My father had two birthdays,
but a single life. He kept both papers
with zeal, they witnessed his existence.
His birth certificate had him registered
on a different day than the one we celebrated.
With one of those dates my tired father bribed death.
My sister and I always asked him
to tell us about his childhood.
He preserved intact the hamlet,
the village, his mother, his brothers.
The wondering, menacing animals,
the trees, imprecise like someone's dream
plus, every leaf in his lineage, each fruit
with the lukewarm temperature of its pulp.
The river close to the house,
the inexhaustible rancor.
He disappeared on that shore
at the age of six. He rose
from the worm entrails of dawn
and left without giving notice.
The house was calm, a sleeping cow,
his footsteps on the thin branches
could hardly be heard.
He would sleepwalk with his eyes
sealed with wax. Grandmother told me
she caught him by the stream ready to jump,
seek out the fish that were like threads that someone
braided to escape existence.
In his stories, things had equivocal
gestures. They gave the impression
of being disguised as themselves.
They were covered with a sweet
tree bark where, and over the years,
moss had grown and ants had opened paths
without being seen.
His father barely allowed my father
to remember him. He wasn't a man,
he was anger, a handful of knuckles,
wanton, brutal desire. He hung inert
at the center of my father's memory,
dangling face down, open throat,
while the soft clay
of his blood poured into a pot.
Inheritance must be read upside-down,
traversed with the finger
as if you were following the unequal
punctuation marks of braille.
Navigate upward, then make a boat
with the sad wood of the body.
Sergio A. Ortiz is a gay Puerto Rican poet and, the founding editor of Undertow Tanka Review. He is a two time Pushcart nominee, a four time Best of the Web nominee, and a 2016 Best of the Net nominee. His poems have been published in hundreds Journals and Anthologies. He is currently working on his first full length collection of poems, Elephant Graveyard.
Photograph by Prima Alam
If Mum knew that I was here she would kill me. Eighteen years on from the day when Stork Incorp. took the final instalment of my conception fee from her account, I am finally about to meet the male who fathered me.
My first sight of the imposing grey concrete buildings on the outskirts of Dundee, that are Stork Incorp. with their surround of high barbed wire fences is almost enough to turn me about in my tracks. Almost, but not quite. I am determined to meet him, this male who out of Mum's earshot and even then, still under my breath I sometimes refer to as 'Dad'. As a child, all I had to prove his existence was a small, crumpled photograph, torn from the Stork Incorp. catalogue of the year of my birth, but that tiny picture, hidden inside my pillow, heard as many childhood secrets and wiped away as many tears as any flesh and blood parent.
Blood, that is what we share and why without him I feel like I'm only half a person. I have inherited my mother's hair and eyes but according to our medical records, my blood is my father's. It's not my head or my heart that aches to know him, it is my blood. It pumps faster now in growing expectation as my two escorts lead me through countless gates, doors and security scanners and past the windowless nurseries where the few male children reared, are kept. It must have been a strange, strange world before the revolution, when males were allowed to roam among us.
History has always fascinated me. It was both my favourite subject at school and, as it turned out, the reason for my eventual expulsion, when I dared to attend a Invergowrie School end of term party in a SKIRT! I was expelled instantly on grounds of 'unacceptable femininity'. Mum laid the blame for my degeneracy on my father's blood. This only served to strengthen my resolve to meet him and each week I put a little of my meagre wages aside until I could afford the trip to Stork Incorp.
I am ushered into the waiting room and left by myself. Here, the walls are painted in pastel shades and covered in pictures of smiling baby girls with their proud mothers. For a moment these photographs remind me of those that are sticky-taped to my bedroom wall at home, except that my photos and posters... I cringe with shame as I admit this... are all of males. Degenerate I am, like Mum said. It's in my blood. Never the less I do find it embarrassing to walk into a second-hand shop, in a Dundee side street, and under the disapproving eye of the proprietress, pick out the faded, torn pictures of rock and film stars from a previous age. Despite my shame and the fact that my purchases are invariably wrapped in brown paper and quickly thrust into my bag by the shrewd shopkeeper; once I reach home, tear off the wrapping and see those handsome male faces staring up at me, the ordeal is made worthwhile.
