Selections of Work

bits and bobs

A short writing on Swann's experience in a monastery in Mongolia.

A short writing of Swann's experience working in the U.S.A.

Read an excerpt of the short story Galena.

A selection of poems that started as lyrics.

 

Mongol Monastery

I flag down a car; a mud splattered Prius fresh from the countryside. Using my broken language skills and copious hand gestures, the driver understands where to take me. He’s an old man; eyes cloudy with cataracts, a symptom of a life spent in the land of blue sky. Countryside music rings out through the open windows as the driver sings along. It’s a song I’ve heard before; a song I’ve heard on repeat during the twenty-hour bus rides to the capital, but then again, so many of the countryside songs sound the same to my untrained ear, it could be the latest hit.
The rocky surface jostles us back and forth, the beads hanging from the rear-view mirror swing, gaining momentum with each divot and stone in the earth. We drive up the hill as far as the Prius can manage. I pay five-hundred tugriks and step out into the blinding sun. The Monastery is perched half-way up the hill, an easy walk from the car. As I enter the darkness of the Monastery, I feel my pupils dilating, blinking flashes of white, readjusting to the lack of sunlight.
The pungent aroma of milk and mutton saturate the room, despite the copious amounts of burning juniper. White smoke from incense trays trails upward in delicate curls; a vain attempt to overpower the smell of meat. The sour sweat of my own body mixes and mingles with the rest of the hopeful people all of us crammed in together; waiting.
The monks dressed in saffron and gold robes spin wooden beads between their fingers. Scrolls of prayers written in Sanskrit are draped across their alters. Portraits of wrathful deities stare down at me. Fierce faces painted in blue with flaming hair are adorned with green and black snakes for necklaces. Columns of fabric hang from the ceiling like support beams, as if the entire structure could be supported by red and yellow silk instead of cement.
The rough cement walls do nothing to keep out the heat. Sweat gathers under my arms and makes my glasses slide down the bridge of my nose. My thighs stick to the wooden bench as I wait in anticipation. When I finally stand to pray, my legs peel off the seat like a band-aid stuck on too long. I gently dip my forehead until it touches every wooden alter as I bow in respect, moving along the conveyer belt of healing.
After completing the circle inside the monastery, the monk assigned to me calls me to him. He offers a tiny plastic bag full of juniper water and pours it into my palm. I sip out of my hands, tasting the saltiness of my skin mixed with the faintest essence of herbs and wonder to myself how clean this water is, and if I’ll be purified later tonight in the bathroom?
The monks begin to chant in unison. They swoop up and down together, rhythmically praying in a language no one here understands. My monk starts to ring a bell; the one next to him starts crashing large cymbals. The convoluted sounds of hope are far from peaceful. They grow in frequency and tempo, the climax of all our hopes approaches. Everyone in the tiny room is watching them with eager shining eyes. The clatter of metal stings my eardrums as the chimes ring out. A monk is moving towards the gong, the end is almost near but cutting through the ringing bells, chimes, and chanting is a familiar whistle. My monk reaches deep into his saffron robes and pulls out his iPhone to silence it.

 

