Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review


The smell of fresh woodchips inseparable
from phantom pains of scraped knees and raw hands–
trophies for clinging to the chains of the singing swing set
and tumbling to the ground, time after time,
in countless failed attempts to fly.

There was drought that year:
Suddenly the sprinkler in the yard disappeared,
as did the slate of the flagstone walkway,
obscured by dried-up worms seeking relief
from the dusty, depleted soil,
only to broil in the oven of that summer.

The grass imitated the worms: brown, lifeless, bone-dry,
so she took to the swings to teach herself to fly
to new worlds, far from dead grass and dried worms–
but never succeeded. Gravity held firm,
and the smell of the woodchips that padded her crash-landings
became embedded in the folds of her brain.

Yet, when summer days came to an end
and the limp, brown blades of grass long-dead
whitened in the first frost,
her father got a tarp (from whatever magical place parents store things,)
and pulled her along – no scraped knees or chafed palms.
They soared across the yard to a world with fresh grass
and a clean flagstone path.

Years after the swing set
had been turned into a garden shed,
she’d remember that day she learned
to spread her wings and fly far away.

In St. Elizabeth Hospital, Room 589

Mom sits on the left edge of Aunt Daisy’s cot. I’ve scooched a synthetic-leather recliner close to the opposite side. Uncle George lolls on a vinyl couch a few feet away. A mounted TV screen displays nature scenes on endless loop: Sprawling meadow of lavender and Georgedelions––Spotted deer with leaf-shaped ears––Sunlit lake––Barren pine trees in hazy forest… Quiet classical music flows through a ceiling speaker, and dim lighting casts shadows on the walls’ soothing seafoam paint. We’re on the fifth floor of St. Elizabeth Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Aunt Daisy lies in the bed at the head of the room. Her arms peek out from underneath crinkly white blankets. Daisy’s emaciated limbs are pasty, save for blue-magenta-maroon coin-sized splotches across her forearms. The insides of Daisy’s elbows are blood-blistered. So are the backs of her hands. I want to gag when I think of IV-needle-after-IV-needle nestled under her veins, until they begin to swell, form bruised blotches. 

There’s no IV in Daisy now. She’s hooked up to heart monitors. She’s wearing pasty circular patches on her chest. There’s one above her right breast and one above her left. But there’s no IV. 

The doctors are giving up. It’s only humane.

Mom strokes her big sister’s hair with a fine-tooth plastic comb, restoring aesthetic order to the wispy black strands that spiked in all directions. Daisy and Mom share the same hair. Thin. Wispy. Feather-like. Dark. Onyx. The same. I’ve never noticed before.

Mom asks Daisy, “Why were you upset this morning?” 

Daisys says, “All of it…the people…the…the group…man…Them…six o’clock of it…didn’t like…ffff.” 

The TV scene changes to crimson and amber leaves scattered across an empty, tree-lined path. Now it’s fall. Just like outside, in the real world, where the month is late October. 

Daisy giggles, says “Ka-pow!” Punches the air, then frowns and shakes her head.

Mom finger-combs Daisy’s bangs, smooths them out, parts them with her thumb and index finger, then pushes them back together again. “Daisy, do you not like some of the help here? Is that it? The male nursing assistant…You don’t like him?” 

Aunt Daisy claps four times, rolls her eyes, frowns again. “The men! Six o’clock of it! And orange!”

Mom nods. “Right, you don’t like the male employees. Some of the help here is bad, I know.” 

Mom stops combing and settles her hand on Daisy’s forehead. An image of foamy, white water crashing on coastline flashes across the screen. Beach time. 

George slaps his right leg. His shirt is magenta, the same shade as the bruise in the center of Daisy’s left hand. “Now Angie, that’s just not true! The help here is excellent, right, Daisy? Angie, I don’t know why you put ideas like that in Daisy’s head.” 

Daisy flicks the air. Giggles. Her cracked, anemic lips turn upward into a grin. Mom grins back, says, “I like it when you smile.” 

George claps his wrinkled hands together. “I see her smile every morning when I walk in. I say, ‘hello, dear,’ then she smiles a big smile––I love to see that smile––Then I smile, and then we’re all smiling and happy.” 

The nature scene shifts to a snow-capped mountain. Welcome to winter.

Daisy reaches up toward her forehead, where Mom’s hand rests, and grabs the diamond on Mom’s finger. Mom lets Daisy cling to the ring. “That’s my wedding band. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Very shiny.”

George smooths his khakis, strokes his protruding belly and says, “So happy. We’re just so happy to see each other! We eat lunch and breakfast together every day. Yes, we enjoy two meals, and we talk. We have conversations.” He pats the thick paperback on his lap. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. “Daisy really understands much more than everyone thinks she does.” 

