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Free Scary Stories for Halloween (1-7 October)

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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Authors, Books, E-books, Free, Free Books, Free Scary Classics, Free Scary Stories Ebooks, Free Scary Stories in the Public Domain, Free Scary Stories on Kindle, Free Scary Stories Online, Free Stories for Halloween, Halloween

Mid-July Madness: FREE Books

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Free Books
Monday 13 – Friday 17

shutterstock_198912791I’m crazy about reading, and so are a lot of you out there.

Right now, here on Big Rock Candy Mountain, we’re stuck between unbearable heat and daily monsoons and thunderstorms. It’s making me really cray-cray. And there’s only one thing to do when you’re cray-cray: give away free books.

From Monday 13 July through Friday 17 July,
beginning and ending at Midnight PST,
my three novels and my collection of short stories
will be available free as e-books.

Yes, you read that right.

Absolutely free! *

Don’t have a Kindle? No problem. Amazon has a free Kindle.app for every device except your toaster. Download it from their site, then head for the free books.

You can have one; you can have all four.

Read what the book’s about, read an excerpt, read reviews, and get the book for free.

If you want it,  it’s yours to keep.

I’m not a librarian. I’m an author.

And this is a Summer Madness GiveAway!

Read an excerpt from The Kommandant’s Mistress
Buy The Kommandant’s Mistress on Amazon

The Kommandant's Mistress

Read an excerpt from Only With the Heart
Buy Only With the Heart on Amazon

Only with the Heart

Read an excerpt from Love is a Many Zombied Thing
Buy Love is a Many Zombied Thing on AmazonZombied Trilogy Book 1 ebook Cover blog

Read an excerpt from Naked, with Glasses
Buy Naked, with Glasses on Amazon

Naked, with Glasses

Trade Paper versions of all books also available
(unfortunately, I can’t give those away free)

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Before you go cray-cray with the dog days of summer, just leave the dirty dishes in the sink, don’t make the bed or do the laundry, send the kids to their friends for a sleep-over,  get some free books, and head to a cool place to chill and read.

Enjoy, my Lovelies!

* Though I’ve only listed the US sites for the free e-books in this post, they’re free world-wide. Just type in my name on the Amazon site in your country, and all my books will come up. Make sure the free ones have a list price of $0.00 before downloading.

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Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) 2015

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About Holocaust Memorial Day
About Where Lightning Strikes
Excerpt from Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

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Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (“Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”), known colloquially in Israel and abroad as Yom HaShoah (“The Catastrophe,” or “Utter Destruction”) and in English as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day, is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews and five million others who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany with its systematic genocide of the European Jews, and for the Jewish resistance in that period, including the resistance of partisans, the members of the Underground, and the Ghetto occupants. It is held on the 27th of Nisan (April/May).

In 2015, Yom HaShoah begins at sundown on Wednesday 15 April and continues through sunset Thursday 16 April. On Thursday, in Israel, a siren stops all traffic and pedestrians for two minutes of silent meditation, reflection, and devotion at 10:00 a.m.

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We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

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In honor of Yom HaShoah, in memory of my great-grandparents’ family members and all the other Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, in honor of my friend who survived Auschwitz at age 16 – Anna Brunn Ornstein – her husband, Paul Ornstein, and all the other survivors of the camps, I will, as always be observing the official two minutes of silence and reflection, as well as spending the day in meditation.

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

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About
Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress.

The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population.

In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation.

“Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself.

A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well.

Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being.

A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).”

The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War.

In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

1st Prize (1985), 2nd Prize (1984), Grand Prize (1983) University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize (anonymous competition), and awarded The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship for Creative Writing (1984-85).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

United States
United Kingdom
Canada
India

The book is free world-wide;
if your country is not listed here,
simply go to you local Amazon site,
type in the title and my name to pull up the book.

• Don’t have a Kindle?
You can still read the ebooks with the free Kindle.app for any device you have.

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Excerpt from
Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes
Free
Monday 13 April-Friday 17 April

Here is an excerpt from my Holocaust poetry collection. The line-breaks are syllabic. I started that with my first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself,” to imitate the arbitrary and rigid nature of the Nazi regime, the concentration camps, etc., and then, when I was writing other poems, it still seemed like a natural “challenge” to compose the poems so that, though the lines broke rigidly according to syllable-count, the language flowed over those breaks.

The Dead Bodies that Line the Streets
On the Other Hand,
The Day the Snakes Came


These are two of my favorites. The first is from the perspective of a young SS-guard at the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews died so fast — from starvation, disease, shootings — with no place to bury them, that the bodies were piled up in the streets.

~~~

The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets

chatter and snipe at me constantly, as if I
were responsible for their being there. But I

ignore all their remonstrative and sarcastic
remarks. Favoritism or fraternization

with the enemies of the State is forbidden,
and I won’t tarnish my reputation or my

family name by giving them special privileges
that might alleviate their misery. Don’t they

deserve what’s happening to them? Didn’t they kill
our Lord and Savoiur? My best friend Kurt, though he wears

the same uniform as I, is not as cautious,
not as circumspect. Why shouldn’t we be paid to

do our job in this God-forsaken Ghetto and
be rewarded for sometimes not doing it as

well? he says before he slips behind the bricked wall
or behind the stack of bodies with his latest

protectee, a beautiful girl who hardly looks
Jewish at all. We’re much closer to the Front than

we are to home, he reminds me, buttoning his
uniform after he returns. Such things are routine

at the Front, he says, and he should know since
his brother was killed there only last spring. Sometimes,

I admit, I’m tempted when I see some lovely
girl who’d do anything for only a bit of

brown bread or a piece of sausage. I even caught
myself wondering what one of them might do for

a bite of chocolate or some cigarettes. But they
heard my innocent musings and have fastened their

rolled-back eyes on me ever since. I get angry,
threaten them, poke them with my bayonet: leave me

be, I shout. But their gaping mouths tsk tsk tsk at
me until I light up a cigarette and toss

the still-burning match onto one of their lolling
tongues. That usually silences them. These bodies

should be carted away and dumped somewhere, but Kurt
claims they’re here as a symbol to the living. As

far as I can determine, these beggars ignore
their dead. Instead they scurry around, stealing food

from each other, trying to bribe me or one of
the other fellows, hurling themselves over the

wall or through the wire. And the dead bodies that line
the streets certainly don’t care about their living

comrades or they wouldn’t lie around spying and
gossiping to annoy me, trying to prevent

me from doing my job. The bodies that line the
streets should be hauled away and incinerated,

their ashes scattered to the heavens. Then I could
perform my duties without interference, eat

meals without tasting dust,
sleep at night without dreams.

~~~

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And this, from the perspective of one of the Extermination Camps (like Auschwitz) Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates in charge of leading the incoming victims into the gas chambers, putting their bodies into the ovens, then cleaning out the ovens. He’s a very devout man, and often quotes from the Bible, in his Yiddish dialect, as he teaches the newest member chosen by the SS to help with their “work”:

(Note: the mussulmans were what the camp inmates called the Jews who were were so thin & sickly that it was obvious they were going to die any time.)

~~~

On The Other Hand,

death: not everyone’s favorite topic
of conversation, I know, but some things

they have to be talked about, they can’t be
avoided, you’ll get used to it. We get

used to anything. Look at me: as stout
as good challah I used to be, and now:

matzoh. Open the door from this side. But
what a man I was. What arms I had. The

envy of men, desire of girls for
miles. What shoulders I had. From hoisting those

sacks of flour. Stir them around. Don’t look:
just stir. And muscles from kneading. Did I

knead. Day in, day out. In the beginning,
lying down on my pillow at night hurt,

my shoulders were so sore. I learned; you will,
too. But more bread than anyone I made,

better, cheaper. From miles they came to buy
my breads. And my ovens weren’t even so

large as these: I could afford such ovens?
Only toward the end did the fires burn

all night, so no crumbling bricks in mine. Here,
take them out this way. Now the fires will

not go out. The beasts have been sent among
us. They rob us of our children, destroy

our cattle. Cattle they never touched, let
alone destroyed. Drag this to the door: scrape

the ashes into it. Cattle — grazing,
sleeping, as if it were Shabbas. We take

the fat and burn it in the ovens: it
goes faster that way. One set of clothes we

take off, another we put on, and to
another place we carry the ashes.

Don’t worry. This is your first day: you’ll soon
forget to notice. That which remaineth

of the flesh and of the bread shall we burn
with the fire. Only better to eat the

bread, they would mind? Worse than yours my first day
was. For months I don’t see my in-laws I’m

working so hard. My wife is complaining —
all these strangers and you’re never at home —

she’s worried. My first day here, who do I
see? My wife and her parents. What do I

do? Kiss them? Cry tears of reunion? Of course
not: foolish I’ve never been. Here, work is

all we know: people we don’t recognize.
It is written: ten women shall bake in

one oven — even if they’re mussulmans,
into one oven, don’t put that many.

Otherwise, another catastrophe
like a few months ago: new helpers we

have, but does anyone teach them? Fans they
don’t turn on. Ovens they overheat. Then,

Pow. The wall explodes. Three days we don’t work.
We don’t work, we don’t eat. We don’t eat, we

bake. After, among ourselves, we agree:
Never again. From now on, we teach the

right way. Us they will not swallow up in
their wrath. Us the fire shall not devour.

Us the land of our enemies shall not
eat up. Our ashes they shall not scatter

into the wind, God willing. We are few
in number. And on the other hand, death.

