The Masters Review Blog

Sep 21

The Masters Review Volume VI – Introduction by Roxane Gay

Our sixth anthology of outstanding work by emerging writers, with stories selected by Roxane Gay, publishes in October and is available for pre-order. We are so excited, we couldn’t wait until next month to share Roxane Gay’s wonderful introduction to these ten awesome tales. We are so grateful to have worked with Roxane Gay on this volume, and we can’t wait to share it with you.

“And though I rarely am interested in stories about sad white people in sad marriages, there was one such story that absolutely made me forget I ever said I was not interested in such stories.”

When I am judging a literary contest, I am often asked what I am looking for in a good short story or essay. I offer up the kinds of work I am not really interested in reading—stories about college students, stories about writers, stories about sad white people in sad marriages, stories about addiction, stories about cancer. This probably seems overly prescriptive but when you read a certain kind of story too many times, you develop emotional callouses. The only thing that heals those emotional callouses is a great writing that offers up something refreshing and unexpected, whether it’s a writing style or a unique character or a rich sense of place or an unforgettable plot.

I am looking for writing that I will continue thinking about long after I have finished reading, for writing I want to read over and over again, for writing that will always stay with me. As I read the stories and essays for The Master’s Review Volume VI, I took my time. I read most of them while on book tour, on airplanes, and the stories I loved most were those that made me forget that I was in the middle of an exhausting tour on yet another terrible flight.

In “A Man Stands Tall,” I loved the premise, of a family doing one of those reality competitions where people pretend to live in a different time, without the comforts of modernity. The writing was crisp and precise and as the story proceeded, I kept wondering how it would all end, and then when I got to the end, I lost my breath, literally. I gasped, staring at the page, unsure of what I had just read and so I re-read it to see if I had misunderstood. I had not. And the audacity of the ending, the fierceness of it, made me put the stack of stories and essays down and just stare out the window at the clouds. A few minutes later I read the story again, and again and my goodness, my appreciation for the work only grew. If I could put into words how that story has made me feel since I first read it, that is what I would say every time I am asked what I am looking for.

The ten stories I selected for this anthology all moved me in that same way, where I either gasped or my heart pounded or my mind was simply blown by the story the writer had created. Take “Gormley,” for example. This is not the kind of story I am typically drawn to but the writing was delicate and careful and so perfectly matched to the setting. I was immersed in the world of the story and did not want to emerge from it. I felt the same way about “Confessions about a Lady in Waiting,” the title of which becomes doubly brilliant when you get to the end of the story. There was such an unexpected turn of events just past the middle of the story, and throughout, so much lush detail about the royal court, the king and queen, the women who served them in all ways.

(more…)

Sep 19

The Masters Review Volume VI – Preorder now!

The sixth volume of our anthology publishes this October and we’re thrilled to share a sneak peak of the cover. With stories selected by Roxane Gay, we can’t wait to bring you ten incredible stories written by today’s best emerging writers. Check out our volume VI authors below, and pre-order your copy now!

The Masters Review Volume VI Authors

“Gormley” by Chris Arp

“Steal Away” by Nicole Cuffy

“Confessions of a Lady-In-Waiting” by Rachel Engelman

“Migrations” by Michele Host

“Hope Gold” by Leslie Jones

“A Man Stands Tall” by Gabriel Moseley

“This is an Exercise in Detachment” by Amy Purcell

“Little Men” by Matthew Sullivan

“Speakers of Other Languages” by Maria Thomas

“Out of Our Suffering” by Kasey Thornton

<<   PRE-ORDER A COPY   >>

Sep 15

New Voices: “Lions in the House” by Beejay Silcox

Today, we are pleased to share with you the second place winner in our Flash Fiction Contest, “Lions in the House” by Beejay Silcox. This is a lovely, taut piece of flash. Through a discussion of nighttime noises in a house, this story reveals how two people in a relationship experience their anxieties differently.

“He’s never heard the lions in the house—this man, this husband, your husband. He has always slept in a way you can’t understand.”

There are lions in the house. Two, maybe three—it’s hard to tell. Filling the dark with their breathy territorial huffing, their stretched yawns and big-cat rumble.

It’s simple physics, acoustic trickery—the zoo is directly across the park and the sound carries. But there’s nothing simple about lions in the house. When you leave the windows open there’s something about the way the noise leaps around that makes it seem as if the lions are behind you in this new, old house—stalking you from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom, a kind of ventriloquism. If you close the windows, you can still hear them pawing against the glass.

