5 Stories and Poems from Vashon Island Writers
In late 2020, !Attention! Artists at Work announced “The Literary Project,” a literary Flash Fiction/Prose Poetry Project by Island writers. !Attention! Artists at Work is an initiative by Open Space for Arts and Community designed to hire artists during the challenging economic circumstances caused by COVID-19. 31 artists participated in “The Literary Project,” 23 of whom were financially impacted by COVID-19 and compensated for their submissions.
Stories from “The Literary Project” are now available to view for free! We are releasing the entire collection five stories at a time for the next several weeks.
By Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma
Janelle stared at the computer screen with dread. Her granddaughter had talked her through using Room or Boom or whatever it was called more times than she could count, but getting ready to do it always made her feel nervous. “Just follow your list,” she heard Gweneth saying. Now that Gweneth was almost done with college, she called herself Gwen, but Janelle still thought of her as Gweneth. Gweneth told her it was fine, “You have grandmother’s rights,” but Janelle still wanted to honor her wishes.
Outside the window she saw Barbara, her closest neighbor, taking out the garbage with her purple-pink mask. At least when she talked on her computer Janelle didn’t have to wear a mask. How else could she make herself understood?
Gweneth’s helpful list, which Janelle had taped to the tabletop beside her large mouse, said the next thing to do was to click the link in her email. She’d managed to find the link and clicked the left button on her mouse with her right index finger, watching the screens open and close. Join with video? Yes. Join with audio? Yes. But when Gweneth appeared, her screen looked different than last time.
“Grandma,” Gweneth said, “can you hear me?” She seemed to be standing outside. Janelle had expected to see Gweneth’s bedroom, since she was home from college for the month.
“Loud and clear, my dear,” she answered.
“Oh good,” said Gweneth.
“But Gwen, for some reason, your picture looks different. There are these bars on both sides of your face. Do I need to adjust something?”
“Oh, that’s fine, I’m on my cell phone, Grandma.”
“You can use Joom on your cell phone?”
“Yes, Grandma, you can use Zoom on a cell phone. I’ll show you sometime.”
“Zoom, yes, of course.” Janelle picked up her pencil to write down the name, then saw that she’d written it already. Why hadn’t she remembered to look? Maybe she should write the letters a little darker.
“Grandma,” Gweneth said, “I have a surprise for you.”
Actually it wasn’t completely a surprise. During their last “Grandma Tea,” Gweneth had mentioned she might have a surprise for her next time. Still, Janelle felt a little rush of anticipation, as if she herself were the granddaughter, not Gwen.
“Just talking to you is a surprise, my dear. I’m still amazed I can get this thing to work.”
“This is a bigger surprise than that. Look out your front window, Grandma.”
“The window?” She looked out again and instead of Barbara with her mask she saw Gweneth, standing with her phone. “Gweneth! What are you doing out there?”
“Well,” she said, her voice coming from inside and outside, “I can attend class from anywhere now, so I quarantined myself and got myself tested. Would you mind some company for a time?”
And Janelle stood from her chair unable even to say, “No, not at all, come in.”
Beginning: At the Local Public Health Department
By Katy E. Ellis
Even when we see it coming—as maps grow red day by day, commas catch breath between zeros, numbers expand their fields—we don’t see. It arrives from across the Pacific like handfuls of sparks on a path of dry pine needles.
The first death in the United States happens on the county line north of us. Our office hive buzzes with fliers-in from Georgia. We meet people from neighboring sections on the org chart we never knew existed. Our phone number tapped like an SOS signal by doctors, travelers, parents and caregivers seeking answers. But we answer their calls with questions and our questions mushroom rapid rattle along corridors leading into packed conference rooms still decorated with pink foil coils and It’s a Girl streamers.
Day begins with a phone call from the hospital up the hill. We cry the first time we hear the story we will hear many times. He was ninety years old and would’ve passed away surrounded by his wife of fifty-seven years, their children, grands and greats. Instead, he died with nurses constricted by PPE who stood in for loved ones as best they could or who stood back regretfully assigned to monitor for touch that breaches protocol in these last cherished visits amid the hum and distant alarms of hospital life. He wrote his wife a love letter that also said goodbye. We imagine shaky but elegant cursive across pages that conjure memories of their first date sharing fish & chips on Pier 54; a reminder to water the geraniums; wishes to hold her hand, to see her face again. We imagine his wife reading her love’s last words on paper as if he died at war in an overseas battle. We ask the caller to confirm the death date and to please fax clinic notes. Our headset bleats with a new incoming call.
