First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest

51st New Millennium Award for Nonfiction

Chris Siteman of Brookline, Massachusetts for “Memory Animal”

Siteman will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.

 

Memory Animal

Chris Siteman

for JC
 

A single road led up to the house, and there the road ended. I only went once: a large gray Victorian with white trim and black shutters, it stood on a flattish grass-tufted hillock in the middle of a saltwater marsh, the kind for which the town of Marshfield was named. No other houses could be seen. But for the road, a few telephone poles, and the long lines sagging each to each, there were no other signs of the human world. We drove up on it as the morning radiation fog just started burning off. My older cousin sat behind the wheel of the van. Still longing for sleep, I listened listlessly to the tires crunch the sand-covered half-crumbled asphalt and gravel drive. Yawning deeply, I sat up to look out the windshield. Given the lingering fog and that large portions of the façade were obscured by two enormous oaks, the house was never entirely visible as we approached. But I could clearly see the two darkened third-story windows that stared like unblinking black eyes over the interwoven oak canopies at something on the horizon. 

Aside from the trees by the house, the only others encircled the farthest edges of the salt marsh. And the leaves all around were golden-green dappled red, orange and yellow. It was late September, the very last summer Saturday before the season truly tipped into fall. The treetops fluttered and swayed in the crisp breeze off the ocean. The early sun, low, golden-orange-yellow, broken in places by thinning fog, sent long shadows reaching across the razor grass tufted and stubbled tidal wash. They extended from the boulder foundation of the house and the thick trunks of the oaks like a trio of spires dwindling towards some distant invisible point. 

I was there to work with my cousin, square-jawed, thick shouldered, a sometimes humorous but generally serious sort. Only five years my senior, those years encompassed the gulf between my being an oafishly overgrown boy and his being an adult in his mid-twenties. The job itself was simple: a wall-to-wall attic carpet install, a single big room, rip-it-up-and-put-it-down: new sticks, padding, one seam, a turn-and-tack at the top of some stairs. It would take the day. Though, but for carrying in the new carpet, it was really only a one-person job, one-and-a-half at most. He had me there to help because he knew I needed money. I’d just dropped out of college at the end of my first year. He was doing me a favor, and told me as much on the ride there. Harshly straightforward—it’s how my family tended to be with each other when we weren’t being wry or going at one another.

After parking under the nearest oak, he opened the sliding side door of the van and went to unlock the backdoor of the house. Meanwhile I gathered prybars, hammers, razor-knives, trash bags, and anything else we might need to get started. No one was at the house but us. Carrying an armful of tools past the swaying tire-swing, up the brick and concrete steps, I followed him through the back door, through the big country kitchen with its hanging pots and pans, oak slab table and benches, up the backstairs lined with framed photos of blond-haired-blue-eyed smiling faces, down the carpet-lined second-story hallway, and upstairs into the newly repainted attic. 

Though I’d been in other people’s houses alone before, this time it felt odd to be there with no one home, like I’d snuck into someone’s bedroom to read their diary. It was like I sensed someone watching me. So much so, I began imagining myself from the vantage of an onlooker. My body crackled head-to-toe with anticipation I might turn a corner and find myself face-to-face with one of the homeowners. The sensation stayed with me just as if it radiated from the walls, growing more distinct whenever I was alone—like someone stood looking over my shoulder. I experienced an unease not felt since childhood. Arm hairs on end, my skin tingled. I chided myself for allowing my imagination to get away from me. But I couldn’t shake it.

We pulled up the corners of the old orange-brown shag carpet, cut it into strips, rolled and stacked them, then tore up the padding. Smelling of cat piss and mildew, it had all been down so long sand and dirt filtered through both carpet and padding, accumulating underneath. The sifted particles bore the wave-pattern from the backing, and in places rubbed the floor bare. We razored what staples we could, each taking turns sliding the pole-mounted razor across the floor while the other swept away debris. But dust soon filled the air. So, we shop-vac’d the room to get what dirt we could. Then we pried up the nail-studded sticks lining the baseboards, and crawled over the floor pulling the last of the stray staples and nails. 

