bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Open Holds

by Mary Kudenov

When I opened my truck door, I knocked the boy off his feet. I might never have spoken with him at all if he wasn’t directly in my path, for I was living in a part of Anchorage where the smartest course of action was to mind one’s own business. I had pulled into the parking lot of my no-bedroom, 450-square-foot “apartment” and lingered an extra few minutes in the driver’s seat to finish listening to a song, something maudlin and full of angst, I’m sure. I didn’t want to go inside because it was March, a month that straddles winter and spring and brings with it stir crazy and spring fever. I was just so tired of being inside. We had that in common.
“Hi, lady,” the boy lying at my feet said. He held up a mittened hand, a cue for me to help him up. Instead I stared down at him while he pushed himself back to standing position. Normally I wouldn’t have remembered many details about a child’s appearance—I wasn’t a mom yet, and children all looked generically cute, like puppies or kittens or any newly formed creature, and they invoked mostly fear and annoyance, emotions that I had neither the patience nor willingness to understand. But that boy was as classically memorable as Norman Rockwell subject: blonde hair, blue eyes, and plate-round face as symmetrical as a Disney character. He wore Oshkosh-by-Gosh overalls with a windbreaker. No winter coat. I thought someone is missing him, someone close, but dismissed the pang of worry.
I said something like, “Hi kid. Watch out,” and turned back to the truck’s cab to gather my things. He stayed close as I headed towards my stairs, close the way children do, so unaware of personal space that if I stopped walking he would have bumped into me. I ignored this. I didn’t want his parents, whoever they were, to discover me talking with their child and get the wrong idea. I should say here too that I was single and self-concerned (which might be a redundancy) and I didn’t want to draw any attention from my neighbors who I, perhaps unfairly, assumed were all armed.
“Do you know where my mom is?” he asked, still following. “I can’t find her and Jaden’s mom said he can’t play outside and I can’t come inside because he’s being mean to his sister.”
 I scanned the windows facing my parking lot. There were no over-protective mothers watching us. In fact, most of the curtains in the vicinity were still closed.
“He’s in there somewhere.” He pointed to the nearest building, four stories of rental units with dozens of doors and windows.
“Is that where you live?”
“No. I live in a yellow house with a brown roof.”
So helpful, I thought. He stared at me with curious looking eyes. I was not used to the frank appraisal of children. His cheeks were dark pink from the cold that had not yet lost its February seriousness. I might have been a little squeamish about the snot streaming straight from his nose and into his mouth (something I wouldn’t even see now) but his vulnerability was grossly conspicuous and even I couldn’t look away.

