Fiction
Incendiary
Grimley Bogue
Butter Pat Babies
Steve Rasnic Tem
Preamble
KJ Hannah Greenberg
Stockholm Syndrome
Lucy Mihajlich
Painting
Sayuri Yamada
Konfessin Mouser K.
AE Reiff

Excerpts
Hellbender
Jason Jack Miller
The Blood Poetry
Leland Pitts-Gonzalez
My Hands Were Clean
Tom Bradley
The Tumors
Matthew Revert

Hellbender
Jason Jack Miller


If I could’ve carried her by myself, I would have. But just the weight of the pine and spruce box was more than I could bear alone. The linens that covered her body and her clothes, the last she’d ever wear, made her heavier. The coins that covered her eyes added a few ounces more.

I could’ve carried her, by herself, forever.

January wasn’t a kind time for a burial, but we don’t get to choose. Old Christmas hid the sun behind a flat gray wall of clouds. January has a way of taking a person’s optimism and crushing it beneath its bony heel.

I’d take June, when long days kept wayward pessimism at bay for just a few hours more. When blackberry blossoms spilt over old stone fences while young rabbits got fat and lazy. I’d take Summer Solstice over Old Christmas any day.

But we don’t get to choose.

The procession left my front yard. Six pairs of feet tested the driveway’s stiff gravel like it was new ice on a pond. The spindly trees lining the road could care less about my grandfather, who led us all with slumped shoulders and red eyes. He forced a shuffle, all alone, except for Champ, his old collie.

Ben, my cousin, was next to me, even though I couldn’t see him for the casket. The box trembled as he cried. He’d been depressed since he got back from Afghanistan last year. At Christmas he finally started to smile again, and hasn’t smiled again since.

My dad had fallen toward the back of the line. He was coming off a real good drunk and was working hard on his next one. I couldn’t blame him. He used to be able to shoot a nickel off a crow’s back. This morning I had to remind him to put on a coat.

We paused after stepping onto the worn-out lane, which led to my grandfather’s house, before crossing the Blackwater and ending up in Davis. I shifted in the gravel—my bare feet relished the sensation of pain after the dull cold of the front yard. I left my shoes because I remembered how Paul went barefoot on the ABBEY ROAD cover. I must’ve thought it was traditional, or symbolized mutual suffering, or whatever. But standing here, without shoes on, I realized Paul was the corpse, not the pallbearer. I looked at my shuffling feet on the cold ground, then to my pap. He turned briefly, shrugged his shoulders, then surveyed the remainder of the procession. At his signal, the twine of two lonely violins split the afternoon, playing notes I vowed I’d never learn. My cousin, Katy, rolled her fiddle bow weakly across the strings, like flowers blooming too early in the season. My uncle, Jamie—Ben’s dad—propped her up with his own playing.

We all walked to an easy rhythm, pallbearers’ footfalls counting out a beat for the fiddlers to play to. My bare feet felt every note, accenting the downbeat of their mournful drone. Numb to everything else, my toes blistered and bled on the road, the longest I’d ever known. Past fields too tired to be plowed. Past a colorless stream too sad to see itself out of the valley. Past houses that sheltered frequent turmoil and suffering and up a hill to a hole in the ground where for one of us, days would end.

Katy and her mom, Rachael, Sat Up with the body for the customary three days, which was fine by me. They were way more capable than me of dealing with the kind of evil that could pursue a recently departed soul. Besides, three days was just about how long it took to dig a grave in West Virginia in January. The calluses on my palms confirmed it.

One evening to build a bonfire.

One night to let the coals thaw the frozen earth.

One day to dig.

Then again the next night.

Then once more.

My poor hands proved the stubbornness of the rocky earth better than any words could. My cousins offered to dig, but it had to be me and Ben, who’d learned a thing or two about digging graves since he’d enlisted. My mind needed the routine of labor to steady itself against the storm spinning within it. My soul, by far my weariest appendage, bowed and snapped when I heard the news that my sister had died.

Air without scent, hills without color, a life without her kind words …

I prepared a eulogy for Janie as we walked. But the same sentence kept playing over and over in my head, and it embarrassed me that I couldn’t think of more.

By the time we arrived at the family plot a light snow began to fall. My aunts had placed wreaths of spruce and ivy at intervals along the old wrought-iron fence. They’d placed fresh boughs of white pine on the grave of my grandfather’s little sister, Sarah, and on the grave of his oldest daughter, Katherine.