I have been waiting here for twenty minutes now and growing more nervous by the second. What shall I say to him? There is a pile of magazines on the table but they too contain nothing but endless pictures of mothers and their daughters. I wrote to the problem page of a similar publication to these, a couple of months back, explaining that I was planning on seeing my dad and asking them what I should expect to find. Their reply was most unhelpful -'DON'T DO IT' in capital letters, and informed me that even if I succeeded in meeting him, the outcome would only be a bitter disappointment to me. 'Males aren't like us you know.'
I have a book in my bag. I shall take it out and try and read. It's a romance, my favourite kind of fiction, no longer published of course. I have covered it in the jacket of a volume entitled 'Advanced Hydraulic Systems, Their Maintenance And Repair', thus sparing myself the pitying looks of my fellow travellers on the journey down. It's by a woman named Jane Austen, the romance that is, not the hydraulics tome. Mum still finds my wearing of feminine clothes and shoes very hard to accept, but her reaction is mild compared with the fury I provoke when walking around our small town, dressed in all my finery. The very first time I plucked up the courage to venture out on the streets of Invergowrie in a DRESS and a pair of SLINGBACKS, the abuse and the spittle fairly flew in my direction, until a friend of ours dragged me home in disgrace. Never though, will I be tempted to trade my glamour and femininity for the drab uniform of overalls, sweater, laced up boots and cropped hair worn universally by everyone else, young or old. I am proud that degeneracy is in my blood. I am going to thank my father for giving me this, the greatest gift of all.
The only word I can think of to describe what has drawn me here to finally meet my father, is an old fashioned term no longer used - LOVE. I love him although I have never met him and 1 hope that once he knows who I am, he will love me. Love must be the thing that fills up that cold, empty space inside of a person. When I look at my posters and pictures of males, I feel moved in some way. Is that love too? It must have been pretty important once. Pre-revolution poets filled books with poems about it and most of the songs on my antique CD's mention the word as well. I cannot see any of these songs of love making today’s top twenty. Nowadays almost every song written is about a woman's aspirations or career - either how well she is doing or how well she would like to be doing at her job. I work as a plumber. I was startled to read somewhere the other day that there used to be male plumbers too in the old days. Mum says that it cannot be true because it is a skilled job and if males had been responsible for our sinks and toilets the whole planet would have been flooded with sewage in no time. It does make you think. At school we were taught that males have only a limited intelligence and are all dangerous and destructive. Apparently, they began to threaten both the survival of womankind and of the planet itself, hence the revolution.
My escorts still have not returned. Do you suppose they can have forgotten me? I must say that the women in this Jane Austen's novel seem to be very taken with the charms of the males in the story. These males do not act like they are dangerous at all and the way she has written it, they seem to be almost as intelligent as the women.
At last I can hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside. My escorts are returning to collect me and take me to see HIM! I can hide my book inside a different cover but I cannot hide my feelings. I am coughing and sweating - will it arouse their suspicions, or are the women who come here to choose a father for their children, usually nervous like this? If my deception is discovered I may be thrown back out into the street without seeing him or I may even be arrested. That does not scare me as much as the prospect of meeting Dad, even though it is something I have waited for, for the majority of my life. Will we be like strangers to each other? After all, we share nothing but blood.
There is a warmth down deep inside of me, in my blood. Perhaps there is a similar warmth in him and at the sound of my voice it will kindle into love. I wonder if he will still be recognisable as the male in my photograph, taken nearly nineteen years ago. Unfortunately, I will be behind mirrored glass so that although I will be able to see him clearly, he will not be able to view his daughter. This is a precaution by Stork Incorp. to 'protect the woman's anonymity and to avoid causing undue disturbance to the controlled daily life patterns of our males'. At least we will be able to speak to each other. This is allowed so that those women looking for a male with a higher than average I.Q. rather than a specimen with mere physical beauty, may question the males at length though it's stressed in the publicity material that the males might well choose not to answer. I sit down in the chair provided and look through the glass into the opposite room, where my father will soon enter. The escorts leave me, the door in the room beyond opens and here he is! It is him! Yes it is; older naturally, a few lines on the handsome face, a sprinkle of grey in the thick brown hair, but it is unmistakably the face which has looked out at me from that torn piece of paper, these past eighteen years. DAD!