I never wandered far in the winter. I stayed on my block, as near the wood stove and hot chocolate as a child could while still filling as many hours as possible with sled rides down snow piles. One spring day—very similar to the day I met Christopher—the sky was a Dodger-blue dome, both the sun and moon visible. The beach was pulling me and I was restless for the ocean and tide pools and hermit crabs. I wandered alone to the cruise ship dock in Haines, the small town where I was born. Only it wasn’t a cruise ship dock yet, just a long pier left standing by the remnants of the town’s first harbor, reduced by then to tarred and barnacled logs poking up at low tide. Normally my second-oldest brother, Seth, would have been a chaperone, but he had left home an autumn earlier, so sick of this town and its bullshit. My mom, a single mother, was likely working or recovering from work, which on most nights ended hours before she made it home.
At the beach I gathered straw and seashells and really cool rocks. Old shipwrecks lined the shore, sand and ants spilling from their crevices. That seemed to preoccupy most of my time—gathering, exploring, pretending to captain. I couldn’t use the bathroom at the Quickstop unless I bought something, so when the urge came I looked for a private place. The holds of the long-grounded fishing boats were split wide open by a half-century or more of winter storms. There were no leaves on the trees yet, so the bushes wouldn’t work for cover and I really had to go.
I scanned the area for familiar houses. Did I have a friend near who would let me use her bathroom? The land sloped up from the ocean steeply, the Fort Seward part of town poised above the bay. From the beach I could see the field where Seth taught me to fly a kite. He had taken me everywhere with him when he lived at home. When I could not keep up with him, he carried me and when I grew too heavy to be carried he found a solution. (The last time I visited Haines someone I have no memory of said, I remember when Seth used to pull you everywhere in a little red wagon). He would have known what to do, I thought. I needed something near. I spotted a nice house, gray with big beach-facing windows. Behind the glass an adult woman moved about. I don’t know why I chose that house, why I thought it would be safe.
When she answered my knocking I blurted, “Can I use your bathroom?” I think this made her laugh. It’s hard to say. She may have regarded me with the same trepidation I gave Christopher, but in my memory she’s morphed into a cheerful big-haired chubby woman. She smelled like cookies. She let me inside and led me across plush carpets and spotless linoleum to a bathroom near her kitchen.
On my way out I could see Glacier Bay and the beach I’d combed. The snow-covered mountains that normally seemed to loom over town appeared pastoral and dreamy from where I was. I felt like I’d made it inside a glass orb, inside something ideal.
“Did you wash your hands?” the woman asked me.
I hadn’t. She ushered me over to her kitchen sink, turned on the water, and asked my name. I asked her for a cookie. I ran the warm water over my hands long after they were clean, not wanting to leave.
“I don’t have any cookies,” she said.
“Then what’s that smell?”
“It’s a cake.”
“Can I have a piece?”
“It’s for somebody’s wedding. Have you ever seen a wedding cake?” she asked.
“Only at my brother’s wedding. It was strawberry cake with vanilla frosting and it was beautiful but I like vanilla cake and strawberry frosting.”
“What’s your brother’s name, dear?”
“Which one?”
“The one who had the wedding cake.”
She knew my oldest brother, we discovered, and had in fact baked the cake I described. I thought for sure she would give me a piece of whatever smelled so good because she knew my oldest brother and everybody liked him, I was certain.
But she only said “I see,” alert to who my family was and why I roamed around unsupervised, inviting myself into the home of a stranger. She propped her hands on her hips, striking the classic Super Woman pose.
“How old are you, Mary Beth?”
“Almost 8,” I said, knowing the exact number of days left until my birthday.
        “I bet you should check in at home,” she said. “It’s getting close to dinner time and it sounds like you’re hungry.”
        “I guess so.” I dragged my feet all the way to the door.
I was almost back to the road when she called out to me, “When’s your birthday?”
“June 13th!” I said, and headed toward home.