Listening to a local hip-hop station, we worked late into the morning without stop. Apart from him occasionally asking me to hand him a particular tool or go downstairs for something, we didn’t speak much. We both knew what needed doing. But every time I left the attic that same feeling hit me in the gut with increasing intensity—someone followed me attic to kitchen, waited at the back door, and walked with me back to the attic when I returned from the van. Then, just before eleven, we took fifteen minutes so my cousin could drink some Gatorade and eat an orange while I finished my cold coffee and smoked a butt. We’d been sitting silently in the open sliding side door of the van when he broke the silence.

“You smoke those stupid things?” Essentially the first non-job-related thing he said to me since we got there, it was obviously more accusation than question.

“Well, you know what they say,” I responded. Getting to my feet, I stretched with my arms overhead. “A little death every day helps to keep the psychiatrist away.” I said it with a smirk on my face, but my joke failed to amuse him.

“I’m sure that’ll be just as funny with a trach.” He stood abruptly, tossed the orange peel into the door well. “You ready or what?” Bending over slightly, he gestured as though ushering me into a room, and then closed the sliding side door hard: I could tell he had something to say, but was waiting for the right words. I suspected there was some message to convey from my sister. More than ten years my senior, she had what I then thought a bad habit: she inserted herself, almost parentally, into my business—which I resented. It was just like her to orchestrate something like getting a cousin closer to my own age to talk to me for her. But I was in no mood to help him get there. So, after crushing out my cigarette, wiping my boot soles in the grass and scraping them off against the stairs, I followed him wordlessly inside.

After our break I went to use the bathroom down the far end of the second-floor hallway. I left the door open as I stood before the toilet, and suddenly it seemed the sounds from upstairs, the music throbbing over the radio and the sharp metal pings from my cousin hammering a prybar, were both terrifically far away. It sounded as though I stood on the bottom of a deep pond listening to the world above. I wasn’t exactly inside myself; but it seemed I watched myself through the open door to the room across the hall. I could see myself before the toilet. At the same time, I felt it wasn’t me watching. It was more like being shown myself. Electricity scrambled over my skin as a reflexive shiver. I almost missed the toilet, hastily finished, zipped up, flushed and rinsed my hands. Leaving the bathroom, I again near expected to bump into someone. Though, once back in the attic on my hands and knees working, the feeling virtually evaporated, leaving only a nagging impression I deemed more imagination and paranoia than anything else. We kept at it until sometime shortly after noon, installing new tack strips along the baseboards, prepping the new pad. Then we swept once again and broke for lunch.

“No more than twenty, and back to it,” he said as we walked out the kitchen door. “I don’t want to be here any longer than we have to.” With narrowed eyes, he scanned the marsh apparently expecting to see something he couldn’t locate.

“Place is creepy,” I replied, intuiting his meaning. I wanted to tell him about the nerves I’d been holding down all morning, but left it at that.

“Yeah, town full of dead Indians.” Despite the grim comment being more cryptic than his usual fare, I thought I knew what he meant. We’d both gone to grade school nearby. The circumstances surrounding King Phillip’s War were known to most area school-aged children: the clashes between the settlers and tribes after Massasoit’s death, after his son Metacom came to power, how the local leadership in Plymouth, Marshfield and other nearby settlements drove the Wampanoag out, relentlessly hunted and killed them. Musty smells of history books came to mind, and I thought about blurry oil painting reproductions depicting the raids and battles I’d read about in them. Yet, I took no more note of his comment than as a passing remark. I certainly didn’t connect it to my own uneasiness.