"Hello" I stammer. He sits down in a chair but doesn't try to stare in the direction from which my voice is coming, out of habit I suppose. He has never had the opportunity to view one of his visitors and probably never will. Of course, I do not interest him - not yet, not until my fumbling tongue can explain our special bond. Our bond of blood.
"I have come here for a very special reason..." He is not reacting to my words. An awful thought has just struck me. Suppose he is not English and cannot understand me. Some males are imported from abroad to give a wider choice and variety. I must put the thought out of my head. I must carry on now I have come this far. "Hello Dad, yes that's what you are, you are my father." He jumps up out of the chair. He understands! "I love you, Dad and I've missed you all of my..." He has turned away from me. He is pushing a button on the wall. What does that mean? I cannot see his face to see how he is taking my news. "Dad! Dad!" He is not listening to me. He is at the back of the room now. He is hammering on the door by which he came in. He is pounding on his door, but it's my door that flies open. My escorts are back and with them two huge, grim-looking women. "Dad, what's happening? What's going on? Do they treat you well in here? WHY WON'T YOU SPEAK TO ME?"
The heavy gates slam shut behind me, my hands are nursing my head where it cracked against the pavement. Lifting my face from my hands, I see first the barbed wire barricade around Stork Incorp. and then upon my fingers I see my blood, our blood, beginning to collect and to drip down the front of my dress.
Judy is a multi award-winning playwright/screenwriter, with plays produced by the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 among many others. She has also had two feature films, several short films and an original TV drama produced, as well as numerous short stories published.
Letter in the Time of the Spanish Flu Pandemic
Greenleaf, Idaho, 1918
Dear Sister Mary,
We all are well except Neva and she is well as
could be expected under the circumstances.
The weather here of late has been rather squally.
a beautiful day today, however.
I hope you are well and happy.
I will be 36 years old my next birthday.
Our lives are slipping away. Do you
Remember when I boarded with you and Jim?
And you put up such nice lunches for me?
If I have a little girl I want her to be just like her
Aunt Mary. Do you remember the time I
kicked your kettle of pears all over the floor?
Now Mary let’s go up and see Ella and stay to supper
and have cake and tea and then after dark climb up
the old creaky stairs and look out of the little window
at the great big moon shining down thru the silver maples
and about then have to go home down the road along the trees
always afraid to look behind and yet afraid not to.
Say it feels like there is a ball of hot woolen yarn
sticking right in my throat. I believe I am more afraid
to look behind now Mary. So I try to look ahead to
something better and I do believe we can find it.
How does Jim like Idaho spuds?
Or did you get any yet?
Your loving brother,
Ward D. McArthur
For a New Grandson
Walking home from the hospital
I see a late-summer green-grass lawn
filled with rows of ornamental stones
displaying names—James, Martha, Annie.
To my new grandson Riley
born only a few hours ago
his first breath stunning me
I say—as surely as life comes
little one—I give you my love
a prism of flame bursting free.
Cemetery sprinklers shoot streams of
rainbows in red yellow green blue violet
dazzling the lazuli sky and promising
seasons as fleet as autumn in passing;
winter deaths no more than preludes
to spring’s melting snow, its rivulets
soon to sparkle down thawing foothills.
So Riley, far away in future days
when you walk along and see
such a grave as one of these
jeweled by a brilliant rainbow
listen for an echo of my love.
Be stunned with an ache of desire
to love your child with this same
fever of earthly passion flowing
as now when I shiver in sunlight
wrapped in a shroud of longing.