I didn’t know what to do with the boy following me up the stairs. I couldn’t drive him anywhere—what if someone thought I was abducting him? I could have called the police but I didn’t think they would arrive in a timely manner. I had called them recently for a woman who lived alone in the apartment behind mine. She was trapped inside while one of our other neighbors, drug violent and wanting her, kicked in her door. She slipped past him and hid in my apartment. The police came several hours later, long after he finally broke her door open, as though they thought a woman ought to know better than to live alone in East Anchorage. The police inspected her splintered frame, the door that would no longer close or lock, and advised her to make a complaint to the landlord. The woman didn’t insist they arrest the man, as though she too thought she ought to have known better.
I hoped the boy didn’t wander as far from home as I did when I was a child. Haines was a small town, population in the lower four-digit range. The long distances trekked in my youth were likely shorter than my memory recalled. The boy lived in a rough part of Alaska’s biggest city if he lived anywhere near me, and I assumed he did but thought to ask if his mom had dropped him off.
“No. But I wanted to play with Jaden so I came to get him but his mom says he’s in trouble and he can’t play. She’s mean.”
At the door of my apartment I said, “Wait right here. Okay? I’m going to walk you back home.” He nodded. When I came back out he was trying to slip his head between the bars of the balcony.
“Which way is home?” I asked. He disengaged from the railing and looked around.
“It’s somewhere over there.” He pointed south. There were small houses a few blocks into the neighborhood, an elementary school where the District 22 folks voted, and softball fields beyond that, but I didn’t think he came that far on his own.
“Let’s trace your way back, okay? What is your name?”
“All right Christopher, did you come down this hill?” I pointed to Fireoved, a street I suspected was misspelled and then renamed, which ended at my driveway where it intersected with another.
“Yes,” he looked up at me. “Do you think I’m going to be in trouble?”
I thought of the sorts of trouble he could get into in our neighborhood. I had the sense not to scare him with stories of vicious dogs and pedophiles and men with guns. I told him I didn’t know. We walked up the first block of Fireoved, past apartments with blankets for curtains, past a car on flat tires, past an overfull dumpster.
When we got to the first intersection I pointed to a house and asked, “Did you walk by here?”
“Yeah. That dog scared me.” Christopher pointed to an American pit bull laying in a chicken wire enclosure. The dog watched us walk by without lifting his head, his eyes following our feet disinterestedly. Christopher was nervous though and slipped his hand in mine. His mitten felt warm and soft as summer sand. He’s so small, I thought. My concern about being accused of kidnapping lessened some and I held onto him. After a couple blocks the houses appeared tidier, more like homes and less like rentals, but Christopher kept walking.
“What is your mom doing, Christopher?” I asked to make chit chat.
“She was tired so she told us to play outside,” he said.
“You and who?”
“My little sister.”
His little sister. “Where is she?”
“I dunno.”
We walked for about 15 minutes, straight through a handful of no-light intersections. Christopher didn’t show signs of stopping.
“Are you sure you came this far?” I asked
“Yeah. I remember that house,” he said, pointing to a two-story. “Guess how old I am.”
“Eight.” I estimated up, hoping to flatter him.
“No!” He said and laughed. He held up his one hand and a one thumb. “I’m this many.”
“Wow. Are you going to start school soon?” I asked.
“Yeah, I already did.”
I told Christopher that I was in school too.
“No way!” he said. “You’re way too old to be in school.”
“I’m only 27,” I said, my feelings a little hurt.
“Wow. You’re really old. You’re even older than my mom! She was in school but she had to quit.”
“Are we getting close?” We were almost to the elementary school. I heard children playing on the next block.
“Look, it’s Tommy!” Christopher yelled, pointing with his whole arm to a boy in the distance. “My house is bigger than his!” He began pulling away, his feet itching to run to the other boys.
“Wait a second,” I held his arm. “I need to talk to your mom. Where do you live?” He pointed to a yellowish duplex with a brown roof and leaned away from me, but I didn’t let go. “Which door?”
A silver truck pulled out of the driveway Christopher had pointed to. I held onto his arm as he tried to wriggle out of my grip. The truck was coming toward us. It stopped in front of us and the driver’s side window rolled down. I let go of Christopher’s arm and thought, I’m going to get my ass kicked now. But Christopher froze at the sight of the male driver and I wanted, suddenly, to put myself between him and the man.
“Where’s your sister?” the man asked. Christopher said he didn’t know. And just like that, the man drove on. He barely looked at me. I asked Christopher if that was his dad.
 “That’s my sister’s dad. Can I go play with Tommy now?”
“Go for it. I’m going to tell your mom you’re with Tommy. Okay?”
“K. Byeeee,” he said, stretching the last word into two syllables and already running.
I approached the door where I thought Christopher’s mom might be and knocked. When no one answered I knocked harder. As I turned away the door opened and a woman around my age looked at me with sleep-crusted eyes. The house behind her was dark. She wore pajama bottoms, and her blonde hair hung in long tangles over a faded t-shirt.
“Hi,” I said, hoping I didn’t look like a crazy or a missionary. “I live by the highway, on Fireoved and Taku. Christopher walked all the way over there. By himself. I brought him home.”
“Thanks,” she said and shut the door. Firmly.

The night before my eighth birthday, a special cake arrived at the American Legion where my mom bartended. She didn’t ask why I was gifted that cake or how I met the cake maker. Perhaps she already knew. The cake was suited for a princess, tiered like wedding confection, strawberry frosting over rich chocolate and a secret vanilla heart. But as delicious and pretty as it was I felt hollow when my mom brought it home, embarrassed that it was delivered to a bar, embarrassed that I’d shown that woman how lonely I was. I don’t know if it was that day or sometime soon after that I took to hiding in the gutted hold of my favorite wreck, where even on hot afternoons the sand inside stayed cool and damp. I wasn’t afraid of the beetles or the sandworms that sheltered there. I wanted my brothers to come looking for me, but they had moved on. That summer I carried the sounds of waves and the smells of tar and seawater and rotting boards.
When I walked home from Christopher’s the silver truck passed me twice. The man, at least, was looking for his daughter. I was angry because I thought I knew something of the longing that pulled that boy so far away from his front yard. I assured myself that he had good instincts. He was the kind of kid who would look for what he needed, regardless of how far it took him, and therein laid the tightrope of success and tragedy.  Because I can’t ever forget him I let my hope for Christopher swell in me like a cake rising.