~~~

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Once I’d written poems from the period before the War and the Concentration Camps, and the time during those periods, from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and the victims, I knew I had to write some poems about the permanent repercussions of what the Nazis had done. This is one of them.

~~~

The Day the Snakes Came

Wouldst thou have a
serpent sting thee twice?

William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice 4.1.69

We thought, at first, that we were imagining them:
that sliver of disturbed dust by the sidewalk, that

hint of damp on the kitchen floor. Then we thought they
were an aberration: the one found coiled in young

Markowitz’s bathroom sink, the other around
the apple strudel in Mrs. Polski’s icebox.

The beasts have been sent among us, said Leopold,
to rob us of our children and to destroy our

cattle. Since we knew he drank his meals, we shook our
heads and pitied his daughter Leah who came each

night to drag her father home, his arms waving like
snakes. Then others began to talk. Everywhere, there

was snake talk: It’s been pretty dry the last few years;
they’re just looking for water. Old Farmer Johnson

must have turned up a lot of rocks in his field this
spring. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Some people even laughed. Then our neighbors began
slicking back their hair. Our children practiced flicking

their tongues in front of the bathroom mirrors and changed
their names to snake names. By September the snakes were

everywhere. Glistening black bodies swarmed over
the sidewalks, bubbled out of the water pipes, milled

out of morning cereal. Some tried to ignore
the snakes. They were the first to disappear. Others

argued: They don’t have any reason to hurt us.
What have we done to them? If we don’t bother them,

they won’t bother us. They were next to vanish. A
few brave ones tried to learn snake words, to untangle

the slithering black unrest. Their facility
at languages could not save them. But most of us

tried to protect ourselves. The snakes caught us any
time: when we were gathering fruit in the garden,

when we reached into the basket of knitting, when
we crawled into bed at night. Then suddenly, one

spring day, the snakes were gone. A cold wind blew in their
place. We lost most of our village to the snakes. We

heard the same from neighboring towns. The wind chilled us.
We swept the brittle carcasses out of our homes,

replanted our gardens, and tried to rebuild new,
snake-less lives. The years passed. The wind blew cold, hard words

at us: There must have been something to upset the
snakes: they only attack to protect themselves. It

could never happen here. I never saw a snake
in my life. If they were here, they weren’t in my house.

But we have taught our children about the snakes. We
teach them how to wield bats, how to ignore wispy

whispered snake charms, how to crush a snake’s head with their
heels. Because late at night we hear them, late at night

rustling feverishly around the base of the house,
their long fangs clicking, their lidless eyes watching.

~~~

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Hope you enjoyed the poems, and please remember that they can’t be distributed without copyright info and all that jazz (all poems from Where Lightning Strikes © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

FREE
Monday 13  through Friday 17 April
Where Lightning Strikes

Related Posts

The Kommandant's Mistress

The Kommandant’s Mistress

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For a Photographic Introduction to the Holocaust, visit my Pinterest Board
AlexandriaSZ/Holocaust-Shoah

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Holocaust Survivor Testimony: Yad Vashem & Elie Wiesel

Anna’s Tattoo

The Symbolism of my Tattoos

Learn about The Holocaust on USHMM
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

• For more information on the database or
to fill out Pages of Testimony, visit
Yad Vashem‘s Central Database of Shoah Victims

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Giveaway of ONLY WITH THE HEART during Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

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Complete

September is International Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

About the crime thriller Only With the Heart
About the Writing Style of Only with the Heart
Select Reviews
Read an extended excerpt from Only with the Heart

Get Only with the Heart
FREE, worldwide
Friday 5 September through Tuesday 9 September

Only with the Heart

About the crime thriller
Only with the Heart

When Claudia Sloane is arrested for the murder of her mother-in-law, everyone is stunned, especially her husband Sam. Claudia loved Eleanor as if she were her own mother and would never have hurt her. At least, that’s what Claudia insists. But even Sam begins to wonder how far Claudia would go in the name of love: did she help the terminally-ill Eleanor commit suicide?

Upon first marrying Sam, Claudia thinks she’s found the “happily ever after” life she’s always dreamed of. She has an affectionate and devoted husband, and in Sam’s mother, Eleanor, the orphaned Claudia finds the mother she’s longed for. The perfect family soon crumbles, however, as Eleanor descends into the horror of Alzheimer’s dementia. As each terrifying year follows, Claudia bears the burden of Eleanor’s increasing dementia and loss of identity: violent & unpredictable emotional eruptions, physical attacks, protracted silences, incontinence, even suspected suicide attempts. Soon, the money saved for other projects, including children and family-businesses, is depleted taking care of Eleanor. Claudia loses her own business, and her marriage to Sam is suffering from the strain of his mother’s care. When Eleanor is found dead with a collection of empty pill bottles scattered around her bed, Claudia is charged with murder, and the family’s world is blown apart. Again.

During the widely publicized trial, Sam tries desperately to maintain his belief in his wife’s innocence despite the mounting evidence against her. Meanwhile, Claudia unwillingly begins to suspect that Sam may have helped his own mother commit suicide, but is letting his wife risk conviction for the murder.

Gripping and suspenseful, compassionate yet unflinchingly honest, the crime thriller Only with the Heart deals with the dreadful effects of terminal disease (especially Alzheimer’s) on its patients and their Caregivers, explores our primal need for acceptance and family ties, and examines the complex and evolving nature of love. On the Recommended Reading List of Alzheimer’s Chapters nationwide, this revised, expanded edition includes newly written scenes to include updates in Medical treatment & medications since the novel was first published.

Changes in the legal system regarding assisted suicide lead to a shocking ending, dramatically different from the original.

Chapters from Eleanor’s section which were accidentally omitted from the first edition have been restored. A Chapter-by-Chapter Scene Index and Discussion Questions for groups, teachers, and students are provided. The Author’s Note explains Szeman’s own experience with Alzheimer’s and being a full-time Caregiver, while the Sources list organizations and services for those dealing with Alzheimer’s and Caregiving.

Revised & Expanded, Legally & Medically Updated, 12th Anniversary Edition

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About the writing style of Only with the Heart

The writing style of Szeman’s novels is highly unusual, moving as it does from past to present to a further-back-past and to present again, apparently without warning, though clues that the scene has switched are always there. This imitates how the mind works, especially with respect to memory, where everything always appears to be happening in the present; and where thoughts, sounds, smells, feelings, and words lead to memories which then lead to other thoughts, feelings, etc. and to other memories associatively.

Claudia’s and Sam’s sections of the novel are written imitating memory, that is, the scenes move back and forth between past and present, from memory to memory, associatively. Both are written in past tense, except for Claudia’s scenes with her psychologist, Dr. Daniels, which are in present tense.

Sometimes the switch between scenes in Only with the Heart is triggered by words in the narrator’s memory; at other times, the switch is triggered symbolically by something in the previous scene(s).

For dialogue tags, only “s/he said” is used, even for questions (as William Faulkner does in his books & stories) so that the reader can interpret for himself how the character is saying the lines.

Alzheimer’s patients forget current events and contemporary memories before they forget older memories. Eleanor’s section, by contrast with those of Sam and Claudia, though it also moves associatively from scene to scene, is written entirely in present tense and is in reverse-chronological order, that is, the scenes are presented from Eleanor’s most recent to the most distant past, because she is suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia. The chapters in her section are also much shorter, to imitate the shortening time that Alzheimer’s patients are able to remember things.

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Select Reviews
“Bold and ambitious.” — San Francisco Mercury News
“Piercing, close-to-the-bone fiction.” — Barnes & Noble
“Compositionally complex… Offers powerful insights [about Alzheimer’s]… Poignant” — Kirkus Review
“[A] delicately structured, poignant novel of love, memory, & family responsibility.” — Publishers Weekly
“Gratifyingly powerful… As elegantly done as it is compassionate.” — John Bayley, author of Elegy for Iris [Murdoch]

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Read an excerpt from Only with the Heart
(the first 3 chapters)

Only with the HeartOnly with the Heart

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince

Claudia

Doubts are more cruel
than the worst of truths.

Molière

Chapter 1

They got there sooner than I expected. I was waiting at the upstairs window, so I saw them when they arrived, their lights flashing, their sirens silent. There were two policemen, in two separate cars, and the paramedics in the ambulance. As they got out of the vehicles, the emergency lights turned everything a strange, pulsing red: the snow, the ice at the edge of the window, the bedroom where I stood. They slipped across the yard on their way to the front porch, their breath hanging white in the air. As they rushed up the front steps and disappeared from my view, I let go of the lace curtain and turned around to look at the body. I suppose I should’ve gone over to the bed and closed its eyes or covered its face, but I couldn’t make myself do it.

The squad stopped at all the other bedrooms on the floor before they found the right one. When they saw me and the body, they rushed in, plying stethoscope, oxygen mask, and blood pressure cuff, calling out to each other in their own telegraphic language. Their hands rushed as quickly as their words, but none of that made any difference. There was no life left in that body. There hadn’t been for ages.

All that time, I didn’t move or make a sound. When the policeman came over to me, he had to put his hand on my arm to get me to look at him. It was almost as if I were the one who was dead.

And to think that was only the beginning.

No, that couldn’t have been the beginning. Everything must have started long before I found the body, even if it seems like it all started that day. Dr. Daniels says it doesn’t matter when it started because it’s time for me to let go of the past. But it’s the past that won’t let go of me. You see, I have to know if I’m responsible for everything that happened. I have to know if it was my fault.

Sometimes I think the beginning was over thirty years ago, on the morning of my thirteenth birthday. When I finally woke up and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I found a note from foster mother Grace taped to the mirror over the bathroom sink: “Claudia — Get dressed before you come downstairs.”

After I ran a wet comb through my hair and bundled it into a ponytail, I rubbed a damp washcloth over my face. I stood on my tiptoes and moved closer to the mirror, looking for a new outbreak of freckles across my nose and cheeks, then pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt and went downstairs. But my breakfast wasn’t on the table, and no one was in the kitchen. When I opened the oven door, there wasn’t any French toast with cinnamon waiting for me, not even cold French toast. My heart lurched against my ribs.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “It’s happened again.” I raced through the dining room, through the living room, and back to the kitchen. I scrambled halfway down the basement stairs, leaned over the railing, and called out. I ran upstairs, to the second floor. By the time I’d gone from Roger’s room to Mother Grace’s room and back again, I knew it was true: it had happened again. I went halfway down the stairs and sat, trying to think of a plan. That’s when they pulled into the driveway.

After Mother Grace got out of her car, I saw the two of them in the car behind. Mother Grace stood in the brown grass at the edge of the driveway while the two of them got their briefcases and paperwork out of the car. She kept turning around, looking toward the house, her hand shading her eyes since all the leaves had fallen from the trees.

I grabbed hold of the banister and pulled myself up to my feet as they came up the walk. I knew that when they got to the porch and the front door opened, my life would be over — again. So when that front door opened, I ran.

At least open your mind to the possibility that you’re not responsible for everything that happened, says Dr. Daniels during one of our sessions. I must have done something, I tell her, shaking my head. What makes you say that? I shrug my shoulders. I feel so guilty, I say. Because of something you’ve done or because other people say you’re guilty? It’s all my fault, I tell her, pulling my bare feet up onto the couch and hugging my legs against my chest. It’s my fault for thinking I could be happy. She goes over to the window and adjusts the heat. When the fan comes on, a fabric butterfly hanging from the ceiling twists slowly. If only I had a chance to do everything over, I say as she sits back down. What would you do differently? Being with Sam in the first place, I tell her. That’s the first thing I’d change.

