Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Tennis Court, 1958 • Peter Mladinic
Letter to My Comrades in the Arts • Judith Skillman
Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell• Judith Skillman
Tally • Don Thompson

Non-fiction-

Year of Suffering • Jessamyn Rains

Fiction-

Nikki and the Diamonds • Sidney Stern

Photography-

James Reade Venable


Tennis Court, 1958

As palm fronds sway in the sky a net
divides players paid, as I am, to be here.  
One player lifts a racquet
and serves a ball, it bounces shear
off a shield invisible back to the server.  

Similarly Colgate’s gardol shields 
our teeth from decay, 
its protective coat God-
like, like the Diety. God isn’t chemistry,
gardol (sodium lauroyl), or a windy day

in a commercial for tooth cream.
I stand in the foreground in tennis whites. 
Brush with Colgate.
What is God? God shield us from harm. 

Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.


Letter to my Comrades in the Arts

This, then, was our passion, to become Godly
when no other remedy would suffice. 
With words, germs, tubes of paint, children
close at hand. With one arm fractured, in a splint
and always more rain or too little rain.
The hammers pounded, freeways widened,
yet our traffic passed unnoticed
as if it was nothing of importance.

Only for us the work went on, seated
uncomfortably far from the center 
of a cosmos whose expansion defied
theorists. Nebulae annihilated,
black holes inhaled, our sons died, we mined
our minds for pink Himalayan salt.

-Judith Skillman



Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell

Everywhere you see fleshy fingers.
Some bandaged in the middle,
knuckled together. To tear
is no big deal to a worm. 
You learn many wars later
of those parts within your body:
Imago Dei. A kid called envy,
the adolescent greed
an adult named rage
who uses fire fighters.
Picture the smiles of dictators. 
Not so different 
than these ledgers of curb
against which, posed as if for history, 
pink simpers ribbon asphalt.

-Judith Skillman


Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. A recipient of awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust, Skillman’s recent collection is A Landscaped Garden for the Addict, Shanti Arts, 2021. She is the editor of When Home Is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional and Physical Abuse, McFarland. Visit www.judithskillman.com


Tally

This dead sparrow’s hard at work
Becoming the hopeless color
Of dirt.  Well—
Dust to dust, as the man says.

Feathers disintegrate more slowly
Than flesh.  And the beak
Will hold out longer
Than its ephemeral bones.

Ants have come and gone.
And God too—
Adding one more to His tally
Of fallen sparrows.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  A San Joaquin Almanac won the Eric Hoffer Award for 2021 in the chapbook category.   For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com


Year of Suffering

There was a time when it seemed my closest friends were Facebook ads and a collection of e-newsletters I subscribed to.

Don’t get me wrong: these were great friends. They knew not only about the clothing and household items I was thinking of purchasing, but also my questions about lactation (I had a one-year-old and a new baby), postpartum weight loss, the identity crises new mothers experience, plus some of my pre-mom interests.

As the new year approached, one of the e-newsletters I subscribed to discussed the practice of asking God for a “word” for the year. This author had received inspiring words from God, year after year. Words like “hope” and “redemption.”

Desperate for some hope and redemption myself, I decided to ask God for a word for the year. I was hoping for something like “peace” or “joy” or even “rest.”

But the word that seemed to echo through my mind as I prayed was “suffering.”

I immediately began to panic: Is something going to happen to one of my kids? To my husband? To me? I became paranoid about the stairs outside our home. I had intrusive thoughts about accidents and illnesses. I became gloomy and depressed.

It didn’t help that I was trying to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the umpteenth time and that one of the first things it wants you to do is to picture your own funeral. I don’t think the exercise had quite the intended effect on me: all I could picture was my children waking up one morning asking, “Where’s Mommy?” and my husband having to tell them “Mommy will never be coming home.”

And then for work my boss gave me a book to read that was written by a person with a terminal illness. There was a chapter entitled “mindfulness of death,” where you do a similar exercise to the one in Highly Effective People, only this time you visualize the actual moment of your death and your body being lowered into the ground.

Now, I think that we should be mindful of our mortality, but for a person in my frame of mind, it amounted to torment and paranoia.

I had a talk with my husband about my “word of the year” and my newly-acquired obsessive fears, and he had these things to say:

1. maybe it isn’t about your suffering; and
2. maybe you’ll get pregnant again.