No matter what you tell yourself, there’s that ever-open caveman eye in your brain that’s been waiting and watching—just for this, just for lions in the house. A hot-blooded part of you that always knew they were coming. And on nights when they do not come, when there’s wind or traffic or drunk street noise, this house with its rheumatic floorboards and recalcitrant hinges knows they will be back. It aches and strains and cracks its bones, and you’re awake, you’re awake, you’re awake.

He’s never heard the lions in the house—this man, this husband, your husband. He has always slept in a way you can’t understand. A careless sleep: reckless, unvigilant. When you first met you envied it, but now it terrifies you. How he can sleep through fire alarms and police sirens. How he once left a gas burner hissing and slept, as room-by-room, the air filled with oven fumes. How he can even sleep through your asthma attacks, that brutal underwater heaving that is so loud in your blood you can feel it echo for days.

To read the rest of “Lions in the House” click here.

Sep 14

Book Review: “The Graybar Hotel” by Curtis Dawkins

Today we feature a story collection by debut author, Curtis Dawkins. The stories in “The Graybar Hotel” are, as reviewer Julia Mucha writes, “an intriguing glimpse into the emotions and tedium of life as a prisoner in America.” While Dawkins work stands out due to his status as an inmate, it is his excellence in the craft which makes his stories memorable.

Curtis Dawkins’ debut collection of short stories, The Graybar Hotel, gives readers an intriguing glimpse into the emotions and tedium of life as a prisoner in America. After being imprisoned for a drug-related homicide in 2005, Dawkins started writing because it gave him hope. Before his drug addiction, Dawkins earned his MFA from Western Michigan University.

Throughout this collection, Dawkins’ stories feature characters that, although imprisoned for serious offenses, are easily empathized with by readers. He does this by focusing on the central themes that vein these stories: loneliness, longing, and claustrophobia. Many of the narrators’ crimes are not discussed in detail. What we see instead are brief snapshots of each character at different periods of their incarceration, punctuated by poignant imagery and metaphor. Dawkins is precise in his word choice, showing each of the characters’ emotions through intimate details rather than cliched language.

In the first story, “County,” the narrator has just arrived in jail. While weaning off a drug addiction, he watches The Price is Right. “Sometimes tears would fill my eyes when a lucky member of the audience would high-five their way through the crowd to stand on the contestant’s row. They were so genuinely happy to be given a chance, and as they looked at Bob brightly lit onstage, it must have seemed like a better life was right there for the taking. Their hearts’ desires were a possibility—and not in some distant future, but right then, at least for the next hour.”

<< Read the rest of “The Graybar Hotel” review here >>

Reviewed by Julia Mucha

Sep 13

Science Fiction Review Series: The Long Earth and Patternmaster

We continue our week of book reviews with Lauren Klepinger’s Science Fiction Review Series. Today we examine a newer title, The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, as well as Octavia Butler’s science fiction classic, Patternmaster. They are among some of the final titles in this series, where we examined the genre to dissect and inspect some of science fiction’s most beloved novels.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

From 1950 to 2005, our beloved planet gained a whopping 4 billion people, a more rapid population growth than it has ever seen or is projected to see in the near future. Fears about using more resources than the Earth can afford to give permeate both the world of science and the world of politics. Cities grow ever denser, nibbling away at farmland and natural habitats. In many ways, it looks as though humanity is simply running out of room.

In The Long Earth British sci-fi/fantasy virtuosos Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter imagine a scenario in which these anxieties are no longer relevant: access to unlimited Earths, entirely free of humans.

The possibility of other universes is not so far-fetched according to proponents of various multiverse theories (although it is certainly far-fetched according to their critics). And this great “what if” has given science fiction plenty of mileage, inspiring films like Another Earth and Donnie Darko, as well as episodes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

<< Read the rest of The Long Earth review here >>

Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

Any science fiction reading list would hardly be complete without a work by Octavia Butler, an author largely considered one of the genre’s greats, and a recipient of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. She resides in the MoPOP’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame alongside the likes of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Isaac Asimov. With all this recognition in the science fiction world, it seems strange that, considered among other books in this review series such as Railhead, The Long Earth, and Foundation, her novel Patternmaster hardly seems to belong in the genre at all.