After that first night, after everything had happened, we lay in each other’s arms, without talking, our clothes scattered on the apartment floor. The countertop, stove, and table were covered with saucers and cups, each filled with a candle, but all the candles had gone out. Though the early morning sun came through the icy windows, the apartment was still mostly in shadows. I raised myself up and leaned on my elbow. Hannah was on the other side of Sam, on her back, her paws sticking up in the air. When I reached over to pet her stomach, her purring vibrated her body.

I untangled the blanket and sheets so I could lie next to Sam again, our skin touching. His chest rose and fell slowly under my cheek, his heartbeat under my ear. Lying there with him like that, I felt things I’d never felt before, and suddenly I was afraid it had all been a dream. I held my breath, closed my eyes as tight as I could, then slowly opened them. Yes, everything was just the same as before. I was still there, and he was still there with me. So it wasn’t a dream after all. Sam shifted his position, hugging Hannah closer and kissing her before he opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Claudia,” he said as I touched his face with the back of my hand.

He took my wrist and kissed it.

“Where’d you get that bruise?” he said.

I didn’t care about the bruise. I didn’t care about anything in the world but his mouth on mine, his arms around me, his heart beating in the same rhythm as mine. When he moved under the covers, Hannah jumped off the sofa-bed, went over to the pile of cushions, and curled up on top of them. The sun slanted through the windows over the sink, shining on Sam’s dark hair and eyes.

He held my face in his hands as he kissed me, and my heart pounded as I stretched my body against his. I kept my eyes open the whole time, saying his name over and over. Everything about him excited me: his unshaved cheek, the weight of his body, the pressure of his thighs. When I tangled my fingers in his thinning hair, when he lifted my hips so my body fit his, when he moved deep in me, I knew I belonged with him, no matter what, for the rest of my life. God, I was so happy. I was so unbelievably happy.

Aren’t you allowed to be happy? says Dr. Daniels. Every single time I’ve ever been happy, something terrible has happened. And you think there’s a connection? There has to be, I tell her. It’s just like when I was a child. She takes a sip of her coffee before setting the mug back onto her desk. If it makes you feel better to believe it started in your childhood, she says, then go all the way back. To my memories of Mother Esther? You tell me, she says. You’re the one who says it all started in your childhood. I don’t think it started with Mother Esther, I tell her, though I suppose it could have.

“There, isn’t this nice?” said Mother Esther as we settled ourselves in the living room in front of the television. “Here we are, just the two of us. My, Claudia, you’re getting to be such a big girl. I remember when you used to go down for your nap right after lunch.”

But not that day. I climbed into Father Jacob’s chair as she sat on the couch. When I stretched out my legs, my feet almost reached over the edge of the chair seat. I put my hands on the armrests, on top of the crocheted doilies, just like Father Jacob did. My half-glass of soda, surrounded by porcelain figurines, was on the table beside the chair. As Mother Esther drank her soda from the bottle, I turned to her.

“You’re my mommy, right?”

“Not your real mommy, Honey,” she said, putting her bottle down on the coaster on the floor at her feet. “Remember? We told you. We’re like Mother Ruth and her husband. Daddy Jacob and I couldn’t have any babies of our own, so we’re your mommy and daddy till…”

“Till I’m all growed up.”

“No, Honey, till the judge finds you a new mommy and daddy. Don’t, Claudia,” she said, frowning as she got up from the couch. “You don’t want to hurt yourself again.”

She hurried over to the chair and held me tight, trapping my hands and arms against my body. I twisted and turned, but she wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t get away from her voice in my ears.

What was she saying to you? says Dr. Daniels, but I don’t want to remember. I get up from the couch and go to the window. The sun is finally shining, and it glints off the heaps of icy snow. It’s so bright it hurts my eyes, so I go back to the couch and sit down. That’s one of your gifts, your memory, says Dr. Daniels. You should be grateful for it. Why don’t I just be grateful for all the suffering and the deceit and the persecution? I say, yanking some tissues out of the box sitting next to me on the couch. Why don’t I just be grateful for all the people who’ve betrayed me? After I’ve emptied the box and crumpled the last tissue and added it to the pile beside me, she gets another box out of her file cabinet drawer. She sits down in her rocking chair and waits until I’m quiet. Do you want to tell me about all this anger? she says.

“If there were ever anything you wanted to tell me,” said Roger, standing behind me, “you could.”

“Are you cold?” I said, turning around to look at him. “You don’t think it’s cold in here?”

He shook his head. Sam was outside shoveling again, heaping the snow into waist-high piles along either side of the driveway. All around him, the snow continued to fall, dense and thick, swirling around in great gusts each time the wind rattled the windows. When I went down the hall, Roger followed me. I turned the thermostat up another few degrees. On the way back to the living room, I took one of Sam’s wool sweaters off the coat-tree and pulled it on over my own.

“I’d never tell anyone,” said Roger.

“Because of our promise?”

“Because I love you.”

I went to the window, putting my hands around all the edges, checking for cold air, but I didn’t feel any. The shovel scraped loudly against the driveway. When he finished, Sam leaned on the upright shovel and looked out across the deserted street, snow whirling around his head, ice crystals clinging to the scarf over his mouth and nose. Before he’d made it back to the house, the driveway was covered with white again.

“You can trust me,” said Roger, touching me on the back. “No matter what.”

“What about Eve?” I said.

“I wouldn’t tell her.”

“And Sam?”

“Not him either. Especially not him.”

“They don’t like our having secrets.”

“Everybody has secrets.”

I pulled the collar of the sweater over my mouth and nose, breathing in the mingled odors of Sam and wool. Roger came up from behind and put his arms around me. He kissed me on the cheek.

“What about the phones?”

“Taken care of.”

“Then there’s nothing else to do.”

Sam came up onto the porch, stamping his boots to free them of snow, leaning the shovel against the house. When he opened the front door, Roger moved away from me fast.

Why does that memory make you angry? says Dr. Daniels. Why does it make me angry? Don’t you realize what he meant? What do you think he meant, Claudia? He thought I was guilty. Did he? He thought I was going to confess to him, for Christ’s sake. And that makes you angry? How could he think that? Roger, of all people? Are you sure that’s what he meant? Did you ask him? I know what he meant. God, I’m so sick of all this. Why can’t I just forget it all? Repressing memories is not the way to be happy, says Dr. Daniels, but I’m not repressing anything. Sam says none of it matters anyway. He says it didn’t all start on the day I found the body or in my childhood: not on my thirteenth birthday or on that day with Mother Esther. He says everything started the day I became his fiancée.

The night we were going to tell his parents about our engagement, we left for the restaurant forty-five minutes early. I was so nervous, my hands were cold on my wineglass. Every time the restaurant door opened, my mouth went completely dry. Then Sam stood up, straightening his tie, and his parents were there. Sam shook Harold’s hand. Eleanor kissed me on the cheek and sat beside me, moving her chair closer to mine. She took my hand and held it tightly. She was so close that I breathed in her perfume.

“At last,” she said, “I’m going to have a daughter.”

When she said that, the noise of the other diners was pushed into the background. Sam’s laughter and Harold’s chatter became a blur. Everything in the world faded — all those years making Mother’s Day cards in school then shoving them into my dresser drawers, all those nights staring into mirrors looking for my real mother, all those days following happy children around school yards wishing I could trade places with them — all of it, in that one single moment, disappeared. Everything disappeared. Except Eleanor. “At last,” she said, “I’m going to have a daughter,” and something in me stirred.

That night, if you’d told me everything I know now, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference. “At last,” said Eleanor, “I’m going to have a daughter.” From that very moment, I loved her.

Eleanor loved you, too, says Dr. Daniels, but I’m not sure it was love that Eleanor felt for me all those years ago. I sit in Dr. Daniels’ office, with its pastel walls and its butterfly mobile, and it’s hard to sort out what I know now from what I knew then. It doesn’t matter, Claudia, she says, because it’s time to let go. She makes it sound so easy. Like closing your eyes and opening them up to a new life. I want to do that, but I keep wondering if I’m responsible for what happened. Everyone said I was. Everyone? That’s what they said after I found the body, and even if that’s not when things started, that’s when things got worse. After you found it? Not before? No, it was only after I found the body that my life really deteriorated.

After I found it, I went to the phone upstairs to call for help. While they were on their way, I went back into the bedroom, but I didn’t go near the bed: I stood by the window. After the police and the paramedics got there, after they tried to force life back into the body, after the older paramedic finally took the stethoscope out of his ears and rolled up the blood pressure cuff, all of them turned toward me, but no one said anything. The emergency lights kept flashing their red against the walls.

While the younger paramedic left the room and went downstairs, one of the policemen bent closer to the nightstand to look at the prescription bottles. Then he got down on one knee to look at the bottles on the floor. He moved Baby Sam and Miss Kittie to look at the bottles in the bed. I swear I don’t remember seeing them at all till he knelt down.

All I saw was the body.

Back to Top

Chapter 2

The younger paramedic returned, unrolling a dark bag, which he laid out on the bed. I hugged myself and looked out the window. Roger and Eve pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Adams from across the street stumbled through the snowdrifts to talk to them. Roger nodded to Mrs. Adams, but Eve kept walking toward the house. When Mrs. Adams looked up at the bedroom window, I stepped back behind the curtains.

You were that scared little girl who hid behind Mother Grace’s curtains thirty years before, says Dr. Daniels, and suddenly, I’m there again, behind those curtains in Mother Grace’s house, and my heart is pounding harder than ever.

I stood behind those velvet curtains, the hem of my sweatshirt pulled up and stuffed in my mouth, the cold air from the windows piercing my bare back, and listened to what they said about me. As Mother Grace’s footsteps went upstairs, I peeked out. The man and woman stood in the entry hall. The woman, even in her high heels, was much smaller than the man. He bounced his briefcase against his leg as she rifled through the stack of papers she held. When Mother Grace came back down the stairs, leaning heavily on the banister, they both looked up at her.

“I can’t find Claudia anywhere.”

“She didn’t run away again, did she?” said the man.

“Of course not.”