In the first couple of months of that year, I heard of more deaths via social media than I had heard of in possibly the rest of my life altogether. These were not the deaths of close friends of mine, but they were acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances, and people I had known well at one time. 

I also heard of divorces, other kinds of losses, and illnesses, particularly illnesses and hospitalizations of children.

~~

We had started going to a Presbyterian church in a beautiful stone building. We were from a different background–less Calvinistic, more charismatic–so the church and its style seemed stiff and staid to us at first. But we soon saw the warmth and beauty beneath the stiff façade and became regular attendees.

When the church announced a women’s retreat with an opportunity to stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast, this sounded like a foretaste of heaven. I envisioned eating in a kid-free zone, lots of female bonding and laughter, contemplative walks through gardens, and profound revelations from God.

Things are seldom what we envision them to be.

First of all, I had failed to remember that it was February. My windshield was covered with frost. It was too cold for contemplative walks through gardens, if there had been gardens. I got lost on the way to the first session and turned up late; then I spilled my coffee all over the beautiful tablecloth and the women had to scramble to cover up the big ugly stain with strategically arranged place settings.

There wasn’t much female bonding–at least not for me. I felt like a lonely weirdo. And for much of the time, I had to walk back and forth in the hallway with my fussy nursling.

And yet.

What I was able to catch from the speaker was mind-blowing, possibly life-changing.

Her theme was suffering.

She told a heart-wrenching story of a friend who had died young from cancer. A friend who had died a beautiful death, a person whose life and death had borne fruit for eternity.

She explicated the biblical reasons for suffering: a lot of it is hidden in the mysterious Providence of God. But suffering was also one of the ways that God works sanctification in our lives.

She unpacked a passage of scripture which, for years, had intrigued me: we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering works patience and patience works character, and character, hope.

In my life, the thing I had most needed–and the thing I most needed at that time–was hope.

~~

I didn’t die that year, nor did anyone in my family. There was no catastrophe, no sudden illness. My trials and sufferings were of the more banal kind, more like a case of sciatica than a terminal illness.

I was dealing with a few spiritual and emotional brick walls in my life, a few unanswered prayers that lingered, for months and months. I tried to solve these problems myself –tried to be as proactive as I could, given my limitations–but to no avail. Eventually, I gave up on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It appeared that I was not destined to be effective.

One day I was sitting with a group of elderly men and women, singing hymns with them (this was part of my job), and they began to talk about God. One woman, in her 90s, said she had always sought the Lord’s guidance before making any decision so that she would be sure to do the right thing.

Another woman responded and said very pointedly, “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.”

A few people nodded politely, and she said it again: “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I went home with these words tumbling around in my mind. Sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. It occurred to me that the right thing to do–with my particular sufferings, with my particular unanswered prayers–was nothing. The right thing to do was to be still and know that God was God. To recognize that my circumstances were part of his mysterious, sovereign will for me at that moment, and that he would bring good out of them, as He had promised.

A few months later I had an experience that some in more charismatic circles would call a “download from God.”

I was doing some mundane household task when all of a sudden I just knew: God had allowed certain sufferings in my life to bring about needed change. Once upon a time, I had been on a selfish trajectory. I had started out living for Jesus, but for various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, I had subtly given up on this and had begun to live for myself. If I had continued down that road, I might have ended up somewhere I never meant to go. Moreover, I had certain lifelong defects of character that grieved me–things I couldn’t change with sheer willpower–and the particular trials God was allowing in my life were helping to bring correction to these.

~~

I still had my unanswered prayers, my spiritual sciatica. But there were many consolations. In fact, when I look back on that year, I look upon it with fondness: it was full of beauty. I think of family walks amid wildflowers in the spring. I think of my little girl learning to talk, my little boy learning to crawl.

And then there was that trip to the Dollar General for a pregnancy test.

It was positive.

We bought a minivan and moved to a different house. I quit my job to stay home with the kids. I grew queasy, then large and unwieldy.

All of these things, too, were a mix of suffering and beauty.

In December of that year, as I sat at our kitchen table with a dark, gloomy world outside, I asked God if He had a word for me for the next year.

The word was “joy.”