I pulled the sliding door open, and we sat in the well looking towards the back door of the house at the grassy marsh beyond. He brought a proper lunch, two turkey sandwiches, bottle of water, bag of chips, soda, a banana—all produced from his mini-cooler. This was him since I could remember, since he started playing baseball as boy. He always had his corners tucked, gear in order. I, however, tore chunks off two soaked through PB&Js on wheat bread I’d thrown together minutes before he picked me up that morning. And while I was hungry enough eating them wasn’t an issue, enjoying them was. They were like sawdust cakes stuck together with peanut-flavored wood glue. I’d neglected to bring anything to drink aside from my coffee, and thought of going into the house to get a glass of water. Yet, while the roof of my mouth told me to go, my stomach told me not to—I stared into the distance chewing mechanically when he cracked a soda and took a long swallow. 

“Your sister asked me to talk to you,” he said stiffly, as if someone else spoke through him. “About your father and mother, about you getting a job. Something, at least.”

 “Had a feeling today might be about this.” I shielded my eyes with my hand, squinted at nothing in particular. “Well, let’s have it,” I grumbled, already half-unreachable.

“Look, that shit about your father,” he said, voice tapering. I could see in his eyes he already knew it a likely dead-end topic. I thought back to the end of my senior year in high school, the moment things changed between me and my father, our first and only fistfight. For months the atmosphere in our home had been palpably tense. I didn’t know my mother was having an affair. My parents teetered on the verge of divorce. I didn’t know my father was so tightly wound. A golden late afternoon light filtered through the sheer kitchen curtains. He sat at the table, beat-up brown terrycloth robe gathered loosely about his hulking body. Back to the front door, head down, he read the paper while having a smoke, sipping a coffee. I walked by wordlessly. But as I headed for the door, in his deep-graveled voice he asked where I was going.

“Out,” I responded flatly. I was tired of skulking around like the floor was plate glass.

“Yeah. I know. I said where.” I heard a bass warning note in his voice but didn’t heed it.

“Yeah. I heard you. And I said out,” I countered mockingly, continuing towards the door. He got to his feet without another word and landed a fist between my shoulder blades, sending me face-first into the door. It felt like someone kicked me in the head. The punch took a bit of my wind. A sharp pain shot down the right side of my back. More from fear than aggression, I spun to face him. Eyes hard as hammers he glared at me from beneath his furrowed brow. We stood that way for several seconds. Then, without taking his eyes from mine, he nodded his head slightly, as if to say That’s right. And don’t you forget it. And at that he turned his back on me—I threw that punch harder than I’d ever thrown a punch in my life. All the rage from countless familial and schoolyard beatings flowed through me. I put all two-hundred-fifty-plus pounds of my weight behind it, and landed my fist in the exact spot where he’d just punched me. It sent him staggering forward. He stumbled and fell to the floor. Half in shock, I stood there with my fists raised, waiting. Robe disheveled, bracing himself on the table, he slowly rose to one knee, and stared at me like he was looking straight through me.

“You’re a big kid, Chris.” There was a distant, hollow, almost slightly amused tone in his voice, like he was alone enjoying a private joke. “You could really hurt me, even knock me out.” He got to his feet, squared up on me, looked at my raised fists like they were pitiable. “But you remember this—even if you knock me out, I’ll fuckin’ wake up. And when I wake up, I’ll hunt you down and fuckin’ kill you.” I swallowed hard against the dryness in my throat; the sound filled my inner-ear. A knot in my chest was about to break open. I was near tears. “Now get out of here,” he growled. And I did. I slipped out the door, shutting it gently behind me.

Later that night my mother, tears rolling down her cheeks, slight frame trembling, took me into the kitchen. Fear quavered in her voice. “Chris, I have something to tell you.” Holding my hands as we stood by the sink, she took a deep breath. “But you can’t tell anybody, not even your brother. And you can never let your father know. He said he’d leave if I ever told you.” She shut her eyes tight. When she opened them, she stared at me like she wanted to box my ears. I felt a hot rush of embarrassment in my cheeks. “You can’t do that sort of thing with him.”

“I know,” I replied, head down like a scolded dog. “He’s my father. I shouldn’t—” 

“No—” she cut me off. “You don’t understand.” Looking out the window above the sink, still grasping my hands, she shook them like she was saying some sort of silent desperate prayer.

“What don’t I understand, Ma?” My mind spun like a compass set down on a magnet. Frustrated at her reluctance to finish, I felt queasy at what she might say. 

