by Kathryn Kulpa
I’m a boy in a tree, a bird without wings. I flock with my flock. I hunt and peck. I’m a bare-bones boy in a bare-branch tree in a winter field, staring at the world through meager March buds. High above the factories and fences. We’re watching the men in the barracks. Soon I’ll be old enough to march and train. To carry a rifle instead of a stick. I’m a boy dreaming of a man’s war. Soon my dreams will meet the world. Soon the world will open its arms to me.
In the flatlands of the South. In the branches of a birch. Growing tall and leggy like a tree. Wearing my brother’s long pants, double cuffed, belted, belling out at the knee. I haven’t grown into them yet but I will. Valencia is the name of a place. Valencia, South Carolina. I haven’t left this place yet but I will. Valencia is the name of an orange, sweet but full of seeds. Valencia. Valor. Victory.
The mermaid from a souvenir shop, sitting on a rock, combing her hair and flipping her tail. OH YOU KID! says the rock she sits on, and HONOLULU, HAWAII. She’s wearing scallop shells instead of a bra. My brother’s gift. He sent it when he went to sea, the same mermaid he wears on his arm in the picture he sent me, white sleeve rolled to show his bicep.
Thirteen plus three is sixteen. Sixteen plus two is eighteen. Sixteen can pass for eighteen. Eighteen is old enough to go to sea. Eighteen is old enough to be a man. The mermaid promises me time will pass quickly.
The mermaid poses like a Venus without a shell. One arm curled to comb her hair. Her curls end where her scales begin. She half smiles, inviting dreams. Her eyes slide to the side. She will call to you from the rocks. She will call to you, brother, the way she called me. Always know you have a choice. Always know: you need not answer.
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus), a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest, and Pleasant Drugs (Mid-List Press), a short story collection. She is an editor at Cleaver Magazine, and her work is published or forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, 3Elements Review, and Fiction Southeast. Last fall, she was a visiting writer at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and this summer she will teach a flash fiction workshop in Barrington, Rhode Island.