Jessamyn Rains


Jessamyn Rains

Jessamyn Rains is a musician, writer, and mother of four. She lives near Chattanooga, TN. You can hear her music and read some of her writing at www.jessamynrains.com


Nikki and the Diamonds

A back molar was protesting when Nikki, last seen astride one of the plastic horses revolving around a pole on stage at the Treasure Club, called. “My mom’s lung cancer is worse,” she began plaintively, as if the cancer were my fault.

Pre-occupied by dental pain, I was in no mood to deal with what I figured was coming next.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a toothache!”

“They say she needs new lungs.”

“I need a dentist.”

“A double lung transplant costs $75,000.”

“What’s a root canal cost?” I replied, keeping an edge in my voice, speculating as to whether the lung transplant was a fictitious lever by which Nikki intended to pry money from me. With Nikki it always came down to money, and I wanted to see if she was serious.

“Stop joking,” she countered with a tone of finality. As if to say: “You’re going to have to deal with this.” 

“The procedure actually costs $750,000,” she continued, her voice shifting to silk and sweetness, coaxing my awareness away from my infected molar and the possibility of a scam, then pausing to let the enormity of the cost sink in. I glanced aimlessly around my kitchen, wondering why a month earlier I’d so readily volunteered $400 to bail Nikki’s brother out of jail, no doubt precipitating her current request. As if in response to my inquiry, a potted orchid attracted and held my gaze. Its blossoms had just opened, and the smooth fleshy petals were spread wide, milky-white like untanned portions of Nikki’s anatomy. “Duke Medical Center has a charity program that pays ninety percent,” she began again, “but we have to come up with ten percent or they won’t operate.”

“We?” I inquired. I lowered my phone to my hip.

She expected ME to come up with $75,000. That was clear.

And somewhat irritating, given the matter-of-fact way she was assigning financial responsibility. “Ask another customer,” I almost said. But I didn’t. Because some other damned fool might say “Yes.” 

And THEN where would I be?

#

Not for nothing had Nikki been “top producer” at the Treasure Club eighteen of the last twenty months. Her choice of the word “we” penetrated my consciousness like a sperm cell in utero, fertilizing an ovum of hope. Which now began dividing and subdividing at an exponential rate, growing into the nonsensical self-contradictory assumption that our pay-as-you-go association would develop into a genuine romance were I to mortgage my home and write her a check for $75,000.

Instead, I obtained a passport for Nikki and Congo visas for both of us. That took about three weeks last March, and on April 2 we headed for Raleigh-Durham Airport in my pick-up truck. Our destination was Kisangani, the navigable endpoint of the Congo River, once a lonely outpost cryptically referenced in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, now the third-largest Congolese city. On first appearance, Kisangani is an unexpected civic jewel, a town with broad straight avenues and European-style buildings centered in a rain forest the size of Texas. That the buildings have been crumbling for more than a half century is of no apparent concern to the natives. Nor do they complain about their corrugated-steel shanties, residential ovens under the equatorial sun. The Congolese are high-spirited, commercially-minded, and for the most part, delightful. They persist, like Nikki herself, undaunted by challenging circumstances.

Getting there from North Carolina required consecutive connecting flights from London, Nairobi, and Kigali (Rwanda). A total of 9,000 miles. 

We took a room at the Olympia Hotel, two stories of white stucco enclosing a packed-dirt courtyard where in 1964 seventeen Belgian nuns and priests had been butchered by Simba rebels. 

I stationed myself in the hotel’s open-air café: half a dozen greasy tables, a rosewood bar with matching stools, and a loudspeaker rasping current African tunes to draw in customers. Rimming the thatched roof were hanging baskets of bougainvillea, their mild scent overmatched by the stench of the open sewer bordering Lumumba Boulevard and raw vehicular exhaust. 

Nikki, a bull’s-eye for white slavers among the sordid characters I hoped to attract, remained in our room. Hardly a vacation for her, given the lack of air-conditioning in the 20-square-foot concrete cubicle which cost us 10,000 Congolese francs ($5 U.S.) per night. A room slightly superior to her cell at the Juvenile Detention Center from which she’d been discharged at age eighteen; but decidedly less comfortable than her current residence, a $29.95 per night motel room, conveniently adjacent to the Treasure Club where I’d made her acquaintance two months previously.