“Why would she?”

“Could she be with your son?”

“No. Roger’s at work.”

“Maybe he took her someplace before he went to work,” said the woman, leaving her fingers in the stack of papers while Mother Grace crossed the entry hall.

“She’s probably outside in the backyard. I’ll call her.”

“We don’t have a lot of time, Grace.”

“It won’t take a minute.”

“I don’t understand why you don’t want to tell her yourself.”

“After everything that poor child’s been through…”

“That’s exactly why we think she’d rather hear it from you.”

I let the velvet curtain slip back in front of my face as Mother Grace went through the kitchen to the back door. She called and called for me.

“How do you think she’ll take it?” said the woman in the hall.

“The same as they all take it.”

“Don’t you think she’ll be surprised?”

“After what she’s been through, nothing would surprise her.”

No, it wasn’t surprise I felt as I hid behind those curtains. I thought of my backpack — filled with my books and some clothes — upstairs under my bed, and I cursed myself for not having hidden it out in the garage. I’d have to leave without it: I couldn’t risk letting them find me. After Mother Grace returned and the three of them went out onto the front porch to look for me, I ran as fast as I could through the house, out the back door, to the garage, and I didn’t look back.

I didn’t run when I found the body, though I wanted to. I stayed right there and watched it all. I saw Dr. Barnett shake his head and put his stethoscope away, I saw the policeman using his pen to roll the prescription bottles toward him, I saw the paramedics wrap the sheet around the body, lift it, and center it on the dark bag.

The policeman beside the bed tapped Dr. Barnett, then pointed to the prescription bottles on the nightstand and on the floor. Dr. Barnett glanced down and shook his head before he continued writing, the emergency lights splashing red on the walls, on the bed, on their faces.

Roger came into the bedroom, still wearing his uniform, with Eve right behind him, and crossed the room to put his arms around me. Eve stood near us, hugging herself, staring at the bed. The bag crackled as the paramedics closed it. When they covered the face, I looked away.

“Close your eyes, Claudia,” said Harold on my first Christmas with Sam’s family. “You’re not peeking, are you?”

“I already know what it looks like.”

“It’s not the same without the lights,” said Harold.

“Besides, I have one more ornament to hang up,” said Eleanor. “A special ornament. So don’t look yet.”

“Put your hands over your eyes, so we can be sure you’re not cheating.”

There was more rustling of paper and whispering. I tried to see between my fingers, but their backs blocked the tree.

“Ready?”

“Not yet.”

“How much longer?”

“Just a second.”

“Wait: turn off the other lights.”

“Okay. Now.”

God, it was beautiful. The lights twinkled and blinked, the tinsel glittered and sparkled, the boughs drooped with ornaments. I walked toward the tree, its branches covering the entire width of the front room window and its top grazing the ceiling. In the center front of the tree was a crystal ornament engraved with my name and the year. It was lovely. Eleanor hugged me. “At last,” I thought, “I’ve finally found what I’ve been searching for: The tree from my childhood.”

Every Christmas Eve, Mother Anne bundled us foster children up in our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, then piled us all into the backseat of the car. While Mother Anne’s new husband and her father put up the tree, she drove the rest of us around so we could look at all the Christmas lights and decorations. We rated the trees as if we were Olympic judges. Only one tree ever achieved a perfect score, the tree we always saved for last: Iris Tristan’s.

We drove up the long, icy hill that led to Iris Tristan’s house and sat in the cul-de-sac, our breath fogging the windows as we gazed at her tree. No tree on earth was as wonderful as hers. We sat there in the dark, surrounded by glittering snow, imagining the most fantastic presents underneath her tree. I would’ve given anything to be one of Iris Tristan’s grandchildren and to wake up Christmas morning to the presents under that tree, even if it meant I had to be chubby and wear thick, dark eyeglasses. We sat there looking at her tree till the cold forced us home.

On the way back, I didn’t feel like singing, but I moved my mouth to the songs anyway. When we got to Mother Anne’s house, our fingers and toes numb with cold, the oohs and aahs of the others blended with the sound of coats and gloves and boots dropped in the rush to see the completely decorated tree. I stood by the doorway, looking at the lights and decorations, but every year, the tree disappointed me.

Every year, every tree disappointed me in some way. Christmas disappointed me. Until that first Christmas as part of Sam’s family. It was more than the engraved crystal ornament, more than the gold bracelet Harold and Eleanor gave me, more than the pearl earrings Sam gave me. That night, standing there with Sam and Harold and Eleanor, Christmas carols playing in the background, I gazed up at the star on the tree’s top and thought it was the most beautiful light in the world.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

After I found the body, my life turned to darkness again. Only your life? says Dr. Daniels during our next session. What about Sam’s life? Didn’t he suffer, too? Not in the same way. Tell me how his suffering was different from yours. I have told her — many, many times, right here, in this very office, but no matter how often I explain it, she still says she doesn’t understand. I don’t know how to make her see the difference. It’s absolutely hopeless.

“It’s hopeless finding a wedding dress I can afford,” I said to Eleanor the third time we went shopping.

“This brocade one’s darling,” she said, holding it up.

I shrugged.

“What about this one?”

I shook my head.

“You know, dear, it would’ve been fine with me if Eve had come with us,” she said as she put the dress back.

“I thought it would be nice, just the two of us,” I said. “We never get to spend any time alone together.”

“I don’t like hurting Eve’s feelings,” said Eleanor.

The salesclerk brought out a pale blue dress, but as soon as she saw the look on my face, she turned around and took it back. Chiffon, satin, lace. Beige, almond, blush. Beads, embroidery, seed-pearls. Each dress was lovely in its own way, but none was the dress I’d dreamed of. I sat down on the love-seat next to Eleanor, took off my shoe, and massaged my foot.

“I just thought of one more place we could look,” she said. “Put your shoe back on.”

Instead of going to the mall or to a dress shop, though, Eleanor drove to her house. She pulled into the driveway, stopped the car, and got out, motioning for me to follow. We went upstairs, all the way to the third floor, to the finished attic. After she opened the curtains of the window in the eaves, she went to an armoire and rummaged around in it. I bent down at the window that overlooked the backyard and saw the tree where Sam and Roger had built their tree house: there were still a couple of boards in the lower branches.

From behind me, the crinkling of tissue paper and plastic stopped, so I turned around. The discarded wrappings were on the floor at Eleanor’s feet, and there, hanging inside the open armoire door, was the most beautiful wedding dress I’d ever seen.

“It was my mother’s,” said Eleanor. “I wore it, too.”

I moved toward the dress like I was sleepwalking. I was almost afraid to touch it, it looked so delicate, with all its lace and intricately sewn seed-pearls. As my fingers slid over the gorgeous material, Eleanor lifted the veil and draped it over my hair. She took the dress from the hook, held it up in front of me, and turned me around in front of a full-length mirror.

“Claudia, dear,” she said, “would you like to wear this dress?”

At that moment, I loved her more than anyone else I’d ever known. I thought she loved me, too. I thought she could give me everything I’d ever missed in my life, everything I’d ever longed for, everything I’d ever lost. How could I have been so wrong?

“Don’t get me wrong, Claudia,” said Harold. “I’m happy to help out with a bookstore …”

“But you don’t think this building will work?”

“It’s been neglected for years.”

“The underlying structure’s sound,” said Sam.

Harold walked around the room, tapping on the walls, rocking on his heels on the floor. Near the back wall, he took out his tape measure to check the distance between the doorframe and the corner.

“What are you planning to do with the kitchen?” said Harold.

“Keep it the way it is. It might come in handy having a kitchen here.”

“You’re sure you can run a bookstore by yourself, Claudia?”

“Eve will help out.”

“Is she going to be your partner?”

“No, this is going to be my bookstore.”

“Is she okay with that?”

“Eve just wants to work till she has the baby. And she wants to sell some of her jewelry here. Sam’s going to make her a glass display case.”

“Her jewelry?” said Harold. “You mean she makes that stuff she wears?”

“Yes.”

“Did she make that necklace you gave Eleanor for her birthday?”

“Why? Don’t you like it?”

He shrugged before he took out his pocketknife to unscrew one of the switch-plates. He put his glasses on to examine the wires, then replaced the plate. He went back to the front windows and looked out at the street.

“Prime frontage,” he said.

“The best of any place we’ve seen,” said Sam.

“How much do they want down?”

“Ten percent.”

“You mean, you got enough inheritance from Mother Grace to cover the whole down payment?”

“Roger gave her his half of the inheritance.”

“As a loan,” I said. “Sam gave me a loan, too.”

“Not from our business, Dad.”

“Did I say anything?” said Harold.

“I’d want to hire you and Sam to build the shelves…”

“You’ve got a lot of work to do before you get to any shelves.”

“You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t want to do it, Harold.”

“He’ll do it.”

“Sam, I told you not to pressure him.”

“Who said I didn’t want to do it?”

“You see?” said Sam.

“How much?” I said.

“How much what?” said Harold.

“How much do you think it’ll cost?”

“Jesus, Claudia, I’m not going to let you pay for this.”

“You can’t do it for nothing, Harold. You just said it’ll be a lot of work. I have to pay you.”

“You’re buying the materials, Claudia.”

“Harold…”

“All right. Give me a discount on books.”

“You can have books for free,” I said, kissing him on the cheek. “For the rest of your life.”

While he and Sam took measurements and discussed materials, I stood in that neglected building and saw my dream. I didn’t see the holes in the plaster or the cracks in the wood floor or the dangling electrical wires. All I saw was what I wanted to see.

The eyes couldn’t see by the time they closed that bag over its face, but it wrenched me anyway. When they lifted the body to set it on the stretcher, it felt like something was tugging me along with it. As they maneuvered the stretcher, it hit the doorframe, so they had to wrestle the stretcher back into the room several times before they got it into the hallway. It was as if, even in death, it didn’t want to leave me. It was as if, even in death, I’d never be free.

As we followed the paramedics, Roger took my hand and whispered something. On the stairs, we had to wait while they fought the stretcher around the turn. Suddenly, I was hot and cold all over. Nausea overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t breathe.

It felt like it was me in that black bag, like it was my eyes in that darkness, like it was me who’d stepped into another world and could never go back. I reached out before I remembered that Sam wasn’t there.

Then Eve cried out, and Roger grabbed me as the darkness swallowed me.

