Short fiction and poetry by Alejandro de Gutierre
Second place winner: Vocal Media Summer Fiction Series 2021
First place winner: Dillydoun International Fiction Prize 2021
Sour All the Sweet
Pierre, the runt of our brood, trails Amelia and Tyler, dragging his Pooh bear. I tire of telling him to carry it, but rain has made the lake road into a quagmire today, so I call out from the porch, and smirk as he jerks the doll up from the dirt into a vice-like embrace before I even finish saying his name.
I know why he’s chosen Amelia and Tyler, instead of Cole, who’s much closer to his age, and it weighs on me. Cole was never supposed to be an older brother. Too much spite in him. Just a natural, callous sarcasm that drives him to torture poor Pierre, who is too sweet for Cole, too sweet to be the last in our litter of 12, too sweet for this family.
I could go with them: look after Pierre, show him some ropes, try to help his confidence. Lord knows I got nothing else I need to be doing. Betty said she’d “try” to call me back after the mall, but I know what that means. Pa’s already gone into town and told me to hang back—so he’ll be home late ’cause ‘hang back’ just means he’s bound for the Red Door.
Jeremy cares too much about school, Anthony cares too much about drawing. Ma and the twins are about their piano, and I want nothing to do with that. The rain has stopped and it would be the easiest thing to wedge my feet into my boots and head out after Pierre, see the lake, talk to him about the bugs and the fish and the birds. I’d teach him to skip stones and how to whistle—well, at least I’d try again. And I’d help him grow into his skin a little.
But I hear myself sigh, and as Pierre rounds a bend in the muddy road and his Pooh doll sinks from his arms again, I know I’m not gonna move from where I’m leaning on this rickety fence, and I push away the thought that we are going to sour all the sweet in little, kind Pierre.
Words of Comfort
A falcon cry shreds the silence; our goat bleats a fearful reply. Morning frost crests the grass; a man lies supine on the ground, full of arrows.
I dab a tear but make a show of wiping my brow. My father is not fooled. I yearn to grieve, but under his scrutiny I bury the boy who would weep…
…Just as we must bury the man father killed.
His only words of comfort: “I know he was your favorite uncle.”
I’ve come to like Reggie.
He meets me outside his place and we clasp-hand-hug before turning up the path to his apartment building. A few yards from us, a kid shrieks as she is tagged in a game—the sound startles me. I’m relieved Reggie doesn’t see.
I watch my frosty breath billow out of me, and clasp the top button of my bomber jacket.
Four floors up, Reggie’s place is trashed—worse than usual. His smile disarms me as he launches into the story. Him, high on whippits, pleading with his roommates to calm down, nodding off on the couch, coming to and forgetting everything until he scans his place again.
Reggie sparks a joint for me. His smile reveals crinkles around his trusting eyes. He feels safe, and that is what breaks my heart as I silently call in the team and thumb the badge in my pocket.
There’s still so much to do.
Never got Andre a baby gift. Peter’s memorial is in a week. I’m supposed to spread mom’s ashes with Alex next week.
But… Nobody responded to my SOS, and the Terminus is foundering.
Is this really all death amounts to?
An unfinished to-do list?
Skewer and Feed
I remember you, The shape of your voice as you called to me From the corners.
You surprised me by wearing, not black, But pastels, As if to throw me off your path and purpose.
Vivid was the luster of the jade You wore to festoon your ears, Gleaming pale green
Like the irises of dragons— A splash of color to conceal the penumbra Of your presence.
Languid hung the linen of the hood You wore to shroud your head, Gentle lavender and heather hues
Like the feathers of woodnymph hummingbirds— A smoke screen to conceal the gravity Of your collapsing-star soul.
Do you look the same When you appear to others? Or do you vary the tactics of your disguise—
An emotional chameleon, Subtly altering its scales Depending on the nature of the host it clings to?
I remember how you would Appear in the dust haze of my defeats; How you would follow in the footfalls of my fury.
Spirit spearfisher, You stood astride my torrents, And skewered my soul,
Sinking your hooks into its fabric And submerging me in your miasma.
Hello, Melancholy. I remember you.