Daisy inhales. The noise is raspy. She coughs and coughs, hacking into the open air. Her sallow skin momentarily fills with crimson color. She releases Mom’s ring and says, “And it all was…and it all was not…and they…yes! Wonderful!” 

Mom tucks a flyaway hair behind Daisy’s ear.

George clicks the heels of his oxford lace-ups. 

The screen changes again. Back to the meadow. A repeat picture. Endless cycle.

Daisy closes her eyes.

George reclines on the couch. “Angie, aren’t these nature scenes lovely? You can get ones just like them on your television at home. All you need to do is––”

Mom leans over Daisy, toward George. “You need to put her on ‘do-not-resuscitate.’”

“Now Angie, Daisy and I talked it over just this morning––Daisy really can communicate a great deal––and we concluded that Daisy should remain on ‘code blue.’ Our medical decisions are between us, as a couple. They’re personal. Stay out of this, Angie.” 

“Daisy needs to be on ‘do not resuscitate.’ She has 20% of her heart functioning left, and she weighs 100 pounds, maybe less. If the doctors perform CPR, they’ll break every one of her ribs. They’ll kill her. When her heart stops, we just need to accept––”

“Angie, if you want these scenes on your home television, all you need to do is go to––”

A scream bursts from the neighboring room. Blaring. Shrill. Crackly.

Daisy’s eyes fly open. They’re deep brown. Just like Mom’s.

“Oh dear!”

George nods. “Yes, dear, someone screamed.” 

Daisy points to the television. “No. Deer!” 

George smacks the couch. Thwack. “Yes! It’s a deer on the screen! Very good, dear!”

Another scream. Raucous. Shrieky. Wild. 

Mom stands up. 

“It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going to help. I’m grabbing a nurse.”

George stands up, too.

“Now Angie, will you stop suggesting that the help here isn’t very good? I don’t know where you’re getting ideas like that, and I don’t know why you’re planting them in Daisy’s head. I’m sure the nurses have it all under control. Isn’t that right, dear?”

Daisy doesn’t respond. Her eyes are closed again.

Mom bends down and plants a kiss on Daisy’s bangs. “I’ll be right back, Daisy. You…you stay right here. Don’t go anywhere, now.”

George chuckles. Mom doesn’t.

The screen still displays a deer, gawking at us with its triangle head and round nose. The snout is dark, the same shade as Daisy and Mom’s hair. Light reflects through the deer’s leaf-shaped ears, which are pink, so pink. The deer stares us down.

Tired noon at Cheongyye stream

As I sink my feet into cool, rushing water,
pain from calluses on my swollen sole
are eased by the rhythmic waves, 
cool waves that soothed tired knuckles
of young warriors after sparring sessions.  

A woman beside me cups her frail hands,
then fills them up to refresh herself 
from the sweltering June sun,
heat that wore down weary workers
building brick bridges and skyscrapers. 

The water is never still.
It is violent when it flows down,
lively when it bubbles up,
and slow when it curves around.  

My sweat and hers are now mixed 
and flow down into the distance
on the smooth grey stone path.

Low Tide

Low Tide

Anastasia Koutavas

The red kelp that January keeps coming back to me now. Like rope it was knotted along the shore, sprinkled all around us on the barren beachfront. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except I noticed the seagulls wouldn’t even touch the tangled bunches. Like birds of prey, they locked eyes with you as you separated red leaves from salted stems, joining them together in handfuls. We were in awe of the color, we truly were, though I had pretended that I had seen it before. You, on the other hand, had jumped over the dunes that winter, excited to meet the shoreline; I had watched from a mesmerizing distance, digging foot-shaped holes in the sand with my sneakers. Fine grains found their way into the cracks of my soles, bringing unshakable moisture to the tips of my toes. I couldn’t mind, though; I was too busy immortalizing you that winter, waves foaming at your feet as you knelt above the drying plants. Soon, the Pacific would wash them—wash you—away, but I wondered then, like I do now, if I should have joined you. 

I’ve returned since then, right to the place underneath the pier where we first spotted the red kelp. I have seen it now more times than you have, that funny looking plant, scattered along coastlines you once told me you wanted to acquaint yourself with. I’ve dusted mixtures of sand and salt from the plant’s surface, holding it up against the sun’s light to inspect it as I think you would. The red coloring, almost like dye, has seeped onto my skin and stained my fingertips; I never noticed your hands being painted in this way. Like you, though, I run my hands under the crashing waves, hoping they come out cleaner than I put them in. 