Back to Top

Chapter 3

After I opened my eyes, the darkness scattered. I lay on the living room floor, with Eve wiping my face and Roger waving smelling salts under my nose. When I jerked my head to the side, I saw the body-bag on the stretcher, abandoned in the entry hall, and the pulsing red lights of the emergency vehicles through the windows on the front door. As Dr. Barnett listened to my heart, the paramedic checked my blood pressure. The policeman stood over us.

“I knew something like this would happen,” said Roger, brushing the hair from my forehead.

“She’s exhausted herself,” said Eve.

“These situations are always so difficult,” said Dr. Barnett.

He wrote on his clipboard as the policeman who’d looked at the prescription bottles frowned at me. The red lights from outside swept across the body-bag. I closed my eyes. Eve’s fingers were cool on my face. Roger murmured something I couldn’t understand. Dr. Barnett’s pen scratched and scratched.

It seems like we haven’t even scratched the surface of my life, I tell Dr. Daniels. Not even scratched it? she says with a laugh. We’ve excavated it, cataloged it, mourned it, then started over again from the beginning. It doesn’t feel like that to me, I tell her. It feels like I’m trapped. You are trapped, Claudia. By choice. I want to get up and walk out, but of course I can’t, so I go over to the window instead. On the windowsill, next to a picture of Dr. Daniels’ two children, there’s a figurine of a white-bearded wizard wearing a purple robe. Next to him is a kneeling angel, her white wings fanning out behind her shoulders. You can live in the past with your wounds, says Dr. Daniels, or you can heal yourself and live the rest of your life. Oh, God, I am trying, I tell her, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I go for days without thinking about everything that happened, but then someone in the grocery store will look at me over the display of tomatoes, nudge her friend, and… And that’s when you’re thirteen again, fumbling frantically with your bike chain in the garage.

The garage door was open, but since it faced the alley behind the yard, no one from the house could see me. I knelt on the concrete floor of the garage, wrestling with my bike chain. Every time I had it almost completely on, it slipped off, and I had to start over. After the fifth or sixth time, Roger’s car pulled in behind me. I wiped my eyes and nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt as he opened the car door and got out.

“Hey, Claude,” he said. “Kinda chilly for a bike ride, ain’t it? Did the chain fall off again? I’ll do it.”

“Let go. Get off.”

“What’s wrong with you, Claude?”

“Nothing. And stop calling me that.”

“Okay, Claude-ski. You don’t have to yell. I thought you’d be in a good mood today, seeing how it’s your birthday and all,” he said as I struggled with the chain. “So, don’t I get a hug or something? The present was my idea, you know.”

“Thanks a lot, Marble-head.”

“Whoa: what’s that for? What’s going on, Claude?”

“Stop calling me that. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“What’s the matter with you? I thought after you got your present you’d be… Hey, wait a minute: you don’t think that… No, you can’t believe that we’d… after we promised… Geez, Claude, you are so stupid.”

When he yanked me away from my bike, it clattered over onto the garage floor. I yelled at him as he lifted me over his shoulder and carried me toward the house. All the leaves had fallen from the trees, and they rustled loudly as Roger marched across the yard.

“Put me down. Put me down, you jerk.”

“Not till you get your birthday present.”

“Let go of me. Put me down, you big, stupid, ugly…”

“Hey, quit scratching, Claude.”

“I hate you, you Marble-head.”

“Heavens, what’s all that screaming? Roger, what are you doing? Put her down,” said Mother Grace as the back door swung open. “Put her down, I said. Claudia, dear, where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Roger, let go of her.”

“Not till she gets her present. You won’t believe what she thinks it is, Mom.”

“She was running away,” said the man with the briefcase.

“No, she wasn’t,” said Mother Grace.

“I knew this wasn’t a good idea,” said the woman.

Roger pushed me into the living room ahead of him and sat me down on the couch, across from everyone else, who remained standing. Mother Grace wrung her hands, her eyes filling with tears.

“I never dreamed it’d be like this,” she said. “I wanted her to be happy. That’s all I wanted. For her to be happy.”

“It’s like a bad dream,” said foster mother Ruth that first time in court. “Tell me this isn’t really happening.”

“Mrs. Irving, please, you’re not supposed to say anything,” said the lawyer.

I tried to sit still between them, but the lace on my socks was stiff and scratchy, and my new shoes pinched my toes. The judge, sitting far away and high above us at his bench, shuffled papers back and forth. There were two flags on poles behind him, and one of the poles had a gold eagle on top. There were open curtains behind him but no window. When the judge closed the folder and spoke, he didn’t even glance at us.

“Due to the marital status of the applicant,” he said, “the motion for adoption is denied.”

Mother Ruth’s breath went in so sharply that I looked up at her.

“The court hereby rules that the minor child be placed in the Children’s Home until a suitable family can be found.”

He hit his gavel once before the lawyer rose and started piling his papers and folders into his briefcase. Mother Ruth caught hold of his jacket while the caseworker tried to take my hand in hers.

“What if my husband and I don’t get divorced?” said Mother Ruth as the lawyer snapped his briefcase closed. “What if we get back together? Can I have her then?”

“Once you’ve re-established a secure and stable environment for the child, Mrs. Irving, you can always re-apply.”

“It’s more secure and stable without him. You’ve seen the police reports. You know how he gets when he drinks.”

The lawyer nodded to the next group of people coming to the table. When the caseworker tried to take my hand again, Mother Ruth pulled me closer to her side.

“Why can’t Claudia stay with me,” she said, “at least until they find her a new place?”

“The judge denied that motion, Mrs. Irving,” said the lawyer, opening the door to the hall.

“I don’t understand why.”

“He doesn’t feel it’s in the child’s best interest.”

“He didn’t even talk to me. Why didn’t he talk to me? You said he’d ask me some questions.”

“I said he might.”

“Why didn’t he? You said he would.”

The lawyer stopped and turned around, sighing loudly.

“Apparently, Mrs. Irving, he didn’t feel it was necessary.”

“But that’s not fair.”

“I have another appointment, Mrs. Irving,” said the caseworker. “You’ll have to say good-bye now.”

Mother Ruth knelt in front of me and hugged me hard. There were people all around us, going in and out of courtrooms. When I put my arms around Mother Ruth’s neck, she said something in my ear, but she was trembling so hard that I couldn’t understand her.

“Now look what you’ve done, Mrs. Irving: you’ve upset her,” said the caseworker. “Come here, Claudia. Come here, Honey. That’s a girl. Don’t cry. Really, Mrs. Irving, you didn’t have to do it like this.”

Mother Ruth stood up quickly, her handkerchief covering her nose and mouth. She didn’t look at me as she stumbled down the marble hallway, as she put her hand on the doorframe to get her balance, as she went out the courthouse door. I pulled and tugged, trying to get free of the caseworker. I kicked and screamed and bit, but the caseworker didn’t let go. She held me so tight, my stomach hurt. She held me so tight, I thought I died.

But I didn’t die that day. I didn’t die the day I found the body, either, though sometimes I wished I had. After I’d fainted and was lying on the living room floor, Roger held my hand so tight it hurt, but I was glad for the pain. When I looked up at Roger and Eve, Roger put his hand against my face.

“If you cried,” he said, “it might make you feel better.”

When I blinked, my eyes felt like they were being scratched with sandpaper. Roger gave me his handkerchief.

“Don’t try to be brave,” he said. “It’s all right to cry in front of us.”

I stared at him.

“It’s shock,” said the paramedic as he rolled up the blood pressure cuff.

“Shock?” said the other policeman.

“Undoubtedly,” said Dr. Barnett.

“That’s what you think it is, huh? Shock?”

“What else could it be?”

Roger and Eve stayed with me after they took the body away. Roger wanted to stay all night, but I told him to go home with Eve and not to come back after dinner. All alone, I wandered from room to room. The house was so quiet. So empty. I sat on the stairs, at the bottom, for a long time. I sat there, all by myself, all alone in that emptied house, and I thought, “At last, it’s over. After all these years, it’s finally over.”

Then I wept.

There were no tears left on my thirteenth birthday after Roger dragged me back into the house. Even after we were inside and sitting on the couch, he wouldn’t let go of my wrist. He was afraid I’d run, but there was no point in running then: it only worked if you did it before they found you. Afterward, it was best to get it over with. I sat there on the couch, with Roger’s fingers around my wrist like a manacle, and I made myself a statue — deaf, dumb, blind. Safe.

“Pay attention, Claude.”

“Roger, please don’t call her that. You know she doesn’t like it.”

“But she’s doing that Zombie thing again, Mom.”

“Roger, don’t. Claudia, Dear, did you hear what they just told you?”

“She can’t hear you, Mom. I told you: she’s a Zombie.”

“Grace, what’s he talking about?” said the man.

“Nothing. It’s a game they play. Claudia, Dear…”

“Claude, listen up.”

“The court has approved a family who wants to adopt you,” said the woman in the high heels, perching on the edge of the overstuffed chair across from me. “Unfortunately, the father has passed away.”

“But the mother is very healthy,” said Mother Grace.

“She’s not listening to a word we’re saying,” said the man, dropping his briefcase on the floor beside the flowered love-seat as he sat down.

“Due to the family’s keen interest in you and to its relative financial stability,” said the woman, “the court has decided to award permanent custody to the family.”

“If you agree to the adoption,” said Mother Grace.

Suddenly they were all staring at me. It was so quiet, I could hear the grandfather clock ticking in the dining room. Roger elbowed me, but I didn’t move.

“You’re old enough to have some say in the decision, Claudia.”

“Aren’t you going to answer us?”

“Say something.”

“This must be a terrible shock for her.”

“What she needs is to be turned over somebody’s knee.”

“Claudia,” said Mother Grace, “do you want to stay with us, Dear?”

“Yeah, Claude, do you want to be my kid-sister permanent or don’t you?”

Roger let go of my wrist then, but my hand and arm lay there, cold and still, like I really was a statue. When Mother Grace came and sat beside me on the couch, when she touched my arm, her fingers warm and soft against my skin, I did the only thing I could do.

“Christ, you’d think she’d be happy,” said the man.

“I knew we shouldn’t have done it this way, Grace,” said the woman.

“My sweet baby girl,” said Mother Grace, taking me in her arms.

“Hey, now we’re stuck with you for good, Claude-ski,” said Roger, and he punched me in the back.

“Don’t hit my hand,” I said.

“Don’t put your hand over your glass,” said Sam after he came up to me at the table.