Patternmaster paints a picture of a society in the far-flung future, where mutations have dramatically divided human civilization. The ruling class is made up of “Patternists,” telepaths who mentally link to each other through a psychic network called the Pattern. The Patternists subjugate the lower class of “mutes,” ordinary humans who cannot participate in the Pattern. And on the outside of civilization are the Clayarks, animalistic humanoids whose sole purpose seems to be eradicating Patternists.

The story is simple and straightforward: the Patternmaster, the overlord of this society, is on his deathbed, and two of his sons are in competition to take his place. The resulting narrative is a web of power plays and manipulation, exploring the themes Butler is known for—dynamics of inequality, submission, and hierarchies. The Pattern is largely used to explore these hierarchies further, and enable the characters to anticipate each others’ actions and (literally) get into each others’ heads.

Patternmaster is a curious case for several reasons. It is Butler’s debut novel, and therefore some critics demote it due to her inexperience as a writer. It also has the same problem that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series does: the publishing order of the novels does not match the chronological order, so while Patternmaster was the first published, it takes place after all the others in the series. This poses a question not only for reading order, but also for how to evaluate it as an example of science fiction—alone, or with all the other books in the series informing it.

<<  Read the rest of Patternmaster here >>

Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger

Sep 12

Book Review: Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy

We’re so pleased to return from our break with a chance to review this wonderful chapbook by Alex McElroy, a writer we published in 2014 and whose work has always captured our attention. In Daddy Issues, out today from The Cupboard Pamphlet, McElroy elevates his fiction by experimenting with structure and with razor sharp considerations on the sentence level. We encourage all of you to checkout this wonderful chapbook.

Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy

Alex McElroy’s chapbook, Daddy Issues, consists of seven short fiction pieces, and each story tackles the role that boys and men play in their families and in the world, paying particular attention to the relationship between fathers and sons.

By opening the chapbook with a story in the form of a flowchart, McElroy expands our notion of what fiction is and what it can do. “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart” is—perhaps unsurprisingly—heartbreakingly sad but it is also very funny, with unexpected twists and turns. Some of the best moments occur when, instead of the standard “yes” or “no” flowchart box, the character responding to the flowchart provides their own answer, occasionally in the form of a question or a rebuke. But this is undoubtedly a short story—with a clear narrative arc—and it made me realize that flowcharts lie under most fiction. McElroy has drilled down to the story’s essence. And that feels just right, especially for a story about the death of one’s son.

Some of the stories, in their use of detail and their lack of sentimentality, recall Jayne Anne Phillips’ early, groundbreaking work in Black Tickets. Memory and its fallibility often come into play. One of the strongest pieces is “My First Memory,” a micro piece under 300 words. The first-person narrator recalls his first memory with a pitch-perfect combination of specificity and haze.

I am two years old, possibly three, and my mother has her hands in my throat. We’re at my grandmother’s house. In the living room. The carpet is a smoky gray color. The walls, too. No, they’re more of a yellow. Like nicotined fingers.

As the narrator sharpens and refines his memory, the perception of the child and the understanding of the adult do a dance, of sorts, through the memory. The present tense works wonderfully to underscore the immediacy and the import of the remembered moment.

McElroy’s language is always precise; one senses the attention he’s given to the sonic quality of each line. Every one of these stories starts with a first sentence that draws the reader in, that makes us want to read on. “Popi to Life” begins as follows: “String Hayes was waiting in line to pick up his corpse.” (I dare you to put this story down after reading that line.) And then, in a perfect segue from the possibility of magical realism to realism, the story continues: “He was a lanky kid, smart and largely disliked at Blake Elementary.” And it is the shifting back and forth in this piece, from realism to magical realism, that gives the story its emotional weight. I was reminded of what Manuel Gonzales has said of magical realism: “So for me, the trope only works if it affects the real world, obtains its own gravity, is something real and tangible and affecting.” The final image in “Popi to Life” is one that stays and haunts. (more…)

Sep 5

Out of Office

Hi, all. The Masters Review staff is out of the office soaking up the last few days of summer. We’ll return to regular blog updates and loads of great fiction after September 11, 2017.

Sep 1

New Voices: “The Wheelchair” by Mahreen Sohail

Today we present the third place story in our Flash Fiction Contest, “The Wheelchair,” by Mahreen Sohail. In this somber piece, a young woman deals with her father’s sickness by placing herself in his wheelchair for a few minutes in a grocery store. The result is a touching examination of perspective and pity, and how we treat the sick. Enjoy this wonderful piece of flash fiction by a talented new writer.