“Your father—he’s killed people. He could kill you.” It was like getting punched a second time, like the air was sucked from the room. She downloaded it all at once: his mother sent him to a work farm when he was eight. The farmer beat him mercilessly. In his early teens he returned to live with her in Cambridge near Winter Hill. Big for his age, angry—the older men in the neighborhood took advantage. They sent him and another boy, a bit older than himself, also from the neighborhood, to kill someone. They drove to the sanitorium where the man worked running the night laundry, followed him home, took him unawares, and beat him half to death. Then they shot him in the back as he tried to crawl away. He died face-down in his own driveway. By the time they were captured they’d made their way to Myrtle Beach. Taken back north, my father was tried as an adult despite being fifteen, and was sentenced to fifteen-to-life. He served his time, kept his mouth shut, and got out at thirty. She told me that was all that mattered. “I met him right after—your father loves you, Chris.”

Inwardly I still reeled. I stood there taking it all in, trying to fit the information into my conception of my life to that point: it was like trying to piece together a thousand-piece puzzle in a thick fog. She told me about him getting back into things after my brother and I were born, what exactly she didn’t know, and that was why we moved so much. It hit me hard; things began falling into place: we were on the run for the first eight years of my life, almost my whole childhood. A number of memories surfaced, but one in particular leapt out: our car exploding in our driveway in the middle of the night. I was maybe six. It blew up right next to the bedroom I shared with my younger brother. I remembered our father kicking in the bedroom door, scooping us from our beds, how we stood outside wrapped in our bedsheets in the dark to watch it burn. I asked her about it. And she told me she wasn’t sure—it might not have been meant for us, but wasn’t exactly not meant for us, that there were others around mixed up in the same things.

“What else could I do,” she entreated. Numb, I barely heard her. A high-pitched noise rang in my head. My ears felt blocked. My whole life I’d been kept in a kind of box I didn’t know I was in. We moved so often I never made friends outside my family until we moved that last time, and settled in at an address tucked away in the shadow of the Blue Hills. Now I was being put into another box, one where I was made keeper of a secret I could barely carry. So much of my life had been a lie; I wanted to puke. I thought over all the times my father told me he’d kill me. It hit me that when he used the word kill it wasn’t a euphemism. When he used that word he meant that word, knew intimately what it was to take life. My mother ran off with another man a few months later, a Vietnam veteran who’d done three tours as a Marine medi-vac pilot before his section eight discharge. Then I left for school at the end of the summer, and when I dropped out the following spring and moved back it was my father, brother and me living in a rundown apartment complex next to a capped landfill by the train tracks through town.

My cousin started again from another angle. “What happened between your parents, about your mother leaving, all that’s their shit—nothing to do with you. You’re angry. I get it. I was angry when it happened to my parents, but you get over it. Sooner the better.” He took another swallow of soda. I could tell his throat was tight. “Besides that,” he said, voice strained by carbonation. “Dropping out? You have any idea what you want to do? A plan?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. I had vague ideas about being an actor or writer. But both notions seemed far-fetched. I’d dropped out after a year studying theater in Manhattan, came home feeling defeated, and proceeded to do anything but think about my future. I took a part-time job as a line cook, and spent my free time with two friends who’d also dropped out after their first year at school. We drove around listening to music, took long walks in the Blue Hills, swam in quarries and reservoirs, spent nights drinking around bonfires at the dump, went to concerts, and smoked absurd amounts of grass. It was a summer of near total irresponsibility. Then, just before August ended, I quit my part-time job and took off to Vermont for a couple weeks. I told no one. I just went to hang out with another high school friend, to help build sets for an orientation week theater production where he attended college. After, I dropped back into my father’s apartment without much explanation except I’d gone to work on a play. 

“A fuckin’ play.” He practically spit the words. I’d caught him headed out the door. “I ought to break my foot off on your ass. You’re a real fuckin’ piece of work. You know that?” And that was the end of it—except I had to work a day with my cousin and have an awkward conversation, one I wanted to conclude quickly so we could get out of there and be done with it.