School Days

*names of people and places have been changed for privacy

I’m late.
I should have used the copy machine in the office instead of the library. The library machine jams. The paper twirls in on itself as I gently pull it off the rollers.
Open the hatch, refill, start again.
There are 30 more copies to make; 30 more graphs showing how far my students reading levels have plummeted.
Did Jordan stay up with his baby sister again? Did Faith go hungry? Did Star sleep in a stairwell or the shelter?
Ten-year-olds that are fighting against the world and yet are still expected to test at state standards levels.
I scan another graph and cross my fingers as I hit the big teal button. Residue of the word start has worn away into flecks of white paint. The numbers have faded off the grey buttons from years of tired teachers hammering the keys.
The new copier is in the main office. It never jams and there are no archaic buttons but instead it has a touch screen. It prints in more than black-and-grey.
Using the new copier means small talk with Donna. A sweet and chatty secretary full of Minnesota nice charm. All “oh sure’s” and “you betcha's.”
I don’t have time. I eye the wall clock, five minutes slow. I have thirty minutes till my second shift starts. It’s a fifteen-minute drive downtown, not including finding parking.
I’ll have to meter park, I think scanning another graph. It’ll mean another parking ticket.
This second job is starting to cost more than it makes.
When I finish the graphs, I stack them in alternating directions by student. I’ll distribute them tomorrow. Twenty minutes left on the clock means fifteen and I grab my keys, rushing through the library doors.
The halls are full of students making their way to their after-school programs. Trails of “bye-bye Miss Haley,” and “See you tomorrow,” follow me as I move along the right-hand side; a school of fish instead of people.
The crackle of the speaker preludes the announcement. The principal's voice cuts through the racket.
“This is not a drill. This is a lockdown. Teachers, take students to the nearest classroom. Lock the door and block the windows. Police will be here shortly. Check your email for details. I repeat this is not a drill. Thank you.”
I lock eyes with the behavior specialist just ahead of me. I want to say his name is Mr. John, but we’ve never worked together.
“In here,” he says opening the door to the Riverside Children Services classroom. “Come on kids, follow Miss…?”
“Haley,” I tell him. “Come on kids, let’s go. Let’s go.” I usher them in, holding the door open as he seats the kids inside. We pull in about ten of the stragglers. The rest have been shuttled off by their appropriate programs.
I glance up and down. Debris from afterschool snack is scattered across the empty halls. No more students. I close the door behind me.
He locks the doors. The windows to the hall have already been covered in multi-colored construction paper and educational posters. Mr. John double-checks the handle and nods to the outdoor windows.
“I’ll pull the curtains,” I say already on my way.
The curtains roll down, cheap plasticky grey sheets on rollers block out any stray light. The Riverside room goes dark and quiet.
John is handing out coloring sheets and I pull out my phone. No service.
Fuck.
“Did you get an email?”
John checks his phone, shaking his head, “Service in this building sucks.”
“I know, right?”
He moves to the desktop powering it on.
“Mr. John!” a girl with tightly braided pigtails, threaded with pink and yellow beads, whines.
“Misty, it’s quiet time now. You’ll get extra points if you can be quiet, okay?”
She smiles and returns to her coloring sheet of Elsa.
The desktop casts his face in blue-white light. Dark shadows eat up the lines under his tired eyes. He must be the same age as me, nearing thirty.
Standing near the window, my other shift has already started. I have one tiny bar of service.
In lockdown at school. Will be late. Bad service. Sorry!!!
I try to send the text three times before it finally goes through.
“I’ve got an email.”
“What’s it say?” I move to his desk. It’s covered in stickers, markers, and a stack of demographics reports.
His eyes are scanning the email, darting side to side, “There was a murder two blocks down. A gunman is on the loose. Police are blocking off everything around to try and find ‘em.”
I nod my head. A murder, not a shooting. A shooting implies more dead bodies. This is only one.
“Think they’ll come here?”
He scrolls to the bottom of the email before closing it. “Nah, seems drug-related.”
I nod and look at the kids sitting on the foam floor mat. Misty is laying on her belly, blue scribbles covering her Elsa coloring page. I’ve seen these kids freak out over the simplest things: who sits next to them, when they get their bathroom breaks, which story they get to read. But now they are silent. They’ve practiced this drill before. They know to stay quiet.
My phone buzzes and I opened the text from my boss.
No worries. Get here when you can.
Relief washes through me.
Steps sound in the hall. They are getting closer.
Click-click-click.
Hard soled shoes hammer off the linoleum flooring. A pause near our door. The handle rattles. Someone testing the lock.
“Mr. John. I have to go to the bathroom!”
John crouches down, “Shhhh Tommy. You have to hold it.” His voice is barely a whisper.
“But I have to go!”
The steps move away from our door. High heeled steps. Our principal testing the locks.
We passed the test.

 

Galena (Excerpt)