Mary Kudenov is an MFA candidate in University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency Creative Writing and Literary Arts Program. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Chautauqua, Permafrost, The Citron Review, and F Magazine. Mary has essays forthcoming in Chautauqua, Vela, and The Southampton Review.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


by Susan Bonetto

My steadfast Midwestern parents get credit for ‘raising me right’, but I didn’t learn the consequence of forgiveness until I was well into adulthood in a land on distant shores. I grew up with the meaningful mottos, ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. I would have said that I practiced these moral codes but it was in Fiji where I learned how little I grasped of their meaning.

My husband, Oscar, and I lived for one year on Leleuvia Island, an infinitesimal atoll that juts out of Fijian seas. Leleuvia is a permanent home to no one, a backpackers’ resort hosting the holiday comings and goings of youngish travellers. It is a landmass that, at high tide, spans a sum total of four blocks by one block. Twice daily, it stretches and yawns as the tide flows out, growing to a magnitude of nearly six by two blocks.
Given its size, staying on Leleuvia was akin to being placed under a microscope, where everything about you is known and discussed by the other residents. The resort staff observed our every move, dissecting our recurring interactions, clothes worn, food eaten drinks drunk, even our casual chitchat. Typically Oscar woke early and did a walk-about greeting our Fijian friends and co-workers. But, one morning, he slept late and it was I who, instead, stopped for tea at the back of the kitchen where the two cooks and their helper prepared the wood fire for the guests’ breakfast.

“Where’s bosso Oscar?” Lena asked.

I smiled a simple response, “Bosso’s at home.”

“He’s still sleeping?” she wanted to know
“Why, do you need him for something?”

“No, I just hope he’s all right cuz he’s usually up already,” Lena cooed, starting to stir a potential pot of worries amongst the employees.

Since, perhaps, everyday life doesn’t stimulate enough or, conceivably, for cultural reasons to which I never had birthright, this microcosmic indigenous community included its share of gossip. Fijians delight in recounting stories about people they know, stories being the precise term as truth is not a required ingredient in the telling. Mention to a Fijian that you have a bellyache and, by nightfall, people are discussing your likely appendicitis. Comment on the newly arrived, sculpted Italian beauty and during the evening’s grog festivities you will be teased about your desire for her. At times, this type of gossip infected Leleuvia and, once, blew towards us with a full cyclonic force that bent and broke the boughs of our finest friendship there.
We’d met Judy and Hans, the dive masters and only other resident expats on Leleuvia, more than three years back when we all were visitors to the island—each couple with the pipe dream of living there. Our subsequent visits overlapped and we became fast friends given our shared thoughts of leaving our developed worlds behind and moving to an infinitesimal island in the South Pacific. Once located there we’d become daily coffee buddies and confidants.

But one day, long after our relationship seemed secure, a long-staying tourist shared ugly rumors with me. As the tale went, our marriage was in trouble due to our mutual, straying eyes. It was hard for us to believe that our marriage was a subject of intense analysis. Married eight years, without a day of regret and with a momentous secret—we were now trying to have a baby. Foolishly, we tried to understand the gossip’s foundation. Apparently, each week, when one of us departed on the daily ferryboat for an overnight shopping trip to the mainland and capital city, Suva, we started tongues wagging as, in Fiji, devoted couples do not travel alone or spend nights apart.

I knew that there’s no sense in addressing rumors, as they take on a character of their own, expanding exponentially. But our local population was minute, and we discerned that, while the locals propagated the buzz, our good mates, Judy and Hans, had planted it. This data felled me; I couldn’t help myself, wanted to clarify the ‘whys’ and ‘what’s’ and visited Judy to ask “Really?” She confessed that she had made several comments about our relationship based on our abundance of independent overnight trips combined with our flirtatious manner with tourists, dancing and carrying on during the nightly entertainment. I started to debate her unsubstantiated facts but quickly grasped that she thought it amusing and didn’t care that her opinions had wafted across the island

We parted that day with animosity and proceeded to live side by side, un-speaking, on this miniature piece of land. For weeks, Oscar and I passed our once, closest friends multiple times each day and didn’t concede a greeting. Nightly, we sat as strangers at the same picnic table, visiting with the ever-shifting tourists concurrently. We must have seemed an awkward quartet to the short-term guests. Four members of the Swiss Family Robinson living and working in enmity.