“I really don’t know,” I said to my cousin, repeating my answer to his questions about my plans. I felt a slight twist of panic. I knew we both heard the shift in the timbre of my voice. My answer brought everything pressingly clear: I was as lost as he thought.

“Seems you should figure that out,” he said. And that ended our conversation. 

Despite knowing him right I felt a sickly resentment, an acidic biliousness both envious and dismissive. I’d looked up to him throughout my childhood. The youngest child of my mother’s closest sister, he was a family favorite. And our familial hierarchy was explicitly and strictly observed. A matter of favor and praise on one hand and violence on the other, it started at the top and fell upon us all like liquid sunshine or chain lightning. It merely depended on which child or grandchild was on the receiving end. Our grandmother, my mother’s mother, originator and arbiter of this kind of attention, made her thoughts about who was favored and who disappointed clear and often. I, amongst the youngest grandchildren, was a favored target for disdain. As such, so much family violence found a final home in me. But I never held it against my siblings or cousins. When they were lifted and I pushed down, when they took part in the pushing, I knew it wasn’t them. Even then I knew we were all in the same mess, suffering different dimensions of the same abuse. As I sat beside my cousin, I thought back to a conversation with my mother when I was just starting high school. Our grandmother, visiting for dinner, heaped verbal abuse on my mother while my brother, father and I wordlessly poked at the food on our plates. Then something in my father wrenched open; he surged to his feet.

“Enough,” he roared. He yanked our grandmother’s chair back from the table, grabbed her by the shoulders, picked her up, walked to the door, kicked it open and placed her outside. Then he threw her coat and purse after. “You’re no longer welcome here. Understand me?” He didn’t await a response, but slammed the door so hard the kitchen windows rattled the frames. I could see her through the window nearest the door: haughty expression, shock in her eyes, mouth shaping an unpronounced syllable. Later that night at the table doing homework, I told my mother that when my grandmother died I was going to piss on her grave. I said it without fear of reprisal, though any other night a statement like that would’ve earned a backhand and more.

“Don’t say things like that,” she pleaded, voice shaking. “There are things you don’t know, Chris. Please—” And though I loved my mother, in my mid-teens my disdain for my grandmother was on par with a visceral response to ingesting bad meat.

“It’s true,” I told her, putting down my pencil. I closed my notebook. I sat there thinking back to a particular Thanksgiving when I was seven or eight. My grandmother piled a plate with food enough for a three-hundred-pound man. She found me hiding behind a recliner in the living room. I didn’t want to eat; I was ashamed of being a fat little redhead. I’d been getting bullied at school. She loomed over me, waiving the plate in my face until I balled up crying. 

“What’s the matter, fat boy?” she hissed. “Aww. Fat boy don’t want to eat? Eat up fat boy.” Then someone called her from the kitchen. I thought about another occasion. I was about the same age. I’d gotten a bad sunburn. Holding me down, she tore the blisters on my back, legs, arms and neck open with a sewing needle as I shivered through the sun poisoning. “Didn’t mind playing in the sun earlier, did you? Now lay still—” 

“I hate her,” I told my mother as she sat shrunken in her chair. I could still feel the tearing skin, liquid oozing over me—the exchange at the dinner table between our grandmother and mother, our father sending her away, myriad conflicts like that filled my childhood. A partial mosaic of her offenses passed before my inner-eye: grabbing my sister by the hair, calling her a dyke and a whore when she was hardly a teen, hitting another cousin in the head with a steel mophandle at the dinner table, raining ringed fists and verbal abuse down on any number of family members, breaking a kitschy wooden wall spoon over the crown of my head for standing with my hands in my pockets. When I came to on the floor, she stood over me wagging her blood-red-nailed index finger in my face. 

Don’t stand like a wise guy,” she whispered menacingly through gritted teeth.