This being Africa and me being reasonably well-dressed, it wasn’t long before various natives “came out of the woodwork” to join me for coffee or Nzoro beer, depending on the hour. After a bit of conversation in French, imposed on the Congo during the colonial period, I would mention “ivory” which, like diamonds, is available in much of Tshopo Province. My real interest was not ivory, which was just a topic by which I could get the word out that I was a “player.” 

On day four at the café, a fellow sat down at my table and introduced himself as Henri-Paul. He wore a light blue tunic over matching slacks: business attire in tropical Africa. Lighter-skinned than the coal-black Congolese, he said he’d emigrated from Nigeria. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking Nigerian parents would have named their child “Henri-Paul,” but if true, encouraging insofar as Nigeria’s culture of criminal entrepreneurship is well known. 

Henri-Paul rested his left his arm on the table so I could notice the likeness of the Congo’s president on the dial of his wristwatch, a status symbol of sorts, an “African Rolex,” so to speak. His cheeks and forehead bore no tribal scars. Nor had his incisors been filed to sharp-pointed cones. Perhaps Henri-Paul was fronting for someone else, rougher-cut and living in the bush. I wasted no time in revealing my (pseudo) interest in carved ivory. He nodded gravely and took his leave.

The next day Henri-Paul arrived at the café with statuettes of a lion and a lioness, crudely rendered, perhaps carved overnight. I paid him $25 U.S. for each (and later threw them in the Congo River). Yeah, Henri-Paul was the “real deal,” I figured, so I asked him about diamonds. “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” he exclaimed, lifting and shaking an empty water glass as if to suggest he could easily fill it with diamonds. There was a self-congratulatory twinkle in his eye as he departed; perhaps he’d pegged me as a diamond trader from the outset.

Henri-Paul rejoined me two days later at the café as a gigantic soldier, Kalashnikov strapped like a toy over his shoulder, was accepting a wad of currency from the bartender. This was probably the or-else-your-business-will-be-ransacked tax, one of the shakedowns by which the Congolese military pays itself. Henri-Paul flashed a polite smile at the departing trooper, then whispered: “Au Congo, toute le monde est criminel.” Scanning the café to assure himself we were alone, he withdrew a burlap pouch from his pants pocket and emptied the contents onto the ebony tabletop. Five round diamonds of excellent grade, each about three carats. Likely cut in Amsterdam or Beirut, these gems may have changed hands a dozen times. Dumped for next-to-nothing in Kisangani by an international crime syndicate? Swapped for ordnance by combatants in recent African civil wars? Looted by Nazis from European Jews during World War II, arriving in this commercial cesspool after more than a half century? Without written records painstakingly authenticated, a near impossibility in central Africa, the provenance of medium-sized diamonds is anyone’s guess.

I handed Henri-Paul sixty $100 bills, received the diamonds, and excused myself, without seeming to hurry, to our hotel room. Once inside, I shoved a bulky colonial-era dresser against the in-swinging door. Nikki tacked a sheet over the humidity-fogged window behind which I crisscrossed a copper wire enlivened by a nine-volt car battery I’d bought from a street vendor. Makeshift barriers against uninvited guests. In a kleptocracy (a society in which theft is the established method of commercial transaction), what was to prevent a savvy businessman like Henri-Paul (or his associates) from cutting our throats and taking back the diamonds, along with any U.S. currency we might have?

Self-confined to our room for three days awaiting the scheduled flight home, we sustained ourselves on bottled water, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and Chinese canned tuna Nikki had stacked in a corner. As seating was limited to a single straight-backed wooden chair, we spent most of our time lying side-by-side beneath a gauzy mosquito net draped over our narrow bed. If that sounds romantic, it wasn’t. The only part of me not uncomfortable was the molar treated by my dentist before I left Greensboro. An antique fan, operating four hours each day when electricity was available, did no more than push hot humid air over us. Bathing was out of the question, as any visit to the shower booths in the courtyard would entail risk. Without books or electronic devices for diversion, we sweltered for 72 hours, bored and irritable.

“You smell like a cantaloupe,” I commented, omitting “unrefrigerated for the better part of a month” from my actual observation.  

“Is that so? Well, you smell as bad as this town,” she replied. “In fact, you smell worse.”

Given the fruity/fecal odor that permeates the carbonized smog arising from thousands of cooking fires in Kisangani, her insult was acute. And perhaps accurate. 

