, one more opportunity is presented after death. And, once made, it is irrevocable. Despite remaining technically Blessed, you have been officially Damned.”

 

His face fell as he sat back. “That’s disappointing.”

 

Something possessed me to offer some encouragement. “Congratulations seem to be in order, however. You are the very first to have done so.”

 

“Ah, the silver lining.” His face lit up. “I suppose I should make the best of this, then. What happens next?”

 

“I can’t say. As much as I would like to torment you until the end of time for—I glanced down—calling Sandy Samuels a poophead when you were seven years old, I can’t.”

 

“Oh, I do regret that,” he muttered.

 

“Be that as it may, we are not allowed to knowingly torture, humiliate, confuse, punish, annoy, maltreat, discomfit, embarrass, tease, perplex, abuse, terrorize, disembowel—”

 

“Disembowel?”

 

“Yes. With everyone down here lacking actual bowels, it’s more of a symbolic thing. But we make do.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Neither may we pester, distress, impede, fluster, antagonize, befuddle, exasperate, trick, injure, deceive, hinder, nor frighten you in any way. On the other hand, there is no stipulation that we entertain. Although… A tour can be arranged.”

 

“Wonderful! And after that?”

 

“I don’t know. You’re going to have to find some way to keep yourself occupied.”

 

“What is there to do?”

 

“Historically, the sole option has been to suffer painfully. I suppose you can sit quietly.”

 

“I must admit to enjoying a bit of that… But it could get awfully boring. What about a job?”

 

“Doing what?”

 

“I’m an analyst. I fix bugs. Do you have bugs?”

 

“Oh, I can assure you we have bugs.” I recalled the vast array of multi-legged creatures tucked away in our storage cavern, several filled by locusts alone. “Big ones, small ones. Flying, crawling. Hairy, stingers, the whole—”

 

“Umm. No. Issues. I fix issues. Do you have an I.T. department?”

 

“Eye-Tee?”

 

“You know. Computers.”

 

“Oh. As a matter of fact, we do.”

 

I led him to room 101. A source of pride, I smirked as I opened the door. Filled to the brim with electronic misery, the condemned were chained to their desks, forced to enter page upon page of meaningless data by hand. The monochromatic monitors all had my image burned into them. The keyboards worked erratically. The network was undependable, the power less so. And in those rare instances when the form was completed correctly, the little circle would spin and spin and spin. And spin. It was hideous and beautiful.

 

 

 

 

“He did WHAT?”

 

Linderhof cowered in a way I didn’t think possible: His horns drooped.

 

“He— He fixed the…computers, sir.”

 

The top of my head may have burst into flames. That, I knew, was possible.

 

“I-in r-room 101,” he stuttered.

 

“Of COURSE in room 101! That’s the sole place in this godforsaken realm we have computers! What did he do?”

 

“First, he cleaned the keyboards. There was a terrible amount of gunk in the contacts. It looked awful.”

 

“I KNOW! Every agonizing aspect of that room was created to my specifications, including the gunk! What else?”

 

“He checked all the cables. Many were loose. And it turned out there were four things wrong that made the spinny thing keep spinning.”

 

“Four? I only put three errors into that code…”

 

“Well, he, uh…”

 

And as I glared at Linderhof, something clicked.

 

“Wait. If he fixed everything, what are the tortured souls doing?”

 

“Catching up. A couple more days and they should be done.”

 

 

 

 

Room 101 was just the beginning. Slowly, but methodically, Goodthorn applied good intentions everywhere he could, fixing and reconfiguring the very best parts of my designs. I regret giving him a tour.

 

He studied the heating and cooling systems, and with nothing more than a bone saw and duct tape—duct tape!—leveled out eons of deliberately excruciating temperature extremes. Our frozen lake melted into a lukewarm pond, while the most searing pits of flame cooled down to be no worse than Death Valley in May.

 

The few mathematicians we have were handed more challenging tasks such as finding the square root of two or calculating pi instead of the mind-numbingly repetitive chore of writing out the decimal equivalent of two-thirds.

 

To the endlessly thirsty he gave straws to sip the water that had been purposely set beyond their reach. And to the endlessly hungry he doled out our locusts. There’s a lot of protein in insects, I’ve been told. With plagues having gone out of style, I never did figure out what to do with the surplus.

 

There was but one hiccup in his unending stream of solutions. He had planned to strip bark from willows in the Grove of the Unrepentant and make an analgesic to help offset the worst pains of The Damned—until Linderhof innocently explained that the trees were actually sinners, and that removing the bark would be as painful as flaying them. I took more than a small amount of joy from the man’s embarrassment.

 

Why didn’t we stop him?

 

We weren’t allowed. On the list, that would have fallen under impede or hinder.

 

The situation had driven right off the cliff of tolerable. This was no longer my vision of Hell. I had to do something.

 

 

 

 

Scratch, scratch, tap. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, scratch, tap, tap. Tap, tap, scratch. Scratch, tap, scratch, tap. Scratch, tap, scratch.

 

“Thank you, Dumah. And thank you for your help.”

 

The smell of plastic had been thick in the air for a while, and when I tried to place the blackened and deformed handset back on the cradle I saw why. The conversation had gone on forever as Dumah and I debated every alternative. Many of mine, revenge-oriented, simply weren’t allowed due to the restrictions of the list. Many of his involved taking a vacation. And although his suggestions were phenomenal, a trip away would be a temporary measure at best.

 

Having grown pessimistic about ever being able to find an answer, I had begun to mull over the vacation possibilities. But would even Bora Bora provide enough distractions to allow true relaxation? How long could I be away? My imagination running wild, I dreaded the changes that might greet me upon my return.