“When she cried her face swelled like a watermelon and her eyes became like seeds she could spit out. It was the saddest thing you ever saw except for my father dying.”

We bought the wheelchair first, my mother, my brother and I. We took our father to the grocery store. He asked us to stop near the tubs of pickled garlic, pickled mango, pickled chili, pickled olives. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be pickled he said, face laughing and cracked like a prune. This was the time after we were visited by the lady who said she knew a ghost and the ghost declared our father wasn’t sick. What a day that was. We were all in high spirits.

My father asked, Could this turn into a miracle story, and we didn’t have the heart to say No, though of course our hearts were screaming, No. We were living with our aunt whose house was close to all the hospitals. We were so sad in her house. Every day, I wore the same clothes.

My father wafted in and out of sleep. He waved his hands in the air, his fingers twirled above his head. We thought, He’s speaking to the ghost. We woke him up all the time. We were afraid he would offend the ghost and the ghost would take away his good diagnosis.

My father couldn’t go to the toilet on his own. He had to be helped on and off the seat. He took medicine all the time, for iron, for blood, to stop the pain. What a way to make the human body function. What a way to be sad. Some days he looked closely at his hand and at all the white pills in it and asked, What is all this powder? We spoke to him like he was a child. Every day I cried and cried and sometimes my mother tried to stop me and sometimes she gave in. When she cried her face swelled like a watermelon and her eyes became like seeds she could spit out. It was the saddest thing you ever saw except for my father dying.

<<  To read the rest of “The Wheelchair” click here  >>

Aug 28

September Deadlines: 11 Contests and Prizes With Deadlines This Month

We’re getting closer and closer to the beginning of fall, and closer and closer to the end of these contests! It’s not too late to enter, though, and it’s not the end of summer just yet. Don’t miss out on your chance!

FEATURED: Dzanc Books Contests

Dzanc Books is offering a plethora of opportunities for writers, with three different contests all ending this September! The Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, judged by Lindsey Drager, Chrissy Kolaya, and Daniel A. Hoyt, awards a $10,000 advance and publication for the innovative and daring winning manuscript. The Dzanc Books/Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize bestows a $5000 advance and publication upon the winning fiction or nonfiction manuscript that focuses on global understanding and cultural exchange. Lastly, the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize celebrates imaginative and innovative short form writing, offering a $2500 advance and publication to the winning submission. Check them all out!
Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: September 15

Black Warrior Review

All three of the Black Warrior Review contests are ending soon, so enter now if you want to receive one of the three $1000 first-place prizes! Nicola Griffith is judging the fiction section, Rachel McKibbens is judging the poetry section, and Hanif Willis-Abduraqib is judging the nonfiction applicants. All of the winners and a selection of other entries will be published! See more here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: September 1

Slippery Elm Prize

This annual contest from Slippery Elm Literary Journal is looking for the best in both poetry and prose! David Garrison is judging in poetry, up to three poems per entry. Mary Grimm is judging in prose, with a 5000 word maximum. The winner of each contest receives $1000, and all entries are considered for publication in the 2017 print issue. Submit here!
Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: September 1

Barthelme Prize For Short Prose

This is Gulf Coast’s current contest, and they’re looking for a very specific sort of entry. Submissions can be prose poetry, fiction, or essays, but they all need to be less than 500 words. The winner receives $1000 and publication, and it’s judged by our friend Roxane Gay! Check it out!
Entry Fee: $18 Deadline: September 8

Young Lions Fiction Award

If you’ve published a book during the 2017 calendar year, and you’re younger than 35, this is an amazing opportunity tailor-made for you! Offered through the New York Public Library, both novels and short story collections are accepted, and the winner receives $10,000. The winner will be announced during a special ceremony at the New York Public Library this spring. Apply now!
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: September 8

The Berlin Prize

The American Academy in Berlin is now accepting applications for their residential fellowships, to enrich transatlantic dialogue in the arts and address the themes of migration and social integration. Writers need one published book to be eligible, and the fellowships are restricted to US residents. About twenty Berlin Prizes are awarded each year, and those selected receive round-trip airfare, a monthly $5000 stipend, and lodging at the Hans Arnhold Center. More details here!
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: September 29