We are the unseen, essential pushers of virtual paper. We cog and tick, select and click. We scour electronic faxes for specimen collection date, for Reactive or Detected or Positive. We comb for clues of death or congregate setting or long-term care. We enter names and birthdates—the combination of which become the identifiers of lives we hope survive the results. Upload attachment. Save. Exit. Open next.
If there is time and light, we pull on a sweater, readjust our mask, step outside. We walk the empty city dreaming of a home across the water where cedars outlive loss and hold us curled against their trunks like newborns inhaling the first of countless breaths.
“It’s a Great Day to Read a Trashy Novel”
By Martha Enson
It’s raining again
This time it’s a flattening drop down
Leading to a flood
Even the dog is over it.
He digs at his bed and sighs out
All the air in the house.
In one corner sits the lurky virus
Full of terror and the names of everyone I love
In another corner my teen is dovening like a mad woman
Another week of this and we will have to
Create a knife throwing act.
Guess who gets to be the knife throwers assistant?
I am knitting out my sanity.
With each row I get stupider and more likely to crack
Wrack my brain for one more way to be handy, one more way
To play normal
As I wash my hands for the 40th time today I think of
Our friend whom we are sure is in the CIA.
He would know, if anyone would, what the outcome of all this is gong to be.
Well, he is teaching his daughter to be a crack shot like Scarlett Johannson in that movie, so the world cant be ending yet, or what would be the point?
The phone beeps
The computer chimes
The rain changes to an insistent tap tap tap tap tap
It’s an orchestral version of someone’s requiem played by the entire Oberlin Conservatory, each in their isolated apartments, recorded to a click track and edited straight into my brain.
Pause, rewind, repeat
This is a good day to eat the chocolate chips straight out of the bag
A good day to floor length gown and jewels
It’s an excellent day to ready a trashy novel.
By Janie Starr
As long as you show up you’ve got skin in the game.
You can witness. You can represent.
Even if you can’t fix a thing.
Of all the things you can do, what matters is
That you show up –
On the page, at the rally, at the 4-way stop
where the village vigils are held.
As long as you show up by your child’s bedside,
as your husband is wheeled into surgery,
at your granddaughter’s soccer game,
As long as you show up, nothing else matters.
Show up when your friend has lost her lover,
her cat, her home, her job.
Show up even when you don’t feel like it,
especially when you don’t feel like it.
Show up even during quarantine, wearing your mask,
keeping your distance,
opening your heart to what grieves you most.
As long as you show up, you’re doing what you can.
Show up in rebellion, show up in outrage,
Show up wearing your feelings on your sleeve.
Show up to harvest the strawberries, the greens.
To welcome the day, to beat your drum,
to dance across the carpet with Zumba music
oozing through your pores, pounding in your brain.
Nothing matters as long as you show up.
at zoom meetings, in your jammies, your sweats,
your hair a rat’s nest.
Show up looking your best, your worst, your in-between.
Just be in the room,
In this moment, this space, this void.
Show up to take a walk, to cheer from the sidelines,
to lead the parade.
Show up to share a can of beer, a cup of tea,
Show up when the sun rises, showering pink and
purple light upon your face,
and when the sun goes down, turning the
sea all manner of mauves and reds, oranges and grey.
Show up when the rain falls, the hail pelts the front porch,
when the dandelions turn to seed and blow wild and free.
Show up to watch the speckled fawn cavort across the lawn,
Show up when the eagle circles, and the great blue
darts its pointed beak into the water,
snapping up an unsuspecting fish and gulping it down.
Show up and that’s all you have to do.
Show up to sing in the choir,
to work the crossword puzzle, to ride your bike,
read the next chapter, write the next poem.
Even to watch tv.
When you show up, you commit a sacred act –
to pay attention to whatever
stands or sits or lies down before you.
You commit to comfort your weeping companion,
to stand in solidarity with your Black and brown sisters and brothers.
To be a collaborator, a co-conspirator, a seeker of justice.
As long as you show up at the clemency hearing, the poetry reading,
the texting assignment to vote in a new day,
As long as you show up,
You’ve got skin in the game.