On top of everything, their two-year old son, Ben, was both our buddy and inspiration behind our fresh thoughts of parenthood. Our captivating adopted child, he unfailingly arrived at the bungalow with the sunrise, an elfin alarm clock calling out his version of our names. “Oska, Susi, we go fishing?” Ben joined Oscar at the reef on the edge of the island for some morning casting and he sat on my kitchen counter licking spatulas and spoons as I baked cakes. Before day’s end we showered off ten hours of sand and mango stains together. The disease that swept over our relationship with his parents didn’t affect him and he continued his visits, taken home by Judy in icy stillness on warm tropical evenings. As they’d walk away I’d occasionally consider how to put things right but held onto the belief that we’d been wronged and, thus, our bond was broken.

Our indigenous friends surely watched in surprise as we behaved so differently from them. Months before there had been an argument between two of the ‘boys’—the young men who worked on the island. Their angry words turned to shouting and broke into punches. I saw blood and thought they would destroy each other. They had to be wedged apart and taken to separate borders of the island to cool off. The next evening these two men sat together around the grog bowl, singing songs and telling stories. I expressed astonishment to my closest local confidant, Lena, at seeing the duelling, hate-filled men laughing together. She explained it to me simply, “Fijians always forgive. It’s too small a place to stay mad at somebody.” To this day I don’t know if ‘place’ meant world, country, or our diminutive Leleuvia Island community when she gifted me these native pearls of wisdom.

But we were Americans, not Fijians, and I couldn’t bear to look at Judy, aware of the callous thoughts that she’d scattered. And, so, we continued our stalemate. Two months later, we lived through a hopeless night when a hurricane devastated much of the island and closed the resort. A week thereafter, while mourning the loss of our island dollhouse, Oscar and I relocated to Suva. With no ceasefire in sight we left Judy and Hans behind without a ‘goodbye’ while we sought more favourable conditions.

Once settled into city quarters, we began making habitual weekend visits to Leleuvia. As our boat came ashore we’d hear Ben’s small voice calling “Oska, Susi coming!” Throughout the weekends we played with Ben giving no acknowledgment to his parents. Six months later, through the same coconut grapevine that launched our cold war, we discovered that Judy was pregnant. As the months passed we watched her from the distance ripening and swelling like late summer fruit, Oscar and I ruminating silently over where she would have the baby. They had only a sparing business since the hurricane panted half the island away and eked out the most basic living with their dive business. The island had no medical facilities and Judy would need to find shelter in a developed location before long. One Sunday afternoon as we motored away, Oscar looked back towards our weekend sandbox where Judy sat playing on the beach with Ben. He shook his head, attempting to square his thoughts, then glanced at me and said, “I feel sorry for her; she’ll need a place to stay in Suva when the baby comes.” To which I half queried, half stated, “We can invite her to stay with us?”
And Oscar nodded assent.

That evening I placed a call to the island’s radiophone. Lena’s husband, Sireli, answered and, after a ‘Bula Vinaka’ greeting, I asked him, “Can you please find Judy and tell her that Susan wants to speak with her?” While waiting I imagined a new chronicle commencing about us peculiar foreigners. Judy came on the scratchy line and I spoke a mere one sentence—I asked if she wanted to stay with us until the baby was born. She didn’t hesitate, breathed a “Yes, thank-you,” and appeared on our doorstep three weeks later. The friendship resumed. No major discussion, psychoanalysis or sorting through feelings. Judy arrived with suitcase in hand, hugged each of us, and moved into the guest room. She stayed for five weeks pre and post delivery and during this period we shared coffees and cakes again, discussing safe tidbits of daily news until we regained a time when we could dive deeper into values and convictions once more.