“I said, don’t hit me.”

“I didn’t hit you. I was just moving your hand.”

“I don’t want any more to drink, Sam. I’ve already had too much.”

“It’s a wedding. There’s no such thing as too much champagne.”

“Sam, stop.”

“Oh, shit, sorry. Did that get on your dress? Sorry. I told you not to put your hand over your glass.”

I blotted the front of my gown with a napkin as Sam, his arms full of champagne bottles, sat down in the chair beside me. Two flower-girls, chased by the ring-bearer, darted around the table, giggling when Sam reached out for them, squealing with laughter as they eluded his grasp and raced back onto the dance floor, disappearing among the long gowns and tuxedos. Sam pushed my hands away when I tried to take the champagne bottles off the table.

“Hey, there you are, Claude,” he said suddenly. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. Jesus, Claude, something terrible’s happened. I gotta tell you.”

“You haven’t called me ‘Claude’ since we were kids.”

“I call you Claude all the time. Listen, Claude… Here, have some more champagne,” he said, pouring from the second bottle. “You’ll want some when you hear what I gotta tell you.”

I moved my glass, so he filled the one next to it, then drank that one along with his own.

“Claude, listen: I’ve got something to tell you. You should wear pastels more often.”

“That’s what you wanted to tell me?”

“And you look really good in that dress. Did I tell you that?”

“Quite a few times.”

“You look really, really good in it. I really think you should have some more to drink, Claude.”

“Where’s Candy?” I said as Sam emptied another glass without pausing for breath.

He put down the champagne flute and sat there for a few seconds without saying anything. Then he gripped my hand in his.

“She’s gone, Claude.”

“She’s going to have to drive you home.”

“She’s not here, Claude. Jesus, how many times do I have to tell you?”

He ran his fingers roughly through his hair, making some of it stick out. I leaned toward him and smoothed it down.

“You don’t have to raise your voice. I was just asking where Candy was.”

“Sorry, Claude. I didn’t mean to yell. Are you sure you don’t want some more champagne? ‘Cause I think you’re gonna need some. Just as soon as you ask me where Jerry is.”

“Who’s Jerry?”

“Jesus, Claude, don’t you even remember your own boyfriend’s name?”

“His name’s Gary.”

“Oh, yeah, Gary. Okay, so ask me where Gary is.”

“Where’s Gary?”

“He left. With Candy. Wow, you think that’s funny? I never thought you’d laugh about it.”

“Where are they, Sam? Really?”

“They left, Claude. D’you see them anywhere?”

I glanced around the reception hall, crowded with people in their best clothes. Everyone was laughing, dancing, eating, drinking. Everyone except Candy and Gary. I pulled my cellphone out of my beaded purse, and dialed Gary’s number. No answer. I didn’t leave a message. I called again.

“Candy’s went right to Voicemail, too,” said Sam as he held up his phone. “Wanna see all the texts I sent her?”

I shook my head.

“That’s okay. She didn’t anwer any of them anyway.”

I glanced around the reception room again.

“Maybe they went out for… cigarettes.”

“They left in a state of partial undress,” said Sam, “so I don’t think they went out for cigarettes. Besides, Candy quit smoking. But ask me if I care if she left with Dildo. Sorry, I mean, Jerry. Go ahead: ask me if I care. No, I do not. And you wanna know why I don’t? ‘Cause I was going to break up with her anyway. The only reason I brought her with me tonight was so I’d have a date for the wedding. But right after the reception: ‘hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no…’ Aw, come on, Claude, don’t start crying on me. Wait. Where are you going?”

“To find Gary.”

“He’s not here. Christ, d’you think I’d make something like that up?”

“Let go of my wrist. You’re hurting me.”

“Hey, d’you wannna dance?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Come on. Best man’s supposed to dance with the maid of honor.”

“You must be really drunk to think I’d want to dance after…”

“Who you calling drunk? You stand up if you’re going to call me that. I don’t care if you’re already standing. Okay, then I’ll stand up. Hey, don’t go. Come on, Claude. I didn’t mean it. You know I didn’t. Come on: don’t leave me all alone.”

After I sat back down, he picked up a piece of ham and a portion of deviled egg from one of the abandoned plates and shoved them into his mouth.

“Hey, did I tell you that dress looks really, really good on you?”

The flower-girls came running back, this time without the ring-bearer, their organdy dresses rustling as they leaned against Sam, their hands sticky with sugared almonds. Each time Sam opened his mouth, one of them popped another candy in. When there were none left, they licked the sugar off their empty palms. Then they dashed back into the crowd of dancers. While Sam was texting and calling Candy, I took the extra champagne bottles off the table.

Roger and Eve were waltzing in the center of the group, and the chandelier’s light sparkled on the silver embroidery on Eve’s gown. When Roger said something, she smiled up at him, and he kissed her on the forehead. They looked so happy, gazing at each other while dancing slower and slower, closer and closer. Lots of people were dancing, but Gary and Candy weren’t among them. Sam stood up, taking his keys out of his pants pocket.

“Hey, where’s my champagne? Somebody took it. Quick, Claude, call the police. Call Roger. No, don’t call Roger. Not today. Call the other police. The ones who aren’t here. Nobody leaves till we find my champagne. Hey, what are you doing? Gimme my keys.”

“I’d better take you home.”

“Okay, but quit pulling on my arm like that. I’m not the one who left with somebody else. Hey, Claude, you look really, really good in that dress. Did I tell you that? You’re the greatest. Hey, why’d you take my phone?”

“If Candy calls, I’ll answer.”

“Gotchya. Make her jealous. Good one. Gimme yours. I’ll answer if Jerry calls.”

“Gary.”

“You’re dating two guys?”

I sighed as I handed him my phone.

“Don’t let anybody ever tell you you’re not the greatest. In the whole wide world. The absolute greatest. Jerry’s an absolute, complete, and total jerk. And Gary’s a jerk, too. Jerry and Gary and Candy — they’re all jerks. They deserve each other, as far as I’m concerned. ‘Cause you’re the best, Claude. Really, the greatest.”

He slipped my phone into the inside pocket of his Tuxedo jacket. Just as I pulled my shawl around my shoulders, Sam leaned forward and kissed me. Just like that. He took my face in his hands and kissed me. Right there at the reception, with everyone dancing and eating and laughing around us, he kissed me.

After what he’d just told me, he kissed me.

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Only with the Heart

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Please remember that you cannot copy or distribute this work without accompanying copyright information. Only with the Heart, Revised & Expanded, Legally & Medically Updated, 12th Anniversary Edition (1st Edition published by Arcade 2000 [Hardcover/Cloth] & 2001 [Trade Paper] under name “Sherri”) © 2000, 2012, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. All rights reserved.

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Poetry Lovers’ Paradise

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Complete

My Poetry Collections
FREE, worldwide
Friday 5 September through Tuesday 9 September

Since I’ve been doing the micro-poetry on Twitter, based on the @HeartSoupPoems prompts by Delia Devry, I’ve been amazed at how many wonderful poets there are out there. From a traditional publishing background, I’ve been told my entire career that “poetry doesn’t sell” because “no one reads it anymore.” I want to thank @DeliaDevry for her wonderful prompts and all the poets on Twitter, no matter whose prompts they’re using, like @FieryVerse, by offering my two poetry collections free, worldwide.

Originally, the two collections were much smaller and were part of one, called Survivor: One Who Survives. Eventually, while trying the get the book accepted for publication, it grew into two books: Love in the Time of Dinosaurs and Where Lightning Strikes. I’ve included the description and some excerpts from each. Just in case you wonder while you’re reading them, the line-breaks are syllabic. I started that with my Holocaust poetry in Survivor: One Who Survives, to imitate the arbitrary and rigid nature of the Nazi regime, the concentration camps, etc., and then, when I was writing other poems, it still seemed like a natural “challenge” to compose the poems so that, though the lines broke rigidly according to syllable-count, the language flowed over those breaks.

Yes, Virginia, there are those who still read poetry.

Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
About Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
Excerpt from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
Get your copy of Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

Where Lightning Strikes
About Where Lightning Strikes
Excerpt from Where Lightning Strikes
Get your copy of Where Lightning Strikes

About Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

Love in the Time of Dinosaurs includes all Szeman’s non-Holocaust poetry from 1980-2010. Many of the poems begin with a narrator’s or character’s questioning his expectations of life versus the reality s/he encounters. In the section Portrait of the Poet as a Woman, the poems, firmly grounded in everyday objects and people, examine marriage, children, and family relationships; eventually expanding the narrator’s or character’s view to include the universal human condition, especially that of women. In “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” and “A Cappella,” a new wife feels saddled with and rejected by the young children from her husband’s previous marriage(s), despite the fact that she actually loves them and desperately wants their love in return. In “When Bitterness is all We Have,” the long-married narrators rejoice that they have what they consider a more realistic view of marriage than do their children or friends, virtually reveling in how the “bitterness” about life’s and marriage’s expectations has made them more honest, with each other, at least. Or so they claim. The narrators of all the family dramatic monologues speak poignantly of our desire for acceptance and love, of the fear of betrayal, of loneliness and isolation even when within a relationship, as well as of treasured moments of love, happiness, and desire.

Imaginative depictions of mythological, literary, and biblical characters’ lives frequently appear. In “Cain’s Lament,” the narrator, Cain, long in exile “in a land that is a good land but far from home” after having murdered his brother Abel, begins his lament against God in bewildered grief but ends in self-confident, righteous defiance, revealing the depth of the character only briefly presented in Genesis. “Ahab’s Wife,” published almost thirty years before the best-selling novel of the same name, depicts the confusion, longing, and love of a young wife married to an older man whose obsession with hunting the great white whale that maimed his body is so powerful that it continually takes him away from her and their infant son. The award-winning “Penelope to Ulysses, on their First Night Together after Twenty Years” is a plaintive exploration of how the long-abandoned Penelope, having fought off numerous suitors and preserved her chastity during the two-decades-long absence of her husband, might have actually felt about Ulysses’ return, had The Odyssey been written from a woman’s perspective rather than from a man’s.