Black Lives Matter.
Show up to say their names.
By Vera Schoepe
Worn out by the tide
your body curls like a shell
brought ashore to be found.
I walk through the waves
hungry for your embrace,
underwater roots trying to take hold.
Your lies lie heavy on the dead.
I bite into every morsel of golden light
as I grapple with mauve pieces of shell.
Uneven map of the past few months,
they shine bright amidst the chaos.
I step on them with delight,
a crushing sound like bones and loose ends.
Beauty still redeeming.
Welcome to the raw real
where hope can tear you apart.
I dance with the water playfully,
caressing the fleeting clouds.
Golden light brushing my feet
waiting to be aligned.
Entangled with long-haired kelp,
I stand at the abyss of the curling tide
watching barnacles grow on shells,
covering hands with dragon scales
my heart’s pace arrested
with the beauty and pain
of healing wounds.
Every morning a big mountain
greets me on the way to the woods.
I walk forward, release you persistently
as an eagle swoops in front of me
to tear a fish apart.
I can still see your broken beauty
in a fading Polaroid.
That morning you rested
your chest upon my heart,
deaf to the dripping sound of time.
The fragrance of your skin lingers.
You taste like salty water
my hair between your teeth
your fingers slithering down
the curve of my hips.
I swim upstream,
my hair adorned with Camellia buds.
We grow face to face
holding each other tight
with laughter speckled
over our backs,
as we chase a storm
across a turbulent pool of blue.
The boat of your heart
never seemed so safe as on that day.
Torn by the rift of constant noise,
I hold my breath to bite
into the secret place.
You taste like rosemary.
About the Authors
Janie Starr has masters degrees in public health and psychology. In addition to her memoir, Bone Marrow Boogie ~ the Dance of a Lifetime, she has written extensively about racial and social justice, including her essay, “What’s a White Girl to Do”, published in the anthology What Does it Mean to be White in America?
She has been an advocate & collaborator for racial, social & environmental justice for most of her life, and currently organizes with Vashon-Maury SURJ ~ Showing Up for Racial Justice, Indivisible Vashon’s Immigrant/Refugee Rights Group, and VIGA’s Food Access Partnership, in addition to her involvement with the VISD’s Racial Equity team.
Katy E. Ellis grew up under fir trees and high-voltage power lines in Renton, Washington and is the author of three chapbooks: Night Watch—winner of the 2017 Floating Bridge Press chapbook competition—Urban Animal Expeditions and Gravity. Her work appears in many literary journals in the US and Canada. She answers phones and files things for Public Health—Seattle & King County and lives on Vashon Island.
Martha Enson is Artistic Director of the event production company EnJoy Productions, the off-site Events Director with Teatro Zinzanni, and a Founding Artistic Director of UMO Ensemble. In addition to conceiving of and directing over 30 original productions a year, Martha is an actress, clown, acrobat, aerialist and puppeteer, She has performed on rollerskates, doing bungee dancing from 50 feet in the air, and as an acrobat on the outer rim of the Seattle Space Needle. She is a certified Bikram Yoga Instructor, an avid gardener and runner, and lives on Vashon Island, WA with her husband Kevin and daughter Ruby.
Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma is an author, poet, translator, teacher, magician, musician, and lover of life. He was born in Seattle and has lived and worked in Tamil Nadu, India, and Oaxaca, Mexico. His translation of “The Kural,” the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and love, is forthcoming from Beacon Press in the fall of 2021. Other titles include “The Safety of Edges: Poems,” “Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar,” and “Body and Earth: Notes from a Conversation” (with the artist C.F. John). He is currently completing a book about living in a yurt: “A Round Home Open to the Sky.” Thomas also presents original and theatrical work combining poetry, story, magic, and song in talks and presentations for the young and old alike. His solo show, “A Thousand Thanks: The Gift of Sadako and Her Cranes,” had its premiere in October 2018 at Vashon Center for the Arts. He serves as Language Consultant for Cozy Grammar and has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4Culture, Artist Trust, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the U.S. Fulbright Program, the American Literary Translators Association, Ohio State University, Oberlin Shansi, and Oberlin College.
Vera’s lifelong mission is to co-create inclusive, cutting-edge community-centered cultural and artistic projects that encourage dialogue through innovation and creative collaboration.