Why do you call so many To languish in your torpor?
Is it that you nourish yourself On our anxiety? Or do you simply yearn for our company?
I thought I had you licked— Figured out all your… machinations.
But your shadow casts a shadow of its own On my soul, And I realize, It is simply that my triggers have changed.
Ever a patient thing, You wait for bursts of hope To flicker out.
Then, in the gathering darkness, You loom, Peering at me from underneath your gauzy linen hood.
Never give in! I rail, Quoting Winston Churchill to draw strength From his legend.
You, from your perch among the cobwebs, Blow the pages of his biography Open to the famine of the Bengals.
You persist, not only in memory, But in the languor of dreams, And in the dread that haunts my days,
Now that my country insists on Undoing itself. You’ve been a stalwart companion, Melancholy.
Yet why do I suspect that you Will finally flee my side, Only at the end,
When my soul has departed, And there is nothing left for you To skewer, and feed upon?
Spray flings from the line as it tightens in response to my sharp tacking—as I swing the boom into the wind. I try to focus my mind: look at the sky—are there clear spots? Look at the water—is it raging at me? Listen to the rain—is the squall increasing or decreasing?
But my mind keeps drifting to my map. Where am I? What island is this, beside me now? I overslept and went off-course, and now I am drifting toward this little island, desperate to get a break from the storm. Yet, I know that a sandy shoal can destroy my keel. I need to decide: steer out of the storm and toward the island, to save my hands and avoid capsizing, or, turn into it to avoid destroying my hull.
A spray off the mast splashes over my cheek and I recall the words of my father: “Life is a gift given to all of us. How you live that life—is a choice, another gift, also given to all of us.”
I tighten my hands on the mainsheet and on the wheel. I swallow, try to ignore the numbness in my fingers. Sailing into the storm would wreck me. It is the best chance for my little cutter, but it would ruin my body.
My father continues in my mind’s ear. “So, if how you live is your choice, then it must be that choice that defines you in relation to other people.”
I set out from our slip a week ago, after my husband and I separated. My goal was just to spend some time alone, maybe go a little outside the comfort of the archipelago. But I hadn’t intended this: Lost. Heading for shipwreck.
Or had I? The third miscarriage was devastating to us. It sunk our hopes in a way I would never have thought possible. We were both of us devoted, in love, committed. But something wrenched loose when we lost the baby, and instead of holding on to one another, we fought. We fought cruelly. And now he’s taking the Switzerland trip, and I’ve gone out on my boat. And, now, here I am.
To portside, gaps in the cloud cover appear above. The water is calmer there and doesn’t froth. But without knowing my position, I would be rolling a pair of loaded dice steering into it. How nice though, to drift out of this bluster and to lean back in my chair, release the wheel, blow on my hands to warm them. I try to think of the damage a busted hull would cause, but the cold in my hands is becoming unbearable, and I am desperate for relief.
Ahead, to stern, and to starboard, the steely gray looms above, and the water crests in white peaks, all the sea churning, pelted with driven rain. Heading forward into that would demand more of me—so much more. The inescapable image of my ship, The Terminus, capsizing hovers starkly in my mind’s eye. Once more I hear my father’s words:
“So, when you make a choice, whatever the choice may be, be sure to face into it headlong, and make it a resolute thing—something undone only at great cost. Make it something you do not look back from. Let your choice come from the deepest part of you, so that later, you will find no place for regret.”
Frostbite, hypothermia—these are coming for me now. I can sense it in the stumpy sensation in my fingers and in the violent shudders racking my chest and my shoulders. The Terminus sways and bucks, borne on the crest of another wave, before careening forward and smashing into the frothy wake of the wave as it passes beneath. I take one last, long, and forlorn look at the still part of the sea to my left, and I let fall a sigh, my breath a ragged and shivering thing. Strangely, the thing I long for most right now, is a chance to change my underwear. Huffing out a breath through my nostrils, I clench my teeth and will my blood to keep coursing through my chattering hands, and I bear down on a forward heading straight to bow.
I will follow the coast as best I can and try to keep The Terminus steady and afloat, until either the storm breaks, or I do.