 

It had been at that low point when a new strategy had finally occurred: What if there were a way to make the vacation permanent?

 

Further discussion with Dumah had ensued.

 

Ultimately, he helped me chart a course through the legalities. It was unorthodox, but I had found an exit.

 

 

 

 

A tentative knock at the door allowed me a chance to put on a smile. I had practiced constantly while redecorating the office. It still felt unnatural, but I had memorized which muscles to move.

 

“Enter.”

 

The door opened a crack.

 

“Goodthorn. Please come in. Have a seat.”

 

He crept in, his cheerful attitude not on display in the least. In fact, the cringing reminded me of Linderhof. Eying the classic electric chair positioned on the other side of the desk from me, he sat down slowly. No, it was not plugged in. That would have violated any one of torture, punish, maltreat, or abuse.

 

“You wanted to see me?”

 

“I do.” As he seemed close to being discomfited, I cranked up my grin another notch to put him at ease. Unfortunately, that made him more nervous.

 

“If— If I m-may s-speak frankly?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Mr. Linderhof said that you weren’t happy with me.”

 

“Not happy? Look at me. Do I appear displeased?”

 

“No. But… Did I do something wrong?”

 

“Oh, heavens no. Relax. You’re not here for punishment. Far from it. You’re getting a promotion.”

 

“A promotion? Me?”

 

Oof. I’d come close to confusing him on that one. The end was in sight. I didn’t need a technicality scuttling my plan.

 

“If you want it. I can’t force it on you, of course. What has vexed me is not your success in finding and fixing the flaws that you have, but the realization that it would be better for me to step aside in favor of someone younger and more energetic.” And that was not deceit.

 

“What about Mr. Linderhof? Wouldn’t he be next in line?”

 

“Theoretically, yes. He is an excellent subordinate, but not much of a leader. This position requires problem solving skills. Imagination! How do we deal with a sudden influx of the irredeemable? Where might we find the room? How do we screen them efficiently?”

 

He sat up. That was the word.

 

“What do I do with a surplus of locusts, Goodthorn? I let them sit. But you… You approached the issue from a different angle entirely and solved two problems at once. If that’s not efficient, what is?”

 

“Anyone might have…” He shrugged. “I mean…”

 

“Not anyone, Goodthorn.”

 

He beamed.

 

“It will take someone motivated, resourceful, and organized to fill my shoes.” I pointed at him. “You.” That’s when I played my ace, temptation thankfully not being on the restricted list. “Only someone supremely effective and worthy of leadership should have the honor of sitting in this chair.” I stood up and stepped aside. “Please. Give it a try.”

 

To that point I had kept it obscured with my wings. Having a clear view, he stared. Lustfully.

 

I was hardly ever in my office, and the electric chair he occupied was the one normally behind the desk. Despite being wooden and unyielding, it had a certain something that I found whimsical. In its place was an awe-inducing distillation of executive power. A rush job, the scars on the cow’s neck hadn’t healed, but the imps down in Furnishings had done a skillful job hiding those blemishes. Other than that, it was perfect. Blood red leather, buffed to a shine. Gleaming, golden tacks. And infinitely comfortable. I had given orders to scour the entire realm for any and all bits of fluff and stuffing to be packed into it.

 

He sat down. And grinned, ear to ear.

 

“And sign this.” I plopped a stack of papers on the desk.

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned before, time can pass oddly in the nether regions. Though my ordeal had dragged on for weeks, mere moments had passed in the world of the yet-living.

 

I woke up in Goodthorn’s body. Lying on the ground, a spot on the top of his/my head was painful, but tolerable. Open eyes revealed a medic hovering over me. Behind him, some curious, concerned souls had gathered round. Off to the left, a sign announced this to be the home of the Salt City Sun Devils.

 

“How are you doing?” asked the medic. “I swear I lost you for a minute.”

 

“You may have.” I sat up and smiled. “But I’m better now.”

 

“Well, here’s what nearly killed you.” He handed me a baseball. “It was just a foul ball, but I’m sure Old Nick will sign it for you if you track him down after the game.”

 

“Old Nick?”

 

“Nick Flammadakoulis. He never made it to the majors. Been stuck in Salt City purgatory for twenty years, but we like him here.”

 

After the medic helped me stand, I was able to convince him that I was fine. The small crowd dispersed, relief on the faces, some even clapping. The people here were genuinely nice. It was so astonishingly different to experience a pleasant environment like this, the blue skies above especially welcome. Across the street, a display on the Salt City Savings Bank showed 115 degrees, but pfft. I had been broiled at 500 for most of my existence. Sunny and 115 was nothing.

 

In all, it was such a lovely place that it made me seriously consider being…good. I was officially someone else now. There was no longer any requirement at all to be satanic. If anything, there was more of a need to be, and act like, Neville B. Goodthorn. As an added incentive, a few decades of proper behavior would land me a spot in the other place. The look on everyone’s faces at my appearance up there would be priceless. I chuckled at the thought.

 

Hmm.

 

Maybe…

 

Eh. The hell with it.


Daniel Reiner was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and was influenced at an early age by the imagination of Larry Niven and the adjectives of H.P. Lovecraft. Fascination with Lovecraft’s universe led to The Shadow Saga, an ongoing series being published by Vulpine Press. Aside from novels, he does dabble in short pieces with horror, science fiction, or humorous themes. Samples of his work and the latest bits of news are available at https://www.danielreinerfiction.com.