Empty cans of tuna accumulating in our room suggested a possible rejoinder, as, in fact, my comparison of her aroma with that of an overripe melon had been gracious. But, under the present circumstances, a verbal brawl was not advisable. Like a movie director responsible for the orderly progress of a complex production, I decided to humor the brat who was my star.

“What are the best shops at the mall?”

“Choosy. Mango. Maybe New Girl Order. What’s it to you?”

“I was thinking we might go shopping when we get home.”

“Possibly. Depends on my schedule. Forever 21 is at the mall.”

“You can’t go in there. You’re twenty-two years old.”

“Very funny. When did you turn twenty-two? Four decades ago?”

#

A car rapide (native taxi) arrived at the hotel entrance before dawn on April 13 and delivered us safely at Bangoka Airport, a few kilometers east of Kisangani. To our relief, our pre-booked flight was neither canceled nor delayed. Our return voyage, with connections in Libreville and Paris, lasted 30 hours. Finally and fragrantly, grimy and unkempt as gypsies, we landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I suppose our port of debarkation, combined with our age differential, typical in cases of human trafficking, aroused the interest of U.S. Customs.

I won’t elaborate as to the details, but four diamonds were discovered “on Nikki’s person.” 

Nikki was arrested and charged under 18 U.S. Code 545. Fortunately, as the diamonds were “cut,” she had not violated the international “conflict diamond” laws, which pertain only to “rough” diamonds. She was taken to the NC Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh and held under a $200,000 bail bond pending an October trial. For $20,000 I could have bailed her out; but had she failed to appear at trial, a scenario by no means unlikely, the bondsman would have come after me for the rest of the $200,000.

US Customs had considered charging me as a “co-conspirator” but since they knew they could not prove my participation, I was released. What the customs officials DID NOT know was that I carried the fifth diamond inside the previously-decayed molar hollowed by my dentist before I left Greensboro.

A week after our homecoming I took a same-day-return flight to New York and headed for West 47th Street, Manhattan’s Diamond District. One of my regular customers received me in his cubby-hole jewelry shop. He examined the diamond and gave me an adequate price: $90,000. 

I paid $75,000 to the Duke Med Center which performed the lung transplant in late May. Nikki’s mom recovered nicely and her prognosis is good. With regards to my own “health problem,” a dentist repaired the molar he’d hollowed before my departure, sealing it with a new gold crown.

In late September I engaged an attorney who’d occasionally defended me on criminal charges to represent Nikki. He assured Nikki her juvenile convictions would be barred from the current proceedings and advised her to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. At my suggestion, he calendared Nikki’s hearing in front of a judge with whom I’d partied throughout the 1980’s at Jaycee Conventions. Florid-faced and jug-eared, by appearance better suited to a tractor than the judiciary, he’d been a shrewd and effective litigator before his appointment to the bench.

That her crime had been intended to finance her mother’s lung transplant, a plausible mitigating circumstance, was inadmissible; but no doubt considered by the judge, broadsided by Nikki’s subdued presentation of physical beauty. She’d allowed her thick brown hair, dyed unconvincingly blond since I’d met her, to return to its natural lustrous shade. Cropped shoulder-length for the proceeding, a few wisps curled demurely beneath her chin. Her mischievous blue-green eyes, soulful and serious after expert application of eyeliner, were accentuated by a blue-green dress, belted to emphasize her slender waist. Hemmed above the knees, the dress showcased her dancer’s legs, eye magnets after months of state-sponsored exercise. Narrow leather straps secured four-inch, open-toed heels to her ankles. Prison pallor had yielded to a healthy tan that came out of a jar. She appeared the wholesome young woman — such as might be encountered on a collegiate soccer field – she’d likely have become if born into different circumstances. 

The issue for Nikki was not guilt, which had been admitted, but sentencing, up to twenty years under the federal anti-smuggling statute. In such a proceeding, the prosecutor summarizes the evidence for the judge, who then renders sentence. Our case went routinely until the judge interrupted the prosecutor’s monologue, asking for clarification as to the phrase “discovered on her person.” With possession of the diamonds already established, this request was gratuitous and therefore, to my mind, auspicious. Using clinical terminology, the prosecutor patiently obliged the judge’s inquiry before wrapping up his summary.