 I looked sideways at my cousin as he chewed his banana. I thought about real ghosts, the ones that actually haunt us, the hurtful things we suffer and do to one another, how they linger, how some people become ghosts before they’re dead, how we’re shaped by them whether they’re alive or not—how who we really are, in part, results from so many long shadows cast by countless generations come before. At first, I thought only of my family, the way my siblings and cousins grew up, how our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all raised, how each generation violently fumbled their way through raising successive generations. Yet, the longer I thought about it the more the notion touched on other ghosts, other people’s ghosts. I thought about my cousin’s earlier quip about dead Indians, the town we were in, how many generations lived there before Europeans came, then all those who lived there after. For a brief moment it seemed clear how every living thing in the sum of existence was the lurching result of one wound or turn of luck after another—all the trials that make a life, all that living and then dying, shadows upon shadows, seemingly weightless but somehow accruing a kind of gravity. My thoughts returned to the feeling I’d been watched all morning, and I wondered exactly how many years the house stood there, how many generations lived and died behind its walls. When we first arrived, I had the impression the house was built in the late 1800s, but as I looked again it seemed much older.

“What year this house get built,” I asked, genuinely curious, but also to refocus the conversation on anything other than me.

 “What am I, the architect?” He shrugged his shoulders. Shielding his eyes, he looked towards the upper windows. “Well, let’s get back to it.” I didn’t respond, but also looked up. My breath hitched. I felt the bottom of my stomach drop. Something moved at the third-floor window, a shadow, behind the sheer curtains, like someone saw me and stepped back. But there couldn’t have been anyone there. I was certain no one had crept up and snuck inside. One of us would’ve seen or heard something. “Hey,” he said, crumpling a brown paper bag. “Let’s go.”

“What?” I insisted silently to myself it was a trick of the light, but didn’t believe it.

“You all right?” I could sense his impatience, but heard the concern in his voice.

“Sorry—I’m fine.” I stood, shook it off internally, and we pulled the carpet out of the back of the van. Then he shut the doors and we started towards the house, carried it carefully inside and up to the attic, where I still half-expected to find someone: the feeling sat like stone in my gut. However, no one was there. Instead, the attic was filled with an ethereal afternoon light. Dust swirls illuminated mid-air curled in on themselves. The room felt oddly placeless, like if I looked out a window the world might not be there anymore. But it was only a passing impression. And we dropped the carpet on the floor, kicking a bit more dust into the air.

He tuned the radio to a local rock station. We pushed the carpet to the side, rolled out the pad, cut the perimeter, and stapled it down. Then we positioned the carpet, rolled it out, and my cousin made a room-length cut to put the first edge on the seam. We shifted the next piece in place, and he cut that side as well. I helped align the seam tape while the iron came to heat. Then he went to work with the iron. Over the next few hours we finished the seam, cut in the room, kicked a stretch into it, and jammed the edges between the tack strips and baseboards. When I wasn’t helping with that, I picked up scraps, kept things organized—and so the time passed quickly. We were almost finished when I glanced at the clock on the radio: just a few minutes before four-thirty. All that was really left was the turn and tack at the top of the stairs. 

“Help me with this,” he said over his shoulder. And I joined him where he knelt at the top of the stairs. We grabbed the edge of the carpet, turned and gripped it over the stair-lip. He picked up the electric tacker and sank a few staples. The repeated thunks from the firing pin rang through the emptiness of the room. Then I looked up. And there it stood, right next to us, a densely dark human-shaped shadow wearing something like a long dress and a shawl. It was already moving. Against the wall of the staircase, it descended in one long smooth glide. When it reached the bottom of the stairs, instead of falling beyond the doorframe, as it should’ve had there been some natural light source behind whatever threw its shadow, it flipped onto the floor, turned and moved beyond my line of sight into the hallway. I looked over at my cousin. He stared at the bottom of the stairs where the shadow had just been. 

“You saw that,” I said almost under my breath. A shiver shot through me.

“I saw,” he whispered, eyes still fixed on the spot where it disappeared.

“What—” I meant to ask what it was, but couldn’t muster anything beyond the first word.

“I don’t know.” He practically swallowed his reply.