When I return my attention to the shore, to the red kelp that reminds me of you, I can never find a piece worth taking. I think maybe a seagull has finally changed its pace; maybe it has observed you, learning how to pick the finest flowers in the deep winter season. Or maybe you, with grit under your nails, return to the shore at low tide to peel kelp from the sand where it has remained.

Electrical Fire

Let’s rewire the map:

you are my city cleansed in flames.
Every mean street is scored in orange
and escaping at last the crimes of its name.
As borders untangle and we come together
I sing the snapping of skyscrapers
writ in the rise and fall of your lips,

and, closed in their shining wave of mauve,
I forget the plastic face
of every neighbor, friend, and leader,
their weighty language 
with its faceless cabled sneer––

It was meant to melt to a river of color 
and rush over the immeasurable tenderness 
of your hands suturing the earth like roots.
From the city’s shards you fit the sky with an arch,
a new continuity. I stand in its pale shadow 
until you extend your hand to me––
your arm is a bridge splitting time in two––
and I step through.

Silver Lining

(noun) a consoling or hopeful prospect.

Mom says my heart’s got a silver lining,
Says God sewed it together herself and
Stitched in so much love that the sadness wouldn’t fit.
Hope is the thing
That fills my heart up, that
Shines like aluminum foil, uncrumpled and smooth.

Silver: (noun) sweetness of my soul;
(adj.) color of rain caught in the Big Dipper.

For Christmas last year, Mom bought Dad
New bedsheets and comforter made
With feathers.
In my head, Dad rips the blanket open
At the seams and the feathers fly out,
A tornado of down
Floating up to the ceiling.

At nighttime, Dad says, God drapes purple velvet
Over the earth and we call it the night sky
Then God pokes holes in the fabric
And we call them the stars.
He puts away the fairy book on my shelf;
I wait for Mom to pick me up.

On nights when Mom drives me home,
The moon follows me in the backseat
And when I fall asleep with my check pressed 
Against the cold window, I dream
About God disconnecting the constellations
And erasing Orion’s belt,
Leaving the moon a bright circle
In a very long darkness.

Lining: (verb) bringing warmth;
(noun) taste of sugar in my stomach and pink frosting on my lips.

Mom tucks me in and gives me a hug,
Leaving me warm with the sound of breath against my skin
But after she shuts the door tight, I sneak out
Across the floorboards to look out the window.
I stare at the distance, unfocusing my eyes
On blurry spots in the sky I let slide out
from themselves and over one another —
Swirling smudges of light.

I gather myself like a cloud,
Water droplets in my inner sky gleaming
Silver at the lining.

On the Sidewalk

On the sidewalk, do you wonder 
after the blurred woman whose path 
interlaces with yours down to the subway?

Might she be the sort who scours miles of walls,
seeking the bumps and gaps of a secret door?
Imagine––let us leave no corner uncaressed.

She may soon enclose herself in stolen solitude, 
standing in a public bathroom
with her palms open against earth-tinted drywall

waiting to catch the pulse of another world.
When your gaze hurries past hers,
do you recognize what you’ve seen?

Her pupils, like twin caves in a cliff face carved wise by the sea,
harbor her retinas, tapestries of seeing machinery
that an ancient chance hand worked into the walls.

Spilling echoed whirring,
they beckon you into worlds yet unseen––
Leave no wall unwitnessed.

bike locks

the birds are quieter now
and a sign on the road says PASS WITH CARE – 
what more is there
for me to care for?

pieces of the moon sink to earth
the floor slips out from under me
God turns off the gravity and the stars disappear
like a house falling asleep

strange how grief is like a bruise that appears
from nowhere – or not from no where, but a somewhere
I don’t know, lost in this in-between

you felt so safe, you didn’t own bike locks
didn’t clench your keys inside your fist
or make sure to shut the front door tight behind you
your sidewalks were all well-lit

in my dark room with the blinds drawn shut
in your absence I become the insatiable ocean
swallowing everything that enters it
remaining hungry for more
wanting for nothing, and too much

gifted with an endless supply of microwavable emotion
I fit my sadness into the boxes and check them one by one
pack them in the attic, never to be seen

this space and time between us is the closest thing to kindness
the universe could give me
what could kindness look like, now, in the aftermath of you?

when you left you took a piece of me
with you, so I think of you again and again until it feels
like a trail of bike locks, clicking shut behind me

Annie Xiyang Xu

Annie Xiyang Xu
My Rainy Days

One Way Street

white mans burden by sam beckett

white mans burden by sam beckett
Gerardo Lamadrid Castillo

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