This sort of thing never happened to me elsewhere. People who wounded me fell out of my universe and were erased. Judy, Oscar, Hans and I damaged and tried to shatter our friendship some years ago. But the forces of time and place wouldn’t allow it. Instead we learned absolution. None of us live on Leleuvia anymore. Since then we have shared many substantial events—child rearing, parents lost, jobs gained, jobs lost, lives lived. Today we reside in different countries but remain united, communicating often and warmly as people can who, once upon a time, forgave each other in Fiji.

Susan Bonetto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to California where she met and married an extraordinary man who encouraged her to live abroad (with him) and travel as far and wide as possible. While living in Fiji, their son, Alejandro, was born. Susan works as a global Human Resources Consultant and has been fortunate to have lived in the U.S., Fiji, The Philippines, and Argentina and travelled to more than 30 countries. One of her Fiji stories, ‘Before We Lived Barefoot’ recently won second place in’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Contest while two of her travel articles have also been selected for future publication on this webzine.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hope Diamond

by Ute Carson

   “It fits.” She pounded the left heel of her travel-weary brown shoes. In its hollow my grandmother had just buried a diamond-in-the-rough. A few days before, sitting on the steps of their ramshackle cottage near the diamond fields of the Namib Desert where my grandfather was an overseer, she had spotted an object in the sand. The African sun had reflected off its glittering surface.
   British freighters, anchored in the bay off L├╝deritz, were ready to transport German settlers back home following the English takeover of South West Africa in 1919. The diamond mine workers had already been evacuated.
   Back in her native Germany my grandmother stored the shoes among other valuables in her closet. “You never know when we might need it,” she told my mother.
   A war later, fleeing invading Russian troops, my grandmother trekked westward. She wore her trusty worn African shoes.
   In the icy winter of 1946 I contracted diphtheria. Although I lived in a cocoon of familial love, infected children were forcibly quarantined in a provisional hospital by American authorities. “Have a heart,” my distraught mother pleaded, “we have never been apart.” She was summarily ushered out.
   I was delirious and barely aware of what was going on. I vaguely recall crying “Mutti” during nights of feverish demon-dreams as children around me died in droves. Once I threw my arms around a nurse, thinking she was my mother. Medicines were scarce and penicillin was available only on the black market. There was little hope for me.
   My grandmother made contact with a street-smart volunteer in the hospital’s storage room where CARE packages containing powdered milk and instant soup arrived from abroad.
   That night she pried off the left heel of her African shoes, lifted the diamond out and spit-polished it with her handkerchief. “Your time has come,” she whispered to it and then cloaked herself in a shabby gray coat. Under cover of darkness she descended into the underworld of our city where smugglers eagerly exchanged the precious stone for the new wonder drug. “Just in time,” sighed the doctor at the children’s ward. I soon recovered.
   I was left with fear of separation, a damaged heart valve, and an amazing story. My grandmother had to recount her adventure again and again. It was the ending that I envisioned with vivid imagination.
   “After being led through tunnels to a dimly lit shed, a bespectacled man examined the diamond under a magnifying glass and exclaimed: It’s real! He then reached up to a shelf behind him and pulled down a box with black lettering: PENICILLIN. He dismissed me abruptly, urging me to go quickly before we were found out.” My grandmother assured me that she had not been frightened until that moment. “But then I realized,” she confessed, “that I might be followed and robbed.” She hurried away, clutching the box of tablets to her chest, then stuffing them into her undergarments.

   “But where?” I asked with childish curiosity. “Close to my heart,” she murmured.

A writer from youth, German-born Ute Carson’s first story was published in 1977. Her story “The Fall” won the Grand Prize for Prose and was published in the anthology A Walk through My Garden. Her novel Colt Tailing was published in 2004 and was a finalist for the Peter Taylor Book Award Prize for the Novel and was followed by her second novel In Transit in 2008. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines here and abroad and Carson’s poetry was featured on the televised Spoken Word Showcase 2009, 2010 and 2011 Channel Austin, TX. Her poetry collection Just a Few Feathers was published in 2011 and her chapbook Folding Washing in 2013. Her poem “A Tangled Nest of Moments” won second place in the Eleventh International Poetry Competition 2012. An advanced Certified Clinical hypnotist, Ute Carson resides in Austin, TX with her husband. They have three daughters, six grandchildren, a horse and a number of cats.