Cullman Center Fellowships

The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers offers up to fifteen fellowships each year for academics, journalists, and creative writers. Part of the New York Public Library system, this is an amazing opportunity to access the research collections at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building! A Cullman Center Fellow receives a stipend of up to $70,000, an office, and full use of the Library’s physical and electronic resources. Don’t miss out!
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: September 29

Hackney Literary Award For Novels

Sponsored by the Morris Hackney family, this is an amazing prize for any aspiring novelist! This $5000 prize will be awarded to an unpublished novel, and there is no limit on length or subject matter. Check it out now!
Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: September 30

Juniper Literary Prizes

The University of Massachusetts Press honors the memory of Robert Francis, who lived and wrote his poetry in Fort Juniper, and applicants should keep in mind his dedication to creativity and nature. The Juniper Prize for Poetry awards $1000 and publication to two original poetry manuscripts, one first book prize for an unpublished author, and one prize for a previously published author. The Juniper Prize for Fiction also awards $1000 and publication to two original fiction manuscripts, one for a short story collection, and one for a novel. Learn more here!
Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: September 30

Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize

This prize is named for and operated to honor the longtime director of the University of Arkansas Press, Miller Williams. Submissions of book-length poetry manuscripts should reflect his preference for poetry that was plain spoken, evocative, ironic, and humorous. The top four entries will receive publication, and the first-place winner also receives $5000. Submit here!
Entry Fee: $28 Deadline: September 30

New Criterion Poetry Prize

Presented by The New Criterion for a book-length manuscript of poems, this contest is open to new as well as established poets! Roger Kimball, Charles Martin, and David Yezzi are judging, and they’re looking for a collection that pays close attention to form. The winner will receive $3000 and publication through St. Augustine’s press. More details here.
Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: September 30

 

by Kimberly Guerin

PS: If you are an emerging poet still looking for a contest to enter this fall, consider the Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets

Frontier Poetry is hosting an award for emerging poets, and the guest judge is Tyehimba Jess! The winner receives $2000 and publication. Intrigued? Go for it.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: September 30

Aug 24

Notes From The Slush – Flash Fiction

Our Notes From The Slush series is a discussion among Masters Review editors about what they saw in their most recent submissions. In the discussion they examine what was working in the stories they accepted and some of the challenges they saw in the pieces that were declined. Today, editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser, take a closer look at stories from their flash fiction contest, which wrapped up earlier this year.

K: It was so wonderful hosting a call specifically for flash fiction. You and I have always loved the form, and our library has quite a lot of it, but it was so great focusing on, and specifically offering a platform for these small stories. For me, flash fiction isn’t directly comparable to a story that spans several thousand words. The intention of the story is different. So is the economy. Writers have to be specific with their choices, both in terms of word choice but also in terms of narrative arc. What works for flash fiction doesn’t always work for a short story and vice versa. Do you agree? What kinds of things in your opinion work for one form and not the other? What makes flash special in your mind?

S: I agree with you that it was an absolute pleasure to read for this contest. We had been wanting to do a flash award for years, and we read so many little stories that were full of compact energy.

I also agree that the parameters by which we judge flash fiction are different than those we use for stories of a more traditional length. The wonderful thing about flash (as in any fiction) is that there are no rules, but you can take risks in a flash piece that might not pan out in a longer story. For that reason, I don’t want to be too prescriptive. But I can say that two craft choices really stood out to me this round: one held otherwise strong flash stories back; the other propelled stories to the top of our list.

A lot of the stories we discussed were impressively sweeping in scope, but never seemed to land anywhere. While they were well crafted, they were still unsatisfying because there wasn’t an emotional takeaway. There was one piece that chronicled onlookers’ reactions to a suicide at a resort, but didn’t ultimately go as deep as we would have liked. There was another that explored a child’s relationship with an abusive father but never quite got to the heart of it. I could imagine these stories being quite successful if they spanned, say, twenty pages in length, and really leaned into the complexities that are only hinted at in their current form. But what yields a full, deep story of a traditional length can easily feel gimmicky in flash.