Women in this family sure don’t last very long, I thought as the procession filed intothe space around the graves.

At the far end of the plot, beneath an old cherry tree, lay the grave that Ben and I dug. The ground was more cobbles than soil and we did our best to separate the stones from the soggy earth. I stopped at the foot of Jane’s grave, and stared into the hole as we waited for the others to catch up.

My Aunt Rachael and her youngest daughter, Chloe, raced to relight the white candles that the wind had blown out. Some of the mourners carried candles of their own, holding the flame close to their faces for extra warmth. The yellow glow on their cheeks made the sky seem especially dark.

It was a small group of people, almost all of them family from my dad’s side except for Rachael’s beau, Roy Lee Fenton, and just one of Jane’s friends from school. Nobody really knew my sister. I can’t even say that I did. I wanted to, and even tried on a few occasions. But she left the mountains as if she knew something we all didn’t. Running from that which would inevitably kill her. Content to live in a small apartment off-campus in Morgantown, she severed almost all of her ties with our family and these mountains. The few sniffles I heard were more for the tragedy of a life lost than the sorrow of losing a loved one.

Sad for the body, not the person. Sad for ourselves for not making a greater attempt to reel her back into our lives. Maybe with the void her death created we realized we should’ve called and had coffee even when the inconvenience was too great. I was most sad for finally realizing I’d failed as a brother.

Ben and I climbed into the wide hole to direct the casket. This morning’s mud had already refrozen. My other cousins stood at the edge of the grave and guided the box down to us. Roy Lee Fenton and a couple of cousins held onto the back of the casket to make sure its descent was fluid and slow. Ben and I gently placed my sister on the ground between us.

Jamie reached down to help Ben out. When he offered his hand to me, I couldn’t take it.

I touched the coffin, made from a straight-grained plank of red spruce that Jamie had been saving to carve a fiddle. There were no knots on it, no blemishes, and Jamie would’ve burned it to see his niece alive. Never again would Jane and I share anything, let alone the same view. I pulled an old thistle from my pocket. I set it on the casket. The purple had faded a long time ago. Jane always thought they were especially pretty, and had a little pewter thistle necklace she wore. It turned up missing after she died.

“C’mon out of there, son,” my grandfather said.

I stared up at them from that grave, a hole so deep I wondered how I’d ever fill it. Tiny candles threw upward shadows onto the mourners, leaving me unable to see their eyes.

My grandfather spoke as I accepted Ben’s hand. “When somebody begins life on an ill-fated path, there’s little that the rest of us can do, except watch. This woman never had a chance. She’s part of a bloodline that knows hard times. Like my little sister and my little girl, Jane left us not knowing that life can be fair, that people can be just. She left the world as scared as the day she came into it, and for that, we remember her.”

My dad leaned against the fence and stared at the cold, dry ground. His eyes were red from the whiskey. Rachael had her arm around him.

My grandfather nodded to Jamie, who led the men back to the house. The procession took its good old time as uncles and cousins paid their respects to my old man. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. It wasn’t fair that only the women could stay.

“C’mon.” Ben tugged on my elbow.

Aunts and great-aunts and cousins stepped aside as Ben and I passed. Nobody cried except for Jane’s roommate, Alex. I always liked her, but Jane said she was off limits. Said I’d ‘ruin her.’ She was a ‘little too country’ for me. Rachael took her by the arm and told her to go with the guys into the house. The faint smell of lilac and lavender scented perfumes cut through the chill.

The women chanted old words I barely recognized. On the icy breeze I caught a whiff of spring even stronger than their perfumes had been. I turned, and saw the women pulling sprigs of ferns and thistle from their jackets. Boughs of red spruce and bright green oak leaves. Apple blossoms.

Ben said, “Don’t look, man. Just let it go.”

Painted trillium. Closed gentians. Indian paintbrush, blood red against the white light of Old Christmas Eve. Cherry blossoms burst open in a holler of muted pink from the tree above Jane’s grave. But Old Christmas was just a belief my kin upheld. Just like their Irish ancestors, they believed the Holy Spirit chose the night of the Epiphany to manifest itself on Earth in the form of blooming flowers and God knows what else. But I didn’t believe that any more than I believed the sheep chose this night to tell what they saw in the manger the moment Jesus was born.