The judge consulted his laptop, likely reviewing guidelines for sentencing, then stared impassively over our heads. His ruddy weather-beaten face might have been agriculturally comedic on the street: nose bent left, ears like antennae, tobacco-stained teeth framed by a cracked-lipped grimace. In a federal courtroom, nodding to the bailiff to instruct the defendant to stand for sentencing, such a physiognomy was no doubt worrisome to those who assumed it mirrored a judicial mentality similarly unrefined. I understood, however, that a rough-and-ready approach to adjudication might work to Nikki’s advantage.

She arose with a single motion and shifted her weight onto one leg, the arc of her buttocks on that side gracefully delineated beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She awaited sentence with the bored expression of a shopper in a checkout line, indifferent to all eyes. This, of course, was deliberate. 

The judge examined her head-to-toe and then repeated the process, blinking and shaking his head. He leaned back into his chair and folded his arms across his belly, eyes closed as if immersed in a private and personal reverie. Long obsolescent hormones — activated by Nikki’s fresh face and form, emboldened by her apparent powerlessness, and piqued by her nonchalance — did what I’d hoped they’d do, swamping his professional judgment beneath a tide of lascivious adoration. His magisterial grimace melted into the dippy grin of an assistant principal disciplining an attractive student caught smoking in the girls’ washroom.

“My personal advice, young lady,” the judge said with a sour smile at me, “is that you distance yourself from persons involved in illegal transactions.”

He sentenced her to two years in the low-security federal prison in Huntsville, Alabama, suspended two years provided she remain within the jurisdiction during the probationary period.

“Jacked up the courthouse and towed it away,” was our attorney’s evaluation of Nikki’s courtroom performance.

#

Eager for a chocolate/caramel/coffee concoction after five months incarceration, Nikki suggested we stop at a Starbucks on our way out of Raleigh. We settled at corner table and she gave me a quick smile as her lips met the creamy surface of her Frappuccino. Affirmation of a durable connection between us? Tacit thanks for my assistance in funding her mom’s surgery? Or merely a flash of happy anticipation before tasting her beverage? 

Possible interpretations that revolved in my mind like the colorful horses on the Treasure Club’s carousel, slowing then halting with a jolt as Nikki’s countenance grew unexpectedly somber. The corners of her lips, tinged white with whipped cream, curled downwards. Unhappy eyes looked directly into mine. Here, at 3:00 pm in an ordinary coffee shop, Cinderella’s clock was striking midnight. The grand ball would end, my pick-up truck would be reduced to a pumpkin, and Princess Charming would write me, her protector and provider for six months, out of the script. No matter I’d introduced her to a business considerably more lucrative than striptease. I was to be re-assigned my original role as an extra, an old coot watching the girls glide by on center stage, waiting his turn to creep forward and slip a twenty-dollar bill into Nikki’s g-string.

Or so I thought.

Like many persons of tender years, she was fretting about a matter completely beyond her control (or mine).

She wanted to know what U.S. Customs would do with the four confiscated diamonds.

The diamonds would be auctioned, I explained, with the proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.

“In other words, we’ve donated about $400,000 to the government?”

“That’s about it.” I replied.

She stirred her drink with a tiny wooden stick, then asked: “Do you think Henri-Paul will be in Kisangani two years from now?”

Sid Stern


Sid Stern

Sid Stern operates a small company in Greensboro, North Carolina, home to America’s first lunch counter sit-in and the author O. Henry. Giants of the Jaycees, Sid’s collection of biographical parodies in the style of Plutarch’s Lives, was published by Hard Copy Press in 1989 and his African adventure novel, The Screaming Eagles, was published in serial form by Projector Magazine in 1990.


Photograph by James Venable

James Venable

James Reade Venable was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Conker Nature, F-Stop, Dodho, Black +White Photography and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner. He lives in New York City at the moment.


Bez & Co- October 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite • Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
The Bullet Maker • Matt Hollingsworth

Poetry
Another Expedition • Debasish Mishra

Visual Art-
Equity’s Decline • Kay Em Ellis


Book Recommendation: Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite

Judging based on our shared interests, I suppose it was only a matter of time that I found Malcolm Guite. He seems preoccupied with the Numinous. He’s interested in the writings of literary giants such as G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Seamus Heaney. Oh, and he’s really into Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

In short, right up my alley.