However, the majority of stories we accepted had one thing in common: they contained an emotionally layered, complex scene that had implications beyond the action described. In our winner, “Out and Out,” a Muslim woman and her father go to a beach in Spain where most of the women are topless. The protagonist’s father is not judgmental of the nudity, but it’s clear that he is uncomfortable. The protagonist herself is embarrassed by her own unease. In “The Grocery Store Miracle” (title edit pending), a woman with a chronically ill father takes a spin around the store in his wheelchair, and the other patrons mistake her for the patient. There’s so much more to these scenes than what I just described; they have layers upon layers packed into them. But you can see how rich and specific they are.

What are some things you noticed about the pieces that we gave very serious consideration to, but ended up declining? Were there some common characteristics holding them back?

K: As with any contest, we saw some really great work that we just couldn’t accept, and a lot of it was very promising. It was certainly one of our tougher editorial meetings! In the end, we chose work that was, as you put it, emotionally layered, fully formed, and met the challenge it set for itself. Whether it was successful at its particular point of view or pushed its unique premise to reveal or enhance its character’s journey, all of our winners and honorable mentions are thoughtful, and subtly complex pieces.

For me, the most memorable aspect about the stories we seriously considered that didn’t make the cut was that they were filled with emotional potential but lacked focus or thematic specificity. Essentially, I wasn’t sure what the story was trying to say and there was an emotional bulls-eye that was missed. In the end, these stories were close, but ineffective at generating a target for the reader’s focus. The result is a story that lacks impact. When you’re talking about flash fiction, you have to consider economy. Making these stories longer to generate space to explore what is really happening around an event or character could help, but I thought in a lot of instances we saw strong work that focused too long on the premise, the voice, or event, instead of how it was affecting the characters in the story. Therein lies the challenge of flash fiction: to be effective and powerful in such a small space.

On a more basic level, I was surprised to see unnecessary language and detail in stories that are so restricted by word count. We saw a lot of stories that spent time in the wrong areas. I’d suggest for anyone reading flash to really consider what is necessary in the piece and what isn’t. If you were giving one piece of advice to flash writers, what would it be? (more…)

Aug 21

Solar Eclipse Fiction: “A Rogue Planet” by Thomas Pierce

The great solar eclipse is happening and we can think of no better story from our library to offer you than Thomas Pierce’s “A Rogue Planet.” In this story, the narrator goes on about a planet, and begins to poke holes in our assumptions about human knowledge and relationships. This pithy and masterful tale shows us that, though we may think we’re sure of the workings of our world and our minds—we actually have no idea. The perfect story to read during the path of totality.

Are you watching this too? Do you see the face? How come we’ve never even heard of this planet until now? Can you believe this is really happening? When you first heard the news of a planet that’s come creeping into our solar system, a planet with a face, did you assume they meant that figuratively? Does it scare you that they most definitely do not mean that figuratively? Are you still in bed? Are you under the covers with the phone to your ear? Is your husband at work right now? If he was home would he be holding you in his arms or in the kitchen preparing himself a breakfast burrito?

Which channel are you on now? Why must video feeds from space always be so grainy? Did I ever tell you that my Uncle Roscoe—whom you met once at my father’s house after his back surgery—is among those internet-message-board commenters who believe the moon landing was filmed on a studio lot and that it was him who inspired the idea for my lecture on the impossibilities of romantic love post-JFK-assassination? Didn’t you take that class?

How much do you understand about adaptive optics, about super-mirrors, about space and time, the origins of the universe? The observatory that discovered the planet—is it even reputable? Are we right to trust them? From where do they receive the bulk of their funding? If the government—which government? Ours? The Venezuelan? The Iranian? Mightn’t that be useful information? To what degree is solving this mystery an international effort? What do the French think? Are the Chinese mobilizing? How long have the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the FBI known about this, and if they’ve known for long, why would they have kept it a secret? Has the president been briefed? What does he think about a planet with an actual face? Does it scare him? Shouldn’t it? Has he paced a path into the Oval Office rug? Could this explain why he went gray so fast? What does the First Lady think, and what is she telling their kids? What will you tell Lucy? Are they letting schools out early today?

Have you been staring at a screen all morning too? Do your eyes ache? Does your heart? Have you paused the DVR and traced the image of the face with your finger? Are you looking at it now? Are you seriously freaking out right now? Do you still keep a few clonazepams in your sock drawer just in case? What’s this planet made of? Like ours, does it have a crust and mantle and core? Is there an atmosphere? Blue skies, red skies, purple skies? Milky seas or frozen seas or no seas at all? Endless deserts?