My name is Galena and I would be the most beautiful girl in Saran if it wasn’t for the scars.
This may be facetious to say, but I’ve never seen my face; I am just repeating what those around me say. It’s funny what people say when they think no one is listening.
I am always listening. 
Listening comes naturally being a cave walker and all.
Taste, touch, sound, smell; this is how I understand the world.
People in Saran grip their lantern lights and trip over themselves. They fumble with arms out, pupils wide, praying for the light. They get lost in the dark.
I thrive in it.
My world is always dark. Most say that’s sad; they say it’s tragic that such a pretty girl like me will never see her worth.
Really? That’s my worth?
In my experience, eyes fuel ego, and you can’t have an ego in a cave. Not in our caves.
In the cave, I relish the feeling of wet stone walls against my palms. The water leaks through my leather shoes until my socks squelch between my toes like a cold kitten’s tongue.
In the cave, I can smell the sulfur of the earth's belly; indigestion that drifts up from the innards of the world. Human stench is warm and musty in contrast to the cool tang of the cave. It leaves a trail through the underground maze. Groundwater and algae linger fresh in my nostrils as I pass the dripping stones from above.
Drip-drop. The heartbeat of the cave. A constant rhythm that reminds me the world is alive. 
In the cave, there is no wind. The air is stagnant, calm, and cool. When I feel the wind, that deceiving gust from below, I turn away. It sends shivers up my spine. The skin on my arms ripple and transforms into gooseflesh. 
Never follow the wind. That is the mantra of the cave walkers
As Saran’s last cave walker, it is my job to learn the secrets of the cave. I have memorized its labyrinth over the years. I can lead spelunkers in deep and take them out fast enough to never get caught.
Never except that one time. 
I haven’t been in the caves since.
It’s wasn’t my fault, Auntie Zamfra reassures me. Skin eaters know how to confuse their intended victims. They lure them with their breath; foul and strong, tricking the unsuspecting that they are moving towards an exit instead of their doom. 
The taste for human flesh is one that can never be quenched and the skin eaters are always hungry.
Now, they are calling to me. Another red spot claims me. The plague of the cave walkers; the sickness I was born with.
That is why today is a Burning Day. Another reason why my life is “such a shame.”
Auntie Zamfra knows my ears are good. I wonder if she says these things near me on purpose. As if I could learn the error of my ways and undo my fate. \
But I am a cave-walker, and no amount of insult can change that.
When I immerged from my mother’s ebony womb with brown skin, white eyes, and a red spot on my forehead, the midwives knew what I was. They cut the cord from my mother and bathed me in white-water, the nectar of the saran cacti. My mother was gifted fig cakes and stuffed dates. Dried rose petals were sprinkled across my blankets. Protective amulets were hung around my crib. 
Even now, when I smell the musky scent of dried roses or taste the sweetness of dates, I am reminded of my childhood. It was a fine time for me, being ignorantly pampered. 
For my mother, my birth was the day she rued. It wrecked her. I’m told she cried for months after my birth before falling silent. My sister, Jaytana, used to tell me that mother had a beautiful singing voice before I was born.
Jaytana used to burn my skin for me. That was before.
Today, it is Auntie Zamfra who will be honored. Auntie Zamfra who has been preparing for this day; preparing since we found the spot.
One week ago, I asked for a white-water bath. A wind had been prickling my neck. Even above the ground, I felt it. I knew they were stirring. They were calling me.
In the center of our tiny kitchen, I stripped for Auntie Zamfra. The floor was warm and sticky with food. Setting my white cane down and brushing crumbs off my feet, I stepped into the cool metal basin. I clutched my ribs, knees tucked up to my chest. The metal was cool on my flesh and I resisted the urge to urinate.
The rattling of metal pitchers and ladles told me Auntie hadn’t prepared for the bath. Patiently, I waited while she talked endlessly to my mute mother. Auntie Zamfra filled the space with enough noise for two.
“And I told them, I did, that I needed extra white-water for today. Of course, they wanted to know why. Well, I told them it was a family matter of greatest importance. And I asked them I did, I asked them if they had forgotten who my niece was. And do you know what they had me do? They had me fill out a form! I mean, I understand that the relations with the guardians need to be maintained, but those gremlins should acknowledge that if it wasn’t for our Galena here, they wouldn’t have any saran cacti to protect! The skin eaters would eat it all up like that!” she snapped her calloused fingers.
I smirked as the first splash of white-water hit my bald head. The skin eaters have no interest in eating cacti. I don’t know if they would even eat the guardian’s skin, rough and layered, difficult to rip. It’s human flesh they feed on.
“I’m asking you a question, Galena. Can’t you hear me? My fire, I thought you were blind, not deaf?”
“What?”
“I’m asking you, what is this?” her rough fingertip jabbed the base of my neck, pushing on my spine.
Another chill passed over me then. I hated the wind, especially on wet skin.
“What does it look like?” I asked her. Jaytana used to describe my skin spots to me at length. 
Auntie slathered my back in a cool jelly. I loved the feeling of white butter, a product made from the stock of the cacti.
“It’s a dark spot,” she said in a huff.
“Is there a ring around it?”
Her breath was hot on my back. It came in small nervous bursts as she moved in closer.
“I don’t think so. Not yet anyway.”
“Let’s burn it now,” I said.
“No. We wait. That’s the way.”
I sighed. “I just want to get it over with.”
She clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “You know we need to wait to see how big the ring develops. I do hope it’s not as big as your other ones.”
Her fingers drifted across the scar on my right shoulder the size of a durian.
Now, one week later, a perfect circle has formed a target directly over my spine. This one will hurt.
“Galena, you have a visitor,” Auntie Zamfra says as she enters my bedroom without knocking. Her entrance doesn’t surprise me. I could hear her heavy gait approaching from miles away.
I wrap a silk robe around me savoring the feel of the slippery fabric on my bare shoulders; it was the one Auntie Zamfra made for me. “I haven’t painted myself yet.”
“It’s alright dear, you can do it after.”
Dear?
“Would you like some help?”
I shake my head and smile. The visitor must be Beatrice. Auntie Zamfra is not a woman who offers help unless someone else is watching, but I don’t mind. I’m blind, not incapable, and I always paint myself on my own. Ever since Jaytana...
“Shall I send them in?” she continues.
“Them? Who is with Beatrice?”
“A foreigner…”
“Foreigner?” My chest tightens and I feel my heart straining against my rib cage. I can hear blood rushing through my ear like a roaring sea.
“Madam Beatrice didn’t say, but they want to go into the caves.”
“How do they know about…”
“Madam didn’t say.”
I breathe deep and thumb the smooth handle of my walking stick. “What about the burning?”
I listen to Auntie Zamfra wringing her dry hands. As a seamstress, her hands are constantly being pricked by needles or burned by irons. I like that her rough hands make such delicate things.
“Madam Beatrice invited them to the ceremony.”
My mouth goes dry. The after taste of garlic and eggs lingers on the back of my tongue. I try in vain to swallow. 
I hate burning days. To strip naked in front of all of Saran with nothing but a thick coat of white mud to protect me from their prying eyes was one thing. Now, a foreigner will be watching.
“Where are they?”
“Right outside. Do you want me to bring them in?”
“If Madam Beatrice desires it, who are we to deny her?” 

