Excerpt from “The Safety of Thorns”

Green was everywhere, in all hues and saturations. Emerald, chartreuse, and lime. It came muted, with silver or blue or yellow. It floated above him, in leaves or eyes, in every shape imaginable. The green oozed warmth, promised coolness, dribbled and dripped from every surface. It was dizzying, and disorienting. The smell of freshness, cut grass, or pine needles, invaded him, coating the back of his throat. It was too much…

But slowly, the green focused, gem sharp, and Israel saw the green forming into discernable shapes. He was in a clearing of some kind; surrounded by thousands of trees, or branches…it was unclear, still. Green gave rise to other colors, black and brown (but they still had green in them). A chair, a table, a fireplace. But even those were not what they seemed. The chair, for instance, was a stump, its back a still-living sheath of wood. The table was a log, petrified, with patterns whorled on it. Only the hearth looked normal. A pot of something delicious bubbled away on greenish flames.

Izzy looked up, and saw that the sky itself was green. Light, filtered through hundreds of leaves. The light was guarded by millions of fangs that sprouted from the elegant green and brown serpentine vines.

He gasped. Where am I?

Movement, out of the corner of his eye. A sleek brown and white shape streaked in the deeper part of the—forest? Whiskers, a round tail. A jackrabbit. A cough came to his left. Israel turned in that direction. Red and velvet, a fox stepped out of the thicket, into the clearing. It gave another coughing bark, and strode up to him. It sat down on its haunches, like a dog, and cocked its head, as if waiting for him to scratch between its ears.

“Don’t mind him, he spoiled.” The voice came from behind him. It was musky and sweet. He turned around and saw—a woman. She was garbed in a loose skirt that was white; therefore, it was tinged with the palest green. The color of the bottle of liquor. Her chest was bare. Her breasts jutted out, large and brown, tipped by tender buds as black as night. He tried not to stare at their hypnotic symmetry. Her hair was wild, a swamp of twisted black braids. Her face was…she had no face. She had a nose, eyes, and lips; it was a beautiful face. It was just that it wouldn’t stay still. The image would not stay fixed in his view. It rippled, and was supplanted by other, even more gorgeous facial features. She glided (or floated, he couldn’t be sure, cause he didn’t see feet) over to the cauldron on the fire before he could get a real good look. But it seemed as if she swam the clearing.

Izzy absently stroked the space between the fox’s pointed ears. The fur was soft; it felt good to rub the inverted bowl of its head. The fox’s eyes were closed in pleasure.

Izzy found his voice, “Who are you?”

She turned her disturbing face to him. He focused on her slightly less disturbing perfect breasts.

There was amusement in her reply, “My name is…” A spiral of phonetics, firm consonants and liquid vowels, slipped by him, redolent of musk, rustling leaves and sighing seas. It was impossible to grasp. “But you may call me Mrs. King.”

Ah, so he was underneath, within the briar patch. Miles below the surface of the earth, imprisoned by thorns. This made sense.

From the Journal Say…Have You Heard This One?

Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (2006)

Excerpt from “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net”

Lucifer came to him in drag. He was disguised as Lena Horne.

C.B. went to see The Wiz with his family. The movie was pretty cool, by his standards, even though he thought Diana Ross was a little too old to be playing Dorothy. But the sets were amazing—the recasting of the Emerald City as downtown Manhattan, the Wicked Witch’s sweatshop, the trashcan monsters in the subway. The songs sometimes lasted a little too long, but they were offset by Michael Jackson’s flashy spin-dancing. But it was the image of Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch that would follow him.

She appeared in the next to last scene in a silver dress. Her hair was captured in a net of stars, and she was surrounded by a constellation of babies, all wrapped in clouds, their adorable faces peering out like living chocolate kisses. He fell in love. Ms. Horne was undeniably beautiful, with her creamy, golden skin, and mellow, birdlike features. Her movements during the song “Home” were passionate. They were at odds with shimmering, ethereal-blur in which she was filmed. Indeed, she could not be of this earth. In all of his life in Willow Creek, NC, C.B. had not seen anything like this before.

He was in love, all right. He researched her in libraries, finding old issues of Ebony and Jet; he watched old movies that she’d appeared in, like Cabin in the Sky. He collected some of her records; his 8-track of “Stormy Weather” was so worn down, he had to buy another copy.

But in the weeks afterwards, he began to sense that this love of his wasn’t quite right. His brother and his father would tease him about his “girlfriend,” who was 70 years old, and about how, when he came of an age to marry, she would be even older than that. Of how he could never have children. His brother was particularly mean: he imagined a wedding, held at Lena’s hospital bed, with her in an aqualung, exhaling an “I Do” as ominous as Darth Vader’s last breath. But C.B. wanted to explain that it wasn’t like that at all. He couldn’t quite put it into words.

Lena wasn’t an object of desire, someone who he wanted to kiss or hold hands with. She was something more. She was a goddess of Beauty, an ideal. She was something beyond anything he’d ever known. She hovered above Willow Creek, an angel, looking down on its box houses that were the color of orange sherbet, lemonade, and his own robin’s-egg-blue house. She wasn’t someone to sleep with; she was someone to be like.

From the journal Spoonfed