In this book, Malcolm Guite takes a look at the intersection of the artist’s imagination and Christendom. Guite himself is a particularly interesting character. He’s a poet, song-writer, and Anglican priest. He holds a PhD from Durham University. So, it’s not surprising that Lifting the Veil scans in a pretty academic tone. Even still, though, his profound and spiritual message is never overpowered by his eloquent words.

The book serves as both an exploration of Christian Art through the ages, as well as a clarion call for creative followers of Christ to “lift the veil” on their own lives, in order to notice the ways that the Lord works in and through the imagination. 

One truth that stood out to me from this book involves the difference between “apprehending” and “comprehending” language. 

On page 27, he writes:

In the gift of faith, and in Christ himself, we glimpse more than we can yet understand, our imagination apprehends more than our reason comprehends. This is not to say that the Gospel is in any way “imaginary” in the dismissive sense of “unreal” or “untrue.” On the contrary it is so real and so true that we need every faculty of mind and body, including imagination, to apprehend it.

Throughout the book, Guite draws from his deep understanding of poetry and the written word to get to the heart of his thesis. The author is clearly well-versed and at home with poetic devices, and his ability to elucidate the complexities of language in well-known pieces of literature is eye-opening. 

At the risk of sounding cheesy, he really “lifted the veil” on several occasions for me. I was able to see connections that I hadn’t previously noticed, both in Scripture and in poetry. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you pick it up. I hope and pray that reading it will be as serendipitous and as joy-filled for you as it was for me.

-Daniel R. Jones


The Bullet Maker

Peter was seventeen when he first saw the names.

Perhaps they’d always been there and he’d never noticed. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember ever looking closely at a bullet before going to work in the factory.

He thought it was a joke at first. A bullet with your name on it, like the old phrase. But he soon realized that no one else could see them. It was like a superpower, and Peter felt sure that if he’d been clever, he could have thought of a way to use it for the good of the Empire.

But the truth, Peter knew, was that he wasn’t particularly clever, nor strong, nor special in any way other than that he saw the names. He hadn’t even made the draft, though almost all males were required to spend at least a couple years in the military. Rather he was told he could better serve the Empire at home. In other words, the Emperor didn’t need a 50 kg asthmatic in his army.

So here he was, now twenty-one, earning a meager living for his family, pulling levers to operate the press that made bullets. And as he examined them, looking for faults, he would see the names of the people those bullets would kill.

He was surprised, at first, how few bullets actually had names. Fewer than one in a hundred. The rest, he guessed, would miss, finding their final resting places in muddy battlefields, under rubble, beneath sand dunes, or in the trunks of scorched trees. (He could never keep the locations straight for the seemingly endless conflicts the Empire fought.)

Often the names would be foreign, but sometimes he would see Imperial names—Jonathan, Stephen, George. He guessed that these were casualties of friendly fire, and as he examined them, he would cause intentional damage so the bullet wouldn’t fire. The name would disappear, and Peter would send it on its way. Then Peter would smile, happy to have saved a life.

He considered for a while disabling all the bullets with people’s names on them, saving many more lives, but he didn’t do it. Such an act would be treason, and it wasn’t his place to determine which wars and killings were just. Besides, if he stopped an Imperial soldier from killing an enemy, that enemy might instead kill the Imperial soldier. Then Peter would be responsible for the death of one of his countrymen, and he’d been taught that there was no greater crime.

Peter completed his ten-hour shift. It was a payday, and he walked home with the satisfying clink of coins in his wallet. Walking back, he routed himself to avoid the tent cities. His family wasn’t rich by any means, but he felt guilty when he saw the truly poor.

He lived with his parents in a one-story cottage on the outskirts of the city. He’d been engaged until six months ago, and his fiancé, Jennifer, was planning on moving in with him after their wedding. They couldn’t afford their own home on his meager salary and would have had to live together with his parents. 

He’d secretly felt like he didn’t deserve Jennifer. He hadn’t confessed these fears to her, but she must have guessed them, for she would always tell him how much she loved him and how it didn’t matter if they lived in one of the tent cities—she just wanted to be together. She’d said that right until she’d met some rich war hero and fallen in love with him. She’d broken their engagement in a 30-minute conversation, and he hadn’t seen her since, although he hadn’t actually tried to contact her.

He told himself that he was happy for her. That she deserved someone like the war hero. 

