Age of Imagination
The worst part wasn’t being chased
through the dark,
wasn’t not being able to see the face
of the formless attacker (except it always wore
a black overcoat, was always male),
wasn’t the sticky sinking, the terrible drag
on my slow-motion feet as I tried to run,
wasn’t that it always took place in dust-furred gloom,
silent except for the implacable footsteps.
It was not being able to scream, and, eventually,
when all attempts at screaming failed,
not being able to breathe.
If I woke enough to finally croak out weak, garbled noises,
no one came. Only the tick of the clock snicketed,
unintelligible as the language of its radium constellation,
and I rarely exchanged the terror of my bed
for the terror of the long hallway to my parents’ room.
In my third year, in the first spring I can remember,
that dreamed suffocation led me to begin
the remote appraisal that saves and ruins us.
I became able to understand danger
in waking life.
I was alone in a small woods, wandering below the hill
that hid the house from sight, looking into a sunken hollow
from the path that circled it. There was no green yet
but most of the ice in the drainage pit had melted.
I do not remember being cold. I wanted to climb down
to touch my reflection in the icy water. But I stared into that dark
crater and thought of asphyxia and night without an end,
rotten leaves swirling under the surface
like the shreds of a ragged black coat,
slow as the mysterious hands of a clock.
The old lady was too frail to join us
at the dinner table, but she always offered
her granddaughter the hospitality of her house—
excuse me, her mansion—gated golf-course vista
surrounded by Pennsylvania oak forests,
stone stables and outbuildings, sunken Italian
rose garden with petal-strewn brick paths
and a fish-mouthed fountain. Indoors,
chandelier-lit oil paintings gazed down at bronze
statues, waxed Louis XIV walnut furniture,
acres of Oriental carpets. A stream of servants
flowed silently up and down the marble staircase,
delivering trays and hushed messages
to the 24-hour nursing staff upstairs.
In the enormous dining-room, silver and china
glittered on immaculate damask under English
hunting prints and baroque sconces. White-
uniformed servers came and went from
the kitchen’s busy clatter, bearing each course
as if a sultan’s treasure. Like the finger-bowls,
(which I had been instructed not to drink from)
our crystal goblets held only tap water. Pale iceberg
lettuce with Jell-O and American cheese on the side
came with a ceremoniously offered bottle
of supermarket dressing. Roast beef like gray felt
had been assiduously cooled, as had the discolored
canned peas and spinach. The mashed potatoes
featured the grainy taste and unaspiring texture
of instant flakes. The gravy in the chased, gilded
gravy-boat was also canned. But there was no
stinting on the ketchup, nor the margarine
in an iced sterling-silver bowl, nor the stale Wonder
bread wrapped in a linen napkin. Between courses,
we stared uncomfortably at the unnecessary
finger-bowls. Dinner ended with the individual
presentation of small cakes that looked
suspiciously like Hostess Twinkies.
Air-conditioning had never been installed.
In the stifling bedroom, not a breath of air stirred
beyond the windows hung with 90-year-old
Belgian lace. We dreamed of being rich
enough to have anything
Why People Fail
They were told
that they were destined for success
and that nothing they did
was as good as what they could have done
if they had really tried.
All those books about can’t just don’t.
No one knows how large your demon looms
against the horizon, how the gravity alters
around its terrible footprint to create a bottomless well.
Something moves in that crater lake,
diverting your attention from
the shadows towering behind the bright sky.
You lean over the water
to aim your javelin at a more attainable planet
and spear your own reflection,
the darkness behind you guiding your hand.
All the things you ever wished to be fly
out of your open mouth at dusk in a streaming vapor
like the smoke of the last cigarette
after the malignancy becomes inoperable.
Ambling into long night, your skeletal illusions
shred the tenuous, wistful moonrise.
The withered susurration underfoot marks
a final fragmentation of deciduous hopes.
F. J. Bergmann is the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change (mobiusmagazine.com) and freelances as a copy editor and book designer. She lives in Wisconsin and fantasizes about tragedies on or near exoplanets. She was a Writers of the Future winner. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Polu Texni, Soft Cartel, Spectral Realms, Vastarien, and elsewhere. While lacking academic literary qualifications, she is kind to those so encumbered. She used to work with horses. She thinks imagination can compensate for anything.