Some characters who were mentioned in short stories in Szeman’s award-winning volume Naked, with Glasses appear in poems like “Eddie Madison and the Theory of Evolution,” where Eddie simply doesn’t understand why his wife, who’s returned to school as an adult, keeps comparing him to an ape, and not “one from Planet of the Apes either. Eddie’s best friend Auggie longs to get closer to God by looking for angels and demons in “Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse,” no matter what the personal consequences might be. In the collection’s title poem “Love in the Time of Dinosaurs,” the disillusionment, anger, and pathos of Eddie Madison’s life as his marriage deteriorates is likened to the changes of the earth and its climate through long geological transformation, leading to an unexpected, startling conclusion.

Szeman’s voice is simple and melodic, engaging and lyrical. Her themes are universal, encompassing the perspectives of men and women, adults and children, equally honestly. Though the line-breaks are often syllabic, and the stanzas formal, the language flows musically over the artificially imposed line-breaks. The poems’ stories and characters have generated a multitude of fans who claim that, “for the first time, [they] understand contemporary poetry.” Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her Holocaust poetry collection, Where Lightning Strikes, this collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerfully written, darkly humorous, surprising, and accessible as her prose works, these poems let you glimpse into the hearts, lives, and minds of ordinary people — whether they be mythological, biblical, literary, or contemporary — as they struggle to make sense of relationships, family, marriage, divorce, children, spirituality, faith, and the existence of God. As they struggle to comprehend the very things each of us experiences every day.

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Prizes
• University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize
(anonymous competition)
Grand Prize (1983), 2nd Prize (1984), 1st Prize (1985)
• The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship
for Creative Writing
• The Centennial Review Prize for Poetry
for “best poem published in previous year”
• Writer’s Digest National Writing Competition,
Honorable Mention

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Love in the Time of DinosaursExcerpt from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

Field Trip to the Serpent Mound
Portrait of the Poet as a Woman
Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

“Field Trip to the Serpent Mound.” This is one of my favorites, about one of the many Native American (Burial?) Mounds in Ohio, where I was born and raised. This is about the most famous Native American Mound in the North American continent: The Serpent Mound.

Map of Great Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio

Map of Great Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio

~~~

Field Trip to the Serpent Mound

Once again our professor reminds us that we
have not come here to see the Serpent Mound but to see the

geological formations beside it, and
because we want the ten weeks’ credit for only

five long, hot summer days, we dutifully turn our
attention back to the area, nearly five

miles in diameter, containing extremely
faulted and folded bedrock, Paleozoic

carbonates, sandstones, and shales, dutifully noting shatter
cones and the vertical fractures in the rock, all

uncommon in the normally flat-layered rocks
of Ohio, even southwest Ohio. But

it’s the Serpent Mound that draws our eyes again and
again. That nearly quarter-mile embankment of

earth built by Indians a thousand years ago,
the gigantic snake uncoiling in seven deep

curves along a bluff overlooking Brush Creek, the
oval embankment near the end of the bluff most

probably representing the open mouth of
the serpent as it strikes. It’s the largest and finest

snake effigy mound in North America and was
not built over any burials or remnants

of living areas as everyone once thought,
its massive body uncoiling, its huge earthen

mouth unhinged and open, ready to swallow down
anything foolish or blind enough to stumble

into its path. With an exasperated sigh,
the professor reminds us how the landowners

have been most cooperative in allowing us
to examine the site and will we please respect

their property and disturb it as little as
possible and please pick up that empty plastic

bag lying there in the thick ground vegetation
and will we shirkers please pay attention for once

in our lives? We obediently huddle around him, scribbling all
his words in our spiral-bound notebooks, thinking of

Moses instead, casting his rod down before the
Pharaoh so it might turn into a serpent and

devour all the serpents conjured up by the
Pharaoh’s magicians and sorcerers. In a drone,

the professor points out the exposed bedrock and
the dolomite, shattered and brecciated, but we

think about snakes digesting everything but hair
and feathers, even teeth and bones. We think about

curved fangs and glistening scales and the tremendous size
of it all. During lunch with his favorite students,

gulping down tuna salad on toasted rye, the
professor explains that researchers have been studying the

possibility that the effigy may have
been laid out in alignment with various and

sundry astronomical observations. The
professor discusses the closely spaced fractures

and the undisturbed Pleistocene glacial till, while
we shirkers tiptoe around the Serpent Mound,

whispering about Medusa, her voluptuous
body and writhing nest of serpent-hair turning

us hard as stone. About the sweet illicit taste
of forbidden fruit and afterward our crawling

on our bellies and eating dirt all the days of
our lives, gladly, so gladly, with the sweet taste of

the fruit forever on our lips and tongue. After
lunch the professor patiently explains why the

Serpent Mound disturbance cannot be explained by
either the meteorite- or comet-impact hypotheses

or by the gas-explosion theory but may be
somewhat if only incompletely understood

as the result of some ancient volcanic or
tectonic activity, but we’re thinking of

Cleopatra, with her dark hair and her milky
white breasts, bared to fangs which, when not in use, fold back

and lie flat, but which when used, spring forward and then
become erect. Serpent bodies long and cool and

hard, muscles undulating beneath taut snake skin.
Vipers’ pits seeking out the heat, the damp moist heat,

trembling to the vibrations which reach us through the
faulted and folded Paleozoic structures.

Which stir us from our underground dens and thrust us
violently up along the fault lines, our bedrock

exposed. Which leave us shattered, gasping and spent, our
snake hearts dark and deep as the earth from which we came.

~~~

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“Portrait of the Poet as a Woman.” Here’s another from a different section of this book. I was in a relationship when I wrote this poem, and the man had children from a previous marriage, but we weren’t even living together, let alone married. Still, when I wrote it, while living in my one-room apartment, and it won a prize, the person who awarded the prize thought it was memoir. He told me he would’ve given me an even “bigger prize than the Grand Prize” if he’d known I wasn’t married nor had any children and lived in a tiny apartment when I’d written it, just for “writing a relationship poem that made [him] think it was memoir, albeit a very well-done memoir.”

~~~

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Your second wife calls to say that the children get
ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must

be something they eat what do I feed them something
dreadful? She calls collect when she’s away. If I

ask who’s calling she says, This is his wife. If I
don’t ask, she says, This is his wife. Sometimes she cries.

I want to feel for her pain, but loving a man
is penance enough. In the yellow tea kettle,

the water steams. Holding the phone to my ear, I
sit at the table with this morning’s dishes. At

breakfast, your youngest son decided to hate the
toast, the jam, the world, me. I wanted to hold him —

the hands covering his face seemed so small, but his
older brother’s stare fixed me, as if in a bad

photograph: off-center, one hand reaching out, the
other almost tipping my teacup, mouth open,

staring straight into the camera. Lot’s wife stilled in
faltering. Pinned without wriggling to the wall. One

of the children slams the bathroom door. The water
steams, without whistling, in the yellow tea kettle.

Last night, one of your children cried out in sleep. The
wood of the hall was cool on my bare feet, and

my nightgown brushed my legs. You were already there
in his room. I stood near the open window and

listened to the hum of your deep voice, woven with
your child’s answering sobs. The white lace curtains brushed

against my flattened belly, aching to be child-
swollen, to share you with something of me instead.

The water steams and she reminds me again that
I have moved into her house. I crumple some burnt

toast with my fingers. Outside, two brown sparrows hop
together in the dried leaves, talking bird-somethings.

~~~

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“Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse.” When I was working on my short stories, a character named Eddie Madison kept appearing as a kid, the friend of one of my narrators, but I could never make the “story” ideas for Eddie as an adult work. That’s because, apparently, they were meant to be poems, and three poems featuring Eddie Madison appear in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs. Then Eddie’s friend, Auggie Vernon appeared, and he was even more intriguing than Eddie. Here’s one of Auggie’s poems.

~~~

Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

He has everything he needs set up in the back
yard: two triangular UPS shipping tubes
held together by duct tape in the middle, with
a pin-pricked piece of foil on one end and a piece
of white paper on the other end of the box,

 

inside, near the viewing portal. Several pairs of
dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, each pair larger than the
last so Auggie can wear more than one pair at the
same time. A welder’s glass. The Bible. And cousin
Vern’s brand new, high-powered telescope, which

 

Auggie had to sneak into the basement while his
wife was at work because she’s a nurse and has been
scaring everyone with her warnings about light-
induced retinal injuries, which can occur
without any discomfort or pain since there are

 

no pain-receptors in the retina and which
don’t occur for at least several hours after
the damage is done. But nothing’s going to stop
Auggie from seeing the full solar eclipse, though
he’s not interested in the eclipse itself. No,

 

he’s not interested in the color of the sky
changed by the refraction of light. He doesn’t
care if birds or bats or other animals get
confused and prepare themselves for night. He ‘s simply
not concerned with the umbra, that vast shadow

 

of totality rapidly advancing like
a tidal wave across the landscape towards him. And
he doesn’t care about the photosphere shining
through lunar valleys and creating Baily’s Beads
— a familiar feature of total eclipses —

 

when the razor-thin solar crescent breaks into
a chain of bright beads as the moon covers the sun.
Or the Diamond Ring effect, when the sun’s inner
corona forms a wedding band around the moon
with a single diamond of blinding white light. Or

 

the solar corona which appears when the sun
is completely covered by the moon, though that’s the
only time the corona is visible to
the naked eye, and though the corona looks like
white streamers radiating outward. Auggie’s not

 

interested in the sun’s prominences either,
those gigantic, crimson, flame-like jets and loops of
gas around the edge of the sun. No, what Auggie
Vernon’s interested in is Hell. And though he can’t
find any biblical corroboration for

 

it, he’s pretty sure there’s only one place in the
whole universe that’s big enough and hot enough
and infernal enough to serve as Hell, and that
place is right in the middle of the sun. So that’s
what all these preparations are for — Hell. If he

 

times it correctly and aims the telescope right in
the center of it all, Auggie figures he’ll be
able to see all those damned souls, crammed so close and
tight together they look like urban tenement
dwellers, all of them squirming and shrieking like they’re

 

in a blast furnace, only with their skin growing
right back on the bones after it’s melted off so
they can suffer all over again, for the rest
of eternity. And Auggie thinks there’s a good
chance he’ll get to see plenty of demons, too. They

 

should be easy to distinguish from the rest of
the damned on account of the horns growing out of
their heads, the leathery wings on their backs, and their
cloven-hoofed feet. And then, if he’s really lucky
and his courage holds out, Auggie thinks he might get

 

a chance to see the Big Guy himself — the biggest,
baddest guy of them all — Satan. Lucifer. Prince of
Darkness. Beelzebub. Mephistopheles. Of
course, Auggie doesn’t know what the Big Guy looks like,
but he guesses he’ll recognize Satan when he

 

sees him. Only Auggie won’t have to shout, Get thee
behind me,
’cause he’ll be safe here on earth, about
a billion-trillion light-years away from the sun.
And according to Auggie’s calculations, the
best time to see Hell is right after the solar

 

eclipse, when the Devil thinks he’s still hidden by
the moon. After Auggie’s seen Hell and can describe
the Devil to everyone else, he won’t have to
worry that his unemployment benefits ran
out or that his wife is threatening to divorce

 

him unless he finds another job. Why, people
from all over the world will just throw money at
him — piles and piles of money — just for the privilege
of hearing Auggie Vernon talk about Hell. Oh,
yes, Auggie thinks as he puts down the taped shipping

 

tubes and takes off the welder’s glass, it’ll be worth
retinal damage, with or without pain. Oh, yes, he
thinks, as he aims the telescope toward the sun, it
would even be worth eclipse-blindness, despite the
fact that his cousin Vern tried to scare him, saying

 

that Satan’s face, as the last thing Auggie saw, would
be burned on Auggie’s retina and would be the
only thing he’d see for the rest of his life. Vern
was jealous ’cause he hadn’t thought of looking for
Hell himself. Yes, Auggie thinks, as he pulls off the

 

sunglasses, if only he’s brave enough to look
at the Devil’s face, he’ll be a bigger man than
anyone else in the history of the whole
human race. If he can look the Devil in the
eye without flinching, he’ll learn all the secrets

 

of the universe. Except for the ones that God
didn’t even tell the angels before they fell.
It’ll be the closest Auggie Vernon ever
gets to fame and immortality, he thinks as
he takes a deep breath, grabs his Bible, and raises

 

the telescope to the fierce light of the sun. It’s
the closest Auggie Vernon will ever get to
being somebody important, the closest he’ll
ever get to respect, the closest he’ll ever get to
beholding the ever-radiant face of God.