He told himself that.

Peter’s parents were happy to see him as always. Their city had fallen on hard times recently, and all three of them worked long hours to afford rent on their cottage. It would have been easier if Jennifer was there. A fourth income would have gone a long way, and unlike them, she had some university education which qualified her for more prestigious jobs.

Peter’s parents were old now, long past when they should have retired, but they still managed to put on a smile when he came home. And they would dine together, grateful for their modest meal. Then, after eating, they would gather by the hearth, basking in the warmth.

As he sat in his room that night, he grabbed a book off his nightstand. It was Jennifer’s. A war novel that she’d loaned him that he’d forgotten to give back. He liked to hold it sometimes, ruffling through the pages. 

Sometimes, Peter wished he could see his own future the way he saw the future of those bullets. Other times, he was glad he couldn’t, because what if his future was sitting at that machine, pulling lever after lever until he died. How would he feel about that?

#

The next day, Peter returned to the factory, pulling levers and examining bullets. He’d seen quite a few today with names—all foreign—and he was happy that the Empire’s armies were winning. And then he saw something that gave him pause. He lifted the bullet from the conveyor belt, reading it a second, third, and fourth time, though he was certain he’d read it correctly the first.

On the bullet was the name of the soldier that Jennifer had left him for.

Immediately, all the forgiveness he’d thought he had for them was gone, and he found himself, almost without thinking, placing the bullet back on the belt. 

But no, he couldn’t do that, could he? Killing a fellow countryman was a crime. The greatest crime.

But was Peter really killing him? The soldier would be a victim of friendly fire a thousand miles away. No one would even know about this moment. No one would know what he’d done.

Maybe Jennifer would even come back to him. He imagined seeing her at his doorstep, begging forgiveness for having left. He felt tainted.

He couldn’t believe he was considering this. He had thought himself a good person, and he wondered if the guilt would be unbearable. If Peter killed Jennifer’s soldier, maybe he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

But somehow, he knew he’d be able to. At least, he thought he knew.

But he pictured Jennifer sobbing after hearing the news. Pictured her dressed in black, crying over a casket. And that was something he couldn’t let happen. Before he could think about it further, he damaged the bullet. A dud. The name disappeared and Peter smiled.

Another life saved.

And suddenly, Peter was overwhelmed by the vastness of the world. How many names had he seen on those bullets? How many people with lives just as rich and complex as his own? And here he was in his tiny corner of the universe. This small sliver of creation. And he knew in that moment, that he wanted to make it the best sliver it could be.

Matt Hollingsworth


Matt Hollingsworth is a Christian and a freelance writer/editor from Knoxville, TN. His blog is available at https://jmhollingsworthblog.wordpress.com/


Another Expedition

Rowing past the tides of blinding white
and Leviathan-like large obstacles,
I move on quietly like a breath of air:
from a coherent beginning at the shore
to a smoky panorama of indecision.

Even with the wealth of my skills
and supreme foresight, a gift of Christ,
there comes a time when I wonder,
Will I be home? Or am I lost in 
the sea? Will I reach the end?

Life is threatened yet I hold on
and believe in the strength of the oar—
too small a device for too huge a task—
like Hemingway’s poor Santiago.
But faith buoys me and I gently pass.

Tomorrow, somebody else
would be rowing here,
in this very boat, in this very place,
with the same oar against the same white foam
while I would be off somewhere
rowing past the tides of another sea.

Debasish Mishra


Debasish Mishra, a native of Bhawanipatna, Odisha, India, is the recipient of The Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and The Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. His recent poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Penumbra, trampset, Star*Line, Enchanted Conversation, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and elsewhere. His poems are also forthcoming in The Headlight Review and Quadrant. A former banker with United Bank of India, he is presently engaged as a Senior Research Fellow at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India.


“Equity’s Decline” by Kay Em Ellis

When Kay’s not writing, you might find her traveling the world. She especially loves hitchhiking through Transylvania, playing guitar outside Notre Dame in Paris, and dropping notes and poems along the riva in Hvar Town. Don’t ask her to take another bumpy, dusty bus ride through the Bolivian desert (she’s on strike), but she’ll be happy to talk to you about her favorite country in the world (Romania). Her devotions have been published by Christian Devotions Ministries, and a list of her writing awards can be found at her website: www.backpackwithkay.com