“An animal?” I asked, the question more a wish to reaffirm the order of things.

“No animal walks like that.” He was already standing, grabbing tools off the floor. “Let’s get out of here.” I got up and started frantically stuffing scraps into a trash bag. He dumped what he was holding into his tool box and slapped the lid shut. “Leave it. Let’s go.”  

 “You want—” I began to point at another bag in the corner, but didn’t finish the gesture.

“Just leave it,” he snapped. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me bodily down the stairs. We scampered the length of the hall, down through the kitchen, out the back door, and shut it fast behind us. Neither of us spoke until we were already driving away.

“What was that?” The question akin to a marrow-deep spasm, I peered back at the house through the sidemirror, but it felt like looking through a kaleidoscope; everything felt electric. Nothing seemed quite clear. Simultaneously, everything seemed all too vibrantly clear.

Face ashen, jaw clenched, he stared dead ahead through the windshield. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he muttered bleakly.

“But what was it?” I pictured it floating down the stairs—smooth, nothing but air.

“Hell am I supposed to know?” His knuckles were tight, bloodless on the wheel. “Jesus-fucking-Christ.” And just then I turned in my seat to get a good look over my shoulder—there, above the oak canopies tinged gold by the coming fall, the attic windows stared back at me like two large and lidless eyes. 

 

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Siteman lives in Massachusetts, holds an MFA from Emerson College, a JD from Suffolk University Law School, and teaches English at Suffolk University and Bridgewater State University. His poems and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Salamander, Reed Magazine, Sugar House Review and River Teeth, among numerous others. 

Memory Animal © 2021 Chris Siteman 
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11 thoughts on “”

  1. Bravo! Powerfully written story, spun of the damage done by familial ghosts and demons. [One note to NMW editors: Towards the end of the story, when the apparition is being described, it says “densely dark human-shaped shadow wearing something like a long dress and a shall. ”
    Certainly “shall” is meant to be “shawl.”]

  2. Linda Neal Reising

    What a wonderful story! I was hooked from the very beginning. I especially enjoyed the descriptions and the many layers in the narrative with regard to “ghosts.” This was the perfect tale for Halloween weekend.

  3. Elizabeth Mayorca

    This essay resonated with me. Well structured and emotionally honest. I like how the essay was complete when the floor was finished, how an understanding of a life’s trials is gradually revealed as the carpet is replaced, something physical helping to clear something psychological/emotional. I felt for the father even though he was abusive and this was largely because of the empathy and compassion the narrator has for his family. “I thought about real ghosts, the ones that actually haunt us, the hurtful things we suffer and do to one another, how they linger, how some people become ghosts before they’re dead, how we’re shaped by them whether they’re alive or not—how who we really are, in part, results from so many long shadows cast by countless generations come before.” Such an excellent sentence, it made the essay for me. Congratulations!

  4. Gripping! Misty, sleepy New England… somber mood turns into a winding lane of secrets and shocks, with a nail biting finale that leaves my stomach dropped. Thank you for the journey! Great imagery!

  5. Nicely done! I like the way the cousin gets spooked at the end—validates all of your own unspoken demons. I despise the grandmother—perhaps you could return to your mother’s story in a future piece. Her mother set her up to associate love with abuse and you reveal and also skirt the damage your mother experienced. As you can see, I like the way this piece leaves so many questions unanswered and perhaps to be explored in future work. But this one is complete as is. I was riveted.

  6. Thanks for writing this, Chris! Every detail works toward building the essay’s world, especially the way you’ve drawn the characters, sharp and alive. And those scenes with your grandma! Jeez, the evil heart of the story. Many congratulations to you.

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NMW needs your help to ensure the future of literature is not homogenized and dumbed-down by the zero-sum game of corporate data and profit. It’s a fight we can win, but it’s a fight.

We’ll keep showing up — NMW Literary Journal & Awards, Sunshot Press & Book Awards, Musepaper.org, and more — as long as you keep showing up.

POETRY | FICTION |  FLASH FICTION | NONFICTION

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