 

Poems

Animism

I've lost my voice in the static

and I've lost control of myself

blurry images of lifetime decisions

swallowed up whole by lack of voice

well what if there's no soul

to take care of me

to keep me well when sick

and my heart healthy

what if there's no soul

for me

when did I learn to fear you

suddenly not speaking out

hushed silent protests of my own self control

its buried deep in womb

connected through blood my minds tainted

thought process cruelly fixed

when pausing towards hate

and leaning towards loyalty

its all family ties I know

my minds kept open for revelation

dear god what kind of world is this

where torture and chaos now guard my country and that was my brother you stole

Birds

Well I saw birds

and saw almighty

flying high over me

she smoked away the worries

and drove to stop feeling alone

well we all have sorrow

and we all have fears

and we all have those stories

that we don't want anyone to hear

and we all have something to say

and we all yes we all have something to say

but how can I retell the words

of those brilliant minds

those brilliant minds

those brilliant minds

that came before me

but those brilliant minds those brilliant minds those brilliant minds never saw those birds

Flight

Something’s gonna have to change

to make this feel all right

its dark

its dark in the night

and its cold 

feels cold in thoughts of flight

well something needs to change to make this all right

in flight of this sorry place

in flight of my own damn face.


So I’ll fly to the east and I’ll fly to the south

I’ll fly over to Asia and stuff my own mouth

with the words I can't speak or quite understand

and I’ll build me a farm and I’ll live off the land.

and now that the dirt, is dried out from drought

I’ll buy me a ticket and get the hell out

I’ll fly to the west; I’ll fly to the north

its where I come from its where i go forth

and now that I’m home

you passed away.

We took vows and were married

your last name i proudly carried

now it haunts my heart

then why did this all fall apart

in flight of my own damn face

So I’ll fly to the east and I’ll fly to the south

I’ll fly over to Asia and stuff my own mouth

with the words I can't speak or quite understand

and I’ll build me a farm and I’ll live off the land.

and now that the dirt, is dried out from drought

I’ll buy me a ticket and get the hell out

I’ll fly to the west; I’ll fly to the north

its where I come from its where i go forth

you tell me I have options,

and you tell me to listen

I tell you that I’m stubborn and full of indecision

and now that I’m home

you said you'll wait for me

something’s gonna have to change

to make this feel all right

in flight

Satire

Is it out of fear

or a genuine lack of curiosity?

That all i want is to be with you

It's true we grow old 

but does that mean we must grow apart?

And according to you

that's all we do

is we grow apart

Yeah we grow apart

And we all get sick of one another.

And we're all damned for divorce.

Lust will be our romance

Who needs love when we can want?

Darlin' can you tell me is it worth it

in sticking around?

Now that we both know it

That you

you're no longer in love with me

And time

time was your proof

Well lover don't you think that's shot to hell?

Cause lust will be our romance

Who needs love when we can want?

And Baby, do you still love me

your sinner?

That forgot all the world in the moment of my making

And Baby, My Darling, or my Lover,

Are you, are you, are you

still in love with me?

And time, time was your proof.

Well lover, don't you think that shot to hell?

We all get sick of one another

And we're, we're all damned for divorce

Lust will be our romance.

Who needs love when you can want?

 

©2020 by H. M. L. Swann.

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