How long since you went to church? Are you still Unitarian? What would Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi have to say about this? Have you studied the enhanced image? Have you watched them digitally outline its nose, mouth, and eyes, bringing each feature into such stark relief? How much do these on-screen scratch marks remind you of football commentary? What does all this mean? How did the face get there? Could it be a naturally occurring geologic feature? Could it somehow be superimposed upon the surface? Or maybe it’s a physical structure—like the pyramids or Stonehenge but much more massive?

<< Read the rest of “A Rogue Planet,” here  >>

Aug 18

New Voices: “The Cock in Cadwalader Heights” by Ariel Delgado Dixon

In Ariel Delgado Dixon’s beautiful summer story “The Cock in Cadwalader Heights,” an eleven-year-old girl growing up in Trenton, New Jersey decides to investigate the mysterious rooster who lives in an abandoned house in her neighborhood. “The Cock in Cadwalader Heights” beautifully captures the hazy, long summer days of childhood while also giving us a sober look at adult issues. This piece charmed us from the beginning, and we are pleased to share this story with you and to welcome it to our New Voices library.

“The first time I heard the rooster, I was taking a sweaty nap in the backseat of the Saab. I woke confused, in someone else’s dream—where a bird had a duty to mark the day.”

In the abandoned rowhome behind our house, there lived a rooster that crowed every day at high noon. Though the phenomenon of the bird might have begun earlier, I only noticed it at the onset of that summer, as I was wandering away humid weekday afternoons while my mom worked.

The noises of barn animals were decidedly scarce in Cadwalader Heights, though there had once been a quarter horse corralled in a patch of yard two streets over, whose braying traveled easily over snow-flattened winter days. By the time the rooster showed up, the horse was long gone, hauled off to somewhere—a placid farm retreat for city horses, I imagined—and the cock’s noonday call rose above the customary street refrain: the double-thunk of cars wheeling over manholes, dogs conversing blindly with one another from blocks away.

Our house was an old one, even by our neighborhood’s standards. The colonial revival came with a crumbling brick garage, a derelict wooden loft barely afloat near the rafters. This, I was forbidden to climb. As consolation, my mother’s brokedown Saab became my home base. For as long as I could remember, it had been stashed in the brick garage, which had become a building-sized junk drawer full of castoffs: rotted firewood, a decommissioned lawnmower, bike inner tubes that I frequently mistook for monster garter snakes. The Saab was the centerpiece of the scrap and my own personal jungle gym. Its permanently open moonroof made the perfect hatch for climbing in and out, and I’d often retreat to the backseat with a Highlights magazine lifted from the library, or a handful of pebbles to lob through the gash in the garage’s side window.

The summer before, I had made it my mission to dig a giant hole in the backyard, a venture I pitched as a tunnel to China. I’d always hit a root system a few feet down and give up, then move over a few paces to begin again. By that summer’s end, the ground was pockmarked with three-foot-deep craters, as if massive ice-cream scoops had been taken from the earth. This summer, I was less motivated.

My sister Eneida was off spending the summer at Camp Dulcet for Girls with her best friend, living in three-walled cabins in the mosquito-specked Poconos. She mostly kept her bedroom door closed anyway, but without her the house was sedative, stale.

The first time I heard the rooster, I was taking a sweaty nap in the backseat of the Saab. I woke confused, in someone else’s dream—where a bird had a duty to mark the day. I was ready to run to Eneida’s room, to tell her of the sound. Then I remembered that she was off in ceramics or riflery class, maybe piloting a canoe.

So, I went to inspect the noise myself. Sidestepping the backyard’s cavities, I headed toward the battered fenceline, a third of its posts knocked out. The connected rowhomes on either side of the pale brick dwelling had been bulldozed a few years earlier, leaving just the one—a crooked and protruding tooth of a building shaved down and disowned. There was overgrowth to wade through, thorns that snagged my socks. I listened for something to tell me where to fix my eye. I heard the howl of an ambulance, wind nudging the heavy bows of summer-ripe oak trees. Then: a flash of white in the second-floor window, where the boards were pulled away.

It might’ve been the flutter of a curtain, or light bouncing off some scrap of metal. I looked for signs of life among the litter in the onion grass and trained my eye on the second level, just as a breeze picked up. The wind whirled its way through the rowhome’s lone open pane, livening the dust from the floorboards and corners. That’s when I saw them: two long feathers crisscrossing in mid-air—one black, one white.

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