~~~

Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

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About Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress. The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population. In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation. “Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself. A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well. Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being. A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).” The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War. In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

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Prizes
• University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize
(anonymous competition)
Grand Prize (1983), 2nd Prize (1984), 1st Prize (1985)
• The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship
for Creative Writing

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Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Excerpt from Where Lightning Strikes

The Dead Bodies that Line the Streets
On the Other Hand,
The Day the Snakes Came


“The Dead Bodies that Line the Streets” is from the perspective of a young SS-guard at the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews died so fast — from starvation, disease, shootings — with no place to bury them, that the bodies were piled up in the streets.

~~~

The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets

chatter and snipe at me constantly, as if I
were responsible for their being there. But I

ignore all their remonstrative and sarcastic
remarks. Favoritism or fraternization

with the enemies of the State is forbidden,
and I won’t tarnish my reputation or my

family name by giving them special privileges
that might alleviate their misery. Don’t they

deserve what’s happening to them? Didn’t they kill
our Lord and Savoiur? My best friend Kurt, though he wears

the same uniform as I, is not as cautious,
not as circumspect. Why shouldn’t we be paid to

do our job in this God-forsaken Ghetto and
be rewarded for sometimes not doing it as

well? he says before he slips behind the bricked wall
or behind the stack of bodies with his latest

protectee, a beautiful girl who hardly looks
Jewish at all. We’re much closer to the Front than

we are to home, he reminds me, buttoning his
uniform after he returns. Such things are routine

at the Front, he says, and he should know since
his brother was killed there only last spring. Sometimes,

I admit, I’m tempted when I see some lovely
girl who’d do anything for only a bit of

brown bread or a piece of sausage. I even caught
myself wondering what one of them might do for

a bite of chocolate or some cigarettes. But they
heard my innocent musings and have fastened their

rolled-back eyes on me ever since. I get angry,
threaten them, poke them with my bayonet: leave me

be, I shout. But their gaping mouths tsk tsk tsk at
me until I light up a cigarette and toss

the still-burning match onto one of their lolling
tongues. That usually silences them. These bodies

should be carted away and dumped somewhere, but Kurt
claims they’re here as a symbol to the living. As

far as I can determine, these beggars ignore
their dead. Instead they scurry around, stealing food

from each other, trying to bribe me or one of
the other fellows, hurling themselves over the

wall or through the wire. And the dead bodies that line
the streets certainly don’t care about their living

comrades or they wouldn’t lie around spying and
gossiping to annoy me, trying to prevent

me from doing my job. The bodies that line the
streets should be hauled away and incinerated,

their ashes scattered to the heavens. Then I could
perform my duties without interference, eat

meals without tasting dust,
sleep at night without dreams.

~~~

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“On the Other Hand,” is from the perspective of one of the Extermination Camps (like Auschwitz) Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates in charge of leading the incoming victims into the gas chambers, putting their bodies into the ovens, then cleaning out the ovens. He’s a very devout man, and often quotes from the Bible — albeit ironically — in his Yiddish dialect, as he teaches the newest member chosen by the SS to help with their “work”.

(Note: the mussulmans were what the camp inmates called the Jews who were were so thin & sickly that it was obvious they were going to die any time.)

~~~

On The Other Hand,

death: not everyone’s favorite topic
of conversation, I know, but some things

they have to be talked about, they can’t be
avoided, you’ll get used to it. We get

used to anything. Look at me: as stout
as good challah I used to be, and now:

matzoh. Open the door from this side. But
what a man I was. What arms I had. The

envy of men, desire of girls for
miles. What shoulders I had. From hoisting those

sacks of flour. Stir them around. Don’t look:
just stir. And muscles from kneading. Did I

knead. Day in, day out. In the beginning,
lying down on my pillow at night hurt,

my shoulders were so sore. I learned; you will,
too. But more bread than anyone I made,

better, cheaper. From miles they came to buy
my breads. And my ovens weren’t even so

large as these: I could afford such ovens?
Only toward the end did the fires burn

all night, so no crumbling bricks in mine. Here,
take them out this way. Now the fires will

not go out. The beasts have been sent among
us. They rob us of our children, destroy

our cattle. Cattle they never touched, let
alone destroyed. Drag this to the door: scrape

the ashes into it. Cattle — grazing,
sleeping, as if it were Shabbas. We take

the fat and burn it in the ovens: it
goes faster that way. One set of clothes we

take off, another we put on, and to
another place we carry the ashes.

Don’t worry. This is your first day: you’ll soon
forget to notice. That which remaineth

of the flesh and of the bread shall we burn
with the fire. Only better to eat the

bread, they would mind? Worse than yours my first day
was. For months I don’t see my in-laws I’m

working so hard. My wife is complaining —
all these strangers and you’re never at home —

she’s worried. My first day here, who do I
see? My wife and her parents. What do I

do? Kiss them? Cry tears of reunion? Of course
not: foolish I’ve never been. Here, work is

all we know: people we don’t recognize.
It is written: ten women shall bake in

one oven — even if they’re mussulmans,
into one oven, don’t put that many.

Otherwise, another catastrophe
like a few months ago: new helpers we

have, but does anyone teach them? Fans they
don’t turn on. Ovens they overheat. Then,

Pow. The wall explodes. Three days we don’t work.
We don’t work, we don’t eat. We don’t eat, we

bake. After, among ourselves, we agree:
Never again. From now on, we teach the

right way. Us they will not swallow up in
their wrath. Us the fire shall not devour.

Us the land of our enemies shall not
eat up. Our ashes they shall not scatter

into the wind, God willing. We are few
in number. And on the other hand, death.

~~~

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Once I’d written poems from the period before the War and the Concentration Camps, and the time during those periods, from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and the victims, I knew I had to write some poems about the permanent repercussions of what the Nazis had done. This one uses an extended metaphor of snakes invading a village and different people’s reactions to the snakes to illustrate the range of actions and behaviour during the Holocaust, of victims and perpetrators.

~~~

The Day the Snakes Came

Wouldst thou have a
serpent sting thee twice?

William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice 4.1.69

We thought, at first, that we were imagining them:
that sliver of disturbed dust by the sidewalk, that

hint of damp on the kitchen floor. Then we thought they
were an aberration: the one found coiled in young

Markowitz’s bathroom sink, the other around
the apple strudel in Mrs. Polski’s icebox.

The beasts have been sent among us, said Leopold,
to rob us of our children and to destroy our

cattle. Since we knew he drank his meals, we shook our
heads and pitied his daughter Leah who came each

night to drag her father home, his arms waving like
snakes. Then others began to talk. Everywhere, there

was snake talk: It’s been pretty dry the last few years;
they’re just looking for water. Old Farmer Johnson

must have turned up a lot of rocks in his field this
spring. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Some people even laughed. Then our neighbors began
slicking back their hair. Our children practiced flicking

their tongues in front of the bathroom mirrors and changed
their names to snake names. By September the snakes were

everywhere. Glistening black bodies swarmed over
the sidewalks, bubbled out of the water pipes, milled

out of morning cereal. Some tried to ignore
the snakes. They were the first to disappear. Others

argued: They don’t have any reason to hurt us.
What have we done to them? If we don’t bother them,

they won’t bother us. They were next to vanish. A
few brave ones tried to learn snake words, to untangle

the slithering black unrest. Their facility
at languages could not save them. But most of us

tried to protect ourselves. The snakes caught us any
time: when we were gathering fruit in the garden,

when we reached into the basket of knitting, when
we crawled into bed at night. Then suddenly, one

spring day, the snakes were gone. A cold wind blew in their
place. We lost most of our village to the snakes. We

heard the same from neighboring towns. The wind chilled us.
We swept the brittle carcasses out of our homes,

replanted our gardens, and tried to rebuild new,
snake-less lives. The years passed. The wind blew cold, hard words

at us: There must have been something to upset the
snakes: they only attack to protect themselves. It

could never happen here. I never saw a snake
in my life. If they were here, they weren’t in my house.

But we have taught our children about the snakes. We
teach them how to wield bats, how to ignore wispy

whispered snake charms, how to crush a snake’s head with their
heels. Because late at night we hear them, late at night

rustling feverishly around the base of the house,
their long fangs clicking, their lidless eyes watching.

~~~

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

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Hope you enjoyed the poems, and please remember that they can’t be distributed without copyright info and all that jazz (all poems from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs and from Where Lightning Strikes © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman).

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