“Flowers,” I said, walking back toward the plot.

“I know. But you know what tonight is. I don’t chew cabbage twice, so just leave it.”
The amber glow of the wake called to me from the old farm house. Inside those walls my grandfather and uncles and cousins poured whiskey, plated food and exchanged heartrending looks. Jamie tuned his fiddle. Going from cold to warm like that wasn’t good for an instrument, but he didn’t fuss at all.

“Don’t make me go in there, man.” My pap’s cattle watched from the field below, braying and breathing huffs of steam.

“Let the ladies do their thing. C’mon, man. Be strong, okay?” Ben threw his arm over my shoulder, gripping me in an embrace that solidified his anger and sadness. “She was like my sister too.”

“Easy, Ben.” I pushed him off me. “Let me have this, all right?”

“I’m fucking tired of it.” Ben clenched his teeth. “It ain’t fair what that Johnny Bull and his whores are doing. We can’t let them get away with this.”

“It’s not a curse, Ben. It’s chance. It’s just how things are. She drowned, nobody drowned her.”

“And Durbin’s downstream …” He shook as I talked, getting angrier rather than sadder.

I said, “We have to understand that. I’m tired of this feud shit with the Lewises and all the hexes and spells. We have to …”

Rachael turned her back to Ben and me as the women blew out their candles. Their chanting grew louder and their circle tightened a little. Mid-winter dusk let a muddy light trickle into the bare forest and fields that ran down to the Blackwater. It was an unpleasant light. Katy, the oldest of all my cousins, handed her tiny fiddle to her little sister as the circle tightened.

But there was enough light to see Rachael scrawl Jane’s name onto the temporarytombstone with a piece of chalk, cross it out with a hunk of coal ash, then moisten her finger and write Katy’s name in the ash.

From the house came the wail of Jamie’s newly-tuned violin, as loud as I’d ever heard it. Ben pushed me toward the back porch.

“Get off me,” I said, almost ready to fight.

“No. We can’t see this shit. You know the deal.”

There was enough light to see Katy strip off her heavy coat and slip a thin white gown over her shoulders before climbing down into my sister’s grave.

“You boys get in here now. Ben …” My grandfather called from the back porch. Champ barked and stepped into the yard. “Get back here, boy! Let’s go Henry. I hain’t telling you again.”

Ben pulled me through the yard. The drone of violin made it too loud to hear anything else. The smell of food pushed through the evening. The promise of warmth made me feel guilty for leaving her in the cold ground.

My pap slammed the door behind me. But he wasn’t quick enough. I’d heard it.

Despite the barking dog and the chatter, despite the noise Jamie played as a distraction, I heard it.

Katy screamed.

My cousin’s cry was more horrific than the wail of a cougar ruminating over the loss of a cub. Her cry was louder than the roar of the Blackwater after a spring thaw.

The assembly of men inside the house clapped and sang to drown out Katy’s shrill screams, loud enough to speak to the dead.

Loud enough to speak for the dead. I’d heard Katy’s words and knew what they meant.

Katy was crying the tears Jane cried on the night she died.

Katy was meant to cry for all of us.


Jason Jack Miller hails from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, as in, "Circus freaks, temptation and the Fayette County Fair," made famous by The Clarks in the song, "Cigarette." He is a writer, photographer and musician. His first band was the un--ironically named Phist, a punk/grunge hybrid who played their first show during second period at Tri-Valley High School’s Winter Carnival. Their last show was a week later on New Year’s Eve at Friend’s Roller Rink. He worked as a whitewater raft guide on the Lower Yough in Pennsylvania and the Cheat in West Virginia, during which time he met his wife, Heidi. Shortly after getting hitched they moved to Florida and worked for a very famous mouse. An outdoor travel guide he co-authored with his wife in 2006 jumpstarted his freelancing career; his work has since appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, online, as part of a travel guide app for mobile phones, and in a regular column for Inveterate Media Junkies. He wrote the novels Hellbender and All Saints during his graduate studies at Seton Hill University, where he is now adjunct creative writing faculty. When he isn't writing he's on his mountain bike or looking for his next favorite guitar. He is currently writing and recording the soundtracks to his novels, The Devil and Preston Black and Hellbender, and his next novel, The Gospel of Preston Black. He lives near Pittsburgh with his writer wife Heidi Ruby Miller. Tweet him @jasonjackmiller.